Tag Archives: Descartes

#3 Post of 2015 – Why Can’t Science Explain Consciousness?

It is not uncommon these days to hear something like the following: “Science has explained just about everything else in the world, so it is inevitable that science will explain the mind and consciousness.” This kind of comment always makes me roll my eyes because the people who make this comment are making a colossal error, but an error that can be hard to see.

Philosopher Ed Feser gives a brilliant analogy that makes the error more obvious. He calls it the “lump under the rug” fallacy.

Suppose the wood floors of your house are filthy and that the dirt is pretty evenly spread throughout the house.  Suppose also that there is a rug in one of the hallways.  You thoroughly sweep out one of the bedrooms and form a nice little pile of dirt at the doorway.  It occurs to you that you could effectively “get rid” of this pile by sweeping it under the nearby rug in the hallway, so you do so.  The lump under the rug thereby formed is barely noticeable, so you are pleased.

You proceed to sweep the rest of the bedrooms, the bathroom, the kitchen, etc., and in each case you sweep the resulting piles under the same rug.  When you’re done, however, the lump under the rug has become quite large and something of an eyesore.  Someone asks you how you are going to get rid of it.  “Easy!” you answer.  “The same way I got rid of the dirt everywhere else!  After all, the ‘sweep it under the rug’ method has worked everywhere else in the house.  How could this little rug in the hallway be the one place where it wouldn’t work?  What are the odds of that?”

What is wrong with using the “sweep it under the rug” method to get rid of the dirt under the rug?

Naturally, the same method will not work in this case, and it is precisely because it worked everywhere else that it cannot work in this case.  You can get rid of dirt outside the rug by sweeping it under the rug.  You cannot get of the dirt under the rug by sweeping it under the rug.  You will only make a fool of yourself if you try, especially if you confidently insist that the method must work here because it has worked so well elsewhere.

So what does the “sweep it under the rug” method have to do with the issue of whether science will explain the mind and consciousness some day?

Now, the “Science has explained everything else, so how could the human mind be the one exception?” move is, of course, standard scientistic and materialist shtick.  But it is no less fallacious than our imagined “lump under the rug” argument.

Here’s why.  Keep in mind that Descartes, Newton, and the other founders of modern science essentially stipulated that nothing that would not fit their exclusively quantitative or “mathematicized” conception of matter would be allowed to count as part of a “scientific” explanation.  Now to common sense, the world is filled with irreducibly qualitative features — colors, sounds, odors, tastes, heat and cold — and with purposes and meanings.  None of this can be analyzed in quantitative terms.

To be sure, you can re-define color in terms of a surface’s reflection of light of certain wavelengths, sound in terms of compression waves, heat and cold in terms of molecular motion, etc.  But that doesn’t capture what common sense means by color, sound, heat, cold, etc. — the way red looks, the way an explosion sounds, the way heat feels, etc.  So, Descartes and Co. decided to treat these irreducibly qualitative features as projections of the mind.

The redness we see in a “Stop” sign, as common sense understands redness, does not actually exist in the sign itself but only as the quale of our conscious visual experience of the sign; the heat we attribute to the bathwater, as common sense understands heat, does not exist in the water itself but only in the “raw feel” that the high mean molecular kinetic energy of the water causes us to experience; meanings and purposes do not exist in external material objects but only in our minds, and we project these onto the world; and so forth.  Objectively there are only colorless, odorless, soundless, tasteless, meaningless particles in fields of force.

In short, the scientific method “explains everything else” in the world in something like the way the “sweep it under the rug” method gets rid of dirt — by taking the irreducibly qualitative and teleological features of the world, which don’t fit the quantitative methods of science, and sweeping them under the rug of the mind.  And just as the literal “sweep it under the rug” method generates under the rug a bigger and bigger pile of dirt which cannot in principle be gotten rid of using the “sweep it under the rug” method, so too does modern science’s method of treating irreducibly qualitative, semantic, and teleological features as mere projections of the mind generate in the mind a bigger and bigger “pile” of features which cannot be explained using the same method.

And there you have it. The very way science does its work is to exclude the qualitative features of reality as experienced by human consciousness. To lump the phenomena of consciousness in with the phenomena of gravity, cellular division, and star formation, is to try to get rid of the dirt under the rug by sweeping the dirt under the rug! It won’t work, ever.

Why Is There a Mind-Body Problem? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

In part 1, we learned that thinkers in the seventeenth century proposed to divide up reality into that which could be quantitatively described by mathematics and that which could not.  Philosopher Edward Feser, in a blog post, argues that this move by Galileo and Descartes was a massive blunder and compares it to the following analogy:

Suppose someone is cleaning the house and carefully sweeps the dirt out of each room into a certain hallway, where he then proceeds to sweep the various piles of dirt he’s created under a certain rug.  You tell him that that’s all well and good, but that he has still failed to get rid of the dirt under the rug itself and cannot do so using the same method.  He replies:

Are you kidding?  The “sweep it under the rug” method is one long success story, having worked everywhere else.  How plausible is it that this one little rug in this one little hallway would be the only holdout?  Obviously it’s just a matter of time before it yields to the same method.  If you think otherwise you’re just flying in the face of the facts — and, I might add, the consensus of the community of sweepers.  Evidently you’ve got some sentimental attachment to this rug and desperately want to think that it is special somehow.  Or is it some superstitious religious dogma you’re trying to salvage?  What do you think it is, a magic carpet? 

The sweeper thinks his critic is delusional, but of course he is himself the delusional one.  For the dirt under the rug is obviously the one pile which the “sweep it under the rug” method cannot possibly get rid of, and indeed the more successful that method is elsewhere, the more problematic the particular pile under the rug becomes.  The sweeper’s method cannot solve the “dirt under the rug problem” precisely because that method is the source of the problem — the problem is the price the method’s user must pay for the success it achieves elsewhere.

Feser explains explicitly how his analogy of sweeping dirt under a rug works:

Human beings are like the hallway in my example, and the human mind is like the rug.  The “mathematically precise quantitative description” of the natural world provided by modern science has been as successful as it has been only because those aspects of the natural world that don’t fit that method — irreducibly qualitative features like color, sound, etc. as they appear to us (as contrasted with scientific redefinitions of color, sound, etc. in terms of such quantifiable features as surface reflectance properties, compression waves, and the like); and final causes, teleology, or purposes — were swept under the rug of the mind, re-characterized as purely “subjective,” as mere projections that only seem to be features of the external world but are really only aspects of our perceptual representation of it.

As Nagel says, it was precisely this methodological revolution that created the mind-body problem, just as the “sweep it under the rug” method in my example creates a “dirt under the rug problem.”  If you essentially define the physical in such a way that it excludes color, sound, purpose, etc. as they appear to us in ordinary experience, and define the mental in such a way that it is the repository of these qualities you have removed from the physical world, then you have carved up the conceptual territory in a way that rules out from the get-go an explanation of the mental in terms of the physical.  Far from constituting a desperate resistance to the implications of the scientific revolution, dualism of this essentially Cartesian sort was a consequence of that revolution.

In other words, there is a only a mind-body problem if you accept that all that exists is that which can be mathematically quantified. If you do not accept this highly dubious contention, then the mind-body problem disappears.

Why Is There a Mind-Body Problem? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Contemporary philosophers often refer to the “mind-body problem,” which is roughly the following: how is it that the physical body interacts with the seemingly non-physical mind? Many philosophers answer this question by simply denying that the mind is non-physical. They claim that the mind is a manifestation of the brain and the chemical processes going on in the brain.

But this answer is also quite problematic. As atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel writes,

Consciousness is the most conspicuous obstacle to a comprehensive naturalism that relies only on the resources of physical science.  The existence of consciousness seems to imply that the physical description of the universe, in spite of its richness and explanatory power, is only part of the truth, and that the natural order is far less austere than it would be if physics and chemistry accounted for everything.  If we take this problem seriously, and follow out its implications, it threatens to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture.

Why is it that philosophers are so concerned about where the mind (consciousness) fits into reality? According to Nagel, this entire mind-body problem stems from our philosophical forefathers.

The modern mind-body problem arose out of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, as a direct result of the concept of objective physical reality that drove that revolution.  Galileo and Descartes made the crucial conceptual division by proposing that physical science should provide a mathematically precise quantitative description of an external reality extended in space and time, a description limited to spatiotemporal primary qualities such as shape, size, and motion, and to laws governing the relations among them.

Subjective appearances, on the other hand — how this physical world appears to human perception — were assigned to the mind, and the secondary qualities like color, sound, and smell were to be analyzed relationally, in terms of the power of physical things, acting on the senses, to produce those appearances in the minds of observers.  It was essential to leave out or subtract subjective appearances and the human mind — as well as human intentions and purposes — from the physical world in order to permit this powerful but austere spatiotemporal conception of objective physical reality to develop.

Philosopher Edward Feser argues that this move by Galileo and Descartes was a massive blunder and in part 2 we will see why that is.