Wednesday, December 02, 2009

More depressing than you could have imagined: Feser's response to Rosenberg on Naturalism

In this piece by Ed Feser, he responds to a piece by Alex Rosenberg in which Rosenberg details some of the "depressing" nihilistic implications of naturalism, but claims that these must be accepted because the onward march of science shows that naturalism is true. Feser claim that these "depressing" conclusions on the basis of naturalism actually show the incoherence of naturalism.

Here are some of the great moments in the history of science.

1) Archimedes inferred from the principle of bouyancy that the King's crown wasn't solid gold.
2) Galileo calculates the orbits of the planets and shows that Copernicus was right, and the earth really does move.
3) Newton develops calculus and infers the three laws of motion.
4) Darwin infers natural selection as the explanation for different beak sizes in the finches on the Galapagos islands.
5) Einstein develops his Theory of Relativity, based on Maxwell's equations.

Yes, science marches on. But if there no propositional mental states that cause other propositional mental states, none of the above statements are literally true! If it is a consequence of naturalism, and I think it is, that none of these statements is literally true, then these events don't support the case for naturalism, they undercut it decisively.


Blue Devil Knight said...

Two main errors in your post.

First you say:
But if there no propositional mental states that cause other propositional mental states, none of the above statements are literally true!

Not at all. The above statements are written in public language, and can be true or false even if the brain doesn't use propositionally structured representations.

It could be that language gives truth/falsity but the nonpropositionally structured neuronal representational systems must employ other epistemic norms such as "goodness of fit" to the world (e.g., the way we would judge how good a map is).

Second, as for the claim that naturalism implies eliminativism about propositional attitudes, tell that to Fodor et al. and all the other naturalistic lovers of the propositional.

Victor Reppert said...

But those statements are statements about mental transformations in the minds of the above-named scientists. It's not just that the propositions in question are true, it is that these thoughts took root in these scientists' brain through a process of mental causation.

Second, naturalism can have eliminativist implications even though some people think that naturalism has to be true, and also think that scientists literally discover stuff, and therefore work like hell trying to figure out how those two things can be true together (even though they can't).

Here's my scenario: eliminativism is the right consequence from naturalism, Fodor realizes that this would have disastrous consequences, but can't really escape this result, and Churchland embraces the result but doesn't see the disastrous consequences.

Clayton said...

"But those statements are statements about mental transformations in the minds of the above-named scientists."

Actually, that's not true. Those statements are statements about what those men and what they were doing. There's no mention of a mind at all just as there's no mention of a brain. Inferences are things that we draw, not things that minds/brains draw.

I can't imagine turning that into an argument against dualism. At any rate, BDK is right that this assumes that Rosenberg and Feser have the commitments of naturalism right. Do they? I don't think so, but maybe someone has the carefully worked out argument that shows that they do. I've never seen it.

zuri said...

The Galapagos Islands are the most incredible living museum of evolutionary changes, with a huge variety of exotic species (birds, land and sea animals, plants) and landscapes not seen anywhere else.

Steven Carr said...

So propositions cause other propositions do they?

If I think 'That book is red', that will cause me to think 'That book is not blue', 'That book is not yellow.', 'That book is not green.' etc etc?

And if I see a problem which claims 'White mates in 7', that true proposition will cause me to think of the checkmating moves?

The brain just does not work like that.

So another success for naturalism, which predicts what we actually find, while refuting Victor's claim that we are perfect logical thinking machines, where thinking true propositions causes other true propositions to be thought.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Victor: it is premature to say that naturalism implies eliminativism. I am a naturalist and not an eliminativist about the propositional attitudes because the data don't support eliminativism. Eliminativism about propositional attitude psychology is a hypothesis not something established.

And as I said, even if that hypothesis turns out to be true, that doesn't mean things we say, write, our theories in journals and such can't be true or false.

Holy smokes the 'Word Verification' word right now is 'quine'. That. Is. Awesome. At a chess site yesterday the word was 'chessine.' Maybe Google is using a new algorithm for generating the words.

Or word verification is about to produce Shakespeare.

Joel said...

Here's Richard Carrier's response to Rosenberg:

I don't find most of it convincing, but it's an interesting read.

Gordon Knight said...

Actually, that's not true. Those statements are statements about what those men and what they were doing. There's no mention of a mind at all just as there's no mention of a brain. Inferences are things that we draw, not things that minds/brains draw."

What would you say about an inference drawn in a dream?

"inferences are something we draw"

of course, but what is teh "we" or I would say the "I" ? if its a soul/mind, then there is no disagremetn. If it is the living body then I can't draw an inference in a dream, since my body is sleeping.

But I know (if memory is to be trusted) that I can think and reason in a dream.


Blue Devil Knight said...

That's a good question Gordon (inferences during dreams, or for instance people spit out enthymeme's all the time suggesting something going on in the mind to generate a conclusion).

There are (at least) two reasonable answers I think. One, brain inferences are not in a propositional format but a different analog representational format (the way you might imagine your visual experiences as not propositionally structured). But this is able to interact with (produce and understand) public language even though the brain doesn't trade in linguoformal representations (just as we can produce and understand "walking" behavior even thought the brain doesn't walk).

So in this case, inferences (to the extent we can cal them that) are not transformations among proposition s, but transformations among nonpropositionally structured representations. This is the point pushed by Churchland in his book Scientific Realism and the Plasticity of Mind.

The second possibility is that a subset of neuronal representations are propositional in structure, and brain inference is quite analogous to public linguistically structured inferences.

This second option (advocated by Fodor and most other philosophers) makes certain things easier, such as translating between the language of thought and public language. If brain language is nonpropositional as in option one, then it becomes complicated how to translate. If brain language is propositional, then because it has the same symbolic architecture as public language, you can at least imagine a simple mapping from mental symbol to public symbol (e.g., the mental representation of 'dog' maps to the word 'dog' (in English) and the word gets its individual semantic content from the content of the mental symbol).

On the other hand, the nonpropositional representational view makes it easier to understand why we often feel like our public linguistic expresions are a pale and anemic attempt to express what is a much richer informational mileu in our minds (e.g., think of how many fewer color words you have than the number of colors you can actually perceive).

Notice you can be a dualist and find all this plausible too. This issue of representational format is orthogonal to the dualism/materialism axis. If I were a dualist I would still think that the mind wasn't propositional all the way down, and I would still think it an open question whether eliminativism about propositional attitude psychology would true (I would just be an eliminative dualist rather than eliminative materialist about such mental representations).

That's a mouthful if any of it is unclear let me know.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Note obviously you don't have to choose between propositional and nonpropositional mental representations for your psychology. Both can be right. For instance, some think perceptual representations are nonpropositional (nonconceptual content), while more 'cognitive' contents are propositional (conceptual contents).

Blue Devil Knight said...

Note I mentioned eliminative dualism in my second-to-last comment. If you understand that theoretical option about propositional views of the mental, and why it is a possibility (i.e., that eliminativism is orthogonal to ontology), then you are further along than the majority of people trying to understand the conceptual territory surrounding eliminativism. (Incidentally I didn't discover this conceptual possibility: Paul mentions it in Scientific Realism and Plasticity of Mind).

At this site, arguments about eliminative materialism (wrt propositional theories of mind) tend to focus on the materialism aspect. However, it would be just as reasonable (and much more interesting) for nonmaterialists to discuss the possibility of eliminative dualism, focusing on the question of whether (nonphysical) mental representations are propositionally structured.

Finally, all my comments should help clarify why I think Victor was way off the mark in his post.

Obviously this implies I disagree with Rosenberg. It is premature for naturalists to endorse eliminativism about propositional mental representations, on one hand. On the other hand, even if there aren't such propositional minds, truth and falsity can inhere in public symbol systems created by minds, just as quickness and nimbleness can inhere in behavior generated by minds even if minds aren't literally nimble and quick.