Sunday, November 13, 2005

Science and its discontents

Steve Esser has a very good blog relating to philosophy, of mind and other matters, in which he approaches things from a somewhat different point of view than I do here. As the description of this blog indicates, I'm interested in what I call a "naturalistic" explanation of consciousness and related issues, or what's often called "physicalist" (or, a somewhat older term, "materialist"). Steve, on the other hand, in a recent post on what he sees as a renewed interest in platonism, writes in a concluding paragraph about a "meta-theme" he's been pursuing:

These metaphysical questions are difficult, and simple solutions obviously don’t work or the debates would have ended long ago. What this means to me is that the common presumption that something like physicalist monism should be the "default" metaphysical position is unfounded. More "extravagant" metaphysical systems need to be weighed in the quest to find a better mousetrap for explaining how the world works.

I think that's well expressed -- but I also find it a sign of a disturbing tendency (or at least a possible tendency) to simply or effectively abandon the goal of understanding consciousness in a scientific sense. We can see something like that tendency again in a recent blog post by David Chalmers that interpreted Jaegwon Kim as backing away from physicalism, and adding: "... this makes at least three prominent materialists who have abandoned the view in the last few years". And, with a certain irony, I think we can also see this in the repeated hopes that maybe a "new physics" or some quantum oddity will be needed to cope with consciousness (see Conscious Entities, Nov 10/05) -- these hopes may appear to rely on science, but really, in their invocation of mysterious, unknown theories, become a way of effectively obscuring the problem.

This, of course, is making the assumption that resort to non-physicalist accounts of consciousness (or, generally, anything) represent a form of abandonment of science. I think that's the case, since I think that terms like "physicalist" or "naturalistic" really take their meaning from science -- that is, they can include anything that science itself includes. But it may be that some of this apparent tendency is not so much a reaction against science itself but really against over-reaching by some proponents of a scientific approach, particularly against the sometimes blustery defensiveness that such proponents can display when their grand claims are questioned. This isn't to question real or actual projects in neuroscience or cognitive science as such, in other words, but rather some philosophical stances that are influenced by the goals of such sciences, but are driven to make claims or denials that appear more ideological than scientific. And one of the more egregious illustrations of that is the claim, by Dennett, for example, and some of his more excitable "computationalist" followers, that "qualia" as such don't exist*. Now, qualia, as we've seen, have famously been called "the hard problem of consciousness" (Chalmers), and rightly so, I think, because, for all of Dennett's long-winded hard work manning his various "intuition pumps", the simple fact of phenomenal experience (call it what you will) leaves it still fundamentally ineffable, private, and immediate**. But Dennett's reason for trying so hard to deny this is made evident by just inverting the motivations he attributes to the defenders of qualia:
I suspect, in fact, that many are unwilling to take my radical challenge seriously largely because they want so much for qualia to be acknowledged. Qualia seem to many people to be the last ditch defense of the inwardness and elusiveness of our minds, a bulwark against creeping mechanism. They are sure there must be some sound path from the homely cases to the redoubtable category of the philosophers, since otherwise their last bastion of specialness will be stormed by science.

No doubt this is true for many, as we've seen from the revivals of dualism, panpsychism, platonism, and quantum mysticism. But the reverse wishes also exist: people who want so badly for "mechanism" to triumph that they're anxious to banish, deny, ignore, or "explain away" any phenomena that seem conceptually difficult for a mechanistic orientation -- even phenomena that are quite literally right before their eyes. But "ineffable, private, and immediate" experience, while problematic, doesn't equate to mystic, and certainly doesn't imply "non-physical" -- in an obvious sense, in fact, what we see, hear, touch, etc., is the very essence and basis of the physical. These "computationalists" concede too quickly and too much to the anti-physicalists in accepting their inferences, in other words, and their rigid defenses make their position more a matter of doctrine than of either science or philosophy -- in both ways, they hurt more than help the physicalist program.

*He either denies qualia exist, or, for him equivalently, claims that, for example, a sufficiently sensitive or discriminating machine for analyzing the chemical composition of wine (and, I guess, emitting the results using canned wine-snob phrases) would actually experience the taste of the wine.

** I've left out "intrinsic" from Dennett's list of deniable attributes since I'm unclear what he means by it.
I won't try to make a counter-argument for the other three attributes here -- I would say that I think Dennett mounts a good critique of a number of assumptions that have often gone along with qualia, and a more modest aim might have led to a better result. As it is, he's left with a reluctant late admission that there may indeed be "primary or atomic properties of what one consciously experiences" that are set by "one's current horizon of distinguishability", which in my view pretty much re-admits the core of what he's been arguing against (while clinging, a bit forlornly, to "current" to save face).


At 10:30 AM, November 14, 2005, Blogger Steve said...

Another good post. To emphasize something further: critique of physicalism in no way implies critique of (or abandonment of) science. This is metaphysics we're talking about. The success of methodological naturalism does indeed have implications for metaphysics in my opinion (no ad hoc supernatural interventions, no old-fashioned substance dualism); but there are many philosophical worldviews which can be consistent with science.

At 6:30 PM, November 14, 2005, Blogger Ellis Seagh said...

Thanks for the comment, Steve, and you make an interesting point.

I'll admit to being fairly broad-brush in my post, and overriding a number of more or less subtle distinctions -- e.g. "methodological naturalism" vs. "metaphysical naturalism" -- that are of interest to philosophers. And I'll also grant your general point that there are "many philosophical worldviews which can be consistent with science". My point, however (and it was maybe expressed too hastily) had to do with what I saw as a broad tendency, though not necessarily yours. This is to give priority to a "philosophical worldview", and then, if necessary, shoehorn it into scientific consistency, rather than simply to see the phenomenon under consideration, namely consciousness, as "natural" (all that I see as meant by "physical") and hence amenable to science, and then to fashion one's philosophical worldview accordingly. As I indicated, too briefly, I think that the notion of "physical" simply expands to include anything -- e.g., 11 dimensions, "entanglement", etc. -- that science requires, so when I see a critique of physicalism I do think of that as at least a sign of an abandonment of science (you rarely see an overt critique of science).

Still, I'm interested in what you (or anyone) might see as a non-physical worldview that was still consistent with science in the programmatic sense (i.e., in a stronger sense than merely not contradicting science).

At 7:38 PM, June 13, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Think the issue tend to be the whole Nonphysical vs physical or Supernatural vs natural are things that only have value to a European cosmology and European Social history and interpretation of Reality and linguistics interpretation tied to European culture experiences projected on the world. "Faith vs Reason" etc . In Buddhism there is only consciousness and energy .Think the language is entangled in specific social and religious conflict of the west and have little to do with the tool called science . In West Africa there is only nature there no social conflict between using science and being a human being/spiritual and world of meaning that I find in Western culture .

Think I'd argue With Western culture the conflict goes back to the belief in finding "absolute True Descriptions of Everything in reality " Which goes from Religious explanations and conflict over it from Catholicism to the Christian Protestant reformation. to using Science for absolute explanations "Scientism" .which turned science into a kind of intellectual religion only based on a philosophical world-view of materialism.

At 7:43 PM, June 13, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would say that in another culture science is simply a tool that explain an aspect of reality.

But in Western History Science becomes a fundamental description of all things in reality and a place of contest and fighting .Where new beliefs are formed "Futurist concepts of social progress through machines " Enlightenment beliefs etc" Are tied the history of science . The Search for absolute objectivity etc.

Which make sense given most of the recent history of science take place in Modern Europe , and is subjected to Modern European conflicts .


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