Saturday, September 12, 2009

Schrödinger, Democritus, and the paradox of materialism

Erwin Schrödinger was yet another of those early twentieth-century thinkers cognizant of the deeply problematic character of the mechanistic conception of the material world inherited from the early modern period – and yet another to see, in particular, that this conception of matter, far from opening the way to a materialistic solution of the mind-body problem, in fact created the problem and appears to make any materialistic solution to it impossible.

The reason does not (as one might suppose) have anything essentially to do with quantum mechanics, of which Schrödinger was one of the fathers. It has rather to do with a relatively simple philosophical point which was first made by the likes of Cudworth and Malebranche and repeated in recent years by writers like Nagel and Swinburne (as noted in the second of the earlier posts linked to above). Two relevant texts are Schrödinger’s essay “On the Peculiarity of the Scientific World-View” (from What is Life? and Other Scientific Essays) and chapter 6 of his Mind and Matter, entitled “The Mystery of the Sensual Qualities” (reprinted in What is Life? with Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches – a more recent volume which does not include the earlier essay).

To summarize what I’ve said at greater length in earlier posts, the philosophical point in question is that the early moderns’ move of redefining matter so that it is devoid of color, odor, taste, sound, and the like as common sense understands them necessarily made these sensory qualities inexplicable in materialistic terms. Hence, if one is going to affirm the existence both of matter (as redefined by the moderns) and of the sensory qualities (or “qualia,” as they have come to be known, relocated from the external world to the internal world of the mind), then it seems one is necessarily committed to mind-body dualism of some sort (whether substance dualism or property dualism). The only way to avoid such dualism is either to reject the existence of matter (as Berkeley did), to reject the existence of the sensory qualities (as eliminativists do explicitly and most other materialists do implicitly), or to reject the mechanistic conception of matter that led to the problem in the first place (as Aristotelians do; though Aristotelianism still leads to a non-Cartesian form of dualism – what David Oderberg calls hylemorphic dualism – for reasons that have nothing to do with sensory qualities or qualia).

To be sure, Schrödinger himself does not explicitly draw an anti-materialist conclusion. He notes merely that what he calls the “objectivation” of matter – the conceptual removal from it of anything that smacks of the personal or of mind (cf. Thomas Nagel’s “objective/subjective” distinction) – makes the mind itself deeply mysterious. This is compatible with views like Colin McGinn’s “mysterianism” or Joseph Levine’s “explanatory gap” position, which affirm materialism even as they deny that we can understand, or at least (in Levine’s case) that we do in fact understand, how materialism can be true. Not that Schrödinger himself affirms this kind of view either; he simply calls attention to the problem raised by the modern conception of matter without trying to resolve it. (For my part, I consider McGinn’s and Levine’s positions non-starters. You might as well say, in response to Gödel, “Maybe the consistency of a formal system containing computable arithmetic really is internally provable after all, and our minds are just constitutionally incapable of seeing how.”)

Schrödinger’s emphasis is also less on the mind-body problem per se than on the epistemological paradox he sees implied by the modern “objectivation” of matter. As he puts it in “On the Peculiarity of the Scientific World-View”:

We are thus facing the following strange situation. While all building stones for the [modern scientific] world-picture are furnished by the senses qua organs of the mind, while the world picture itself is and remains for everyone a construct of his mind and apart from it has no demonstrable existence, the mind itself remains a stranger in this picture, it has no place in it, it can nowhere be found in it. (p. 216)

That is to say, the picture modern science (as informed by an “objectified” mechanistic conception of matter) paints of the natural world presents it as devoid of the sensory qualities and of anything personal. And yet the picture itself exists only within the minds of persons – scientists themselves – and takes as its evidential base the senses, and thus the very sensory qualities it refuses to locate in nature.

This epistemological paradox was a major theme of E. A. Burtt’s The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science (Burtt being, as I have noted before, one of several major early twentieth-century scholars who emphasized the problematic character of the mechanistic revolution, before this theme went down the academic memory hole sometime in the 1960s). But awareness of it goes back much farther than that – indeed (and as Schrödinger reminds us) all the way back to the 5th century B.C., and in particular to Democritus, one of the fathers of atomism. In a famous fragment, Democritus imagines a conversation between the intellect, which (as Democritus naturally assumed) must endorse the atomists’ banishment of the sensory qualities from nature, and the senses, which form the evidential basis for the atomist theory:

Intellect: “Color is by convention, sweet by convention, bitter by convention; in truth there are but atoms and the void.”

Senses: “Wretched mind, from us you are taking the evidence by which you would overthrow us? Your victory is your own fall.”

It must be emphasized that Democritus is, commendably, calling attention to a difficulty facing a theory that he himself endorses; and that we have no idea how, or even if, he tried to resolve it. It is by no means obvious that any materialist in the intervening millennia has done any better. Many of them have done worse; indeed, vulgar materialists of the New Atheist stripe typically show no awareness that there is a problem here in the first place. Unfortunately, this includes Daniel Dennett, a well-known philosopher of mind. Dennett explicitly endorses an eliminativist position vis-à-vis the sensory qualities (see e.g. his essay “Quining Qualia”) – which is to his credit insofar as (I would argue) any consistent materialist must ultimately be an eliminativist anyway. What is not to his credit is his utter blindness to the deep philosophical puzzles such a position opens up, his peddling of shameless caricatures of anti-materialist views, and in general his refusal to concede that opponents of materialism are motivated by serious philosophical concerns.

Schrödinger provides us with a plausible account of the origins of this sort of blindness (in scientists, anyway – philosophers like Dennett should know better). In “The Mystery of the Sensual Qualities” he writes:

Scientific theories serve to facilitate the survey of our observations and experimental findings. Every scientist knows how difficult it is to remember a moderately extended group of facts, before at least some primitive theoretical picture about them has been shaped. It is therefore small wonder, and by no means to be blamed on the authors of original papers or of text-books, that after a reasonably coherent theory has been formed, they do not describe the bare facts they have found or wish to convey to the reader, but clothe them in the terminology of that theory or theories. This procedure, while very useful for our remembering the facts in a well-ordered pattern, tends to obliterate the distinction between the actual observations and the theory arisen from them. And since the former always are of some sensual quality, theories are easily thought to account for sensual qualities; which, of course, they never do. (p. 164)

In the case at hand, neuroscientists who begin, as every empirical scientist must, with observations – that is to say, with conscious experiences whose character is determined by various sorts of qualia or sensory qualities – go on to construct a theoretical description of the physical and neural processes associated with perception. This theoretical description then takes on, as it were, a life of its own, coming to seem as real or even more real than the concrete experiences that led to it, and the language in which the former is couched comes to be applied to the theorist’s description of the latter. Thus an explanation of “heat” in the sense of molecular motion comes to seem, especially when coupled with neuroscientific data, an explanation of “heat” in the sense of a certain kind of tactile sensory quality; an explanation of “red” in the sense of light of a certain wavelength comes to seem an explanation of “red” in the sense of a certain kind of visual sensory quality; and so forth.

But this is a muddle, a subtle committing of the fallacy of equivocation. The key theoretical concepts – molecular motion, light wavelengths, neural firing patterns, and so forth – are always understood in light of a broadly mechanistic conception of the natural world which follows the early moderns’ project of excluding final causes, sensory qualities and the like from matter and redefining it in abstract mathematical terms. To “explain” sensory qualities or qualia in such “scientific” (i.e. mechanistic and “objectified”) terms is thus really to change the subject. Earlier generations of philosophers and scientists realized this, which is why few of them were materialists – they saw that, by definition as it were, sensory qualities could not be “material” given the new conception of matter. But later generations – especially the current generation of scientists, who tend to be far more specialized and often seem less philosophically-minded or philosophically-educated than their predecessors – have forgotten this conceptual history. And this forgetfulness and philosophical shallowness together with the practical successes of modern science have hardened many of them – or at least the more vocal of the pop science writers among them – into a crude scientism which assumes that there are no philosophical problems, or at least no serious ones, which science is not capable of answering.

Thus, when philosophers come along – whether dualists or the more sophisticated and fair-minded sort of naturalist (e.g. a Searle, a Nagel, or a Chalmers) – and point out that existing neuroscientific “explanations” of consciousness and the like do not in fact explain the relevant phenomena at all, it comes to seem like these philosophers are inventing a new problem in a desperate and obscurantist attempt to salvage a belief in human dignity and specialness. In fact they are simply calling attention to a very old problem that the mechanistic theoretical model itself has created, and of which earlier generations of philosophers and scientists were well aware. In fact it is scientism which fosters obscurantism, ignoring as it does clear conceptual distinctions and forcing all intellectual life into a methodological procrustean bed. And in fact the mechanistic “objectified” conception of matter inherited from the early moderns is not a scientific discovery at all but a philosophical posit, and one which creates philosophical problems rather than solves them.

Obviously I am not claiming to establish these large claims here. (Doing so is in large part what The Last Superstition is about.) And obviously there are different moves a materialist might try to make in order to get around the problems in question (though, equally obviously, I don’t myself think any such moves can succeed). The point is that the problems are real ones, and serious ones. Any naturalist who dismisses them as motivated by irrational religious fanaticism is either ignorant or dishonest; certainly Democritus, Schrödinger, Burtt, Searle, Nagel, Chalmers et al. have no theological ax to grind. It goes without saying that our knowledge of the human brain has come a very long way since the 5th century B.C. But philosophically speaking, the history of materialism from Democritus to Dennett marks a precipitous decline.

Addendum 9/14: It occurs to me on re-reading the post that the Chalmers reference in the first sentence of the second-to-last paragraph is, coupled with the “or,” unintentionally misleading: Chalmers is a naturalist, but he is also a dualist of sorts. My apologies. The conceptual lay of the land vis-à-vis this subject is extremely complex, the range of possible positions is very large, and it is difficult briefly to summarize the issues without oversimplification – especially when (as was the case with this post) one is writing late on a Saturday night!

20 comments:

Ilíon said...

"You might as well say, in response to Gödel, “Maybe the consistency of a formal system containing computable arithmetic really is internally provable after all, and our minds are just constitutionally incapable of seeing how.”)"

Is it really the consistency which is at issue?

E.R. Bourne said...

Professor, what then is the proper explanation of sensation according to the A-T perspective? It does seem to be the case that color can be explained in terms of light waves, so obviously the answer might be something like "Well. this certainly does not exhaust the explanation of color."

Jack said...

Just out of interest Ed, how does one shoot down the likes of Berkeley et al? its just that new age witchy types and buhdists seem to hold to similer beliefs which makes them notriously difficult to evangelize, unlike materialists who will at least admit that they are sititng in a canteen sorounded by smells, bells and books by miscilanious oxford midgets.

Conor H. said...

E.R. Bourne said: "What then is the proper explanation of sensation according to the A-T perspective? It does seem to be the case that color can be explained in terms of light waves, so obviously the answer might be something like 'Well. this certainly does not exhaust the explanation of color.'"

I don't think it's true to say that color can be "explained" in terms of light waves, though it
can certainly be quantified as such. This in a nutshell is the problem with the whole scientistic
world-view: it doesn't explain so much as "explain away" non-quantifiable features of the material world. The color red, for instance, is in this view not objectively in the skin of an apple; rather, what we see as "red" is merely an interpretation of the differing wavelengths of light by the visual processes of our brains. The material world is thus nothing but colorless, tasteless, featureless particles in motion. Any QUALITY we sense in a material object is merely our sense-interpretation of certain QUANTITIES.

On the A-T view, the color red IS objectively in the apple. It is a real property of the natural
world abstracted by our intellect via the senses, not merely an interpretation of colorless
particles interacting with one another. If every observer capable of seeing red were to wink out of existence, the color red would still exist on this view. According to scientism, however,
"red" would in this instance be rendered meaningless. The particles (quantity) would still exist; the color red (quality), however, would not.

To be brief, scientism holds that the color red exists only in our minds. According to A-T, however,
red exists both as a real feature of the material world and as an idea grasped by our intellects.

Hope this helps (and that I did not mangle the philosophy too badly).

Mike Flynn said...

Might the compression waves in the air be considered as the "material cause" of sound, or perhaps the "formal cause" of sound? Inquiring minds want to know.

Ilíon said...

Conor H: "To be brief, scientism holds that the color red exists only in our minds."

Just be sure you don't imply that *only* scientistes (my term for those who worship "science") hold to this view. For example, I oppose (and mock) scientism, but I don't believe that red is "out there" ... and I don't believe that there is any sound if there is no observer to witness the pressure-waves caused by the falling of the tree.

Nick said...

I just wanted to chime in and say that this is an excellent post. Few modern philosophers recognize that the mind-body problem was created by materialism itself, by the invention of a new way of thinking.

Ilíon said...

More importantly, in my view, neither have the regular people, such as you and I, known that the infamous mind-body problem is merely an artifact of philosophical materialism.

Philosophy is a very important thing ... too important to be left to the philosophers, for most of them are just poseurs.

Conor H. said...

Point taken, Illion.

T. Hanski said...

.. and I don't believe that there is any sound if there is no observer to witness the pressure-waves caused by the falling of the tree.

Do you believe that there are pressure-waves and the falling tree that caused them if there is no observer to witness them?

Ilíon said...

But, of course.

Do you believe that words -- the sounds which come out of our mouths or the scratchings by which we represent those sounds -- have intrinsic meaning?

T. Hanski said...
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Ilíon said...

Ah, I get it ... you're misunderstanding either the word 'observer' or the word 'witness.'

Ilíon said...

And you're apparently not grasping the point of the question I asked you in return.

T. Hanski said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
T. Hanski said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
c matt said...

and I don't believe that there is any sound if there is no observer to witness the pressure-waves caused by the falling of the tree

That depends upon your definition of sound - must something include the perception of it in order for the something to exist? Can something exist independent of its perception?

Ilíon said...

Ilíon: "... and I don't believe that there is any sound if there is no observer to witness the pressure-waves caused by the falling of the tree."

C Matt: "That depends upon your definition of sound - must something include the perception of it in order for the something to exist? Can something exist independent of its perception?"

Of course a thing which is not a perception can exist independently of the perception of it. This is why T.Hanski's questions made no (or little) sense to me.

But a sound is a perception (of something which is not a sound). The "sound of a falling tree" is the perception ... and comprehension ... of vibrations moving through the air (and the ground), which were caused by the falling of the tree. These are vibrations moving through the air (and the ground) are not sound, they are vibrations, they are movements of molecules in a wave pattern; or, as Mike Flynn put it, they are "compression waves."

Does a tape recorder (an analoge device) *really* record sound? Does a CD (a digital device) *really* hold sound recorded on it?

T. Hanski said...

Ilion says:

But, of course.
Do you believe that words -- the sounds which come out of our mouths or the scratchings by which we represent those sounds -- have intrinsic meaning?


Well, for the first, the words are not “the sounds which come out of our mouths”. Rather a word is our interpretation, or meaning, of “the sounds that come from our mouths”. If I say in Danish “ost” and you, in English, “cheese” these are two different sounds, but both convey the same meaning. Also an assembly of letters, for example, “c,h,e,e,s,e” written on paper mean “cheese” even though they are soundless. A drawing of a piece of cheese will mean the same to an illiterate and deaf person, as the sound “cheese” to one with good hearing.
Also, you can have the same “sound coming out of mouths” of speakers of two different languages yet signifying something different. Would you say they are the same words?

In short,without meaning you can make all sounds you want - they will never become words.

Then you ask if I believe the words have intrinsic meaning?

Yes,(who doesn’t?) So what? What is your point?

Are you trying to say that “intrinsic meaning” of the sound of the falling tree is...well, a falling tree? And therefore, what?

Besides, in principle, you can have noise, which sounds like a falling tree except that it is not. It could have been produced by some other source of noise closely resembling the falling tree. Also, in principle, a falling tree may not produce a sound of the falling tree at all.
Without getting into discussion how appropriate is to apply words “intrinsic meaning” to the sound of a falling tree I still need to ask: so what?

Ah, I get it ... you're misunderstanding either the word 'observer' or the word 'witness.' And you're apparently not grasping the point of the question I asked you in return.

I don’t think that, at least in the current context, the words: “witness” and “observer” mean something different.
At least not for you since you are saying ” .. if there is no observer to witness the pressure-waves…
Do you mean to say that “...if there is no witness to observe…” means something different from “...if there is no observer to witness…”?

If so, please explain why.

T. Hanski said...

Ilion,

If you have said ”… and I don't believe that there is any sound if there is no observer to witness … the falling of the tree.” it would be as true as it is trivial and devoid of the least philosophical worth and consequence. Neither would it be worth a comment.
You could just as well have said that since you didn’t join the party you were not affected by the booze served there.
Both sentences presuppose that the tree DID fall and the booze WAS served.

But you said “.. ...I don't believe that there is any sound if there is no observer to witness the pressure-waves caused by the falling of the tree

Which indicates that you ascribe to “pressure waves” an objective and independent of our mind reality, in any case “more objective” reality than the sound.
Actually, both “pressure waves” and sound don’t have an inherent, but only relative existence - they are “awaken” when we “step into the picture”. In fact, the existence of “pressure wave” is less obvious than sound inasmuch as the former requires previously defining concepts of pressure and wave, which in turn requires defining a host of even more basic concepts. True, there is no sound without someone who has the sense of hearing, but neither are there “pressure waves” without intellect defining them with help of, created by intellect, empirical tools. The former is obvious to man or beast, but the latter only to man. Yes, we could, before the tree falls, leave behind a tape recorder which, if tree falls, would record the “pressure waves”. But the reading of the device would be as dependent on our senses, as hearing the sound.

But now is time for me to go to bed
Good night.