Thursday, September 20, 2007

Biting the Bullet for Physicalism

Physiology has convinced most scientists and philosophers that there doesn't seem to be any forces that are apart from the basic forces of nuclear, electromagnetic forces, gravitational forces. There doesn't seem to be any effects anywhere that couldn't be explained by those processes.

However, it's not cut and dry: it's still in principle possible that lurking in the interstices of our brain there are some special mental forces that no one has noticed yet. But there does seem to be any empirical or epistemological evidence for that, and there is an awful lot against it.

So how could the mind be physical?

If all physical effects have physical causes, then nothing that isn't itself physical can have a physical effect. Look at the mind for instance. We have a choice here. Either you say it has physical effects, as it seems (my mental choices seem to be responsible for my arms moving around) in which case you have to say that the mind is physical. Or, you could bite the bullet and say that the mind cannot be physical, and therefore it doesn't really have physical effects. And that's the epiphenomenalist view. People who are persuaded that the mind can't be physical, quite often, have to adopt this. They accept the conscious mind as kind of an epiphenomena: it floats above the brain, the brain does all the causing, and the mind is just a kind of pictorial accompaniment--it doesn't do any real pushing itself. It observes what is going on but plays no real part in the causal proceedings.

There are still problems with the strictly physicalist view. The hardest thing to be a physicalist about is what Thomas Nagel got everyone talking about, the qualia point of view. People don't have much trouble with the idea that bodies are just physical, and even some aspects of the mind it isn't so hard to understand how it is physical. But when it comes to the conscious mind, that everything is physical is much harder to comprehend.

Biting the bullet for physicalism, at this point, then, must be difficult to comprehend in light of conscious experiences. However, working under the principle that this can all be explained in physical terms, then the conscious experiences must be physical effects. But are they? Can they in principle be located? Or is there something truly dualist about the conscious experience. What does epiphenomenalism have to offer? Nothing by way of explanation. Epiphenomenalism simply opens the door to more dualistic-like explanations. It doesn't take a position on whether the conscious effect must be something completely different from physical substance. It seems to say that it simply isn't something physical, which is to be a dualist about the situation.

Therefore, epiphenomenalism collapses into dualism completely, and there is no denying it. Epiphenomenalism is simply a new way of expressing the old problems that the dualists raise, and it should therefore be no surprise, and nothing to be moved by, as if it were some new sort of argument.


Roko said...

You should read Dough Hofstadter's new book, "I am a strange loop". He has some very useful things to say about epiphenomena.

I personally believe that the brain is entirely physical, and that when we talk about the mind, we are just using a useful approximation to the physical laws which make the brain tick. It is rather like the situation regarding, say, a flock of birds. If I tell you that a flock of birds has just flown through a window, I am making an approximate statement about what each of the birds individually did; a "flock" is not an actual entity, it is simply a useful approximation.

Likewise when I say "What do you have on your mind, Acumensch?" I am asking an approximate question which could be made precise by asking what the excitation states of all of your billions of billions of neurons are. But of course the approximate question is more useful, because it contains all of the *relevant* information, and is much simpler.

In summary, your mind is an approximation. What of qualia? What of consciousness? Well, they are also approximate statements about excited neurons, but they interact with each other in odd ways, and since we do not yet understand how the brain works, we are somewhat confused about them.

Adfero Affero said...

Qualia,the redness of red, can't be approximations. Whatever the redness of red is, it must be an exactitude because colours are precise differentiators. Red is always distinguished from blue, whatever the redness of red or the blueness of blue are. Though various shades of red might be difficult to distinguish from each other, this can be explained by saying the mixtures of wavelengths of light in the various shades of colour can fool the brain into mistaking one colour for another.

Color does not exist on its own. It has its physical analogues in particular wavelengths in the visible spectrum. So colour (the redness of red) whatever it is must be analogical. To stretch it even further, we might say that the redness of red is a spatio-temporal metaphor. Or even further, that each colour is a fixed story the brain tells itself about a particular wavelength of light. So when you can't tell one colour from another, the story being told is too similar, hence mistakes are made in telling one from the other. Though of course the eye and the brain are processing wavelengths of light which appear to be colours, which are distinguishable one from another, though we don't know what colour is except that it represents wavelengths of light.

A flock of birds is not an approximation, though flock is a category word which does not specify how many birds or what they are up to, merely that it is all birds. The flock you see at any one moment contains a countable number of birds, doing a theoretically measurable number of things, for exact periods of time. Approximation only comes in because we can't be bothered to find a way of understanding everything that is going on in a flock at a given moment.