Saturday, December 19, 2009

Lycan on eliminative materialism

Take a look at William Lycan’s essay “A Particularly Compelling Refutation of Eliminative Materialism.” (Hat tip to Bill Vallicella.) It is a very good refutation indeed, and Aristotelian in spirit, though Lycan is himself a naturalist and not an Aristotelian.

I do have some minor complaints. Lycan’s criticism of eliminative materialism (EM) does not claim that EM is self-defeating, which is fine. But he also claims that such criticisms are “hopeless.” Why? He doesn’t tell us. Hopefully it isn’t merely because the proponent of EM needn’t be committed to “believing there are no beliefs,” for as we saw earlier (here and here), the incoherence problem for EM goes far deeper than that. And hopefully it isn’t because he thinks no prominent philosophical theory could plausibly be blatantly incoherent, for as we also saw earlier, that is indeed sometimes the case (e.g. the verificationist criterion of meaning).

Furthermore, while I agree with Lycan that metaphysics cannot overthrow common sense, that is emphatically not because metaphysics rests on mere “intuitions.” That contemporary academic philosophers are always appealing to what their “intuitions” tell them about this or that does not reflect anything more than the pathologies of contemporary academic philosophy, and tells us nothing about the nature of metaphysical inquiry as such. (You won’t find Aristotle or Aquinas appealing to their “intuitions.”)

But those are quibbles. After you read Lycan’s paper, take a look at his essay “Giving Dualism Its Due.” As these papers show, Lycan is no ideologue. He is the sort of naturalist dualists and other non-naturalists need to take seriously.

10 comments:

Matthew said...

But he also claims that such criticisms are “hopeless.” Why? He doesn’t tell us.

It's obvious. No eliminative materialist will admit that he believes the criticisms are good.

...

Oh boy do I love bad puns.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Feser appeals to intuition twice on page 9 of TLS.

Bobcat said...

"...Lycan is himself a naturalist and not an Aristotelian."

According to some graduate students at UNC, Chapel Hill I talked to, Lycan is an agnostic who goes to church every Sunday.

Edward Feser said...

Anon,

Dr. Feser does not "appeal to intuition" in the sense in question, there or anywhere else. What Lycan and I are criticizing is not simply noting that this or that claim is counterintuitive and thus raises such-and-such questions, shoulnd't be accepted glibly, requires further argumentation, etc. Nothing wrong with that. What we are criticizing is the appeal to intuitions as a kind of rock-bottom foundation on which one can plausibly ground an entire system of metaphysics or ethics, even a radically revisionist one.

Scott Shaffer said...

"And hopefully it isn’t because he thinks no prominent philosophical theory could plausibly be blatantly incoherent, for as we also saw earlier, that is indeed sometimes the case (e.g. the verificationist criterion of meaning)."

I'm currently reading David Stove's The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies. Should be required reading, imo.

Anonymous said...

Just a thought about why Lycan and others might think that self-refutation charges don't cut ice against EM. After reading Hasker's treatment of that question in The Emergent Self, I began to wonder whether there might not be some important distinctions to make among various charges of self-refutation. For one thing, it may make a difference whether it's supposed to be a position or an argument that is self-refuting. In the case of EM or just about anything else, it would be difficult to show how the position itself, understood as a small set of propositions, could be flatly self-contradictory. For so long as EM isn't formulated as "the belief that there are no beliefs" or something similarly inane, then it will be very easy for the proponent of EM to formulate it in such a way as to be non-trivial and yet consistent. Things might be a bit more difficult when it comes to arguments, since it might be more difficult to argue for EM without appealing to concepts which ought to have no application on the EM view. But I suppose a very clever philosopher could formulate arguments for EM that do not involve any explicit contradictions.

The trouble here, I think, is that what most of us who find the self-refutation charge intuitively decisive aren't really thinking that EM, either as a set of propositions or as a set of propositions defended by some set of arguments, falls prey to blatant contradictions of the "I believe that there are no beliefs" variety. The point is, rather, that when EM is applied to the proponent of EM himself and to his actions in formulating and defending EM, it becomes very difficult (some of us would say impossible) to give a coherent account of what he is doing, because the very activity of making arguments, citing reasons, and proposing certain claims as true necessarily involves what EM denies, e.g., the intrinsic intentionality of mental states, linguistic meaning, etc. So here it is neither the position nor the arguments considered simply as an isolated set of propositions involve contradiction; it is that the position entails a rejection of things that are (purportedly) necessary to make sense of the very act of stating and defending the position as true. Or, put the other way around, we can say that the problem is that the act of stating the position and defending it as true implicitly commits the proponent of EM to claims that EM explicitly rejects.

So the right way to understand the self-refutation argument against EM is not on the model of the claim that "EM is the belief that there are no beliefs." Rather, it is the claim that EM is committed to denying claims without which it can make no sense of itself and also committed implicitly to accepting claims that are inconsistent with it. It may be better to describe it, not as a charge of self-refutation, but as a charge of self-referential inconsistency. The trouble isn't so much in the isolated propositions that constitute EM, but in trying to take those propositions seriously in light of everything else that you have good reason to take seriously. It is hardly question-begging to claim that EM is self-referentially inconsistent because it can't give a coherent account of what its own proponents are doing in defending it. It may look question-begging because it seems to presuppose the truth of what EM denies, but all it says is that without concepts that EM denies, EM is ultimately incoherent. Am I missing the point somehow, or is that as non-question-begging as any complex philosophical argument ever is?

Anonymous said...

To meet the objection, proponents of EM need to show that they can account for things like making arguments, citing reasons, and a theory's being true without appealing to anything that it is supposed to be denying. For the charge is that they can't, and they can refute the charge if they show that they can. The actual response by proponents of EM is pretty telling; for the most part, they just offer promissory notes about "successor concepts" that they admit they cannot characterize. Alternatively, they turn, like Churchland, to a pragmatic conception of truth, thereby abandoning realism altogether. Besides the fact that pragmatism seems to require the things EM denies just as much as realism does or at least gives us ample reason to hold on to them, there's the tiny problem that scientific realism was supposed to be the main impetus for EM in the first place.

Ilíon said...

"... Hopefully it isn’t merely because the proponent of EM needn’t be committed to “believing there are no beliefs,” ... As these papers show, Lycan is no ideologue. He is the sort of naturalist dualists and other non-naturalists need to take seriously."

The problem with naturalism isn't the "-ists," it's the "-ism."

It's irrelevant whether some naturalist or other asserts that he needn't be committed to “believing there are no beliefs” -- what matters in these matters is not what someone asserts (frequently, in the cases of naturlaists, in a quite ad hoc manner) he believes, but rather what logically follows from the premises he asserts.

Ilíon said...

Yet, at the same time, *all* our rational knowledge rests upon intuitional knowledge (*), past which we cannot move -- what other word but 'intuition' are we to use to denote the non-rational (pre-rational ??) basis of reasoned knowledge?

Perhaps part of the problem is the the term 'intuition' is so frequently misused? Perhaps another part of the problem is the appeal to 'intuition' when one should be appealing to reason?


(*) And, it seems (that is, unless there is some knowledge even more basic than intuitional knowledge), that all that God knows he knows intuitionally ... he knows what he knows without having to reason to it, as we so frequently must.

Ilíon said...

To the Anonymous with the long post about the self-refuting nature of EM:

Exactly. And the same applies to naturalism simpliciter.