Philosophy · Science · Short stories

The mind-matter dilemma

Another extraordinarily revealing moment occurred to Ary a few months later on a solitary night in his apartment. Unlike what was depicted frequently in bestseller novels and movies and even in conversations with people at bars and clubs, Ary realized that the most extraordinary moments could occur to a human being even right where he lived and worked, in the most familiar settings, amongst the most ordinary circumstances. That’s why when his fellow graduate student and friend, Kevin, said the other day at the bar that he knew of a guy who got across the US to Canada on a mountain bike over a period of several months, Ary said, “but why is only this kind of adventures a big deal? One can be at his home, read different books, think deeply about something, have a great mental journey and then after months look at the world a whole new way. Why is that not a big deal?”

He had spent the entire summer exactly in that fashion. During the day he would go to his lab and perform experiments, which actually yielded great results. His PhD project was turning out to be successful and the “Nature paper” was slowly becoming an eventuality. But his interest was also slowly shifting from publishing a “Nature paper” to developing a deeper understanding of science and the nature of reality. Every evening after work, he would get back to his apartment in downtown, have dinner and then slip into his bed with Stephen Hawking’s book “The Grand Design” that he had been reading for months. Nights were cold in Berkeley even in summer, making a blanket necessary.

One such quiet night in his small studio apartment, Ary lay on his bed under the blanket reading what Hawking had to say about special relativity. Soft yellow light from the floor lamp next to his bed spread across the room. He started recollecting all the thought experiments and paradoxes from physics textbooks where the perception of time would be different for two people moving with respect to each other at a speed comparable to light. What he was never able to grasp was how the passage of time, that seemed so absolute to him throughout his life, can ever become so relative, for example, how can a span of a year on the earth appear as a few seconds to someone on a spaceship. Just like the case of stick being bent in water, this aspect of the problem had more to do with perception of time than time itself and was barely harped upon in physics textbooks. Now with all the insights Ary had gained after taking the neuroscience course, reading about model dependent reality in the previous chapters of Hawking’s book and meditating upon these issues for the past few months, Ary finally was able to grasp the concept.

If a ball is dropped on earth and another ball is dropped on a spaceship traveling with respect to earth at a speed comparable to light, the dynamics of the ball will follow the time frame of the earth and the spaceship respectively. Human minds are essentially made of matter and are analogous to those balls. The neurons will evolve following dynamics with respect to two different time scales in the two frames, and hence the human perception of time will change in the two frames. Similarly the human body cells will evolve following dynamics with respect to two different time scales in the two frames and hence humans in different frames will age differently.

This concept further led Ary to think that since mind emerged from matter, he essentially was nothing but molecules and hence he fundamentally did not exist. Hence all the emotions he felt were essentially meaningless. There was no reason for him to feel sad about anything because sadness was meaningless anyway. He felt excited about that realization and imagined a conversation on the topic the next day at the laboratory with fellow graduate students, or with Diggy at the squash court in the evening. Putting the book aside, he turned off the reading lamp and passed into sleep.