Now that the big election is over, it’s time to get away from political blogging for a while and return to what this blog was created to do: bash creationists. So have a look at this article from The New Scientist:
“You cannot overestimate,” thundered psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz, “how threatened the scientific establishment is by the fact that it now looks like the materialist paradigm is genuinely breaking down. You’re gonna hear a lot in the next calendar year about… how Darwin’s explanation of how human intelligence arose is the only scientific way of doing it… I’m asking us as a world community to go out there and tell the scientific establishment, enough is enough! Materialism needs to start fading away and non-materialist causation needs to be understood as part of natural reality.”
His enthusiasm was met with much applause from the audience gathered at the UN’s east Manhattan conference hall on 11 September for an international symposium called Beyond the Mind-Body Problem: New Paradigms in the Science of Consciousness. Earlier Mario Beauregard, a researcher in neuroscience at the University of Montreal, Canada, and co-author of The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist’s case for the existence of the soul, told the audience that the “battle” between “maverick” scientists like himself and those who “believe the mind is what the brain does” is a “cultural war”.
Yawn. Pretty familiar stuff. I’ll start taking this sort of thing seriously as soon as someone solves an actual problem in neuroscience by invoking non-material causation.
For example, I often hear it said that consciousness is some fundamental stumbling block to materialist theories of the brain. I agree that consciousness is mysterious, but how does it become non-mysterious by invoking non-material causation? I don’t know how consciousness can arise from the material interactions going on within the brain. But I also don’t know how, say, some indetectable, non-material mindstuff can interact with the physical brain to produce consciousness.
Here, as always, it seems that the anti-materialists are just using some version of “God did it,” as an all-purpose get out of jail free card. It is vacuous as an explanation, but it flatters a certain sort of sensibility.
It would seem that some at the symposium are aware of the problem:
Meanwhile, Schwartz has been working with Henry Stapp, a physicist at the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who also spoke at the symposium. They have been developing non-standard interpretations of quantum mechanics to explain how the “non-material mind” affects the physical brain.
Why am I not optimistic?
Non-maverick scholars do not feel the need for any massive paradigm shift in their subject:
He and others worry because scientists have yet to crack the great mystery of how consciousness could emerge from firing neurons. “Progress in science is slow on many fronts,” says John Searle, a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley. “We don’t yet have a cure for cancer, but that doesn’t mean cancer has spiritual causes.”
And for Patricia Churchland, a philosopher of neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego, “it is an argument from ignorance. The fact something isn’t currently explained doesn’t mean it will never be explained or that we need to completely change not only our neuroscience but our physics.”
There are a few other interesting tidbits in the article, so go read the whole thing.
At various times I have made forays into the literature on the philosophy of mind. I’ve never gotten very far. Everything always seems so vague and imprecise that I usually find myself lost inside a few pages. Take, for example, the fundamental idea of “qualia.” Wikipedia defines it like this:
“Qualia” … is “an unfamiliar term for something that could not be more familiar to each of us: the ways things seem to us”. They can be defined as qualities or sensations, like redness or pain, as considered independently of their effects on behavior and from whatever physical circumstances give rise to them. In more philosophical terms, qualia are properties of sensory experiences.
Does that make sense to anyone? I don’t understand what is meant by the phrase, “properties of sensory experiences.” Is it clear that things like redness or pain actually have an existence indpendent of the physical circumstances that give rise to them?
Or consider this:
Clarence I. Lewis, in his book [Mind and the World Order] (1929), was the first to use the term “qualia” in its generally agreed modern sense.
There are recognizable qualitative characters of the given, which may be repeated in different experiences, and are thus a sort of universals; I call these “qualia.” But although such qualia are universals, in the sense of being recognized from one to another experience, they must be distinguished from the properties of objects. Confusion of these two is characteristic of many historical conceptions, as well as of current essence-theories. The quale is directly intuited, given, and is not the subject of any possible error because it is purely subjective.
Again, what does that mean? It seems easier just to put the book aside than to try to parse that.
The whole project of explaining consciousness seems weird to me. How will we know when we have succeeded? Even if we were to just create an explanation from whole cloth, I don’t know what a satisfying explanation for consciousness would look like.
I don’t think philosophers have much light to shed on the subject, but perhaps I am wrong. If anyone would like to suggest a few books that explain the basics of the subject in an especially clear way, I’d be happy to have a look.