Intelligent Design

Materialist find themselves between the Scylla of denying the patently obvious existence of the mind and the Charybdis of emergentism poofery.

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Edward Feser reviews Michael Gazzaniga’s Who’s in Charge?  Free Will and the Science of the Brain in this quarter’s Claremont Review of Books (hard copy only available for now): 

For those beholden to scientism, the only alternative to reductionism is ‘eliminativism,’ the view that if some apparent feature of the world cannot be reduced to scientific categories, it should be eliminated altogether. Hence the willingness of some advocates of scientism seriously to entertain the suggestion that free will, consciousness, and thought might simply be illusions.

The trouble with Gazzaniga is that while he admirably resists such extreme conclusions, he is no less beholden than reductionists and eliminativists are to the fallacy that leads to them: the tendency to ‘reify’ abstractions, i.e., to treat them as if they were concrete realities. (Albeit the abstractions in Gazzaniga’s case – ‘modules’ in the brain, an ‘interpreter’ in the brain’s left hemisphere, and the like – derive from neuroscience rather than physics.) . . .

Gazzaniga simply assumes that the higher-level phenomena of consciousness and choice have, if they are to be explained, somehow to ‘emerge’ from various lower-level neural structures and processes – as if the latter ‘wore the trousers,’ metaphysically speaking; and as if they could even be made sense of in the first place apart from the higher-level behavioral and mental phenomena with which they are associated and by reference to which we interpret them.

The end result is that Gazzaniga’s position, like other ‘emergentist’ theories, comes across as obscurantist That is inevitable given that it rests on the same tendency to confuse abstractions with concrete realities that underlies the thinking of his more ruthlessly consistent materialist rivals. Given that starting point, reductionism and eliminativism are bound to seem the only serious options [for materialists] and ‘emergentism’ a dodge. 

That last sentence captures well what I was trying to say in “Materialist Poofery”: 

Emergence is materialist poofery. Take the mind-brain problem again. The materialist knows that his claim that the mind does not exist is patently absurd. Yet, given his premises it simply cannot exist. So what is a materialist to do? Easy. Poof – the mind is an emergent property of the brain system that otherwise cannot be accounted for on materialist grounds.

12 Replies to “Materialist find themselves between the Scylla of denying the patently obvious existence of the mind and the Charybdis of emergentism poofery.

  1. 1
    Neil Rickert says:

    Feser: For those beholden to scientism, the only alternative to reductionism is ‘eliminativism,’ the view that if some apparent feature of the world cannot be reduced to scientific categories, it should be eliminated altogether.

    I see this as a false dichotomy. I am not a reductionist. However, I do not attempt to eliminate free will, consciousness or thought from the furniture of the world.

  2. 2
    Mung says:

    The emergence of life and intelligence from less-alive and less-intelligent components has happened at least once. Emergent behavior is that which cannot be predicted through analysis at any level simpler than that of the system as a whole. Explanations of emergence, like simplifications of complexity, are inherently illusory and can only be achieved by sleight of hand. This does not mean that emergence is not real. Emergent behavior, by definition, is what’s left after everything else has been explained.

    “Emergence offers a way to believe in physical causality while simultaneously maintaining the impossibility of a reductionist explanation of thought,” wrote W. Daniel Hillis … “For those who fear mechanistic explanations of the human mind, our ignorance of how local interactions produce emergent behavior offers a reassuring fog in which to hide the soul.”

    – George B. Dyson, Darwin among the Machines

  3. 3
    Alan Fox says:

    Take the mind-brain problem again. The materialist knows that his claim that the mind does not exist is patently absurd. Yet, given his premises it simply cannot exist. So what is a materialist to do? Easy. Poof – the mind is an emergent property of the brain system that otherwise cannot be accounted for on materialist grounds.

    Not being a materialist, but “fools rush in where angels fear to tread”, I doubt anyone dispute that humans have minds in that they are conscious. Some realists, myself among them, suspect that “mind” is what the brain does. Detach the brain, or more simply he head, from the body, more importantly the sustenance the blood supply provides, and the mind disappears. The accounting needs to be done by anyone who thinks the mind is anything other than what the brain does.

  4. 4
    Mung says:

    Alan Fox:

    The accounting needs to be done by anyone who thinks the mind is anything other than what the brain does.

    More philosophizing from our resident “philosophy is bunk” proponent.

  5. 5
    Mung says:

    If the mind is what the brain does, then anything with a brain has a mind.

    It what point during development does the mind of the fetus appear? Should we be killing unborn minds?

  6. 6
    Joe says:

    Alan Fox:

    Some realists, myself among them, suspect that “mind” is what the brain does.

    It just emerges from the grey and white matter?

    Other realists, myself among them, say the brain does as the mind says.

    Alan Fox:

    Detach the brain, or more simply he head, from the body, more importantly the sustenance the blood supply provides, and the mind disappears.

    And how do you know that, exactly?

  7. 7
    Tim says:

    Alan’s brain tells his mind, “Don’t you blow it.”
    Listen up! (Even though it’s inchoate.)
    “My claim’s neat and clean.
    I’m a Turing Machine!”
    … ‘Tis somewhat curious how he could know it.

  8. 8
    bornagain77 says:

    🙂 Tim:

    Alan’s brain tells his mind, “Don’t you blow it.”
    Listen up! (Even though it’s inchoate.)
    “My claim’s neat and clean.
    I’m a Turing Machine!”
    … ‘Tis somewhat curious how he could know it.

    🙂

  9. 9
    bornagain77 says:

    Are Humans merely Turing Machines?
    https://docs.google.com/document/d/1cvQeiN7DqBC0Z3PG6wo5N5qbsGGI3YliVBKwf7yJ_RU/edit

    of related interest:

    The Strange Life and Death of Dr Turing – Part 1 of 2 – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyusnGbBSHE
    Part 2 of 2
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5LHFzNMgWzw

  10. 10
    Mung says:

    …the concept of “emergence” is in danger of being overexploited theologically, risking the charge of being discredited through conceptual inflation. The enthusiasm once demonstrated by theologians for quantum mechanical complementarity now seems to have been transferred to emergence. Although I believe that the notion of emergence is legitimate scientifically and valuable theologically, I feel I must express a degree of concern about its uncritical application in the science and religion dialogue.

    – Alister E. McGrath

  11. 11
    Mung says:

    Much of the modern period was dominated by a `reductionist’ theory of science. On this view, to explain any event in the world is to reduce it down to fundamental particles, laws, and forces. In recent years reductionism has been dramatically challenged by a radically new paradigm called `emergence’. According to this new theory, natural history reveals the continuous emergence of novel phenomena: new structures and new organisms with new causal powers. Consciousness is yet one more emergent level in the natural hierarchy. Many theologians and religious scholars believe that this new paradigm may offer new insights into the nature of God and God’s relation to the world.

    This volume introduces readers to emergence theory, outlines the major arguments in its defence, and summarizes the most powerful objections against it. Written by experts but suitable as an introductory text, these essays provide the best available presentation of this exciting new field and its potentially momentous implications.

    The Re-Emergence of Emergence: The Emergentist Hypothesis from Science to Religion

  12. 12
    Mung says:

    The theme of Lloyd Morgan’s text, as the title suggests, is emergent evolution. According to the author, emergent evolution works upwards from matter, through life, to consciousness which attains in humankind its highest reflective or supra-reflective level. Ultimately, the author posits: If we may acknowledge on the one hand a physical world underlying the phenomenal appearances with which we are acquainted by sense, and, on the other hand, an immaterial Source of all changes therein; if, in other words, we may acknowledge physical events as ultimately involved and God on whom all evolutionary process ultimately depends, then we may, with Kant, but on different grounds, accept both causation and Causality without shadow of contradiction. But unless we also intuitively enjoy God’s activity within us, feeling that we are in a measure one with him in substance, we can have no immediate knowledge of causality or of God as the source of our own existence and emergent evolution.

    Emergent Evolution (Gifford Lectures 1921-1922)

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