Consciousness (VIII) — Breaking (Down) Bad (Philosophy of Science)

(Note: this entry is still in rough draft form.)

It’s incredibly important that we try to stay clear on just what exactly the relationship is between philosophy and science if we want to properly understand either of them. A rudimentary misunderstanding of the relationship is frequently demonstrated when a critic of a philosophical proposal asks whether it makes any testable, falsifiable predictions—as if under the impression that any philosophical idea is nonsense unless it does what scientific theories do and makes concrete, empirical predictions about the future that could be tested and proven wrong. This not only fails to understand how philosophy and science stand in relationship to each other as will be discussed momentarily, it fails to understand the very philosophy of falsificationism—in a way that its founder, Karl Popper himself, objected to repeatedly within his own lifetime.

What Karl Popper actually did was propose falsification as a way to answer the question, “How do we draw the line between the particular domain of inquiry which is called ‘science’ and others?” What Karl Popper did not do was propose falsification as a way to answer the question, “How do we draw the line between statements that mean something and statements that don’t?” In Chapter 1, Section 6, and footnote 3 of The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Popper writes: “Note that I suggest falsifiability as a criterion of demarcation, but not of meaning. Note, moreover, that I have already (section 4) sharply criticized the use of the idea of meaning as a criterion of demarcation, and that I attack the dogma of meaning again, even more sharply, in section 9. It is therefore a sheer myth (though any number of refutations of my theory have been based upon this myth) that I ever proposed falsifiability as a criterion of meaning. Falsifiability separates two kinds of perfectly meaningful statements: the falsifiable and the non-falsifiable. It draws a line inside meaningful language, not around it.”

In a sense, “philosophy” is the term we use for the analysis of claims that attempt to “predict” why things are as they are right now, where some of the most fundamental disagreements are over what it is that these claims do, in fact, “predict.” My rejection of physicalism throughout this series, for example, rests on my reaching the conclusion through conceptual analysis that the premises of physicalism “predict” that it should be impossible for us to have the conscious awareness and intentionality that we know that we have, in principle, right here and now and is thus ‘falsified’ by their existence—and were I to debate this with a defender of physicalism, that debate would largely center: (1) on whether consciousness possesses the kinds of traits I describe it as possessing; or, since even most physicalists want to avoid eliminativism as even they acknowledge it to be self-defeating and absurd, (2) on whether or not the premises of materialism do in fact entail the “prediction” that the consciousness we experience should be incapable of possessing the particular aspects and dimensions we happen to know from the inside that it does.

Philosophy tries to account ‘backwards’ for why what we see happening now is happening (and what must be true in order for it to happen); science tries to project ‘forwards’ into what will happen later. While some suggest a picture on which philosophy is increasingly rendered irrelevant by, as it concedes ground to, an inevitably advancing science answering what we previously were resigned to think were just “armchair” considerations, in a sense the truth is just exactly the opposite: every time a scientific advancement projects forwards and increases our ability to predict what will happen, the “what will happen” just gets included into our “what we see happening now,” and it is left to philosophical consideration to form any interpretation at all of why what we see happening is happening—what would need to be true about the ultimate and underlying nature of reality in order for it to be possible, to begin with, that what happens can happen.

One of the places this is currently most obvious and easiest to see is in discussion of how to interpret quantum physics: Do we follow Von Neumann and conclude that the acts of observation from consciousness itself are what causes the “wave function” to collapse into a single determinate observation? Or do we follow Hugh Everett and conclude that the “wave function” never truly collapses at all; and that, rather, every possibility included within it represents a variety of universes all branching off simultaneously into an expansive multiverse from the original point of “collapse”? Or do we follow Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg and say that the “wave function” is just a theoretical construct that doesn’t signify anything other than our own epistemic ignorance?

Most thinkers of any degree of sobriety allow, that an hypothesis…is not to be received as probably true because it accounts for all the known phenomena, since this is a condition sometimes fulfilled tolerably well by two conflicting hypotheses…while there are probably a thousand more which are equally possible, but which, for want of anything analogous in our experience, our minds are unfitted to conceive. ([1867] 1900, 328) ~ John Stuart Mill, A System of Logic 

“Science” isn’t going to answer those question for us. In as much as “science” refers to “the practice of following the scientific method,” it means testing and refining hypotheses that entail empirical consequences in order to more accurately predict future empirical observations. The problem is that, by definition, all of the above interpretations of quantum physics entail the same empirical consequences. They all account for the same data—in different ways. Further discoveries in physics may end up answering that question, but if they do, it will only be by changing the details and handing over a new set of facts that it will be just as much left up to us, yet again, to interpret and hang together into a cohesive picture. (Perhaps an argument could be made that it won’t be, and that a completed physical account will necessarily only have one possible interpretation, but unless and until that actually happens, that argument too will necessarily also be a philosophical one.)

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Similarly, if we have a theoretical model of how the world works that allows us to have success in making further predictions, that no more proves that the theoretical entities suggested by that model are real despite being beyond the direct reach of our senses than the success of mathematics in allowing us to build things and predict their behavior proves that mathematical entities, too, exist in some literal realm beyond the direct reach of our senses (a position some do in fact defend: mathematical Platonism). And this is just the most basic of conundrums raised by philosophy of science—the most obvious of implicit contradictions resting in our beliefs before we’ve analyzed them philosophically and made a conscious effort to reshape them into something consistently coherent. Most of us will naturally want to accept that whatever entities are postulated by our best physical theories really exist, whether we are capable of directly observing them or not. Yet most of us—particularly the physicalists—won’t want to accept that mathematical entities exist in some literal fashion just because mathematics, which can be applied to such incredibly useful purposes, refers to them. There isn’t any immediately obvious answer here: if the entities posited by our most useful theories should be assumed to be real, then why shouldn’t mathematical entities rise with physical entities?

On the other hand, if we reject that underlying premise, then why shouldn’t really–existing physical entities fall along with mathematical entities? “Science” as the discipline of honing and refining predictions about future observation is simply not going to answer that question. This is a philosophical premise underlying our practice of science one way or another; held by us, and not the discipline of science itself. Philosophy deeply underlies even the most ordinary assumption that the scientific postulate of atomic forces as an explanation for empirical observations truly implies that the atom is even real. I repeat: no one has ever directly observed the existence of an atom. The idea is a hypothesis reached by “inference” to account for things like, for example, certain properties of the periodic table.

But is the fact that scientific theories are so effective at getting us places obvious proof that this could only be because the entities they describe are real? Absolutely not—even without adding philosophical analysis into the mix, it is scientifically well confirmed today that Newtonian mechanics most adamantly does not describe the world ‘as it is’—its conjectures about the underlying nature of how the world most essentially ‘is’ and works have been fundamentally superseded by the advances of quantum mechanics (“As experiments reached the atomic level, classical mechanics failed to explain, even approximately, such basic things as the energy levels and sizes of atoms and the photo-electric effect”). And yet, we can still use principles derived from its assumptions with all kinds of success in fields like engineering, celestial mechanics, and so forth. Just as there are mathematical Platonists who reason that the success of mathematics entails the real existence of mathematical entities in realms we can’t observe, so there are “scientific anti–realists” who reason that the success of physical science simply does not entail that we have any real descriptions of any really existing physical micro–entities just because our theories are useful. The dilemma can go either way.

Perhaps scientific anti–realism is false. I’m perfectly well content to accept that it is—if convinced by the right kind of argument. My actual point is far more basic than even that; my point is this: if anti–realism is false, proving it false is going to require philosophical defense and explanation. It is not and will never in principle be solved by an “experiment” that makes a falsifiable prediction in a laboratory. If scientific realism is true, scientific realism itself is not a fact proven by scientific data. It is an answer to a question about how we should interpret that very data, when both realism and anti–realism about scientific theory are each making the attempt to philosophically defend the claim that they more adequately and naturally predict whatever data see in front of us than the other. In an important sense, again, it is a question of reasoning “backwards” to ask what premise most adequately predicts and accounts for what we know is in front of us right now, rather than making more predictions about what we will see in the future (which, if confirmed, will just be added to a new collection of “what we know is in front of us right now.”) Both types of questions are relevant and important. And they require categorically different kinds of methods to address, because they are categorically different types of questions. 

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P. M. S. Hacker, who along with the distinguished neuroscientist Max R. Bennett co–authored a volume titled Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience, writes that “Philosophy … is neither an empirical science nor an a priori one, since it is no science. … It is a quest for understanding, not for knowledge. … Philosophical questions cannot be circumscribed by their form. Nor can they be circumscribed by their content, since they can, in principle, be concerned with any subject matter at all – any subject matter that gives rise to conceptual confusions and unclarities. These questions cannot be resolved by the empirical sciences, since they are not empirical questions. They are all questions that are, directly or indirectly, solved, resolved or dissolved by conceptual investigation. One might therefore say, as above, that, in one sense, philosophy has no subject matter; but one might also say that, in another sense, philosophy has everything as its subject matter.… Philosophy is conceptual investigation.” I highly advise anyone reading this to take a break and read Hacker’s paper as well. He continues: “This assertion can easily be misunderstood. Does it mean that philosophy has a subject matter after all – namely concepts? That would be misleading. Being a conceptual investigation does not mean being solely about concepts. … questions of whether machines can think or whether the brain can think are philosophical. Neither can be answered by experimental science. To deny that they are about machines, brains, and what it is to think would be misleading. But to suggest that they are not, in a very distinctive sense, about the concept of thinking and its intelligible applicability or inapplicability to machines and brains would be to grossly misrepresent the investigation.”

One expression of the attitude of scientism is that scientist’s forays into philosophy can become treated with an absolutely undeserved degree of deference when we fail to recognize that the statements being made are even philosophical—and thus something the scientist qua scientist simply has no automatic special authority over—rather than scientific to begin with. From the implied (and utterly fallacious) assumption that the raw data of scientific investigation comes pre–packaged, so to speak, with its own conceptual categorization and interpretation, we might naively assume that anyone who is an expert on investigation of the empirical aspect of some topic is therefore automatically an expert on understanding anything there could possibly be to understand about any aspect of the subject in question. If we hold this assumption, we are wrong.

In discussing the origins of the Universe in The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow write: “Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.” Could Hacker’s definition of philosophy as “a quest for understanding” applicable to “any subject matter that gives rise to conceptual confusions and unclarities” be any more relevant? Could any ‘empirical’ knowledge which either Hawking or Mlodinow might have about the science of cosmology or the workings of the law of gravity make the statement that “the universe can and will create itself” (which the skeptical reader might be inclined to think it could not do unless it already existed)—“from nothing,” no less, because “there is a law like gravity” (which the astute may have noticed is not “nothing”) any more respectable or any less conceptually confused and in need of philosophical clarification? Could there be any clearer demonstration that ‘knowing’ the “facts” simply does not suffice to prove that you understand what they mean? Even the most accomplished scientists on Earth can fail utterly at the most rudimentary level of philosophical—that is, conceptual—comprehension if they aren’t being careful.

Consider an artificial intelligence researcher who adopts the line endorsed by Ray Kurzweil in the fifth entry in this series that thinking ‘just is’ the execution of syntactical procedures (so that the man in the Chinese Room would “understand” Chinese in the only sense worth talking about—and so, by definition, would any machine, by definition, the moment it became capable of ‘appearing’ to understand Chinese through a programmed ability to manipulate Chinese symbols). Suppose he goes on to apply the Turing Test to a variety of robots to see which “understand” according to the philosophical definition of “understanding” which he has accepted on which the only thing it entails is the ability to execute appropriate functions anyway. So far, so good: our researcher has defined his philosophical premises, and he has begun empirical investigations in light of them which he plans to read through the lens of them. I would argue (as I do in extensive detail in that entry) that this philosophical premise would be horrendously confused and wrong, but he would—at least—be keeping his philosophical premises and empirical findings in proper relation to each other.

Where our researcher would begin specifically committing the epistemological fallacy of scientism, however, is when he begins telling anyone who doubted that the machines he was testing “truly understood” Chinese just because they were passing the test that they were wasting his time because, if they think so, they “clearly don’t understand science and need to understand the Turing Test better.” The researcher’s fallacy would be to assume that the plain data of this investigation contains within itself the philosophical premise that all that it means to ‘think’ is just to possess the ability to manipulate symbols—but this premise is completely external to his empirical investigations and requires an entirely different type of defense. What our researcher would be missing is that someone could perfectly well understand exactly what the Turing Test involves and exactly what our researcher’s data was revealing, and still disagree with that philosophical premise. And no amount of “data” drawn from experiment could settle the truth or falsity of it one way or another.

Our researcher would, of course, immediately recognize this fallacy were he to see it committed by someone who does not share his particular premises and assumptions. Imagine someone who adopts the philosophical position that everything is conscious in some degree (panpsychism) conjoined with the position that the “mind dust” of tiny particles become unified into the organized phenomenal consciousness of a singular mind whenever these particles become arranged to perform a function together. Now, suppose this panpsychist researcher went around testing plants, thermometers, etc. for their ability to perform unified functions, concluding on the basis of these tests that each entity either does, or does not, possess an organized singular “mind.” Again, so far so good: our researcher would be staking his philosophical premises out (however wrong we might think they are), and then conducting his empirical investigations, and so far apparently keeping them distinct and in proper relation to each other.

But if our panpsychist researcher were simply dismissing the skepticism of the artificial intelligence researcher because he doesn’t understand ‘science’, this would again be the same exact fallacy—and our artificial intelligence researcher would recognize it and realize immediately that his dispute with the panpsychist would not be over empirical results, but over philosophical premises. The question of whether a given physical entity is organized in such a way as to be capable of performing an organized function is one that can be answered empirically, sure; the question of whether capacity to perform a function is what it takes to have a singular organized conscious “mind” is not, and no result of the former experiment, in and of itself, would prove or even ‘support’ it—it requires a fundamentally different sort of analysis and defense altogether.

This example also goes to show that the materialist is not the only one who is capable of committing the epistemological fallacy of scientism; anyone who fails to grasp the actual relationship between philosophical premises and empirical findings and pretends that the latter contain and prove the former—no matter what the details might be—is committing it. The fallacy is to smuggle a peculiar conceptual interpretation of  some given bit of data into the data itself and then pretend that the data in question itself simply comes pre–packaged with that conceptual interpretation without any extra additional work, thus freeing the offender to shirk the obligation to defend these interpretations in the relevant philosophical terms and then dismiss anyone who questions them as “not understanding the scientific data” as an ad hominem means of dismissing anyone who questions the offender’s philosophical premises. The fallacy, in other words, is to engage in philosophy and then pretend not to have done so in order to shield one’s philosophical premises from the possibility of attack or any need for defense on the appropriate turf to which these premises actually do in fact properly belong—smuggling them in to escape these obligations illegitimately under the false guise of “science” when they are not actually “scientific” assumptions properly speaking at all.

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A similar fallacy is committed whenever anyone assumes that neuroscience, as such, just straightforwardly proves that consciousness ‘is’ the brain. In his 1994 The Astonishing Hypothesis, for example, the neuroscientist Francis Crick writes: ““You”—your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.””

Incredibly enough, yet as so often happens, this very modern fallacy has already been addressed in detail by philosophers for decades, if not centuries—and the empirical findings of modern neuroscience, when we look at them a little more closely and in greater detail, actually add surprisingly little to what has already been said on the subject by very intelligent people for a very long time. As so often happens, philosophy—even ancient philosophy—not only still bears relevance; it takes down fallacies which are pervasive in modern assumption clearly.

We have, of course, addressed the conceptual issues involved in this claim already: the conceptual ingredients involved in efficient physical causation and the conceptual ingredients involved in subjective, qualitative, phenomenal, intentional experience simply are not identical. And providing an account which “identifies” them would require a conceptual unification of a sort that takes some third kind of phenomena and explains in those terms exactly how the concepts of subjective experience and physical causation are unified through it. To reiterate the analogy once again: to claim that the man who delivers my mail in the morning is identical to the man who drinks at the bar on Friday night is to take two spatiotemporally conceived events and then provide spatiotemporal terms that perform the actual substantive work required to actually link them in space and time—namely, it requires a story like this: “when the man who delivers my mail on mornings goes home, he changes clothes and heads out to the bar—and that is how the man who delivers my mail turns out to be the man who drinks at the bar on Friday night—discovering this additional fact is how know it turns out to be the same man at all.”

A bridging spatiotemporal event links two other spatiotemporal events together in space and time; two events composed of the same basic category of ingredients are linked by an account which bridges them in the clearly explicable terms of that same exact ingredient. But without an actual bridge to actually connect these two things in common terms, calling them “identical” would simply be incoherent. I can potentially provide an account which “identifies” the man who delivers my mail in the morning with the man who drinks at the bar on Friday night, but I cannot even potentially provide an account which “identifies” the man who delivers my mail in the morning with the year 1977—the very terms involved in the two different concepts are simply different. And the notion of “identifying” subjective first–person qualitative experience with physical structure and causal process is a conceptual confusion more on par with the latter example than with the former, not merely because the two concepts are not prima facie the same, but because they are composed of such different basic conceptual ingredients that there are simply no common terms that could possibly perform the actual substantive function of actually bridging them. And it is clear on looking at them that no supporter of any so–called “identity theory” has ever actually attempted to pull off the required task. “Identity theories” therefore do not amount to surprising discoveries overturning ordinary intuition, but rather to basic conceptual confusions that come nowhere close to actually doing what they claim to do.

So in practice, an “identity theory” would therefore either have to entail eliminativism towards the aspects of consciousness we know directly and immediately from the same first–hand experience we know everything else through, and the same first–hand experience which is the only thing we know anything else through (thus “identifying” the brain’s physical processes with something other than subjective, qualitative, intentionalistic consciousness and thus in reality just denying the latter’s actual existence outright altogether), — or else it would have to ‘build’ subjective experience and intentionality out of nonintentional and nonexperiential ingredients (but this approach necessarily fails in principle too, as explained in my essays IV — and V), — or else it could try to redefine the physical to say that it intrinsically contains these very ingredients within itself in already live and present form at the deepest levels of reality, as in panpsychism, and “identify” mind with a redefined “brain” that way (but we see in VII that this merely runs into one of the same exact fallacies already plaguing the other accounts, rejection of which was the only reason we ever even considered panpsychism as a potential solution to begin with).

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But I don’t just want to address the claim that mind–brain “identity theory” is true, here—I want to address the particular epistemological fallacy involved specifically in the claim that neuroscience proves it. This fallacy was, in fact, addressed all the way back in 1889 by the pre–eminent American philosopher, psychologist, and physician Wiliam James: “When the physiologist … pronounces the phrase, ‘Thought is a function of the brain,’ he thinks of the matter just as he thinks when he says, ‘Steam is a function of the tea–kettle,’ ‘Light is a function of the electric circuit,’ ‘Power is a function of the moving waterfall.’ In these latter cases the several material objects have the function of inwardly creating or engendering their effects, and their function must be called productive function. Just so, he thinks, it must be with the brain. Engendering consciousness in its interior, much as it engenders cholesterin and creatin and carbonic acid, its relation to our soul’s life must also be called productive function. …

… But in the world of physical nature productive function of this sort is not the only kind of function with which we are familiar. We have also releasing or permissive function; and we have transmissive function. The trigger of a crossbow has a releasing function: it removes the obstacle that holds the string, and lets the bow fly back to its natural shape. So when the hammer falls upon a detonating compound. By knocking out the inner molecular obstructions, it lets the constituent gases resume their normal bulk, and so permits the explosion to take place. In the case of a colored glass, a prism, or a refracting lens, we have transmissive function. The energy of light, no matter how produced, is by the glass sifted and limited in color, and by the lens or prism determined to a certain path and shape. Similarly, the keys of an organ have only a transmissive function. They open successively the various pipes and let the wind in the air–chest escape in various ways. The voices of the various pipes are constituted by the columns of air trembling as they emerge. But the air is not engendered in the organ. The organ proper, as distinguished from its air–chest, is only an apparatus for letting portions of it loose upon the world in these peculiarly limited shapes.

My thesis now is this: that, when we think of the law that thought is a function of the brain, we are not required to think of productive function only; we are entitled also to consider permissive or transmissive function. And this the ordinary psycho–physiologist leaves out of his account. …

… Isn’t the common materialistic notion vastly simpler? Is not consciousness really more comparable to a sort of steam, or perfume, or electricity, or nerve–glow, generated on the spot in its own peculiar vessel? Is it not more rigorously scientific to treat the brain’s function as function of production? … The immediate reply is, that, if we are talking of science positively understood, function can mean nothing more than bare concomitant variation. When the brain–activities change in one way, consciousness changes in another; when the currents pour through the occipital lobes, consciousness sees things; when through the lower frontal region, consciousness says things to itself; when they stop, she goes to sleep, etc. In strict science, we can only write down the bare fact of concomitance; and all talk about either production or transmission, as the mode of taking place, is pure superadded hypothesis, and metaphysical hypothesis at that, for we can frame no more notion of the details on the one alternative than on the other. Ask for any indication of the exact process either of transmission or of production, and Science confesses her imagination to be bankrupt. She has, so far, not the least glimmer of a conjecture or suggestion—not even a bad verbal metaphor or pun to offer. Ignoramus, ignorabimus, is what most physiologists, in the words of one of their number, will say here.

… Into the mode of production of steam in a tea–kettle we have conjectural insight, for the terms that change are physically homogeneous one with another, and we can easily imagine the case to consist of nothing but alterations of molecular motion. But in the production of consciousness by the brain, the terms are heterogeneous natures altogether; and as far as our understanding goes, it is as great a miracle as if we said, Thought is ‘spontaneously generated,’ or ‘created out of nothing.’ … The theory of production is therefore not a jot more simple or credible in itself than any other conceivable theory. It is only a little more popular. All that one need do, therefore, if the ordinary materialist should challenge one to explain how the brain can be an organ for limiting and determining to a certain form a consciousness elsewhere produced, is to retort with a tu quoque, asking him in turn to explain how it can be an organ for producing consciousness out of whole cloth.”

James expresses more conceptual clarity and insight here about what findings of mind–brain correlation (“concomitance”) would or would not actually prove well over a century ago than many have who know more about the details of what those “concomitances” are than James ever possibly could have. The point couldn’t be more elementary—indeed, it may at first seem anticlimactic that it is as simple as it is. Yet one of the most basic rules of, say, population studies in nutritional science is that correlation does not equal causation. If we want to read causation out of a nutritional population study, we have to acknowledge that we are interpreting that data and be highly careful about our assumptions and the reasoning we follow them through with. But the data itself just does not plainly ‘give us’ causation—we have to interpret it and make further inferences to try to get at causation, and this is additional work that can’t be simplistically achieved just by acquiring more empirical data on the same correlation we’re trying to interpret. And what goes for properly understanding what (if anything) nutritional science might have to say about how we should eat if we want to be healthy goes every bit as much for properly understanding what (if anything) neuroscience might have to say about the true nature of “consciousness” or of the “self.”

A critic might ask where the “evidence” for such a hypothesis is—and if so, he once again utterly misses the point: either we should say that there is none, but realize that by the same token there would be no “evidence” for the “productive hypothesis” either—or else we should say that the “evidence” for it found in correlations between states of the brain and states of subjective experience is just exactly the same data claimed as “evidence” for the “productive hypothesis.” The point is that data of this sort is open to interpretation. And it takes philosophical, conceptual analysis—“concerned” in Hacker’s terms “with what does or does not make sense”—to decide how to interpret it. More of the same data we’re asking how to interpret in the first place can’t settle the question any more than collecting ever increasing amounts of data on the correlation between ice cream consumption and the murder rate can settle the question of how it makes the most sense to assume the two are causally related (if at all). The required sort of conceptual analysis is exactly what I have been aiming to offer throughout this series.

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The common conviction is of course that neuroscience empirically validates the claim that the mind “just is” the brain. Yet, if any investigation seems to potentially support or require some non–materialistic interpretation of the relationship between the mind and the brain (say, apparent experiences of seeing one’s body from outside during Near Death Experiences), these potentially empirical findings are most often rejected immediately out of hand purely because of the a priori assumption that consciousness (or the brain) just can’t work that way. But wait—on exactly what basis was that claim supposed to have been justified in the first place? The empirical findings of neuroscience?

The circularity in this way of reasoning runs deep; and a similar dynamic is noticed by David Chalmers in regards to interpretation of quantum physics and questions about where those interpretations end up leaving the mind when he writes: “It is interesting that philosophers reject interactionist dualism because they think it is incompatible with physics, whereas [quantum] physicists reject the relevant interpretations of quantum mechanics because they are dualistic!” Which is it, then, that actually comes first? And where should we actually start? I might also quote the philosopher Lawrence BonJour here when he says that: “One of the oddest things about discussions of materialism is the way in which the conviction that some materialist view must be correct seems to float free of the defense of any particular materialist view. It is very easy to find people who seem to be saying that while there are admittedly serious problems with all of the specific materialist views, it is still reasonable to presume that some materialist view must be correct, even if we don’t know which one.”

What is left of the substance of the claim of materialism?

One might have thought that given the intensity with which the belief is often held, there was at least some strongly compelling argument someone had come up with by now—even if only as an after–the–fact rationalization—for either the conclusion that some form of materialism must be true, or that dualism must be false. There turns out to be far less than the tenacity of popular conviction in the belief might have led us to expect—and even the materialists can frequently be found, in various forms, admitting it. As we previously saw, Daniel Dennett admits in Consciousness Explained that he holds the “apparently dogmatic” rule that dualism is to be avoided “at all costs” even though he does not think that he “can give any knock-down proof that dualism […] is false or incoherent.” And he continues holding to this (only “apparently” dogmatic) rule even as it pushes him towards the conclusion that it must lead him to dismiss the very existences of experience and intentionality altogether as mere fictions. So, as we have seen, does Alex Rosenberg in The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. 

Consider John Searle’s puzzlement over the obvious absurdity of so many of the popular views in philosophy of mind: “No one would think of saying, for example, “Having a hand [should] just [be defined as] being disposed to certain sorts of behavior such as grasping” (manual behaviorism), or “Hands can be defined entirely in terms of their causes and effects” (manual functionalism), or “For a system to have a hand is just for it to be in a certain computer state with the right sorts of inputs and outputs” (manual Turing machine functionalism), or “Saying that a system has hands is just adopting a certain stance toward it” (the manual stance).” In Rediscovering the Mind, he writes: “How is it that so many philosophers and cognitive scientists can say so many things that [are] obviously false? … Acceptance of the current [physicalist] views [in philosophy of mind] is motivated not so much by an independent conviction of their truth as by a terror of what are apparently the only alternatives. That is, the choice we are tacitly presented with is between a “scientific” approach, as represented by one or another of the current versions of “materialism,” and an “unscientific” approach, as represented by Cartesianism or some other traditional religious conception of the mind.”

Fear of religion? Thomas Nagel had something to say about that in The Last Word in 1997: “Even without God, the idea … that the relation between mind and the world is something fundamental makes many people in this day and age nervous, I believe this is one manifestation of a fear of religion which has large and often pernicious consequences for modern intellectual life. In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods.  I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time.”

Is it a coincidence that, by and large, the only kinds of people who see reason to advocate views of this sort are people openly identifying with and representing “atheism”—one of the “Four Horsemen of the New Atheism,” the author of “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality?” It begins to seem entirely plausible that the atheist doesn’t want to face up to the depth of the problems with physicalist accounts because this would have to result in the conclusion that those religious conceptions of the mind perhaps weren’t so far off the mark after all—and granting even that much could just be too much for the atheist to bear. Here lies the problem, which I’ve already alluded to in entry (I): the atheist most typically wants to present atheism as the “default” epistemic position; as a mere “lack” of belief, and not a positive philosophy—comparable to simply lacking the belief that there is a teapot orbiting the moon (as in a popular analogy coined by Bertrand Russell). Yet, if it turns out that advancing a consistent atheism does in fact require advancing a specific positive philosophy—that is, physicalism about human minds—then atheism might begin to look more like a positive worldview which carries the epistemology and therefore all the burdens of a positive “religious” worldview than the ‘negative–default’ atheist had hoped. (But note that I will analyze the antecedent of this conditional in much greater detail at some later point.)

Why stay awake at night wondering how to fit consciousness as you directly know and experience it into a theory you’ve invented about the nature of the world when you can just settle all cognitive dissonance securely in advance by pretending the issue is settled and convincing yourself that you have the authoritative weight of science unquestionably on your side? I think we can acknowledge that “fear of religion” is one of the most ultimate reasons for the materialist prejudice without implying that this fear is necessarily valid. On the one hand, James P. Moreland argues that “…there has been a connection both historically and theologically between the existence of a substantial soul and the supernatural realm. If the soul exists, then this is very good reason to think that a personal, self–aware being—God—exists.”

On the other hand, when one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, A. J. Ayer—the founder of logical positivism who wrote his philosophical treatise at 26, and was certainly one of the most prominent atheists of the last hundred years—had a near death experience which he said “weakened [his] conviction that [his] genuine death, which is due fairly soon, will be the end of [him],” he went on to write that: “A prevalent fallacy is the assumption that a proof of an afterlife would also be a proof of the existence of a deity. This is far from being the case. If, as I hold, there is no good reason to believe that a god either created or presides over this world, there is equally no good reason to believe that a god created or presides over the next world … If our lives consisted in an extended series of experiences [e.g. across multiple afterlives], we should still have no good reason to regard ourselves as spiritual substances. … [and]  I continue to hope that [my genuine death] will be [the end of me].

Notice how often we see the words “hope” here: Ayer even admits that he hopes that his death will be the end! Could that not be every bit as powerful a motivating force behind physicalism as hope for continuation of life after death might be for dualism? I think we can admit that the “fear of religion” identified by both Searle and Nagel plays a substantial role in the prejudice towards physicalism without taking any stance one way or the other on whether or not this fear is justified. Or at least without taking any stance on the question yet—I plan to explore it in more detail later. For now, let’s return to the arguments for and against dualism and materialism. William G. Lycan, a distinguished professor of philosophy at UNC, has written a valuable paper titled “Giving Dualism Its Due.” The paper, he tells us, is “an uncharacteristic exercise in intellectual honesty [which] grew out of a seminar in which for methodological purposes I played the role of a committed dualist….” 

He goes on: “I have been a materialist about the mind for forty years, since first I considered the mind–body issue. … My materialism has never wavered. Nor is it about to waver now; I cannot take dualism very seriously … I have no sympathy with any dualist view, and never will. … Being a philosopher, of course I would like to think that my stance is rational, held not just instinctively and scientistically and in the mainstream but because the arguments do indeed favor materialism over dualism. But I do not think that, though I used to. My position may be rational, broadly speaking, but not because the arguments favor it  … the standard objections to dualism are not very convincing; if one really manages to be a dualist in the first place, one should not be much impressed by them. My purpose in this paper is to hold my own feet to the fire and admit that I do not proportion my belief to the evidence. … Arguments for materialism are few. … J.J.C. Smart was perhaps the first to offer reasons …[he wrote that]: “[S]ensations, states of consciousness,…seem to be the one sort of thing left outside the physicalist picture, and … I just cannot believe that this can be so….  The above is largely a confession of faith….” …

… The materialist of course takes the third–person perspective; s/he scientistically thinks in terms of looking at other people, or rather at various humanoid bags of protoplasm, and explaining their behaviour. But the dualist is … in the first–person perspective, acquainted with the contents of her own consciousness, aware of them as such. Notice carefully that we need not endorse many of Descartes’ own antique and weird views about the mind … The point is only that we know the mind primarily through introspection. Duh! That idea may, very surprisingly, be wrong … [but] to deny it is a radical move.

…  suppose … that you are a Cartesian dualist. … There are nine objections to your view. Of course there are; any interesting philosophical view faces at least nine objections. The question is, how well you can answer them? And I contend that the dualist can answer them … respectably. … I shall start with the Interaction Problem … [and] what … is the problem? I believe it is that even now we have no good model at all for Cartesian interaction. … I agree that the lack of a good model is a trenchant objection and not just a prejudice. But … for one thing, the lack results at least partly from the fact that we have no good theory of causality itself. …  [Paul Churchland argues that] neuroscience explains a great deal and dualism explains hardly anything. But the comparison is misplaced. Dualism competes, not with neuroscience (a science), but with materialism, an opposing philosophical theory. Materialism per se does not explain much either.  … the objections [to dualism] are not an order of magnitude worse than those confronting materialism in particular. … The dialectical upshot is that … going just by actual arguments as opposed to appeals to decency and what good guys believe, materialism is not significantly better supported than dualism.” And none of this even addresses the arguments I have posed in this very series—except for footnote 3, where Lycan does in fact write: “For the record, I now believe that there is a more powerful argument for dualism based on intentionality itself: from the dismal failure of all materialist psychosemantics….” (See my essay (V) for a full explanation of why this argument is so forceful.)

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

In any case, this discussion should be sufficient to set the tone for the articles to come—consider this a general, broad overview introduction to the next category of articles. In these, I plan to explore in more detail the objections against dualism, especially those drawn from “science,” while including some supportable speculations on how to formulate a “working picture” of what dualism actually entails. I plan to explore studies claimed to have relevance for the question of free will in combination with a discussion of whether the concept of free will is coherent and possible, psychological disorders claimed to have relevance for the unity of personhood, objections against the possibility (or plausibility) of dualism from “causal closure,” and more. Having spent articles (I)—(III) defending the background possibility that dualism could be true, and having spent articles (IV)—(VII) explaining why I think we’re justified on a priori conceptual grounds to believe that it is, the next series will explore whether there are any overriding reasons sufficient to convince you—if you’ve followed me up to here—to believe it turns out ‘empirically’ not to be true after all.

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