Saturday, July 05, 2008

Reply to JT Eberhard

JT: To argue that the existence of intention establishes the existence of god is an argument from ignorance, especially given the vast amount we do understand about the brain. All that we know about states of mind has been revealed to us by the application of experiments dealing with the tangible aspects of cognizance. Conversely, it seem the argument of consciousness could once have been called the argument from emotion, before science granted us an explanation of the mechanisms that caused us to be emotional.

VR: Here is my question. Could any amount of brain information be logically sufficient for the existence of an intentional state, such that, given this pile of non-intentional information, a truth about the intentional state is logically entailed? It seems to be a problem very similar from the problem of going from descriptive to normative in, say, an ethical context. The fact we have scientific information bearing on the subject doesn't automatically solve the problem. For example, if I want to know if I ought to fire off a gun right now, there are some descriptive scientific facts about what firing off that gun is going to do that will, given certain moral values
justify the claim that I ought not to fire the gun. But does it complete the argument against shooting the gun? No. Is it an argument from ignorance to suggest that no matter how much scientific information about gun-shooting we gather, we are not going to logically reach the conclusion that shooting the gun is wrong? No.

In general, although a lot of people use the "argument from ignorance" charge against various theistic arguments (and in the case of my argument from reason I don't go directly to God; there are several intervening steps), I have never seen a good analysis of what a fallacious argument from ignorance is. There is maybe a paradigm case or two out there, but it is as if people think they can say phrase and expect the opposing argument to just go away. It doesn't work that way.



At 7/05/2008 11:09:00 PM , Blogger JT Eberhard said...

First, thank you for taking the time to respond. I'm flattered and happy to have the opportunity to respond.

On Moral Intentionality

While human beings typically feel the urge to be moral (some people have damage to their amygdala, chemical imbalances, or other physical defects that preclude such impulses - but it should be noted that these physical abnormalities alter states in precisely the fashion our science indicates they should, lending credit to my position), there is a litany of explanations for why this is, using science we already have. Whether or not a proposition, such as firing a gun, is moral or not has nothing to do with how our brain feels about it, but whether or not reason leads us to a certain conclusion.

It should be noted that our ability to reason resides in the neocortex, and has been mapped using fMRIs and spectralneuroimaging, amongst other methods. It is pure physicality that lends us our ability (or lack thereof) to reason and apply logic. As I will show below, this is what leads to the sense of intention given certain propositions.

So, here is my response to your initial question, without spending too much time branching off into the mechanics of morality (though I am more than happy to do so at a later date, perhaps in a blogalogue between us?). You asked:

"Could any amount of brain information be logically sufficient for the existence of an intentional state, such that, given this pile of non-intentional information, a truth about the intentional state is logically entailed?"

Certainly, though there are some details that need to be cleaned up first.

While certain truths (The Earth revolves around the sun, Matter bends space-time, etc) are materialistic and therefore subject to confirmation through evidence, morality is not substantial, it is instead the product of human conjecture. So to expect morality to deliver an absolute, synthetic type of truth in the same way it does with, say, physics, is a practical absurdity. Moral propositions, such as whether or not to fire a gun, can only be right or wrong depending on our parameters for morality. Science can determine questions of ought, but only if we agree on what we are seeking.

As an example, consider the prospect of whether or not Fat Albert or myself should eat a banana split. We both share a goal, to be happy; but our priorities produce different ideas of what we “should” do in terms of reaching our shared goal. For myself, my priority is not to have large rump. For Fat Albert, his priority is that food tastes good. Given our starting presuppositions, both conclusions are perfectly logical. Science cannot give us a definitive answer here either (well, we can certainly measure happiness in scientific terms), but we can still see how we flow through logic to the conclusion of what ought to be done, and our physical brains handle it elegantly with no need for god.

Morality is similar to the above example in that it works through the same processes, but it is not nearly so individualized: our concept of moral “ought” affects many other human beings, so these questions of ought are of much greater concern to us than of what we should eat. Science (and our purely materialistic brains) could give us a definitive answer of what is moral, if only we could agree on our goals that the word implies..

For myself, morality is simply a question of which decision produces the most happiness or alleviates the most suffering. For others, it is a question of what they believe god wants. For others it is something else.

For instance, I consider the proposition of a ban on gay marriage to be immoral, since no perceivable harm is at stake and such restrictions would protect nobody while hindering the rights of others. However, to many Christians, morality means something completely different, and does not take the superfluity of a moral proposition in terms of human happiness into account. Both of our brains process the claim to morality through the same mechanics, but because we are operating under different variables we reach, logically, different conclusions, which I believe you labeled as “intentional states” in your response. Science can explain how the brain arrives at such conclusions, but it cannot rule on which one is “right” because we are tackling different questions due to our inability to define our terms and agree on them. If we could do so, then the brain absolutely has the physical means to ascertain near universal truth on the matter.

For some, they will say that there must be an absolute right or wrong on such questions that exists outside of human conjecture. To them I would ask “How do you know?” And I would launch into the evidences we have that morality exists only as a construct of humanity via our biology and cognitive processes. If you require such a list (or the portion I’d be willing to take the time to provide, as the list is long enough to defy concise description), please let me know.

On Arguments from Ignorance

You keep harping on how our understanding is incomplete, which it is. So is our understanding of gravity. In neither case should we ignore the vast collection of fact we have derived from enormous batteries of evidence on the subjects, just because our understanding is incomplete.

Whether you attempt to reach god as a specific conclusion or not, you are still trying to make implications from what we do not know. Even if we had no idea how the brain processed claims to truth (which we do), it would not for a moment lend credence to any other claim. We cannot derive any positive reason to believe in another proposition due to our supposed ignorance of how the brain functions. Conversely, we have an ocean of positive evidence for how our brains arrive at decisions of both evidential and conjectural truth – what evidence do we have that a creator had even a minute hand in our thought processes, whether intentional or not?

This is the argument from ignorance to which I am referring, and I know for a fact that science most definitely does not work that way.

We have oodles of information about how the brain works supported by a mountain of evidence that explains how we arrive at intentional states – and it requires no appeal to god or any other designer. In fact, it points to a purely naturalistic development of such sensibilities (see the section on the evolution of the brain, look at what the mammalian brain accomplishes in comparison to our remaining reptilian brains).



At 7/05/2008 11:11:00 PM , Blogger JT Eberhard said...

As an additional question, if you are not attempting to reach a conclusion by frequently pointing to what we (supposedly) do not know about the brain's ability to produce intentionality (which would constitute an argument from ignorance), then why are you doing it?


At 7/05/2008 11:42:00 PM , Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Victor, when you say the brain can't produce intentionality, what do you mean exactly? It is a slippery term.

By 'intentionality' do you mean:
a) Processes that refer, can be true/false?
b) Qualia?
c) Something else?

I would agree that right now we have a conceptual gap between the concept of qualia and the explanatory resources of neuroscience (answer b). I think this doesn't provide evidence that naturalism is wrong, just that it is presently incomplete (and may never be completed, in which case naturalism, or at least present versions, would be wrong). Hence if you were to take this present ignorance (a boring psychological fact about us) and try to make a definitive conclusion about ontology, that would be a clear-cut argument from ignorance.

I know you'd probably say that no amount of facts would ever be enough to close that gap, but really that is a prediction about what you will think once the neuroscience is "done", which is something I wouldn't trust.

Now if by intentionality you mean a, I think your case is much weaker, for reasons we've gone over and over (as spelled out in some detail here).

Once you get propositional contents (things that can be true or false), then inference isn't all that far away. Conceptually, the biggest gap is between physical stuff like neurons and stuff with semantic properties like propositons. Once that gap is crossed, inference is just a variation on a theme.

However, you might explicitly be referring to conscious inference, consciousness of propositional contents, in which case the hard part of the problem is still qualia.

My hunch, when I'm wearing my naturalist hat, is that our concept of qualia and our concept of the brian will both undergo changes until the explanatory gap disappears, much like it did between the biology of 'chromosomes' and theories of heredity (there were vitalists that thought chromosomes were just too simple to be able to account for all the phenotypic variability we see--they didn't have the right resources yet to think about it correctly).

Extreme dogmatism, whether it be materialist or dualist, is not yet justified. No need for materialists to act like consciousness is explained. It isn't. And no need to for dualists to be so confident in their predictions about what they will think after 200 more years of neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy of consciousness.

At 7/06/2008 07:24:00 AM , Blogger JT Eberhard said...


Well put.

I agree that dogma is never justified, even in the cases of some pretty outlandish propositions (unicorns, leprechauns, etc).

No intelligent human being holds absolute beliefs, but rather probable beliefs based on the information we have - which is precisely where my argument comes into play. It seems Victor's argument from consciousness could once have been called the argument from hunger, before we figured out where the sensation of hunger came from; or it could have been called the argument from emotion, before we figured out how emotion was produced in the amygdala. It's starting to look like a fairly weak argument.

Quite literally everything we know about the brain, which is a pretty fair amount, indicates that it operates as a moist machine, with no appeal to god. Everything.

Not just the brain, but everything we have had the opportunity to study in depth has shown to be tied to natural law, with an explanation that operates just fine without a god figure.

Based on this, I consider it far more probable that unanswered questions regarding our tangible brains (of which matters of "ought" is not included) also have naturalistic answers, barring some evidence from Reppert or anybody else that a divine source had a hand in any of it.

As far as I know, they do not have such evidence. It is not that mine, or anybody else's, acceptance that naturalism has been eroding the truth claims of faith for thousands of years makes us dogmatic, we are willing to have our minds changed about god, as well as unicorns and leprechauns - we simply must have evidence, and we are inherently suspicious of those who believe things without any.



At 7/06/2008 08:18:00 AM , Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

The difference between unicorns and consciousness is that there is good reason to believe consciousness is real.

We really do not understand the experiences of hunger. Sure, we have some functional localization studies, which are quite crude. But the actual sensation of being hungry? That's the problem we are talking about. To say that's solved would be like saying the problem of visual experience is solved because we have mapped out the visual areas using fMRI and single-unit studies.

As I already mentioned at your blog, Chalmers is the best for the anti-physicalist spin on consciousness. Every naturalist must grappled with Chalmers. His is the most informed and clear expression of the problem of conscious experience.

This is why Koch and many researchers in the neuroscience of consciousness talk only of the 'neuronal correlates of consciousness.' They are being cautious scientists, not overselling the reach of their work. The overconfidence tends to come from people that are not neuroscientists (and I mean that for both dualists and materialists).

See the first paragraph from Francis Crick and Christof Koch's great article on the neuronal basis of consciousness:
"The most difficult aspect of consciousness is the so-called 'hard problem' of qualia--the redness of red, the painfulness of pain, and so on. No one has produced any plausible explanation as to how the experience of the redness of red could arise from the actions of the brain. It appears fruitless to approach this problem head-on. Instead, we are attempting to find the neural correlate(s) of consciousness (NCC), in the hope that when we can explain the NCC in causal terms, this will make the problem of qualia clearer."

Koch has probably done more than anyone to advance the study of the neuronal basis of consciousness, and it is heartening that he is careful philosophically.

At 7/06/2008 08:36:00 AM , Blogger JT Eberhard said...


I confess, I've not yet read Chalmers (a guy has only so much time), but I will and I will get back to you.

On the redness of red or the intensity of pain - that's odd, since I'm quite certain we know how the brain arrives at those perceptions. I must go to work for the moment, but either tonight or tomorrow I'll go link-diving and what not.



At 7/06/2008 09:15:00 AM , Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

JT: we do know a lot about processing of color information. E.g., retinal wavelength sensitivities, V1 and V4 color selectivity. But I could build a little gadget that responds only to one wavelength, that doesn't make it conscious. More than color receptive fields are required. There is speculation that connections of these areas to frontal cortex are required, but there are people with frontal lobotomies that are stupid, but conscious.

My hunch is the brainstem is important, as suggested by Baars in his wonderful work A cognitive theory of consciousness.

At 7/06/2008 11:37:00 AM , Blogger Shackleman said...


While you're busying yourself link-diving for support of positions you already hold, you should spend some time reading the best of the best from the opposition.

You've made some assertions that are in my estimation unjustified. Your going on about the lack of evidence for God and such----what evidence would you accept? You certainly don't seem open to the idea---your mind is made up, or so it would appear.

"we simply must have evidence, and we are inherently suspicious of those who believe things without any [such as God]."

Oh, there's evidence. Maybe not *convincing* evidence (to you). But evidence. You really ought to look for yourself. Assertions like those I just quoted point to your own dogmatism.

Honest question: have you read Dr. Reppert's book? Hasker's "Emergent Self"? You should start with these for some basic understanding of the topics presented on this blog.

At 7/06/2008 03:33:00 PM , Blogger JT Eberhard said...


I learned a lot of things in my Psych 121 class (such as the pairing system by which the brain interprets color) for which I could not readily cite any work on the subject, but I am happy to go find it for the sake of argument. The insinuation that I hold a position with no evidence was not lost on me, and it is wholly incorrect. For an explanation of how this is so, click here and read the section on deferring to experts.

The unjustified assertions you accuse me of seems to be only one such assertion - the lack of evidence for god. I believe it is justified and would welcome a blogalogue with you on the subject. My rules for a blogalogue are as follows:

1. Stay courteous. We're in this together, searching for what is true, and we should treat each other as such.

2. All posts are posted on each participants blog.

3. Either party may end the blogalogue at any point.

The topic would seem to be "Is there evidence for god?"

What evidence would I accept? Well, he could say something to me or swing by my house. Hell, I'll even augment my vulnerability to belief a little further by issuing this challenge to all the believers here:

I just rearranged my bookshelf, if you could pray to god and ask for all the titles on the top row in order and recite it to me, I will take that as sufficient evidence that you speak to the almighty.

There is literally millions of things that could convince me that god exists, I am just not willing to have my mind blown on significantly lesser terms.

Ultimately though, you accuse me of having a closed mind when you have no evidence for such a claim other than the fact that I disagree with you and others who believe.

On looking for evidence - I have read the bible in its entirety on more than one occasion, and I am currently picking up Greek to read the NT in Greek. I have read the Koran all the way through, as well as the Hadith, the Tao Te Ching, the articles of Jainism, etc, you get the picture. Is this the behavior of somebody averse to evidence or to opening his mind to the feasibility of god? As a public speaker and vocal critic of religion, I can assure you that most Christians have not dedicated anywhere near as much attention to their scriptures as I have.

Your claim that I am dogmatic is a ridiculous defense mechanism on your part, and you can feel free to retract your assertion that I lack a basic understanding of the topics on hand.

And no, I've not read his book. I was linked to this page by one of his readers here a couple of days ago and asked to tackle his argument from consciousness, which I did.

I happen to know that the author of the above post has read the Chalmers piece and is penning an assessment of it. I will be sure to read both.

Anyway, let me know if you're up for a blogalogue on the evidence for god.


At 7/06/2008 07:55:00 PM , Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

My main concern is the overstatement that neuroscience has already explained conscious experience. Chalmers is a great antidote to that sentiment. What I like about Chalmers is his ability to express the core of the problem without a lot of BS.

His positive argument, that neuroscience will never explain consciousness, is not convincing (for reasons I stated above). However, the claim that it has been explained by neuroscience is just false. Well, perhaps your friend will show me why I'm wrong. :)

At 7/06/2008 10:28:00 PM , Blogger Shackleman said...


"The insinuation that I hold a position with no evidence was not lost on me, and it is wholly incorrect."

Well no, I wasn't insinuating that. I was suggesting that your claim of "no evidence for God" was unfounded, and in point of fact was off topic.

What you say you'd accept as evidence for God is tantamount to *proof*, not evidence. I'm curious, would you maintain that same standard before accepting evidence for String Theory? M-Theory? Multiverse Theory? Of course you wouldn't maintain that standard. And rightfully so. You'd accept the findings of the mathematics as evidence in favor of those things, even though there isn't any *proof* of those things--no observation, no physical samples, no supporting experimentation of those things.

"Your claim that I am dogmatic is a ridiculous defense mechanism on your part."

I trust you can understand how I might have gotten the wrong impression, especially in the light of statements such as these:

"I can assure you that most Christians have not dedicated anywhere near as much attention to their scriptures as I have.".


"There is literally millions of things that could convince me that god exists, I am just not willing to have my mind blown on significantly lesser terms."

[emphasis added]

I thinks it's quite possible that out of the estimated 2 billion Christians worldwide that many more than you, perhaps even most, have dedicated their attentions to their scriptures as much as you have, no?

"and you can feel free to retract your assertion that I lack a basic understanding of the topics on hand."

My apologies if this was an offense. It wasn't my intention. Allow me to try a better phrasing.

Many of the posters and readers of this blog, "come to the table" so to speak, having read Reppert, Hasker, Chalmers, Plantinga, Craig, etc. Some of the very good points you bring up have already been addressed with great care and expertise by those authors. I think you could round out your points of argumentation if you spent some time with those authors.

Now, rather than hijack Dr. Reppert's post here, I'll step aside and give you the last word (if you'd like) so you two can get on with it :-)

At 7/06/2008 11:04:00 PM , Blogger nisemono3.14 said...

To be fair, my brief explanation of consciousness was based on a different definition then is being used here. It was a quick response to an internet troll who claimed that scientists had no idea what created the soul, aka consciousness. This definition of consciousness included such things as our ability to think, feel emotional response, form emotional connections.

I do feel that neurologists are able to explain these things. We know emotional responses have biological basis, we know the hormones that cause us to form connections with other beings.

I believe that when we are dealing with internet trolls that also believe the earth is six thousand years old, a simplistic response explaining emotion, imagination, or attachment is fair enough.

However, in this case we are dealing with the unexplained phenomenon of the human brain. Explaining simplistic anatomy is not enough.

Experience of the outside world, experience at all, has yet to be explained. We have begun to get a fuzzy pictures when we have worked with split-brain epileptic patients who are unable to communicate a full experience of the world, but we are just beginning to delve into this. It certainly is one of the biggest puzzles before us.

However, we need to be sure that we don't lose sight of how much we do know. I would disagree with Chalmers' proposition that our inability to currently explain experience means that we should write it off as inexplicable using the tools of neuroscience.

Dr. Dennett discusses these views much more eloquently then I could hope to in his paper "Facing Backwards on the Problem of Consciousness".

I think it is a problem to latch onto the parts of human behavior that we cannot explain, and assume that they cannot BE explained. Neuroscience is a fledgling enterprise, and one that is getting better. We cannot hold a chunk of phenomenon we don't understand yet, and use it as proof that something else is driving the behavior.

Imagine, if instead of investigating synaptic habituation, we had simply wrote memory off as something we could not explain?

I understand this is not the proposition of everyone here, but it is the proposition of those who would announce that experience was not a biological phenomenon, and was somehow proof for dualism.


At 7/07/2008 07:18:00 AM , Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Amber--I think what you say is reasonable.

Dennett can be good, especially his recent book 'Sweet Dreams' which addresses a lot of the issues we're talking about. His strength is coming up with very clever thought experiments (even though he pretends to hate thought experiments). One of his weaknesses is that he overstates what he has shown (e.g., the title of his 1991 book).

Dennett absolutely nails it when he points to this, ""With experience, on the other hand, physical explanation of the functions is not in question. The key is instead the conceptual point that the explanation of functions does not suffice for the explanation of experience," as the crux of Chalmers' position that is contentious (and Chalmers certainly recognizes this).

Dennet goes on, unconvincingly, and with characteristic arrogance, to say, "I submit that he is flatly mistaken in this claim. Whether people realize it or not,? it is precisely the "remarkable functions associated with" consciousness that drive them to wonder about how consciousness could possible reside in a brain." [Italics added]

The bit in italics is typical of Dennett. An arrogant assertion with no compelling argument to back it up, about how confused people are about qualia and consciousness.

Though Dennett is merely a philosopher, after all, and one of their tools of the trade is the 'withering glare' operator. My attitude is, there's been enough philosophy of consciousness, we need to do the science. I liken present philosophers of consciousness to Kantian philosophers making pronouncements about the necessary nature of space and time before Newton or Einstein.

Note I'm not saying neuroscience will definitely solve the problem. I'm saying that everybody is too ignorant right now to get their knickers in a bunch about consciousness, and should chill out.

We've had threads like this before, such as this post, which actually gives proper credit to Pat Churchland for one of the ideas I expressed here.

At 7/07/2008 08:39:00 AM , Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

I wrote something ridiculous here:
I liken present philosophers of consciousness to Kantian philosophers making pronouncements about the necessary nature of space and time before [Newton or] Einstein.

Oops. Kant, of course, was post-Newton, was born three years before Newton died. I originally had it written as 'ancient Greek' philosophers, but changed it without changing the physicist list. (Though I do think we are more like the ancient greeks than the Kantians about space and time, that we haven't even gotten the Newton of consciousness yet).


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