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A defense of physicalism: Plankton could evolve minds

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From Ari N. Schulman at New Atlantis:

The question then is how mere mechanisms could be in the business of interpreting anything. To say that concepts can reside in physical things in the way we encounter them is only to raise more urgently the question of how concepts can reside in physical things as they actually are — of how matter can be such that certain bits of it come to know about each other. To say that experience inherently bears meaning, that perception already interprets the world to us before we ever reflect on it, is not to find a curious circumstance in which nature and reason are reconciled but to challenge how we find them set apart to begin with.

The PBS NewsHour recently aired a story about marine biologists studying the motion of plankton, a category of microscopic sea creatures that includes protozoa and the larval stages of crabs, urchins, anemones, and fish. Many of these species are spawned in the surf. But if they are to find food and survive, they must be transported away from the shore, often to lower depths. The assumption among biologists has long been that this transit is passive — the word plankton derives from the Greek word for “errant” or “drifter.” Though many can move themselves, the creatures are so small and slow that this motion was thought to be impotent against the power of the currents. It was thought that they could only propagate, like seeds on the wind, through force of numbers, staggered against chance.

An experiment with plankton-like robots showed that the robots moved in the needed directions in relation to currents. So then:

Here are the lowest of lowly creatures, forming, over the ages, a life of joint motion with their world. Who is to say whether what moves them manifests as sensation? Yet somewhere along the path of development, mechanism emerges as feeling. Imagine these creatures evolved eons on, coming awake, standing outside themselves, the vertigo of grasping the ancient contingency that calls them yet from the deepest reaches. How miraculous it would seem to us, to be born to ride the waves. More.

The reader who sent this in notes that “Everything seems like a footnote to Nagel ‘s Mind and Cosmos,” which sends all this up. But, he adds, “What do I know?”

Mmmm. Pretty much what you need to. Physicalism has come to this but it still holds the academy.

Schulman seems to confuse the natural tendency of life forms to make efforts to stay alive with minds or consciousness as such.  Physicalism has come to this but it still holds the academy. Note: Schulman seems to confuse the natural tendency of life forms to make efforts to stay alive with minds or consciousness as such. The fact that plankton, like other life forms, struggle to stay in existence says nothing about whether they could evolve into creatures with minds.

By the way, if rocks have minds, why do we never hear from them after all this time?

See also: Aired on BBC: Consciousness no different than our ability to digest

What can we hope to learn about animal minds?

and

Does intelligence depend on a specific type of brain?

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3 Replies to “A defense of physicalism: Plankton could evolve minds

  1. 1
    critical rationalist says:

    By the way, if rocks have minds, why do we never hear from them after all this time?

    Why not? The ways of rocks are mysterious. They have good reasons for remaining silent, we just cannot comprehend them.

    (Sound familiar?)

  2. 2
    kairosfocus says:

    News,

    Such is our sad state. I think we need to hear Plato:

    Athenian Stranger: [[The avant garde philosophers, teachers and artists c. 400 BC] say that the greatest and fairest things are the work of nature and of chance, the lesser of art [[ i.e. techne], which, receiving from nature the greater and primeval creations, moulds and fashions all those lesser works which are generally termed artificial . . . They say that fire and water, and earth and air [[i.e the classical “material” elements of the cosmos], all exist by nature and chance, and none of them by art, and that as to the bodies which come next in order-earth, and sun, and moon, and stars-they have been created by means of these absolutely inanimate existences. The elements are severally moved by chance and some inherent force according to certain affinities among them-of hot with cold, or of dry with moist, or of soft with hard, and according to all the other accidental admixtures of opposites which have been formed by necessity. After this fashion and in this manner the whole heaven has been created, and all that is in the heaven, as well as animals and all plants, and all the seasons come from these elements, not by the action of mind, as they say, or of any God, or from art, but as I was saying, by nature and chance only . . . .

    [[T]hese people would say that the Gods exist not by nature, but by art, and by the laws of states, which are different in different places, according to the agreement of those who make them; and that the honourable is one thing by nature and another thing by law, and that the principles of justice have no existence at all in nature, but that mankind are always disputing about them and altering them; and that the alterations which are made by art and by law have no basis in nature, but are of authority for the moment and at the time at which they are made.– [[Relativism, too, is not new; complete with its radical amorality rooted in a worldview that has no foundational IS that can ground OUGHT. (Cf. here for Locke’s views and sources on a very different base for grounding liberty as opposed to license and resulting anarchistic “every man does what is right in his own eyes” chaos leading to tyranny.)] These, my friends, are the sayings of wise men, poets and prose writers, which find a way into the minds of youth. They are told by them that the highest right is might [[ Evolutionary materialism leads to the promotion of amorality], and in this way the young fall into impieties, under the idea that the Gods are not such as the law bids them imagine; and hence arise factions [[Evolutionary materialism-motivated amorality “naturally” leads to continual contentions and power struggles; cf. dramatisation here], these philosophers inviting them to lead a true life according to nature, that is, to live in real dominion over others [[such amoral factions, if they gain power, “naturally” tend towards ruthless tyranny; here, too, Plato hints at the career of Alcibiades], and not in legal subjection to them . . . . [[I]f impious discourses were not scattered, as I may say, throughout the world, there would have been no need for any vindication of the existence of the Gods-but seeing that they are spread far and wide, such arguments are needed; and who should come to the rescue of the greatest laws, when they are being undermined by bad men, but the legislator himself? . . . .

    Ath. Then, by Heaven, we have discovered the source of this vain opinion of all those physical investigators; and I would have you examine their arguments with the utmost care, for their impiety is a very serious matter; they not only make a bad and mistaken use of argument, but they lead away the minds of others: that is my opinion of them.

    Cle. You are right; but I should like to know how this happens.

    Ath. I fear that the argument may seem singular.

    Cle. Do not hesitate, Stranger; I see that you are afraid of such a discussion carrying you beyond the limits of legislation. But if there be no other way of showing our agreement in the belief that there are Gods, of whom the law is said now to approve, let us take this way, my good sir.

    Ath. Then I suppose that I must repeat the singular argument of those who manufacture the soul according to their own impious notions; they affirm that which is the first cause of the generation and destruction of all things, to be not first, but last, and that which is last to be first, and hence they have fallen into error about the true nature of the Gods.

    Cle. Still I do not understand you.

    Ath. Nearly all of them, my friends, seem to be ignorant of the nature and power of the soul [[ = psuche], especially in what relates to her origin: they do not know that she is among the first of things, and before all bodies, and is the chief author of their changes and transpositions. And if this is true, and if the soul is older than the body, must not the things which are of the soul’s kindred be of necessity prior to those which appertain to the body?

    Cle. Certainly.

    Ath. Then thought and attention and mind and art and law will be prior to that which is hard and soft and heavy and light; and the great and primitive works and actions will be works of art; they will be the first, and after them will come nature and works of nature, which however is a wrong term for men to apply to them; these will follow, and will be under the government of art and mind.

    Cle. But why is the word “nature” wrong?

    Ath. Because those who use the term mean to say that nature is the first creative power; but if the soul turn out to be the primeval element, and not fire or air, then in the truest sense and beyond other things the soul may be said to exist by nature; and this would be true if you proved that the soul is older than the body, but not otherwise.

    [[ . . . .]

    Ath. . . . when one thing changes another, and that another, of such will there be any primary changing element? How can a thing which is moved by another ever be the beginning of change? Impossible. But when the self-moved changes other, and that again other, and thus thousands upon tens of thousands of bodies are set in motion, must not the beginning of all this motion be the change of the self-moving principle? . . . . self-motion being the origin of all motions, and the first which arises among things at rest as well as among things in motion, is the eldest and mightiest principle of change, and that which is changed by another and yet moves other is second.

    [[ . . . .]

    Ath. If we were to see this power existing in any earthy, watery, or fiery substance, simple or compound-how should we describe it?

    Cle. You mean to ask whether we should call such a self-moving power life?

    Ath. I do.

    Cle. Certainly we should.

    Ath. And when we see soul in anything, must we not do the same-must we not admit that this is life?

    [[ . . . . ]

    Cle. You mean to say that the essence which is defined as the self-moved is the same with that which has the name soul?

    Ath. Yes; and if this is true, do we still maintain that there is anything wanting in the proof that the soul is the first origin and moving power of all that is, or has become, or will be, and their contraries, when she has been clearly shown to be the source of change and motion in all things?

    Cle. Certainly not; the soul as being the source of motion, has been most satisfactorily shown to be the oldest of all things.

    Ath. And is not that motion which is produced in another, by reason of another, but never has any self-moving power at all, being in truth the change of an inanimate body, to be reckoned second, or by any lower number which you may prefer?

    Cle. Exactly.

    Ath. Then we are right, and speak the most perfect and absolute truth, when we say that the soul is prior to the body, and that the body is second and comes afterwards, and is born to obey the soul, which is the ruler?

    [[ . . . . ]

    Ath. If, my friend, we say that the whole path and movement of heaven, and of all that is therein, is by nature akin to the movement and revolution and calculation of mind, and proceeds by kindred laws, then, as is plain, we must say that the best soul takes care of the world and guides it along the good path. [[Plato here explicitly sets up an inference to design (by a good soul) from the intelligible order of the cosmos.]

    Patently, rocks have no dreams, are not self moved of their own volition. Nor are computational substrates made from rocks — analogue, digital or neural network — going to rise beyond GIGO-limited causal chains driven by their computer organisation and programming.

    We have lost sight that what we need to understand is rational, responsible freedom, the basis for serious discussion.

    So far have we fallen.

    KF

    KF

  3. 3
    aschulman says:

    Forgive me, but the only way you could say my essay is a case for physicalism is if you didn’t read it even as far as the introduction:

    Peruse the pop-science headlines on any given day and read about how “we now know” that the love you feel looking at your child is actually just oxytocin in the limbic centers of the brain, a development that just happened to help our ancestors outbreed their neighbors, who apparently felt for their children the way we do about a plate of wet bread. The sense that your soul just died is a sign that you are now bending properly along the great de-spiriting arc of history. Thus, the knowledge argument seems to provide a welcome bulwark against the rising tide of physicalism, a relief to those who believe that love is love, whatever else it might also be.

    And:

    Physicalism is a unitary aspiration. Its thesis is that everything that exists is made of the same kind of stuff. For physicalists, there is nothing special about conscious things; we differ from rocks and bacteria only in degree of complexity. We must be entirely explainable, then, in terms of conveyable sentences about objective facts. Physicalism’s whole point is that accounting for consciousness cannot require any special mode of knowledge like subjectivity. Yet in responding to the knowledge argument, physicalists invoke paradigmatic examples of our subjectivity — sensation and action. This seems to be the exact special pleading that physicalism claims triumphantly to overcome. And physicalists are invoking subjective categories, no less, to refute an argument for the existence of subjectivity.

    Also:

    Physicalism is self-consuming. Its aim is to prove that experiences are nothing but physical occurrences. But the physical sciences are built on observation, a kind of experience. Scientific objectivity is a methodical aggregation of many people’s subjectivity. And so physicalists must create an asterisk for experience as a special mode of knowledge, even though physicalism’s whole reason for being is to debunk experience as special. Physicalism assumes what it is sworn to deny, and can do so safely because its fantastic success has faded its origins far into the background. It is like a prince, born on the top floor of a castle built laboriously over centuries, now so high up that he can no longer see the bottom and scoffs when people tell him the castle is not aloft.

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