Saturday, November 22, 2008

More "gibberish"

I review samples of a review of my review of the book "Naturalism".

The correspondent (Darrell Lackey) who originally suggested that I read a book on philosophical naturalism was (not surprisingly) disappointed with my treatment of it, and sent an eight-page rebuttal of my review, which I will attempt to sample and respond to here. Doubtless I was far too prone to indulge in ridicule over reasoned analysis, my only defense being that I saw far more humor than reason in the book, which was stultifyingly boring.

Here is a quote from Crick:

“The Astonishing Hypothesis is the “You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice may have phrased it: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.” This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people alive today that it can be truly called astonishing.” (Pg. 22)

Do you agree?
Yes, entirely- both with the hypothesis, and with the difficulty that many people have with it, though I personally do not have such problems. Crick was truly one of the greatest scientists of all time, a far better authority than the authors under discussion, I dare say. Here he was being dramatic to sell his book by this title.

... More importantly, you failed to even address the huge problems with such a view—or why you think there are no problems with such a view.

For instance, the authors write:
“Given the assault of strict naturalism on the very core of our natural view of ourselves, what is one to say about it? One argument against strict naturalism would be to maintain that the view is self-defeating: its proponents believe it is true, whereas if the view is true, then there ultimately is no such thing as believing it is true because there ultimately are no psychological events of any kind, period.” (Pg. 26)

Why didn’t you address this basic problem?
I did not address it because what they pose is absurd and not a problem. It is like saying that if we understand the microbial causes of disease, then we will no longer suffer from disease. Or better yet, only those who understand this principle will no longer suffer from such diseases! It appears to be an example of magical thinking.

In this case, the authors posit that those who believe in the naturalistic, mechanistic foundation of consciousness would not have any psychological events. I think that even you would find that hard to agree with. I certainly have never discounted psychological events, and nor does any scientist who studies the mind or brain. We have only posited that they are explicable in a mechanistic framework, along with everything else in the real world. You (and perhaps the authors) may be confused by the problem of mental causation, which is indeed an issue for dualist theories with soul-body interaction, but not for materialists.

Some materialists may have gotten carried away with reductionist rhetoric to the point of saying that thoughts are nothing but ... packs of active neurons ... just as one might say that photosynthesis is nothing but the transfer of a few electrons, or vision is nothing but a set of parallel computations by lots of connected neurons. That is (temporarily) mistaking the trees for the forest.

(from the book...)
"Hence, it does not seem the least bit implausible to say that a soul's thinking, choosing, experiencing pain, etc., are explainable in terms of its having the power to think and choose and exercising them, and its having the capacity to experience pain and its being actualized." (p.69).

If you don’t understand what is being communicated, just say so—don’t blame the authors—they are, after all, dealing with a very complex subject. If you think the areas being discussed in the above quotes could have been written better, then break it down for us in plain English and tell us where they are wrong. I do not see a single problem in the area of logic anywhere in the above quotes if understood in context. Why don’t you point the logic errors out for us?
I had not thought that the vacuity of this statement needed any explanation, actually. I guess it has long been a staple of theology to "explain" phenomena by positing "capacities" and "powers" that are delicately left unspecified and unplumbed. All I can say is that this mode of argument is totally empty. The only explanation that does any work is one with identifiable pieces that contribute logically to the phenomenon you are trying to explain. Not to mention that it also must have some connection with reality by way of empirical test.

(more from the book, same argument):
"In response, Sosa might claim that no Cartesian who (for the reasons cited in the previous paragraph) thinks he is a nonspatial entity can reasonably believe that he causally interacts with a certain physical body, without also having a knowledge of a noncausal pairing relation in which he stands to that body and that makes it causally accessible to him. It seems to us, however, that such a claim is not more obvious than the nonobvious claim that a spatial relation is a necessary condition of causal interaction between two entities." (p.64).
This statement typifies an idiosyncratic terminology with little point behind it. The authors were trying to figure out how souls can be associated with bodies while having no physical extent, or discernable connection (the pineal gland hypothesis having been discarded some time ago), or indeed discernable nature whatsoever. Here they are simply weaving fantasies- there is no evidence for non-causal pairing relations (which create causal accessibility, no less!) other than conceptual ones we ourselves imagine. There is also no evidence for non-spatial entities- the entire edifice of supernatural propositions is purely imaginary, whether the terms used are abstrusified like "non-spatial entities", or described forthrightly as souls, angels, or Santa Claus. Lastly, there is the reference to "obviousness", which, given the racked terminology, is an affront to the reader, doubly so given the kind of "plausibility" arguments tossed around elsewhere (noted above). If they knew what they were talking about, they could and would have been far clearer.

You forget that the process of choosing, of deliberating, are acts of a mental kind. I don’t think you understand what the authors are claiming. The authors are not saying that naturalists are unaware that thoughts, emotions, daydreams, fantasies, or what have you, exist in their minds. What the authors are pointing out is that according to the naturalist, in the area of the causal explanations of believing- such can never be linked to other mental events like apprehensions and other believings. It is a certain type of mental content/process that is being discussed here:

“In many (but not all) cases, believings (formation of beliefs) are causally explained by apprehending (being aware of) and believing mental contents such as (a) propositions and (b) the logical entailment relationships that obtain among them.” (Pg. 118)

Why didn’t you attempt to deal with their syllogism on page 119?

i. Every effect event is caused only by nonmental events (this is just a statement of the stronger principle endorsed by strict naturalism).

ii. Believing that strict naturalism is true is a mental effect event.

iii. Believing that strict naturalism is true is caused only by nonmental events.
First, the language here is poor- all this believing, entailment, and obtaining is murky, either purposefully or at any rate irremediably, since if they really knew what they were talking about, they would be clearer, as noted above.

Secondly, the first statement of the syllogism is their straw man, not mine. It is false. The nature of mental events is that they can cause each other, and can be stored and recalled at later times, creating a vast matrix of cause and effect relations from the development of the brain, through childhood, to the current thread of thought that one might have in one's head, which even you would appreciate is not a single mental event, but a continuous stream of them, buttressed by an even vaster flow of unconscious mental events. It is true that ultimately, mental events are traceable to outside causes such as sensory data and the genetic code that generates brain structure. But there is room for plenty of interior events twixt these outside causes and any particular mental event, such as a belief.

What strict naturalism means is that all mental events correspond to physical events, which have physical causes, which could all be determined (conceptually, at least) going back in time. I certainly have no problem with mental events. The author's statements to the contrary made no sense, as did so much of what they wrote- they seemed to be misreading the literature, or else be focusing on the poorest rhetorical arguments made by naturalists (if their foils even are naturalists.. see below).

And your own argument is even more murky- "... such can never be linked to other mental events ..." -what on earth does that mean? The whole point of neurobiology is to determine the linkage among mental/physical events, where signals come in through the eyes (to take one example), proceed to the back of the head visual areas, then progressively up the processing ladder of the visual system until they arrive as qualia in the as yet mysterious consciousness, and so forth. Linkage is what this is all about, and to assert that links can never be made- between two beliefs, or between two other mental events- flies in the face of evidence- from brain scanning, from strokes and other defects, etc.

(A quote from my prior review ...)
“Secondly, note the obeisance to "ordinary understanding", which is often mentioned as the author's touchstone. This is exactly what science and reason labors to improve upon. If we were to take ordinary understanding for our guide to understanding anything, be it the Earth's movement, the sun's power source, or the secret of heredity, we should be in a sorry and benighted state indeed.”

You are missing the authors’ greater point, which is that in this area of the mind and all those things that makes people feel they are different from a tad-pole, such as free-will, choosing, apprehending beauty, love, the good, the true, and the very sense of their difference from other biological life goes completely against a naturalist understanding of what it means to be human. You need to address why it is that our own view of ourselves is so “astonishingly” different than the philosophical explanation given by the naturalist. And remember, it is not a “scientific” explanation, but a philosophical one based upon an interpretation of the data—we need to know why it has to be interpreted your way, without citing your prior philosophical beliefs.
At last, you touch on an interesting question- why do we have this customary view? There is a straight evolutionary and practical explanation, which is that we (and all organisms) evolved to engage with the outside world, not with our inner world. Our senses are honed to accurately perceive our immediate physical and social surroundings in the interests of survival. There is little need to know how our internal operations are generated, other than having the vague sensations of pain and pleasure that indicate that things are going badly or well. When we eventually create complex (even conscious) robots, their high-level programs will doubtless have similar characteristics, concentrating on external interactions rather than wasting time on knowing whether chip register 24523 has communicated with memory register 89629.

So our sense of consciousness seems to us magical and perfect, even though a bit of experimentation can show that it is quite a hodgepodge of ignoring 95% of what goes on and splicing together the rest with appropriate time-shifts into a plausible video-experience. That is why TV works, for example, since our eye/brain processing is slow enough to see its jagged line-scanning as continuous motion. It is also why we sense a complete visual field, even though it actually has a big hole near the middle. Our sense of the world is smooth because, by practical / evolutionary argument, its operations must not get in the way of actually sensing the external world, however defective its mechanics are. It would be fatal to be spending time monitoring our senses (or, god forbid, our inner processing), rather than monitoring what is actually interesting ... the world.

There is no question that we are different from tadpoles- in scale, but not in kind. Tadpoles have likes and dislikes that guide their lives, and senses that accurately portray what is going on around them. It is not the most interesting life, perhaps, but they may indeed have senses of beauty as well as morals. They have a discriminating appreciation of mating partners, which in my book counts as a sense of beauty, and insofar as they have social lives, they restrict their behavior in order to socialize with others, thus expressing moral senses, where presumably it is frowned upon to eat each other, for instance.

(A quote from my prior review ...)
“And, of course there is the physical evidence of complete coincidence between minds and brains- the direct effects that strokes, surgery, transcranial magnetic stimulation, and drugs have on both coincidentally. Indeed it is ironic that these authors choose to attack naturalism on this weakest of fronts, where research is rapidly closing in on detailed brain/mind mechanisms. It is a classic "god of the gaps" approach to theism that stands little chance of surviving the decade, let alone the century.”

Again you miss exactly what aspect of mental activity the authors are speaking to, which is choice, apprehending and believing based upon other beliefs. No one is suggesting that the physical and spiritual can be divided in the way you are assuming here. It appears you were looking for a ridiculous argument like, “We think the soul is located in the left quadrant of the cerebral cortex.” This would be similar to talking about God as if such a being were just a really- really powerful human-like creature (Superman) living on a planet somewhere called heaven and if we just had our telescope turned to the right place, we could see God! We see here the same comic-book understanding of the soul.

The authors readily admit that this is a mystery (dualism, whether Cartesian or Non-Cartesian), but every honest scientist admits many mysteries to this universe and especially as to humans. So what? The authors point to a dualism posited by Kant, which simply located the soul as present “as a whole in [the] body as a whole in every part of it.” (Pg. 66) So, in fact, the areas the authors chose to attack naturalism are indeed their weakest, but they are each weak—only in different ways.
The activities of "choice, apprehending, and believing based upon other beliefs" are exactly the objects of current neuroscience. The effects of physical and chemical perturbations to the brain, which alter moral, economic, and other forms of choice, testify eloquently to their physical substrate. The mystery of dualism is belied by its complete poverty of either explanation or evidence, other than the personal sense of it, which is accounted for (though not explained) as I outlined above. So as with other mysteries that theists insist upon, such as god, miracles, and divine trinities ... they are more phantasms than mysteries. True scientific mysteries are characterized by problematic evidence, such as the equivalence of the speed of light in all directions, which stumped Newtonian models of physics. The problem of consciousness has only one piece of evidence indicating that materialism is insufficient- the way it feels/seems from the inside. All other evidence from neuroscience, logic, pharmacology, physiology, etc. converges in the opposite direction.

Indeed, a supernaturalist might claim that any evidence that arrives in this natural world is automatically skewed to naturalist forms of understanding and can not count- a sort of catch-22 that discounts any detectable phenomenon as evidence. Thankfully, that is not a problem for the naturalist.

I might even suggest that the whole book would have been better replaced by an exposition of the simple radio metaphor, where theists posit that even though a radio (brain) can be damaged in many ways to make us think that its programs arise from within itself, its signals actually come from outside, just as the brain might be getting signals from god, or the soul might be some kind of extra-mechanistic signalling device, etc.. Such a discussion would be been far more clear than what these authors offered. This could be addressed by a non-theist by the absence of any evidence for external signals or the design of the brain for their reception, or indeed for any signaling mode (other than magical) that might be relevant. (Unfortunately, all these arguments have a negative character and are not entirely compelling, since we do not have a complete mechanistic theory of how the brain works, yet.)

(Following my discussion of how consciousness follows, rather than leads, other brain activities)
Okay, let’s apply such a view to the process of your book review: So your review is just a non-purposeful, random, “caboose” like rambling, neither here nor there, of a person who believes that conscious will (which he would need for a review like this to even happen) is an “illusion.” Since you are not the “master of your own house” I can assume this review then is perhaps something you really don’t even believe…perhaps you wrote it in a ghost-like trance…you tried to force your fingers into typing the exact opposite, but to no avail. Now, we both know that is not what happened and yet, for you to make your case, you have to speak, act, and think as if the authors’ views are truer to reality than your own.

And you cite Freud? He is seen as an influential popular figure now (a celebrity), not in any serious scientific way.
Freud is still appreciated in just the way I cited- he established the idea and power of the unconscious, even if his detailed theories of its composition and modes of treatment are no longer followed. You understand the concept, I assume? The concept that most of what goes on in our heads is not known consciously? That our thoughts first incubate at various levels outside consciousness before arriving there in a blaze of either glory or shame? Whether one views it as a caboose or a conning tower, consciousness is a small part of what goes on in our heads, and clearly has to interact with many other processes in some way, sending or receiving data.

At any rate, the idea is not that my thoughts don't exist, or are random, but that consciousness is not where they take shape. Consciousness reports them, but does not form them. Surely that should be understandable to someone who believes that thoughts come from extra-terrestrial sources? The question is whether we can, by technical means, determine where they really do come from, or whether we renounce (and ignore, as the book did) the entire enterprise and go on spinning empty theories of "powers" or "capacities" to think/believe, imputed to nebulous "non-spatial" entities.

What you are forgetting is that yours is the argument from ignorance. You don’t know why or how, in a strictly natural sense, consciousness and the mind operate the way they do. You think it will be reduced to an entirely mapable physical construct one day, but until then you posit and argue from…ignorance. However the authors are suggesting that the soul is the “how” as to these dilemmas and since they do not start with your presupposition that the material is all there is- they are not making an argument from ignorance—but from experience, philosophy, theology, logic, science, and history. To admit that one possible solution is a mystery, not reducible, is not the same as arguing from ignorance. Your argument is: “I don’t know, but it has to be reducible to a physical-material cause…because I’m committed to philosophical naturalism.” Their argument is: “We think we know—it is the classical view (a soul-we are more than physical) of such matters—and it indeed is a mystery.” So is love, evil, the good, the true, and the beautiful. So is life. So what? To recognize such is hardly to argue from ignorance. In fact, it is to argue from wisdom.
Very well put. But consider how many other times the classical view of "more than physical" phenomena has actually been proven out. The answer is never. The second question is where the currently available evidence leads. There are endless cases of specific damage to the brain that result in specific defects in perception, action, morality, language, and other mental functions. Chopping off one's head also has a routinely definitive effect. There is simply no other plausible avenue to analyze mental functions than by studying the brain. No dis-embodied intelligence has ever been demonstrated, except by charlatans. And even our most fervent, drug-induced experiences of divinity are never corroborated the morning after in any concrete way, other than by the confabulation of miracles that seem so very scarce nowadays. There is no doubt that we can think and feel amazing things, just no evidence that they signify anything disembodied, whether consciousness or divinity.

(A quote from my prior review ...)
“Why do values need to be normative at all?”

Yes, that is exactly what Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and serial killers asked themselves. And why do ecological values need to be normative? And why should how we treat animals be normative? Of course, you want your values to be normative, you simply can’t tell us why and when you attempt to, we learn that there really are no such things as morals or values—there are only assertions of power.
No comment.

As noted by Fagerstrom: “Darwinism does not provide us with values about whether [a particular state of affairs] is a better or worse state of affairs. Period!” (Pg. 91)

One might respond that Naturalism is different than Darwinism. However that will not do. They both lead to a world where “better or worse” are meaningless. And if one responds, “Well, Darwinism or Naturalism might not provide values, but we can from our own imaginations,” he still has not told us why the values produced by the imaginations of the Nazis could not or should not be normative. Why should we resist those values? In fact, he has removed any way for us to talk about what “normative” would even mean
I never said that Naturalism per se is related to morals, actually. Morals come from our study of ourselves, our desires and needs, and whatever reason and foresight we can bring to bear on reconciling them all (especially with those of other people). Naturalists are typically also humanists, since they do not believe in extraterrestrial sources for human morals, or any of the other fabulous sources that have been prophesied over the years. Indeed, they do not believe in an end to history or a coming judgment, whether rapturous or apocalyptic- only that our future is in our own hands.

It is funny to hear theists prate that the origin of morals is in their authority, in their books and in their apparently not very omnipotent god. That they are the only valid judges of others- that anyone who disagrees with them has no basis to judge others, and moreover should be compared to Nazis. Have they no faith ... in their fellow man? Apparently not, even after such an election as we have just had! Religious leaders preached hate and fear in this election, especially against gay marriage in California. It should be deeply shameful.

What a disappointing review. You failed to grapple with this book in any significant way. Unlike the authors who addressed naturalism in a charitable, fair, and professional way, you chose the exact opposite route in your review. Very bad form.

What the authors were discussing in their book and the entire conversation around these things require, at a minimum, some background, some presumed familiarity with the philosophical, historical, theoretical, and scientific context to the areas under discussion. Most of us simply need to read more, take some classes, get out and talk to more people who differ and have different perspectives. But the greater issue is one of sensibility. Our wills, our emotions, our choices, our loves are involved in these matters. There is a mystery as to why one person might see a man smile as his son scores a touchdown and reflect, “There must be causal electrical pulses going from eye to brain to facial muscles happening” and a different person reflecting that, “The father sees perhaps himself again, or maybe what he wanted to be, in his son now, and he loves him so.” In other words, what do we believe is really happening at such a moment and what can it be reduced to? It is here, in the area of sensibility, aesthetics, and beauty where we see the greatest difference between the two of us (and Christians and Naturalists as a whole) and for which there is no quick or obvious remedy.
This is the conclusion, and what can one say? I found the book tedious, incoherent, and laughable. Scientific context? That was one area where the authors offered nothing.. the very field where souls should be investigated, in comparison or conjunction with real brain science, the authors offered pathetic, completely untethered arguments about whether the soul is point-like or extended, its "capacities", "powers", and the figurative ruminations of Paul of Tarsus. I was incredulous that anyone would have such low intellectual standards as to publish it.

There is indeed an issue of sensibility here, one that is critically important. This book was not about our "loves", it was about reason- reasons to believe in one or another model of reality, either naturalistic or supernatural, written in a putatively scholarly way in order to persuade the intellect, not the heart. On this count they failed miserably, not even trying to engage the leading intellectual findings about the actual brain, but focusing what fire they have on their fellow-philosopher Jaegwon Kim, who may not even be a naturalist.

I'd suggest that philosophers have had nothing interesting to say about the field of cognitive science for decades, if not centuries. This field, like others that have anything to do with the natural world, has been handed over to science for resolution based on actual data, (for instance to Francis Crick, as you cite above), as was the case with the natural philosophies of atoms, of ethers, of vitalism, of diseases, of celestial bodies, etc. At best, philosophers (like other philosophers of science) are following the science closely and considering what it means for the old questions they are familiar with and what it means for the lay person (John Searle and Oliver Sacks come to mind). At worst, they retreat into ancient formulations and abstruse terminology, playing games with each other that bear no reflection of current knowledge, and deserve prompt obscurity.

I suspect what you are trying to say is similar to the perennial notion that science drains wonder, beauty, and sacredness from the world and from ourselves. As a fan of Carl Jung, I certainly understand the attraction of holding things, experiences, and each other to be numinous and sacred. I just fail to see how these can be joined to a failed model of reality- one that simply is not true. Taking biology as my prime example, the truth of billions of years of painstaking evolution, ramification and suffering far outstrips the story of god whipping up the plants, fish, and beasts over a few days, and then scheduling everything for a do-over a couple thousand years later. The true story (as testified by every nature show) is far more likely to inspire dedication to the precious and beautiful life of this planet.

1 comment:

  1. I don't think any more time needs to be spent here. From this post and the first one, when we read "gibberish" we should translate: "I don't understand this stuff, so these guys are boring (and they must be wrong)." If anyone is interested in my full and unedited response go to