Friday, July 25, 2014

Semantics and the mind

Last week I posted an article devoted to articulating the famous Argument from Reason (AfR). This argument attempts (and succeeds, in my opinion) to demonstrate that if naturalism were true, then there would be no such thing as reason. The AfR goes about demonstrating this by first highlighting the nature of reasoning. Reasoning, according to David Bentley Hart, is “to proceed from one premise or proposition or concept to another, in order ideally to arrive at some conclusion, and in a coherent sequence whose connections are determined by the semantic content of each of the steps taken”. The AfR then contrasts this account of reasoning with “reasoning” on a naturalistic worldview. See, for the naturalist all that exists are material processes governed by the laws of physics. But, this means that the cause of “reasoning,” on naturalism, is not semantics and meaning, but only electrochemical properties in the brain—there’s more subtlety to the argument than this, this is simply a quick summarization. Thus, it is argued, there would be no such thing as reason on a naturalistic worldview.

After articulating this argument on the aforementioned post, a frequent and attentive commenter named Ray posted some of his objections in the comment section. One of these objections I found to be quite substantive, and thus I felt the need to write a post addressing it.

His objection was that the AfR makes a hidden assumption that needs to be supported. The AfR contrasts semantics and meaning (the basis of reasoning) with purely material processes, and it claims that the former constitutes reasoning and the latter does not. However, the naturalist believes that semantics and meaning themselves are also the result of purely material processes, and therefore the proponent of AfR is creating a false dichotomy. He makes it seem as if the naturalist must choose between a rational cause—grounded in meaning and semantics—or a non-rational one—both choices leading to a rejection of naturalism. However, if meaning and semantics are themselves the result of material processes then there is no such choice for the naturalist—that is, there is no choice between a process grounded in non-material causes and material causes, since on naturalism all causes are ultimately material in nature. Thus stated, the proponent of AfR needs to demonstrate that semantics and meaning are not reducible to material causes before the AfR can be valid.

I do believe that this is a good and valid objection to the AfR. So let us see if semantics can indeed be reduced to the material. Let’s begin with an example. Take the symbol “2”. What does it stand for? Well, it stands for the concept of “two”, derived from set theory to represent the set containing two elements (II). But, it’s important to point out that the symbol “2” does not contain this meaning intrinsically. If that were true, then the symbol “2” would necessarily have to have represented the concept “two”. But the symbol “2” is completely arbitrary. In fact, it’s quite possible that we humans could have designated “2” to represent the number “five” instead, or it could have represented the concept of “love,” as opposed to a heart, if we so chose to embed it with that meaning.

Another way to demonstrate this is by imagining a primitive tribe that actually does take the symbol “2” to mean “love”. Now, if this were a true state of affairs then we could ask the question, “What does ‘2’ mean?” And the answer would be that it depends. To us it means “two” and to the tribe it means “love”. All this means that the symbol “2” by itself is intrinsically nothing but a meaningless squiggle. Its meaning is only grounded in minds who impart meaning to it. And what’s crucial here is that we can say the same regarding any symbol.

Hence, symbols can only exhibit derived meaning, and thus their semantic value is of a secondary, and borrowed order. But, symbols are the only type of meaning that we’ve seen material things exhibit, and therefore our conclusions regarding the secondary semantic nature of symbols applies to the physical as well. Thus stated, we arrive at the following conclusions regarding the physical. First, the physical and material can only gain meaning from a mind. (This of course demonstrates that naturalism cannot account for the semantic content of the mental, because meaning already presupposes the mental, and it cannot therefore account for it without arguing in a circle.) Second, meaning is not intrinsic to the physical, but is only derived, or borrowed.

I maintain that all this suffices to show that the skeptic’s challenge has been met. It has been demonstrated that semantics and meaning cannot be reduced to the material. Therefore, since semantics cannot be reduced to the material, then the contrast between rational and non-rational causes that the AfR promulgates is valid. Thus stated, the AfR stands and refutes naturalism.

Moreover, even if the above demonstrations didn’t lend validation to the AfR, they would still land a fatal blow to any naturalist theory of mind. For, to reiterate, if the phenomena of the mental cannot be reduced to the material, then naturalism is in jeopardy. And I maintain that we have done just such a thing by demonstrating that semantics cannot be found in the material, but must be predicated of the mental alone. 

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