Thursday, June 14, 2012

Mind over matter

Blue Devil Knight said...

   Hayes [sic] was right to focus on E1.4 because the terms aren't very well defined, so it is weak.

   [Quoting Lowder] I am not a biologist, but I doubt that any biologist thinks that the intelligence of social insects is even in the same league as that of chimpanzees.

    Most of us would avoid answering a question like that before the terms were nailed down very precisely. Many would say, 'Intelligent in what way?' And if you said 'Ability to build hives' we would have to say that the bee was more intelligent.

    Regardless of these ultimately moot questions like whether bee hive shows more intelligence than a bonobo masturbating, we should note that all the behaviors of the bee depend on the nervous system of the bee. Nobody in the conversation is a substance dualist about the bee dance.

    Hayes [sic] has pointed out a case of a simple cognitive life, with memory and a communication system, in a patently naturalistic system, and we should thank him for pointing out this nice example that, while casting doubt on one of your pieces of evidence, ultimately is very helpful for the naturalist. Indeed, bees are now one of my favorite examples for the study of intelligent biorepresentational systems (it used to be birdsong learning, until I posted this).

    Back to your argument: in general, inferences from neural complexity to "mental complexity" (and vice-versa) are tough.

    I would just say that the neural activity we observe is what we would expect if brains were solely responsible for the mental capacities of animals, and that given everything we know about brains, it isn't clear what is left for these nonphysical substances to do. That's why most of the antinaturalists about consciousness are merely property dualists for whom experiences literally do nothing but dangle there attached to the meat doing the real work, dangling there "feeling" or "experiencing" or whatever, doing nothing.

    There is no magic synapse that has to take in inputs from some additional ingredient (psychons (Eccles)). Rather, everywhere we look, we find neurotransmitters and voltage fields pushing around other neurons (and ultimately muscles) all the way through, without any metaphysical gaps. Given that, and the other evidence you pointed out, and the lack of any plausible dualistic theory that has ever offered any help to any neuroscientist ever, substance dualism is dead except to the religiously biased (and perhaps new-age credulous saps). So we end up with property dualists that serve as the end-point epiphenomenalist reductio of the dualist enterprise.

Several problems:

i) There’s a fundamental difference between BDK’s methodology and mine. What’s the starting point?  He begins with the assumption that a biological organism is purely physical, so its behavior must be explainable on purely physical terms.

By contrast, I begin with the phenomena to be explained, then postulate whatever is necessary to account for the phenomena. I don’t reason back from the assumed nature of the organism, but from the phenomenon demanding an explanation. And that, in turn, may help to pin down the nature of the organism.

Presumptive physicalism is really a science-stopper, for it prejudges what will count as an acceptable answer. It doesn’t follow the evidence wherever the evidence leads.

ii) Why assume that honeybees (and other biological organisms) are purely physical organisms? Because we can only observe their physical properties. Our senses only allow us to empirically discern or detect physical properties.

If biological organisms had both material and immaterial properties, we’d be unable to perceive their immaterial properties. But that doesn’t their composition is limited to what our senses can discern. Rather, that’s a potential limitation of our senses. Physicalism confuses epistemology with ontology. What we can perceive is not the measure of what is.

I’m not saying honeybees are more than merely physical entities. I’m not saying one way or the other. I’m just pointing out the flawed methodology of physicalism.

iii) Let’s take a few examples. Consider cheating at cards. Is that reducible to a physical description? At one level, you could analyze a stacked deck in terms of its physical components. The number of cards. Their physical composition. Their mathematical sequence. You could also analyze the physiological process of shuffling the deck.

But even if you furnished a complete physical description of cheating at cards, that would fail to capture a key element: the mind behind the stacked deck. The intention of the cardsharp.

Why is the deck stacked? That’s not something exhaustive physical analysis will yield. The intelligence of the cardsharp accounts for the physical arrangement of the cards.

Or take a musical composition. Is that reducible to the physical properties of the score? To which notes occur in what order?

But that analysis omits a key ingredient: the mind of the composer. The notes on the score reflect the composer’s choice of notes.

Even though you can’t directly perceive the composer’s mind or the cardsharp’s intent, that’s something you can infer or indirectly detect. As personal agents, we are used to inferring personal agency.

iv) Apropos (iii), when I go to a park and see a model plane flying overhead, or see a model car zoom by, I look around for a boy with a remote control device. Same thing with aerial drones or unmanned space probes. These are invisibly guided by remote control signaling.

v) Do humans have more complex minds because they have more complex brains, or do they have more complex brains because they have more complex minds? Does a more complex mind need a more complex brain to carry out its wishes in the physical world?

For instance, you might give a child a simpler computer chess program, and a teenager a harder computer chess program. As the child’s cognitive development increases, he needs a more challenging program to express himself. The complexity of the program reflects the complexity of the user, not vice versa.

vi) BDK’s physicalism has no explanatory power. He doesn’t explain how the nervous system of a honeybee can perform such intricate tasks. His physicalism amounts of faith: it must be so.

And we can move further down the ladder. Scientists try to outwit inanimate diseases. The pathogens seem to be smarter than the scientists. Do I think bacteria are personally intelligent? No.

But consider bioweapons. Weaponized bacteria or viruses. We don’t impute intelligence to the pathogen itself, but we infer a mind behind the pathogen. An external mind. The person who engineered the pathogen. Why assume disease in nature is fundamentally different?

Physicalism is like a throwback to the clockwork universe of Newtonian physics. To a purely mechanistic universe. But what if the universe is ultimately personalistic rather than mechanistic?


  1. BDK has it backwards. Philosophers and metaphysicians don't need to give anything to "help the neuroscientist". The neuroscientist needs to answer the questions about intentionality, qualia, consciousness and the like - at least, if they want to be taken seriously on this subject. Thus far, they've come up dry - they've told us various important things about the brain, but have barely scratched the surface of even the more mundane and tractable issues in mind, to say nothing of the above questions. In fact, there's good reason to think that they will always come up dry just by the nature of the discipline and the limitations of its manner of inquiry.

    Much as BDK dislikes it, the neuroscientist's authority begins and ends at the laboratory. Once it comes to metaphysics and, yes, various questions of mind, they don't deserve any special respect.

  2. Indeed, as many people probably already know, there's serious debate among virologists, microbiologists, and other scholars over whether a virus is even a living organism. For example, viruses have no nervous system let alone a developed central nervous system including anything even remotely approaching a brain at all but behave as if they're quite intelligent. In fact, viruses (or virii) hijack other organisms and make use of other organisms to reproduce, etc. The fact that viruses can hijack other organisms in the first place seems to indicate some sort of intelligent behavior.

    This in turn colors over into the question of what is life. It's not as easy to pin down as we may expect. For instance, eminent scientists like James Watson and Erwin Schrödinger have each had cracks at answering the question, without an entirely successful answer. Is life defined by the possession of a genome? By a changing or evolving genome? By a self-contained cellular structure including organelles? By the ability to metabolize and produce energy? By reproduction? By other criteria? All of the above? Some of the above? Each of these criteria could be debated as well. For example, crystals exhibit ordered growth or reproduction.