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September 13th, 2009

Who's Minding the Store?

Whitehead on the Inadequacies of Materialism to Account for Materialism

A number of modern modern philosophers have seen the problems inherent in the early modern philosophy of Hume, Descartes, and their ilk.  Whitehead was one; Schroedinger was another.  We might regard them as the demolition crew who tore down positivism so that Popper and his crew could erect something else.  But then, Popper has his problems as well.

“If the cause in itself discloses no information as to the effect, so that the first invention of it must be entirely arbitrary, it follows at once that science is impossible, except in the sense of establishing entirely arbitrary connections which are not warranted by anything intrinsic to the natures either of causes or effects. Some variant of Hume’s philosophy has generally prevailed among men of science. But scientific faith has risen to the occasion, and has tacitly removed the philosophic mountain.” (Science and the Modern World, p. 4)

Whitehead meant that without final cause -- an objective, intelligible connection between causes and effects -- natural science lacks a rational basis.  Scientists who embrace the mechanistic philosophy of nature do their work "on the basis of a groundless commitment."  It just is!  Whitehead reversed the common cartoon of medieval  versus modern: the moderns were the fideists and the medievals the partisans of “unbridled rationalism” (p. 9). "The clergy were in principle rationalists, whereas the men of science were content with a simple faith in the order of nature… This attitude satisfied the Royal Society but not the Church. It also satisfied Hume and has satisfied subsequent empiricists.” (p. 51) 

It sorta makes me wonder how well he got along with Bertrand Russell when they were writing Principia Mathematica
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How Schroedinger Lost His Mind

Galileo, Descartes, and the early moderns separated "objective" qualities (like dimension, location, shape, etc.) which they held to exist in the observed object itself from "subjective" qualities (like color, odor, taste, sound, etc.) which they held to exist in the observing subject.  This, of course, made sensory qualities as experienced inexplicable in materialistic terms.  (In the centuries since then, many things have been swept under the subjective rug of the mind.  Now, we are trying to redefine the mind itself as objective, which is sort of like sweeping the rug under the rug.  At the very least, it will let all those dust bunnies loose.  We also have the peculiar situation in which atoms are no longer regarded as having a shape, which apparently unwittingly drops them from the "objective" category.  Materialism thus is having a hard time accounting for matter.  But we digress.)

Schroedinger saw that if you affirm the existence both of matter (modern sense) in the world and of the sensory qualities (qualia), in the mind, then you're committed to a mind-body dualism of some sort.  (Apparently, this subdivides into substance dualism and property dualism).  He saw that the "objectivation" of matter made the mind very mysterious.  To avoid dualism you must either a) reject the existence of matter (e.g., Berkeley, et al.), b) reject the existence of the qualia (e.g., eliminativists and materialists), or c) reject the mechanistic conception of matter that led to the problem in the first place (Aristotelians, et al.)  Schroedinger pointed out the problem for scientists in particular:

We are thus facing the following strange situation. While all building stones for the [modern scientific] world-picture are furnished by the senses qua organs of the mind, while the world picture itself is and remains for everyone a construct of his mind and apart from it has no demonstrable existence, the mind itself remains a stranger in this picture, it has no place in it, it can nowhere be found in it. (“On the Peculiarity of the Scientific World-View” p. 216)

IOW, modern science pictures the natural world as devoid of qualia (and anything personal).  And yet the picture itself exists only in the minds of scientists – and takes as its evidential base the senses, and thus the very qualia it refuses to locate in nature.  This "epistemological paradox" is the cognitive dissonance lying at the heart of modern science. 

While philosophers ought to know better, Schroedinger explains why scientists overlook the problem:

Scientific theories serve to facilitate the survey of our observations and experimental findings. Every scientist knows how difficult it is to remember a moderately extended group of facts, before at least some primitive theoretical picture about them has been shaped. It is therefore small wonder, and by no means to be blamed on the authors of original papers or of text-books, that after a reasonably coherent theory has been formed, they do not describe the bare facts they have found or wish to convey to the reader, but clothe them in the terminology of that theory or theories. This procedure, while very useful for our remembering the facts in a well-ordered pattern, tends to obliterate the distinction between the actual observations and the theory arisen from them. And since the former always are of some sensual quality, theories are easily thought to account for sensual qualities; which, of course, they never do. (“The Mystery of the Sensual Qualities” p. 164)

The History of Modern Neuroscience in a Pecan Shell

(h/t Ed Feser)
1. Neuroscientists begin with observations – conscious experiences whose character is determined by various sorts of qualia or sensory qualities. 
2. Then they construct a theoretical description of the physical and neural processes associated with those perceptions.
3. The theoretical description takes on a life of its own and begins to seem more real than the concrete sense experiences that led to it.  It is, in effect, learned from revered teachers, read in books, and believed more fervently than by those whose hard work actually developed it.  See Kuhn's "paradigm science."
4. The language used for the qualia is applied to the theoretical description.  (E.g., “heat” in the sense of a certain kind of tactile sensory quality shifts to "heat" in the sense of molecular motion comes.) 
5. The latter begins to "sound" like an "explanation" of the former.  (E.g., "heat" in the sense of molecular motion is an "explanation" of “heat” in the sense of a certain kind of tactile sensory.)
6. This is the fallacy of equivocation.  To “explain” qualia in “scientific” (i.e. mechanistic and “objectified”) terms is not so much an explanation as it is a change of subject. 

7. By definition sensory qualities cannot be “material” given the new scientific conception of matter.  
8. Philosophers and scientists down to the early 20th century realized this.  So, few were materialists. 
9. But later generations have been far more narrowly trained in specialties and are less well educated in philosophy, and so have forgotten this conceptual history.
10. This amnesia (and philosophical shallowness) together with the practical successes of modern science have hardened many into a crude scientism which assumes that science can answer philosophical problems.

11. Then philosophers like Searle point out that current neuroscientific “explanations” of consciousness, etc. do not in fact explain the relevant phenomena at all. 
12. It seems to the philisophically-naive scientists that these philosophers are inventing a new problem in a desperate and obscurantist attempt to salvage a belief in human "dignity."  (Some even seem to preach that the purpose of science is to dethrone humanism rather than to discover truth.)  
13. But the philosophers are simply calling attention to a very old problem that the mechanistic model itself has created (and of which earlier generations of philosophers and scientists were well aware.)

Of course, it is the devotees of scientism who foster "obscurantism."  They ignore conceptual distinctions and force all intellectual life into a particular methodological paradigm.  Lost in all this is the historical fact that the mechanistic 'objectified' concept of matter that we get from the Early Moderns is not a scientific discovery, but a brute philosophical assertion.  No one "discovered" that shape was "objective" and sound was "subjective."  They simply said so.  And made it stick.  And for centuries thereafter we have asked ourselves if a tree falling in a forest would make a sound if there was no one there to hear it. 


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