[ExI] Mental Phenomena

Ben Zaiboc ben at zaiboc.net
Sat Jan 4 15:02:19 UTC 2020

Brent Allsop <brent.allsop at gmail.com> wrote:
 > Ben, let me ask you this.  What do you think your knowledge of a 
strawberry is composed of?

The same thing as my knowledge of anything is composed of. The same 
thing my, or anyone else's, experience (and any other mental phenomena 
you care to mention) of anything is composed of:

Patterns of neural activation in my brain.

What are they composed of?

An enormous number of spike-trains (sets of action potentials in a 
bewildering array of combinations) in an enormous number of axons, 
interacting in various ways (neural circuits involving lots of feedback 
loops, reinforcement, cancellation, etc.) via summation functions in 
neural hillocks and dynamic connections mediated by synapses, and 
modified by various enzymes in synaptic gaps and the properties of 
synaptic membranes.

Plus a few other things not worth mentioning here.
(this is as far as we know to date (as far as I know)).

And what are all those things composed of?

Probably the best answer to that, if anyone really wants to know, is to 
study biology, and especially neurology, to at least degree-level.

Probably not the kind of answer you're looking for, but expecting simple 
answers to complex questions is rarely going to make anyone happy 
(except perhaps those of a religious disposition), and certainly isn't 
going to lead to any useful knowledge.

One thing that is quite clear to me, though, is that no amino acid 
possesses an intrinsic 'quality' that has nothing to do with its 
chemical composition, but relates directly to mental phenomena like the 
perception of a colour. In fact, that makes no sense whatsoever. 
Glutamate in particular, is one of the most common amino acids in our 
bodies, is present in most proteins, and its use in the brain as a 
neurotransmitter is of no real significance. Anything else would be just 
as good, as long as there were corresponding receptors for it.

If glutamate really did possess 'elemental red' (pretending for a minute 
that that means something), why would it be present in our fingernails? 
Our hair? and a hundred other places in our bodies apart from the brain?

Someone else has remarked that its role in the brain as a 
neurotransmitter could be taken by glycine instead, with the relevant 
receptors changed to glycine receptors, with no change in any mental 
phenomena at all. I'd go further than that, and say it could just as 
well be exchanged for, say, sodium iodide, with NaI receptors, and the 
required metabolic pathways for its synthesis and breakdown, and it 
would make /absolutely no difference whatever/. If this exchange was 
made in your brain, you would have no way of telling, apart from doing a 
chemical analysis of your brain tissue. Any other substance would do as 
well, as long as it was biologically plausible. It certainly would not 
affect your experience of the colour red, or anything else.

You could even replace all the glutamate circuits with a dozen different 
neurotransmitter/receptor pairs, anywhere you like in the brain. It 
would make things unnecessarily complicated, biochemically (as if the 
brain wasn't complicated enough!), but wouldn't make any subjective 
difference. All the neural circuits would work exactly the same as before.

Which brings me back to my statement, "the concept of 'elemental red' is 
sheer nonsense". Experiencing a colour is very far from 'elemental', 
it's a complex process involving thousands of neural events. Apart from 
anything else, just think of some of the many different things that 
"Experiencing a colour" can mean! How many different varieties of Red 
can you picture or apprehend? See? Remember? Imagine? What do they have 
in common? Anything? Perhaps a category label, very abstract, that we 
can articulate as the word "red". I say 'perhaps', because one man's red 
can be another man's orange (or purple).

And as far as strawberries are concerned, what if my 'knowledge of a 
strawberry' doesn't even consider the colour? Having seen yellow and 
green strawberries, I might conclude that their colour is irrelevant. Do 
our brains possess an amino acid that is 'elemental strawberry'?

I'm confident that they don't.

Ben Zaiboc
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