There is a famous passage in Molière’s play The Imaginary Invalid in which he satirizes the tactic of tautology given as explanation. A group of medieval doctors are giving an oral exam to a doctoral candidate, and they ask him why opium causes people to get sleepy. The candidate responds:
Mihi à docto Doctore
Domandatur causam & rationem, quare
Opium facit dormire ?
A quoy respondeo,
Quia est in eo
Cuius est natura
Which is translated:
I am asked by the learned doctor the cause and reason why opium causes sleep. To which I reply, because it has a dormitive property, whose nature is to lull the senses to sleep.
Of course, “dormitive” is derived from the Latin “dormire,” which means to sleep. Thus, the candidate’s explanation boils down to “opium causes people to get sleepy because it has a property that causes people to get sleepy.” It is a tautology disguised as an explanation.
Funny, no? A real scientist would never stoop to such linguistic tricks, right? Wrong.
Consider the materialist explanation for consciousness. We are told that the mind is an “emergent property” of the brain. Yes, and sleep is induced by the dormitive property of opium.
Unsurprisingly, our materialist interlocutors point to the fact that “emergence” as a general concept is commonplace and therefore “emergence” as an explanation for consciousness is perfectly adequate. We will see how their argument is circular in this update.
If emergent is not a good term, what is? Use the salt example: “Just as Na and Cl are widely different from each other, the compound NACL or salt is widely different from either.” If salt has properties that are quite unlike those of its constituent parts, how does one describe where the properties of salt come from? What concept or word would be accurate here?
Barry – is the only possible explanation for something that it emerges from something else?
Viola’s and Bob’s argument is circular. It assumes the very thing to be decided.
Here is the materialist argument: Sodium and chloride combine to form salt, which is surprisingly different from either sodium or chloride. Oxygen and hydrogen combine to form water, which is surprisingly different from either oxygen or hydrogen. And no one objects when we say salt “emerged” from the combination of sodium and chloride or that water “emerged” from the combination of oxygen and hydrogen. This is merely another way of stating a reductionist account of how a physical thing (salt or water) can be reduced to the combination of its physical constituents. It is utterly mysterious how salt comes from mixing sodium and chloride, and it is utterly mysterious how water comes from mixing oxygen and hydrogen. Calling what happened “emergence” is as good term as any. The mysterious emergence of one physical thing from other physical things in ways that we cannot explain is common. Therefore, that consciousness “emerged” from the physical properties of the brain in a mysterious way that we cannot explain is unsurprising. Nothing to see here; move along.
Viola’s and Bob’s religious commitments have led them into a glaring logical error.1 It should be obvious that the very thing to be decided is whether, in principle, the mental can be reduced to the physical. Viola and Bob argue that physical things emerge from other physical things all the time; therefore that the mind emerges from the physical properties of the brain is unsurprising.
Wait a second. Viola’s and Bob’s argument works only if one assumes that the mental can be accounted for in physicalist reductionist terms. They have assumed their conclusion and argued in a tight little circle.
Viola’s and Bob’s logic has gone off the rails, because the issue to be decided is not whether one physical thing can emerge in surprising ways from a combination of other physical things. No one disputes that we see examples of this, such as salt and water, all around us. The issue to be decided is whether mental properties – subjective self-awareness, intentionality, qualia, free will, thoughts, etc. – can emerge from physical constituents. The question to be answered is whether the mental can be reduced to the physical. Answering that question by pointing out that we see the physical reduced to the physical is no answer at all.
There is an obvious vast, unbridgeable ontological chasm between mental phenomena and physical phenomena. Therefore, the burden is on materialists to account for how, in principle, a particular combination of chemicals can, for example, have subjective self-awareness. Many materialists (Sam Harris comes to mind) understand this is an impossible burden and therefore deny that we have subjective self-awareness at all, and our perception that we do is an illusion (who is deceived Sam?). Here again, we see materialists forced by their religious commitments to say crazy, obviously false, things. That we are subjectively self-aware has for good reason been called the primordial datum. Everyone knows beyond the slightest doubt that he is subjectively self-aware, and the very act of attempting to refute it is self-referentially incoherent. Chemicals cannot know, and asserting chemicals know they cannot know is (i.e. that chemicals have intentionality) is absurd.
In conclusion, Viola and Bob say, essentially, things emerge from other things all the time; therefore the mind emerged from the brain. This is an obvious non sequitur and their augment fails.
1Materialism is, at bottom, a religious proposition.