Saturday, June 20, 2009

Feser on the Case for Materialism

A redated post.

The most formidable argument against dualism has always been what I would call the argument from the onward march of science. Science, we are told, always pushed in a materialist direction, and it invariably resolves problems for materialist understandings of things that may have seemed insurmountable to a previous generation. So prior to the 19th century, many otherwise naturalistic thinkers were reluctant to accept full-blown atheism, because they of what they took to be the undeniable evidence of design in nature, yet Darwin came along and showed us all how to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. Arguments of any kind against materialism can do no better than point out some explanatory gap in the present materialist understanding of the world, but just as past gaps have been close by subsequent science, so difficulties that naturalistic science faces in coming to terms with things like consciousness, intentionality, and reason, are simply bumps in the road to be got over in good materialist fashion by the future course of science.

Edward Feser thinks this argument is not as strong is it might appear to be at first. He writes:

First, the advance of science, far from settling the mind-body problem in favor of materialism seems to have made it more acute. Modern science has, as noted in chapter 2, revealed that physical objects are composed of intrinsically colorless, tasteless, and odorless particles. Colors, tastes and odors thus, in some sense, exist only in the mind of the observer. But then it is mysterious how they are related to the brain, which, like other material objects, is composed on nothing more than colorless, tasteless, and odorless particles. Science also tells us that the appearance of purpose in nature is an illusion: strictly speaking, fins, for example, don’t have the purpose of propelling fish through the water, for they have in fact no purpose at all, being the products of the same meaningless and impersonal causal processes that are supposed to have brought about all complex phenomena, including organic phenomena. Rather, fins merely operate as if they had such a purpose, because the creatures that first developed them, as a result of random genetic mutation, just happened thereby to have a competitive advantage over those that did not. The result mimicked the products of purposeful design in reality, it is said, there was not design at all. But if purposes were “mind-dependent”—not truly present in the physical world but only projected on to it by us—then this makes that act of projection, and the intentionality of which it is an instance (as are human purposes, for that matter,) at least difficult to explain in terms of processes occurring in the brain, which seem intrinsically as brutely meaningless as and purposeless as are all other purely physical processes. In short, science has “explained” the sensible qualities and meaning that seem to common sense to exist in reality only by sweeping them under the rug of the mind, that is, it hasn’t really explained them at all, but merely put off any explanation by relocating them out of the physical realm and into the mental realm. There they remain, however, forming a considerable bump under the rug, one that seemingly cannot be removed by further scientific sweeping.

34 comments:

JD Walters said...

At best science can specify the material substrate of thought, i.e. it can say what goes on in your brain when you are having certain mental experiences, and even to a certain extent how changes in the brain produce changes in mental experiences. But it is by no means clear that there will ever be an explanation of how the material substrate 'produces' thought (if indeed that concept is coherent). I think there will always be an irreducible level of human mental experience.

Mike D said...

This is an excellent summary of an irritation I have with naturalistis using the language of purpose. Darwin may have given intelectual fulfullment to the naturalist, but they must still be starved for an emotional fulfillment that comes from having a purpose for existence.

mattghg said...

Sounds similar to Swinburne on "siphoning off" the feeling of heat - now reduced to statistical mechanics of particles - from the physical into the mental realm. Once it's there, however, the same trick won't apply.

Doctor Logic said...

Mike,

I fail to see how having an externally-given purpose is more emotionally fulfilling than the alternatives.

If I were designed, wouldn't I also have been designed to feel fulfilled by executing the plan of the designer? And how is that any different from evolving to feel fulfilled by, well, whatever fulfills me?

Steven Carr said...

What fiendish mind designed rabies, cholera, HIV and the Ebola virus?

'This is an excellent summary of an irritation I have with naturalistis using the language of purpose.'

What is the purpose of swine flu?

Steven Carr said...

If the brain is not for producing the mind, what do Christians use their brain for?

J said...

Indeed, Mr. Carr. The IDT crew can't exactly prove the existence of JHVH, but they do suggest the possibility of.......Beelzebub, the Plague-master.

Von Feser's one of the most clever theological marketers around, however. His favored crypto-fallacy seems to be ad ignorantium---according to EF, those heathen naturalists can't disprove ye olde Aristotelian "teleos"--maybe because they were like studying the periodic table, or DNA transport, Padre Feseria-- therefore, purpose exists.

That said, I might agree with JD Walters on the irreducibility of conceptual thought--at this time, at least-- and the dangers of reductionism. Humans are not merely primates, responding to stimuli--. But that doesn't mean we have to take La Misa at La Iglesia de Rudy Jooliani, or hang with the Hageeites .



. revealed that physical objects are composed of intrinsically colorless, tasteless, and odorless particles. Colors, tastes and odors thus, in some sense, exist only in the mind of the observer. s

legodesi said...

"I fail to see how having an externally-given purpose"

It's not merely external, as if it's a thing imposed upon me unnaturally. It's external and yet intrinsic to me, to my emotional and spiritual design. It's at once obedience and self-fulfillment.

J said...

Like many professional theologians, Von Feiser also has a knack, nearly thespian like, for portraying the pious as the victims of those heathen naturalists and atheists.
The poor persecuted xtians!

We have no love for Dawkins & Co (at least Hitchens can write a bit), but Dawkins is not the devil incarnate. The God Delusion might not please ivy league philosophers, but does present the issues in a succinct form.


Apart from a few thomistic chestnuts, Feser's arguments are typical christian conservative tactics--our traditional values are under attack! the commies, the abortionists, and pagan-naturalists--the Homos--are coming for your family!, etc. Feser's a James Dobson, but he aced a Klassic course.

legodesi said...

"--our traditional values are under attack! the commies, the abortionists, and pagan-naturalists--the Homos--are coming for your family!, etc. Feser's a James Dobson, but he aced a Klassic course."

I think you've ignored the entirety of his argument. Whether his argument is valid or not can be debated, but to equate it with crying about persecution is ad hominem, and not even good ad hominem.

J said...

Not an Ad Hominem, dude--Feser's another alarmist-moralist, ignoring real social problems, under the guise of traditional catholicism. Sort of the Rudy Jooliani sort of meme: make it seem like "our traditions" are under attack--what he means is like WF Buckley tradition--so join the papists! He's the Ad Hom specialist--

Anyway, we don't have to memorize Aristotle to participate in the discussion. That's another of his machiavellian tactics-keeep putting the discussion into his scholastic terms, like from 13 the century.

Copernicus, Galilleo, Hobbes, Hume, Newton, Tho. Jefferson, Darwin, Einstein, Bertrand Russell already smashed that tradition in, did the dirty work--we don't have to keep going back to Padua, or Athens 4 bc for that matter.

Joshua said...

@J - Dawkins described as succinct. That just made my day!

Here is a succinct version of Dawkins: "Man was formed from dust, therefore, there is no God".

J said...

Dawkins says the existence--or non-existence-- of God is an empirical question. So does Edvard Feser! (following Aristotelian tradition). Even if there is more to it, the inductive proofs (and disproofs), even if not necessary--another point Feser forgets (empirical knowledge, necessary Edvard??) do matter. So at least in terms of the empirical/inductive issues, Dawkins has something to say.

For that matter, he simply rejects to the witchdoctor-ontological argument and so forth. I will agree he is a bit of a reductionist, but then Kant himself said the onto-argument was bogus.

So, are you saying God is provable via induction/empiricism, OR via axiom/deduction? I disagree--there ARE NO NECESSARY PROOFS FOR THE supposed BIG DADDY, grasshoppah.

Im not saying that ends the discussion: one can still do the Kierkegaardian anti-rationalist bellyflop. But that's no proof--as Nietzsche himself pointed out.

legodesi said...

"alarmist-moralist, ignoring real social problems"

He's not at all a moralist. Give evidence. From what I read of his statements (though they're admittedly unclear)he's saying that given a materialist ground-up wordlview, meaning is imposed on an inherently unintelligible object, leading inextrictably to Derrida's post-modernism.

J said...

Check out his comments on Tiller's murder (more or less suggesting Tiller deserved it), his anti-abortion hysteria, his comments on movies, his strange rant against Hume (not really even bothering with the meat of the argument, which concerns empirical knowledge itself), and so forth.

He does bring up a somewhat interesting point on the irreducibility of mind--really about his only point-- but even if we grant that cog-sci/naturalists haven't like mapped everything out, that doesn't prove an Ego-ghost exists.

Either Mental events are brain events, OR mental events are not brain events. The evidence is strongly favor of the first part of the disjunction. When Doc Feser bends a spoon, I might revise my ontology.....

legodesi said...

"even if we grant that cog-sci/naturalists haven't like mapped everything out,"

That's not his argument. If mind is irreducibly non-physical, then it's not that they haven't mapped everything out as physical things, it's that they cannot. That's the lead of his argument. And please, keep your arguments to the ones relevant here.

J said...

If mind is irreducibly non-physical, then it's not that they haven't mapped everything out as physical things, it's that they cannot.

That still points at the disjunction, doesn't it. Either Mind exists, or it doesn't (it mind -> brain functions). You're falling for his jesuistical trick of making his argument for dualism seem necessary and axiomatic when in FACT it's evidentiary. And mere intention is no evidence of a transcendent soul. Even if we agree with Descartes' classic "Cogito Ergo Bum," that doesn't magically bring a ghost into existence. Some ghost anyway if a few shots of tequila render it unfit to drive (in other words, the Penal code regarding DUIs suggests physicalism, at least of some sort).

legodesi said...

"You're falling for his jesuistical trick of making his argument for dualism seem necessary and axiomatic when in FACT it's evidentiary."

What do you mean when you say "his argument... seem neccesary? The argument follows a certain logical route, and if the premise that aboutness cannot be reduced to a physical structure is valid, and conjoined with aboutness exists in our thoughts, it necessarily follows that our thoughts cannot be reduced to only physical structures.

J said...

How do you propose to confirm that premise? even an assertion about, er, a Ghost requires some type of verification. The jesuit's attempts to make things exist, without actually showing what those things are, or where they are.

Besides, humans do much more than think. They eat. Fight. Excrete. Lust. Or go to the bullfight. Andale! Maybe try Hobbes' Leviathan for starters (and Hobbes jacked Descartes pretty good back in the day).

legodesi said...

"How do you propose to confirm that premise?"

I propose nothing here, only that his argument here follows a logical structure. I just wanted you to try to understand the argument Feser makes, instead of calling him a moralist and dragging John Hagee into this.

J said...

Actually, Legonesi, I will grant that the catholic tradition--and latin tradition--deserves some respect--but it's not monolithic for one. There are, or were, other schools than Thomism. And not every catholic would agree to Feser's rightist politics (and politics does matter).

I peruse the scribblings of old Pat Buchanan at times, and while generally disagreeing with the buffoon, I don't always disagree. Feser lacks even Buchanan's "courage of his convictions."

J said...

"How do you propose to confirm that premise?"

I propose nothing here, only that his argument here follows a logical structure.



Premises must be confirmed as true, or at least highly probable. Lacking a true premise, the best you get is cogency, persuasion--and that's all Feser has. Hope that clears things up.

For that matter, my occasional reading of the old catothics leads me to believe that they were not all dualists. Even Aquinas sounds close to an aristotelian-immanence--. I believe he was charged with materialism--ie heresy-- at one point.

Victor Reppert said...

Excuse me. This post from Feser has nothing to do with his political views, with which I largely differ. This is about an argument for materialism.

I didn't see a single reference to abortion doctors in that passage. Please stick to the subject.

I remember a paper written by Hugo Meynell a long time ago which was called Three Sophistical Devices. Barthism is the view of just merely asseting something without providing any reason for believing it, just plumping for your position. Bulverism is, well, Lewis's name for what in logic is called the ad hominem circumstantial. Besonianism the idea that instead of having to face criticisms of your own position, you find out what the other guy's overall position is and attack that. So, for example, if I offer some criticisms of Marxian dialectical materialism, and you find out that I am a Catholic, then somehow criticisms of Catholicism are good reasons for rejecting my criticisms of dialectical materialism, even though the criticisms could have been made by a Muslim or a phenomenologist.

J said...

Read the comment[s] above on true premises, por favor. Feser engages in subtle ad ignorantiums, routinely (perhaps that falls under one of your 'isms)--such as his argument that naturalists cannot explain intentionality (or "aboutness" as the ivy league boys say), so dualism holds.

Even granting him his assertion--that cog-sci/naturalism/neurology has not as yet offered a complete account of what is taken to be intentionality, AND assuming something like intentionality exists (some would not grant the second part of that conjunction)--that does not establish a transcendent mind, whatsoever. It may show that humans are different than monkeys--Monkeys don't play chess, 'tis true (They don't build nuclear weapons either)--yet the simple fact that humans are unique in playing chess (or doing math, writing symphonies or blogs, etc) does not however mean that uniqueness takes form in a transcendent mind--they just appear to have a far more powerful brain- CPU than the monkey has.

Victor Reppert said...

The argument is that the logical character of mental states are such that a set of physical descriptions simply cannot capture it.

Just one example. I consider the first-person essential to a full description of our mental life, including those states essential to reasoning. There is something that it is like to be in those states. Properly physicalistic descriptions are invariably third-person. Pile up third-person descriptions until doomsday, give me more and more science that has by definition has to be third-person, and the first person content simply won't make it in. It can't. "Ah, but this is just an appeal to ignorance. Once we get more sophisticated third-person accounts, the problem will disappear." No. Your commitment to third, person, truly naturalistic accounts of mental states is going to make it impossible for you to produce an adequate account of intentional states, and all the science in the world is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Joshua said...

@J:

So, are you saying God is provable via induction/empiricism, OR via axiom/deduction? I disagree--there ARE NO NECESSARY PROOFS FOR THE supposed BIG DADDY, grasshoppah.

I am saying neither. I am simply pointing out that when one proves that man is formed from dust, that is not a *disproof* of God's existence. It is remarkable to me that a man whose crowing career achievement is proving that man was formed from dust, and that altruism does indeed exist, would be considered an expert on whether or not God exists.

The idea that God's existence could be "proven" universally to skeptics via empirical testing, or via deduction from established axioms, seems to be incredibly and dangerously non-scriptural to me, so I would never suggest such a thing. What scriptural precedent is there for such an approach?

Dawkins reminds me of Emmanuel Lasker; the chess master who sat at his chess board screaming out to God to play him. When God refused to play against Lasker, Lasker concluded that he was a better chess player than God.

Victor Reppert said...

Joshua: Dawkins reminds me of Emmanuel Lasker; the chess master who sat at his chess board screaming out to God to play him. When God refused to play against Lasker, Lasker concluded that he was a better chess player than God.

VR: I have doubts that the level-headed Lasker could have been the one in this story. Steinitz, maybe? I'll have to check with Dennis Monokroussos on this.

Joshua said...

@VR: Oh! I think you're right. It was one of those guys in that time period, and after he got older. I read the story 20+ years ago, so details could be lost.

In that same book, I remember laughing at the observation that "no chess master ever lost a match when he was in perfect health".

Victor Reppert said...

I certainly never did.

J said...

The idea that God's existence could be "proven" universally to skeptics via empirical testing, or via deduction from established axioms, seems to be incredibly and dangerously non-scriptural to me, so I would never suggest such a thing. What scriptural precedent is there for such an approach

Yes, you are correct--it does sound rather ridiculous, except to theologians and religious philosophers. Perhaps Aquinas's name rings a bell--catholics, inc? Descartes...Plantinger... or Feser himself. Rational theologians are still in business, surprisingly. Doc Reppert himself often sounds like a rational theologian--ie, one who believes G*d can be proven via reason.

And the same situation holds for a claim regarding dualism/immateriality of mind: it can be suggested, but no hard evidence (bend a spoon, paddy). And really, even if one were to grant the possibility of some strange dualistic parallelism, that does not validate monotheism.

The other point on first person/ third person looks interesting, but one could imagine experiments that would falsify it: say a scientist who wires up his own brain and offers reports of what is happening, or says something in first person--Cogito!--and the corresponding brain areas light up, or are traced, on some super--MRI or something. Lets not forget neuro-kinetic---there are brain interfaces, which translate neurological firings into code. This allows the handicapped to flick on lights, or TV, or even key into their computer, merely by mental commands. Looks a lot like physical basis for mind to me, but maybe the Ghost has an interface as well, in like a parallel world....

Joshua said...

@J - I am more charitable to Aquinas now than I used to be. While I believe that Aquinas failed to "prove" God, I believe he succeeded at his more important task. He showed the church of his day that faith need not be incompatible with logic or philosophy. Even if God is not approachable by reason alone, God is never illogical or unreasonable. Aquinas succeeded for Christianity where Al Ghazali failed for Islam. So I think the philosophers are extremely important. It's the people who demand "logical proof that can bind the wills of all men", which I find to be missing the point.

To be honest, I think Aquinas' "prime mover" proof was more damaging than helpful, and is to blame for the fruitless and pointless schism between Calvinists and everyone else. But that isn't really Aquinas' fault. He was trying (successfully) to explain Church doctrine into an Aristotolean framework; he was not attempting to proclaim gospel about the nature of time and determinism.

Ilíon said...

Steven Carr: "If the brain is not for producing the mind, what do Christians use their brain for?"

Since it certainly isn't for reasoning, what do 'atheists' use their minds for?

Anonymous said...

Atheists have frequently been known to ask:

"Could God create a rock so heavy that he cannot move it?"

I think the answer is quite clear. The answer is 'yes'. The atheist mind is this rock.

Hence the tendency to treat philosophical questions as if they were scientific ones (i.e. believing that a high enough stack of third person explanations will get you to the first person, if we could just do more laboratory research).

Hence the tendency to triumphantly pose theological rather than scientific questions such as "What fiendish mind designed rabies, cholera, HIV and the Ebola virus?" All the while rejecting theological answers like "Satan" as being invalid for the precise reason that they are theological and not scientific.

The atheist mind. One heavy stone. Created by God.

Ilíon said...

That's a good point, Anonymous.

And yet, God can lift that stone -- when the 'atheist' finally allows him to.