Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The materialist shell game

Materialists sometimes argue that the mind is bound to succumb to naturalistic explanation, because everything else has. How could it be the only hold-out? As I have argued in several places (most recently and at greatest length in The Last Superstition), far from being the knock-out blow some materialists think it, this argument actually shows how very shallow and historically ill-informed much materialist thinking is. For, whether explicitly or implicitly, materialism is committed to the mechanistic conception of matter inherited from early modern thinkers like Galileo, Descartes, Hobbes, Boyle, and Locke, where the core of this conception – or the only part of it that has survived over the centuries, anyway – is the idea that neither goal-directedness or final causality, nor sensory qualities like color, odor, taste, sound, and the like as we experience them, exist in the objective material world, but only in the mind of the perceiver. Matter, that is to say, was simply defined in such a way that (a) mental properties were taken to be paradigmatically non-material, and (b) certain features that common sense and the Scholastic tradition regarded as inherent to matter were re-defined as mental. This both facilitated the giving of “naturalistic explanations” – since whatever wouldn’t fit the naturalistic-cum- mechanistic explanatory model was simply defined away as a mere mental projection in the first place, not part of the material world at all – but also guaranteed that the mind would be uniquely resistant to the same sort of explanatory procedure. For the mind was made the rug under which everything that wouldn’t fit the naturalistic model could be swept. By definition, as it were, the same “sweeping” strategy cannot possibly be applied to the mind itself.

Victor Reppert kindly draws his readers’ attention to a passage in my book Philosophy of Mind where I made this point. But it is hardly original with me. Reppert also cites a passage from Richard Swinburne’s The Evolution of the Soul which makes the same point. Thomas Nagel’s famous article “What is it like to be a bat?” makes it too. (Most readers of this article wrongly focus on the bat example itself, quibbling over whether analogies with human experience coupled with neuroscientific knowledge might allow us to infer what it is like to be one. But in doing so they miss Nagel’s deeper and more devastating point that it is the “objectivist” way in which contemporary philosophers tend to conceive of matter that makes a naturalistic explanation of mind – not just the conscious experiences of bats, but any “subjective” conscious mental state – impossible in principle.)

Indeed, the point is as old as modern philosophy itself. It was central to the thinking of the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth (1617-1689) and the Cartesian Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715), both of whom emphasized that the “mechanical philosophy” necessarily entails dualism. It is also at least implicit in Descartes and Locke. If you are going to insist that matter is comprised only of colorless, odorless, tasteless, soundless particles devoid of any inherent meaning or goal-directedness, then of course qualia and intentionality are going to have to count as immaterial, and color, odor, taste, sound, etc. understood as objective features of nature would simply have to be re-defined (in terms of patterns of motion in particles, or whatever). Hence the reason so few modern philosophers, until very recently, followed Hobbes in his materialism, is not because they were afraid to follow out the implications of modern science, but rather precisely because they did follow out its implications (that is, insofar as modern science tends to take a “mechanical” conception of matter for granted). And the reason so many recent philosophers have followed Hobbes is, I would suggest, that they have forgotten the history of their subject and not thought carefully about the conception of matter they are implicitly committed to. When a contemporary philosopher of mind with naturalistic sympathies does think carefully about this conception, he tends either to come to doubt that naturalistic models of the mind really can succeed (as e.g. Fodor, McGinn, and Levine do in their various ways), or to suggest that it is only by developing some radically new conception of matter that naturalism can be defended (as e.g. Nagel and Galen Strawson do in different ways), or to adopt some “naturalistic” form of dualism (as e.g. Chalmers does explicitly and Searle does implicitly, despite his best efforts to avoid it.)

The upshot is that the materialist’s “everything else has been explained naturalistically” shtick is little more than a shell game. “Everything else” is “explained” only by hiding the recalcitrant features, like a pea, under the shell of the mind. The illusion only works precisely because there is a shell to hide things under, and thus requires dualism. To assume otherwise is like assuming that a shell game scam could successfully be carried out either by hiding, not only the peas, but also every shell under a shell (as reductionist forms of materialism effectively do insofar as they assume that the same strategy applied to explaining heat, color, sound, etc. – that is, carving off and “hiding” the subjective element and re-defining the phenomenon in mechanistic terms – can be applied to mental states themselves) or by getting rid of the shells entirely (as eliminative materialism effectively does). Not even the boldest sidewalk scammer would attempt such folly. For that you need an intellectual in the grip of a theory.


  1. Ed

    Do you mind saying more, re Nagel and Strawson, regarding this passage?

    "or to suggest that it is only by developing some radically new conception of matter that naturalism can be defended (as e.g. Nagel and Galen Strawson do in different ways)"

  2. Your discussion of this point in the TLS was one of my favourite bits of the book - I think you make the issue very clear.

  3. Sorry, a superfluity of definite articles there!

  4. Hello Damien,

    Re: Nagel, what I had in mind is his suggestion at the end of "What is it like to be a bat?" that even if physicalism is true, we are nowhere close to understanding how it can be true, and will not get close to understanding it unless we can somehow come up with a new conceptual apparatus to express the mental-physical relationship (which he thinks will probably require an appeal to concepts which are neither mental nor physical).

    Re: Strawson, I have in mind his broadly Russellian view that physicalism, if it acknowledges the reality of conscious experience and identifies it with the physical, really entails a kind of panpsychism. See e.g. his book Real Materialism and Other Essays.



  5. Ed,

    You say that naturalists subscribe to "the idea that neither goal-directedness or final causality, nor sensory qualities like color, odor, taste, sound, and the like as we experience them, exist in the objective material world, but only in the mind of the perceiver."

    This suggests that anti-naturalists such as yourself would say that sensory qualities and conscious subjectivity are basic aspects of or elements within the objective, material world. But in what sense are red, pain, etc. material and objective, given that they are subjective (private, for my consciousness only) and not amenable to 3rd person descriptions with which we normally characterize material objects?

    That subjectivity is correlated only with complex systems like ourselves, along with the possibility of multiple instantiations (neurons vs. silicon) suggests that it's a system property of some sort, not a basic material property.


    Tom Clark
    Center for Naturalism

  6. Tom Clark, don't you find it odd that in one paragraph you talk about subjectivity being utterly private in experience/verification ("for my consciousness only"), and in the next you mention the sort of things subjectivity not only is correlated to ("complex systems") but would be correlated to ("silicon") to draw out a suggestion?

  7. Dr. Feser,

    When you describe the early modern philosophers as those who reject Aristotelian formal and final causality, and claim that sensory experience exists only in the mind of the perciever - could a simpler way of saying all this just be that modern philosophers rejected a form of realism for a form of conceptualism?

    Or would it be more accurate to say, "the early moderns rejected a form of realism for a form of conceptualism, *as well as* rejecting Aristotelian formal and final causes"?

  8. Another theistic misconstrual of empiricism, really. Galilleo was not a metaphysician. Hobbes, who knew the scholastic tradition up and down, was more interested in the new experimentalism--including Galilleo's findings-- than regurgitating Aristotle. And he also was an early economist and political scientist (Leviathan a political work as much as metaphysical)--there's not much use in pondering metaphysics when the Monad has decided to set armies marching in the fields.

    Instead of starting investigations from Aristotelian assumptions (like the so called final cause), they relied upon observation, hypothesis, testing. Newton himself confirmed his theories via inductive means. Experimentalism, however inelegant as metaphysics, obviously has produced useful knowledge, in medicine, physics, chemistry, economics etc. The proof's in the pudding. That's not to say science in itself is inherently good, but
    even Padre O'Reilly calls a doctor and not the bishop when one of the flock has a serious injury or illness.

    Had the orthodox catholics and/or puritans had their way, there would be no bio. or chem. departments, or econ. and social sciences, probably no physics. (And let's not forget those great examples of catholic family planning in latin america urban areas)

  9. J
    Your post almost interested me although I disagree entirely that there would be no science departments today If Europe had kept its Christian heritage Indeed as Thomas E Woods Jr points out the Catholic priests pretty much built Civilization. However any respect I had for your post disappered once you chucked in the ad hominum about Catholic Family planning, Why oh why did you do it ?

  10. For that matter, assuming El Dios existed, He allowed the rise of empiricism, mechanists, Darwinism etc. (and all the Bad that followed from 'em, like social darwinisn, eugenics, so forth). Dios thus has a Dawkins manifest to........test Himself??

    Unlikely, unless one modifies orthodoxy. Manichaeism of whatever sort not likely to appeal to PadreCo, however.

  11. For that matter, even if I agreed that Dawkins and Co were reductionist, shallow, English in a bad sense, philistinish, they are not the villains of the world (nor was say Hobbes, even if he didn't take mass). The villains of the earth ....hmmmmmmmm. Maybe start with world leaders, wall street, muslim imams, jewish nationalists, and so forth.

    (any rational Deity wants the Good enacted, even if non-believers do it)

  12. Hello Tom,

    No, I wouldn’t say that subjectivity is part of the objective world etc., at least not as those terms are usually understood. The reason is that, as an unreconstructed Aristotelian-Thomist-Scholastic, I reject that whole post-Cartesian way of framing the issue. The right way to approach the mind-body problem, in my view, is against the background of a general hylomorphist philosophy of nature, which means abandoning the usual assumptions contemporary philosophers of mind bring to bear on the subject. (This is a gigantic topic, of course, which I’ve explored elsewhere, e.g. in The Last Superstition.)

    The point of the present post is just to suggest that IF one is going to buy a mechanistic picture of nature, one is unavoidably going to be led into some sort of non-naturalism – either some post-Cartesian variety of dualism (substance or property) or (this is something I did not get into here) some variety of idealism (Berkeleian, panpsychist, or whatever). (Or one could be an eliminative materialist, but in my opinion that view doesn’t pass the laugh test, or shouldn’t anyway.) What one cannot be is any sort of mainstream physicalist.

    But then, one shouldn’t buy a mechanical view of nature in the first place, in my humble (if radical) opinion. Again, see TLS.

  13. Hello Aaron,

    The second way of putting it would be better, but even then only with qualifications. The early moderns did reject formal and final causes almost to a man (with eccentric exceptions like Leibniz, though his view of final causes is itself very eccentric). Many of them embraced either nominalism or conceptualism too, but not universally. What was vehemently rejected was Aristotelian realism specifically. But Platonic realism in some form or other still had defenders here and there.

  14. Ed,

    Your incessant and shameless hawking of your book has finally wore me down. I just ordered TLS, and I look forward to reading it.

  15. You forgot this one. C. S. Lewis.

  16. @J

    [For that matter, assuming El Dios existed, He allowed the rise of empiricism, mechanists, Darwinism etc. (and all the Bad that followed from 'em, like social darwinisn, eugenics, so forth). Dios thus has a Dawkins manifest to........test Himself?? ]

    NO but God does allow people to make free choices and, also to think and say stupid things.


    Really, do we STILL have to discuss Dawkins as he would actually matter? He's just a noisy troll...

    Dawkins is hardly any 'test' for any intelligent and informed person.

    He is basically a crook, relying on people's ignorance lies, deception and ad hominems to make his nonsense points.

    Even in Biology itself, where he's at least competent, his work is of minor importance and quite disputed among his peers.

    No doubt hower D. is a goor writer and a good 'preacher', which accounts for most of the success of his books.