Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Rosenberg on Naturalism

In my previous post I discussed my involvement as a commentator on a recent provocative article by Alex Rosenberg (see Rosenberg on History). At the time I had been asked to cut my word count by moving my discussion of Rosenberg's strange take on history as a science to my blog (which you can find in that previous entry, linked above). It was subsequently decided that my remaining word count is still unfairly high for the forum, so I was asked to summarize my remaining eight points at the forum (see summary), and move the full commentary here as well. So what follows is just a verbatim copy of what had been in comment posts there before, but is now archived here. I have replaced them there with a single summary post briefing all nine objections. 

1. Meanings and Purposes Do Exist
(originally published November 12th, 2009 at 3:38 pm)

I agree with almost everything Alex said as to facts, but disagree as to almost every conclusion. So I will simply remark now on where we disagree, since it is there that we can still make the most, and most important, progress. I’ll post individual points separately.
(Objection 1) Alex wrote that there is no meaning to life, “It’s all just the foresightless play of fermions and bosons producing, in us conspiracy-theorists, the illusion of purpose.”

Although that’s true all the way up to the emergence of the human mind (or arguably even earlier minds than that, if the recent cognitive study of other species is correct in its conclusions), it is not universally true. Because our minds have evolved to be purpose generators. Thus purposes do now exist, and many things now do exist as a result of a purpose (like, say, this website, and Alex’s entire paper, and now my reply, or to borrow a simpler analogy, the manufacture and purchase of a hammer, such as I now have in my toolbox beside me). What people might find unnerving is that those are the only purposes there are, ones we create, and therefore we have no “higher purpose” telling us which purposes we should create. But there are still good and bad purposes, because there are still things we all want and don’t want, and we know stepping on our own toes is contrary to what we want.

Thus a certain measure of reasonableness, empathy, honesty, and courage are virtues we all need to cultivate to reliably get what we want, and avoid what we don’t. And the consequent fact is that we then become aware of others and care about them, including those not even born yet who will come after us. We think about them, as sympathetically as we think about ourselves. We observe the fact that the universe is coldly indifferent to our interests, and our very annoyance at that fact causes us to fix the problem. Nature doesn’t put rivers where we want, so we build aqueducts. Nature puts rivers in our way, so we build bridges. We do a great deal to make the universe serve our desires, because there is no God doing it for us, and the universe certainly hasn’t been designed to do it for us. But this same sentiment leads us to reason out, “I would have wanted some smart designer looking out for me, making this a better place for me, and I really have no right to complain if I, now having the means to do just that, don’t do it for the next guy.” In effect, we see ourselves in the next guy or gal, and do for them what wasn’t done for us, but that we wish had been.

We thus strive toward progress in science, technology, and the organization and betterment of human life and society. And we realize this lucky accident of consciousness, intelligence, the ability to finally, at long last, create purposes (and fulfill them). And then the mere fact that we can now be aware of the universe, and our existence, and the existence of others to come, becomes so interesting to us, we would hate to see it vanish. Thus we strive to ensure there will always be someone around to appreciate all this, even though we know ultimately it will not be us (since the achievement of immortality, though for the first time in history technologically possible in our lifetimes, is still nevertheless unlikely, though it will probably be a reality within our children’s lifetime).

And so purposes emerge in this purely physical universe: we create them, and of the ones we create, a few filter out as the most widely agreed. Namely, the betterment and continuation of human society, and the betterment and continuation of our own experience of life. The purpose of life, the “meaning” of life, is therefore to live it, live it well, and pass it on to the next folk, preferably in better shape than you found it. This is not a cosmically ordained meaning of life. It’s just what we want. And when we think about it, it’s really what we all want. Some few of us are so mentally disturbed we can’t see reason, but remove their malfunction and even they would agree. That we all want this is indeed an accident of evolution. But where our desires come from doesn’t make them go away. We can argue away some desires, but others, we just have no good reason to see as unfortunate. To the contrary, when it comes to those, we’re quite happy to be stuck with them. There wouldn’t be any point in living without them, and it pleases us to serve them. So we do.

Alex concludes his essay by claiming “purposes are ruled out of nature--biological, social, psychological,” but he never proves the latter, nor can he appeal to any science that has done so. Social purposes are simply a collection of psychological purposes. And psychological purposes are simply aims and goals, which are the consequence of motives, which are the consequence of desires, which science has actually confirmed are real and do exist, and actually have the effects we believe they do. More on that to come. But in short, to claim I have no motive for taking time out to write this, no purpose in mind in doing it, is just silly.

2. Moral Facts Are Scientific Facts
(originally published November 12th, 2009 at 3:44 pm)

(Objection 2) Alex says “Science has to be nihilistic about ethics and morality.

That’s untrue. Alex has fallen into a common fallacy: the belief that you can’t get an ought from an is. Yes, you usually hear the fallacy is the other way around, but that is the fallacy. And it’s easily proved to be. Because we all, especially scientists, derive oughts from an is all the time. 

Consider a surgeon: if he wants his patient to survive, he ought to follow strict sterilization and antiseptic protocols. That is not an opinion. That is not a human creation. That is neither false nor vacuous. It’s a material fact of this universe that surgeons ought to follow strict sterilization and antiseptic protocols. That “ought” follows from an “is”: it is a fact that surgery patients will likely die from infection, it is a fact that there are only certain protocols that can reduce that risk, and it is a fact that the surgeon doesn’t want his patient to die from infection. Put those facts together, the total overall “is,” and you automatically get an “ought”: surgeons ought to follow strict sterilization and antiseptic protocols. Ought from an is. We do it in engineering (architects ought to build bridges to withstand seismic waves”), we do it in agriculture (farmers ought to fertilize and irrigate their fields”), we do it in every area of human life (I ought to use a hammer instead of my hand to drive a nail”). Thus, the claim that we can’t get an ought from an is is decisively refuted by simple observation. To the contrary, we always get an ought from an is. In fact that is the only place you can get an ought from.

Now if this is true in every endeavor of human life (medicine, engineering, agriculture, business, law, etc.), then it is certainly going to be true in interpersonal relations and personal life choices. In other words, morality. You just have to give up the fear that “egoism” reduces to “egotism.” Self interest is not a synonym of selfish. We care about others and make some sacrifices for them because, ultimately, let’s be honest, it pleases us to, and we would feel much worse about ourselves if we didn’t do at least something for them. In fact, psychologically, we feel bad about ourselves precisely as much as we fail to live up to our own expectations, and good about ourselves precisely to the extent that we realize in ourselves who we really want to be. Which is why the Golden Rule is the most universal moral ought: because if we do for others what we expect from them, we are neither exceeding nor falling short of what we want to be as a person. Any more, and we would harm ourselves and be unhappy. Any less, and we would disappoint ourselves and be unhappy. Thus, it is a material fact of this universe that human happiness depends on living by the Golden Rule. That is not an opinion. That is not a human creation. That is neither false nor vacuous. Just as for the surgeon, for all of us this “is” entails a very real “ought.” And it does so in many more ways than what I have just summarized. I detail all the scientific facts (the total overall “is”) from which a definite set of moral “oughts” follow, in my book Sense and Goodness without God.

All the objections you may be chomping at the bit to raise right now, are already answered there. I can’t repeat them here for lack of space. But one that Alex already raises is that it is a mere accident of evolution that we are this way psychologically, just as (I would say) it is a mere accident of evolution that surgery patients and infectious diseases are the way they are, too. But that is not an objection. It’s just a repetition of the “is” from which the “ought” derives. Sure, were we entirely different, our morality would be, too, but then we wouldn’t have any complaints about that. It would work for us.

I actually argue in my book that, in fact, most civilized species in the universe will likely experience convergent evolution toward the same core morality (the Golden Rule), by virtue of what is physically necessary in this universe for any species to develop and sustain a civilization (from the needs of social interaction, a la the science of Game Theory, to the inevitable side effects of the need to have developed the tool of cognitive mimesis). But the probability is not absolute, hence I discuss the rare occasion we should expect of truly monstrous civilizations (just as we encounter monsters among ourselves, in the form of the sociopath). But we have to simply defend ourselves from monsters. There is no factual argument that we should become monsters ourselves. There is no “is” that entails that “ought.”

3. Morality is More than Selfish Genes
(originally published November 12th, 2009 at 3:52 pm)

(Objection 3) Alex says “we can’t invest our moral core with more meaning than this: it was a convenience, not for us as individuals, but for our genes.

That’s not entirely correct. It is a convenience also for our memes, and our cognitive experience of life itself. Its effect on our genes is what brought us to this point, but now what matters to us is not its effect on our genes. Indeed, we are on the brink of breaking free, technologically, from any dependence on genes at all. Differential reproductive success is now in the hands of intelligent designers, it’s just a question now of what we do with that power. But even long before this, our genes had become largely irrelevant. What matters is human happiness. Every human who could express anything in words has said this, from as far back as our records go.

Thus, we have been molding our morality memetically (not genetically) the past few thousand years as a tool for enhancing human happiness. So far as we believed, that is. But as with medicine, we have more often been wrong than right. Yet as soon as we started looking with the right methods, medicine started getting things right. If we used those same methods on morality, we would make the same progress. We would scientifically discover the moral code (more likely, a set of virtues, or cognitive habits and dispositions, which causes behavior that can be loosely described by a code, but either way) that, when adopted, optimizes the happiness in your life (compared to what it would have been in the same circumstances otherwise). We cannot deny that there is such a thing, a behavior system that would have that effect. Logically there must be some best way for us to behave to optimize our happiness in our actual social and physical and psychological environment, just as there must be some best way to do surgery, or some best way to build a bridge or grow corn. We just have to admit that that is what we are looking for, and start deploying real science to finding it. Some are doing this. I catalogue several examples in my book (Sense and Goodness without God). We need more.

Hence Alex confuses evolved moral sentiments, with morality itself. Our capacity for compassion and integrity and reasonableness are genetically evolved traits that, like pain or laughter, had their uses in improving the differential reproductive success of human populations. But that doesn’t tell us how we ought to behave. Merely knowing that our bodies are susceptible to disease does not tell us how to minimize the risk of infection. What a surgeon ought to do, took a long time to figure out, even though the evolved facts had never changed. So, too, morality. Merely knowing we have certain dispositions (which includes, by the way, lust and bloodlust, and a strong sense of vengeance and an ability to be dispassionate when we need to be, which are also useful and have thus served to improve our differential reproductive success) does not tell us how to optimize our personal happiness within the social environment we inevitably must live in. Thus, just as we had to figure out the best way to combat disease, so we have to figure out the best way to live. Our evolved dispositions constitute the toolkit we have at hand for doing that, but like any toolkit, we have to learn how to rationally use it, using the right tools at the right times, and not using the wrong tools at the wrong times. It is figuring out the latter that leads us to the moral ought.

And there should be nothing any more surprising or alarming about that, than about the same being true in medicine. Or engineering. Or agriculture. Or motorcycle repair. Or what have you. Thus, if you think it’s all just about the differential reproductive success of our genes, you’ve missed the boat. You’ve failed to notice five thousand years of human progress in understanding our own needs and how best to satisfy them, even often to the detriment of our genes, and certainly not always in their interests. Because we are not genomes. We are minds now. Thus, we seek happiness, not harems of wives and zoos of children.

4. Cognitive Science Has Not Refuted Free Will
(originally published November 12th, 2009 at 3:58 pm)

(Objection 4) When it comes to cognitive science (as some have noted here already) Alex succumbs to a common error: trusting scientists to be good philosophers. That’s particularly disappointing as Alex is supposed to be a good philosopher himself, and thus ought to be correcting bad philosophy from scientists, not credulously repeating it. 

I’ll start with the biggest blunder. Alex says “there is the fact, discovered by Libet, that actions are already determined by your brain before you consciously decide to do them!” Notice the terribly awful syntax here, completely unthought-out. Alex, like Libet, is fallaciously equating our perception of ourselves, with our actual selves. But “you” are not the momentary experience of you. “You” are the synaptic pattern of memories, skills, personality traits, habits and dispositions, desires and emotions, and so on, which constitutes your brain. (I’ll say more about that later) 

Now look at Alex’s sentence (now enhanced to draw out the fallacy of equivocation): “there is the fact, discovered by Libet, that actions are already determined by YOUR BRAIN before YOU consciously decide to do them!” Translation: “there is the fact, discovered by Libet, that actions are already determined by YOUR BRAIN before YOUR BRAIN decides to do them!” This sentence is nonsense. Because it is logically impossible for your brain to both have decided to do something, and not to have done so. It is certainly logically impossible for your brain to decide something before it decides it. 

Alex and Libet are confusing the fact that, being a physical computer, it takes your brain about a fifth of a second to generate a model of what you just did (and thus represent it as a coherent conscious experience), with the fact that your brain, nevertheless, did the thing in question. And since the brain is you, you did that thing. When not interfered with (i.e. when we don’t use electrodes to fool the brain into building an incorrect model of what just happened), our brain accurately reports the fact that we reasoned out a decision, based on our skills, our desires, our knowledge, our everything. It takes a fifth of a second to construct that report (which can then produce a memory for a future decision process). But the fact that this entails our awareness comes a fifth of a second after our decision, in no way means we didn’t make that decision. Nor does it entail our decisions are not rational, or not the product of careful deliberation, or not in accord with our real desires and personalities. Because “we” are not the awareness of ourselves, “we” are the thing of which we are aware. Reasoning as if they were the same is a fallacy of equivocation. 

Certainly, “libertarian” free will, as in a will wholly free of causation, is not only false, but logically incoherent (as I demonstrate in Sense and Goodness without God). But we philosophers have long known that the only sense of free will that is both coherent and desirable is compatibilist free will, which by definition is compatible with the determinism Alex correctly describes. This is the free will recognized in American courts of law, and it’s the free will we really have in mind when we worry about whether we are in control of our own lives and futures or responsible for our past actions. Free will in that sense is simply getting to do what you want, without interference or coercion. In other words, as long as no one else’s will is substituted for your own, your will is free. That it is determined by prior causes (your desires, knowledge, personality, etc., all physical brain structures) is of no consequence. For you would not want it any other way (as I also prove in Sense and Goodness without God). Libertarian free will actually takes away the only kind of free will you would ever really want. Thus, there is no basis for anxiety over determinism. It does not take away your free will, certainly not in any sense that matters.

5. Blindsight Is Compatible with Qualia
(originally published November 12th, 2009 at 4:00 pm)

(Objection 5) A similar fallacy occurs when Alex says blindsight suggests we might have to reject the conclusion “that when you see a color you have a color experience.

Blindsight only ever occurs when certain circuit pathways in the brain have been physically severed. Since Alex can’t talk to the circuit thus isolated, he can’t claim to know it isn’t having a color experience. He is mistaking the fact that when he talks to a different
circuit, the part that builds a model of cognitive experience for decision-making (in the frontal cortex), and it reports seeing nothing, that therefore the circuit that has been severed from that one also sees nothing. That’s fallacious.

Blindsight is peculiar because it shows just how mechanical we really are. While the wiring to the frontal cortex is cut and thus the color data can’t be used in stitching together a model of what’s being experienced at any given time, the wiring to the vocabulary centers of the brain, which are in an entirely different location, remains intact. Thus, people can “name” colors they otherwise can’t “see,” but that doesn’t mean they aren’t in fact seeing them--in a part of their brain that just isn’t sending all its signals to the right places.

This should be obvious, because we already know it’s what’s going on in split-brain patients, where one half of their brain can’t see what one eye is looking at, but the other half can. So we can talk to one half of a person, and they will report a color experience, but when we talk to the other half of that same person, they report no color experience. We would not conclude from the second query that there was no color experience being had, because (in this instance) we can actually talk to the cut-off part of the brain and thus learn it is indeed having that experience. In blindsight, the cut-off part of the brain just doesn’t have the equipment to engage in a conversation with us.

Nevertheless, apart from this objection and the last, all Alex says about the errors of folk psychology is quite correct. The actual facts are quite different in cognitive science (making folk psychology often as wrong as the facts have turned out to be in cosmology and biology and everything else we’ve thought about for the last few thousand years). He just draws the wrong conclusions from those facts.

6. Beliefs and Desires Do Exist
(originally published November 12th, 2009 at 4:08 pm)

(Objection 6) Alex does this again when concluding that because folk notions of belief and sensation and desires are incorrect (which is a fact), therefore our brain “doesn’t operate on beliefs and wants, thoughts and hopes, fears and expectations. 

...which is a non sequitur. Once you define those terms with the correct cognitive science, the conclusion becomes false. Once we correctly define what “beliefs and wants, thoughts and hopes, fears and expectations” really are, in brain science terms, in other words what the things are in themselves (as computational circuits and processes in the brain) as opposed to how our brain conveniently models them in our conscious experience for ease of higher-order computing, then it is clear our brains do operate on “beliefs and wants, thoughts and hopes, fears and expectations.”

An obvious analogy is light: obviously we cannot track in cognitive experience the impact of every single vibrating photon on the cells of our eye, so our brain comes up with a convenient way to represent this data far more efficiently. It invents colors, and patterns of color arrangement (borders, fields, and so on). There are no colors, outside these models. There are only colorless photons that wiggle in different ways. But we still use the term “color” as a convenient notation for what our brain is actually reporting to us: the presence of certain photons. Hence it would be false to say our brains never make any decisions based on what colors it sees, or what photons are striking our face. When we stop our car at a red stop sign, we are seeing an actual sign that is actually “red,” in the sense that it is reflecting photons in a certain range of frequencies. Hence our brains do make decisions based on actual colors as physical facts of the real world--once we properly define what colors are. So, too, beliefs, desires, and everything else. And just as we can sometimes be wrong about colors (from false light to optical illusions to brain malfunctions), we can be wrong about our own beliefs, desires, and so on. But that does not permit the conclusion that we are always wrong. We just have to be informed and careful. Just as we have to know that a stick stuck in water is not bent, the light is merely refracted, so we have to know how our brains actually work in order to correctly interpret the data it represents in its cognitive models about such things as our desires and beliefs.

I say a great deal more about this in my Critique of Victor Reppert’s Argument from Reason, particularly in respect to the Churchlands and Eliminativism (I recommend skipping directly to the latter).

7. There Is an Enduring Self
(originally published November 12th, 2009 at 4:19 pm)

(Objection 7) Similarly, Alex errs in claiming “there is no self, soul or enduring agent, no subject of the first-person pronoun, tracking its interior life while it also tracks much of what is going on around us” based solely on the premise (and this much is entirely true) “this self cannot be the whole body, or its brain, and there is no part of either that qualifies for being the self by way of numerical-identity over time.” In other words, he says “there seems to be only one way we make sense of the person whose identity endures over time…by positing a concrete but non-spatial entity with a point of view somewhere behind the eyes and between the ears in the middle of our heads. 

...which is a fallacy of a lack of imagination. Just because it seems one way, doesn’t mean that’s the way it is. He fails to follow his own advice, not to trust the way things “seem.” For the fact is, that is not the only way to make sense of an enduring person.

First, it is an actual fact that everything we regard as “us” exists in the brain. Emotions, memories, personality traits, desires, none of those things can be physically found in our toes or our spleen. But they can be physically found in our brain. Thus, “we” really are between our ears in the middle of our heads. That’s just an accident of evolution (though perhaps a useful one: by placing our senses right next to our brains we not only greatly speed up reaction times, but we are thus led to believe “we” are located there and thus protect that part of our body more fiercely than the rest, which is, as it happens, entirely correct to do), but it’s still a fact.

Second, no one regards themselves as non-spatial, for the very reason Alex just declared: we see ourselves as having a very definite location. It is self-contradictory to say the only way to imagine persons is as things with no spatial location that have a spatial location (between the ears in the middle of our heads”). Obviously this “non-spatial” nonsense is just some archaic influence of Descartes’ twisted logic, not at all part of any real folk psychology. So Alex is already confusing folk psychology with the pompous obscurities of a rarified intellectualism most people thankfully have never been exposed to.

Third, there is a self. We’ve observed it. First, in a folk sense, we observe it directly: if you define self as self-awareness, as the coherent model of a person we directly experience right now, that not only exists, but it would be a self-contradiction to deny its existence (the only thing Descartes got right). Even if “self” existed in no other sense, it would still exist in that sense. But in the proper sense learned from cognitive science, we should define “self” as the actual thing of which this experience is a model. A real “self” is in effect the cause of that model, the source of all the data the brain uses to build that model. In turn that model then has causal effects on the self, shaping and changing it, and thus is itself a part of that very self. This is all realized in a brain, not by a “soul” in the archaic sense, but the brain is still an enduring agent. Destroy it, and you destroy the person. Sustain it, and you sustain the person. The only difference is that, unlike our fantasy of a soul, the brain can indeed be destroyed, and everyone’s has been or eventually will be destroyed. Therefore persons do not endure forever. Which is annoying. But like all annoyances in this unplanned universe, we will correct this flaw in the universe with technology eventually.

This brain, consisting of real data (real desires, memories, beliefs, personality traits, skills and reasoning abilities, etc.), generates a real model of that data (conscious experience), but the model is not us (for example, we don’t cease to exist when we sleep, all that data remains physically intact, we just stop building models of it for a while). The “subject of the first-person pronoun” is that arrangement of data in the brain. Thus, Alex is wrong to claim no such subject exists. He is also wrong about what the brain does. The brain does “track its interior life while it also tracks much of what is going on around us.” We are actually very good at keeping these things distinct: unless our brain is malfunctioning (which does happen from time to time), we know the difference between our model of what’s going on in our heads (like private thoughts, daydreaming, our memories vs. someone else’s, etc.) and our model of what’s going on outside our head, even models of what’s going on in other people’s heads. Not only can we distinguish these things, the distinctions are real ones, not imaginary. My memories, thoughts and desires are in actual fact not yours (and vice versa). It’s just that our brains track these things with models, which are by nature not completely accurate or always reliable. We invent colors to represent photons, and sometimes this handy trick misleads us. But most of the time it does not. The stop sign is there, and it is red. Likewise my desire not to crash my car or get a ticket is there and it is in between my ears (inside my brain--we can even pinpoint almost exactly where in my brain).

Fourth, all of the above entails that “we” consist of a pattern of arrangement of material, not the material itself. For that pattern could be realized in any efficient material and we’d never notice or care. We don’t have to have synapses made of proteins. We could have all the same attributes and experiences if they were made of candy, so long as that candy had the same effects when placed in some arrangement. And this is actually analogous to what’s really the case: the atoms in our brains are constantly exchanging quarks, not only with each other but the outside world as well, such that our brain from one moment to the next literally isn’t made of the same material. Yet we neither notice nor care. QED. It’s the pattern of arrangement that matters, it’s just that the only way we can realize that pattern right now is by keeping our brains intact. But it is not the enduring of the brain that matters, but the enduring of the pattern of its arrangement and behavior.

Since no atom in your brain is the same from one day to the next, there is no physical continuity except causal-historical (yesterday’s brain caused today’s brain). And to an extent that’s all there is to it: my brain is different from your brain not merely by being located in a different place (if ever they come to be located in the same place, we’ll be killed by the collision), but also by having a different causal history, my brain today is the end product of a causal chain of prior brains, none of which are your brain, while your brain has its own causal history of a comparable sort. Even if somewhere way back in the past they were the same brain (twins can’t really claim this, but we could some day duplicate brains and thus make metaphysically identical twins), they aren’t now. Thus we remain different even in that highly unusual case (it’s just in that case, once upon a time we were the same person, but we aren’t any more, by virtue of having undergone a different sequence of changes, and no longer sharing the same space and thus no longer sharing the same conscious experience).

Yes, we constantly change as persons. I am wiser, more knowledgeable, and personally in many ways different now than I was twenty years ago. I even change in many respects from hour to hour, as I experience, learn, discover, and endure new things, developing new memories, rethinking my habits and desires, changing my beliefs, and so on. You can’t escape this fact by positing a uniform enduring soul, so already the latter has no use as a theory. We already know for a fact we change, so our worldview had better account for that fact. But what makes me still the same person is not that I am identical to who I was twenty years ago, but that the person I was twenty years ago directly caused the person I am today, in a very distinct way unlike the way others have caused me to change, and that in consequence the person I was then, is still to this day a part of the person I am today. Memories of that person remain, and many other traces of them remain in the way I am now.
And that’s all a fact. Science has not undermined it in the least.

8. Brains Can Encode Meaning in Sentences
(originally published November 12th, 2009 at 4:24 pm)

(Objection 8 ) Ironically, Alex then errs the other way around, coming to the correct conclusion (“there is no point asking for the real, the true, the actual meaning of a work of art, or the meaning of an agent’s act, still less the meaning of a historical event or epoch”) from an incorrect premise: “there literally are no beliefs and desires, because the brain can’t encode information in the form of sentences” so “there literally is no such thing as linguistic meaning.

Of course, he should have noticed his own non sequitur, when he immediately says “it’s just a useful heuristic device, one with only a highly imperfect grip on what is going on in thought,” since “highly imperfect grip” entails there is some grip, and therefore he cannot claim there is “no” such thing as linguistic meaning, since he just admitted there is some. Maybe he didn’t intend the hyperbole entailed by this use of the absolute “no.” But what concerns me is another fallacy here: his inexplicable, and quite unjustified equation of “beliefs and desires” with “sentences.”

Already Alex is wrong to say “the brain can’t encode information in the form of sentences.” Were that true, we could never memorize speeches, nor retain understanding of the meaning of the words we then recited. Obviously the brain encodes information in the form of sentences. We’re actually very good at that. Indeed, superbly good, if you’ve ever seen an actress on stage, not only perfectly playing back the encoded sentences of a memorized script, but with such immediate and deep cognitive understanding that she imbues every sentence with the correct emotion and nuance, fully understanding the meaning of what she is saying and its relation to the meaning of the play as a whole. She can even improvise, if something goes awry, further demonstrating that she understands what those sentences encode (and her brain is the only organ she has that can have done this), in fact so well that she can come up with entirely new sentences that convey the same meaning.

It is certainly correct that what she has constructed the meaning to be will be an amalgamation of her own personal interpretation, the interpretation communicated to her by the director of that particular production, and to at least some extent the interpretation intended (even if minimally) by the playwright. So there is no cosmic, absolute, “true” meaning of the play’s words. But that does not mean those words have no meaning. It doesn’t even mean the playwright intended no specific meaning. He may indeed be chagrined at the new meaning given his sentences by a particular actress and director, knowing full well he meant something else. Or, as happens just as often, as an artist he may be entirely delighted at how creatively a new meaning could be imbued upon his words beyond what even he imagined. But none of this entails the conclusion that sentences have no meaning or that brains can’t encode information in the form of sentences.

So Alex is entirely wrong even on that count. But worse is the mistake of thinking that beliefs and desires are sentences. Sentences are just ways of communicating what beliefs and desires are. They are not the beliefs and desires themselves. I discuss the physical nature of both in my book (Sense and Goodness without God), citing the applicable science. But very briefly, a desire is a feeling of discontent alleviated by the effects desired, and the feeling and its cause (and the cause of its abatement) are all physical facts of the brain. We can speak or write sentences about those physical facts, even sum them up with the word “desire,” but let’s not confuse the thing itself with the means of its description. Likewise, a belief is a feeling of confidence in a predictive model of the world (or, just as often, of ourselves). Varying degrees of confidence can be felt, hence beliefs exist in varying strengths. But the feeling, and the model causing that feeling, are physical facts of the brain. We can put into words what that model is, and how confident we are in it, but again, let’s not confuse the thing itself with the means of its description.

It is thus simply false to say, as Alex did, that “there literally are no beliefs and desires.” 

(for my final Objection 9 see previous post: Rosenberg on History)


Ben said...

Since when is there fairness on the internetz?


Pikemann Urge said...

Richard: "What people might find unnerving is that those are the only purposes there are, ones we create, and therefore we have no “higher purpose”"

FWIW, the Indian mystic Osho would totally agree with you (but using slightly different words). And I think he is right (and therefore you are). He says that meaning must be created - it does not exist by defaul. And that purpose is artificial. Purpose is for machines, like hammers. How demeaning it is for humans to talk of their purpose!

So he distinguishes between 'meaning' and 'purpose'. Anyway. I thought that would be of interest to some readers.

The Science Pundit said...

Third, there is a self. We’ve observed it. First, in a folk sense, we observe it directly: if you define self as self-awareness, as the coherent model of a person we directly experience right now, that not only exists, but it would be a self-contradiction to deny its existence (the only thing Descartes got right).

I couldn't agree more! This was another excellent post Richard! I really enjoyed it. I might have more to say after reading it again later, but until then Cheers!

Lippard said...

There are some interesting experiments that apply Libet-like scenarios to actions suggested under hypnosis, which is known for its characteristic perception of involuntariness, and use fMRI to compare cases.

A set of experiments by Blakemore used an arm movement task which compared subject under hypnosis to subjects whose arm was actually moved for them (who were genuinely passive and not acting, consciously or unconsciously, to move their arms) to subjects who consciously moved their own arms. The conscious and hypnosis conditions both showed the same left brain activation for the right arm movement (vs. the passive case, which showed no such activation), but both the passive case and hypnosis conditions showed activation in the cerebellum and parietal cortex associated with feelings of passivity and external agency. The authors suggest that activation could mean that in the hypnosis case, the subject didn't form a "forward model" of the movement (e.g., as a result of a cognitive strategy such as redirection of attention) or interfered with normal suppression of feedback information from the arm (which occurs for conscious movement).

That's in Oakley & Halligan, "Hypnotic suggestion and cognitive neuroscience," Trends in Cognitive Sciences 13, no. 6 (2009): 234-270.

There are also some good discussions of Libet in Baer et al., _Are We Free? Psychology and Free Will_, 2008, Oxford Univ. Press, which includes chapters by Shaun Nichols (Univ. of Arizona philosopher), Daniel Dennett, John Kihlstrom (former Univ. of Arizona psychologist, now at Berkeley), Steven Pinker, Daniel Wegner, and others.

Richard Carrier said...

Sorry, Jim, I don't see the connection between those studies and anything I said. Can you connect the dots for me?

GarageDragon said...

Sorry if this is pedantic, but I have seen so many philosophers make this same error. Concerning split-brain patients, you write:

"one half of their brain can’t see what one eye is looking at, but the other half can"

This is correct: The right side of the brain processes the left visual field.

This picture may help: