Tag Archives: Biology

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.

Love – Something Humans Do

On Lesley’s post Peter Rollins – What is Religion? I’ve been trying to understand what Rollins is saying, without much success. But in the ensuing comments I claimed that love is just something that humans do – my intended implication being it is nothing to do with a god, or specifically God.

Kathryn asked, “Why do you think this [love] is something humans do? Do you think it is a genetic fluke, or is there some purpose?”, and I wanted to give a more complete response than I could in a comment on Lesley’s post.

It’s a fluke in one sense: the sense that it just turned out that way due to evolution, without any intentionality or direct design or purpose. But that ‘fluke’ is not to be confused with ID critiques of evolution that say evolution relies on impossible odds. Fluke, luck, random events, whatever we might call them, have a part to play in evolution, but the theory of evolution shows that other forces, such as natural selection, play on those flukes in order to cause some change that persists.

The significant point from an evolutionary perspective is that traits that have some benefit in some sets of circumstances are more likely to survive.

Some simplistic examples to make the point and put love in context (for sexually reproductive species)…

A genetic condition (e.g. a mutation) that caused infertility would not be passed on to the next generation at all. Another mutation that didn’t effect fertility but did remove sexual lust would also die out quickly in most animals (though humans, with our cognitive abailities, could overcome this). An emotion like love may not be as necessary at all for short term survival, but may be necessary in some species for greater group cohesion, or perhaps mother-infant bonding. Both fertility and lust are necessary for reproduction in sexually reproductive animals, but love isn’t.

But we can still see how love can provide a greater benefit than not experiencing love, for some species.

Fertility we count as a physiological trait, love as an emotional one, but lust we see more as something of both physiological and emotional – so, where’s the divide between physical trait and emotional trait? When you get down to the chemistry of what’s going on in the brain they are, all three, physiological traits, each with their own contribution to the survivability of a species (along with all other influences). We have no reason to suppose that love is anything other than this, and certainly no evidence that it has any special meaning or value outside the context of humans that, using our brains, give it meaning and value. it’s not something we need to associate with God, despite that fact that theists tend to raise it to the level of the divine.

Evolution doesn’t have a purpose as such – and so there is no purpose for love. There is a trivial descriptive sense in which, looking back, we might use a purposive description – e.g. ‘the purpose of this gene sequence was to cause that trait to emerge…’ (again, a simplistic view of genes) But this isn’t purpose in the sense of an agent intentionally causing some trait to appear for particular purpose of his. We are used to attributing purpose to the things we do, and we can mistakenly attribute purpose to complex causal chains that are otherwise hard to describe. It can be helpful to describe causal chains with such anthropomorphic framing of purpose – but we need to be careful that we understand that this purpose isn’t real, it’s a metaphor for causality.

So, there is nothing in our evolutionary past which could predict, in any reasonable sense, that love would turn out to be a trait that a particular species valued highly. There are clues available to the hindsight we have acquired through the development of the theory of evolution, based on our understanding of empathy and attachment that bond animal parents to young, and in some cases parents to each other. Insects have a very specific type of bond to their fellows nest, which is basically chemical. So, love (or its simpler animal parallel) isn’t necessary for all animals to be evolutionarily successful – though for larger animals with more complex brains it may be particularly beneficial. We think it’s beneficial for us – so much so we have learned to value it highly.

In this sense love is just what humans do, without it having any directive purpose. It’s one of the many things we do, along with hate, fear, lust, empathy and many other traits. They all boil down to having emerged through our evolutionary history, and having been developed in our intellectual and cultural history.

Perhaps a better phrasing might be love is just what humans did in the past as a more refined development of empathy, but which we do now with more purpose and intent as we have come to appreciate it and value it.

We can reasonably explain the relationship between some of these things we do, in this simplified evolutionary context…

Personally and subjectively we like the feeling of love, and we dislike the feeling of fear. Our empathy makes us appreciate the same perspective in others, so we want love for others as well as for ourselves, and part of that is that we get additional pleasure from giving love, and even more from reciprocative love. And conversely we dislike fear, we dislike seeing fear in others, and so we want to alleviate the fear we see in others. And, on top of that we dislike seeing others cause fear, because of our empathy for the victims; and in a simple sense, just as a mother responds to defend her young with the animal equivalent of anger, so we respond with anger towards those that cause fear. These are strong innate emotional responses, honed in our history, with their origins lost in myth.

Many of our basic emotions have parallels in other animals, but have been developed into more refined concepts by us, probably because of the concurrent development of our language and our brain’s ability to be more acute in our understanding of these emotions and the concepts we form about them. Just as a musician can develop a more acute sense of musical notes (an analogy Kathryn uses).

The problem is we don’t often consider the simpler animal basis for our complex emotions – partly because of our ignorance of the evolutionary perspective. This ignorance was understandable for most of human history in which our reach back to the past was only ever measured in terms of a few generations. We could only develop myths out of that ignorance – ironically using the very creative imagination that later allowed us to come up with the science that helped us discover more plausible explanations.

The weight of those myths persists, and is maintained in varying degrees by a continued ignorance of the significance of what evolution is telling us, along with the willing, and sometimes not so willing, indoctrination in and bias towards those myths. Even those theists that have an understanding of evolution find it hard to accept the full implications of evolution and related ideas when they challenge their theological beliefs – they sometimes express a fear of the consequences of following the ideas through – e.g. the fear of the nihilism of atheism, in the absence of God.

To help a theist put this in perspective, consider some of the cosmological ideas that are floating around – many of which theists use as examples of how science has its own myths. In some respects our old myths parallel the current speculations about our cosmological origins – the old myths were speculations in the absence of data, just as some of our cosmological ideas are speculations in the absence of data. In some cases the mathematical theory of the latter replaces imaginative theology of the former, and so cosmologists might feel their theories have a greater legitimacy than theologies. But there may come a time, when we are better informed, when some our current cosmological speculations seem more like myths. So, this is how now atheists see theologies as outdated myths.

The deep history of religion is interesting, but I’m still largely ignorant about it. One particular book on my reading list is The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright. It appears to put the contingency of Christianity in perspective, effectively explaining the myth. It’s the historical perspective that I need to know more about; and I suspect many Christians need to know more about it too, but without their own theological bias. If ever there was a case of the winners getting to write the history, theology is it – I don’t think much of the history of theology sees the light of day. I don’t know to what extent history of theology is taught in this respect. The book’s website gives a good sampling of the book and is worth a read.