Archive for June 2008

Dennett and the Mind

June 12, 2008

Ubiquitous Che got me thinking a bit about Dennett’s theory of the mind. The strange thing about this is that I actually wrote a draft a few weeks ago about memes, modularity and the unity of consciousness argument but gave up because a lack of direction/willpower. For those of you not in the know, Dennett has taken Jerry Fodor’s modularity theory of the mind to new heights after marrying it to Dawkins’ memetics. It’s probably to fair to note that Dennett does the heavy lifting for those gentlemen’s fine ideas.

Now, it probably isn’t a secret that I am fundamentally opposed to Dennett’s proposal. It is doubly fair to qualify the following to be in response to this question: Why in the world did nature suddenly produce and select consciousness? (Context here)

To begin with, what do we take to be an adequate explanation or answer to that question? Obviously we aren’t going to exhaustively answer the most probing of questions on an unpopular blog run by pretentious jerks, but it’s fair to say that we can probably just intuit a good explanation from a bad one. A good explanation for why your sister is sick in bed could look something like- “Because she ate a homeless guy’s sock”. A bad explanation for why your sister is sick in bed could look something like- “Because she hasn’t gotten out of bed except to vomit”. The latter gives evidence for the claim that she is sick, whereas we are looking for an explanation of why this vomiting/sickness might be happening. This may seem like a ridiculous thing for me to elaborate on, but this confusion of ground and consequent is quite common. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received an answer like “because evolution produced it!!1 lol” to the question “why did nature select consciousness for survival?”. Moving on…

Modularity theories of the mind generally posit at least some “modules” that process information internally and perform some functions without reference to other external systems (a global workspace or other modules). Before my dualist constituency jumps on this theory, I must confess that it is probably true in a limited sense. Perception is probably one of these modules. This appears to be a mandatory operation (key point) of the mind that is generally inaccessible to the conscious mind (whatever that is). In any case, Dennett is arguing for more than just a few modules in the brain that explain some functions of the mind. Rather, he would explain the entire illusion of the Cartesian Theater in terms of memes (read: his version of modules) which, of course, would explain the mind in terms of evolutionary mechanisms (which would answer my question with a punch to my realist face).

Or would it?

Admittedly, this sort of thinking is a step in the “right” direction for functionalists. But a step in the right direction does not necessarily mean that it is true or accounts for certain facts that I take to be basic to my belief structure. I have a few problems with Dennett’s modularity theory that capitalize on this realist sense that I have. For one, I don’t experience rough transitions in my consciousness. That is, if my mind is really a set of modules that is determined by the atomic-meme (a basic cultural unit) then I should think that my mind wouldn’t “flow”. However, something appears to tie all these different facets (modules) of my mind together, and what better candidate than a Cartesian Theater? To put it differently, there may very well be some modules, but continuity suggests something fluid and all-pervasive (a global workspace). Furthermore, memes themselves are not intrinsically meaningful. To quote Angus Menuge at length:

If memes are like atoms, then they can interpret neither themselves nor other memes, and must always behave in the same blind fashion. Yet, in the case of all proposed examples of memes, it is obvious that the interpretation of a meme makes a difference to how it behaves. Consider the candidate meme, “Just Do It.” While this phrase may have been successful in promoting mindless hedonism, we are all glad it has not influenced those in charge of nuclear missiles…The context defining a meme’s interpretation is crucial to whether it will influence action. But…this presupposes an interpreter with a point of view.

Angus Menuge, “Intelligent Design, Darwinism and Psychological Unity,” Philosophia Christi 10 (2008):126.

This brand of argumentation is commonly known as the “Unity of Consciousness Argument“. While I don’t claim to have said anything novel about the argument here, I do think that Dennett has completely missed the point of introducing memetics into modularity. Whether or not memetics is a serious, scientifically plausible (or useful) tool when it comes to the mind is left just as mysterious as before. At best, all Dennett has done is push the question back one further into something less tangible. Further, what are we really accomplishing given Dennett’s rather speculative theory? Despite it’s novelties, I’d say not much. Dennett wants to say that his memes provide all the firepower for our illusory Theater. But even if it did, does it solve the problems of endurance through time? Neverminding unity for a second, does it provide a reasonable account of rational mental states? His position, when coupled with his outlook on the natural (memetic) emergence of religion equates to something like:

D) Our mental content can be explained in virtue of our memetic history.

Unfortunately for Dennett, he belongs to the group “our” designates and is therefore subject to (D) the same as we theists are. So, either his memes explain our mental content (including his) or it does not. If it does, then the only reason Dennett believes what he does is because of memetic history. If not, then he has not explained our mental content. Either way, I’m not impressed with the proposal.

I think I’ll stick my realism concerning mental states for now.

A Tale of Two, um… Tales

June 8, 2008

There’s something dreadfully wrong with this life. The human race is capable of startling nobility, acting in accordance with what are classified as virtues of the highest level. Returning good for evil; noble self-sacrifice for the good of another; responding in gentleness and love to vehement outbursts. In short, the Christian ethic — for no other is higher, contrary to whatever the likes of Nietzsche and Rand might whine. Yet the human race is equally capable of the most disgusting, vile, hateful acts. Brutal homicide. Rapacious lust. The self-destructive flame of pride. The hideousness of Auschwitz guards. Wholesale genocide. Repetitious torture. Costly negligence. Greed like a bottomless pit. Oh, we have so much iniquity seared into our bones. And all too often, we put on a self-righteous facade and distance ourselves from that kind of nastiness. Surely we, as civilized, decent individuals, could never do such things. And by and large, we don’t, at least not at that level. But we could. It’s within us, the same infectious spore that contaminates the hearts of those who break others for their own gain, who rape, extort, torture, murder, who scheme and plot, who flaunt ill-gotten gains in the faces of the destitute, the impoverished, the disadvantaged. It’s in us. I know it’s in me. I’ve felt the eruption of this disease. A burning coldness within the innermost regions of selfhood. A grating whisper, a contorted mask, a wicked command. A blazing drive, a thirst. A thirst for sexual gratification, for violence, for power and influence, for riches, for wanton destruction. I’ve felt it. And so have you. Maybe not in quite the same ways, and maybe not always in the same degree. But you know it’s there. It’s in us all.

It’s manifestly clear that although we have our noble threads, there’s a great darkness in the human heart, and injustice shines out of that watery matrix. What can be said of this? What can be done? Who among you has not wept in the face of the agony? Who among you has not been brokenhearted at the thought of a starving Ethiopian child? Which of you hasn’t felt weak to the knees on contemplating the situation in Darfur? Or the horrors of Nazi Germany? The Reaper’s eyes glare through the mists of time, and his bony hands clutch the ends of the earth. Death. Misery. Illness. Devastation. Burdens. The excruciating spiral down into madness.

We could turn to a thorough-going materialism, of course, in face of the terror. But as we gaze deeply into that, what does it bring? We are absolutely nothing but matter arranged in a certain fashion, with certain chemical processes marking us out from other arrangements of matter. Life is, ultimately, nothing but a distinctive feature of the chemical operations being exchanged. Nothing better or worse than any other manner of processes. No objective reason that “life” should be superior to its cessation. Nothing wrong with effecting the shift from one mode of functioning to another. Nothing wrong with killing. And for that matter, consciousness is entirely reducible to a particular exchange of impulses in the brain. Same for any particular variation on that, such as pain or pleasure. Nothing ethically distinct between inducing one or the other, or between consciousness and its alternatives. What, then, is wrong with the thought of a man lifting a weeping child and thrusting a short dagger into a growing belly, letting young entrails pour out onto the cold ground? That child’s pain is simply one manner in which matter can interact. And nothing higher exists to censure it and praise the alternative “action” of, say, giving bread to a malnourished beggar. It’s all just matter, and nothing more to tell, for materialism is inevitably reductionistic. Nothing ultimately different between what transpired in Auschwitz’s gas chambers and a speech about blessedness delivered in first-century Palestine by some insignificant Jewish preacher. Matter in action. Morality, a farce. Nothing but the combination of deterministic physical interactions and the occasional indeterministic quantum fluctuation. Certainly nothing teleological lying behind either, of course. And so no space for agent causality and other assorted myths like free will, moral responsibility, justice, freedom of choice, virtue, vice, and rational thought. And no hope for anything different in the future. Just a failed collection of biological specks. As Dogbert once quipped to Dilbert, “organic pain collector[s] hurtling towards oblivion”. So why feed the hungry? Why care at all for the sick? It’s neither better nor worse than, say, desecrating your great-grandfather’s grave, or depriving the needy to get another coin in your pocket, or depleting our natural resources with wanton abandon. For what does it matter if humanity lasts even another year? It makes no cosmic significance whether a nuclear Armageddon wipes out all life on earth next week. Our survival surely isn’t some objective good. There are no objective goods; they rest on the shoulders of teleology and intentionality. No difference between life and death, between perseverance and desperate suicide. No good, no evil. Just brute fact. Unexplainable and unexplained. No reason for hope.

Yet we live on. We act as if there is some deeper purpose behind it all, as if how we conduct ourselves matters. We have mental events distinct from brain events. We construct a hierarchy of goods, imposing it upon the realm of matter and function. We condemn the deeds of Dahmer and exult in the example of Gandhi. We almost universally press on, even through our darkest hours, even when it seems that our own personal hierarchy (pain is an evil to be avoided) conflicts with that perseverance. Others, of course, select death over pain or solitude. But, by and large, we see continuation as a good that, even combined with that pain, secures a positive net entry into our little mental notation. We have hope. We behave as though minds genuinely exist, and as though moral responsibility is a true aspect of mortal life. We instinctively know that things are not as materialistic reductionism would lead us to perceive. We know better.

There is, of course, a perspective far more consonant with what we immediately perceive. There’s a world that includes mental substances and mental events, things not reducible to the merely material. Things not wholly determined by physical events. There is moral responsibility. There is objective wrong and objective right. Our reasoning faculties are not just interacting particles and chemical signals; they are also mental events that can fit together in a logically coherent whole. We can look at Auschwitz and rightly condemn; we can look at Mother Theresa and rightly praise. And this is reasonable. But there is still something horribly wrong. Something sinister at the core. For, as before, we see that extremities of good and evil reside within us. Great virtue, great vice. The former is no problem, we like that… but what of this latter, this grotesque inclination that erupts in violence and degradation?

Perhaps there is an answer. Something higher, a source for this abundant teleology. A reason why death is bad and life is good. A fundamental ground that serves as the originator of mental substances that are seemingly conjoined unexpectedly with matter. Call this what you will. But perhaps in such a postulate, if it be true, there is cause for hope.

Some think so. Some tell a sweeping saga about a love. It concerns, you see, the Teleology Provider expressing great distress over the way things have gone, and so there is invasion. The schizophrenic world received visitation like no other. An Untainted One felt our filthy touch and reached out fearlessly with spotless hands of His own. A power was promised, a power was offered. Grime of the heart, soaked in the blood of perfect life. A new people, snatched from old ways, living in the interim between two eras. A community, bound together by bloodshed offered freely. And an infinite force taking up residence among the members as though in a sanctuary. Of course, there’s still that thorny matter of the in-between, the paradox. But in that, there’s a promise. Now is partial; then shall be full. A new age, the new age. Perfection comes. Justice done, death undone. A banquet for the hungry, flowing water for the thirsty. Wealth for the destitute, new robes for the naked. Wholeness for the broken. Tears a moist memory. Violence gone; no more violation, no more shame. The new people, the temple people, the community, blessed for a new age. Healing. Hope for the helpless, rest for the weary, love for a broken heart. Mercy and grace, might and pardon. All because of an invasion, ferried in by the Untainted One who took stains from the stained.

That’s at least how the narrative goes. So many stories. Some hopeful, some fearful. I’ve told two. One wretched to the core, painted with blood at its very foundation. Not even reason survives its touch. Nearly every basic belief is called into question or outright denied, though most back away from its darker, deeper corridors. Another also has blood at its foundation. But not mine, and not yours. God’s. It offers hope and encourages truth, reason, and virtue. It displays standards by which to truly evaluate acts.

I know which story solves a very real problem, and which story reduces the problem into insignificant brute reality at the expense of every value anyone has ever held. I know which story tells me that I should be dismayed at evil and overjoyed at good. I know which story tells me to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend to the wounded, and comfort the hurting. I know which story enables and unlocks true humanity, if only we’ll be saturated by the epic. I know which story speaks of change, and which one speaks of dreadful stasis.

Which story do you tell?

Lycan’s Four Objections to Substance Dualism

June 6, 2008

This is from Lycan’s contributions to the Blackwell Companion to Philosophy (“Philosophy of Mind”):

1. Immaterial minds do not fit with the emerging picture of the physical world. Science keeps peering further into the nature of previously mysterious areas and gives us a causal account of things explicable in terms of physical goings-on.

I have to admit that, although we are left without a specific objection here, this one probably makes the dualist quiver the most. It was a combination of this kind of objection coupled with the arguments for the non-identity of mental states to brain-states that drove me into the arms of Emergent Dualism. However, this objection ought not to level anyone’s belief about the mind as long as they have significant reasons for rejecting reductionistic accounts.

2. Evolution would’ve had to produce immaterial minds somewhere along the lines of our lineage which seems improbable/inexplicable. How and when would this have happened?

Actually, I would extend this objection to non-dualists as well- why in the world did nature suddenly produce and select consciousness? Isn’t that something just as mysterious? Unless naturalists can provide a reason for the existence of consciousness, they are left gasping for explanation. Further, most dualists are not just dualists about philosophy of mind but of explanations as well. To elaborate a bit, we explain phenomena not just in terms of physical laws (of selection, genetics and neurobiology, for instance) but of teleology. Nature and her laws are here to produce some kind of effect; namely, consciousness. Therefore, we will not exhaust an explanation of the mind by recourse to physical history of biological entities (even though such a history is important).

3. How can minds interact in space-time if they are immaterial?

One can then ask, how does matter interact with other matter? What is causation, and what exactly allows the causal relation between physical entities? The point being, there is no formal contradiction in saying that immaterial minds and material bodies interact with each other. It may be mysterious, but no more mysterious than the nature of causation or physical relations.

4. There must be some kind of exchange of energy if the mind is to interact with the body (laws of conservation and so on).

To be honest, I don’t get this objection. We do not understand the mind very much at all yet, so it is difficult to speak with any kind of force to this issue. There are possible answers to this questions, however. There could be some kind of psychic energy (which I think has been put forward by John Eccles), or perhaps “holes” in the laws of conservation via Quantum Mechanics, or maybe we do not live in a closed system and so the mind would introduce new “energy” into our system without violating said laws. Further, our thinking on the matter may be entirely egregious at the moment considering our vastly small understanding of the physical world. In other words, I take a wait-and-see approach with this last objection.

Two stories about honor

June 5, 2008

I am reading J E Lendon’s Empire of Honour. He argues that the Roman empire was, more or less, run on honor. He surveys a wide range of texts without attempting to determine if they are “historical” or not, but rather looks for ideas about how people thought. (more…)

Elisha and his maulin’ bears

June 4, 2008

While looking up passages and materials for a prelude to a “OT god vs NT god” event I will be running at my church, I came across the Elisha and bears passage. From a social-science perspective it struck me as fascinating: I wanted to know what factors played into the obvious honor challenge, and how it could be that a fairly large group of people could have grouped together for what seemed to be the sole purpose of mocking Elisha. Please read this as a reflective post. Note too that I am writing another version of this with expansion on some unclear points. (more…)

Sovereignty vs. Free Will

June 4, 2008

Stumbling through the blogosphere brought me to this interesting post and, subsequently, this oft-repeated dilemma:

So, the question remains… are we ultimately self-determining, meaning that we have the free moral ability to choose Him and based upon this choice of Him, God “elects” us? (It doesn’t seem to me like God is choosing anything here, but that He is just acknowledging our choice to come to Him.)

Or, is God ultimately self-determining… meaning that according to His sovereign election He chooses some to salvation according to His electing Grace?

First off, I would like to point out that even this apparently Calvinist notices the deep-seated connection between freedom and moral responsibility- …we have the free moral ability…. That, to me, is a fairly stunning and refreshing admission (whether or not the author views it as an admission is another issue). Second, I really have no idea what the word sovereignty means anymore. I hear it used all the time, and when I confront divine-determinists about it they usually retort that it means that God is in control. Thank goodness we aren’t ambiguous. For me, it comes down to this: does God cause all that happens? If not, then what does He cause? Does He cause calamity, faith, sin? Does he micromanage or does He sit back unconcerned? Is there a possible middle route?

I tend to think that God does not cause everything in the truest sense of the word cause, though He does often contribute to “causes” and provides the necessary conditions for us to do things. Take salvation for example. We certainly aren’t searching for God prior to salvation. God uses his drawing power and grace to put us in a salvific situation. Does God cause us to be saved? Doubt it. If so, then I have some questions:

*Why not save everyone? God appears to want all to be saved.
*Why the show? Let’s just end all this pain and suffering and take the elect the heaven and send the un-elect to hell.
*Why tease the unelect? Doesn’t appear to be much use in badgering those He never elected with offers of salvation.

Anyway, I think that words like “sovereignty” and “control” are more or less useless, and should be left out of this particular debate.