Home » Intelligent Design » Emergence Redux

Emergence Redux

In a very thoughtful essay that deserves its own post, vjtorley writes:

As someone with a background in philosophy, I’d like to make a few brief comments on the issues raised [in the Materialist Poofery” post]:

Regarding reduction, emergence and supervenience: these philosophical terms have multiple definitions in the literature.

One place where I might suggest that people begin is Dr. Richard Cameron’s brilliant dissertation, Teleology In Aristotle And Contemporary Biology: An Account of The Nature Of Life – especially pages 254 to 279. I think Richard Cameron’s work will be congenial to contributors of all points of view, as he has something that will please nearly everyone here: he is both an avowed Aristotelian (and hence a believer in final causes) and a thoroughgoing Darwinist.
One point which Cameron makes is that belief in emergence is perfectly compatible with very strong varieties of reduction:

Again, however, emergentists need not fear and may positively endorse the search for this type of a reductive account of emergent novelties. They may affirm the existence of causal correlations between basal conditions and emergent properties strong enough to support the formulation of laws and theories that microcausally explain the emergence of emergent novelities. Nevertheless, there remains clear sense to the emergentist’s claim that having a well confirmed explanatory theory of how Xs give rise to Ys does not entail that Ys are ‘nothing over and above’ Xs. Ys may still constitute a genuine – and in a sense still to be defined an irreducible – addition to the ontology of the world conceived only in terms of the Xs (p. 269).

The only kind of reduction which is fatal to emergentism is reduction by property identity, as when one property is actually equated with another – for instance, the temperature of an ideal gas can be defined as the mean kinetic energy of its molecules. Thus “[a] candidate emergent property qualifies as a genuine emergent novelty if and only if it is not identical in kind to a kind of property which can be had by the component parts of the system from which it emerges in isolation from structures that type” (p. 270).

Cameron regards Aristotelian final causality as a genuinely emergent property, which is causally efficacious in the world – in other words, he believes in and argues for the reality of top-down causation.

Thus Aristotelian final causation (or the possession of intrinsic ends), which Cameron regards as the defining property of life, is a strongly ontologically emergent property for Cameron. The property of final causation, although causally dependent for its existence on the interactions between the physical parts of an organism, cannot be identified with any of these interactions, either singly or in combination; also, this property possesses causal powers which are not found in the parts and their interactions.

Cameron is not a vitalist; as he makes plain throughout his work (see p. 40), he believes that the property of being alive depends for its existence on the interactions between the physical parts of an organism. Thus:

It is a fundamental claim of emergentists, recall, that emergent properties and their powers are causally dependent upon the interactions of base properties and entities… (p. 278).

A good discussion of the property of supervenience can be found in the article, Supervenience in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

A short extract:

The core idea of supervenience is captured by the slogan, “there cannot be an A-difference without a B-difference.” … A-properties supervene on B-properties if and only if a difference in A-properties requires a difference in B-properties — or, equivalently, if and only if exact similarity with respect to B-properties guarantees exact similarity with respect to A-properties.

Now, in this sense, the property of being alive clearly supervenes upon the properties of an organism’s parts: it is not possible to have two entities with the same physico-chemical properties, where one is alive and the other dead.

As regards consciousness, I personally would be happy to say that it supervenes upon the properties of an animal’s brain and central nervous system (some scientists would add the interactional properties between the animal and its environment to this list of underlying properties, but that has little bearing on the point here). To say otherwise would imply that there could be two animals with the same physical properties, where one animal possesses consciousness and the other lacks it.

I do think, though, that there is a kind of reflective consciousness which is unique to human beings – no other animal, as far as I know, says to itself: “Isn’t consciousness a wonderful thing!” I don’t regard this kind of consciousness as a supervenient property.

The boundary between humans and other animals is notoriously difficult to specify in scientific terms. I would recommend Moti Nissani’s Web page at http://www.is.wayne.edu/mnissani/ for an overview of the recent literature, presented in a highly attractive form. Nissani’s lecture, Can Animals (Especially Elephants) Think? is especially illuminating.

Nissani tentatively concludes that elephants do not understand simple causal relationships (e.g. I need to lift the lid of the bucket to get the food) and that both chimps and elephants do not realize that people can see. In other words, they lack what psychologists call a “theory of mind.”

If Nissani’s conclusions hold up, there are some pretty profound differences between humans and chimps – and presumably, other animals as well.

Much has been made of the feats of Betty the crow, who can fashion a hook to get a piece of meat. At first blush, this seems to indicate rationality; but can Betty justify her actions if we ask her, “Why did you do it that way?” Does she evince any capacity for critical thinking?

Critical thinking is not something yu can put in a box. It cannot be identified with a single process or set of processes; rather, it requires one to take a step back from one’s accustomed ways of thinking and re-evaluate them.

It is my contention that critical thinking must be treated as an essentially open-ended process, and that to treat it otherwise would be fatal to the scientific enterprise. Engaging in critical thinking involves more than just looking up a Web site on logical fallacies and “running through the list” to see that one’s own reasoning is immune from any fallacy. For the enterprise of critical thinking is a never-ending quest: new ways of thinking are continually being discovered and evaluated, and new flaws in people’s thinking are continually being identified.

What has all this got to do with (i) science and (ii) materialism? Suppose that the enterprise of critical thinking turned out to be an emergent property of the human organism, which additionally supervenes upon the brain’s neural network properties, so that (theoretically) two individuals with the same neural architecture, placed in the same environment, would necessarily have the same thoughts. Since the brain itself is finite, the enterprise of critical thinking, if generated by the brain, would then be limited in terms of the number of “creative moves” we could make, and also the number of flaws of thinking we could spot, at any given point in time. In other words, even critical thinking would be algorithmic. For my purposes, it does not matter what kinds of algorithms we engage in during critical thinking – heuristics, Turing procedures or what have you. The point I am making is that on a materialist account, even our critical thinking would have systematic blind spots, at any given time.

What would that mean, in scientific terms? It would mean that there are probably scientific hypotheses out there which our brains are unable to dream up, because they’re wired the wrong way. It also means that there are flaws in our hypotheses that we’re unable to spot, because of our neural limitations. Finally, it means that there are scientific hypotheses that we’re attached to, for the wrong reasons – could Darwinism be one of them? Haha – that hold an unreasonable sway over our thinking, but our brains are too set in their ways for us to consider the possibility that some other hypothesis might be right instead.

In other words, on a materialist account, science itself is a make-shift enterprise, and we have no particular reason to believe that we’ll move any closer to the truth with the passage of time. We could easily get side-tracked in our task and stuck up a scientific blind alley. There could be all sorts of reasons why we fail to discover the truth, and the much-vaunted success of the scientific enterprise over the past 400 years could be just a lucky accident which ends tomorrow. Mauka claims that “[i]ndividuals with better brains tend to survive and reproduce better than those with addled brains,” but even a “better” brain may not be able to come up with the right hypothesis, and practical survival skills are not the same as the skills you need to dream up the Theory of Relativity. Also, materialism entails that at any given time, we all probably accept a large number of scientific hypotheses on irrational grounds.

Materialism also implies that like it or not, we’re probably doomed as a species within the next 200 years. Sooner or later, the complexity of our problems will outstrip the capacity of our finite brains to meet them. Global warming is already giving us enough of a headache; after that it’ll be something else (ocean acidification?), and we’ll probably be laid low in the end by something out of the blue that our stupid brains didn’t see coming.

Now, most scientific materialists believe all this stuff anyway; they just don’t let on, for fear of alarming the populace. If challenged, most of them will retort: “So what? Science may be riddled with blind spots, but it’s the best procedure we’ve got. What’s your alternative? Blind faith? The Inquisition?”

No, my alternative is a scientific enterprise which works better than modern science, because it is slightly more modest: it enquires about everything except one question: how is it that we are able to reason critically? If we forego asking this question, and just assume that critical thought is unbounded, we can avoid the skepticism that materialism led us into.

For it is my contention that it was precisely the brash attempt to put critical thought in a box as part of a scientific quest to explain everything within a materialist paradigm that got us into trouble in the first place. If we do that, and try to make critical thought supervene upon brain processes, then we have to identify critical thought a finite algorithm or set of algorithms, which may fail to properly grasp the cosmos we live in.

But if you are prepared to just assume at the outset that critical thought is an open, unbounded process which is not limited to a set of algorithms, then if you are a scientist, you will feel confident that your mind can handle any task the world throws at it. You will expect that as you make further discoveries, you come closer to the truth. You will realize that there are flaws in your thinking, but you will also realize that you (or your colleagues) are fully capable of spotting them, with time, patience and argumentation. You will expect the spirited exchange of opposing ideas to bear fruit, and help people to sharpen their thinking.

Of course, you will encounter many limitations in your thinking – such as your inability to think in 18 dimensions. But then you will step back, ask yourself why – “My poor brain sees the world in three dimensions” – and design devices (computers) that enable you to get around the limitations of your brain. In other words, using your unbounded mind, you will be able to step back from your brain and overcome its deficiencies.

So there’s the choice. Accept as an “article of faith” that critical thought is a universal tool that is applicable to any problem in the material world, and you can do good science, but you won’t be able to explain everything, because you’ll never know how you think. That’s your one “blind spot” as it were: you can understand the world, but you can never hope to understand yourself.

But if you insist on explaining everything, you’ll explain yourself away too, and cut yourself – and your science – down to size. Gone is the magical quest for Truth; all our kludge of a brain can hope to do is make a set of lucky guesses that might get us through the next 200 years – or might lead us up the garden path. Some science!

Now, a scientist could accept as an “article of faith” that critical thought is a universal tool, without asking why (methodological agnosticism). That’s reasonable. But if he/she asks, “What kind of entity would guarantee that I can think straight?” then he/she is asking a metaphysical question, not a scientific one. In that case, the only satisfactory answer is: a Being whose nature it is to know everything that can be known. (”But how does it do that?” – Don’t ask me! And why should we expect to understand the answer the answer to that question, anyway?)

A Being like that, if it designed the cosmos, is likely to have made the world’s problems tractable to our minds, so we don’t have to waste our time wallowing about some unforeseeable environmental Armageddon. We just need to stay sharp and proactive.

I’ll conclude with a quote from the late Canadian neuroscientist Wilder Penfield, whose research led him to reject supervenience on empirical grounds:

The electrode can present to the patient various crude sensations. It can cause him to turn head and eyes, or to move limbs, or to vocalize and swallow. It may recall vivid re-experiences of the past, or present to him an illusion that present experience is familiar, or that the things he sees are growing large and coming near. But he remains aloof. He passes judgment on it all. He says, “Things seem familiar,” not “I have been through this before.” He says, “Things are growing larger,” but he does not move for fear of being run over. If the electrode moves his right hand, he does not say, “I wanted to move it.” He may, however, reach over with the left hand and oppose the action. There is no place in the cerebral cortex where electrical stimulation will cause a patient to believe or to decide (Wilder Penfield, 1975, “The Mystery of the Mind,” p. 77, emphasis mine).

Well, materialists, the ball’s in your court. The empirical evidence is actually against you, and if you were right, science wouldn’t be much of an enterprise anyway. Not sharing your narrow mindset, I am confident that science will indeed discover the Truth about the world – even if who we are will always be a mystery to us.

  • Delicious
  • Facebook
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Twitter
  • RSS Feed

63 Responses to Emergence Redux

  1. I wrote a post back in December on this subject, which may add an additional perspective to the discussion of the excellent comment by vjtorley.


    The notion of supervenience is that, “A set of properties A supervenes upon another set B just in case no two things can differ with respect to A-properties without also differing with respect to their B-properties. In slogan form, “there cannot be an A-difference without a B-difference”. (1) So, this notion when combined with physicalism is the assertion that all mental activity is reducible to physical causes. In other words, there is nothing that happens on a mental level without a supervening physical change in the brain. This does not allow for mental changes to affect the physical only the other way around.

    Superveniences establish such a relationship between the mental and the physical, so that any change in the mental is caused by a change in the physical. Just as a shadow is dependent upon the position of the object causing it, so is the mental dependent upon the physical. (2)

    Logically, the notion of supervenience physicalism is the default explanation of the mind from a Darwinian perspective. There is research; however, that goes against this notion (3,4). In other words, there is evidence that changes in the “mental state” affect the physical state of the brain.

    Darwinists may purport determinism and physicalism in general arguments, but when applied to their own experiences and thoughts, they often balk. The essential problem for them from this framework is that their beliefs in Darwinism are nothing but illusory experiences supervened by physical processes in their brains. Their belief that they are rational scientists, or thinkers, is nothing but the result of complex biochemical processes, which results in the illusion that they have rationally selected among alternative worldviews or interpretations of data.

    Many Darwinists, when faced with this type of argument, will retreat from a position of physicalism. Even Darwinists are distressed by, and most often don’t believe in, the notion that their mental processes are fully determined by physical substrates. In fact, they must retreat from this position, because it refutes their notion that they are rational in their abilities to evaluate evidence, or that they have freely chosen their worldviews.

    (1). http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/supervenience/
    (2). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physicalism
    (3). The Mind and The Brain
    (4). The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul

  2. VJtorley:

    The boundary between humans and other animals is notoriously difficult to specify in scientific terms. I would recommend Moti Nissani’s Web page at http://www.is.wayne.edu/mnissani/ for an overview of the recent literature, presented in a highly attractive form. Nissani’s lecture, Can Animals (Especially Elephants) Think? is especially illuminating.

    Nissani tentatively concludes that elephants do not understand simple causal relationships (e.g. I need to lift the lid of the bucket to get the food) and that both chimps and elephants do not realize that people can see. In other words, they lack what psychologists call a “theory of mind.”

    If Nissani’s conclusions hold up, there are some pretty profound differences between humans and chimps – and presumably, other animals as well.

    Unfortunately for this demarcation, there is a significant and equally ingenious body of research that points to conclusions quite different than those reached by Povinelli and Eddy (cited by Nissani) regarding the capacity of chimps to understand that people “see.”

    Hare, Call, and Tomasello (2001 – references below) argued that Povinelli and Eddy employed an experimental paradigm that was unnatural to the chimpanzees, in that it called for them to recognize a cooperative motive behind the human experimenter’s offer of food. This is an unusual situation because chimpanzees almost exclusively compete with one another for monopolizable resources such as foodstuffs. Hence, they argued, Povinelli and Eddy’s design may have been dissonant with both the selection history of the chimpanzee and with their individual subjects’ previous food-related social experiences.

    Hare, Call, Agnetta, and Tomasello (2000) designed a series of experiments that emphasized competition between conspecifics rather than cooperation with humans. Their design employed three adjacent rooms connected by guillotine doors. A dominant and a subordinate chimpanzee were each placed in outer rooms, and food was placed in the center room as the animals watched from under partially lifted doors. Each animal was also able to observe whether the other witnessed the food placement. In an initial series of trials, food items were placed at various locations in the center room as both chimps watched, after which the animals were released. In most instances the dominant animal typically took all the food it could see. However, in some instances one food item was placed in a location visible only to the subordinate animal, such as on her side of a small obstacle. The subordinate was released with a slight head start, forcing it to commit to a choice of food item before the dominant animal could provide behavioral cues regarding its initial choice. Hare et al. hypothesized that if the subordinate animal understood that the dominant could not see some food items, the subordinate would display preference for those items. Subordinates did indeed exhibit preference for items dominants could not see, suggesting that chimpanzees take note of what their conspecifics can and cannot see and predict behavior during competitive interactions on the basis of that understanding. Subordinate capuchin monkeys exposed to the same circumstances displayed no sensitivity to what their dominant conspecifics see, suggesting that such sensitivity is exclusive to the great apes (B. A. Hare, Addessi, Call, Tomasello, & Visalberghi, 2003).

    Hare, Call, and Tomasello (2001) subsequently investigated whether chimpanzees understand what others know on the basis of what they have previously seen. Again, two visual obstacles were situated in the center room, and a food item was placed behind one of the obstacles such that it was visible to the subordinate animal but invisible to the dominant. Several experimental conditions were devised using this arrangement. In one condition both animals watched as the food was placed behind an obstacle. In a second condition the dominant animal’s door was closed as the food was placed. In a third condition both animals watched the food placement, after which the dominant animal’s door was closed and the food was moved to a second hidden location as the subordinate watched. In a fourth condition both animals watched the original placement and the subsequent repositioning of the food. In a fifth condition the dominant animal was permitted to witness the food placement, after which it was replaced by a second dominant animal that had not. In all conditions the subordinate animal was able to monitor the dominant animal’s visual access to the procedures. Hence, at the time of release, conditions differed only in that in the immediate past the dominant animal either had or had not observed the food being placed or moved as the subordinate animal looked on. Steps were again taken to ensure that the subordinate animal committed to a food item prior to the release of the dominant animal. Hare et al. hypothesized that if the subordinates were sensitive to what the dominant animal had or had not previously seen, and therefore knew, they would more often approach and retrieve a food item when the dominant was either uninformed or misinformed about its location. Once again, they found that the subordinate animals exhibited a clear preference for food items about which the dominants were uninformed or misinformed, and therefore behaved in a manner that indicated awareness of what their dominant cohorts saw and knew.

    The bottom line is that important elements of human theory of mind, such as gaze following and the sort of inferences described here, are present in chimpanzees and other great apes (although as seen above, considerable experimental ingenuity is sometimes required to show that), and very likely in the common ancestor shared by chimps and humans. Rather than demonstrating a qualitative demarcation, this research suggests the existence of some shared cognitive characteristics (understanding “seeing”) you have mistakenly identified as exclusive to human reflection and self-awareness.

    References:

    Hare, B. A., Addessi, E., Call, J., Tomasello, M., & Visalberghi, E. (2003). Do capuchin monkeys, cebus apella, know what conspecifics do and do not see? Animal Behaviour, 65(1), 131-142.

    Hare, B. A., Call, J., Agnetta, B., & Tomasello, M. (2000). Chimpanzees know what conspecifics do and do not see. Animal Behaviour, 59, 771-785.

    Hare, B. A., Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2001). Do chimpanzees know what conspecifics know? Animal Behaviour, 61, 139-151.

  3. @4.

    You do not address what TCS writes.

    You write “materialists believe that the mental supervenes on the physical” – I would ask where is this ‘mental’ coming from?

    For a materialist the mental comes from physical, reducible causes, as everything does. Which is what TCS wrote. If the mental does not derive from physical processes then suddenly we are talking about something immaterial – which the materialist denies.

  4. mauka’s list of ‘advantages and disadvantages’ is a joke. Even ignoring the butchering of the rationales and skewed presentation, it falls apart for one clear reason.

    There is no ‘nonmaterialist’ position. There are mechanistic-materialist monists, there are neutral-monists/panpsychists, there are idealists, and there are substance dualists of various stripes. And probably some others that have been left out (like whatever John Searle qualifies as.)

    You can go through each of mauka’s questions and come up with radically different results and ‘ties’/'advantages’/'disadvantages’. Let the idealists and panpsychists ‘win’ every matchup because they take mind as fundamental (and therefore in no need of reduction) while simultaneously being able to explain the appearance of all things material. Argue the dualists tie the materialists at every turn because, as dualists, they (under the Cartesian view) posit mechanistic materialism in addition to a distinct mental realm – so they can claim as ‘theirs’ anything the “materialist” can, but still account for the mind and consciousness.

    Mauka’s list is a mess from start to finish.

  5. Diffaxial,

    In fairness to vjtorley, he made it clear that the results were not a slam dunk or indisputable, that there is considerable difficulty in specifying the boundary, and that even Nissani’s conclusions are tentative.

    And, just a quick yank from the ol’ unreliable wikipedia has this response:

    There has been some controversy over the interpretation of evidence purporting to show theory of mind ability—or inability—in animals. Two examples serve as demonstration: first, Povinelli et. al (1990)[60] presented chimpanzees with the choice of two experimenters from which to request food: one who had seen where food was hidden, and one who, by virtue of one of a variety of mechanisms (having a bucket or bag over his head; a blindfold over his eyes; or being turned away from the baiting) does not know, and can only guess. They found that the animals failed in most cases to differentially request food from the “knower.” By contrast, Hare, Call, and Tomasello (2001)[61] found that subordinate chimpanzees were able to use the knowledge state of dominant rival chimpanzees to determine which container of hidden food they approached.

    Tomasello and like-minded colleagues who originally argued that great apes did not have theory of mind have since reversed their position. Povinelli and his colleagues, however, maintain that Tomasello’s group has misinterpreted the results of their experiments. They point out that most evidence in support of great ape theory of mind involves naturalistic settings to which the apes may have already adapted through past learning. Their “reinterpretation hypothesis” explains away all current evidence supporting attribution of mental states to others in chimpanzees as merely evidence of risk-based learning; that is, the chimpanzees learn through experience that certain behaviors in other chimpanzees have a probability of leading to certain responses, without necessarily attributing knowledge or other intentional states to those other chimpanzees. They therefore propose testing theory of mind abilities in great apes in novel, and not naturalistic settings. Kristin Andrews takes the reinterpretation hypothesis one step further, arguing that it implies that even the well-known false-belief test used to test children’s theory of mind is susceptible to being interpreted as a result of learning.

    If nothing else, it helps illustrate the reasons for differing views in the field.

  6. I am very interested in responding to vjtorley’s thoughtful post, to the extent that I’ve printed it out so I can organize my response better, although this may be tomorrow.

    However I’m wondering why two posts by mauka have disappeared?

    Mauka had written,

    2
    mauka
    04/26/2009
    6:36 pm

    Interested readers may want to peruse the original thread to see the discussion that led up to vjtorley’s comment.

    This seems like an entirely reasonable comment.

    Also he had written at 4,

    You have it backwards. Materialists believe that the mental supervenes on the physical, so that a difference in mental states is always accompanied by a difference in physical states.

    I’m not sure whether mauka is right about this, but it does bring up a point I want to think about, and I have no idea why it was deleted. Even though I don’t agree with everything mauka has to say (not being inclined to strict materialism), I think his posts are relevant and thought provoking. I hope he has not become persona non grata for some reason.

  7. If nothing else, it helps illustrate the reasons for differing views in the field.

    That is a quite fair summary of these very difficult issues.

    Even Povinelli and his colleagues see many similarities between human and chimpanzee cognition. They observe that, even in the absence of human-like theory of mind, chimpanzees nevertheless share with human beings many sophisticated behavioral resources, such as sensitivity to gaze, the ability to detect statistical regularities in the behavior of others, and strong operant learning abilities – all likely present in our most recent common ancestor, as well. Hence, although they may lack “theories” of others’ mental states, as such (too cognitive for Povinelli), their social behavior often comes to resemble that of human beings nonetheless.

    A strong case can be made that language is required for the sophisticated representations that add up to human theory of mind – but we also have the paradox that language itself is premised upon theory of mind. A very interesting synergy between these two phenomena was probably evident across hominid evolution, bootstrapping much of what is qualitatively unique about human cognition, particularly social cognition. And the cognitive, behavioral and learning resources that chimps do share with human beings very likely provided the social interactive platform upon from which this synergy could have been launched, and against the background of which it would have been so powerfully adaptive. The essential point here is that, beyond language, theory of mind, and culture, all of which clearly have evolutionary roots that predate humanity at least in part, no categorically different causal level need be invoked to account for the emergence of the first humans, contra Vjtorley’s post.

    Of course, these things are very difficult to decide, because so remote in time and because behavior leaves few fossils. Nevertheless, anyone interested in these questions should take note of the strenuous experimental/empirical efforts that have been made to answer these questions. THAT is how science is done.

  8. Diffaxial,

    Even Povinelli and his colleagues see many similarities between human and chimpanzee cognition.

    Seeing similarities is easy and nothing new. Aquinas and Aristotle saw similarities – they also saw differences. Stark ones, and it seems that even Tomasello would be able to agree with that much despite qualifications.

    The essential point here is that, beyond language, theory of mind, and culture, all of which clearly have evolutionary roots that predate humanity at least in part, no categorically different causal level need be invoked to account for the emergence of the first humans, contra Vjtorley’s post.

    Those things are only the beginning of what VJtorley picked up – critical thought/reason and otherwise (and possibly more things, overlooked) are also important. Putting aside what it means for these things to have ‘roots’ that ‘clearly predate humanity at least in part’ — I’d also strongly disagree that what VJtorley is talking about a question that can purely be settled by science, or even the presuppositions of science. Another important part of the post seems to be that there are spheres of metaphysics, and spheres of science, and we shouldn’t confuse the two.

  9. mauka

    I think your comments deserve special attention, and I would like to thank you for posting them again, on this thread.

    I would like to make a few of points of clarification before I devise a tally of my own.

    First, you will notice that I wrote about not just reasoning, but critical reasoning, in my original post. That distinction is important. The fact that a computer can be programmed to do Aristotelian logic, or for that matter first-order predicate calculus, does not impress me in the least. For the computer, as you rightly point out, is performing a mechanical operation. Moreover, its behavior is programmed. There is a procedure it follows to get the right answer. You don’t need an immaterial mind for that.

    However, critical thinking, as I wrote above, “cannot be identified with a single process or set of processes; rather, it requires one to take a step back from one’s accustomed ways of thinking and re-evaluate them.” You might need an immaterial mind for that.

    The second point that needs to be borne in mind is that I readily acknowledge that critical thinking is dependent for its existence on the interactions between the physical parts of an organism, even though I do not think it can be identified with any of these interactions, either singly or in combination. However, the dependence of critical thinking upon brain processes is <extrinsic rather than intrinsic, to use a distinction made by Professor David Oderberg in his essay, Hylemorphic Dualism: that is, the scope of critical thinking is not subject to any built-in material limitation, even though a material impediment (e.g. blindness, or poor neural processing capacity) may limit the kind of information which is available to me to think critically about, and even the way in which it is presented to me.

    The third point that needs to be made is that my account of critical thinking is a non-modal hypothesis: I do not attempt to explain how we think. Mauka, you might see that as a weakness; I see it as a strength. For my contention is that if there were a “how” of critical thinking, the mechanism involved would limit the scope of critical thinking and thereby reduce its usefulness for formulating and evaluating scientific hypotheses.

    My final point is that there is no mind-body gap in my account. I am not a Cartesian dualist; I do not believe that my mind pushes my brain around. Rather, what I believe is that although thinking itself is not a material process, it inevitably involves manipulation of information stored in the brain. As I envisage it, brain processes obey the constraints of physics (e.g. the law of conbservation of energy) but are not deterministic: the output is not predictable from the input.

    Thus critical thinking does not supervene upon brain processes, even if might be described as emergent from these processes (in the weak and non-controversial sense that critical thought depends on the occurrence of these processes, but that the property of being able to think critically is not the same property as the property of having these neural processes).

    OK. Now let’s have a look at Mauka’s tally. Here goes.

    1a. Materialists haven’t explained how critical thinking can arise from a physical brain.

    1b. Nonmaterialists haven’t explained how critical thinking can arise from an nonmaterial entity.

    Result: Tie

    2a. We know that the brain exists, and we know that messing with the brain can affect critical thinking or make it disappear altogether.

    2b. Even if human critical thought is an immaterial activity, it is still dependent on material processes, from which it obtains information about the world. If our built-in information processor and information storage device (our brain) is impaired, obviously we should not expect to be able to reason soundly, let alone critique our own reasoning: both our information about the outside world and the image schemata we use to represent that information are liable to be at fault.

    Result: Tie

    3a. We don’t know that material entities can think critically.

    3b. We don’t know that immaterial entities can reason.

    Result: Tie

    4a. Natural selection gives the materialist a plausible basis for the reliability of brain-based critical thinking heuristics, but only over a very limited scope (practical matters which principally relate to how much trust we should place what in other people say, and how we can fashion tools to manipulate objects around us).

    Two examples: (1) don’t believe reports of strange occurrences witnessed only by drunkards; (2) when you construct a new building, wait five minutes, and if it doesn’t fall over, it’s probably safe to go inside.

    The scope of these critical thinking heuristics is far narrower than the universal scope required to formulate good scientific hypotheses about any and every cosmic phenomenon (from black holes to multiverses to computational processes), and critically evaluate scientific hypotheses pertaining to these phenomena, let alone advance towards the right hypotheses (which may forever elude our monkey brains).

    Another factor severly limiting our ability to think critically about anything is the anatomy (as opposed to the history) of our brain. For if critical thinking is a particular kind of material process, there is no reason to expect it to hold valid for all physical phenomena. Why should our brains be able to think straight about anything and everything in the world? And if they can’t, then why are we doing science?

    Incidentally, to suggest that Baconian experimentation (confirming your hypothesis) or Popperian falsification of an hypothesis will do the job of critical evaluation is to miss the point: first, we have to think of what a good test of an hypothesis would be, and in precisely that respect, a kludge brain is liable to go astray.

    4b. Nonmaterialists explicitly assume at the outset that critical reason is reliable and unrestricted in scope. <If they are right (and that’s a big unexplained if), then the human mind is able to do good science. The only thing which limits our ability to formulate good hypotheses is that the appropriate schema may be one which we have not yet encountered in our experience (in which case, we would be well-advised to use our scientific instruments to broaden the range of material phenomena to which we have been exposed); however, we should be able to critically evaluate any hypothesis, relating to any state of affairs in the material world.

    Advantage: Nonmaterialist

    5a. For the materialist, it is trivial to explain how the physical world can affect the mind through our senses. After all, the world, our sense organs, our nerves and our minds are all physical, so the interactions between them are just normal physical interactions.

    5b. The nonmaterialist can also explain how the outside can affect the immaterial mind. Human thought – critical or otherwise – cannot take place without information, which we obtain from the outside world. If outside signals are cut off or distorted, our built-in information processor (the brain) malfunctions, then of course we will be unable to think properly.

    Result: Tie

    6a. Moving in the other direction, it is trivial for the materialist to explain how the mind can affect the body and through it, the world. Mind, nerve, muscle and world are all physical, so their interactions are all physical.

    6b. The nonmaterialist can explain how the mind can affect the world, on the assumption that brain processes are non-deterministic and that we can attend to our own bodily feedback. When I will my arm to move, my mind does not push neurons in my brain; rather, my limbs are actually making continual micro-movements all day long, caused by involuntary impulses of which I am aware at a subliminal level, through long years of practice in attending to them, ever since I was a baby. When I detect a micro-movement which coincides with what I consciously want, I focus on that and mentally “select” it; the embodied act of focusing my attention on it thereby magnifies the strength of the neural signal and thus my arm goes up.

    Advantage: Materialist (simpler explanation)

    7a. Looking at the spectrum of human abilities and flaws, we find that the mind has the sort of characteristics you would expect it to have if it were the product of a long and kludgy evolutionary process.

    7b. The nonmaterialist can explain the flaws in critical thinking as being due to the anatomical limitations of the brain as an information processing and storage device, or due to temporary or permanent impairments in a particular individual. Additional flaws in critical thought may arise when an inexperienced individual uses the wrong schema to picture a situation.

    Result: Tie

    Overall, the two hypotheses are tied on Mauka’s criteria. (Which prompts me to ask Mauka: why did you pick these seven in particular, and what makes you think this is thw best way of deciding the issue? To discuss that question, you and I will have to engage in critical thinking about our own thinking processes – and our kludge brains might not be equipped for that!)

    Some points I might have added:

    8. While philsophers such as David Beisecker have managed to develop a very plausible account of the intentionality of other animals’ mental acts, the account they put forward (which draws heavily on the notions of “success” and “failure”) is still inadequate to explain the intentionality of most human thought, as our concern is generally with the much broader notions of truth and falsehood.

    9. If materialism is correct, then there’s a genuine puzzle as to why the sentence “I believe it will rain on Friday” makes perfect sense, but “My brain [or even my body] believes it will rain on Friday” does not. (Intensionality-related arguments – as opposed to intentionality.)

    10. Although material devices (brains or computers) can store information, it is implausible to say that they can store concepts, as: (i) concepts are indefinitely fine-grained – for instance, “triangle” and “trilateral” denote the same thing, but are quite different concepts; and (ii) there seems to be no intrinsic limit to how many concepts we can have, but there is an intrinsic limit to the storage capacity of my brain.

    11. Our minds seem to be capable of engaging in gymnastic feats that we would not expect a material entity to be capable of – fantastic levels of abstraction. I can not only think about objects in the world, but also about thinking itself; and I can think about your act of thinking about my act of thinking about what you are thinking of now, or I can go even higher – as high as I like, if you wish, so that we can speak of 999-th order thoughts, and so on (not that I’ve ever had one!) I can also think about such oddities as time travel, the possibility that I might be a brain in a vat, and also transfinite and imaginary numbers.

    But more to the point, Mauka: I think the weakness of materialism in your part 4 above is critical: it entails that science is an unreliable enterprise.

    To be fair, I think the nonmaterialist account of how the mind initiates bodily movements is pretty vague at the moment, but I don’t regard this as a big problem, as I’m not a Cartesian dualist.

    Another area that nonmaterialists need to work on are pitfalls in human thinking that we all make on an everyday basis, or flaws in reasoning that even educated people find it very hard to spot (think of the Monty Hall problem). Why, on a nonmaterialist account, do we repeatedly make these flaws? I think we need to flesh out our answer there.

    I submit that if nonmaterialists can come up with a better strategy (say, a cognitivist strategy) for getting people to avoid these reasoning traps than materialists (who might suggest putting people in surroundings where that logical pitfall is less likely to occur), then that’ll be a scientific feather in the caps of the nonmaterialists.

    Likewise, if (as I believe Dr. Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary argue in The Spiritual Brain) nonmaterialists can come up with better ways of helping people recover from brain injuries than the strategies that a materialist paradigm of thought would suggest, then that’s another point in favor of a non-materialist paradigm.

  10. I was going to respond to Diffaxial’s post at #2, but I see that Diffaxial’s later post #7 and the two posts by nullasallus (#5 and #8) pretty much cover what I wanted to say, and more.

    Incidentally, I’m not at all sure that a bootstrap hypothesis can explain how language and a theory of mind arose in tandem. Having a theory of mind sounds like an on-off property to me. (As for what it means to have a language, I’m not going to wade into that controversy, except to say that there are no primitive languages in the world today.)

    I would certainly echo Diffaxial’s call for more research: I’d like to know whether the Neanderthals and Homo erectus had a theory of mind, for instance. Glenn Morton mounts a strong case in his articles on Anthropology for advanced awareness in Homo erectus; while Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe holds a diametrically opposed view. Professor David Wilcox in his article, Establishing Adam: Recent Evidences for a Late-Date Adam, takes a similar view. As I’m not a scientist, I’ll let readers judge for themselves.

  11. Interesting post, vjtorley.

    However, I’m having trouble with your central argument. Perhaps I don’t fully understand it.

    First, I don’t get the move from “the brain is a finite system” to “the brain can only implement a finite number of algorithms”. The brain is finite but it is not closed. It can receive input from the world, and harness external resources to perform certain cognitive tasks (such as using a sheet of paper as external memory when doing a complicated arithmetic calculation). A Universal Turing Machine is a finite system, but it can harness an infinitude of possible inputs and an infinite external memory to implement any possible algorithm.

    Of course, given the finitude of matter in our Universe (or at least the accessible part of the Universe), we don’t have access to infinite different inputs or infinite memory. But the cognitive resources available to us are still astronomical. While there is certainly a limit to the number and kinds of algorithms that can be run in a finite universe, we are currently nowhere even close to the limit. The idea that we are likely to hit some sort of cognitive barrier in the next couple of centuries is unfounded.

    In your post you seem to assume that the cognitive tasks within our reach are the ones that are tractable by an individual brain. But one of the great things about the human brain is, as mentioned above, its ability to harness external resources to increase the cognitive power devoted to a task. One of the great things about the scientific enterprise is that it is a distributed algorithm. A large number of cognitive agents exchange information in sophisticated ways to accomplish tasks beyond the reach of any individual genius. We are now constructing elaborate machines to further extend our cognitive capacities (see, for instance, the proof of the Four Color Theorem), and this will continue apace. In the future, perhaps our smart machines will create still smarter machines, and so on.

    So while the individual human brain may seem like a puny computational device relative to the problems that face us, it has a wonderful ability that mitigates this concern – the ability to bootstrap to greater and greater cognitive capacity by exploiting external resources. (You actually talk about using computers to get past certain of our limitations, but you seem to be saying that we can only design said computers if our brains are unbounded. Why?) So your claim that materialism should lead to fairly extreme skepticism (such as the belief that we will soon encounter a problem beyond our abilities) is a bit overblown.

    However I do agree that the materialist should advocate a certain fallibilism about science. While we have been able to construct extremely successful scientific theories, we should not assume that we are set up to be able to know everything there is to know about the Universe. Certain truths may just be inaccessible to us, either because the relevant evidence is invisible, for whatever reason, or because our cognitive capacities, however augmented, are insufficient to make the appropriate inferences from the available evidence.

    The question is, so what? You seem to be suggesting that this is somehow devastating to the scientific enterprise, but I’m not sure I see why. I think scientists should be aware that the facts in a certain domain may remain inaccessible, but that should not prevent them from trying ever more ingenious techniques to access them. Your essay does not make it at all clear how adopting the non-materialist belief that the brain is unbounded would actually help science, especially if (as I and other materialists suspect) that belief is just false.

    One does not need the assumption of unbounded critical thinking (I’m not even sure what that means) to explain the past success of science. Perhaps there is a certain sort of naive realism about science that does require this assumption (although I doubt it), but that is not the only way to understand and appreciate science. My personal stance is in line with the pragmatists or, more recently, Putnam’s internal realism. But that is a topic for another discussion.

  12. For those who don’t relish wading through my longwinded comment: here’s the gist. Why do we need to assume that the possibilities available to our cognitive apparatus are literally infinite? What would be the cost of assuming they are finite but absolutely astronomical in number?

  13. Sotto Voce,

    So your claim that materialism should lead to fairly extreme skepticism (such as the belief that we will soon encounter a problem beyond our abilities) is a bit overblown.

    The sort of skepticism that really seems to be on offer with materialism isn’t that we’ll encounter such a problem, in my estimation. It’s that we’ll have little reason to accept scientific explanations as the truth about realities or ideas that can’t be directly tested or repeated.

    Still, I would disagree here – if anything, vjtorley is putting the case very mildly. The way I would put it is..

    If mechanistic materialism is true, there are no inherent purposes, reasons, or aspects of the mental at work in the universe at ground level. Fundamentally it’s mindless, experienceless, purposeless non-rational machineworks.

    The problem with that is.. hey, we’re here. And we’re rational. So how exactly are we going to account for that?

    If we were thoroughgoing about mechanistic materialism, then we’d be saying there’s no mind or rationality and maybe not even conscious experience anywhere in the picture. But if we do that, then why are we arguing again? It collapses into absurdity.

    If we insist rationality and the like is a fundamental component of the universe, that’s one option. But then we’re out of mechanistic materialism anyway, and into a wide variety of alternatives (Panpsychism, idealism, dualisms, etc.) And one of the biggest problems and points of confusion here is that a lot of the ‘materialist’ explanations have a nasty habit (argued by the non-materialists) of smuggling in concepts and terminology that don’t rightly belong to a properly materialist explanation. (It doesn’t help that the words get loose or confusing in philosophy – Galen Strawson talks about ‘real materialism’ to resolve the consciousness question. Strawson’s real materialism happens to be panpsychism.)

    So the options for the materialist are few and awkward. They not only have to offer an explanation, they have to do it while remaining true to materialist commitments, not relocating the problem elsewhere or leaving it out altogether.

  14. vjtorley wrote:

    mauka

    I think your comments deserve special attention, and I would like to thank you for posting them again, on this thread.

    vjtorley,

    They do deserve attention. Your sincere thanks to Mauka, and your detailed response, indicate that they have merit as a move in the current discourse.

    However, apparently one of the moderators also thinks they are worthy of special attention and has chosen to delete them, along with several comments he posted on other threads. Mauka informs me that since then his new comments have not been appearing. In essence he has been silently banned. Surely you above all understand that genuine discourse is impossible when discussants on one side of an issue (and one side only) are sitting on trap doors that may open at any time at the whim of the other parties.

    That arrangement disinclines me to engage your complex arguments much further. Writings posts at this level is hard work and it is dismaying to see them disappear unpredictably into the void due to irritable moderation that is ungoverned by consistently applied principles.

    Mauka asked me to convey that he would like to respond to your arguments if and when his comments start appearing again, along with assurances from the moderators that they will not be arbitrarily purged.

  15. In #13 nullasalus wrote:

    “Fundamentally it’s mindless, experienceless, purposeless non-rational machineworks.”

    Do you therefore assert that artificial intelligence is, in fact, impossible, regardless of processor speed, size, and range? Because it seems so from your statement, here.

    I believe that the point that Sotto Voce is making is that a program that runs on a processor is not itself limited in size and scope. A program can be virtually unlimited in size and scope, and with a sufficiently fast processor (with sufficient memory resources), should itself be virtually unlimited in its abilities.

    If you doubt this conclusion, simply ask yourself if the mind of God (or whatever/whoever you prefer to call That Which Is) is limited.

    Or, as it has been written about the Tao:

    “The Way of Liberation is not limited
    The Way of Liberation has no boundaries
    Everyone and everything everywhere
    Resonate within it endlessly”

    und so weiter…

  16. Not knowing (as usual) what mauka’s comments were that were deleted (nor even if this has actually been the case) leaves everyone wondering if their comments will be arbitrarily deleted at the whim of this website’s moderators. If it is, indeed, the case that such arbitrary moderation has been asymmetrically applied against the proponents of evolutionary biology, that would imply that the moderators fear for the soundness of arguments for their own side, rather than for the maintenance of civility and forthright debate.

    That said, I find very limited utility in the constant reiteration of some kind of “scorecard” for any of the debates that take place here. Let us argue the issues, and summarize them as best we can. “Keeping score” serves no purpose that I can see, rather than to attempt to convert what should be an open-ended process of intellectual investigation into a not-very-interesting game of tiddlywinks…

  17. I think I’m going to stand with Diffaxial on this one. There is no reason, based on the stated moderation policy, for mauka’s posts to have been deleted, and it is certainly unreasonable for that to happen without any acknowledgment or explanation.

    So, and this may not make any difference to anyone, I think I’ll abstain from posting until this situation is cleared up, and until I feel comfortable that the stated moderation policy will be followed.

  18. P.S. I understand Allen’s point that perhaps mauka’s reposting of his keeping score post might have been irritating, but compare that to kairosfocus’s interminably long and repetitive posts, or bornagain’s oft-posted long post on theistic predictions, or the rudeness and name calling of Joseph and John Davison. You could have said something to mauka about not reposting rather than just “disapperaing” his post (although one reason he reposted was that Barry started a new thread on the same topic).

    All in all, you need to be more consistent in your moderation, and be willing to let bad arguments stand if they aren’t rude, don’t attack the person, and aren’t intentionally meant to disrupt the forum.

  19. For example:

    191
    Joseph
    04/27/2009
    8:19 am
    If I wanted to simulate Stonehenge do I have to include Stonehenge’s designers?

    Most theories about the design, purpose and construction of Stonehenge start with the assumption that the constructors were humans.

    That is meaningless and it doesn’t address my question.

    have you overlooked my previous queries about where you studied marine biology?

    Have YOU overlooked my previous queries about nested hierarchies being formed without additive characteristics?

    It appears you ahve. You have also overlooked several other questions asked of you.

    So if you want answers from me perhaps you should step up and start answering my questions.

    And if you don’t want to answer my questions then the only way I will answer your query is when we meet.

    Now I have already told you that and you continue to act like a little cry-baby.

    Oops- you are a little cry-baby…

    No disrespect meant to little babies

  20. Alan,

    Thank you for proving my point.

    All cry-babies run around telling on people.

  21. How sad that the discussion of emergence has been overshadowed by another discussion of moderation policy.

    My own proposal to move forward on this issue is to increase the transparency and slow down the speed of the process. A public warning should be part of the process, and the evidence left in public view.

    Is it possible to keep open a meta-thread on moderation? I think it would be useful, both for these discussions, and for discussions in the future where commenters may want to respond to warnings.

    In the present instance, I agree with several commenters that mauka’s comments should be made visible again, and if he is in moderation, a reason given.

  22. Sorry if I seemed to imply that mauka’s comments should remain unposted. On the contrary, even if they simply repeated information in previous comments on previous threads, they still contained substantive information (unlike those posted by joseph and JohnADavison, whose comments almost uniformly consist of nothing but ad hominem name calling and character assassination, plus arguments by assertion, unsupported by evidence).Ergo, I, too, hereby request that mauka’s “vanished” comments be reinstated, or (at the very least) that some explanation as to their removal (above and beyond simple redundancy) be forthcoming. After all, we can all simply scroll past the over-long and repetitive comments here, and can completely ignore (and refuse, on principle, to respond to) the kind of childish bullying that some commentators seem unable to stop themselves from perpetrating.

  23. Nullusalus:

    It’s that we’ll have little reason to accept scientific explanations as the truth about realities or ideas that can’t be directly tested or repeated.

    I think there are good arguments against naive realism about scientific theories (see Putnam’s “Reason, Truth and History” or Van Fraassen’s “The Scientific Image”) and I have already disavowed it. Still, I don’t see how the failure of realism is a consequence of materialism.

    You are suggesting that the truth of materialism implies we can only trust direct observation, not theoretical reasoning. Why? The brain has evolved the ability to make inferences about unobservable entities, and there is good reason to think this cognitive ability is at least somewhat reliable. I hear a certain sort of rustling in the bushes, and my survival depends on whether I can correctly identify it as predator, prey or neither before I actually see it. There is reason to think, then, the brain can infer hidden truths from partial and indirect evidence. Obviously, the inferences involved in science are far more complex and difficult, but the difference seems to be one of degree, not of kind.

    If mechanistic materialism is true, there are no inherent purposes, reasons, or aspects of the mental at work in the universe at ground level. Fundamentally it’s mindless, experienceless, purposeless non-rational machineworks.

    The problem with that is.. hey, we’re here. And we’re rational. So how exactly are we going to account for that?

    Indeed, the universe is non-intentional at the fundamental level. This does not mean it is incapable of supporting intentional systems. See the initial part of vjtorley’s thoughtful essay on emergent teleology.

    The point is that certain organizations of purposeless, mindless matter can produce systems that are appropriately characterized as goal-directed intentional agents.

    I understand you are skeptical about this, but I do not see an argument against it in your post. To just assume at the outset that one cannot have purposive or teleological systems emerge out of an appropriate organization of purposeless matter is to beg the question against the materialist.

    [See Dennett's "The Intentional Stance" for more on a naturalistic account of intentionality. The basic idea is that an intentional system is one whose behavior is best explained and predicted by conceptualizing it in intentional terms. Such a system may well be material/mechanical, but its physical complexity prevents a mechanistic explanation. If you don't have access to Dennett's book, consider reading this article, which summarizes his views.]

  24. Sorry, in my last post the paragraph beginning “If mechanistic materialism is true…” is actually a quote from nullusalus. I forgot to blockquote it.

  25. See also Ernst Mayr’s several essays on teleology and teleonomy (the latter being essentially “emergent teleology”).

  26. Mr Vjtorley,

    A very interesting OP.

    If we understand critical thinking to be thinking about our own thinking processes, it is almost certainly a process of abstraction and model creation. It may include simulation, though that may be more important for modeling actions as opposed to thoughts.

    I agree that at any time, the modeling of a single person could be vulnerable to all of our human frailties, but repeated acts of modeling across multiple people makes it less likely that we have a blibd spot in a social process such as science. As an analogy, it is difficult for an optical illusion to fool multiple people at the same time – that is why 3D TV is not common!

    Science, taken as a public enterprise, is vulnerable to blind spots. But at the same time, it is improvable. Sir Isaac Newton is know for four major contributions to science – calculus, optics, gravity, and an enormous negative result on alchemy. The last is as important as the first three.

  27. SottoVoce

    Thank you for your comments. I’ll try to keep my response to the point.

    You write:

    First, I don’t get the move from “the brain is a finite system” to “the brain can only implement a finite number of algorithms”. The brain is finite but it is not closed…. While there is certainly a limit to the number and kinds of algorithms that can be run in a finite universe, we are currently nowhere even close to the limit.

    We seem to be talking at cross-purposes here. I think I can help clear up the misunderstanding by quoting an earlier passage of mine:

    Since the brain itself is finite, the enterprise of critical thinking, if generated by the brain, would then be limited in terms of the number of “creative moves” we could make, and also the number of flaws of thinking we could spot, at any given point in time. In other words, even critical thinking would be algorithmic.

    What I am claiming here is not that the number of algorithms is finite, but that the number of moves we can make at each step is finite, on a brain-based account of critical thinking. Here’s the idea: a researcher engages in scientific reasoning and draws certain inferences from a hypothesis he/she has formulated. But before publishing his/her ideas in a scientific article, the researcher attempts to identify the critical weaknesses in it.

    To do that, the researcher will want to ask him/herself, “What have I overlooked? Are there any other reasonable alternative explanations of my findings that I have not considered? What alternative hypotheses are there?” If materialism is correct, then the human brain will have a finite repertoire of cool, creative moves allowing the researcher to generate these alternative possibilities in his/her head. But the number of alternative explanations is very large (perhaps even infinite), and the number of creative moves our brain can generate is relatively small. So it is quite likely that we shall examine only a very small sector of the “possibility set” in our search for alternatives – especially when we only have a limited amount of time.

    This brings us to the other factor we need to consider here: time constraints. Universal Turing Machines, which you mention, may require a very long time to generate the right answer. But time is precisely what you do not have. If the deadline for a scientific article’s submission is tomorrow, you will have to finish your critical evaluation of it by then. If you are facing an environmental problem that needs to be addressed within the next 10 years, then you need to find the cause of the problem before then.

    This will become more of a problem as our lifestyle becomes more complex. Increasingly, our lifestyle changes will disturb our planet in ways which become harder and harder to model, because the effects become less and less predictable.

    You are optimistic that advantages in computing technology will keep us one step ahead of what the future will throw at us. I would answer that models are fine for foreseeable changes. But the problem is that when a sudden, unforeseen environmental change occurs – and these sudden, unforeseen changes are likely to become exponentially more common as our lifestyle changes – we will have to decide what to do with our old models of the Earth as a dynamic system: completely jettison them? radically modify them? insert new intructions? or just tweak them?

    To answer questions like this, we’ll have to engage in critical thinking about our own scientific models – which is an enterprise our brains are eminently unsuited for. My point is that if materialism is true, then at some stage, we’ll probably make a fatal mistake, caused by our own cognitive blindspots, and fall off the tightrope; for we cannot remain on it forever.

    The enterprise of looking for the remote causes of a pressing environmental crisis illustrates to me both: why you have to be some sort of realist (as I am) about the world, and why belief in materialism will dampen your confidence of success.

    You need to be a realist because you have to do more than conveniently systematize the observations; you actually need to find out what’s actually causing an environmental disturbance, and do something about it, right away.

    While the term “cause” has lots of pragmatic significance, “cause” isn’t a pragmatic term, but a metaphysical one. Either cigarettes often cause lung cancer, or they don’t. Either rising CO2 levels will fry the planet, or they won’t.

    The problem, as I see it, is that on an evolutionary materialist acount of the brain, we’re very good at looking for the wrong kinds of causes – especially other malicious agents. The scientific way of thinking is highly unnatural for us, either individually or as a species. My point is that sooner or later, we’ll be blinded by our own collective unwillingness to think out of the box.

    But if you’re an evolutionary materialist, you’ll realize that monkey brains are not really good at that sort of thing, anyway, so you’ll be a lot more fatalistic about the long-term future of the scientific enterprise.

    I’ll close with a quote from philosopher Patricia Churchland:

    The principal chore of the nervous system is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive. Improvements in sensorimotor control confer an evolutionary advantage: a fancier style of representing [the world] is advantageous so long as it is geared to the organism’s the organism’s chances for survival. Truth, whatever it is, takes the hindmost. (See Journal of Philosphy 84, October 1987, p. 548.)

    I’d also recommend that you have a look at Robin Dunbar’s highly readable and entertaining book, The Trouble with Science at http://books.google.com/books?.....#PPA120,M1 , which I just stumbled across today. Dunbar isn’t an alarmist, but he does make a strong case that thinking scientifically is something that biological evolution has not equipped us to do – indeed, even thinking logically is hard for most of us to do, in certain situations.

    It is precisely because I believe that critical thinking is not a material process that I believe people can and will be trained to avoid the common logical pitfalls (e.g. the Wason Selection Task) that bedevil us now, and that people can and will be trained to be good critical thinkers.

  28. 28

    Joseph, you are on the edge of being booted. Knock it off.

  29. Allen MacNeill,

    “Do you therefore assert that artificial intelligence is, in fact, impossible, regardless of processor speed, size, and range? Because it seems so from your statement, here.”

    By my view, the AI issue is moot when it comes to this question – we’re trying to justify the rationality/reason of humans right now given mechanistic materialism, and to do so in a way where MM is actually maintained, rather than either an explanation not being given, or the explanation taking on aspects and assumptions that aren’t available in a thorough MM picture.

    Sotto Voce,

    “You are suggesting that the truth of materialism implies we can only trust direct observation, not theoretical reasoning. Why? The brain has evolved the ability to make inferences about unobservable entities, and there is good reason to think this cognitive ability is at least somewhat reliable. I hear a certain sort of rustling in the bushes, and my survival depends on whether I can correctly identify it as predator, prey or neither before I actually see it. There is reason to think, then, the brain can infer hidden truths from partial and indirect evidence. Obviously, the inferences involved in science are far more complex and difficult, but the difference seems to be one of degree, not of kind.”

    Your survival doesn’t depend on the truth or falsity of your beliefs whatsoever, given the popular orthodox view of evolution. It depends wholly on your action. Believe it’s a predator, believe it’s prey, believe it’s the wind – so long as you act in a way that on average will increase survival, you’re covered. Having a true belief doesn’t matter. (Indeed, look at how often this or that explanation of human behavior in evolutionary terms melts down to ‘This behavior was advantageous, even though the belief that likely accompanied it was typically false’. Does anyone talk about how the true beliefs of peppered moths aided their survival, or do they simply make reference to actions they took (or even were beyond their control) to completely explain their coloration changes?)

    Either way, I’m actually taking a stronger stance here. The truth of MM would pull the rug out from under rationality and reason as we know those terms anyway. Reworking evolution to be ‘survival of those closest to the truth’ would be closer to an example of sacrificing MM.

    “Indeed, the universe is non-intentional at the fundamental level. This does not mean it is incapable of supporting intentional systems. See the initial part of vjtorley’s thoughtful essay on emergent teleology.

    The point is that certain organizations of purposeless, mindless matter can produce systems that are appropriately characterized as goal-directed intentional agents.”

    Considering vjtorley rejects MM, this is of little help here. And the Aristotilean understanding of final causes does not apply only to humans, or only to living systems – on Aristotileanism/Thomism, the MM view is rejected. We live in a world of realism about universals, of formal and final causes, etc.

    “I understand you are skeptical about this, but I do not see an argument against it in your post. To just assume at the outset that one cannot have purposive or teleological systems emerge out of an appropriate organization of purposeless matter is to beg the question against the materialist.”

    I’ve been outlining the ground floor fact of the matter for the MM, and highlighting some of the confusions and difficulties in the debate. Nothing more – I certainly didn’t say no MM explanation was possible. I’d love to see an MM explanation of rationality.

    “See Dennett’s “The Intentional Stance” for more on a naturalistic account of intentionality.”

    I’m aware of his intentional stance. I think it’s a great example of a ‘naturalistic account of intentionality’ that sounds persuasive only insofar as it’s ambiguous. Remove the ambiguity and either the persuasiveness is gone, or we’ve left the world of naturalism.

  30. I will have to ponder a lot of what you said, vjtorley, but I will say this:

    I never understood the belief that our brains “naturally evolved” over millions of years, which suddenly are able to build space shuttles and Large Hadron Colliders. What selective pressure could have possibly led to these abilities? I at least understand the logic behind a gazelle whose ancestors “evolved” the knowledge to run away from cheetas and lions while eating grass and drinking water. But modern human inventions completely defy this logic. I guess the genes that make the circuits in our brain just “hit on” a level of rationality that is astronomically greater than anything else present in the biological kingdom?

  31. The “wiring” argument presented here, while ingenious, and even fun, probably isn’t necessary to the restoration of philosophy. In fact restoration may require almost the opposite strategy from embracing unbounded intellect.

    Unbounded intellect is the very thing that led to the stasis now evident in philosophy as well as institutional science—specifically the critical power of Nihilism. Nothingness is a static value—pure resistance—which is why it leads to the kind of static, formal conclusions seen in Darwinism.

    Materialism is also a product of unbounded intellect, a theory of being in which nothing in science has value unless it exhibits absolute resistance to teleological inferences. And absolute resistance is a quality of mind, not of matter.

    Antitheses like materialism lead to static conclusions because they are rooted in the capacity of intellect for resistance. Intellect cannot overcome this resistance through its own force of resistance. It is possible, however, to restore dynamism to philosophy by using the self-evident value of the sensuous universe to suggest reasonable limits to intellect and its critical power.

    A clear analogy can be found in Kant’s response to Descartes, whose glorification of intellect as a transcendent (unbounded) power had the unintended effect of devaluing sense and producing nothingness in science, philosophy and the arts.

    This is just what is happening as we speak, by the way, in the basic (ie, non-theoretical) sciences, where the excellence of the cellular machinery is overthrowing the notion that something can come from nothing.

  32. But the number of alternative explanations is very large (perhaps even infinite), and the number of creative moves our brain can generate is relatively small. So it is quite likely that we shall examine only a very small sector of the “possibility set” in our search for alternatives – especially when we only have a limited amount of time.

    So are you saying that on your non-materialist alternative the scientist actually explores all (or most) of this possibility set of alternatives in a finite amount of time? This is wildly implausible.

    It seems like the same sort of time constraints that limit the number of explanations that a brain can consider should constrain the operation of a non-material mind. It is not the case that all the “cool, creative moves” available to us are inplemented simultaneously in parallel.

    If the actual explanation for a certain phenomenon is distant enough from our current modes of explanation we will not alight upon it without some prior progress in our conceptual scheme. This is true whether or not materialism is true.

  33. Nullasalus:

    I’m aware of his intentional stance. I think it’s a great example of a ‘naturalistic account of intentionality’ that sounds persuasive only insofar as it’s ambiguous. Remove the ambiguity and either the persuasiveness is gone, or we’ve left the world of naturalism.

    Could you say more on this ambiguity? I must say I find Dennett’s position pretty convincing and satisfying, so I’m interested in hearing your objection.

  34. Sotto Voce,

    Sure, it’d be my pleasure. But I’d like you to spell out which particular claim or explanation on his part you find to be decisive or convincing, and why. I may as well start with your understanding of Dennett so confusion is minimized.

  35. Sotto Voce:

    So are you saying that on your non-materialist alternative the scientist actually explores all (or most) of this possibility set of alternatives in a finite amount of time? This is wildly implausible.

    Indeed, I’m still hoping that someone will demonstrate such an ability.

  36. In # 30 uoflcard asks:

    “I guess the genes that make the circuits in our brain just “hit on” a level of rationality that is astronomically greater than anything else present in the biological kingdom?”

    Can you cite evidence to indicate conclusively that our genes can’t do this? Remember, a universal Turing machine is, at base, a surprisingly simple machine, but can theoretically do anything at all. Is it necessarily the case that our genes cannot direct the assembly and operation of a universal Turing machine, and if so, upon what evidence do you base this assertion?

  37. IN #31 allanius asserts:

    “Materialism is…a theory of being in which nothing in science has value unless it exhibits absolute resistance to teleological inferences.”

    On the contrary, methodological materialism (which is, in my opinion, the only warranted version) simply does not resort to teleological inferences. Indeed, it is entirely silent on the question of the existence or non-existence of teleology, as demonstrating its existence or non-existence in the structure of reality itself using empirical methods alone is quite literally impossible.

  38. This is why I side with Newton’s statement that “I make no hypotheses!” By which he clearly meant that he would not speculate as a scientist why gravity exists and has the properties that it does. In his science, Newton restricts himself to describing how gravity works, and explaining how an understanding of its workings can be applied to such seemingly unrelated phenomena as the acceleration of falling objects and the orbits of the planets around the sun.

  39. Or, as Wittgenstein pointed out in Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, there are subjects about which one must remain silent.

  40. 40

    Indeed, it is entirely silent on the question of the existence or non-existence of teleology

    Allen its hard to know if you are just partisan pathetic or ideologically blind. Or perhaps, its not hard at all.

    (S)cience operates with the absolute unquestioned default assumption that there are no causes outside of chance and necessity in cosmological and biological questions.

    Would you like me to spend the next hour or so posting the quotes?

    Really…I’d rather not.

    Quit acting like it isn’t so, Allen. Quit rationalizing to yourself that methodological materialism didn’t morph into metaphysical materialism ages ago.

    – - – - – -

    By the way Allen, Newton wasn’t observing a conventional digital code with polyfunctional properties instantiated into a physical object. Please stop abusing Newton to rationalize your ideology.

    If he looked to somewhere else in nature where science had demonstrated that chance and necessity created encoded meaning into a material object, where would he look?

  41. nullasalus,

    Here’s how I understand Dennett’s position: A system is intentional if it is predictively fruitful to attribute intentionality to it. There is nothing to intentionality beyond this. In particular, one does not posit that certain mental states have intrinsic intentional properties that go beyond their physical properties.

    An illustration: Considered as a physical system, my behavior is extremely hard, if not impossible, to predict over any appreciable length of time. Yet other people are able to make surprisingly accurate predictions about my future behavior. For instance, you probably expected (with a fairly high degree of confidence) that I would respond to your post. This is because humans exhibit certain macroscopic patterns in their behavior that are more or less invariant under a large number of microscopically distinct states. Full knowledge of my microscopic state is not necessary to predict my behavior, as long as you conceptualize my macroscopic state the right way. And the best current theory that systematizes the regularities in human behavior is folk psychology and its academic extensions. This is what makes me (and you) a quintessentially intentional system. We exhibit the sorts of behavioral patterns that can be usefully conceptualized and predicted in terms of belief, desire and rationality. But fundamentally there is nothing more going on here than purposeless matter in motion.

    One common challenge to this is that by reducing the attribution of intentionality to mere instrumentalism, I am dodging the question of whether or not certain systems really have beliefs, desires, etc. My (and Dennett’s) response is that the intentional stance is successfully predictive because it tracks real patterns in the behavior of certain systems. Possessing intentional states is just a matter of exhibiting the relevant sorts of behavioral patterns. Of course, there is a further question about what physical facts about the system produce these behavioral patterns. These may be radically different across different systems, but as long as the emergent (there’s that word again) behavior can be consistently and coherently explained in terms of belief-desire psychology, the system has beliefs and desires.

  42. Sotto Voce,

    Thanks for giving your illustration of what Dennett is saying.

    And the best current theory that systematizes the regularities in human behavior is folk psychology and its academic extensions. This is what makes me (and you) a quintessentially intentional system. We exhibit the sorts of behavioral patterns that can be usefully conceptualized and predicted in terms of belief, desire and rationality. But fundamentally there is nothing more going on here than purposeless matter in motion.

    Here’s a problem with this. As you said, it means that there is no intrinsic intentionality at work in the universe – all intentionality is derived intentionality. But to take the intentional stance means you’re entering an intentional state. And the intentionality of that state is determined by (in fact, it since intrinsic intentionality is out, it seems it can only be determined by) yet another intentional stance. And on it goes forever.

    Dennett seems to realize this himself (From Evolution, Error, and Intentionality):

    So if there is to be any original intentionality–original just in the sense of being derived from no other, ulterior source–the intentionality of natural selection deserves the honor. What is particularly satisfying about this is that we end the threatened regress of derivation with something of the right metaphysical sort: a blind and unrepresenting source of our own sightful and insightful powers of representation.

    This doesn’t seem like a real answer. It looks more like Dennett is kicking up dust.

    Feser has a take on this that I find persuasive. If Dennett isn’t merely being poetic here, then he’s either seriously treating nature as an agent with original intentionality (and, apparently, consciousness!) or he’s saying that there literally are unconscious (but actual) purposes in nature. So much for a naturalistic explanation of intentionality either way, because both interpretations would sacrifice naturalism.

    But if he was just being poetic – that he doesn’t really mean “Mother Nature” actually has those properties, or that there’s no ‘real but unconscious’ intentionality in nature – then he hasn’t explained anything at all. And if he’s using the intentional stance on Mother Nature to say “she” is using the intentional stance on “us”, well…

    Even the base instrumentalism/pragmatism of the ‘intentional stance’ isn’t a persuasive reason to take it on. I can get all of that with an Aristotilean-Thomist approach to nature, where “real patterns” are recognized and made sense of.

  43. Sotto Voce @ 41

    Here’s how I understand Dennett’s position…

    Nicely summarized. And interesting to recall that Dennett also suggested that we take “physical” and “design” stances toward various phenomena – and that all of these “stances” can be both provisionally applied as an heuristic as well as frankly misapplied.

    I very much admire Dennett’s work, particularly the essays in The Intentional Stance (also Freedom Evolves), but I always experienced him as a bit ambivalent, or at least ambiguous, regarding whether he believed intentionality is “real” or merely attributed. And an obvious problem in his position is underscored for me by a remark that Hilary Putnam made in The Many Faces of Realism, obviously directed at Dennett:

    Strange to say, the idea that thought is a mere projection is being defended by a number of philosophers in the United States and England, in spite of its absurdity. The strength of the of the ‘Objectivist’ tradition is so strong that some philosophers will abandon the deepest intuitions we have about ourselves-in-the-world, rather than ask (as Husserl and Wittgenstein did) whether the whole picture is not a mistake. Thus it is that in the closing decades of the twentieth century we have intelligent philosophers claiming that intentionality itself is something we project by taking a ‘stance’ to some parts of the world (as if ‘taking a stance’ were not itself an intentional notion!) (p. 15-16.)

    I have to say, I laughed aloud upon reading that.

    I also find Putnam a bracing and original thinker, if a wee bit shifty (in a good way). A philosopher/composer I was privileged to meet who studied with Putnam at Harvard said to me that there is a unit of time there affectionately known as a “Putnam,” defined as the time it takes for Hilary Putnam to abandon one philosophical position and adopt its opposite. But I find that quality a strength, and a indication of his honesty.

  44. I notice that Nullasalus has identified the same problem with Dennett as Putnam.

  45. BTW, none of the problems inherent in “naturalizing intentionality” provide the least comfort, in my opinion, for the view that intentionality, consciousness, critical thinking etc. must therefore arise from some sort of non-physical or non-natural source. We have even less idea what it means to say that intentionality “really” lies in, say, a soul (or some other form of agency that does not supervene on the physical) than to say it emerges from a brain. Those assertions offer an illusion of explanation that is, alas, only illusion, as intentionality arises from “souls” (or “God”) mainly through the power of almighty tautology.

  46. Nullasalus,

    I think your response confuses epistemic and ontological dependence (although, as Diffaxial’s quote from Putnam illustrates, you are apparently in excellent company). The “real patterns” which are characteristic of intentional systems are merely macroscopic physical patterns. They do not in any sense ontologically depend on the existence of a prior intentional agent.

    It is true that to recognize these patterns as intentional (i.e. to systematize them in a predictive theory positing intentional states) requires intentionality. But this is merely an epistemological point.

    An intentional system can exist in a world in which there are not (and have never been) any other intentional systems. This merely means that there will be nothing that can recognize the system as intentional (unless the system itself has some sort of self-representational capabilities).

    It is not the case that “the intentionality of [some intentional] state is determined by (in fact, it since intrinsic intentionality is out, it seems it can only be determined by) yet another intentional stance.” The intentional stance does not determine intentionality. It is merely a procedure for delineating (or recognizing) that set of physical systems that are in fact intentional, i.e. the ones that exhibit the right sorts of behavioral patterns.

    The distinction between original and derived intentionality is an ontological distinction. A system has derived intentionality if its intentional properties are attributable to creation by some prior intentional agent. In this sense, it is emphatically not the case that Dennett’s view commits one to the claim that all intentionality is derived intentionality. It is entirely consistent with the intentional stance to suppose (as Dennett evidently does) that intentional systems can be produced by non-intentional procedures.

    Incidentally, I am uncomfortable with Dennett’s characterization of natural selection as an intentional procedure. The claim is that Nature “recognizes” certain traits as conducive to survival and this provides a “reason” for Nature to keep them around. I dislike this way of thinking about natural selection, and I think applying the intentional stance to NS has not been all that fruitful. Still, acknowledging NS as non-intentional does not mean that one cannot hold that the procedure can produce intentional systems (like flies and cats and humans). Like I said, there is nothing in the intentional stance approach that prohibits non-intentional processes producing intentional systems. In fact, if anything, it makes this non-mysterious, since on the intentional stance approach an intentional system is nothing more than a physical system with a particular sort of behavioral structure.

  47. Diffaxial,

    BTW, none of the problems inherent in “naturalizing intentionality” provide the least comfort, in my opinion, for the view that intentionality, consciousness, critical thinking etc. must therefore arise from some sort of non-physical or non-natural source.

    But, as Putnam (seemingly) suggested, the problem may lie in our conception of what ‘physical’ is or what ‘nature’ is to begin with. Galen Strawson, for example, thinks our conception of matter/physical needs to fundamentally change and include the experiential – he advocates panpsychism (though this has far more to do with consciousness than anything else.) Bertrand Russell made similar moves, and there are others beyond these. Now, there are criticisms to be leveled against these and other views as well, but you seem to be ignoring the true scope of the possibilities here.

    We have even less idea what it means to say that intentionality “really” lies in, say, a soul (or some other form of agency that does not supervene on the physical) than to say it emerges from a brain.

    Again, those aren’t the only options available, and it’s a sloppy description of what the A-Ts are really saying when they talk about the soul being the form of the body, or final causes, etc.

    At the very least it serves to illustrate that the problems MMs have when it comes to these subjects are real and deep, and pretending that their responses are obviously true and every other explanation (theistic or not) should be ruled out is, frankly, more bluff than substance.

  48. For what it’s worth, I agree with the utility of Dennett’s “intentional stance”, but disagree with him when he implies that this stance neither requires that intentionality actually exists, nor that it’s successful application qualifies as evidence that intentionality does, in fact, exist in nature.

    As I have posted repeatedly, biological organisms (and some of their productions, such as heat-seeking missiles, etc.) are indeed “intentional”, both in the sense of being the instruments of “intentional agents” and in the sense of being “intentional agents” themselves. As Ernst Mayr (and Francisco Ayala before him) pointed out long ago, there is no inherent contradiction in biological organisms whose characteristics have evolved having “intentionality”. What is generally unsupportable is the assertion that the process by which such characteristics have come about – that is, evolution – is itself the product of intentionality.

  49. Sotto Voce wrote in #46:

    “I am uncomfortable with Dennett’s characterization of natural selection as an intentional procedure. The claim is that Nature “recognizes” certain traits as conducive to survival and this provides a “reason” for Nature to keep them around. I dislike this way of thinking about natural selection, and I think applying the intentional stance to NS has not been all that fruitful.”

    I am equally uncomfortable with this, and would argue that applying the “intentional stance” to evolution is as counterproductive to understanding evolution as applying it to the products of evolution is productive.

  50. But, as Putnam (seemingly) suggested, the problem may lie in our conception of what ‘physical’ is or what ‘nature’ is to begin with. Galen Strawson, for example, thinks our conception of matter/physical needs to fundamentally change and include the experiential – he advocates panpsychism (though this has far more to do with consciousness than anything else.)

    Strawson’s aim, in part, in advocating panpsychism has been explicitly to preserve a thoroughgoing monism, as he rejects both emergentist theories (as failures) and property dualism (as inchoherent). So I don’t think he is a friend of VJtorley’s thesis. (Perhaps you didn’t intend that he is.)

  51. Sotto Voce,

    The “real patterns” which are characteristic of intentional systems are merely macroscopic physical patterns.

    It is true that to recognize these patterns as intentional (i.e. to systematize them in a predictive theory positing intentional states) requires intentionality. But this is merely an epistemological point.

    An intentional system can exist in a world in which there are not (and have never been) any other intentional systems. This merely means that there will be nothing that can recognize the system as intentional (unless the system itself has some sort of self-representational capabilities).

    Let’s be clear about this. Are you saying that intentionality is a real and existing part of certain systems in nature (be it a human being, a robot, a natural process, etc)? If so, wonderful – but that sounds an awful lot like the view of Aristotle and others, where final causes / intentionality are real and part of nature.

    If you’re not saying that – and that seems to be the direction you’re going when you talk about how those “real patterns” are “merely macroscopic physical patterns” – everything is “really” purposeless and blind matter in motion – then all of Dennett’s talk about intentionality is really nothing more than a perhaps useful fiction, accent on the fiction. He hasn’t explained intentionality, he’s treating it as eliminated while trying to retain the language for the sake of day to day pragmatism.

    It honestly seems to me that even Dennett isn’t terribly clear on this, or at the least you have to dig around before figuring out just what his explanation amounts to.

    Incidentally, I am uncomfortable with Dennett’s characterization of natural selection as an intentional procedure. The claim is that Nature “recognizes” certain traits as conducive to survival and this provides a “reason” for Nature to keep them around. I dislike this way of thinking about natural selection, and I think applying the intentional stance to NS has not been all that fruitful. Still, acknowledging NS as non-intentional does not mean that one cannot hold that the procedure can produce intentional systems (like flies and cats and humans). Like I said, there is nothing in the intentional stance approach that prohibits non-intentional processes producing intentional systems. In fact, if anything, it makes this non-mysterious, since on the intentional stance approach an intentional system is nothing more than a physical system with a particular sort of behavioral structure.

    Again, if the system makes it non-mysterious by – when all is said and done – suggesting one should be an anti-realist about intentionality, it seems like the better course is to accept some mystery in life (or at least choose a better system). With Dennett himself being the one turning to Mother Nature on this (and doing so, at least in that quote, to ‘end the threatened regress of derivation’!), I think Putnam’s quote remains apt (and honestly, Putnam isn’t the only person to accuse Dennett of engaging in what amounts to a shell game on a topic of mind.)

    Diffaxial,

    No, I absolutely wasn’t suggesting Strawson would be on board with vjtorley’s views. Only that it isn’t as if it’s God Versus The Materialists, and there are quite a lot of atheists or agnostics who recognize quite a lot of problems with mechanistic materialism and aren’t motivated by theistic, much less specifically Christian, concerns.

  52. On the subject of intentionality:

    As I have stated above, I think that the intentionality of at least some of beliefs and desires does indeed pose a genuine problem for materialists. The beliefs and desires which I especially have in mind here are ones which cannot be cashed out in purely pragmatic terms – and that would include most of our science, to which theoretical constructs are essential.

    However, in the interests of fairness, I think readers have the opportunity to peruse the best arguments of those who have tried to naturalize intentionality. For a good introduction to the subject, I’d recommend the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on Intentionality, and especially Section 9, Can Intentionality be Naturalized? at http://plato.stanford.edu/entr.....onality/#9 .

    Daniel Dennett’s views have been discussed on this thread. Dennett himself brings out just how radical his views are, with a striking example in an article he wrote with John Haugeland on Intentionality, for the Oxford Companion to the Mind, which can be viewed at http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/papers/intentio.htm :

    Suppose some human being, Jones, looks out the window and thereupon goes into the state of thinking he sees a horse (cf. Fodor 1987). There may or may not be a horse out there for him to see, but the fact that he is in the mental state of thinking he sees a horse is not just a matter of interpretation (these others say). Suppose the planet Twin-Earth were just like Earth, save for having schmorses where we have horses. (Schmorses look for all the world like horses, and are well-nigh indistinguishable from horses by all but trained biologists with special apparatus, but they aren’t horses, any more than dolphins are fish.) If we whisk Jones off to Twin-Earth, land of the the schmorses, and confront him in the relevant way with a schmorse, then either he really is, still, provoked into the state of believing he sees a horse (a mistaken, non-veridical belief) or he is provoked by that schmorse into believing, for the first time (and veridically), that he is seeing a schmorse. (For the sake of the example, let us suppose that Twin-Earthians call schmorses horses (chevaux, Pferde, etc.) so that what Jones or a native Twin- Earthian says to himself–or others–counts for nothing.) However hard it may be to determine exactly which state he is in, he is really in one or the other (or perhaps he really is in neither, so violently have we assaulted his cognitive system). Anyone who finds this intuition irresistible believes in original intentionality, and has some distinguished company: Fodor, Searle, Dretske, Burge, and Kripke, but also Chisholm 1956, 1957, Nagel 1979, 1986 and Popper and Eccles 1977). Anyone who finds this intuition dubious if not downright dismissible can join me, the Churchlands, Davidson, Haugeland, Millikan, Rorty, Stalnaker, and our distinguished predecessors, Quine and Sellars, in the other corner (along with Douglas Hofstadter, Marvin Minsky and almost everyone else in AI). (Bold type and italics mine – VJT.)

    One of Dennett’s most persistent critics is John Searle, who exposes the problems with Dennett’s views on intentionality and sets forth an attractive rival account in his best-seller Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World, which is available at http://www.amazon.com/Mind-Lan.....0465045219 . I cannot recommend this book highly enough for people who want a lucid, non-technical introduction to the main issues of philosophy.

    In Searle’s account of intentionality, the notion of conditions of satisfaction figures prominently. Both beliefs and desires have conditions of satisfaction; but they differ in their direction of fit: a valid (true) belief has to fit the world, whereas a desire is only validly satisfied when the world fits (or accords with) it.

    Searle defends the view that original intentionality is indeed real, but he also maintains that it can be “naturalized,” and he puts forward an account of how this can be accomplished in his book. However, Searle’s own position is not without its problems, and David Thompson has written a well-argued article, Intention and Causality in John Searle which exposes some flaws in Searle’s attempt to account for original intentionality within a materialist framework.

  53. Sotto Voce

    So are you saying that on your non-materialist alternative the scientist actually explores all (or most) of this possibility set of alternatives in a finite amount of time? This is wildly implausible.

    No; I’m saying that because the cosmos is the creation of an Intelligent Agent who also designed our own intellects, it is not surprising that scientists usually can “get it right”and identify the correct alternative within the time required to do so. That does not mean that psychologists cannot profitably study the mental processes by which scientists come up with explanatory hypotheses; it simply means that absent a Deity, we should not expect these processes – which in effect anthropomorphize the cosmos – to actually work.

  54. Mr MacNeill,

    On the farewell to Gil thread, you stated a certain skepticism about modeling and simulation which was not grounded in tests against reality. Yet here on this thread I see you are discussing the posturing of various philosophers which seems to me to be exactly that kind of ungrounded speculation, or populations where the sample size was n=1. Do you feel your intellectual position is consistent (if so, how?) or are you happily and admittedly inconsistent vis-a-vis the intellectual rigor that should be applied to science, and the rigor of philosophy?

    #If it isn’t clear, my view is that philosophy is like a pig sniffing for morels. Some value it for what it finds, some for itself, and some prefer the bacon it will become. I’m in the “good philosophy eventually becomes science” camp. :)

  55. Nullasalus,

    I guess you could say the intentional stance reduces intentionality to a “useful fiction”, but I would resist that interpretation. Here’s an analogy: I have a glass of water in front of me. I treat is as a single, stable, enduring object. But if I examined the water microscopically, I would realize it is not stable at all. Water molecules are constantly evaporating off the surface of the water and being replaced by molecules from the atmosphere. The system is in dynamic rather than static equilibrium. Technically speaking, there is no enduring clump of matter that corresponds to my concept “this glass of water”.

    It is just that at a certain level of description the dynamic nature of this process becomes irrelevant. Processes of evaporation and condensation are balanced to give the appearance of stability at a macroscopic level. There is a macroscopic real pattern that allows me to treat the glass of water as a single stable enduring object and ignore the microscopic turmoil involved.

    Does this mean that conceiving of the glass of water as an object is a “useful fiction”? I think not, although you are free to talk that way if you want, I suppose. Even after I recognize that I am not picking out a fundamental “natural kind” when I talk about the glass of water, I can still recognize it as a bona fide member of my ontology. In fact I would say something similar about almost all macroscopic objects. They do not correspond to enduring and unchanging clumps of matter, but they are enduring and more or less unchanging patterns of organization of matter. But these patterns are only visible at a certain level of description. The glass of water is appropriately considered an object only because at a certain level of description it is very useful to take the “objectual stance” towards it.

  56. Sotto Voce,

    I sharply disagree with Dennett, and clearly I’m not alone in that (I’m talking among philosophers, even agnostics and atheists). To me, the description you offer sounds a lot like trying to ignore the elephant in the room – where there’s a lot of talk about the usefulness of the stance (Sure it’s useful, but again, what’s useful about it is not original by a longshot), there’s a lot of talk about ‘intention’ and so on, but in the end it’s all a distraction. But what it’s distracting from happens to be the only part Dennett actually wants people to accept, and sounds vastly less plausible once the smoke clears. If that’s the cost of saving materialism, then maybe the idealists were on to something after all.

  57. Nullasalus,

    Fair enough. I certainly don’t want to claim that Dennett’s ideas have won universal acceptance. I recognize that it has received quite widespread criticism. I still find it convincing and haven’t encountered a critique yet that has changed my mind.

    I often find that theories I find very compelling are regarded as outrageously counter-intuitive by many smart people (other examples: the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, objective Bayesianism about probabilities, neo-Humeanism about causation). Don’t know what this says about me…

    In any case, thanks for the discussion.

  58. VJtorley:
    Your original argument executes several turns that I feel are unjustified. I’d like to remark on those turns and why I cannot follow you down the paths you take thereby. I hope you will recognize that I offer these remarks in the spirit of discussion rather than refutation, and that you will find these remarks at least interesting and provocative.

    The first pivot is announced in this passage:

    I do think, though, that there is a kind of reflective consciousness which is unique to human beings – no other animal, as far as I know, says to itself: “Isn’t consciousness a wonderful thing!” I don’t regard this kind of consciousness as a supervenient property.

    The fact that reflective consciousness may be unique is, by itself, a contingent fact and doesn’t compel the conclusion that human beings display forms of cognition (say, critical thinking as you describe it) that differ in kind with respect to their supervenience upon brain functioning. The best science indicates that human reflective consciousness has a history, namely the history of hominid evolution, and that there was unbroken continuity between organisms that were devoid of the capacity for critical metarepresentation and ourselves, with all of our formidably abstract representational powers and tools. Although we are not able to interrogate species intermediate between ourselves and, say, the common ancestor of human beings and chimpanzees, there is incontrovertible evidence that they existed (why do I even need to state this?) and many reasons to conclude that the highly elaborated cognitive toolkit possessed by modern humans was evident in less elaborated forms in these earlier hominid species. I find no reason to suppose that there is a point along this continuum in which it becomes necessary to posit a kind of thinking that is suddenly, necessarily free of supervenience upon neurobiological facts. Indeed, we have every reason to believe the opposite, as we admire the elaboration and increasing size and complexity of the hominid brain across hominid evolution. In short, while one may argue over whether and what discontinuities separate the extant human species from other extant species, a historical view obliterates the view that a fundamental (perhaps even metaphysical) discontinuity separates the human human species and the larger family of less cognitive life.

    It is important to recognize that some of the later, dramatically explosive changes in the human cognitive toolkit, apparent over the past 30,000, 5,000, and even 500 years, result not from evolutionary changes but rather from an explosion of cultural innovation and evolution that occurred “atop” the evolutionary foundations described above. You tacitly acknowledge the importance of this form of innovation when you say, “For the enterprise of critical thinking is a never-ending quest: new ways of thinking are continually being discovered and evaluated, and new flaws in people thinking are continually being identified.” These are cultural innovations, essentially innovations in the technology of thinking, innovations that include the devising of what Searle calls “we intentionality” and the invention of institutions (such as the academe and myriad overlapping scientific communities, among many other cultural institutions) that in essence enable cognition to be hosted by entire communities of people over intervals of time that exceed individual human lifetimes.

    I think you then take an unwarranted leap, namely that if human thinking does supervene on neurobiology, then it is necessarily limited. We can leave that for another time, because I happen to believe that most of the negative consequences for human cognition you assert follow from that supervenience are, in fact, indisputably present. You said,

    Since the brain itself is finite, the enterprise of critical thinking, if generated by the brain, would then be limited in terms of the number of “creative moves” we could make, and also the number of flaws of thinking we could spot, at any given point in time…The point I am making is that on a materialist account, even our critical thinking would have systematic blind spots, at any given time.

    I believe that the above does in fact accurately describe limitations that are evident human cognition and critical thinking, particularly individual human cognition. There is a large recent literature in cognitive psychology that documents just how far from the ideals of rationality ordinary human thinking departs. You pointedly twice include the qualifying phrase “at any given time”; I think it would be fair to include, “in any given person” as well. You then continue:

    What would that mean, in scientific terms? It would mean that there are probably scientific hypotheses out there which our brains are unable to dream up, because they’re wired the wrong way.

    There may well be thoughts we can’t think and theories we can’t pose at any given time. But it doesn’t follow that this results from our being “wired the wrong way.” Above you noted, “For the enterprise of critical thinking is a never-ending quest: new ways of thinking are continually being discovered and evaluated, and new flaws in people thinking are continually being identified.” The inherent, genetically deployed “wiring” of the human brain appears to be of such plasticity that it is capable of hosting an incredible variety of tools for thinking (and singing, and playing, and making art, and politicking, and so on), as individual persons soak up and pass on cultural tools for cognition. These activities still presumably supervene upon specific brain states within specific individuals, but the causal pathway by means of which these states are attained clearly include community, cultural, and linguisitic vectors.

    And here is where your repeated qualifier “at any given point in time” becomes crucial. Human critical thinking, and scientific thinking, absolutely do display the limitations and finiteness you describe at particular points in time, as well as within particular persons and even communities of persons. Yet the current explosion of sheer cultural and representational innovation, of which the methods and products of science are a prominent example, always offer the possibility that at another point in time, perhaps within another person or community of persons, that which lay in a conceptual blind spot will become conceptually visible, and that which could not have been thought becomes easily thinkable. Hence it does not necessarily and follow from the supervenience of individual cognition upon neurobiology that “our brains are too set in their ways for us to consider the possibility that some other hypothesis might be right instead.” There now so many avenues for recasting and reshuffling human thinking, and human thinking now spans so many persons and so much history, it is always possible that specific limitations specific blindnesses are temporary.

    Your argument then takes a turn that I find quite illogical:

    For it is my contention that it was precisely the brash attempt to put critical thought in a box as part of a scientific quest to explain everything within a materialist paradigm that got us into trouble in the first place. If we do that, and try to make critical thought supervene upon brain processes, then we have to identify critical thought a finite algorithm or set of algorithms, which may fail to properly grasp the cosmos we live in…But if you are prepared to just assume at the outset that critical thought is an open, unbounded process which is not limited to a set of algorithms, then if you are a scientist, you will feel confident that your mind can handle any task the world throws at it. You will expect that as you make further discoveries, you come closer to the truth. You will realize that there are flaws in your thinking, but you will also realize that you (or your colleagues) are fully capable of spotting them, with time, patience and argumentation. You will expect the spirited exchange of opposing ideas to bear fruit, and help people to sharpen their thinking.

    I find this passage problematic for several reasons. The component I find quite flawed is your apparent assertion that choosing to believe (or assume) the accuracy of one or the other of these hypotheses will necessarily bring on the consequences that putatively flow from that hypotheses. Hence belief that critical thinking supervenes brings on the putative limitations in theory formation, discovery and ultimately understanding of the cosmos you claim (I think incorrectly) must follow from such supervenience, while the mere assumption (or belief) that critical thought is open and unbounded brings forth all the bounty you attribute to open and unbounded thought.

    But that makes no sense. A modest realism (for the purposes of this discussion) would suggest that critical thinking either does or does not supervene, independent of what believe about that supervenience, and that the limitations in (or advantages to) human critical thinking relative to supervenience (or the lack thereof) also obtain independent of such belief. Belief that critical thinking does not supervene does not make it so, nor make thinking free. And the qualities of confidence, fruitfulness, and communality of thinking you claim will spring from the brows of believers in unbounded thinking already, in many instances, characterize the community of scientists committed to naturalism and its methodological constraints.

  59. Diffaxial

    Thank you for your long and thoughtful response. I shall attempt to address your key points.

    In my post, I wrote about reflective consciousness – the kind of consciousness which allows us to not only be conscious, but reflect upon our own consciousness. I added that I did not think that this kind of consciousness supervened upon our brain processes.

    You correctly point out that I did not provide any argument for this opinion, which I expressed only in passing. All I will say is that while it is quite plausible that consciousness of a particular object or event – or perhaps even a class of objects of events – may supervene upon some brain process, it seems wildly implausible that “consciousness of consciousness in general” would supervene upon any brain process. One wants to ask: which brain process, and how would you identify it?

    You then argue against the likelihood of human beings having mental properties which do not supervene upon brain processes, on the grounds that we share a common ancestry with chimps, and that there is an unbroken, continuous line of descent linking us with the last common ancestor:

    I find no reason to suppose that there is a point along this continuum in which it becomes necessary to posit a kind of thinking that is suddenly, necessarily free of supervenience upon neurobiological facts. Indeed, we have every reason to believe the opposite, as we admire the elaboration and increasing size and complexity of the hominid brain across hominid evolution.

    In response: (1) Continuity of lower-level features does not necessarily imply continuity of higher-level ones. Small genetic changes can result in discontinuities at the morphological level.

    (2) To say that the gradual increase in brain size during human evolution counts as evidence for the supervenience of our mental processes upon our brain processes assumes what it is trying to prove.

    (3) At some point in human evolution, human beings must have acquired things such as: a theory of mind; an ability to impute effects to invisible agents; and an ability to think critically about other people’s reasoning on any given topic; and an ability to ask oneself if one’s hypothesis is really true. These are not abilities that come in halves; one either has them or one does not. They scream: Discontinuity!

    I would like to commend your honesty for writing the following:

    I happen to believe that most of the negative consequences for human cognition you assert follow from that supervenience are, in fact, indisputably present.

    Nevertheless, you do not despair: you point out that the neural limitations I described apply only at any given point in time, and you suggest that the plasticity of the brain, coupled with our human capacity for co-operation (two heads are better than one) and cultural innovation can overcome these limitations.

    The problem I have with these suggestions is that:

    (i) the number of possible hypotheses that can be framed to explain a state of affairs is infinite, so even with “lots of heads” and lots of innovation, the chances of our finding the right one are objectively infinitesimal (1,000,000 divided by infinity is still zero);

    (ii) the number of possible causes that could be imputed to a given effect is potentially infinite (think of global warming, which has been blamed on human activity, the Sun, cosmic rays, 1500-year cycles and clouds, to name just a few), and once again, our ability to investigate a large number of these possible causes over the course of time gives us no reason to think we’ll ever find the right one;

    (iii) the number of pitfalls that human reasoning can fall into is potentially infinite, so even our ability to discover a large number of these gives us no reason to think that the quality of our reasoning will improve substantially improve over the course of time.

    I’ll address your other comments shortly. I would like to say that I do appreciate your thoughtful criticisms.

  60. I’d like to wrap up my comments on supervenience for this thread.

    First of all, the experimental evidence for the general hypothesis that all of our mental states supervene upon our brain states is precisely nil. Indeed, the evidence to date tells against the hypothesis. As the late Canadian neuroscientist Wilder Penfield wrote:

    There is no place in the cerebral cortex where electrical stimulation will cause a patient to believe or to decide (“The Mystery of the Mind,” p. 77, 1975).

    This should be obvious enough. As the late philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe argued in her paper, “Causality and Determination,” most of my actions are bodily movements. If my bodily movements are determined by processes beyond my control, then so are my actions; and if my actions are controlled from outside, then I am not free. Supervenience makes slaves of us all.

    Second, I have argued that belief in supervenience leads to skepticism about the reliability of human reasoning, and in particular, about scientific explanations and scientific hypotheses. Thus from a scientific point of view, belief in supervenience is counter-productive: it tends to undermine the authority of science. The only antidote to this skepticism is to regard the human intellect as immaterial, and hence not constrained by any physical realization. As the philosopher Mortimer Adler once put it: “We can’t think without our brains, but we don’t think with them.”

    There is a vast and growing literature on the flaws in everyday human reasoning. These flaws can be readily accounted for from a non-materialist perspective: since we have to abstract our concepts from the objects we experience through our senses, we have to use image schemata when trying to think about states of affairs in the world around us. Mistakes in human reasoning occur when we resort to the wrong kind of schematic representation while attempting to solve a problem. If we try to arrange events into the wrong schema, then of course we’ll draw the wrong conclusions. This is a failing to which everyone is prone – especially inexperienced or lazy thinkers. Consequently, we need to hold our reasoning up to the light and subject it to the scrutiny of critical reasoning.

    Now, if critical reasoning is not a bodily operation – and in particular, not something we do with our brains – then it is free from any inherent defects or limitations, when reasoning about the physical world. It is not confined in its scope to a certain class of phenomena; and nothing restricts its modus operandi either: it is not confined to any set pattern or patterns of thought.

    But if critical reasoning does supervene upon some brain process, then the scientific consequences are truly disastrous. In particular, I argued that there is a vast and potentially infinite number of pitfalls into which we may fall, when engaging in critical reasoning. This is particularly clear when we consider: (a) the enterprise of trying to identify the cause of a state of affairs (e.g. global warming), from among an infinite number of possible causes; or (b) the enterprise of trying to construct a scientific theory which can explain a class of phenomena – when there is an infinite number of theories that could be constructed. The problem isn’t just picking the right one; we just might manage to do that, if we lived in a very “nice” cosmos. Much more serious is the problem of spotting the wrong scientific hypotheses and junking them, before it’s too late.

    If our critical thinking is brain-bound, then the scientific hypotheses that scientists generate are likely to be flawed in ways that they cannot spot. They’ll probably be very good at spotting flaws in a few areas, and hopelessly inept in other areas. What this means is that science is likely to be an unreliable enterprise – if materialism is true, then it will often happen that scientists will rush headlong into embracing hypotheses whose flaws they are blind to, with potentially disastrous results somewhere down the track.

    Some contributors (notably Diffaxial) have suggested that our free exchange of critical ideas, combined with our capacity for cultural innovation and our ability to harness tools (e.g. computers) to enhance our culture, may overcome these limitations. At any given time, our thinking is limited, but with time, we can overcome any specific limitation.

    The problems I see with this suggestion are that it proves too little. At most, it shows that for any particular scientific problem, we are likely to find a solution, given enough time. That’s quite a different thing from showing that the scientific enterprise as a whole is a reliable one, and that we can still trust scientists to find solutions to our problems.

    Moreover, if the process of critical reasoning is itself error-prone, then the upshot is that not only is human reasoning dethroned, but humans are as well. If Diffaxial’s suggestion is right, then we need to rely on our cognitively enhacing tools (especially computers) when engaging in decisions, at all levels. We’ll come to rely on computers, not only for information processing and for performing mechanical reasoning, but even when performing critical thinking. Thus we’ll end up living in a world where computers make our decisions for us, because we no longer trust the machinations of our own minds. And if you held to a physicalistic account of mind, and believed that your critical thinking supervenes upon brain processes, that would be a logical thing to do.

  61. VJtorley:

    In response: (1) Continuity of lower-level features does not necessarily imply continuity of higher-level ones. Small genetic changes can result in discontinuities at the morphological level.
    (2) To say that the gradual increase in brain size during human evolution counts as evidence for the supervenience of our mental processes upon our brain processes assumes what it is trying to prove.

    I noted the continuity of hominid species in response to your assertion (with Nissani) that there are “profound differences” between human beings and other extant species, such that an essentially metaphysical discontinuity arises (vis supervenience). That argument rests on the cognitive “distance” asserted to stand between these species (which is debatable). However, that gulf is somewhat of illusion. Were we to have access to the array of hominid species we know to have existed over the last five million years it is likely that this apparent cognitive gulf would be found to be rather more like a continuum. The fact that “small genetic changes can result in discontinuities at the morphological level” (and I would add “at the functional level”) is consistent with the notion that variation and selection is capable of bridging those discontinuities that remain.

    The most obvious of those, and the most important for critical thinking, is the emergence of language – and there is incontrovertible evidence that language is generated and comprehended by specialized circuitry in the human brain (lateralization, Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, the arcuate bundle, etc. make this clear) and is therefore likely to have an evolutionary basis. Crucial cognitive resources underlying theory of mind also have an incontrovertible grounding in specialized brain functioning and hence have an evolutionary basis (e.g. mirror neurons, the detection and computation of gaze, etc.) None of this (nor the increase in brain size over hominid evolution) “proves” supervenience – which is philosophical rather than scientific issue, after all, and that is not something I claimed. But it does IMO disable the argument that profound inter-species discontinuities justify the conclusion that a new metaphysical configuration of mind versus brain has emerged in the human being.

    At some point in human evolution, human beings must have acquired things such as: a theory of mind; an ability to impute effects to invisible agents; and an ability to think critically about other people’s reasoning on any given topic; and an ability to ask oneself if one’s hypothesis is really true. These are not abilities that come in halves; one either has them or one does not. They scream: Discontinuity!

    Tell them to chill. I am very familiar with the TOM literature and I see no basis there for this assertion. We can save that literature for another discussion. But the “what good is a half of theory of mind” argument is analogous to the “what good is half an eye” chestnut – at it turns out, quite a bit of good.

    (i) the number of possible hypotheses that can be framed to explain a state of affairs is infinite…
    (ii) the number of possible causes that could be imputed to a given effect is potentially infinite…
    (iii) the number of pitfalls that human reasoning can fall into is potentially infinite…

    Yesterday I entered my home by the back door, which opens into the kitchen. On the floor was a brand new, previously unopened, badly molested box of raisin bran. The side of the box was torn open, as was the wax bag inside. The cereal was moist and crushed. In the next room my dog contentedly slumbered. That’s a hell of a state of affairs.

    If I read you correctly, my inference that my damn dog was responsible for slobbering my box of raisin bran into submission is akin to a miracle. After all, the number of hypotheses that can be framed to explain any state of affairs is infinite, the possible causes that can be imputed to effects also potentially infinite, and the number of pitfalls into which my thinking may have stumbled is also potentially infinite.

    Yet this inference is nevertheless an effortless one. That is because, regardless the potential infinitude of the explanatory landscape, the subset of LIKELY explanations is very small, and I am already familiar with that subset from prior experience. Generating candidate explanations was a simple matter. Indeed, no searches of the remaining nearly infinite explanatory space were involved: I didn’t consider and discard the possibility that Hugo Chavez sent henchmen to Ohio to rape my raisins and frame my dog; I didn’t consider and discard the possibility that both the box and the dog were twin world replicas of my actual box and dog; I didn’t consider the possibility that I had actually experienced a thought broadcast from Talos IV, and my bran was in fact intact. And so on. Perhaps the special powers of a free, non-supervenient mind would be required to so quickly exhaust that search space were all candidate hypotheses of equal probability and the method of cognitive selection exhaustive search – but they are not, and it is not.

    Your strange expectation that cognitive nihilism follows from the notion of supervenience reminds me of your equally strange argument that “atheists” should step fearfully because they have no reason to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow – despite the evidence of the last one trillion, six hundred forty two billion, 500 million sunrises. To expect another sunrise given that number IS rational, even if the certainty of that sunrise isn’t “proven.” Similarly, it IS rational to expect that the good-enough cognitive prowess with which we have been endowed by evolution, augmented by centuries of explosive innovation of cognitive tools and the highly formalized tutelage into the application of those tools, will continue to be productive. Will we solve every possible problem? Who ever argued that we can? I don’t see reason for despair in that.

  62. Hi Diffaxial,

    I think I now see more clearly what divides us. My skeptical “sunrise” argument and my skepticism about causal inferences stem from the fact that for the purposes of the argument, I make no metaphysical assumptions about the universe in which I live. I simply assume that events happen, that’s all. What underlies those events, I do not profess to know.

    Thus I make no assumption that there are things with persistent properties (substances), some of which are stable, others of which change with time (matter and form). Nor do I assume any conservative “least-action principle” operating in the cosmos: when trying to explain a new phenomenon, assume no more changes in the cosmos than you have to. These background assumptions which you make allow you to effortlessly infer that out of all the things that could have caused the mess in your box of raisin bran, the most likely culprit was your dog. My point is that experience alone cannot justify these assumptions. For all we know, we may be living in a cosmos in which there are no substances (things) with stable properties – despite the fact that it looks that way. And the least-action principle may not hold in our cosmos. Making those assumptions allows us to reason effortlessly, but we have no right to make them, if we are atheists.

    You talk about the advance of knowledge, and assert that scientific research continues to be productive. True, but I would not expect it to be productive at an ever-accelerating rate. For the number of different kinds of phenomena in our cosmos may well be infinite, and the number of phenomena that our brains evolved to understand is definitely finite. Even with the cognitive augmentation you speak of (computers), everything has to go through the filter of our brains, and so if I were an atheist, I would expect that sooner or later, we would encounter phenomena that are just too difficult for us to process cognitively.

    I hope that clears up any misunderstandings between us. Thank you for your well-argued post, Diffaxial. It has been a pleasure.

  63. We can bring this to a close. Two quick comments, however:

    . My point is that experience alone cannot justify these assumptions.

    Assumptions adpopted for pragmatic reasons (say, setting one’s alarm) don’t need formal justification – that is why they are “assumptions.” All they need is pragmatic justification. And both of the assumptions that we have discussed here (the sunrise, the continued effectiveness of good-enough rationality) have pragmatic justification in spades. Other background assumptions are just that as well – and we need them to think at all. Again, I commend to your attention Wittgentein’s post-humously published essay On Certainty in this regard.

    Even with the cognitive augmentation you speak of (computers)

    You have several times inserted “computers” into my argument, although when I refer to cultural tools for cognition I am thinking more of the invention of the rules of logic, the pragmatics of debate, and of cultural institutions that enable distributed cognition. Computers are in there too, but I haven’t singled them out.

    Thank you for reading and responding to my comments, VJ. This has been productive and thought provoking, and should happen more often.

Leave a Reply