Friday, July 24, 2009

FPR on Space Travel

Over at Front Porch Republic, Jason Peters has an hilarious take on the proposed Mission to Mars.

I disagree with him on one thing:

I caught a piece on NPR Monday evening about the possibilities of a Martian voyage. If I got the story right, we’d need 180 days for the trip there and then a 500-day layover at the Red Dust Daze Inn to wait for a planetary alignment conducive to the leisurely 180-day commute back home.

So about three years without beer, baseball, and soft personnel.

If there is one thing of which we can be certain, it is that any forthcoming space mission will be exquisitely diversified along racial and sexual lines. So there will definitely be "soft personnel" stuffed in that interplanetary tin can for 860 days. Given the instability that may be lurking even in the unconscious of those with the "Right Stuff", the trip might more resemble a contemporary "reality show" than the path to glory of the Apollo program. How long into the trip will it take before the astronauts figure out that nothing has gone on, nothing is going on, and nothing will go on during that long trip? Especially when, after a week or so, everyone on Earth has lost interest in what they are doing?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

George Will and pop culture

George Will sometimes tries a little too hard to be clever and makes a fool of himself, as in this column on global warming. The global warming commentary is fine, but he ends the column with this self-inflicted wound:

"And why, regarding climate change, the U.S. government, rushing to impose unilateral cap-and-trade burdens on the sagging U.S. economy, looks increasingly like someone who bought a closetful of platform shoes and bell-bottom slacks just as disco was dying."

Platform shoes and bell-bottom slacks were early '70s, disco late 70's, the difference an eternity in pop culture. Marcia Brady wore platform shoes on the Brady Bunch in 1972 when I was in 4th grade; by the time I was in high school in 1978, when disco was king, no one would be caught dead in them, especially white-suit wearing disco divas like Tony Manero (John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever). Even the nerds like me had figured it out. Will is trying to make the point that the U.S. government is catching the climate-change wave just as it is petering out, but he's really only proven that the clever pop culture references should be left to the experts.

Or in, other words, there are some times of nerd - the clever, bow-tie wearing kind - that are just embarrassing.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Wiping out with St. Thomas

The Boston Sunday Globe has a good article on a TV show my family loves - "Wipeout" - and brings in none other than St. Thomas Aquinas for some perspective:

Slapstick equals humility, and humility - as St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out - equals truth. St. Thomas would have cautioned that salvation remains a serious business: it’s called the Fall of Man, after all, not the Wipeout of Man. But as a sideshow to the obstacle course of righteousness, we can enjoy “Wipeout.”

Friday, July 17, 2009

Derb on Space Exploration

John Derbyshire is spot on with his analysis of manned space exploration.  Here is his common sense analysis of the shuttle.

The thing to remember about space exploration is that it is not like going from one place to another on the surface of the Earth. It is like climbing out of a very, very deep well (Earth), scooting across a barren surface, then diving down another deep well (the Moon or another planet). It takes a lot of energy to get up and out of those wells, and so there needs to be good payoff for it to be worthwhile. Unfortunately, the only thing at the bottom of the wells within reasonable distance of the Earth is... nothing. The moon is just a big hunk of rock. So is Mars. There isn't much point in expending all the energy to get there and back. If you want a barren landscape, the Mojave Desert is available. And it has an atmosphere.

Space is the most inhospitable environment for human beings imaginable. If we really want to start making things happen on other planets, the way to do it is to forget about manned space travel and use automated systems. A space probe doesn't care that it can't breathe in a vacuum and that it's -100 degrees C. Spend the money on engineers like me and not hot-shot flyboy astronauts.

The difference between space travel and the 15th century explorers was, as Derb points out, that there was a fairly big and immediate payoff to terrestrial exploration. Spices, gold, new and exotic plant and animal life, native girls... these things made the trip worthwhile. There aren't any native girls on the Moon.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Harry Potter and the objective moral order

OK, a post at the Blue Boar got my Harry Potter juices going. I know I'm a voice crying in the wilderness on this one, and a lot of people are bored silly with Harry Potter. But here goes anyway.

A problem with the Potter series is that it is objectively disordered in a moral sense. This has nothing to do with whether Harry Potter develops morally, or how he feels about what he does, or even what people say about the moral order in the books. What matters is the objective consequences of actions. Is the moral order violated? Then the violator must suffer the consequences, however he feels. Crime and Punishment is a great book because it doesn't stop with Raskolnikov feeling bad about murdering the old lady. The moral order is affirmed only when Raskolnikov confesses his crime and submits to his sentence in a labor camp.

The consequences don't necessarily have to be legal, but they must be objective. Michael Corleone doesn't suffer legal consequences in The Godfather, but the moral order is affirmed because he ends up destroying the very thing he sought to defend by crossing over the line - his family. Not only does he end up divorcing his wife Kay, his children become strangers to him and he ends up killing his brother-in-law and, then, even his own brother Fredo.

In the Lord of the Rings, the moral order is consistently affirmed; not just in the consequences to the bad guys like Sauron, but especially when the good guys go wrong. When Pippin illicitly looks into a magic globe, he immediately suffers the consequences of his transgression - a terrifying mind meld with Sauron.

Harry Potter and his friends consistently violate the moral order in large ways and small, but there are rarely objective consequences. Sometimes there are subjective consequences - Harry might feel bad about it - but he eventually gets over it. In Ch. 16 of The Sorcerer's Stone, for example, Harry and his friends Ron and Hermione are racing to recover the Sorcerer's Stone before the bad guys get it. Neville Longbottom, another friend, stands in their way because the students are not supposed to leave the dorm. Unfortunately for Neville, he hasn't accounted for the ruthlessness of Harry Potter. Neville has prepared to defend himself in the normal physical way, but even though Harry has Ron and Hermione with him and could quickly overpower Neville and move on, he orders Hermione to take care of the problem magically, so Hermione paralyzes Neville with magic - the Full Body Bind. It's clear from the text that it is a horrifying experience: "Neville's arms snapped to his sides. His legs sprang together. His whole body rigid, he swayed where he stood and then fell flat on his face, stiff as a board... Neville's jaws were jammed together so he couldn't speak. Only his eyes were moving, looking at them in horror." 

Of course Hermione feels bad about it, in fact she's "really, really sorry about this." Well, that makes it OK then, doesn't it? As long as you are sorry about it.  Harry adds a little utilitarian rationalization - "We had to Neville, no time to explain", although Harry finds the time to indulge his curiosity about the spell Hermione used. His technical interest aside, Harry is indifferent to Neville's fate. The difference between Neville and Harry is that it never occurred to Neville to go outside the moral order (by using forbidden magic) to restrain Harry, while Harry is "resourceful" enough to have no such qualms. Why should he have any qualms? Unlike Pippin, Harry does just fine using illicit magic, a positive consequence that undermines the moral order that forbade Harry from using it in the first place.

It's a good exercise when reading Harry Potter to remember that most of what they do with magic can be done with normal means - the Full-Body Bind, for example, is the moral equivalent of tasering someone. Is Harry justified tasering another student (an innocent one) because that student is in the way of Harry's self-appointed mission? Is a student ever justified in tasering anyone on his own authority? Did the Potter series illustrate an objective moral order, then Harry would suffer some sort of objective consequences for this action. Maybe Hermione's spell would get out of control and they would kill Neville rather than paralyze him; or maybe they would leave him with permanent physical or psychological damage; or maybe they would simply be caught by the authorities and justly expelled from Hogwarts. As it is, there are no adverse consequences; in fact, the consequence is that Harry and friends are treated as heroes. For taking his tasering like a man, Neville is awarded ten points by Dumbledore at the end of the story. Thanks!

This sort of thing is routine for Harry Potter. What makes it problematic is that the story doesn't affirm that the moral order has been violated. It justifies Harry's transgressions - his regular lying, for example - on utilitarian grounds and leaves it at that. Lying, tasering other students, feeding them poisoned treats, lighting teacher's robes on fire... these things are sort of bad, but OK if the good guys need to do them, especially if they feel bad about doing it. This is the distorted moral order the series teaches.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

John Searle's Philosophy of Mind

John Searle's place in the contemporary philosophy of mind is that of someone who accepts the materialistic premises of the mainstream philosophy of mind, but wishes to avoid the reductionist conclusions to which it invariably leads. As he puts it in the Introduction to The Rediscovery of the Mind:

"What I argued for then (Searle 1984b) and repeat here is that one can accept the obvious facts of physics - that the world consists entirely of physical particles in fields of force - without denying that among the physical features of the world are biological phenomena such as inner qualitative states of consciousness and intrinsic intentionality."

Later in Ch. 10 he writes this:

"I see the human brain as an organ like any other, as a biological system. Its special feature, as far as the mind is concerned, the feature in which it differs remarkably from other biological organs, is its capacity to produce and sustain all of the enormous variety of consciousness life."

In the Epilogue to Mind, A Brief Introduction, he writes this:

"I have tried to give an account of the mind that will situate mental phenomena as part of the natural world. Our account of the mind in all of its aspects - consciousness, intentionality, free will, mental causation, perception, intentional action, etc. - is naturalistic in this sense: first, it treats mental phenomena as just a part of nature. We should think of consciousness and intentionality as just as much a part of the natural world as photosynthesis or digestion. Second, the explanatory apparatus that we use to give a causal account of mental phenomena is an apparatus that we need to account for nature generally. The level at which we attempt to account for mental phenomena is biological rather than, say, at the level of subatomic physics. The reason for this is that consciousness and other mental phenomena are biological phenomena; they are created by biological processes and are specific to certain biological organisms."

He then goes on to tell us that "science does not name an ontological domain; it names rather a set of methods for finding out about anything at all that admits of systematic investigation." So the "explanatory apparatus" that we use to account for nature generally, and that we must use to investigate the mind, is that of ordinary empirical science. Searle's distinctive approach to the philosophy of mind is to hold these two principles in tension: 1) That the traditional philosophical features of the mind - e.g. consciousness, free will, intentionality - are real things in the world that require explanation rather than merely being explained away, and 2) The empirical sciences are the only way to systematically explore nature, and so the empirical sciences (specifically, biology) must account for the phenomena referred to in principle #1.

The problem for Searle's philosophy is that the tension of his two principles is fatal. There is consciousness, free will and intentionality in science, but it is all found in the mind of the scientist conducting the science, not in any of the products that result from his science - even if that product is a scientific account of the mind itself. Neuroscientists, for example, spend a lot of time stimulating the brains of subjects in various ways, inducing sensory experiences (seeing colors, hearing sounds), making them feel different things from sadness to religious-like awe, or changing their perception of themselves or the world. These experiences are mapped back onto the brain regions from which they are stimulated. There is no possible freedom on the part of the subjects; they either see the color or they don't. Suppose scientists tried to stimulate a "free act." They stimulate an area of your brain and you raise your right arm. They stimulate the same area again and you raise your left arm. They stimulate it again and you whistle "Dixie." They stimulate it yet again and you recite the Nicene Creed. What would the scientific conclusion be? That they had stimulated a "free act?" No, the only possible scientific conclusion would be that their experiments had not been done with sufficient care and that they were not really stimulating exactly the same brain cells every time.  In fact, your physical brain will not be in exactly the same condition from each experiment to the next, since it is continually changing in minor material ways as a matter of nature. The only possible scientific result is "failed experiment", not "science discovers free will", for the latter is an impossibility. 

Similar points can be made with respect to the other interesting features of the mind. The essential feature of consciousness, for example, is that it is a viewpoint from the center of the world, the "subjective viewpoint." The subjective viewpoint in science is that of the scientist. The subjective viewpoint of the subject is necessarily treated as an objective element in the scientific world of the scientist, with the scientist and not the subject at the center; the subjective viewpoint of the subject therefore appears in the scientific world as something it is not, or rather, it doesn't appear at all. There is consciousness in science, of course - the consciousness of the scientist and no other.

Daniel Dennett is a philosopher who accepts the same principles as Searle, but also accepts the obvious and necessary results. If science is how we know reality, and the subjective features of the mind do not appear for science, then we must conclude that the subjective features of the mind are not real. Searle sums up Dennett's position smartly in Ch. 5 of his Mystery of Consciousness:

"The problem of consciousness in both philosophy and the natural sciences is to explain these subjective feelings. Not all of them are bodily sensations like pain. The stream of conscious thought is not a bodily sensation comparable to feeling pinched and neither are visual experiences; yet both have the quality of ontological subjectivity that I have been talking about. The subjective feelings are the data that a theory of consciousness has to explain... The peculiarity of Daniel Dennett's book can now be stated: he denies the existence of the data. He thinks there are no such things as the second sort of entity, the feeling of pain. He thinks there are not such things as qualia, subjective experiences, first-person phenomena, or any of the rest of it. Dennett agrees that it seems to us that there are such things as qualia, but this is a matter of mistaken judgment we are making about what really happens."

Dennett is exactly right to deny the existence of the data, for the data as Searle describes them are not scientific data. "Subjective experiences" cannot be scientific data, for the only subjective experience that counts in science is the subjective experience of the scientist; the subjective experience of the subject appears in science only as an objective element in the subjective experience of the scientist; in other words, not as a subjective experience at all. Since, for both Dennett and Searle, science determines the nature and extent of the real, subjective experiences can't be real. Searle's two basic principles are in fundamental conflict.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Weigel and Benedict

I see I am far from the first or the best to comment on the Weigel article. First Things has a good compendium of critcisms (via rimwell.)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

George Weigel subjects Caritas in Veritate to Higher Criticism

Over at National Review online, George Weigel has written an odd article concerning Benedict XVI's new encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. Basically, Weigel subjects the encyclical to Higher Criticism, picking out the "authentic" Benedictine passages (to be marked in gold) from the unfortunate passages (marked in red) that don't really express the Pope's thinking, but are only sops the Holy Father allowed in to placate the Peace and Justice crowd. Weigel more or less tells the reader to ignore the red passages and pay attention to Weigel's gold passages. I don't think it is any stretch to suppose that the approved gold passages not only reflect the thinking of Benedict XVI but also... George Weigel.

It's the implicit insult that bothers me. The Holy Father signed his name to the entire encyclical (sort of like the Holy Spirit inspired the entire Gospels, not merely the parts approved by T. Jefferson or E. Renan.) A man who writes what he honestly believes and is wrong we can at least respect for being honest; the man who writes what he doesn't believe out of a misguided sense of charity or because he's too wimpy to stand up to opposition in his own camp - is not only wrong but not worthy of respect. It seems Weigel would rather us lose respect for the Pope than admit that the Holy Father might see things a little differently than he does.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Why Descartes Haunts the Philosophy of Mind

If there is a premier villain in the modern philosophy of mind, it is Rene Descartes. John Searle calls him a "disaster", Antonio Damasio devotes an entire book to exposing Descartes' Error, and Daniel Dennett has spent his career trying to put a wrecking ball through the "Cartesian Theater." Yet Descartes doesn't seem to go away. His ghost keeps rattling his chains like the Jacob Marley of the philosophy of mind.

The reason is that the modern project of the philosophy of mind is Cartesian through and through. Daniel Dennett, despite his protests, is about as Cartesian as he could possibly be. The modern philosophy of mind, in fact, never seriously challenges Descartes. Philosophers attack Descartes' dualistic conclusions, but authoritatively assert the foundational elements of Cartesian philosophy that drove Descartes to dualism. These same foundational elements set the modern philosophy of mind on a path to dualism, and like a man trying to go to Los Angeles after setting his GPS for New York, modern philosophers spend their efforts trying to avoid the conclusions their first principles dictate they must eventually accept.

In Ch. 2 of Consciousness Explained, for example, Daniel Dennett gives reasons why dualism will never work as a philosophy. The dualist won't be able to explain how the immaterial mind can interact with a physical body anymore than Caspar the Ghost can explain why he can move through walls yet hold up a house when it is about to fall down. Dennett's criticisms hit the mark, but it doesn't address the reasons Descartes became a dualist in the first place. Cartesian dualism follows directly from the methodical first principle of Cartesian philosophy:

"I thought that I should take a course precisely contrary, and reject as absolutely false anything of which I could have the least doubt, in order to see whether anything would be left after this procedure which could be called wholly certain. Thus, as our senses deceive us at times, I was ready to suppose that nothing was at all the way our senses represented them to be... But I soon noticed that while I thus wished to think everything false, it was necessarily true that I who thought so was something. Since this truth, I think, therefore I am, was so firm and assured that all the most extravagant suppositions of the skeptics were unable to shake it, I judged that I could safely accept it as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking.

I then examined closely what I was, and saw that I could imagine that I had no body, and that there was no world nor any place that I occupied, but that I could not imagine for a moment that I did not exist.... therefore I concluded that I was a thing or substance whose whole essence or nature was only to think, and which, to exist, has no need of space nor of any material thing or body. Thus it followed that this ego, by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from the body and is easier to know than the latter, and that even if the body were not, the soul would not cease to be all that it now is." 

The essence of Cartesianism is in the first paragraph, not the second, which is merely a conclusion from Cartesian first principles. Those first principles are 1) The assertion of method as foundational to true philosophy, and 2) The selection of radical doubt as the method of choice. We have become so used to the Cartesian first principles that we tend to see past them and take them as self-evident first principles of thought itself. But they are not self-evident at all; at least they were not for Descartes. He spent the first part of the Discourse on Method justifying his beginning philosophy in method and radical doubt (which, once that doubt is asserted, makes one wonder about the cognitive status of the first part of the Discourse, since it is asserted prior to and without the benefit of the method.) To the extent that we see the basic task of the philosopher as to "doubt things", or think that we need special training in order to philosophize, we have adopted the Cartesian approach to philosophy. For "special training" is nothing other than education in technical method, and that doubt should be a first principle of philosophy is itself open to philosophical doubt.

Daniel Dennett begins Consciousness Explained by introducing the "brain in a vat" thought experiment, which he admits is a modern version of Descartes' Evil Demon. You've no doubt heard this before: How do you know that you are not merely a brain in a vat, with electrodes hooked up to your neurons, making you think reality is something completely different than it truly is? It's easy to see that this is another way of posing the possibility that "nothing at all was the way our senses represented them to be." Dennett rapidly concludes that you are not a brain in a vat, arguing from scientific considerations of the difficulty of pulling off something like the brain in the vat hoax on a real brain. Of course, Dennett's destruction of the vat doesn't really work, because his argument depends on his knowledge of the way the real world really works; in other words, his argument starts with his brain outside the vat in the real world. Like David Copperfield, he only appears to have gotten himself out of the vat. He was already out the whole time.

But that is beside the point. It doesn't matter whether the brain in the vat experiment pans out. The basic Cartesian principle is that the radical falsity of experience is a possibility that must be addressed and overcome at the very outset of philosophy; Descartes himself overcomes this radical doubt, although in a way different than Dennett. The point is that any philosophy that feels it must start with the overcoming of radical doubt is starting on the Cartesian railroad. 

The second fundamental principle of Cartesian philosophy is that philosophy can only be conducted in the light of method. The point here is to undermine "folk philosophy" or the naive trading of opinions that was supposed to be characteristic of traditional philosophy. Instead of lolling around the agora engaging in idle conversation, the modern philosopher rolls up his sleeves and gets results. In Descartes' words, the ancient philosopher only argued the truth; the modern philosopher discovers the truth. 

Descartes' method of choice was that of applied universal doubt, but the selection of the particular method is not so important as the decision that philosophy itself can only begin with method. The latter principle is the distinguishing one of Cartesian philosophy. Since Descartes' time, philosophers have tried various experimental combinations of doubt and method; criticizing each other's doubt as not being real doubt, or each other's method as being poorly applied or wrongly selected, but the presumption that philosophy must begin with some form of doubt and method has been more or less tacitly assumed throughout the history of modern philosophy. 

The contemporary philosophy of mind generally begins in straightforward Cartesian terms with the assertion of method, in this case scientific method. There is nothing wrong with referring to scientific results in philosophy, of course, but what distinguishes the approach as Cartesian is that science is brought in through authoritative assertion rather than argument. This is the way John Searle does it in Mind, A Brief Introduction:

"The view implicit in this book, which I know want to make explicit, is that science does not name an ontological domain; it names rather a set of methods for finding out about anything at all that admits of systematic investigation... There is no such thing as the scientific world. There is, rather, just the world, and what we are trying to do is describe how it works and describe our situation in it. As far as we know, its most fundamental principles are given by atomic physics and, for that little corner of it that most concerns us, evolutionary biology. The two basic principles on which any such investigation as the one I have been engaging in depends on are, first, the notion that the most fundamental entities in reality are those described by atomic physics; and, second, that we, as biological beasts, are the products of long periods of evolution, perhaps as long as five billion years."
So if we are able to discover anything about the mind systematically, it must be through the methods of science, which has already established atomic physics and Darwinian evolution through the application of method. The interesting Cartesian question is: What is the relationship of the subsequent philosophy of mind to the mind that authoritatively established method and its results in the first place? Can the philosophy of mind call into question the mind that established its foundation in method? It is the same question that can be asked of Descartes, and it brings to light the inevitable tendency of Cartesian thought towards dualism.

In his Discourse on Method, Descartes proclaims his method in Part II after a preamble in both Parts I and the beginning of Part II. The method is supposed to cast all prior notions into doubt so as to find the one indubitable starting point of philosophy. But if the method does this, what happens to the cognitive status of the preamble? Is it not cast into doubt as well? The preamble consists of Descartes' reasons for abandoning the traditional approach to philosophy and inventing a new approach. It involves his views on the historical futility of philosophy and the uselessness of what he learned in school. But if we are to doubt all prior notions, should we not also doubt the uselessness of traditional philosophy and the worthlessness of what Descartes learned in school? Should not Descartes doubt that he ever was in school, or that he ever learned philosophy? Such doubt would, of course, undermine Descartes' justification for his revolution in philosophy. It would bring his project to a standstill. In fact, Descartes does not really doubt everything; he doesn't doubt his own appreciation of the history of philosophy or his confidence in establishing a radically new basis for philosophy. His assertion of the Method merely hides his earlier conclusions, which were not established by the method but are nonetheless beyond all doubt. The mind that established those conclusions, and that authorized and created the Method, is itself also hidden from view. But although it is hidden, it still lurks in the background, and will never go away because it is more certain than the Method itself. This is the ghost that reasserts itself in the form of Cartesian dualism; the Cartesian ghost is the true knower who established and underwrites the Method through which all other beings are granted existence. The Cartesian world is a world of beings who are granted existence through method; but, as Descartes realized, the Thinking Being who conducts the Method is not itself granted existence through Method, for it must already be for the Method to happen at all. So the thinking being is not a body or extensive being in the world like all others, it is an immaterial being transcending the world entirely. Thus we arrive at dualism.

The contemporary philosopher of mind follows the same path as Descartes, with the method of empirical science substituted for the method of empirical doubt. But the result is the same. For John Searle, the true "fundamental entities" populating the world are those established by the methods of atomic physics. What of the scientific mind that creates, establishes, and conducts atomic science, and proclaims in its name the true fundamental entities? This Thinking Being is clearly less dubitable than the atomic particles it proclaims, and it is also beyond the reach of the philosophy of mind, for the philosophy of mind starts with the scientific mind behind it as the authoritative voice of method. But although hidden, the scientific mind is still there, and haunts the contemporary philosophy of mind in the form of the Cartesian Ghost. Daniel Dennett won't find the Cartesian Ghost in his Cartesian Theater; he'll find him in the scientist who establishes the scientific results with which Dennett starts the philosophy of mind.

The only way to exorcise the Cartesian Ghost is to stop repeating the spell that calls him forth from the grave: The insistence on doubt and method as first principles of philosophy.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Steven Pinker, Evolution and the Mind

In this post and this post I've discussed the theory of the mind as a model-maker, and how evolutionary theory is commonly used to bridge the models from the mind into reality. Here is Steven Pinker's version of this move from The Blank Slate:
"Modernism and postmodernism cling to a theory of perception that was rejected long ago; that the sense organs present the brain with a tableau of raw colors and sounds and that everything else in perceptual experience is a learned social construction. As we saw in preceding chapters, the visual system of the brain comprises some fifty regions that take raw pixels and effortlessly organize them into surfaces, colors, motions, and three-dimensional objects. We can no more turn the system off and get immediate access to pure sensory experience than we can override our stomachs and tell them when to release their digestive enzymes. The visual system, moreover, does not drug us into a hallucinatory fantasy disconnected from the real world. It evolved to feed us information about the consequential things out there, like rocks, cliffs, animals, and other people and their intentions." (p. 412)
This example has it all. It's got the half-baked Kantianism masquerading as modern scientific insight; the confident assertion of evolutionary theory as the true savior from Descartes' Evil Demon (the hallucinatory fantasy by its original name); and the overall confident tone that modern scientists have those pesky old philosophical problems well in hand.

Pinker gives us the impression that the theory that the senses give us a tableau of raw colors and sounds was disproved by science - that's what the talk about fifty brain regions and pixels is about. Actually, this theory was blown away back in the 18th century by Kant, and Kant didn't need any neuroscience to do it. He also went a lot deeper than Pinker has gone. It's not just that our perceptual experience comes already organized into surfaces, colors and three-dimensional objects. Our entire mental life comes already organized into the basic categories of cognition; the here, there, before, after, unity, multiplicity, more, less, etc. The scientist may be able to "get behind" the perceptual experience of his lab subject, but he will never get behind the cognitive categories of his own thought. Those categories either map directly onto reality or they don't; if they don't, then science - including evolutionary science - isn't possible, at least if we want a science of the noumenal and not merely the phenomenal. If they do map onto reality, then evolution isn't needed to bootstrap the mind. Either way, the appeal to evolution is at best a distraction from the true issue.

The more I read about evolution, the more awe-inspiring it becomes. Alone among scientific theories, it seems, it is not only proven by science, but itself proves the science that already proved it. 

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Modeling Mind, Science and Post-Modernism

In this post I discussed the theory of the mind that holds that the mind is thoroughly a model-maker.

The holders of this theory generally believe that they do so in deference to science, or as a way to defend the intellectual primacy of science. In science, this view goes, we build models of the world and test them against each other. So if the mind is primarily scientific, it must primarily be a model-maker.

Unfortunately, the theory of the thoroughly model-making mind is ultimately destructive of science, at least if we want science to be about the real world, which seems to be what everyone wants. The only way to know if a model accurately reflects the real world is to compare it to the real world, so you must have some contact with the world that transcends the model if you are to have any hope of knowing if the model is true. If your verification of the model is itself an exercise in model-building (as must be the case for a thoroughly model-making mind), then there is no way to escape the world of models into reality. I know my model of an F-18 jet is accurate because I can compare it to a real F-18. If the only way I can find out if the F-18 is accurate is to build other models, then I can never find out if the F-18 is accurate. Whatever models I build to verify it will themselves need verification in terms of yet further model-building, ad infinitum. At some point there must be an end to model-building and a simple, direct appreciation of reality.

The truth of this can be found by analyzing the thought of any of these model-building-mind philosophers. At some point in their presentation, they will slip in some proposition as an absolute anchor point in reality, a point that is not itself a model of reality but is reality itself. It will not be called out as such, and is generally taken for granted in a way that makes it easy to overlook. But such an anchor point will always be there. One of the favorites is "organisms with more accurate models of reality survive better than organisms with less accurate models of reality" (which I'll call M1), which does the job philosophers want of bootstrapping the model-making mind only if M1 itself is a direct statement about reality and not a model. But then it contradicts the thesis of the thoroughly model-making mind.

The danger to science is that, in a philosophy that needs yet denies the mind any direct anchor in reality, the necessary anchor point can only be selected in an arbitrary manner. What is so special about M1? The model-making-mind philosophy cannot have an answer, since it is only hiding the fact that, according to its own principles, M1 is but another exercise in model-making. When this is realized, the theorist is free to keep the model-making mind philosophy, but select (arbitrarily) a different anchor point in reality. How about this one: "So that it may exploit the world in good conscience, Western thought hides from itself the violent and imperialistic principles that are its core", which I will call M2. In the view of M2, M1 is really just an expression of Western prejudices rather than a true reflection of reality; a convenient one at that since it maps the violent tendencies of Western man onto the core of reality. Here we have the genesis of post-modernism. And the post-modernist is right. M1 is a prejudice, for it is the prior principle that is itself not judged but in terms of which all other principles are judged.

The real answer to the foundation of science and its defense is in a philosophy that does not demand that the mind be nothing but a model-maker, and does not slip in foundational principles that are themselves not open to judgment. More on this later.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Mind as a Model-Maker

I just finished reading The Ego Tunnel by Thomas Metzinger, which is subtitled The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self. The book joins a steady stream of books from neuroscientists and philosophers (e.g. Descartes' Error and A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness ) all of which tell more or less the same story: The mind is nothing but the brain; the brain understands the world through model-making; the conscious self is but a part of that model and is therefore an illusion or a "myth." V.S. Ramachandran says it straightforwardly in A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness:
"Our brains are essentially model-making machines. We need to construct useful, virtual-reality simulations of the world that we can act on." [p. 105]
Thomas Metzinger's version is this:
"From a philosopher's point of view, there is a lot of nonsense in this popular notion. We don't create an individual world but only a world-model. Moreover, the whole idea of potentially being directly in touch with reality is a sort of romantic folklore; we know the world only by using representations, because (correctly) representing something is what knowing is." [p. 9]
What is so fascinating about these assertions is that the authors sincerely believe they are breakthroughs based on recent advances in neuroscience, but if they are, then the only thing to which neuroscience has broken through is a poorly understood version of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. The Metzinger quote seems almost a direct lift from Kant; surely he is familiar with Kant, because he is a philosopher (and a German one at that). In fact, Kant is mentioned on page 26, but more on that passage later.

What makes a great philosopher great is his ability to plumb the full implications and meaning of a particular line of thinking, even if that line of thinking is ultimately mistaken in its foundation. Kant was a great philosopher, and if you want to understand the true meaning of the recent deluge of books on the philosophy of mind and neuroscience, read the Critique of Pure Reason and then the neuroscience books. Kant thought through this whole "mind is a model-maker" principle to its furthest implications, implications the more contemporary philosophers and scientists are still struggling to reach.

The key insight from Kant is this: If the mind is nothing more than a model-maker, if it doesn't have some direct contact with reality in its foundation, if all it knows is its representations of things, then whatever science or philosophy we construct will be a science or philosophy of those representations, not of the reality behind the representations. This is the basis of Kant's distinction between the phenomenal (things as they appear to us) and the noumenal (things as they are in themselves.) The recent philosophers/scientists of the mind, however, don't want a science merely of phenomena; they want a science of the things themselves. But they can't tell us how such a science is possible, so they just quickly brush the problem off and hope we don't notice. In the Metzinger quote above, he notes that knowledge is not merely representing something, but correctly representing it; there is a whole world of philosophy in that "correctly." How is that we can come to know that some representations are correct and others are not? The best answer Metzinger gives is this:
"Nor is it true that we can never get out of the tunnel or know anything about the outside world: Knowledge is possible, for instance, through the cooperation and communication of large groups of people - scientific communities that design and test theories, constantly criticize one another, and exchange empirical data and new hypotheses." [p. 9]
So knowledge is possible because we talk to each other and do science. This is straight question-begging, because science itself can get started only if we already are in possession of certain elements of knowledge (e.g. that mathematical knowledge reflects reality itself and not just our perception of reality. Kant held the latter position, which is why he insisted on the phenomenal/noumenal distinction.)

Metzinger discusses Plato's Cave on p. 22, but without understanding its full implications. The prisoners in Plato's Cave must be released from their chains in order to know the sunlit reality outside the cave. As long as they are chained in the cave and only watching shadows, it doesn't matter how clever their science is, how deep their philosophers think, or how much they talk to each other. Their science will necessarily be a science of the shadows, not a science of the sunlit reality outside the cave. Kant showed the limits of how far the philosophical prisoner could go: He could, through the a priori use of reason, come to know that his thought and his science was a science of shadows (the phenomenal) and not a science of real things themselves (the noumenal.) But he can't go beyond that; he can't know anything about the noumenal itself, only that it is something beyond his ability to comprehend through his science.

There is another implication of Plato's Cave that is sometimes overlooked. Even after the prisoners are released from the Cave and experience the sunlit reality outside the Cave, that experience will mean nothing to them unless their nature already has the capacity to benefit from that experience; they must be able to perceive and comprehend sunlit reality for it to mean anything to them. If their eyes are such that they can only perceive shadows (i.e. two-dimensional images of only two contrasting colors, in black and white without any gray), or their minds are such that they can only process the images of shadows, then the experience outside the cave will be worse than useless. It will be completely unintelligible and probably fatal. Plato, another great philosopher who understood the deep implications of his own thought, recognized this and so, in his story, the prisoners are initially baffled when released from the Cave. They initially refuse to believe that the world outside the Cave is the real world. It takes time for them to grow accustomed to the sunlit world, but that accommodation is only possible because the prisoner's nature already has the potential to understand it. Even while in the Cave, the prisoners have the faculties to perceive and comprehend three-dimensional, sunlit reality should they be exposed to it; those faculties are merely dormant in the Cave and need "waking up" outside the Cave. This is why Plato supposed that man was more a soul than a body, because the most significant aspect of his nature was that which enabled him to comprehend true reality when he encountered it. The soul is the part of man that is "woken up" in philosophy and begins to perceive reality as it is.

Now we may disagree with Plato's notion of human nature, but he at least understood the question and his answer is an attempt to address it. Kant disagreed with Plato about the connection of human nature with basic reality, and so concluded that man can never know more than the shadows (although he can come to know this fact itself, which was Kant's particular contribution.) The contemporary philosophers never reach the debate between Plato and Kant. They bake the Kantian cake by insisting that the mind of man is a model-maker through and through, but avoid eating the cake by insisting that their science of the mind is truly about the mind ("the brain") and not just the phenomena as they appear to scientists.

The real myth here is not the self, but the myth that a model-making mind can transcend its own models through science. Back to Metzinger's mention of Kant on p. 26 of his book:
"Philosophers like Immanuel Kant or Franz Brentano have theorized about this 'unity of consciousness': What exactly is it that, at every single point in time, blends all the different parts of your conscious experience into one single reality? Today it is interesting to note that the first essential insight - knowing that you know something - is mainly discussed in the philosophy of mind, whereas the neuroscience of consciousness focuses on the problem of integration: how the features of objects are bound together. The latter phenomenon - the One-World Problem of dynamic, global integration - is what we must examine if we want to understand the unity of consciousness."
Metzinger has gotten half of Kant but missed the other half. The blending of conscious experience into one single reality includes the empirical unity of consciousness, or the One-World Problem. But there is a deeper unity implicit, the transcendental unity of apperception, that is the unity of the thought of the scientist analyzing the empirical unity of consciousness. We might call this the One-Science Problem. Here is a concrete case: The neuroscientist examines the subjective experience of time of subjects in the lab. He notes how long they think different things have taken in different contexts, how long they think dreams are compared to how long they really are, that sort of thing. He stimulates various parts of the subject's brain and induces different time disorientations; the subject suddenly thinks it is tomorrow, or yesterday, or that lifting his hand took an hour instead of a second. The details don't matter. The point is that there is a distinction between the time experienced by the subject, and the time the scientist measures in his lab through his instruments; but both depend on structures of the human mind for their meaning. The time measured by the scientist in the laboratory, against which he judges the subjective time of his subject, has meaning only in terms of the concepts of before, now, after and duration that are basic cognitive elements of the human mind; science does not discover these cognitive elements but is constructed in their terms. What is the unity that brings these cognitive elements together into one science? It's not the empirical unity of consciousness, because the scientist is taking apart the empirical unity of consciousness in terms of his science. It is a unity that is not apparent in empirical experience, but is implied in our conduct of a science that permits us to decompose the empirical unity of consciousness. Kant called this deeper unity transcendental because it transcends empirics altogether; we know about it not through scientific analysis of empirical data but through pure reason, or thinking about what must be necessary for science to happen at all.

Either these basic cognitive elements of the mind are reflective of reality or they are not. If they are not (i.e. if our minds are model-makers through and through) then our science can't be a science of reality as such. Our construction of scientific theories to make sense of our experience may be models, but their basic cognitive elements (before, now, after, here, there, unity, multiplicity) had better not be, or we've got to eat the Kantian cake, frosting and all. If we don't want to end up with Kant, the only way is to accept that the human mind in its basic cognitive elements directly reflects reality. When we are confused about reality, it is not because our basic contact with reality is confused, or is merely a model of reality, but because we have constructed a false perception or understanding of reality through the elements of reality itself.

When reading a philosopher who starts with the principle that the mind is thoroughly a model-maker, but also wants to have a science that reflects reality itself, it is always possible to find a place where he surreptitiously slips out of Plato's Cave to find an anchor in reality, then slips back in the Cave and claims he never left. One of the favorite ways of doing this is by invoking evolutionary theory. We evolved as model-makers, you see, and we can have confidence that our models accurately reflect reality because organisms with poor models simply won't survive as well as organisms with better models. Over the millions of years of human evolution, this resulted in the very accurate models we human beings now possess.

That's a fine story, but it all hinges on this proposition: "Organisms with more accurate models of the world will survive better than organisms with less accurate models." Is this proposition a model of the world, or does it directly reflect reality? If it's merely a model of the world, then we can't use it to bootstrap all our other models, can we? It might be that, in true reality, it doesn't matter what sort of models organisms have, or they might not have models at all, or even that our model of the world as having "organisms" is itself mistaken. This tactic works only if it is granted that the evolutionary principle is an absolute anchor in the real world, not merely yet another model constructed by the model-making mind; which is what it must be if the mind is purely a model-maker. Typically, this assumption is never made explicit but is hidden in a bold assertion of evolutionary principle.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Magical perspective of science

I've been reading The Ego Tunnel by Thomas Metzinger. This is from Ch. 2:

"To form a successful theory of consciousness, we must match first-person phenomenal content to third-person brain content. We must somehow reconcile the inner perspective of the experiencing self with the outside perspective of science. And there will always be many of us who intuitively think this can never be done."

Count me among the unenlightened masses. I find these kind of statements fascinating for their frank belief in the magical ability of science to transcend the human condition. We are all trapped in the Ego Tunnel it seems, except when we do science, for then we are transported into the "outside perspective of science." Just what is this "science" that has an outside perspective? Is it composed of actual real people? If the "outside perspective of science" must be reconciled with the "experiencing self", it sure sounds like science is conducted by something other than experiencing selves. But if science is conducted by experiencing selves, then the "outside perspective of science" is really the outside perspective of science as seen and interpreted through the inner perspective of the experiencing self; in other words, it is just the inner perspective of the self kidding itself that it has transcended its own condition through science.

Science is, of course, very useful in understanding the brain and the mind. But everything mentioned in science can be traced back to first-person phenomenal content, for that's the only way any data ever gets into science. "Third-person brain content" is a confused and misleading notion, because "brain" is itself meaningful only as first-person phenomenal content.