Sam Harris’ Argument Against the Afterlife

by Luke Muehlhauser on March 15, 2011 in Video

Here, Sam Harris says:

Science is not in principle committed to the idea that there’s no afterlife or that the mind is identical to the brain…

If it’s true that consciousness is being run like software on the brain and can – by virtue of ectoplasm or something else we don’t understand – be dissociated from the brain at death, that would be part of our growing scientific understanding of the world if we discover it…

But there are very good reasons to think it’s not true. We know this from 150 years of neurology where you damage areas of the brain, and faculties are lost… You can cease to recognize faces, you can cease to know the names of animals but you still know the names of tools…

What we’re being asked to consider is that you damage one part of the brain, and something about the mind and subjectivity is lost, you damage another and yet more is lost, [but] you damage the whole thing at death, we can rise off the brain with all our faculties in tact, recognizing grandma and speaking English!

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{ 67 comments… read them below or add one }

Martin March 15, 2011 at 11:24 am

We know this from 150 years of neurology where you damage areas of the brain, and faculties are lost

Despite all the problems dualism has against it, materialism also has its share of problems: qualia, intentionality, indivisibility, modal imagination.

Another interesting argument I picked up from Ed Feser; not sure what to make of it: Universals can only be instantiated by taking on their imperfect physical form, but the human mind can actually grasp universals themselves; if the mind were merely material, then universals would show up as (say) a literal physical triangle in the brain, rather than the Platonic concept of triangularity.

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Martin March 15, 2011 at 11:34 am

Oh, and I should also add that Cartesian dualism is not a prerequisite for afterlife. Peter van Inwagen is a theistic philosopher who is also a materialist, and I think many more are as well. I think their beliefs are more in line with what the Bible actually suggests: a general resurrection at the end of time; none of this disembodied Heaven stuff.

Not to mention, for non-theists, there is always the slim possibility that technology of the year 1,000,000,000,000 A.D. might be so advanced that they will have the ability to do godlike things, such as resurrect people from the past. And if so, then we will all find out instantly when we die.

And ALSO for non-theists, there is The Atheist Afterlife: The odds of an afterlife – Reasonable. The odds of meeting God there – Nil by David Staume. Pure speculation no doubt, but sounds like it might be an interesting read nonetheless.

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PDH March 15, 2011 at 11:45 am

There are conceptions of the afterlife (both theistic and atheistic) that don’t rely on dualism, agreed. I think it was clear that Harris wasn’t referring to those but perhaps he should have been more explicit (I haven’t followed the link yet, admittedly).

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Paul March 15, 2011 at 11:50 am

Not that there is a shred of evidence for the following, but since Harris’ scenario is purely conceptual:

Consciousness itself resides on the install disk for the software. It gets installed onto the brain (hard drive) at birth. If the hard drive gets damaged, the software doesn’t run correctly. When we die, the consciousness runs off the install disk itself on a perfect computer.

Oops, one problem: the software on the hard drive modifies itself. I don’t see a way to get those modifications back onto the install disk.

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g March 15, 2011 at 12:14 pm

I think Feser’s argument is hopeless. How does he (purport to) know that what’s in the human mind isn’t *material structures that correspond somehow to universals*? Why should actual physical triangles be the only alternative to Magical Universal Ideal Platonic Triangles? Is there anything triangle-related that our minds do that isn’t explicable in terms of (say) lots of (material inscriptions of) sentences about triangles and related topics, and (material representations of) pictures of triangles?

Computers, which surely are purely material if anything is, are capable of doing all sorts of things that we’d describe in terms of universals. They can prove that numbers are prime, factorize polynomials, and (yes) find out all sorts of things about triangles. They’re not as good at the hardest such things as human mathematicians, by a long way, but I don’t see how Feser can argue that human beings “grasp universals themselves” but that suitably programmed computers don’t.

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Martin March 15, 2011 at 12:31 pm

I don’t see how Feser can argue that human beings “grasp universals themselves” but that suitably programmed computers don’t.

I’m a complete amateur on this philosophy of mind stuff, but I think the reason is that computers do not in fact grasp universals themselves. All computers do is send electrons back and forth over pieces of metal and silicon, and display bright points from an electron gun on a screen. It is only us humans who give all this stuff meaning.

That’s where the argument from intentionality comes in, as well. How can a particle be “about” or “refer to” another particle?

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Rufus March 15, 2011 at 12:46 pm

Despite all the problems dualism has against it, materialism also has its share of problems: qualia, intentionality, indivisibility, modal imagination.

Agreed. I would also add that physicalists, eliminativists, and reductive materialists in general have no plausible account for a principle of individuation for biological organisms — let alone human beings. I am not sure if that is what you meant by “indivisibility”, but perhaps you were making a similar point.

What does it mean for a reductive materialist to say, “I believe in reductive materialism.” What is the referent to which “I” refers? Is “I” shorthand for a certain cloud of sub-atomic particles that happen to usually be in close proximity to one another over a period of time? How many particles can change before the individual ceases to exist? Is it at the point of death, memory loss, or when more than 50% of the particles have been changed? Is it merely the point at which the particle formation behaves as if it is individuated? What would it mean to “behave as if it is individuated”?

After the death of his wife, C. S. Lewis remarked, “If Helen ‘is not’, then she never was. I mistook a cloud of atoms for a person” (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/questionofgod/ownwords/grief.html).

The problem is even worse than that. As Lewis goes on to say, there would be no people at all were this true. We are not just deceived about those we love, we are deceived about ourselves, fundamentally. What would it mean that a cloud of sub-atomic particles can be fooled into thinking “I” when there is no “I”. But who is being hoodwinked? How strange to think that a cloud of sub-atomic particles could be deceived like that. Silly atoms.

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PDH March 15, 2011 at 1:15 pm

Rufus wrote,

Agreed.I would also add that physicalists, eliminativists, and reductive materialists in general have no plausible account for a principle of individuation for biological organisms — let alone human beings.I am not sure if that is what you meant by “indivisibility”, but perhaps you were making a similar point.What does it mean for a reductive materialist to say, “I believe in reductive materialism.”What is the referent to which “I” refers?Is “I” shorthand for a certain cloud of sub-atomic particles that happen to usually be in close proximity to one another over a period of time?How many particles can change before the individual ceases to exist? Is it at the point of death, memory loss, or when more than 50% of the particles have been changed?Is it merely the point at which the particle formation behaves as if it is individuated?What would it mean to “behave as if it is individuated”?After the death of his wife, C. S. Lewis remarked, “If Helen ‘is not’, then she never was.I mistook a cloud of atoms for a person” (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/questionofgod/ownwords/grief.html).
The problem is even worse than that.As Lewis goes on to say, there would be no people at all were this true.We are not just deceived about those we love, we are deceived about ourselves, fundamentally.What would it mean that a cloud of sub-atomic particles can be fooled into thinking “I” when there is no “I”.But who is being hoodwinked? How strange to think that a cloud of sub-atomic particles could be deceived like that.Silly atoms.  

Imagine a grid with say 26×26 squares. Along the top the columns are labelled A, B,C…Z and down the side, the rows are labelled 1,2,3…26. You could fill in the cells in such a way as to draw a smiley face with them. Perhaps cell D4 is filled and D5 is filled but D6 is not and so on. We could describe the entire grid at any given time by just listing which cells were ‘switched on’ and which were not.

So at t=0, you’ve got a smiley face.

Then shift every cell to the right by 1 cell. So now, instead of D4 and D5, it’s E4 and E5. At t=1, it’s not the same cells any more but it’s still recognisably the same smiley face.

Imagine a much more complicated 4 dimensional grid with countless trillions of cells, in which highly sophisticated entities exist with memories, feelings, thoughts and so forth. You could do the same thing with them. They wouldn’t have the same (or any) atoms because they’re actually composed of a pattern of cells. But the pattern of cells is the same. They might not even be aware that they had moved because their brain states (or the equivalent) would be functionally identical.

The specific bunch of cells is irrelevant to their identity.

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Reginald Selkirk March 15, 2011 at 1:26 pm

All computers do is send electrons back and forth over pieces of metal and silicon, and display bright points from an electron gun on a screen. It is only us humans who give all this stuff meaning.

All human brains do is send neurotransmitters across synapses and send action potentials down axons. It is only computers which give this stuff meaning.

Describing something on the mechanistic level does not make the other levels go away. You are a meat bigot.
They’re Made Out of Meat

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Reginald Selkirk March 15, 2011 at 1:30 pm

The problem is even worse than that. As Lewis goes on to say, there would be no people at all were this true.

Bollocks. This is an old question in philosophy. Does a ship not exist because we can replace parts of it from time to time? Does a song not exist because different particles of air are compressed and decompressed every time it is sung? This is kindergarten-level sophistry.

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Martin March 15, 2011 at 1:33 pm

PDH,

I think your example perfectly illustrates the problem, though. A bunch of pixels arranged in the form of a smiley face is only a smiley face because we agree beforehand that it is so. If we didn’t agree beforehand, then it would indeed just be a cloud of pixels and nothing more.

But this agreement is itself difficult to account for with materialism. Take away us as observers, and your grid seems like it would still just consist of clouds of particles, no matter how complicated they are. How does making them more complicated give rise to “memories, feelings, thoughts and so forth”?

Therein lies the problem.

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Martin March 15, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Describing something on the mechanistic level does not make the other levels go away.

If you speak of levels, then it seems you are implicitly a property dualist at least. Following in the footsteps of David Chalmers, perhaps?

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Martin March 15, 2011 at 1:36 pm

Does a song not exist because different particles of air are compressed and decompressed every time it is sung?

“All” a song is is compressed air particles in a particular pattern, on the materialist view. It takes intentionality for it to be any more than that. How does intentionality arise out of materialism?

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cl March 15, 2011 at 1:43 pm

[RANT]

**Luke, as a person of influence, you should be mocked for telling your readers the mind/brain question is a settled issue.**

Dr. Marcel Brass has already advised you against over-confidence in the free will issue, and this is exactly the type of attitude that stifles science, whether enforced by the Church because they think the Bible says so, or promulgated by an atheist because they think something is a settled issue. On mind/brain, I’ve seen lots of coy “analogies” using lightning and Zeus, or mere pointing of readers to someone else’s opinion on the matter, but I don’t recall a single post where you independently investigate any evidence or documented observations that directly challenge your claim. Oh yeah, that’s right… there isn’t any evidence or body of observations that challenges your belief! Duh cl! I forgot, this is one of those “settled issues” you were talking about.

Yet, our best evidence suggests an immaterial foundation underlying the universe, of which brains are a part of. Whether you call it “nothing” or “spirit” or “fundamental consciousness” or “Brahman” or “quantum vacuum fluctuation,” we are still dealing with something that is apparently not turtles all the way down, and we’ve got a growing body of data challenging purely materialist accounts of mind. Challenge your newfound belief, or at least give intelligent individuals with differing beliefs the credit they deserve, lest you come across as having not yet fully escaped the staunch religious mentality that only self-respects.

[/RANT]

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cl March 15, 2011 at 1:51 pm

At any rate, no offense to Harris, but this is hardly an argument at all.

But there are very good reasons to think it’s not true.

Uh, I guess… if one simply wishes to attack a dualism without neurological correlates to consciousness by cherrypicking a single observation to make their point. I mean, come on: “very good reasons?” There’s only one reason given. Sure, taken in isolation and without consideration of challenging lines of evidence and/or reasoning, one can rest on the assumption that neurological correlates to consciousness are proof positive because we would expect them if a purely materialist account of mind were true. However, recall that a sun progressing across the daytime sky is also exactly what we would expect if geocentrism were true, so we might wish to acquire a little more than a semblance of corroboration for our own pet theory before we get too confident, IMHO.

What we’re being asked to consider is that you damage one part of the brain, and something about the mind and subjectivity is lost, you damage another and yet more is lost, [but] you damage the whole thing at death, we can rise off the brain with all our faculties in tact, recognizing grandma and speaking English!

Good grief. Harris reaches with outstretched arms to an argument from personal incredulity here. Why is this so anathema to “reason” if not for the presumption of reductionist, materialist, metaphysical naturalism that has literally driven practically all of post-Newton science? Why are we so reluctant to loosen our white-knuckle grip on purely Newtonian concepts of mind, when in fact the best science currently available falsifies purely Newtonian concepts of matter?

Let go true believers! If not, at least loosen your grip enough to give competing hypotheses a fair hearing. Good science takes time.

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drj March 15, 2011 at 1:55 pm

“All” a song is is compressed air particles in a particular pattern, on the materialist view. It takes intentionality for it to be any more than that. How does intentionality arise out of materialism?  

I don’t think we are quite sure yet.

But aside from that, how does intentionality arise on dualism? Why is intent easier to explain by way of some ethereal wispy stuff residing in another dimension, than it is with atoms and molecules residing in this one? Dualists can’t begin to tell us.

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Rufus March 15, 2011 at 1:58 pm

They wouldn’t have the same (or any) atoms because they’re actually composed of a pattern of cells. But the pattern of cells is the same. They might not even be aware that they had moved because their brain states (or the equivalent) would be functionally identical.
The specific bunch of cells is irrelevant to their identity.  

Thank you for the analogy. However, it is not clear to me that an analogy will help us here. You are appealing to “functional identity” as a way to run around the problem of individuation by saying that the “specific bunch” is irrelevant. However, my experience of being an individual would be nothing but a mere illusion perpetrated by the functionings of a brain at t=0.

The problem is not one of identity, but of individuation. I can admit of functional similarities, but this is woefully inadequate as a criterion of individuation. Many counterexamples could be mounted in which two things are functionally identical, but not individuated.

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Caedus March 15, 2011 at 2:06 pm

“Why are we so reluctant to loosen our white-knuckle grip on purely Newtonian concepts of mind, when in fact the best science currently available falsifies purely Newtonian concepts of matter? ”

We’re all waiting with baited breath for you to provide this best science…

Or even provide a single data point in support of the “immaterial mind”. Have you used your mind outside of your brain today? Ever? Then one wonders why we should proceed forth with any assumption other than that of the strictly materialist.

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Reginald Selkirk March 15, 2011 at 2:09 pm

If you speak of levels, then it seems you are implicitly a property dualist at least. Following in the footsteps of David Chalmers, perhaps?

I literally don’t know what you are talking about. I consider myself to be a naturalist/materialist, but I don’t have a problem talking about “levels.” The branches of a tree, for example, might be considered as branches, as a collection of cells, or as collections of molecules, atoms, quarks, and so on. We could refer to branches as collections of quarks, but it hardly seems the most clear and concise way to deal with them, depending of course on the question being asked.

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Martin March 15, 2011 at 2:18 pm

I don’t have a problem talking about “levels.”

It seems like you are implicitly hinting at the idea of supervenience or emergence or something like that. Which would be that physical particles arranged in a certain way give rise to phenomenon that are greater than the sum of the parts. Which would be a form of property dualism. See here: http://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_dualism.html

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Martin March 15, 2011 at 2:20 pm

Caedus ,

Or even provide a single data point in support of the “immaterial mind”.

I did above:

Qualia: The privacy of experience. Particles are public, experience is not. How can particles be private?

Intentionality: Something is a representation of, or a referent to, something besides itself. How can a collection of particles, no matter how complicated, be “about” another collection of particles?

Indivisibility: The mind cannot be broken down into pieces, like physical matter can. Perhaps an immortality argument? If something cannot be broken into constituent parts, then how can it be destroyed?

Modal Imagination: If x = y, then anything true of x is true of y. So if mind m equals electrical activity in the brain e, then anything true of m should be equally true of e. However, “can exist without e” is conceivably true of m but not of e.

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cl March 15, 2011 at 2:39 pm

Caedus,

We’re all waiting with baited breath for you to provide this best science [that falsifies purely Newtonian concepts of matter]…

My mistake, I assumed most of Luke’s readership was familiar with the trajectory of physics over the last 100 years.

Or even provide a single data point in support of the “immaterial mind”.

Your education is your own responsibility. Next time at least visit my blog before making assumptions.

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Furcas March 15, 2011 at 3:11 pm

Qualia: The privacy of experience. Particles are public, experience is not. How can particles be private?

If experience 1 corresponds to a configuration of particles A, then obviously if configurations of particles B, C, and D are different from configuration A, they can’t be experience 1.

Intentionality: Something is a representation of, or a referent to, something besides itself. How can a collection of particles, no matter how complicated, be “about” another collection of particles?

By being arranged in a pattern that is isomorphic to something else.

Indivisibility: The mind cannot be broken down into pieces, like physical matter can. Perhaps an immortality argument? If something cannot be broken into constituent parts, then how can it be destroyed?

Huh? The mind can be broken down into pieces as much as a car can. Remove a part of the brain and the mind will lose a part of its functions, or just stop working entirely. Remove a part of a car and the same will happen.

Modal Imagination: If x = y, then anything true of x is true of y. So if mind m equals electrical activity in the brain e, then anything true of m should be equally true of e. However, “can exist without e” is conceivably true of m but not of e.

The mind doesn’t equal electrical activity in the brain, it equals a pattern of activity in the brain (or a pattern of patterns, actually, since the pattern changes over time). So no, the mind can’t exist without something that implements the pattern that the mind is, although that something could conceivably be something other than electrical activity.

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Luke Muehlhauser March 15, 2011 at 3:12 pm

cl,

Suit yourself, but I am going to win this bet. :)

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Martin March 15, 2011 at 3:28 pm

If experience 1 corresponds to a configuration of particles A, then obviously if configurations of particles B, C, and D are different from configuration A, they can’t be experience 1.

But with qualia, you have private experience. Explain how you get private experience that no one else has access to from configurations of particles. Explain how “what it’s like to be” arises from configurations of particles.

By being arranged in a pattern that is isomorphic to something else.

So you have two similar sets of particles. Explain how the first set “refers to” or “points beyond” itself to another set of particles.

Remove a part of the brain and the mind will lose a part of its functions, or just stop working entirely.

That’s an argument about mind/brain correlation. But the mind itself can’t be divided into a bunch of little yous, or little pieces of you. Your mind either exists, or it doesn’t.

The mind doesn’t equal electrical activity in the brain, it equals a pattern of activity in the brain (or a pattern of patterns, actually, since the pattern changes over time). So no, the mind can’t exist without something that implements the pattern that the mind is

This is an argument from modal conceivability, not physical possibility.

The same argument can be applied to what you just said:

Mind = M
Pattern of Patterns of Electrical Activity on the Brain = P

If M = P, then whatever is true of M is also true of P.

“Can conceivably exist without P” is true of M but not true of P. All that’s needed is logical possibility, not physical possibility. Can M logically exist without P? Yes. You can easily imagine yourself walking around with a dead and quiet brain in your head. Or even an empty head.

Can P logically exist without P? No. It’s nonsensical. You can’t have P and not-P.

So:

1. If M and P are identical, then whatever is true of M is true of P, and vice versa
2. There is something true of M that is not true of P (as illustrated above)
3. Therefore, M and P are not identical.

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Furcas March 15, 2011 at 4:23 pm

But with qualia, you have private experience. Explain how you get private experience that no one else has access to from configurations of particles.

I already did. If the configuration of particles is the experience, then a different person who is a different configuration of particles cannot have/be the same experience, because if he did he would be the same configuration of particles as the first person, and thus he would be the first person, not a different one.

If A !=B, asking why B cannot equal A is just silly, isn’t it?

Explain how “what it’s like to be” arises from configurations of particles.

I can’t, but that’s all right. No one could explain how “Life” arises from configurations of particles a few centuries ago, either. That this is an unsolved problem doesn’t mean it’s an unsolvable one, and it certainly doesn’t mean that calling what-it’s-like-to-be-ness a fundamental property of the universe (or whatever it is that you do to hide the problem under the carpet) is an explanation.

So you have two similar sets of particles. Explain how the first set “refers to” or “points beyond” itself to another set of particles.

First, in the same way that a map refers to a territory. We say that a map refers to a territory because it’s similar to the territory.

Second, by being caused by the other pattern of particles, and by causing thoughts and actions and other beliefs.

That’s an argument about mind/brain correlation. But the mind itself can’t be divided into a bunch of little yous, or little pieces of you. Your mind either exists, or it doesn’t.

That’s true of cars too, and of everything else. You can’t divide a car into a bunch of little cars, and if you take it apart it stops existing. So what?

“Can conceivably exist without P” is true of M but not true of P. All that’s needed is logical possibility, not physical possibility. Can M logically exist without P? Yes. You can easily imagine yourself walking around with a dead and quiet brain in your head. Or even an empty head.

Actually, I can’t. I can imagine what used to be my body moving, of course, but imagining that my brain (or something else that does what my brain does) isn’t there means imagining that I’m not there.

Maybe you can imagine it, but that we can imagine something doesn’t mean it’s logically possible. It’s not like imagining something means we’ve computed every implication of what we’re imagining to make sure there’s no logical contradiction involved. There are probably some people out there who can imagine a car without an engine (or something else that transforms energy) moving from Chicago to New York. The only conclusion we can draw from this fact is that those people are badly confused.

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JS Allen March 15, 2011 at 4:48 pm

The “made out of meat” skit is great! I’ll be using the “meat chauvinist” slander in the future. Previously, my best approximation of that sort of bigot was “Ugly Bags of Mostly Water“.

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Mike March 15, 2011 at 5:10 pm

I like how cl criticizes Harris for providing “only” an exceptionally precise demonstration of his ideas, and then tries to slither away when someone points out that he, himself, is trying to pass off empty assertions as anything other than laughable.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that he believes in invisible bodies of evidence…

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Duke York March 15, 2011 at 5:16 pm

Qualia: The privacy of experience. Particles are public, experience is not. How can particles be private?

Intentionality: Something is a representation of, or a referent to, something besides itself. How can a collection of particles, no matter how complicated, be “about” another collection of particles?

Something I’ve always meant to ask…

How does dualism explain either of these?

If the “mind” has some component that is non-material, why is it tied so directly to one particular brain? Why doesn’t it go flitting around like a ping-pong ball to various different skulls?

And how, exactly, does a non-material mind (or the ideas therein, if ideas are “inside” the non-material mind) refer to physical objects?

When people make these arguments, it seems to me they’re cherry-picking, taking the limits of neuroscience, where we don’t have concrete answers, and saying “Because we don’t know, non-material”. You haven’t solved the problem — you’ve just asserted your magic boojum is a solution, without showing the work.

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Rufus March 15, 2011 at 5:34 pm

Something I’ve always meant to ask…How does dualism explain either of these?If the “mind” has some component that is non-material, why is it tied so directly to one particular brain? Why doesn’t it go flitting around like a ping-pong ball to various different skulls?And how, exactly, does a non-material mind (or the ideas therein, if ideas are “inside” the non-material mind) refer to physical objects?
When people make these arguments, it seems to me they’re cherry-picking, taking the limits of neuroscience, where we don’t have concrete answers, and saying “Because we don’t know, non-material”. You haven’t solved the problem — you’ve just asserted your magic boojum is a solution, without showing the work.  

Duke York,

I thought the point was that the mind/body problem is a settled matter. I cannot speak for Martin, but I think there are many problems with dualism as well as with reductive materialism. The objections that Martin raises with qualia, intentionality, indivisibility, and modal imagination are difficulties. I think my issue with individuation is a further difficulty. But are we obligated to put forth an argument in its place? If you find problems with my theory that God created ex nihilo the universe, should I obligate you to provide an alternative? No. We can point out problems with theories without being committed to an alternative.

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Martin March 15, 2011 at 6:31 pm

If the configuration of particles is the experience, then a different person who is a different configuration of particles cannot have/be the same experience

The point is: privacy. Particles are observable, but private experience is not except by the party doing the experiencing. Watching neuronal firing patterns and seeing the brain of the person having the experience are all nice, but none of them are actually having the experience itself, which is only available to the individual having them. See Thomas Nagel’s “What is it like to be a bat?”: http://organizations.utep.edu/Portals/1475/nagel_bat.pdf

And also the IEP here: http://www.iep.utm.edu/dualism/#SH4a

First, in the same way that a map refers to a territory. We say that a map refers to a territory because it’s similar to the territory.

A map is a collection of particles. A territory is a much larger collection of particles. The fact that some of the particles are arranged similarly to the land is an interesting case of twins, but the one does not refer to the other.

Second, by being caused by the other pattern of particles, and by causing thoughts and actions and other beliefs.

But thoughts actions and beliefs are intentionality. So you can’t answer how intentionality happens on a materialist view by saying “with intentionality.” That’s the whole phenomenon in question.

See the IEP here: http://www.iep.utm.edu/dualism/#SH4b

That’s true of cars too, and of everything else. You can’t divide a car into a bunch of little cars, and if you take it apart it stops existing. So what?

Here: http://www.iep.utm.edu/dualism/#SH3a

Actually, I can’t.

The point is that there is a logical contradiction in P and not-P, but no contradiction in M and P.

Here’s more: http://www.iep.utm.edu/dualism/#SH3d

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Alex Petrov March 15, 2011 at 6:34 pm

Take away us as observers, and your grid seems like it would still just consist of clouds of particles, no matter how complicated they are. How does making them more complicated give rise to “memories, feelings, thoughts and so forth”?  

Take away a function that is sent input, and all you have is meaningless input. If you have data and nothing to analyze it with, then all you have is data. Us human machines have the functions necessary to take various input and then translate it into meaningful output. It is exceptionally more complicated and capable than anything we’ve created, but I do not think it requires any special, as-of-yet unobserved hardware.

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cl March 15, 2011 at 6:42 pm

Mike,

I like how cl criticizes Harris for providing “only” an exceptionally precise demonstration of his ideas,

Harris said reasons. He provided a reason, one that only has relevance for dualism without neural correlates to consciousness. This is about as close to attacking straw as you can get.

…then tries to slither away when someone points out that he, himself, is trying to pass off empty assertions as anything other than laughable.

Empty assertions my left foot. Like I said, your guys’ education is your own responsibility, not mine.

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Mike March 15, 2011 at 7:17 pm

What, exactly, do you know of our education? You were asked for A SINGLE EXAMPLE of all your “best evidence” to prove that your claims aren’t merely obfuscation, and what do we get? Pure Ad hom, nothing else. We only wish for you to enlighten us with your superior education, Oh Great and Wise One.

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Rufus March 15, 2011 at 7:19 pm

It is exceptionally more complicated and capable than anything we’ve created, but I do not think it requires any special, as-of-yet unobserved hardware.  

The point is that there are no criteria for individuating this input/output grid. The more fundamental parts which supposedly comprises it, they can be individuated. Each particle possesses its own functions and properties which manifest in different ways when brought near other particles with other functions and properties. But why should a cloud of particles or a grid of cells be taken as a unity? They function in proximity to one another? So what! Relations change.

In front of you is a computer, right (or maybe a smart phone)? We call it a computer, but is it anything more than pieces of plastic, metal, silicon, etc. in a certain configuration. Where is the computer? Isn’t the word “computer” nothing more than a convenient short-hand for a cloud of particles configured in a certain way. Each elemental particle plays its part, like a symphony. This bit of gold, that bit of carbon… each exhibiting its own property. There is no computer. There is my subjective experience of a cloud of particles, each playing their part. The problem is, my subjective experience suddenly isn’t “mine” if I am nothing more than a collection atoms — carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen all playing their parts. They buzz about, some are lost, others gained. From this, where does the organic individual emerge? The organic individual is an impression given by trillions and trillions of particles, an impression of unity. But in what way is this impression true? What unity corresponds to my impression of unity? The bullet presents itself for biting. If I were to accept reductive materialism, I would have to accept my individuality as a mere illusion. I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to grasp how it is that I have been fooled into thinking that I am an I. I won’t bite. I want a better theory, one that makes sense of my phenomenal experience of myself as an individuated unity. Besides, what’s the point of arguing with a dust-cloud?

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drj March 15, 2011 at 7:54 pm

If I were to accept reductive materialism, I would have to accept my individuality as a mere illusion. I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to grasp how it is that I have been fooled into thinking that I am an I.

Our brains fool us in a number *really* surprising ways. I think your confidence in your brain is a little misplaced here.

What do you make of the case of the split brain patient whose right brain was theist, and whose left brain was atheist? Two seperate “I”‘s inhabiting one brain, technically. You can read a little (and watch the video) here:

http://livingasariver.com/elements/consciousness/split-brain-with-one-half-atheist-and-one-half-theist

This example, as well as many others in Ramachandran’s book “The Phantom’s of the Brain” do somewhat point to the conclusion that our sense of “I” is illusory and completely dependent upon the relationships of many distinct parts of our brains operating somewhat independently. And there is some experimental proof that these parts can be carved up in certain ways, and new “I”‘s can be created.

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Duke York March 15, 2011 at 8:03 pm

Intentionality: Something is a representation of, or a referent to, something besides itself. How can a collection of particles, no matter how complicated, be “about” another collection of particles?

The way to look at this is that “aboutness” isn’t a strict dichotomy. That is, things aren’t either “about” or “not about” something. There is rather, a smooth spectrum form complete non-intentionality to fully human intentionality.

Consider a single-cell organism that swims upward when it senses light and sinks in the dark. Now, I’d never say this behavior is “about” light, but it’s more like being “about” light then a cell that doesn’t react to light at all.

Now compound this, where you have neurons that sense light relating to neurons that trigger memories and neurons that encode words (and on and on) and you have something (the human mind, as formed in the brain) that functions exactly like it’s about light.

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drj March 15, 2011 at 8:05 pm

And again, I just have to ask:

How does some ethereal immaterial substrate solve the problem of “individuation” in a way that atoms and molecules can’t?

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cl March 15, 2011 at 8:37 pm

Mike,

You were asked for A SINGLE EXAMPLE of all your “best evidence” to prove that your claims aren’t merely obfuscation, and what do we get? Pure Ad hom, nothing else.

False. I gave the answer: the trajectory of physics over the last 100 years. I also told Caedus where that which was requested [data points in favor of material consciousness] can be found. See what you want to see.

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Rufus March 15, 2011 at 8:38 pm

And again, I just have to ask:How does some ethereal immaterial substrate solve the problem of “individuation” in a way that atoms and molecules can’t?  

Oh, I never said that it did, did I. Or perhaps my right brain wrote that somewhere when my left brain was not looking. I kind of feel like an atheist who has to answer for why he’s a communist. Does rejecting reductive materialism land me in the position of defending the existence of ether?

I was not aware of this case, thank you for bringing it to my attention. I am really not sure what conscious states can be inferred the inconsistencies between a person pointing v. speaking answers. It is interesting that Ramachandran inferred humor when the patient’s right brain identified itself as a woman. Perhaps his right brain is struggling with it’s gender. Who knows? My own reaction is that carving out these illusory I’s and then individuating them runs hard up against the problem other minds. I will grant that there certainly is a connection between mind and body, I would never deny it. If you cut a brain in half, I suspect the resulting behavior might be unusual and even hard to explain. Heck, it is hard enough to explain the behavior of people with brains fully intact. Admittedly, I have not studied many cases of split-brain, but it is doubtful to me that any scientist has devised experiments which warrant the leap that two I’s inhabit one brain. After all, if it is illusory to say one “I” in habits one brain, then it is just as illusory to say two I’s inhabit a split brain. In other words, if reductive materialism is true, then it is false that cutting the brain can individuate new I’s. It can only lead to the illusory impression that there are new I’s. So we are either left with some sort of bizarre panpsychism or with a real melon scratcher. I would not be so hasty as to cast off my individuality in light of some experiments.

Are you agreeing with me that, given reductive materialism, I’s are illusory?

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Rufus March 15, 2011 at 9:03 pm

I think your confidence in your brain is a little misplaced here.

See how easily our language allows us to individuate. It really is amazing.

It is not confidence in my brain that is preventing me from accepting this conclusion. It is the other untoward consequences that I think ultimately press this position into self-defeat. In particular, I find the reliability of our knowledge to be utterly undermined. If the brain can pull such an elaborate hoax on my non-existent self, then why should this particular cloud of sub-atomic particles configure itself such that this illusory “I” has knowledge of any kind. This particle cloud doesn’t even understand what it would mean for an illusory “I” to possess knowledge. This particle cloud would land in such a deep skepticism, until it realized that scientific knowledge could not be possessed by any individuated sub-atomic particle. Not one bit of knowledge is to be found within the cloud, just illusions of “having knowledge” and illusions that “beliefs are justified by empirical observations, Pop-Culture science books, and Youtube videos “.

Furthermore, I am not really sure what ethical obligations these clouds of atoms would have towards preserving certain configurations and not others. But, never fear, our friendly reductive materialists are also all humanists, even though humans cannot be individuated and are an illusory category of an illusory mind.

It is not faith in my brain, it is the self-defeating skepticism that would creep in.

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David March 15, 2011 at 9:34 pm

That it be more *convenient* to talk about the tree or the branch than it’s quarks, attaching labels to higher level patterns, only implies anything like dualism if you assert that there is emergent behavior that could not *in principle* be described as the interaction of many, many quarks. Even we reductionists need to navigate a world with senses that do not perceive the lowest levels directly, and without the computational power necessary to reason about that much data. Applying labels to patterns the world at the level we perceive makes sense, without needing those patterns to correspond to anything that can be clearly delineated at lower levels or even necessarily clearly defined.

A lot of useful labels that are very important to us don’t necessarily correspond to anything intrinsically special, and some find this distressing. I don’t know whether you would consider them therefore to be “illusory” – we would have to define “illusory” more clearly. “Person” is obviously fuzzy – we encounter this in debates over boundaries (abortion, end of life). “I” is definitely fuzzy – consider the whole notion of “self control.” I would speculate that “I” is a useful abstraction (when applied to intention, rather than more general bodily issues like “I am hungry”) primarily because it is the abstraction others will be making about us. It is illusory if you are looking for a singular “self” driving the rest.

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Rufus March 15, 2011 at 10:00 pm

A lot of useful labels that are very important to us don’t necessarily correspond to anything intrinsically special, and some find this distressing. I don’t know whether you would consider them therefore to be “illusory” – we would have to define “illusory” more clearly.

I agree that a good definition of illusory is needed. As I have said, I am not really sure what it would mean for sub-atomic particles to give rise to an illusion of self, so the whole notion is problematic for me too. I typically understand illusions as phenomena that lead one to assume a false belief. Thus, illusions are related to “selves” and belief formation (a rough and ready definition I am more than willing to amend).

I suppose that I mean that, given reductive materialism, the word “I” is used as a pragmatic shorthand that ultimately corresponds to no particular unity at all, but a loose collection of things with no criteria to individuate the cloud itself. It is in this sense that the lower-level pattern is an illusion. A pattern leading to a false belief… believed by? I am at a loss on this one. Maybe you have a better way of describing the situation.

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Mike March 15, 2011 at 10:10 pm

cl,
False, I’m well aware of the trajectory of physics for the last 100 years, and I’m also aware that implying a fundamental relevance to cognitive science is literary nonsense. Don’t worry, Deepak Chopra already revealed your ‘quantum consciousness’ hypothesis to Dr. Harris for you, exposing himself as the fraud he is.

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Esteban R. (Formerly Steven R.) March 16, 2011 at 12:02 am

Martin:

Oh, and I should also add that Cartesian dualism is not a prerequisite for afterlife. Peter van Inwagen is a theistic philosopher who is also a materialist, and I think many more are as well. I think their beliefs are more in line with what the Bible actually suggests: a general resurrection at the end of time; none of this disembodied Heaven stuff.Not to mention, for non-theists, there is always the slim possibility that technology of the year 1,000,000,000,000 A.D. might be so advanced that they will have the ability to do godlike things, such as resurrect people from the past. And if so, then we will all find out instantly when we die.And ALSO for non-theists, there is The Atheist Afterlife: The odds of an afterlife – Reasonable. The odds of meeting God there – Nil by David Staume. Pure speculation no doubt, but sounds like it might be an interesting read nonetheless.  

I agree with you on the Bible part and that dualism doesn’t necessarily lead to heaven in our disembodied selves…that and your book suggestion seems pretty neat.

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Esteban R. (Formerly Steven R.) March 16, 2011 at 12:19 am

Rufus:

Agreed.I would also add that physicalists, eliminativists, and reductive materialists in general have no plausible account for a principle of individuation for biological organisms — let alone human beings.I am not sure if that is what you meant by “indivisibility”, but perhaps you were making a similar point.What does it mean for a reductive materialist to say, “I believe in reductive materialism.”What is the referent to which “I” refers?Is “I” shorthand for a certain cloud of sub-atomic particles that happen to usually be in close proximity to one another over a period of time?How many particles can change before the individual ceases to exist? Is it at the point of death, memory loss, or when more than 50% of the particles have been changed?Is it merely the point at which the particle formation behaves as if it is individuated?What would it mean to “behave as if it is individuated”?After the death of his wife, C. S. Lewis remarked, “If Helen ‘is not’, then she never was.I mistook a cloud of atoms for a person” (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/questionofgod/ownwords/grief.html).
The problem is even worse than that.As Lewis goes on to say, there would be no people at all were this true.We are not just deceived about those we love, we are deceived about ourselves, fundamentally.What would it mean that a cloud of sub-atomic particles can be fooled into thinking “I” when there is no “I”.But who is being hoodwinked? How strange to think that a cloud of sub-atomic particles could be deceived like that.Silly atoms.  

I’m leaning towards Bundle Theory or Dennett’s theory of gravitation. I find the concept of “I” to be pretty meaningless, so I’m not particularly impressed by the confusion generated in trying to find an “I” somewhere in there. What, exactly, would the “I” be if it wasn’t a vantage point for a series of experiences or as a reference point for consciousness?

“I believe X” would mean “Experiences that consciousness perceived lead me (a reference point of sorts) to conclude X” or something of the sort. You also seem to assume that your questions somehow raise a problem with materialism or reductionism, but I think it raises a problem with what the “self” is. Appealing to some unknown entity which makes us who we are doesn’t help because that’s saying we don’t really know who we are and who we are is outside the general scope of perception. It doesn’t tell me anything useful nor does it even address the questions you raised; I wouldn’t even know what particular qualities “I” have or be able to access it, being outside my scope of perceptions. At best, the concept of self is just some useful way of bringing about the vast experiences we have, and I don’t have much of a problem with that at all.

There’s no actual deception going on, just a pragmatic way of making sense of things.

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woodchuck64 March 16, 2011 at 7:01 am

Rufus,

The problem is, my subjective experience suddenly isn’t “mine” if I am nothing more than a collection atoms — carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen all playing their parts. They buzz about, some are lost, others gained.

However, if you add informational mechanisms and complexity by grouping a considerable number of atoms — say by building a software algorithm — you start to see at least the appearance of intentionality, qualia, and the apparently unique aspects of mind in its software behavior, true? Adding more complexity in the form of belief models, and beliefs about beliefs models, etc., should theoretically increase the appearance of intentionality as well as apparent experiencing of qualia. Thus, for all intents and appearances, informational processing, complexity, belief models, and beliefs about beliefs together with many other informational concepts most likely are consciousness. Unless, that is, the software algorithm is no different from a philosophical zombie. But what good grounds would we have to think that if it fully acted as if it did have consciousness?

Don’t think of consciousness in terms of atoms, think of it in terms of information processing, memory, and introspective algorithms, that seems more useful even if it doesn’t solve all the problems as yet.

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Rufus March 16, 2011 at 7:47 am

I find the concept of “I” to be pretty meaningless, so I’m not particularly impressed by the confusion generated in trying to find an “I” somewhere in there. What, exactly, would the “I” be if it wasn’t a vantage point for a series of experiences or as a reference point for consciousness?“I believe X” would mean “Experiences that consciousness perceived lead me (a reference point of sorts) to conclude X” or something of the sort. You also seem to assume that your questions somehow raise a problem with materialism or reductionism, but I think it raises a problem with what the “self” is.

I’m not speaking of the concept of “I” and whether it is meaningful. I find it dubious that you find the concept meaningless considering how ubiquitous the term is even in your own post. My problem is trying to get clear on exactly what the word references. You describe a “vantage point” which I do not believe can be individuated or justified given reductive materialism. By what criteria are you individuating this vantage point?

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Rufus March 16, 2011 at 8:05 am

…you start to see at least the appearance of intentionality, qualia, and the apparently unique aspects of mind in its software behavior, true?

I think it is all over when you wrote “you start to see…” What I have seen throughout these posts is a haphazard switch between technical language when referring to other systems/humans but a refusal to turn this language back on the first person or second person perspective. All this language of I’s and You’s may be convenient/pragmatic shorthand, but I think it covers up the very problem that I have. Given reductive materialism, there is no “me” that “starts to see/understand.” There is one arbitrarily individuated information system appearing as if it understood that another arbitrarily individuated information system is just that (and not another human, another mind). I find it ironic that a reductive materialist (which I am assuming you are) is pleading with me to not think of these systems in terms of atoms but as complex information systems. Again, can’t do that without a plausible account of individuation within reductive materialism. I don’t think one could be had which individuates anything more than the most elemental particles/strings/whatever comprising reality.

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woodchuck64 March 16, 2011 at 8:31 am

Rufus,

can’t do that without a plausible account of individuation within reductive materialism.

I’ve just given it to you in software terms: primitive or percursory individuation may be a flow of information to and from a common physical memory incorporating sensory-like perception, beliefs and beliefs about beliefs. Add more memory, more introspection, more speed, more complexity and you might get full individuation of the kind we experience.

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Duke York March 16, 2011 at 8:38 am

By what criteria are you individuating this vantage point?

I didn’t make the post this is referring to, but I’ll take a stab at answering it.

By the collection of connected networks of nerves that process language, memory, and logic. Together these provide the functions we call a “self”.

By what criteria do you individuate this vantage point? I believe the dualist answer is “a magical, immaterial gas that somehow sticks to the insides of people’s skills ” How does this magic gas have a viewpoint?

Duke

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Rufus March 16, 2011 at 9:50 am

Rufus,
I’ve just given it to you in software terms: primitive or percursory individuation may be a flow of information to and from a common physical memory incorporating sensory-like perception, beliefs and beliefs about beliefs.Add more memory, more introspection, more speed, more complexity and you might get full individuation of the kind we experience.  

I didn’t make the post this is referring to, but I’ll take a stab at answering it.
By the collection of connected networks of nerves that process language, memory, and logic. Together these provide the functions we call a “self”.By what criteria do you individuate this vantage point? I believe the dualist answer is “a magical,immaterial gas that somehow sticks to the insides of people’s skills ” How does this magic gas have a viewpoint?Duke  

I think you are a both hitting upon a similar point. Reductive materialists individuate according to the functionality of a system. I am an individual insofar as my “hardware” gives rise to a “software” distinct from other systems. This is my effort to synthesize both posts, so please offer clarifications if I am mistaking your positions. We have moved away from “reductive materialism proper” into the realm of functionalism. Whether functionalism and reductive materialism is compatible is a whole new mine field and interesting contemporary debates are underway. So I think I have made my case that the mind/body problem is not a settled-question or a sophomoric debate.

The question becomes, why stop arbitrarily at the level of “you” (other than it would be convenient for this debate). Consider, for instance, Ned Block’s China Brain. Why stop there (we end up with something like panpsychism as the whole of reality functions as one individuated entity). Or we could run the other way and reduce functional systems down to the functioning of the most fundamental parts of reality, which leaves us with the dreaded philosophical zombies. I tend towards stopping at fundamental particles if reductive materialism were true. Higher order functional systems can always be reduced to the functions of fundamental particles. What would justify the stop at the level of an organism as it is commonsensically understood? If you are moving in that direction, why not individuate even higher orders of complexity? Or you might say that individuation is arbitrary and can be stopped at any point. Is it arbitrary?

Duke, I am not sure how a dualist individuates. I doubt a dualist would use oxymornic phrases like “immaterial gas.” However, I am not interested in defending Cartesian dualism as I find it to have its own set of problems. Think of me as an agnostic of sorts.

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mpg March 16, 2011 at 9:58 am

If you speak of levels, then it seems you are implicitly a property dualist at least. Following in the footsteps of David Chalmers, perhaps?  

The physicalist only needs to say that all of these ‘non-physical’ things supervene on the physical.

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Martin March 16, 2011 at 10:11 am

The physicalist only needs to say that all of these ‘non-physical’ things supervene on the physical.

But I believe that supervenience in mind means property dualism. One type of substance (physical) that can give rise to two independent properties (property dualism). Although I only have a passing knowledge of phil of mind myself.

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AlephNeil March 16, 2011 at 10:50 am

See how easily our language allows us to individuate.It really is amazing.It is not confidence in my brain that is preventing me from accepting this conclusion.It is the other untoward consequences that I think ultimately press this position into self-defeat.In particular, I find the reliability of our knowledge to be utterly undermined.If the brain can pull such an elaborate hoax on my non-existent self, then why should this particular cloud of sub-atomic particles configure itself such that this illusory “I” has knowledge of any kind.This particle cloud doesn’t even understand what it would mean for an illusory “I” to possess knowledge.This particle cloud would land in such a deep skepticism, until it realized that scientific knowledge could not be possessed by any individuated sub-atomic particle.Not one bit of knowledge is to be found within the cloud, just illusions of “having knowledge” and illusions that “beliefs are justified by empirical observations, Pop-Culture science books, and Youtube videos “.Furthermore, I am not really sure what ethical obligations these clouds of atoms would have towards preserving certain configurations and not others.But, never fear, our friendly reductive materialists are also all humanists, even though humans cannot be individuated and are an illusory category of an illusory mind.It is not faith in my brain, it is the self-defeating skepticism that would creep in.  

You presume that an adequate account of knowledge depends on being able to draw an infinitely sharp boundary around the ‘knower’. You say that knowledge claims are ‘undermined’ otherwise.

You may as well say that a nation with an imprecisely-drawn border has no determinate population (even if the border region is depopulated). Or that it’s impossible to play chess on a physical board because the pieces can’t ever truly be said to be ‘on’ the squares (as opposed to slightly off-center).

How many particles can change before the individual ceases to exist? Is it at the point of death, memory loss, or when more than 50% of the particles have been changed?

I presume the argument is something like: “Materialism cannot answer this. But it requires an answer. Therefore materialism is false.”

It’s better to say: “Obviously these questions don’t have answers. Therefore any metaphysical position which insists that they do must be false.”

Having to populate your ontology with undetectable “all or nothing” properties, and thereby forcing yourself to postulate elaborate arbitrary, undetectable thresholds for when these things appear, and then hanging the entire weight of your ethical and epistemological theories upon these undetectable properties, is truly an absurd and self-defeating way to conduct your philosophical enterprise.

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AlephNeil March 16, 2011 at 12:21 pm

But I believe that supervenience in mind means property dualism. One type of substance (physical) that can give rise to two independent properties (property dualism). Although I only have a passing knowledge of phil of mind myself.  

Mind-body supervenience is compatible with property dualism, but doesn’t require it.

To say M-facts supervene on P-facts is simply to say that the set of M-facts is a function (in the mathematical sense) of the set of P-facts. Or in other words: the set of M-facts is uniquely determined by the set of P-facts. This is compatible with all varieties of physicalism and some varieties of dualism (such as epiphenomenalism).

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Rufus March 16, 2011 at 1:35 pm

You presume that an adequate account of knowledge depends on being able to draw an infinitely sharp boundary around the ‘knower’. You say that knowledge claims are ‘undermined’ otherwise.You may as well say that a nation with an imprecisely-drawn border has no determinate population (even if the border region is depopulated). Or that it’s impossible to play chess on a physical board because the pieces can’t ever truly be said to be ‘on’ the squares (as opposed to slightly off-center).
I presume the argument is something like: “Materialism cannot answer this. But it requires an answer. Therefore materialism is false.”It’s better to say: “Obviously these questions don’t have answers. Therefore any metaphysical position which insists that they do must be false.”Having to populate your ontology with undetectable “all or nothing” properties, and thereby forcing yourself to postulate elaborate arbitrary, undetectable thresholds for when these things appear, and then hanging the entire weight of your ethical and epistemological theories upon these undetectable properties, is truly an absurd and self-defeating way to conduct your philosophical enterprise.  

AlephNeil, Thank you for the thoughtful response, there is much to respond to, but I will be brief as possible.

1. I am not assuming a “sharp” boundary but a justification for drawing any boundary around the knower at all… “fuzzy” or otherwise.
2. The nation and chessboard analogies are interesting, but inapplicable given reductive materialism. You are comparing concepts developed by our commonsense naive view of reality to a a reductionistic view of the individual. Nations and chessboards are just as problematic given reductive materialism. Useful fictions.
3. I am not sure what you mean by an “all-or-nothing” property, but I am not really proposing an alternate theory. I am saying that I have the impression that individuation obtains for entities other than fundamental particles and that if I were committed to reductive materialism, I would have to deny this impression. However, in so doing, I would subject myself to a self-defeater for the position since no knower can be individuated (even in a fuzzy manner). I added on ethical problems just to emphasize other untoward consequences. Philosophy teaches us the price we have to pay. Reductive materialism has a high cost (self-defeating skepticism and moral nihilism by my estimation, not to mention the difficulty of explaining the variety of phenomena Martin has pointed out).
4. Which undetected entities have I hung my theory upon? I really do detect my own individuality and at least have the impression of individuation elsewhere in the world on levels other than fundamental particles. Is it so strange for me to hold out for a metaphysical position that is not self-defeating?

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David March 16, 2011 at 1:45 pm

Takin’ a swing at a few things – this may ramble a bit but hopefully I’m adding value.

Consider the symbol for the letter ‘a’, lowercase. If we have a particular
letter ‘a’, we can ask what it’s made of and will find it’s a pattern
of ink on page or pixels on screen that differ sufficiently from their
neighbors. If we have a sufficient theory of light and color, materials
and reflection, we can describe a function that would take a physical
description of a portion of the environment and tell us whether there
is an ‘a’ there. But this function must necessarily be fuzzy. Questions
like, “When *exactly* does it stop being an ‘a’ and start being a ‘d’
or a ‘u’?” are hard to answer – indeed, with some people’s handwriting
we can probably glean more information from the context (neighboring
characters) than the precise shape of the letter.

What about meaning? How do the underlying quarks give rise to something
more? Well, ‘a’ itself has no semantic meaning until it becomes a part of
a word (yes, an ‘a’ alone is a word, but most ‘a’ characters are parts
of larger words and have no relation to the indefinite article). But
that meaning is still not a property of the ink and page alone – it is
usually given to it by a mind; does this mean that there must be something
special about minds? I would say that there doesn’t have to be. What we
are talking about when we say “meaning” of a word is the reaction that
it will invoke in some system (not necessarily the entire reaction -
more could be said here but I hope people follow). The kinds of reaction
to expect is clearly not independent of the system that will be reacting,
but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a human mind – we very well might
talk about what a computer command “means.”

Does all of this mean the “letter” is illusory? Or the “meaning” is? They
are useful because at the level we perceive they correspond to important
states of the world around us – often they correspond to the “intent”
of another “individual” and help transfer information in a useful
form. Since we humans are relatively social creatures, the states of
the quark clouds around us that correspond to “other individuals” are
a very important part of our environment. It is not at all surprising
that we reason about them as if they were first order objects, or that
we produce many labels for different states that we might do a better
job predicting and manipulating them.

I contend that most of these concepts under discussion are
similar. “Useful fictions,” as was said earlier. They do correspond
to reality in that they apply or don’t (to varying degrees), and as
abstractions they can work fairly well; in fact, they can work better than
a reductionist approach to solving every problem given the limitations
on our computation and measurement – but there is not new information
added at that level, only (hopefully sufficiently irrelevant) information
stripped away to make the problems tractable.

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woodchuck64 March 16, 2011 at 2:23 pm

Rufus,

So I think I have made my case that the mind/body problem is not a settled-question or a sophomoric debate.

Agreed absolutely. I offered a software/functionalist view as more promising approach than viewing things as clouds of atoms, but not as a complete solution. Thanks for the interesting points.

Why stop arbitrarily at the level of “you” ..
Consider, for instance, Ned Block’s China Brain.

I think that’s a fair question and I am open to panpsychism, although I think the bandwidth and nature of information flow that consciousness seems to require does not seem to be met anywhere in the universe except in brains or possibly computers. The China Brain seems conceptually okay to me, but that brain is thinking at least 10 orders of magnitude slower than the human brain.

I would say individuation at minimum requires a physical medium for information storage, a reliable way to transmit/receive information, and some pretty complex algorithms dictating the information flow. If you can go higher than the brain and find that, then indeed we may be neurons in the mind of God (or the mind of the Internet); the concept of nested virtual machines is used frequently in computer science, nested virtual minds seems similar.

I do not think, though, that we can go lower than neurons/transistors and find any kind of information structure that could qualify as individuation –but here I’ve been skimping on what is the exact information structure for individuation… and I’ll have to continue to do so.

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Esteban R. (Formerly Steven R.) March 16, 2011 at 4:03 pm

I’m not speaking of the concept of “I” and whether it is meaningful.I find it dubious that you find the concept meaningless considering how ubiquitous the term is even in your own post.My problem is trying to get clear on exactly what the word references.You describe a “vantage point” which I do not believe can be individuated or justified given reductive materialism.By what criteria are you individuating this vantage point?  

The point I was trying to make is that maybe “I” doesn’t reference anything in particular (which is why I said the concept of the “self” as being independent of perceptions or consciousness or some strange identity that has a point where it changes into something else is meaningless, although, I agree it’s hard to read this because we continue to use “I”) but rather, refers to a collection of experiences (bundle theory) or a narrative center for conscious experiences (Dennett). Now, I’m not learned at all on “reductive materialism” to provide a satisfying answer but these two concepts don’t seem all that far removed from materialism.
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In general, some of the most interesting comments have been made here.

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cl March 17, 2011 at 11:27 am

Rufus,

It is not confidence in my brain that is preventing me from accepting this conclusion. It is the other untoward consequences that I think ultimately press this position into self-defeat. In particular, I find the reliability of our knowledge to be utterly undermined. If the brain can pull such an elaborate hoax on my non-existent self, then why should this particular cloud of sub-atomic particles configure itself such that this illusory “I” has knowledge of any kind. This particle cloud doesn’t even understand what it would mean for an illusory “I” to possess knowledge. This particle cloud would land in such a deep skepticism, until it realized that scientific knowledge could not be possessed by any individuated sub-atomic particle. Not one bit of knowledge is to be found within the cloud, just illusions of “having knowledge” and illusions that “beliefs are justified by empirical observations, Pop-Culture science books, and Youtube videos “.

[...]

All this language of I’s and You’s may be convenient/pragmatic shorthand, but I think it covers up the very problem that I have. Given reductive materialism, there is no “me” that “starts to see/understand.” There is one arbitrarily individuated information system appearing as if it understood that another arbitrarily individuated information system is just that (and not another human, another mind). I find it ironic that a reductive materialist (which I am assuming you are) is pleading with me to not think of these systems in terms of atoms but as complex information systems. Again, can’t do that without a plausible account of individuation within reductive materialism.

Excellent comments.

Mike,

Don’t worry, Deepak Chopra already revealed your ‘quantum consciousness’ hypothesis to Dr. Harris for you, exposing himself as the fraud he is.

Yet, you criticize me for an ad hominem argument! Uh… okay, I guess.

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Mike March 17, 2011 at 3:54 pm

cl,
Yes, you claimed that we were uneducated persons, and thus our statements were invalid. I, on the other hand, reported a fraudulent argument. He just happens to be full of them.

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cl March 17, 2011 at 9:58 pm

…you claimed that we were uneducated persons, and thus our statements were invalid.

False.

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dguller March 18, 2011 at 9:26 am

Rufus:

>> Reductive materialism has a high cost (self-defeating skepticism and moral nihilism by my estimation

Would it help to think about our brains as fundamentally integrated with our bodies, which are fundamentally embedded within the natural world, and thus are influenced by the natural world’s regularities and laws? I mean, skepticism is only possible if you can abstract and isolate our minds from the rest of the context within which they occur. This move is not even necessary to understand the mind, and muddles things nicely. I think that if you look at human beings as biological organisms embedded within the natural world, then our cognitive processes to a great extent have to track the regularities around us, because otherwise, we would not have survived at all.

Look at an individual who is psychotic, and whose cognitive and perceptual apparatus is no longer functioning normally. They are simply unable to function in the world, and without assistance quickly deteriorate, and will likely die without help. That is an example of where someone’s subjective reality has become utterly divorced from external reality, and without being able to accurately represent the world around them, they just fall apart. So, just because our subjective experience can be described as virtual to some extent does not mean that it is therefore utterly divorced from external reality, especially if it is sustained by input from the external world and contributes to our regular ability to function in the world at all.

Again, I think that you have to keep the full context in mind here, because otherwise, you get into all kinds of paradoxes and problems that are really unnecessary.

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Rufus March 18, 2011 at 11:27 am

I mean, skepticism is only possible if you can abstract and isolate our minds from the rest of the context within which they occur.

dguller,

I am a bit confused by this claim. 1) I thought the skepticism I described was set within the context of reductive materialism. 2) How do you know that skepticism is only possible if one abstracts and isolates the mind from the rest of the context in which it occurs. Cartesian skepticism, which I think is what you have in mind here, actually worked in reverse. Descartes started within a context of ordinary experiences and set out to be skeptical about it. He ended with an isolated and abstract mind, which he thought could not be doubted.

Also, I agree that it is possible for our subjective experiences to somehow relate to external reality, or I at least have the hope that it will. But this hope or intuition should not be crammed into the reductive materialist world-view simply because we believe or hope it to be the case. Nor can we manipulate the way in which it is “true” that we “know.”

To me, this is simply having your cake and eating it too. Rather than facing the fact that reductive materialism fails to account for the correspondence between reality and or impression that we are “knowers”, we simply ignore it then define truth as “functioning well” or “beliefs that allow for survivability.” At that point, the game is up. We are not even speaking of “true” in the same way. “True” is being rhetorically defined to maintain the theory such that reductive materialism is “true” and our capacity to know the external world is also “true.” Yet, the senses of truth shift. Reductive materialism is true in the sense that it actually corresponds to reality. That we can “know” is “true” in the pragmatic sense of truth as “it works.” It’s convenient to have a definition of truth to fit with every difficulty in a theory, but I think it reveals that one is more committed to the theory than the truth.

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Ryan M March 18, 2011 at 11:39 am

I tend to think that the alternatives to reductive materialism of the mind are not great, and are also problematic despite many people portraying them otherwise (Although this does not mean I accept materialism of the mind). A short quote from Kripke sums up my currents thoughts: “I regard the mind-body problem as wide open and extremely confusing.” – 163 Naming and Necessity

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dguller March 18, 2011 at 5:46 pm

Rufus:

>> I am a bit confused by this claim. 1) I thought the skepticism I described was set within the context of reductive materialism.

What skepticism do you mean?

>> 2) How do you know that skepticism is only possible if one abstracts and isolates the mind from the rest of the context in which it occurs.

Because that is how all skepticism happens. It always says, “Hey, what if we suspended this part of our lives and just forgot about it for a second, then whoa, we are stuck with some kind of paradox!” The particular skepticism that I was referring to was regarding the mind-body interaction, and the existence of the external world.

>> Cartesian skepticism, which I think is what you have in mind here, actually worked in reverse. Descartes started within a context of ordinary experiences and set out to be skeptical about it. He ended with an isolated and abstract mind, which he thought could not be doubted.

No, he started with the standard of indubitable truth, and based upon that standard, he rejected the senses. He did not begin “within a context of ordinary experiences”, because there is nothing in our “ordinary experiences” that even comes close to indubitable truth. As per all skeptical lines of reasoning, it is an artificial, philosophical fairy tale.

>> Also, I agree that it is possible for our subjective experiences to somehow relate to external reality, or I at least have the hope that it will. But this hope or intuition should not be crammed into the reductive materialist world-view simply because we believe or hope it to be the case. Nor can we manipulate the way in which it is “true” that we “know.”

I do not think that it has to be “crammed” anywhere. It is part and parcel of materialism that there are regularities and patterns in nature, and that out of that order, we have emerged. Furthermore, like all biological organisms, we are capable of tracking those regularities by virtue of our experience and cognition, which are actually intermingled in our minds, and not easily parsed. We could not have survived at all unless we were capable of tracking these patterns.

>> To me, this is simply having your cake and eating it too.

You should try it. It’s delicious!

>> Rather than facing the fact that reductive materialism fails to account for the correspondence between reality and or impression that we are “knowers”, we simply ignore it then define truth as “functioning well” or “beliefs that allow for survivability.” At that point, the game is up. We are not even speaking of “true” in the same way. “True” is being rhetorically defined to maintain the theory such that reductive materialism is “true” and our capacity to know the external world is also “true.” Yet, the senses of truth shift. Reductive materialism is true in the sense that it actually corresponds to reality. That we can “know” is “true” in the pragmatic sense of truth as “it works.” It’s convenient to have a definition of truth to fit with every difficulty in a theory, but I think it reveals that one is more committed to the theory than the truth.

I just disagree. When we talk about “true” it typically has to do with whether something corresponds to a genuine state of affairs in the world. So, we agree on this, but the interesting question is how we are capable of mapping the patterns that exist around us at all. I think it is perfectly plausible that our brains are capable of representing regularities and patterns, especially since our brain also consists of regularities and patterns. It is a further issue that we must be able to do this, because if we could not do so, then we could not survive at all. Every living organism must be able to interact with the regularities around it, or it will perish. I mentioned a psychotic individual as a good example of the problems when this does not occur and one is really disconnected from reality, and not just in a fantastical philosophical sense.

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