Tag Archives: Philosophy

Frank Jackson, James Garvey, Mary and the Awful Knowledge Argument

James Garvey of TPM has this piece on an interview with Frank Jackson, where Jackson seems to have turned to physicalism, but I still don’t think he gets it yet.

A point to make at the outset: Refuting the Knowledge Argument does not in itself make the case for physicalism. A physicalist point may be used in an explanation of the physicalist understanding of the phenomena the Knowledge Argument is trying to describe, but the refutation of the argument is a logical one, and the physicalist comment only supports that refutation, by offering the physicalist view as an alternative.

The Knowledge Argument

Garvey kindly reminds us of this ‘astonishing’ argument, with a summary of it:

Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specialises in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes…. What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a colour television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?

The “who is, for whatever reason” is a whopping big clue that the whole thing isn’t well thought out. This argument is using a thought experiment set in a magical world, and so one shouldn’t be surprised when magic comes out the at end.

Some practicalities first. These aren’t pertinent to the basic argument but do show how easily philosophers can ditch aspects of reality to invent a magical world factory that manufactures magical worlds that have no bearing on the real world.

Does Mary have a normal evolved human brain and body? Does she have red blood in her vessels and blue blood in her veins? Does any pressure on her eyes not stimulate her brain so that she sees what we take to be red, such that when she comes out the room she recognises red.

Was Mary brought up in this room so that she never experienced colour at all? How did her education proceed? By machines? How well could her brain have developed to engage in the science necessary to show she knows all there is to know about the physical nature of colour as experienced by humans? How exactly do you justify anything in this thoughtless experiment that makes it at all realistic, or even remotely pertinent to the problem?

I know, much of this isn’t the point of the argument. We are supposed to take it on face value that such a Mary could exist. Well, why come up with any arbitrary un-real conditions at all? The purpose of the exact conditions that Jackson describes has a sole purpose of refuting physicalism, so the conditions are set up to do just that.

But, let’s play the game. The results of playing the game are the following possibilities:

If Mary really did know everything about colour then she knew enough to stimulate in her own physical brain the experience of colour, even though coloured light didn’t enter her eyes. I take it you, dear reader, hasn’t seen pink elephants, but enough imagination, or with psychedelic or alcoholic inducement your brain can conjure them up. Well, if Mary really does know everything then she knows how to experience red internally, and when she sees the red tomato it’s just as she imagined.

Alternatively Mary didn’t know everything, and here we come to what amounts to Jackson’s bad definition of knowledge. We’ll come back to the Mary argument when we see what Garvey and Jackson make of it following Jackson’s conversion.

We have this other troublesome philosophical cock-up to deal with now – knowledge and the rather pitiful philosophical attempts to define it – JTB and all that crap. We have a lot to learn about knowledge, but here’s a simple understanding of it.

Knowledge and Consciousness

I think the problem for Jackson starts with an inadequate view of what knowledge might be. This is my view. I won’t beat about the bush justifying every aspect of this, but here’s a quick attempt to define knowledge, in my terms, as a physicalist. Ask questions if you want more.

Human brains are physical biological systems that react to input signals. These ‘signals’ in a broader sense are more varied than just the sense inputs. There are the DNA signals that contribute to brain development, and the physical-chemical-biological environment in which that development occurs – as food is transformed into chemicals that are transported and processed by cells, for example, or as psychological pressures alter the young brain. The brain is already a dynamic developing system from the start. On top of that comes the stimulation through the nerves: the internal ones from the body, the way they react to the external physical world through our many senses. All this builds a brain.

The brain forms patterns of neuronal connections, and they are a combination of static and dynamic conditions – connections come and go, but some connections are sustained by repeated triggering and maintained by dynamic processes at the junctions. The physics of atoms, ions, electrons, is churning at every point, chemistry is ongoing, the biological processes live on, even in what appear like static neurons that exist over time, and synaptic connections that remain in place for a long time. The static appearance belies the dynamism.

In this system patterns form and can be re-triggered. Memory is knowledge. But at the basic level of neurons and synapses it is only meaningless data. Zoom in on a tiny region of active computer memory and you won’t be able to tell if the states of its bits represent points on an image or parts of a number on a spreadsheet. The bits have meaning only in a ‘context’. So too with neurons in the brain.

And context is what meaning and knowledge is all about.

A person blind from birth has his sight restored. He looks at his wristwatch and can tell the time using sight, because his brain has built a contextual map where this thing on his wrist, through touch, has meaning, and it doesn’t take much for his brain to put the visual stimulus into that context. But someone points out a wall clock to him and it is a meaningless object. He can see the hands on the clock, the figures on it, but the context means nothing, and he does not ‘know’ this object.

As a personal experiment watch that common panel show game of zooming out of a close-up on some object until someone recognises what it is. This is the use of context. What might start as a small patch of colour, becomes a shape, but only a shape of no consequence, but as the zoom out continues other shapes and lines come into play, until BANG!, the Eureka moment, your brain has suddenly found a context for all those lines and shapes, as the image has reached sufficient content to be recognised.

Watch a skilful artist compose a picture with broad messy brush strokes, and then marvel when the picture starts to trigger meaningful components and at last you realise he is painting a landscape. Or watch with comic effect the emerging image as a cartoonist appears to have draw a naked women, only with last few brush strokes it becomes a face and you are shamed into admitting to having a filthy mind.

Knowledge is nothing but data in a larger contextual framework.

Humans emerge into the world knowingly, knowing they have knowledge, through the use of their brains. This feeling of having a mind is our first self-aware view of the world, and we take ‘the mental’ to be the primary way of seeing the world. It’s hard to know when this arises in infancy, because one has to go through lots of preliminary stages to acquire the brain function to be able to contemplate the notion of self-awareness, and by the time you get there you have left behind the unaware self in which that recognition was formulated.

It’s difficult to say how much we rely on language to help us better frame concepts in clear ways – might non-linguistically assisted concepts be more like an animal’s view of the world? Hard to say, because the human brain has evolved the capacity for language – though the specific language may not matter. Some apes can acquire limited language that is not up to the human level of capability, but still goes beyond the the natural capability of their species. To what extent does language contribute to knowledge? It appears quite a lot. But what is knowledge like in an animal without language? The origins of knowledge and of the development of knowledge understanding in the brain is so lost in infancy (and as a species lost in our evolutionary past) that we appear to ourselves as somewhat fully formed thinkers – albeit young naive ones.

We watch our children grow and become independent thinking minds – it’s a fascinating time from about one year old, to maybe about five, from where their learning becomes increasingly more like that of an adult. Repetition is used to fix knowledge in the brain – the words of songs, the names of characters on TV and in books. Working with favourite picture books is fascinating. We see a ‘mind’ evolve and emerge. Is this the process of creating an early context from within which future data takes its place to become knowledge in turn?

What we learn later is that we, the species, evolved from simpler creatures that had an entirely physical interaction with the world: the physical interaction caused by the electromagnetic forces that prevent atoms passing by each other – this is what gives physical contact it’s effect in such a small scale vacuous world of atoms, and later through chemical signals crossing cell and multicellular boundaries.

But, the action of sensory neurons and brain neurons is just more of the same. The brain neurons are, in all significant respects in this regard, the same as sensory neurons, but within the brain their greatest interaction is with similar neurons inside the skull, and there are relatively a few points of contact with peripheral neuron channels. The brain is as much a physically empirical entity as any single celled organism. On mass, they interact in such a way that the brain as a whole senses its own neutrons sensing itself, observes itself observing itself, and the end result is consciousness and self-awareness.

To figure out what consciousness is, don’t ask what it feels like to be a bat. Ask what it feels like to be a self-monitoring complex system that acquires data and stores it in complex contextual patterns such that when a pattern is retriggered by an external sensory event the ‘context’, the knowledge, is sparked into life, and in doing that the system ‘knows’, it is observing its own observing of a pattern, and the context of the pattern gives it meaning, illustrating to itself its knowledge. So, what is it like to be such a system? It is like this, like you and me being conscious, acquiring, reflecting upon and using knowledge.

This is quite different from the philosophical traditional view of knowledge. This sort of knowledge does not have to be true or justified, and I’m not so sure the holder of it has to actually believe it – not knowingly, for we seem to have a lot of knowledge that emerges from the depths, sometimes remarkably right, and often laughably wrong. So that gets rid of the need for JTB in its entirety.

The religious have knowledge when they tell us all about their religion. They use their scriptures to justify it, they believe it, generally, and they think it is true, generally. This is knowledge, about their religion. It may be that the propositions that their religions make about gods, miracles, and other stuff, do not correspond to a reality out there beyond their brains. This is a correspondence theory or truth, where truth relates to how well knowledge in someone’s head (the contextualised patterns that cause conscious ideas to have contextual meaning) corresponds to the external world. But that does not mean they have no knowledge of gods; but rather means that their knowledge of gods are inventions.

I think of religious knowledge and theology debated in seminaries as being nothing more that Star Trek conventions that result in offshoots of comics and stories not in the original, they expand on the original fiction with yet more fiction. Apologies to all the Trekkies I might have offended, because when you listen to what some religious people say you realise that they are in total fantasy worlds rather than science fiction ones – at least in science fiction there is often some requirement that there be some credibility to the inventions.

What about scientific knowledge? Scientific theories and explanations that help us understand the world are our inventions too. But they have that essential correspondence with the world that gives us a far greater claim to their truth and utility.

I accept all the problems of such a contingent correspondence theory. It is entirely contingent on the persuasiveness of evidence. And theists, among others, find it hard to deal with that. Problems for another time. As I said, I won’t justify every aspect of this here. I am simply presenting my view, in order to set a context of what follows. In that context, dualism is a necessary feature of most religions. But I’m amazed that any non-religious scientist of philosopher would fall for it.

The Garvey Interview

As Thomas Huxley vividly put it, such properties don’t do anything in the physical world, just as “the steam whistle which accompanies the work of a locomotive engine is without influence upon its machinery”.

Well, that’s a load of crock. The steam whistle is a very direct influence on the locomotive’s machinery – it’s part of that machinery. It’s effect on the primary locomotive function is simply minor, without ‘significant’ influence, but not without influence.

You can see how this is a simple error for a dualist to make. If you are of a dualist persuasion you can imagine that things and events might not have any physical impact in some situations. One might, for example, dismiss the physical effect of light on an object – light seems far too ephemeral, in that it appears to present no obvious physical force; it does not move objects. But of course it does. It moves electrons into raised energy states, it imparts energy that on a large scale results in motion. A laser of sufficient intensity can quickly burn away surfaces of matter – in effect move by vaporisation – and yet the dull light from a candle in a room appears not to have any physical impact on the room. But it surely does – hold your hand over it and you’ll feel convected heat, but hold your hand close enough in front and you’ll feel the radiant heat.

The ‘mind’ is a model for that aspect of the brain’s working that appears superficially to have no influence on the actual physical nature of the brain, and under dualism the non-influence is mutual – except that as if by magic the mind causes the body to do things. As an abstract model of some functionality of the brain the mind only appears distinct. But the brain consumes energy as it thinks. Thinking is a physical electro-chemical, biological, thermodynamic process of the brain itself. This is more obvious now than it once was, and so it is becoming harder to hold to a dualist detachment. Everything we experience in the world has physical effects on it. The world, the universe, is a total interacting system. Even the vacuum of space is at the very least permitted by photons from the stars, and nobody doubts the radiant power of the sun on a clear summer’s day. Materialism forces itself upon us, and dualism has no supporting evidence.

If you think that Mary knew all the physical facts but learns something when she first sees red, then there’s more to know than just physical facts

No. You simply didn’t include the brain functions of perception of red in the knowledge Mary had. That’s still a physical theory about the brain perceiving – even if as yet still a poorly understood one. This is dualism of the gaps. And it illustrates the fault of the Knowledge Argument. The statement that Mary knew everything there is to know, is false, if physicalism holds.

If there is something extra, then either it’s physical and she didn’t know it, or you have neglected to include the hidden premise of there being some non-material knowledge unavailable to her that isn’t part of the physical science, in which case you are affirming the consequent.

Remarkably, Jackson has since somehow talked himself out of it all.

Not very convincingly if Garvey’s piece is any sign.

He now resolutely rejects dualism. I wonder how hard that must have been …

Why is Garvey not wondering how hard Jackson must have worked his cognitive wonders to remain a dualist for so long, if Garvey is not a dualist? What sort of non-dualist is he?

Jackson explains away his change of heart:

I had been a dualist for years. I was taught by Michael Bradley, and he had some good arguments for dualism. I always thought it was a plausible view. As I say in the beginning of ‘Epiphenomenal Qualia’, we dualists don’t really need an argument to say that consciousness doesn’t fit into the physicalist world view. It’s just intuitively obvious.

This is abysmal philosophy. This is going right into my piece on ‘obvious’ screw ups. Stating the Bleeding Obvious. Why do philosophers insist on appealing to the obvious? Have they learned nothing from psychology and neuroscience, let alone a long history of illusions and delusions.

After explaining the origins of the original article Jackson says:

The follow up article (‘What Mary Didn’t Know’) came about after Paul Churchland wrote a not terribly friendly piece about the knowledge argument. I thought it was a bit offhand. I didn’t worry about him saying he didn’t believe it, that’s fine, but he sort of suggested it was making some kind of elementary error which anyone could pick up. Not quite as bad as affirming the consequent but pretty bad all the same.

Well, it is pretty much affirming the consequent when you piece the bits together. But interestingly here we see the very human Jackson responding to a perceived insult rather than a rational criticism.

That riled me slightly, and I regret to say the slight tone of irritation shows in the piece.

And Garvey says:

He actually says that with a slight tone of irritation. He looks a little riled now.

I wonder if that’s irritation at Churchland, or irritation with himself that a purveyor of reason could be so easily moved by inconsequential tone.

Garvey tells us more from a re-read of the papers, and in particular Churchland’s criticism:

Jackson is equivocating, using “knows about” in two different ways, talking about two different kinds of knowledge, and this renders the argument invalid. Once you spot this, Churchland beams, the argument is “a clear non sequitur …. Such arguments show nothing”. God, he even has a bit of fun with a parallel argument about ectoplasm. It doesn’t quite call for pistols at dawn, but I can see how Churchland might be read as being dismissive of the misguided little dualist. Maybe Jackson did well to be merely riled.

I can understand it might be frustrating to have made a mistake, but to be irritated by the fact that the mistake was pointed out, in some ‘tone’?

Garvey gives us a bit more, and includes Nagel’s bat thing:

“That’s the biographical background to it,” he continues. “Now, exactly why that particular version of the knowledge argument popped into my head – I do not know,” he says, genuinely mystified. Maybe he read Broad’s short argument many years earlier, and although he forgot about it, it might have exerted some unconscious influence. But he certainly had seen Thomas Nagel’s 1974 essay, “What is it like to be a bat?”, and maybe that did figure in somehow. There, Nagel writes about batty subjectivity – what it’s like to be a bat and experience a sonar image of the world – which he argues is only accessible to bats. He concludes that “it is a mystery how the true character of experiences could be revealed in the physical operation of that organism.” The conclusion is importantly different to Jackson’s: it’s not that physicalism is false, but that we can’t understand what it might mean to say that it’s true. Jackson says something of Nagel might have been on his mind, maybe he was trying to make a similar point without all of the complexity of Nagel’s piece.

The subjectivity of our personal view of our consciousness is a red herring when it comes to studying consciousness. We can study cosmology, using science to tell us much about the universe, but looking up at the stars, enjoying a sunset, reading the digital data from a deep space observation, …, all that humans do in science is done through the personal perspective of our personal consciousness, but we don’t let that get in the way of finding out how it all works.

Why is the brain any different? Why must one presuppose there is a dualist mind just because it feels like there is one? It is one of the dumbest philosophical remains of pre-scientific times – excusable back then, but not now.

Garvey continues to quote the interviewed Jackson’s take on that original argument:

“Although I now think it’s mistaken,” he begins, “the essential thought behind the argument is simply that when Mary has colour experiences, her conception of the kinds of properties that are instantiated in our world gets dramatically expanded. In theory it’s no different than coming across a new sort of animal. How many different sorts of dogs are there? People think they’ve gotten on top of it, but they turn the corner, and the see a completely different dog from any dog they’ve got on their inventory. So they enlarge their conception of how many kinds of dogs there are. What happens to Mary is that she has a certain view of what the world’s like, a black and white view, and all the stuff that comes to her from the physical sciences. And when she sees colour for the first time I think the plausible thing to say is that she gets an enlarged idea of what kinds of properties there are to be encountered in the world. She comes across new properties.”

And Garvey tells us:

When Jackson lays it out like that, crystal clear, it’s hard not to feel a certain insecurity about physicalism. What else can you say, except that Mary learns about a new part of the world when she sees colour for the first time? But Jackson is a latter day physicalist. How did he talk himself out of dualism?

What? The dog analogy is totally bogus. To use the dog analogy correctly you’d have to use it in the way the knowledge argument puts things: Mary knows all breeds of dogs there are. When she leaves the lab she does not see any breed of dog she hasn’t seen before. But, using the erroneous knowledge argument: Mary knows all breeds of dogs (except the one we are hiding from her) and when she leaves the room she sees a breed she hasn’t seen before, therefore Mary could not have seen all breeds of dog, and so physicalism is false.

The original knowledge argument does some dog breed, sorry, colour knowledge, hiding from Mary. It hides that breed of knowledge called personal acquired experiential knowledge but makes the false claim that Mary knows all there is to know about breeds of colour knowledge. By excluding the experience of colour the argument is presupposing that such an experience is not included in all knowledge, that it is not part of the physical world, and that, hey presto, the argument proves there is more than the physical: affirming the consequent.

Jackson again, reflecting on his dualism:

We know enough about the world to know that these extra properties which I believe in aren’t guiding my pen as I write the article saying qualia are left out of our physical picture of the world. In ‘Epiphenomenal Qualia’ I explain why it’s not such a disaster being an epiphenomenalist, but I came to think of this as a triumph of philosophical ingenuity over common sense. This is what someone who’s done a good philosophy degree can somehow make seem all right, but if you look at it in a more commonsensical way it’s actually pretty implausible. So the epiphenomenal stuff was just very hard to believe.

I’m afraid I am stumped by my (our) lack of understanding of brains, a failing that is preventing me from understanding how a supposedly good mind can fall for utter fantasy: “these extra properties which I believe in aren’t guiding my pen as I write the article saying qualia are left out of our physical picture of the world” – No they are not. They are very much in it as a mechanistic view. All that’s missing is an appreciation and an understanding of what complex mechanisms, as instantiated in human brains, can actually do.

For a while I was at the stage of people who say, there must be something wrong with the knowledge argument. It’s not obvious, despite the fact that some people jump up and down and say it’s obvious, because look at all these smart people giving quite different diagnoses of what’s wrong. That tells you it’s not obvious what’s wrong with it.

It isn’t obvious experientially, because we feel dualistic, because the brain’s self-monitoring doesn’t go so deep as to reveal the biological mechanisms to itself. But following science and all it exposes about the nature of the world, and the total lack of anything actually dualistic outside this ‘apparent’ dualism, and with lots of other brain anomalies to give us a clue that feelings on the matter might be mistaken, isn’t that enough to make the dualist stop and think?

Apparently not. Dualists, like their theological comrades, seem to be stuck with inescapable biases. Except now, Jackson seems to be escaping. Let’s see how he’s doing.

I was in that situation, thinking there’s got to be something wrong with it but not sure what it was. And then I decided that the best way out is to think in representationalist terms about phenomenal experience. When you think in those terms, what you’re thinking is that when something looks red to you, don’t think of that as a relationship between you and an instance of some special property. Think of it as representing things as being a certain way. You don’t think of it in relational terms, you think in propositional terms, as a kind of intentional state.

Well, that may be the decline of his dualism, but it’s a long way off the simplicity of physicalism. In physicalism as I see it the brain is a mechanism that monitors itself monitoring the world, and monitors itself monitoring itself, possibly through many channels. What emerges is a process or collection of processes that reports to itself. And, this is what it feels like when the brain does this. Conscious experience is a much higher version of what it feels like to be a bat, or what it feels like to be a computer program, to be a thermostat.

We only label it consciousness in the way we label a storm a storm, without labelling any rain drop or moving molecule of air a storm. The storm emerges as something that human brains can recognise and categorise through experience of seeing storms. Consciousness emerges somewhere as we progress from forming our first differentiated brain cells to the stage of passing the self-awareness test of an infant and going on to be a self-contemplative adult.

The odd thing about consciousness that’s different to a storm is that the storm is categorised by the brain as being something outside the brain, while consciousness is being categorised by the very brain experiencing the consciousness internally, such that it becomes the brains identity, and mistakenly thought of as a dualist mind.

Of course, that early zygote consists of cells that are experiencing their world too – just not in the silly way in which the religious imagine a soul to be inhabiting it, and not with the complexity and self-referential experience of a fully formed brain.

Jackson doesn’t seem interested in any of this real physicalist stuff. His focus is not the brain but this mysterious self-reflective view of a dualist mind trying to think of itself as a physicalist thing. He seems confused to me:

When you think in those terms, it’s a mistake to wonder where the special redness is. What you have to ask yourself is, when something looks red, how am I representing the world to be? And if you’re convinced that you’re representing the world such that it has some special property outside the physical picture of the world, and you think physicalism is plausible, then of course you think it’s a case of false representation. Then you better have some story about how looking red represents things to be, and what that to be is, and how it can be found in a physical picture of what the world’s like.

When I’m talking about representation I’m talking about a state where you’re invited to have a certain view about how things are. Of course you may reject it. When you have those famous perceptual illusions, and you know they’re illusions, you’re in a state which invites you to think that some line is curved. You know perfectly well it’s not curved. Nevertheless you’re in a state which sort of says to you, ‘This is the way things are! This is the way things are!’ That’s what I mean by a representation.

There are two types of effect we think of as optical illusions:

  • Optical Effect – The bent pencil as it passes from air to water. This is a genuine effect of optics that delivers light to the eye in different ways according to the medium. This is just what a telescope does. Light passes through a medium such that distant small looking objects appear nearer and so larger.
  • Brain (Mental) Illusion – These are not strange optical effects. The light coming from the parallel lines that Jackson refers to is genuinely representing parallel lines, but they appear not to be parallel. Dangle a wire frame Necker cube, rotating, at a certain distance, an maintain your view and it will appear to change direction. The former is caused by the brain’s interpretation of the lines as being non-parallel. The latter is caused because the light coming from the Necker cube is consistent, to without our perceptual capacity, with rotation in either direction, and the brain can’ make up its ‘mind’.

The problem I see Jackson having is he’s still trying to deal with this in non-physical terms, in philosophical language terms that do not use any knowledge about brains. He’s working in the wrong domain. And if he can see illusions so clearly, why can’t he see the ‘mental’ nature of illusions such that they make dualism ‘obviously’ and illusion rather than obviously true?

Garvey asks Jackson for his physicalist view of Mary:

Mary clearly enters a new representational state when she leaves the room. That should be common ground. If you’re a physicalist, then you’ve got two things to say. You’re either going to say, why doesn’t she get new knowledge? Well, she already had it. If she already had it then you have to answer the question, what property do her newer experiences represent things as having which she knew about in the room? Maybe she didn’t know about it under the name ‘red’, but if she’s in a new representational state, and things are as they’re being represented to be, and she doesn’t learn anything new about the world, you need to give an answer to what looking red represents things as being, where the content of the representation can be expressed in physical terms. Alternatively, you can say it’s a false representation. Colour is an illusion. You have to say one or the other.

Or, you could say that colour experience is part of colour knowledge, possibly the main part – how could we come to the other colour knowledge that the Mary problem speaks of, formulate theories of colour, understanding the science of colour, had we been blind animals?

When the knowledge argument claims Mary knows everything there is to know while in the room is not only false, it’s missing the biggest physicalist example of colour knowledge, the acquisition through the eyes of colour data.

The other flaw with the Mary problem is that Mary is an evolved human being and as such may well have internal brain experiences that correspond to seeing colour – such as when one has a bump on the head, presses on the eyelid or eye, stimulating the visual areas of the brain. Is it the case that blind people see colour because they have colour capable brains but don’t recognise the colour experience for what it is? Many questions go unanswered with the Mary knowledge problem.

So, another option is that Mary has a colour capable brain and actually does see colour, and that with all the other science data does in fact have a brain that experiences colour, so that when she leaves the room and sees her first colour object she says, “Oh yes, that’s red. I’ve seen that in my internal experiences.” In which case Mary does not learn anything new on leaving the room.

Yet another option is that the science information is so good that it is able, without introducing colour light through the eyes, to cause brain events that Mary experiences as colour, such that when she leaves the room and encounters red she gets has the same sort of brain experience. But, I suspect that furturistic notion of the capabilities of brain stimulation would be too much for a poor old philosopher stuck in the philosophical dark ages.

I’m not impressed with Jackson’s physicalism at all.

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I go for the illusion view,…

So, not really clear on it then.

But if we do the physics … but that’s mostly a matter for physics, not philosophy.

Along with neuroscience, biology, psychology, … Exactly.

Garvey chips in with his perspective, and it all sounds very wooish:

That thought about science brings us neatly to another point against physicalism made by Jackson in his dualist days. Physicalism is an extraordinarily optimistic view of our mental capacities – in principle, we’ve pretty much got a grip on all that there is, the physical stuff that makes up our world, and we’re on our way to understanding it. But if our understanding is shaped by the need to survive – our brain is an evolved thing, after all – isn’t it likely that there are vast parts of the universe that we’ll never get a grip on, just because it never mattered in our evolutionary history? Doesn’t this suggest that physicalism almost certainly leaves some of the universe out? Maybe the mental side of us or some part of it?

Oh for crying out loud. Physicalism is neutral, neither optimistic or pessimistic – it’s prersepctive of the reality of the brain-mind issue, weighing up evidence and argument. Why do philosophers cloak their arguments in emotive terms so often?

Show that there is any evidence whatsoever that there might be anything to any ‘mental’ dualist ideas. While you’re doing that, reflect on how our ideas of the mental world probably came about because we didn’t have an understanding of small physical scale large time scale changes such that evolution could result in complex biological mechanisms that do this thing we do.

There never was any need to pretend that consciousness is something fundamentally different from physical stuff in action. We simply made a mistake because that’s the only perspective we had. As a species and as individuals we sort of woke up after a long empirical non-thinking past and started thinking, and one of the things we thought was, wow, I think, therefore I’m a mind.

Yes, there are unknown reaches of reality that we haven’t and maybe can’t ever explore. But we know as much as we do thank’s to the physical sciences. And I include what are perceived to be mental sciences like psychology: psychology is a black box science that came before white box neuroscience. Think of psychology to neuroscience as the ideal gas laws are to particle physics – large scale science based on external appearances without any information on the small scale action. Except that we’re talking about the different between a balloon and a brain, so the brain is far more complex.

Garvey goes on to bring up the ‘slugist’ analogy from Jackson’s past, as Garvey seems keen to rescue dualism. It’s another dumb analogy. The slugists go on to discover more of the same type of physical stuff far above the sea bed. They might even discover very clever human automata. They don’t discover woo. So, no, the mistake the slugists make isn’t the same as Garvey imagines physicalists make. On the other hand the soft-minded sluggists make exactly the kind of mistake dualists make: imagining there’s something for which there is no evidence, and that pulling crap analogies out of their asses to support the idea. Never any actual evidence though. Of course the slugist is yet another sort of affirming the consequent.

And so Jackson responds to Garvey’s prompt for what this story tells us:

i.e. We don’t know everything …

What it says is this. Isn’t it common sense that there are things that we don’t know about the world? Even the most enthusiastic physicalist has to say there are gaps in our knowledge. It’s at least plausible that it goes much beyond that – it’s not just that there are problems in quantum mechanics. It might be that there’s a whole range of properties that we don’t and can’t know about because they don’t impinge on us.

Yes, it is common sense to think that there are things that we don’t know about the world. But dualism amounts to giving up on physicalist on the off chance there might be fairies. This is exactly the game that the religious play.

Theist – We don’t know everything. There might be a God. So I think there is one.

Dualist – We don’t know everything. There might be a dualist mind. So I think there is one.

Fairyist – We don’t know everything. There might be fairies. So I think there are.

Chopra – We don’t know everything. There might be a fundamental consciousness everywhere. So I think there is.

Homeopathist – We don’t know everything. There might be a real beneficial effect of my woo meds. So I think there is.

Repeat, for unicorns, ghosts, the afterlife (religious or not), …

These are exactly comparable positions of picking one’s favourite woo, and from the fact that we don’t know everything assume ‘my’ pet woo is true.

It is embarrassingly shamefully awful philosophy.

There’s an interesting paper by David Lewis called ‘Ramseyan Humility’ … there might be a whole range of properties we can’t know about, because permuting them doesn’t make any difference at the level in which we interact with the world.

Fine, but just as long as you accept that you are letting fairies and astrology. Perhaps fairies are so mysterious that they only interact with this world by moving my keys from where I left them. Perhaps the effects of astrology are so imperceptible that we can live our lives as if it’s total bollocks. Seriously Frank, just play out these silly interpretations of basic epistemological uncertainty the way you do with the dualist mind.

We act as if there are no fairies, not because we have refuted every crackpot notional story about them that makes them sound feasible, but because no positive evidence exists for them.

Astrology has not been proven beyond all doubt not to work, it has been proven beyond all doubt that it appears not to make a blind bit of difference is there’s anything in it. Saying that astrology doesn’t work at all is just a learned shortcut for making this same point but skipping the unnecessary over humility that you are appealing to.

It’s a bit like that thought experiment: maybe there’s a matter version of our world, and an antimatter version, and there are duplicates of you and me, but one’s made of matter and the other’s made of antimatter. You can’t know whether we’re in the matter world or the antimatter one.

No it isn’t!

The matter v anti-matter dichotomy is arbitrary. What we call anti-matter they call matter, and we are their anti-matter (I’m ignoring the total bollocks of ‘other worlds’ that supposes someone like us. Another day.) They are arbitrary by definition. Like 1/0, true/false, +/-.

So the arbitrary nature of that dichotomy is nothing like the scale of epistemological uncertainty about unicorns or minds.

Garvey tries to take it in but remains puzzled at jacksons conversion:

I take the point that a physicalist can be humble, but I’m still left with doubts about Mary. In the end, somehow, I don’t entirely buy Jackson’s new reply to that old question: does she learn anything or not? I’m still back where he was some years ago – I’ve got the feeling something’s wrong with the argument, but I don’t know what it is.

Because he’s right for the wrong reasons. His isn’t physicalism in its strictest sense, but using some vague airy fairy philosopher language with outdated concepts to try to come to terms with the appreciation that the knowledge argument is full of holes.

Jackson might have talked himself out of the knowledge argument’s conclusion, but I still don’t know. I’m no dualist, but there’s something about Mary.

No, there isn’t. It really is very simple. Start with this:

1 – Colour is experiential knowledge. It’s brain states and the conscious processes of multiple levels of feedback recycling signals. It’s the brain knowing what red is.

Then some possible interpretations of what’s going on in the room:

2a – It was incorrect to claim Mary learned everything about colour while in the room, from her black and white screen. Her brain, never having seen red had no knowledge of it, so she was lacking complete physicalist experiential knowledge.

2b – It was incorrect to claim Mary learned everything about colour while in the room, from her black and white screen. Her brain, never having seen colour in the room, did experience rods and cones being stimulated by her rubbing her eyes such that her brain experienced and gained knowledge of red, because she has an evolved brain and eyes with that capacity. This is contestable, based on any experiments about depriving eyes and brains of the correct stimulation during development. However, I know how thought experiments stretch truths to make exactly the point the author wants them to make, so maybe skip this. Hence …

2c – It was correct that Mary knew everything because the screen emitted science included mesmerising signals that stimulated an experience of red.

And corresponding events outside the room:

3a – From 2a, Mary gains the physicalist experience of red on the eyes and its corresponding stimulation of the brain. But since the full knowledge premise was false, the knowledge argument fails.

3b – From 2b, Mary sees red on leaving the room and says, “Oh, there’s some red.” No new knowledge is gained. The argument fails.

3c – From 2c, Mary recognises red on leaving the room. The argument fails.

Is the conclusion of all this that physicalism is necessarily true? No. Because my interpretation above presupposes colour experience is a phsyicalist mechanistic brain effect and that consciousness is a process of such a brain.

All this goes to show is that the Mary colour scientist knowledge argument is entirely useless at showing us anything except how poor philosophy can be. It shows us how philosophers can waste years on such a poor thoughtless experiment.

Is Death Bad For You? No, Don’t Laugh. This Is Philosophy.

Jeez. Another philosopher making hard work of something simple. How Should We Feel About Death? – Ben Bradley, Syracuse University, Published online: 24 Feb 2015

What are the rational constraints on our desires and emotions concerning death? We might rephrase the question in terms of appropriateness or fittingness: what attitudes or emotions is it appropriate or fitting to have concerning death?

The first question was a reasonable one, while the rephrasing is philosophically futile. The term ‘fittingness’ is one of these profundities that is dragged out when emotionally charged woo is being concocted out of a straight forward question.

A rational attitude:

1 – Try to be blasé about the fact of death. Once it happens you are not going to care very much about it at all. This worry about the value of life not yet lived and not to be lived is childish. It’s not wanting to miss out on something you cannot have. It’s the hankering of what is actually going to be of no concern to you. It is at best an unsatisfied curiosity.

2 – My attitude now is that I would like to be around to see some amazing things happen that I will not get to see. Super duper AI. Space flight for leisure. Brain upgrades. Whatever. If extended healthy life spans were possible I’d consider it. But if they are not, then so be it. I don’t here people that died in 1900 lamenting their failure to see the new millennium. Because they are dead.

3 – Fear of dying is rational. Illness, pain, suffering – they are not nice. I’m slightly apprehensive going to the dentist – it’s not as relaxing as having tea and biscuits in my conservatory. So fearing the unknown possibility of painful ill health is natural. When you’ve seen aged grand parents and parents suffering it puts you off that bit; but reasonable good health is just fine, if not always convenient. It might be frustrating to become dependent too. There is a balance, and a personal decision about where that balance lies, but there is one sure enough, between soldiering on and calling it quits. Dying isn’t the worse thing that can happen to you. Actually being dead is as neutrally good or bad as having never been born.

Thus the question might be rephrased as: how should we feel about being permanently annihilated? For those who are certain there is an afterlife, this question will be merely of theoretical interest, but those who think annihilation is even a possibility should be interested in this question.

Are you fucking kidding me? Philosophers are fucking hopeless sometimes. They can come over all grandiosely sceptical and inquisitive about shit like this, and then have a hissy fit if you suggest that we don’t have free will; or that Mary either learned something new, not having the full knowledge of red, or she already invoked a redness experience internally from the full knowledge she was supposed to have.

Look, how long you are dead when you are dead might be of the slightest interest if there was the prospect of making you undead later. If the Jesus resurrection trick became science and an evil Earth Emperor resurrected people as slaves, then it might be of interest. But, if I’m ashes I’m not me. If I’m a brain recording revived in a copy body, then that isn’t me. That poor sap has something to worry about, but not me.

If anything the very notion of being interested in what happens after death should arouse a far more pertinent question: since my physical structure changes over time there’s a sense in which the me now will not be the crumpled old man I will become with a catheter and a withered brain, so why should I worry about the future. Yes, what becomes me will suffer. But I’m not suffering now. So, those teens and twenty-somethings that feel immortal, that’s a pretty smart attitude.

Does Christopher Hitchens regret all the drinking and smoking that pretty surely brought on his early death? Well, not any more he doesn’t, if he ever did.

Of course some times we can’t help but anticipate the future. We have pension plans, for fuck’s sake. But don’t let it get out of hand. Planning for funeral costs is a curtsey to your bereaved family – unless you can convince them to hand over your body to someone that will pay for it. Tell them to get rid by the most economically convenient method, I don’t know, e-bay? And if they really feel the need, have a party at their house. Planning for your possible long life isn’t an irrational idea. Worrying about being dead is pointless.

I’m into remembering people and events. Poppies, the Cenotaph, … These are good for us as a society to help us remember events in the hope we learn. There a sort of folk education. The paying of respects is like an act of duty, but to us and future generations, by thinking about what someone gave in order to make our lives better. This is a useful process, I think, for the living. But it does nothing for the dead.

The same with personal bereavement: it’s something for the living and their relationship with the deceased, a reminder of what we value, a time to reflect on good times, which is something we seem to enjoy doing. Incidentally, my father has a small plaque at a cemetery, but I don’t visit it. I still think about my father. Now, he was ill for most of my young life and died when I was 18. He suffered shell shock at Dunkirk and malaria in Burma in WWII, so he’s a hero to me. I have his medals. I’m feeling emotional now. But that plaque representing him means nothing to me. His ashes were scattered in the garden of remembrance, but that means nothing either. But this inadequate memory I have of the man does mean something to me. Death of loved ones is significant for us. But quite uninteresting to the dead.

A good way to start thinking about how we should feel about death would be by figuring out whether death is bad for us and why.

I tell you, I fucking despair at the bollocks philosophers come up with. Too much time on their hands. Philosophy, an awfully slow death.

Most philosophers who have thought about these questions have said that death is generally bad for us, and that what makes it bad is that it deprives the victim of more of a good life.

Oh come on! You’re having me on. This is a parody of philosophy, surely. Please tell me it is so that I can laugh with you rather than at you.

The death of Socrates by poisoning was a bit of a loss for his Greek society deprived of his witty way with questioning. But was it that much of a loss to him? Another ten or twenty years, suffering in old age and dying a possibly even more gruesome death? What about the few thousand years since then, what about all that time since he died? What about all he’s going to miss in that great year of 2525, the one we’ll all miss too? Are you regretting not being alive in 2525? Why not, if being dead is such a problem? Well, Socrates would prefer death to the loss of his freedom to philosophise and share his ideas. So death can’t be that bad. And it was unlikely he’d reach 2525, so, good call.

Don’t misunderstand me. I and not a pessimist giving up on life. I’m a biological survival machine, just like you. If anything I’ll probably have an irrational need to cling to life if I’m approaching death rapidly and unexpectedly – the biology of survival is stubborn. But I hold no irrational mystical regard for life. I value the living for being alive as human social survival machines – I’m a humanist, wanting the best for myself and fellow humans. While we’re alive let’s enjoy it.

But being dead is, well, uninteresting, not least to the dead.

We might go on to say something about degrees: how bad death is depends on how much of a good life it deprives its victim from having. Deprivation is a counterfactual notion: what death deprives a victim from having is what would have happened to the victim if she hadn’t died. Given optimistic assumptions about the quality of human life, death is therefore normally bad for people, and it is often one of the worst things that can happen to someone. On this picture death is instrumentally bad for a person, not intrinsically bad for her. Death is bad for someone because of its results, not in itself.

You know when you come across a new word that sounds really good and you figure you could use it without seeming too much of a twat? That’s what I feel philosophers go through in graduate school when the discover ‘counterfactual’. I think they think it’s such a cool name for a cool idea that they just can’t stop finding excuses to use it. It just means talking about stuff that didn’t or won’t happen, but might have happened or even couldn’t possibly of happened but it’s cool to think about anyway. What sort of world would we be living in now had Germany and Japan had won in WWII? Lol. Where do we start dispelling the futility of such a question.

But yes, deprivation in death is a counterfactual, a pretty fucking useless one. Deprivation in life, now that’s more interesting because deprivation could be ongoing, and relieving it might actually make a portion of a lived life better. But the counterfactual to death is fucking useless, for the dead.

Counterfactual reasoning about one’s lived life, when someone close dies, is a fair human emotional process to go through.

It’s about sorting your brain out, from the programmed path it had laid down for you and your loved one, to the new path that you must travel alone. It’s about coping with drastic change. Old couples that have had a long life may grieve, and sometimes it can be so bad that the one left behind soon follows. Lots of memories.

But I cannot imagine how it is for a parent that loses a child, or a teen. Recent news of another young person lost to murder, and her distraught parents on the news. Fucking awful. And the girl may have suffered. Fucking awful. Sometimes the phrase, “they are at peace now,” can be a real consolation when the counterfactual turns from dreadful possibility to actual fact – and the phrase has meaning for both the religious, who imagine them going on to some fairy land life, and for us atheists that know simply that the end of suffering will have to be sufficient.

Once a person is dead, counterfactuals on death are nothing more than cognitive exercises for the living.

The deprivation account seems like it must be basically right. Some have argued for some bells and whistles to be added. For example, Jeff McMahan claims that the badness of death should be discounted based on, among other things, (1) the extent of the psychological relations that would have held between the person at the time of death and the person at the times she would have been getting the good things death deprived her from getting (the ‘time-relative interests account’), and (2) the extent to which the victim previously enjoyed a good life (McMahan 2002).

You couldn’t make this shit up outside a bizarre fantasy, unless you’re a theologian or a philosopher.

How should we feel about death? This seems pretty simple too. According to ‘fitting attitude’ analyses of value, to be good just is, roughly, to be the fitting object of pro-attitudes, and to be bad just is to be the fitting object of con-attitudes. Given the deprivation account of the badness of death along with our optimistic assumption, it follows that death is, typically, a fitting object of a negative attitude. Of course, fitting attitude analyses of value are controversial. I don’t wish to defend such analyses. But even if value cannot be analyzed in this way, a weaker claim may still be true: necessarily, if something is bad then it is the fitting object of a negative attitude. Given the deprivation account and the optimistic assumption, this entails that death merits a negative attitude.

This is such bullshit. But then a ray of hope:

There is one way in which a negative attitude towards death is not warranted. If we want to know how we should feel about death in itself, it seems that we should be indifferent towards it. After all, nothing good or b d will happen to you while you are dead. There should be a difference between our intrinsic attitudes towards death and our overall attitudes. The attitudes that are intrinsically fitting to have towards death are the attitudes it would be appropriate to have towards death considered by itself, independent of what else death brings about or prevents.

Philosophy career advice: Think of some easy to answer question that has a touch of potential profundity about it. Figure out the simple most obvious answer. Spend more time conjuring up a paper that starts with some straw men to tear down. Put the simple stuff in there as your alternative way at looking at things in order to seem relatively smart. Publish the paper, Then sit back, smoke a pipe, have a beer, or a sherry, and contemplate your next great paper in a quizzical manner most befitting your status at your university.

But things are not so simple. One complication is that there are a lot of negative attitudes one might have about death: fear, dread, worry, hatred, and many more.

Look, if you are suffering a painful or otherwise miserably slow death, and the right to die isn’t recognised as a right where you live, then you have my sympathy for what you are going through, and these worries are understandable.

But if you’re healthy with some time to go, and you are still that worried about death, then you most likely have some psychological issues that are troubling you in life that are more significant than your distant death. I would advise that, if at all you can, you pull your finger out and stop being a narcissistic ass.

On the other hand, if you are genuinely suffering from depression and other bad shit, then, again, my sympathies, but get help and do put death on the back burner. Things might get better.

Anyway, on we go. At last, some thought experiments to get our teeth into. There’s nothing like a philosopher’s thought experiments for inventing unrealistic scenarios. But at least this one is pretty straight forward.

Suppose a young and healthy man named Jim steps in front of a bus and is severely injured; he quickly succumbs to his injuries. Is Jim’s death bad for him? It seems plausible to say that it is. But it might also seem plausible to say that if Jim hadn’t died when he did, he would have instead experienced a great amount of pain and suffering from being hit by the bus. So each of the following might be an appropriate account of what happened:

  • Jim got hit by a bus and died. What a shame! He was so young. If Jim hadn’t died, he would have lived a long and healthy life.
  • Given that Jim got hit by a bus, it’s probably better that he died. If he hadn’t, he would have been severely injured instead. He wouldn’t have wanted to live that way.

This is the kind of whimsical stuff you talk about in the pub after a funeral. It’s not a serious philosophical challenge. Note that this isn’t even a completely useful list. Add Had Jim not been hit by a bus he wouldn’t have been hit by a bus and would have been fine.. Or is that too clear for philosophy?

Attributions of instrumental value are fundamentally contrastive. What is bad for Jim is dying rather than not being hit by the bus at all. What is not bad for Jim is dying rather than being severely injured. There is no absolute fact of the matter about whether Jim’s death, full stop, is bad for him, even though context can make an assertion of ‘Jim’s death was bad for him’ true. Context makes a particular contrast, or class of contrasts, salient.

Well, so a philosopher can figure out that suffering might be worse than death, but living a healthy life is better than death. And I presume living a healthy life is better than suffering. I feel an Ig Nobel prize is due for the thought research that provoked this thought experiment and brought us this ground breaking insight.

John Broome puts the point in this way: ‘All the significant facts have been fully stated once we have said what dying at eighty-two is better than and what it is worse than. There is no further significant question whether or not dying at eighty-two is an absolutely bad thing.’ (Broome 1999, 171) Broome may be overstating things here a bit, because it is also significant what would have happened had one not died at eighty-two.

No! He’s still understating the insignificance of death to the dead. And no, it is not “significant what would have happened had one not died at eighty-two”. It has no significance at all once you are dead. The only pre-death significance it has, to that person, is a measure of how fucked up he is, worrying about what he’ll miss after death.

Given that the badness of death is contrastive…

No! Dying is contrastive, with regard to the contrasting deaths that might occur, including, prior to the death, the predictability of the death. There is no useful contrast to the state of being dead.

Do you suffer inordinate anguish over the counterfactual life you didn’t have before you were born? How ‘contrastive’ are you going to be with that? Oh shit! I might not have been born! Fuck, what should I do?

Well, actually I do regret missing out on things from before I was born. Occasionally I have had these moments of false nostalgia. I grew up in an austere part of Britain, and I saw teenage kids in American movies of the fifties, with cars, and diners serving super ice creams. But these are just little moments of irrationality poking its nose in, and they are easily dismissed. A have a nostalgia for what I foolishly imagine to be the glamorous life of a WWII Spitfire pilot, but then I think I could be mistaken about how glamorous it actually was.

But aside from these momentary flights of fancy, along with wanting to be Superman, or wishing I had a pair of those X-Ray Specs from the back of comics, I really don’t think that in moments of rational lucidity one needs to think much about being dead at all. Dreams, lucid or not, can invoke fears that in waking lucidity seem stupid, but dreaming is an odd psychological state anyway, unencumbered by empirical sense correction.

Compared to being dead or the state of being dead, something like the prospective approach to death, going to war and anticipating dangers that could lead to your imminent death, is a perfectly natural survival process. Approaching death, with potential suffering, and being dead, are quite different things, with the former understandably arousing survival fears, but the latter being of no concern whatsoever, except to those left behind.

I do remember, when my kids were young and dependent, I went through the natural parental angst of worrying about how they will go on if my wife and I died while they were young. That unfortunate scenario becomes reality to many children, and I wouldn’t have wished it upon mine. But even so, once I’m dead I also stop worrying about the living. So even my living concern for my kids in the event of my death is only about their continued living, not about my being dead.

So, again, the only living concerns one might have about one’s own death is how it is approached and how you will provide for your dependants. And once dead these matters cease to be worries. A young dying parent could also understandably have regrets about missing their children grow up. But again, once dead that ceases to be a concern. When you are dead any worries you had will be gone, for you, and any counterfactual futures about seeing your children grow are gone for you.

There is simply nothing to concern you about actually being dead. Stop worrying about not existing.

Moving on.

When is a preference rational? This seems easy: it is rational to prefer P to Q iff P is better than Q.

Sounds easy when you put it like that.

Thus Jim ought to greatly prefer living a long healthy life to dying, and he should not prefer living a short life full of suffering to dying (depending on how much pain there is, maybe he should prefer death to continued life in such a state).

The ‘full of suffering’ is not about one’s concern for death but about one’s concern for living, in a state of suffering. Preferring P to Q is now about preferring non-suffering (in death or a healthy life) to suffering, and is no longer about preferring life to non-life, death.

Thinking of it in terms of the counterfactual of what life you missed prior to your birth and becomes clear that preferring life to non-life is quite fucking pointless, and the only reason you are falling for the death problem is that it is made murky by the route to death and the possibility of suffering.

You have changed the point of interest from preferring P (being alive and healthy) to Q (being dead), a meaningless comparison; so that now you are comparing P (death) to Q (suffering life) or P (healthy life) to Q (suffering life). This whole paper is just confused in what it is about.

So here is a simple part of the story about correct attitudes towards death: it is correct to prefer a particular future to death iff you would be better off given that future than if you died.

Why? If you are ruling out a suffering life, so the comparison is life and non-life, then there is no sense in which ‘better off’ has any useful meaning in this context.

When you are dead, nothing matters.

While you are alive and healthy, being alive is good, generally – since our survival nature makes us enjoy being alive, and it is probably contrary to evolutionary selection to make being unhappy enough to top yourself the natural state. Marvin the Paranoid Android is not how we are naturally.

But to say one state is better than the other, when in each state there is no access to the other state, is a totally fucked up philosophical notion. It’s irrational!

In the next section the paper moves on to preference and desire, and continues to get it wrong.

Suppose S, incorrectly, prefers death to a good life. It follows that S desires to die on the condition that S lives a worthwhile life or S dies; so that desire must also be incorrect, since it is identical to an incorrect preference.

This presumption that preferring death to a good life is incorrect is incorrect in itself. It is a neutral comparison deserving no preference. It makes no sense to prefer either.

If I prefer life and decide to live on, I live on not knowing death until later. If I prefer death and can arrange a nice death then I cease to know life.

Of course we can play the counterfactual game again. So, you might say, “Oh, but once your dead there’s no going back, you’ve burnt your bridges!” Well, if you think that then the point still hasn’t sunk in. When you’re dead you don’t give a fuck about burnt bridges! It doesn’t matter.

I guess there will be a lot of loose thinking inspired angst around this idea in some quarters. Maybe influenced by our natural instinct to survive, made all the more confusing by some inspired respect for life itself and a token of religiously inspired guilt at taking one’s own life. But really, if for some reason I manage to overcome the my survival instinct, then what would be the problem with me deciding to top myself? I’ve never heard a rational answer to this that wasn’t loaded with emotional BS. We can give evolutionary biological reasons for why we tend not to do this, but no other reason why we should not.

You’ll note, incidentally, that this term ‘correct’ is loaded with moral indignation about the right to choose one’s own life and death. It’s a very religious theme, with a prescription for life and a proscription for death – the religious love to control.

More confusion arises in section 5, about beliefs.

For example, suppose I do not want to go to the dentist because of the painfulness of having my teeth cleaned. But you convince me that I would be better off in the long run if I go. So I truly believe that I would be better off if I went. Still, I fail to form a desire to go. My failing to desire to go to the dentist is incorrect because it is insufficiently sensitive to my true beliefs.

This is irrelevant, because this scenario compares life with or without going to the dentist. It’s a poor analogy. In this case the failing to go to the dentist is ‘incorrect’ only if you already have a dichotomy where going is correct and not going is incorrect, as some indication of the measure of the outcomes. You have decided that not having tooth ache is good, and having it is bad, and going to the dentist will reduce the risk of the bad and increase the chance of the good, therefore the ‘correct’ path to achieving good is to go to the dentist, and the ‘incorrect’ path is not to go. The comparative states are meaningful here. If you don’t go and end up with tooth ache you can legitimately regret not going, and if you go, find some tooth decay and have it fixed, you can be pleased you did not choose not to go. Ahead of time in either case you can anticipate contemplating the counterfactual and regret not taking that other route, or be glad you did not.

But dead and not-dead are mutually exclusive comparative states. When alive you can’t know anything about what it’s like to be dead. While alive it’s pointless being glad you’re not dead, because at that time you are not dead. Right now, how many other counterfactuals should I be glad of or regret? Should I be happy I’m not a tree? How does this work? What is the point of being happy I’m not dead?

And when I’m dead I won’t be in state to regret not being alive – unlike being alive with tooth ache when I can regret not having gone to the dentist.

In section 7 we get to the conclusions.

Here, then, are some ways that you might have incorrect attitudes towards death. You might fail to be intrinsically indifferent towards death — you might have a positive or negative attitude towards nonexistence considered in itself.

That pair of statements says it all. But it needed a full paper to say it? Sadly, there’s more:

You might fail to have a pro-attitude towards the intrinsic goods of which death deprives you, or a con-attitude towards the intrinsic evils. You might prefer to die rather than live, even though living would be better for you than dying; …


… or you might prefer to live rather than die even though dying would be better for you.

This actually makes sense – you might indeed prefer that, but it is your prerogative to live in such state if you wish.

But what is important and is missed here is the right to die if dying would relieve certain suffering. But also missed, and not supported by the right to die movement, is the question: who the fuck denies me the right to die even if I simply choose to with no suffering persuading me? The reason this doesn’t crop up so much is because our survival instinct usually prevents us taking it seriously.

And we have other aspects to our humanist lives that drive us not to allow someone to be coerced into wanting a death they might otherwise not want: torturing people until they plead for death, influencing vulnerable people to persuade them that they have some duty to die … we have desires that make us guard against that, because that amounts to murder, even if the victim takes their own life in the end.

But, philosophically, since the philosopher put counterfactuals are on the table, what about the counterfactual where there is no coercion and I simply decide that I’m bored with life and and want to top myself. All the stops are pulled out to prevent me. I could get away with it, by some messy suicide.

Not to worry, this is only a counterfactual thought experiment. But the philosophical point stands. Why is it wrong, incorrect, bad, to die?

You might have an attitude towards death that is regulated by an incorrect preference or belief. Finally, you might fail to have an attitude towards death that you should have, given your correct preferences and beliefs. Perhaps there are other ways to have an incorrect attitude too.

Lots of presuppositions about what’s correct or what should be preferred, when they are irrelevant.

There is another case that is puzzling, and might challenge the entire framework within which I am working. Consider the person who feels existential terror or angst at the prospect of death. When considering that at some future time, she will no longer exist, she is filled with terror. She does not obsess about it, but contemplating a future in which she is simply not there is terrifying to her.

This isn’t puzzling at all. I’m surprised that a philosopher can’t figure this out. She simply has a problem that’s interfering with her living. As with any other phobia it’s disconcerting to be trapped by the irrational fear. That’s a psychological problem to be fixed, if she deems she needs it fixing. Do other mammals have existential angst when no imminent danger is present? Contemplating distant unpredictable death seems to be a glitch we acquired with an imaginary brain; except of course it does come along with anticipating danger and threats to survival, so maybe it’s a benefit that has simply got out of control.

Perhaps she’s read too much philosophy. Perhaps she should become a philosopher.

It is far from clear either that a finite existence cannot be meaningful, or that there is any particular link between terror and meaninglessness.

What? Look, if people can’t find enough meaning in their finite natural lives, they seem quite able to invent imaginary after lives to take up the slack. Is this need for meaning another glitch? Again, many mammals seem not to need it. Come to that, I know a few humans that are pretty fulfilled by a pint, some cigs and the occasional screw.

There needn’t be a link between terror and meaninglessness. Many people are able to scare themselves into thinking there is, so they search out religions and other mysticisms, which of course are in the business of promoting that theme.

Fuck it! Chill out. I am here by the coincidence of evolution, and that my parents fucked and this sperm ovum came together, and I grew up and had the education I did, and went on to think about this stuff and decided being dead isn’t a big deal, even though dying might be. The contingency and meaninglessness of our existence is liberating. I am here and this is it. When I’m gone that’s that. It’s really easy, if you just let go of this neediness for something else, something it appears you’ll never have. So much human energy seems to go into creating fake solutions to an imaginary problem, and forcing others to be bound by these existential terrors. Foolish. Wasting a very finite life, by spending a good deal of that finite life worrying about the end of that finite life.

Death, for most of us, is some uncertain but distant way off.

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small, and the fears that once controlled us don’t need to get to us at all. It’s time to see what we can do to test the limits and break through. No right, no wrong, no rules for us we’re free!

… thanks to a little friend of mine for bringing this much brighter philosophical perspective to my attention …

cue Elsa … Let it go, let it go.

John Gray’s Poor Thinking on Dawkins

For a philosopher that likes to point out the nuances of the philosophy he thinks Dawkins misses out on, Gray is awfully sloppy with his own thinking – sloppy or malicious, possibly both.

“The Closed Mind of Richard Dawkins – His atheism is its own kind of narrow religion”

In what way is Dawkins close minded? Closed to ideas that lack evidence to support them, for as long as they lack evidence, but open minded enough to consider evidence when presented? Is that so bad? In what way is the atheism of Dawkins different from the atheism of Gray? Does Gray hold to some greater open mindedness to the possibility of some intelligent entity creator than does Dawkins when he expresses his views?

When Gray quotes Dawkins from The Selfish Gene wondering if visiting aliens might wonder if humans are intelligent enough to notice Evolution at work, Gray seems to get the idea that Dawkins is some kind of supremacist.

“There is his equation of superiority with cleverness: the visiting aliens are more advanced creatures than humans because they are smarter and know more than humans do.”

One has to wonder by what means Gray thinks some alternative, ‘less’ intelligent, aliens might have got here to do the observing. I would expect, as a first approximation, that any aliens clever enouch to reach us across the vastness of open space have figured out some pretty damned clever technology for doing so.

So, yes, there is a sense in which cleverness is superior – superior to dumbness. Perhaps Gray thinks we should promote philosophy professors based on lack of cleverness, stupidity. Perhaps they did at the London School of Economics and Political Science when Gray was there. Thay might explain some things.

“The theory of evolution by natural selection is treated not as a fallible theory—the best account we have so far of how life emerged and developed — but as an unalterable truth, which has been revealed to a single individual of transcendent genius. There cannot be much doubt that Dawkins sees himself as a Darwin-like figure, propagating the revelation that came to the Victorian naturalist.”

This really is grossly sloppy research by some dumb ass philosopher. Of course evolutionary theory is fallible in many respects, as are all theories in science. And yes it’s the best we have yet. But if Gray would like to offer some hint at were it is so wrong that there is much chance of its basic principles being overthrown by some future theory he’s welcome to illustrate them.

And yes, there can be much doubt that “Dawkins sees himself as a Darwin-like figure, propagating the revelation that came to the Victorian naturalist” in any crude and derogatory sense that this statement from Gray implies. Is Dawkins an evangelist for evolution over crack-pot creationism? Sure he is. No doubt Gray has lauded the benefits of philosophy in his time. Pity he doesn’t practice in this piece some of the critical thinking philosophy is supposed to encourage.

“Among these traits, it is Dawkins’s identification with Darwin that is most incongruous. No two minds could be less alike than those of the great nineteenth-century scientist and the latter-day evangelist for atheism. Hesitant, doubtful, and often painfully perplexed, …”

Incongruous, because Darwin and Dawkins have some personality differences? Incongruous because Dawkins has the wealth of genetics to back up his perspective on the reliability of evolution that Darwin didn’t? Well, what would you expect? Of course they were different in many ways, and it’s plain stupid to try to turn the emulative admiration Dawkins has for Darwin into supposing Dawkins imagines himself to actually be the Darwin of his day. Of course Darwin was more hesitant and perplexed by the ideas he was formulating while now Dawkins is more confident that Darwin was on the right track.

“… Darwin understood science as an empirical investigation in which truth is never self-evident and theories are always provisional.”

And Gray’s dishonest scuralous implication is that Dawkins doesn’t understand that – when Dawkins expresses that opinion regularly. You only have to listen to Dawkins rather than just cherry picking what you like, or what you heard someone else report, in order to see the misrepresentation going on here.

“If science, for Darwin, was a method of inquiry that enabled him to edge tentatively and humbly toward the truth, for Dawkins, science is an unquestioned view of the world.”

Is it any wonder so many of us dispair at the state of philosophy when philosophers like Gray come out with such bullshit. The fact of the matter is that science is not the unquestioned view of the world, but the view questioned by scientists all the time. That’s what it is to do science – to question one’s views of the world. When one then comes up with some pretty good answers that doesn’t turn you suddenly into some absolutist for science dogma, though that’s how science is often presented when one wants to attack a sientist.

I think Gray is mistaking the view of science that Dawkins and others have by comparing it to their view of ‘other ways of knowing’, which turn out to be unreliable flim flam. Maybe it’s the utter inadequacy of religion and philosophy to tell us anything useful about the world, such that when Dawkins points that out Gray sees him claiming instead that science is perfect: “Oh, our philosophy and theology is hopeless is it? And I suppose you think your science is perfect!”

“The Victorians are often mocked for their supposed certainties, when in fact many of them (Darwin not least) were beset by anxieties and uncertainties. Dawkins, by contrast, seems never to doubt for a moment the capacity of the human mind — his own, at any rate—to resolve questions that previous generations have found insoluble.”

The irony leaps out from the pages of the New Republic! Just as many cautious tentative Victorian scientists were misunderstood for claiming certainty, so here we have Gray misunderstanding Dawkins. How can a professional philosopher make such glaring errors of thought? Read Dawkins, Mr Gray. Or just play a few of his short video clips on YouTube. You’ll see he prefaces and loads much of what he says with contingency. Again, you are perhaps mistaking his derision of ‘other ways of knowing’ for some claim that scence is perfrect. See the distinction?

Or, perhaps read someone with a better appreciation of Dawkins having actually met the man. This is Andrew Anthony, “There’s a smoothness to the way he carries himself – a touch of the Nigel Havers – that could no doubt be construed as an arrogance befitting his intellectual status, but in conversation he is restrained, even hesitant, and faultlessly modest throughout our interview.” – My emphasis, my way of spelling out Gray’s error.

Gray covers the period of Dawkins growing up in what was the dying stages of Britain’s colonial Africa, and his days at school. Gray picks up on how Dawkins can’t remember having any empathetic feelings for a bullied boy at school. And Gray leaps on this and extrapolates to how Dawkins bullies the religious now.

Except Gray, as with many critics of Dawkins, totally scews it up. He gets it dead wrong. Dawkins does not bully the religious by any stretch of the imagination – except if you stretch your imagination so far you event your own caricature of Dawkins that is nothing like the man.

When you see Dawkins rail against the most obnoxious of theists that are persecuting homosexuals, promoting creationism, opposing democracy, abusing children, then if this is your sole point of reference it’s easy to see how you can get it so wrong. But Gray is supposed to be a sharp thinker, a philosopher. Where’s his research?

Perhaps Gray could learn something from that one article and its comments. But there’s plenty more. You only have to actually listen to Dawkins, or not read his works looking for your own version of what you think he says. Or simply Google for the actual opinions of Dawkins. Read his website. I’m afraid Gray has perhaps done too little research into the man whose biography he is critiquing, or perhaps has a predetermined agenda and is taking this opportunity to air it. It’s not difficult to find nearly every piece by Dawkins is the antithesis of the caricature Gray is presenting.

“Exactly how Dawkins became the anti-religious missionary with whom we are familiar will probably never be known.”

More failed research.

So what did turn Dawkins into an anti-religious missionary, as opposed to an ‘old atheist’? Well, 9/11 played a big part in that, as we can see here in a copy of a piece from the Guardian. And from there we have The God delusion. But long before that he was objecting to the Creationist opposition to evolution. And, of course, he was charged with the job promoting science, when from 1995 to 2008 Richard Dawkins was the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. It doesn’t take much research to have a fair stab at “how Dawkins became the anti-religious missionary with whom we are familiar” – something Gray seems totally incapable of trying.

“From what he writes here, I doubt he knows himself.”

Then, Mr Gray, you clearly haven’t read very much of what he writes. Or you’ve been mallisciously selective.

“At no point has Dawkins thrown off his Christian inheritance. Instead, emptying the faith he was taught of its transcendental content, he became a neo-Christian evangelist. A more inquiring mind would have noticed at some point that religion comes in a great many varieties, with belief in a creator god figuring in only a few of the world’s faiths and most having no interest in proselytizing. It is only against the background of a certain kind of monotheism that Dawkins’s evangelical atheism makes any sense.”

This is just plain dumb. I mean really dumb. Being ‘evangelicaal’ is merely to express a keenness for something one believes in, to the point of thinking it worth promoting actively, stridently if you will. But hold on …

“In turning away from the milk-and-water Anglicanism in which he had been reared…”

If his ‘evangelical’ nature is grounded in his Christianity, and yet his Christianity was ‘milk-and-water Anglicanism’, Gray’s appraisal doesn’t really add up. You are contradicting yourself, Mr Gray. Unforgivable for a philosopher endowed with the critical thinking philosophy offers, surely.

The real difference between being an outspoken atheist and an evangelical Christian, is that the latter has no grounds in evidence upon which to base his case, while the former, being claims no more that a failure to be convinced of Christianity or other religions in the light of no positive evidence to support them. So, the stridency of Dawkins to me seems more like that of the mystified Brian in Python’s Life of Brian, addressing the throng of people who mistake him for a messiah:

Brian, “Please, please listen. I’ve got one or two things to say. Look. You’ve got it all wrong. You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody. You’ve got to think for yourselves. You’re all individuals. You’re all different. You’ve all got to work it out for yourselves. Don’t let anyone tell you what to do.”

And when Brian says, “You’re all different” and one of the crowd comically responds “I’m not”, I can’t help but think of the comic hapless Gray uttering a futile self-contradiction.

A couple of other ironies here. The crowd in this scene are the religious, looking to Brian. Of course Dawkins is not looked to as the messiah by the religious (though often mistaken for the anti-Christ) or by atheists. The stridency of Dawkins is that of Brian telling the religious to think for themselves instead of following holy preachers and silly books. The other irony is that this is also how many religious people, and some atheists, like PZ Myers and crew, see those of us who are atheists that defend Dawkins against these stupid attacks. We don’t follow Dawkins in the sense they imply; but as with any good thinker it’s worth taking note of what they say. And it’s worth pointing out when they are misrepresented – and Gray isn’t on novel ground here; he merely echoes the same tripe that we get from others.

“Even more remarkable is Dawkins’s inveterate literal-mindedness.”

Gray goes on to agree with Dawkins that some Christians, as Dawkins says, believe in original sin. But Gray here is lamenting the fact that Dawkins observes this in Christianity as if gray thinks Dawkins believes it himself.

Gray tries to put Dawkins right – but about something for which Dawkins was never wrong, because Dawkins never professed it:

“Even so, it [original sin] is an idea that contains a vital truth: evil is not error, a mistake of the mind, a failure of understanding that can be corrected by smarter thinking. It is something deeper and more constitutive of human life itself. The capacity and propensity for destruction goes with being human. One does not have to be religious to acknowledge this dark fact.”

Dawkins is an evolutionary biologists. Does Gray really think this is the inate nastiness of life that Dawkins is railing against? What a straw man to pull out of one’s ass. Dawkins is arguing against the original sin of Christianity, not the varied and sometimes unpleasant behavioural tendencies of humans.

“As an atheist myself, it is a view I find no difficulty in sharing.”

And neither would Dawkins. But that perspective on innate biologically determined human tendencies isn’t original sin, is it. The Gray analogy is that both Christians and atheists agree humans sometimes do bad things to each other; but it’s their explanations that are so different that makes the criticism of Original Sin justified, while still allowing us atheists to think there are other reasons for our occasional nastiness. Nothing that Gray has said on this amounts to any valid criticism of Dawkins at all, though Gray is passing it of as if it is.

“Quite apart from the substance of the idea, there is no reason to suppose that the Genesis myth to which Dawkins refers was meant literally.”

Yet more utter bollocks. In the week in which the current and maybe most liberal of recent Popes professes belief in actual angels it is totally ridiculous of sophisticated theologians and accommodationist atheists like Gray to play this game of pretending that hardly any of the religious believe the literal interpretation of biblical bollocks. Many do. And many will skirt around the subject to duplicitous degrees to avoid owning it.

“Coarse and tendentious atheists of the Dawkins variety prefer to overlook the vast traditions of figurative and allegorical interpretations with which believers have read Scripture.”

This is yet more nonsense. Of course Dawkins criticises the literalist. And the allegorists too. And all shades in between. Maybe the reason you see Dawkins objecting to Biblical Literalism so often is that he’s arguing with Biblical Literalists of varying degrees. Even in debate with the previous Arch Bishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, he tried to pin him down on issues like the resurrection, it is typical of Williams to skirt around it, but you can bet plenty of Christians believe it is literally true. Instead of addressing that duplicity Gray picks on what is most likely the least popular literal interpretation of the bible, the six days of genesis. But still, the Pope believes in Adam and Eve. Of course Dawkins is leteralist when addressing literalists.

Gray points us to Augustine and Philo of Alexandria as non-literalists. But their theological interpretations of their beliefs are not universal. So, did Augustine think the resurrection didn’t really happen? Does Augustine believe there is no actual literal God? This sophisticated theology that tries to explain away religious nonsense doesn’t mean that there are no literalists in other respects that Dawkins cannot address.

Has Gray never heard of the No True Scotsman fallacy? Surely he has. So why is he playing that hand here?

“In treating religion as a set of factual propositions, Dawkins is mimicking Christianity at its most fundamentalist.”

Hold on. If Christians are not the literalists that Gray says Dawkins is mistaking them for, then how can he be mimicking a ‘factual’ literalist Christianity? Gray doesn’t make sense. He’s losing sight of his own arguments in his commitment to having a go at Dawkins.

Gray moves on to Dawkins and memes.

“There are many difficulties in talk of memes, including how they are to be identified. Is Romanticism a meme? Is the idea of evolution itself a meme, jumping unbidden from brain to brain? My suspicion is that the entire “theory” amounts to not much more than a misplaced metaphor.”

And that use of meme as metaphor is pretty much where Dawkins leaves it too. But it’s a word where the spread of morphology through genes is an analogue for the spread of behaviours through ideas as memes. It’s a fair metaphor. It doesn’t have to be an established scientific theory to be useful. Come on, Mr Gray, you’re a philosopher, a member of a discipline renowned for making up bollocks and presenting it as theory.

“The larger problem is that a meme-based Darwinian account of religion is at odds with Dawkins’s assault on religion as a type of intellectual error. If Darwinian evolution applies to religion, then religion must have some evolutionary value.”

No it isn’t at odds. It’s just multiple perspectives. And it need not have evolutionary value if it’s a spandrel. The propensity to see agency were there is none may indeed have had some benefit – better safe than sorry. But it’s quite feasible that an evolved behaviour can morph under social thinking into some unhelpful monstrosity. I guess Gray doesn’t have any evolutionary explanation for tight jeans, pipe smoking, Boy Scouts or any other human concoction. But there they are.

“But in that case there is a tension between naturalism (the study of humans and other animals as organisms in the natural world) and the rationalist belief that the human mind can rid itself of error and illusion through a process of critical reasoning.”

Not so. The human mind as a behavioural process of a physical brain is still subject to cause and effect of the natural world. My brain is caused to find religious belief an error of thinking, by my brain’s caused modelling of the thinking process under empiricism. That effect in turn causes my brain to engage in critical thinking in order to try to persuade believers they are wrong. If my verbal behaviour, as received by a believing brain causes that believing brain to adopt a different perspective then that believing brain may become a non-believing brain. All that is a natural process of mechanistic human brains. And that my brain uses the meme metaphor for religion and sees it as an error does not make any of that inconsistent. Many philosophers simply can’t dig deep enough into determinism and physicalism to follow where they lead.

“To be sure, Dawkins and those who think like him will object that evolutionary theory tells us how we got where we are, but does not preclude our taking charge of ourselves from here on.”

Correct. We are caused to think we are in charge of ourselves. Free will is an illusion.

“If we “are” survival machines, it is unclear how “we” can decide anything. “

Because we have brains that are somewhat isolated from our environment but ultimately caused by it to be what we are. The term ‘decide’ relates to the logical process of decision. A computer makes decisions. It is programmed to do so. But with non-deterministic (to us and it) inputs it’s decisions can lead to unexpected novel outcomes. So decision making is really another perspective on causal systems. The decision making of a computer does consists at its most basic as an interaction of electrons and ions in electronic devices. That of a brain consists of the interaction of neurons.

“The idea of free will, after all, comes from religion and not from science.”

Mostly, that’s true. The dualist free will of the soul or mind is illusory, under naturalism. There’s no evidence of any spooky stuff that can bypass the causal nature of the matter of the brain.

“Science may give us the unvarnished truth — or some of it — about our species. Part of that truth may prove to be that humans are not and can never be rational animals.”

I disagree. Rationality is a label we give to the mechanistic processing of data that goes on in a human mind – the decision making. It is basically causal elements interacting.

“Religion may be an illusion, but that does not mean science can dispel it.”

Sloppy writing from a philosopher again. Religion is not an illusion. Religion is an actual human social behavioural phenomenon that includes an aspect of those brains believing things to be true for which there is no evidence. Science does dispel it, sufficiently, because of the lack of evidence for it. Typical: a philosopher allows his mind to coalesce science’s lack of supporting evidence for religious claims into his understanding of logical disproof of religious belief.

“On the contrary, science may well show that religion cannot be eradicated from the human mind. Unsurprisingly, this is a possibility that Dawkins never explores.”

First sentence is right, in that science might show that religion cannot be eradicated, by natural evolutionary means. Then again it might not show that at all. It might show, had we access to similar minds to ours but evolved independently, that indeed it is possible to not have religious belief. And it might be possible to show (I would expect it is possible) that religous belief could be eradicated from brains by artificial means.

The second sentence is Gray talking out of his ass again. Of course Dawkins has considered this.

“For all his fervent enthusiasm for science, Dawkins shows very little interest in asking what scientific knowledge is or how it comes to be possible.”

Dawkins does address this sometimes, but as far as I can tell gives little significance to it. He’s not specifically a philosopher of science, so perhaps it doesn’t get his dander up the way many problems of religion do – i.e. evolution denialism.

“There are many philosophies of science. Among them is empiricism, which maintains that scientific knowledge extends only so far as observation and experiment can reach; realism, which holds that science can give an account of parts of the world that can never be observed; irrealism, according to which there is no one truth of things to which scientific theories approximate; and pragmatism, which views science theories as useful tools for organizing and controlling experience. If he is aware of these divergent philosophies, Dawkins never discusses them. His attitude to science is that of a practitioner who does not need to bother with philosophical questions.”

The problem is that some of these philosophical details are no more than hair splitting in the absence of any evidence to favour any of them specifically. Rather, each and all of them can lead to material naturalism and physicalism. There’s simply no reason to keep re-hashing this stuff, though I appreciate that philosophers earn their money by doing just that.

“It is worth noting, therefore, that it is not as a practicing scientist that Dawkins has produced his assaults against religion. As he makes clear in this memoir, he gave up active research in the 1970s when he left his crickets behind and began to write The Selfish Gene. Ever since, he has written as an ideologue of scientism, the positivistic creed according to which science is the only source of knowledge and the key to human liberation.”

I’m losing count of the misrepresentation in this awful piece by Gray. Let’s get it straight.

Science is the broader label for a group of human activities that adopt the very same faculties that all humans have: reason and evidence, observing and interacting with the world and reasoning about it. This is empiricism. A simpler definition of empiricism allows only the sensory experience, but that alone is not what differentiates human brains from other brains. It’s our wider empiricism: observing and interacting with the world and reasoning about it.

On empiricism as an inclusive term for reason and experience: brain neurons and sensory and motor neurons have much in common. The empirical nature of the peripheral neurons isn’t that different from brain neurons. Brain neurons engage in empirical interaction with other brain neurons. There is no magical ‘thinking stuff’ beyond this that we are aware of. Physicalism rules, by default, for lack of evidence for anything else. Get over it.

This is what all humans do. Science is no more than making the effort to do that better, more reliably. The thing is, empiricism is all we have. It IS the only way of knowing, that we know of. There are no other ways of knowing. Science uses the usual human processes and adds method and rigour. That’s the distinction. So, within our one way of knowing, science is the best of it, when it comes to finding out how the world works. The imagination of fantasy may be very enjoyable – and may even be used in science to inspire ideas: many science fiction ideas become scientific goals. But when fantasy is used to proclaim a reality, without any supporting evidence, as in religion, and often in philosophy, then yes, science is much better.

I appreciate Gray has latched onto this Scientism trope. But it really is a poor show for a philosopher not to do the work to find out how humans acquire knowledge.

“If religion comes in many varieties, so too does atheism. Dawkins takes for granted that being an atheist goes with having liberal values (with the possible exception of tolerance).”

Wrong again. Dawkins criticises various ideologies that include a rejection of gods, such as the communist based ideologies of Stalin, Mao and others. Where does Gray get the idea that Dawkins thinks all atheists have liberal values? Is is when Dawkins mentions the liberal values of atheists in the liberal atheist sub-group? Such a misrepresentation would be like accusing the Pope of thinking all Christians are Roman Catholics when he addresses Roman Catholic Christians as Christians. This is just plain stupid from Gray.

“But there is no necessary connection between atheism and hostility to religion, as some of the great Victorian unbelievers understood.”

Yes, we know that already. Dawkins also criticises accommodationist atheists that make excuses for religions.

“One might wager a decent sum of money that it has never occurred to Dawkins that to many people he appears as a comic figure.”

Try asking Dawkins, Mr Gray.

“”I am not a good observer,” he [Dawkins] writes modestly. He is referring to his observations of animals and plants, but his weakness applies more obviously in the case of humans. Transfixed in wonderment at the workings of his own mind, Dawkins misses much that is of importance in human beings—himself and others.”

I disagree. He may sometimes miss the stupidity with which his plain speaking can be misunderstood and misrepresented. It may well baffle him how a philosopher such as Gray can miss so much too. But then he might figure, well, he is a philosopher.

“To the best of my recollection, I have met Dawkins only once and by chance, when we coincided at some meeting in London. It must have been in late 2001, since conversation at dinner centered around the terrorist attacks of September 11. Most of those at the table were concerned with how the West would respond: would it retaliate, and if so how? Dawkins seemed uninterested. What exercised him was that Tony Blair had invited leaders of the main religions in Britain to Downing Street to discuss the situation—but somehow omitted to ask a leader of atheism (presumably Dawkins himself) to join the gathering. There seemed no question in Dawkins’s mind that atheism as he understood it fell into the same category as the world’s faiths.”

Has it occurred to you, Mr Gray, that his dismay was really about the way in which one religiously motivated atrocity was going to be compounded by the religiosity of the Bush-Blair righteousness? What do the religious have to say on the matter than, say, someone from the British Humanists Association might not – other than colouring the whole campaign with religious platitudes of well meaning.

“In contrast, Dawkins shows not a trace of skepticism anywhere in his writings. In comparison with Pascal, a man of restless intellectual energy, Dawkins is a monument to unthinking certitude.”

Then, Mr Gray, you really are ignorant of pretty much all of the work and public appearances of Dawkins. And that is an awful position for a philosopher, commenting on an autobiography, of someone you know so little about, and have met only once and not at all intimately enough to extract any useful information from the meeting.

It’s ironic you wonder if Dawkins is aware of how comic he appears to be, when here you are, Mr Gray, making a total buffoon of yourself demonstrating utter ignorance, of Dawkins, of science, and even of aspects of the philosophy material naturalism and empiricism as it plays out in science.

It’s a bit rich when a philosopher starts complaining about how some scientist doesn’t get some philosophical angles when the philosopher has a completely skewed view of what the scientist actually thinks and expresses, about science or philosophy.

Brain in a Vat

Coel has put up a post on one of philosophy’s favourite topics: Brain in a vat (BIV). I’ll try to get to other sources, such as the Massimo Pigliucci post Coel refers to, but for now I’ll respond to Coel’s post only.

So, “[the BIV problem] supposes that we are a brain kept alive in a vat, being fed with a stream of inputs generated by an Evil Genius. Everything that we experience as sense data is not real, but is artificially simulated and fed to us.”

First, a quick comment on the Tatsuya Ishida cartoon. There should have been one brain in a vat, and both speech bubbles should have come from the same brain: one taking the part of the brain that is supposed to be the main character, and the other is the internal auditory perception of what the brain presumes to be the other character. Of course it could be that two brains in vats are being manipulated in conversation, but that then seems too much like an actual conversation between brains, and sort of misses the main point of BIV: all perceptions, whether thoughts of the lone BIV, or stimulated auditory perceptions that convince the BIV that it has heard another speak (and visually aware of the other, etc.). But that’s just nit picking.

Back to the problem. How can you tell if you are a BIV?

You can’t. Or rather I should say that so far we don’t know if you could tell or not. The significant point is that we can’t positively know we could tell the difference, between being a real brain in a human body, situated in the physical world we perceive, or being a BIV being stimulated to so perceive the world.

Coel’s parsimony point is right, but I disagree with his use of it. Parsimony is merely a pragmatic tool in an epistemically uncertain world. It assures us of nothing. The proper use of parsimony is that if there are two explanations (or theories) that fit the same evidence then we might as well use the simplest. Since both theories fit the evidence then by definition we can’t tell which is correct, and at that point it doesn’t actually matter.

Example: Theories X and Y fit evidence A, B, C. X is simpler than Y, so use X.

New evidence D also supports X and Y, so continue to use X.

Then, new evidence E comes along that supports Y, but not X. All of a sudden Y is looking interesting. E might be so convincing that it clearly falsifies X and supports Y. Then Y is the theory to use.

Later, evidence F, G might come along, some of which shows that the experiments that affirmed E were faulty, and F and G also support X and not Y. X is back on the front foot.

That’s how it works. In the case of the BIV problem we have zero evidence either way. We have no evidence supporting BIV, and not supporting the falsity of BIV. We cannot resolve it with any evidence we have.

So, what should we do?

Well, think about the consequences of perceiving the real world and being a BIV perceiving a stimulated fictional world.

What if we really are brains in vats? Or, following my criticism of the cartoon above, what if I really am a BIV, and you and everyone else I perceive are stimulated fictions? What can I do about it?

Bear in mind that I can’t even be sure I’m an actually brain in an actual vat either. I might be merely a computer simulation: of a BIV being stimulated to perceive a real world.

This scenario is so fucked up compared to my perception of a real world that there really isn’t much I can do about it. I might want to get all revolutionary on the Evil Genius’s ass; but really, if he’s controlling my brain (or simulating the control of a brain) then he’s controlling my revolutionary thoughts too. He’s actually making my brain wonder if it’s a BIV! The cruel bastard!

In the end I’m left with the correct use of parsimony. It seems like I’m perceiving a real physical world containing other real physical people, so why not simply use that as a working conclusion? Work in progress. Just like all the rest of science.

Note that this has nothing at all to do with thinking about a finite subset of infinite possibilities, or any of that crap.

“Any statement not supported by evidence is most likely to be wrong and thus should be discarded.”

No! This is not how it is. Any statement not supported by evidence is NOT most likely to be wrong! We simply can’t say if its true or false at all. We can’t say anything much about it at all, except that if we don’t have evidence to support it then it’s indistinguishable from a statement that is false, and as such is as useless as a statement that is false. Using terms like ‘most likely’ is totally inappropriate.

Take the statement, “Praying to Jesus gets results, sometimes.” Well, people pray often, and most times they get no result. Sometimes people pray and get the result they pray for. This is true for many sports competitions, since many people seem to pray to Jesus for victory in sports. But since someone wins and someone loses (barring the anathema of US sports – a draw) the actual result is indistinguishable from coincidence. Prayer, as a determiner of sports results might actually work. Maybe Jesus really does dish out results according to prayer and some other very complicated cosmic data he uses. But to us the use of prayer is indistinguishable from useless. [Note, that’s not to say there are not other psychological consequences of prayer.]

“Regardless of whether the “world” is real or simulated, the standard scientific “real-world model” gives the greatest parsimony and predictive power in describing that world.”

Not so. The BIV, if that is the state of affairs, only ‘thinks’ the real-world model gives predictive power at all. The actual laws of the universe that the Evil Genius inhabits might be quite different from the one that the BIV thinks it inhabits, with very different laws. Of course the BIV can’t imagine what those laws might be, because the BIV is only aware of the ones it is programmed to perceive. All the ‘predictions’ the BIV thought it observed never happened. Have you ever noticed in a dream how natural and obvious some of that weird shit appears to be, how convincing it is, when in the dream? Well, why should that not be the case for the BIV? If you are a BIV then you haven’t ‘woken up’ yet to observe how false all your perceptions are; you are still in the ‘dream’ believing you can make predictions.

“Any departure from that standard model would result in a worse account (one that is less parsimonious and less predictive about that stream of experiences). That’s because science’s models do work very well about our world and are the best that we have.”

Not they don’t, if you are a BIV! They only appear to work very well.

“One might object that in a “brain in vat” scenario the Evil Genius could feed us any stream of experience he liked, with no rhyme or reason to it, no regularities and no predictability. That is indeed possible, but then the stream of experiences could only be described essentially as a streamed video tape, which is the most information-hungry type of model and one that would be totally useless at predicting anything.”

It doesn’t matter how information hungry the theory is from the perspective of the brain, real or BIV. This has nothing to do with it at all. The computer simulation of rolls of a dice are more information hungry than rolling an actual device since computer simulations are built on information hungry computers. But that doesn’t mean we should make a statement, “All simulations of dice in computers are actually real dice, since simulating a dice is more information-hungry, and by the rule of parsimony we should not believe that computers are ever simulating dice.”

“In contrast the “real world” model is very compact in that all one needs are the basic laws of physics and all else follows from that. This model has a vast amount of predictive power, as we know from the fact that engineering works, and planes we build fly, and predictions we make for solar eclipses come true.”

No! You, the BIV, only THINK planes fly, if indeed you are a BIV.

“The brain-in-vat model has no capacity to make any predictions at all about the stream of experiences, unless we make all sorts of assumptions about the Evil Genius and why he is feeding us the stream of experiences.”

Well, where in the BIV notion does it require us to be able to say anything at all about the Evil Genius? If I am a BIV then any assumptions I might presume to make are untestable bollocks.

But, the BIV model does make predictions. It predicts that the brain so programmed can make predictions. It can make predictions about its imaginary world, and it can make predictions about being a brain in a vat. They simply aren’t testable predictions.

“Yet, ex hypothesis, we can never have any information about the Evil Genius or his doings.”

Exactly. Including never having the information to know that you are not a BIV.

“The only way of regaining any degree of parsimony or predictive power…”

No, no, no! If you are a BIV you get only the predictive power that the system controlling you, or simulating you, gives you; which, if you are a BIV, is this very prediction that you are or could be a BIV. And it may all be fake. As a BIV you don’t get any say in anything! You don’t get to know anything. The very fact that you are wondering if you’re a BIV is a consequence of being that very BIV, but only because the stimulations or simulations produced by the Evil Genius allow it. That you are predicting the consequences of being a BIV is predicted by being a BIV, if you are a BIV.

Even if the Evil Genius attached some physical eyes onto the brain and allowed you to see him waving at you from outside the vat, you would have not way of knowing which of the following just occurred:

1) You are a BIV and just saw the actual Evil Genius.

2) You are a BIV hallucinating.

3) You are a real embodied brain in a real physical world hallucinating.

This is just like revelations from God that some religious people report, or when some ‘crazy’ person hears the voice of Jesus and neurologists see his auditory cortex buzzing away as if hearing real voices. Religious personal revelations might be real or they might be imagined. These are indistinguishable events. We reject them only because they don’t seem convincing to us most of the time, and because there is not convincing evidence. Though remember, to many religious people, belief is the parsimonious result.

And this is how we deal with the BIV.

Imagine I am a BIV. I am stimulated to perceive a physical world. That fake physical world model results in me learning some physics (maybe fake physics) and evolution (maybe fake evolution) and I conclude that I am evolved from animals that didn’t have brains and animals that had simple brains. With all that I conclude that I am a human animal. one of many, that has a brain that has quite a fertile imagination, and imagines it might be a brain in a vat.

Or, imagine I’m a real human in a physical world. That physical world results in me learning some physics and evolution and I conclude that I am evolved from animals that didn’t have brains and animals that had simple brains. With all that I conclude that I am a human animal. one of many, that has a brain that has quite a fertile imagination, and imagines it might be a brain in a vat.

These are truly indistinguishable. Otherwise we wouldn’t be having this debate. But note that one is a subset of the other. The simpler one, the latter, seems to work in just the same way as the former, except that the former has some features (me being a BIV) that I can’t actually observe or test. So, according to the principle (i.e. suggestion, recommendation) of parsimony I might as well go along with the latter.

Note that this is almost an arbitrary choice; but not quite. I could live my life as if I’m a BIV. Suppose I did so in one of two ways:

1) I live my life as if I’m a BIV, but I keep it to myself. I never tell anyone. I even try to fool myself that I don’t believe it. Other than a few personal psychotic moments how would this be different from believing I’m a real person in a real world?

2) I live my life as if I’m a BIV, but I try to tell everyone? But hold on, why would I? Since I’m a BIV what good would it do telling my imaginary fellow humans that don’t actually exist except as figments of my BIV? But suppose I did, and those very same figments of my BIV locked me up in an asylum. Well, it’s only an imaginary asylum.

The problem with the BIV perspective is not that it’s not real, but that it’s fucked up to think it is real. It just seems to add a layer of complexity that is unevidenced and unnecessary. I might as well go along with the apparent reality I perceive, whether it’s a real reality or a stimulated one or a simulated one.

Note that this is also how I see religion: an unevidenced and unnecessary level of complexity added to our experienced life; pretending we are God’s brains in his vat of a universe. So fucked up that it’s no wonder we get the craziness. But note also that it could all be true – all of it! Islam AND Christianity – all true but we poor brains in God’s vat simply don’t get the big picture; and William Lane Craig is right that all the dead children have been done a great favour. Religion is as exactly as fucked up as imagining we’re brains in vats. Once you start adding imaginary stuff on top of evidenced stuff, anything goes.

“The in-a-vat wrapper to the real-world model is along the same lines, a vast and needless complication that doesn’t in any way improve the model’s fit to evidence. We could just as well imagine any number of other parallel meta-realities that make no difference to what we experience.”

That’s right. That’s all it boils down to. A rather arbitrary choice, made because it makes life simpler, even if only apparently so.

“Since there are an infinite number of such possibilities the chances of any random one of them being actually true is infinitesimal.”

This is totally irrelevant. It wouldn’t matter if there were only two possibilities: 1) real world, as we actually perceive it; 2) BIV, stimulated to perceive the world as we actually perceive it.

“Thus, by the adoption of the usual scientific method, invoking Occam’s razor and principles of parsimony and the need for predictive power, we can reject brain-in-a-vat scenarios.”

No. Only the principle of parsimony is necessary. Predictive power is of no use, since a BIV makes the same predictions. We cannot reject the BIV with any conviction. Instead we simply choose to reject it because that’s easier. There is no other convincing reason.

“That, of course, does not mean that they can be absolutely ruled out, any more than we can rule out any other hypothesis designed to leave no discernible trace at all on our experience of the world (apophatic theologians are particularly good at inventing these), …”


“… but the chances of any such suggestion being true is too low to merit taking it seriously.”

No. It’s nothing to do with chance, probability, possibilities, or anything else. It’s simply taking the simpler option that doesn’t require that we sustain belief in things (Evil Genius, vat, disembodied stimulated brain) that we cannot test.

Coel refers to Descartes and his Cartesian Doubt, whereby Descartes digs deep into a reasoned sceptical investigation to figure out what lies at the bottom when all our uncertainties are stripped away. His working conclusion is cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am. From there Descartes cocks it all up, because he already believes in God and he just can’t drum up enough doubt about that.

But his Cogito is about the only place I can see we can start from. Coming up from there I can’t see any difference between our perceived reality and solipsism, or a BIV. That’s the only starting position I have, and that’s were I take it from here: Contingency of Knowledge.

What do I believe ‘in’? Nothing.

I had a conversation with an atheist friend recently and I think we surprised each other.

Though an atheist she still felt she needed to believe in ‘something’, though she didn’t quite know in what; and to some extent she envied religious believers in that they had something to turn to, some belief. This surprised me, because though I know of some atheists who feel this way this was my first opportunity to hear it first hand. What surprised me more was her surprise at the nature my atheism.

She asked me, well what do you believe in? You surely must believe in something, ‘in humanity’, for example? Her surprise was that I said that as far as I can tell I don’t believe in anything, in that religious type of ‘believing IN something’, and I don’t need to. What about life, family, your wife?

I chose to respond about my wife – one’s wife is a common subject when believers insists that surely you have ‘faith’ in your wife’s love for you. Of course I love my wife. Along with my (adult) children she is most important to me. But I don’t ‘believe in’ her, in some all encompassing sort of way. She’s another human being. She has flaws, as do we all. It would be unfair to ‘believe’ in her in that way, and totally unnecessary. I trust her; and I’ve learned to do that with experience of not being given any reason not to. Exactly what I trust her with or about is less clear, but generally I’d say I trust her when she says she loves me; I trust her not to intentionally do anything that would hurt me in any way. But my wife and I are simply two human animals that have that type of loving bond that humans are capable of. It’s not magic. It’s not spiritual. It’s human. It’s what humans do.

I could come over all lyrical, quote lines from poems or love songs to express how deep my love is, but that seems to be rather superficial when trying to get to the bottom of this belief stuff. I need to explain it rationally. Spouting words of romantic love would express my feelings, perhaps, but wouldn’t go any way to explaining anything about belief.

Believing ‘in’ stuff always seems rather contrived; fake. I’m not disputing that people do believe like that. But I get the feeling that they’ve been busy fooling themselves into such beliefs, buying into romanticism spouted by poets, philosophers and theologians. It all seems such unnecessary nonsense. I get all the wonder and magic of living a human life, with other humans, and with other animals on this plant, and from the mysteries of the universe itself. I don’t see the need to believe ‘in’ anything.

Coincidentally Will Self has a piece in the BBC News magazine: A Point of View: Why not caring about anything is only for the young. “It is not the content of our beliefs that really matters, so much as the practice of believing itself, argues Will Self.”

Well, no, believing doesn’t matter. Or, rather, not believing ‘in’ something, avoiding such an error, is what actually matters, because it allows you to believe whatever you find to be the case. I find that believing ‘in’ something gives that something an importance that cannot then be betrayed by truth, and can lead to the denial of any truth that threatens what you happen to believe ‘in’. Religions gain their coercive authority from having people submit to belief ‘in’ them.

“Dostoevsky understood that what humans are, in terms of our moral being, is crucially tied up with what – if anything – we believe.”

As a matter observation, I guess that has been right, historically; mostly, for the thinkers that think about thought about those things. But I don’t think it’s a necessity for humans. I think it’s a habit, like one’s religion, that we have tended to fall into, or grown up into. It seems so common that I suppose it might be some quirk of the brain that makes it happen; an accident of genetics and gene expression in the environment of human brain evolution.

“In the contemporary secular era, one the lineaments of which Dostoevsky could perfectly well discern when he was writing in the 1870s, there are plenty of people keen to assert that they have no beliefs at all, if by this is meant a settled conviction about such big questions as why we are here, where we are going, and whether good and evil are ultimate realities or merely functions of a given social structure during a particular era.”

Quite right. If the enlightenment has shown us anything it’s that such convictions are foolish. It’s ironic that believers are often quick to tell us how wrong we atheist science proponents are in our belief ‘in’ science. They assume we believe ‘in’ science the way they believe ‘in’ whatever it is they believe in. And they couldn’t be more wrong. Scientific scepticism is the withholding of conviction – barring over enthusiasm in one’s pet theory now and again, but we’re quick to clarify the contingency of our apparent beliefs The contingency is what we take for granted as a lesson quickly learned in the failure to make accurate predictions when we expect to be able to make them. A failed experiment is telling us something: something unexpected about the subject of the experiment, or something unexpected about how to perform the experiment.

Learning to trust science generally, as a process of discovery, as the best process we have available to us, is not a commitment to a belief ‘in’ it. And when it comes to science in specific instances it’s usually the scientist doing the science that knows full well how contingent their very positive looking results are.

“But is it really true to say we have no beliefs? After all, if we truly believed nothing it would be difficult for us to operate in a world where everyone else behaves as if they did believe in something, that something being – by and large – the efficiency and reliability of the technologies we rely on for our daily life.”

Will Self is here failing to distinguish between belief, as expressed when we say ‘belief in’, and a learned trust.

Trust is a powerful empirical tool used throughout the animal kingdom, by animals possessing brains. Trust: we can start with it, and potentially withdraw it; or we can start without it and learn when to award it. The inquisitive nature of the young is an expression of this learning process: to dive in head first with no negative expectation, and learn from one’s mistakes, or to tread cautiously and learn what can be trusted.

Now it may well be that the human brain, with greater powers of reflection, is sometimes a little too sceptical for its own good, and often a little too trusting in invisible powers for which there is no evidence. These are issues of psychology and neuroscience that we are still trying to discover in detail. But despite our history of over indulgence in belief ‘in’ things, there is no reason to suppose this is some necessity for survival, or happiness.

“When we push button A we very much expect B to happen, when we flick a light switch we anticipate the light going on.”

Well, yes. These are learned expectations. There is no reason to believe a switch will bring forth light, and any ancient would be rightly mystified if it had. From an early age my children grew up with VHS video recorders which they could use to record and play back TV programmes. That was something I learned was possible at a much later stage in life than them, since I grew up with only two TV channels, then four, and no means of recording. My childrens children will think it quite natural to walk down the street seemingly talking to themselves when in fact they are in intimate live conversation with someone on the other side of the world. How would that not be sorcery to people of earlier times. But these are not beliefs ‘in’ anything.

“they depend upon beliefs that we hold on trust”

Yes, on trust, not through belief ‘in’. They are commitments of quite different kinds.

“This reliance on essentially occult beliefs for the smooth running of the physical aspects of our lives has engendered a further strange belief in us, a belief about our beliefs concerning those big, metaphysical questions.”

For some that aren’t fortunate enough to have the opportunity, through circumstances, to enlighten themselves that may be fair enough; but for anyone at all educated this amounts to wilful ignorance. I don’t know many details of physics, cosmology, chemistry, biology, and when I try to express my opinions on these subject I no doubt make mistakes, or run out explanatory steam. But I know enough to know that there will be answers there, if in fact I know that someone somewhere has taken the effort to make the appropriate discoveries. It seems to me that failing to grasp the rudiments of how things work is a failure of inquisitiveness not unrelated to the closing down of inquiry we see in many systems that require a belief ‘in’ them.

We can even go so far as to make reasonably educated estimates about as yet incomplete knowledge; not because we know that these things ‘will’ be discovered, but from a trust born of previously successful extrapolations. And tempered by previous failures too. So, as just one example, I see no principled barrier to humans discovering the nature of consciousness, as a function of a biological brain, to the extent that one day we will be able to enhance our own consciousness, encapsulate it in substrates other than evolved brains, and will be able to generate it afresh. There really is no known principle that persuades me this will not be possible. There is, however, a lot of belief ‘in’ stuff going on in some human brains that prevents them entertaining this possibility. Their belief ‘in’ some unsubstantiated specialness of human kind or person, often divinely created and so outside the creative reach of man himself, prevents them seeing the possibility. Believing ‘in’ things seems such a hindrance to the imagination – another irony given the flights of fancy believers often engage in without any need for evidence to support their beliefs.

“This abrupt curtailment of the Western metaphysical project has left us at the bottom of our metaphorical gardens, in our figurative garden sheds, and depending for our belief system on a series of makeshift structures we’ve knocked up ourselves.”

That’s right. We’ve invented some holy shit. And look at the price we are paying for that right now. The most profoundly religious places on earth are often the most abysmal. Of course the dogmas of religious belief are no worse than those of atheistic beliefs ‘in’ something or other – as religious believers will be only to pleased to remind us by bringing up Stalin and other wackos. But sceptical scientific atheism isn’t made of the same stuff: it’s the lack of unconditional belief ‘in’ things. If we’re going to believe something it’s going to be conditional on the evidence that supports it; and if better evidence comes along we give up the belief somewhat easily, though sometimes reluctantly, because our beliefs are contingent.

“If called to account on the gimcrack quality of our convictions, we relapse into a sort of stoicism light: “Well,” we say, “it’s true that these beliefs aren’t altogether credible, but that doesn’t matter because at root I don’t believe in anything – I’m just trying to get by like the rest of us.” But the problem with stoicism light is that it just can’t deal with the heavy stuff.”

I agree. There’s a lot of unthinking conviction going on. And ‘sophisticated theology’ is the cheapest and showiest ornament of all. And it’s all so unnecessary. But worse, it’s always poorly thought out. Supposedly sophisticated, it’s nothing but a sham.

“The problem with our contemporary secular beliefs is that they’re either makeshift, or entered into unconsciously, simply as a necessary operating system for our busy and digitised lives. The great believers in the wonder of the universe, as revealed to us by science, seem to have considerable difficulty in either galvanising us to social solidarity, or providing us with true solace.”

As for the social solidarity I defy you to give any example of solidarity that is more inclusive of people than is science. There are no bars to membership. And as unlikely as it is to find someone that is both Muslim and Christian, there is no reason a Muslim or a Christian can’t be a scientist.

And as for solace, I think the difficulty is in the minds of those expecting solace. Cast it off. You don’t need it. Or, to put it another way, there’s a natural peace and solace in the freedom from belief ‘in’ anything in particular. It’s deeply liberating.

Life throws up crap, and often this happens when you’ve taken the greatest care in your life to avoid it; and to rub salt in, you witness the most cavalier kind swanning through life happily with the least effort. When will you get it into your heads that the chaotic nature of nature defies perfect order. Shit happens, and the best you can do is try to avoid it happening to you and your loved ones, and if you can help a few others around the world avoid it too, all the better for your empathetic biology. And if you can positively create and improve, then better still.

“I’ve yet to hear of anyone going gently into that dark night on the basis that she or he is happily anticipating their dissolution into cosmic dust.”

Then you’re not listening.

That’s not to say an individual at death’s door doesn’t long to survive. We are biological survival machines. We are programmed to stay alive if we can, and barring relief from pain and suffering the human organism is programmed not to go gently. If you doubt the power of this biological force of nature then watch the beating twitching body of a mouse your cat has toyed with. For a more traumatic example make yourself witness (it’s your duty to do so) the struggling body of the victim of a beheading at the hands of those that currently take their solace from the religion of Allah. Then decide what makes stoicism so biologically unnatural, and how reliable religion is at providing solace.

It is one of the supreme powers of self control to slip away in fully conscious peace – it goes against our biological grain. And all the more incredible when not pretending we are simply crossing over to a better eternal life of bliss. Knowing you are going, right now, and this is the end, may be a challenge to our animal survival that even a contemplative brain has difficulty with. All the more virtuous then, if virtue is something you find appealing.

“nor do I witness multitudes assembling in order that they may sing the periodic table together, or recite prime numbers in plain chant.”

And what’s that got to do with the price of eggs? Do you think atheists that believe in nothing in particular cannot be stirred by the rhythms of music. Emotive religious music can be deeply moving. But then so is music by the Doors. Try Rhythms of the Brain, by Gyorgy Buzsaki if you want to know why rhythm is important – it’s nothing to do with the religious content. It’s nothing to do with believing ‘in’ something.

“By contrast, religious beliefs continue to offer many people genuine succour, and they do this, I think, as Dostoevsky realised, not because of the specific concepts they appear to enshrine – such as an afterlife or eternal judgement – but because they place the human individual in a universal context, and thereby give her life meaning.”

I can understand that, in a time of near absolute ignorance. And the irrelevance of the specific content of belief goes some way to explain the arbitrary and varied nature of it. What else could explain the success of Scientology? A trumped up religion, invented by a failed science fiction writer, and people actually believe ‘in’ that stuff? This tells us more about the gullibility of the human brain than it does about our need for succour – or it tells us it’s such a desperate need we’ll believe damned near anything other than the cold facts of life and death. It is almost as incredible that any educated intellectual falls for the religious crap, but sure enough they do. And some of them scientists too. Even biologists.

We might still be early in our journey of the discovery of this universe and beyond, but the sciences of physics, chemistry, biology and evolution, and latterly the brain sciences and the discoveries of our symbiotic relationship with all life on earth, and with any other life there might be in the universe, and with the rhythms in the dust of the universe – all this, it gives life far greater meaning than any trumped up imaginary fantasy.

Don’t get me wrong. Fantasy has its places, from childhood fairy tales, to adult fictions, theatres, art. We are emotionally driven intellects, and it’s often fun to lose ourselves in our imagination. And the devotional life may have its merits in personal fulfilment – it takes all sorts, and there’s no telling what one’s brain might find satisfying. And the simplicity and beauty of non-belief-in provides an exhilarating freedom of its own kind.

So, it’s not a belief ‘in’ something, the universe, and our place in it that we need. It’s the marvel of the discovery that we collectively, accumulatively, we lumps of dynamic dust, have been able to contemplate and understand what we are, what we came from, where we might yet go, that gives life its meaning. That and a good pint or a tasty dram, a hearty meal, passionate sex, holding hands, a melody, a pleasant snooze in the afternoon. Living our small short lives and marvelling at the greater universe is plenty satisfying enough. I don’t need to pretend in an afterlife or in any cosmic shepherd to watch over me and guide me. The last thing I need is the atrocious nonsense that the big religions dream up. I don’t need to believe ‘in’ something; what a chore.

Free Will: Dennett’s Poor Sunset Analogy

Dan Dennett has provided Sam Harris with a refutation of the incompatibilist notion of free will, and support for the compatibilist view.

Dennett fails totally. Here’s the post.

Dennett still does not get the incompatibilist perspective. In fact part of the problem is the philosophical literature. It is typically hopelessly loaded with fine-tuned and rather meaningless variations on the issues of free will.

One of the great values of good science explanations is that they can make very difficult subjects easy to understand. Sam Harris is usually crystal clear. Sadly, in spite of their claim to be the torch bearers of critical thinking, philosophers’ texts can be downright messy, obtuse, as clear as mud. Dennett’s is no exception. And it doesn’t help when he references the Nahmias et al. 2005 paper. But I’ll try to get around to that in another post.

For now I want to address Dennett’s hopeless use of the sunset/free-will analogy. Dennett has used this analogy as one element of his arguments for dismissing the incompatibilism case that free will is an illusion. Here’s the analogy as expressed by Dennett.

After all, most people used to believe the sun went around the earth. … When we found out that the sun does not revolve around the earth, we didn’t then insist that there is no such thing as the sun (because what the folk mean by “sun” is “that bright thing that goes around the earth”). Now that we understand what sunsets are, we don’t call them illusions. They are real phenomena that can mislead the naive.

What point is he trying to make here? Well there are two obvious points:

1) On the existence of free will – The sunset exists, even though our understanding of what it does has changed; and therefore free will still exists, even though how we perceive it has changed.

2) On the illusory nature of free will – We have changed our understanding of sunsets, but we don’t call them illusions. Sunsets are real phenomena that can mislead the naive. Therefore we should not infer that free will is an illusion just because we have changed our perception of it.

The trouble is that he is equivocating on the term ‘sunset’, and is not clear in how the various elements of his analogy are related.

He starts equating free will with a sunset, which is fine. But at the end he is equating the physical phenomenon that causes the human experience of a sunset with the human experience itself. He insists sunsets, the physical phenomenon, are obviously not illusory, and so free will is not illusory either. But the real problem is that we incompatibilists are not claiming that the physical phenomenon that causes the experience of a sunset is illusory, but that the experience is illusory – and similarly, the phenomenon that causes the experience of free will is not illusory, it is real, but the experience, the perception of it, is illusory. The experience, as our brains perceive it, is that the small disk of the sun is moving down below the horizon, while we on our point on earth are stationary.

To make all this clearer here’s the analogy in full, with each element of the analogy stated separately, so we can see which are real phenomena and which are illusory.

Physical phenomenon:

Sunset: The earth rotates in front of the sun, causing the position of the sun and a spot on the surface of the earth to change position and direction with respect to each other.

Free will: Brain activity is caused, and by active feedback processes causes in turn actions by the brain, and these in turn cause actions of the body.

Mistaken perception (illusion):

Sunset: The first person POV, when at a point on the earth’s surface, is to perceive the motion of the sun across the sky and its descending below the horizon. It ‘feels’ like the sun is setting, rather than our point on the earth rotating away from the sun, in a changing direction caused by rotation.

Free will: The first person POV, from subjective feeling and introspection, is to perceive that willed decisions are made free of any physical cause in the brain. In fact the whole mind feels free of physical causation.

Cause of the illusion:

Sunset: Our senses that indicate our personal motion cannot detect the rotation motion of the earth – we cannot ‘feel’ the earth rotating. When we are stationary on the earth relative to all objects around us we feel we and the earth are stationary. So, we perceive the rotation of the earth in front of the distant sun as the sun moving across the sky, and it’s descending below the horizon at sunset.

Free will: Our peripheral senses, our senses of touch and balance, and sight,all indicate our personal physical activity; but the activity of the brain’s neurons do not produce such a sensory experience internally – we cannot ‘feel’ our thinking*. When we are thinking and making decisions we cannot detect the brain activity involved, and so we feel as if our mind, our thinking, our decisions, our will, are all free of the physical brain that is actually performing these functions.

* In one respect we could say that our feelings, thoughts and decisions are in fact what it feels like for a brain to sense itself and control itself.

Persistence of the illusion:

Sunset: Even though we have an intellectually satisfying explanation, from astronomy and other sciences, that the earth does indeed rotate in front of the sun and that the sun is not a relatively small disk or ball moving across the sky, our normal POV and the lack of appropriate motion sensations prevent us subjectively feeling the reality. We succumb to the illusion that we are watching the sun move, when in fact we are moving in front of the sun.

Free will: Even though we have an intellectually satisfying explanation, from all science, that the brain is the cause and location of our mental experiences, our normal subjective POV and the attendant lack of appropriate neuronal sensations prevent us subjectively feeling the reality. We succumb to the illusion that we have free will, when in fact our will is not free of physical causes in any way.

Where the illusion is experienced:

First, a note on visual illusions. Visual illusions are so called because they are effects that reach our brains through the eyes. Some are illusions of visual phenomena – such as the apparent bending of a stick inserted in water, caused by refraction. But some visual illusions occur entirely in the brain – they are mental illusions. In watching a rotating wire frame Necker cube, the visual signals that reach the eyes are consistent with the physical phenomenon. The light reaching our eyes from the Necker cube is consistent with the one actual direction of rotation of the Necker cube; but the brain can perceive it rotating in either direction, and can perceive a change in direction when there isn’t one. When seeing the correct direction the brain is experiencing an accurate representation of the physical phenomenon. When the brain ‘sees’ the cube flip to the wrong direction it is experiencing the illusion. We could walk up to the Necker cube and get a better perspective, and so remove the illusion completely: we change our POV.

Sunset: In the brain. It’s a mental illusion. And, unlike for the Necker cube, watching the sunset we cannot easily changed POV – without leaving the earth. We are pretty much stuck experiencing the illusion of sunsets. The mental illusion.

Free will: In the brain. It’s a mental illusion. Unlike sunsets and Necker cubes we don’t have any visual cues to aid our thinking. We have no sensory input at all, except in as much as the brain experiences its activity through feelings and thoughts. And unlike the Necker cube we can’t change our POV. We are stuck with the first person subjective and introspective POV. Why do we think we don’t have the free will of a free floating non-physical mind? All our third person science: the total lack of any indication that there are such things as non-physical minds (or souls), and all the science that only ever shows that everything has a cause.

I’m surprised philosophers put so much store in the subjective POV, particularly when it comes to consciousness and free will. I can understand why theologians do; and perhaps this common love of introspection is why philosophers and theologians are such good bedfellows so often, and why theologians are often mistaken for philosophers (Plantinga).

What about the language? Should it change?

Sunset: When appropriate, yes. And it does. Astronomers standing on earth, or astronauts standing on the moon for that matter, will generally refer to sunsets, or earth rises, or whatever they experience, using the common terms, when they are in the first person POV zone. It even makes sense for Mission Control, on earth, to speak in terms of earth rise, when communicating with astronauts standing on the moon. The earth bound controllers are humans, and humans are capable of projecting their POV as appropriate, when required. But in any scientific context that involves an imaginary third person perspective of the solar system scientists will talk in terms of planetary rotations and orbits. We switch the terminology as required. We change context from first person POV to third person POV, as required.

Free will: When appropriate, yes, change the language. Scientists (and some philosophers) can shift their POV from first to third person to view brains as physical objects performing functions of thinking and willing in terms of brain activity. We don’t have to be subject to the first person POV to the point that we persuade ourselves to deny that free will is an illusion. But nor do we have to abandon the first person POV whereby we succumb to the illusion of free will in common language. Philosophers should not take the incompatibilist perspective as a denial of having the illusory experience of free will.

If the sunset or any mental visual illusion analogy is going to be used I can’t see how one can conclude that free will is not an illusion.

I can see that Dennett isn’t convinced. Try this:

there are mad dog reductionist neuroscientists and philosophers who insist that minds are illusions, pains are illusions, dreams are illusions, ideas are illusions-all there is is just neurons and glia and the like

Philosophers and theologians alike love their emotive language. We’re mad dogs now. This makes mockery of Dennett’s complaints about the language Harris uses. Dennett doesn’t play to the standards he sets for others.

With free will, Dennett mistakes the phenomena for the experience of the phenomena. It is an illusion that we have a free floating mind. It’s no good Dennett complaining “all there is is just neurons and glia and the like” if he’s not going to give any alternative explanation to support his claims about free will. That’s all there is inside our heads: neurons and glia and the like. What else does he think is the product of the experience? What (i.e. who) does he think is having the mental experience? Get used to it Dan, it’s the brain: the neurons and glia and the like. He rules out non-physical dualism, and he rules out the brain. What magic is he supposing?

Here are some more instances of Harris’s move: We do not have the freedom we think we have. Who’s we?

This is a common failure on the part of compatibilists that I’ve seen many times. They see an incompatibilists using common terms, in order to make statements easy to parse, and presume the incompatibilists are falling into a free will error – denying its existence while using it.

We are brains. When I am thinking it is my brain doing it. That’s my brain talking about itself in both first and third person: as the first person possessive, “my”, of the third person, “brain”. I am me, I am the brain that refers to itself as “my brain”, or “I”, or “me”.

You’ll note that we don’t have very good language for expressing this. Tough. Make the effort to understand that and give up on this idea that you have trapped us into using the free will we are denying.

So, when Harris says, “We do not have the freedom we think we have” it means that the brain that perceives itself through thought suffers an illusion that it is a mind free of the brain.

The brain is a delusional organ in this respect.

This is not an unreasonable claim. For example, there are brain conditions where brains feel they are not connected to their bodies – they feel totally disembodied. There are not only specific neurological maladies that lead to this but quite common psychological experiences, such as the out-of-body experience. Why is so difficult to understand that a brain can feel itself disembodied from the brain, from itself? Why is it so difficult to understand that the brain thinks it is a free floating mind with a will free of physical cause?

So, this is what it feels like, to be a massively connected bunch of neurons that have collected and contextualised masses of data about the world, encoded as active neuronal activity and neuron memory states. This is what it feels like, for such a system to process data about itself, to ‘observe’ itself. It cannot ‘observe’ itself visually or with any other senses. This thinking business, this is what it feels like for a system with no external experience of its own internal operation to form concepts about itself. It feels like a free floating mind exists that is unconnected to the brain.

That is the nature of the illusion of the mind. When that brain switches into action mode, this is what it feels like to will, and we call it free will because it feels free of the brain events that it consists of.

There’s a lot more wrong with the Dennett piece. But I wanted to address this particular perspective on the illusory nature of free will in terms of illusions. particularly since Dennett makes such a bad job of it.

UPDATE: Sam Harris mentioned this poor analogy of Dennett’s in less detail, but covered much more, in his reply:

The Marionette’s Lament
– A Response to Daniel Dennett

Can Faith Ever Be Rational?

The question was posed here: Can Faith Ever Be Rational?

Rational: agreeable to reason; reasonable; sensible; having or exercising reason, sound judgment, or good sense; of, pertaining to, or constituting reasoning powers: the rational faculty.

Faith: confidence or trust in a person or thing; belief that is not based on proof or evidence; belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion.


Let’s get the equivocating use of the term faith as trust out of the way first, which is what the cited Buchak paper gets into with:

Buchak characterizes faith as a commitment to acting as if some claim is true without first needing to examine additional evidence that could potentially bear on the claim.

Oh, you mean like the terrorists that act in the name of some faith, before actually checking if the foundation of their faith is supported by evidence? Right.

Trust can be rational. Trust is something you learn, as when you learn to trust your spouse. You can be wrong, or, you could be right but later turn out to be wrong because your spouse was trustworthy for some time but then changed.

And we cannot fact-check everything for ourselves. Indeed part of the scientific method works because we cannot rely on our personal fact-checking all the time, because we have biases, and fallible senses, and fallible reasoning capacity. So, when experiments are carried out and reported we come to trust a particular scientific claim. Or we come not to trust it. Either way we adapt our trust according to how the claims stand up to scrutiny. We do not trust blindly and unconditionally, but carefully, with experience.

We can come to trust a source, a scientists, an establishment, which becomes an authority – but this must always be tempered by the possibility of error or fraud, and so in turn we come to trust the other scientists who check the source. Trust in sources can be lost – and sometimes is dramatically lost, when some scientists turns out to have been fraudulent in many of his published papers. This loss of trust can be inconvenient in science. It can even be catastrophic, as when the Soviet Union put their trust in Trofim Lysenko – and it would not be unreasonable to call this an example of blind faith rather than trust.

So this isn’t a universal locked-in trust. Trust can be revoked, if evidence comes to light that that suggests we should give up that trust.

We tend to trust doctors, because we know they are well trained professionals that dedicated to maintaining or improving our wellbeing. But we can lose trust in doctors when they fail us. They are fallible humans, and so even the very best intentioned of them can make mistakes. It is unfair to have unconditional faith in doctors. They should generally be trusted, but with caution befitting of your own concern for your own wellbeing. If you have a minor ailment, trust them by all means. If it’s a life and death decision, ask for a second opinion.

So, generally, “I trust my doctor”, is a pretty reasonable and rational statement. But to be more accurate it should be stated as, “I trust my doctor, to a degree, and cautiously, being ready to adapt my trust in the face of my experiences with my doctor.” This is quite rational.

What about when a religious person says something like, “I trust the Lord Jesus.” Isn’t that the same kind of trust? The use of the word trust here is misleading. It’s the faith that has brought this believer to suppose there is actually a Jesus to trust that is the issue. If Christianity were true in all its claims then it would be rational to trust Jesus, until such time that Jesus lets you down – which of course according to the fairy tale wouldn’t happen.

A similar statement to “I trust the Lord Jesus,” is “I trust in the Lord Jesus,” and when phrased like that we start to see the way in which simple rational trust in the character of a reliable person is morphing into the faith in both the character and the existence of a divine person. This is how religious rhetoric dupes people. Vagueness, equivocation, duplicity are the tools of religious rhetoric.

Religious Faith

When the question, is it rational, is asked of faith, the method by which a belief is maintained, then no, faith is not rational at all. Faith is the antithesis of rationality. Faith is what you use when you want to believe something, or are otherwise driven to hold a belief, when there is no reason or evidence to support the belief. And faith can result in belief in spite of counter evidence and reason.

When the question is asked it may be asked of faith, the system of belief, such as Christianity or Islam. So, can Christianity be rational? Can Islam be rational? Well, they can contain elements of reason, rationality, in the arguments put forward to support them, but that does not make them consequentially rational.

It is not necessarily important how the belief is first acquired. For example, it might be that someone who starts to examine a belief is persuaded by some arguments for it. When examined thoroughly the arguments may not be at all persuasive. But it would be unfair to say that someone new to the belief or someone who has not examined it well, is acting without reason, being irrational, just because they are persuaded by a poor argument.

Many Christians may be persuaded by the arguments of someone like C. S. Lewis, or William Lane Craig, or Alvin Plantinga.

The problem for someone first persuaded by these conjurors of religious apologetics arises when they become so convinced that they stop using reason and turn to faith as the final arbiter of what they believe.

Often the arguments of the apologists contain assertions that one should use faith. The trouble is that once you do resort to faith your reasoning capacity has become limited, because faith is always supposed to override, surmount, be better than reason. This is what religions rely on. This is how they lock people in, by first infecting them and then making them resistant to reason. Religions are viral, in that the persuasively rhetorical story is coughed up verbatim in order to infect others.

The basic lock-in rhetoric can be summarised by the following Simplified Bible claims, that represents how holy books work.

Simplified Bible

God exists.

This book contains the true and inerrant word of God.

God requires that you have faith in Him, and in his words as contained in this book.

When your belief is challenged by reason and evidence, this is the work of Satan tempting you, so beware, and maintain your faith.

Of course the intelligent faithful would not usually be conned by such a simplistic book. All the elaborate stories of holy books are constructed so as to be persuasive, much more persuasive than this. They are appealing to believers, in that the nice stories suck them in, with all the hope and promise, but they also add threats of damnation just to make sure you prefer the warm and cosy message. Clever carrot and stick rhetoric. They have had thousands of years to hone their persuasive books.

But the logic of the above simplified holy book is not much different than this:

Liar’s Bible

This book was written by a truthful person and not a liar, honest.

Believe anything the author of this book tells you.

When your belief is challenged by someone using reason and evidence, that is the work of a liar tempting you, so beware, and maintain your faith in this book and its author.

So, a liar has written a book in which he claims to be honest, and this book claims that the book is true and that the liar is honest. It also warns you of naysayers, stating in fact that the naysayers are the liars. So, another person comes along and says, “I know the guy that wrote that. He’s a liar, and has written that book to con you, to control you.” Well, your Liar’s Bible has a defence for that. All it requires of you is to believe the book, and of course believe its claims about the liar that wrote it.

Even if you are intelligent and capable of understanding reason you can still be taken in by religion, by the simple presupposition that God exists, and his requirement that you have faith in his existence, and in his word.

There is no logical reason for supposing anything exists that we cannot experience directly or test for in some way. There are simply too many things that don’t exist, that I think even a religious believer would see that it would be irrational to believe them just by presupposing them: fairies, ghosts, aliens probing you neighbour, pink elephants, flying pigs, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Mormonism, Scientology, Russell’s Teapot, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, perpetual motion, astrology, homeopathy, … the list is endless. It would be nonsense to start presupposing all these are true, or having faith that they are true. The natural course of events for humans is to accept on trust something that is quite ordinary, but to ask for evidence and reason to support the claims about these more extraordinary other beliefs.

This isn’t a scepticism reserved for the supernatural and spiritual. Scientists are sceptical about new scientific claims, even ones that have later shown to be correct according to the evidence. Scepticism is the default mode of thought in science. In religion scepticism is anathema, and faith is what is asked for, expected.

For a believer of some religion, or homeopathy, or astrology, their particular belief becomes untouchable because they have faith in it – and yet other examples of these unevidenced beliefs they continue to dismiss as untrue and irrational. The really gullible can indeed take on more than one such belief – so some Christians also fall for homeopathy, for example. But on the whole it seems to be no trouble at all for a believer to have faith in their belief, while denying other beliefs that are just as poorly supported by evidence and reason.

So Christians, for example, are not generally Muslims, because Christians believe in the divinity of Jesus while Muslims think he was a mortal prophet. This is usually a deal breaker, and only faith allows a believer to hold one while rejecting the other – because the reason and evidence for both Christianity and Islam is roughly equally bad.

Without the history of tradition and the equivocating vague and duplicitous religious language I don’t think holy books would be so persuasive. Of course many modern believers have had to change the way they think about their holy books – well at least that’s generally true for Christians, while Muslims are more likely to insist on the inerrancy of the Qur’an. Unless you’re a Young Earth Creationist Christian you have to accept these days that the Bible is not the inerrant word of God. At best it’s a human interpretation of the revelations it is supposed to contain. Some modern theists have almost squirrelled God away out of critical reach, making their Christianity virtually atheistic Humanism – which then raises the question of what they actually have faith in, and why they continue to put such store in a book like the Bible.

What idiot presented with the Liar’s Bible would be taken in by it? You would have to presuppose it was written by an honest person, and when sceptics pointed out the potential flaw in that presupposition you would have to resort to the faith the book prescribes in order to continue to believe it.

This is the folly of faith. It is not rational but irrational. It is dangerous.

Dangerous? Really? The nice young Vicar at church on Sunday is dangerous?

Well, no, but that says more about him as a person, a normal human, rather than anything about his religion. It’s a remarkably happy state of affairs for many of us living currently that the religions are generally supported by nice people. That he relies on faith is the problem: faith, the enabler of dangerous beliefs and practices.

Not all non-believers are lucky enough to live in societies like ours in most Western democracies. There are plenty of places in the world where being among the religious ranges from minor persecution and prejudice to being life threatening. Ask the atheists in Pakistan and other countries where atheism carries a risk.

The very same faith that the nice Vicar uses is also the same type of faith that religious extremists use to explain why they do the terrible things they do. A nice Vicar might appeal to all sorts of rational explanations as to why the nasty extremist is wrong to blow up buildings and people in the name of his God, to oppress women, to kill apostates and homosexuals, to beat rape victims; but the extremist only has to appeal to his faith, his conviction that this is what his God commands, and the mild mannered Vicar is stumped. Reason and evidence don’t come into that debate, because for both of them faith trumps reason and evidence. The Vicar may appeal to reason and evidence to explain how bad terrorism is, but the extremist can ignore such an appeal to reason, because the fundamentalist can appeal to his faith, his conviction in what he believes, a conviction which is no less impressive to him than the love of Jesus is to the Vicar.

No. Religious faith is not rational. It’s pretending really hard …

UPDATE: Jesus & Mo:

Colin McGinn – Hopeless

Philosopher Colin McGinn makes a real hash of reviewing How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, by by Ray Kurzweil. I can’t comment on the book itself, because I’ve not read it. But there’s enough wrong with the content of McGinn’s to know that he isn’t the person who should be reviewing it. Well, not for a fair critical review. If the New York Review of Books merely wanted clueless philosopher to stir up some hyperbole, then fair enough.

But McGinn is one of those irritating philosophers that seems wilfully ignorant. So I’ll respond to some of the content of the review, which is here.

Let’s start with the obviously philosophically suspect:

“However, that claim seems obviously false.”

It doesn’t matter what the specific claim is of Kurzweil. When you hear that from a philosopher, that something is obvious, think ‘mind already made up’. Though his review may be critical, it contains little critical thinking. I always thought it was obvious that philosophers challenged the obvious. I’m obviously wrong in that assumption, and I’ve been shown to be wrong by several philosophers, thereby showing again that the obvious isn’t always so.

McGinn’s main gripe seems to rest on his misunderstanding of patterns and pattern recognition. From the computer science perspective I can see where Kurzweil might be coming from. McGinn starts off badly and never picks up.

“Pattern recognition pertains to perception specifically”

No it does not. Pattern recognition is about matching patterns, and they don’t even have to be in the same encoding. Patterns of visual perception need be nothing like the corresponding neural content; but nevertheless, similar visual patterns can stimulate similar neural firing patterns. There can be a correspondence between visual patterns as perceived and patterns in neural circuits, synaptic connections, firing. It’s not a simple one-to-one correspondence, because the brain has history and merges many sources of pattern.

The pattern of an image taken by a digital camera will be persisted in the camera in states of transistors, and they need have nothing like the geometric spatial correspondence of the original 2D representation of the 3D scene. In transmitting the image over the internet the image data may be compressed and encrypted beyond all recognition (by humans). The compressed encrypted pattern is still a pattern with a direct correspondence to the original geometric image (in lossless compression). And at the other end the data may be decrypted, decompressed and displayed in the same geometric pattern as the original. This would not be possible if there was no correspondence, no pattern, being preserved along the way.

The internal brain representations need not have the same lossless fidelity I’ve just described. It appears that brain memories and perceptions are very dynamic and not at all the high fidelity representations we subjectively feel they are. Nevertheless, patterns are what it’s about to a great extent.

The same can apply to audio signals. And vibrations from earthquake monitors. Things we humans can’t detect can be transformed into patterns we do recognise, so we see patterns in graphs of data that we couldn’t see just observing the original source. So, though stock market data comes in from all over the world to a computer system, and though there is no way humans could directly detect patterns in that data, it can be transformed into stock market graphs that we understand the meaning of very well: patterns.

Pattern recognition is so much at the heart of how we put contextual meaning to visual stimuli that we have the phenomenon of Pareidolia. We ascribe meaning where there is none when our pattern recognition is overly active.

You only have to watch this TED video to see the importance of patterns.

McGinn misses the big picture. In the above video the context of a pattern is in itself a greater pattern. What we perceive moment by moment is only a fraction of what we experience and learn over time. The momentary visual perceptual patterns are not the full extent of the patterns being recognised. In the video the different meanings of two identical geometric shapes only acquire their respective meaning in the context of the surrounding patterns.

“In what way does thinking involve processing a stimulus and categorizing it?”

Thinking isn’t limited to that. Thinking is the dynamic on-going processes in which many partly autonomous regions of the brain are doing their own thing, and we perceive that as thinking. The fact that I have to use the phrase “we perceive that as” is the unfortunate teleological language we have become accustomed to, which may even be evolved as part of our evolutionary development of language and its use to identify a self. That we have this limitation in language use is no excuse for McGinn to make naive claims as to what is obvious – claims to the obvious discredit the whole of philosophy.

“When I am thinking about London while in Miami I am not recognizing any presented stimulus as London-since I am not perceiving London with my senses.”

But McGinn is way off the mark here. The stimulus in this case is not coming from the eyes, but from the brain. When his brain starts to think of London (whether in London or not) it reconstructs in the visual cortex the patterns of neural activity that are activated when he sees London. When he thinks of London, and in particular Big Ben, say, then the various experiences of Big Ben he has had, directly, or on the TV News, or on post cards, have all contributed to his brain’s learning of what London means to his brain, so that just thinking about London conjures up these internal experiences again, some as pseudo-visual images.

“There is no perceptual recognition going on at all in thinking about an absent object.”

There is both perceptual reconstruction, and subsequent perceptual recognition.

“This point seems totally obvious and quite devastating…”

For heaven’s sake, stop with the ridiculous claims to the obvious. If all this was obvious there would be no debate! You want to witness devastation of an idea? Try Dennett’s 1991 review of McGinn – see later.

“The notion of “pattern” has lost its moorings in the geometric models of letters and faces: Are we seriously to suppose that dreams and thoughts have geometrical shape?”

No! This is dreadful. Geometric patterns (by which McGinn means spatially geometric) are only one type of pattern. There are non-spatial geometries, patterns.

“At best the word “pattern” is now being used loosely and metaphorically…”

No. It’s just that McGinn doesn’t get the actual broader meaning of ‘pattern’. It is McGinn’s limited knowledge that is holding him back in this respect.

“Why is remembering that I have to feed the cat itself some kind of pattern?”

Because it is a pattern of neural activity that has evoked conscious awareness of something that must be done, and with it are associated patterns of various kinds, only some of which may be related to visual experiences, of cat and food. When McGinn remembers again the next day many of the same neurons will fire again, in similar patterns!

“What has happened is that he has switched from patterns as stimuli in the external environment to patterns as mental entities, without acknowledging the switch”

Maybe because it is well known that patterns are everywhere in all this and the external patterns on the retina are just one of the many patterns. Without reading Kurzweil I couldn’t say what his intention was, but my guess would be that he didn’t feel the distinction would be necessary to make, or that he made it but McGinn missed it.

“… blithely proceeding as if everything mental involves perception”

Well yes and no. It’s not all visual perception; and it’s not even all conscious perception. Are we restricting the use of the term perception to only the external events on the retina? Or beyond and down the optic fibres? Or through the parts of the visual cortex? Or do we include the reconstructions and merging of immediately acquired and stimulated reconstructions? It’s all so complicated that McGinn’s use of the term perception is very limiting; so showing how little McGinn actually knows about any of this.

“When I see an apple as red, do I recognize the color as a pattern? No, because the color is not a geometric arrangement of shapes or anything analogous to that…”

What? Is he serious? Geometric? Colour is not a pattern system? Does he not know what spectra are? This is unbelievably ignorant. My guess is that his understanding here is based on ancient philosophical notions that he’s not been able to shake off. It’s as if 200 years of science have passed McGinn by.

“When I see an apple as red …it is simply a homogeneous sensory quality”

He’s even confusing himself now. When he sees a red apple he isn’t merely seeing ‘red’, as if the old philosophical ‘redness’ is what determines colour perception. He should watch the Beau Lotto TED talk.

“Is the sweetness of sugar or the smell of a rose a pattern?”

Yes! The nose and tongue are chemical pattern recognition components. When they detect chemical patterns they fire off neural signals. The pattern of the periodic table of elements is a representation, a model, of the physical patterns of the different elements. And more complex atomic patterns, as molecules, stimulate specific receptor patterns in nose and tongue. The whole of biology is about patterns. DNA is about patterns, pattern recognition, pattern building.

“Then there are such mental phenomena as emotion, imagination, reasoning, willing, intending, calculating, silently talking to oneself, feeling pain and pleasure, itches, and moods-the full panoply of the mind.”

Emotion is very much pattern recognition. We recognise patterns in the world and they stimulate our emotions. It’s because the stimulating patterns are different that we cry at sad events and laugh at funny ones. Imagination is the construction of patterns, of worlds, images, ideas. Reasoning is the attempt to discover and build patterns of logic. Willing (don’t get me started on free will) is the causal effect of internal patterns that drive behaviour, that make motor neurons drive muscles. Talking to one’s self is the use of language patterns internally.

This is all getting to be too much ignorance. I’m beginning to suspect wilful denialism.

“In what useful sense do all these count as “pattern recognition”?”

It’s not just recognition. It’s also pattern creation and reconstruction. We learn by both experiencing the world, but also by probing it, and it is in this way we build patterns that on the whole start to have a related contextual significance; and therein lies meaning.

Eventually McGinn moves on to the teleological languages used in neuroscience.

“There is another glaring problem with Kurzweil’s book: the relentless and unapologetic use of homunculus language.”

Three points here. First, that seems to be the language we are stuck with. Maybe it’s evolved – evolving with us, so that it is a very part of our nature to think teleologically. It certainly seems very difficult to escape. Second, coming to us so easily it’s very easy to use, and therefore convenient and efficient: evolutionary biologists that think we are physical systems and that DNA has no intellect or purpose of any kind that we might associate with agency, they still use teleological language. Third, the first two points explain why people like McgGinn find it difficult to shake off the notion of teleology, particularly with regards to humans, and why when they see teleological language used as metaphor they take it to be literal. In this case McGinn thinks Kurzweil’s use of such language is literal. There is no homunculus!

“Presumably (I am not entirely sure) Kurzweil would agree that such descriptions cannot be taken literally: individual neurons don’t say things or predict things or see things-though it is perhaps as if they do.”

He’s not entirely sure? Then he really doesn’t get it at all. He is missing the whole point of the absence of teleology that physics, chemistry, biology, evolution has been hinting at.

“People say and predict and see, not little bunches of neurons, still less bits of machines.”

Well, since people are big bunches of neurons then it is the neurons doing it, but not as some thinking homunculi. It’s the whole mass of neurons and their behaviour that gives the impression of a person, a self. This is the mental illusion that hides the physicalism of what we are! The very ‘self’, ‘I’, that we feel we are is a living metaphor – we are our own homunculus.

“First, homunculus talk can give rise to the illusion that one is nearer to accounting for the mind…”

It’s a metaphor!

“But if we strip our theoretical language of psychological content, restricting ourselves to the physics and chemistry of cells, we are far from accounting for the mental phenomena we wish to explain.”

Now I agree we are far from accounting for much. But if only the likes of McGinn, and Nagel, Chalmers and Tallis, could apply their critical scepticism to their own ideas of what conscious is; or even more, apply it to their certainty of what it cannot be, then they’d be on reasonable ground. But that isn’t what this is about. For these guys it isn’t about a fair appraisal of how far science is getting on in the understanding of consciousness, because they don’t seem interested in the science. They seem more intent on maintaining the special nature of humans as non-animals, or at least animals with minds that are some way free of the very physical constraints of the brain. Oh yes, they admit the mind has something to do with the brain, and while not being able to say what the mind has to do with the brain they are very keen to say to what extent the brain is not the mind. These guys are philosophers. They don’t spend the time covering the science to appreciate how far it goes in not finding a mind and how far it sees only evidence consistent with physicalism.

“Neurons simply emit electrical impulses when caused to do so by impinging stimuli; they don’t recognize anything in the literal sense.”

They do! In a literal sense. The problem here is that McGinn is restricting ‘recognise’ to the teleological homunculus kind that has traditionally been associated with mind. When a component, be it a neuron or computer chip, responds to some patterns and not to others then there is a real and literal physical sense in which the input pattern has been recognised.

“Recognizing is a conscious mental act.”

Only if you define it as such. And here we find the limitations of McGinn. He defines recognition as something that only conscious systems can do; and surprise: only conscious system can do recognition, when so defined! He is making it so by his own definition, his own restriction of the use of the word. Now that human teleological meaning may be the source of the word, but it is now a well-used word in many sciences, and especially in computer science. Much language has been adopted and does not retain its teleological significance. I don’t suppose McGinn has much problem with the term ‘memory’ when applied to computers.

The last bit of interest is McGinn’s understanding of signal processing and information processing. He lacks understanding.

” in sober neuroscience textbooks we are routinely told that bits of the brain “process information”, “send signals”, and “receive messages” – as if this were as uncontroversial as electrical and chemical processes occurring in the brain. “

It is uncontroversial. Well, maybe it’s as controversial to McGinn as is Evolution to Young Earth Creationists.

“It is a collection of biological cells like any bodily organ, much like the liver or the heart, which are not apt to be described in informational terms.”

You’ve got to be kidding me! First, the liver. It does process signals. Mostly chemical ones. The heart? What on earth does he think drives heart beats? And neurons? Please! Neurons are all about signal processing. Even a simplistic description has them summing input signals before they decide to fire; transmitting neurochemicals in accordance with other factors in compex signalling from one neuron to another; they process signals to learn, to habituate, inhibit, etc. Please, McGinn, learn some biology.

“It can hardly be claimed that we have observed information transmission in the brain, as we have observed certain chemicals; this is a purely theoretical description of what is going on.”

Where has McGinn been this last hundred years? Try looking up Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Better still read this.

Still not convicned? Try this list. Seriously, go down this list and just look at all the indicators of signal processing, information processing. And don’t forget it is chemical too, not just electrical.

“The answer must surely be that the brain is causally connected to the mind and the mind contains and processes information.”

What mind?!! Where is it? What is this mind he is so stuck on? He dismisses all evidence of the pattern recognition features of brains, and of their signal processing operations, but with no evidence whatsoever insists there is a mind?

“That is, a conscious subject has knowledge, memory, perception, and the power of reason – I have various kinds of information at my disposal. No doubt I have this information because of activity in my brain, but it doesn’t follow that my brain also has such information”

What is this I, this conscious subject? He looks for it but never demonstrates it.

“To create a mind one needs at a minimum to create consciousness, but Kurzweil doesn’t even attempt to describe a way for doing that.”

Well, first, that’s not true. It appears the minimum we think is necessary is a brain. We have not yet seen consciousness outside a brain that we know of. It’s quite possible that we don’t understand what consciousness is; so that it may turn out to be nothing at all but behaviour of a complex brain. There is nothing else on offer. So, it’s quite respectable to suppose that as we come to understand more about the brain we will be able to figure out how consciousness comes about, and then build non-wet conscious systems. We already attribute consciousness to many non-human animals that aren’t even close to having some of the capabilities McGinn points out in humans. The trouble for McGinn is that he doesn’t understand or cannot define consciousness either, and so is in no position to decide how close scientists have come to it. This next statement demonstrates his ignorance:

“Clearly, unconscious processes of so-called “pattern recognition” in the neocortex will not suffice for consciousness, being precisely unconscious.”

I could write another whole post on why McGinn is wrong in his assessment of physical laws and the technological limits computing power. But I’ve had enough.

Is McGinn truly a philosopher? Has he no critical skills at all? Is he so poorly out of date, still sticking to the same thinking he had way back when? Here’s Dan Dennett on McGinn back in 1991:

“I find his thesis not just incredible and ludicrous. As a fellow philosopher, I find it embarrassing. It is not that I disagree with McGinn about the possibility in principle that there are phenomena that will forever defy human understanding, but just that I find him arriving at his pessimistic verdict about consciousness after such a paltry canvassing of the opportunities.”

What was Dennett disappointed in? McGinn’s claim that human brains were never meant to understand consciousness. Well, they were never meant to understand chemistry, maths of any kind, or for that matter, philosophy. The intellectual capabilities of our brains seem to go way beyond what they were ‘meant’ to do (as if they were ‘meant’ to do anything – be as wary of ID language as of teleological language).

McGinn thinks we do not have the capacity to understand consciousness? Well then how does McGinn assure himself that he knows enough about consciousness, or human brains, to be able to make that claim. It’s a self-refuting claim. Not, note, that this makes the opposite affirmed, that we will understand consciousness. Just because McGinn’s brain is not wired for understanding consciousness, or some basic principles of critical thinking, does not mean that the subject cannot be understood.

Really, you should read the rest of Dennett’s review. I’ll give up on McGinn as a lost cause.

Empiricism, Materialism, Physicalism avoiding Solipsism

Great post on Reductionism over at Emil’s blog.

I wanted to respond to comments there by Peter and Brendan, and give my perspective on their points about solipsism, materialism, science, and how it all fits together for me. Turned out to be a long comment, so I thought I’d better post it here rather than intrude too much and go too far off-topic on Emil’s post. I’ve covered most of this before – links included below.

Peter asks, “How can anyone be sure that what they are experiencing, … In other words, what reason is there for me to refrain from becoming a committed solipsist?”

I’d say nothing is stopping you. I agree with Emil’s take on solipsism and other rationalist philosophies. But my personal perspective is that it boils down to a rational choice. Considering just solipsism v materialism, to some extent the choice is arbitrary. You could ask what the consequences would be in each case, comparing what is the case with what you think is the case:

1) Solipsism holds, and I choose to believe in solipsism. I’m not sure what I learn from this. It seems that I imagine the world, including you and this conversation. I acknowledge that it might be you that’s imagining me as part of your solipsistic experience, so that I’m a figment of your imagination. What I feel is me thinking is actually you thinking the thoughts in some subset of your solipsist consciousness. How do we tell which is which? Do we have any control over this? Instead of being a mind that imagines being a material life form on an imagined material earth, can I choose to switch arbitrarily to become a life form on the surface of the sun? I seem to be limited to imagine only the earthly being I appear to be. What if I walk in front of a bus. It’s only imagined, so will I simply continue as if I hadn’t? Our (mine or yours) solipsist experience seems to be limited by what seems like a material reality.

2) Solipsism holds, and I choose to believe in materialism. I can’t distinguish what actually happens here from (1), except perhaps I suffer less anguish over whether I am a constrained mind. Though I am a solipsist mind, I go along with the material illusion. Consequences?

3) Materialism holds, I believe in solipsism. Again, I’m not sure what the outcome might be. I could conceivably die trying to test my solipsist existence by attempting to defy gravity; or maybe I pick a fight in a dark alley somewhere. I’m not sure how I’d distinguish my mental experience here from being absorbed in a gaming system as some avatar. The physical reality might soon make itself known to my mental experience.

4) Materialism holds, I believe in materialism. No problem. Business as usual trying to figure out how all this works.

In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter if you choose solipsism. You have to do an awful lot of work to get anywhere it seems with solipsism other rationalisms, idealism, transcendence or theism. Lots of inner contemplation, meditation and maybe praying. But it seems you still need to eat. It is sometimes claimed by theists that there are no atheists in foxholes. This is clearly untrue. I’m much more convinced that there are no solipsists at lunch time.

I don’t know any committed solipsists. If I did it might be worth a charge of assault to punch one on the nose. Dr Johnson’s “I refute it thus”, while not an actual logical refutation, I do find his kicking a rock is still pretty convincing. Peter, if you’re visiting this post, do you actually know any committed solipsists yourself? Are you personally persuaded? Your answers might in part answer your own original question.

My route from Cartesian doubt to empiricism, avoiding solipsism, is here and here. The material world is so persistently in-your-face. It seems more productive to try to understand it rather than persist too much with deep scepticism about it. If it turns out that I’m wrong and that I am a solipsist mind then I just hope it comes out in the wash. In the meantime I’ll enjoy that lunch.

Once you choose to accept materialism a lot of consequences follow.

Science (evolution, biology, etc.) tells us we are physical systems no different from the rest of the material world. We are just made up of stuff in some complex way, as Emil describes well as reductionism. From evolution and biology we learn we evolved from animals with much less capable brains, and even from animals with no brain at all.

Our ancestors were very clearly interacting with the rest of the world, of which they were simply components. This interaction was physical, chemical, electromagnetic: when microbes touch there is a greater or lesser degree of chemical interaction as their outer cells come into contact, with electromagnetic interaction of the individual atoms and molecules (the machinary of chemistry). This in turn caused physical and chemical reactions within the bodies, to greater or lesser extent: the touching body is an obstacle, food, or predator.

Neurons and simple nervous systems that don’t fit our loose definition of consciousness are owned by animals that interact with the environment with a greater degree of autonomous control. Memory becomes possible. See Kandel on Aplesia and other sources. More complex brains do more complex stuff, have more complex memories, can predict more about the environment, even if not consciously: a cheetah tracking prey that is trying to evade it.

Sadly we don’t have access to our ancestors in the process of becoming conscious as we are. But it’s not too much of a stretch to infer the following.

The lighting up of human consciousness may have been quick or slow, in terms of evolution, and in terms of generations – we don’t have the details. The species distinction doesn’t really matter here: in the trail back through our ancestors there is no point, we think, where a daughter is not of the same species as the mother; and yet, if these various ancestors could be brought together, they would be classed as one or more species different from us and each other.

As an analogy for the onset of human consciousness and self-awareness take an infant. It’s not clear that a new born has much of a conscious cognitive life. It can certainly respond with basic consciousness, as much as some animals can, but less than some adult animals. Do you remember your early infancy, your birth? Conscious self-awareness seems to creep up on us; and more advanced cognition comes from the physical experiencing development of the brain: learning. It’s hard to look back as an individual, and as a species, to see and acknowledge how conscious self-awareness emerged. There is a gap, and we have had the tendency to fill it with a soul of one sort or another. I feel this gap contributes to our special respect for our conscious mind, and our deification of it – at least to the extent that we think it a spark provided by a deity.

Then there is the physical sensibility of the brain, or lack of it. Though the brain can sense the outside world and something of the inner body, through sight, hearing, touch and the other senses, the brain can’t actually feel itself in the same way. There is no sense in which the brain ‘feels’ its neurons working away, as it can feel an arm moving or touching something. Introspection seems to stop at the mushy level of concepts, thoughts, internal images and sounds – but it can’t locate them. Do you feel neurons flashing in Broca’s area and Wernicke’s as you form and interpret speech? Can you feel in your brain where the concept, the thought, the conjured image of your grandmother is located? No, but neuroscientists can detect at least some of the neurons that are associated with that sort of perception (a summary article, a particular article, recent paper from Quiroga himself).

Our working brain, our conscious selves that are self-aware are only remotely self-aware. Our introspective brains build a vague concept of self the way they build vague concepts of anything else. Our brains even build a concept of mind. And it’s a detached mind, it appears, because of these limitations on our introspective capabilities. This is the nature of the illusion of consciousness. Yes we have consciousness, we experience it. The illusion is that the conscious self is a mind detached from the physical brain: dualism.

Emil said, “Dualism may represent the majority of the population, but certainly not the majority among scientists or philosophers.” I would be more inclined to say the among scientists or philosophers most are non-dualists, intellectually, but, as with visual illusions, none of us can overcome the mental illusion as we go about our daily lives – we feel like free-thinking minds somehow embodied yet not quite part of the furniture. We feel like dualists.

On top of this there is a massive cultural history from philosophy and theology that has constructed quite a different story; one in which the mind does exist as a separate special non-material entity, a soul in some stories. These are excusable stories from an excusably ignorant past. The excuse is wearing thin.

This ancient perspective, which still exists, mainly with theologians, but also with philosophers, particularly those that don’t follow neuroscience, biology generally, or evolution, is what I refer to as the problem of The Primacy of Thought – where they feel that our primary source of knowledge is our conscious mind. I agree that we perceive the world through our minds, but the evolutionary evidence is that we are primarily experiential animals with a brain upgrade that enables us to reason (an interesting process in itself). We and our world are physical, and even though our mental experience of that world goes on in the mind, that mind itself is actually the busy active dynamic brain.

We can infer all this empirically from what we know from science. We can’t prove it logically to the satisfaction of pernickety philosophers, but it’s a more fitting explanation that any fanciful philosophical ideas. All the evidence is not in yet. The hard problem of consciousness remains in the mind (brains) of many philosophers, and particularly theologians who desperately want there to be a soul. It’s not a complete story by any means.

It’s even a bit of a just-so story, though one that is consistent with all existing evidence. I’m sure philosophers that don’t like it would be quick to point that out. But it’s a damned site better than any other on offer, better than any theology or any of the non-materialist philosophies.

And of course, being an empirical perspective on materialism it not only all holds together, it is also open to adaptation in the face of new evidence. Even while waiting for more concrete evidence of physicalist accounts of consciousness all we would need to drop the idea would be some counter evidence. I don’t see any. Not a bit.

Personally I think the evidence is overwhelming already. As Emil puts it, “If you pay attention to the history of neuroscience, you would understand why physicalism has conclusively won the argument … “. Really, start looking at the evidence. Look at all the examples of how changes to the brain, drug induced or physical, including intercranial (open skull) probe sensing, and stimulation, show a direct cause and effect relationship between the physical brain and conscious experience.

The Confusing Philosophy of Free-will

Over at Jerry Coyne’s place Brad asked for some links to the topic. Physicalist commenter offered some that included a link to this page at Stanford.

Unfortuneately the ‘incompatibilst’ term there is not the same use of the term on the JC post comments.

And so welcome to the wonderful mixed up world of philosophy.

I’ll make some general points but also try to focus on this issue of incompatibilism. It’s worth asking ‘incompatible with what?’ and then note the following points.

1) The incompatibilists (I’ll get to incompatibilist later) commenting on the JC post are determinists who claim that free-will is incompatible with determinism, and that we live in a deterministic universe, and so there is no free-will. But this particular free-will that is rejected is that of dualism – the notion of the mind being something separate from the body, that for religious believers has some existence of its own that might live on after death of the body, such as the soul. We incompatibilists determinists think there’s no evidence for such a mind, and that everything is physical, and so the brain is a physical system and that free-will is merely the human feeling that we do have such a mind. This is why we think free-will is an illusion – that is the dualist free-will is an illusion.

2) Compatibilists also think everything is physical. They don’t think there is a separate mind, or a soul. They are not dualists in this respect. But, they think that what happens in a human brain is so complex and so self-contained that it does make sense to think of it as free-will.

One part of the dispute is about whether, for low level philosophical and scientific purposes, we should abandon the use of the term ‘free-will’ to describe what both compatibilists and incompatibilists agree on. There are other issues, such as that about the attribution of responsibility, that seem to cloud the dibate, but the core issue is whether we should use the term free-will for what both sides really do agree on, that is what is happening in a brain, particular when some behaviours are framed as (a) ‘it makes decisions’ (compatibilist) or (b) ‘is caused to produce an outcome that we commonly call a decision’ (incompatibilist)

3) The term ‘determinist’ sometimes causes confusion because we all accept that quantum physics introduces indeterminism into our understanding of the universe. There are several sub-issues here. Even a fully deterministic universe would still be indeterminate to humans because it is too complex to determine all the detailed outcomes. And quantum events, once they occur, have deterministic effects. And quantum effects are not sufficient to give back the dualist the free-will they are looking for. All this has to be accounted for when interpreting how incompatibilists determinists use the term determinism. Many, possibly most, compatibilists will also agree with these points, so determinism isn’t specifically a problem of contention. Except that a few compatibilists do wonder if quantum effects play a part in what they perceive to be free-will. Having said that, non-compatibilists would probably agree that quantum effects can have a moment-by-moment effect that makes the universe and any brain process (e.g. a decision) indeterminate, but would still not call this free-will. So, even give or take some variation in the strictness of the use of the term ‘determinism’ many compatibilists and incompatibilists still agree on the physical basis of brain function and still dispute the use of the term ‘free-will’.

4) Now for the Stanford ‘Incompatibilism’. The title and the introduction to that article use the term to describe what is essentially a dualist free-will account. It is portraying incompatibilists as those people who think that there is a free-will that is incompatible with determinism. Meanwhile in our discussion here some of us have picked up on the use of ‘incompatibilists’ as being the determinists that think free-will is incompatible with determinism.

From the Stanford article: “According to McCann (1998: 163-64), when one makes a decision, intrinsic to the decision is one’s intending to make that very decision.”

When compatibilists make such statements the determinists see this as a dualist statement – but in this instance it is a dualist statement. The qestion is, what caused the ‘intending’? Answer: physical activity in the brain. What caused ‘that’ physical activity? Answer: more physical activity. The problem for determinists is that when compatibilists make such statements we know they don’t really mean dualist free-will decision, but the compatibilists object when we say this is not free-will because it is still a determined outcome.

More from Stanford: “Kane holds that a free decision or other free action is one for which the agent is “ultimately responsible” (1996b: 35). Ultimate responsibility for an action requires either that the action not be causally determined or, if the action is causally determined, that any determining cause of it either be or result (at least in part) from some action by that agent that was not causally determined (and for which the agent was ultimately responsible).” [my emphasis]

This is pure dualism. This is not the determinism that we incompatibilists or determinists here are suggesting is the case. This is not the free-will of compatibilists.

There is a distinction that isn’t made clear. Determinist incompatibilists are those (including me) that infer from all available evidence that the universe is deterministic (broadly) and that non-material minds do not exist, and therefore free-will is an illusion. Dualist incompatibilists are those dualists (proponents of a non-material mind, or a soul) that infer from their conviction to dualism that determinism cannot be a full description of the universe. Quite often we find philosophers not being clear on this distinction, declaring incompatibilism an unsustainable position because they are only thinking about the dualist incompatibilists. Dan Dennett seems muddle on this point – at least as he writes in his derision of incompatibilism.

5) What’s been happening in the particular JC post is that we’ve adapted the language to use the terms compatibilist and incompatibilists (using the latter as opposed to determinist).

Now it may well be that we non-professional-philosophers do misuse philosophical terms sometimes, but we’re in good (bad) company, since many professional philosphers seem to change the meaning of words at the behest of their own free-will (ahem, which they don’t have, of course).

This is also why this ground is covered so often in so many ways, why points are made and re-made in different terms. It’s all part of the process of trying to understand what the hell is going on in the context of incomplete science, and a mad history of philosophy that’s all over the place.

Some people deride this process (Oh no! Jerry Coyne is banging on about free-will again! Enough already!). Well, maybe they can only take so much. But for the rest of us these are interesting points, with interesting outcomes (how we view responsibility) that depend on how we view human behaviour, and even how we frame it (free-will as an illusion or a reality).

So, I’m afraid you’ll have to wade through a lot of crap from all sides. At least you can narrow it down to what is basically a love-fest threesome: dualist (actual separate free-will), compatibilist (an emergent free-will worth having), incompatibilists (free-will is an illusion). They are the three main categories, with lots of overlap.