Avicenna’s Flying Man experiment

Avicenna was an Arabic philosopher who lived from 980 to 1037. He followed the Greek wisdom, consciously rejecting Islamic theology. He wrote in “On The Soul” the following thought experiment:

  1. If I were blindfolded and suspended in the air, touching nothing …
  2. I would not know that I have a body.
  3. But I would know that I – my “self” or “soul” exists.
  4. So, my soul is not a body, but something different.
  5. The soul is distinct from the body.

Suppose you are in absolute empty space. There would be no light, sound, smell, taste, sense touch. Suppose there are no sensations, would you know what you areor where you are? The jump from Proposition 2 to Proposition 3 is a large one that cannot be proven.

Suppose that it is true, then one must ask, “what is the body for,” if the self or soul can survive in such a state. It also begs the question does that mean there is a place as absolute empty space, where such a soul can exist?

Of course, Avicenna did not have the benefit of knowledge that we have today of human physiology. We know the brain gives us the sense of self.

Let’s modify the experiment and take two people.

One is born with everything to be a human, except for the input of sensation. Would he or she know of his or her existence? The perceptual brain would be running but with no information of the world or self.

Another person came into the world the same way, had one day of sensation before all senses were taken away. Would he or she know of his or her existence. Now, at least this person has had some input. This input is processed by the brain, trying to make sense of the experience. From the available information the brain would try to sense of the world, perhaps seek out more information from the senses, try to turn it back on.

To know the self requires that we know the existence of the “other”, some thing of the external world.

Coma patients are a bit like the second person. They are temporarily (or until death) not aware of the “outside” world, even though they are alive and function as long the body is nourished and the brain is undamaged. This shows clearly we only have access to the outside world though the senses. While this coma patient has no more sensory input he or she still has perceptual and conceptual input. Thoughts may continue because there is “something there” to think about. Unlike the first person in the thought experiment there is no seed of information to start perception and conception.

Perception and conception can only start when some input is given. That input, it seems, is from sensation or sense data.

3 thoughts on “Avicenna’s Flying Man experiment”

  1. I haven’t seen Altered State though I know of it.

    I continue with an altered Flyman Man thought tomorrow which goes some ways to explain my position. And it explains my thoughts of space as related to objects.

    Think of the post as my answer for your reply here.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. … but two more directly address your thought experiment:

    I have pondered where the interaction actually takes place. What is the border, or where or what is the interface. ?

    Because I think that really hard problem of consciousness is not what we regularly here is the hard problem.

    I think the hard problem is exactly the brain problem, or more precisely how are you kind of frame it, the problem of the border, such that we can have no sense of self or anything really without an outside object of sense.

    But if this is the case then the sense that we are having of the brain itself is a problem, don’t you think?

    That’s why I kind of thought of this movie “altered states” because it suggests that if you remove all sense and indeed add some sort of catalyst to the body, like a particular psychotropic drug, that in fact not only does is there no soul or no sense of self but the very fabric of the universe is altered, not nearly as a conceptual framework as if the human being is the center of its whole world, but indeed that the whole world is held in place by this local event that we are calling the human body or the human thinking and it’s object of sense.

    It is interesting.


  3. I am wondering if you’ve ever seen or heard of this movie:

    He puts himself into a sensory deprivation tank.
    You haven’t seen it I would suggest watching it. Of course it’s the 1980s so the technology so far is moviemaking is a little dated but still it’s interesting.


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