Thursday, December 31, 2009

AQUINAS: Best of 2009

It’s time for the annual “Best Books I Read in 2009” feature over at Ignatius Insight, and Ignatius Press’s Mark Brumley kindly cites Aquinas as one of his choices. Says Brumley: “The prolific philosophy professor gives us a very helpful intro to St. Thomas' philosophy. Underscore philosophy. This is not a theological work. (By ‘theology’ I mean sacred theology; there's plenty of natural theology.)” Run out and buy your copy today, otherwise you’ll have to wait until next year to read it.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Churchland on dualism, Part III

To conclude our look at Paul Churchland’s critical discussion of dualism in his textbook Matter and Consciousness, let’s consider the arguments he presents against dualism. There are four of them, and they can be summarized as follows:

1. The argument from Ockham’s razor: Postulating two basic kinds of substance, material and immaterial, needlessly complicates our ontology if mental phenomena can be adequately explained in terms of material substance alone. That they can be so explained is indicated by the next two arguments:

2. The argument from the explanatory impotence of dualism: Materialist explanations can appeal to the many details of the brain’s structure and function revealed by modern neuroscience, while dualists have yet to provide a comparable account of the structure and function of immaterial substance.

3. The argument from the neural dependence of all known mental phenomena: As both everyday experience and neuroscientific research show, reasoning, emotion, and consciousness are all very closely correlated with various processes in the brain, which is not what we would expect if these mental phenomena were associated with an immaterial substance.

4. The argument from evolutionary history: The evolutionary process that gave rise to the human species proceeded via purely material mechanisms from a purely material starting point, so that the end result must itself be purely material.

Churchland acknowledges that none of these arguments is by itself absolutely conclusive. But he does think the third one “comes close to being an outright refutation of (substance) dualism,” and he clearly believes that in tandem the arguments consign dualism to the dustbin for all practical purposes. No doubt most materialists would agree with him. But in fact these arguments have, I maintain, no force at all against dualism. None. Dualism may or may not in fact be true – obviously I think it is true, but that is another issue. The point is that, even if it were false, these arguments have no tendency to show that it is.

How can I say that? Easy. Keep in mind first of all that, as I have emphasized in the earlier posts in this series, the chief proponents of dualism historically have not defended their position as an “explanatory hypothesis” put forward as the “best explanation” of the “empirical data.” That just isn’t what they are up to, any more than geometers or logicians are. They are attempting instead to provide a strict demonstration of the immateriality of the mind, to show that it is metaphysically and conceptually impossible for the mind to be something material. Their attempts may or may not succeed – again, that is another question. But that is what they are trying to do, and thus it simply misses the point to evaluate their arguments the way one might evaluate an empirical hypothesis. When Andrew Wiles first claimed – correctly, as it turned out – to have proven Fermat’s Last Theorem, it would have been ridiculous to evaluate his purported proof by asking whether it best accounts for the empirical evidence, or is the “best explanation” among all the alternatives, or comports with Ockham’s razor. Anyone who asked such questions would simply be making a category mistake, and showing himself to be uninformed about the nature of mathematical reasoning. It is equally ridiculous, equally uninformed, equally a category mistake, to respond to Plato’s affinity argument, or Aristotle’s and Aquinas’s argument from the nature of knowledge, or Descartes’ clear and distinct perception argument, or the Cartesian-Leibnizian-Kantian unity of consciousness argument, or Swinburne’s or Hart’s modal arguments, or James Ross’s argument from the indeterminacy of the physical, by asking such questions. As with a purported mathematical demonstration, one can reasonably attempt to show that one or more of the premises of such metaphysical arguments are false, or that the conclusion does not follow. But doing so will not involve the sorts of considerations one might bring to bear on the evaluation of a hypothesis in chemistry or biology.

Of course, Churchland, committed as he is to a Quinean form of scientism, thinks that all good theories must in some sense be empirical scientific theories. He rejects the traditional conception of metaphysics as a rational field of study distinct from and more fundamental than physics, chemistry, biology, and the like, and would deny that there is any such thing as sound metaphysical reasoning that is not in some way a mere extension of empirical hypothesis formation. But he cannot simply assume all of this in the present context without begging the question, because this sort of scientism is precisely (part of) what the dualist denies. (As we have seen in earlier posts on naturalism, this kind of circular reasoning is absolutely rife in naturalist thinking.)

It is obvious, then, why Churchland’s first two arguments have no force, for they simply misconstrue the nature of the case for dualism. If any of the dualist arguments just mentioned works, then the immateriality of the mind will have been demonstrated, and asking “But do we really need to postulate immaterial substance?” or “How much can we really know about such substances?” would not be to the point. For we would not in that case be hypothetically “postulating” anything in the first place, but directly establishing its existence; and its existence will have been no less established even if we could not say much about its nature.

But this brings us to an additional problem with Churchland’s second argument, which further underlines just how embarrassingly uninformed he is about what dualists have actually said. In developing his “explanatory impotence” objection, Churchland complains that dualists have told us very little about the nature of “spiritual matter” or the “internal constitution of mind-stuff,” about the “nonmaterial elements that make it up” and the “laws that govern their behavior.” This is, for anyone familiar with the thought of a Plato, an Aquinas, a Descartes, or a Leibniz, simply cringe-making. The soul is not taken by these writers to be “made up” out of anything, precisely because it is metaphysically simple or non-composite. It is not a kind of “stuff,” it is not made out of “spiritual matter” (whatever that is), and it is not “constituted” out of “elements” which are related by “laws.” Nor is this some incidental or little-known aspect of their position – it is absolutely central to the traditional philosophical understanding of the soul. As is so often the case with naturalistic criticisms of dualism, theism, etc., Churchland’s argument is directed at a breathtakingly crude straw man.

This appalling ignorance of the actual views of dualists manifests itself again in Churchland’s third argument. Churchland himself admits that this argument has no effect against property dualism, since property dualism itself takes the brain to be the seat of mental phenomena. But he fails to see that it has no effect against the other main varieties of dualism either, given what they actually say about the relationship between the mind and the brain.

For starters, let’s take Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) hylemorphic dualism. The A-T view is that the intellect is immaterial, but that sensation and imagination are not. Hence it is no surprise at all that neuroscience has discovered various neural correlates of mental imagery and the varieties of perceptual experience. Moreover, A-T holds that though intellect is immaterial, its operation requires the presence of the images or “phantasms” of the imagination. Hence it is no surprise that neural damage can affect even the functioning of the intellect. Most importantly, the soul, of which intellect, sensation, and imagination are all powers, is not a complete substance in its own right in the first place, but rather the form of the body. The way intellectual and volitional activity relates to a particular human action is, accordingly, not to be understood on the model of billiard ball causation, but rather as the formal-cum-final causal side of a single event of which the relevant physiological processes are the material-cum-efficient causal side. That alterations to the body have mental consequences is thus no more surprising than the fact that altering the chalk marks that make up a triangle drawn on a chalkboard affects how well the marks instantiate the form of triangularity. It is important to emphasize that none of this involves any sort of retreat from some stronger form of dualism, as a way of accommodating the discoveries of contemporary neuroscience; it is what A-T has always said about the relationship between soul and body. There is absolutely nothing in modern neuroscience that need trouble the A-T hylemorphic dualist in the slightest.

What about the Cartesian dualist? Don’t the differences between Descartes’ views and those of his Scholastic predecessors make him vulnerable to the findings of neuroscience in a way the latter are not? No, they don’t. For one thing, and as I have noted in an earlier post, Descartes’ views on this subject were not in fact quite as different from those of his predecessors as is often supposed. For example, Descartes’ view appears to have been that it is the intellect, specifically, which is to be identified with the ego he thinks is capable of existing apart from the body. Sensations, emotions, and the like he regarded, not as purely mental phenomena, but rather as hybrid properties which can be predicated only of the soul-body composite, and not the soul alone. Hence even on Descartes’ view it is not at all surprising that neuroscience has discovered all sorts of correlations between various aspects of perceptual experience and various emotional states on the one hand, and various processes in the brain on the other.

Now what is true is that the Cartesian has a difficulty explaining mind-body interaction that the A-T view does not have, as I have discussed here and here. And the reason is that Descartes rejected the notion that the soul is the formal cause of the body. That is an enormously consequential difference between the two views. But it has nothing to do with the specific question about whether a dualist need be troubled by the discovery of detailed correlations between mental phenomena and neural phenomena, which is what is at issue in the argument of Churchland’s under consideration. In particular, even the Cartesian need not be troubled by the fact that intellectual activity too (and not just sensation, emotion, and the like) can be dramatically affected by changes to the brain.

Why not? For one thing, as Churchland himself admits, the Cartesian regards the brain as a “mediator” between the soul and the rest of the body, so that we should expect that damage to this mediator will prevent the intellect from receiving the information it derives from the body and from controlling bodily behavior as well as it normally would.

But there is a deeper consideration. Consider the following analogy: A typed, written, or spoken token of the word “bark,” considered merely as a material object, has all sorts of complex physical properties, and those physical properties are highly relevant to its status as a word, as a bearer of linguistic meaning. Alter the physical properties of the token too radically, and it can no longer convey the meaning it once did. For example, if the ink should smear, the sound be muffled, or the power source to a word processor be cut off, the word will disappear, or might at least become so distorted that it becomes unintelligible. It would be absurd, though, for someone to suggest that these facts lend any support whatsoever to the claim that a word token qua word token is exhausted by its physical properties. It clearly is not. It is, for example, indeterminate from the physical properties alone whether the “bark” in question is the bark of a dog or the bark of a tree. Indeed, since the fact that the relevant sounds and shapes are associated with a certain meaning is entirely contingent, an accident of the history of the English language, it is indeterminate from the physical properties alone whether the word has any meaning at all. In short, the physical properties are a necessary condition for any particular physical object’s counting as a word token, but they are not a sufficient condition. And piling up bits of physicochemical knowledge about word tokens cannot possibly change this fact in the slightest, for it is a conceptual point about the nature of words, not an empirical point about what the latest research in phonetics (or whatever) has turned up.

In the same way, the dualist claims to be making a conceptual point about the relationship between mind and body, one to which neuroscientific research, important and interesting as it is in itself, is irrelevant. The existence of such-and-such physiological phenomena may well be a necessary condition for the existence of intentional human actions, intelligible speech, and so forth, but it is not and cannot be a sufficient condition. And that remains true whether we are interpreting dualism in A-T terms or in Cartesian terms. A-T regards the soul as the formal cause of a single substance of which the matter of the body is the material cause. Cartesians regard mind and matter as two distinct substances. Either way, there is not, and in principle cannot be, anything distinctively mental in matter as such, any more than a word token, considered merely as an arrangement of ink marks or a pattern of sound waves, has any meaning on its own. Or at least, there cannot be if dualism is correct. No amount of neuroscientific evidence can undermine this judgment, because what is at issue is whether any purely material phenomena at all, neurological or otherwise, can in principle be mental.

“But doesn’t that make dualism unfalsifiable?” If “unfalsifiable” means “not subject to rational evaluation and criticism,” then no, of course it isn’t unfalsifiable. Metaphysical arguments, like mathematical arguments, are perfectly susceptible of rational analysis and refutation, even if, like mathematical arguments, such analysis does not involve the weighing of probabilities, the comparison of alternative empirical hypotheses, etc. If “unfalsifiable” means instead “not subject to refutation via empirical scientific research,” then yes, dualism is unfalsifiable in that sense. But so is mathematics, and yet that doesn’t detract from its status as a rational field of investigation. Again, if the materialist wants to insist that all rational inquiry must ultimately be a kind of empirical scientific inquiry, he is welcome to make the case, but he cannot simply assume the truth of scientism when criticizing the dualist, otherwise he will simply be begging the question.

And that brings us, finally, to the fourth of Churchland’s arguments, the argument from evolution. Here again we have an argument that is entirely without force, and the main reason should be obvious from what has just been said: Dualism is a metaphysical theory, not an empirical hypothesis, and thus it is not the sort of thing that could be refuted by empirical biological findings any more than by neuroscientific ones.

But there is more to be said. Churchland’s fourth argument is also question-begging. For whether Darwinian evolution – which is supposed to be a purely materialist theory – is in fact a complete explanation of human nature depends on whether human nature is entirely material. And of course, the dualist’s claim is precisely that human beings are not and cannot be purely material, in which case no purely materialist theory could possibly provide a complete explanation of human nature. Hence it is no good to merely to assert, as an argument against dualism, that Darwinism has already explained human nature in materialist terms. That simply assumes the falsity of dualism without proving it.

Nor is it any good to stamp one’s feet and insist that if Darwinism entails materialism, then we had all better be materialists. Because here’s a newsflash: If Darwinism entailed that 2 + 2 = 5, what that would show is, not that 2 + 2 = 5, but that Darwinism is false, or at least needs to be seriously modified. Similarly, if Darwinism really does entail materialism, but the arguments of an Aquinas, a Descartes, or a James Ross show that materialism is false, then so much the worse for Darwinism. It had better adapt itself to the metaphysical facts, or be selected out. Like so many other naturalists, Churchland waves the “evolution” talisman as if it sufficed to shut off all debate, assuring us that in light of Darwinism we “are creatures of matter” and “should learn to live with that fact.” But this is sheer, question-begging bluff, not serious philosophical argument.

We have seen, then, over the course of these three posts, that Churchland’s treatment of dualism in Matter and Consciousness, though purporting to be a balanced summary, is in fact almost completely worthless both as a guide to what dualists have actually said and as a critique of dualism. And this is a textbook! And a widely used one, which has long been in print – it was one of the books I was taught out of as an undergraduate, and (I am ashamed to say) as a teacher I once used it myself. It took me many years to see just how bad it is. Most students who have read it probably have no idea, and never will.

But that’s how bad ideas spread: By ignorance and intellectual dishonesty smugly masquerading as expertise. Here, as with the debate over theism, the naturalistic skeptic can maintain the illusion of rational superiority only to the extent that he and his readers remain ignorant of what the great thinkers of the past have actually said. For to paraphrase Cardinal Newman, to be deep in history is to cease to be a naturalist.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The evolution of liberalism (and “conservatism”)

My WWWtW co-blogger Lydia McGrew calls attention to this satire of theological liberalism’s approach to sexual morality. But today’s over-the-top satire is tomorrow’s Righteous Liberal Cause, and as readers of chapter 5 of The Last Superstition know, this is more or less inevitable given the metaphysical revolution that gave rise to liberalism. There is in principle no absurdity or abomination that the liberal cannot convince himself is really good and rational. The only limit is the current, temporary position of the cultural ratchet. This seems like a good time to reprint the following March 2007 post from the old Right Reason blog. (Go here for the original, complete with the combox discussion it generated.) Liberalism repeats itself, the first time as farce, the second time as tragedy. And as you marvel at the craziness engulfing the world around you, remember, kids: The horror is just beginning.

Steve Burton (citing David Frum) describes some chilling developments in the UK vis-à-vis the growing conflict between antidiscrimination laws and religious freedom. Chilling, but not at all surprising. The developments in question illustrate a pattern that is characteristic of liberalism as it slowly works out the implications of its underlying assumptions.

To the charge that liberals are (or, given their principles, should be) in favor of X [where X = legalizing abortion, liberalizing obscenity laws, banning smoking on private property, legalizing “same-sex marriage,” outlawing the public advocacy of traditional sexual morality, etc. etc.], the standard liberal response goes through about five stages (with, it seems, roughly 5-10 years passing between each stage, though sometimes the transition is much quicker than that). Here they are:

Stage 1: “Oh please. Only a far-right-wing nutjob would make such a paranoid and ridiculous accusation - I suppose next you’ll accuse us of wanting to poison your precious bodily fluids!”

Stage 2: “Well, I wouldn’t go as far as X. All the same, it’s good to be open-minded about these things. I mean, people used to think ending slavery was a crazy idea too…”

Stage 3: “Hey, the Europeans have had X for years and the sky hasn’t fallen. But no, I admit that this backward country probably isn’t ready for X yet.”

Stage 4: “Of course I’m in favor of X - it’s in the Constitution! Only a far-right-wing nutjob could possibly oppose it.”

Stage 5: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can be used against you in a court of law…”

With respect to the severe threat to religious liberty described by Frum, we’re probably already at stage 2 here in the US. But given how quickly “same-sex marriage” has jumped from stage 1 to stage 4, I wouldn’t be surprised if mainstream American liberals start calling in five or ten years for restrictions on the rights of religious organizations to “discriminate” in hiring practices or publicly to teach doctrines that might be offensive to “sexual minorities.” (The theoretical groundwork is already there. See my review of Amy Gutmann’s book Identity in Democracy.) Or at least, this will be the inevitable next step if “same-sex marriage” makes serious headway in the US.

Fortunately, though, we can rely on conservatives to hold the line, and indeed to turn back liberal advances. Right?

Well, no, of course not. (You can stop rolling your eyes, I was being facetious.) For conservatives - or maybe I should say “conservatives” (since there’s very little that they ever actually manage to conserve, unless money is somehow involved) - seem to go through five stages of their own. Here they are:

Stage 1: “Mark my words: if the extreme left had its way, they’d foist X upon us! These nutjobs must be opposed at all costs.”

Stage 2: “Omigosh, now even thoughtful, mainstream liberals favor X! Fortunately, it’s political suicide.”

Stage 3: “X now exists in 45 out of 50 states. Fellow conservatives, we need to learn how to adjust to this grim new reality.”

Stage 4: “X isn’t so bad, really, when you think about it. And you know, sometimes change is good. Consider slavery…”

Stage 5: “Hey, I was always in favor of X! You must have me confused with a [paleocon, theocon, Bible thumper, etc.]. But everyone knows that mainstream conservatism has nothing to do with those nutjobs…”

Nope, they don’t call ‘em the Evil Party and the Stupid Party for nothing.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Churchland on dualism, Part II

Let’s continue our look at Paul Churchland’s critical discussion of dualism in his textbook Matter and Consciousness. I have noted that while Churchland neglects even to mention the most important arguments for dualism and devotes space to arguments that dualist philosophers themselves don’t actually put much stock in, he does at least discuss two arguments that many such philosophers do think important: the argument from introspection and the argument from irreducibility.

As Churchland summarizes the argument from introspection, it states that the thoughts, sensations, desires, and emotions we encounter in introspection are just plainly different from electrochemical activity in neural networks. As he summarizes the argument from irreducibility, it states that language, reasoning, the introspectible qualities of sensations, and the meaningful contents of our thoughts cannot plausibly be accounted for in materialist terms; for example, knowledge of the molecular structure of a rose and/or of the brain would not allow a physicist or chemist to predict what it would be like to experience the smell of a rose.

Churchland’s summary of these arguments is superficial. For example, it is clear from his gloss on the argument from irreducibility that he regards Frank Jackson’s famous “knowledge argument” as an important instance of it. Yet he does not actually state Jackson’s argument, thus denying the unwary reader an opportunity to appreciate its full power. (Churchland does briefly discuss Jackson’s argument later in the book, but only after having disposed of dualism and plumped for materialism, thus giving the misleading impression that the argument is merely a puzzle an already-established materialism must solve rather than an independent argument for dualism in its own right.)

Worse than this, though, are the responses he gives to the two arguments in question, which are presented as decisive but are in fact exceedingly feeble. The argument from introspection has no force, Churchland assures us, because introspection cannot be trusted in light of the fact that there are clear cases from the history of science showing that our natural powers of observation have misled us in other domains. What cases are these? “The red surface of an apple does not look like a matrix of molecules reflecting photons at certain critical wavelengths, but that is what it is,” Churchland says; “The sound of a flute does not sound like a sinusoidal compression wave train in the atmosphere, but that is what it is. [etc.]”

The problem with this response should be obvious, at least to someone with knowledge of the history of the mind-body problem and of modern philosophy generally. In particular, there is an obvious reason why the cases Churchland appeals to not only do not make the point he thinks they do, but in fact make the case for dualism even stronger. For the reason the identities in question – red with such-and-such a light wavelength, sound with a such-and-such a wave pattern, etc. – are plausible in the first place is that the early modern thinkers who inaugurated the “mechanical” conception of nature that informs modern science introduced a crucial distinction between features of the observable world that are observer-relative and those that are observer-independent – the famous primary quality/secondary quality distinction (spelled out in different ways by Galileo, Descartes, Locke, et al.). Colors, sounds, heat, cold, and the like as common sense understands them were relegated to the “observer-relative” side of the divide, and color, sound, heat, cold, etc. as objective, physical properties were, accordingly, redefined in terms of wave activity, the motions of particles, or some other “observer-independent” phenomena.

To see how this works in the case of one of Churchland’s examples, let’s distinguish between RED (in caps) and red (in italics) as follows:

RED: the qualitative character of the color sensations had by a normal observer when he looks at fire engines, “Stop” signs, Superman’s cape, etc. (which is different from the qualitative character of the sensations had by e.g. a color blind observer)

red: whatever physical property it is in fire engines, “Stop” signs, Superman’s cape, etc. that causes normal observers to have RED sensations

Now what seems to common sense to be very different from “a matrix of molecules reflecting photons at certain critical wavelengths” is RED. And sure enough, what science has shown to be identical to “a matrix of molecules reflecting photons at certain critical wavelengths” is only red, not RED. Indeed, part of the reason for distinguishing red and RED is precisely that RED seems clearly not to be identical to something like “a matrix of molecules reflecting photons at certain critical wavelengths,” since the “matrices of molecules” etc. are what they are regardless of who is looking at them while qualitative character is observer-relative.

Part of the problem with Churchland’s response to the argument from introspection, then, is that it commits a fallacy of equivocation: The sense of “red” in which “Red seems different from any property of a matrix of molecules etc.” (i.e. RED) is different from the sense of “red” in which “Science has shown that red really is just a property of a matrix of molecules etc.” (i.e. red). A similar fallacy is committed when he appeals instead to sounds or any other sensory qualities. Thus his examples do not show that our powers of observation have misled us in other domains, and thus should not be trusted in the case of introspection.

That’s one problem with his response. Another is that when we understand what is really going on in the history-of-science examples Churchland appeals to, we can see that they actually strengthen the case for dualism rather than undermine it. For if colors, sounds, heat, cold, etc. as common sense understands them – that is, in terms of their qualitative, phenomenal character – exist only in the mind of the observer and not in the physical world (which is comprised of nothing more than colorless, odorless, soundless, tasteless particles in motion, or whatever), then it seems clear that they cannot exist in the brain, or in any other physical object or system of physical objects, either. Hence they must be immaterial. As I have noted before, that was exactly the conclusion explicitly drawn by early modern thinkers like Cudworth and Malebranche – and at least implicitly by Descartes, Locke, and the other early modern advocates of the “mechanical philosophy” who also happened to be dualists – and by several philosophers since. Their view was that dualism, far from being a pre-scientific holdover destined to be abandon once we have sufficient knowledge of the brain, in fact follows from the very mechanistic conception of matter taken for granted in modern science. The basic problem was one of the themes of Thomas Nagel’s celebrated 1974 article “What is it like to be a bat?” (though Nagel is less committal there about precisely what philosophical conclusion we ought to draw from the problem). It was explicitly appealed to in defense of dualism in Richard Swinburne’s 1986 book The Evolution of the Soul.

Now Churchland or some other materialist might think there is a way to carve up the conceptual territory that doesn’t have such an implication. Fine and dandy, let’s hear it and evaluate it. But he oughtn’t to pretend that the “reductions” in question clearly favor materialism when in fact, historically, they were taken to favor the opposite view! And, especially, he oughtn’t to convey this false impression when purporting to offer an evenhanded presentation of the case for dualism.

Churchland’s treatment of the argument from irreducibility is equally bad. As evidence that our powers of reasoning can in fact be accounted for in materialistic terms, he appeals to the existence of electronic calculators. As evidence that language can be similarly accounted for, he appeals to the existence of “computer languages.” He fails even to mention the most glaringly obvious reply to such “explanations” – that they involve nothing more than a couple of bad puns, since so-called calculators don’t literally “calculate” and computers don’t literally possess “language.” Rather, both electronic calculators and computers generally are inherently devoid of any intentionality or powers of reasoning whatsoever, and have simply been designed by human beings – who do have genuine powers of reasoning and language – to carry out certain operations that aid us in our exercises in calculation and the like by simulating certain mental processes. To “explain” mental phenomena in terms of what computers do is thus precisely to get things back-asswards, since what computers do cannot be accounted for apart from the human minds which assign to their states and operations whatever meanings they have.

Again, the point isn’t that Churchland might not have a way to respond to such arguments. The point is that he pretends that the claims he makes easily and uncontroversially rebut the argument from irreducibility when in fact his claims are extremely controversial even among non-dualists. (John Searle and Hubert Dreyfus are only the two most prominent non-dualist philosophers to have criticized the suggestion that mental processes can be explained in terms of “computational” ones.) The hapless beginning student coming away from Churchland’s discussion would have no idea that his “Gee whiz, look what computers can do!” shtick is, by itself anyway, philosophically about as serious as “proving” that time travel is theoretically possible based only on what one saw once in a Star Trek episode.

Churchland also suggests that whatever explanatory difficulties materialism has are at least equally matched by any dualist attempt to explain mental phenomena in terms of “nonphysical mind-stuff.” Here again Churchland proves only that he doesn’t understand what the main arguments for dualism actually say. As I noted in my first post in this series, those arguments are not quasi-scientific “explanatory hypotheses” in the first place, but rather attempts at metaphysical demonstration. They do not “postulate” “mind-stuff” (whatever that is) any more than mathematicians “postulate” the existence of the number 48 as the “best explanation” of why 47 and 49 do not fall right next to each other in the series of natural numbers. If the arguments fail, they do not fail for the sorts of reasons that explanatory hypotheses fail (considerations of parsimony, lack of fit with existing empirical theory, etc.), any more than an attempted mathematical proof, when it fails, can fail for such reasons.

But that brings us to Churchland’s positive arguments against dualism, which we’ll look at in a third post.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Churchland on dualism, Part I

We have been hammering away at eliminative materialism (EM) in a series of posts. If EM proponents fail to make their own position plausible or even coherent, how do they fare as critics of alternative views? Not much better. Let’s look at Paul Churchland’s treatment of dualism in (the 1988 revised edition of) his textbook Matter and Consciousness. (There’s the book’s cover at left. It’s better than the book itself, which I guess confirms the old adage. I considered using this illustration, but it seemed a bit impolite.)

There are two main problems with Churchland’s discussion. First, his summary of the case for dualism is no good. Second, his arguments against dualism are no good either. In this post we’ll look at the first problem and in a second post I’ll address the second.

What are the main arguments for dualism? Churchland identifies four; he calls them the argument from religion, the argument from introspection, the argument from irreducibility, and the argument from parapsychology. To anyone familiar with the philosophical literature on dualism, this list cannot fail to seem very odd.

One problem with it is that it includes two arguments – the “argument from religion” and the “argument from parapsychology” – that dualist philosophers actually put little or no emphasis on. As Churchland presents the “argument from religion,” it amounts to little more than the claim that “Dualism must be true, because my religion says it is.” He cites no philosophers as actually having given this argument, no doubt because there aren’t any. (Yes, a philosopher who happens to believe on independent grounds that his religion is true and that it entails dualism might present that as an argument for dualism to someone who already agrees with its premises. But no dualist philosopher I can think of has ever pretended that such an argument would be a good stand-alone argument for convincing either an irreligious materialist or even someone whose attitude toward either religion or dualism is noncommittal.)

The “argument from parapsychology” no doubt does have some defenders; certainly there are serious philosophers who have taken the subject of alleged paranormal phenomena seriously either in a sympathetic way (e.g. C. D. Broad and, in recent years, Stephen Braude) or in a critical spirit (e.g. Antony Flew). But this subject does not in fact play much of a role in contemporary debates over dualism, and even those philosophers who believe that at least some purported paranormal phenomena cannot plausibly be explained away in terms of existing scientific theory (e.g. Braude) do not necessarily put such claims forward, primarily or at all, as grounds for accepting dualism.

It is in any event a mistake to think that dualism is intended as a kind of scientific hypothesis put forward as the “best explanation” of the empirical evidence, parapsychological or otherwise. The central arguments for dualism have always been attempts at metaphysical demonstration, intended to show conclusively that whatever the mind is, it cannot even in principle be material. And this brings us to the most glaring fault with Churchland’s list: He simply ignores these key arguments entirely. For example, though he purports to summarize Descartes’ own reasons for endorsing dualism, and rightly notes that Descartes thought that certain key mental phenomena are irreducible to material phenomena, he fails even to mention the two arguments Descartes put the most emphasis on: the clear and distinct ideas argument (these days often called the conceivability argument or the modal argument), and the indivisibility argument (which is related to what is often called the unity of consciousness argument). The first argument (which I have discussed in a previous post) holds that since – the argument claims – it is metaphysically possible for mind to exist apart from anything material, it cannot be material. The second holds that the mind has a kind of unity or indivisibility-in-principle that nothing material can have. (Variations on this basic idea were also defended by the likes of Leibniz and Kant.)

It isn’t like these arguments are not well known. Nor are they mere historical relics; they have defenders to this day. (For those who are interested, I discuss them in detail in my book Philosophy of Mind.) The modal argument in particular received renewed attention in the wake of Kripke’s Naming and Necessity, and thus in the years leading up to the publication of Churchland’s book. It was defended by Richard Swinburne in The Evolution of the Soul, which appeared in 1986 – two years before Churchland’s revised edition – and by W. D. Hart in The Engines of the Soul, which itself came out in 1988. (Charles Taliaferro is another philosopher who has defended it in the years since, in his book Consciousness and the Mind of God.)

Churchland also ignores – as, in fairness, almost all contemporary philosophers of mind do – what early modern writers like Malebranche regarded as the central proof of dualism, viz. that dualism follows from the very mechanistic conception of matter Cartesians and materialists hold in common. For if color, odor, taste, sound, etc., as common sense understands them, do not exist in matter itself but only in our perceptual experience of matter, then those experiences cannot be material. (I have discussed this argument in previous posts as well, e.g. here and here.)

What is in fact the chief argument for dualism, at least from the point of view of the classical (Platonic-Aristotelian-Thomistic-Scholastic) traditions in philosophy, concerns, not sensory qualities or “qualia,” but rather our capacity for abstract thought. For concepts, and our thoughts about them, are universal in a way nothing material can be, and (sometimes, anyway) determinate, precise, or unambiguous in a way nothing material can be. (I have discussed this sort of argument too in many earlier posts, e.g. here and here.) While this line of argument has also been largely ignored by contemporary academic philosophers of mind, it was defended by Mortimer Adler in the years leading up to the publication of Churchland’s book, and by 20th century Thomist writers generally. Needless to say, Churchland ignores it as well.

So, while Churchland pretends to be summing up “some of the main considerations” usually given in support of dualism, he completely ignores the arguments the most prominent dualist philosophers actually regarded as the most important, and includes arguments that dualists do not typically make use of – arguments that are either clearly feeble (the “argument from religion,” as Churchland presents it) or which rest on premises which are as controversial as dualism itself is (the “argument from parapsychology”). The rhetorical effect is obvious: The unwary reader, who assumes that a textbook will give him an accurate summary of what each side has to say, is bound to come away with a completely distorted conception of the case for dualism. In particular, he is bound to think it far weaker than it actually is.

I am not claiming that Churchland is knowingly perpetrating what looks like a pretty sleazy rhetorical tactic. I think he is, like most materialists, simply ignorant of what most dualists have actually said. He no doubt thinks he knows enough about what they say to be justified in concluding that their position is not worth looking into any further than he already has. He is wrong, but will never know that he is, because he has gotten himself onto the sort of merry-go-round that (as we have seen in recent posts) naturalists seem to have so much difficulty keeping off of: “I know that dualism is too silly to investigate any further because of how bad the arguments for it are; and I know that I must be understanding those arguments correctly because dualism is obviously just too silly to be worth investigating any further.”

The thing is, books like Matter and Consciousness contribute to the formation of the same mindset in others. As generation after generation of philosophy students are taught out of such books, the conclusion that dualism is intellectually disreputable comes to seem something that “everyone knows.” In fact, what “everyone knows” is nothing more than a bunch of straw men and circular arguments, bounced around the materialist echo chamber long enough that no one can hear anything else. (This is, of course, exactly parallel to what most atheist philosophers “know” about the classical arguments for God’s existence, as I have noted here, here, and here. The hegemony of atheism and materialism crucially depend on a stubborn and studied ignorance of what theists and dualists have actually said.)

Having said all that, Churchland is at least correct to say that what he calls the "argument from introspection" and the "argument from irreducibility" are prominent arguments for dualism. Unfortunately, what he says about these arguments is no good either. We’ll see why in part II.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

How to sing like an eliminative materialist

If eliminative materialism were true, then none of our utterances would have any meaning. There would be no difference between even learned philosophical discourse and mere gibberish. Even the statement “Eliminative materialism is true” would have no more content than “Blah blah blah.” What would the world be like if we all started to look at it this way? How would we sound to each other? Pretty cool, apparently. Check this out (ht: Siris):

And no, that's (mostly) not Italian, but rather, as Siris tells us, "what American pop music used to sound like to Italians"(!) A new EM anthem: Prisencolinensinainciusol! Sing it!

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.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Don’t necessarily trust the experts

My goodness some people are literal-minded. Judging from some of the commentary (here and elsewhere) on my post about the PhilPapers survey, some people really think I was making a blanket assertion to the effect that one should always trust the experts. Well, no, of course I wasn’t saying that. I thought it was obvious that what I was really saying is that if a certain kind of atheist is going to play the stupid “A says this, but THE EXPERTS say otherwise!” game, he ought to do so consistently.

Does expertise count for something? Of course it does. The argument from authority is, when the authority in question is a genuine authority, a serious argument. But it is hardly conclusive. Experts can be wrong. The conventional wisdom in an entire field of study can be wrong. I’m with Aquinas: The argument from (genuine) authority is a serious argument, but when the authority in question is a human being or group of human beings it is nevertheless the weakest of all arguments (ST I.1.8).

Monday, December 14, 2009

Cogitating Ross

Longtime commenter Cogitator alerts me that he has made James Ross’s important article “Immaterial Aspects of Thought” available in HTML format here. Now no one has an excuse not to read it!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Trust the experts

PhilPapers recently conducted a survey of opinion among academic philosophers, the results of which have been posted here. Here’s how all respondents from the survey’s “target faculty” answered when asked where they stand on the question of God’s existence:


Accept or lean toward atheism 72.8%
Accept or lean toward theism 14.6%
Other 12.5%

And here’s how the results came out for respondents in two key subdisciplines:


Accept or lean toward theism 72.3%
Accept or lean toward atheism 19.1%
Other 8.5%


Accept or lean toward atheism 41.1%
Accept or lean toward theism 29.4%
Other 29.4%

Quite a difference. And regarding the last (Medieval/Renaissance) set of responses, it is worth pointing out that the fine-grained results show that “Other” includes a lot of agnostics, and that when the “lean towards” are excluded, atheism and theism are tied at 23.5% each, so that there are far fewer convinced atheists within this group than it might at first seem. It would also be nice to know what the results would have looked like if we separated out the medieval and renaissance specialists. (I would speculate that most Renaissance specialists approach their field out of interest in its relevance for understanding early modern philosophy rather than out of interest in medieval philosophy; and if so this is likely to reflect, on the part of Renaissance specialists, more familiarity with early modern philosophy than with medieval philosophy.) It seems very likely that the results for specialists in medieval philosophy specifically would have been more like those for specialists in philosophy of religion, especially for medieval specialists whose interest is in philosophy of religion related topics rather than in general metaphysics/epistemology, history of logic, etc.

Now, what do these results mean? You can be sure that some atheists will read the latter two sets of results as evidence only that many people who believe in God for non-philosophical reasons have flooded into philosophy of religion and medieval studies. And they will read the former results as evidence that philosophers who don’t enter the field with a religious ax to grind are more likely to be atheists.

But of course there is another obvious way to interpret the results in question – as clear evidence that those philosophers who have actually studied the arguments for theism in depth, and thus understand them the best – as philosophers of religion and medieval specialists naturally would – are far more likely to conclude that theism is true, or at least to be less certain that atheism is true, than other philosophers are. And if that’s what the experts on the subject think, then what the “all respondents” data shows is that most academic philosophers have a degree of confidence in atheism that is rationally unwarranted.

This dovetails with the judgment once made by the atheist philosopher Quentin Smith (in his paper “The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism”) to the effect that “the great majority of naturalist philosophers have an unjustified belief that naturalism is true and an unjustified belief that theism (or supernaturalism) is false.” And it also dovetails with the evidence we have examined in several earlier posts (e.g. here, here, and here) indicating that the more confident an atheist philosopher is that there are no good arguments for God’s existence, the more likely it is that he demonstrably does not know what the hell he is talking about.

In any event, it turns out that the people who are most likely to know what they are talking about on this subject tend overwhelmingly to believe in God, or at least (as in the combined medieval/renaissance results) to reject atheism. And as certain atheist philosophers like to insist, we should trust the experts, right?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Misinformation campaign

In response to my most recent post on Alex Rosenberg, a philosopher emails the following comment:

Rosenberg has to know that, in the technical sense, there is no such thing as "misinformation." The metal bar dipped in a saline solution that proceeds to rust can't be "misinformed" about its environs because information just is causal covariation among physical states. His use of that term is a blatant attempt to smuggle intentionality in through the back door while pretending not to; why, why, oh why! won't anyone of note call him out on this transparent attempt to bulls**t his way out of the corner he's painted himself into?

This is an extremely important point that I should have emphasized in my post. What my correspondent is referring to here is sometimes called the “misrepresentation problem” for naturalistic theories of meaning. Suppose the naturalist claims that for A to represent or contain information about B is just for A to have been caused by B in such-and-such a way. In that case, how is it possible for us ever to misrepresent anything? Suppose Fred thinks he sees a dog in the distance when in fact what he is looking at is a cat. How can his perceptual experience (mis)represent what he is seeing as a dog since it was not a dog that caused it?

One well-known attempt to get around this problem is to appeal to the “teleological function” served by a representation, where a “teleological function” is to be understood on the model of a biological function. The heart serves the biological function of pumping blood, and that remains its function even if in some particular context it is not actually carrying out that function – say because Hannibal Lecter is using it for his supper. Similarly, if the function of some brain process is to represent dogs, it will do so even if in some particular context something other than a dog triggers it.

Various technical objections might be raised against this reply, but the central problem is this. The whole point of “naturalistic” theories of meaning or representation is to find a way to account for meaning or representation given a mechanistic, non-teleological conception of the natural world. Aristotelian teleology or final causation is supposed to be chucked out the window and a stripped down version of what Aristotelians call “efficient causation” is supposed to do all the explanatory work that needs to be done. So how can such a theory coherently appeal to the notion of “teleological function"? The answer, as it happens, is that “teleological function” is in turn something naturalists have tried in other contexts to give a “naturalistic account” of. And these “naturalistic accounts” always end up attempting to reduce teleology to some pattern of efficient causation or other. There are various technical problems with these accounts too. But the key point is this: When naturalistic philosophers of mind find that they cannot account for everything in efficient-causal terms they often tend to resort to teleological language; and when called on to account for such language they insist that it can be cashed out in non-teleological or efficient causal terms. (Something similar occurs, incidentally, in the use philosophers of biology make of the notion of a “biological function.”) It is sheer sleight of hand, a circular farce of the sort I’ve already called attention to in earlier posts. As I argue at length in The Last Superstition, recent “naturalistic” theories of mind, of biological function, and of other phenomena problematic for a mechanistic conception of nature invariably either lapse into this sort of incoherence or implicitly acknowledge that something like Aristotelian formal and final causes are real after all.

Now of course, Rosenberg holds that we need ultimately to eschew any talk of “meaning,” “representation,” and the like in any event. But that only makes his reference to “misinformation” more baffling, not less. It’s bad enough that he uses “information” talk as if it could plausibly ground a reconstruction of or “successor” to the concept of knowledge when it is entirely stripped of any intentional connotations. All we have in that case is bare causal relation between A and B, with no explanation of why we should refer to the one as containing “information” about the other in the absence of any intentionality either intrinsic to the physical facts themselves or derived from an outside observer. But at least we have that much. What do we have, though, when there isn’t even a causal relation between A and B for the simple reason that B doesn’t exist? In what sense does A contain “misinformation” about B when A is not only devoid of either intrinsic or derived intentionality, but was not even caused by B in the first place?

Perhaps Rosenberg has an answer to such questions, but if so he does not give us the slightest hint as to what it is, or even acknowledge that there is a question to answer in the first place. Instead he simply dismisses as “puerile” any suggestion that eliminative materialism might be incoherent. You see, “17th century physics” “ruled out” any appeal to purposes, so there simply must be a non-purposive explanation available for any phenomenon; and because there is always such an explanation available, we know that 17th century physics was right to rule anything else out.

Who says merry-go-rounds are just for kids?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Rosenberg responds to his critics

Well, sort of (scroll to the bottom). It seems to me that he mainly just repeats what he already said in his original piece, this time with a little testiness. I certainly don’t think he grapples seriously with the main difficulties facing his position (some of which I outlined in my earlier post).

Eliminative materialists like to complain that they are always being falsely accused of incoherently “believing that there are no beliefs” – “as if I had never heard of the ploy and would be stopped dead in my tracks by it,” says Rosenberg, making this complaint his own. “Actually,” he continues, “you won’t find the locution ‘I believe that….’ any where in my précis… just to avoid such puerile objections.” But does Rosenberg really think we anti-eliminativists have never heard that dodge before? Yes, fine, we realize that advocates of eliminative materialism (EM) studiously avoid the word “belief,” lest they be refuted in ten seconds rather than ten minutes. The trouble is that they inevitably help themselves to some other concept which leads them into exactly the same sort of incoherence, even if in a more subtle way.

In Rosenberg’s case, after reiterating that there is no such thing as “aboutness” or intentionality, he tells us in the same breath that “the brain receives, stores, and conveys information… [and] misinformation.” But “information” and “misinformation” are themselves intentional notions. (For you non-philosophers, “intentional” in this context means “exhibiting intentionality.”) This is obviously true of the ordinary, everyday sense of “information.” But it is also true of the technical, information-theoretic sense that Rosenberg has in mind – or at least, it has to be true of it if the notion of “information” is going to do the work Rosenberg and other naturalists need it to do. In particular, it has to be true if EM is to leave open the possibility of “naturalistically” reconstructing the notion of a “true” “theory” – such as a scientific theory, or a philosophical theory like naturalism or EM itself. And EM must reconstruct it somehow, otherwise the scribbles we make when we type things like “The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality” will no more count as correct guides to reality than do books on astrology, or indeed, than do the scratches my chair is making on the wood floor below me as I type this.

As John Searle has emphasized, the causal chains information theory regards as carriers of information – the processes that lead up to a tree’s having 33 rings, for example – count as “information” only in the sense that an outside observer can infer certain things from them. For example, someone counting the rings in question can, given his knowledge of elementary botany, infer that the tree is 33 years old, in a way he could not infer this from other aspects of the tree. But if we remove the observer and focus only on the objective physical facts, what we are left with is merely a set of causal processes having no more inherent significance than any others have. A year’s worth of growth caused a new ring to appear. It also thereby caused the tree get a little thicker; and the growth was itself caused in part by the presence of water in the soil around the tree’s roots. The collection of such causal chains is what exists objectively. But what makes the ring specifically – as opposed to the thickness or some other effect – significant with respect to the age of the tree specifically – as opposed to the water or some other cause? What makes the one “the” thing about which the other is “the” thing that conveys the “information”? The answer to both questions can only be the presence of an outside observer who takes these two particular points in the overall causal situation to have such significance. Absent the observer, to speak of “information” is just to speak of the enormously intricate network of causes and effects itself, but where no one part of it is more or less “informative” than any other. (This is a point which, as I noted in an earlier post, has been emphasized by Karl Popper and Hilary Putnam.)

More to the present point, the causal chains in Rosenberg’s brain, for example, will in this de-intentionalized sense of “information” no more count as a correct “guide to reality” – or as some “naturalistically respectable” “successor” to the concept of a “correct” “guide” – than the causal chains in his pancreas or his large intestine do, or indeed than the causal chains holding between my chair and the wood floor do. To be sure, an outside observer might be able to infer things from what is going on in the brain that he couldn’t infer from the intestine or the chair. But there is nothing left corresponding to such an inference – and in particular, nothing left that could correspond to a “correct” “guide to reality” (one that might be typed out as an essay and then cut and pasted onto a website, say) or any EM analogue to such a guide – when the observer is removed from the picture. There is just causation qua causation.

So, for the term “information” to do what Rosenberg needs it to do, it has to retain its intentional connotations. But in that case we are back to the problem that EM is incoherent insofar as it has to make use of concepts of the very sort it officially rules out. Yes, this need not be as crude as “believing there are no beliefs,” but as with the white collar criminal who eschews mugging but has no qualms about embezzling, the end result is essentially the same.

One reason Rosenberg fails to see this is that he says that the information the brain stores is not propositional or sentential in form, and he seems to think that this entails that it is not intentional. But whether the information in question is propositional or not is irrelevant to the point at issue, because propositional content is not essential to intentionality. What is essential to intentionality is directedness upon an object, and this “directedness” need not involve the expressing of a proposition about the object. It may be a mere “pointing to” the object without the making of a “statement” about it. Thus, even if the “information” Rosenberg says the brain contains does not amount to complete propositions, if it is to do the work Rosenberg needs it to do it will still have to involve certain brain processes “pointing to” or being “directed at” certain specific things beyond themselves. Otherwise it cannot ground a “naturalistic” “successor” to or reconstruction of the concept of a “correct” “guide to reality.” For example, whatever it is that is going on in neuroscientists’ own brains when they come up with correct neuroscientific theories will have in some way to “point to” brains specifically, rather than (say) to plates of spaghetti, seaweed, or kidney stones.

Anyway, like other EM advocates, Rosenberg never actually tells us what the reconstruction in question will look like – that is, what exactly is going on in the brain that corresponds to “accepting a scientific theory” and “affirming naturalism,” if it isn’t the having of beliefs and other intentional mental states. And like other EM advocates, he assures us that it is in any event to future neuroscience rather than to current naturalistic philosophy that we must look in order to find these things out. Rosenberg dismisses as “puerile” and a “trivial ploy” the claim that EM is self-undermining. “If only philosophy were that easy,” he laments. But it isn’t easy in that way. Instead, it’s easy in this way: Don’t bother me with your objections to EM. The neuroscientists will answer them some day, probably after I’m dead.

But the problem is not merely that this fails to answer the question. The problem is that it begs the question, because whether neuroscience can solve such philosophical problems – indeed, whether it is coherent to suggest that EM or any other claim can be restated, even at some future date, in a way that involves only non-intentional neuroscientific concepts – are precisely what is at issue. Moreover, Rosenberg never answers the question raised in my original post about why exactly we are supposed to accept EM if (a) EM entails that there is no fact of the matter about whether any argument, including any argument Rosenberg has given or could give for EM, is valid, sound, inductively strong, etc., and (b) neuroscience has at this point given us no “successor” concepts to validity, soundness, inductive strength, etc. Rosenberg is implicitly conceding that he has as yet no coherent way either of stating his position or arguing for it. Instead, he is issuing a promissory note that he assures us some future neuroscientists – someday, or some century, or some millennium – will make good on. Nor will they even give us (or our distant descendants) actually “rationally compelling” “arguments” for a “claim,” but rather a something-or-other (we know not what) that is somehow-or-other (we know not how) a “successor” of what we now call a rationally compelling argument for a claim. Why on earth should anyone accept such a bizarre promissory note? (Imagine some avant-garde mathematician told you that 2 + 2 = 23, admitted that he had no way of establishing this claim or even making it intelligible, but insisted that the mathematicians of the future would someday be able to do so. Would you take him seriously? Me neither, but there’s a guy at Duke University who would, and if you have any bridges for sale you might look him up.)

Rosenberg’s only answer is to beg the question some more, and indeed to repeat himself some more, with some hand-waving about what was “ruled out” by 17th century physics or “explained away” by Darwin. I’ve already explained what is wrong with this sort of move in my previous post on Rosenberg, and at great length in The Last Superstition.

So, why do Rosenberg, the Churchlands, and other EM advocates insist repeatedly on dismissing or even ignoring objections that are so obvious, and so obviously fatal, to their position? Part of the answer, as I’ve noted before, has to do with the ideological or even quasi-religious status naturalism has taken on in the thinking of so many contemporary philosophers – a status acknowledged by philosophers like Tyler Burge, William Lycan, Thomas Nagel, and John Searle (all quoted to this effect in The Last Superstition).

But there is likely a more personal component as well. The logical positivists no doubt thought that refuting their verifiability criterion of meaning just couldn’t be as easy as pointing out that it is self-undermining. “I’m A. J. Freaking Ayer! I don’t make obvious mistakes like that!” Actually, Freddie, you do. And here’s the painful truth: So do Paul Freaking Churchland and even Alex Freaking Rosenberg. If you don’t know it now, fellas, you’ll know it by the time you’re ready for your own Library of (Barely) Living Philosophers volumes. But be of good cheer – in contemporary academic philosophy, what is grounds for failing an undergraduate paper can be Festschrift material for a professional.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Nagel on ID

In my recent posts on Paley, and elsewhere, I’ve been pretty critical of ID theory. But I’ve always acknowledged that the ID folks have been treated disgracefully by most naturalists and Darwinians. Most, but not all. If you haven’t yet heard, Thomas Nagel has recommended Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design as one of the “best books of the year” in the Times Literary Supplement. Some of Nagel’s fellow naturalists are very very upset about it. Just wait ‘til they read Jerry Fodor’s next book. As I’ve noted before, non-fundamentalist naturalists like Nagel and Fodor are the ones theists need to take the most seriously, precisely because (as I emphasized in the posts on Paley) they realize that a challenge to Darwinism is not a challenge to naturalism per se. Still fun to watch the fundamentalist naturalists squirm, though…

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Petersen on naturalism

Over in the combox at What’s Wrong with the World, reader Bobcat points us in the direction of Steve Petersen’s paper “Naturalism as a coherent ism.” Petersen is a naturalist but acknowledges that most presentations of naturalism are open to the charge of incoherence – that their way of making the claim that natural science is the only genuine path to knowledge fails to explain how this claim itself can be judged a scientific claim.

Petersen’s solution is as follows: Let’s think of naturalism as a commitment to the methodology of science; let’s think of science as a commitment to the model of inference to the best explanation; and let’s think of explanation as a matter of systematically boiling things down to a minimum number of brute facts. Or in Petersen’s “soundbite form”: “Naturalism is scientism is explanationism is unificationism.” Mathematics, with its axiomatic method, and philosophy, with its methods of conceptual analysis and unification via general principles, would count as “naturalistic” in this sense. Astrology, which posits unexplained relationships between celestial activity and the course of everyday human life, would not. More to the present point, naturalism itself would count as a naturalistic theory in this sense, so that the coherence problem is solved.

The trouble with this is that it makes naturalism completely trivial; in particular, it makes Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Aquinas, et al. all “naturalists” committed to “scientism.” Indeed, it makes their views more “naturalistic” and “scientistic” than those of most contemporary self-described “naturalists.” For Neo-Platonic arguments for The One, say, or Aristotelian-Thomistic arguments for an Uncaused Cause who is Actus Purus and ipsum esse subsistens, eliminate brute facts altogether – the ultimate cause of things, on these views, could not possibly have been other than it is – while most contemporary naturalists assume that some brute facts or other are inevitable, and the only question is how many we need to countenance.

Petersen is aware of the problem that his position seems trivial if it entails that philosophical claims collapse into scientific ones, and his solution is to bite the bullet and propose that we accept this expansion of what is allowed to count as scientific. The problem now is that while this might seem plausible if we focus only on the sorts of thinkers Petersen takes as examples of “naturalistic” philosophers in his expanded sense – Hume and Quine – it seems absurd when we consider philosophers like the ones I mentioned.

Petersen also insists that his position is non-trivial insofar as it is incompatible with any conception of “first philosophy” that would let philosophy trump empirical science when there is a conflict between the two. The trouble with this is that it attacks a straw man. No advocate of “first philosophy,” whether in the older, Scholastic understanding of this idea or in the modern Cartesian rationalist sense, believes that philosophy and empirical science can ever truly conflict with one another. It would be nice to have an instance of such a purported conflict, but Petersen does not give us one.

But let us consider, for example, Thomistic arguments for the immateriality of the intellect or Cartesian arguments for immaterial substance. Are these incompatible with any finding of empirical science? They are not, because they are not probabilistic “empirical hypotheses” which have somehow been superseded by later and better “empirical hypotheses.” Rather, they are attempts to demonstrate that the mind cannot even in principle be material, so that the immateriality of thoughts and the like is itself simply part of the data of which any empirical theory must take account. We can argue about whether or not they succeed in showing this, but in the nature of the case they cannot be said to be incompatible with any finding of empirical science, because they have to do with higher-order questions about the data from which such scientific inquiry must begin – questions Peterson himself allows as a legitimate area of philosophical inquiry on his broadened conception of naturalism.

I don’t know if Petersen would claim otherwise, but many other naturalists would, on such grounds as that (a) arguments for dualism involve “positing” something like “ectoplasm” as the most “probable” way of “explaining” human behavioral and psychological phenomena, where these arguments are held to be less compelling than the materialist alternatives, or (b) that natural science has somehow already “shown” that there are no immaterial phenomena. The problem here is that (a) is a complete travesty of what dualist arguments actually say, and (b) is invariably question-begging, and typically committed to the very sort of incoherent naturalism that Petersen rejects.

As it happens, though, Petersen is happy to acknowledge that his position so broad that it will allow even Richard Swinburne’s arguments for God’s existence to count as “naturalistic.” Many would no doubt regard this as a suicidal concession, but it is not. For Swinburne’s arguments are essentially of the family of arguments most famously associated with William Paley – arguments that take for granted a broadly mechanistic conception of nature, conceptualize God in terms used univocally both of him and of us, proceed via probabilistic hypothesis formation, etc. And as I have argued in a couple of recent posts (here and here) a sophisticated naturalist would realize that he has nothing to fear from Paley-style arguments. What naturalists really want to avoid is the God of classical theism, and as I argue in those posts, Paley-style arguments not only don’t get you to, but indeed get you away from, the God of classical theism.

What does get you to classical theism, though, are arguments informed by some variety of classical metaphysics – arguments of the sort given by Aristotelians, Neo-Platonists, Thomists, etc. That’s where the real trouble for Petersen’s position comes in, because it is so broad that it includes even these. And if metaphysical demonstrations of Plato’s Form of the Good, or Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, or Plotinus’s One, or Aquinas’s ipsum esse subsistens count as “naturalistic,” then Petersen’s “naturalism” isn’t anything close to what contemporary naturalists think of their position as consistent with.

Or to put it another way: If Petersen’s “naturalism” has put him in the same camp with the author of The Last Superstition, then his dissertation adviser has given him some seriously bad career counseling…

Searle, Aquinas, and property dualism

In an addendum to his article “Why I Am Not a Property Dualist,” John Searle suggests that property dualism really entails substance dualism. For it describes mental properties as “arising from” and existing “over and above” the brain, and “these metaphors suggest that… consciousness is something separate from the brain” given that “uncontroversial properties of the brain, like weight, shape, colour, solidity, etc.” are not said to exist in that way. For consciousness to exist “over and above” the brain requires that it be “a separate thing, object, or non-property type of entity.”

Searle’s claim here seems reminiscent in some ways of Aquinas’s argument for the subsistence of the human soul at Summa Theologiae I.75.2:

Therefore the intellectual principle which we call the mind or the intellect has an operation "per se" apart from the body. Now only that which subsists can have an operation "per se." For nothing can operate but what is actual: for which reason we do not say that heat imparts heat, but that what is hot gives heat. We must conclude, therefore, that the human soul, which is called the intellect or the mind, is something incorporeal and subsistent.

Aquinas has argued earlier for the first claim made in this passage, viz. that intellectual operations do not involve a bodily organ. What he saying here is that this claim entails that that which carries out these operations, the human soul, must “subsist” apart from the body; it isn’t a mere accident or attribute of the body. The reason is the Scholastic principle that agere sequitur esse, activity follows upon being. Heat, as a mere accident or attribute, cannot cause something to be hot; rather it is the substance which has the heat that causes something else to be hot. Similarly, an operation which is not carried out by any bodily organ but which – qua operation rather than substance – cannot exist apart from some substance or other, must inhere in something immaterial.

So, when Searle tells us that immaterial mental properties would have to inhere in something immaterial rather than in a material object like the brain, he is saying something which seems to dovetail with Aquinas’s argument.

Still, things are a bit more complicated than that. For one thing, unlike many contemporary property dualists, Aquinas does not regard consciousness (as contemporary philosophers tend to understand “consciousness”) as immaterial. Rather, it is intellectual activity (grasping abstract concepts, reasoning, etc.) that he takes to be immaterial. Second, Aquinas is not only not a property dualist, he is not (contrary to appearances) a substance dualist either, certainly not in the way that sort of view has been understood since Descartes. Rather, he is a hylemorphic dualist. From a Thomistic point of view, substance dualism, property dualism, materialism, idealism, neutral monism, and all other post-Cartesian theories of the mind presuppose a mistaken and muddleheaded conception of both mind and matter – a conception which (among other things) makes it very difficult for contemporary philosophers even to understand the Thomistic view. As when dealing with Aquinas’s position on other specific philosophical questions, the only way properly to understand what he says about the relationship between mind and body is to situate it within his general metaphysics, which presupposes an understanding of the notions of act and potency, form and matter, substance and accident, essence and existence, analogical predication, etc. I set all this out in Aquinas, with chapter 4 devoted to Aquinas’s psychology and how it differs radically from contemporary substance dualism, property dualism, etc.

Now, some further reading, while you wait for your copy of Aquinas to arrive: First, my essay “Why Searle Is a Property Dualist,” which explains why Searle’s own anti-materialist arguments in philosophy of mind do in fact entail property dualism, despite his attempt to avoid this result. Second, check out David Oderberg’s article “Hylemorphic Dualism” for an overview of the Thomistic position. Third, take a look at Alfred Freddoso’s article “Good News, Your Soul Hasn’t Died Quite Yet” for a discussion of some of the differences between the Thomistic view and the standard modern ones (and why Catholics, especially, should be wary of the latter, including modern versions of dualism).

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Spectaclism versus naturalism

Let’s define spectaclism as the theory that what exists is what my spectacles “tell me” exists, i.e. what I am able to see using spectacles. Naturalism is the theory that what exists is what the natural sciences “tell us” exists, i.e. what we are able to learn via their methods.

In support of their theory, naturalists point to the many predictive and technological successes of the natural sciences. In favor of their own theory, spectaclists could also point to the great predictive and technological accomplishments of spectacle-wearers.

Still, no one believes in spectaclism, and the reason is obvious: That a certain method provides us with reliable and useful information about some domain gives us no reason whatsoever to think that what it tells us exists is all that exists. There are other problems too: What sorts of spectacles are the ones we should rely on to tell us what exists? Bifocals? Sunglasses? What color? And why those, exactly?

Notice that the problem here is a failure to keep in mind that metaphysical questions are prior to epistemological or methodological ones. You have to determine first what exists before you can find out whether spectacles tell you all there is to know about it, exactly which spectacles do the job, etc. Spectaclism, in short, gets things back-asswards.

But here’s the thing: Naturalism is exactly as back-asswards as spectaclism is. It is silly to suggest that what exists is only what natural science tells you exists unless you already know through independent means what exists, can compare the deliverances of all putative natural sciences to it, and determine on that basis that such-and-such putative natural sciences alone capture everything there is.

Of course, naturalists will tell us that there is no alternative to natural science – that common sense perceptual experience, introspection, putative religious experiences, and metaphysical inquiry are trustworthy only to the extent that they are vindicated by the natural sciences. But spectaclists could say something similar: Putative alternative sources of knowledge are to be trusted only to the extent that they can be given a respectable spectaclist foundation. “But that’s ridiculous!” Sure it is. So is naturalism.

“Oh come on, we have independent grounds for holding that more exists than is dreamed of in the spectaclist’s philosophy!” Sure we do, but we also have independent grounds for holding that more exists than is dreamed of in the naturalist’s philosophy – for example, grounds derived from common sense perceptual experience, introspection, putative religious experiences, and metaphysical inquiry. “But those aren’t reliable sources of knowledge!” Oh, you mean the way non-spectaclist sources are not reliable? What’s the difference, exactly? And try not to beg the question this time.

“But, but, but, but… naturalism just can’t be as groundless as that!” Wanna bet?

“But most contemporary academic philosophers are naturalists! How can they all be wrong?” Tsk tsk, come now, everyone knows that arguments from authority went out with the Middle Ages…

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

I hear you’re mad about Brubeck….

I like your eyes, I like him too. We’ve celebrated the anniversary of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. While 2009 is still with us, we can’t forget that other classic jazz album from 1959, Dave Brubeck’s Time Out. He’s an artist, a pioneer. And, incidentally, a Catholic convert. Here, courtesy of YouTube, is "Blue Rondo a la Turk." Mix yourself a dry one and dig on it.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Rosenberg on naturalism

A reader writes to inform me of Alex Rosenberg’s very interesting essay “The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality.” Rosenberg’s thesis? That naturalism entails nihilism; in particular, that it entails denying the existence of objective moral value, of beliefs and desires, of the self, of linguistic meaning, and indeed of meaning or purpose of any sort. All attempts to evade this conclusion, to reconcile naturalism with our common sense understanding of human life, inevitably fail. Naturalism, when consistently worked out, leads to a radical eliminativism. Says my informant: “Why, it sounds shockingly similar to some things you once wrote in a book that was all about sperm, does it not?” Indeed, except that when I said it I was a “religiously inspired bigot,” whereas when Rosenberg says it he gets a respectful link, complete with a fanboyish exclamation point. Odd, no?

Not really. Because in The Last Superstition I argue that the implications in question constitute a reductio ad absurdum of naturalism, whereas Rosenberg (who is himself a naturalist) regards them instead as a set of depressing truths we must learn to live with. As you’ll see from Rosenberg’s combox, not all naturalists agree with him. But naturalist religionists are an ecumenical bunch. They’ll allow you to draw any absurd conclusion you wish from naturalist premises, as long as (naturally enough) you never under any circumstances question the premises themselves.

As TLS argues at length, the position Rosenberg rightly takes to follow from naturalism is not only depressing; it is incoherent. Therefore, naturalism is false. Furthermore (and as I also argue at length in TLS) there are no non-question-begging arguments for naturalism in the first place. Its hegemony over contemporary intellectual life owes entirely to a mixture of philosophical muddleheadedness, ignorance of philosophical history, and anti-religious animus. (Again, see TLS for the details.)

Rosenberg’s essay only bolsters the already ample evidence for these claims. Let’s take them in order:

1. Naturalism is incoherent: Suppose (as I argue in TLS) that Rosenberg is right about what naturalism implies. In that case there are no beliefs or desires, nor is there any such thing as the “original intentionality” or meaning that common sense says thoughts have, and which it takes to be the source of the derived intentionality exhibited by language. But then, Rosenberg rightly concludes, there’s no such thing as “the” real or actual meaning of a work of art, a human action, or indeed of anything else. There is simply no fact of the matter about what anything means. So far so good, and so far what Rosenberg is doing is simply noting that Quine’s famous thesis of the indeterminacy of meaning is not some eccentricity on Quine’s part, but follows from the naturalistic assumptions Quine shares with most contemporary academic philosophers.

The trouble is that if this is correct, then there is in particular no fact of the matter about what Rosenberg or any other naturalist means when he puts forward a naturalistic thesis. Objectively speaking there is no more reason to think that their utterances express a naturalistic position than that they express a Cartesian one or an Islamic one, or indeed that they are anything more than empty verbiage. The choice is purely pragmatic, or determined by social or economic forces or toilet training, or by Darwinian selection pressures, or by whatever it is this year’s clever young naturalistic philosophers are saying determines it.

Now this is absurd enough, but naturalists have already long inured themselves to accepting such nonsense. Writers like John Searle have been pointing out the paradox for years, to no effect. It doesn’t phase the average naturalist, any more than the hardened criminal feels even a twinge of guilt upon committing his 345th felony. The mental calluses are too thick. You see, if naturalism leads to absurdity, then it must not really be absurdity; because, kids, naturalism just can’t be wrong. Only those dogmatic religious types think otherwise.

But it’s worse than all that. For it won’t do for the naturalist to say: “OK, so we’ve got to swallow some bizarre stuff. But we’re just following the argument where it leads!” What argument? There’s no fact of the matter here either – no fact of the matter about which argument one is presenting, and in particular no fact of the matter about whether one’s arguments conform to valid patterns of inference. In the case at hand, there is simply no fact of the matter about whether Rosenberg’s own arguments (or those of any other naturalist) are sound or entirely fallacious. So why should we accept them? I suppose Rosenberg could always do what any serious philosopher would when dealing with those who stubbornly disagree with him – start a petition to pressure the APA to settle the question in his favor. But until that happens, we’ll just have to wait on pins and needles.

So, that’s one fatal problem, and there’s more to be said about it. If you simply cannot bear the thought of helping to fund the purchase of my next martini or holy card by ordering a copy of TLS, then at least read James F. Ross’s unjustly neglected article “Immaterial Aspects of Thought.”

There are other incoherencies too. For example, Rosenberg keeps telling us that this or that commonsense feature of human nature is an “illusion” – despite the fact that illusions themselves are intentional phenomena, and thus the sort of thing which, on Rosenberg’s account, naturalism entails doesn’t exist. Rosenberg also seems to think that blindsight phenomena give us a reason to be eliminativists about phenomenal consciousness. But this is incoherent too, because the only reason we judge something to be a case of blindsight in the first place is that we have phenomenally conscious experiences to compare it to. Furthermore, Rosenberg assures us that the mind is merely the product of a long process of selection which favored those who were skilled at detecting other people’s motives. But since “motives” are themselves intentional mental phenomena, they can hardly coherently be appealed to in an account of how the mind originated. (Nor will it do to suggest that Rosenberg means only that our more complex minds evolved in order to detect other people’s motives; for it is the existence of any intentionality at all which poses a uniquely difficult problem for naturalism, not merely the existence of complex minds like ours.)

Of course, these are very old and very well-known problem with eliminative materialism, and eliminative materialists typically pooh-pooh them or (more commonly) simply ignore them. Even non-eliminativist naturalists do the same. What none of them do is actually answer such objections, except with “solutions” which also presuppose intentionality and/or consciousness and thus simply raise the same difficulty at a higher level. The problem is obvious, and obviously fatal, and yet amazingly, it is rarely addressed (Rosenberg’s essay completely ignores it). Victor Reppert and William Hasker have put forward what I think is the correct explanation of this bizarre state of denial: Even naturalists who are not eliminative materialists suspect that their position may inevitably lead them in an eliminativist direction, and they want to keep the option open. Precisely because the obviously fatal objection to eliminative materialism is so obvious and so fatal, the typical naturalist pays it little or no heed, lest he be forced by it to give up naturalism itself – a position which is, as Hasker puts it, something like “a theological dogma” for those philosophers committed to it. Like children, they hope the problem will just go away if they pay it no attention.

Let’s move on to the second claim I have said is given some further confirmation by Rosenberg’s essay:

2. There are no non-question-begging arguments for naturalism: Rosenberg’s thinks we have to accept the depressing consequences he outlines because he thinks naturalism is clearly true. Why?

The only argument he gives – implies, really – is the standard, tired “heroic age of science” argument: Modern science implies naturalism, so it must be true. But why accept this conditional? It would certainly come as news to Galileo, Descartes, Boyle, Newton, Leibniz, Locke, and many of the other founders of modern science and philosophy who (given that they were theists and/or dualists of one stripe or another) rejected naturalism (not to mention the many non-naturalist scientists and philosophers who have succeeded them, down to the present day). It also comes as news to us reactionary Aristotelians and Thomists, who hold that an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) metaphysics and philosophy of nature is perfectly compatible with the findings of modern science.

But Rosenberg assures us that 17th century scientists and philosophers of the stripe just mentioned “purged” or “ruled out” Aristotelian formal and final causes and the like. If what Rosenberg means by this is that they decided simply to ignore formal and final causes, then he is right. But if what he means is that they somehow refuted the claim that formal and final causes exist, or even cast the slightest doubt on their existence, then he is most definitely wrong, as I have argued at length in several places, including TLS and Aquinas. Indeed, as I argue there, the reality of formal and final causes is in fact rationally unavoidable.

But even if we A-T types are wrong, that would do nothing to show that naturalism is true, because there is still the non-naturalistic interpretation of science defended by dualists, idealists, and representatives of other modern schools of thought which accept the broadly mechanistic or non-teleological conception of nature endorsed by naturalists, but deny that nature so conceived is all that exists. True, their position is currently a minority view. But X is the majority view among contemporary academic philosophers does not entail X is true or even X is the only view worth taking seriously. Indeed, by itself it does not even entail X is plausible.

Anyway, whenever Rosenberg or some other naturalist tells you that “Science has shown such-and-such,” what he really means is “Science as interpreted in light of a naturalistic metaphysics has shown such-and-such.” And when he is telling you specifically that what science has shown is that naturalism is true, what he is doing, accordingly, is begging the question. Nothing more. Which brings us to:

3. The hegemony of naturalism over contemporary intellectual life owes entirely to philosophical muddleheadedness, ignorance of philosophical history, and anti-religious animus: We’ve already noted a fair bit of muddleheadedness. Rosenberg’s implicit assumption that realism about the mental entails the view that a thought is a kind of inner “representation” is a possible instance of ignorance of (a big chunk of) philosophical history. As I have noted in several earlier posts (e.g. here), this “representationalist” conception of thought is a modern, Cartesian, and entirely contingent assumption that classical and medieval thinkers would have rejected (rightly, in my view).

In general, contemporary naturalistic philosophers – or at least those whose naturalism is “scientistic,” as Rosenberg’s self-consciously is – tend to have little or no knowledge of the many deep differences between modern, Cartesian versions of dualism and classical (Platonic or Aristotelian-Thomistic) ones, between modern rationalist and empiricist arguments for God’s existence and classical (Neo-Platonic or A-T) ones, and so on. They assimilate the classical theories to the modern ones and thus falsely assume that refuting the latter suffices to refute the former. (Even then, their understanding of modern forms of non-naturalism is often laughable; e.g. they often claim that Cartesian dualism involves “positing” the existence of “mind-stuff” or “ectoplasm.”)

How about the animus against religion? Well, Rosenberg tells us that a belief in meanings and purposes is what puts us on a “slippery slope” to religion. About that he is, I would say, absolutely right. But of course, that gives us a reason to endorse Rosenberg’s rejection of purposes and meanings (as he seems to think it does) only if we already know that no religion is true. Naturalism, we all thought, was supposed to show us that religion is an illusion; now, it turns out, naturalism merely assumes this.

Beg the question much?

UPDATE: Rosenberg has now replied to his critics (scroll to the bottom of his combox) and I comment on his reply here.