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.

Ideas, Concepts, Thoughts – Physical Instantiation In Brains

[This is part of a set: Thinking][This is part of a set: Consciousness]

Abstract ideas, concepts, thoughts, occur in human brains. But how are they instantiated in those brains? Physically.

There are patterns of matter and energy in the universe, sometimes called ‘fractures in the continuum’, or ‘lack of conformity’. In informational terms there are distinctions – distinct data patterns. These are synonymous to all intents and purposes, though some philosophers may object to this – but then I think if they object to this they’ve got bigger problems with solipsism anyway. Certainly from an inductive point of view this acknowledgement of the correspondence between reality and the patterns or distinctions in it is sufficient.

On this basis, everything is essentially data – including human brains. The change in human brains that occurs when thoughts flit through them or when they remember something is merely brain matter changing state, changing pattern. Conversely, everything is also material – including data, by virtue of the fact that it consists of the organisation of matter into distinct patterns, whether that’s a configuration of electrons in the capacitive element of a logic transistor, or the configuration of synapses in a human brain.

Even when we think in our minds of abstract data existing in some Platonic plane, that very idea itself has an existence in the formation of matter in the brain. The odd thing to grasp with this is that we have this abstract notion that there is nothing abstract, it’s all real, except the abstraction itself, which doesn’t have some separate reality independent of physical reality.

I think it important to note that all ideas, such as ‘idea’, ‘concept’, ‘abstract’, along with religious ideas like ‘soul’, ‘God’, are all inventions of the human mind – as is ‘mind’ of course, so I should really say, inventions of the human brain. No science has ever discovered the existence of a material object, or any trace of energy, or anything else, that is a ‘soul’, or an ‘idea’, or a ‘concept’, other than their physical instantiation as patterns in matter/energy.

So that when philosophers talk about these as if they have some existence, it’s pure invention with no verification through evidence. What we do find are patterns in matter which are used to represent these, which then invokes something in the brain.

Representation = Physical Implementation.

So, the word ‘concept’ itself invokes the concept of ‘concept’ in my brain as I read it. But given that this is happening in a material brain then there is little more to expect other than the word on the screen has triggered a corresponding pattern in the brain: word on screen, light to eye, retina activity, complex neuronal activity, triggered concept recognition.

This is why I think that even when talking about human ‘knowledge’ in the brain we are better sticking to terms like data, or information. This view also unifies the idea of knowledge as data within human brains, and outside them, on paper, in books and databases, and even unifies the idea with the material world.

Data = Physical Distinction

I accept that as a matter of convenience we will want to differentiate between the places where this data/matter resides. So, on some occasions we’ll talk about ‘the body of human knowledge’ when we mean the accumulation of all of what has at sometimes been in some human brains and has been translated into common media, such as books. On other occasions we’ll talk of how a person ‘knows some proposition to be true’, when we are talking about their commitment to the correspondence of the proposition to some relating thing or event in the world outside the human head. But when looking at this in the whole, and at the same time looking for how all this ‘knowledge’ exists in some detailed but unified way, it’s easier to talk about information, data, matter.

Let’s compare software. A piece of software is only ever an abstraction in a human mind. There is nothing you can touch that is a Microsoft Word program. When you buy it on disk you are actually taking with you a disk with some pattern on it. Look at the pattern on the disk and you see pits in a CD. You do not see nebulous software. When you install it onto a PC there is real physical energy transfer, from the CD reader, through the system, into magnetic patterns on the hard drive. Other than wear and tear and any decay, loss of fidelity on the disk through laser action is entirely incidental – the disk pattern largely remains. Software has not been transferred. It has been copied – re-represented. When it’s loaded into PC memory and run, it’s just bit states in the memory. Programs are data; data is information; information is distinction in physical state.

Abstractions, ideas, concepts, are our software. They don’t exist in any physical sense other than they are patterns. They are patterns in the brain, no matter how permanent, like long term memory, or how transient, like short term memory, or even non-memorised flashes across areas of the working brain.

Take a concept, any concept. Can you hold one? Or are they fleeting brain content? If I have the concept of a car, and I draw that car on paper, and show that paper to someone, and they recognise the pattern as representing a car, their brain will likely construct, immediately, a concept of a car. At no time did that concept exist on the paper. Only a representation of it existed. If the other person did not share the concept of car, had they never seen one (our classical ‘jungle native’, ignorant of all technology), then, they would only see lines on the paper – and might even mistake the paper for some kind of leaf or some object they are familiar with. The lines in which we see a car would not invoke the concept of a car in anyone ignorant of the human technology.

An example used by Sam Harris is language. When I hear English spoken it triggers patterns in my brain. My brain recognises the words and converts them into brain patterns that emerge into consciousness as concepts. This is to a great extent unconscious, thanks to my having learned English from childhood. I have limited experience of other languages. If I listen to a French speaker speaking quickly I may pick up only a portion of the content, and may miss some key words so that I get the story completely wrong. I know some French but I’m not fluent. My brain is not attuned to the sound patterns of quickly spoken French. If I listen to Korean it will be pure noise. I don’t know that I know any Korean. Just as someone who has no experience or knowledge of cars would not recognise a line drawing of a car, so my brain does not pick anything useful out of Korean. It’s noise.

Information theory relies on distinction for any information at all. In our physical universe distinction amounts to different states of matter/energy; and dynamic states at that. The whole point of the heat death of the universe is the complete and utter loss of distinction. Our very existence relies on distinction in states of matter. Our brains undergo dynamic changes to the matter of which it is constituted to form distinct states.

Is it surprising that thoughts, concepts, ideas, only came into being along with our evolved brains, and even more so when our brains acquired language? But, you might ask, what about the thoughts of God? Well, so far, all the evidence points to God coming into existence, as a concept, along with the development of human brains. I don’t know of any encoded record of God being present along with any fossils. Our first notions of gods appear with the early artifacts of creatures that were already human.

Epistemology is a problem for philosophy. Knowledge doesn’t have a satisfactory water tight definition that gets us anywhere. Far simpler to accept the information theory use of knowledge which is more about the correspondence between what we have in our heads and the material experience it represents. The problem is that we are inundated with continuous experiences from our first conception, though cognitive experiences await some rudimentary brain development in the fetus. By the time we’re old enough to think consciously about ideas like ‘concept’, ‘knowledge’ and other ‘abstract’ ideas, our brains are already full of them. This leaves us with the impression that they have some sort of abstract life of their own, but they don’t. They exist as brain states, and changing states: behaviour.

I find it odd that anti-physicalists want to use the insubstantial ephemeral nature of ‘ideas’, ‘concepts’, as evidence of a real and active ‘mind’ that is distinct from the brain. To my physical brain, my mind, the very nebulous nature of ‘concepts’ and ‘ideas’ is evidence of their non-existence in any independent reality, and better as evidence of their existence only in the brain.

Physicalism and Conciousness

[http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/stewart_goetz/dualism.html]
See section 2 on Conciousness, and in particular the Mary problem.

As Colin McGinn has stated, “Consciousness defies explanation in [compositional, spatial] terms. Consciousness does not seem to be made up out of smaller spatial processes…. Our faculties bias us towards understanding matter in motion, but it is precisely this kind of understanding that is inapplicable to the mind-body problem.”

Nonsense. What is computer software? Can you explain it? How can you copy it without creating new matter or energy? It’s information, that’s why. Our thoughts are information, the product of physicalism and caused by it. Nothing inherently mysterious, though it might appear so to the human mind that is actually experiencing it. The mind-body duality dilema that people struggle with is analogous to an optical illusion – e.g. the hollow mask that appears solid, or the wire cube that flips orientation – as with these it’s difficult to think in our mind of both states simultaneously. We can flip states, but we can’t ‘see’ or imagine both simultaneously. In a similar way we can (almost) imagine computer software as information, but have greater difficulty imagining this condition when applying it to our own thoughts. It becomes even more confusing, and more like the attempt to simultaneously ‘see’ both states of an optical illusion, when we try an imagine what’s happening when we think about what we are thinking now in the first person; and some explanations of conciousness and dualism confuse the issue by trying to do this.

Did Mary (see site) learn something new about pain? Yes. She physically experienced (both in terms of physical neurological responses and informational interpretation) the real pain for which she had only previously had a physical neurological model. Her model has simply been updated with real first hand experiential data, when previously the only experiential data she had was neurological mapping of things she had already experienced. In practice of course this ‘schrodingers’s cat’ type of thought experiment is limited. The definition of the experiment is incorrect. Pain is simply a more intense stimulus of corresponding stimuli – presumably Mary hadn’t been denide the sense of touch, otherwise she would have had difficulty relating to much of the theoretical information she had read in the first place. What sort of human would have emerged from the room if that had been the case. It’s a hypethetical case where the accuracy of the perceived consequences are dubious, to the extent that the conclusion does not necessarily follow. Mary can’t even pick up the bowling ball if she’s been deprived of the appropriate senses!

“Given that it is exceedingly difficult and seemingly impossible to provide a compositional, spatial analysis of the intrinsic nature of an event such as an experience of pain, can a metaphysical naturalist reasonably promise us some other kind of explanation of its nature?”

This is metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. “compositional, spatial analysis of the intrinsic nature of an event” – does this actually mean anything? These arguments are often dressed up in these phrases that some researcher has latched onto or invented to describe some concept that is difficult to understand – fair enough. But then the problem is that these phrases are used in ways that make it difficult to grasp what is being said.

“…can he (physicalist) at least provide a plausible explanation of how it came about that the universe contains occurrences such as experiences of pain and pleasure? We doubt it.”

Why, when it has expressly been given? The dualist is confusing a simple causal relationship between an excessive physical stimulus and the informational model that the receiving organism experiences as a result, as a separate entity.

How does a human feel pain? A cat? A worm? A bacterium? A cell? A complex molecule? A grain of sand? Physicaly, they don’t, they simply react – either extremely passivily according to relatively simple laws of physics for a grain of sand, or in more complex physical/chemical ways for a molecule, or in increasingly more complex chemical/exlectrical/biological/neurological ways for higher organisms.

Being organsims with a complex nervous system that includes the brain we have adapted ourselves to the interpretation of our environment. One of our interpretations is to feel/think/experience our environment in terms of our own experiences. The more animate and the more similar to us other entities are, the more easly we make this mapping – we anthropomorphise or personify. We do this with ourselves and our ‘thoughts’ to the greatest degree. Some of us even have to create, or imagine, or to model non-existant entities using the same principle – demons, faires, ghosts, gods, etc. Sometimes our brains get it wrong – they extrapolate (a very valuable tool used in the prediction process) – they extrapolate too much, they become gullible, seeing optical illusions, even delusions.

“What, then, is the theistic alternative? Theism begins by acknowledging that experiences of pleasure and pain and choices are events that occur in subjects which refer to themselves by the first-person pronoun ‘I.'”

Do some of the lower organsims not feel pain? If they do, do they refer to themselves in the first person? Again, when is this magical dualism switched on – just humans, apes, …? Be careful, else you’ll be dragging up biblical nonsense again.

“As the theist René Descartes wrote…(quotes Descartes)…”

The dualist is here acknowledging the simplicity of the mind in one respect, but denying it from the physicalist respect, which itself is very simple.

Decartes: “I cannot distinguish in myself any parts” – could that be because there is nothing to distinguish? Is Decartes referring to the distinction between mind and body, or the distinction between parts of his thoughts? Is he struggling to identify his thoughts as distinct physical entities? Maybe he’s struggling because they don’t exist as such. When my computer is running some software I can see the results on screen, I can imaging the electrons moving at amazing speeds around the silicon based microscopic circuitry, and I can imaging the source code I have written if it’s my program that’s running – but can I imaging the actual ‘software’ itself as a physical entity? No more than I can be self aware and imagine my own thoughts as something distict from my physicality.

I can certainly imagine what the dualists are describing. I can imaging some ghostly substance that might be my soul, spirit, thoughts – but that’s all it is, an imagined concept. I have no reason to think it exists. When movies portray a dead soul rising out of a body – is that what we really think is happeng in some invisible dimension? Of course not (or maybe you do). But there is no evidence to support that imagining, that concept. I can imagine flying pigs, with little wings – do they exist? Because I can imagine something doesn’t mean it exists.

I can imagine God, angels – all with typically anthropomorphised representations. If God really exists with some of the real properties he’s supposed to have, such as omniscience, can I imagine that? Only in a limited way, as I imagine the mathematical concept of infinity – something bigger than anything, but to which if I add more it is the same thing? Does that sound a little like the ontological argument for God? Figments of our limited imaginations!

In postulating the concept of dualism we are using a limited capacity tool (the mind) to grasp something of itself that is merely apparent. We accept illusions, hoaxes, some delusions, for what they are – the mind not presenting a sufficiently good approximation of the external physical reality – but then for no apparent reason than the mystery of not underestaning something, we invent dualism, supernatural external agents, theism. Figments of our limited imaginations.

Why is it so difficult to see that the alternative – the physical causal relationship between neurological activity and the resulting mental models?

Don’t be fooled by the apparent complexity. How can this proposed simple process take part in this argument, including those parts of the process that produce the written (typed) work above (whether you think its good or not it’s still apparently complex). But, just as the many many simple little steps of evolution have produced us, so the many many simple little processes in this organism have produced this. If I had omnisciently and omnipotently flashed out all this text instantly, in zero time, then we might be closer to the realisation of what God is. But I didn’t. Every impulse to my fingers to type, every nuerologocal action that contributes, is very very simple – they are simply working very fast and in great numbers. The sophisticaion comes from the co-ordination. But co-ordinated lesser orgaisms that are independent to some extent also produce similarly amazing results. Bees building honey combs, ants foreging for food – they are all sophisticated co-ordinated processes where the individual elements are all amazingly simple whan compared with the result.

We are at the top of the chain, as far as we know, in this evolutionary scale, so we find it difficult to imagine anything that might be more complex than ourselves that is not some ultimate God.

Dualism, as with God, is a failed attempt to come to terms with the complex. We can imagine the simple. We can imagine somethings more complex. But eventually, as complexity increases we lose touch and make a giant leap to something bigger, but conceptually easier to identify – even if not easier to understand.

In maths, imagine a simple sum: 1 + 1 = 2. Now imagine some complex formula – say some series using powers and factorials – still with me? Now try some complex differential equations – still here? Now Schrödinger equation… – have you seen them and do you understand them? By now some, if not most of us (including me) has lost track of these equations – they are more complex than I am familar with. I can imagine some vague representation on a physicists blackboard, employing symbols I’m not familar with – it’s all Greek to me. Now, let’s imagine infinity – got that?

I bet more people with upper high school and graduate level maths find it easier to grasp the notion of infinity than they do some complex expression representing something in physics. It’s quite straight forward to imagine clearly some simpler things, and relatively easy to grasp something of the notion of a concept that is very extensive, in size, number, power, infomational capacity, than it is to imagine some things that are just more complex than we are used to. It’s easier to imagine God as represented by some very vague notions of extreme extension to simpler human properties, than it is to imagine in detail more complex processes or organisms than those with which we are currently familar.

Dualism is similar to some extent. We find it difficult to imagine where the boundary lies – or how the continuum flows – from the physical bodies that we have come to be familiar with and the thoughts that we are also familiar with. Because we can’t imagine this we invent a separation – dualism. It’s a failure of our current capacity to understand.

So, are physicalists so advanced that they can conceive of it, while the poor dumb dualists can’t? No, of course not. What is most likely at work here is an ingrained view that’s difficult to shake off. I would guess, though I have nothing to support this, that all physicalists have had dualist interpretations at one time – simply because it is easier to imagine.

This is an imagination gap. If the gap is narrow we can build a bridge easily. If the gap is wide we prefer to fly across, skipping whatever is missing. Go from what we are familiar with to some extreme concept based on the familar properties. It’s difficult to imagine what we don’t know. This imagination gap should be familar to most students, particularly the more advanced your studies*. You can read the fear of the apparent consequences in the writings of theists. We are dealing with a ‘duality of the gaps’ that is similar to the ‘God of the gaps’.

“we are not arguing that there is some gap in an otherwise seamless naturalist view of reality”

Oh yes you are.

“This is an argument from the fundamental character of reality and what kinds of things exist (purposes, feelings…”

Yes, purpose and feelings exist, but not as some distinct dualist entity. They are properties of the organism that is experiencing. Particularly feelings and emotions – simple hormonal biological chemical electrical reactions. ‘Purpose’ is apparent, not real in the sense that is independent free-will.

The only dualism I see in all this is that in the mind of the dualist. On the one had an imagination failure in not seeing the continuum and inclusiveness of physicalism that encompases conciousness, and on the other, the runaway imagination that goes in leaps and bounds from missing data regarding conciousness, to mind-body dualism, on to basic theism, and then on to all the wild imaginings of heaven, hell, saints, miracles, etc.


*I remember very clearly the earliest experience of this, on a very limited scale. In primary school I could do ‘short-division’ but I couldn’t fathom out ‘long-division’ – it was very frustrating, and even frightening – I feared I was really dumb!. Then a neigbour’s son, a year older than me, spent some time going through examples. I remember very clearly when the penny dropped. A spiritual revalation? Later, at university I struggled with some concepts of advanced chemistry – it was an electronics course and I naively hadn’t expected to be learning chemistry and I’d skipped chemistry at highschool, so I was ill equiped for some of this stuff. I remember the anguish in class, seeing all the other students nodding knowingly while I was thinking “what the hell is he talking about”. Recognising the response I went off to the library and made sure I caught up. Never be afraid of what you don’t know! If you need to know it, put in sufficient effort so that your brain and its neurological patterns become famialar with it – eventually you’ll see the light – alleluiah!