A. Reciprocating Bill asks a question
In a comment to a recent post Reciprocating Bill asked why I believe invoking non-physical mental states “solves the problems of consciousness.” It is an interesting question, but not for the reason Bill intended. It is interesting because it betrays Bill’s fundamental misunderstanding of the argument he purports to be critiquing (I am not picking on Bill in particular; I am merely using his error as a platform to discuss the same error that materialists always make when discussing this issue). In this post I will show how Bill’s misunderstanding stems from his inability to view the world outside of the box of materialist metaphysics in which he has allowed himself to become trapped. I will also show that if Bill were ever able to climb out of that box and open his mind to a different, wider (and for that reason superior) ontological perspective, he would realize that consciousness is not a “problem” to be solved but a datum that must be accounted for in any robust ontology.
Here is Bill’s question in its entirety:
In Reference and Reality Hilary Putnam parenthetically remarked, “As Wittgenstein often pointed out, a philosophical problem is typically generated in this way: certain assumptions are made which are taken for granted by all sides in the subsequent discussion.”
I’ve often genuinely wondered why anyone believes that invoking dualism, and in particular an ontology that includes something like nonphysical mental states, solves the problems of consciousness, intentionality and so forth. It’s a fair question to ask how physical systems (like brains and their states) can be “about” other states, can be conscious, etc. But to respond to this difficulty by invoking a dualist ontology, and then assigning intentionality (and or consciousness, or selfhood, or agency) to the nonphysical side of one’s dualistic coin is to my ear an absolutely empty response.
That is because no one has the slightest notion of how a nonphysical mentality might instantiate intentional states (or consciousness, or selfhood, or agency), or how one might go about investigating those questions. How is a nonphysical mentality “about” something else? At least brain states offer many intriguing hooks vis the complex nature of sensory consciousness and representation that may or may not yield insights into this question as cognitive neuroscience progresses.
There is no science of non-physical mentality, nor do i see how there could be one. Ultimately, I suspect that the sequestering of phenomena such as intentionality, consciousness and agency within nonphysical mentality works for many simply because such qualities are smuggled in as the immaterial mind (or soul, or intelligence, or agency, or consciousness, or whatever) is defined as that which nonphysically bears intentionality, consciousness, agency, etc. independent of material states, To then “explain” those phenomena in nonphysical terms becomes essentially a exercise in tautology. But how or why that might be the case, or how to make that notion do any work, no one has clue.
B. The mind is immaterial
While a human is alive his mind and his brain are connected. No one doubts that. Just as assuredly, no one doubts that their own immaterial mind exists. And when I say no one doubts that, I include people like Sam Harris who say they do. Harris does not really doubt that his own mind exists. How do I know? Well, I am fairly sure Harris is not insane, and only an insane person asserts as false that which he must know to be true. It is an odd thing though. If Harris were to say “I’m a poached egg” they would put him in a padded room. But if he says the ontologically equivalent “I’m a meat robot,” they give him a book contract.
Denying that one’s own immaterial mind exists is nuts on the order of “I deny that the pronoun ‘I’ in this sentence has any antecedent.” And Sam Harris, like everyone else, knows for a certain fact that there is indeed an antecedent to that pronoun. Because the existence of one’s immaterial mind is self-evident, its existence can be denied only on pain of descending into patent absurdity. But that is not the only reason we can know with absolute certainty that our own immaterial mind exists. (Yes, I said “absolute” for that knowledge is not corrigible). Here are five more:
1. Thoughts are immaterial.
Think about a horse. Is the thought in your head about a horse an actual horse? Of course not. Is the thought in your head a material thing at all? Obviously not. Think about the number four. I don’t mean count four things. I mean think of the concept of “four.” Is the abstract concept of “four” a material thing? No. Is your thought about the abstract concept of “four” a material thing? No. It follows that thoughts are immaterial, and this is especially obvious when we are thinking about immaterial things such as abstract concepts.
Any attempt to deny this founders immediately on the shoals of the interface problem – how can an immaterial concept interface with a material object? On materialism, consciousness must be reducible to a configuration of physical things (whether we call those physical things “atoms” or “molecules” or “neurons” does not matter; the point is they are physical things). Consider any abstract concept; 2+2=4 will do. Merely saying 2+2=4 is represented somehow in the brain by a configuration of firing synapses does not get you there. 2+2=4 is represented in the pixels of the computer screen in front of you right now. Is your computer screen conscious? Obviously, an immaterial mind has no problem interfacing with an abstract immaterial concept. The burden is on the materialist who asserts that material things can interface with immaterial things to show how that can possibly be true.
2. Material objects cannot exhibit intentionality.
As the Wiki article states, “intentionality” is “the power of minds to be about, to represent, or to stand for things, properties and states of affairs.” Rocks do not exhibit intentionality. A rock does not, for example, have the capacity to assert a belief such as “Washington was the first president.” Similarly, the sentence “The group of oxygen atoms believed that Washington was the first president” is absurd. What is true for oxygen is also true for the atoms of the other elements of the body, i.e., carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, etc.
Suppose one gathers together all of the various elements that compose a human body (i.e., oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, etc.) and mixes those chemicals up in exactly the same quantities and proportions that are found in a human body and puts it all in a bag. That bag of chemicals does not have any more capacity to assert a belief than a rock. Intentionality obviously exists; any attempt to deny its existence would be incoherent. It would be like saying “I believe there are no beliefs.” It follows, therefore, that intentionality exists and that it is not a property of a physical thing. Hence, it is a property of an immaterial mind.
In order to rebut this assertion the materialist would have to explain what is special about a bag of chemicals configured as the human body that it should all of a sudden acquire the capacity for intentionality when the same a different bag of the exact same chemicals does not. The usual response of “it’s all emergent and stuff” is a non-starter. Unless you show how the physical gives rise to the mental, “it’s emergent” is the equivalent of saying “it’s magic!”
3. Qualia are immaterial.
Suppose a person, let’s call her Mary, has a brain disease that makes her see everything in black and white. Mary watches the sun set every night and reads books on sunsets and has spectrometers that tell her all of the pertinent information about the colors of every sunset she watches such that she has complete information about the physical properties of sunsets. Suppose further that one day Mary is cured of the disease and that evening for the first time she sees the colors of the sunset in all the fullness of their glory.
Does Mary now know something about sunsets that she did not know before she was cured? Of course she does. She now has knowledge about her subjective experience of the various colors of the sunset that she did not have before. But Mary did not have any more information whatsoever about the physical properties of sunsets. It follows that her subjective experience of the sunset (e.g., how she might describe the reds as “warm”) cannot be reduced to the physical properties of the sunset which she already knew. Hence, qualia such as this cannot be reduced to physical properties and are therefore immaterial.
4. Subjective self-awareness is immaterial.
As I type this I am looking at an orange bottle on my desk. When I look at the bottle I experience subject-object duality. I experience myself as a subject and the bottle as an object perceived by the subject. Not only do bags of chemicals not have the capacity for intentionality, but also they do not have the capacity for perceiving subject-object duality or any other quality of subjective self-awareness. It follows that subjective self-awareness is the quality of an immaterial thing (i.e., the immaterial mind).
5. The unified consciousness is immaterial.
Here is a “problem” that neuroscience can never hope to address, much less solve. How can the unity of our consciousness be explained by discrete brain events? Do you perceive your own consciousness as this state followed by this state followed by this state followed by this state, ad infinitum? Of course not. Like everyone else you experience your own consciousness as a unified seamless whole. This is not surprising. In fact, it is necessary, because the “self” of which we are subjectively self-aware would not be much of a “self” unless it were a unified self. Thus, intentionality, subject-object duality, and all other aspects of consciousness depend on the existence of this unity.
Neuroscience cannot, in principle, account for this unity for a very simple reason – science operates at the level of composites. We are just a “pack of neurons” Crick says. But how can a pack (i.e., a composite) of individual physical pieces be aware of itself as a unified whole? The question is unanswerable. It follows that the unity of consciousness that every one of us experiences is not a property of a pack of neurons. It is a quality of an immaterial mind.
I will allow David Bentley Hart to summarize for us.
[The] intuitions of folk psychology are in fact perfectly accurate; they are not merely some theory about the mind that is either corrigible or dispensable. They constitute nothing less than a full and coherent phenomenological description of the life of the mind, and they are absolutely “primordial data,” which cannot be abandoned in favor of some alternative description without producing logical nonsense. Simply said, consciousness as we commonly conceive of it is quite real (as all of us, apart from a few cognitive scientists and philosophers, already know— and they know it too, really). And this presents a problem for materialism, because consciousness as we commonly conceive of it is also almost certainly irreconcilable with a materialist view of reality.
David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God
The material mind is a datum. As Hart says, it is the primordial datum. It is a datum that is known by everyone, because it cannot not be known. Thus, when I assert that the mind is immaterial I am not making an argument. I not advancing an “explanation.” I am not trying to “solve a problem.” I am merely stating a fact, a self-evident fact at that.
C. Answering Bill’s Questions.
With all of that as preface, let us turn to Bill’s questions.
1. I’ve often genuinely wondered why anyone believes that invoking dualism, and in particular an ontology that includes something like nonphysical mental states, solves the problems of consciousness, intentionality and so forth.
As I said, I am not attempting to solve the problem of consciousness. Further, I deny that such a thing as the “problem of consciousness” exists, if by “problem” one means a conundrum posed for a solution concerning whether the mind exists. I invoke an ontology that includes nonphysical mental states not to solve a problem but merely to account for the data. To do otherwise would be manifest error. It is an indubitable fact that nonphysical mental states exist, and therefore any ontology that has no room for nonphysical mental states is, by definition, erroneous, incomplete or both.
Facts are stubborn things as John Adams famously said. Denying facts does not make them go away. I readily admit that the fact of the existence of the immaterial mind is not anodyne to those who insist on a materialist metaphysics. But I would point out that if one’s metaphysics conflict with the facts, that is not a problem with the facts. It is a problem with one’s metaphysics.
2. It’s a fair question to ask how physical systems (like brains and their states) can be “about” other states, can be conscious, etc.
It was not intended to be a fair question Bill. It is a rhetorical question, asked only to emphasize that the only coherent answer is “they can’t be.”
3. But to respond to this difficulty by invoking a dualist ontology, and then assigning intentionality (and or consciousness, or selfhood, or agency) to the nonphysical side of one’s dualistic coin is to my ear an absolutely empty response.
What difficulty? There is no difficulty unless you’ve set out to do the impossible by ascribing the attributes of consciousness (intentionality, qualia, unity, etc.) to objects such as atoms or rocks or amalgamations of chemicals. No one “assigns” consciousness to immaterial minds any more than anyone assigns “seeing” to eyes. And that an immaterial mind is the locus of your consciousness is as evident as your eyes are the locus of your capacity to see (perhaps even more evident; blind people think after all). If acknowledging self-evident facts seems somehow “empty” to you, the problem is assuredly with your perception and not with the facts.
4. That is because no one has the slightest notion of how a nonphysical mentality might instantiate intentional states (or consciousness, or selfhood, or agency), or how one might go about investigating those questions. How is a nonphysical mentality “about” something else?
The “interaction” problem is a function of blinkered metaphysics. Adopt a more robust metaphysics and the problem vanishes. Hart again:
In Western philosophical tradition, for instance, neither Platonists, nor Aristotelians, nor Stoics, nor any of the Christian metaphysicians of late antiquity or the Middle Ages could have conceived of matter as something independent of “spirit,” or of spirit as something simply superadded to matter in living beings. Certainly none of them thought of either the body or the cosmos as a machine merely organized by a rational force from beyond itself. Rather, they saw matter as being always already informed by indwelling rational causes, and thus open to— and in fact directed toward— mind. Nor did Platonists or Aristotelians or Christians conceive of spirit as being immaterial in a purely privative sense, in the way that a vacuum is not aerial or a vapor is not a solid. If anything, they understood spirit as being more substantial, more actual, more “supereminently” real than matter, and as in fact being the pervasive reality in which matter had to participate in order to be anything at all. The quandary produced by early modern dualism— the notorious “interaction problem” of how an immaterial reality could have an effect upon a purely material thing —was no quandary at all, because no school conceived of the interaction between soul and body as a purely extrinsic physical alliance between two disparate kinds of substance.
David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God
5. At least brain states offer many intriguing hooks vis the complex nature of sensory consciousness and representation that may or may not yield insights into this question as cognitive neuroscience progresses.
If by “intriguing hooks” you mean facile speculations about how the unbridgeable ontological gulf between the physical and mental is not so unbridgeable after all, I might agree. But if you are actually holding out hope that the gulf will be bridged, you are bound to be disappointed, because the mind is not the brain. Materialists are addicted to debt. The constantly issue epistemic promissory notes that a moment of ontological reflection would reveal they cannot possibly pay. Bill, the bottom line is this: Neuroscience will continue to progress, but it will never progress to the point where it do the impossible — collapse the distinction between the ontological categories “physical” and “mental.”
6. There is no science of non-physical mentality, nor do i see how there could be one.
That is kind of funny, because you appear to be saying in all earnestness that if a fact cannot be investigated through the methods of science, it is a problem with the fact (and not merely evidence of the limitations of science). Let’s unpack this. You seem to be advancing an argument that can be broken down as follows:
There are no facts except those revealed to us by science
Science has not revealed to us the existence of an immaterial mind
Therefore, immaterial minds do not exist.
Surely you know that the major premise cannot possibly be correct as a matter of simple and indubitable logic – because that premise itself has not been revealed to us by science. Therefore, if it is true it must as a result be false. For another thing, as we have already seen, the existence of the immaterial mind is an undeniable fact. Therefore, any argument that leads to the conclusion that it is not a fact must, by definition, be faulty.
7. Ultimately, I suspect that the sequestering of phenomena such as intentionality, consciousness and agency within nonphysical mentality works for many simply because such qualities are smuggled in as the immaterial mind (or soul, or intelligence, or agency, or consciousness, or whatever) is defined as that which nonphysically bears intentionality, consciousness, agency, etc. independent of material states, To then “explain” those phenomena in nonphysical terms becomes essentially a exercise in tautology. But how or why that might be the case, or how to make that notion do any work, no one has clue.
The only reason you suspect that is because of the poverty of your metaphysics. Free yourself. Allow yourself to think beyond the comfortable contours of your metaphysical box, and you will see possibilities you were never able to see before. I promise.