05 Dec 2012

Materialism Is Not Obviously Correct

All Posts 116 Comments

I used to be a hardcore materialist. I confess, I don’t know that I ever would have abandoned the position if it weren’t for becoming a theist (again). So believe me when I say that I understand why an atheist has difficulty even conceiving of what it would mean, to not be a reductive materialist.

Anyway, P.S. Huff (HT2 Gene C.) gives this neat quotation:

From Robert C. Koons and George Bealer, eds., The Waning of Materialism (2010), ix-x:

It is . . . commonly thought that over the course of the last sixty or so years materialism achieved hegemony in academic philosophy, and this is no doubt right by certain measures—for example, in absolute number of self-identified materialist philosophers of mind or in absolute number of books and journal articles defending materialism. It is therefore surprising that an examination of the major philosophers active in this period reveals that a majority, or something approaching a majority, either rejected materialism or had serious and specific doubts about its ultimate viability. The following is just a partial sampling of these philosophers, more or less in order of birth.

Bertrand Russell, Rudolf Carnap, Alonzo Church, Kurt Godel, Nelson Goodman, Paul Grice, Stuart Hampshire, Roderick Chisholm, Benson Mates, Peter Strawson, Hilary Putnam, John Searle, Jerrold Katz, Alvin Plantinga, Charles Parsons, Jaegwon Kim, George Myro, Thomas Nagel, Robert Adams, Hugh Mellor, Saul Kripke, Eli Hirsch, Ernest Sosa, Stephen Schiffer, Bas van Fraassen, John McDowell, Peter Unger, Derek Parfit, Crispin Wright, Laurence BonJour, Michael Jubien, Nancy Cartwright, Bob Hale, Kit Fine, Tyler Burge, Terence Horgan, Colin McGinn, Robert Brandom, Nathan Salmon, Joseph Levine, Timothy Williamson, Mark Johnston, Paul Boghossian, Stephen Yablo, Joseph Almog, Keith DeRose, Tim Crane, John Hawthorne, Richard Heck, David Chalmers.

Materialism plainly has not achieved hegemony when it comes to philosophers of this high caliber.

A footnote adds: “For all the people listed, we have documentation that they either rejected materialism or harbored serious and specific doubts about its ultimate viability. All the living philosophers listed (Putnam, Searle, Plantinga, Parsons, Kim, Nagel, and all those following) have given us explicit permission to include them on the list (under the description used in the sentence preceding this one).”

Gene then reminds us that at least some of the people on the above least are not theists; in fact Bertrand Russell was a pretty in-your-face atheist.

My point in this post is NOT to say, “Hey, these smart guys apparently had problems with materialism, so you should too!” Rather, my point is to caution people–who pop up all the time in these Internet discussions–who are implicitly assuming materialism is true, apparently without even realizing that’s the very thing under discussion.

Now they might flip things right back around and accuse non-materialists of the same thing; perhaps in some cases that charge would be justified. I’m just saying, in a lot of these discussions, people make “points” that only work if they have already assumed their conclusion.

Always remember: You know you have conscious experiences. You don’t know that there is a physical, external world. That is just a theory you use to explain your experiences. It’s possible that our conception of “the real world” is totally wrong; we could all be brains in vats in a universe that is nothing like the one we think we inhabit. However, it doesn’t even really make sense to worry, “Could I not really be conscious, and something is just fooling me into thinking I am?” (I realize I’m just going back to Descartes here, but hey, the guy was sharp.)

Back in grad school, I used to argue with Gene about this stuff. I was a big fan of Daniel Dennett, and confidently told Gene that consciousness was a “user illusion” that conferred reproductive fitness in our evolutionary lineage. Gene asked the devastating question, “For whom is the illusion?” That seemed like such a petty question to me at the time–didn’t Gene get the program? The answer has to reduce consciousness to unconscious matter. Otherwise it doesn’t count as a real answer!

116 Responses to “Materialism Is Not Obviously Correct”

  1. Christopher says:

    Things that end on -ism are almost never even close to being obviously correct.

    • Major_Freedom says:

      Ain’t that a truism!


  2. Ken B says:

    A more interesting question would be, how many brain researchers and neuro-scientists are materialists? And the fraction is very high. (It’s also the most atheist field.)

    In some sense we can never decide what is true about some of these questions. Take your religion. There could be a god, and he could have created the wrold 10 minutes ago complete with memories. In that case your memory of consciousness 11 minutes ago is a user illusion, and the claims in your religious books are false. Or our braions may suffer from a lack of which we are unaware (Kant). What we can do is line up ideas that are not demonstrably wrong, and evaluate them. And for that Occam’s razor is helpful. And it cuts the materialist reductionist way.
    For evaluation the ability to make predictions is a good criterion too. And it cuts the materialist way.
    Materialism hasn’t been ‘proven’ any more than Relativity or Maxwell’s Laws have been proven. It’s simpy the best we’ve got, and by a long chalk.

    “Always remember: You know you have conscious experiences. You don’t know that there is a physical, external world. ”
    Well this assumes consciousness is not a physical thing.
    “Always remember: You know society is organized. You don’t know there is an invisible hand driven by prices. markets, and private utility.”

    • Z says:

      It may be the best we’ve got. But I think if it is, then a lot of other things that we believe are inconsistent with it. For example, we are actually different people from when we were babies, because all the matter in our body has been replaced probably several times over by other matter. Perhaps 20 years ago I was you, Ken B, and you were me as a toddler. All those pictures my parents took were actually of you, LOL.
      Also, there would be no free will either, so therefore no morality.

      • Ken B says:

        Then you were one cute baby Z.

        These aren’t objections. They are merely results, that if true, would surprise many. But they needn’t be true. We are communicating via machines running software for example. The software matters and can run on different hardware. But there’s still no soul in the internet.

    • Christopher says:

      A more interesting question would be, how many brain researchers and neuro-scientists are materialists?

      Why is that a more interesting question.

      • Ken B says:

        Because they have greater knowledge of the details of how brains work and what they are acpable of. Because they have more detailed models of how thought and memory work. Because they can do and have done tests to see if the kind of theory of mind Gene and Bob favor holds up to detailed scrutiny and experiment. Because if the issue being debated is fundamentally about brains and what brains are capable of we should ask brain experts.

        • Christopher says:

          Well, two points.

          1. The question whether materialism is correct is only mainly about brains of you are a materialist.

          2. If you are not a materialist, it would not make much sense to engage in brain research. Your philosophical position would deny the relevance of your daily work. So the fact that most brain researchers are materialist is no surprise at all. It’s perfectly explainable from a non-materialist position.

          • Christopher says:

            of -> if


          • Ken B says:

            ” It’s perfectly explainable from a non-materialist position.”

            Yeah, circular arguments are like that. You don’t have to accept the germ theory of disease either, it’s just that ‘disease essence’ is found where germs flourish that’s all.

            • Christopher says:

              Oh come on… Are you for real?

              • Ken B says:

                Look Christopher either thinking is something bodies do alone or it isn’t. If it is, we’re done, materialism wins. If it isn’t then either thinking is an illusion or something other than bodies do it or is needed to do it. Bob et al claim that something other than bodies do it. He’s a dualist right?

              • Christopher says:


                you argued for materialism using an argument that assumed that people who use a materialistic approach are to be believed.

                I gave you a reasonable alternative explanation for your observation that didn’t assume anything except that brain researchers aren’t masochists.

                You came back at me saying my argument was circular.

                And now you explain the difference between materialism and dualism.

                I don’t really understand what you are trying to say.

              • Major_Freedom says:

                MAYBE, MAYBE NOT!

            • don salmon says:

              Ken, I wonder if you have met any neuroscientists. From the first day of grad school (actually, probably at least by the 2nd year of undergrad) any neuroscience student with half a brain (yes, at least half!) knows that the way to get ahead in the field is to adhere as closely as possible to a materialist view. It has absolutely nothing (nothing) to do with what they “discover” about the brain. Alan Wallace has traveled the world for 20 years talking with some of the world’s leading neuroscientists and they have all (most reluctantly) agreed that there is not one, single fact uncovered in the entire field of neuroscience which is inconsistent with non materialist views (if you want to see a detailed explanation of this, just look up “Donald Hoffman”, a cognitive scientist with a masterful understanding of the brain, who demonstrates quite logically why dualism and idealism (both of which I personally think are just as illogical and incoherent as materialism) are just as consistent with neuroscience as materialism.

        • Bob Murphy says:

          Ken B. wrote:

          Because they can do and have done tests to see if the kind of theory of mind Gene and Bob favor holds up to detailed scrutiny and experiment. Because if the issue being debated is fundamentally about brains and what brains are capable of we should ask brain experts.

          Everyone, note the master illusionist Ken B. nonchalantly uses “mind” and “brain” interchangeably, which only works of reductive materialism is correct.

          “For whom was Ken’s illusion?” you ask. For anyone gullible enough to think he is a straight-shooter in these blog debates, that’s who.

          • Ken B says:

            See my long response to Gene on what I mean by identifying mind and brain.

            I wrote this: ” Because if the issue being debated is fundamentally about brains and what brains are capable of we should ask brain experts.”
            How is that not striahgt shooting? I am explicitly saying that my hypothesis, that minds can be explained in terms of brains and how they operate, can be and should be examined and test. The question I am saying openly and explicitly is “what brains are capable of”. I am not assuming the answer when I say that is the question under debate.

            • Bob Murphy says:

              Ken I am mostly being “funny.” I am prepared to believe that you were not intentionally trying to smuggle your conclusion into your premises. But if I said, “100% of theologians agree that the existence of God can resolve the mind/body problem, and since this is fundamentally a question about what God is capable of, they are the right people to poll,” I don’t think you’d give me a high-five.

            • Major_Freedom says:

              Why did you think of experimenting on brains when you thought of “mind”?

        • Andrew Keen says:

          100% of brain researchers and neuro-scientists believe that the brain is material. 0% are able to explain the nature of consciousness. Hardly a decisive victory for materialism, no?

          • Ken B says:

            The question is how many think that the mind is explicable in terms of the brain.

            You are making a ‘soul of the gaps’ argument.
            Before Pauling no-one could explain chemical bonds in terms of the underlying physics, but nearly all scientists believed they could be. We may not have a complete theory of consciousness yet. We don’t have a complete theory of cancer yet either. 0% of cancer researchers can fully explain cancer. You really doubt cancer is explicable in therms of celluar biology and chemistry?

            • Major_Freedom says:

              Those are victories of materialism. One can only win if it is possible to win.

              If it is not possible to win, then not winning over time would look suspiciously like “not having won yet” if you presuppose materialism is true, doesn’t it?

              It really doesn’t matter if materialist victories are had in cancer, chemistry, physics, and millions of other fields of inquiry. Consciousness is a unique beast. It is possible that consciousness is the one thing in the entire universe that will never be explained materialistically.

              It is extremely sloppy to infer from 99 victories of materialism, that it MUST apply to to the 100th.

              Methodological monism is not self-evident. It is not something that is so obviously true that only a moron would deny it.

            • Andrew Keen says:

              My point is, explaining what the brain is and how it works is different than explaining what consciousness is. I am taking the position that you could know everything there is to know about the brain and still not know what consciousness is or where it comes from. I doubt a brain researcher will ever say, “We found the consciousness!” This means that you and those who take your position will forever need to diminish the importance of consciousness in your rhetoric. But it will always seem awkward to those of us who are experiencing consciousness for ourselves.

        • guest says:

          For materialism to be true would be to deny the very ability to prove it, since whatever a scientist did would be like a Rube Goldberg Machine – a “billions and billions” of years old Rube Goldberg Machine, where the scientists actions necessarily followed from what has happened in the past.

          The scientist isn’t thinking for himself, you see.

          This is why free will disproves materialism, and why it proves the soul.

    • Blackadder says:

      Occam’s razor is helpful. And it cuts the materialist reductionist way.

      You realize that Occam was not a materialist, right?

      • Ken B says:

        I do. So what? Occam’s Razor selects amongst theories before me. These theories were not before Occam.

    • Gene Callahan says:


      1) I can’t see how in the world materialism has made any predictions at all!
      2) I can’t think of a single decent argument for materialism.
      3) “Well this assumes consciousness is not a physical thing” No, it doesn’t. It just assumes that we know we are conscious, whatever that might mean.

      • Ken B says:

        OK, maybe we just need to define this better.
        I assert liver function has been *reduced* to cellular biology. There is nothing to operation of the liver not directly explicable in terms of the functioning of cells and their communications and arrangements. I presume you agree. (?)
        Now, have I ‘explained’ the liver in terms of cells. I think I have.
        I don’t need anything other than the cells. This is not the same as saying the liver is *just* a collection of cells; distribute the cells all over the Kalahari one at a time and there is no liver. The organization and communication matter, but are agin explicable in physical terms. If you want to cry ‘emergence’ I am quite happy; if you want to cry ‘non material liverness, essence of liver’ I am not.

        I claim that all mental operations will like be explicable as the operation of nervous systems, and nervous systems explicable in terms of the operations and arrangements of their cells. If you want to cry ‘emergence’ I am quite happy; if you want to cry ‘non material mindnes, essence of mind’ I am not.

        And my claim does have predictions. It predicts for one thing I can make a brain. Oh not yet, and maybe from silicone, but in principle. It predicts that the effects of drugs and lesions on brains will have some regular, testable effects. It has already successfully predicted the success and failure of lots of drugs. (Soul talk has not.)

        Now maybe you mean something different by reductionist materilaism.

        As for 3, no not the way Bob wielded that assertion.

        • Andrew Keen says:

          (1) Notice how you’re the only one talking exclusively about brains?

          (2) No one saying that materialism is demonstrably incorrect.

          (3) Here is main problem with what you’re saying: It demonstrates a failure on your part to even comprehend your opponent’s position. Bob (referencing Gene), states that materialism is neither proven nor the consensus and argues that speakers should therefore not assume materialism as a given when making arguments. Your response has been to point out all the ways in which human behavior is influenced by the brain as if that somehow diminishes Bob’s original position.

          (4) Building a brain doesn’t prove materialism. It proves that human beings are intelligent enough to build a machine that simulates human behavior. I wonder if you understand the difference.

          • Ken B says:

            (1) Notice I’m the only arguing for materialist explanations?

            4 is funny in light of your failure to pass the Turing test implicit in 3.

        • Major_Freedom says:

          Cellular biology has not itself been reduced. The gap there may be associated with consciousness in some way, and strictly speaking, cell biology is insufficient in explaining consciousness, which means you haven’t definitely excluded non-materialist consciousness via the cell biology route.

          • Ken B says:

            I agree. The materialist reduction program is ongoing. It is not complete. Cellular biology is vastly more explicable in terms of chemistry and thermodynamics and information processing than it as a generation ago though.

            Notice I say will be. As i noted, it’s not likely we can say anything here is true or false. We can’t even say conserv ation of energy is true in that sense. We build theories, we judge them, we work on them. The materialist theories have been doing well.

            • Major_Freedom says:

              The materialist reduction program is ongoing. It is not complete.

              It may only be “completed” at the limit of consciousness, after which it cannot go further. After all, the process of materialist knowledge accumulation may be a component of consciousness, rather than the whole of consciousness. So far the consciousness != materialist theory has not been refuted.

              I could be travelling my whole life, but that doesn’t mean the travelling is me. The travelling is a component of me.

              For materialism, materialism may be the singular mental method that consciousness utilizes, but is never subsumed by it. It could be argued that consciousness “owns” that method, rather than vice versa.

              The belief that materialism may one day subsume consciousness, is, IMO, a belief that consciousness of objects will one day end, and the object and (conscious) subject will combine, thus eradicating the dichotomy.

              Perhaps this is the “death wish” Freud was talking about, or the theological impetus to believe in joining with God, etc.

              At any rate, yes, the materialist theories have been doing well….but for whom have they been doing well?

    • Andrew Keen says:

      “Well this assumes consciousness is not a physical thing.”

      No it doesn’t. It makes no conclusion about the actual nature of consciousness. It simply states that it is the only thing that you can say with full certainty exists. If it doesn’t, by what means are you pondering its nature?

  3. RPLong says:

    Gene’s question to you echoes Ayn Rand’s question to Alan Greenspan. She simply asked him whether he thought he himself existed. He didn’t know what to say.

    Yeah, yeah, I know we’re not supposed to talk about Ayn Rand, but still…

    • Ken B says:

      I have an experiment. Take Alan Greenspan and hook him up to a machine. Now kill off his neurons one at a time. After each neuro-cide ask him if he exists. When we are done, if he still says yes, then materialism is refuted and Ayn Rand vindicated.

      • Bob Murphy says:

        Ken B. wrote:

        I have an experiment. Take Alan Greenspan and hook him up to a machine. Now kill off his neurons one at a time. After each neuro-cide ask him if he exists. When we are done, if he still says yes, then materialism is refuted and Ayn Rand vindicated.

        Holy crap everyone! I can prove that Ken B. is really just a bunch of oxygen!

        • Ken B says:

          If you mean by destroying the physical substrate of my mental process you can remove them from the universe then I agree.

          • poppies says:

            Good grief, Ken B, just take one more step, you’re almost there.

          • Bob Murphy says:

            ?? I’m saying I can put you in a jar, and start taking the oxygen out. I occasionally ask you if you are still “there.” You keep saying yes, but eventually you stop. Thus, by your technique, I just proved that “the being we know as Ken” is really just a bunch of oxygen. Daniel Kuehn used to claim that you are a hairless ape, but he goes way too far. I can reduce you to oxygen.

            • Ken B says:

              But Bob, you are claiming that Alan Greenspan’s mind exists apart from his brain. So i envision debilitating his brain in the smallest possible increments, cell by cell. At some point, before he dies I bet, his mental processes will change and be clearly impaired. I have a simple explanation for that. You don’t. What is your explanataion for mental changes or impairment caused by brain changes or impairment?

              • Major_Freedom says:

                You are again presuming mind = brain theory is true.

                But if someone believes in the theory mind = oxygen, and they start removing oxygen molecules one at a time, asking you each time if you’re still “there” or not, until you’re not, then they just “proved” their theory true the way you think you’re proving the mind = brain theory true.

              • RPLong says:

                Paradox of the Heap, though. How many brain cells comprise a brain? If you have just one brain cell, is that a brain? What about two brain cells? Three? Etc.

                You’re just going the other way: If you start with a brain and remove one cell, is it still a brain? What about two brain cells? Three? Etc.

              • Ken B says:

                RPLong: But I’m not asking what makes a brain. I’m asking asbout what mental processes correspond to brain processes.
                Say a nuroscientist says the Murphy region is responsible for anger, remove that and the subject never gets angry. Testable right? And sy we see no signs of anger, not just no blood pressure spikes etc, where you could argue this is how the soul throttle the adrenalin, but no *mental* correlates of anger. I’d say we made progress to serious understanding and expalining what anger is, wouldn’t you?

              • RPLong says:

                Ken, I might counter that all we’ve managed to accomplish is to damage the patient’s ability to express anger. And if I said so, how would we ever know the difference?

              • Major_Freedom says:

                I will echo RPLong’s comment and propose the following:

                Suppose I had a theory that the part of the body responsible for anger is the mouth, legs, arms, eyes, and vocal chords.

                Suppose I decided to “test” this theory. Suppose I removed someone’s mouth, legs, arms, eyes and vocal chords.

                Wow, they no longer display any anger. I must have proven my theory correct!

      • Blackadder says:

        Take Alan Greenspan and hook him up to a machine. Now kill off his neurons one at a time. After each neuro-cide ask him if he exists. When we are done, if he still says yes, then materialism is refuted and Ayn Rand vindicated.

        Suppose instead of doing this we just cut out his tongue. If we then ask him whether he exists and he doesn’t say yes, does that prove that Alan Greenspan was a tongue?

  4. Blackadder says:

    My own thinking on the subject of materialism has been greatly influenced by this Bas van Fraassen paper. Basically materialism is a moving target. If science suggests that a certain type of entity exists, then materialists will re-interpret materialism to be compatible with such entities, regardless of what they would have said beforehand.

    • Ken B says:

      I’ll read it. (Or I’ll start it and see anyway.) Prima facie I find nothing odd with the notion that materialists now would explain bacteria but materialists in Occam’s time would not …
      But let’s remember the terms of the debate. Bob and Gene (?) seem to believe in free floating consciousness unconnected to any brain or processor. Dualism. So if thaat claim has content there should be mental things inexplicable in physical terms.

      • Blackadder says:

        Bob and Gene (?) seem to believe in free floating consciousness unconnected to any brain or processor. Dualism. So if thaat claim has content there should be mental things inexplicable in physical terms.

        The issue is that what counts as “physical” shifts over time. Some of the things that are now considered physical would not have been considered so in prior times, and no doubt the definition will continue to change in the future.

        • Ken B says:

          Indeed. You have described succinctly the triumph of materialism. People used to describe plagues in terms of wrath (some still do), now we talk germs. This is a good thing.

          • Blackadder says:

            You misunderstand. It’s not that we used to attribute things to immaterial causes and now attribute them to material causes. It’s that what counts as material or immaterial has shifted over time.

            • Ken B says:

              Oh I get the point. Fields for instance. There used to be theories about ‘desire’ or ‘affinity’ behind magnetic phenomenon, now fields are, or particles theat mediate fields. A recent example might be ‘information’. Some physicists now see that as a material thing.

          • Major_Freedom says:

            Partial triumph in the context it has been proven to apply?

            You are presuming methodological monism as if it’s self-evident. Materialism works for atoms, molecules, and cells, ergo it must work for consciousness

      • Blackadder says:

        For example, you seem to think that the existence of ghosts is somehow inconsistent with materialism. But suppose it turns out that there are ghosts a la Ghostbusters. Would people say that materialism had been refuted? I doubt it. What they would do is expand the definition of matter to include ecoplasm, just as it has been expanded in the past to include all sorts of fields, forces, and quantum phenomena.

        • Bob Murphy says:

          Ectoplasm, Blackadder. Ecoplasm sounds like Al Gore having a wild night.

          • Major_Freedom says:


          • RPLong says:

            HAHA! Ewwwww…

            • Major_Freedom says:

              Did you see my Ewwww… before you typed your Ewwww…?

              If not, woah

              • Ken B says:

                You tow are a natural! Some couples struggle for years to get simutaneous ewwing …

              • RPLong says:

                No, it was a genuine “simul-ewww…” haha. ;)

              • Major_Freedom says:

                You even used the same number of w’s

        • Ken B says:

          And this is exactly like the wrath/germs thing. We discover something in the universe we didn’t know of.

          According to some scientists, we observe 4% of the matter. There’s a lot out there Blackadder.

          Let’s turn it around. Say I found a kind of cell interaction that completely predicted consciousness and its properties? Would Bob abd Gene and you accpet that as a material explanation?

          • Major_Freedom says:

            You mean what if you were proven right? Would we have to accept it as right?

            Uh, yeah, just like if I discovered there is no such cell interaction, because what does take place rules it out, then you would have to accept it as right too.

            What is your point? That proven theories should be accepted? Well duh.

            • Ken B says:

              ” like if I discovered there is no such cell interaction”
              Yes, exactly right. See my answer to Bob on what would make me change my mind. This is a very good example MF. Say you proved that no sequence of brain states, or Murphy region states, could exhibit property X but minds do. That would certainly count.
              Hard to do with a full brain but maybe the theory can be sharpened and smaller regions tested. But in principle this is exactly on point.

              • Major_Freedom says:

                OK, now suppose I told you that I discovered that there are no such cell interactions that can allow me to predict my own future mental states, by way of self-reflection and logical deduction. That is, what if I told you that the proof that such cell interactions do not exist, can only be proven by a method apart from materialist experimentation, which of course would presuppose materialism is true?

                I actually said what I said as a gotcha, not because I actually think that materialism can be used to refute materialism.

                Materialism itself can only be refuted or confirmed by a means other than materialism. Make sense? Well, that other means may be, IMO, self-reflection, i.e. consciousness itself.

              • Major_Freedom says:

                In other words, merely by virtue of you positing that materialism can be refuted or confirmed, you are (inadvertently or not) introducing a valid means that transcends materialism itself, and I will simply point out that this valid means you just pointed out, is real, and (obviously) beyond materialism, and hence you disproved yourself.

                The very belief that one can act to disprove materialism, logically presupposes materialism is an incomplete explanation of the universe that contains consciousness!

          • Blackadder says:

            Say I found a kind of cell interaction that completely predicted consciousness and its properties?

            In my view, the relationship between consciousness and the brain is analogous to the relationship between the meaning of this sentence and the black marks on the computer screen that make it up. In order to have a meaningful sentence, you need the black marks (or their equivalent), but the meaning isn’t reducible to the black marks.

            It’s not simply that we can’t explain how the meaning of a sentence is reducible to a series of black marks. It’s that we know the one isn’t reducible to the other.

            • Ken B says:

              The meaning is not reducible to the black marks. Is it reducible to mental states?
              But to take my sentence you quoted, if I could predict the black marks on the basis of mental states, would you agree I’ve reduced their meaning to mental states and their relations?

              • Major_Freedom says:

                Maybe historically, but you would not have succeeded in discovering a prediction mechanism going forward.

                Would your mental states be the same or different after you learned what caused the black marks?

                If the same, then you cannot be said to have learned it after all. If different, then you again have to consider your new mental state in order to know what you will do thereafter, since you only found out what your prior mental state lead to, before now. Knowing that X,Y,Z lead to A in the past, does not imply that you can know X*, Y*, Z* will lead to A* in the future, since you haven’t yet learned that!

            • Blackadder says:

              if I could predict the black marks on the basis of mental states, would you agree I’ve reduced their meaning to mental states and their relations?

              I don’t see a problem in principle with reducing the meaning of sentences to mental states and their relations.

              Suppose, though, that you wanted to claim that the black marks themselves were reducible to mental states. I don’t know that this would be impossible in the way that, say, reducing meaning to black marks would be impossible. But it clearly would require more than just establishing that meaning was reducible to mental states.

  5. Ken B says:

    Let’s save a lot of time and ink.
    I believe all the following
    1. There is no need to posit a soul to do neuroscience or explain the mind.
    2. No-one has yet a good explanation of consciousness. ‘Soul;’ is just a label some resort to for the failure to explain it, not an explanation.
    3. Science will make progress under 2,. This progress will tie more and more mental characteristics to physical explanations.
    4. Some of these questions will never have definitive answers like we get in math or even in thermodynamics. We will have to rely on the usual crutches like Occam’s razor.

    These views make me an outlier on FA; they make me mainstream amongst the scientifically literate. I can live with that.

    • RPLong says:

      Assuming 2. and 3. are true, then are you sure it’s consistent with 1.? Is it possible that some concepts can never be satisfactorially defined?

      Think of the art world. There are thousands of great artists, but only a handful achieve fame, and it is not necessarily the artist with the best technique. “Mojo” or “X-factor” is at work. We know it’s there, but we can’t define, explain, analyze, or predict it.

      Is it possible that the same is true of “the soul” or of “consciousness?”

      • Ken B says:

        Yes it’s possible that some things maybe cannot be defined in terms we can understand. . But ‘mojo’ or style etc is just a vague notion, perhaps we can sharpen it. Say I program a neural net to recognize it, and it outperforms people. Makes better predictions. Wasn’t the mojo or whatever just our vague idea and emotional response to something now more defiend and less mysterious?

        A good example is playing backgammon. Try to define a good move in any but vague or woolly terms. But some neural nets can beat anyonein the world. They have a notion of what a good move is. But my most succinct definition of a good move is what the program does.

        • RPLong says:

          But isn’t that the argument against free will that you and I both object to?

          Opponents of free will always somehow end up assuming the existence of a magical computer simulation that possesses all the characteristics of a real person, despite the fact that no such computer simulation has ever been built; and from there, they conclude that there is no free will, because they conjured up a hypothetical computer program that disproves it…

          So, yes, if we assume that mojo can be defined, then it follows that mojo can be defined. Now let’s see if we can define mojo by some means other than assumption…

          • Ken B says:

            I don’t object to it as truth. I object to its use in making law and policy. Let’s not get onto that.

            Anyway you asked about defining vague ‘gut’ things. That’s how top BG players play, by instinct and intuition. But neural nets do it better.

            • RPLong says:

              On the contrary, I am suggesting that mojo is a real thing that can nonetheless not be defined or analyzed.

              Just like consciousness: I know it’s real, because I know I’m experiencing it. The problem is that I can neither define it nor prove its existence nor confer it upon others. I have to assume it exists because the counter-factual theory violates basic logic.

              If we assume consciousness does not exist, then what the heck is happening right now? Who is typing this message, and what do we call whatever process is behind it? If consciousness does not exist, then how do we know that it does not? Is it possible to prove that a tree stump is NOT sentient? The maddening thing is that it is not possible. For all we know, the tree stump might be.

              But, there is value in honestly acknowledging that. I’d suggest there’s more intellectual integrity in admitting that we’ll never be able to say much about consciousness than declaring by assumption that science will figure it all out some day.

              In short, maybe it’s best to realize that questions that cast doubt on the legitimacy of existence are a lot like paradoxes: Interesting thought experiments, but ultimately meaningless.

              • Ken B says:

                I think you’re jumping to conclusions. A good move in Backgammon is a real thing, like a good move in chess is a real thing. But it’s full explicable in terms of the position on the baord and the rules of the game.

                I think I said several times we may never have a final answer on these questions RP. Just theories we need to choose from.

    • Major_Freedom says:

      I hold the following:

      1. Materialist explanations for everything the consciousness posits, does not imply it has to apply to the consciousness itself.

      2. Denial of materialism for consciousness does not imply supernatural souls or Gods.

      3. Science making progress towards X does not imply transcending X, subsuming X, is possible. It could be a limit that is approached but never passed, sort of like an asymptotic function tending towards 1.00 but never reaching it.

      4. Occam’s razer is an educated guessing process of selection for only currently posited theories, not all theories.

      These views make me an outlier on FA; they make me mainstream amongst the scientifically literate. I can live with that.

      So can I, considering that being in the mainstream doesn’t make one right (see economics since forever).

    • Andrew Keen says:

      Thank you for clarifying, Ken.

      I agree with the spirit of what you are saying: that the soul has no place in neuroscience, that the word soul is a placeholder for a misunderstood entity, and that science will continue to make progress on the body, brain, and human behavior.

      I can’t agree with you on 3, since my consciousness is all I am and science has made zero progress towards explaining it. I won’t conflate the human brain and an understanding of human behavior with consciousness. If my body were to carry out every action that I have chosen myself minus my consciousness, it wouldn’t make any difference to anyone else. Scientist could still study it and be unaware that there was no consciousness inside it. Their conclusions wouldn’t be able to tell us anything about origin or nature of consciousness.

      • Ken B says:

        As for 3, that’s what they made the future for! We’ll see.

  6. Bob Murphy says:

    Ken, in principle, what would it take for you to abandon materialism?

    • Ken B says:

      I could say the obverse of what would lead you to embrace it, but I’ll go the extra mile.

      I want testable predictions where your theory works and mine doesn’t, and mine seems hard to repair.
      A convincing example of a mental property consistently exhibited contrary to the predictions of all reputable neuroscience explanations that are otherwise very good for example. This is a high bar I concede, but what’s yours? And it’s not that high if you are right. You should be able to exhibit the ability, by volition, to cause some neuron to fire more than quantum physics says it should be able to, say, or to do something that violates my nasty predictions.

      Or, following Penrose, you can show that in working brains the usual quantum statistics get skewed, especially if you can do it on command. This ties in to MF’s point about reduction failing at the lower end. (I think this is your best bet myself.)

      Then I’d update my priors accordingly.

      • Ken B says:

        Remember we’re talking in the context of decades of spectacular progress for the materialist theories. Centuries of soul talk have not made as much progress as science in the decades since Penfield started sticking wires in brains.

        • Bob Murphy says:

          OK Ken, I predict that if the attorney general of New York moves his vocal chords to create sound waves that correspond to the frequencies that you would hear as “we will fine gas station retailers $10,000 if they charge above $2/gallon,” then within 24 hours there will be large masses of organic material in hulking objects that are powered by combustion engines queuing up near certain latitude/longitude coordinates that I will specify beforehand. These are genuine, falsifiable predictions I will make for you. I am thinking you can’t come up with the same thing by relying on neuroscience.

          Oh wait, this is cheating. You don’t mean this kind of thing, because “we all know” about this stuff. You’re talking about seeing an electric signal telling my hand to twitch before I realize I am trying to give you the finger. That’s what “mind” is all about.

          • Ken B says:

            I do not see how gas queues prove the mind cannot be reduced to the operations of the brain. You can explain the behaviour of your motorists in terms of metal states and mental contents. How does that prove that mental states and mental contents cannot be explained in terms of brains?

            Will any of those drivers be in fact ‘driverless’ cars? Because when the software gets good enough they could be. What will that do to your supposed counter example?

        • Bob Murphy says:

          Centuries of soul talk have not made as much progress as science in the decades…

          Much of social science rests on the idea that people have conscious goals. So if you think there has been no progress in (this type of) history, economics, psychology, sociology, crminology, … in the last 300 years, I guess you have a good point here. And by “you” I mean the pattern of certain types of cells that caused you to type those words, which in turn induced me to respond in this fashion according to the blind mechanical laws of physics. So don’t get a big head (not that you have any choice in the matter).

          • Ken B says:

            When have I denied mental states? Or that they matter?
            We’re debating reductionism after all. I cited livers in terms of cell, chemical bonds in terms of quantum mechanics. I don’t deny medicine uses the idea of a liver as an *organ* or that chemists talk about bonds and their formation.
            I only claim that those notions, useful at that level of discourse, can be further expalined. I even said if you want to call their properties ‘emergent’ I don’t object.

            • guest says:

              When have I denied mental states? Or that they matter?When have I denied mental states? Or that they matter?

              But you base some (most?) of your actions on mental states.

              Your mental states are a source of first causes. This shows interference in an otherwise closed system.

      • Major_Freedom says:

        I want testable predictions where your theory works and mine doesn’t, and mine seems hard to repair.

        A convincing example of a mental property consistently exhibited contrary to the predictions of all reputable neuroscience explanations that are otherwise very good for example.

        Human actions are constantly refuting prediction formulae, and have been for millennia.

        Since you don’t think enough time has passed and since you don’t think enough counter-examples have taken place, the question then becomes: how long of a time has to pass and how many prediction formulas have to be falsified, before you accept materialism isn’t true for consciousness? Remember, you are mortal. If what you’re talking about requires many generations, then you’re essentially saying “there is no limit, this is what I believe even if I live my entire life being constantly falsified.”

        Would that not constitute an “illusion”, akin to belief in a God in your opinion?

        • Major_Freedom says:

          Human learning is also constantly falsifying predictions (since if we could predict our own future learning, we would instantly become all knowing in the present).

      • Christopher says:

        I could say the obverse of what would lead you to embrace it

        Okay, my name is not Robert Murphy but I’ll give you my answer, anyway.

        If someone comes up with an instrument that is able to create any thought that you input into the machine in a person’s mind. So for example you attach me to the machine and induce whatever thought you want into my mind – you can start with easy stuff like “Ken B is my master” or “I need to grow a mustache” but it’s not enough to induce emotions, you would have to be able to induce abstract thought as well such as “when we see the evil, the vice, the ruin that has befallen the most flourishing kingdoms which the mind of man ever created, we can scarce avoid being filled with sorrow at this universal taint of corruption

        That would convince me.

        • Ken B says:

          And it’s a good one. I bet in practical terms if we had such a machine you’d be satisfied after a few dozen implantations.

          I think you should be saitisfied with less, with a good *explanation* of mental states in terms of brain states, like you’d accept in re my liver example, but your higher bar is a matter of practical possibility not principle. You want the alleged reduction convincingly demonstrated. You aren’t denying the relevance of such a demonstration.

          • Christopher says:

            Well, okay let’s see if we can find a lower bar.

            What I do not accept as an argument for materialism is if you just show a correlation between a mental state and something that’s going on in the brain (e.g. you show that every time someone feels anger, there is specific thing going on). That’s not enough, because I can show you that as soon as I feel anger, my blood pressure goes up. But that doesn’t mean blood pressure is identical with anger.

            So yeah, for me it would be the ability to externally create some kind of consciousness. Maybe it doesn’t have to be Hegel’s.

            • Ken B says:

              I agree correlation would not be enough. I too would want to show that brain state changes cause mental state changes predictably. I think we know enough now to know they do. I concede we do not yet know enough about it to do it at a fine grain predictably. Your blood pressure feedback etc.

      • Blackadder says:


        Are you familiar with Searle’s Chinese Room argument?

        • Ken B says:


          • Blackadder says:

            Would you agree that, cogent or not, you aren’t going to refute the Chinese Room argument by doing some neuroscience experiments?

  7. Christopher says:

    This is an honest question:

    How do you reconcile materialism with views on morality and ethics. If you are a materialist and you believe that murder is morally wrong

    (1) is your moral belief worth any more than a certain flow of neurons in your brain?

    (2) is killing a person any different from damaging a car or destroying a computer?

    • Ken B says:

      1. I don’t know what you mean by ‘worth’ here. Evidentiary value? I think it’s the activity in my brain that make me think murder is wrong. I believe certain brain changes would lead to a change of opinion.
      2. My brain thinks so.

      I generally assume your questions are honets Christopher. My brain at work again!

      • Christopher says:

        Why does your brain think that destroying a machine that works with neurons (human) is any different from destroying a machine that works with electrons (computer)?

        • Ken B says:

          The beliefs it has about the nature of the two machines, and the emotions it has about the former machines. Bob excepted of course.

          I’m open to the possibility machines may become conscious and acquire greater moral value. We’re not there yet. I’m not sure we want to get there. If Kurzweil is correct, we’re close. If Bob is correct it’s OK to enslave them.

          • Major_Freedom says:

            Is anyone else chuckling at Ken B referring to his brain as “it”, and thus distinguished from “Ken B” who says “it”?

            • Ken B says:

              Because I am not my brain. My son’s existence is proof.

              • Major_Freedom says:

                Because I am not my brain.

                And by logical extension, you are also not your arms, nor your legs, nor your inner organs, nor anything of you that you are conscious of.

                Ergo, the you, that which makes you Ken B, will never be explained by explaining your brain or any other part of your body.

                Just like you are not me, which makes my learning about you insufficient to explaining me, so too does the fact that you are not your brain, makes your learning about your brain insufficient to explaining you.

                Can we all go home now? Ken B just adopted a non-materialist position.

              • Ken B says:

                No, Ken B just made a dick joke.

              • Major_Freedom says:

                So you are your brain?

  8. Bob Robertson says:

    The real question is, how many consciousnesses can dance on the head of a pin?

    That is, assuming pins exist.

  9. Ken B says:

    Bob, in the other post: “The answer has to reduce consciousness to unconscious matter. Otherwise it doesn’t count as a real answer!”

    Agreed! Well put even. Perfectly right, that’s the burden.

    Now how might that happen? Well one way is to reduce mental states to brain states, and then reduce brain states to cells and their interactions. Wouldn’t that count? Well the position I have been arguing is just exactly that that plan of reduction is proceeding and I think will succeed. I have stipulated many times it has not succeeded yet and it might fail.

    Notice that this plan of attack does not deny mental states exist, or that they matter. Au contraire it embraces the importance of them for the first goal is to explicate them in terms of brains.
    And I have repeatedly said that’s the main open question: what can brains do?
    Christopher laid out a pretty stringent test for success. I agreed it was a good test (stricter than I’d demand but that’s just a matter of our priors). And I agreed that if dualism is right I must fail Christopher’s test.
    That’s an empirical prediction isn’t it, even if an impractical one?

    • Major_Freedom says:

      Ken B, I recommend you look into Newcomb’s paradox.

  10. konst says:

    One thing many of you don’t consider is that for consciousness, meaning free will and purposeful human action, to exist it has to not be bound to the laws of physics.

    For if it is bound to the laws of physics then a computer simulation can create the same “mind” (or whatever you want to call it). This simulation would determine that “mind’s” thought and actions and therefore it wouldn’t be free to make a choice but would be bound by the parameters of the program.

    Therefore consciousness and free will exist outside the universe.

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