It is a little known fact on this blog that I studied and received my undergraduate degree in Philosophy. Of particular interest to me was, and continues to be, the Philosophy of Mind and the mind-body problem. The mind-body problem is essentially this: how does the mind, which is assumed to be a thing without physical substance, arise from the body, a thing which is physical substance? In other words, how to you get something that is non-physical to arise from, and interact with, something that is physical?
This problem has been kicked around by philosophers since Aristotle, but became a real point of contention when Descartes “invented” the Dualism which I described above. It would be a digression to present the arguments against and solutions for Cartesian Dualism here, but one notion that in recent years has gained popularity, is that the studies of neurobiology and cognitive science would, sooner or later, put to rest the entire discussion because, as the workings of the brain become more and better understood, it will be shown that the mind is merely the brain, doing its thing.
The fundamental problem with this argument, known as Naturalism or Physicalism is that of Qualia–i.e., that the existence of a particular brain state does nothing whatever to explain subjective qualitative experience which caused it.
“Good God,” you must be thinking to yourself. “Have I been transported to some strange parallel universe? I thought this was supposed to be a knitting blog!” And you would be right. I bring this up here because 1) I am avoiding my knitting as well as other current events and 2) yesterday, I finished reading “Stop Me if You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes” by Jim Holt in which I found one of the best examples of the problem of Qualia I’ve ever come across. Toward the end, he describes an interesting discovery by a UCLA medical team in 1998. They were operating on the brain of a teenage girl, trying to find the cause of her epileptic siezures by stimulating various parts of her frontal lobe with an electronic probe (sounds fun!).
When the probe touched a tiny patch in the “supplementary motor area,” they observed something that was quite unexpected: The girl laughed. The doctors turned the current up a bit and touched the spot again. The girl laughed some more, longer and harder.
So here we have a particular brain state to which we can point and say, “this is the part of the brain that finds things funny” but it cannot explain the why an individual’s experience of the brain state of “laughter” is evoked by something humorous. Or indeed, why something is considered humorous at all.
So go forth, my ducklings, and ponder the nature of mental experiences and how they relate to brain states. And consider this (from workjoke.com):
Two women were walking through the woods when a frog called out to them and said: “Help me, ladies! I am a stockbroker who, through an evil witch’s curse, has been transformed into a frog. If one of you will kiss me, I’ll be returned to my former state!”
One woman took out her purse, grabbed the frog, and stuffed it inside her handbag. The other woman, aghast, screamed, “Didn’t you hear him? If you kiss him, he’ll turn into a stockbroker!”
The second woman replied, “Sure, but these days a talking frog is worth more than a stockbroker!”