Sunday, December 28, 2008

Materialism: more than just one flavor

The Maverick Philosopher, aka Dr. William Vallicella, (he likely will be of my faovrite sources when I don't have a topic off the top of my head) has recently written concerning the topic of eliminative materialism, and a topic thus presented itself. Vallicella is certainly an intelligent and deep thinker, but not without his bias and, as all humans are, prone to insufficient contemplation regarding ideas that seem to support that bias.

Without going into the level of detail in the post, Vallicella describes the difference between eliminative materialism (which says that mental states don't exist) and identative materialism (the idea that mental states are equivalent to specific physical configurations in the brain, he did not use this exact term). After casting a jibe at the sanity of the eliminativists, he then proceeds to try to equate the two positions. Apparently he finds the identitarian position too difficult to rebut standing alone, so it must be tied to the more radical position.

On the face of it, there is a difference between saying that X does not exist and saying that X = Y. For the latter claim seems to presuppose that X does exist. But when X and Y belong to disparate categories, the difference appears to vanish. For example, is there any difference between saying that God does not exist and taking the Feuerbachian line that God is identical to a unconscious anthropomorphic projection? Suppose someone says, "God exists all right — it is just that God is an anthropomorphic projection." The proper response to such a person is to dismiss such obfuscatory rhetoric as tantamount to the claim that God does not exist. For God is not the sort of thing that could be a projection. Whether or not God exists, the concept of God is the concept of something that is a se, from itself, whence it follows that God cannot have the status of an anthropomorphic projection. So a claim that God does have this status is a claim that God does not exist.

Similarly, is there any difference between saying that mental state M is token-identical to physical state P, and saying that M does not exist? If M reduces to P, and M has all and only the properties possessed by P, then all there is is P, and the reduction is tantamount to an elimination.


The first paragraph is a poor analogy, simply because Vallicella must create an opponent who confuses whether God exists with whether the concept of God exists in order to make Vallicella's point. A putative God would be external to the mind of the opponent, and the mistake of equating it to an internal construct seems a little too elementary for the usual sphere of discussion Vallicella finds himself in.

As for the second paragraph, this is a very poor equivocation. Certainly, the identity theorist does eliminate facets of the ontological status of mental states with respect to the position of the dualist, so an elimination has occurred. However, not all eliminations are equal,and the identitarian position does specifically say our mental states are exactly that. Eliminative materialists would argue that almost all of our understanding of the mind will need to be re-worked, while identity theorists don't see the need for that sort of overhaul. It's one thing to say that happiness is the equivalent of a specific cascade of neural interactions, it's quite another to say that happiness is a false understanding of the workings of the brain.

On a personal level, I tend to accept identitarianism. I believe that when I am happy, angry, thirsty, etc., this is saying something real about me.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

“Man has such a predilection for systems and abstract deductions that he is ready to distort the truth intentionally; he is ready to deny the evidence of his senses only to justify his logic.” (Dostoevsky)
=====
“Philosophy consists very largely of one philosopher arguing that all others are jackasses. He usually proves it, and I should add that he also usually proves that he is one himself.” (Mencken)

Well, there ya have it, then, eh, Eric? Kinda sez it all, don't it?

Anonymous said...

That aint to say that I gots any kinda qualms about playin the jackass, a corse. Eric, you seem to have conceded his point that the attempt to reduce mental phenomena to physical "causes" is tantamount to elimination. You merely argue that the consequences are different, depending on how you phrase your brand of "elimination."

Your last comment is "On a personal level, I tend to accept identitarianism. I believe that when I am happy, angry, thirsty, etc., this is saying something real about me," which is somewhat obscure to me, but is presumably sayin sumthin about what you think is "real." Perhaps you could elaborate on this suggestion.

To shift gears a bit, what would your take be on this situation?:

1. 90 pound woman sees her child under rear wheel of car.

2. Woman gits "agitated."

3. Adrenaline kicks in, and

4. Woman lifts rear end of car off ground while child escapes.

Is there any cause and effect relationship between the mental (agitation) and physical (adrenaline produced)events here, ya figure? If so, which way is the flow of "causation" goin?

Assuming that the presence of increased adrenaline allowed ("caused," if you will)her to lift the car, what would that tell you about what is "real," if anything?

What "caused" the increased adrenaline levels to begin with? The car? Her child? Her self? None of the above? Does the fact that the mental state may well be accompanied by a corresponding physical state tell you which one is more "real," more fundamental, and which is the "by-product" of which?

One Brow said...

That aint to say that I gots any kinda qualms about playin the jackass, a corse.

My life would be much less interesting if you had such qualms. :)

Eric, you seem to have conceded his point that the attempt to reduce mental phenomena to physical "causes" is tantamount to elimination. You merely argue that the consequences are different, depending on how you phrase your brand of "elimination."

Specifically, one degree of elimination as opposed to another. When you are playing chess, you can choose to eliminate one or more pieces and wide up with a game that the weaker player has an interesting chance of winning. If you eliminate all the pieces on one side, it's not chess anymore.

Vallicella is a dualist, who believes we have an eternal, non-physical consciousness (or something similar) that is residing in our body. Identitarianism says that mental states are more than the physical states they can be reduced to. It eliminates the non-physical aspect of dualism, while positing non-reductionist understandings of the mind. It's the equivalent of comparing Woese's arguments to ID (dualism) and neo-Darwinism(eliminitavist materialism). Eliminative materialism is the equivalent of saying a Shakespeare sonnet is nothing more than ink on paper, and we need to redefine our understanding of literature to account for this.

To shift gears a bit, what would your take be on this situation?:

1. 90 pound woman sees her child under rear wheel of car.

2. Woman gits "agitated."

3. Adrenaline kicks in, and

4. Woman lifts rear end of car off ground while child escapes.

Is there any cause and effect relationship between the mental (agitation) and physical (adrenaline produced)events here, ya figure?


Yes.

If so, which way is the flow of "causation" goin?

Both ways. The photons/sound waves/ground tremors trigger a physical neurologicalo reaation. This reaction, along with millions of other reactions, feeds into conglomeration of effects that creates a mental state called “panic”. Ope of the output of this mental state is a series of neurological impulses that increase adrenaline, move muscles, etc.

Does the fact that the mental state may well be accompanied by a corresponding physical state tell you which one is more "real," more fundamental, and which is the "by-product" of which?

I would say that, in the sense two completely identical physical brain states would create two completely identical mental brain states, the physical reality drives the mental reality. However, being a by-product does not make the mental state less real. A person will never have two physically identical brain states in his life, but will experience the same mental states many times.

Anonymous said...

"If so, which way is the flow of "causation" goin?

Both ways. The photons/sound waves/ground tremors trigger a physical neurologicalo reaation."

Hmmm, interestin. The "photons" (etc.) trigger a reaction? In and of themselves, ya figure? Would it be any different if the mother had been wantin to kill her child, for insurance, for a good long spell before she ever seen these "photons," ya think?

One Brow said...

"In and of themselves" in the sense that we already have an apparatus designed to convert photons to neurological cascades,and the photons are the trigger on the apparatus.

Yes, it would be different, but the change would not be apparent in the retina (where the photons are translated into neural impulses),it would happen later, and the mental state would likely not be "panic".

Anonymous said...

Well, Eric, round these here parts where I come from, the "cause" is generally believed to precede the "effect." I'm not sure you're usin the concept of "cause" in the way us hicks do.

Would you concede that one's mental state (whatever that is, but lets say it includes one's interpretation of sensory input and what significance we, as active subjects, not passive objects, place on it) "causes" a resulting physio-chemical state in the body, or not?

One Brow said...

With regard to the specific pathway of "agitation" and "adreniline rush", then I would say the mental state is the cause of the physical state. I wasmerely saying that the mental state itself had (other) physical causes.

Anonymous said...

Well, OK, we agree on that, I spect, eh, Eric? For a while there I was beginnin to think that you were even more of an unenlighted materialistic determinist than you actually are.

If mental states can "cause" physical states, then what does that say about "mind," I wonder? Do you see a "state of mind" as bein "created" kinda like a cue ball "creates" the 8-ball goin into the corner pocket?

That question starts with the assumed existence (and position) of an 8-ball and a cue ball, of course. Is the very existence of the 8-ball itself also created by a "cue ball," with the 8-ball havin absolutely no say in what it is and/or how it got to be where it is, ya figure?

One Brow said...

I think a better analogy is a play by Arthur Miller, or a sofware program like WordPerfect.

At the reductionist level, a play is just a string of words (or letters, more granularly). Every word or letter in Death of a Salesman is in common use and public domain. If I took all these words, ordered them alphabetically, and recited them to a paying audience, it is very unlikely I would be sued for copyright infringement, even if someone could figure our teh source. Yet, the play is copyrighted. Legally, we see the play as more than a collection of words. You can make a similar argument that WordPerfect is more than a collection of 0s and 1s. I see the mind as being more than a collection of individual neural impulses.