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Mach 2: Mach?s Principle Extended

I’m about 1/3 of the way through the The Soul of the World by Roger Scruton, a complex book that tackles evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, self-consciousness and morality, citing many or mostly other works I haven’t read. But the one thread I recognize that (so far) runs through it is that of Spinoza, that the world is unitary, made of Substance, of which Thought is one view and Extension merely another. Thus one can look at everything from two points of view, the mental and the physical, and they are complementary, the one unable to replace the other. As I wrote in Models.Behaving.Badly, citing Hofstadter, you can give a mechanical computer the problem of factorizing 353, and ask the computer whether it is prime? When it prints out YES, you can ask why did it print out YES. One answer is: Because the electronic circuits and logic gates led deterministically to that event. The other answer is: Because 353 is prime. Both answers are true.

Something occurred to me as I was reading Scruton’s various remarks about self-consciousness and its putative seat in the brain. I thought of Mach’s principle.

Mach’s principle concerns the fact that you cannot tell what frame you are in if you are in a closed room which is moving at a constant velocity (Galilean and-or Special Relativity). But, if the room is rotating at a constant angular velocity relative to the fixed stars, the surface of a bucket of water will assume a parabolic shape, water rising towards the sides of the bucket. Put another way, you can tell if you’re on a merry-go-round with your eyes shut, but you cannot tell if you’re on a train. Mach’s principle says that the mass of the particle knows something about the fixed stars far away, and that angular motion relative to the fixed stars is an absolute motion, and that mass is somehow generated by interaction among all the masses. In isolation, perhaps, a single particle in an otherwise empty universe would have no mass.

I suggest something similar applies to self-consciousness. It sounds like it’s an attribute of a single person. But perhaps self-consciousness is a property of a system, only arising out of a community, and wouldn’t exist in isolation, and therefore cannot be isolated in one person’s brain. For a poor analogy, think of friendship. You can’t experience it unless there are other human beings. The notion of being your own friend in a universe of 1 cannot occur. It’s a relation that implicitly involves the existence of other similar beings. In isolation (ab initio) a single person would have no self-consciousness.

Scruton: I am I to myself only because, and to the extent that, I am You to another. Every I requires a You, and the two subjects meet in the world of objects.

Published in Opinion