Category Archives: Philosophy

The White European Culture Fallacy

White supremacism! Eurocentrism! Murticulturalism! Endorse, deplore, assert, denounce any of these, vociforously, emotionally? Want to promote freedom and equality without stumbling over these dilemmas? Read on.

Richard Spencer is an ‘Identitarian’ in his terms; a white separatist; white nationalist; whatever he wants to call it, it’s about being white. This is a fallacy, because what we really value, what Spencer pretends to value, is not whiteness, or anything associated with the rather poor attribution of being white. His is really an ancient tribalism, something that we acknowledge the human race went through naturally, but not something that’s worth hanging on to.

The origins of the ‘Identitarian movement‘ suggest something more specific than being white, but less general than some of the values we might want to endorse. The specificity of the ‘white’ aspect arose in opposition to the perceived non-white Islamification of France. However, it erroneously conflates a difference that matters, culture, with one that does not, ethnicity.

When Spencer uses the qualifier ‘White European’, he’s doing so to pretend to loftier things, but he’s really about nothing more than base tribalism.

What’s worth valuing is something else other than racist ‘whiteness’; or even anything specifically ‘European’, despite Europe being the most localised origin of what we do value … and here I presume ‘we’ value freedom and equality, though I recongnise some do not.

Continue reading The White European Culture Fallacy

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

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, Continue reading John Gray’s Poor Thinking on Dawkins

Consciousness – A Physicalist Perspective

There’s a Youtube video put out by the RI that sees Professor Nicholas Humphrey contemplating the nature of human consciousness.

Here’s the video: The Magic of Consciousness.

Some commenters seem to have trouble understanding how consciousness, and the mind, can be explained by physical processes when the subjective experience is screaming at them that the mind and consciousness are not physical at all. Continue reading Consciousness – A Physicalist Perspective

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.”

Continue reading Brain in a Vat

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. Continue reading What do I believe ‘in’? Nothing.

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. Continue reading Free Will: Dennett’s Poor Sunset Analogy

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.

Empiricism and Physicalist Monism – How To Do It

In a comment on a previous post Neil wonders if empiricism, defined as the use of the senses and reason, is a dualistic notion. It isn’t. The identification of sense and reason is merely a convention in discussions about empiricism. Humans have customarily come to talk in terms of reason and senses because they appear as distinct experiences to us, subjectively. But they are both physical experiences, according to the following.

You will think dualistically if you start with ‘perception’ and confine yourself to human ‘mental’ experiences without considering more science. But even so I think it’s worth emphasising that this dualistic nature that is being referred to here isn’t the same thing as the dualism of mind/body, Cartesian Dualism.

My route to physicalist monism is straight forward, and covered here, here, here. In summary it’s as listed below – and here I’ll start with perception in order to pick up Neil’s starting point. Now obviously this isn’t the actual detailed route we take personally, but I’ll get to that eventually. And nor are these distinct steps. This breakdown is used just to emphasise specific points.

1) We perceive, and wonder what our perceptions involve. I’d normally assume that all this is understood and go right to point 2.

2) We follow Descartes back to the Cogito and observe that I think therefore I am a thinking thing, at least. This need not be an absolute certainty. Certainties are not necessary.

3) If at this point we accept everything as being in the mind then we can reflect on what the mind observes, and go on from there.

4) This mind perspective, this pure Rationalism, can concoct any story it likes: panpsychism, solipsism, various combinations of the physical and supernatural – pretty much anything. And we have no means of checking which is true. Any imagined possibility is an actual possibility, according to the mind. At this point we could branch off anywhere, but I think that if we continue to analyse all the possibilities we can always get back to some form of solipsism – all Rationalisms lead to Solipsism. But even then we have no means of distinguishing some specific detail: are you a figment of my imagination, or am I a figment of yours, for example; or, if we are part of some grand consciousness, why do we disagree?

5) But, the mind observes one particular set of perceptions that are strikingly persuasive: the ‘physical’ world – using the particular term ‘physical’ from convention, because at this point there is no knowledge about what this actually means. It is only a persistent perception. Later, ‘physical’ becomes a mere label, but the perceptions are so persuasive we start to think the ‘physical’ is at least one aspect of reality. It appears we have various ‘senses’, in that these perceptions consistently come to us through what we perceive as various sensory modes. All this is still possibly only a mental perceptual phenomenon. There is no guarantee that these perceptions of the physical world relate to any actual physical world – it just feels that way, so much so that it feels more real and persistent than most if not all other mental phenomena.

6) Now, we seem to be stuck at (4), but (5) is very persuasive. It seems impossible for a human to switch off these ‘physical’ perceptions, or to mentally influence many of the physical experiences we perceive – I can imagine that I can make my car rise off the ground under mind control, but the physical perception is that this is not possible, no matter how much I try with my mind. All human attempts at telekinesis seem to fail. Now, it could be that there are some unknown limitations to our mental capacity to control our mental experiences, so that it may still be that the ‘physical’ is nothing more than a solipsist perception. But, instead of fighting this why not take the tentative step of accepting that there is something to this ‘physical’ reality. Will that help?

7) As it happens it does seem to help. The more seriously we take these physical perceptions the more consistent our overall perceptions become. It really does seem like there are other entities out there, just like me, that are reporting similar internal mental perceptions, of mind and of externally existing other entities and physical objects. They report that they observe me just as I observe them. Furthermore, as we cooperate, using science, we discover so much specific and extremely persistent detail about a whole external universe (external to our minds) that we can’t help but be persuaded that this is at least a very useful and satisfying interpretation of our perceptions. It is far more consistent than any of our Rationalisms; with the exception of the very unsatisfying solipsism. The significant point is that if we treat this perceived physical reality as if it is real and not just a mental phenomenon we seem to be able to make progress with it that we can’t if we assume it is a mental figment, because the latter leaves forever imagining details that we can only verify by imagining more stuff about the imagined physical reality. It’s as if the maintenance of the solipsist view takes more effort than just accepting the physical perceptions as being somewhat representative of a real physical world. There’s no need to assume our perceptions are perfect – and in fact if we ever do that we seem to get into more trouble: if we take seriously the perception of an inner voice instructing us to kill people, it seems to cause a lot of pain in the world. There are lots of good reasons to accept the physical world, in spite of the difficulties involved in accessing it reliably. At this point we can accept we have a rather erratic inner mental life that has a slightly misty window on some physical reality.

8) Taking the real world seriously, and appreciating our fallible access to it, and the fallibility of our mental capacities, we develop science in order to overcome some of these inadequacies. We come then to perceive the results of Evolution. If we continue to take all this science seriously Evolution tells us that our ancestors did not have brains and did not have minds. Evolution demonstrates a very clear link between brain and mind, where the capacity of mental phenomena seems to match physical characteristics of the brain quite consistently. Then, we also have Neuroscience. This shows us even more specifically the link between physical changes to the brain and corresponding mental changes. It also shows us that there is no sensory faculty in the brain whereby it can sense itself in a way that corresponds to touch or pain. The brain cannot ‘feel’ itself in the same way as it can ‘feel’ one’s finger touching one’s nose. We cannot detect our own brain physically, we cannot feel its processes in action. All of science, but Evolution and Neuroscience specifically, leads us to think that the brain and its mental faculties are an evolutionary development, and that the specific lack of internal sensory perception of one’s own brain makes it feel like the mind is separate. Add to this all we know about infant development and it appears also that the mind seems to awaken at some point in our individual young lives. For all these reasons dualism seems to be the natural first perceptual experience; but all the science then explains why this is, and why this is an illusion. We are physical beings, individually, and as an evolved species, long before we have a brain that starts to think.

9) The thinking faculty seems to be an add-on, an upgrade. All the mental phenomena (1) to (4) can now be explained in terms of the physical universe. We even have a reasonable understanding of concepts like the second law of thermodynamics as well as all the other physics and chemistry that explain how such complex physical systems can become chemical, biological, organ, organism. As contingent as all this is upon our accepting the physical experiences it all fits together very well. Currently we seem to have some difficulty sewing up some loose ends. We haven’t yet been able to come up with a detailed theory of how we connect the subjective conscious experience to the physical neurons upon which we think it is based. But the simple and consistent hypothesis is that there is such a connection, particularly since there is no evidence of the alternative: a separate mind.

10) The pure Rationalism now seems misplaced. At the very least this should give Rationalists a far greater problem than any Rationalist argument does for science, for physicalism. It is often said that there are no true outright solipsists. Even the most strident Rationalists don’t live by their own philosophy: they still eat drink and sleep. Or, those that don’t soon find they succumb to the very physical world they deny, and die. All experiences that supposedly transcend the physical world are only ever transitory, and the mental experiences reported can still be explained as physical events in the brain. Or at least that’s how it appears to those of us that embrace the physical world. As much as it is philosophically unsound, the comment by Dr Johnson, “I refute it thus!”, is sufficiently persuasive that the pedantry of any counter Rationalist philosophy is not the least bit convincing. Once you go down this route there’s actually a lot of philosophy that then seems to be nothing but fatuous nonsense.

Of course some of the more pragmatic of our fellow humans don’t bother with this arduous route to an empirical epistemology and physical monist ontology. They don’t need Descartes to tell them that they think and so exist, they just accept the physical world as the primary one and assume the mental world is a behavioural artefact of the brain. And they treat many of the more bizarre philosophies, such as the theologies, as utter tripe. There’s a lot to be said for this pragmatic approach. Of course others do think there are separate realms, because that’s what it feels like. Without some form of investigation it just becomes a shouting match.

Those that do like to check out other possibilities tend not to come by our physicalist persuasion by this route either. It’s very much a post hoc rationalisation of what we pick up along the way. But then all philosophy and science is. We do hear the Rationalist arguments, and superficially they sound as though there might be something to them. I cannot refute solipsism. But nor can any Rationalist refute physicalism. They can only offer alternative possibilities. The distinction is that empiricism and the consequential physical monism are very pragmatic and produce a lot of results. Take a Rationalist living in any century prior to the 19th and sit him beside a Rationalist in the 21st, and ask them to compare their lives and thoughts. You’ll find their Rationalist thoughts have barely changed, but their view of the physical world will be utterly different, to the extent that our older Rationalist may well be convinced that he is experiencing a lot of magic no matter how it is explained (Rationalism can cause its own blind persistence).

In this analysis, where uncertainty rules, physicalist monism is the tentative conclusion, and mental phenomena, rather than representing some dualistic alternative, are just part of this physical world. Senses and reason are not really a dualism, they are both different aspects of a human physical experience. All mental phenomena, including reason, are physical processes: processes that result in behavioural experiences that because of the apparent physical sensory disconnect seem to be something additional.

One problem for many Rationalists, particularly the theists, is that they are looking for certainties. But whether they take their particular Rationalism as being reality, or the physical world as an additional reality, there are no certainties anywhere. Claims to certainty are bogus and are easily shown to be so. Asserting some particular point does not make it so. No amount of logical argument will be convincing because it will always rely on asserted premises, and so are easily countered by some counter assertion. All logical arguments are contingent; they are conditionals. If the premises are true then …

And this is where many Rationalists are quite disingenuous in their approach. They want certainty and some even claim they have it, in their own view of reality. But whether they claim it or not, whether they embrace uncertainty or fear it, they will be very quick to point out the uncertainties of science and quite abysmally assert (with some certainty) that the empiricist science proponent is the one claiming certainty. They demand a greater certainty from science than they do of their ideas, glossing over the vague and nebulous nature of their own. But read any modern book written by a scientist. I can’t think of one I’ve read that has been written since the 1990’s that hasn’t had to counter this objectionable misrepresentation and state very clearly, usually in the introduction and with reminders throughout, the very specific uncertainties, limitations, and openness of science.

The good news is that the science of the physical world embraces uncertainty – to the point now that it looks like uncertainty is the greatest certainty we have. Though of course we have no way of being certain, even about that. There is no sign of dualism. There is no sign of any of the Rationalisms providing a fruitful route to knowledge. As uncertain as this empiricism and physicalist monism is, as contingent as it is, it’s the best show in town. And science is the best way of dealing with it, for the purpose of acquiring knowledge.

Ways of Knowing – There’s Only One, That We Know Of

That there are ‘other ways of knowing’ seems to be doing the rounds again, often along with the charge of ‘scientism’. A specific charge made against many scientists is that they are wrong in claiming that science is the only way of knowing. History and Art are often offered as contrasting ways of knowing, but without any real explanation as to why we should think they are different in kind, rather than the one way of knowing approached in different ways for different purposes.

It’s also curious that the ones making bold claims for other ways of knowing often also assert that scientists claim science knows everything, and at the same time also claim, very specifically, that science will never be able to ‘know’ certain things. It’s hard to fathom out how some minds work.

I feel the correct view, and one I’ve seen many scientists portray, including Dawkins and Coyne as examples (they are often picked out as culprits of scientism), is that humans have only one way of knowing (a single epistemology of varying reliability) and that is modern empiricism: the view that we have only the senses and reason, where reason is a process of the physical brain, and the senses are physical systems that are part of the physical world that interact with other parts of it. Science then is merely a subset of all variations on the use of empiricism, a subset developed by humans as a means of compensating for the natural limitations and fallibilities of the senses and reason. Science is merely a more rigorous approach to our one way of knowing.

One of the key features of science is the application of its developed methods (its methodologies) to build as consistent and reliable an understanding of the world that is thought to be ‘out there’ (outside our minds), and subsequently, thanks to evolution, neuroscience, psychology, a more reliable understanding of how human brains work in this very act of developing an epistemology.

History, art, religion are also variations on this one way of knowing, varying in the degree to which they require and are able to develop the same consistency of understanding, and varying in the extent to which they apply various methodologies (and here I include using free wheeling intuition as a methodology for sparking new ideas).

History tries to apply more of the thorough scientific methods where it can (e.g. dating artefacts), but has to rely heavily on inference from limited patterns of data seen in the collection of information it has available. The problem for history, and for many of the ‘soft’ sciences, is that it is difficult to draw solid conclusions, and many theories can be constructed to model the same data. For example, it’s easy for the social sciences to be lead astray to Never Never Land, as pointed out by Sokal and Bricmont in Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science. To be fair, it’s not all hot air (as Sokal and Bricmont point out in their book, they aren’t attacking the soft sciences generally, just the bullshit); the stuff being examined (human brains and human behaviour) is a really tough nut to crack.

Art has a far freer requirement for matching the senses and reason, in that it values imaginative representations of what we sense, or imagines things we cannot sense. Artists may talk of ‘truth’ and other such ideas, but in the context of art this really is more representative of the emotional content and the extent to which a piece might trigger emotions. The more spiritual artists may of course want to believe that this ‘truth’ has something of the sense of being real in the actual world that science discovers, but as with all spiritual imaginings there is never any evidence of such a connection. Any connection that does exist between artistic flights of fancy and the real world are likely to exist as physical states of the brain of the artist. Various transcendentalist ideas, and related ideas such as out of body experiences have never been shown to correspond to any reality other than the activity in the brains of those experiencing the phenomena.

Then we have religion. This is the wildest and least constrained of all applications of our ‘one way of knowing’ in that it is almost entirely Rationalist imagination at work. As with any pure Rationalism that doesn’t require consistency with sensed data, the religious can make up pretty much any damned story they like and claim it to be ‘true’. The use of faith is in direct opposition to science in this respect. Faith is the process by which the desired ‘truth’ comes first, and then any amount of rationalisation, as necessary, to account for all and every reasoned logical argument that refutes the religious case, and to account for any counter evidence or lack of evidence that might challenge the religious case. So certain is the application of faith in the hands of many theists they see it as total justification for the control of others.

All this of course is an epistemological problem – how can we be sure that what we know is ‘true’. I find much epistemology to be hopeless. The Justified True Belief model, along with its objections and counter models, are all stuck in a Rationalist mind set. It’s the Primacy of Thought problem that I’ve covered before. Ultimately, if you follow Rationalist thinking where it leads you can’t really escape Solipsism. It’s the only rational conclusion, and is in itself a dead end.

Thankfully our senses seem to be so persistently nagging at our inner mental lives that we feel sure that they represent something real, that there is a real physical world out there. The metaphysics, the detailed ontology of that world, is a separate debate. But whatever the ‘ultimate’ reality turns out to be there is never a shortage of adherents to the empiricism that we all live by. Even most religions don’t deny the senses and the existence of the natural world to any serious degree, and some rely on it, as a house of sin and as departure lounge to some other promised realm. For all that we are currently enclosed in our own heads, our own ‘minds’, we don’t generally limit ourselves to the dead end of pure Rationalism, but try balance our sense and reason experiences.

But really, we have nothing better than empiricism; and science is the best of our empiricism. So much so that as the human sciences improve and we discover more and more we can look on with incredulous scepticism at claims for ‘other ways of knowing’, such as sensus divinitatis of Alvin Plantinga. Without evidence to the contrary we can only put this mysticism of other ways of knowing down to mistaken beliefs, fantasy, faith. That the religious ‘value’ their beliefs is not in question. That the religious believe in the content of their beliefs is not in question. What is in question is the actual content of those beliefs.

We have only one way of knowing, as far as we can tell. Claims to ‘other ways of knowing’ amount to red herrings, which are no more than variations on our one way of knowing, or are claims to something else for which no one has ever provided any evidence.

So when scientists make statements such as ‘science is the only way of knowing’ they are really expressing their understanding that it is the best of our one way of knowing. Scientism is simply a pejorative label used by those that don’t get this. The charge of scientism is often made as an objection to a false perception that scientists believe they can acquire certain knowledge.

No one (least of all scientists) is claiming science has access to all knowledge, or expecting that it should have it. But I do think that we cannot say that some things are beyond science, which is quite a different point. This is because a claim that something is beyond science is already a claim to the knowledge that it is beyond science, so is in itself a specific claim to knowledge. We cannot know what we cannot know, for to know what we cannot know is to know something of what we cannot know. I can’t even claim that I am certain in thinking this, because it too would be a claim to knowledge that I can’t be certain of.

The contingency of human knowledge seems inescapable, and it seems to be contingent on how we come by it. So far there is only the one way that seems remotely reliable: comparing sense and experience, empiricism, performed as rigorously as we fallible humans are capable of, through science.

What’s Up Doc? Heaven, Apparently

In this piece, Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife, Neurosurgeon Eban Alexander gives his account of a brain event that made him see the light. (h/t @SkepticViews)

This is the dumbest piece of God promotion I’ve seen for some time. I wouldn’t have this neuroscientist anywhere near my brain. He says how much he wants to believe, has a specific brain experience that matches reports of experiences by other people, and that’s it – job done, God exists.

1) Auditory hallucinations can be auto-generated in the brain without sound input through the ears, so it’s possible for someone with a brain to ‘hear voices’; and some people who ‘hear voices’ attribute them to God or Jesus. He should know this. Humans hallucinate.

2) The brain perceptions experienced (bright light, vast space, God, etc.), and the reality of the things supposedly conceived (heaven, God), are quite distinct. The experience of the perceptions is no guide to the reality of the thing perceived. That’s why we call them hallucinations. Near-death is a rare experience for a human brain (except for those with a one way ticket, but then they don’t come back to report), so it is difficult to say what we would expect to experience. Novel brain experiences are not a sufficient guide to reality.

3) People will have similar experiences because, duh, they have brains too. We should expect that experiences of near death will be similar, so the similarity of the reports should not be taken as mounting evidence for the thing claimed of the experience.

4) As others have pointed out in the article’s comment stream, similar experiences can be achieved by using drugs. And by stimulation of the brain in the lab or operating theatre. There is no reason to suppose that the perceptions contained during these experiences represent a reality, and plenty of evidence that they don’t.

5) On what grounds does Alexander suppose that his perceived experiences occurred in real-time while he was unconscious? He has no way of knowing, because he was unconscious! Only later, when his consciousness returns, is he able to report on his experiences. For all he knows his brain might be constructing a completely false memory, as if it had occurred, as part of the process of recovering consciousness. Perhaps this is what it’s like when a brain is ‘turned on’ again. Being a neuroscientist he should know of this and many other rational possibilities.

There’s a problem here that theologians, many philosophers, and it appears some scientists, have with the nature of the brain and its relation to our inner thoughts and experiences. Lurking behind views expressed by those like Alexander is a presupposition that the mind is distinct from the brain and that what we experience in the mind has some distinct reality. I call this the primacy of thought problem, where we suppose that the mind and our thoughts, through our Rationalism, is the primary source of knowledge. To some extent this is understandable, since as physical animals we have to wait until our brains achieve a certain degree of complexity and experience before they become self-aware enough to do any reasoned thinking. It’s then as if our ‘mind’ has been switched on, and then is perceived to exist as if it is something independent of the brain. Contributing to this feeling is the fact that our self-awareness, our introspection, can only go so deep. We cannot, for example, perceive the individual neurons firing away as we think. We only perceive the thoughts, not the cause of the thoughts. We have no physical sensation in the brain, like touch or pain, that tells us what is actually going on inside our heads as we think. So, we feel detached, as free-floating consciousness.

In the context of this post Alexander is in no position to say what caused his experience. All he ends up with is a perception of an experience – a brain experience.

What a dumb-ass. He was lost to religion before he started on his unconscious journey; he wanted it; he says as much. Confirmation bias?

Not just the medical impossibility that I had been conscious during my coma…

Is this guy really a neuroscientist? It’s difficult to say to what extent a brain is ‘inactive’ during a coma, or other states where external appearances imply unconsciousness. It’s not even fully understood to what extent there is a real barrier between consciousness and un-conscious activity.

What happened to me demands explanation.

There are plenty answers to choose from. You can go with the simple functioning of a brain under stress and bad health that is capable of inducing perceptual experiences that are not associated with any reality; or you can go for your God explanation, because you want to.

Today they are realities. Not only is the universe defined by unity, it is also-I now know-defined by love.

Of course this statement tells us more about Alexander’s understanding of ‘knowing’, his views on epistemology and what it is for an animal brain to ‘know’ something, his commitment to Rationalism, than it does about any actuality.

The universe as I experienced it in my coma is – I have come to see with both shock and joy – the same one that both Einstein and Jesus were speaking of in their (very) different ways.

It’s hard for this statement to be wrong, because of course it is a fatuous profundity – a deepity, as Dennett would say. Quite meaningless in that it could be taken to mean anything. A straight forward physical interpretations is that yes, the physical brain has physical behaviours that under some conditions give the impression of a spiritual experience while at the same time the very same brain is governed entirely by the natural laws of science as we discover them.

But that belief, that theory [of the brain], now lies broken at our feet.

No, just at his feet, as he perceives it to be broken; as perceived by his broken brain that has had a perceptual experience that has left him with the impression that the imagined content of that experience is real.

When the castle of an old scientific theory begins to show fault lines…

The fault lines are as imagined as the content of his dreams.

… no one wants to pay attention at first … The looks of polite disbelief, especially among my medical friends, soon made me realize what a task I would have getting people to understand the enormity of what I had seen …

Oh dear. The plight of the unbelieved prophet. Everyone else is blind. Why can’t they see?

One of the few places I didn’t have trouble getting my story across was a place I’d seen fairly little of before my experience: church.

No fucking kidding!

I’m still a doctor, and still a man of science every bit as much as I was before I had my experience.

Well, I’d say not. Unless we take this to mean that he was already lost to science in his desire to believe.

I only hope he doesn’t turn into one of these evangelical doctors that you get from time to time. My mother is a believer in God of sorts, but she decided that enough was enough when at her local GP practice (an evangelical husband and wife team) her doctor suggested at the end of a consultation that they should hold hands and pray together for her recovery and well being. Preying on the sick by praying for them. But you can see this coming with Alexander.

Update: Sam Harris has chipped in:  This Must Be Heaven covers more detail, including comment by Mark Cohen. As well as going to town on Alexander, he also dishes it out to Newsweek. Harris is as eloquent as usual, so it really is worth a read. Pleas do.

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.

My Problems With Compatibilist Free-Will

While trying to get to grips with compatibilit free-will I’ve been looking at stuff from Dan Dennette and David Chalmers. Then along comes this post from Jerry Coyne. Trying to clarify my appreciation of the compatibilist case I asked specific questions of ‘Another Matt’, and had the response I was sort of hoping for (i.e. it confirmed what I thought was the physicalist case from compatibilists) from ‘coelsblog’

So, at least in the causal chain I think compatibilists and incompatibilists are on the same planet. But several points of contention remain, as I see it, as an incompatibilist. Not all compatibilists need hold all these points of view, but that some do, and that these points are raised frequently, causes misunderstanding for an incompatibilist such as myself. This is why I think many incompatibilists see compatibilists being closer to dualism than the underlying physicalism that many compatibilists really hold to.

1) Language and Level

A great deal of the disagreement does seem to revolve around the use of language and, for want of a better word, the ‘level’ at which autonomy is considered. From my response to Another Matt at Comment 7, and coelsblog’s response to me, that at least this incompatibilist agrees with all the underlying physics of that compatibilist, and that the main disagreement is what we are prepared to call free-will.

It seems that the compatibilist, while arguing about the appearance of human behaviour from what we all agree ‘appears’ to be the free-will perspective, is prepared to label that level of autonomy as free-will, while the incompatibilist is focused on stressing the reliance of this higher level autonomy on the physical foundation from which it emerges. The incompatibilist claim that free-will is an illusion is both explicitly denying dualist free-will, a view that the compatibilist agrees with, but also stresses that it’s the dualist free-will that is the illusion, and as such does not like to name the higher level autonomy as free-will bcause that causes confusion elsewhere.

2) Property Dualism (PD)

This page seems to contain a concise statement of property dualism:

“Like materialism, it holds that there is only one type of substance: physical. Property dualism denies the existence of immaterial minds that somehow interact with the physical world, animating unconscious bodies.

Where property dualism parts with materialism is that it does not attempt to reduce mental states to physical states. Mental states, according to the property dualist, are irreducible; there is no purely physical analysis of mind.”

This sounds like the incoherrent guff of irreducible complexity from ID proponents. Everything we know of is reducible to physical laws, except the mind? As much as dualism is denined in one breath it seems to be re-introduced in its negative guise of something not being reducible to physical explanation. In this sense it also sounds very much like sophisticated theology: of course there is no actual ontological God entity, but still, God is within us, we are God, God is the mystery of the univerese, blah, blah, blah.

Property dualism of mind seems no more coherent than property dualism of biology, or chemistry. It comes across to me as two hidden assumptions:

(i) I (the property dualist) want there to be free-will, for some reason. This might be because I fear the consequences for social order (see point 3), or because I fear the implied fatalism.

(ii) I am using the argument from incredulity, because I really can’t see how my conscious subjective experience can be explained.

Not very convincing positions to hold. PD seems to be an invented philosophical notion the sole purpose of which is to uphold a position one is already committed to. Big fail.

3) Fear of Consequences

Dan Dennett in this conversation makes this point very clearly.

“Free-will worth wanting … responsibility … all compatible with science … if only that’s what scientists were telling us … but scientists have been on a rampage writing ill-considered public announcements about free-will which … in some case verge on social irresponsibility … The recent flood of books by neuroscientists has very little worthwhile stuff and a lot that’s seriously confused; and now, as we’re actually beginning to get some scientific confirmation, it makes a difference … because … some research shows that if you present people with the claim that science has shown that we don’t really have free-will … they will actually behave less morally; they will be more apt to cheat.”

Yeah, OK, let’s pretend guns don’t exist, because if we say they do they might be used to kill people. I find it astonishing that a philosopher would use an argument from social concern to attack an argument from evidence – evidence that he actually agrees with: that there is no contra-causal free-will. Dennett wants to insist on using the label associated with dualism, because that might persuade people to be good; or, that to remove that label and emphasise the reality of physicalism might lead them to be bad? This doesn’t fit with Dennett’s arguments against religion, where he acknowledges that religion might persuade some people to be good, but that’s not a good enough reason to claim religious beliefs as truths.

Now Dennett may well be a comptibilist from point (1); but then he should stick to arguing that point instead of using the ‘fear of consequences’ argument that is also used by the religious .

Of course the fears are unfounded. There is no escape from responsibility in incompatibilism. Deterministically caused autonomy results in a focul point of action and responsibility: the human being. Avoiding the notion of free-will that is clouded by religious notions, such as the notion of evil, allows us to weigh the attribution responsibility more rationally and less emotively.

4) Qualia

Qualia appears to be a made-up concept used to give a name to internal brain states, as observed by the brain, to give impetus to the notion that these brain states, these qualia, are inexplicable, irreducble, in terms of physical brain states.

This is associated with point (2), but it’s also associated specifically with questions like “What does it feel like to be a bat?”

The idea that this cannot be answered, the incredulity gap again, is what proponents of qualia are relying on.

My view is that qualia, like any other metaphor or model, might have its uses, but it does not pose a problem to the physicalist explanation of subjective experience. The way I look at subjective experience, which of course is a subjective view, is as follows.

Any animal brain senses its environment, and also senses its own body and acts as a control system that allows the animal to survive in its environment. Part of that process is prediction – the automatic prediction of the path a prey animal is taking as it is pursued, for example. This involves feedback systems that continuously monitor and react to the environment, and the animal’s own body.

From there a ‘more advanced’ brain can also start to include itself as part of the environment – it can monitor its own processes, to a limited extent. This is rudimentary self-awareness. It aids survival because it allows the animal to not only improve its basic motor responses to the environment but also helps it to improve its own ‘mental’ processing of those responses: adaptive programming.

Below this conscious level there is still subjective experience of the brain body system doing its basic stuff – still a subjective perspective, but not conscious, or not self-aware, not the ‘higher level’ conscious subjective experience that this post addresses. The autonomic nervous system, or any non-biological feedback system, could be said to have this low level subjective experience by virtue of the feedback mechanisms it employs – the sensing of one’s own state.

When an animal acquires a conscious self-aware subjective experience, in addition to the non-aware non-conscious subjective experience, then ‘this’ is what it feels like (i.e. how we feel about our subjective experience).

So, when wondering what it feels like to be a bat we can only guess that a bat might or might not have sufficient capability to actually be aware of what it feels like to be a bat

What we can say is that our high level subjective experience is what it feels like to have higher level subjective experiences. Neither us or bats can say what it feels like to have lower level subjective experiences because there is no mechanism available to report those experiences to the self, to the higher level, in our case, and possibly no self to which such experiences could be reported if there were such a mechanism for a bat. Some lower level subjective experiences become higer level subjective experiences by simply delivering messages into the parts of the brain that are aware – e.g. for pain.

I realise I’m taking a liberty with the use of ‘subjective experience’, but I’m extending it into the unconscious with some justification I think. These lower level experiences are certainly subjective in the sense that they belong to, are experienced by, only those parts of the system that experience them. And I think this move has greater justification than inventing a qualia of the gaps.

5) ‘I’

Who is this ‘I’ or ‘Me’?

Many compatibilist statements that resemble this one, “Do humans choose their actions freely”, can be normalised to the first person I/me: “Do I choose my actions freely”

Some similar examples, taken from Jerry Coyne’s post:

  • “exercising their own power of will” -> “exercising my own power of will”
  • “who selects one of these options and enacts it” -> “I select one of these options and enact it”
  • “because I choose to when I might have other thoughts” – Normalised.
  • “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will” – Normalised.

This one attributed to Dennett here:

  • “the flexibility to respond in ways that suit themselves and their own purpose” – “the flexibility to respond in ways that suit me and my own purpose”

My question to compatibilists is, what is this ‘I’ if it is not the physical brain-body system? Many, if not all, compatiblists seem to resort to this ‘I’ without explaining what it is, what mechanism is used, what process, what entity it is. Could some compatibilist explain what this ‘I’ is.

To me, a determinist, the ‘I’ seems like a label for the as yet poorly understood complex events that go on in a brain and result in that brain ‘making a decision’. It’s the ‘self’ that experiences self when a michine can examine its own examining processes, when a computer program can monitor its own programming. This process will be determined by all the past history of the development and learning of that brain, and the current inputs that cause the brain to think a decision is necessary. The process will appear as one that has a most recent causal focal point in that brain – that brain has had data wizzing about according to how brains work, and has eventually come up with an output, a decision. Because the brain isn’t fully aware of all this processing now, and the detailed history of development and learning that brought it to this point is not evidence that the brain just ‘made up its own mind’ in any sense that is similar to what a dualist mind would supposedly do. This is the problem with compatibilism for me, this ‘I’ that goes so unexplained that it sounds like a free uncaused mind.

This is how I see it: we are brains. When I am thinking it is my brain doing it. When “I” say “my brain” is doing it, that’s my brain talking about itself in the first and third person, as the first person possessive of the second. I am me, the brain that refers to itself as “my brain”. We don’t have very good language for expressing this. Tough. There is no other credible possibility on the table.

It sounds like the compatibilist is saying that, yes, it’s all physical, but that it transforms into something that is not physical and yet isn’t dualism. There seems to be a mysterious gap that compatibilists argue for, while we incompatibilists insist that no matter how complicated it gets there is no room for anything other than causal determinism. Either that or the compatibilists simply can’t get their own brains around their own understanding of free will.


Though I can see where compatibilists and incompatibilists agree, within elements of point (1), on the physical basis for consciousness and free-will, I also see the labelling of free-will, property dualism, and fear of consequences, qualia, ‘I’, all as positions held by dualists, including the religious, and that’s why I see the compatibilist case not being distinct enough, such that it does lead incompatibilists to see compatibilists being closer to dualists in many respects.

Compatibilists sometimes wonder why incompatibilists make them out to be dualists. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck it might not actually be a duck, but it’s easy to make the mistake. Point (1) I can agree on to a great extent – that’s where the common ground lies.

It’s still fine for incompatibilists to use terms normally associated with free-will when appropriate – e.g. in every day language. I don’t have a problem using the ‘free-will’ metaphor, any more than using other metaphors. I might say, “I’m flying!”, meaning that whatever I’m doing I’m doing at higher than normal rate; but if I thought I was literally flying it would be an illusion (or a delusion, according to how I felt I was literally flying). I’m happy to use metaphorical language of free-will, knowing it’s metaphorical, while even at the same time realising that to some extent my brain still feels the illusion to be true.

16,000 Out of Ten Billion Processors Prefer Cats

Wired reports on cat recognition. Two wins here: cats are the best; and evolution beats ID.

Google’s mysterious X lab built a neural network of 16,000 computer processors with one billion connections and let it browse YouTube, it did what many web users might do — it began to look for cats.

The “brain” simulation was exposed to 10 million randomly selected YouTube video thumbnails over the course of three days and, after being presented with a list of 20,000 different items, it began to recognize pictures of cats using a “deep learning” algorithm.

Take that ID suckers! If a few thousand processors can do this, then a few billion years for evolution to result in systems that recognise and operate in their environment (i.e. life) is a snip. The BBC reports:

The work of the team stands at odds with many image-recognition techniques, which depend on telling a computer to look for specific features of a target object before any are presented to it.

Damn! I’ve been using the Godly method of divinely commanding my software to work, when all the time I should have used evolutionary techniques. Note to self on next sales pitch:

Here’s a computer. Here’s some random code I threw together. Give it a try, and let me know how it goes. It should figure itself out eventually. Disclaimer: being evolutionary, when it does eventually work there’s no telling what it will work at.

On second thoughts, that does sound a little like how I work.

Supernatural v Natural

The notion that the Supernatural itself ‘exists’ is unsupported – equally unsupported no matter what the Supernatural metaphysics may be: gods, ghosts, fairies, wizards, …. But let’s go with the fantasy.

The question of the interaction between the Supernatural and the Natural raises its head occasionally, and it has been doing the rounds again, and specifically the question of whether the Supernatural is beyond the reach of science. So, supposing for now that there is a Supernatural, what can we know about it?

If the supernatural (S) is distinct from the natural (N), and they do not overlap at all, then what are all the religious claims based on? By this definition of non-interaction Natural human religious entities (theists) cannot experience the Supernatural; and since there are no interactions from S to N we don’t get any miracles to reveal the Supernatural either.

The only way the Natural human religious entities could experience the Supernatural is if there is some interaction between S and N.

So, one interaction might be that the human Natural entities have some Supernatural component that interacts with (witnesses) the Supernatural (e.g. the soul).

Another interaction is one whereby the Supernatural entities (e.g. God) have the capacity to act on the natural world. This is presumed to be the case, since He is supposed to have created the Natural in the first place.

But all interactions we know of in the Natural world are two-way. Cause and effect are mutually connected. So, for the soul to witness Supernatural experiences and transmit them to the conscious mind it must alter the conscious mind. It is the conscious mind of the theist that is making the claim of having an experience.

Both types of interaction are open to investigation by science.

Theists having religious experiences, being ‘in-touch’ with the divine, must be able to be tested. And the results of those tests must rule out (to some reasonable degree) any alternative natural cause for those experiences. All known religious experiences can be explained in terms of known psychological effects that are, at the very least, as feasible as a Supernatural explanation. Given how many alternative Supernatural or otherwise mystical explanations are offered by a multitude of cranks and variations on the religious you’d think the religious, wanting to be certain they are right, would be very concerned by these competing claims – but that’s where faith is required: belief’s cocoon of denial.

Theists claiming Supernatural effects on the Natural also clearly have some explaining to do. All modern claims are testable, and many have been tested and found wanting: faith healing, intercessionary prayer. Nothing. And any historical claims to miracles are sufficiently suspect by virtue of the period of ignorance in which they were made. Any theist who gives credibility to the resurrection must give equal credibility to fairies, imps, goblins, demi-gods, dog-head people, sea monsters (the least incredible), vampires, … Theists have no more grounds for believing in miracles than they do in any other crazy story. But, then again, faith (in one’s own beliefs) comes to the rescue of the reality deniers: no number of suspect mystical entities is sufficient to cause one to suspect one’s own.

So, either S and N interact, and those interactions are testable. Or they don’t, and all theism is just made up crap by Natural entities that have no access to the Supernatural in either direction. I mean to say, if the Supernatural is inaccessible to science, then it’s damned well inaccessible to a few fruit cakes who like to recite chants to their Supernatural Superheroes. So, theists, take your pick. Heads I win, Tails you lose.

Just to throw a spanner into the works, have a closer look at the Venn diagrams above. What’s all that empty space around the Supernatural and the Natural? Should the diagram be more like this?

Well, why should it? If theists can lay claim to the Supernatural without evidence, then I think I’ll go for the Hypernatural (H). You know, home of Hypernatural Thingymabob, that all encompassing thing that created all Supernatural creators of universes, the Thing that created God and gave Him the power to create the Natural.

How far does this stuff go on? Does the Hypernatural interact with the Natural, or just the Supernatural? Is there a Superhypernatural?

Is this getting silly? It already got silly, a few thousand years ago. And as we become more rational and sceptical, and are able to see the Emperor’s clothes for what they are, the whole religious show becomes an obvious invention of imaginative minds.

It’s one thing to hypothesise about the metaphysics of the origins of the universe, or maybe to make guesses about what is required to form an intelligent entity, and whether some such thing caused specific universes to come and go. But that’s all it is, guess work.

Far easier to let everything lie under one roof. It’s Natural all the way. Even the stuff that seems mysterious now will either one day be explained by Natural means, or will remain mysterious – but only in the sense of remaining unknown. Whatever the origins of our universe and any other, when or if they become known to us, they will be investigated, theorised about, and will take their place in our expanding field of Natural knowledge.

The strong nuclear force is something we discovered, or invented, or modelled, however you want to put it. It is now used to explain the interaction between particles in the nucleus of atoms. It was not once Supernatural and then suddenly Natural. Rather, it was once an unknown Natural phenomenon and is now a known Natural phenomenon.

The Primacy of Thought

A few recent blog posts have raised the issue of the primacy of thought, particularly these two:

John Loftus at Debunking Christianity quotes James East in this post.

Mike D at The A-Unicornist on this post.

The problem for me with theism, and some philosophy, is the primacy given to the mind and a failure to appreciate how humans, and all animals, are inherently constrained by our senses: Thought v Experience.

The trouble with ‘thinking’ is that by the time we humans started to do it reasonably well a lot of evolutionary water had passed under the bridge, but we had no clue about our sensory non-thinking heritage, so our point of view was skewed. It’s as if we came into the world as a fully formed thinking entities or souls, that just happened to reside in a corporeal body. The mental awakening of an individual human as they grow from childhood to adulthood is also a metaphor for the awakening of the species. So, quite naturally I think, we discover we can think and presume this is our greatest capacity, and not knowing its limitations we come to think the mind has some powerful ability to discover knowledge all on its own. Our very familiar relationship with our own minds, our subjective experience, is so overwhelming that it clouds our view so that we see it as the be-all and end-all of knowledge acquisition. This is the source of our conviction to the primacy of thought.

Here’s James East expressing this very experience (as quoted by John Loftus. My emphasis):

I was a Christian for nearly 20 years – starting as a young teenager, after being raised in a “very Christian” family. By the time I was able to think for myself, I basically believed everything already, so it was only natural to accept the salvation that was on offer when it finally clicked.

And here’s Articulet’s reply (my emphasis again):

Yes – boy can I relate! And don’t feel ashamed for falling for Christianity – probably most of your favorite people have – and most of the smartest people you know. But these are the memes that have survived through time.

In the extreme we have characters like Alvin Plantinga who suppose, for no good reason I can see beyond the persistence of ‘memes’, that we have mental capacities that are reliable routes to truth, when really we have no idea what ‘truth’ is.

Science has a limited practical interpretation of ‘truth’, which basically is the degree of correspondence between our various methods of discovery – so even in that sense ‘truth’ is not the all-or-nothing truth of logic. Epistemology is a mess because it is supposed that there is some real achievable certain ‘truth’ to be found, some absolute certainty out there waiting for us to discover, perhaps in the mind of God, that imaginary essence of truth itself, by virtue, maybe, of our sensus divinitatis.

I remain surprised that some otherwise bright people cannot grasp the link between our acknowledged fictions, and cannot recognise religious thinking for what it is: imagination allowed to run free and unconstrained by the senses.

Our thinking ability is more limited than we tend to think. Some of our recent ancestors will have had an even more limited capacity to think (and we see that in many of our existent cousins); and distant ancestors would have had no nervous system at all. But all of them, right back to the simplest celled organisms, have had a sensory interface with the world, even if it’s a simple chemical boundary. We are still, biologically and evolutionarily, sensory beings. Our evolutionary upgrade, a thinking brain, is an enhancement I’m sure; but a recent one that we are still learning to use. But it is useless in its own right, when acting alone. Try growing a brain in a child deprived entirely of senses and see what happens. Empiricism rules: we are sensory beings with an added capacity to analyse what we sense, to recognise patterns, to plan, to predict, to test again.

Common sense experience alone should be sufficient to tell us our senses and our reasoning are flawed. Our naturally developed faculty, our human knowledge acquisition system, our empirical nature, is only improved by the rigour of science. Even where science is still justifiably criticised as flawed, it’s still the best we can do. Science is, after all, practised by a flawed empirical system – the human being. All claims to ‘other ways of knowing’ have no foundation beyond wishful thinking. There’s only this one way of knowing, succinctly described as empiricism, but more rigorously practised as science. We can do it poorly or we can do it well, but that’s all we can do. We have no other faculties available to us that we know of.

We all acknowledge the human faculties of intuition and insight, but those that would put such faculties above science still don’t really get where these faculties fit in. Science uses them – that is scientists use them. They are part of the whole human knowledge acquisition system. But these faculties are also known to be suspect. The point being that science, the rigour of science, is the application of methodologies that weed out the useless intuitions and explore and expand on the good ones. In contrast to this approach the religious in particular, and some philosophers, are content to accept their intuitions without question, or at best only with questioning that also lies within the framework of their dogmas and schemas. They insist on this primacy of thought.

I feel that the failure to recognise this is why many theists and philosophers have been historically, and still are, so committed to the mind and the imagined capabilities attributed to it: reliable logical reasoning, freedom from bias and emotional drives to believe what we want to believe, a capacity to transcend the skull through thought alone, the ability to communicate with an imagined super being, the reliance on notions like faith. Until they grasp this view of what we are, our empirical nature, they will remain stuck thinking they have some pure, and possibly divine, route to knowledge through the mind alone.

Of course we could deny this empirical nature of ours, but to start down that road we would have to deny first the evolutionary theory that tells us this is how we got here from pre-thinking ancestors, and how this is the type of being we are. And once on that path, eventually, any significant contribution of the senses can be ditched. If the mind is really the route to knowledge, then the end of the line is solipsism. I can’t refute the solipsism hypothesis, but I’m content with not needing to.

Zeno’s Paradoxes of Motion

Zeno’s Paradoxes crop up occasionally. There are several paradoxes labelled as Zeno’s. Two of these are: Achilles and the Tortoise, and, the dichotomy paradox (or the race course paradox)

These are all basically the same sort of problem, about breaking down motion into an infinite series of ever smaller steps.

The runner of a race goes like this:

A runner starts running the length of a race track. At the half-way point he has covered half the distance, with half remaining. When he gets to half the remaining distance he still has the other half of that second distance remaining. At each ever shorter half-way point he has covered half the distance remaining, but always has half the distance to complete. This continues, with remaining half-distances remaining, indefinitely. He never completes the race.

What’s actually happening, with the runner of a race, is we tend to assume him to be traveling at a constant speed S, and yet the never ending half distances make it appear that he never completes the race. Paradoxical? Only if you think of a normal runner at constant speed, while thinking of this runner with each half length taking the same time.

Constant Speed

Supposing that we look at his position, x, at times, t, and X is the length of the track:

x0, x1, x2, x3, …, xn, x(n+1), …
t0, t1, t2, t3, …, tn, t(n+1), …

The difference between each is:
dxn = x(n+1) – xn: dx0 = x1 – x0, dx1 = x2 – x1, …
dtn = t(n+1) – tn: dt0 = t1 – t0, dt1 = t2 – t1, …

The paradox tells you that dx is being halved each time, but may neglect to tell you that if the runner is moving at constant speed then dt is also being halved each time:

dx1 = dx0/2, dx2 = dx1/2, …
dt1 = dt0/2, dt2 = dt1/2, …

The time intervals are halving too.

So, the speed is still constant: dxn/dtn = S, period to period.

Constant Time Intervals – Reducing Speed

The other view of the paradox, the one presented when looking at the detail, thinking only about the distances, leaves you with this impression:

dx1 = dx0/2, dx2 = dx1/2, …, dx(n+1) = dxn/2
dt1 = T, dt2 = T, … where T is constant. If the paradox is expressed with the intention of declaring a never ending race then this will be stated explicitly.

So, s the speed is halving each step:

sn = dxn/T = dx(n-1)/2T = s(n-1)/2

which would take infinite time to complete.

So, what you think you’ve got is a half-life-like expression: where the distance is asymptotic to the end point and never actually reaching it, in principle:

Stopping Time, or Never Ending?

Once the constant speed distance intervals become smaller than a part of the runner’s foot, and the time intervals become smaller than we can detect, he seems to become stationary. You’ve stopped time – it’s as if the runner can never complete the race. But of course you are supposedly looking at the runner in real time (in your mind’s eye), while being able to see these ever smaller distances and times, as if you see him stop. But in reality, at constant speed, these smaller intervals flash by in real small times and we do see the runner complete the race.

With the constant time intervals the runner actually runs slower and slower in real-time. Again he appears to become stationary because each interval (let’s say T = 1s) his distances are really getting smaller and smaller each second. Asymptotically, in principle, he never reaches the end – or, more specifically, the total time (the sum of all the T’s), extends indefinitely with the number of intervals. He would have to run so slow as he approaches the end that he would again appear to freeze.

Finite sum of a convergent infinite series

Another way of looking at the constant speed scenario is by summing intervals.

Assume the total distance is 100m, and the time taken to travel the distance is 100s. The speed S is:

S = 100m/100s = 1m/s (Ok, so he’s 10 times slower than Carl Lewis on his first 10s 100m)

Normalised to unitless 1 (i.e. 100m = 1 and 100s = 1):

S = 1/1 = 1

The paradox states each distance interval is halved, and in total you have a finite sum from an infinite series:

1 = 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + …

The same must apply for the time intervals:

1 = 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + …

So, again, the speed is 1/1 = 1.

If Ttot is the time to complete the race: Ttot = S/X

Then half the distance at constant speed: Th = Ttot/2

The series view is then:

Ttot = Th + Th/2 + Th/3 + …
Ttot = Th + Th(1/2 + 1/3 + …) = 2Th

Infinite sum of a divergent infinite series

For the constant time interval we have a divergent series:

So, the times at each x are:
x0, x1, x2, …
0, T, 2T, …


Ttot = T + 2T + 3T + … -> infinity

For a more detailed look at the maths of all this try these pages from S. Marc Cohen at Washington.


What we are led to believe is that we have a paradox concerning a single type of motion, with contradictory results. But it is simply two definitions of the motion of travel, neither of which is explicit in the statement of the paradox, and neither of which is problematic in isolation.

Some formulations may state explicitly that the time intervals are constant – in which case there is only one single description of motion, and you just have to avoid the trap of having the motion of a constant speed runner in the back of your mind to avoid coming over all paradoxical.

So, it’s not a real paradox:

“a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.”

The ‘paradox’ contains two actual truths masquerading as a self-contradictory single truth, or a single truth that you have mistaken for two. You have been conned.

Getting Real

Constant speed
We could object that it takes time to accelerate at the start of a race (even at 10m/s), but the example here just simplifies the case of a variable speed natural runner.

Constant Time Periods
The constant time interval is even more unrealistic. There is a difficulty with infinitesimal distances, even in the case of the constant time intervals. The atom on the tip of the runner’s nose is sufficiently large to jiggle back and forth across the finish line as the runner is halving his speed on approach to the finish. And good luck with dealing with this as you approach the Planck length.

Half Life:
In practice the half life of a piece of caesium isn’t infinite. A mole of caesium contains 6.022 × 10^23 atoms – which is a finite number, so it would eventually decay to zero.

But, it is a thought experiment after all, and philosophers, even back in Zeno’s time, weren’t too hot on thinking through thought experiments. Don’t get me started on ‘the heap‘.