Sunday, October 23, 2016

An Atheist Reviews The Last Superstition: A Refutation Of The New Atheism (Chapter 5 Decent of the Modernists - Part 2: Inventing the mind-body problem)

iconInventing the mind-body problem

In this section of chapter 5 Feser begins by targeting the philosopher who seems to be his public enemy number one: Rene Descartes. It was he who rejected the Aristotelian account in favor of the "mechanistic philosophy" that we still know of today that rejects formal and final causes. But doing this inevitably results in an apparent "disaster": the complete undermining of the possibility both of moral evaluation and of reason itself. (186) Before getting there, Feser here summarizes the mechanistic view of the world for the most part accurately and notes the differences between primary and secondary qualities.

Primary qualities include solidity, extension, figure, motion, number and the like, and in particular any quality that can be mathematically quantified and which does not vary in any way from observer to observer. Secondary qualities include colors, sounds, tastes, odors, and so forth, and an object's having them amounts to nothing more than a tendency to cause us to have certain sensations. (189)

I would add that things like solidity wouldn't technically be a primary quality since solidity is nowhere to be found fundamentally, but is an emergent property of matter at higher levels. But this is not really relevant here. What is relevant is whether the secondary qualities exist in the objective world or they exist only in the mind of observers. On the "mechanistic" view the answer is no, Feser explains, and so a soul must exist that is separate from the physical body that interacts with it like a "ghost in the machine." But without this, the materialist seems to have a problem. How does the materialist explain qualia, the conscious experiences that determines what it's like to have it? A few examples would be in the experience of seeing red versus seeing green, of tasting coffee versus tasting cheese, or of feeling warm versus feeling cold. They're all different sensations, and yet "one cluster of neurons firing seems qualitatively pretty much like any other, and certainly very different from these sensations [such that] it is hard to see how any sensation could be reduced to or explained in terms of nothing but the firing of neurons." (191)

Yes it is hard, but not impossible. Here we still have the genuine mystery of qualia. Since the human brain is the most complex thing in the known universe, it's going to take a bit longer to unravel its mysteries than many other things. One underlying assumption in Feser's above understanding is that the neurons in the brain fire the same way when you see the color red versus seeing the color green. But why should we think that's true? Different neurons fire when we see different wavelengths of light.

Cells in the retina called "opponent neurons" fire when stimulated by incoming red light, and this flurry of activity tells the brain we're looking at something red. Those same opponent neurons are inhibited by green light, and the absence of activity tells the brain we're seeing green. Similarly, yellow light excites another set of opponent neurons, but blue light damps them. While most colors induce a mixture of effects in both sets of neurons, which our brains can decode to identify the component parts, red light exactly cancels the effect of green light (and yellow exactly cancels blue), so we can never perceive those colors coming from the same place.

So different physical processes are at work when we see different colors. The experience of seeing red is just another way of talking about the physical brain undergoing the electrochemical signals travelling through it when the retina received the wavelength of red and certain neurons fire. It's similar to talking about an object as solid even though fundamentally it's just made up of empty space and quantum fields. We still don't know exactly how the physical brain gives rise to qualia but I have no reason to think there is anything non-physical involved that is causal.* I'm open to the mind possibly having a non-physical ontology that is epiphenomenal in nature, meaning, it's an emergent property of physical brains that's causally impotent. But any notion of an immaterial mind having a physical force on matter (like the kind Feser claims, see my review of chapter 4) is unambiguously ruled out by science. Not only do we fully understand all the laws of physics that govern the everyday realm which includes the brain (and therefore anything having to deal with consciousness) and which leaves no room for a mind force to causally effect atoms, but all of neuroscience has repeatedly shown unconscious brain activity precedes conscious awareness, exactly what we'd expect on materialism.**

But Feser claims intentionality, where the mind is directed towards or represents things beyond itself, should be obvious that "it is simply a conceptual impossibility that it should ever be explained in terms of or reduced to anything material". (194) He adds, "the mind cannot possibly be any kind of material system, including the brain." He will make this argument more forceful in the next and last chapter, but for now let me just say that there is absolutely no reason to think that mind cannot be caused by, or be a property of the brain. (Feser's view also has the potential to undermine all scientific research on consciousness, which could hinder intellectual progress, which is one major reason why I hate religious thinking.) I just read Sean Carroll's latest book The Big Picture where he covers every ontological level of reality as we can understand it from the quantum to the everyday human level, and everything in between. In the book he produces the view known as poetic naturalism. This view rejects the eliminative materialism where everything is reduced down to the most fundamental constituents and nothing else has ontological status. Poetic naturalism on the other hand recognizes that there exists higher levels of ontology apart from what exists at the most fundamental level and that these higher levels represent different ways of talking about the universe, like describing a building with different description for each floor. Each description can exist independently of one another, and a description of one floor does not necessarily require knowledge of the other floors. For example, you don't need to know a shred of quantum mechanics in order to understand sociology, or even biology. Each explanation of the world exists in its own domain and is not necessarily dependent on the other.

The mind is similar to that. It's another way of describing the physical brain. When the mind is thinking about something it is always due to a physical brain state that produces that thought no matter what it's about: a person, unicorns, Narnia, Yahweh, anything. If we change the brain state, we change the thought. Individual atoms don't have to be about something for large systems of atoms to be able to represent conscious thoughts about things. To claim so would be to make the fallacy of division, which Feser has made numerous times in his book. The whole has properties the parts don't have. Moreover, we can read the contents of one's brain to know what a person is thinking at a rudimentary level. That proves brain states can indeed causally explain mental states, including all intentional states. This is obvious to anyone familiar with the recent findings in neuroscience, which Feser apparently wasn't at the time of his writing. And to try to claim that the mental states exist independently of and causally effect the physical brain is to violate the Standard Model in quantum mechanics. Not only that, it would also be admitting that a particular physical brain state does indeed have a mental correspondence without a reason why only the mental can cause the physical and not the other way around. So that's a non-starter. So far from being conceptually impossible, Feser's view is completely refuted by modern science. And this is not to say modern science has "figured out" consciousness, but we know enough to rule out Feser's view on consciousness as false, and that whatever consciousness is, is ultimately going to be explained by the brain, if it can be explained at all.

Feser takes another severely misinformed swipe at secularism again on page 195, conflating it with atheism as he's done throughout his book, either out of ignorance or malice (or both). And he assumes materialism necessarily leads to eliminative materialism rather than the kind directly refuted by Carroll's poetic naturalism.

He mentions the well known interaction problem in mind-body dualism not realizing the same problem effects his own view. On pages 196-197 he writes:

But for the mind as understood in Descartes's sense to have any causal influence on the body, it would surely have to transfer energy into the physical universe; and for the body to have a causal influence on the soul, it would have to transfer energy out of the physical universe. Hence the notion of souls and bodies interacting seems, if understood Descartes's way, to violate the laws of physics.

Correct Feser. And yet, Feser described his very own "explanation" of the mind back on page 127:

When the intellect determines that a certain course of action is the best one to take and the will follows it, the body proceeds to move in a way that constitutes the action. The operation of the intellect and will constitute in this case is the formal-cum-final cause of the action, of which the firing of the neurons, flexing of the muscles, etc. are the material cause. (127)

Feser has repeatedly said the mind or intellect can't be physical or caused by the physical (it's "impossible" according to him) and yet Feser's own view entails an immaterial mind or "intellect" casually interacting with the physical brain — which he just acknowledged would violate the laws of physics! Otherwise, what the heck is it that makes the body proceed to move in a way that's in accordance with the intellect? Was it going to do so anyway via a purely material process irrespective of the intellect and will? If so, what's the point of the intellect here? How is it causal? Is it just a coincidence that the physical body moves according to what the intellect and will just so happens to think? If this is not the case, Feser is indeed arguing for an immaterial mind having a causal effect on the body in exactly the same way he recognizes is in violation with the laws of physics.

Feser's trick here is to claim that the soul's interaction with the body on his view is via that of "formal causes" and not material ones. The soul is just "the form, essence, or nature that makes the matter of the body into a living human body rather than a tree, rock, or ball," he writes. "In other words, the soul-body connection is no different from the form-matter relationship existing everywhere else in nature." (196) But that explains nothing. The form, essence, or nature of a human is purely physical and governed by purely physical forces, and don't exist in the way Thomists think they do. As I covered in my review of chapters 2 and 3, there is no reason to think forms exist. There are just physical things categorized into different kinds. And even the acceptance of natural kinds entails no necessary contradiction with nominalism. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The natural kind nominalist may accept that there are genuinely natural classifications, but will reject the idea that we should invoke any object as a consequence. For example, the nominalist might take the world to be made up of individuals, which can be classified as kinds in a natural way. But, the nominalist claims, there is no kind of entity beyond the individual instances of each kind....There is no immediate contradiction in the position of a nominalist who rejects universals, but who maintains that there is a metaphysical difference between natural properties and other properties.

And sorites paradox shows the conceptual problem with Aristotle's Theory of Forms and the nature of essences. Nature doesn't always give us clear lines of demarcation between one thing and another; they often blend right into one another. And the slow gradual changes involved in evolution shows us how thinking there's an essence, form, or nature to "humanness" is highly problematic. Formal causes don't really exist; they're made up. They are, to borrow Feser's own words from earlier in the chapter, "an exercise in mere wordplay and irrelevant hair-splitting, rather than a serious investigation of the real world." And with that, Feser's attempt at an excuse out of the interaction problem falls flat. Just like Descartes's substance dualism, Feser's view, sometimes called hylomorphism, also violates the laws of physics. A Thomist can say that formal causes exist along side material causes, like two different aspects of the same thing, but if he concedes that there is no interaction between the soul, mind, or the intellect with the body, whereby the former causally effects the latter, he's conceding that a purely physical system with no non-physical causes can operate and get us to behave exactly as we do. And if he denies that, then he has to admit there's a non-physical force that can causally interact with the physical body. For this reason, among others, I can't see how Thomism makes any sense with respect to the mind-body problem, or consciousness at all.

*When I use the terms "cause" or "causal" throughout this and other posts I am using the defintion used in this post: the relationships of intersecting worldtubes as they precede or intertwine with one another in spacetime; they're a description of the relationship between patterns and boundary conditions.
**See also The "Halle Berry Neuron" Helps Show The Mind Is Caused By The Brain

← Chapter 5 - Part 1

A theist who agrees with Feser took the time to critique my review and I responded to him. In my response I clarify many parts of my original critique that perhaps I should have worded better and I address many of his misunderstandings of my review. For further elaboration on my review, see A Reply To Steven Jake On The Last Superstition.

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