Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Some brief arguments for dualism, Part IV

The arguments for dualism considered so far in this series (see here, here, and here) have been more or less “modern” rather than “classical.” They focus on those aspects of the mind most familiar to contemporary philosophers, namely intentionality (the meaningfulness or directedness beyond themselves of thoughts and the like) and qualia (those aspects of a conscious experience which are directly knowable only via introspection, and thus only by the one undergoing the experience). And they contend that, given the mechanistic conception of matter taken for granted by modern philosophers (dualists and materialists alike), these features of the mind are necessarily immaterial.

Classical arguments for the immateriality of the mind, by which I mean the sort common within Western philosophy prior to Descartes and defended by the likes of Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas, are very different. You won’t find the latter thinkers going on about either qualia or intentionality, because the very notions of qualia and intentionality, as usually understood, are artifacts of the modern mechanistic re-conception of the material world. “Qualia” are what you get when you deny that matter can have anything like the sensible qualities it seems to have in ordinary experience. “Intentionality” is what you get when you insist that the material world is devoid of anything like final causality, when you go on accordingly to relocate all meaning and purpose within the mind, and when you also go on in turn to characterize mental states as internal “representations” of an external reality. I have said a little bit about all of this in earlier posts, and it is a theme I explore in great detail in The Last Superstition.

For Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and other ancients and medievals, the main reason why the mind has to be immaterial concerns its affinity to its primary objects of knowledge, namely universals, which are themselves immaterial. When properly fleshed out and understood, this sort of argument is in my view decisive. Yet it has received very little attention from contemporary philosophers, partly, I think, because of their general ignorance of what the ancients and medievals thought, and partly because the logic of the mechanistic revolution inaugurated by Galileo, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, et al. has pushed them into so cramped and narrow a conceptual space that they can hardly even conceive any alternative to it. The result is that when they do address the arguments of the ancients and medievals (concerning this subject or any other), they almost always distort them in the most grotesque fashion, anachronistically reading into them assumptions that make sense only if one takes for granted conceptions of matter, mind, causation, etc. that the older thinkers in question would have regarded as deeply mistaken and muddleheaded. (Thus is Aristotle made out to be a “functionalist” vis-à-vis the mind, Aquinas’s Fifth Way is read as if it were an anticipation of Paley’s feeble “design argument,” etc.)

In The Last Superstition, I explain at length why some form of realism about universals is rationally unavoidable. (Whether it is the Platonic form of realism, the Aristotelian one, or the Scholastic one that we should endorse is a separate matter irrelevant to present purposes.) I am not going to attempt to summarize that case here, but the examples to follow should suffice to give a sense of how an argument from the reality of universals to the immateriality of the mind might proceed. Readers wanting a fuller treatment should consult TLS.

Consider that when you think about triangularity, as you might when proving a geometrical theorem, it is necessarily perfect triangularity that you are contemplating, not some mere approximation of it. Triangularity as your intellect grasps it is entirely determinate or exact; for example, what you grasp is the notion of a closed plane figure with three perfectly straight sides, rather than that of something which may or may not have straight sides or which may or may not be closed. Of course, your mental image of a triangle might not be exact, but rather indeterminate and fuzzy. But to grasp something with the intellect is not the same as to form a mental image of it. For any mental image of a triangle is necessarily going to be of an isosceles triangle specifically, or of a scalene one, or an equilateral one; but the concept of triangularity that your intellect grasps applies to all triangles alike. Any mental image of a triangle is going to have certain features, such as a particular color, that are no part of the concept of triangularity in general. A mental image is something private and subjective, while the concept of triangularity is objective and grasped by many minds at once. And so forth. In general, to grasp a concept is simply not the same thing as having a mental image. (Again, see TLS for more details.)

Now the thought you are having about triangularity when you grasp it must be as determinate or exact as triangularity itself, otherwise it just wouldn’t be a thought about triangularity in the first place, but only a thought about some approximation of triangularity. Yet material things are never determinate or exact in this way. Any material triangle, for example, is always only ever an approximation of perfect triangularity (since it is bound to have sides that are less than perfectly straight, etc., even if this is undetectable to the naked eye). And in general, material symbols and representations are inherently always to some extent vague, ambiguous, or otherwise inexact, susceptible of various alternative interpretations. It follows, then, that any thought you might have about triangularity is not something material; in particular, it is not some process occurring in the brain. And what goes for triangularity goes for any thought that involves the grasp of a universal, since universals in general (or at least very many of them, in case someone should wish to dispute this) are determinate and exact in a way material objects and processes cannot be.

As James F. Ross has argued, some of the best-known arguments of twentieth-century analytic philosophy reinforce this judgment. For instance, Quine’s arguments for the indeterminacy of translation and Kripke’s argument regarding “quaddition” show that there is in principle nothing in the facts about human behavior or physiology, or in any other physicalistically “respectable” set of facts, that can determine (say) whether by “gavagai” I mean “rabbit” or “undetached rabbit part,” or whether I am doing addition rather than “quaddition.” Indeed, these arguments show that this same indeterminacy afflicts everything I say or do. Yet it is simply false that everything I say or do is indeterminate in this way. For example, should I deploy modus ponens in defending a Quine- or Kripke-style argument, what I will be deploying is indeed modus ponens and not some mere approximation of modus ponens; certainly it had better be modus ponens and not some mere approximation, otherwise my arguments would all be invalid. Nor will it do to suggest that maybe all my arguments really are invalid, for even to deny that I ever really use modus ponens but only ever approximate it requires that I first grasp determinately what modus ponens is before judging that I never really engage in it. Similarly, if someone wanted to deny that we ever really grasp perfect triangularity, he would first have to grasp it himself before going on to judge (obviously falsely, in that case) that it is something we never grasp.

So, there is no coherent sense to be made of the suggestion that all of our thoughts are indeterminate. But if at least some of them are determinate, and no physical process or set of physical facts is ever determinate, it follows that at least some of our thoughts are not physical. (Ross’s argument, by the way, is elegantly developed in his article “Immaterial Aspects of Thought,” which appeared in the Journal of Philosophy in 1992. A later version of this article is available at his website, in the form of a chapter of his book manuscript Hidden Necessities.)

That is one way an argument from realism about universals to the immateriality of the mind can be developed. There are other ways too, which I will summarize in future posts.

Whatever one thinks of arguments like this, it is important to understand that (like the other arguments I’ve presented in this series) they are not the sort that might be undermined by the findings of neuroscience, or any other empirical science for that matter. They are not “soul of the gaps” arguments which purport to give a quasi-scientific explanation of some psychological phenomenon that we simply haven’t got enough empirical data to explain in a materialistic way. Rather, they purport to show that it is in principle impossible, conceptually impossible, for the intellect to be accounted for in a materialistic way. If such arguments work at all, they establish conclusively that the intellect could no more be identified with processes in the brain than two and two could make five. If they are mistaken, they would be mistaken in the way one might make a mistake in attempting to carry out a geometrical proof, and not by virtue of having failed to take account of this or that finding of brain research.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

From the latest reviews of The Last Superstition

"Edward Feser... is an immensely talented Aristotelico-Thomistic philosopher, and the pages he devotes to explaining the proofs for the existence of God are as clear, cogent, and convincing as any I’ve ever read (and I’ve read many)... Feser is most helpful when he explains that the New Atheism of Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris is not — contrary to their noisy assertions — based on physical science. It is a philosophical argument, and one that is not as strong as the argument for theism." National Review

"New Atheists Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris get their comeuppance from philosopher Feser in the spirit with which they abuse believers... [Their] factual errors, half-truths, and mischaracterization Feser highlights with contemptuous glee... With energy and humor as well as transparent exposition, Feser reestablishes the unassailable superiority of classical philosophy." ALA Booklist (starred review)

Order your copy here. (Non-self-promoting posts to resume shortly...)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Adler on intellect

I have been remiss in my blogging duties. But further posts, and in particular, posts in continuation of my series on dualism, are forthcoming shortly. In the meantime, you might enjoy this exchange (in two parts, here and here, courtesy of YouTube) between William F. Buckley, Jr. and Mortimer Adler on the occasion of the publication of Adler's book Intellect: Mind Over Matter. The Aristotelian-Thomistic position defended in that book is relevant to some of the posts to follow.

After that, you might want to search for further videos of Adler on YouTube, of which there seem to be plenty. I am well aware, of course, that many mainstream academic philosophers dismiss Adler, because he (largely) wrote for a popular audience and took unfashionable positions. But here, as in so many other cases, such people simply don't know what the hell they are talking about. (I include my younger self, who also dismissed Adler before, you know, actually reading him...)

Friday, October 17, 2008

President Herod?

Robert P. George's two recent pieces on Obama's record vis-a-vis abortion and related matters are must reading. You can find them here and here (the second being co-written by Yuval Levin). I urge all readers to distribute them widely. We are told by Obama's sycophants that too much of the rhetoric directed against their candidate is "uncivil" and "inflammatory." But there are some things that cannot be described truthfully without also being described harshly. And that that is the case here, there can be no doubt. The word is evil.

What's Wrong with the World... ask? Find out at the group blog by that name, to which I will now be contributing in addition to my regular posting here. The other contributors are Paul Cella, Jeff Martin, Lydia McGrew, Steve Burton, Daniel Larison, Zippy Catholic, and Francis Beckwith. A fine group of people, some of whom you might recognize from the late, lamented Right Reason blog. Check it out.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The preposterous Christopher Buckley

By now you may have heard that Christopher Buckley, son of the late William F. Buckley, Jr., and until yesterday a columnist for his father’s magazine National Review, has declared himself an Obama supporter and resigned his position at the magazine. His reasons? McCain has “changed,” Buckley tells us, having become “irascible and snarly” in the course of a failing campaign; “his positions change, and lack coherence; he makes unrealistic promises,” and his attack ads are “mean-spirited and pointless.” Buckley also dislikes McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate.

This is very odd indeed coming from a man who tells us he cast a write-in vote for George H. W. Bush in 2004, and who supported Bob Dole against Bill Clinton in 1996. I recall the younger Buckley telling some interviewer after one of the Clinton-Dole debates that year that he thought Dole had done well, when he quite obviously had not, and was at that point running a pathetic and inept campaign notable for a desperate last-minute tax cut proposal that went nowhere - and which was transparently politically motivated given his reputation as the “tax collector for the welfare state” (as Newt Gingrich memorably labeled Dole). (I say all this, by the way, as someone who voted for Dole, or at least against Clinton.) Bush Sr., of course, is the man who chose Dan Quayle as his running mate and ran some famously harsh ads against Dukakis in 1988. (The “Willie Horton” ad was not among them - that was run by another group, not Bush’s campaign – but Bush ran similar ads.)

Now I am not suggesting for a moment that we should accept the usual liberal tripe about Quayle, the “Willie Horton” ads, etc. But neither should we accept the current tripe about the alleged “mean-spiritedness” of McCain’s ads, which is equally groundless; and those ads are in any case pretty tame compared to the (perfectly defensible) “Willie Horton” type stuff. If Buckley had no problem with Bush's ads, what's the big deal with McCain's? If he thinks Dole was worth supporting despite his desperate flip-flopping, why not McCain? If he thinks Bush’s choice of Quayle – who, despite the injustice of the standard liberal caricatures of him, was certainly no better a VP candidate than Palin is – did not cast doubt on Bush’s judgment, why does Buckley think McCain’s VP choice casts doubt on McCain’s?

There’s got to be more to Buckley’s switch than this, then, no? And so there is. In his latest piece he (quite rightly) decries the explosion in federal spending that has occurred under the current President Bush, and the corruption represented by the likes of Jack Abramoff, regarding all of this (again quite rightly) as a departure from true conservatism. “I haven’t left the Republican party,” he tells us in a Reaganesque flourish; “It left me.” (One wonders how long he’s been saving up that line.)

Yet McCain, who is acknowledged even by liberals to be a budget cutter and foe of corruption (or at least was so acknowledged by them before it became politically expedient to deny it) is in Buckley’s view not the right man for the job. Rather, true conservatism, and in particular smaller government, restrained spending, and lower taxes, can in Buckley’s view be secured by electing… Barack Obama. And the Democrats, the party of ACORN, will give us honest government. Buckley reminds us of his father’s support for drug legalization – fittingly, given that Christo has obviously been smoking something.

Buckley’s true motives, I would guess, are hinted at by his recourse to the standard leftist smears against religious conservatives, referring as he does to the “fatwas” directed against him and to the “Right Wing Sanhedrin.” It is even more evident in his passing acknowledgment (in his first piece) that “on abortion, gay marriage, et al, I’m libertarian” and his evident disgust (as expressed in his second piece) with the efforts made by some Republican politicians to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case (that is, to keep her from being starved to death by her husband – a little detail Buckley leaves out, swallowing the camel of cold-blooded murder that he might strain out any gnat that might taint his doctrinaire “federalism”). All of this coming from a man who claims that it is the Republicans who have abandoned true conservatism, and whose father – a devout Catholic and the man who more or less defined modern American conservatism – emphasized, from God and Man at Yale onward, that the defense of the moral and religious heritage of Western civilization must always be a central part of the conservative project. Without that (I would add) contemporary “conservatism” is really just libertarianism, which is itself just a riff on liberalism and not conservative at all.

The irrationality of Buckley’s position is only accented by his frivolous appeal in his defense to how “unpredictable” and “fun” his own father was, the elder Buckley’s sometimes eccentric positions having “tend[ed] to keep things fresh and lively and on-their-feet.” The country is in the middle of two wars and facing the worst economic crisis since the Depression, and Buckley decides the thing to do is “mix it up” a bit and have some laughs. This is the true conservatism the Republicans are to be condemned for abandoning?

It seems to me that if Buckley were honest, he would acknowledge that his true reason for bolting the Republican Party and backing Obama is that he has himself abandoned (if he ever truly believed in) what conservatism has always been, and on top of that decided that his social libertarianism trumps his economic libertarianism. For there is, I submit, no other way plausibly to explain his actions: Obama is far less conservative than McCain on economics, to say nothing of the Democratic majority he would have at his command; but Obama and the Democratic mainstream are perfectly simpatico with Buckley’s views on abortion, “same-sex marriage,” and euthanasia. And it is hard not to wonder whether Buckley’s greatest beef with Gov. Palin is that her ascendency ensures that the social conservatism he apparently despises will remain at the center of the conservative movement, whether or not McCain wins in November. (Perhaps this is what he truly regards as McCain’s most unacceptable “change,” for McCain has, after all, long been distrusted by social conservatives. That he has now single-handedly revived their fortunes must be particularly galling for anyone devoted to Buckley’s brand of “conservatism.”) But then, emphasizing these things would hardly have allowed Buckley to depart from the fold with a self-righteous “more conservative than thou” flair.

But perhaps this credits Buckley’s decision with greater coherence and rationality than actually lay behind it. Perhaps there is nothing more here than what meets the eye: an ill-considered, muddleheaded, ungracious exercise in bandwagon punditry by an unserious man.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Guilt by association?

Anyone who has taught logic knows that once students have learned about the main logical fallacies they start seeing them everywhere – and mostly where they don’t exist. Not every use of emotional language involves the fallacy of “appeal to emotion.” Not every appeal to some authority counts as a fallacious argumentum ad verecundiam. Calling someone a name does not necessarily make one guilty of committing an ad hominem fallacy. And so forth. It takes subtlety of thought, interpretative fair-mindedness, and experience to be able to determine when some argument truly commits a fallacy, as opposed (say) to being merely incomplete or awkwardly stated, offering a mere illustration (rather than making a hasty generalization), or concluding on the basis of objective, rational grounds that such-and-such a person is morally corrupt or incompetent (rather than simply flinging around harsh rhetoric).

In particular, while fallacies are no doubt very common in political contexts, my view is that they are far less common there than is often supposed. Given the nature of democratic politics, it is difficult or impossible for any politician to make a very sophisticated case for a policy in the course of the standard political stump speech or debate, and unreasonable to expect him to. The average voter simply does not have the time, interest, patience, or expertise required to understand the relevant issues. Hence a politician seeking to persuade his audience has inevitably to rely on slogans, anecdotes, illustrations, jokes, and at most very simple arguments. He has to leave logical gaps in his presentation of his case, but gaps that could easily be filled in by the politician himself, or at least by his more skilled supporters or advisers, if the opportunity presented itself, and which a reasonable and reasonably well-informed listener would also be able to fill in for himself. This is true of conservatives and liberals alike. While it is easy and satisfying to pretend that it is the people whose politics you dislike who commit all the fallacies and right-minded people like yourself whose arguments are always complete, well-thought out, and free of error, this is a self-serving fantasy. Each side is “guilty” of presenting crude simplifications in the standard contexts (debates, political conventions, etc.) but each side (or at least the better informed representatives of each side) could also, if given the chance, make a sophisticated case for his position by appealing (say) to various technical economic or moral-theoretic considerations. One reason they do not do this in such contexts (though of course not the only reason) is that the average voter would tune out in about five seconds.

What, then, of Sarah Palin’s accusation against Barack Obama that his association with likes of William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn shows him to be a man who “pals around with terrorists”? We are assured by her critics that she has committed a fallacy of “guilt by association.” But has she? She has not. Consider first that the most clearly fallacious attributions of guilt by association are instances of the formal fallacy of the undistributed middle term, as in: Bigots oppose hate crime laws; Jones opposes hate crime laws; so Jones is a bigot. This is an attribution of guilt by association because it alleges that the fact that bigotry is associated with opposition to hate crime laws and that Jones is associated with opposition to hate crime laws shows that Jones is associated with bigotry. It is fallacious because, given that the middle term those who oppose hate crime laws is undistributed, the argument shows no such thing. The fact that bigots oppose hate crime laws doesn’t entail that all those who oppose hate crime laws, such as Jones, are necessarily bigots, any more than the fact that all cats are furry shows that all furry things are cats. Some people who oppose hate crime laws might (indeed, do) oppose them for reasons having nothing to do with bigotry; for example, they might fear that such laws could lead to restrictions on freedom of speech, or that they amount to a totalitarian attempt to punish certain politically incorrect thoughts.

Now Gov. Palin is not guilty of this sort of reasoning. Her reasoning seems instead to go something like this: Ayers and Dohrn are terrorists; Obama pals around with Ayers and Dohrn; therefore Obama pals around with terrorists. Unlike the sort of “guilt by association” embodied by the fallacy of the undistributed middle term, this argument is formally valid. Are its premises true? Well, Ayers and Dohrn certainly were terrorists, apparently by Obama’s own (belated) admission; and while they’ve now left that “line of work,” they are also apparently unrepentant about having engaged in it. So while they are no longer active as terrorists, it is arguably no less implausible to assert now that Ayers and Dohrn are terrorists than it would have been to assert in 2001 (the year before his death) that Abu Nidal is a terrorist, even though he was at the time retired and living unrepentantly in Baghdad.

Regarding the second premise, we know that Obama had a long-standing and friendly professional relationship with Ayers (and, if less directly, with Dohrn, who is Ayers’ wife). It would be silly to quibble over whether this amounts to “palling around”; if we changed the second premise to Obama has a friendly and long-standing professional relationship with Ayers and Dohrn and, accordingly, the conclusion to Obama has a friendly and long-standing professional relationship with terrorists, it would hardly be less damning.

Does the argument nevertheless commit what Antony Flew calls the “masked man fallacy”? This is the sort of fallacy committed in an argument like: Commissioner Gordon knows that Batman wears a bat costume; Batman is Bruce Wayne; therefore Commissioner Gordon knows that Bruce Wayne wears a bat costume. The argument would commit this fallacy (if at all) only if, just as Commissioner Gordon doesn’t know that Batman is Bruce Wayne, neither does Obama know that Ayers and Dohrn are terrorists. But of course Obama not only knows this now, but has known it as long as he has known them, because everyone, especially in the circles in which they and Obama both ran, knew it.

Is the force of the argument undermined by the fact that Obama no longer “pals around” with them? To think so would be to entertain another silly quibble. Their association ended only a few years ago, and evidently for political reasons; indeed, it was only because of political pressure that Obama recently distanced himself from them, just as it was only because of political pressure that he distanced himself from the repulsive demagogue Jeremiah Wright. And again, if we altered the argument to take account of this quibble, the result would hardly be less damning: Ayers and Dohrn are terrorists; Obama had a friendly and long-standing professional relationship with Ayers and Dohrn, at least until political motives led him to distance himself from them; therefore Obama had a friendly and long-standing professional relationship with terrorists, at least until political motives led him to distance himself from them.

So, quibbles aside, Gov. Palin’s accusation seems to be a straightforward statement of easily verifiable fact. But what about the objection that it nevertheless distracts us from the “real issues” (e.g. the economy)? Is she saying something true but unimportant? Surely not. As others have pointed out, were a Republican – Gov. Palin herself, say – known to have had a friendly and long-standing professional relationship with someone like an aged and unrepentant Terry Nichols (Timothy McVeigh’s accomplice), then liberals would quite rightly regard this as very serious evidence that such a Republican is unworthy of the presidency. They would (again quite rightly) have no scruples about saying that such a Republican “pals around” with terrorists, and would not pretend that pointing this out was somehow a distraction from the “real issues.”

In particular, if such a Republican not only “palled around” with the likes of Nichols, but also had a decades-long relationship with someone like David Duke, had Duke officiate at his wedding (supposing Duke got a minister’s license for the occasion), borrowed a line from one of Duke’s speeches for the title of his book, etc., then liberals would – once again, quite rightly – regard this as an outrage, and, more to the point, as very strong evidence that such a Republican secretly held very extreme views even if he portrayed himself as mild and moderate in public.

But of course, this is exactly parallel to what we know of Obama – and yet Obama’s supporters expect us to disregard his associations with Ayers, Dohrn, Wright, et al., and take his public nice-guy persona at face value. It seems to me there can be only two reasons for this attitude, one irrational, the other worse than irrational: either Obama’s supporters, who have so much invested in him politically and emotionally, simply cannot face the ugly implications of his associations; or they do not care about these implications, and perhaps even sympathize themselves with the despicable and extreme views held by these associates of Obama. I have no doubt that a great many of Obama’s supporters, indeed probably most of them, fit the first description. But it is hard not to worry that a significant number of them fit the second.

Finally, some might object – indeed, some have objected – that Gov. Palin’s remarks are inflammatory. Even if they are, that doesn’t show that they are not true. And if they are true, as they certainly seem to be, then if people fear the possibility of an Obama presidency as a result of them, that is Obama’s fault, not Palin’s. Surely voters have a right to know whether a candidate has such associates – whether on the extreme right or the extreme left – and are right to believe that such associations constitute serious (if of course not infallible) evidence concerning the candidate’s true views, and concerning the soundness of his judgment. Again, suppose a Republican were known to have associated himself with the likes of Nichols and Duke, in the manner described above. If liberals were to make a fuss over this, as they would be right to do, then people would, rightly, come to fear such a Republican. And the Republican himself would be to blame in such a case, not the liberals. If a politician does not want people to fear and loathe him, he should not do things to make himself seem worthy of fear and loathing.

Ironically, if anyone has committed a fallacy of guilt by association in this connection, it is Obama’s defenders. Rep. John Lewis recently disgracefully insinuated that Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are comparable to the segregationist George Wallace, apparently on the basis of the following sort of reasoning: McCain and Palin have stirred up fear; racists like Wallace stirred up fear; therefore McCain and Palin are racists like Wallace. Note that this argument is of the same structure as the “Bigots oppose hate crime laws” example given above, and just as fallacious. As is so often the case with left-wing criticism of conservatives, what we have here seems to be an instance of what the pop psychologists call projection.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The interaction problem

Aristotle and the Scholastic tradition influenced by him famously held that to understand a thing required knowing each of its four causes: its material cause, the stuff out of which it is made; its formal cause, the specific form or essence that stuff has taken on, and which makes it the kind of thing it is; its efficient cause, that which brought it into existence; and its final cause, the end or purpose toward which it is directed. Modern thought is largely defined by its rejection of two of Aristotle's four causes. For the moderns, there are no such things as substantial forms or fixed essences, and there are no ends or purposes in nature. There are just brute material elements related by purposeless, meaningless, mechanical chains of cause and effect.

As I have emphasized in my series of posts on dualism, this “mechanical” conception of nature, insofar as it stripped matter of anything smacking of either goal-directedness or sensible qualities as common sense understands them, and relocated these features into the mind, more or less automatically entailed a Cartesian form of dualism on which intentionality and qualia are immaterial as a matter of conceptual necessity. But it also automatically entailed that this form of dualism would suffer from the notorious “interaction problem.”

For the moderns, all causation gets reduced to what the Aristotelians called efficient causation; that is to say, for A to have a causal influence on B is for A either to bring B into being or at least in some way to bring into existence some modification of B. Final causality is ruled out; hence there is no place in modern thought for the idea that B might play an explanatory role relative to A insofar as generating B is the end or goal toward which A is directed. Formal causality is also ruled out; there is no question for the moderns of a material object’s being (partially) explained by reference to the substantial form it instantiates. We are supposed instead to make reference only to patterns of efficient causal relations holding between basic material elements (atoms, or corpuscles, or quarks, or whatever).

Thus, if the mind considered as immaterial is to have any explanatory role with respect to bodily behavior, this can only be by way of some pattern of efficient causal relations – to put it crudely, in terms of a Cartesian immaterial substance (or perhaps various immaterial properties) “banging” into the material substance (or material properties) of the brain like the proverbial billiard ball. How exactly this is supposed to work is notoriously difficult to explain. We’ve got two independently existing objects (or two independently existing sets of properties) somehow interacting the way physical particles or billiard balls do, or perhaps the way waves or fields of force do – except that one of these objects (or sets of properties) is utterly devoid of any of the material features that make it possible for something to count as a particle, billiard ball, wave, or field of force. Add to this considerations like the conservation of energy and interaction between the material and immaterial realms comes to seem ruled out in principle by our current understanding of the way the material world works.

But from an Aristotelian-Scholastic point of view, this whole picture of the mind-body relationship is hopelessly wrongheaded from start to finish. It is wrong to think of the soul (of which the intellect is for Aristotelians but a part, not the whole) and the body as independent objects in the first place. The soul is rather a form that informs the matter of the body and the body is the matter which is informed. As with the form and matter of a stone, tree, or earthworm, what we have here are not two substances interacting via efficient causation, but rather two metaphysical components of one substance related by formal causation. As the form of the stone is to the matter making up the stone, the form of the tree to the matter making up the tree, and the form of the earthworm to the matter that makes up the earthworm, so too is the human soul to the human body. There is in principle no such thing as the matter of a stone, tree, or earthworm apart from the form of a stone, tree, or earthworm respectively, and no such thing as the form of any of these things existing apart from their matter. The form and matter don’t “interact” as if they were two distinct objects; rather, the form constitutes the matter as the (one) kind of object it is in the first place.

Similarly, there is in principle no such thing as the matter of a living human body without a human soul and there is in principle no such thing as a human soul which is not the soul of some body. (This does not entail that the soul cannot survive the death of the body, only that it could not have existed in the first place unless it was united to some body; but this is a topic that can be bracketed off for present purposes.) The soul doesn’t “interact” with the body considered as an independently existing object, but rather constitutes the matter of the human body as a human body in the first place, as its formal (as opposed to efficient) cause.

As I move my fingers across the keyboard, then, what is occurring is not the transfer of energy (or whatever) from some Cartesian immaterial substance to a material one (my brain), which sets up a series of neural events that are from that point on “on their own” as it were, with no further action required of the soul. There is just one substance, namely me, though a substance the understanding of which requires taking note of each of its formal-, material-, final- and efficient-causal aspects. To be sure, my action counts as writing a blog post rather than (say) undergoing a muscular spasm in part because of the specific pattern of neural events, muscular contractions, and so forth underlying it. But only in part. Yet that does not mean that there is an entirely separate set of events occurring in a separate substance that somehow influences, from outside as it were, the goings on in the body. Rather, the neuromuscular processes are by themselves only the material-cum-efficient causal aspect of a single event of which my thoughts and intentions are the formal-cum-final causal aspect. There is simply no way fully and accurately to describe the one event in question without making reference to each of these aspects. Just as there is no such thing as the matter of a stone or tree apart from the form of a stone or tree, there is no such thing as the “physical” side of my action apart from the “mental” side. To make reference to the “physical” side alone would simply be to leave out half of the story, and indeed the most important half, just as describing the word “cat” in a way that makes reference to the shapes of the letters, the chemicals in the ink in which it is written, and so forth, while never saying anything about the meaning of the word, would leave out the most crucial part of that story.

As psychologist Jerome Kagan emphasizes in his recent book An Argument for Mind (my review of which can be found here) the trouble with trying to pick out some particular pattern of neural or other physiological events and identify some mental event with it (or in any other way attempt entirely to explain the mental in terms of the physiological) is that the same physiological pattern can underlie different mental events and the same mental event can be associated with different physiological patterns. This is a problem well-known to students of the history of the mind-brain identity theory (cf. Davidson’s anomalous monism), though it seems to me that many philosophers do not appreciate just how deep the problem goes, and how thoroughly devastating it is to materialism. As writers like James F. Ross have argued, at least some of our mental states are determinate in a way that no material process or set of processes can be even in principle, so that the hope of making mental states out to be identical with or supervenient upon physical states is an illusion. Without formal and final causes, it is inevitable that the project of assigning some specific, determinate mental content to this or that material substrate will come to grief. (Thus does the interaction problem arise in a new form even for materialists themselves, under the guise of the “mental causation problem.”)

Hence there can, on an Aristotelian-Scholastic view, be no question of some uniquely identifiable set of physiological events with which an independently identifiable set of mental events needs somehow to be correlated in efficient causal terms. There is just the one event of writing the blog post, of which the formal, material, efficient, and final causal components are irreducible aspects. The question of "interaction," in the relevant sense, simply cannot even get off the ground. As is so often the case with objections raised against modern defenses of traditional philosophical views (such as theism and natural law ethics), the interaction problem facing Cartesian forms of dualism arises precisely because these forms of dualism are modern, precisely because they take on board certain modern (especially mechanistic and/or nominalistic) assumptions which they (like theists and natural law theorists) ought instead to repudiate.

I have said much more about all of this in Philosophy of Mind and (especially) The Last Superstition, and I will say more about some of these issues in further posts to come in my series on brief arguments for dualism. The point for now is just to highlight that what we have here is yet another respect (among a great many others that I describe in detail in TLS) in which the early modern philosophers’ transition away from Aristotelianism to a mechanical understanding of nature constituted not an advance but a regression, a willful forgetting of crucial distinctions and categories the drawing and elucidation of which had been one of the great achievements of Scholasticism, and a conceptual impoverishment that inevitably created problems rather than solved them. The interaction problem was by no means the least, or last, of these problems.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Conservatism and libertarianism

I used to be a "fusionist," someone who held that conservatism could be harmonized with libertarianism. I no longer believe that. You can be a conservative who sympathizes with certain ideas associated with libertarianism -- the market economy, limited government, and so forth -- but (as I now think) you cannot be both a conservative and a libertarian, in any interesting sense of the word "libertarian." So much the worse for libertarianism. Some of the reasons for this change in view are summarized in my article "The Conservative Critique of Libertarianism," which I wrote for the new Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, edited by Ronald Hamowy. A preview of the Encyclopedia can be found here on Google Book Search, and includes my article. It can be found at pp. 95-97.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Some brief arguments for dualism, Part III

In the previous post in this series, I argued that the “mechanistic” conception of the natural world adopted by the early modern philosophers more or less entails a kind of dualism insofar as its banishment of final causes from the material world effectively makes intentionality necessarily immaterial. Intentionality, of course, is one of two features of the mind to which contemporary philosophers of mind have paid special attention. The other is consciousness, and in particular the “qualia” that are said to make consciousness uniquely difficult to explain in material terms. There is a good reason for this difficulty – indeed, impossibility – and it is the same reason why intentionality is impossible to explain in materialistic terms. It lies in the mechanistic conception of matter itself.

The early modern philosophers and scientists were obsessed with quantification. There were several reasons for this, one of them being their desire to reorient intellectual efforts toward the improvement of life in this world and away from the otherworldliness of the ancients and medievals. This entailed a new emphasis on technology and more generally on the control and exploitation of the natural world in the interests of bettering man’s material condition. Since quantification would facilitate this, those aspects of nature that could be described in purely mathematical terms took on a special importance, and those which could not came to seem, from the point of view of this new, worldly approach to learning, irrelevant at best and a distraction at worst. Thus did final causes, hidden powers, substantial forms and the like go out the window. So too did the qualitative aspects of nature. Colors, odors, tastes, feels, sounds, and the like, at least as understood by common sense, vary from observer to observer – think of old philosophical chestnuts like the room temperature water that feels warm to one hand and cool to the other, colorblindness, and so forth – making them a poor fit for a science looking to make nature subject to human prediction and control. Out the window with them too, then. The physical world would be redefined as comprised of colorless, odorless, tasteless particles in motion; and color, temperature, and the like would be redefined entirely in terms of the quantifiable relations holding between these particles (e.g. heat and cold in terms of molecular motion). What about color, odor, taste, and so forth as common sense understands them? They in turn were redefined as entirely mind-dependent “secondary qualities” (or rather, ideas of secondary qualities), the ancestors of the contemporary philosopher’s concept of qualia. On the view in question, they do not exist in the physical world as it is in itself, but only in our perceptual representation of that world.

It should be obvious, then, how, as with intentionality, the notion that qualia are incapable of materialistic explanation is not some desperate attempt to avoid the implications of modern science, but is rather precisely a consequence of modern science. The mechanistic conception of matter that underlies science (or rather underlies what, since the 17th century, is allowed to count as science) itself entails that qualia (as we call them today) are immaterial or non-physical. Many early modern thinkers – Descartes, Cudworth, and Locke, for example – saw this, which is part of the reason they were dualists. Given the mechanistic conception of matter, these thinkers concluded that “secondary qualities,” “sensory qualities,” “qualia,” or whatever else you want to call them are necessarily immaterial, precisely because matter got (re)defined by the mechanical philosophy by contrast with these qualities.

Some contemporary naturalists – Joseph Levine, Thomas Nagel, and John Searle, for example – have more or less recognized this, acknowledging that there is nothing more to the contemporary materialist’s concept of matter (which derives from the 17th century “mechanical” conception) other than its contrast with the “qualitative” (and intentional) features of our experience of the world. Precisely for this reason, all three of these thinkers have (in their different ways) regarded modern materialism as deeply conceptually problematic, though they have also stopped short of embracing dualism. But other contemporary naturalists – Dennett and the Churchlands, for example, not to mention countless lesser lights of the sort who write crude atheist pamphlets and pop neuroscience books – cluelessly suggest that there is no good reason to think that the mind will fail to yield to the same sort of reductive explanation in terms of which everything else in nature has been accounted for.

In fact there is a very good reason why the mind should be uniquely resistant to such “explanation,” and it precisely because everything that doesn’t fit the mechanistic-cum-quantificational picture of the natural world has not been “explained” by science at all, but simply swept under the rug of the mind and treated as a mere “projection.” This is true in particular of anything in nature that seems to smack of final causality or to have an irreducible qualitative (as opposed to quantitative) character. It is conceptually impossible that the mind itself should be “explained” in the same way – that is to say, by further sweeping – which is why modern philosophy has a “mind-body problem” of a sort that did not exist before the mechanistic revolution, and why all materialist attempts to “explain” the mind are really disguised versions of eliminative materialism. The tiresome canard that “everything else has already been explained in materialistic terms” is thus a gigantic shell game, pure sleight of hand, a complete fraud from start to finish. (This is a theme I first explored in my book Philosophy of Mind and develop at length in The Last Superstition.)

In any case, we have now a third brief argument for dualism, which can be summarized as follows: Given the materialist’s own (mechanistic-cum-quantificational) conception of matter, colors, odors, tastes and the like as we experience them do not exist in the material world itself; but these qualities do exist in our perceptual representations of the material world; therefore, there exist features of the world – namely these sensory qualities or “qualia” that characterize our perceptual experiences – that are not material or physical features.

Obviously this argument raises questions about how these immaterial features relate to the material ones – Are they basic or emergent? How can they causally interact with the material ones? Do they inhere in a physical or a non-physical substance? – but the fact that it raises them has no bearing on the cogency of the argument itself. My own view is that the standard (Cartesian) dualist answers to such questions are problematic precisely because they buy into the same mechanistic conception of matter to which materialists are beholden. The right approach is to challenge that conception of matter, and return to the Aristotelian-Scholastic picture it replaced. But whether I am right about this or not is also irrelevant to the argument just given, which does not assume any Aristotelian-Scholastic premises, but simply draws out the consequences of the very conception of matter to which materialists themselves are committed. Whatever the deficiencies of Cartesian dualism, they do not approach the sheer incoherence and cluelessness of contemporary materialism.