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Is the Act of Knowing a Physical Process? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

If you are a materialist, physicalist, or naturalist, then you must say “yes” because everything reduces to physical processes on those views.  Francis Parker, Professor of Philosophy at Haverford College, argues, however, that the act of knowing cannot be a physical process.

Parker offers the following scenario that a materialist may offer for how a person would know the contents of a book:

First of all, there is the book—a real, physical thing existing in a certain definite spatial location. Then there is the light reflected from this book, waves or particles (or “wavicles”) of light passing from the surface of the book to your eye. Upon reaching your eye, you may continue, these particles of light pass through the cornea, aqueous humour, lens, and vitreous humour and then strike the nerve-endings in the retina where they produce an electrochemical impulse. This impulse, you may then say, travels along the optic nerve to the occipital lobe of the brain in the back of your head, whereupon, finally, you say you “see” the book. Thus awareness, you may suggest, is merely a straightforward physical process, just like any other.

After this account of knowing the book, Parker asks, “Where is the object of your knowledge?  Where is the book you see?”  If the materialist eagerly offers, “The book is out there, in space, where we see it,” this presents a problem.

Parker walks us through the problem the materialist now faces.

Let us look once more at the process involved. The seeing of the book requires all of the steps enumerated above. You do not see the book until after all these steps have occurred, until the end of the process. And when the process is completed, the earlier stages no longer exist. But where is the end of this process? In the back of your brain. Hence it would appear that the physical thing that you physically see is not “out there,” separate from you in space, but rather in your head—”under your hat.” And for this reason this materialistic account of the act of knowing has sometimes been called the “under-the-hat” theory.

So if knowing is a physical process, then the object we know is actually not “out there” but in our brain where the visual process ends.  This seems like a strange result.  If knowing is a purely physical process, then the objects of our knowledge only exist spatially in our brain.  We don’t know anything at all outside of our brains.

Is this what materialists want to sign up for?  Part 2 of this post will uncover more problems for the materialist account.  Stay tuned…


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Comments

  • http://sandwichesforsale.blogspot.com DagoodS

    So if I take a picture of a book, it is not “out there”—it is in the picture? How does recorded information regarding an object necessarily determine the object ONLY exists where it is recorded?

  • http://rericsawyer.wordpress.com R. Eric Sawyer

    I struggled with this post as well.

    If I understand him right, the point is not that the object itself (the book, in the example) exists only in the mind of the observer, but that *the thing known* exists only within that mind. Not that “the Book” itself is not on the table, but that I cannot know it – I can only know “the Book as I observe it” and THAT is entirely within my mind.

    It still remains to be shown that the thing known is accurately the same as the thing itself. Even if it is accurate, it is only an accurate representation, and has no direct tie to the object – changing the book, say, adding a page ribbon, does not change my image. That takes a fresh observation. The observation, the “thing known” may never be the fullness of “the thing.” Does my representation include the thoughts/feelings/information carried within?, etc.
    This may not be where he is going, and I need to remember that the “real thing” is different than “the thing I know,” even while all my conclusions are based on the thing I know.
    It is perhaps elementary, but still worth a frequent reminder.

  • Todd

    “We don’t know anything at all outside of our brains.” – is there an example of something we would know that is not in our brain?

    “Is this what materialists want to sign up for?” – This is not something for which one signs up. It is the way reality works. The object is “out there” because it is perceptible. The object is also “under the hat”, not the physical object, but the perception of the observation stored as electrical impulse in the brain. The tone of your question seems derogatory, what alternative would you sign up for?

  • Boz

    this post is confusing.

    are you saying that there are no physical things at all? that physical items only exist as knowledge, but not really as physical items?

    ?

  • http://alabamatheist.blogspot.com/ Tim D.

    After this account of knowing the book, Parker asks, “Where is the object of your knowledge? Where is the book you see?” If the materialist eagerly offers, “The book is out there, in space, where we see it,” this presents a problem.

    That’s because the question is phrased awkwardly.

    There are two aspects here: the physical book and my model (perception) of the book. “Where is the object I see” is an equivocation between these two concepts: the object is different from what I see. So if I answer “out there” to both questions, I would be incorrect — because the object itself is, presumably, “out there,” but my model of it exists only in my mind as a stream of information.

    So if knowing is a physical process, then the object we know is actually not “out there” but in our brain where the visual process ends.

    No; if knowing is a physical process, then the process of “knowing” (in this specific case, being aware of an object’s presence) is much like the process of taking a photograph:

    1) My eyes see the book (receiving external stimulus)

    2) My sensory organs and organ systems adapt the information so that it can be processed directly by my brain (translating external stimulus into a form combatable with internal systems)

    3) My brain creates a “model” of the external image for future reference (“perceiving” external stimulus)

    As has been said, if the object itself is changed at some point after I’ve built a model of it in my mind, that won’t directly affect my model unless I reconstruct the model based off the altered object. The model and the object are completely, 100% differentiated from each other, and neither is immediately dependent on each other.

    So the answer to your original question — “where is the object that I see?” — when phrased correctly, can be answered as follows:

    The object is “out there.”
    My model of the object is inside my brain.

  • http://alabamatheist.blogspot.com/ Tim D.

    P.S.

    To clarify: in a sense you are correct — what we “know” is not the object itself but a model of the object — but it is incorrect to say that the model we “know” has nothing to do with the object as it exists. Our model, after all, is built off of the object itself (there must be an external stimulus in order for the stimulus to be translated), and even if our model-building process is flawed (it is), it is flawed in a way that is consistent enough that it is generally reliable (i.e. it translates the same flaws consistently, not random nonsense that varies widely — every time you read the same book, you see the same external stimulus which is filtered through the same process [and the same flaws] into the same resulting data; you don’t see a completely different book every time you open it). So even if, say, this desk isn’t actually brown (because “brown” doesn’t actually exist in an objective sense, only pigmentation and light patterns which our eyes recognize and translate to us as “brown”), my eyes consistently translate it to me as brown, and anyone else (barring the colorblind or just regular blind) will translate it as brown as well. So it is reliable enough to translate not just from object to model, but from individual to individual. The same goes for most concepts within the human mind — this is how we end up with language.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Bill, this argument is on the same level of sophistication as a tribesman thinking a photograph takes his soul away. I don’t think you understand materialism.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ Vinny

    Is this what materialists want to sign up for?

    Like Todd, I was particularly struck by this question and I cannot help but think of the Parable of the Talents where two of the servants use the property with which they are entrusted and are rewarded while the third hides the property he is given.

    I don’t know whether there is a God or not, but if there is, He gave me my brain and the power to reason. I cannot imagine a God worth worshiping who would be pleased by me refusing to “sign up” for the conclusions to which my reason leads simply because some of those conclusions might make me uncomfortable.

  • Boz

    Tim D, you have adeptly described the analogy of the map and the territory.

  • Bill Pratt

    Dagoods,
    This argument is more basic than what you’ve asked. Recording information does not necessarily determine that the object exists only where it is recorded. What this argument is addressing is how you know the object in the first place. It is an argument about human cognition – epistemology. Parker, nor any realist, believes that knowing an object means making a copy of the object in your brain.

  • Bill Pratt

    Eric,
    You have understood correctly. On a materialist view of knowledge, the person can never know the object itself “out there.” The person can only know what is at the end of the physical processes that bring the object into and through a person’s brain.

  • Andrew Ryan

    … Which is a reliable enough process. Unless you think it’s possible that we are each hallucinating this conversation, or that only one of us actually exists. That’s pretty much an unfalsifiable idea, and one that’s no more a problem for materialists as anyone else.

  • Bill Pratt

    Todd,
    You said, “The object is “out there” because it is perceptible.” But how do you know that if the knowledge process is purely physical? All you really know is the last thing in the physical chain of events that led to the object of knowledge showing up in your brain.

    You seem to just be assuming that a real object exists out there in the world, but you have absolutely no way of knowing that if knowledge is a purely physical process. For all you know, the physical processes producing images in your brain could be just making things up or totally distorting the world “out there.”

    The alternative that Parker advances is that knowledge is an immaterial, immanent process. Human cognition is able to know reality exactly as it is because cognition is non-physical. The human intellect can pick out the natures, the essences of real objects in a non-material way. The human intellect works in tandem with the senses, but the senses on their own do not provide knowledge of the outside world. The senses deliver a “blooming, buzzing confusion” of data, but only the intellect actually knows anything.

    Put another way, there has to be a non-material way to know reality or we can never really know reality. We have to be able to “short-circuit” the physical processes, or what we know in our mind will always be far removed from what actually exists outside, if anything exists outside at all.

  • Bill Pratt

    Boz,
    On the materialist view of knowledge, there is no way of knowing that the physical world exists because what a person knows is determined by a long chain of physical processes and the knower only has access to the last process in the chain. Therefore, the knower is always trapped at the end of these physical processes with no way of getting out.

  • Bill Pratt

    Tim D.,
    On a materialist account of knowledge, how do you know that the book really exists? How do you know that you have an accurate model of the book if you don’t know the book itself?

  • Bill Pratt

    Tim D.,
    You said, “Our model, after all, is built off of the object itself (there must be an external stimulus in order for the stimulus to be translated)…”

    This is an assumption and cannot be derived from the materialistic account. There does not have to be an external stimulus at all, and the materialist account offers no way of ever proving it one way or another. The stimulus could be coming from inside your brain and not from the external world. It seems to me that you’re starting with the assumption that the outside world exists and then you’re saying that this assumption appears to work pragmatically, and therefore it is true.

    Truth is not determined by what works, but by what corresponds to reality. It appears that your system gives up on truth and settles for a pragmatic approach, and therefore Parker remains correct. Under the materialist account of knowledge, we are trapped in skepticism about the outside world. We don’t really know if it exists or not, but we assume it does in order to live our lives.

    Is that a fair assessment?

  • Bill Pratt

    Andrew,
    Would you explain the materialistic account of knowledge, since neither I nor Dr. Parker seem to understand it?

  • Pingback: Is the Act of Knowing a Physical Process? Part 2 | Tough Questions Answered()

  • http://alabamatheist.blogspot.com/ Tim D.

    On a materialist account of knowledge, how do you know that the book really exists? How do you know that you have an accurate model of the book if you don’t know the book itself?

    You don’t. And if we break it down into simple terms, we can say that it’s impossible to “truly know” if anything exists in the sense you’re describing. But scientific materialism doesn’t concern itself with “true knowledge” to such a literal extent; instead we use what is called “model-based realism,” which is the idea that any observation can (at least in principle) be true, so long as it does not contradict another observation. And since observation only works for the first party (and is not directly transferrable), we rely on “evidence” to communicate the ideas of “models” (models of things which people claim are directly observed) between people in order to test theories for contradictions — this is why I can “prove” that someone is lying based on evidence, even if we don’t have a literal “true understanding” of the nature of objective reality. If you just make up an observation, nobody’s going to care because you have no evidence. Evidence is what makes observations valuable — evidence is something someone else can observe in order to draw the same conclusion as the person making the original observation. It’s the closest thing we have to an analogue for the “communcable medium” I referred to with the disk and image analogy.

    And even in a purely solipsist worldview where observation is everything, something which communicates observations should be considered quite valuable, should it not?

    This is an assumption and cannot be derived from the materialistic account.

    That my model is based off of the object cannot be derived; however, that my model is based on something cannot be denied. Otherwise it would not exist. Even if it’s made-up, it has to be made up because of something which made it. I went into this in my response to part 2, so I won’t go into it again here, but basically, if we know that something exists, we can at least create a workable, consistent model of reality, even if we do accept the assumption that we can never understand reality’s true nature. At this level of philosophical entanglement, exactly what comprises “true reality” is really irrelevant, anyway.

    There does not have to be an external stimulus at all

    Then where does my illusion of stimulus come from?

    If it doesn’t have to come from “out there,” then the only other place for it to come from is “in here.” That would mean that I produced it. But how did I produce it? From where? If I’m all that exists, then nothing else — no other force or entity capable of producing change — exists. So if I’m blatantly confabulating these false images, then that means I’m creating them from nothing (since I have no experience or ideas to draw from — if I did, those ideas would “exist” apart from me and it wouldn’t be creating from nothing). To create is to “cause to exist.” If I can create, then I am not the only thing which exists — my creations also exist. Ergo, my stimulus is necessarily “real” because it is an aspect of reality that I have created.

    Now apply that universally — everybody has ideas that they have “created” about reality. Scientific materialism can still work with that! If, in fact, we are all just creating reality out of nothingness, then we can still use consistent comparison of observations to create models of reality that are consistent and workable.

    Truth is not determined by what works, but by what corresponds to reality.

    “Truth” in that sense is unknowable. Saying that something is “real” is equivalent to saying, “I understand everything there is to understand about this object.” What is “real” is what is necessarily the true, final observation of something, an observation so fundamental that there can be nothing more to it. Since there always (always!) exists the possibility that any human being can be wrong about something at any given point, then it is never intellectually honest to say that you “know something is real” in the sense that you are describing. And positing an objective force doesn’t get anybody out of this hole — if we say that there is some objective force which “bestows us” with reality, then that leaves us with the question, “how do we know that what we ‘know’ of this force is actually ‘known,’ as opposed to just believed, felt, or experienced?” We’d have the same issue as a materialist being pressed to “prove” that the material world is “real.”

  • http://alabamatheist.blogspot.com/ Tim D.

    P.S.

    If I can create, then I am not the only thing which exists — my creations also exist. Ergo, my stimulus is necessarily “real” because it is an aspect of reality that I have created.

    Just wanted to point out that I could go back here and ask myself, “but then, where did the materials for your ‘creation’ come from?” i.e., from what was it created? Then I would present myself with the same homunculus fallacy as Mr. Parker (and later, you) called upon to defend his criticism of materialism — it’s real because it came from something which was real, but how do we know that what it came from was real? Because it was real, too. And we can do that all the way back until we reach direct experience — it’s real because I made it real, and I’m real. But then I can still ask myself, “how did you make it real, though?” And I will just repeat the same logical loop ad nauseum.

    Basically, what I’m saying is, Mr. Parker’s criticism of materialism isn’t really a criticism of materialism; it’s a criticism of true skepticism. Not all materialists are true skeptics; whether material or immaterial, we can still ultimately just question anything and everything until any claim of “knowledge” or “experience” can be simply denied. That is why “true skepticism” is an impractical worldview, because it literally leaves us contemplating ourselves into oblivion. The reason we can even be sitting here having this conversation is because there are fundamental aspects of “reality,” whether or not what we see is real, that simply must be accepted in order for us to do much of anything.

    For instance. If I completely grant you that materialism is wrong and that an objective, immaterial force must exist….let’s say I experience that this force directly implants me with the absolute, certain knowledge of something, such as its existence. I can still assume that this experience of “absolute certainty” is itself an illusion, and I can therefore say that I “do not know” that my feeling of absolute certainty is actually certain. True skepticism works even in an immaterialist worldview.

  • http://sandwichesforsale.blogspot.com DagoodS

    Bill Pratt,

    Perhaps I am uncertain what you are claiming. I presumed you are indicated the act of knowing is NOT a physical process—correct? Then this would naturally lead us to ask: what type of process you claim it is?

    I would think even a non-naturalist would agree the act of obtaining knowledge involves at least some physical process—are you saying it doesn’t involve any?

    Yes, we do not fully understand how a brain obtains/stores information. Why is it we can remember our high school locker combination, but not the name of the person who just introduced themselves 2 minutes ago. We do not understand how the electrical impulses/chemical reactions within the brain function in such a manner so as provide information.

    But certainly you would agree there is a physical composition to this process, true? If not, it seems you add elements that make it MORE difficult to prove. For example, if it is not a physical process, how do you explain injury and disease to the brain causing loss of knowledge? Is it possible to “injure” a non-physical process to reduce knowledge?

    Or what do you claim about someone with different learning ability, such as dyslexia? Are you saying some “non-physical” process is at work here? What? Or ADD?

    Secondly, within the Christian realm, this creates an even further complication. You asked “How do you know the book really exists?”—don’t you have the same problem? Indeed the Bible records God making voices that others do not hear (such as Samuel) or providing visions others do not see—there are numerous examples. How do you know the book you are seeing ISN’T real, but is an image placed in your mind by your God?

    Not sure precisely what the problem here is.

  • http://alabamatheist.blogspot.com/ Tim D.

    Secondly, within the Christian realm, this creates an even further complication. You asked “How do you know the book really exists?”—don’t you have the same problem? Indeed the Bible records God making voices that others do not hear (such as Samuel) or providing visions others do not see—there are numerous examples. How do you know the book you are seeing ISN’T real, but is an image placed in your mind by your God?

    My point exactly — even if you personally experience THE god himself come down and bestow you with the “ultimate truth” of something, if you are a “true skeptic,” you have no way of knowing if that is actually what is happening, or if you are simply being presented with false images that are indistinguishable from reality. That is not a problem that is unique to materialism, it’s a problem with true skepticism, the idea that anything and everything can and should be questioned until absolute proof is provided. True skepticism leads to an infinite regress of verification (“why is this true? Because that is true. Why is that true? Because x is true. Why is x true? Because y is true…” so on and so forth, indefinitely).

    I want to say that materialism is less about being “truly skeptical” and more about believing that physical processes account for the phenomenon we experience….but it’s not even that shallow. It’s not that we take “physics” and try to explain reality in a way that is consistent within physical theory; rather, it’s that we take reality, explain it in a consistent way, and we call that “physics.” So anything which does not correlate with observable reality will pretty much by definition be rejected as “not physically possible.”

  • Boz

    Bill Pratt said: “Boz, On the materialist view of knowledge, there is no way of knowing that the physical world exists because what a person knows is determined by a long chain of physical processes and the knower only has access to the last process in the chain. Therefore, the knower is always trapped at the end of these physical processes with no way of getting out.”

    thanks for clarifying. This idea is metaphysical solpisism. I agree that we might all be in the matrix, with no physical world.

    so what?

  • David Medici

    Before me and to the left, upon a coffee table that is also presently supporting my feet, rests an electrical device that remotely controls the light and ceiling fan above my head. The remote control is at an oblique angle to the line of my sight such that I perceive its top and two sides. Yet within my brain I can rotate the remote control to observe the other two sides and the bottom, which perspectives I have seen on previous occasions. I am experiencing a reality that does not actually exist at the moment. I have no real perception of the other two sides and the bottom of the device. I am knowing without perceiving. At this moment I have a “knowing” that is entirely separate from perception.

    One may reply that my knowing is the product of a present and past perception, but such an assertion misses a fundamental point. I have a knowing that is not the product of perception, for perception is always a “now” phenomenon. Perception requires a “now” reception of stimuli that is organized into a comprehensibility “now”. The unobserved sides of the remote control that I “know” at the moment are not the product of stimuli; they are the product of self-directed will. The fact that I have a knowing of the remote control that is not the product of a stimuli demonstrates that there is a knowing that is extra-material, though the “knowing” may use the material of my brain, just as a signal may use the material of a wire to propagate. The example may be made more obvious by considering how we “know” entirely abstract and mental things such as mathematical truths, which are clearly not the product of stimuli and are wholly products of self-directed will.

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