Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Mind: Five Kinds of Physicalism

Another 20th century response to the question of mind (not to mention Cartesian Dualism) was Physicalism. Unfortunately, Physicalism, like ice cream, comes in more than one flavor. Before we delve to deeply into the varieties of physicalism, a broad explanation is in order.
Physicalism, which was called Materialism in some early incarnations, asserts that the mind is part of the physical universe and subject to the physical laws that govern the universe. They tend to identify the mind with the brain as the physical embodiment of it. By placing the mind physically into the body by way of the brain, the interaction problem disappears. No more is there any question about just how messages move to and from the body and the mind.
Now, with the broad strokes out of the way, it's time to move on to the specific incarnations of physicalism.
Type Physicalism adheres to the idea that particular brain states could be successfully identified with particular mental states. In other words, the sensation of pain would be able to be identified with some particular state in the brain, or the state of pleasure at eating well made meal would be able to be identified with a brain state.
Of course, this seemingly simple solution becomes problematic very quickly. The most prevalent problem is the fact that there are a great many different types of brains. It would be difficult to be able to establish with any certainty the equivalence of brain states in different kinds of brains. The less prevalent problem rests with the possibility that different brains inside of a species, for example, may have subtle differences that preclude being able to draw the equivalence.
Token Physicalism shares some basic ideas with Type Physicalism. It holds that mental states are identifiable with physical states. However, it does not presume that the mental state and the physical state be identifiable with one another, merely that a mental state is identifiable with a physical state.
This position is problematic, as well. The big problem here is how to establish that physical states represent mental states if there is no direct physical correlation between them.
Eliminative Physicalism holds that mental states as such are a fiction. As such, there is no need to try to tie them to a physical state. Under Eliminative Physicalism, there are no mental states of belief, pleasure, or desire, to name a few. They argue that such mental states are merely holdovers from outdated psychological theorizing and have no place in a theory of mind.
The problem faces here is how to explain the apparent existence of exactly these kind of motivating mental states.
Reductive Physicalism holds that theories of mental states, as such, can be explained in terms of physical theories about the brain. Where this breaks from Eliminative Physicalism is that there is no denial of the mental states in question. It simply denies the need to address them at all. It is primarily concerned with brain states.
Non-Reductive Physicalism asserts that attempts to reduce mental states to simple brain states is a failed endeavor. The principle argument they make is that simple brain state theories cannot account for complex mental states. Another way to look at it is to think about the difference between using building blocks as a child and designing a skyrise. You can build something that stands with building blocks. However, the simple principles you employ to build with such toys cannot account for the vast array of variables and generalizations required to understand the forces at work in building a skyrise.
Both Reductive and Non-Reductive Physicalism suffer from the same problem. Neither one can provide any solid evidence to defend their positions.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Mind: Behaviorism

Behaviorism was one 20th Century attempt to deal with the problem of the mind. For the hardcore philosopher, there are three distinct types of of Behaviorism. For the purposes of this blog, we will only deal with what is generally referred to as Psychological Behaviorism.
This type of Behaviorism is usually ascribed to the Psychologists John Watson and B. F. Skinner. What they assert is effectively the position that whatever mental states may exist (if they exist at all) are not publicly observable and, therefore, beyond the reach of the scientific method. What is publicly observable is behavior and, as such, behavior is all we have upon which to base our conclusions. What they have done is to effectively bracket the question of the existence of the mind entirely and say, "We can't get to it, so we will ignore or deny it's existence in favor of observable data."
While some behaviorists are not willing to deny outright the possibility of internal mental states, it is not within the doctrine of pure behaviorism to endorse or acknowledge it. As such, Behaviorism, while parading itself as a theory of mind, is for all intents and purposes a theory of avoidance of the mind.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Mind: Cartesian Substance Dualism Part 2

While the Cartesian conception of the mind can be appealing, insofar as it offers the possibility of some kind of life beyond the mortal coil, it is rife with flaws.
One of the major objections to this take on the mind is that is seems unlikely, if not impossible, for a non-material mental substance to control a material physical substance. The question becomes: "What is the means, or mechanism, for the required communication?"
Descartes answers this question by citing something that he calls "animal spirits" (tiny bodies that travel through the blood) which would communicate the mind's messages to the body. Naturally, this "solution" is equally problematic since the tiny bodies are still material entities and subject to the same communication problem as the larger human form.
There cannot be a connection between the mind and body at a physical level because the mind is inherently non-physical in nature.
The other major objection is one of evolution. If evolution is a process of natural selection, governed by physical laws, how does a non-physical substance arise? Given the substantial evidence for the reality of evolution, this question is not one that can be avoided. There would seem to be no call for, nor a cause of, a non-physical substance. Such a substance would seem to defy all of the principles of the physical universe. The laws of entropy, in particular, would seem to stand in direct contradiction of such a substance. The tendency for all things to seek a simpler, static state would undermine the potential for a very complicated substance that is not subject to any laws of decay.
While Cartesian Substance Dualism has fallen out of favor as an explanatory system for the mind-body problem, it still influences and directs, in many ways, the course of how we discuss the problem philosophically. Any system that will be ultimately accepted has no alternative but to offer a solution to these two problems. As you will see when we move on in the following articles, these problems are not readily solved.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Mind: Cartesian Substance Dualism: Part 1

Theories about the nature of human mind reach back at least as far as Ancient Greece. Plato wrote about it and so did Aristotle. However, Philosophy of Mind in the modern era begins with René Descartes. Descartes was a French philosopher, mathematician, scientist and writer during the 17th century.
He is also responsible for a skeptical method, sometimes referred to as Cartesian Doubt, where nothing is taken for granted as a given. It was through the employment of this method, in an attempt to prove the immortality of the soul, that we find the meat of his argument for substance dualism and his theory of mind. This exercise in doubt is chronicled in his [I]Meditations on First Philosophy[/I].
Without descending into a full-blown explanation of the [I]Meditations[/I], much of which is off topic, substance dualism can be explained more or less as follows. There are, effectively, two substances which compose a person: material and immaterial substances. Material substances (bodies) are defined by being extensible (having shape and form in 3-dimensional space), having duration through time, and being subject to decay and death. Immaterial substances (minds) are defined primarily by not being extensible, not being subject to decay and death, and also having duration through time.
Descartes came to his conclusion about these immaterial substances by his skeptical method. He posed himself the question, is there anything about which i cannot doubt? His answer to this question was, in the [I]Meditations[/I], "I am a thinking thing." The more famous version, The Cogito ("cogito, ergo, sum") is often mis-attributed to the [I]Mediations[/I]. It actually comes from his [I]Discourse on Method [/I]and translates to "I think, therefore, I am." In either case, the gist is the same, the immaterial is for Descartes the principle substance.
His argument for the statement that, "I am a thinking thing," essentially goes like this:
While I may be able to doubt the existence of my body, or the entire material world, I cannot doubt the existence of my own mind. When I try to doubt it, I am confronted with the fact that someone must be doubting. That I can doubt my existence proves my existence.
These claims came under fire almost as soon as the work was published and have been receiving criticism since. In Part 2 of Cartesian Substance Dualism, some of the objections that have been raised will be examined.,

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Mind

What is the human mind? Seems like a simple enough question, in form anyways. Also seems as though it would be a question long since answered by now. There are six billion or so of these human minds wandering around on this planet. It would seem that at least one of them would be able to answer that question. Yet, the nature of the mind remains an open question. There are major and minor, secular and religious, theories about the mind and yet, we can't say for sure whether those theories are even on the right track.

That said, there are some things we can say about the mind. First of all, the entire modern discussion regarding the mind has been dictated by Descartes. He claimed, in the first half of the 1600's, that the mind (soul) and the body were separate substances. The argument, as such, has proceeded inevitably from this point and gone no further. Generally, people either come down as being in favor of this idea, the mind is mysterious, defies categorization and study, and will continue to be and do so. The responding side is that the mind is a function of a purely material or an organic mechanical nature. The former tend to be philosophical, free will advocates and the latter tend to be determinists and/or behaviorists.

I'm planning on writing several pieces over the next month exploring the questions and theories of mind and hope that you, the readers, will find it as fascinating to read about as i have.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ethics and Atheism

In recent decades the attendance of traditional Christian churches in the US has been in decline. This has translated into an increase of those practicing (or at least identifying themselves as) Neo-pagans, Wiccans or several other varieties of spirituality. As spiritual practices with more or less defined, but always present, ethical and moral guidelines they can be dismissed from the concerns of this essay. This decline has also, however, translated itself into a growing population of those who identify themselves as atheists. In an increasingly secular age, taken at face value, atheism does not seem problematic. It can be argued that Science, History, Philosophy, Art, Literature and Music can all continue to be produced without any particular belief in God. The only place where atheism is problematic is in the arena of Ethics. Some popular perceptions or misperceptions are that atheists cannot be expected to act morally without the presence of divine mandates, that their ethics will be innately inferior to those of religious origin, and that the only morality left open to an atheist is moral relativism.

It is absurd to think that because someone is not required to act in a certain way due to divine mandate that it precludes them from acting morally. It is a stock either/or fallacy. It is just as absurd to assume that because someone professes to be of a given faith that they can be expected to act morally. If a person happens to be of a given faith they may be more inclined to trust the moral character of another member of their faith, but it is not, nor can it be, a given. In the everyday world, the origin of morality has little to do with our expectations of moral behavior. Our expectations of moral behavior are derived from our observations of moral behavior. We tend to trust those we see behaving morally and to distrust those we see (or have reason to believe are) behaving immorally or amorally. Moreover, our trust may be lesser or greater depending on the particular area of behavior under discussion. For example, a given man may be perfectly willing to let a lawyer that never violates attorney-client privilege, but also engages in affairs, represent him in a lawsuit without introducing the lawyer to his wife.

What drives this misperception stems from the categorical/hypothetical divide. Moral theory tends to be (with the exception of morally relativistic systems) defined by the categorical, or that which is universal. Moral actions are by nature hypothetical, or that which happens situationally. Moral imperatives, Christian or otherwise, tend to be very broad: don’t steal, don’t kill, and don’t lie, to name a few that appear in both religious and non-religious moral systems. While not true categorical imperatives, they’re as close as one can come without becoming vague to the point of irrelevancy. These rules are not contextual. They are meant to define behavior in all instances at all times. Moral behavior, on the other hand, is entirely contextual. Human fallibility in combination with stressors (be they personal or professional) will lead to failures to engage in the universal rules. Here’s the crux of the matter, because religious morality is divinely mandated (theoretically), those who accept it make the mistake of assuming that because the rules are divine and universal the behaviors they require will be equally universal, but any rule not both divine and universal will lead to suspect behavior. It is a conclusion that ignores the differentiation between the categorical and the hypothetical. Human beings act in the hypothetical and the rules are broken, whether they are divinely mandated or not. The assumption that those who lack divinely mandated rules are more prone to immoral behavior because of the lack of divine mandate is insupportable. Moral behavior occurs in context and so does moral failure, irregardless of the source of the rules. To assert that atheists are more prone to moral failure than those who embrace religious moral systems is at best an error and at worst an ugly prejudice.

It is equally spurious to assert that an atheist’s ethic is innately inferior to a divinely mandated ethic. Such claims find their source in an understandable, but nonetheless flawed, line of reasoning. It is a variant on the Cartesian Ontological Proof for God. The argument goes something like this:

1. God is perfect.

2. God has given mankind rules of conduct.

3. As God is perfect, the rules God has given to mankind are equally perfect.

The argument seems sound enough from a logical standpoint; unfortunately, the entire argument rests on three significant assumptions. The first assumption is that there is a God. The second assumption is that God is perfect. The final assumption, which actually hinges on accepting the first two, is that such a God is sufficiently interested in human beings to give us rules. If these assumptions are accepted as irrefutably true (which true believers do accept), then the arguments work. Nevertheless, to accept the first or all of these assumptions is an act of faith and not reason. There is no viable way to demonstrate the existence, nature, or actions of God. As such, there is no way to assert the superiority of divinely mandated moral systems, because such judgments rest on the believed, but ultimately non-demonstrable, nature of God’s perfection.

As to the notion that the only morality available to an atheist is moral relativism, there is nothing to support such a claim. The most significant principle in the various incarnations of moral relativism is that moral positions are, by nature, not absolute positions. As such, those professing contrary moral thinking cannot be condemned for their moral reasoning. Setting aside the numerous examples of how this perception of morality fails, how can an atheist avoid being or being labeled a moral relativist?

The simple answer is that being an atheist does not preclude moral absolutism. It simply isn’t divinely mandated moral absolutism. While the existence of God cannot be demonstrated to be a priori, there are principles which have been more or less accepted as a priori true: logical principles. How does one move from logic to morality? A very simple example would be the application of the law of identity and its corollary the law of non-contradiction. If we have a procedure for identifying, for example, a human being, then the law of identity dictates that a human being is a human being and the law of non-contradiction dictates that a human being cannot be other than a human being. Since most moral systems concern themselves primarily with human interaction, this is a fairly important place to begin.

Let’s say that our procedure for identifying a human being is a genetic examination. Anyone who has a genetic code within a certain tolerance qualifies for a status as a human being, irregardless of their racial heritage. In one fell swoop, an atheist who accepts the laws of identity and non-contradiction has eliminated all forms of racism, as any morality worth discussing will include all human beings beneath its umbrella and the genetic differences between the various racial groups on this planet are miniscule. Granted, this is a simplistic example and subject to certain criticisms, but it does demonstrate the possibility of establishing an absolute moral position without recourse to a non-demonstrable deity.

It is outside of the scope and purpose of this essay to follow the line of reasoning out to a full-blown moral theory. Nonetheless, it can be said that the assertions that atheists cannot be expected to act morally without divine mandate, that an atheist’s ethic is innately inferior, and that an atheist is condemned to moral relativism are untenable positions. An atheist is subject to the same moral quality and failure as a theist because they both have moral victories and defeats in the hypothetical. The inferiority of an atheist ethic is based on flawed logic or ill-considered suppositions. The possibility of an absolute morality without recourse to God is entirely conceivable. What is more interesting, and perhaps more worth the time and effort of exploration, would be just why it is that some of those who embrace a divinely mandated morality feel the need to try to undercut and denigrate the moral grounding of those who do not.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Intelligent Life in the Universe

The question of whether or not there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is one that preoccupies the human mind. Rightly so, I think. The vast expanse of the universe almost compels the consideration of the possibility. The idea that in all of that uncharted room we, human beings, alone have the capacity for memory, reasoning, history, art, and relationships (to name but a few) is not only disquieting; it is borderline repulsive. It seems unimaginable that beings so prone to destruction, planetary mutilation, and behaviors more appropriate to an unmonitored playground than a civilization stand triumphant at the very pinnacle of the evolutionary mountain. So we speculate on the possibility of life elsewhere. Some of these visions are distopian: H.G. Wells imagined extra-terrestrial life as genocidal. Some of these visions are more hopeful, Star Trek and Star Wars. However, the possibility of such intelligent life in the universe is a topic of considerable debate.
The most commonly referenced means of determining the possibility of intelligent life in the universe is the Drake Equation:

N = R* fp ne fl fi fc L

For an explanation of the equation see setileague. Drake estimates that there are 10,000 communicative civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy. Very exciting stuff, until you realize that basically every number Drake, or anyone else using the formula, is employing is, in the best case scenario, a best guess. 10,000 is not as compelling when it's a guess. Essentially, it places you back to square one in terms of the possibility.
So, let us dismiss hard math for the time being and think in terms of reason. The universe is, literally, unimaginably vast. We only just begun to breach the outer reaches of our own solar system in the last few decades. That's nothing in terms of the existence of the universe. We are a very primitive species when you get right down to brass tacks. Our technology is supremely limited. The most brilliant physicians in the world don't fully or in many cases partially understand what happens in our bodies. Think about this for a moment. We live in our bodies every day. It is probably the most examined, poked, tested, prodded and experimented on object in the world and we don't even really understand it yet. We cannot manage our toxic output, our waste output, or our population. We don't have a decent theory for the origin of life on earth without descent into wild speculation or religion, neither of which is a good place to begin when discussing the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. In point of fact, about the only thing at which human beings excel at, as a group, is killing other human beings. This is the height, the great vantage point, from which experts look out into the universe and declare that it's unlikely that there is intelligent life anywhere else. There is a term to describe such a statement from such a group: Hubris.
It is an arrogance of the most unsavory sort that leads people to declare themselves the only intelligent life in the universe. It is the statement of children who believe themselves to be more special than they truly are. It is a reflection of western culture's, in particular, belief in its own superiority. We are all subject to our biases, be you as scientist or a blogger, but when you look up at the sky at night it should be clear that the limits our self-knowledge and knowledge of the universe should preclude a belief that we are alone.