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Tuesday, 31 May 2005


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Wow! Thanks for the breath of fresh air! I have been on a Dennett study for some months, but just lost his book, "Conciousness Explained". This post brings an interesting perspective to my studies.

Bill Vallicella

Good to hear from you, Bill. How could you lose such a big fat book? You should get hold of the little paperback by Searle, The Mystery of Consciousness. It reproduces some exchanges with Dennett and with Chalmers. Searle is much closer to the truth than Dennett [said the MP from Mt Olympus] but still has a ways to go.

Victor Reppert

Bill: I think the statements in Thomas Nagel about the fear of religion should apply here.

Bill Vallicella

Victor, Can you provide me with the references? Or maybe post the relevant passages on your blog if you haven't already?

Malcolm Pollack

I think the problem for materialists is not an inability to imagine classes of "things" that are immaterial - we traffic all day long in such immaterial concepts as "love", the number five", etc, but rather a difficulty with any coherent description of such "things" that does not depend rather completely on a material substrate for their existence. For there to be any actual instance of Love in the world requires that some Lover exists; while it is easy enough to suggest that Love simply IS, with blithe Platonic independence of its instantiation, there is not really any convincing reason for anyone to believe any such thing. And I'd have to say that the same goes for Mind. Here we have stupendously complicated material objects - brains - that seem, so far at least, to be necessary for the presence of minds (Searle would happily agree with that, I think), and we can also observe that tampering with the physical brain has definite (and often predictable, even with our rudimentary understanding) effects on the associated mind. Why is it then necessary to postulate an ineffable "something extra"? The closest analogy, I suppose would be Brain as some sort of radio receiver that merely transduces Mind, but radio waves are just as material as the radio sets whose behavior they determine. It is not hard to imagine that such a view might arise from a wish to preserve a special place for ourselves... And what, exactly, is meant, above, by the phrase "natural-scientific study"? It seems to me that the only essential ideological framework required for science is the belief in a consistency to the behavior of the world, so that falsifiable predictions may be made; throughout scientific history many things that were once have been thought of as insusceptible of scientific study have later been brought into the fold. I do have to ask: How exactly IS it possible, in the view of those who are able think outside the materialist box, that something can exist that is not material, except as a state, or posture, or attribute, or relationship, etc., of things that ARE material? And how does such an immaterial "thing" exert its influence on the material world? Is this even explainable to someone who doesn't just "see" it? Regards, Malcolm Pollack

Bill Vallicella

Thanks for the excellent comments. I respond here.

Malcolm Pollack

Thanks, Dr. Vallicella, for responding so promptly, and in such depth. I remain unconvinced, however. The counterexample you gave (about the number 5 and its oddness) to my suggestion that it is difficult to imagine immaterial "things" except as a sort of state or posture of an underlying material substrate, I think, does not lift itself far enough above the slag and dross of the material world. Granted, the abstract concept of number can be associated with an abstract property, oddness, but I fail to see where either of these can be shown to have any definite existence except as patterns of thought -- and patterns of thought, I strongly suspect, are particular behaviors and configurations of material brains. Is there "five is an odd number" in the absence of a mind to form the thought? And is there a mind to form the thought without a brain of some material sort to form the mind? I see no reason to think so. I'd say the same goes for honesty and virtue. Were there honesty and virtue in the moments immediately following the Big Bang? It would be hard to argue convincingly that there were, and I would say that is because there was as yet no suitable physical host for the concepts. You are quite right, of course, that pschologizing won't settle the issue, and that the wishful-thinking argument is symmetrical, and therefore useless (though I imagine we still suspect each other of some guilt in the matter). I apologize for introducing it. As for making the generalization that minds require brains simply because all the minds we can point to so far seem to require them, well, quite so, I cannot offer a proof of that conjecture. (Nor, for that matter, can I offer any proof of the conjecture that the Sun will rise in the East tomorrow morning.) This does happen to be the position, it is worth mentioning, that John Searle has gone to the ramparts for -- that somehow our biological brains are a prerequisite for our self-conscious minds. As a partisan, generally, of the strong AI camp, I feel that that is an unnecessarily narrow restriction, and would argue in favor of minds being able to operate on a variety of platforms. I suspect that Mind has more to do with the dance itself than the dancer. But I do think that some sort of dancer is required, if I may belabor the metaphor. Yes, tampering with my clothes by setting them on fire can cause changes in my body, but the analogy is weakened considerably by the fact that my body entered the world without clothes, and gets along very comfortably without them whenever the climate -- meteorological and social -- permits. Examples of our minds operating without a working brain to support them are much harder to come by. I suspect this is most likely because the mind doesn't "wear" the brain, but rather is just one of the things the brain does. As for McTaggart's example, one has to admit that the conviction of the person looking at the mountain through the window -- that windows are a prerequisite of seeing the external world -- would be refuted quite simply by dragging him outside (which would do him a world of good anyway, no doubt). In other words, we have a falsifiable claim here, namely that "windows are necessary for viewing anything outside the house". To test this in a scientific way, we can do the experiment in which we go outside, and quickly find a counterexample. I have yet to see a counterexample to the claim "where there's a mind, there's a brain". I grant you that such a counterexample is in no way a logical impossibility, but I have no reason, so far, to believe that it exists, any more than I have reason to believe in leprechauns. Regarding causation, I should take the time to read what you have posted elsewhere before commenting. It would be easy to offer a fairly fine-grained account of the excited states of atoms, etc., leading to the glow of a filament, and it is certainly hard to imagine in what sense, without simply rehashing Zeno's arguments for the impossibility of the flight of an arrow, you would deny commonsense causality such as the swing of the bat launching the ball (though, to be fair, you don't claim to be denying causality itself, just the existence of any coherent account of it). But it is late, and I might as well familiarize myself with your views on the subject before engaging you. My point was simply that no natural science is in a position to establish the proposition that nothing can exist except what is an object of natural science. That proposition is not a scientific claim, but the philosophical doctrine of scientism. I don't think that is quite the right way to put it. The question I would ask is: "Given the flexibility and inclusiveness of the scientific method, what basis is there for assuming that there is any phenomenon that should a priori be excluded from its purview?" Regards, Malcolm Pollack

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