Friday, December 19, 2014

The mind is what the brain does?

I recently ran across this post by neurologist Dr. Steve Novella over at his blog Neurologica. The post is basically a rebuttal to neurosurgeon Michael Egnor’s views regarding how memory is encoded in the brain; however, my agenda here is not to comment on this exchange. Rather, this current post of mine was sparked by comments made by Dr. Novella in his post regarding the nature of the mind. Here’s some of what he had to say:

As I have pointed out numerous times myself – mental phenomena are functional active things. They are based in the physical substance of the brain, but they are not just the physical substance – they are what results from the function of the physical substance. The mind is what the brain does.

I’ve heard this theory of mind put forward many times; that is, the theory that the mind just is what the brain does. Note that this is not the same as saying that the mind is identical to the brain, rather it simply says that psychological states just are the products of neurophysiological processes. This theory is simply a type of identity theory. Identity theory is a type of reductive materialism and is defined, by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, as the theory that “states and processes of the mind are identical to states and processes of the brain.” And this seems to be exactly what Dr. Novella’s position is, for he says that “mental phenomena (including memory) do not simply correlate with the firing of neurons in the brain – they are the firing of neurons in the brain.”

The first step that most materialists take towards justifying identity theory—or really any variation of a materialist philosophy of mind—is to provide evidence from neuroscience that demonstrates that the brain and mind are intimately related. And needless to say this evidence is not lacking at all. We know quite well that altering brain chemistry and brain structure can subsequently alter personality, can create a “divide” in consciousness, and can even cause individuals to fail to recognize familiar objects or even loved ones. There is no doubt that this says much about the correlation between the mind and the brain, but does is say any more than that by itself? Not really. Philosopher of mind James Madden, in his book Mind, Matter and Nature, articulates:
Has neuroscience revealed an empirical identity between psychological states and brain states? It clearly has not, nor does it seem that it ever could. What neuroscience does is to provide us with ever more precise descriptions of the goings-on in our brains that are correlated with our psychological states[…] Correlation is a far cry from identity; two phenomena can be perfectly correlated, without being identical. (p. 108)
The point then is that identity theory cannot be justified solely by the correlation between the mental and the neurological. As is commonly said, correlation does not imply causation. Now I maintain that not only can identity theory not be justified by pure findings from neuroscience, but I maintain that it is rife with ontological problems regarding actually accounting for how it is even possible that psychological states just are, and are reducible to, brain processes.

Intentionality and Necessary conditions
One of the first problems that identity theory runs into is accounting for intentionality. In philosophy of mind, intentionality refers to the ability of something to be about, or refer to, or represent something beyond itself. When I think of my wife, my thought is about, and refers to her. Now the problem here is that physical things only exhibit derived or secondary intentionality. The written word “cat” only refers to a cat if a mind so interprets it that way. It could just as easily have been the case that we endowed the word and utterance “cat” with a completely different meaning, or that another group of individuals takes the word or utterance “cat” to mean love. This means that physical symbols only have extrinsic intentionality and derive their intentionality from a mind that already exists. Now note that psychological states that exhibit intentionality do not borrow this intentionality from somewhere else. That is to say, our thoughts are not intentional because something external to us interprets them, rather they exhibit intrinsic intentionality, and thus our mental states constitute intentionality that is completely opposite the physical.

Now this posits problems for any philosophy of mind that is primarily materialistic. For how can a physical process be that which grounds intentionality if the physical first needs a mind in order to have intentionality at all? The materialist, then, needs a mind in the first place before he can start talking of intentionality being present in the physical. But the mind is the very thing the materialist is attempting to account for!

Furthermore, things get even worse for the identity theorist than this. Let us imagine a scenario where I raise my arm to a certain trajectory T1. Now let us say that I intended to raise my arm for some specific reason—perhaps to greet a co-worker. Now an identity theorist would say that my act of raising my arm can be accounted for in specifically neurophysiological events which terminated in certain muscular events which caused the raising of my arm. We can call this physical sequence that leads to the raising of my arm X1. Note that X1, by itself, is a sufficient condition for the raising of my arm to trajectory T1. So, the raising of my arm is therefore accounted for in completely materialist terms right? Not necessarily. For now imagine that instead of the physical sequence X1 causing T1, we say that this physical sequence is altered by only one neuron to cause a slightly different trajectory in my arm raising. So we can call this different physical sequence X2, and this new trajectory T2. So now we can say that X2 is a sufficient condition for the raising of my arm to trajectory T2.
But this is where we run into problems. While X1 might be sufficient for raising my arm to T1, and X2 is sufficient for raising my arm to T2, X1 and X2 are not necessary conditions for raising my arm as an intentional act. That is, in order to raise my arm as an intentional act, I do not need X1 or X2, but could have some other physical sequence obtain. But this means that no specific physical act is necessary for explaining the intentional act of raising my arm! Rather, while physical processes are sufficient for explaining my arm being raised in a certain specific manner, they are not sufficient for explaining my arm raising as an intentional act. Now note that if psychological states just are neurophysiological processes (i.e. if the mind is what the brain does), then certain physical sequences would be sufficient and necessary conditions for raising my arm intentionally. And since this is not the case then it cannot be true that our psychological states just are processes in the brain.

A second problem that confronts identity theory is that of rationality. When certain neurophysiological states in the brain are followed by other subsequent neurophysiological states, neurologists understand exactly how these states follow from one another. If S1 (a neurophysiological process) is followed by S2, which is then followed by S3, it is the electrochemical properties of the brain, ultimately grounded in physical laws, that cause this transition. Now imagine that I entertain the following line of thought: 1) John is usually late to class on Mondays, 2) It’s Monday, 3) Therefore, John will most likely be late to class. Now notice that, on identity theory, each thought (each psychological state) will correspond to a certain brain state (neurophysiological process). But this means that if identity theory is true, then the cause of me inferring 3) from 1) and 2) is simply the electrochemical properties associated with those brain states.

This obviously runs into problems. For my act of inferring 3) was due to the semantics associated with 1) and 2), and I simply saw logically that 3) follows. And, in fact, for any inference or conclusion to be considered rational, it needs to be caused by the meaning and semantics of previous thoughts, or propositions. But, again, this is not true on identity theory. On identity theory it is not the semantics of 1) and 2) that cause the mental state of 3), rather what causes 3) is simply the blind electrochemical properties of the neurophysiological state associated with 2), which was caused in the same way by 1). But this type of causation is purely blind deterministic efficient causation. That is, it is simply matter dancing to the tune of physical laws, and therefore cannot be called rational in any sense. Thus stated, on identity theory any type of “rational inference” is, upon closer inspection, only pseudo-rationality, and therefore rationality as such is only an illusion.
Note that these are not the only devastating critiques of identity theory (there are others that I've put forth here and here). But I believe they go a long way in demonstrating that this reductive materialist theory of mind—that the mind is what the brain does—is vacuous. Now let it also be noted that the arguments above are not soul-of-the-gaps arguments. That is, the arguments are not saying “this or that aspect of cognition is difficult to explain currently, so we need to posit the soul or some Cartesian substance to account for them.” Rather the above arguments are ontological and deductive. That is, they don’t argue from current scientific ignorance, but instead argue that the ontology of a materialist theory of mind cannot ever in principle solve these problems. These problems then are a sort of reductio ad absurdum of materialism, and thus findings in neuroscience are irrelevant here.

In conclusion, then, we see that identity theory rests on a conflation of correlation with causation, and faces insurmountable arguments that demonstrate that the mind cannot simply be “what the mind does.”

Monday, December 15, 2014

Contra presuppositionalism, Part III: Ontology and Epistemology

This is the last post in our series on the Christian apologetic method of presuppositionalism. In this post we will be focusing on, what I take to be, one of the biggest philosophical blunders that presuppositionalists make. What follows is a quote from Cornelius Van Til, in his book The Defense of the Faith, that will help illustrate exactly the type of fallacious reasoning that is employed:
[I]t takes an ultimate cause, God, if there are to be genuine second causes. In other words, it is only on the presupposition of the truth of Christianity that science is to be explained. (p. 265)

The problem might not be apparent upon a cursory glance, but notice exactly what Van Til is saying here. First, he’s saying that God is the ultimate cause of everything that exists, and that it is only due to his existence that there are any subsequent and secondary causes or existents. Now this, for a theist like myself, is uncontroversial. But then Van Til claims that this fact allows us to presuppose the truth of Christianity, and that this act is what makes science possible. Again, a theist would most likely agree that since God exists and is the first cause, then all order and regularity—of which science is founded on--is ultimately attributable to him. But, this is not the same as saying, therefore, that we must presuppose the existence of God, much less the truth of Christianity. That is to say, to admit that God is first in ontology does not mean that God is first in epistemology—remember that a presupposition is an epistemological first principle.

The point here then is that the presuppositionalist is conflating the order of being (ontology) with the order of knowing (epistemology). The presuppositionalist is essentially saying that since God is the ground of our existence and being, then we must presuppose his existence in order to reason at all. But this is false, unless one assumes that the order of being is identical to the order of knowing. In fact, when bringing up this point to presuppositionalists in the past, some of them have claimed that perhaps, then, there is no difference between ontology and epistemology, or that ontology and epistemology are not so easily separable in our philosophies. Now, while the latter is plausible, the former is simply false. Take an example. I first had knowledge of my wife before I had knowledge of her parents, and therefore my wife is of a previous order in my knowledge than her parents. But obviously this does not entail that my wife existed before her parents! For to argue such a thing would be absurd, and it would be to conflate metaphysical domains. But notice that this is exactly what the presuppositionalist is doing, namely, equating ontology with epistemology—that is, arguing that the order of ontology determines the order of epistemology. And since presuppositionalism rests on such metaphysical confusion then we have warrant for dismissing it as an invalid method.

Now, not only does our current discussion demonstrate that presuppositionalism rests on fallacious conflations, but it turns the tables against the presuppositionalist himself. Apologist Norman Geisler articulates:

Certainly if there is a God and all truth comers from him, it follows that even the very criteria of determining truth from error will be God-given. But God is what is to be proven, and we cannot begin by assuming his existence as a fact. If we do not have any tests for truth with which we can even begin, we can never make truth claims nor can we even know something is true.

The point is that every proposition, whether presupposed or not, must be subject to justification and rational warrant to determine if it’s true. But arbitrarily assuming something to be true (i.e. God’s existence) in order to ground truth is nonsense. That is, you must first have a criteria of truth before a proposition can count as true, and, therefore,  the existence of God (as well as all other propositions) must be subject to that criteria, and thus subject to our reason. Unfortunately, this is the complete opposite of what the presuppositionalist wants. He doesn’t want God’s existence, or the Bible, subject to our rational human criteria, rather he wants our rational human criteria subject to the Bible and God. But this simply isn’t possible given the way epistemology works. As I articulated in previous posts in this series, we simply cannot begin epistemologically with God or the Bible, because adhering to the truth of God’s existence or the Bible are endeavors that require previous epistemic and ontological premises to be true, and thus it requires that the former propositions are grounded the latter. That is to say, it requires that God’s existence and the truth of the Bible rest on propositions more fundamental than themselves, and thus the existence of God and the truth of the Bible cannot constitute presuppositions.

Monday, December 1, 2014

On final causality

Aristotle famously argued that in order to exhaustively comprehend an object or substance, you need to know the four causes of it. First there is the material cause, namely that which the object is made out of. Then there is the efficient cause, which is what brings the object into being—this is the type of causation that is commonly referred to when using the word “cause”.  Next there is the formal cause, which is the form, essence, or nature that the object has. Lastly, there is the final cause, which is the end, goal or purpose that something exists for, or that something tends towards.
Now, most contemporary philosophers, and scientists for that matter, admit the reality of efficient causation as well as material causation—though, again, they wouldn’t call the latter a cause—but will not admit the reality of formal and final causes. One reason for this is that final causes are commonly tied with the word “teleology,” and this word is strictly taboo in the scientific domain.

Anyway, it is final causes that will constitute the focal point of this post, and it will be demonstrated that one cannot coherently deny the reality of said causes.

Let me begin by illuminating the nature of final causes—what they are, and are not--so as to avoid confusion. When most individuals hear of final causes and their subsequent tie-in with” teleology,” they tend to think of William Paley’s design argument. That is, they tend to think that the teleology spoken of here is analogous to the teleology imposed upon artificial machines. If artificial machines exhibit complexity coupled with purpose, then other natural objects that exhibit similar complexity must also have been extrinsically endowed with purpose—think here of Paley’s watchmaker illustration. But this is not what is meant by something having a final cause.

Rather, for something to have a final cause simply means for it to have inherent dispositions to reliably bring about a range of effects. That is to say, if an object A regularly brings about B, C or D, then generating B, C or D is the final cause of A. This is what is meant by an end or goal of an object. For example, an acorn reliably generates an oak tree, rather than, say, a weed, or a dog, and thus the oak tree is the end or goal that the acorn is directed towards—that is, the oak tree is the final cause of the acorn. (Note that “directed towards” does not entail that a cause is consciously directed toward an effect. Final causality does not mean that an object is consciously trying to reach said effect, but only that the object tends to produce certain effects reliably.)

Now, although this seems to be intuitive, final causes are nevertheless commonly seen as superfluous. Science, and physics, it is said, makes no use of attributing final causes to things, and therefore we have no reason to believe that such things exist. However, remember 1) that this is completely false, unless one assumes that only science gives us knowledge of reality; 2) the fact that final causes are not pragmatic for science is also irrelevant since final causes are an ontological reality, and thus we’re not looking for them to be pragmatic for science; 3) science does not even enlighten us regarding the intrinsic nature of substances—of which final causality would be a part—but rather only how substances tend to behave; and 4) science actually presupposes final causality, though the substantiation of this assertion will be forthcoming below.
More importantly, science does indeed affirm the reality of efficient causality, and efficient causality actually presupposes final causality. You see, science discovers regularities in nature, hence the formulation of scientific laws. Science works by discovering conditional propositions such as “if A occurs under certain conditions, then B occurs”, or that A’s tend to bring about B’s. But, as Edward Feser says, “there is no way to make sense of these regularities apart from the notion of final causation, of things being directed toward an end or goal.” That is to say, if A reliably brings about B, then producing B is the final cause of A. Now, if substances did not exhibit final causality then one effect would not follow any more than another. Remember also that science doesn’t say that A’s simply happen to be followed by B’s. Rather, it is said, A is a sufficient condition for B, and thus A is inherently directed towards generating B. Again, if there were no final causes then A would not be a sufficient condition for B. Final causality then, far from being superfluous, is a necessary condition for causal regularity.

Again, if substances have final causes, this entails that these substances have certain dispositions to bring about certain effects. And this is what philosophers of science have been saying for quite some time now—that is, that substances have inherent “powers” or dispositions. Edward Feser illuminates my point:

Actual experimental practice indicates that what physicists are really looking for are the inherent powers a thing will naturally manifest when interfering conditions are removed, and the fact that a few experiments, or even a single controlled experiment, are taken to establish the results in question indicates that these powers are taken to reflect a nature that is universal to things of that type.
Again, philosopher of science Brian Ellis:

Scientists today certainly talk about inanimate things as though they believed they had such powers. Negatively charged particles have the power to attract positively charged ones. Electrostatic fields have the power to modify spectral lines. Sulfuric acid has the power to dissolve copper.

That is to say, what science is looking for is precisely what inherent dispositions or powers a substance will produce in ideal circumstances. And this presupposes that there are in fact certain dispositions inherent in these substances that tend to produce a range of effects, and thus it presupposes final causality.

Final causality, then, cannot coherently be denied. That is, unless one wants to deny efficient causation, causal regularity, and science itself. This is why Aquinas called final causes “the cause of causes.”