Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Parsons on Mental Causation

The Secular Outpost: The Problem with Metaphysical Naturalism (According to Victor Reppert)

First, I do share Parsons' concern about getting definitions right. When I deal with a naturalistic view, I offer an account of what that is supposed to have in it, which includes the mechanistic character of the base level, the causal closure of the base level, and the superveniece of everything else on the base level. By mechanism I mean that we are excluding from that base level four properties: intentionality, purpose, first-person subjectivity, and normativity. Now someone might come along and say that they have a view that doesn't fit these characteristics but is still naturalistic in some sense, in which case we'd have to look at their theory to see in what sense they're calling it naturalistic and whether I think a version of the AFR can be advanced against it. Here, I am going to assume that Parsons agrees with this account, and move forward. 

Looking at this post, it seems to me that there are a couple of issues that we have to be careful about conflating. One of them is the claim that some version of nonreductive materialism can meet the argument from reason. In the combox, you get some discussion of that, and some responses to some exchanges with Clayton Littlejohn. However, the impression that I have had in discussion with Clayton is that he believes that mental events qua mental events do cause other mental states and physical states. Troubles with mental causation have been the focus of some of Jaegwon Kim's criticisms of nonreductive materialism, in particular the nonreductivism of Donald Davidson. Kim writes:

Davidson's anomalous monism fails to do full justice to psychophysical causation in which the mental qua mental has any real causal role to play. Consider Davidson's account: whether or not a given event has a mental description (optional reading: whether or not it has a mental characteristic) seems entirely irrelevant to what causal relations it enters into. Its causal powers are wholly determined by the physical description or characteristic that holds for it; for it is under its physical description that it may be subsumed under a causal law.

Jaegwon Kim, "Epiphenomenal and Supervenient Causation" ch. 6 of Supervenience and Mind, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) 106.

Now, of course, there can be a debate as to whether a case cam be made for mental causation in a non-reductive materialist framework. I think it can't. It's not that I don't think higher-level properties can be causally relevant. They can be if the are configurational combinations of physical states. If a bowling ball knocks all the pins down, this is perfectly possible even though basic physics makes no reference to bowling balls and pins. However, I take it if you add up the physical states and know what words mean, you can't avoid the conclusion that the bowling ball knocked down the pins. What I don't see is how you can add up non-normative states and get normative states, how you can add up non-intentional states and get intentional states, how you can add up non-first-person states and get first-person states, or how you can add up non-purposive states and get purposive states.

Science always prefers the most tractable accounts it can get. Scientists are happy when they can analyze the movement of a bullet through space, and determine what kind of impact it would have to make given the speed at which it was traveling. But there is another type of explanation that we might be interested in with respect to the bullet. It was fired by someone who had some intention with respect to what he wanted the bullet to do. Perhaps, he fired the bullet to kill his mother-in-law, whom he believes to be the worst person he knows. That is an agent-explanation, and as such is less tractable to science than a ballistic explanation. However, it isn't a total mystery; we can understand the person's motivations, and perhaps not find the action totally unexpected. After all, we are talking about the motivations of a fellow human. Now, as action might be the action of a superior being of some kind, and there it is even less tractable. Still, I would not want to call it a pseudo-explanation, because we can have some understanding of a superior mind, even the mind of God.

But it is a natural impulse in science to want to analyze the world in as tractable terms as possible, and hence we can understand why materialism is appealing from the point of view of science. However, at the same time, science described the activity of scientists in mentalistic terms. Scientists gather evidence, they form hypotheses, they perform logical and mathematical inferences, etc. It would indeed undermine the scientific enterprise if these mentalistic explanations of the behavior of scientists were simply untrue. Few people would be materialists if it weren't appealing from a scientific standpoint, but if mentalistic explanations are all false, then there are no scientists, and therefore no science. So, some kind of explanatory compatibility thesis must be defended by materialists. Scientists are, in the last analysis physical beings whose actions can be fully explained at the physical level as part of a closed mechanistic system, and their rationality, such as it is, must be some supervening property that emerges through evolution in a materialist world.

Parsons' strategy for establishing explanatory compatibility is essentially the same as the one Elizabeth Anscombe, (not a naturalist herself, but surely the most famous critic of C. S. Lewis's AFR). The mentalistic explanations we need in order for science to be science are compatible with materialism because those explanations aren't causal explanations, while those offered by physics are causal explanations.

Now Parsons, like Anscombe, points out that there are compatible explanations. Of course there are. For example, if we ask why the soda-can is sitting on the bookshelf, I might say "Because I put it there yesterday, since I am planning on recycling it," or "because it has a cylindrical shape, and is sitting on its base." But there are, certainly, incompatible explanations. Otherwise, there would be no hope that scientific explanations could ever supplant religious explanations.

Parsons tries to establish the explanatory compatibility as follows, using as an example Sam's acceptance of Krugman's arguments that the Ryan budget is a recipe for disaster. 

When we say that Sam was convinced by Krugman’s arguments it seems to me perverse to attribute some very (I think in-principally) mysterious kind of causal power to the sense or propositional content of Krugman’s arguments. Attributing causal powers to Fregean Sinn (meaning), if this is what Victor wants to assert, just seems to me a straightforward category mistake. It is like saying that the set of all integers broke the deadlock between NFL players and owners. No, to say that Sam was convinced by Krugman’s arguments means that Sam considered Krugman’s claims, examined the supporting reasons, weighed them in the light of prior knowledge and norms of good reasoning, and judged that these were persuasive. However, considering Krugman’s claims, examining the supporting arguments, evaluating them, and judging them to be persuasive are things that Sam does with his brain, and happenings in Sam’s brain, being physical events, can cause things. 

Well, if Sam's considering and accepting Krugman's arguments is a brain process, it looks like we are going to end up attributing properties to Sam's brain that are going to violate the causal closure of the physical. If Sam finds Krugman's arguments persuasive, one of the things he has to be persuaded by is the logical connection between the Krugman's premises and his conclusions. To be aware of something is to be causally influenced by it. So, yes, my awareness of a stop sign causes me to stop, not the stop sign itself. If I don't see the sign, I'll barrel right through. But, the stop sign has to cause my awareness of the stop sign. And if the physical is causally closed, then everything that I am aware of has to be also physical, and by physical I take it we mean that it has a particular location in space and time. A logical relationship has no particular location in space and time, and so if I am aware of a logical relationship, and that logical relationship affects my brain, then the causal closure of the physical has been violated, because something that has no particular location in space and time is bringing it about that I think certain things.

If I am aware that the cat is on the mat, then there is a causal connection between the cat and my brain, which occurs within space and time. If I am aware of the fact that, if a=b, and b=c and a=c, then in order for this awareness to be fitted within the framework of a causally closed physical order, that truth has to have a particular location in space and time. But it has not particular location in space and time, so, if the physical is closed, I can't be aware of it.

Explanations have ontological commitments. If I explain the existence of presents under the Christmas tree by saying that Santa put them there, then I commit myself to the existence of Santa. If I say I believe something because I perceive a logical relationship, that means that there are logical relationships. But where is this logical relationship for me to be aware of?

I don't see that you really resolve the problem naturalism has with rational inference by denying the causal character of these explanations.

31 comments:

Tom Gilson said...

Parsons wrote,

"However, considering Krugman’s claims, examining the supporting arguments, evaluating them, and judging them to be persuasive are things that Sam does with his brain, and happenings in Sam’s brain, being physical events, can cause things."

Here we see that Sam does these things with his brain, and we also see that the happenings in Sam's brain cause these things. What or who then is really doing these things? Sam, or the happenings in his brain? Or does Parsons identify/equate Sam with the happenings in his brain?

Crude said...

Some passing comments.

But there are, certainly, incompatible explanations.

There's also contextually irrelevant explanations. If I ask someone why their car is parked outside my house and they say "Because the brake is keeping it from rolling away", chances are they aren't 'explaining' so much as 'bluffing'.

But it is a natural impulse in science to want to analyze the world in as tractable terms as possible, and hence we can understand why materialism is appealing from the point of view of science.

At the risk of nitpicking, "science" has no point of view. And I never got into this idea that to explain such and such in physical terms - certainly things like, say, the forces at work when a rock rolls down a hill - is to give some specifically "materialist explanation." As if Cartesians (for example) viewed rocks rolling down hills in some way that's challenged by a physical description.

Even with that aside, I wonder whether people's preferences in science are measured by anything much more than sheer utility most of the time.

If I am aware that the cat is on the mat, then there is a causal connection between the cat and my brain, which occurs within space and time.

Even 'being aware' of physical things seems problematic under the physicalism you describe. A cat can trigger certain reactions from a robot. I'd love for someone to tell me the robot, therefore, "is aware of the cat". My roomba turns when its bumper hits an obstruction. Is it "aware that there is an obstruction" in anything but a poetic sense of the terms?

Regarding Parsons himself, there's just one thing I want to pick out.

Has anyone observed two brains in an identical physical state but with different mental states?

I'll do Parsons one better: Has anyone observed any 'mental state' other than their own, ever? Mental states are not observed - they're inferred, or reported. And frankly, if two people with an identical mental state at time X gave two different reports - "A was thinking of blue. B was thinking of red." - the replies are easy to see.

"Well, we didn't actually observe their mental state. Something screwed up." or "One of them is lying." or "There's a misunderstanding." or...

Parsons gives an 'explanation' of the brain that he admits is extremely incomplete. I think that's generous. That part of his post boiled down to "Brains are capable of reasoning, and reasons aren't used when doing this. Also this is totally physical. No idea how this can happen, but I'm very confident this works."

Blue Devil Knight said...

crap comment got eaten. Will try to reconstruct later.

Blue Devil Knight said...

1. Noncausal explanation?
While Parsons mentioned the Anscombe 'noncausal explanation' strategy as a possible approach, he seems to want to avoid that, claiming that A and B are complementary causal explanations. Hence, while I'm not positive, I think you have misinterpreted him on that one.

2. The blindness argument against materialism
"What I don't see is how you can add up non-normative states and get normative states, how you can add up non-intentional states and get intentional states, how you can add up non-first-person states and get first-person states, or how you can add up non-purposive states and get purposive states."

What I don't see is how you can add up non-living states and get living states. Oops, wait I accidentally just channeled every vitalist from 150 years ago.

Blue Devil Knight said...

3. Perception of logic
"If I say I believe something because I perceive a logical relationship, that means that there are logical relationships. But where is this logical relationship for me to be aware of?"

Even if I wanted to cash out logical relations in nonspatial terms, I don't think that would be sufficient to refute materialism. Not everything in a naturalist's world has to be spatially localized. Where is the fatherhood relation that I share with my daugher? Where is time? Where is F=ma?

In terms of your positive story, are you saying that for every "perception" of a logical relation, there exists a corresponding Platonic object to which it corresponds? If so the most obvious, but not insignificant, concern is how the mind (brain?) is supposed to have perceptual contact with these nonphysical propositions (not to mention the inferential relations among them).

A second concern is how to account for conflicting perceptions of logical relations. Is there a platonic paraconsistent logic (where contradictions are allowed), classical logic (where they are not), relevance logics, another for quantum logic where distributivity is violated?

As a naturalist, I don't have these problems because I can look at different systems of logic as extremely useful syntactic constructions, slowly built up over time in an evidence sensitive manner with the goal of preserving truth in different domains. It turns out there is no universal logic for all domains, for instance when trying to construct a logic to handle liar's paradox or quantum events, things get very weird indeed.

Frankly there are much more direct routes to antinaturalism via logic than considerations of the interaction between logic, abstractly considered, and human reason (the latter can be pretty illogical, after all: ever try to teach formal logic to a group of undergrads? If you have you know some really struggle with perceiving these logical relations). Rather, just stick with the former. Adding its interaction with human reason to the mix seems to muddy the waters, and only show the weaknesses of the Platonic approach. Your argument would be stronger if you focused on logic or math abstractly considered rather than "perception" of logical relations.

That said, I have to admit Parsons isn't very clear on his view of propositional contents and their inferential relations to one another. That was the main weakness in his post.

Blue Devil Knight said...

4. Nonreductive materialism
Unlike Kim, you seem willing to accept that reducible higher-level things like bowling balls can cause things to happen. This seems quite right, and reasonable (for reasons I spell out below, just in case you need convincing).

Why would you reject causal impotency arguments for such clearly reducible phenomena, but not for putatively nonreducible phenomena? That seems unprincipled and goes against the spirit of Kim's argument. If you buy Kim's causal closure argument wrt apparently irreducible events, you should buy it wrt reducible events. We don't accept it about reducible events (bullets and bowling balls), so his argument fails. Let me unpack that.

For Kim, if some higher-level thing X is reducible, its causal powers are to be found in the micro-level reducing properties. Indeed, this micro-causal story is embodied in the reduction itself, so this should be noncontroversial. What is unique is his further argument that even if X is not reducible, its causal powers are still going to be found at the microlevel: it doesn't somehow inherit magical causal powers over and above those found in moleculare pushes, pulls and such. In other words, he is basically saying we should be treating reducible and (putative) nonreducible phenomena the same way. It is a principled, but mistaken, approach.

I suppose you could go with him on reducible phenomena, agreeing with him that bowling balls do not cause pins to drop. In that case we have a basic disagreement that is partly semantic, but partly real. Bowling balls are not individuated in physicochemical terms, even though individual bowling balls are reducible to physical descriptions. We could have an ivory, or ice, or plastic bowling ball with extremely different sizes, weights, finger holes very different sizes and locations. The term 'bowling ball' abstracts away from such details in useful ways that lets us explain things (including causal explanations), allows for extensible inferences, predictions, etc.. All of this, plus a great deal of cognitive tractability, would be lost if we just gave a physicochemical description of a bowling ball hitting pins. That's why I think Kim is just wrong-headed, he's missing the forest for the trees.

So the dilemna horns you get: if you buy his argument for bowling balls, you are incorrect but principled; if you don't buy it for bowling balls, then you shouldn't buy it for putatively nonreducible events either.

If I were you, I'd sidestep this confusing and seemingly unprincipled approach to causal exclusion, as you can kill both types of materialism (reductive/nonreductive) more easily with your supervenience failure argument.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Put succinctly, you don't even think token reductions are possible. That kills both types of materialism without needing this esoteric causal exclusion malarkey.

Crude said...

What I don't see is how you can add up non-living states and get living states. Oops, wait I accidentally just channeled every vitalist from 150 years ago.

Hey, channeling is fun. Let me try!

*ahem*

What I don't see is how we can adequately explain what we're seeing at the microphysical level if we're committed to classical mechanics.

What I don't see is how contact mechanics can properly account for the motions of planets.

What I don't see is how to explain geological data if we're committed to strict gradualism.

...Really, the vitalism bit seems to add up to 'This one time people thought something couldn't be explained given a particular popular assumption, and it turned out to not be accurate'. Ignoring all the times it was accurate after all, it seems like the materialist version of the creationist "all science is provisional and scientific theories have been overturned in the past - so we have every reason to expect macroevolution to be false" line.

Crude said...

Not everything in a naturalist's world has to be spatially localized. Where is the fatherhood relation that I share with my daugher? Where is time? Where is F=ma?

Doesn't the fatherhood relation reduce to a pretty bland physical history? Accounting for / explaining physical laws does seem like a problem for the naturalist, and questions related to "time" seem wide open. These don't seem like good comparisons to Victor's four (normativity, etc.)

As a naturalist, I don't have these problems because I can look at different systems of logic as extremely useful syntactic constructions

I think reducing logic to in essence useful fictions that have little going for them other than practical utility is a problem itself. As for "how does the immaterial influence the material" I think Victor referenced a post recently that put some light on the problem with putting too much weight on that question.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

Victor,

You write: “When I deal with a naturalistic view, I offer an account of what that is supposed to have in it, which includes the mechanistic character of the base level, the causal closure of the base level, and the superveniece of everything else on the base level.

I think that’s fine, but to nitpick I would suggest that naturalism can be defined just on the first of these three principles, namely as the idea that reality is ultimately of a mechanical nature. The other two principles, the causal closure and the supervenience of everything else, are hypotheses which, as long as they hold up to scientific scrutiny, secure naturalism’s internal coherence.

By mechanism I mean that we are excluding from that base level four properties: intentionality, purpose, first-person subjectivity, and normativity.

Negative definitions (e.g. naturalism is the absence of supernatural events) are not the most useful ones. Why not define “mechanism” as what can exhaustively described by mathematical language (including probability theory, chaos theory, etc)? Observe that intentionality, purpose, first-person subjectivity, and normativity cannot be exhaustively described using mathematical language. As can’t concepts such as beliefs, rationality, and other concepts which have resisted efforts to be naturalized.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Crude if you want to elevate the blindness argument to a time-tested inductive inference strategy, be my guest. It'll get you some good aether to go with that vital force.

Also, glad you agree that nonspatial doesn't imply materialism is false.

William said...

Interesting. I was at a meeting last week and heard several speakers on genetics of several obscure conditions. At one point, the expert speaker looked at the audience and pointed out that "we all have the gene for Huntington's disease" but that it is the changes in the DNA sequence of that gene in some that give them a disease. More than that, what Mendel called a gene is seldom mapped to just one consistent string of DNA.

This gave me some pause. I think in many ways the gene is like consciousness. It is just not the DNA it is made of, but a thing that functions in a way that can be seen as independent of its material base.

So I think pure reductive materialism fails in DNA = Gene. The gene is a dualistic concept. (DNA sequence and functional use)

Materialism may also fail in consciousness == brain matter, for similar reasons.

Crude said...

Crude if you want to elevate the blindness argument to a time-tested inductive inference strategy, be my guest. It'll get you some good aether to go with that vital force.

Whenever someone says "I don't see how X could be true or accounted for given assumption Y", you could lampoon it as "the blindness argument". I gave multiple examples of times in the past where "I don't see how X could be true or accounted for given assumption Y" in science bore fruit in exactly the way critics of materialism need: By assumption Y ultimately ending up ditched or modified, often in a way that changed the scientific view of the world fundamentally. I think the problems materialism has with issues of the mind come far closer to the examples I gave than to vitalism, and they illustrate why going on about "the blindness argument" is borderline dishonest: Just about any time it's the case that assumption Y is flawed, you're "not going to see" how X can be true given Y. The reasons why they think Y fails to do the job are important, and differentiate the cases.

But hey, by all means sit there and commit yourself to some 16th century - or even earlier - materialism. Newton, Heisenberg, all those guys are just saying they can't see how contact mechanics can be true given the data. They can keep their crazy theories that required fundamental alterations of assumptions. You've got the vitalism teddy bear to hug!

Also, glad you agree that nonspatial doesn't imply materialism is false.

I said that nowhere, but I'm tired so I'll simply shoot back "glad you agree that cartesian dualism is a type of materialism" just to match the inanity.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Crude: I don't put so much faith in parochial appeals to one's ignorance or personal incredulity. Such appeals are rarely sufficient to establish a conclusion, and when such attempts are made we rightly categorize them as informal fallacies. This is because epistemic blindness is not evidence.

However, in one trivial sense, of course ignorance is a source of epistemic fuel. It is a motivating factor for coming up with substantive new ideas. With the dualists, unfortunately, we pretty much get repeated and more complex expressions of ignorance and incredulity, not a substantive alternate theory. We don't have a quantum mechanics, a relativity theory. We have continued statements of incredulity, while the alternate viewpoint continues to gain ground.

Note I do not fail to see how brains could be conscious. Does that carry more weight? Or perhaps should I be expected to provide evidence, arguments, and reasons to back up this personal statement of belief?

Incidentally, vitalism was not some fly-by-night fringe theory, but a sprawling metropolis that dominated biological thinking in the 18th early 19th centuries. The corpus of arguments they advanced almost all have parallels in modern arguments about mind. The parallels are there, whether you acknowledge them or not. It is obviously very damaging to the dualist, a catastrophic historical precedent. The ostrich approach won't make the stark similarities disappear...at least for those of us that take evidence more seriously than personal preference.

Blue Devil Knight said...

The great neuroscientist Lashley, on vitalism:
------------------
The vitalist cites particular phenomena -- morphogenesis, regeneration, habit-formation, complexities of speech, and the like -- and denies the possibility of a mechanistic account of them. But he thereby commits what we might term the egoistic fallacy. On analysis his argument reduces every time to the form, "I am not able to devise a machine which will do these things; therefore no one will ever conceive of such a machine." This is the argument from inconceivability of Driesch and McDougall, put baldly. To it we may answer, You overvalue your own ingenuity.
----------------------

I've got about 60 primary sources I've read from the vitalism wars. The parallels are stark and multiple, both from critics and advocates of vitalism. I've got about 30 pages of arguments, frankly some of the similarities shocked me (zombie arguments, multiple realizability arguments, conceivability arguments, etc). But sure, Crude, no interesting historical parallels to be found.

Crude said...

With the dualists, unfortunately, we pretty much get repeated and more complex expressions of ignorance and incredulity, not a substantive alternate theory. We don't have a quantum mechanics, a relativity theory. We have continued statements of incredulity, while the alternate viewpoint continues to gain ground.

First, there is no 'gaining ground' taking place with regards to materialism and the mind, unless increasingly interesting verbal gymnastics qualifies. That or appeals to other domains (Look, classical mechanics works so great when it comes to bricks! Let's treat every success there as a reason to try and force the microphysical results into the same framework without any fundamental changes!), or meager claims (Look, the brain is involved in the mind! Take that, dualists - I'll pretend you never thought that was possible!)

Second, those changes didn't always come with "substantive alternate theories" in the relevant sense. Contact mechanics wasn't abandoned in exchange for a thorough explanation of gravity - really, gravity's still a problem *now*, to say nothing of Newton's time. Quantum physics was similar: There were a lot of shifts in fundamental picturing of the natural world, with explanations of those fundamental features not necessarily on the horizon.

Note I do not fail to see how brains could be conscious. Does that carry more weight? Or perhaps should I be expected to provide evidence, arguments, and reasons to back up this personal statement of belief?

If you're suggesting Victor - and many critics of materialism, which goes beyond dualists - has not given reasons why materialism in incapable of addressing mental phenomena, all I can do is suggest reading glasses. I pointed out in my reply that what's key to judging claims of "I don't see how.." is the reasons why they "don't see how". Considering you could recast one of the Churchland claims as "I don't see how beliefs can exist given materialism", you should appreciate that.

Crude said...

But sure, Crude, no interesting historical parallels to be found.

And I've got plenty of my own examples where the fundamental assumptions of nature ended up being revised after all - and I haven't invested nearly the time you have in collecting them, yet. But pointing out those successful parallels is more than enough to kick some serious dirt on your "vitalism wars" list - and that's before criticizing the actual examples you'd give, and really taking a closer look at the vitalism argument versus the materialist critics. You may want to take that into account.

The corpus of arguments they advanced almost all have parallels in modern arguments about mind. The parallels are there, whether you acknowledge them or not. It is obviously very damaging to the dualist, a catastrophic historical precedent.

Funny: I could say the exact same thing about the historical parallels I pointed out. Except the parallels between the criticisms of materialism have far more in common with the arguments that ultimately led to the rejection/alteration of contact mechanics, classical mechanics and more, as opposed to vitalism. Everything's there: The popularity of the opponents, the ultimate validity of the skeptic criticisms, the changing of the fundamental worldview. Except in this case I can also point at the craziness coming out of the eliminative materialist quarters for additional support (In other words, suggesting it's "the dualists" who are pointing out these problems is disingenuous. There are materialists, some prominent, making similar claims - they just embrace the failings rather than see it as a reason to reject materialism.)

I'm pointing out that at multiple junctures in science history, there was a failure to explain X given assumptions Y - and that this led to assumptions Y being ditched. You, meanwhile, are trying to peddle an argument which basically amounts to "Problems explaining X given assumptions Y are never a reason to question assumptions Y".

There's only one ostrich in this conversation, man. I'd show you him, but this mirror won't work until you lift your head up.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Crude so we agree. Expressions of blindness/ignorance are not evidence for a substantive conclusion. Even in the cases you cite of the argument from blindness, the blindness didn't actually settle anything, was a banal motivator to do some real work. Not sure why your knickers are all in a bunch then we seem to largely agree.

Incidentally that was a minor point in my post dump. Probably my most important point, relevant to Victor's post about Parsons, was number one, that Parsons didn't actually make the argument Victor thought he did.

Then stuff on nonreductive materialism. Other two points were actually less directly aimed at the meat of the post.

Off to work, might post tonight if anything cool appears.

Crude said...

Expressions of blindness/ignorance are not evidence for a substantive conclusion. Even in the cases you cite of the argument from blindness, the blindness didn't actually settle anything, was a banal motivator to do some real work. Not sure why your knickers are all in a bunch then we seem to largely agree.

I pointed out various points in scientific history where "I can't see how X given Y..." was ultimately resolved with "Because Y shouldn't be given, let's modify or discard Y." I had a little fun with it in calling it "channeling" just like you did - if we're testing for twisted knickers, I think it's safe to say the guy going off on having some super-catalog of vitalism parallels has me beat on the convoluted underwear.

You say the vitalism quip was extremely minor. I had some other comments in passing, but even so, let it be minor - it's a popular and pretty crappy response to some common criticisms in philosophy of mind discussions. I've no shame in kicking it around.

woodchuck64 said...

Crude,

Even 'being aware' of physical things seems problematic under the physicalism you describe. A cat can trigger certain reactions from a robot. I'd love for someone to tell me the robot, therefore, "is aware of the cat". My roomba turns when its bumper hits an obstruction. Is it "aware that there is an obstruction" in anything but a poetic sense of the terms?

A hundred generations from now, the Roomba might conceivably include object recognition learning and meta-knowledge about it's own virtual representation of the spatial world that would convince an observer that it certainly seems aware of something that it thinks is much like a cat. Would that be a problem for physicalism as long as the interior conscious world of the Roomba remains a void?

I'm trying to understand if you see a conceptual problem with a practical implementation of "awareness" under physicalism, or if the only real hard part is the hard problem of consciousness. Put another way, the question might be: can computer science eventually populate the world with AIs that are indistinguishable from human beings in most ways except a barcode and a void where a rich inner world of consciousness experience should be?

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

Eric,

You write: “Incidentally, vitalism was not some fly-by-night fringe theory, but a sprawling metropolis that dominated biological thinking in the 18th early 19th centuries. The corpus of arguments they advanced almost all have parallels in modern arguments about mind.

I don’t think that’s the case given how huge the differences between the two cases are. After all, life phenomena are not only visible around us, but are some of the most conspicuous physical phenomena there are. In contrast the consciousness hypothesis appears to be an entirely unnecessary one, for we don’t know of any phenomena that in a non-question-begging way require the presence of consciousness. That’s why we cannot detect the presence of consciousness. So, for example, there was never a question of whether, say, a dog or a cockroach are alive or not, but there is a question of whether a dog or a cockroach are conscious beings. Nobody has ever wondered whether a thermostat may be alive, but some people actually believe that thermostats are conscious. There is the philosophical problem of other minds, but there is not any philosophical problem of other lives. The differences between the two cases are so radical, that, at least from where I am standing, it looks like those who bring up this analogy are clutching at straws.

On analysis his argument reduces every time to the form, "I am not able to devise a machine which will do these things; therefore no one will ever conceive of such a machine."

Actually, here we find yet another example where the analogy breaks down. For the fact that we *can* build machines that appear to be conscious does not in any way make the mind-body problem any easier, since such machines (virtually everybody agrees) are not conscious beings. Good chess playing was supposed to be a paradigmatic case of thought, but today we have cell phones playing chess at almost grandmaster level. Relatively recently people rather excitedly claimed that they had proof that elephants were conscious beings, namely they could recognize themselves in the mirror. But it turns out that it is trivially easy (can be done for less than it costs to buy dinner) to build a machine that recognizes itself in the mirror.

Giving these facts, I find it remarkable how so many people manage to confidently believe not only that the physical sciences will in the future solve the mind-body problem, but even that there is already some significant progress. They systematically confuse the hard and easy problems, or else refuse or perhaps are unable to recognize the hard problem. The hard problem is how come a physical system can become conscious (i.e. capable of conscious experiences) and not, given the assumption that a physical system is conscious, how to explain behavior we associate with consciousness (including how people describe their experiences, peoples’ moral behavior, etc).

Blue Devil Knight said...

Funny, people here seem to think they know a priori that there are no interesting historical parallels. It's history people that's not how it works.

As for the phenomenon of consciousness, I too find it very interesting. Lots of interesting science yet to be done. I don't share the intuition that consciousness is forever sealed off from neuroscientic explanation. To me it seems plausible and conceivable that consciousness is a brain process, and I can imagine a route to its explanation within neuroscience. In fact, I think we are presently in the middle of this route and many don't even realize it.

But frankly I don't want to get sucked down that rabbit hole again, as I have so many times at this blog with each new generation of bright eyed commenters. As for my thoughts on the 'Hard Problem' pablum, see this post. I refuse to spread that disease.

Crude said...

I never said there are no "interesting historical parallels". That's a very low, subjective bar. But I think the parallels given are weak in various important ways, and more than that, that there are parallels in other historical scientific controversies that are not only far more appropriate, but bolster the case of those advancing skepticism of materialism.

I think some people who go on about vitalism develop a kind of historical tunnel vision, where vitalism is treated as the only moment in scientific history where there was skepticism of an eventually dominant scientific idea.

Though if we want to talk historical parallels, I think suggesting that the "hard problem" is seen as a major concern for materialism largely by 'bright-eyed amateur philosophers', and not a substantial number of philosophers and scientists, is a move which has some historical parallels too. Possibly among people who thought all this quantum physics stuff was just too "spooky" and silly, nonsense that would not survive the test of time.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

Eric,

You write: “To me it seems plausible and conceivable that consciousness is a brain process, and I can imagine a route to its explanation within neuroscience.

If you conceive of consciousness as a brain process then of course anything related to consciousness can (at least in principle) be explained by neuroscience. But I wonder, what do you make of the argument that if consciousness is some material process then we may well live in a computer simulation, in which case consciousness is not a brain process, and any interpretation of neuroscientific results as explaining consciousness is thus fallacious? In other words, on materialism there can't be any evidence that consciousness is a brain process, because given the viability of the computer simulation hypothesis any such evidence cannot discriminate against the hypothesis that consciousness is not a brain process.

As for my thoughts on the 'Hard Problem' pablum, see this post. I refuse to spread that disease.

As I have been arguing with Keith Parsons at the infidels.org blog, the naturalistic worldview is internally coherent, and indeed can’t possibly suffer from any conceptual problems as long as the physical closure of the universe and the supervenience of the mental hold. So, it is possible and indeed easy for the consistent materialist to move (noetically speaking) to a spot where the hard problem of consciousness disappears from view. As Keith notices the consistent theist can also easily move to a spot where the problem of evil disappears from view. That’s all very well but also uninteresting from the point of view of those who’d rather maintain the flexibility of stepping outside of theism and naturalism to critically consider both.

One thing I found kind of surprising in the post you link above (and thanks for that; that made an interesting read) is your claim that you never had any pre-theoretical notions of experience as distinct from material processes. Perhaps you are a naturally born materialist, but if so you are an exceptional and indeed idiosyncratic case, as there is plenty of evidence that most children understand reality dualistically. Given your point of view I understand your resistance to “spreading the disease”, but find it a little Quixotic. Anyway, given how bad the vitalism analogy is, I hope you will stop spreading that red herring too.

woodchuck64 said...

Dianelos Georgoudis,

But I wonder, what do you make of the argument that if consciousness is some material process then we may well live in a computer simulation, in which case consciousness is not a brain process, and any interpretation of neuroscientific results as explaining consciousness is thus fallacious?

Are you referring to Chalmers' dualism thought experiment? I can't speak for BDK, but even if our reality is composed of two simultaneously running computer simulations, a physics simulator and a mind simulator, we should still be able to learn much by analyzing the physical aspects of mind and constructing similar physical models. If the mind simulator underlying reality is doing anything important at all, I think the probability is high that we should be able to discover a failure in our physical models of mind at some point.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Crude: vitalism isn't the only historical precedent to look at. But that obviously doesn't mean we shouldn't look at it (as Dianelos seems to think).

I also find it strange that many materialists who use vitalism as a club never actually cite real vitalists. That's precisely why I've spent about 3 months going through the main arguments, collecting relevant quotes from ~100 sources (down to around 50 key sources that I ended up using). I now have a fairly synoptic vitalist vision in my head from their literature.

There are many disanalogies, of course, but the analogies are often beautiful and surprising and simply obvious. And to dismiss them outright, without actually seeing them, would be strange indeed.

Obviously arguments from historical analogy are not deductive arguments, but they do provide useful cautionary tales, lessons, etc.. That's the main point of the vitalist catastrophic historical precedent for the antimaterialists. You should see some of the arrogant claims from the vitalists: you could transpose them to modern antimaterialists about mind and wouldn't know the difference (except to say that the writing was much better back then). One of my favorite lines was an attempted evisceration of a materialist by saying that materialists about life believe in living cadavers. It's really quite beautiful and powerful stuff regardless of how it bears on modern debates about mind.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Dianelos on computers and such: I take it that neural states are sufficient for consciousnes. Whether they are strictly necessary (e.g., we can have computers that are conscious) I don't take a strong position. My tentative position is that we could in principle build conscious machines someday, but they won't look like your Windows machine. We already have artificial neurons that we substitute for actual neurons in real brains, but it isn't close to being ready to scale up to even 100 neurons, much less a billion. For one, they involve ionic solutions coupled with computer electronics, which makes scalability a problem.

Also you are right I may be naive about people's intuitions that consciousness is not a biological process. I have recently realized that is a weakness of my meta-hard problem post. Studies are starting to bear this out in children and such. I might be unusual in not having that intuition very strongly.

OTOH, children also tend to be easy and natural vitalists, but this can be relatively easily overcome with education. Whether the same is possible with these consciousness intuitions I can't say without data on the matter. My daughter will provide a case study, but then again she has my genes :)

After studying philosophy for a bit (i.e., not when I was a naive outsider), I acquired the antimaterialist intuition about consciousness, but it went away when I thought it through more. For some materialists, such as Papineau, this doesn't happen. Maybe it's too late for him. At any rate, even if I did share that intuition, I wouldn't take it as evidence that it was true, any more than my intuition that the Earth isn't accelerating. Such intuitions should never be taken as a starting point from which all other conclusions follow. And that's basically Chalmers' book in a nutshell. Assume there is this phenomenon over and above all biology, physics, matter, and now look wow it is a really hard problem. Wow, what a shocker!

My hunch is this antimaterialist intuition will mostly go away when we have a more thoroughly vetted, empirically adequate neuronal theory of consciousness. Right now things are not very unified so it is hard to see the picture of consciousness that is emerging in the literature unless you are really on top of it. Again, I'm writing all this up in an essay whose goal is to convince people that there are no devastating problems with neuronal approaches, zombie-bat-mary arguments notwithstanding. It's basically becoming a book so I can't say when it will be done. Probably a year away.

Blue Devil Knight said...

If God wanted to make it so a complex material system, such as a brain, was sufficient for consciousness, I assume He could have done so. Ultimately, dualists don't think He could do this, that it would be like asking God to make a stone so large he couldn't lift it.

That's the basic intuition divide in consciousness research. I am clearly on one side. Most people I know are agnostic. Especially when I pose it as above in terms of what God could do. :)

There are many Christians I know that believe conscious perceptual experiences are carried out by brains, but they still think there is a soul (they have reasons based on personal identity or some such, I frankly don't really understand their position but maybe some of the philosophical Christians here could explain).

OK, that's me avoiding getting sucked into a discussion of consciousness. I will not post here again until tomorrow evening.

Crude said...

There are many disanalogies, of course, but the analogies are often beautiful and surprising and simply obvious. And to dismiss them outright, without actually seeing them, would be strange indeed.

I can only comment on the ones I've seen, and the parallels as I know them - they are not impressive. Are you really asking me to concede that they are on your word? That you say "I've been studying this for so long and have so many sources, trust me, they're great!" just isn't filling me with confidence, nor should it.

That's the main point of the vitalist catastrophic historical precedent for the antimaterialists.

And the main point of the examples I brought up is that there are better parallels between antimaterialist arguments and the history of science, where the upshot ultimately was that the view of the "material" they were opposing, fell. That's a catastrophic historical precedent for modern materialists, and it happened multiple times.

Again, I notice this kind of historical tunnel vision when it comes to consciousness debates: "Vitalism" is treated as the only time there was ever a strong disagreement over the capabilities and makeup of the material world, with it being implied that whenever someone criticizes the materialist picture, it turns out to have been in vain. But there are multiple examples where those criticisms were not only valid, but materialists were forced to change their fundamental pictures of the material world. There's greater parity between those examples and the questions of consciousness than between consciousness and vitalism.

Assume there is this phenomenon over and above all biology, physics, matter, and now look wow it is a really hard problem. Wow, what a shocker!

Actually, the "hard problem" only exists insofar as we have a definition of matter that excludes/causes a serious problem for (in this case, specifically) subjective experience. I think even Chalmers would admit that there is no "hard problem" for different views of matter, ranging from neutral monism to panpsychism to idealism to strong emergentism to otherwise. It's not that the phenomenon is "over and above all biology, physics and matter", full stop, but it certainly is "over and above" all these things as they have been defined.

Just as there was a problem accounting for the findings of quantum physics given a classical conception of matter. What was the solution? Changing our conception of matter. If science is ever going to gain some traction on dealing with consciousness - among other things - then that's probably going to be the next step.

You actually see a good example of that with someone like Galen Strawson. Strawson flat out denies there's a hard problem of consciousness in general. There's simply a problem given our view of matter. Change that view and the problem doesn't even register.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Crude: when has such debate happened regarding complex biological systems, and actually ended up undermining materialism? Can you think of any historical examples?

I have extensively studied the debates. The battles about things like digestion, inheritance, development, and movement (muscle contraction). I have read through the vigorous arguments that the physico-chemical framework could not capture such phenomena, that we'd need a different type of substance or property that displayed intrinsic teleology that guided, but not supervenient upon, physico-chemical organization.

Didn't work out too well for them. Perhaps you have an example that I've never seen before from biology.

Even in physics (which is much less relevant becuase we are talking about consciousness, an associate of large-scale neuronal ensembles, a comlex biological system), revolutions occur with the formation of a new quantitative framework that met with better predictive success than the predecessor.

Nobel Prizes were not handed out for quantm theory because Bohr said 'Aw shucks, Gus, I just can't see how this works!'

Dualists could learn a lot from this indeed. Provide a positive alternative. Spell out the revolution, Crude. What is your alternative? Panpsychism with its ever so helpful conscious billiard balls? Interactionist substance dualism? What is it?

Blue Devil Knight said...

Crude I just read some of the Strawson that you are parrotting, and from whom you have obviously inherited some mistakes (e.g., taking physics as a model of biology). His argument that consciousness cannot be a biological process is very weak: basically the problem of other minds.