Monday, August 06, 2007

A second DI post on truncated thought

I must admit that Lewis's "it is obvious" response made the issue seem like more of a slam dunk than I would think of it as being. This chapter was written before he encountered Anscombe, when he had underestimated the complexity of the argument, but Lewis just revised one chapter of the book in response to Anscombe, not all of it.

Of course thought is solidly based in the body, but can a complete description of the state of one's body thereby account for what one's thought is about? If we had all the physical facts, would any mental facts follow logically? It isn't just religious people who say that physicalists have problems accounting for the mind. For example's here's naturalist Ned Block:

We gain some perspective on the explanatory gap if we contrast the issue of the physical/functional basis of consciousness with the issue of the physical/functional basis of thought. In the case of thought, we do have some theoretical proposals about what thought is, or at least what human thought is, in scientific terms. Cognitive scientists have had some success in explaining some features of our thought processes in terms of the notions of representation and computation. There are many disagreements among cognitive scientists: especially notable is the disagreement between connectionists and classical "language of thought" theorists. However, the fact is that in the case of thought, we actually have more than one substantive research program and their proponents are busy fighting it out, comparing which research program handles which phenomena best. But in the case of consciousness, we have nothing--zilch--worthy of being called a research program, nor are there any substantive proposals about how to go about starting one. Researchers are stumped. There have been many tantalizing discoveries recently about neuropsychological syndromes in which consciousness seems to be in some way missing or defective, but no one has yet come up with a theoretical perspective that uses these data to narrow the explanatory gap, even a little bit.

Ned Block, ‘Consciousness’, in A Companion to Philosophy of Mind, (ed.) Samuel Guttenplan, (Blackwell, 1994), p. 211.

Or try that infamous Christian apologist Richard Dawkins

Neither Steven Pinker nor I can explain human subjective consciousness... In How the Mind Works Steven elegantly sets out the problem of subjective consciousness, and asks where it comes from and what’s the explanation. Then he’s honest enough to say, ‘Beats the heck out of me.’ That is an honest thing to say, and I echo it. We don’t know. We don’t understand it.

Richard Dawkins, quoted by Varghese, The Wonder of the World, p. 56.

Or how about that raving religious lunatic Susan Blackmore:

How can objective things like brain cells produce subjective experiences like the feeling that ‘I’ am striding through the grass? This gap is what David Chalmers calls ‘the hard problem.’ ...It is a modern version of the ancient mind/body problem – but it seems to get worse, not better, the more we learn about the brain... The objective world out there, and the subjective experiences in here, seem to be totally different kinds of things. Asking how one produces the other seems to be nonsense. The intractability of this problem suggests to me that we are making a fundamental mistake in the way we think about consciousness – perhaps right at the very beginning.

Susan Blackmore, ‘What is consciousness?’, Big Questions in Science, in Harriet Swain (ed.), Big Questions in Science, (Jonathan Cape, 2002), p. 29-40.

Now I am not saying these people are anywhere near arguing that the mind is supernatural. Far from it. But what I am suggesting is that the "facts" do not prove the the mind is physical, and that there should be no mystery about it, and that of course we all know that it is true. Rather, the conviction that the mind must be physical is one that is "read in" to the scientific data based on prior convictions about what must be true about nature.

Of course, Lewis and others such as myself have detailed arguments for why the mental states are not natural phenomena. To say that the facts prove that it is a natural phenomena is to provide a proof surrogate, not a proof.

What I was trying to do was show how Lewis perceived scientific thought: the right tool for many types of inquiry but nevertheless a "truncated" way to come up with a complete philosophy. Russell thought otherwise. He said "What science cannot discover, mankind cannot know." (I wonder what scientific discovery he based that off of? Unless he wasn't pretending to know it). Link

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At 8/06/2007 10:32:00 AM , Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

I agree with Block for the most part. The question is, what follows from our ignorance? If scientists admitting they don't understand something is evidence for supernaturalism, then the periodic shifts in the orientation of Earth's magnetic field implies that naturalism is wrong (there are no good ideas about how that works). You could also bring up measurement in quantum mechanics as evidence that naturalism is wrong (I have actually seen this done!).

Without ignorance of how things work, science comes to a halt. Hence, it just seems strange to use ignorance as evidence for anti-naturalism!

At 8/06/2007 10:52:00 AM , Blogger Doctor Logic said...


No, I think the situation is far worse for dualism.

Suppose you start from the observation that we have memory and emotions, have sensations, make choices, have a sense of self, and so on.

Suppose we also initially lack knowledge of any physical mechanisms inside the body that would account for subjective experience.

In that case, one might propose that our subjective experience is not caused by physics. However, if that is the case, we don't expect to discover physical mechanisms that would independently explain the subjective features we see.

For example, if our nervous system is just an antenna for something non-physical, why have a connected nervous system at all? Why have a brain?

We might also expect that memory is not stored in the physical body. Yet we don't just find physical regions of the brain that correlate with memory, we find physical regions in the brain that function as memory, making a dualistic account of memory redundant.

There have been hundreds of discoveries about the brain-mind connection that show that the brain isn't just correlated with mind, but has the functionality of mind.

With each discovery, dualism gets fine-tuned to fit in the gaps. Rationally, we must conclude that dualism, while perhaps not impossible, is extremely unlikely. IOW, of all the possible dualities, why does dualism turn out to be the one particular dualism that's consistent with physicalism (that fits in the remaining gaps)?

This is analogous to a murder investigation in which there are two suspects. Evidence is found that suspect #1 had means, motive, and opportunity. No evidence is found for suspect #2, but suspect #2 has no alibi either. Is it then rational to conclude that both suspects are equally likely to have committed the crime? I don't think that it is.

We're not ignorant. We actually know a lot about the brain-mind connection. Just not everything.

At 8/06/2007 11:55:00 AM , Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

DL: Yes, neuroscience has made great strides in the last century. I was specifically referring to our ignorance about qualia, the raw feels, the subjectivity, of experience. While I think Block overstates things a bit I largely agree with his point: we have no idea how brain-meat has qualia.

So to avoid straw men and red herrings, let's focus on qualia (or in the sciences, awareness). There are a few interesting studies of perceptual awareness. E.g., some clearly show correlations between qualia and neural states (as in binocular rivalry experiments in the fMRI chamber, or blindsight). Then there are the psychological theories of consciousness, what it is for. The most popular at the moment is Baars' global workspace theory, in which conscious contents are the contents of a kind of global distributor in the brain that makes information available to the little specialized modules that unconsciously take care of things like grammar or motor routines.

In all of these cases we can ask, why is there something it is like to be in such-and-such brain state, or to have information on a global workspace? Couldn't the same physical process or information processing go on in the absence of an experience? What in the theory requires that we describe the system satisfying the theory as a conscious entity?

Incidentally, it is because of this Hard Problem that the very people studying this stuff scientifically talk about the neural correlate of consciousness, and even Baars says he doesn't have a solution to the hard problem.

That is, the people doing the science are less dogmatic than a lot of the internet infidel types. Who should we listen to? Hmmm...that's a tough one. A bunch of internet rabble weekend warrior scientist wannabes, or the people slamming their heads against he data and problem daily?

At any rate, the rabble might be right. They are just not justified in being dogmatic or overconfident.

At 8/06/2007 01:58:00 PM , Blogger Victor Reppert said...

I think there are two underlying issues here. First, what precisely is our lack of understanding. Is it a failure to understand the engineering of the system, in much the way we might fail to understand 23rd Century technology if we ran across it? Or is it something far more logico-conceptual. Is there something in the very concepts of the mental and physical that makes it the case that, when we don't fudge our categories and avoid loose brain-talk, reductions inevitably prove impossible?

Second, can we use the successful track record of science to reassure ourselves that the hoped-for reductions will be forthcoming where we lack them at present. I realize that scientific progress often involves conceptual change, but if matter is DEFINED in such a way that it excludes the mental, can we be too surprised if we find that mental-to-physical reductions are a lot tougher to do than the reduction of heat to the MKE of gases?

The distinction long ago between primary and secondary qualities helped science analyze what it was good at analyzing and left other aspects of reality in the category of "the mental." I'm not denying that we can learn a great deal by extending scientific analysis to the life of the mind. But if science sticks to methodological naturalism (a thesis that is not self-interpreting and need some teasing out), can it hope for a complete account of human cognition that will not have the implication that we don't really think, and therefore we don't really exist?

The history of science suggests that we should be careful about believing that we absolutely must presuppose that some kind of reductionism must exist when it isn't looking as if the reduction we want will be forthcoming. The methodological precommitments of science resulted in resistance to quantum indeterminism and Big Bang cosmology, suggesting to me that methodological axioms in science, such as methodological naturalism (whatever that means), should be defeasible.

Science has often concluded that A won't reduce to B, and therefore A is independent of B. Naturalists accuse people like me of armchair science, and then they make dogmatic pronouncements about what science will someday discover.

At 8/07/2007 12:28:00 PM , Blogger Hiero5ant said...

I like to think that I am exactly as dogmatic -- no more and no less -- about whether the mind is natural as I am about whether the next can of coke I open will be natural. To do otherwise would be special pleading.

At 8/07/2007 01:59:00 PM , Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

heiro5ant: I wish that were a good argument, but it begs the question. It is only special pleading if there are no reasons to think that qualia pose no more metaphysical puzzles than Coca-Cola. But that is precisely what is at issue.

At 8/08/2007 11:38:00 AM , Blogger J. Clark said...

Nice post. It brings the conversation a bit closer to the peasant philosopher which is the class I hale from. Am I correct in stating (again) that Lewis was not anti-naturalist (and neither am I)but its presuppositions limit its scope? (right, "truncate" but in case people don't understand the connection) It seems that naturalism beats itself to death for a sum it cannot pay. I don't mind naturalist saying, "we don't understand it on a physical level (that is the level we operate on after all) and we can't lead anyone into a supernatural explanation by the "naturalistic" means but there may be other means in which to draw from in other fields. This seems to be a wise and humble approach but usually comes in a bitter pie.


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