Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Coyne on intentionality

Biologist Jerry Coyne responds to a recent post by Vincent Torley on the topic of whether the brain is a kind of computer.  Torley had cited me in defense of the claim that the intentionality or “meaningfulness” of our thoughts cannot be explained in materialist terms.  Coyne responds as follows:

I’ll leave this one to the philosophers, except to say that “meaning” seem [sic] to pose no problem, either physically or evolutionarily, to me: our brain-modules have evolved to make sense of what we take in from the environment.  

The fallacy Coyne commits here should be cringe-makingly obvious to anyone who’s taken a philosophy of mind course.  Coyne “explains” intentionality by telling us that “brain-modules” have evolved to “make sense” of our environment.  But to “make sense” of something is, of course, to apply concepts to it, to affirm certain propositions about it, and so forth.  In other words, the capacity to “make sense” of something itself presupposes meaning or intentionality.  Hence, if what Coyne means to say is that an individual “brain-module” operating at the subpersonal level “makes sense” of some aspect of the environment, then his position is just a textbook instance of the homunculus fallacy: It amounts to the claim that we have intentionality because our parts have intentionality, which merely relocates the problem rather than solving it.  If instead what Coyne means is that the collection of “brain-modules” operating together constitute a mind which “makes sense” of the environment, then he has put forward a tautology – the brain manifests intentionality by virtue of “making sense” of the world, where to “make sense” is to manifest intentionality.  Either way, he has explained nothing.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Two, four, six, eight! Who do you reincarnate?

Could there be such a thing as reincarnation?  A necessary condition would be the truth of some form of dualism.  So far so good, since (I would say) some form of dualism is true.  But which form?  There are at least three to choose from: substance dualism, the version associated with Plato and Descartes; property dualism, associated with the likes of John Locke, David Chalmers, and (the early) Frank Jackson; and the hylemorphic dualism defended within the Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysical tradition.  Are all of these equally favorable to a defense of reincarnation?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Comments on comments

I was out of town for several days and not monitoring the comboxes.  Unfortunately, Blogger’s overzealous spam filter kept busy while I was away and it seems some readers had trouble posting their comments.  Sorry about that.

In general, if you post a comment and it does not appear, it has no doubt ended up either in the spam filter or the moderation box.  Rest assured that I will get to it, though on days that I teach it may take me as long as a few hours to do so.  I understand why some readers would try to repost their comments in these circumstances, but if this does not succeed after the first attempt there is no point in trying again (much less trying 30, 40, or 50 times)!  Please be patient – again, I will get to it.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Review of Examined Lives

If you are a reader of First Things, you might find of interest my review of James Miller’s Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, which appears in the June/July issue.  (I’d link to the online version, but it’s behind a paywall.)  If you’re not a reader, do the good people at FT a favor and pick up a copy – or subscribe, as the magazine begins a new era under the able leadership of new editor R. R. Reno.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Mind-body problem roundup

For readers who might be interested, I thought it would be useful to gather together in one place links to various posts on the mind-body problem and other issues in the philosophy of mind.  Like much of what you’ll find on this blog, these posts develop and apply ideas and arguments stated more fully in my various books and articles.  Naturally, I address various issues in the philosophy of mind at length in my book Philosophy of Mind, of which you can find a detailed table of contents here.  (The cover illustration by Andrzej Klimowski you see to the left is from the first edition.)  You will find my most recent and detailed exposition of the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) approach to issues in the philosophy of mind in chapter 4 of Aquinas.  There is a lot of material on the mind-body problem to be found in The Last Superstition, especially in various sections of the last three chapters.  And there is also relevant material to be found in Locke, in the chapter I contributed to my edited volume The Cambridge Companion to Hayek, and in various academic articles.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Leibniz’s Mill

In section 17 of his Monadology, Leibniz puts forward the following argument against materialism:

Moreover, it must be confessed that perception and that which depends upon it are inexplicable on mechanical grounds, that is to say, by means of figures and motions.  And supposing there were a machine, so constructed as to think, feel, and have perception, it might be conceived as increased in size, while keeping the same proportions, so that one might go into it as into a mill.  That being so, we should, on examining its interior, find only parts which work one upon another, and never anything by which to explain a perception.  Thus it is in a simple substance, and not in a compound or in a machine, that perception must be sought for.  Further, nothing but this (namely, perceptions and their changes) can be found in a simple substance.  It is also in this alone that all the internal activities of simple substances can consist.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Gillespie on modernity

Some time back I reviewed Michael Allen Gillespie’s book The Theological Origins of Modernity in The Review of Metaphysics.  I notice that the review is now available online here.  (Gillespie traces the origins of modernity to the nominalism of William of Ockham.  That is a theme I explored in a recent post.)

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Are you for real?

In a recent post, I gave as an example of an obviously wrongheaded conception of God’s relationship to the world the idea that we are literally fictional characters in a story He has authored – though I also allowed that as a mere analogy the idea may have its uses.  Vincent Torley wonders whether there might not be something more to the idea, though, citing the use Hugh McCann makes of it in his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on “Divine Providence” (see especially section 6 of the article).

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Happy Anniversary, Bill

My friend Bill Vallicella kindly offers his congratulations on the birth of my daughter, and I offer my congratulations to him on the seventh anniversary of the Maverick Philosopher blog.  As I’ve said before, I have long regarded Bill as something like the Platonic Form of a philosophy blogger.  His blog contains just the right mix of serious posts and light ones, polemical political pieces and coolly intellectual ones, long posts and short posts, original pieces and links to the work of others, along with the occasional cooking tip or link to YouTube.  Plus he is a terrific aphorist and a solid technical philosopher.  If any of you readers find my own blog worthy of your time, you might give Bill some of the credit, since he has been my model.  Chalk the defects up to yours truly.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Reply to Torley and Cudworth

This is the second installment of a two-part post on the dispute between Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) metaphysics and “Intelligent Design” (ID) theory (a post which I hope will put the subject to rest for a while).  Having in my previous installment set out the Aristotelian distinction between “nature” and “art” (or natural objects and artifacts), I now turn to consider the recent remarks of ID defenders Vincent Torley and Thomas Cudworth over at the blog Uncommon Descent.  (Those who haven’t read the previous installment are urged to do so before reading this one.  It also wouldn’t hurt if you had some familiarity with the other things I’ve said on this topic in many previous posts.)