Tiebreaker

In a recent post we linked to a paper by William Lycan that argues that both dualist and materialist mind-body philosophies are equally unsupported by evidence. As I mentioned, this is surely heartening to Cartesians, who must weary of having their views dismissed as so much nonsense. But is it right to conclude from Lycan’s paper — as his dualist readers are likely to do — that one might as well plump for dualism as materialism? Not so fast. Lycan doesn’t think so, and neither do I.

Lycan rehearses some of the sentiments that incline materialists toward their view. He begins by quoting J.T. Smart:

[S]ensations, states of consciousness,…seem to be the one sort of thing left outside the physicalist picture, and for various reasons I just cannot believe that this can be so…. That everything should be explicable in terms of physics…except the occurrence of sensations seems to me frankly unbelievable….

The above is largely a confession of faith….

Lycan agrees with Smart. But he acknowledges along with Smart that this does not constitute an argument, but rather, “in David Lewis’ famous phrase, an incredulous stare.”

Nevertheless, one would be inclined by parsimony to avoid positing immaterial entities if one can, in particular entities that carry no explanatory water. After all, it certainly appears that brain events are tightly correlated with mental ones.

It is reasonable to think that every mental state or event at least has a corresponding type of brain state or event. The best, because most parsimonious, explanation of those correlations is that the mental states/events just are the “corresponding” brain states/events. (In general: When Xs are invariably accompanied by Ys and you can find nothing to distinguish Xs from Ys, the best explanation is that Xs just are Ys.)

I firmly agree that parsimony or simplicity is a reason for preferring one hypothesis to another. But it is a very posterior reason. That is, not only does it always carry the qualification “other things being equal,” but many, nearly all, other things must be equal before parsimony is called in to break the tie. And no party to the mind-body dispute will deny that dualists have found plenty of features that seem to distinguish mental states/events from neurophysiological ones—even if, as materialists contend, all those differences are ultimately specious. To anyone uncontaminated by neuroscience or materialist philosophizing, the mental does not seem physical in any way at all, much less neurophysiological. The parsimony argument does not even come in the door until it is agreed that we can find nothing to distinguish mental states from neurophysiological ones. And the latter will not be agreed any time soon.

I think Lycan is giving up a little too much territory here; in order to level the field he suggests that one need be “uncontaminated” by neuroscience. I for one, hardly see the extraordinary progress in this area as “contamination”, but rather as a promising march toward the truth — and if dualists must fend off science with a boathook in order to keep their own vessel from springing a leak, that speaks rather poorly of its seaworthiness.

Lycan then questions the strength of the correlation between neural events and mental ones:

More decisively, Smart’s alleged correlations have never materialized. Notice that he must have meant type-correlations; unless one were already presuming token identity, it would have made little sense to say that for every mental token, there is a “corresponding” neurophysiological token. There may be a few type-correlations holding within particular species, but if so they are very few. Whatever is in common as between all human beings who believe that a Frenchman has been assassinated in Trafalgar Square (to take an old example of Dennett’s), that feature could not possibly be characterized in neuroscientific terms; there are no “Frenchman” neurons, nor “assassination” areas of the cerebral cortex; at best the feature would be a complicated set of external psychosemantic relations to Frenchmen, to assassinations, and to Trafalgar Square. (And good luck to the psychosemanticist.)

This is an open, empirical question. Lycan assumes here that even if each brain betokens every semantic entity with some particular syntactical representation (which seems almost certain, to materialists), there is still no general rule of correspondence establishing any particular syntactical representation. But is this necessarily so? While it may well be that each brain, having “wired itself up” in fetal and postnatal development, is syntactically unique, the difference may be analogous to that between languages, in which the details of the tokening-system are not the point. It may well be that all brains obey the same guidelines for bootstrapping a syntactical arrangement into place, and that despite the self-referential uniqueness of each brain’s particular instantiation, the system is still amenable to analysis according to principles of organization that are common to all brains. We may find that, once sufficient technical resources are in hand, all that is needed to “read” a particular brain is to establish a point of entry such as observing a standard set of concepts as they are processed, and work in a well-determined way from there.

The paper continues in this vein. Lycan finds, with varying degrees of plausibility, a loophole for the dualist in every materialist objection (although one he does not consider is that “split” brains, in which the corpus callosum has been severed, appear to host two consciousnesses). But having done so, is he now on the fence? Is he now tempted to abandon materialism? Not at all. The paper is sprinkled with disclaimers like the following (given just after allowing that the immaterial mind may still depend on the material brain, not just for sensory and volitional input/output, but for all its cognitive work):

Here again, the picture is implausible, but only because dualism and Cartesian interaction are implausible in the first place. Subtract those two implausibilities, and the rest of the picture is not bad at all.

Indeed. It does appear that the more we learn, the less and less there is for the immaterial mind to do. It’s kind of a Mind of the Gaps. By the end of Lycan’s paper, we are pretty much down to “providing subjectivity” as the only job the brain itself can’t take care of on its own.

So why isn’t Lycan ready to jump ship, if there is a dualist answer to every materialist objection? I imagine it’s because, although each objection can be met with some intellectual contortion — by casting doubt on the reliability of ordinary causality, or pleading for causal overdetermination of volitional acts — the fact that in order to defend dualism such hoops must be jumped through, again and again, at every turning, makes the whole position seem terribly unlikely. And here is where we can at last invoke the principle that Lycan set aside at the beginning:

I firmly agree that parsimony or simplicity is a reason for preferring one hypothesis to another. But it is a very posterior reason. That is, not only does it always carry the qualification “other things being equal,” but many, nearly all, other things must be equal before parsimony is called in to break the tie.

By the end of this paper Lycan has done everything in his power to see to it that neither side has any evidential advantage; he has meticulously leveled the field. Well then! Ceteris paribus it is. If everything really is equal, we are allowed, at last, to invoke parsimony in order to choose sides.

And from there, only civility prevents me from saying it’s a no-brainer.

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14 Comments

  1. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – Personally, I don’t think considerations of parsimony will break the tie. Also, the only reasons I know for applying the principle of parsimony (Ockham’s razor) are epistemic and/or methodological, not metaphysical. Unless one has some independent argument for why the world is more likely to be simple than complex, a preference for parsimonious stories is just that, a preference in search of a rationale.

    Posted February 20, 2008 at 10:13 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Bob,

    Given, as we have already agreed, that we have not yet found metaphysical bedrock, one can scoop the ground out from under any ontological claim whatsoever. And you are right, it is hard to defend a preference for parsimonious models. One feels the need to resort to synonyms: they are simpler, more frugal, more economic; less wasteful and profligate. It seems that one might find some precedent in the physical world, in the form of least-action principles, in the way a drop of water tends toward the spherical — but yes, to extend the metaphor to requiring economy of entities necessary, or lack of special pleading, to account for a phenomenon is certainly not a forced move.

    Nevertheless, I think you will agree that parsimony has a strong intuitive pull, and when other arguments are exhausted, there is certainly no reason not to prefer the simplest account. If we are not able to stand on terra firma, then at some point we are all going to have to rely on our intuitions if we are going to make any ontological commitments at all. (Of course, nothing requires us to make such commitments in the first place, and a curious agnosticism may well be the most dignified approach. But it’s hard not to have opinions.)

    Posted February 20, 2008 at 10:43 am | Permalink
  3. bob koepp says

    Yup. I prefer things simple. I prefer Steve Reich to … (I’ll leave it at that).

    Posted February 20, 2008 at 11:12 am | Permalink
  4. Addofio says

    I’m always amazed that anyone thinks “that everything should be explicable in terms of physics” in the first place. It takes an extraordinary act of faith to believe that. That’s why we have other sciences — psychology, sociology, even chemistry and biology–because in fact it is at the least extraordinarily cumbersome to “explain”, say, sociological phenomena using the concepts and tools of physics — so much so that as far as I know no one has ever seriously atempted it. To believe it can be done is not only materialist, but reductionist, and the two are not identical (are they? Or am I only displaying my ignorance of terms used in philosophy?) Until someone actually accomplishes at least one explanation of at least one sociological phenomenon using only the tools and concepts of physics, to believe “everything should be explicable in terms of physics” remains an article of faith.

    Nor do I understand why people interested in using science to explore the mysteries of consciousness so frequently turn to physics as the (sole) relevant science. Seems to me that sciences that actually work with the products of consciousness — linguistics, anthropology, the study of human learning spring to mind — just might be as or more relevant than physics.

    Personally, I strongly suspect both the materialist and the dualist positions seriously miss the mark, as a result of using unexamined concepts developed as a result of how humans learn and think. If the question is ever to be resolved in a satisfying way, it will be as a result of people finding new ways to think about it. Anyone who’s ever taken any kind of mind-altering drug (alcohol, for instance), or noticed the effects of being ill or tired on one’s ability to think clearly, should be hard-pressed to maintain the physical brain has no causal effect on consciousness. On the other hand, numbers — the number “two” for instance — the number represented by the symbol 2, that is, not the symbol — isn’t a physical entity. It has any number of physical instantiations as quantities — but the number itself is an abstraction from all those physical manifestations, not a phsyical entity in its own right. The fact that the number is somehow represented physically in a brain doesn’t make it any more a physical entity than the existence of any other physical representation of the number “proves” the number to be physical, because the representation isn’t the number. I am therefore convinced that in some meaningful way, not all phenomena are physical phenomena.

    I haven’t gotten much further than this in my own thinking, but I have gotten far enough to be convinced that, as I said, we need new ways to think and talk about the questions, that pull from a variety of scientific sources, rather than only one or two.

    One last point: if “everything really is equal” regarding any question, we are fully entitled to invoke personal preference, or parsimony, or esthetics, or a coin flip, to decide it for ourselves (or, for that matter, to decline to decide it and leave it unresolved). The important thing, I think, is to realize that however we resolve it, or rationalize our resolution, we realize that we are resolving it only for ourselves, and don’t somehow think or feel, even subconsciously, that that ought to settle the question for anyone else.

    Posted February 20, 2008 at 11:37 am | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Thanks, Addofio, for that meaty comment. I’ll respond when I can, as the demands of the workday intrude.

    Here’s something you said with which I am generally inclined to agree:

    I strongly suspect both the materialist and the dualist positions seriously miss the mark, as a result of using unexamined concepts developed as a result of how humans learn and think. If the question is ever to be resloved in a satisfying way, it will be as a result of people finding new ways to think about it.

    Indeed, this would be Pinker’s “unborn genius — a Darwin or Einstein of consciousness — [who] comes up with a flabbergasting new idea that suddenly makes it all clear to us.”

    Posted February 20, 2008 at 11:46 am | Permalink
  6. bob koepp says

    Addofio – In the final paragraph of your comment you capture very nicely my perspective; especially the bit about declining to decide and leaving the issue unresolved. If people feel some need to make a commitment to a hypothesis, even when the available reasons don’t compel the choice, that’s their business. I’ll try to be civil and not accuse them of actual irrationality. However, if they don’t extend that favor, I might get less than civil myself.

    Posted February 20, 2008 at 12:24 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Hi Addofio,

    Certainly you are right that it would be utterly preposterous to try to describe something like, for example, a writer and an editor having an argument over a point of grammar solely in terms of the laws of phsyics. But while I agree that the disciplines you mention are needed to understand what makes people tick, there are aspects of the problem of consciousness that I do think may depend on properties of matter.

    Lycan, in his paper, takes up your point about alcohol (I’m in your camp on that one, of course), and ekes out a loophole. It is a fine example of the bending-over-backward that is necessary to preserve the dualist view.

    I’m not sure what to say about numbers. I am not a Platonist, generally, and I’m inclined to think that numbers have no mind-independent existence, that they are a human construct that we impose upon the regularities of the world. But what do I know? If we ever meet a truly alien race — and I’m not talking about Huckabee voters, but bug-eyed things from a distant planet — it will be interested to see if they have a human-like mathematics. But even if they do, I suppose that wouldn’t be firm confirmation of the notion of numbers actually existing as Platonic abstracta on some immaterial plane. It might be that in the same way that beings that fly independently evolve wings, beings that solve certain sorts of cognitive problems always evolve numbers. (I’m not inclined to think of wings as Platonic abstracta either.)

    Finally, as Bob said, “if people feel some need to make a commitment to a hypothesis, even when the available reasons don’t compel the choice, that’s their business.” Indeed it is, although making our way in the world does seem to require that we arm ourselves with a variety of assumptions, and in practical terms we don’t get very far equipped with nothing more than a charitable agnosticism about everything. Admittedly, taking a firm position on the metaphysics of consciousness is not a requirement for participation in society, but once one starts thinking about these things its hard not to find oneself drawn to this or that viewpoint.

    That said, there is a great deal of blood, tears, strife and woe in this world that we might blame on people making very firm commitments indeed to hypotheses that are, from an evidentiary standpoint, not even remotely compelling.

    Posted February 20, 2008 at 1:18 pm | Permalink
  8. bob koepp says

    “… there is a great deal of blood, tears, strife and woe in this world that we might blame on people making very firm commitments indeed to hypotheses that are, from an evidentiary standpoint, not even remotely compelling.”

    Right. And sometimes, those commitments are in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I don’t think we can identify a “bright line” dividing rational and irrational choices, but sometimes we can be “morally certain” that the line, wherever it exists, has been crossed. A commitment to a doctrine demanding the slaughter of innocents who happen not to share your beliefs is a timely example of what I have in mind. While I want to do all that I reasonably can to accommodate people with commitments I can’t share, I don’t think it at all reasonable to accommodate their efforts to deny accommodation to others.

    Posted February 20, 2008 at 5:28 pm | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    Bob,

    Amen.

    Posted February 20, 2008 at 6:15 pm | Permalink
  10. Addofio: “I’m always amazed that anyone thinks ‘that everything should be explicable in terms of physics’ in the first place. . . . [A]s far as I know no one has ever seriously atempted it.”

    It really is quite an odd belief. It was the talk of the Vienna Circle in its early days. I’d be inclined to put it down physics-envy — which has a suitably Viennese ring to it.

    Posted February 21, 2008 at 8:53 am | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says

    Addofio, Deogolwulf: are we talking here about a belief that the “physical”, “material” world is the only substrate of existence (as opposed to dualistic models that include immaterial souls and mindstuff), or about reductionism? From what Addofio had said earlier, I gathered the latter (save for a bit of Platonism regarding numbers).

    Posted February 21, 2008 at 10:49 am | Permalink
  12. Addofio says

    “physics-envy–––which has a suitably Viennese ring to it”–good one!

    I have a much more cynical view, based on the fact that the people who self-select into physics (and math) are, shall we say, often not noted for their social/psychological skills or insight, while physics (and math) are nice and clear to them. Thus they are often oblivious to social and psychological phenomena or simply would prefer to ignore them or discount them as being of any intellectual interest. Since everything they are interested in explaining is explained by physics (or some day will be, presumably)–ipso facto, everything is explained by physics.

    OK, now I need to put disclaimers around this blatant stereotyping. Obviously not all physicists or mathematicians are socially or psychologically inept or oblivious or lacking in insight. But I do think it’s legitimate to wonder, when someone contends that all is (or will be) explainable by physics, whether they’ve actually bothered to look into social/psychological phenomena, or what we’ve learned in these arenas (which is rather a lot, considering we’ve only been attempthing to explore them using scientific methods for a bit over a century now). I have to add that I got a great deal of satisfaction out of the fact that that back in the 60s, when the AI people started trying to mimic human intelligence with computers, they were rapidly humbled. Initially they were predicting that they’d have it all figured out in about 20 years. Ten years into it, having found it wasn’t all that simple, they’d discovered cognitive psychology and were being way more respectful of human beings in general and what we can do, and of such fields as cog psych and linguistics.

    Regardless, physics-envy must also be operating. Otherwise, why would physicists have the special standing they apparently do in discussions of human consciousness? This in spite of the fact that such questions are clearly outside their field of expertise, and that research has shown that physicists do no better than the rest of us when asked to reason about matters outside their field of expertise (one of the results of expert-novice research done, I think, back in the 70s or 80s). Unless Whitehead was right, and consciousness turns out to be a property of all matter, I see no reason to believe a physicist’s thinking about consciousness would be any better (or worse, for that matter–we’re all groping here, seems to me) than anyone else’s.

    Posted February 21, 2008 at 11:11 am | Permalink
  13. bob koepp says

    Jeez… Physics bashing is no more attractive than is physics worship.

    Posted February 21, 2008 at 11:29 am | Permalink
  14. Malcolm says

    At least it hasn’t gotten physical yet.

    Posted February 21, 2008 at 11:31 am | Permalink