Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A Critical Analysis of One Materialist's View of Concept Formation

Recently, a self-professed materialist I spoke with contended for the following regarding concept formation in the brain/mind:
"They're [concepts] just illusory epiphenomenal manifestations caused by the firing of context-sensitive patterns of neurons. They're very useful, but still illusory."

A Brief Critical Analysis

Problem: How can something be non-existent (illusory), yet truly "helpful?" In actuality, if things like "concepts" and other abstractions boil down to nothing more than the firing of neurons in a particular order depending upon external stimuli then this would mean that things like the laws of logic, natural laws, and moral notions are nothing more than non-existent "illusory epiphenomenal manifestations caused by the firing of context-sensitive patterns of neurons." This could hardly be deemed "helpful" because some of what is listed below would follow:

1. Logic would be conventional/contingent - meaning it can be changed or completely different from person to person and immaterial entities like the law of non-contradiction couldn't exist and irrationality and absurdity would result. This is because logic (or lack thereof in this case) would be dependent on the order each individual's neuronal paths would "fire" as stimulated by their external environment. One person's neurons may fire in such a fashion so that they may think that "Pres. Bush is and is not the President." Of course, that would be absurd, but if Logic was illusory, non-existent, conventional and contingent (which is the case based upon the statement above), then there is no way of determining rationality vs. irrationality. This means that we couldn't rightfully punish criminals, shouldn't treat folks with mental disorders, and certainly can't tell a kid in school that he got the questions on his math test wrong! After all, they are ALL developing behaviors that coincide with the "illusory" concepts that are developed in their minds which are dependent upon their particular, individualistic neuronal pathways as stimulated by the external environment!
This leads to # 2:

2. Natural laws are conventional at best, and undiscernable at worst - which means we might not be able to have this conversation because your neurons might fire in a different pathway then mine despite being acted upon by the same biophysical laws. Therefore, we'd have no congruity/uniformity of thought so as to do anything such as use language, math, the scientific method, etc. As a matter of fact, the scientific method would be impossible because we could never agree on what was observed because as we were stimulated by the same external environment but the variant firing of our different neuronal pathways would cause us to have radically different interpretations of what we observed. Hence, no uniformity of observations or of reality. Even worse, you couldn't tell me that what I observed and documented was wrong or incorrect, it just is because I'm subject to the firing my own individualistic neuronal pathways when exposed to the same external stimuli you were exposed to. This naturally leads to # 3:

3. Moral notions are silly - How can you punish a criminal for the way they behave if it's all "just illusory epiphenomenal manifestations caused by the firing of context-sensitive patterns of neurons." That would be absurd because they'd be likened to Pavlov's dogs. Instead of salivating when hearing the bell rung and anticipating the meat, the rapist anticipates raping because his neurons fire in a certain pattern due to being exposed to the external stimulus of seeing a woman wearing a particular type of clothing. As atheist Dr. Richard Dawkins has rightly pointed out,

But doesn't a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility, whether diminished or not? Any crime, however heinous, is in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through the accused's physiology, heredity and environment. Don't judicial hearings to decide questions of blame or diminished responsibility make as little sense for a faulty man as for a Fawlty car? [1]

Could this rightly be deemed as "moral" or "amoral"? No, if he's subject to the path of his neuronal firing based upon external stimuli, then his behavior just is. Also, what turns one man on is different than that which turns another man on right? Maybe it's tight clothing for our rapist in question, but its 10 year old little boys for the pedophiliac business man down the street? After all, we don't punish Pavlov's dogs for salivating when the bell's rung. If you want a good article dealing with some of these things in detail here it is: http://www.cmfnow.com/articles/pa032.htm#n1

A good book that deals with this in some detail is by Moreland, J.P, and Rae, Scott B., Body and Soul: Human Nature in Crisis and Ethics (Downer's Grove, Ill: Intervarsity Press), 2000.

[1] Richard Dawkins, Let's All Stop Beating Basil's Car, found at: http://www.edge.org/q2006/q06_print.html#dawkins


  1. Interesting. This concept must have come from his/her brain/mind. It is just another illusion.

  2. :::YAWN!!!:::