Philosophy · Science · Short stories

The mind-matter dilemma

The new year and the new semester brought with them an unusual calm in Ary’s life. He took a couple of intriguing courses- one on electromagnetics, and the other on neuroscience. For the first time, he was learning stuff simply out of curiosity and joy and it was an amazing feeling. Along with the coursework he continued his research in the laboratory and slowly started getting success in his experiments. He knew he wanted the “Nature paper” but his obsession about it was slowly fading away. Instead the ideas he got from conducting his experiments as well as from the courses he was taking slowly started filling up his mind, and he started feeling happier as a person. “2012 feels awesome, don’t you think so?”, he asked Diggy one day. “It’s probably the new i-pad”, Diggy responded. His response was hilarious because neither he nor Ary had purchased the new i-pad. Neither did they want to. Diggy was quite simply trying to make a wise comment about the society.

One such calm morning, as Ary sat in a classroom of Cory Hall on the university campus and listened to his professor in the electromagnetics class with amazement, he experienced a revealing moment. A few such revealing moments occurred that year- a year he fondly remembered later on as the year of gaining wisdom. The professor was explaining how waves propagate in transmission lines using the transmission line model. Ary was visualizing it in his head- all the inductors and capacitors that can be used to model the transmission line and how all aspects of Maxwell’s equations are captured by that model. Ary had been thinking of the transmission line model all the time of late. It was extremely elegant and removed all the misconceptions he had during his undergraduate classes about how voltage was transmitted in electrical wires. He even saw the model in his dreams a few times. But it wasn’t the beauty of the model, which was the highlight of the lecture, that constituted his revealing moment that particular morning. It was that sudden realization that learning something was essentially forming neural connections in one’s head that mimic the neural connections the people in the same academic community had constructed in their heads to explain a phenomenon in nature in a self consistent way. For example, at that point, he could almost sense the neurons in the brain forming patterns that mimicked the pictures of inductors and capacitors in the transmission line model that the professor drew on the whiteboard. But the charm lied in the self- consistency of the whole thing. The neural connections he and the other students formed and most importantly the professor formed in their individual brains were mostly identical and were actually effective in explaining behavior of real transmission lines in the physical world.

Ary turned away from the white board and looked outside through the large window at the nearly barren tree, which had just got some new leaves. Trees that shed leaves in winter were a rare sight in that part of California, known for its pleasant summers and pleasant winters. The sky in the background was also completely overcast, making the view out of the window a little surreal. It felt like a perfect moment.

At the end of the class, as Ary walked down the steep slope of Hearst avenue, a busy road on the perimeter of the campus, the familiar sight of people walking briskly up and down the road probably on their way to classrooms and laboratories offered a new insight to him. Housed inside the skulls of all these men and women were brains, which stored all the information about the physical world. He could almost visualize those brains, using which these people were constantly interacting with this world and experiencing their presence in it, just like he was.

When he reached the end of the slope, he suddenly felt very hungry. He recalled that he only had two bananas in the morning for breakfast before rushing to class. He walked into a roadside cafe and ordered some pancakes.

“Would you like to have them with chocolate syrup?”, asked the blonde girl at the counter with a wide smile.

“Does it cost extra?”, Ary asked.

“Yes, a dollar and twenty five cents.”

“No, I am good. Thanks”

She swiped and returned Ary’s credit card and then gave him the receipt. Ary left the counter. The café was pretty crowded just like any other weekday morning. People were mostly sitting with a cup of coffee and working on their laptops. Ary grabbed one of the empty stools by the tall bench next to the roadside window and opened his laptop too.

Ary had been working from cafes a lot of late. That was another great thing about the new year. Whenever he didn’t need to be in the laboratory to perform some experiment, he would be at a café near campus sipping coffee and reading his electromagnetics or neuroscience class notes, Stephen Hawking’s pop-science book “The Grand Design” which came out a couple of years ago or the latest Batman comic that he grabbed from the local comic book store. He liked imagining that someday he would become a famous scientist and people would talk about how he came up with his ideas sitting inside roadside cafes of a university town as a young graduate student.

It took a good fifteen minutes for his plate of pancakes to arrive. Pretty much the same time, Diggy was walking by the Hearst Avenue and walked into the café spotting Ary inside. “Hey, dude, what’s up?”, he said in his characteristic way and grabbed a stool by his side.

“Have some?”, Ary pointed at the pancakes.

Diggy made a facial expression that showed lack of interest and said, ”too sweet”.

Ary was way too hungry to wait further and devoured the pancakes, while Diggy went through Ary’s notes from the electromagnetics class that were lying in front of him. Ary thought of telling Diggy about the realization he had during the morning’s lecture regarding the brain forming patterns inside the head in imitation of models used in textbooks to represent physical systems, but instead told him about another realization he had of late.

“Remember the time I told you once that I understood what textbooks say about why a stick bends inside water, but I never realized it?”, asked Ary.

“Yeah, before the break”, replied Diggy. Though Diggy’s memory often failed him when it came to day-to-day events, he remembered idea driven conversations pretty well.

“I think there is a subtle point here which is often not highlighted in high school textbooks.”

“What?”

“Our brain is hardwired to believe that light travels in straight lines. That’s why it can’t follow the bent path of light.”, Ary felt pretty nervous while uttering these words. This was the first time he was communicating his newly developed understanding of science to someone else. His present state of happiness largely rested on the correctness of his understanding.

It took a while for Diggy to get what he was saying, but then much to his relief, Diggy opined that his hypothesis could indeed be true. The fact that a smart student like Diggy couldn’t find an immediate loophole in his argument made Ary quite elated and confident.

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