Philosophy · Science · Short stories

The mind-matter dilemma

Summer got over and the Fall semester started, bringing with it a plethora of attractive courses. This time Ary simply couldn’t wait for the classes to start. Every course appeared to him like a unique opportunity to expand his consciousness.

But he wanted to be systematic in his approach. If mind indeed emerges out of the complexity of matter in the human brain, which contains about a hundred billion neurons, it would be interesting to study the phenomenon of emergence first. Emergence also occurs in several condensed matter physics systems, which constitute the broad area of his doctoral research, and thus remotely connects the area of his doctoral research with the area of science he has got interested in- origin of consciousness in the human brain. So he thought it would be a good idea to study the physics of emergence first.

In order to do that he decided to take the basic courses in graduate level physics first. Though he had taught himself some of that stuff for his research, he never learned the stuff rigorously due to his engineering background. So he picked up two courses- Quantum Mechanics and Statistical Mechanics, which were mostly taken by first year graduate students in the department of physics every year.

The first month of classes went smoothly. Not only were the course contents and lectures extremely interesting but also Ary got introduced to a host of new students- all incoming graduate students in physics. One of them, Jake, ended up inviting him for the graduate Physics Social Hour. They used to host it every Friday evening in their department. Ary decided to check it out the coming week, and take Diggy along with him too.

This entire time, Ary had frequent conversations with Diggy regarding all his epiphanies and his ever increasing conviction that this world is completely material and the scientific method can completely explain the workings of this world. Mind emerges out of matter. Consciousness is a phenomenon that originates as an emergent phenomenon out of complex interactions among the billions of neurons in the brain. All emotions a human being feels reduce down to molecular mechanisms in the brain. It is true that we don’t have the technology yet to monitor activity all over the brain at a single neuron level, but someday we will and then it will be an obvious and well proven fact to all that mind emerges from matter. All the metaphysics and spirituality based theories that are out there right now regarding the existence and purpose of human life will all then be proven wrong. Every human being then will realize that at a fundamental level they don’t exist, they are nothing but molecules, their lives have no purpose and the existence of life on earth is nothing but an accident. Some complicated interaction happened among atoms and molecules on this planet over a millions of years purely by chance to lead to something as complex and interesting as life and mind.

Interestingly Diggy did not share Ary’s conviction regarding that matter. About a year back when Ary was venting his frustration about science as he was contemplating a change in the field of his doctoral research, Diggy was the one defending science. When Ary had said that he had been unable to “realize” or relate to, at a personal level, what he read in science textbooks but was being able to relate to what was written in the text on spirituality he was reading, Diggy had raised strong doubts about Ary’s understanding of the scientific method itself. But one year down the line, Ary seemed to be convinced about the ability of science to explain everything in the world including all human emotions and human consciousness itself and spent most of his time reading and contemplating science, while Diggy had turned towards more metaphysical stuff. His words and mannerisms were slowly turning cryptic as well. Since their conversations were mostly about Ary talking about himself and his realizations, with Diggy playing the role of the listener and the occasional questioner, Ary didn’t have much clue about what was the actual reason behind Diggy’s apparent transformation. Probably it was the failure of his long distance relationship with his girlfriend from undergraduate days, who still lived in India. Probably it was the effect of all the psychedelics he was trying of late. Ary wasn’t sure.

“Don’t be so confident,” Diggy once told Ary, “The world works in mysterious ways.”

Mildly amused and mildly annoyed, Ary responded, “Your mom works in mysterious ways.”

The graduate Physics Social Hour used to be hosted at the patio of LeConte hall, the building which housed the department of Physics on campus. The graduate students in the Physics department would chip in a few dollars each, get some cold beers, invite their friends over and drink the beers together while chatting about physics and life. As Ary  walked into the patio of LeConte Hall with Diggy after a busy Friday in their respective labs, he looked for familiar faces from his class in the crowd that had gathered there. He spotted Jake in the crowd at once. He was talking to other guys- both tall and white like Jake himself. Ary had seen them before in the class.

Ary and Diggy walked through the crowd towards them. James introduced Ary to his friends. Their names were Paul and Charles. Both of them, as well as Jake, were Americans but none of them were from California. They all moved to California recently for doctoral research after finishing undergraduate degrees in physics in their own state schools. Ary introduced Diggy to all of them.

“Grab your beers, man!”, Jake said, pointing at the freezer which had several bottles and cans of ales and lagers. Ary picked up a bottle of India Pale Ale or IPA. When Ary got to America a couple of years back, European lagers were his favorite. He tried some of the American ales but was repulsed by their bitterness. As he spent more time in the country, he started getting into ales. He kept wanting his beer to leave a more and more bitter taste on his tongue. First he had a phase when he mostly drank brown ale. Then it was amber ale. At the current moment, he drank nothing but the most bitter beer of them all- IPA.

The conversation started with them discussing the contents of the Quantum Mechanics and Statistical Mechanics courses they were all taking and eventually drifted to currently Ary’s favorite topic in physics – emergence. Mildly inebriated, Ary started talking about the idea he recently read and got him pretty obsessed, that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon in the brain just like superfluidity is an emergent phenomenon in condensed matter system. He felt very excited sharing his thoughts with the physics graduate students. Ary had noticed that Jake and Paul used to ask extremely good questions in class, which clearly showed their smartness and their command over physics. As a result, their opinion meant a lot to Ary. But their response to his idea was not exactly what he anticipated, and hence was mildly heartbreaking to him.

“This is not really a new idea”, Jake said, “I know what you are gonna say. Different animals have brains of different sizes. Larger the brains are, more the number of neurons in the brain, more complex the connections between the neurons are, higher is the consciousness in the animal. So consciousness is purely material. Again this is just a speculation.”

Paul seemed to agree with him. He said, “Many people make this mistake. They think science is about finding the truth. Not really, it is indeed about finding the simplest possible model with which we can explain experimentally observed facts. It is not necessarily truth. I have spent a lot of time reading about consciousness. I read a lot of philosophy of mind stuff. You know what I felt after reading all that and contemplating over the issue? I can’t prove this to you but I felt I fundamentally exist, beyond my material nature, i.e., the neurons in the brain.”

Ary felt a little sad and defeated. He knew that Paul was making sense. Stephen Hawking also wrote in his book that science is about finding the simplest model to explain empirical data. Was it he who was pushing that idea too far by insisting that the simplest possible model in science, in this case consciousness emerging out of brain matter, is the truth? Even Hawking wrote that this idea of model dependent reality probably avoids the question of what truth is. It doesn’t solve it completely.

Confused, Ary asked Paul, “How do you know it’s not your ego that is telling you that you exist? You don’t want to realize that you don’t exist because that will make you sad and your life meaningless.” There was a palpable tension in the air. Only Diggy seemed not to be affected by it. He was just looking on with a smile, and enjoying the beer and the conversation.

“How do you know it is not your ego that is giving you the conviction that you are right? More than being content with the fact that you don’t exist, you want to drive home the fact to others that they don’t exist simply to make them feel sad. For whatever reason, that makes you happy.”

Once more, Ary had the same feeling which he had around a year back arguing with Diggy about science and spirituality- when Diggy had cast his doubt on Ary’s understanding of science. That time, he repudiated the scientific method. This time, he advocated for it. But both times, he experienced the same feeling when his ideas were challenged- a feeling of something sinking inside him, a feeling of losing hope. It felt like he had been holding on to some hope for a long time and finally that hope was disappearing.

A blonde girl from their class joined in their conversation. Ary knew her. She was from Minnesota. Her name was Celine. She used to sit in the front row of the class, take notes sincerely and ask several interesting questions. She was also the prettiest girl in the class. She wrote left handed, so she always sat at the specific table in the front row which was meant for left handed people only. Completely mesmerized by her looks and quite impressed by her smartness, Ary recently started waking up very early in the morning and getting into the classroom way ahead of others so that he could sit next to her. Whenever the professor took a break in the lecture, he would take the opportunity to initiate a conversation with her, not with much success though. Thus far, he only got to know her name and where she was from. Back of his mind, he wanted to come to the Physics Social Hour also to get a chance to talk to her in a more social and friendly environment and be able to know her better.

Suddenly the conversation changed track. Celine didn’t seem to be too interested in continuously talking about what reality is. Instead she started talking about her plans for the weekend- which included driving to the Pacifica beach, south of San Francisco, and surfing along with her boyfriend. The other guys had interesting plans for the weekend too. Their girlfriends worked in San Francisco. After the Social Hour, they would take the train to San Francisco, meet their girlfriends and spend the weekend with them in the city. Apparently a three day long blue grass festival was going on in the city that weekend and entry was completely free, unlike most other music festivals in the city.

Ary didn’t know how to contribute to the conversation. He was a bad swimmer. He would never dare to try surfing, while Celine seemed to do it on a weekly basis. He had been living in the Bay Area for a couple of years but had hardly attended a music event. Though he was interested in music, he had realized that it was hard to keep attending music events and other social events on a weekly basis unless one had guaranteed company- basically a boyfriend or girlfriend. Most of his American classmates had a boyfriend or girlfriend. Most of his Indian classmates didn’t have one, but they didn’t seem to mind, they kept themselves busy working in their laboratories and offices day and night. It was probably only he and Diggy who lay somewhere in the middle in that respect. They loved their subject of research probably much more than their other Indian friends, but they also wanted to have a partner and a life like their American classmates.

Ary started wondering if his current obsession about mind and matter, as well as his previous conflict regarding changing research project, largely happened out of living alone in this distant land, far away from his home in Calcutta, far away from his parents. Celine, Jake, Paul and other American students in the physics class undoubtedly loved physics and were serious about their courses and research, but they also had a life outside work. As a result in the university they only focussed on science and outside the university they focussed on their relationship with their partners and carrying out fun activities with them like skiing, surfing, attending music events, etc. On the other hand, Ary didn’t have much of a life or steady company outside the university. Hence he was always thinking about science and trying to solve all his personal problems with it. He was probably trying to forget the boredom and pain associated with not having a girlfriend by telling himself that his mind was nothing but molecules and he himself didn’t exist as a fundamental entity.

A lot of other people had joined in the conversation by then, but Diggy had left the group. Ary had lost track of what they were talking about. His bottle of beer was almost empty. The label “Lagunitas” had almost gotten peeled off. Ary had the habit of peeling off the label on beer bottles with his fingers while drinking his beer and talking. A friend from Southern California once mentioned to him at a party that it indicated sexual frustration.

He walked away from the group and started looking around for Diggy. The patio was on the third floor of the building, overlooking the Memorial Glade and the campus tower, called Campanile. It was past eight on the Campanile clock. The sun had set more than an hour back. Days had begun shrinking in length again as it was past summer. Unlike in Calcutta or most other parts of India, there were almost no seasons in this part of California. It was mildly hot during the day and quite cold in the night almost through out the year. The only thing that changed over the course of the year was the time of sunset. A little intoxicated from the beer and with the conversation with the physics students not going as he had planned, Ary started feeling very vulnerable and home sick. He tried to tell himself that he didn’t really exist, it was all a bunch of molecules inside his head that generated this feeling, but it simply wasn’t working.

Suddenly he spotted Diggy in one corner of the patio. He was talking to one of the other white girls from Ary’s physics class, who was also quite pretty. Ary didn’t know that Diggy knew the girl before. Probably Diggy didn’t really know her before, they might just have met, but they both seemed to be very much into the conversation. Probably they had hit it off. Ary felt very empty inside. A thought started clouding up his mind- a thought which he had before but he always avoided confronting. He left the patio and got down the stairs of LeConte Hall, alone. He walked through the campus in the darkness of the night, towards his home in downtown Berkeley. It was rather his home far away from home.

Getting back to the studio apartment, Ary turned on his laptop and played the song “Ke Achho Kothay” from one of his favorite Bengali movies, “Madly Bengali”, that came out a few years back. Ary had always identified the song with the pain of growing up, the agony of losing friends and the tragedy of the city of his childhood, Calcutta, drifting further and further away from him. He lay wide awake on bed. The song went on in a loop for hours. He found it hard to hold back his tears when the singer Nachiketa, in the magically deep voice unique to him, uttered the words which translated somewhat like this in English:

“An afternoon that’s suddenly over, where are you all, my friends?

The math exercise book, the geometry box, where are you all, my friends?

I wonder whether you all still live at the same address, my friends!”

Ary felt a slight pain in his chest, slightly towards the left side. He had never experienced such a pain before. Is that where the heart was? If all that was involved in experiencing life was the mind and mind was nothing but physical interaction among billions of nerve cells or neurons, how was heart coming to the picture? He knew that he didn’t exist. He was merely molecules. Then why was that knowledge not enough to make him strong enough to not feel the pain? He didn’t know.

At some point he started feeling drowsy. Faint light of dawn made its way through the tiny gaps between the curtains on the window and poured into the apartment. Birds started chirping. Soon there was the sound of cars speeding along the big road called Shattuck Avenue, next to his apartment. The sound of the cars was really annoying. About five seconds of roar of the car’s engine, then a silence of about fifteen to thirty seconds, followed by another five second roar of a car’s engine. It went on and on. Ary got up, turned the heater on to drown the periodic sound of the cars in the constant sound of the heater and got back to bed. Slowly he dozed off.