Thomas Nagel Needs Better Defenders

Philosopher Thomas Nagel recently published a book called Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. The general consensus was that the book delivered considerably less than it promised. H. Allen Orr’s negative review from The New York Review of Books was pretty typical of the response, if somewhat more polite than some.

I have not read Nagel’s book, so I don’t have a strong opinion about it. Based on what I’ve read about it, however, I suspect I wouldn’t like it. For example, here is part of a quote from Nagel, as presented by Orr:

I would like to defend the untutored reaction of incredulity to the reductionist neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life. It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection. We are expected to abandon this naïve response, not in favor of a fully worked out physical/chemical explanation but in favor of an alternative that is really a schema for explanation, supported by some examples.

From what I understand, the level of argument in the book never gets much beyond this. But these sentences are absurd. On what possible basis does Nagel decide that it is “prima facie” highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents? What natural causes can do over the course of billions of years is not the sort of thing about which we can reasonably claim to have intuitions. The only way to decide if it is plausible or not is to do the hard scientific work, precisely as biologists have been doing for the past century and a half. Moreover, the theory is supported by a good deal more than a few examples. Rather, it is supported by a mountain of confirmed predictions and retrodictions, along with numerous experimental successes.

So I’m not optimistic that I will like Nagel’s book once I’ve had the chance to read it, but that is not the subject of this post. Instead, I wish to address the response from some of Nagel’s defenders. If you follow these sorts of kerfuffles, you know they play out according to a script. First, the would-be revolutionary claims to have overthrown the reigning materialist/reductionist paradigm by some brilliant piece of rhetorical legerdemain. Knowledgeable people read the book, find it less than convincing, and write some snide reviews. To which the would-be revolutionaries respond with a lot of whining about how oppressed and put-upon they are. We saw it recently with the dreadful book What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini, and we are seeing it playing out again.

Typical of what we get from Nagel’s defenders is this silly essay from Leon Wieseltier, writing in The New Republic. It bears the subtle title, “A Darwinist Mob Goes After A Serious Philosopher,” and opens like this:

Is there a greater gesture of intellectual contempt than the notion that a tweet constitutes an adequate intervention in a serious discussion? But when Thomas Nagel’s formidable book Mind and Cosmos recently appeared, in which he has the impudence to suggest that “the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false,” and to offer thoughtful reasons to believe that the non-material dimensions of life—consciousness, reason, moral value, subjective experience—cannot be reduced to, or explained as having evolved tidily from, its material dimensions, Steven Pinker took to Twitter and haughtily ruled that it was “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.” F*ck him, he explained.

And is there a greater gesture of intellectual silliness than the notion that one rude tweet constitutes a call to arms for a Darwinist mob?

Wieseltier’s essay is far more snide than most of what has been directed at Nagel. It contains nuggets like this:

I understand that nobody is going to burn Nagel’s book or ban it. These inquisitors are just more professors. But he is being denounced not merely for being wrong. He is being denounced also for being heretical. I thought heresy was heroic. I guess it is heroic only when it dissents from a doctrine with which I disagree.

Of all the silly, childish things! To say that nobody is going to burn Nagel’s book or ban it (let alone threaten him with torture until he recants) is precisely to say that these professors are not inquisitors at all. They are just critics. And to the extent that Nagel is being “denounced,” it is primarily for being wrong, coupled with the fact that, given the politicization of science education in this country, this is a bad issue to be wrong about.

Since Wieseltier never gets around to saying anything, let’s move on to the slightly better article by Andrew Ferguson. It’s actually the cover story of this week’s issue of The Weekly Standard. The headline, of course, is “The Heretic,” and the cover image is of Nagel being burned at the stake. Charming.

At one point Ferguson manages to sink a bit lower even than Wieseltier. The only thing sillier than using a single tweet as evidence of a looming mob is using a few intemperate blog comments for the same purpose. But Ferguson goes there! I won’t dwell on that, however, since, unlike Wieseltier, Ferguson actually makes a few points. Unfortunately, those points are long on assertion and short on argument. Consider this:

In a dazzling six-part tour de force rebutting Nagel’s critics, the philosopher Edward Feser provided a good analogy to describe the basic materialist error—the attempt to stretch materialism from a working assumption into a comprehensive explanation of the world. Feser suggests a parody of materialist reasoning: “1. Metal detectors have had far greater success in finding coins and other metallic objects in more places than any other method has. 2. Therefore we have good reason to think that metal detectors can reveal to us everything that can be revealed” about metallic objects.

But of course a metal detector only detects the metallic content of an object; it tells us nothing about its color, size, weight, or shape. In the same way, Feser writes, the methods of “mechanistic science are as successful as they are in predicting and controlling natural phenomena precisely because they focus on only those aspects of nature susceptible to prediction and control.”

Meanwhile, they ignore everything else. But this is a fatal weakness for a theory that aspires to be a comprehensive picture of the world. With magnetic resonance imaging, science can tell us which parts of my brain light up when, for example, I glimpse my daughter’s face in a crowd; the bouncing neurons can be observed and measured. Science cannot quantify or describe the feelings I experience when I see my daughter. Yet the feelings are no less real than the neurons.

The point sounds more sentimental than it is. My bouncing neurons and my feelings of love and obligation are unquestionably bound together. But the difference between the neurons and the feelings, the material and the mental, is a qualitative difference, a difference in kind. And of the two, reductive materialism can capture only one.

Almost all of that is wrong, starting with Feser’s caricature of materialist thinking. What materialists actually say is that if you are going to hypothesize into existence something immaterial, it is on you to provide evidence for your hypothesis. Of course it’s possible that there are immaterial entities that influence matter in ways that are undetectable by science, but can you do anything more that just assert their possible existence? Given some phenomenon you assert to be incomprehensible under materialism, can you show how it becomes comprehensible under immaterialism? Ferguson tells us that science just ignores “everything else” beyond the material aspects of reality, but the very point at issue is whether there is anything else to ignore.

It seems like all the immaterialists ever do is make assertions! Ferguson concedes that his feelings are intimately bound up with his bouncing neurons. Then he just asserts that reductive materialism cannot account for his feelings. But why not? And if it’s not just bouncing neurons, then what else is it? After all, saying that emotions and senses of obligation are ultimately produced by complexly organized matter in no way suggests they aren’t real.

Skipping ahead, Ferguson writes:

Among these remarkable, nonaccidental things are many of the features of the manifest image. Consciousness itself, for example: You can’t explain consciousness in evolutionary terms, Nagel says, without undermining the explanation itself. Evolution easily accounts for rudimentary kinds of awareness. Hundreds of thousands of years ago on the African savannah, where the earliest humans evolved the unique characteristics of our species, the ability to sense danger or to read signals from a potential mate would clearly help an organism survive.

So far, so good. But the human brain can do much more than this. It can perform calculus, hypothesize metaphysics, compose music—even develop a theory of evolution. None of these higher capacities has any evident survival value, certainly not hundreds of thousands of years ago when the chief aim of mental life was to avoid getting eaten. Could our brain have developed and sustained such nonadaptive abilities by the trial and error of natural selection, as neo-Darwinism insists? It’s possible, but the odds, Nagel says, are “vanishingly small.” If Nagel is right, the materialist is in a pickle. The conscious brain that is able to come up with neo-Darwinism as a universal explanation simultaneously makes neo-Darwinism, as a universal explanation, exceedingly unlikely.

More assertion. The odds are vanishingly small that our big brains are the result of natural selection? Really? I’d like to see the calculation that supports that conclusion. It sounds to me like Nagel just made that up. There is a vast literature on the selection pressures that might have driven the evolution of the human brain. Does Ferguson have an actual reason for thinking this literature is misguided? Has he given it any serious consideration at all? And let’s suppose that Ferguson is right that Neo-Darwinism needs to be supplemented with something. Any suggestions for what that something might be?

Actually, Ferguson does gesture towards Nagel’s answer to that question:

The positive mission Nagel undertakes in Mind and Cosmos is to outline, cautiously, a possible Third Way between theism and materialism, given that the first is unacceptable—emotionally, if not intellectually—and the second is untenable. Perhaps matter itself has a bias toward producing conscious creatures. Nature in that case would be “teleological”—not random, not fully subject to chance, but tending toward a particular end. Our mental life would be accounted for—phew!—without reference to God.

Now, I don’t see any particular to think that a Third Way is necessary, nor do I really understand what it would mean to say that matter has a bias toward producing conscious creatures. But let’s suppose it turns out that Nagel is right, and at some point in the future we realize that these sorts of teleological laws are real and comprehensible. My question is this: Why should a materialist be disconcerted by that? Nagel is basically saying that matter is more complicated than we think it is. Could well be. I don’t even find that hard to believe. I’ll just require some evidence that such laws are real.

Ferguson’s essay is quite long, and it is chock full of dubious assertions about how scientists think and about what materialism entails. Go wade through it if you feel the urge. If you encounter an actual argument then please point it out to me, because I couldn’t find one.

Comments

  1. #1 Jeffrey Shallit
    March 19, 2013

    The funniest part was the bit about Feser’s “dazzling six-part tour de force”. I almost spit out my coffee when I read that part.

  2. #2 Reinard
    March 19, 2013

    This immaterialism smacks of the argument from ignorance with a whole lot of Anthropic Principle tossed in as a bonus. They think humans are the pinnacle of nature and we couldn’t possible have come about by something as mundane as natural causes. They lack humility and imagination.

  3. #3 Cornelius
    March 19, 2013

    Again it’s a God of the Gaps argument with consciousness as the gap. Is Nagel/Orr/Feser willing to bet we wil never have an answer?

  4. #4 Steven Carr
    March 19, 2013

    How did seals develop the ability to balance a ball on its nose? That has no evident survival value. Methinks a god is behind that…..

  5. #5 Michael Fugate
    March 19, 2013

    Nagel really liked Plantinga’s new book “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism” and seems to be swayed by Plantinga’s EAAN. Even if numerous critics have blown holes in the EAAN, people keep trotting it out because in apologetics all that matters is what works to keep the faithful believing.

  6. #6 Blaine
    March 19, 2013

    Nagel’s skepticism of evolution is based on two things:
    1) incredulity
    2) not enough time to evolve.
    His solution is to posit an extra force since he doesn’t believe in the complete of physics ( what is also called the causal closure of physics ). This extra force is mind. Some call this panpsychism. I reviewed the book on Amazon for what its worth – http://www.amazon.com/Mind-Cosmos-Materialist-Neo-Darwinian-Conception/product-reviews/0199919755/ref=cm_cr_pr_hist_1?ie=UTF8&filterBy=addOneStar&showViewpoints=0

  7. #7 Blaine
    March 19, 2013

    I reviewed Plantinga’s book too. The comments were basically that science doesn’t have all the answers ( somehow mystical guessing is an answer ), or causality is just an inference within a scientific theory.
    http://www.amazon.com/review/RBU5EC527AIH4/ref=cm_cr_pr_viewpnt#RBU5EC527AIH4

  8. #8 MNb
    March 19, 2013

    “not the sort of thing about which we can reasonably claim to have intuitions.”
    Human beings have wrong intuitions about many things. The correct conclusion is never rely on first, instinctive impressions. It’s beyond my comprehension that people don’t get that; I try to teach my kids exactly that during physics.

    “the would be revolutionaries respond with a lot of whining”
    I’d say that that is an excellent reason to neglect the book. Good books don’t need such whining.

    “I thought heresy was heroic.”
    Yeah. The Flat Earth Society consists of 6 000 heroes

    “And make assertions all the immaterialists ever do.”
    Exactly. Materialists simply make as few assertions about the non-material aspects of reality, whatever they are, as possible.

    @Reinard: “They lack humility and imagination.”
    See here the ultimate failure of christendom.

  9. #9 Kurt Helf
    March 19, 2013

    I was taken aback to read that Ferguson considers the development of the theory of evolution as “nonadaptive”. I think the scientists using evolutionary theory to develop better antibiotics, and thereby enabling humans to avoid tiny predators, might be surprised at that particular assertion.

  10. #10 RBH
    pandasthumb.org
    March 19, 2013

    Jason wrote

    From what I understand, the level of argument in the book never gets much beyond this.

    I’ve read the book. It doesn’t get much beyond that.

    Ferguson wrote

    But the human brain can do much more than this. It can perform calculus, hypothesize metaphysics, compose music—even develop a theory of evolution. None of these higher capacities has any evident survival value, certainly not hundreds of thousands of years ago when the chief aim of mental life was to avoid getting eaten. Could our brain have developed and sustained such nonadaptive abilities by the trial and error of natural selection, as neo-Darwinism insists?

    Except, of course, neo-Darwinism doesn’t insist on that: structures that themselves evolved by natural selection under selection for one function can often–always?–perform functions other than that which was selected for. There’s even a technical term for that ubiquitous phenomenon: exaptation..

  11. #11 Michael Fugate
    March 19, 2013

    “Could our brain have developed and sustained such nonadaptive abilities by the trial and error of natural selection, as neo-Darwinism insists?”

    Could a hammer do anything, but pound in nails?

  12. #12 Blaine
    March 19, 2013

    Feser has a book out attacking the NA called The Last Superstition. I haven’t read it, but it gets so tiresome reading the same arguments over and over again trotted out as if something new is being said.

  13. […] examples which I have found are in regard to the controversy over Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, and current cases pending in SCOTUS. This latter has received a more thoughtful reply (see also […]

  14. #14 mikael
    March 19, 2013

    I wounder what you want, an explenation on Why the diningroom table is standing there when quantum physics says its not existing, are you still in that level of f…. knows what, kindergarden(sorry kids, just an analogy).

    There are descriptions of this thema/theory at a level that is actualy reasently been banned and secured, hehe, I am not even stunned by that TED comunety is defacto doing and the utterly lame exuse the charfed uf afterward, based on their primitive and childish realms of consciousness and behaviour.
    The level of comments only verifyes the dreadingly low level og knowledge, on even the basics of chemistry and sience of consciousness and in the heep of sheeps(ups sheeps, just an analogy),

    Zero point, f….. read this and then we can have a menaing full conversation, not duling about issues from the stoneage of sience, the late 1800.

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/130939366/Dedicated-to-Ernst-Specker

    This is new.

    peace

  15. #15 couchloc
    March 19, 2013

    I haven’t read the Ferguson article carefully, so I can’t comment on it. But I found this article by Nicholson in Prospect Magazine to be more balanced than most of the reviews I’ve read, and so he’s probably a better defender of Nagel. Here is his conclusion:

    “_Mind and Cosmos_ is ambitious in scope, philosophically creative, decently written, and, most importantly, short. This makes it more enjoyable and readable than most philosophy titles out there….. Nagel’s arguments against naturalism as an account of reality are powerful and demand close consideration, even if his positive arguments for a natural teleology end up looking every bit as intuitively implausible as a description of reality that leaves out consciousness.”

    http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/blog/philosophy/thomas-nagel-mind-and-cosmos-review-leiter-nation/

  16. #16 Pierce R. Butler
    March 19, 2013

    … the cover story of this week’s issue of The Weekly Standard.

    If your best defense comes from a Murdoch rag, you might as well find a white rag, tie it to a twig, and hope the other guy recognizes the Geneva Conventions.

  17. #17 AL
    March 20, 2013

    To be fair to Steven Pinker, his twitter comment wasn’t really rude. The remark about “fuck him” wasn’t anything Pinker said, that was a completely gratuitous add-on from Wieseltier. Very deceitful writing.

  18. #18 Kel
    March 20, 2013

    “1. Metal detectors have had far greater success in finding coins and other metallic objects in more places than any other method has. 2. Therefore we have good reason to think that metal detectors can reveal to us everything that can be revealed”
    Is Feser being serious with this assessment of the materialist reasoning? I’ve heard a lot of justifications about science by “materialists”, but even if one were being crude I don’t think any description could be even crudely characterised that way. All glory to the straw-man, I suppose…

  19. #19 Richard Wein
    March 20, 2013

    Ferguson: “Nagel doesn’t believe in spooky stuff.”

    …except for spooky teleological forces, spooky moral properties and spooky consciousness.

    Ferguson and Nagel seem committed to their naive, instinctive (“common sense”) view of the world. (Just as many theists are.) But why bother with science or philosophy if you’re not prepared to accept that they may lead you to significantly revise the way you see the world?

  20. #20 Richard Wein
    March 20, 2013

    @Kel

    I propose this parody of supernaturalist thinking:

    1. Metal detectors can’t reveal everything.
    2. Therefore metal detectors can’t reveal round objects, only square ones.

    One good straw man deserves another.

  21. #21 Reginald Selkirk
    March 20, 2013

    F*ck him, he explained.

    The linked piece at The New Republic lacks the asterisk. Beyond that, note how that bit falls outside the quotations marks. Wieseltier thereby gives the impression the he is not a serious person.

  22. #22 Reginald Selkirk
    March 20, 2013

    Ferguson: In a dazzling six-part tour de force rebutting Nagel’s critics, the philosopher Edward Feser provided a good analogy to describe the basic materialist error—the attempt to stretch materialism from a working assumption into a comprehensive explanation of the world…

    But it’s been so fabulously successful! And the failures… where does Ferguson present any evidence that the stretching of materialism is an “error”?

    But of course a metal detector only detects the metallic content of an object; it tells us nothing about its color, size, weight, or shape.

    He doesn’t appear to know much about metal detectors. His point may be that metal detectors do not tell us about the non-metallic portion of an object, but used properly, they can tall a lot about the metallic portion.
    Wikipedia

    Modern top models are fully computerized, using integrated circuit technology to allow the user to set sensitivity, discrimination, track speed, threshold volume, notch filters, etc.,…
    The biggest technical change in detectors was the development of the induction-balance system. This system involved two coils that were electrically balanced. When metal was introduced to their vicinity, they would become unbalanced. What allowed detectors to discriminate between metals was the fact that every metal has a different phase response when exposed to alternating current. Scientists had long known of this fact by the time detectors were developed that could selectively detect desirable metals, while ignoring undesirable ones…
    At the same time, developers were looking at using a different technique in metal detection called pulse induction. … These new machines had one major advantage: they were completely impervious to the effects of mineralization, and rings and other jewelry could now be located even under highly-mineralized black sand.

    But to switch to a more common metaphor, Ferguson is saying that we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Well, show us the f*cking baby! The existence of the supernatural baby is unevidenced.

  23. #23 Ça alors!
    March 20, 2013

    The link provided by couchloc that talks about Nagel’s latest work seems to explain better the position of the author.

    Let’s make this clear, it says Nagel clearly rules out God and Intelligent Design, which would leave us in the end with a “naturalistic teleology”, which also implies there is a certain uncreated or irreducible awareness that lies at the heart of our universe.

    I wonder why this sounds so crazy to a majority of people? It doesn’t look like the hypothesis is investigated with honesty because of a “you know, the Bible, God and miracles are just fairies” materialisitic a priori.

    But M. Rosenhouse do seem to make an honest effort to consider Nagel’s hypothesis when he writes that:

    “But let’s suppose it turns out that Nagel is right, and at some point in the future we realize that these sorts of teleological laws are real and comprehensible…” Nagel is basically saying that matter is more complicated than we think it is. Could well be. I don’t even find that hard to believe. I’ll just require some evidence that such laws are real.”

    The problem with this is that even if Nagel is right, the demonstration would be very hard to do, almost impossible from a scientific perspective because it deals with concepts science can’t deal with, like meaning, purpose and immateriality.

    Also, there is a limit to what (our) awareness can know about (The) awareness for the same reason that you can’t wet water with water, or burn fire with fire.

  24. #24 Erikk
    Washington, DC
    March 20, 2013

    The author of this article writes:

    What materialists actually say is that if you are going to hypothesize into existence something immaterial, it is on you to provide evidence for your hypothesis. . . . Given some phenomenon you assert to be incomprehensible under materialism, can you show how it becomes comprehensible under immaterialism?

    But it’s not accurate to assert, as is asserted here, that it’s consistent to simultaneously believe 1) materialism to be true, and 2) that immaterial things could, in principle exist. Materialism as a philosophical commitment refers to the idea that bodily things are the only things that exist. Per traditional reductive materialism, things seemingly immaterial must be offered an explanation that “reduces” them to material processes. So, materialists do indeed place the burden of proof on those who would assert the existence of immaterial things. However, they do so from a standpoint that already holds it impossible for any immaterial thing to exist as such. The burden of proof is on materialists to explain the fundamentally immaterial phenomena of conscious experience in wholly materialistic terms. That is the very respectable point endorsed by Nagel throughout decades of his writing, and is what is very non-controversially known as the “hard” mind/body problem. It is not something that materialism has room for, and Nagel’s point is that the nature of conscious experience being fundamentally immaterial as it is, guarantees that materialism will never have room for it as such. If it did, it would cease to be materialism.

    So this author states:

    After all, saying that emotions and senses of obligation are ultimately produced by complexly organized matter in no way suggests they aren’t real.

    This is true, simply saying that mental states are produced by material does not itself suggest that mental states aren’t real. But most materialists and immaterialists would consent to the above quote. Where they diverge, however, is the point: materialists must hold the fact that mental states are produced from material processes as the end of explanation. Nonphysical states result from material processes, and therefore materialism as such has no equipment with which to offer a further account. Nonphysical states, to the materialists, are unimportant epiphenomena of material processes, and cannot be taken to be AS real as those processes. Immaterialism as a philosophical commitment holds more steadfastly true to our immediate experience with consciousness, and with mental states–as immaterial objects of experience. The materialist as such has no commitment to the existence of those things.

  25. #25 Michael Fugate
    March 20, 2013

    Lots of assertions Erikk and nothing to back it up. All you need do is provide evidence that consciousness exists without a brain. Good luck with that.

  26. #26 Erikk
    March 20, 2013

    Lots of assertions Erikk and nothing to back it up. All you need do is provide evidence that consciousness exists without a brain. Good luck with that.

    That’s missing the point entirely. How does the material brain give rise to immaterial conscious experience? That’s the question Nagel is talking about. No matter what exciting developments in evolutionary neuroscience may come, there’s an ontological disconnect between the physical and the mental. The brain is a physical object. Mental states are immaterial. And it appears that mental states are so that they can induce physical change, i.e., they have causal agency. Via the brain, no doubt, but again, that’s not the point.

    I see a sad movie and I cry. Explain that materialistically?

  27. #27 eric
    March 20, 2013

    Erikk – I think you are assuming that everyone that goes by the term ‘materialist’ is a fully committed philosophical materialist. I think most are not. Rather, they are methodological or empirical/scientific materialists. I.e., they tentatively accept, based on current evidence the conclusion that materialism is true, but also accept that this conclusion is subject to revision should new, relevant evidence arise.

    Scientific materialists have no problem accepting both (1) or (2). Their position is that (2) could be true, but, nobody has a good reason to accept that its true at this time. They will say: when you come up with new evidence for (2), maybe we’ll change our minds.

    The burden of proof is on materialists to explain the fundamentally immaterial phenomena of conscious experience in wholly materialistic terms.

    I note that you are somewhat assuming your conclusion in that statement.

    In any event, every phenomena (including every mental phenomena) we’ve ever been able to explain has had a material cause. That doesn’t mean every unexplained phenomena must have one, but it does mean that the burden of proof has shifted to non-materialists. The favored horse in the next explanatory race is the one that’s one all the past races – Materialism. Its not the horse that’s lost every past race. Your horse could win, but you are completely unjustified in claiming its the favorite.

  28. #28 Reginald Selkirk
    March 20, 2013

    Erikk: Mental states are immaterial.

    Unproven assertion stated as though it were a bald fact. Start there.

  29. #29 AL
    March 20, 2013

    Erikk, you beg the question when you say things like “How does the material brain give rise to immaterial conscious experience?” and “The burden of proof is on materialists to explain the fundamentally immaterial phenomena of conscious experience in wholly materialistic terms.”

    Whether or not consciousness is immaterial or material is the very point in contention. Obviously, the materialists don’t have a solid and complete explanation for consciousness, but I might add, neither do the immaterialists, who don’t so much have a superior explanation, but rather, appear to be taking the position that consciousness is unexplainable.

    What we do know about neuroscience is material. Physical effects of things like chemicals, trauma to the brain, damage to brain regions, etc., on the workings and experiences of consciousness all lean heavily toward it being a material phenomenon. What exactly are the insights about consciousness we can glean from the works of proponents of the immaterial, other than “you can’t explain that”?

  30. #30 Michael Fugate
    March 20, 2013

    “I see a sad movie and I cry. Explain that materialistically?”

    Explain that without a brain!

  31. #31 Erikk
    March 20, 2013

    Unproven assertion stated as though it were a bald fact. Start there.

    No no, man. This is not me trying to make an interesting claim from one philosophical position or another. Mental states are, by definition, not material. Material correlates would be termed “brain states.” Mental states are immaterial because they refer to qualitative states of consciousness. I’d refer you to Nagel’s own landmark article for a good explanation of this, old truth (http://www.cs.helsinki.fi/u/ahyvarin/teaching/niseminar4/Nagel_WhatIsItLikeToBeABat.pdf), but you might equally well start here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mind_body_problem

  32. #32 Erikk
    March 20, 2013

    I think commenter eric does well to point out that when the author of this article says ‘materialism,’ he likely means a more provisional working commitment to materialism, a kind of methodological scientific naturalism. That’s a good point, and so for this position it of course would be less of a contradiction to simultaneously accept my (1) and (2) from earlier.

    However, I’m not so sure about this claim from eric:

    every phenomena (including every mental phenomena) we’ve ever been able to explain has had a material cause.

    In what sense does every mental phenomena (sic.) have a material cause? At best, run-of-the-mill normal phenomena of conscious experience have what are sometimes called “neural correlates,” whereby a particular complex of neuronal activity is scientifically established to be correlated to a mental state. But this question is unanswered for any such case: How does neuronal activity give rise to conscious experience? This is an interesting and additional question, beyond asking “What brain activity occurs in conjunction with a particular state of consciousness?” No neuroscientist would tell you that he’s discovered a cause for consciousness hidden amongst the myriad neural correlates that he has discovered. Consciousness is an “emergent phenomenon” from brain activity, which is a description that is as question begging as anything. And this is to say nothing of the more exotic (but age old) examples of mental states without even known material correlates, like the placebo effect, or “phantom limbs.”

    Again, y’all, I’m not trying to come with contentious viewpoints, nor am I arguing from anything like a “supernatural” standpoint. This is the mind/body problem plain and simple. Provisional materialists can keep on hoping that we’ll cross the explanatory gap between the material and the mental, but that would be ignoring the principles that separate off the materialist worldview from being able to tackle any fundamentally immaterial phenomenon. Like, say, the problem of gravity in the wake of relativity.

  33. #33 couchloc
    March 20, 2013

    It is very frustrating to read some of the replies here to Erikk’s comments on the issue. Do people have no understanding of the mind-body problem as it has developed in the west for the last 500 years? There are good reasons to think mental states are by their nature not explicable in material terms, and you don’t need philosophers to make this point. All you need is to read B.F. Skinner or John Watson, the psychologists, who themselves argued fifty years ago that a science of human nature has no room for consciousness since science cannot study it objectively. Or you might simply look at the physicist Galileo Galilee, who didn’t think you could explain consciousness in terms of physical principles (he thought this was pretty clear). Some of you keep arguing that “dualism” or “immaterialism” is a “hypothesis” introduced by people to explain what is otherwise an ordinary phenomenon about ourselves. But what you don’t seem to recognize is that the claim that mental states don’t appear to us as physical, objectively observable states has historically been the claim of science!! There’s a reason why psychologists rejected Titchnerian structuralism in the 1900’s when Psychology was first created, and these were scientific reasons.

    In Watson and Skinner’s case they rejected the scientific study of consciousness, and they certainly weren’t fluff heads by any standard. Now 60 years later, we’ve got the pro-naturalism-science-can-explain-everything crowd telling us science can explain consciousness. Your will forgive me if I’m not persuaded by this self-serving scientific double speak (“Science cannot explain it in principle…oh wait….Yes it can! Trust us!”). Scientists who would claim that you can’t actually explain consciousness scientifically are many, including Galileo, B.F. Skinner, John Watson, Roger Penrose, Karl Popper, John Eccles, Raymond Tallis, and David Barash, among others. Are all of these people merely fluff heads too? David Barash is about as hard headed a pro-biology, atheist as you can find, and he agrees there’s no scientific answer to the hard problem of consciousness. It would help if people stopped assuming the problem somehow comes from religion and paid attention to the issues involved.

    Barash’s view:
    http://chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/the-hardest-problem-in-science/40845

  34. #34 RBH
    March 20, 2013

    As near as I can tell, consciousness and/or mental states are no more immaterial than are waves on the ocean.

  35. #35 Lenoxus
    March 20, 2013

    RBH: Aha! But can you explain exactly how the material ocean gives rise to its immaterial waves? And how do physical processes in the stomach somehow produce digestion? Huh? Huh?

    Snark aside, I agree that the hard mind-body problem remains hard. But if we must classify attempts at its solution into two approaches, I think it’s fair to say that one of the two has made much more explanatory progress, while the other isn’t even an explanation but merely consists of the assertion that the other approach is fruitless — and/or that the problem is unsolvable!

    Are we really supposed to place our bets in the “unsolvable” column? By definition, it will never pay out…

  36. #36 Lenoxus
    March 20, 2013

    MnB said:

    “I thought heresy was heroic.”

    Yeah. The Flat Earth Society consists of 6 000 heroes

    Before I read this, I was planning to go more Godwinnish — are Holocaust deniers heroes or not? Anyway, the statement that “I guess [heresy] is heroic only when it dissents from a doctrine with which I disagree” seems almost trivially true (if you identify the person labeling something “heroic” with the person doing the disagreeing).

    Can Wieseltier name a single example of heroic heresy with which he disagrees? I wouldn’t dispute the existence of heroic heretics, people who bravely committed to their incorrect views in the face of persecution, but heroic-heresy-with-which-I-disagree (as in, the ideas being heroic, not the idea-holder) is practically an oxymoron.

    Meanwhile, when it comes to actually defining materialism/immaterialism, I would suggest the possibility that, just as any sufficiently advanced technology may be “indistinguishable” from magic, any sufficiently detailed immaterialism is indistinguishable from materialism. It’s rather like how “alternative” medicine becomes plain ol’ medicine if it’s shown to actually work.

    And that’s the main problem I have with the metal-detector analogy; “materialism” isn’t a neat category or tool like “metal detectors”, and the reality is more like a situation in which metal detectors have become so successful at what they do that anything else which tells us useful, lawful things about metal becomes defined as yet another kind of “metal detector”. The immaterialists are asserting that “metal detectors” can’t tell us everything about metal, yet the game is sort-of stacked against them.

    Now, what I just said doesn’t tell the whole story, and there’s another valid way of looking at it. Immaterialists do in fact produce concrete hypothesis, such as the various attempts to win the Randi Challenge. Of course, these attempts always fail; make of that what you will. So maybe I still need to make up my mind as to whether immaterialism is more falsified, or unfalsifiable, or unprovable, and that may itself be unfair of me. Hmm.

  37. #37 Michael Fugate
    March 20, 2013

    Erikk, can you give me one example of consciousness without a brain? If consciousness is not caused by neuronal activity but only correlated with it, then where should we be looking for a cause? If we wanted to determine if someone were conscious, could we do it? If so, it seems that consciousness couldn’t be 100% immaterial.

    Couchloc, ho hum – your “dissent from material causes for consciousness” list is almost as meaningful as the Discovery Institute’s “dissent from darwinism” list. Maybe when you get 500+ scientists to sign on someone will care – but then again probably not.

  38. #38 MNb
    March 20, 2013

    @Ca Alord: “It doesn’t look like the hypothesis is investigated with honesty”
    How exactly would you investigate this hypothesis of a a certain uncreated or irreducible awareness? Which experiment do you have in mind? You see, Flat Earth Theory is a fine consistent and coherent model of the Earth. The only problem is that some observed facts contradict it (and less than you might think).

    @Erikk: “Materialism as a philosophical commitment refers to the idea that bodily things are the only things that exist.”
    Define exist. What about numbers?
    I think this is a useless definition. A better one, according to which I am a materialist indeed, is that materialism accepts as few metaphysical assumptions as possible. Immaterial mental states is such an assumption, as others have remarked. This concept doesn’t bring any better knowledge or understanding than materialistic, naturalistic, scientific models formulated by neurobiology.

    “Mental states are immaterial.”
    So are the fairies in my backyard, who take care of my plants. So what? Maybe your concept of mental states is wrong, just like my concept of fairies. The question is what phenomena your immaterial mental states explain which materialistic etc. models don’t.

    “Explain that materialistically?”
    Mental state of the gaps fallacy.

    “Mental states are immaterial because they refer to qualitative states of consciousness.”
    OK. For convenience sake I call the complete set of those mental states “soul” and the set of brain states “mind”.
    You still have offered us nothing but the soul of the gaps fallacy.

    @Al: “the materialists don’t have a solid and complete explanation for consciousness”
    While true this as an argument is a kind of soul of the gaps fallacy.

    What dualists – and mental states versus brain states as defined by Erikk is also a form of dualism – have to show is that there are phenomena which cannot be explained by science and never ever can be explained by science, but which make sense if and only if we assume a soul consisting of mental states.
    Like Michael Fugate wrote: good luck.

    “mental phenomena have a material cause?”
    See? Erikk already is changing his definitions. He must do this because all phenomena he can think of are actually part of the mind, ie a brain state. Like these:

    “the placebo effect, or phantom limbs.”
    First prove they belong to the soul, ie are mental states, and not to the mind, ie are brain states. Or you are presenting the soul of the gaps again.

    @Couchloc: “There are good reasons to think mental states are by their nature not explicable in material terms.”
    Then give them, assuming you are referring to soul as I defined above. Michael Fugate and Eric already told you what will convince us: an observable phenomenon that cannot and never will be explained by neurobiology. Prove it.

    “Are all of these people merely fluff heads too?”
    Argument by authority fallacy. Galilei was wrong about a few things concerning physics as well. Even Einstein was. So what?

    @Lenoxus: “make up my mind as to whether immaterialism is more falsified”
    For me the question is: which concept has more predictive power?

  39. #39 Richard Wein
    March 20, 2013

    @Couchloc

    You seem to be conflating “no scientific answer” with “not explicable in material terms”.

    I for one would agree that the problem of consciousness is more a matter of philosophy than science. But that doesn’t mean we need to invoke some mysterious dualistic, non-materialistic otherness. I think that the best science-minded philosophers, like Daniel Dennett, are the people most likely to successfully address the problem.

    The fact that something isn’t made of matter doesn’t mean we need a non-materialistic, dualistic explanation. Democracy isn’t made of matter. But that doesn’t mean we can’t arrive at democracy through the activity of material human beings. There’s nothing mysterious about this. It’s just a matter of modelling each aspect of reality with the appropriate type of model. Some of our models are more abstract than others. The models in which stuff is made of other stuff are just one of the types of model that we use.

    I see the problem of consciousness as primarily a conceptual one, a matter of sorting out the sort of conceptual confusions to which we are prey. To quote Wittgenstein, “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intellect by our language.” Consciousness is a particularly bewitching concept, and uncritically accepting our “common sense” intuitions keeps us stuck in that bewitchment. Dennett calls arguments like those of Nagel and Searle “intuition pumps”. I’d call them “bewitchment amplifiers”.

  40. #40 couchloc
    March 20, 2013

    @Richard Wein,

    Thanks for your reasonable reply (unlike many others around here), but what you’re ignoring it seems is that several on my list believed the problem was a *principled* one. This isn’t to say they were right (I’m not making an argument from authority). I’m pointing out the hubris of those people commenting here who think that it’s just obvious that the explanation of consciousness must be scientific, and that philosophers or others who worry about this are fluffy heads. The scientists on my list were hardly fluffy and think there are legitimate grounds for thinking no explanation will be forthcoming because of the difficulties involved. And I see nobody here rushing around to accuse such scientists of woo since they’re respected. But the minute a philosopher or Erikk makes essentially the same point it’s nothing but dismissals, snark, and poo-pooing about how shallow their explanations are. Where were all these critics during the hey-day of behaviorism? When Penrose’s book came out? When Barash wrote his article about consciousness? It’s ironic to me that the scientists are actually arguing against themselves like this since it helps reveal how much of their views depend on where the winds blow. In contrast, your point about Dennett vs. Nagel and Searle is fair enough (although I think Searle has him beat on the issue frankly). At least Dennett is willing to address the issue carefully and try to understand what the problem is in intellectual terms and without all the unhelpful snark around here.

  41. #41 Sentinel
    March 20, 2013

    This is a review of comments by reviewers on a book that the author has not read.

    That’s just ridiculous.

  42. #42 Oliver
    March 20, 2013

    @Jason: “First, the would-be revolutionary claims to have overthrown the reigning materialist/reductionist paradigm by some brilliant piece of rhetorical legerdemain. Knowledgeable people read the book, find it less than convincing, and write some snide reviews. To which the would-be revolutionaries respond with a lot of whining about how oppressed and put-upon they are.”

    Crying persecution over being criticized is exactly the kind of behavior that people arguing for indefensible positions engage in so commonly; it’s a crackpot gambit that’s as old as the hills. Mark Hoofnagle over at Denialism Blog noted this phenomenon a long time ago, in the Crank Howto. I’ve seen it crop up in all kinds of anti-science circles. It’s so nice to see all the defenders of immaterialism and/or dualism using it in the pieces you quoted. Really, though, I never thought I’d see comparisons to heretics being burned at the stake in a conversation about philosophy, of all things.

    @Richard Wein: “The fact that something isn’t made of matter doesn’t mean we need a non-materialistic, dualistic explanation. Democracy isn’t made of matter. But that doesn’t mean we can’t arrive at democracy through the activity of material human beings.”

    Excellent point. I’d expand on this, actually, and say that naturalism/materialism holds in several different cases. Take history, for example. It’s certainly not a hard scientific enterprise like physics, but that doesn’t mean that it’s at odds with materialism. Far from it; if you understand that people and societies have certain regular needs, behaviors, desires, etc. then you can actually make some sense of it–even get a sense of where societies may move in the future. When was the last time positing acts of God, or a war between angels and demons, or whatever helped us understand historical change? Looking for regular natural causes not only works; it makes history coherent. And it is not at all at odds with materialism. Ditto any such social (or for that matter not-hard) science, e.g. economics, psychology, natural history, etc.

    Likewise, for philosophy of mind. In this case, positing some immaterial substance adds no explanatory value to anything whatsoever. In fact, it’s even worse than that, since there is ample evidence from neuroscience that the mind is affected by the physical brain. Dualism, then, is not wrong; it’s not even wrong. In addition to not explaining anything, there are no possible circumstances that could show it true or false.

    @couchloc: your post buggers me. Saying we do not understand how the material brain causes the mind is not the same thing as saying the brain causes the mind. Just because science doesn’t have anything to say about the first one doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have anything to say about the second one (or that science will never have something to say about the first). Material causes (e.g. drugs, metal beams, nutrient deprivation) have mental effects; how is this possible if the mind is an entirely immaterial substance?

    This, and the old problem of dualism, how does an immaterial mind interact with a material body, convince me, at least, that dualism doesn’t have anything to offer, nor some teleological principle inherent in matter for which we do not have any evidence. When there’s evidence for it, then Nagel and the rest of us can talk–of course, then it would be science, wouldn’t it?

  43. #43 JollyRancher
    March 20, 2013

    Man, this issue just seems to pop up everywhere lately!

    eric @ 27:”Rather, they are methodological or empirical/scientific materialists. I.e., they tentatively accept, based on current evidence the conclusion that materialism is true, but also accept that this conclusion is subject to revision should new, relevant evidence arise.”

    And what would that evidence look like, pray tell? I mean, anything capable of being evidential must be empirical in some sense, right? But if that’s the case, given the broad definition of material that seems to be in usage around here, what could possibly ever show up that isn’t labelled material? What would convince you, and why? Just curious.

    “Then give them, assuming you are referring to soul as I defined above. Michael Fugate and Eric already told you what will convince us: an observable phenomenon that cannot and never will be explained by neurobiology. Prove it.”

    The whole issue is that consciousness is not a publicly observable phenomena. In fact, it technically isn’t a phenomena at all, because you can’t measure it. This is what leads to a closed loop in terms of the applicability of causal explanations to it. You can explain fire, or life ,or light, or bodily movements, or transitions of brain states in terms of mechanisms because in each case the phenomena in question is embedded in the publicly observable world of mechanism and causes. Consciousness, however, is not. Hence the present discussion.

    AL @ 27:” What exactly are the insights about consciousness we can glean from the works of proponents of the immaterial, other than “you can’t explain that”?”

    I don’t know what a dualist paradigm would look like, but I do know that ANY type of intellectual complacency is no good, whether it’s based on undue pessimism, or delusional triumphalism. It pays to know what the problems are, so that one doesn’t delau progress by thinking one has solved all there is to solve. If people had been content to answer “why do apples fall?” with “because they want to go down”, we wouldn;t have gotten very far. Finding out that the brain is intimately correlated with out mental life, down to the last detail, is all very interesting, but if people end up satisifed with a bunch of explanatorily arbitrary correlations, then if we DO need some sort of revolution in our understadning, we won’t get it. None of this demands stopping any current work being done, btw, it just implies that one should know how far one’s methods can go, in case one might need to develop new ones.

    Lenoxus @ 35: “But if we must classify attempts at its solution into two approaches…”
    I would hope such a classification is completely unnecessary, but that there are still reasons for having gadflies around to remind us what we have, and haven’t solved, to avoid complacency.

    Michael Fugate @ 37 :”Erikk, can you give me one example of consciousness without a brain?”

    Let’s make a deal: I’ll give you an empirical example of consciousness without a brain, if you can give me an empirical example of a brain with consciousness. The presence of consciousness is epistemically (empirically speaking anyway) symmetric in both cases. Good luck with that.

    MnB @ 38:”The question is what phenomena your immaterial mental states explain which materialistic etc. models don’t.”

    Well, they wouldn’t explain anything observable, because then they wouldn’t be immaterial anymore. What they could do is explain WHY OTHER explanations fail. Namely, why science has no grip on the phenomena of consciousness. Of course, even if something is inexplicable by standard scientific methodology, the default consequence is not that said thing is immaterial. It could just mean we’re too dumb to figure it out, or that the problem is a pseudo problem etc…

    “For me the question is: which concept has more predictive power?”
    Funny you should say that, since physics, qua physics, makes no predicitons about the existence of subjective conscious states, only more complicated arrangements of matter. That’s not to say they might not ultimately be one and the same thing, but there’s no explanatory work being done by physics, qua physics, as to why consciousness should have this double aspected nature of being both subjective and objective.

    Oliver @ 42:” how is this possible if the mind is an entirely immaterial substance? This, and the old problem of dualism, how does an immaterial mind interact with a material body…”

    While I’m not too partial to immaterial minds myself, I’ve always felt that the above objection was pretty weak one. You might as well ask how gravity is even conceptually possible because the objects don’t have to be touching each other. Who said they did? What are the apriori constraints on causation? How did you arrive at this conclusion? Is body to body causation, or action at a distance, any more intelligible, or less brute, than mind to matter causation? Maybe, but I don’t find this particularly obvious.

  44. #44 Ça alors!
    March 20, 2013

    Oliver: “Material causes (e.g. drugs, metal beams, nutrient deprivation) have mental effects; how is this possible if the mind is an entirely immaterial substance?”

    If consciousness has an immaterial source, I can’t see why it couldn’t be influenced by drugs, beams or anything you want. Let’s assume that it is true consciousness is immaterial. A mice would then have the quality of awareness a mice can have because of its limited biological interface, just like humans would have larger possibilities because of their biological interface too. The complexity of the organic machine would have no choice to play a role in the way consciousness could be expressed. Modify the interface and you’ll modify the consciousness because you modify the “equipment” consciousness uses.

    As for: “This, and the old problem of dualism, how does an immaterial mind interact with a material body…”

    Again, let’s play for a while and accept that consciousness has an immaterial source. If that would be the case, then it would mean it is a “no-thing” and that this “no-thing” wouldn’t be measurable or calculable. So if it is not a thing, it would mean it is limitless, uncreated, undetectable, that it never began and can’t end. It would be logical for a “no-thing” to have those natural, unknown to us, qualities.

    So not only we would be made from that “no stuff”, but it is that “no stuff” itself that would give us access to everything we could know and experience. That is why it wouldn’t something like history or democracy. These are concepts. Consciousness would be the “no-thing” that allows you to think about those concepts, and think about a car and be able to build and drive it too. But to look for what makes you conscious would be like trying to wet water with water. That is why how the interaction goes between the physical and the non-physical would remain a mystery. Evan Thompson, professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, explains:

    “The scientific method gives us no direct and independent access to consciousness itself–no direct access, because third-person observations are always of the behavioral and physiological expressions of consciousness, not consciousness itself; and no independent access because the scientific method itself presupposes consciousness, so we must unavoidably use consciousness to study consciousness. Full recognition of this situation demands that the neuroscience of consciousness include an ineliminable phenomenological component. Some of the phenomenological resources for such a “neurophenomenology” of consciousness can be found in Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist contemplative methods of training the mind.”

  45. #45 MNb
    March 21, 2013

    @Couchloc: “who think … that philosophers or others who worry about this are fluffy heads”
    And exactly who of those others you complain about called explicitly or implicitly anyone of your list of authorities who you don’t use as an argument “fluffy heads”? Because this looks like a strawman, smells like a strawman and feels like a strawman. Moreover it means that you were shifting some goalposts in 33.
    Nagel needs better defenders than you indeed.

  46. #46 couchloc
    March 21, 2013

    @MNb, I think you are misunderstanding my point. As I said @40, “I see nobody here rushing around to accuse such scientists [on my list] of woo since they’re respected.” So you have misunderstood me. The point I’m making is another one about how several people here are approaching the issue with Nagel under discussion, which has to do with the history of the debate. Historically there have been many scientists and psychologists since the hey-day of behaviorism who have argued on scientific grounds that there is no objective way to study consciousness. This tradition extends back through several of the people I mentioned on my list. So we have Watson in 1924 arguing that “this thing we call consciousness can be analyzed *only* by introspection…….There is no way of experimentally attacking and solving [the] problem and standardizing methods” (1924). His arguments here take the phenomenon of mental states for what they are: something we experience internally but whose nature is not publicly observable and, hence, not subject to the methods of science. And he argued this point on scientific grounds himself. Now, the current debate about Nagel’s view is occurring in the 2000’s, and he makes the argument that consciousness is not subject to the methodology of science in very similar terms. But in the latter case it seems Nagel’s philosopher-status puts him at a disadvantage, since some people immediately begin to challenge the premise that there’s any evidence for his view and attempt to dismiss it and otherwise poo-poo the very idea as fluff. So we’re told Nagel’s view exists

    @5 “because in apologetics all that matters is what works to keep the faithful believing”

    @8 it relies on “instinctive impressions”

    @25 it’s merely “lots of assertions”

    These complaints are so inaccurate that it is just unbelievable this is the level of debate we’re having over this issue at this point in time. Do people not know any of their history? Accusing Nagel of apologetics (fluff) is a red herring (since Nagel, Watson, Skinner, Barash, etc. are all atheists who agree about consciousness). And claiming the view relies on “impressions” and “assertions” flies in the face of the last several hundred years of argument (not “assertions”) by SCIENTISTS THEMSELVES against the objectivity of consciousness. So why is it that when a philosopher makes this point some people around here quickly lurch to these flimsy attacks? Are people really so ignorant of the history? The whole thing seems rather silly to me since many of the arguments come from earlier scientists, as I said, and scientists are basically arguing against themselves. It just seems to me that it would be worthwhile to try to address the actual issues and not try to waive them off as some kind of naive superstition.

  47. #47 Reginald Selkirk
    March 21, 2013

    Erikk #31: Mental states are, by definition, not material. Material correlates would be termed “brain states.” Mental states are immaterial because they refer to qualitative states of consciousness.

    No, you’re still doing it.
    Brain states are material. Fine. That seems to be about as far as we can agree.
    Mental states are “by definition” not material? WTF? You want to assume your conclusion as a starting definition? You want to presume that consciousness is immaterial?

    I won’t be wasting any more time on you.

  48. #48 Reginald Selkirk
    March 21, 2013

    couchloc #33: It is very frustrating to read some of the replies here to Erikk’s comments on the issue. Do people have no understanding of the mind-body problem as it has developed in the west for the last 500 years? There are good reasons to think mental states are by their nature not explicable in material terms

    You don’t seem to agree with Erikk either. You say there are “good reasons to think” so; but Erikk wants to build it into his definitions! I could have a discussion with someone like you about what the evidence is, and which interpretations are justified, but there is no room for discussion with someone like Erikk.

  49. #49 MNb
    March 21, 2013

    @Couchloc: in that case I apolaogize for my false accusation.
    Still no dualist as far as I know has ever addressed this point. Now I now far from everything, so I’ll be happy if you can give some quote from all the important names you have provided.
    When I ride my bike from home to school the Flat Earth Model works perfectly. There is no need to correct for Earthly curve, so we prefer the simpler model, the one with less entities (like centrifugal force). When I fly a plane around the Earth though the Spheric Earth Model is the superior one.
    It’s the same with soul/mental states. A theory without them is simpler than a theory that includes them. So the only justification of dualism is showing that some phenomena are better explained than materialism can.
    We are waiting.

  50. #50 Oliver
    March 21, 2013

    @JollyRancher: “While I’m not too partial to immaterial minds myself, I’ve always felt that the above objection was pretty weak one. You might as well ask how gravity is even conceptually possible because the objects don’t have to be touching each other. Who said they did? What are the apriori constraints on causation? How did you arrive at this conclusion?”

    Hmm, I disagree. I think it’s a pretty strong objection, since dualists themselves have spent so much time trying to find a solution to the problem of interaction. The briefest survey of some general sources comes up with all kinds of offered solutions to the problem. The only thing they all seem to have in common, apart from supposing dualism to be true, is that they are unsuccessful.

    Remember, substance dualists (the ones who I’m referring to, just in case that wasn’t clear) are not simply saying that consciousness has some different properties from other things in the material world. They are saying that it is a fundamentally different substance from anything material. Now, if that is true, then it immediately raises the question, how is it that the one substance can have any effect on the other? How is it the mind moves the material body if the mind is not somehow connected to the material body? And if it is connected, doesn’t that mean, at the very least, they must share some common substance through which they interact? But if this is true, then mind and matter cease to be two diametrically opposite substances.

    Descartes understood this was a problem, which is why he said the soul interacted with the body via the pineal gland. Of course, this was just speculation, and neuroscience would eventually show he was wrong. But to his credit, he did try to offer a solution. Now, if the father of modern dualism in the West understood that this was not a trifling objection, but still failed to provide an adequate solution to the problem, and nobody else seems to be able to either, then I’d say we’re justified in considering this a problem for dualism in need of a solution.

    That’s why the analogy to gravity is misplaced. Gravity, at least as how we understand it with general relativity, is a model that predicts the motions of objects with a stunning degree of accuracy. And even here, there is much we don’t understand about the nature of gravity, which is why many physicists are trying to unite it with the other forces, and GR with QM. but what we do understand is its effects. We can make some very accurate predictions with it. We can make no such accurate predictions with dualism about the mind, other than, well everything mental just is, and don’t ask any questions.

    If that’s not enough for you, I’ll also note that gravity is an entirely material theory, which assumes the existence, well, matter (matter/energy) and space. It does not posit a mysterious ghost in the machine about which nothing can be said that is so different as to be unable to interact with the material things.

  51. #51 Michael Fugate
    March 21, 2013

    Jolly, I was pretty sure no one here could do it, but at least now I know you can’t. The mind and the brain are just two ways of describing the same thing. It appears you can have a brain without mind, but you can’t have mind without a certain kind of brain. Is this really that hard? If you think I am wrong, then produce an alternative – you have had 2500 years to come up with a hypothesis – surely someone had to produce one in all of that time. How does the mind communicate with the body and how does the body communicate with the mind? Is it a typical feedback loop with sensors, integrators and effectors? Is the signal electrical or chemical? Inquiring minds/brains want to know.

    Couchloc, you protest way too much – scientists always argue against themselves – why do you find this so disconcerting? Look at the arguments over drift and selection in evolutionary biology – this is nothing new. Why are you taking this so personally? I may change my opinion on this as new evidence comes in, but right now I see no reason to think the mind is immaterial and different than the living brain – a byproduct of evolution. Also if you know your history as you claim you must realize how mind has been tied to the soul, an afterlife, gods, spirits, etc. To try to ignore all of that is silly. Nagel seems to be saying that the human mind is part of a cosmic mind (not a traditional god) that gives us and the universe purpose and meaning – something that evolution apparently can’t give us. I am still not convinced.

  52. #52 Oliver
    March 21, 2013

    @Ça alors!: “If consciousness has an immaterial source, I can’t see why it couldn’t be influenced by drugs, beams or anything you want. Let’s assume that it is true consciousness is immaterial.”

    Well if we’re going to assume that dualism is true, then of course it follows that dualism is true, and neuroscience, if true, must therefore be compatible with dualism. But begging the question like that doesn’t really get us anywhere, does it?

    Look, I’m not saying that it is logically impossible for dualism and for neuroscience to be true simultaneously. Obviously, such a situation as you’re describing is logically possible, seeing as how you can describe it. But my point (and the point of many others here) still stands: what new knowledge does adopting a dualist model of the mind give us? And is there any evidence in favor of dualism like, as MNb says, being able to better explain mental states than materialism?

    To the contrary, all I see from dualists is that mental states just are, and there is no explanation for it other than a just-so story. Now, what kind of an explanation is that?

    “The complexity of the organic machine would have no choice to play a role in the way consciousness could be expressed. Modify the interface and you’ll modify the consciousness because you modify the “equipment” consciousness uses.”

    OK, so if dualism is true, then this Egnor-esque analogy might be apt. Now, where is the evidence that dualism is true, apart from simply assuming that it is, in fact, true? What justifies us in accepting this and rejecting some other explanation, like, say, the difference in a mouse’s awareness and a human’s awareness is due to the latter having a much bigger, complex brain?

    “If that would be the case, then it would mean it is a “no-thing” and that this “no-thing” wouldn’t be measurable or calculable. So if it is not a thing, it would mean it is limitless, uncreated, undetectable, that it never began and can’t end. It would be logical for a “no-thing” to have those natural, unknown to us, qualities.”

    Maybe I’m just being an uneducated, unsophisticated Philistine, but this is sounding like gibberish. A no-thing? Please, what is a no-thing? How is it different from a thing? And why, oh why, does it sound just like “nothing”? Is this merely a coincidence? Are you saying that consciousness is nothing? Please clarify; I’m not sure that even the most shrill* materialists here are saying that consciousness is nothing…

    This passage is a wonderful word salad, chock full of unwarranted assumptions. What is your justification for saying that consciousness is “limitless, uncreated, undetectable”? Why is this logical? I don’t see it implied by the phrase “no-thing” as a matter of necessity. And furthermore, if it is undetectable, then how the heck do you know anything about it, like the fact that it is immaterial, or even a “no-thing”?

    The invisible and the nonexistent look very much alike. There’s a reason scholasticism fell out of favor in most philosophy departments, you know…

    “So not only we would be made from that “no stuff”, but it is that “no stuff” itself that would give us access to everything we could know and experience. That is why it wouldn’t something like history or democracy. These are concepts.”

    Okay, now we’ve switched to “no stuff” which I think is equivalent to a “no thing”. If yes, see above. If not, (I would hate to be misrepresenting your argument) please clarify what you mean, because I do not understand.

    I didn’t bring up history to say it was the same thing as consciousness, I brought it up to say that there are things that do not exist as physical entities, which are nonetheless explicable by materialism (i.e. not assuming the existence of unknown or unknowable entities, be they spirits, ghosts, angels, gods, the immaterial substance of mind, etc.) And consciousness, while it is obviously not the same thing as history or democracy, does not appear to be impossibly describable under materialism, either. Of course, if it really is immaterial, then it obviously cannot be described by materialism, but you have offered nothing that suggests that it is immaterial other than simply assuming that it is.

    If you have anything to offer besides one giant exercise in circular reasoning that suggests that dualism is true, please present it.

  53. #53 couchloc
    March 21, 2013

    @Reginald Selkirk, I agree with you that Erikk does state his position in a way that makes it sound like immaterialism is built into the definition of mental states, and that’s unfortunate. I presume he’s merely expressed his view poorly, but fair enough.

    @MNb, let me say this about the examples you offer. I agree that there are different models we can make of the Earth that may be useful for different purposes. This is plausible because we think of the models involved as models **OF** the phenomenon we are interested in. So we appeal to an explanatory hypothesis in the sense that it serves to explain something else (riding a bike, flying a plane). But this is not the same thing going on in the mental case. In your account immaterialism is an explanatory model of the mental states we experience, and, if that were the case, then you could try appealing to Ockam’s razor to argue against needless explanatory hypotheses as you do. (Does it matter that W. of Ockham was a philosopher here?). But this is not what any of the people on my list thought about our experience of conscious states. The problem is that our mental states themselves do not appear to us to have material properties and are only accessible through introspection. That is, immaterialism is not an explanatory hypothesis INTRODUCED to explain our mental states. It is an inference FROM the fact that our direct experience does not appear to be otherwise explicable in terms of material, neuronal, etc. properties. So I don’t think we can treat the mental case in the way you mention, right? Watson doesn’t consider the immateriality of consciousness to be a hypothesis we introduce. He just says, there’s no way to study consciousness as a material phenomenon, so let’s forget about it. He sees the problem as “built into” our experience of consciousness so to speak. And it seems to me that this problem is being whitewashed away by people insisting that Nagel is introducing some strange hypothesis.

    @Michael Furgate, the point that scientists disagree all the time is irrelevant to the point I’m making. I’m merely pointing out that the kinds of arguments at issue have historically been offered by scientists themselves, so any attempt to dismiss them as fluff or religion is wildly oversimplistic. Do you stand behind your words that Nagel is practicing “apologetics”? Is his view just “assertions” in your view? I can only go by the things you say on this thread.

  54. #54 eric
    March 21, 2013

    Couchloc @40:

    I’m pointing out the hubris of those people commenting here who think that it’s just obvious that the explanation of consciousness must be scientific, and that philosophers or others who worry about this are fluffy heads.

    I think its just obvious that materialist science has explained pretty much every phenomena that has an explanation, that supernaturalism or dualism has never explained any phenomena, and so materialism is the better bet. Its the favored horse in the race. Many things do not yet have an explanation. I’m perfectly willing to admit that its philosophically possible for some supernatural soul to explain one or more of those things, but inductively, it would be as irrational to believe they will turn out to be true as it would be to believe that tomorrow I will be able to flap my arms and fly around the room (another philosophical possibility but long-horse bet).

  55. #55 eric
    March 21, 2013

    Jolly @43:

    And what would that evidence [that materialism is not true] look like, pray tell?

    Well controlled, repeatable, out of body experiences giving knowledge the subject was confirmably not capable of knowing would do the trick. But pay attention to the adjectives there, they matter very much. One or a few anecdotes by believers does not cut it. If the critics and disbelievers in the theory can’t repeat the effect for themselves, regularly and with variety, then you’ve probably got an N-ray.

    What could possibly ever show up that isn’t labelled material? What would convince you, and why? Just curious.

    Yes, there is a labeling problem. If some ‘thing’ that carries memories and consciousness outside of the brain IS characterized by science, it may stop being called supernatural. However, if that ever happens, I will be perfectly happy to say that the nonmaterial dualists and theologians were right in substance and the materialists were wrong in substance, regardless of whether future generations call that ‘thing’ a part of physics or not.

  56. #56 Michael Fugate
    March 21, 2013

    Couchloc, I didn’t say Nagel was practicing apologetics, but Plantinga certainly is. If Nagel is so out of touch with what his fellow philosophers have been saying about the EAAN for 20 years, then what should I think about his motivations? He seems to have real issues with evolution – which doesn’t give me much confidence in his conclusions. Do you think the EAAN is correct? How about intelligent design? Do you think there is something in the universe analogous to the human mind that gives it purpose?

  57. #57 eric
    March 21, 2013

    The problem is that our mental states themselves do not appear to us to have material properties and are only accessible through introspection

    So, you can’t think of any material properties that go along with the mental state “sleep?” How about “embarrassment?” “Drunk?”

    How about the mental state of making a decision?

    The properties of sleep are only accessible through introspection? Let me check my video baby monitor. Hmmm…seems pretty clear you’re wrong. The mental state of sleep does indeed have material properties, and is fairly obviously accessible to outsiders: regular breathing. Eyes closed. Lack of response to stimuli. These are material properties associated with that mental state.

    Couch, you seem myopically focused on internal sense of self and the fact that it can’t be directly accessed (i.e. personally experienced) by others. But in having this quality, it is no different than ones’ sense of balance. Nobody can experience my personal sense of balance. But it has very obvious material consequences, is very obviously affected by some material stimuli, and can via experiment be located and understood to ‘reside’ in a specific organ. I don’t see how sense of thought is qualitatively different from sense of balance.

  58. #58 couchloc
    March 21, 2013

    @54 Eric, “I’m perfectly willing to admit that its philosophically possible for some supernatural soul to explain one or more of those things, but inductively, it would be….irrational to believe they will turn out to be true….”

    This is part of what I’m talking about. I apologize if some of my comments have seem intemperate, but we’re supposed to be having a discussion about Nagel’s views here, and then I read things like this. Nagel does not believe in anything like a “supernatural soul,” and people would know this if they tried to understand his view. Nagel does not believe that it’s possible for consciousness to exist independently of a brain either. But a few people here don’t seem to understand this point since they keep interpreting him in terms of a their own 19th Century understanding of the the mind-body problem. The history of the debate in this area is a bit more developed than that. Nagel is what is known as a property dualist, which is explained here:

    “It is possible to maintain a dualistic position and yet deny the existence of any separate mental substances [couchloc: supernatural souls], however. One can instead postulate that the brain has certain unique properties that constitute its mental phenomena. These properties are just the sorts of experiences we have as we go about our everyday lives, including perceptions, pains, desires, and thoughts. This philosophical position on the mind-body problems is called property dualism. It is a form of dualism because these properties are taken to be nonphysical in the sense of not being reducible to any standard physical properties.”

    http://www.pearsonhighered.com/assets/hip/us/hip_us_pearsonhighered/samplechapter/0205711472.pdf

  59. #59 couchloc
    March 21, 2013

    @Michael Fugate, this helps me understand a little where you are coming from since Nagel has been criticized for his comments on intelligent design I’m aware. So I can see how his comments on this can sound off-putting and raise questions for you. But this issue is strictly independent from the mind-body problem. As I’ve said, the arguments for the hard problem of consciousness are not inherently connected up with religion or the wish to do apologetics or something. Watson, Skinner, Barash, Penrose, etc. are atheists and sympathetic to the view that science does not have the methods to explain the existence of consciousness. So I don’t think that we can simply dismiss their arguments about this by claiming they’re “assertions” or something like that. The arguments being made come from a long history of arguments on the mind-body problem that we can’t merely whitewash away. And so I find myself frustrated by comments here and there that seem to suggest the problem is based on naive superstition or assertions or whatever. As to the issue of intelligent design, I hope I don’t need to point out that philosophers have been instrumental in attacking this terrible view (Popper, Ruse, Kitcher, Pennock, come to mind quite quickly).

  60. #60 couchloc
    March 21, 2013

    @57 Eric, I’m not really sure what to say to this post. The problem concerns the idea “that our mental states _themselves_ do not appear to us to have material properties,” and you give me a list of material properties that “go along with sleep”, or are “associated with that mental state.” I don’t see why this is a good response to the problem. Nagel certainly doesn’t deny that mental states are related to material properties. The problem is and always has been whether the mental states themselves are explicable in material terms. Scientists are always careful to distinguish between correlation and causation. Why don’t they show the same care when it comes to the difference between causation and identity?

    Second, your last paragraph is harder to interpret. You mention “the internal sense of self” and how “it can’t be directly accessed by others.” One would like to know then how science is going to explain it using third-person, objective methods? (Note: not explain something correlated with it, but explain the sense of self itself.) If the sense of self is this distinctive _quality_ we experience, as you say, how could science ever explain such a thing? The whole basis of physics introduced by Galileo in the 1500’s was predicated on the idea of excluding qualitative properties from our understanding of nature and treating entities in terms of their physical dimensions alone. If you want to mention qualities you are going to have to rethink your whole physics it seems.

  61. #61 MNb
    March 21, 2013

    @Eric: “I’m perfectly willing to admit that its philosophically possible for some supernatural soul to explain one or more of those things”
    I not so much. First I would like to learn about some mechanism, procedure or whatever that describes how that supernatural soul interacts with material things like the human brain – or the mental states with the brain states, whatever the dualists prefer.

  62. #62 Michael Fugate
    March 21, 2013

    Couchloc, I still don’t see how anyone could be a property dualist. I don’t see my mind as different than my brain – they are the same thing. The interesting thing about physiology is that causes and effects are interchangeable because of feedback loops within a network. Perceptions and pains are just as easily causes of neuronal activity as neuronal activity is of perceptions and pains. The problem I have is how are perceptions and pains generated and I can only conclude that they are most likely chemical. Do I know this for a fact – no. We do know memories can be chemical-based. We do know electrical or chemical activity is needed to stimulate neurons – therefore for perceptions and pains to act on neurons they are most likely chemical (and not electrical due to long-term storage issues). We also know that relatively few molecules can create enormous diversity – think proteins, think antibodies. Do you really appreciate the number of neurons in a human brain and the number of possible links between those neurons? Couple those with neurotransmitters and cell-surface receptor diversity and you can’t imagine what is possible.

    Nagel claims to be an atheist (I will take him at his word), yet he doesn’t think evolution could have produced a mind such as ours. So where did it come from? If as dualists claim the mind is completely internal, then how do we know that everything is not conscious? Certainly this would have been the historical view – to grant mind to animals, plants, even rocks. Who is to say they were wrong?

  63. #63 Lenoxus
    March 21, 2013

    Ça alors!:

    A mice would then have the quality of awareness a mice can have because of its limited biological interface, just like humans would have larger possibilities because of their biological interface too. The complexity of the organic machine would have no choice to play a role in the way consciousness could be expressed. Modify the interface and you’ll modify the consciousness because you modify the “equipment” consciousness uses.

    Does this mean that every mouse is actually just as sentient and intelligent as every human, but is merely being “blocked out” by the limitations of mouse brains? I’m imagining what it’s like to view the Internet on an old computer; the actual images may be in color but the equipment only does black and white, so black and white is what you get. This notion is intriguing, but raises more questions than it answers. For example, where does it stop? We observe a continuum of consciousness, from humans to rodents to reptiles to fish to insects to stimulus-response single-celled animals, including the very cells of which we are composed. It’s fascinating and complex, but at this point in history, it’s not very mysterious anymore. Dualism of the “radio antenna” variety (like any other sort of dualism) only throws more mystery in, giving us a net loss in understanding. Does every living thing have an equally sentient soul? I hope not – not that hope has any say in what is true.

    Perhaps it’s more useful to modify the hypothesis to say that each of a mind’s parts/functions interacts with a part of the brain, both affecting and being affected by the neurons thereof. But now we’re just a hop away from materialism, showing dualism again to be just baggage.

    eric:

    Well controlled, repeatable, out of body experiences giving knowledge the subject was confirmably not capable of knowing would do the trick.

    This is where I jump in and say that it would be more logical to call that evidence that we’re in a computer simulation. (Or, to begin with, that we need to call in the Randi squad to detect basic trickery.) Some will call that a wild idea contrived just to avoid immaterialism/supernaturalism, but perhaps it’s the other way around, kinda. Supernaturalism just happens to be what humans have grown up with, but I don’t see why that should privilege it. The simulation argument at least enjoys the plausibility whereby simulations are known to exist in our world.

    However, if that ever happens, I will be perfectly happy to say that the nonmaterial dualists and theologians were right in substance and the materialists were wrong in substance, regardless of whether future generations call that ‘thing’ a part of physics or not.

    I agree with this. That’s a good distinction. Likewise, if it somehow turned out that humans were created by distant aliens and are not related to chimpanzees, then I would say the theists were almost entirely right in substance.

  64. #64 JimV
    March 21, 2013

    In order to be sensed at all, sensations must be “felt”. Therefore if there were no way for things to feel sensations (such as the sensation of being conscious), evolution would have to invent some. Which it did. The way they feel (the scent of a rose, the look of the color red, the feeling of being conscious) is the way such sensations feel in this universe, using the material means (chemical receptors, nerve cells) which we use.

    Light acts both as a particle and as a wave in this universe. Things can interact over a distance, in this universe. Those are material facts about our universe, as is consciousness. That seems to me to be all the philosophical “explanation” that we are likely to get – or that I for one need. I think philosophers should take a break from the hard problem of consciousness and worry about the hard problem of the scent of a rose for a while. Or if they think they’re up to it, they could try to figure out why our universe seems to follow General Relativity and Quantum Field Theory rather than some other set of rules. Because dualism?

  65. #65 eric
    March 21, 2013

    Couch:

    It is possible to maintain a dualistic position and yet deny the existence of any separate mental substances [couchloc: supernatural souls], however. One can instead postulate that the brain has certain unique properties that constitute its mental phenomena.

    Sure, I hold something like that myself. But that is not anti-materialistic. As RBH put it, waves are fully explained by water etc. In the same way, it is completely possible that the unique properties of the brain give rise to consciouness, yet any/all unique properties that matter are material.

  66. #66 eric
    March 21, 2013

    Lenoxus:

    Or, to begin with, that we need to call in the Randi squad to detect basic trickery.)

    Absolutely, I’m in agreement about that. When OOB experience become as consistent and regular as plane flights, we can trust that they represent real phenomena. I am completely fine with a high level of repeatability, because, as I said, we need to guard against N-ray type phenomena.

  67. #67 couchloc
    March 21, 2013

    @Michael Fugate, Let me see if I can give you an answer, since I admit that what you say sounds very reasonable here. This seems like the sort of thing we *should* say. But you say a number of things that are somewhat concerning.

    Let’s consider your example of pain. What is it for someone to experience pain? Well, I presume it’s when they experience an unpleasant, hurtful sensation. When you smash your thumb, this has the quality of hurting and something counts as pain only if it includes this hurtful, stinging experience. Eric gestures at a similar idea (@57) when he says that our sense of self is a qualitative experience. What I want to understand is how you purport to explain this qualitative aspect of your experience? There is a long history of the difficulty raised by this problem.

    Recall that when Galileo created the first system of physics in the West this required characterizing nature in physico-mathematical terms. He required the entities and forces in nature to be conceived solely in terms of their quantitative and physical properties. Mathematical physics to this day deals with these sorts of properties. There is no room for “qualities” in nature. Galileo was quite aware that in constructing his system we had to conceive of nature in these terms. Everything associated with subjective experiences and qualities (e.g., how the heat of a fire is subjectively experienced by the perceiver), was removed from our conception of nature. This is reflected in the fact that your modern physics text includes no reference to qualities in nature, only quantities.

    This seems to work exceedingly well for explaining how nature works, of course, as science shows. But this creates a problem for your attempt to say “pain” is the same as a “neuronal state.” You appear to be committed to the view that a neuronal states (qua identical to pains) are themselves qualitative entities. If your neuronal state is the same as a hurtful, painful experience, then qualities belong to the physical world, in your view. But this flatly contradicts our physical conception of nature. In this view there is only the blind, mechanical operation of atoms in the void (or energy fields or whatever). So I don’t see how you intend to bring the qualitative aspects of our mental states into the physical framework of the world.

    Notice that none of this is affected by your correct observation about the complexity of the brain. The problem is not a matter of numbers. If you can’t get a single quality into nature, according to physics, how is adding a bunch of neurons together going to make a difference? What you’re suggesting is that merely by increasing the number of neuronal states involved we can get a qualitatively different kind of entity in the universe. This sounds like postulating a miracle.

    Here is an analogy. Suppose someone you knew claimed that rainbows were made up of numbers. Not that you could model a rainbow with a mathematical formula or something, but that, literally, rainbows are made up of numbers. And suppose you objected reasonably that you couldn’t imagine how that was possible. Would it be a good reply for him to say: “Do you really appreciate the amount of numbers that exist and the number of possible relations between them? Couple those with all the operations we have (addition, multiplication, etc.) and you can’t imagine what is possible.” I don’t think that would help.

  68. #68 couchloc
    March 21, 2013

    @65 Eric, “I hold something like that myself. But that is not anti-materialistic. As RBH put it, waves are fully explained by water etc.”

    Then we are closer in agreement than may have appeared. But I think you still have the problem of “qualities” I described to Michael. How are you going to include reference to the qualitative aspects of our mental states in the conceptual framework of physics? You could try expanding your physics…..but then you’d basically be following Nagel.

  69. #69 Ça alors!
    March 22, 2013

    Oliver: “…is there any evidence in favor of dualism like, as MNb says, being able to better explain mental states than materialism?”

    Evidence? Not scientifically speaking. Like I said, it would be logical from our (material) perspective that what is immaterial remains unknowable (unless you do some hard specific work with your self…).

    But phenomenons like subjectivity, morals, beauty, meaning, logic, maths, even evolution would be better served by an immanent theory ( mystic judaism is good at explaining how it would work… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immanence#Buddhism ), a term that I would choose over dualism.

  70. #70 Ça alors!
    March 22, 2013

    “A no-thing? Please, what is a no-thing? How is it different from a thing? And why, oh why, does it sound just like “nothing”? Is this merely a coincidence?”

    We mainly grasp the world through opposites. Nothing, in our common language, means the absence of a thing. And it is defined by something, often its opposite, like in “I have nothing to say about this”.

    The problem with immateriality, is that it wouldn’t just be the opposite of materiality, it would also be a total unknown concept to our mind. We think in terms of language and language implies defining, labelling so we can know what we are talking about. And this process appeals to shapes, opposites and discontinuity. Immateriality, outside being the opposite of materiality, implies that it can’t be labeled, defined or limited. For that same reason, it is limitless, it can’t begin or end, it is outside time, otherwise it wouldn’t be immaterial.

    So it is not the average nothing that we commonly ascribe to the absence of a thing, it would be beyond that, it would be a “no-thing”, with a superpositive attribute, beyond the usual dual dynamic of opposites, that would allow both negatives and positives to dance their dance and bring them both positively (even when negative) to existence.

  71. #71 Ça alors!
    March 22, 2013

    Lenoxus: “Does this mean that every mouse is actually just as sentient and intelligent as every human, but is merely being “blocked out” by the limitations of mouse brains?”

    I would say that consciousness does its best to express itself and doesn’t care how it can achieve this. But at the same time, it would be inevitable that consciousness would get more and more self-aware and would, randomly, through evolution, use nature for that purpose. Understand purpose here as a property of consciousness, just like water has the property to wet. I mean, this would still be a natural phenomenon, where subjectivity would just be an “organ” developed by the universe, just like wings slowly emerged for birds.

  72. #72 Erikk
    March 22, 2013

    Reginald #47: Brain states are material. Fine. That seems to be about as far as we can agree.
    Mental states are “by definition” not material? WTF? You want to assume your conclusion as a starting definition? You want to presume that consciousness is immaterial?

    Here is the thing, and here is why I am not “assuming my conclusion as a starting definition.” My conclusion is only even weaker than Nagel’s conclusion: that consciousness as a phenomenon outside the explanatory scope of reductive scientific materialism. What I start with is what I (erroneously, apparently) thought to be an uncontroversial understanding of how the mind is different from the body.

    If you get a cut on your hand, there are a number of bodily effects that result, beyond, of course, there being a gash in your skin. As a simplified description of what I’m talking about, just for the sake of argument, let’s say: the cut triggers electrical impulses in the nerves around the cut, they are sent via the spine to the brain, where these impulses trigger a particular complex of neurons to fire, and certain chemical neurotransmitters to be produced to flow in the synapses. Again, all that’s just for the sake of argument, so forgive the oversimplification. But let’s agree that that’s what happens when you get a cut. Agreed?

    But something important also happens: you feel pain. Pain is a feeling; it occurs in the conscious mind of the dude who got cut. It is a categorically different kind of thing than the whole hand–>nerves–>brain drama that is being played out in the body. That pain is experienced is a fact that could never be inferred from analyzing those material processes alone. The fact is, though, we correlate those processes with the experience of pain, because we are great scientists: we are able to isolate a great many of the physical processes occurring in the brain while pain is experienced. We have no problem making this correlation, because we have experienced pain, and we know that it is in a certain way resultant from getting cut. But (and this is in the mold of the famous “Mary the color scientist” thought experiment, from I think John Searle but maybe someone else) some neuroscientist studied all aspects of the bodily account of pain, but never herself had the experience of pain, and she consults no one during her investigation, she’d have absolutely no scientific basis to posit that, as a result of the physico-chemical events in the body and brain, the person feels pain.

    Now, the correlation that has been discovered in this example is absolute 100% important. As many people have argued, it’s this kind of understanding that leads science to “make progress,” and I’m actually very sympathetic to a view of science where “progress” is the primary aim. And so now we can use this physico-chemical story to engineer pain medication, or see how different kinds of bodily processes lead a patient to describe different sorts of pain. But even then, in doing such experiments we’d be relying on reports from our hypothetical patients for the data on felt pain. Once we establish firm correlations between bodily goings-on and different kinds of conscious experience, we can get really good at engineering fine-tuned bodily interventions to induce very particular changes in conscious experience. However, in doing so, we have not gotten closer to an account of HOW those bodily processes YIELD this conscious experience. And, in practice, we don’t have to, because we can reliably have some effect on conscious experience through the efforts of reductive materialism. But we have not explained the origin of the phenomena: how, or why, it is that hand–>nerves–>brain produces the ineffable alarm bells/”ow!!!” feeling of pain.

    Note that I am certainly NOT claiming that we could have the conscious experience of pain without the body and brain that underlie the physical story of hand–>nerves–>brain. One doesn’t need to “have consciousness without a brain” in order to claim that the phenomena of consciousness are not explainable strictly in terms of the brain, which is the only point I’m trying to make here. There is a mystery at the heart of conscious experience that got us into this whole mess. As others have said, it’s no more evident anywhere than it is in Descartes, widely credited as one of the original progenitors of what we now know as the scientific method. He says he is more certain than anything of the immaterial existence of his mind. This famously leads to dualism, which is unsatisfying.

    But I plead with y’all, don’t let our mutual desire for a unified scientific account of all phenomena in the universe cloud the very real truth at the heart of all these hundreds of years of mind/body problem handwringing. We have conscious experience. We think and feel in terms that are undeniably correlated to and influenced by the brain and body. But the nature of these correlations and influences is totally mysterious. It is not an assumption of any kind to say that mental states aren’t material. You close your eyes and you think of the color red: thus you have had “a thought of the color red.” We all know better than to try and scour your apartment for bodily evidence of this thought; we also must know better that scouring the brain may yield us interesting things–even perhaps (for the sake of argument) a 100% accurate and exhaustive list of neurons that fire when you have that thought. But nowhere on such a list do we get any explanation of the fact that, when all this brain stuff happened, mind stuff also happened. Mind stuff can’t be explained by body stuff. This is the age-old mind/body problem. This is not something that needs to be proven, it’s a fact of observation from our immediate experience.

  73. #73 Erikk
    March 22, 2013

    I see now that couchloc has brought up a version of my above comment in #67. Shoulda forced myself to read till the end before replying.

  74. #74 Ça alors!
    March 22, 2013

    Couchloc: “Here is an analogy. Suppose someone you knew claimed that rainbows were made up of numbers. Not that you could model a rainbow with a mathematical formula or something, but that, literally, rainbows are made up of numbers.”

    Music is a good example for that because music is literally numbers, numbers that can carry emotions.

    The numbers of a major chord are 1, 3, 5 (for a C chord: C, E, G). For a minor chord, it is 1 b3 5, (C Eb, G) which means that the third here is played one semi-tone below the major third. That semi-tone makes all the difference between a happy sound (major) or a sad one (minor).

    Science alone can’t explain why the different combinations of notes will produce different emotions. It can talk about the ratios between the notes in the chord or how sound is produced, but not why a minor chord sounds sad.

  75. #75 Oliver
    March 22, 2013

    @Ça alors!: I’m afraid I still do not entirely understand where you’re coming from, but it seems like I might have misunderstood your position earlier. Still, you did offer some clarification, so I’ll try to respond as best I can.

    “Like I said, it would be logical from our (material) perspective that what is immaterial remains unknowable (unless you do some hard specific work with your self…).”

    I don’t see how this is logical if the mind is immaterial. What premises is this derived from? Please clarify how you arrived at this conclusion.

    Immanence as found in world religions is an interesting idea, but I’m not sure why you assume it would be any better an explanation than any other competing theory. It seems to be at odds with transcendance, for example, but I cannot see why we should choose one over the other.

    If I’m not mistaken, you believe it is a better explanation for beauty, logic, etc. than materialism. How so? Is it because it explains where they come from better? It looks it’s still a just-so story to me.

    Or perhaps it better explains how we can use these mental abstractions that don’t exist as material objects? This one makes more intuitive sense to me, at least, but I’m skeptical. There are a number of things I can think of that are not strictly understandable in terms of material properties that nonetheless do not need some kind of Platonic form to be useful. Human language springs to mind. There is no reason to suppose that words and grammar have any ontological existence outside of the minds of people, and yet we are still able to communicate.

    “We mainly grasp the world through opposites. Nothing, in our common language, means the absence of a thing. And it is defined by something, often its opposite, like in “I have nothing to say about this”.”

    Yes, but really, this meaning of nothing means the absence of a particular thing, and has to be understood in a particular context. But the fact that some things can be understood in terms of what they are not does not imply that to every thing, there is something which it is not.

    Case in point, suppose I ask why is a cat here, rather than nothing? This is a perfectly sensible question, because there are all kinds of things that are not a cat that I’m familiar with. In this case, nothing means the absence of the cat, a not-cat if you will. And since we know lots of things that are not a cat, you could respond meaningfully.

    But now suppose I ask why is a something here rather than nothing? What examples of a not-something are we familiar with? What does it mean, for something to be a not-something? Sounds like a fundamental contradiction to me. And you even admit that we do not actually have knowledge of it, when you say that it is undetectable. This also implies that we cannot have knowledge of it. But then, how do we make any such reasonings about it, as you want to do? And how on Earth does this help us understand things which you want to assume are immanent, if we don’t have any way of knowing anything about this no-thing?

    “The problem with immateriality, is that it wouldn’t just be the opposite of materiality, it would also be a total unknown concept to our mind.”

    See what I mean? All of this is meaningless, by definition, if we don’t have any idea what we’re talking about.

    I’m afraid that this case is less than compelling. And please, do not think I’m entirely unsympathetic to such metaphysics. I don’t claim to have knowledge about the nature of the mind–nominally, I guess I’d be agnostic about it. That being said, I believe that the correlations between the physical and the mental at least point to the physical brain as the seat of the mind, even though consciousness is still a problem in need of explanation.

    I’ll even concede that some kind of monism, (personally, I’d speculate neutral monism), is possible. But certainly not established. And I don’t see how talk of not-somethings helps us understand anything. I’m sorry, but it looks like a meaningless metaphysics to me.

  76. #76 MNb
    March 22, 2013

    @67 Couchloc:
    While the questions you ask certainly are important I’m not sure at all dualism is a better answer than monism/materialism. In many branches of science it is common to study phenomena which can’t be quantified. Take for instance the political system of say The Netherlands compared to the one of the USA. It’s impossible to assign numbers to the differences and similarities. Now why would that imply political systems have non-material consciousness?
    Or take this.

    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/03/22/island-faunas-and-the-falkland-islands-fox/

    Depauperate – disharmonious – dispersal – distance

    Only the latter can be relatively easily quantified. Are you going to assume a conscious designer for this reason?
    There is another point. The quality/quantity problem of pain as you described it is a philosophycal problem. Now I don’t look down on philosophy at all, but it has become pretty clear that it’s much better at asking questions – like yours – than at giving answers. One great example is of course the natural philosophy of Aristoteles. It’s brilliant, admirable and almost completely wrong.
    Moral of the story: keep asking the questions, but don’t draw premature conclusions. Dualism is such a premature conclusion. For one thing in social sciences and psychology it’s common methodology to rephrase qualitative research questions so that they become quantified. I don’t see why the human brain should be an exception.

  77. #77 Michael Fugate
    March 22, 2013

    Couchloc, if you have no pain receptors – guess what – you won’t feel any pain. If a receptor is triggered, it is a on-off process and the more receptors triggered the higher the amount of pain. Basic biology. That our brain converts this into a qualitative something doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a straight up chemical/electrical basis. One of my favorites in this category is Schmidt’s qualitative assessment of ant and wasp stings with gems such as these:
    Sweat bee: “Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.”
    Yellowjacket: “Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.”

    Let me offer a bit of advice which you are free to ignore (I wouldn’t be that presumptuous). First, If my history is correct, philosophers asked about what they perceived as a mind/body problem give or take 2500 years ago. Are those who still see it as a problem any closer to a solution? From what I read here, no. If I were a mind/body dualist philosopher I might strongly consider either changing my premises or my methods. Second, if your conception of the mind/body problem conflicts with say physics, physiology or evolutionary theory, don’t claim that the science is most likely wrong. This is Nagel’s biggest problem – he doesn’t think a brain such as ours could have evolved, so he concludes evolution is wrong. Major fail in my books.

    I have spent much time understanding the history and philosophy behind the species problem and natural selection. I know the value of the work of historians and philosophers. These individuals understand science, they don’t try to tell biologists that speciation or selection can’t occur – not their job.

  78. #78 Erikk
    March 22, 2013

    Michael Fugate: If a receptor is triggered, it is a on-off process and the more receptors triggered the higher the amount of pain. Basic biology. That our brain converts this into a qualitative something doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a straight up chemical/electrical basis.

    Similarly, the fact that pain has a “straight up” chemical/electrical basis doesn’t entail that the conversion of this into a qualitative something (i.e., into conscious experience of pain, an element of conscious experience–the subject of this discussion) is explicated at all. The electrochemical basis of pain is not in dispute. What is in dispute is whether or not the subjective experience of pain (“pain”, as it were) is reducible to electrochemistry. And, it is not.

    Yes, one particularly unsatisfying way around this conundrum is dualism. But to acknowledge that there is a conundrum is not to commit to dualism. It is very interesting, though, how often commenters who are defending reductive materialism’s supposed province over the phenomena of conscious experience bring up the idea that alternatives to materialism “haven’t gotten us anywhere,” as though there were a place we were trying to get to other than toward what is true. Bodies are manipulable and in principle observable. Much progress has been made in the investigation of bodily phenomena. No matter where you stand on this issue, you admit that is what the program of scientific reductive materialism has done. But why would progress investigating bodies lead anyone to “strongly consider changing premises or methods” if you hold that scientific reductive materialism just doesn’t access some region of the world? Seems to me that science’s progress won’t impinge on anyone’s belief in the inability of science to explicate the conscious mind. It’d be like suggesting one abandon the principles of physics because psychoanalysis has made such prolific advances. “What do advances in psychoanalysis have to do with physics?” you’d say. “Those advances are made on the terms of the science advancing.”

  79. #79 Michael Fugate
    March 22, 2013

    “What is in dispute is whether or not the subjective experience of pain (“pain”, as it were) is reducible to electrochemistry. And, it is not.”

    Sorry, not buying this. Bodies run almost entirely on qualitative information – is it warmer, is it more acidic, is more concentrated? They do not count items to get absolute values. They don’t need brains to do this.

  80. #80 Ça alors!
    March 22, 2013

    Michael Fugate: “If a receptor is triggered, it is a on-off process and the more receptors triggered the higher the amount of pain. Basic biology.”

    That is why I think music illustrate better the point Erikk wants to make. Basic biology and physics can explain how music is produced and heard but they can’t explain why a minor chord sounds sad or the phrygian mode sounds dramatic.

  81. #81 couchloc
    March 22, 2013

    @Micahel Fugate, “if you have no pain receptors – guess what – you won’t feel any pain. If a receptor is triggered, it is a on-off process and the more receptors triggered the higher the amount of pain. Basic biology. That our brain converts this into a qualitative something doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a straight up chemical/electrical basis.

    A couple of things to say here, thanks. 1. I think this reveals there’s a misunderstanding about the explanatory task for materialists. You have shown that having neuronal receptors is a necessary condition for pain. I’m not sure why you are making this point. Nobody around here is denying this, and indeed the dualist Erikk argued for this point already. So can we just agree that neuronal receptors are required for pain? The task is to show that neuronal receptors are explanatorily _sufficient_ for pain. That is a different task and one that you haven’t addressed here.

    2. You seem to think the problem of qualities described is an empirical one of locating the neuronal basis of our pains. This seems to treat the problem as an empirical one. But MNb just said the problem was a logical one @76. So I’m not sure how to respond to you here. I would think it’s clear that you can’t solve a logical problem with empirical data.

    3. You haven’t said anything to show how the brain “converts” electrico-chemical signals in the brain into qualitative experiences. You have asserted this is possible in your view. But we both agree that assertions don’t help. If the materialist is going to justify the claim that mental states are material aspects of the universe then we’re going to need some sort of account of how qualitative properties arise from material states (or minimally, some sort of outline of how this might work). Merely repeating that our mental states are related to the brain doesn’t give us a purchase on how this is accomplished. And since the physicist Galileo argued that nature couldn’t include qualitative properties I don’t think I’m being fussy here by raising the issue like this.

    “If my history is correct, philosophers asked about what they perceived as a mind/body problem give or take 2500 years ago. Are those who still see it as a problem any closer to a solution? From what I read here, no.”

    None of your last remarks address the issue we’re discussing, frankly, or suggests scientists are better off. “Materialism” is just as much a philosophy as anything else. And in any case the problem of the mind has been seen as an important problem by scientists like Galileo, Skinner, Watson, Barash, Penrose etc. among others. So I don’t know why you’re singling out philosophers here.

  82. #82 eric
    March 22, 2013

    Couchloc @81:

    The task is to show that neuronal receptors are explanatorily _sufficient_ for pain. That is a different task and one that you haven’t addressed here.

    We haven’t detected anything else contributing to the experience, in thousands of years of hypothesizing such things and testing for them. So I think the burden of proof is clearly on dualists at this point.

    You haven’t said anything to show how the brain “converts” electrico-chemical signals in the brain into qualitative experiences.

    What makes you think any such separate conversion process or conversion-equipment is even necessary? Our subjective experiences may simply be the way we interpret the electrochemical stimuli we receive. After all, such stimuli must be felt in some way by the organism if the organism is to respond to it or use it at all.

    If the materialist is going to justify the claim that mental states are material aspects of the universe then we’re going to need some sort of account of how qualitative properties arise from material states (or minimally, some sort of outline of how this might work).

    One: subjective experiences are just the way the brain interprets signals. Why does H2S smell the way it does? Because its gotta smell like something; if it doesn’t smell at all, the receptor is useless.

    Moreover, if you want to claim we just don’t understand subjective experience, that claim on its own provides no reason and no evidence for dualism. To derive dualism from this gap is just to make the fallacy of the excluded middle. Without an understanding of subjective experince we are still in the position of having lots of strong evidence that the brain contributes to it and no evidence that anything else does. THe materialism hypothesis is thus stronger, better supported hypothesis because the dualist hypothesis has nada, zero, bupkis evidence for it.
    Look, we went 150+ years without an explanation for the orbit of Mercury. The resolution of that problem starkly demonstrates the danger and foolishness of positing angels when there is no evidence for them. I think we can go a few more decades without positing angels in the case of consciousness.

  83. #83 MNb
    March 23, 2013

    @81 Couchloc: “or suggests scientists are better off.”
    Of course it does. The dualist approach hasn’t contributed much to human understanding and knowledge of the brain since 2500 years or something. The materialist approach, as reflected in science, has. So I bet on materialism. Soul of the gaps arguments are logical fallacies, as Eric points out with his example of Mercurius’ orbit.
    I have written it above and I’ll write it again. Dualists don’t deny the material aspect of the brains; they claim there is more. Dualism is materialism+. Materialists don’t see any reason regarding the brains to assume any + so they call for the help of William of Ockham.
    We have asked for phenomena of which it’s proven that they can’t be explained by science, in terms of materialism. Your quality/quantity argument, while important, doesn’t provide one.

  84. #84 Michael Fugate
    March 23, 2013

    Maybe I wasn’t clear. Scientists quantify, organisms qualify. As I said before organisms don’t measure things exactly as a scientist would try to do. A cell surface receptor is altered when a molecule fits into its active site. Fit is qualitative – the better the fit the more likely it is to be activated, but it doesn’t need to be perfect. Everything an organism does is relative – not absolute. Without thinking, your body will react completely differently when going from a ambient temperature of 0C to 20 than it will from 40C to 20C. In the former it will think it is warm and the latter cold, even though the absolute value 20C is the same.

    Let’s look at pain, the intensity is proportional to the receptors firing. The brain can keep track of this – touch hot stove -> hurts like hell. Get stung by a bee -> reference previous pain memory -> hurts like more hell or less hell. The more experiences, the more references. And let’s face it, it is always easy to go from a quantitative measure to a qualitative one. Scientists do this all of the time by converting 0.1, 0.5, 1 and 2 moles/liter into two categories high (1 and 2) and low (0.1 and 0.5) based on their effects. It is less precise, but gets the job done. Going from the quantitative number of neurons firing to the qualitative hurts like hell is easy and saves the organism time and effort. Efficiency is the rule.

  85. #85 JollyRancher
    March 23, 2013

    Oliver @ 50:”Descartes understood this was a problem, which is why he said the soul interacted with the body via the pineal gland.”

    That he did, for all the good it did him. But I think you might be conflating two distinct problem. One would be the need to come up with a fruitful model of how the body and mind interact, which spells out the details and allows for predictions and so forth. Clearly, dualists have been lacking in this regard. But the objection I was concerned with, and which I hear more often than the lack of model problem, is that mind interacting with matter is apriori incoherent, because they are fundamentally diffrent things. It’s this claim I don’t find persuasive, and the fact that Descartes offered a model where the mind interacted with the pineal gland shows that he didn’t think the intelligibility question was the root of the problem, else why would he have even tried such an empricially falsifiable hypothesis?

    The point about gravity was not that the model of it is bad, but merely that someone who denied gravity could not be a fundamental force because it acts at a distance would be placing unfounded apriori constraints on causation, in the same way someone arguing against the intelligibility of mind-matter interaction one.

    With regards to the failure of coming up with an actual working model though, I think we are more or less in agreement.

  86. #86 RBH
    pandasthumb.org
    March 23, 2013

    I’ve noticed the repeated use of “reductive materialism” in the comments of those arguing for some sort of dualism. My comment above about waves was intended to illustrate a material phenomenon, waves, that must take into account more than the properties of a single constituent, water molecules, but must include reference to (material) interactions among those constituents. One cannot explain waves without taking into account (some)micro-properties of water molecules and rules/laws concerning their interactions.

    Perhaps a better example is flocking in birds. The coordinated behavior of flocks of birds in flight can be accounted for by hypothesizing certain traits of an individual bird taken by itself, namely, the abilities to (1) sense separation from nearby flockmates; (2) align to the average heading of nearby flockmates; and (3) steer toward the average position of nearby flockmates. Given descriptions of those three traits and behaviors associated with them for an individual bird, one would not predict flocking behavior. Flocking behavior is explained by the effects of those traits on the interactions of multiple birds, the aggregate behavior of multiple constituents. The traits of an individual bird do not “explain” flocking behavior in the sense of giving a complete causal account of the macro-phenomenon of flocking; indeed, there’s no term for “flocking” in any explanation of the behavior of a single bird. “Flocking” refers to a macro-phenomenon of an aggregation of constituents that is enabled by traits of individual birds together with some terms referring to the aggregation of multiple individuals. So “reductive” materialism is a misnomer for the explanation: flocking behavior is not explained by the properties of one elementary constituent of an aggregation, but by consideration of the interactions of elementary constituents that produce behavior of the aggregation.

    The tentative conclusion I reach from these considerations (and from the sterility of dualist thinking), is that materialism, not “reductive” materialism but materialism nonetheless, has far and away the best chance of explaining consciousness.

  87. #87 couchloc
    March 23, 2013

    @Eric, MNb, Michaal F,

    1. I don’t think this helps with the problem but, no, the hard problem of consciousness is not 2500 years old and this history is pretty poor. Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, etc. didn’t have the problem of qualities. The problem arises in 1623 with Galileo’s publication of _The Assayer_ in which he argues that nature must be conceived without qualities and only in terms of the physico-mathematical properties described by physics. This is why the problem is more related to the framework of modern physics than you’re understanding and turns on specific questions about its premises. This is why I’ve said the problem is getting our understanding of physics consistent with what neuroscientists and biologists are trying (but failiing, in my view) to say about the mind.

    2. Eric keeps mischaracterizing the issue by describing dualism as a “hypothesis” introduced to explain what is otherwise an ordinary phenomena about our experiences. I’ve said this is historically not the right way to think about the issue according to many scientists themselves The atheist, materialist Watson was not introducing a hypothesis, but merely reporting the fact that “there is no way of experimentally attacking and solving this problem and standardizing methods” (1924). It is “built into” our experience of consciousness for him that it cannot be described in objective terms. If you want to say this is not evidence for dualism, fine, but this doesn’t touch the point that science cannot explain it objectively.

    3. This is not a “god of the gaps” issue, which raises issues here I’d like to avoid since they don’t really help. In my view this notion is not a “logical fallacy” (I teach logic, and no textbook includes this) but a rhetorical ploy by materialists. The suggestion a “gap” is present is _clearly_ question begging because it assumes its conclusion, that materialism will be explanatorily complete with respect to nature and there are merely spots to fill in. So the very suggestion there are “gaps” prejudges the whole issue.

    4. The discussion Michael F. offers of qualities I think is not the same notion that is at issue. I appreciate what you’re trying to point out here, but this is not the notion of “mental experience” or “qualitative experiences” Galileo or Nagel is talking about. You’re giving examples of how some phenomenon can be “assigned” a qualitative value, which nobody doubts you can do. The notion of how “organisms qualify” seems correct but is different as well. And nobody doubts (which MNb says) that you can “study” things from a qualitative perspective. This problem is not related to all these sorts of points. The issue is about the constitution or makeup of certain phenomenon in nature (not an epistemological issue about how we study them). The explanatory task for the materialist is to show how subjective, qualitative experiences are intrinsically made out of physical properties, or neuronal activities, or something.

    I don’t think this can be done along with Galileo, as I keep repeating, and I’ll tell you how you can refute me. You need to show me anywhere in any physics textbook you can find on any of your bookshelves where qualitative properties are included as intrinsic features of the natural world. They need to not be qualities we “assign” to the world, or that are merely part of our “mental experience” of the world. They need to be entities which have physical and qualitative aspects together (so to speak). I’ve just checked two of my texts and the term “quality” doesn’t appear anywhere next to the notions of mass, spin, charm, force, etc.

  88. #88 Ça alors!
    March 23, 2013

    @Oliver
    First, it is pleasant to exchange with you.

    Second, that discussion could last forever because language can’t speak for what I’m trying to explain. We don’t realize that our intellect and our senses are shaping the way we think in a certain way. A lot of oriental traditions explain very well what this certain way implies and why it is not absolute and it can’t see the whole picture.
    Your questions about “examples of a not-something are we familiar with? What does it mean, for something to be a not-something?”, that sound like a fundamental contradiction to you, are well addressed by buddhism, zen or advaïta hinduism, and the christian, muslim and jewish mystic traditions. I don’t have enough space to explain it here but that link my help… http://www.newkabbalah.com/CoincJewMyst.htm
    (but it took me years to be able to understand what it means…)

    But to make a short story, I’ll say that a journey “knows” it is composed of night and day. And while day sees in night its opposite and night sees in day its opposite too, they are both connected, interdependent, necessary to each other. You can’t have one alone, they come in pair. But night will never know what day is and the opposite is true.

    Same thing for immateriality. We live in a material world where we can’t have a common access to what is immaterial., what is the void, unconditioned, free from all concepts buddhism is talking about. Well, we do in some ways, but we can’t see it because of our physical environment. So to be able to know what would be a no-thing that wouldn’t be driven by any opposite, unlimited and uncreated, you have to escape the average mode of perception by which you grasp the world through opposites (ironically called dualism in the eastern traditions). That what mainly zen and buddhism are all about…

  89. #89 couchloc
    March 23, 2013

    “We simply cannot see how material events can be transformed into sensation and thought, however many textbooks—go on talking nonsense on the subject.” (Schrödinger, My View of the World)

    I suppose I should add this quote I just found to my list that includes Galileo since it’s in a similar vein.

  90. #90 MNb
    March 24, 2013

    @86 RBH: you might be interested in swarm theory:

    http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2007/07/swarms/miller-text

    A consistent dualist should conclude that ants have a collective bodiless consciousness that transcends the individual ant – the ant colony has a soul providing mental states. I don’t see which additional info such a hypothesis provides.

  91. #91 Vincent Torley
    Japan
    March 24, 2013

    Hi Jason,

    You wrote: “What materialists actually say is that if you are going to hypothesize into existence something immaterial, it is on you to provide evidence for your hypothesis.” OK, here goes.

    One of the best arguments for the immateriality of the human mind can be found in an article entitled, Immaterial Aspects of Thought by Professor James Ross. In The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 89, No. 3, (Mar. 1992), pp. 136-150.In this article, Professor Ross argues that thought is immaterial because it has a definite, determinate form. As he puts it: by its nature, thinking is always of a definite form – e.g. right now, I am performing the formal operation of squaring a number. But no physical process or sequence of processes, or even a function among physical processes, can be definite enough to realize (or “pick out”) just one, uniquely, among incompossible forms. For example, when I perform the mental operation of squaring, there is nothing which makes my accompanying neural processes equivalent to the operation of squaring and not some other mental operation. Thus, no such process can be such thinking. On the last page, in a footnote, Ross makes a similar argument for the propositional content of thought: when I think that it is going to rain tomorrow, there is nothing in my brain which unambiguously corresponds to this thought, as opposed to some other thought. Ross responds to the objection that computers can add and perform other abstract operations: “Machines do not process numbers (though we do); they process representations (signals). Since addition is a process applicable only to numbers, machines do not add. And so on for statements, musical themes, novels, plays, and arguments.” A more up-to-date, expanded version of Ross’s arguments can be found here.

    See also Some brief arguments for dualism, Part IV by Professor Edward Feser.
    This is a highly readable summary of Ross’s argument, for the benefit of anyone who might find Ross’s essay rather heavy going. Feser sums up Ross’s argument in a nutshell: “The point is that an abstract concept could not, even in theory, be material, given that concepts are determinate and material things are indeterminate.”

    Finally, I suggest you read Professor David Oderberg’s article, Hylemorphic Dualism. Enjoy!

  92. #92 Lenoxus
    March 24, 2013

    A few days ago, JimV wrote:

    In order to be sensed at all, sensations must be “felt”. Therefore if there were no way for things to feel sensations (such as the sensation of being conscious), evolution would have to invent some. Which it did. The way they feel (the scent of a rose, the look of the color red, the feeling of being conscious) is the way such sensations feel in this universe, using the material means (chemical receptors, nerve cells) which we use.

    And eric echoed it later:

    Our subjective experiences may simply be the way we interpret the electrochemical stimuli we receive. After all, such stimuli must be felt in some way by the organism if the organism is to respond to it or use it at all.

    I’m still a materialist, but I have to point out that this particular idea isn’t necessarily true. We have built machines that can react to stimuli, such as automatic “seeing” doors. No one thinks that a light-sensative door actually has experiences. By extention, it’s not perfectly clear why sensation/experience had to evolve – in principle, anything whatsoever could be done by a sufficiently complex entity with no “internal” experience. It’s possible that humans are motivated to have sex because of physical pleasure. In that case, what form of pleasure motivates the computer I’m using to do its job? It seems an additional explanation is needed — from all camps — as to why sentient experience evolved. (It may well be that consciousness is simpler for evolution than other solutions would be, but more data are needed. For one thing, evidence suggests that pleasure/pain are often coupled alongside “direct instinct” — it’s possible for some people to prick a finger and react accordingly without actually “feeling” the pain.)

    So there’s another angle from which the mind-body problem is thorny; it’s an extension of David Chalmers’ zombie argument, and relates to the Chinese roomand Mary’s Room. Two of these are addresed in interesting/funny ways by two posts from the LessWrong blog:Zombies: The Movie and Seeing Red.

  93. #93 hamsterdance
    Earth
    March 24, 2013

    Thought I’d share this critique Ed Feser makes of Rosenhouse newest critiques of Feser and Nagel. Worth reading if one hasn’t already done so as it was uploaded March 23. I do have one question. Why would Rosenhouse critique a book he has not read? Isn’t it better to actually read a book prior to posting extensively and reliance on heresay to make one’s arguments? Or is Rosenhouse is busy reading it now?

    http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2013/03/evolutionblog-needs-better-nagel-critics.html#more

  94. #94 MNb
    March 24, 2013

    Then I hope for you guys that Feser does a better philosophical job on the human mind than on physics. Since I read the latter I can’t take him seriously anymore. So pardon me that I don’t feel like checking him.
    As for Ross, it quite looks to me like he is proving what he assumes.

    “no physical process or sequence of processes, or even a function among physical processes, can be definite enough”
    Because of dualism. Hence dualism. And of course the whole argument applies to swarm intelligence of ant colonies as well.

  95. #95 couchloc
    March 24, 2013

    Can we please stay away from Feser’s worries in this discussion? You don’t have to be religious to raise any of the problems I’ve described with materialism’s inability to explain qualitative mental experiences, and injecting Feser here will only cloud the discussion. As I keep saying there are several atheist scientists who think materialism falls explanatorily short. If any more evidence is needed…..

    “How is it that unconscious events can give rise to consciousness? Not only do we have no idea, but it seems _impossible_ to imagine what sort of idea could fit in the space provided. Therefore, although science may ultimately show us how to truly maximize human well-being, it may still fail to dispel the fundamental mystery of our mental life.” —Sam Harris

  96. #96 Vincent Torley
    Japan
    March 24, 2013

    Mnb,

    I think you missed the point of James Ross’s argument. Here’s a passage from Feser (see http://edwardfeser.blogspot.jp/2008/10/some-brief-arguments-for-dualism-part_29.html ) which explains it:

    “Consider that when you think about triangularity, as you might when proving a geometrical theorem, it is necessarily perfect triangularity that you are contemplating, not some mere approximation of it. Triangularity as your intellect grasps it is entirely determinate or exact; for example, what you grasp is the notion of a closed plane figure with three perfectly straight sides, rather than that of something which may or may not have straight sides or which may or may not be closed. Of course, your mental image of a triangle might not be exact, but rather indeterminate and fuzzy. But to grasp something with the intellect is not the same as to form a mental image of it. For any mental image of a triangle is necessarily going to be of an isosceles triangle specifically, or of a scalene one, or an equilateral one; but the concept of triangularity that your intellect grasps applies to all triangles alike. Any mental image of a triangle is going to have certain features, such as a particular color, that are no part of the concept of triangularity in general. A mental image is something private and subjective, while the concept of triangularity is objective and grasped by many minds at once. And so forth. In general, to grasp a concept is simply not the same thing as having a mental image.

    “Now the thought you are having about triangularity when you grasp it must be as determinate or exact as triangularity itself, otherwise it just wouldn’t be a thought about triangularity in the first place, but only a thought about some approximation of triangularity. Yet material things are never determinate or exact in this way. Any material triangle, for example, is always only ever an approximation of perfect triangularity (since it is bound to have sides that are less than perfectly straight, etc., even if this is undetectable to the naked eye). And in general, material symbols and representations are inherently always to some extent vague, ambiguous, or otherwise inexact, susceptible of various alternative interpretations. It follows, then, that any thought you might have about triangularity is not something material; in particular, it is not some process occurring in the brain. And what goes for triangularity goes for any thought that involves the grasp of a universal, since universals in general (or at least very many of them, in case someone should wish to dispute this) are determinate and exact in a way material objects and processes cannot be.”

    Hope that helps.

  97. #97 John
    March 24, 2013

    The critique of Feser in the OP suffers from the usual, chronic inability of materialists and naturalists to actually define what they mean by matter or nature. Until you actually define matter, how can you possibly conclude the burden is on those who claim there are immaterial entities?

  98. #98 Anton Mates
    March 24, 2013

    In the same way, Feser writes, the methods of “mechanistic science are as successful as they are in predicting and controlling natural phenomena precisely because they focus on only those aspects of nature susceptible to prediction and control.”….With magnetic resonance imaging, science can tell us which parts of my brain light up when, for example, I glimpse my daughter’s face in a crowd; the bouncing neurons can be observed and measured. Science cannot quantify or describe the feelings I experience when I see my daughter.

    Ferguson seems to be distorting Feser’s argument a little here by going from “prediction and control” to “quantify or describe,” but that may actually be an improvement. It seems pretty obvious to me that Ferguson’s feelings when glimpsing his daughter could be predicted and controlled. If she’s small and we arrange for her to be glimpsed within a crowd at the mall when he hasn’t been able to find her for a bit, he’ll be relieved. If he glimpses her on TV within a crowd of rioters facing off with the National Guard, he’ll be apprehensive, and so on.

    Ferguson’s on safer ground with the “quantify and describe” thing, just because he can always deny that any description provided is sufficient. (Of course, someone like J.B. Watson would deny that any non-scientific description is sufficient either. )

    But the human brain can do much more than this. It can perform calculus, hypothesize metaphysics, compose music—even develop a theory of evolution. None of these higher capacities has any evident survival value, certainly not hundreds of thousands of years ago when the chief aim of mental life was to avoid getting eaten.

    Wow, between this and the teleology stuff, Nagel (as represented by Ferguson, anyway) seems to be channelling Alfred Russel Wallace. I didn’t think anyone would go with the “but primitive people don’t need to be smart!” argument in the 21st century–it’s pretty absurdly culturally elitist, not to mention counterfactual. Does Nagel really think that the “higher capacities” of the human brain had no applications for courtship, parenting, politics, toolmaking, art, etc. in prehistory?

  99. #99 eric
    March 24, 2013

    Watson was not introducing a hypothesis, but merely reporting the fact that “there is no way of experimentally attacking and solving this problem and standardizing methods” (1924).

    Of course there is. We study what Erikk insists on calling the mere correlation between brain patterns and subjective experience, and if/when (in the future) we get so accurate at figuring out what people are thinking/perceiving from such observations that it is practically the same thing as observing what they subjectively experience, we call the problem solved.

    And before you say this isn’t good enough,consider that this not any different than standard, regular physics. We never observe atoms. We simply observe instrumental signatures that consistently correlate with what we hypothesize about them; the “mere” match between prediction and what we observe is good enough to form a scientific conclusion. So if we get to the point where we can observe an instrumental signature that consistently correlates with thought, then thoughts-as-brain-activity-and-nothing-more becomes a reasonable scientific conclusion.

    “We simply cannot see how material events can be transformed into sensation and thought, however many textbooks—go on talking nonsense on the subject.”

    Yes, but as I have pointed out:
    (1) incredulity and ignorance provide no evidence for dualism.
    (2) Dualism’s and spiritualism’s complete failure over the past several thousand years to explain anything at all make it a ridiculously stupid bet.

    I’ll say it again: we’ve run millions of horse races. The same horse keeps winning. The dualism horse keeps losing. It may be philosophically true that we don’t know which horse will win tomorrow’s race. But it is insane to pretend that induction doesn’t heavily favor one concept over the other, or to pretend there is some parity between them. You might as well compare “some pigs have wings” with “no pigs have wings.” Which of those ideas you want to bet on, hmmm? The one that has been wrong for every single pig in the past, or the one that has been right for every single pig in the past?

  100. #100 Frederick
    March 24, 2013

    You really have to laugh when the Weekly Standard pretends to promote or defend what is usually called religion in right-wing circles.
    Why?
    Because the “culture” that the WS promotes is saturated with the “values” of scientific materialism, or scientism. The ultimate manifestation of which is the military-industrial -“entertainment” (wall to wall propaganda)-complex and its “culture” of death which is now being dramatised all over the planet.
    Naomi Klein described how the applied politics promoted by the WS actually works in The Shock Doctrine. As does this reference.
    http://www.logosjournal.com/hammer_kellner
    Note the unspeakably vile sado-masochistic snuff/splatter movie being reviewed. A movie which caused all of the usual right-wing religionists to wet their pants in ecstatic enthusiasm!

  101. #101 Ça alors!
    March 25, 2013

    eric: “’ll say it again: we’ve run millions of horse races. The same horse keeps winning. The dualism horse keeps losing.”

    Oriental spiritual and philosophical traditions still have a lot to say on this. We think we know well those traditions but I was surprised when I started to read about them 10 years ago to see how ignorant I was, reducing them to the same old clichés over and over. But their take on free will, how the self is created, how perceptions and language shapes our intellect, etc… are very interesting and take the problems we face from angles that doesn’t come to our western mind.

    Another big difference with the west is that because the intellect is playing games with us that don’t even notice, there is a job to do if you really want to understand what is going on between your self and the rest of the world.

  102. #102 MNb
    March 25, 2013

    “Oriental spiritual and philosophical traditions still have a lot to say on this”
    Oriental spiritual and philosophical traditions also have a lot to say about levitation, ie defying gravity. So what? You fail time after time to address the main point. There is no single observation regarding the human brain that’s better explained by duality than my materialism. So it’s safe to assume that your intellect is playing a game with you.
    Btw gravity can’t be observed directly either. What we observe is movement. And what modern physicists mean with gravity is not quite the same as what their colleagues 150 years ago meant with it. But you know, it works.
    That’s why I am a materialist/scientismist/physicalist/naturalist/whatever you want to call it. Science works. The rest doesn’t.

  103. #103 Ça alors!
    March 25, 2013

    Mnb: “Oriental spiritual and philosophical traditions also have a lot to say about levitation”.

    That illustrates perfectly the clichés I was referring too…

    I used to be a “materialist/scientismist/physicalist/naturalist/whatever you want to call it”. It is a common position where I live. But if one day you are curious about the kind of games your intellect plays with you, buddhism especially, have some interesting inputs for you that science cannot investigate.
    As you may know, consciousness is a very personal/subjective dimension the scientific method can’t have access to. Unless you believe science can explain everything…

  104. #104 Michael Fugate
    March 25, 2013

    Couchloc, as much as I respect your comments and your skill at forcing me to clarify my views, I still don’t think this problem is impossible to understand through empirical investigation. If one reads any history, it is always a combination of thinking and acting that solve problems. There are no purely “philosophical” and no purely “empirical” problems. A greater understanding of the brain is the surest way forward – no matter what your pessimistic quotes claim to the contrary.

  105. #105 Another Matt
    March 25, 2013

    This philosophical position on the mind-body problems is called property dualism. It is a form of dualism because these properties are taken to be nonphysical in the sense of not being reducible to any standard physical properties.

    I missed most of this discussion, but I see a huge problem here. Nobody ever seems to explain what they mean by “reducible” in this context, and there’s a lot hidden in that word.

    For instance, there’s one sense of “reducible” where the predicate “X is a shoe” is irreducible to physical terms. In this sense, there is no conjunction of physical properties Y such that we can say “X is a shoe if and only if Y.” It’s doubtful that Laplace’s Demon could pick out only and all the shoes in the universe on the basis of physical knowledge alone.

    But so what? We’ve known since at least Wittgenstein that linguistic labels do not pick out essences. It doesn’t mean that the obvious, manifest existence of shoes proves that physics is wrong — it just means that our language doesn’t do a good job of connecting the micro- and macro-states of the world. As essentialism has lost favor, so has this sense of “reducibility,” while “emergence,” “entailment,” and the like has gained favor.

    It’s worth remembering that Thomists are rather dualist about everything — each kind of thing (elephants, pencils, brains, conversations, money) is supposed to have an irreducible essential quality, in that overly ambitious sense of “reducible.”

  106. #106 couchloc
    March 25, 2013

    @Michael Fugate, well I think what you say is pretty reasonable here and find it hard to disagree with in a general sort of way. I agree that the empirical and philosophical aspects of the problem are not entirely separate, which is one of the reasons why I think the difficulties we have been discussing are relevant to research in the sciences and not simply a matter for philosophers alone. In any case, I’m sorry if some of my earlier comments seemed intemperate. I have learned a lot from your comments and appreciate what biologists have contributed to this issue. If I have been intemperate it was merely with the suggestion one sometimes finds in these discussion boards that anyone who thinks there is a problem with neuroscientific accounts lacks basic knowledge of science, or is merely asserting stuff, or worse. While there are no doubt people who fit this description I think the history of the issue shows that things are really more complicated than that, and that one can like science and have not unreasonable concerns about how the materialistic explanation is supposed to work. In the end it may be the case you’re right that materialism wins out and it will become clear in the future how the explanation is supposed to work. I don’t discount the power of the type of view you’re defending in fact. If I seem hesitant here, it’s because the problem has been going on for so long and this is concerning.

  107. #107 couchloc
    March 25, 2013

    @Eric, well let us say that in the future scientists have discovered the correlations which you are referring to. I’m hesitant to even allow this formulation because at present it is sort of unclear that the correlations will be forthcoming, but ignore this. In order for the correlations to be established that would have to mean that we have an independent understanding of the two sides of the correlation of “subjective experience” and “neurological activity” that we use to determine the correlations occur. But, in that case, the scientific explanation will not occur independently of the subjective definition of conciousness. So not only have you not “explained consciousness” in material terms, which is the issue, but this scenario would seem consistent with the dualist’s account as well. Dualists are willing to allow there may be correlations that occur between different types of phenomena.

    You keep trotting out your horse-race analogy (sorry!) but I don’t think it is quite as powerful as you think. The argument depends on making a historical induction over certain past cases that scientists have examined. But I would think a rather different sort of induction is just if not more strongly warranted in this case. To wit, that scientists have been trying for almost 500 years to explain consciousness in material terms (starting with Hobbes in the 1500’s). None of these explanations has worked so far, and so it is not likely the next one will either. I don’t see why this is less reasonable than yours given the many failed attempts over the years.

  108. #108 eric
    March 25, 2013

    Couchloc:

    I’m hesitant to even allow this formulation because at present it is sort of unclear that the correlations will be forthcoming,

    They are already here. See the link in @57

    In order for the correlations to be established that would have to mean that we have an independent understanding of the two sides of the correlation of “subjective experience” and “neurological activity” that we use to determine the correlations occur. But, in that case, the scientific explanation will not occur independently of the subjective definition of conciousness.

    Are you serious? Your defense of the undetectability of consciousness is that dualists and spiritualists haven’t provided a cogent enough definition of what they claim exists that we can fashion a detection experiment?
    Maybe that’s true, but that does not point to a problem with science. It points to a problem with dualism.

    To wit, that scientists have been trying for almost 500 years to explain consciousness in material terms (starting with Hobbes in the 1500′s). None of these explanations has worked so far, and so it is not likely the next one will either. I don’t see why this is less reasonable than yours given the many failed attempts over the years.

    The proper inductive conclusion from your claim and mine together is: be skeptical of any near-term claims to have explained it, because this has proven a hard problem. But when the solution comes, expect it to be materialistic.

  109. #109 couchloc
    March 26, 2013

    @Eric, let me make this my last reply. Thanks for all your comments on this as usual. 1. What I meant was that even if you had a few correlations established that’s not really to show that all our mental states will exhibit the correlations you predict. Maybe that will come, but maybe not. It’s an empirical question how far this approach will take us and you can’t really know what will happen in the other cases from the limited cases presented. 2. I think I wasn’t clear with the second point you are concerned with about how to establish the correlations. I wasn’t making the point you suggest, which would be an odd thing to say I agree. The point was about how to come up with criteria for the correlations to begin with, since any correlation will have to include some reference to the subjective character of consciousness in its formulation and we won’t have gotten rid of the subjective element. I was parroting a point made in the article I linked @58. See the section called “physiological criteria” on pg. 15 which explains it better than me it seems. I’m not trying to create work for you but it explains it in an interesting way.

  110. #110 stephen jones
    Canada
    March 26, 2013

    seems to me he also needs better critics… when you start with “I have not read the book” you immediately discredit everything you are about to write… It’s 128 pages, is that too long for you? Not enough pictures?

  111. #111 Anton Mates
    March 26, 2013

    couchloc @33,

    Scientists who would claim that you can’t actually explain consciousness scientifically are many, including Galileo, B.F. Skinner, John Watson, Roger Penrose, Karl Popper, John Eccles, Raymond Tallis, and David Barash, among others. Are all of these people merely fluff heads too?

    I have to say, I don’t think that anyone on that list except Tallis does claim that you can’t explain consciousness scientifically. In brief:

    Galileo certainly distinguishes between what we might term subjective/secondary and objective/primary qualities, though he does not use those terms.. But he never claims that you can’t scientifically investigate the former class. Indeed, Galileo himself advances several hypotheses on how objects produce sensations such as heat, taste, smell and texture in The Assayer. What he does say is that secondary qualities can’t be investigated simply by studying the object to which they’re conventionally ascribed, because they’re actually properties of the living beings interacting with that object. E.g., we speak of substances as having sweet or sour tastes. But if you actually want to figure out why a certain substance tastes sweet, you can’t just study the substance; you have to study the taster’s tongue as well. Few modern materialists would disagree with that!

    Watson and Skinner did not believe in a scientifically inexplicable consciousness. Rather, they believed that consciousness and mental states are just hazy and fairly useless ways of describing physical processes. Watson, for instance, held that “thinking” is actually a physical process of subvocalized speech. Because (as they believed) mental states are poorly defined and unnecessary to predict behavior, they may as well not be studied at all.

    Popper, Eccles and Penrose are/were all very interested in scientific theories of consciousness. They didn’t think any of the existing theories were adequate, which is why they invented their own. Penrose’s Orch-OR theory is strictly materialist, while Eccles’ dendron/psychon hypothesis is interactionist dualist, but both claimed their theories to be scientific as far as I can tell.

    Finally, David Barash believes that a satisfactory materialist theory of consciousness is not only possible but inevitable. In the article to which you linked, he writes that he cannot imagine what such a theory will look like, but that doesn’t affect his confidence that one will eventually be developed.

    As for the fluff-headedness or hard-headness of these people, that seems irrelevant to the quality of their arguments in this area.

  112. #112 couchloc
    March 26, 2013

    @Anton Mates, I will give you a reply to your concerns since you’ve raised this, but I think I’ve already contributed too much too this thread already and have to go. But I stand by my comments.

    Galileo, don’t forget that he was a Catholic. “Because so much of our conscious experience consists of secondary qualities, and because such qualities can never be described and understood mathematically, Galileo believed that consciousness could never be studied by the objective methods of science.” (Hergenhahn, Intro. to the Hist. of Psychology, 111).

    Watson, in his own words: “this thing we call consciousness can be analyzed _only_ by introspection…….There is no way of experimentally attacking and solving [the] problem and standardizing methods” (1924). He thought introspection wasn’t scientific and there was no other method around. It wasn’t merely a point about fuzzy definitions, but the epistemic point that we had no third-person way of accessing conscious states. The stuff about sub-vocal speech is right but comes later and doesn’t really change this point. Skinner you’re right about somewhat, but he says different things at different times. Sometimes consciousness is just hazy and illdefined, other times it is mere spiritualism that should be rejected as incompatible with an objective psychology.

    Popper, Eccles, both were interactionist dualists as you suggest. That they called this view scientific doesn’t touch the point I’m trying to make that they opposed materialist explanations of consciousness. If interactionist dualism counts as scientific, then what are we arguing about here over Nagel?

    Penrose, you make a good point here I think. Penrose accepts that the known laws of physics are inadequate to explain consciousness and would agree with me there are serious questions about materialist explanations of consciousness that can’t be brushed off as sloppy thinking. That he goes on to try to develop his own speculative alternative doesn’t touch my point that he took the problems seriously.

    Barash, he is very clear in his article that he thinks the hard problem of consciousness, which is exactly Nagel’s problem, is a legitimate problem that has no answer. That he goes on at the end of his article to say rather piously that he thinks science will win out is really an expression of hope on his part and doesn’t conflict with my concern.

    “As for the fluff-headedness or hard-headness of these people, that seems irrelevant to the quality of their arguments in this area.”

    That is exactly my point!

  113. #113 eric
    March 26, 2013

    couch:

    even if you had a few correlations established that’s not really to show that all our mental states will exhibit the correlations you predict.

    Sure, and just because a few planet’s orbits are explained by GR does not really ‘show that all will be.’ But nevertheless, that the ones we don’t have explanations for will be explained by GR is the proper, tentative, empirically-based conclusion, don’t you agree? Any other conclusion is less likely, more farfetched.

  114. #114 Verbose Stoic
    March 27, 2013

    Sure, and just because a few planet’s orbits are explained by GR does not really ‘show that all will be.’ But nevertheless, that the ones we don’t have explanations for will be explained by GR is the proper, tentative, empirically-based conclusion, don’t you agree? Any other conclusion is less likely, more farfetched.

    You still have the problem where you can only say what you’re saying if you don’t have any reason to think that they’ll be different, and we do have reasons to think that intentional or mental phenomena might be different. But in thinking about it, you have an even worse problem: Strictly scientific explanations have proven to be massive failures in the past, while more introspective and armchair methods have been returned to when those things failed miserably.

    1) Can we explain consciousness by appealing to physical entities? No, and no one even thinks this at all plausible. Trying to describe everything at the level of physics always seems to leave all the important things about the mental things out, just as it does for things like shoes or universities. So that’s out.

    2) Can we appeal to chemistry? Despite all of the common jokes about love being just a chemical reaction, the same thing applies: if you try to just list the chemicals, you seem to be leaving important things out. So that reduction/elimination is out.

    3) What about regular biology? If you try to exclude intentional terms, you start to run into problems once you start getting into any advanced behaviour even with animals, and it works even worse with humans. Which leads us to …

    4) Psychology. It started out as being very introspective, and the behaviourists came in and decided to make it more “scientific” by treating the internal intentional states — beliefs, desires, etc — as at least things we didn’t have to worry about and at worst as things that didn’t really exist. Behaviourism, as we all know, was a colossal failure, and we had to reintroduce looking at the intentional and the internal again to make any progress.

    5) Modern psychology is better, but still focuses on statistical analysis and generation, again moving a bit away from the subjective and the intentional and the teleological, and for all its successes is still drastically inferior to folk psychology at figuring out what people are doing or will do as we go about our lives.

    6) Now, we have neuroscience wandering in, and seeming to commit the same sins as all the previous attempts: move away from the intentional, subjective and teleological and talk about things that have none of those traits. And immediately we can see that the main objection is, again, that it is leaving the important things out.

    So, based on past history, being skeptical that a non-intentional, purely objective and non-teleological approach seems to be the more justified claim, considering that all attempts to do that were monumental failures.

  115. #115 DonJindra
    Los Angeles
    March 27, 2013

    Feser as quoted by Vincent Torley:

    “It follows, then, that any thought you might have about triangularity is not something material; in particular, it is not some process occurring in the brain. And what goes for triangularity goes for any thought that involves the grasp of a universal, since universals in general (or at least very many of them, in case someone should wish to dispute this) are determinate and exact in a way material objects and processes cannot be.”

    Feser goes into detail about how a “general” (mathematical) description of triangularity is at the same time very specific. How can something be both universal and specific?

    He appears to be mixing two languages — that of mathematics and that of English. It’s true that math can precisely describe some concepts while English is vague. And whether he knows it or not, that’s all he’s really saying in his text. So let’s get away from math and stick to English. After all, math isn’t very good at describing the supernatural.

    So let’s test Feser’s reasoning against another universal: that of apples.

    Most of us can recognize an apple when we see it. Actually, we can recognize it when we smell it or touch it. We have a universal “knowledge” of what an apple is. But where did this universal called “apple” come from? I think it’s clear we were not born with the concept. We learned it through sensation. After a few encounters with apples, we formed a “universal” idea of apples. Feser wants us to believe this “universal” is non-material. But if so, why did it take the material world to put that universal into me in the first place? How does the material create the immaterial? Feser needs to tackle that problem before he can claim victory.

    And we have another problem. Some apples have worms. Some worms seek out apples rather than rocks. But why should they do so? Why don’t they think a rock is just as good as an apple? How do they distinguish the two? Could it be that these worms also have a “universal” notion of apples? Obviously they do even though it’s probably not a conscious notion. They know apples — in general. No two apples are exactly alike so they have to have some sort of generalizing mechanism concerning apples. Where did this come from? From their instincts — their dna. They were born wired to know apples. That is a very materialistic source of the universal. Worms don’t need Feser’s supernatural hocus pocus to implement a universal concept of apples. So Feser is evidently wrong. Universals can be explained using purely mechanistic, materialistic means. I submit that the human brain is at least as capable as a worm’s.

    We aren’t born pre-wired to recognize apples. But experience can wire us just as good as nature wired the worm.

  116. #116 JimR
    March 27, 2013

    Kristina Musholt reviewed Mind and Cosmos in Science:
    http://www.sciencemag.org/gca?sendit.y=0&gca=sci%3B339%2F6125%2F1277-a

  117. #117 Papalinton
    March 28, 2013

    When Feser’s nonsense is placed into the mix of the philosophical discussion about materialism, etc, it is all but with a bloviated sense of importance. The only registrable ripple that Feser’s jejune contribution to philosophy is that generated within the religious pond.

    Serious philosophers, bona fide philosophers, those attempting to get a handle on the many great challenges going forward simply regard Feser as little more than a pious theological tinkerer. And this is largely to be expected, when one understands his full and total contribution to philosophy is to resurrect the moribund tradition of Thomist Scholasticism, a tradition predicated on a knowledge base riven with superstition, sorcery, magic, the black arts, witchcraft, wizardry, enchantment, spells, incantations, and thaumaturgy [a thaumaturge is a worker of wonders and performer of miracles. Need I note what this would refer to?]. Indeed these were fundamental, integral and key operant features of the explanatory framework of Aquinas’s time. Mindful that christianity was the only game in town, and christian doctrine and concomitant dogma was the supreme benchmark [the inviolable, absolute, and indefeasible touchstone against which all learning, discovery, investigation and research was evaluated], is it any wonder that modern philosophy has largely stepped around this little speed bump onto more important and pressing philosophical issues going forward. By contrast, Feser is firmly committed to the rear-view mirror.
    The great irony of Feser’s stance is that he wishes, no, pines for Aquinean Scholasticism, remaining bonded to the same benchmark, the same autarchical principles of a thousand years ago, to apply in contemporary society. He seems oblivious, perhaps even a self-induced amnesiac state, that almost ten centuries of change, development and progress has taken place since the time of Aquinas’s deep abiding fascination with gods, uncaused causes, and supernatural superstition, etc.

    Dr David Eller [Atheism Advanced p.218] best characterises this relationship:

    “Religion is essentially social, in both senses of the word. It is an activity that humans do together; it is created, maintained, and perpetuated by human group behaviour. It is also social in the sense that it extends that sociality beyond the human world, to a (putative) realm of non-human agents who also interact with us socially.”

    So, are there any lessons to be heeded from the Feserites, that continue to peddle superstitious supernaturalism through their subscription to ‘immaterialsm’? I don’t think so.

  118. #118 GregH
    March 29, 2013

    Well, if you go to Feser’s blog and read the comments, you’ll see that it takes the form of an authority preaching to a choir. His followers are firm in their belief that he is correct, and will brook no criticism. They demonstrate this by name-calling and the attacking of straw men, rather than the kind of (at least somewhat) respectful arguments that have been put forth here.

    I read the later thread here in its entirety, and learned quite a bit about the set of arguments around Nagle’s book, but I expected better of Feser’s students/followers – after all, they’re supposed to be philosophy students or concerned thinkers. If that kind of behaviour is the best they can do, they should ask for their money back.

  119. #119 DonJindra
    Los Angeles
    March 29, 2013

    GregH,

    I spent a year on Feser’s blog. Your characterization is accurate. He and his groupies would be harmless if their nonsense wasn’t in support of a political agenda.

  120. #120 ShrBri
    San Diego
    April 1, 2013

    What about the other direction?

    There’s been some significant discussion, here, about the impact of the physical realm on thoughts / consciousness, e.g., damage to brain tissue, chemical imbalances, etc. But I didn’t catch anyone mention the reverse: conscious thoughts impacting the physical realm.

    The placebo effect is just this: The conscious thought, “This [sugar] pill will cure me,” creates a literal physical change – sometimes very dramatic cures – that we can’t explain.

    Anyone care to comment?

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.