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Is the Act of Knowing a Physical Process? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 1 of this post, we discussed Francis Parker’s argument that the process of knowing cannot be physical.  A purely physical account of knowledge simply does not work.  In part 2, we pick up where we left off.

Parker draws out more disturbing consequences of the materialistic account of knowing.

If, on the other hand, the particles that you actually see are really in the brain . . . , then another disturbing implication arises. Since everything which is known—the objects of all science and common sense would then be physically contained in human brains, the arduous and painful process of education would seem to be rather inefficient, to say the least, for we ought then to be able to learn everything that is known by the relatively simple process of brain surgery? We would be able to learn a given thing, presumably, simply by opening the appropriate skull, and the brain surgeon should therefore be the wisest of all men.

It hardly needs to be mentioned, however, that no brain surgeon will ever find a book in your brain (at least while you are thinking about a book), nor when what you know is the universe will he find the universe in your brain—for this would mean that the whole is contained in a rather small and insignificant one of its parts. Nor would it help for the “under-the-hat” theorist to object that this may be because our present knowledge of the brain is far from complete.

It is nonsensical to think that what we know physically resides in our brain, because we know things that are much larger than our brains!  But it gets worse for the materialistic account, because it’s not even clear that we can know anything in our brain, whether it physically fits or not.

Finally, having seen that on this view you could never know anything outside your own brain, there is a serious question as to whether you could even know anything in your own brain. For here again the process of “knowing” would be a physical one, whose beginning and whose end are consequently different. If, for example, the object of your knowledge were a certain structure in one of the fissures of your frontal lobe, your knowing of it would consist in a physical series whose last member would be located somewhere else in your brain. If, for instance, your knowledge of that frontal fissure consisted in part in the formation of a visual image of it, that visual image would not occur until the process had terminated in the back of your head, in which case the object of your knowledge is not the frontal fissure at all, but rather something in your occipital lobe. And if you were to know this particle in the back of your head, what you would know would be another particle somewhere else. And so on indefinitely.

In short, when we ask the Materialist where the object of his knowledge is, he must, if he is consistent, answer that the object which he “really knows” is at best different from the object which he “thinks he knows” (the former being under his hat or projected out from under his hat) and at worst no object at all—since his knowing of anything means that he does not know it, but rather something different, ad infinitum. So the Materialistic account of the act of knowing is untenable . . . when we consider the location of its object of knowledge.

Parker, in his essay, goes on to provide even more reasons why the materialist account of knowledge fails, but I consider the case to be made at this point.  If you are a person who does not believe in the existence of immaterial things, then what do you do?  How do you counter Parker?


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  • http://sandwichesforsale.blogspot.com DagoodS

    Considering we raised a number of (unanswered at this point) objections to his underlying assumption, any continuous argument based upon the assumption(s) would likewise have the same objections.

    Further, his claim a brain surgeon can “see” what another person’s knowledge equivocates the argument. I once heard a comparable argument shedding some light on his methodology:

    Belvedere: Tell me. What do you do with witches?
    V: BUUUURN!!!!! BUUUUUURRRRNN!!!!! You BURN them!!!! BURN!!
    Belvedere: And what do you burn apart from witches?
    Villager: More Witches!
    Other Villager: Wood.
    Belvedere: So. Why do witches burn?

    (long silence)
    (shuffling of feet by the villagers)

    Villager: (tentatively) Because they’re made of…..wood?
    Belvedere: Goooood!
    Other Villagers: oh yeah… oh….
    Belvedere: So. How do we tell whether she is made of wood?
    One Villager: Build a bridge out of ‘er!
    Belvedere: Aah. But can you not also make bridges out of stone?
    Villagers: oh yeah. oh. umm…
    Belvedere: Does wood sink in water?
    One Villager: No! No, no, it floats!
    Other Villager: Throw her into the pond!
    Villagers: yaaaaaa!

    (when order is restored)

    Belvedere: What also floats in water?
    Villager: Bread!
    Another Villager: Apples!
    Another Villager: Uh…very small rocks!
    Another Villager: Cider!
    Another Villager: Uh…great gravy!
    Another Villager: Cherries!
    Another Villager: Mud!
    Another Villager: Churches! Churches!
    Another Villager: Lead! Lead!
    King Arthur: A Duck!
    Villagers: (in amazement) ooooooh!
    Belvedere: exACTly!
    Belvedere: (to a villager) So, *logically*…
    Villager: (very slowly, with pauses between each word) If…she…weighs the same as a duck……she’s made of wood.
    Belvedere: and therefore…

    (pause)

    Villager: A Witch!
    All Villagers: A WITCH!

    Holy Grail (obviously)

  • Bill Pratt

    Dagoods,
    I like Monty Python, too, but how exactly have you addressed Parker’s argument?

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

    If, on the other hand, the particles that you actually see are really in the brain

    I won’t go into detail as I raised similar objections in part 1….but the objects (or “particles”) we “see” are in the brain. The difference is, the objects we see (via sensory processes such as sight) are not the same as the objects which exist. They are different — there is the object itself, which exists in physical space outside my mind, and there is my perception, or model, of the object, which does exist inside my mind.

    The model is based on the object, but it is not the object. That is why this statement cannot be true:

    Since everything which is known—the objects of all science and common sense would then be physically contained in human brains, the arduous and painful process of education would seem to be rather inefficient, to say the least, for we ought then to be able to learn everything that is known by the relatively simple process of brain surgery? We would be able to learn a given thing, presumably, simply by opening the appropriate skull, and the brain surgeon should therefore be the wisest of all men.

    “Knowledge” must be translated between individuals, not simply passed back and forth as a whole unit, like a more typically “physical” object. Like computer data, you cannot open a brain and “see” that person’s knowledge because our brains do not possess the “tools” to directly “read” the contents of a person’s mind. There is actually no known current method for directly translating data from one person’s brain to another’s — in the case of the brain surgeon, he can’t just take information out of a person’s brain and plug it into his own in the same sense that you can’t just open a computer and take the data directly out. It has to be transferred in an appropriate medium, such as a CD or DVD or other portable device. No known analogue to such devices exists for humans, nor are the means by which such an analogue could be produced.

    To put it more simply; say that I have a picture of a cartoon pig on my PC’s “desktop.” If I try to open my hard drive and directly retrieve the picture, all I’ll find is some hardware, which is useless to my naked senses — I can touch, taste, smell, see and hear the object, but that will not communicate to my brain the data of the image on the drive in such a way that my brain can directly “compute” it. In order to access the image, I must go through the computer’s “adaptive software” which serves as a medium by which the raw data is “translated” into a form which I can understand (the form of the image itself). The computer’s screen and software, then, is the “medium” which “translates” the raw data to me. But even so, it doesn’t directly translate the data — the data is actually copied, then projected onto the screen in a way that is relevant to my senses (the image), and then my senses re-translate the image back into data (or biological data-analogue, if you prefer) form and store it in my brain. So nowhere in the process is my brain ever able to directly access the data.

    It is nonsensical to think that what we know physically resides in our brain, because we know things that are much larger than our brains!

    This is the same sort of equivocation, though — your use of the term “bigger” is referring to literal spacial dimensions. Data is, by nature, a compressed physical state; data itself does exist, it has a physical form (this is why hard drives have a limited storage capacity — because data takes up space). But data is not the same thing as the product; the data containing the image in my previous example is not the image, it is the data of the image. The image itself is what my brain comprehends; the image is compressed into data form so that it can be stored and accessed more easily and conveniently.

    As for the matter of storing things larger than the article of storage….I easily have twelve thousand-plus pages of documents I’ve either written myself or saved from every which corner of the internet, all saved on my PC hard drive. I think it’s safe to say that all of those documents, piled up in literal form on printed paper, would easily dwarf my PC hard drive in terms of pure size. And yet, here they are, stored on my drive! This is because the documents themselves are not stored on my drive; data exists on my drive, which is converted into documents at my whim via my interaction with the computer’s software.

    In short: data (or a data analogue) is what exists in the brain, not literal “ideas.” You can’t open someone’s brain and “take ideas out” of it because “ideas” are not literally sitting in your brain; data (or a data analogue) is. And our basic senses do not have the proper “software” to interact with such data directly.

    Parker, in his essay, goes on to provide even more reasons why the materialist account of knowledge fails, but I consider the case to be made at this point. If you are a person who does not believe in the existence of immaterial things, then what do you do? How do you counter Parker?

    Have you heard of something called a “Homunculus Fallacy?” A homunculus fallacy is an argument that explains a phenomenon in the terms of the very phenomenon it tries to explain — a classic example is the analogy that a tiny person lives inside my head and “sees” the images that my eyes scan from the environment. That particular argument tries to explain the phenomenon of “sight” by deferring to sight itself — the question, “how do I see?” is answered with, “your eyes make images, which the homunculus in your brain sees.” But then, how does the homunculus see? He must have a similar homunculus inside his brain. And this continues in an infinite regress, which is a logical impossibility. Ergo, fallacy. The idea is that there *must* be some aspect of reality (in this case, knowledge) which is fundamentally basic — which is to say, it is foundational.

    I can sum up my argument thusly: If there is a “soul” inside me that “knows” the things that my senses and my brain “translate” for it, then how does my soul “know” what it knows? My soul must be utilizing some foundational process which allows it to understand what my brain tells it; otherwise, how does it go about the act of “knowing?” Does my soul have to “know” before my brain can “know?” To assert that would be to commit a homunculus fallacy — if a homunculus (such as a soul) is necessary to know, then the homunculus itself must also have a homunculus to “know.” And unfortunately, this triggers the infinite regress fallacy.

  • Bill Pratt

    Tim,
    I’m not sure what you’re arguing. You said, “I won’t go into detail as I raised similar objections in part 1….but the objects (or “particles”) we “see” are in the brain. The difference is, the objects we see (via sensory processes such as sight) are not the same as the objects which exist. They are different — there is the object itself, which exists in physical space outside my mind, and there is my perception, or model, of the object, which does exist inside my mind.”

    It looks like you are agreeing with Parker that you do not know the objects “out there,” but only what exists in your mind. You assume that there are objects “out there” and you assume that the physical processes which bring you awareness of the assumed outside world translate that world accurately. So you have assumed Parker’s challenge away.

    Parker is saying that on a materialist account, there is no knowledge of the outside world. Your reply seems to be: “Given that the outside world exists and that our physical processing equipment in the human brain works, we can have knowledge of the outside world.” So you’ve just assumed everything that Parker says you need to argue for.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Bill, you are arguing that materialists cannot disprove solipsism. Given that we can perform repeatable experiments to confirm that the information our brains receive give us a pretty reliable model of reality, the only alternative is that EVERYTHING you think you know is a hallucination. I’ll give you an example…

  • Andrew Ryan

    … I Skype my mother. Two people hundreds of miles apart having a conversation, where each tells the other things they do not already know. The next day we Skype again and discuss the previous conversation. Now, there are only two possibilities here:
    1) science works and has provided the technology to allow us to have that conversation. Or
    2) I hallucinated the entire scenario, which means that everything I experience must be a hallucination. This leads to solipsism.

    There aren’t really any other options. If I imagined some scenarios but not others, then the gaps would soon become obvious. My mother would tell me the second time that the first conversation never happened, etc.

    Fair enough, you might say, that’s the problem with materialism. But your position is no more immune to the unfalsifiable ‘nothing is real’ hypothesis. Materialism is no more susceptible.

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

    You assume that there are objects “out there”

    Yes, because if there is nothing out there, then I should not be receiving any sort of sensory input at all. So if I’m seeing anything at all, then that means there is something, somewhere, from which I am receiving this input. Therefore, based on the fact that I am capable of seeing at all, I am forced to assume that there must be something which I am seeing — whether what I see is an accurate picture of reality, or some kind of model in my mind.

    and you assume that the physical processes which bring you awareness of the assumed outside world translate that world accurately

    Nope. I actually said the exact opposite here, in part 1:

    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).

    Even if we assume a completely solipsist worldview, based solely on the fact that (A) I see things, and (B) what I see is consistent, I can still (no, I must) infer one or more of several things:

    1) there exists some system or force which consistently sends me false or flawed images (in which case, what I see is false);
    2) what I see is real (in which case, what I see is real).

    But as you can see, in either case, it must be assumed that something somewhere (which by definition cannot be me) exists, which sends me the “true” or “false” images — those images have to come from somewhere!

    If my experience is true, then it proves that reality exists apart from me. If my experience is false, then it proves that there is some force which does exist (which must necessarily be real) which is causing me to see false things. Either way, something exists, it’s just a matter of deciding how accurately “that which exists” is reflected in “that which I see.”

    Even if I’m sending myself true or false images, then the question of, “where do these images come from?” implies that somebody (myself) has to exist in order to send them, and somebody (myself) has to exist to receive them. This goes back to Rene Descartes’ Cogito, ergo sum. If I experience things, then I must exist. Ergo, something exists, ergo, there is objective reality.

    And it’s still easy to get out of the solipsist trap — if we assume that I (and only I) exist, then we still have my perceived account of reality to explain. Why do I perceive that which doesn’t exist? How do I know to perceive it? If only I exist, and only I have ever existed, then it follows that I should have no knowledge of anything other than myself. Where do the concepts of “others,” and of people, bodies and reality come from? They can’t come from myself because I am all that exists, and therefore I can’t possibly know about them. So they must come from somewhere else. Which means that “somewhere else” exists. Which means that solipsism is false.

    So you have assumed Parker’s challenge away.

    In a sense. It’s more that I *must* assume his challenge away if I am to even consider it! It challenges the foundational concepts of reality to that extent.

  • http://sandwichesforsale.blogspot.com DagoodS

    Bill Pratt,

    Parker appears to commit the equivocation fallacy—to utilize the same word but with the word’s different meanings to create interesting arguments. For example:

    P1: Bill Pratt is a nobody.
    P2: Nobody is perfect.
    C: Bill Pratt is perfect.

    We can all see how the word “nobody” is used very differently in P1 as compared to P2, making this argument invalid.

    Tim D gave a very apt analogy regarding the same thing:

    P1: I saved a picture of a pig on my hard drive.
    P2: I can open my computer up and see my hard drive.
    C: I will see a picture of a pig when I physically look at my hard drive.

    Again, the utilization of “hard drive” is different in P1 & P2.

    Parker seems to claim:

    P1: According to materialist we store information in our brain.
    P2: A brain surgeon can physically see the brain.
    C: Therefore the brain surgeon can see the information we have.

    Again, the utilization of “brain” is different.

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