Monday, February 2, 2015

My biggest problem with "eliminative materialism"

In college I took a course on the philosophy of mind according to Paul and Patricia Churchland. We got to meet Paul at the end of the course, which is a story I could tell another day. I was simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by the Churchlands' idea of mind. They go even further than other materialists in insisting that the mind really is the brain and nothing else. See, you can be a materialist and still hold to some functionalist perspective in which the brain "gives raise" to certain traits, and those traits can be said to be "mind." The Churchlands throw even that out. That's why they call it "eliminative" materialism.

I was reminded of this as I read through a recent article on why we can't solve the "Hard Problem." For some reason, not even David Chalmers can convince the Churchlands (or Daniel Dennett, who, I believe, really is a zombie) that it really is a problem. Instead, they (or at least Patricia) keep coming back to this line of argument:
“The history of science is full of cases where people thought a phenomenon wasutterly unique, that there couldn’t be any possible mechanism for it, that we mightnever solve it, that there was nothing in the universe like it,” said Patricia Churchland of the University of California, a self-described “neurophilosopher” and one of Chalmers’s most forthright critics. Churchland’s opinion of the Hard Problem, which she expresses in caustic vocal italics, is that it is nonsense, kept alive by philosophers who fear that science might be about to eliminate one of the puzzles that has kept them gainfully employed for years. Look at the precedents: in the 17th century, scholars were convinced that light couldn’t possibly be physical – that it had to be something occult, beyond the usual laws of nature. Or take life itself: early scientists were convinced that there had to be some magical spirit – the √©lan vital – that distinguished living beings from mere machines. But there wasn’t, of course. Light is electromagnetic radiation; life is just the label we give to certain kinds of objects that can grow and reproduce. Eventually, neuroscience will show that consciousness is just brain states. Churchland said: “The history of science really gives you perspective on how easy it is to talk ourselves into this sort of thinking – that if my big, wonderful brain can’t envisage the solution, then it must be a really, really hard problem!”
Consciousness is not like light. Light is something we observe, consciousness is that by which we observe. If we can be said to "observe" consciousness, that really means consciousness observing itself, already a weird sort of self-referential loop. The mysteries compound themselves when we try to figure out exactly how that might be taking place in a network of neurons. But, unless you really are a robot, you can't just pretend that this "phenomenon" (if it can really even be called that) doesn't exist.

Yet all of that isn't actually what bugs me the most, because it gets very confusing to narrow in on exactly what we're targeting philosophically. What boggles my mind is that the Churchlands actually seem to believe that our language should change to reflect a more scientifically accurate view of the brain. I remember Paul giving a talk to our class in which he described how his grandmother used to cheer him up when he was feeling down, using terminology completely alien to normal speech--hormonal imbalances repaired, neuronal excitation, things with which I myself am too unfamiliar to reproduce any specifics. That approach, I think, is silly on even the most basic level.

We all know the earth isn't flat, that the sun doesn't go up in the morning and down in the evening. But if I ask you what time is the sunrise tomorrow morning, it would be in completely bad faith for you to reply, "You know the sun doesn't actually rise, don't you?" No matter how far we progress in cosmology, we will always (as long as we live here on Earth) use the terms "sunrise" and "sunset." That's because, whatever the "real explanation" might be, these things happen, every day. Indeed, they give meaning the word "day."

Consciousness is similar to sunrise and sunset. We cannot avoid talking about it. If I want to do something, there is no other useful way to communicate that other than by using just those words. If I think something is true, it will never be unreasonable for me to say, "I believe that..." It would only obscure everything for me to start babbling on about activation patterns across neural networks. Not only that, but the language of consciousness--thought, feeling, intention, and so on--is what gives meaning to the very concept of "I." The boundaries of a day are sunrise and sunset. So in some sense thoughts, feelings, beliefs and desires are the boundaries of a particular person.

If science has taught us anything about what a day really is, it has done nothing to change our relationship to it (except through technology, such as the modern invention of clocks, which have nothing to do with whether the earth is flat or goes around the sun). It is still an ever-present reality. Similarly, I don't think consciousness will ever cease to be the thing of which we are most aware in ourselves, and for that reason the most mysterious thing which could possibly exist.

I think there are good reasons to entertain speculation about the "panpsychism" proposed by David Chalmers and others, but that will have to wait until another day.

To finish, I also wanted to comment on something that never ceases to amaze me in the debate about science in philosophy. Do you notice that line in the quote above--"Light is electromagnetic radition"? And this is supposed to be an explanation of why it isn't supernatural! I have the impression that many people would like to make everything which "science" has explained into something ordinary. Oh, how mundane, this wave-particle governed by Maxwell's equations! And we thought it was all so very mysterious before!

I once heard a scientist claim that Einstein should not have been so very surprised when he said, "The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible." Why, if humans evolved in this world, it should not be surprising that our minds our adapted to understand it! This is the level at which some scientists understand the world they live in. Everything is trivial, perhaps tautological. After all, everything that exists, well, exists! So it should not be surprising, really, that it exists. Such is the wholly undeveloped "cosmic religious sense," as Einstein called it, of far too many "intellectuals" of our day. It is no wonder that something like New Atheism can thrive in such a world. Science has become a matter of winning the argument for its own sake, detached from any sense of reverence. It is no wonder, really, that there should be philosophers who wish to eliminate entirely the concept of a soul.

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