Friday, December 25, 2009

Review of TLS -- Do you mind my science?

This is the twelfth part of my review of Dr. Edward Feser's The Last Superstition. You can find parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, and eleven at those links. In the final chapter, Dr. Feser attempts to make the case that science is inherently Aristotelian in practice. Along the way he does a little ridiculing of eliminative materialism and two of its principle proponents, the Churchlands, derides the notions of the mind operating as a computer does, and equivocates the notion that there is regularity in the properties of matter as being indicative of final cause. He relies upon excluding a few middles, the literal interpretations of metaphors, and lots of uncompromising, evidence-free rhetoric. In other words, he uses pretty much the same methodology as the rest of his book. Below the fold I'll go over the various sections of this chapter. The next piece in this series will be a comparison of the promises I listed in part 2 to what Dr. Feser actually demonstrated, and unless Dr. Feser decides to contribute a response to this series, it will be the last installment.

The chapter actually starts in a manner I could agree with, by pointing out how nonsensical the Churchlands sound in a conversation where, instead of Pat saying she is in a bad mood, she'll say she has depressed serotonin levels (or something similar). However, I think the reason their conversation, which replaces things like a bad mood with a low serotonin level in normal conversation, is ridiculous for an entirely different reason. He thinks that their attempt is nonsense because the mind is not eliminable; I think it's nonsense because things like human emotions rarely boil down to a single source, and so identifying your good mood to natural opiates, or whatever, says something you can't possibly know is true at the moment. Of course, for Dr. Feser the Churchlands and eliminative materialism (the claim that their is no such thing as a mind) play the same role he claims Paley and the Design Argument play for the New Atheists, something that it's easy to kick around. Then, by claiming that eliminative materialism is the inevitable result of rejecting final causes (using the negative definition of the mind he set forth in Chapter 5 and I discussed in part ten, linked to above), he attempts to equate any notion the mind exists to the full-fledged acceptance of Aristotelian causes. He graciously concedes that for an acorn, having a final cause of an being an oak doesn't mean that the acorn has a function or purpose to be an oak. Here he undercuts his Chapter 3 Supreme Intelligence proof (which I discussed in part 5) that the Supreme Intelligence is directing the acorn to become the oak; giving the acorn a final cause of being an oak is giving it a purpose just by maintaining the final cause. However, to make his case in this chapter, final causes now become mere directions or tendencies for an event to occur, with no need to invoke something directing it. Maybe he thought no one would notice, or maybe he can't tell the difference himself, I really don't know.

The metaphor of the mind as a computer

Dr. Feser discusses four ways that he thinks the metaphor of the mind as a computer fails.

1) The brain can't really be storing symbols of outside events, because symbols require an interpreter. Since prior to modern times no one thought of the brain as storing symbols, it obviously is not storing symbols [no, I'm not making that up, he really says that]. The whole process idea is circular: the mind is made of symbols; the symbols need the mind to interpret them. Nor is this point of view rescued by referring to memes, because it takes a mind to identify what a meme is, so minds must precede memes [yes, he really says that, too].

2) It can't be said that human minds are running algorithms, because algorithms require intent to follow and algorithm. A repetitive or cyclical behavior by itself is not an algorithm. This, we again have a circular process; the mind can't be built on algorithms if the mind is needed to run algorithms.

3) Causal connections between the brain and the outside world become incoherent under this view. Looking at the process of vision, there is no objective reason to give favored status points the causal chain that start with light bouncing off an object and terminate with brain nerves being stimulated. Thus, the items that demarcate events are not truly objective.

4) Computers can't formulate rational arguments; they can only simulate the following of valid logical forms. If you arbitrarily change the meaning of the forms and symbols, the computer will not change how the forms are processed. For example, if you assign A=>B to mean "Grass is green", B=>C to mean "Cleveland has a Hall of Fame", and A=>C to mean "James doesn't eat fish sticks", then since formally ((A=>B) & (B=>C))=>(A=>C), the computer will interpret this sentenced as being valid: "Grass is green and Cleveland has a Hall of Fame, this means James doesn't eat fish sticks". This shows you need to understand the meaning behind the logical symbols and that logical reasoning is not possible without a mind. This is a version of the Argument from Reason.

Together, these arguments show you can't eliminate goals from human actions. This factors into the main reason why you can't explain the mind in mechanistic terms; it was created to hold the unexplainable. So, if you are going to hold to mechanism at all and not eliminate the mind entirely, your only choice is dualism.

My response

The circularity argument in part 1) ignores a more obvious interpretation of a spiral. Even in animals that we presume have no intentionality at all, such as insects, at a very basic level translate exterior information (such as the position or the sun) and process symbols (such as the dance of a bumblebee telling other bees where to find flowers). So we clearly don't need a full-fledged rational mind to process symbols. This allows for the process to happen in a spiral, where storing the symbols leads to a certain level of mind, which interprets more symbols to create a more complex mind, which can interpret still more symbols to create a yet more complex mind, etc. By trying to present the argument as an all-or-nothing, Dr. Feser attempts to hide the in-between stance of an emergent phenomenon.

Argument 2) is just playing a game with definitions. Whether you can call a basic prcedss in the mind does an "algorithm" or not, the behavior is the same.

Argument 3) ignores that sight developed in a feedback loop. The earliest sighted animals did not distinguish points in the causal chain as being favored, however, those that followed later who did distinguish those points were better able to evaluate the environment, and passed that tendency along.

Argument 4) would be much more compelling if it did not take so much effort to teach logical thinking to humans. Humans are also prone to see form over meaning, confuse correlation with causation, etc. So it's not surprising that computers should have the same issues.

Overall, I agree that in many ways the metaphor of the mind as a computer does not do it justice. However, it's still a good metaphor for specific purposes, and Dr. Feser's objections to it are ill-founded.

Science and final causes

Dr. Feser discusses three areas of science that show final causes are essential.

A) "Darwinian biologists" use teleological language to describe biological systems, and could not do research without it. Phrases like the "function of the heart" and "in order to signal [there are] predators [near]" need to be explained without teleological language. It's not possible to do this without referring to final causes, and scientists don't even try. This is just as well, because the nonsense that philosophers write about science is only exceeded by the nonsense scientists write about philosophy. Any attempts to explain functions in terms of natural selection fails because it means (1) you can't know the function of an organism without knowing it's evolutionary history, (2) nothing that is unevolved can have a function (so the first kidneys had no function, the organs of Swampman have no functions, etc.), and (3) using natural selection as an explanation removes functionality rather than explaining it. You can't remove teleology from your explanations because the mind doing the explaining is teleological [once more: yes, he really says that]. You can't explain teleology in nature without final causes, you can only eliminate it. Descriptions of DNA as holding information, as a blueprint, etc. are fundamentally teleological and show that some interpreter is required; this leads to the notion of form. Note that Paleyan red herrings like irreducible complexity are not a part of this argument. When Dawkins discusses concepts like the selfish gene he pushes science beyond where it can go. When you remove teleology genes/DNA they are no longer useful as biological explanations.

B) Complex inorganic systems, such as the water cycle and the rock cycle, also show final causes, in that each stage in the cycle has a role to play in leading to the next stage. Efficient causes don't explain this, because each stage also has effects that are not part of the cycle. Nor can you say the cycles are just human constructions, they are objective effects. Thus, they are results of goals within each stage.

C) The basic laws of nature make sense only if you interpret final causes as being within objects. The modern view is that the brick shattering a window is not based on anything inherent to the brick or the window, but that event like a brick being thrown are simply followed by event like a window shattering. Hume's empiricism provided cover for these notions, but it is refuted by noting that mental concepts do exist. Humean notions undermine science by saying there are no necessary causal connections between events and denying the existence of law-like correlations. However, scientific regularities are hard to obscure. In practice, scientists draw conclusions after a few experiments, confirming that they accept law-like correlations. Even the notions of "ideal conditions" and "interference" that are needed for various thought-experiments are not Humean.

In summary, because of these reasons we are witnessing the return of a "physical intentionality" to science. This of course means the restoration of Aristotle has been accomplished in fact, if not name.

My response

I know I am being redundant, but I wanted to emphasize this. Back in chapters 2 and 3, formal and final causes were portrayed as having a shaping effect upon objects, where formal causes shaped what they are and final causes what they could become. However, in this chapter, any sort of regularity in behavior is treated as a final cause. Brittleness leads to a tendency to be shattered because the final cause of brittleness is shattering. Matches strike flames because their final cause is to strike a flame. This is done to emphasize repeatedly: science needs final causes. However, the final causes used in this section do not need the Supreme Intelligence to guide them; they merely need a principle of uniformity: under identical conditions, matter behaves identically. This falls short of the Aristotelian causes as described earlier. Dr. Feser is understandably anxious to exclude this middle view.

It's difficult to imagine any thing said about philosophy that is sillier than the notion there was a first kidney, and on top of that to pile on the notions of it being unevolved and without function. So apparently philosphers can win that contest after all. More generally, the feedback loop on survival creates exactly the teleological impetus that Dr. Feser sees as an emergent phenomenon. Beings that act in ways that favor the survival of their offspring see increased survival in their offspring. The goal of survival emerges naturally from this loop. It does not need to be imposed from the outside.

Complex inorganic systems certainly exhibit regularity. However, I have already pointed out that regularity is not the same as a final cause. This is also true basic natures and properties of objects, and the physical laws these natures and properties have them exhibit.

23 comments:

Rob said...

Thanks for this series.

In your wrap-up, I hope you will make a meta-critique. Obviously, you think Feser has gone wrong. Has he gone wrong because of the accumulation of the many errors you have uncovered, or has he gone wrong because he made a major error at the beginning?

I have my own opinion about this, but don't want to influence your assessment.

DM said...

Looks like your website is under attack from supernatural forces…


http://isgodimaginary.com/forum/index.php/topic,40909.0.html

you really need to add comment moderation to your blasphemy…

One Brow said...

Rob,

One of the running themes on my blog is my personal view that any beliefs regarding the existence of the supernatural are unprovable, at least in my experience so far. Formal statmenes get deductive proofs, empirical statements get inductive proofs, statements of beliefs are not of the type that can be proven. So, in that regard, I think the entire exercise of finding a rational basis for a belief, whether it is Catholicism or materialism, is likely to be a fruitless effort.

What's your take?

One Brow said...

DM,

Is this a game of some sort? I'm not familiar with the rules, sorry.

DM said...

it is amazing how people can appear so smart yet be so stupid...



Looks like your website is under attack from supernatural forces…

http://isgodimaginary.com/forum/index.php/topic,40909.0.html

you really need to add comment moderation to your blasphemy…

J said...

I think the entire exercise of finding a rational basis for a belief, whether it is Catholicism or materialism, is likely to be a fruitless effort.

Interesting. At times, I am tempted to agree--that one cannot conclusively prove or disprove the existence of G*d. Yet I think we still can weigh evidence, to some degree (and I can hear a Feser, or Mav-P. barking that it's not merely an empirical question, yada yada).

At least from an empirical POV (looking at the world for evidence of His handiwork, whether in terms of nature, humanity, scientific laws,not to say poverty, disease, war, so forth) it's hardly obvious that a monotheistic Being exists--that's one reason the Feser types bug me. He seems to assume it's obvious. The regularity of nature does not suffice. Order of some type may exist, but plagues also show order. Really, I think Feser (and traditional catholicism) fails in terms of some theological naturalism as an alternative to evolution. It's still a Design analogy of a sort. The radiocarbon techniques certainly show a very old earth--the dogma of Old testament was mostly undermined by Lyell and Darwin; modern dating methods confirmed their old earth hypothesis.

Feser makes a few interesting points on dualism, but he doesn't really prove it. He may suggest something like the uniqueness of human reason, the possibility of Mind, but no ghost in machine has yet appeared. Some cartesian ghost (or whatever flavor he prefers) if it can't really do much (say in terms of parapsychology).

Maybe Herr Doktor Von Feser could bend some spoons in front of an audience....or at least cause a statue of Maria to weep a bit of blood....

One Brow said...

J,

To the degree that any sort of supernatural being supposedly influences the material, we can at least rule out that facet of that being as applying consistently. For example, a God who supposedly gives his followers long life as long as they perform acttion A. Most religions nowadays, perhaps always, have avoided those claims.

Dr. Feser's form-soul is more subtle, so much so that, at least from his book, only effect it would have on the material world is to guarantee that we really can understand the nature of the things we observe, if we can get the mental form just right. Not very testable.

One Brow said...

DM,

I'm definitely stupid about many things. It's well known.

J said...

To the degree that any sort of supernatural being supposedly influences the material, we can at least rule out that facet of that being as applying consistently.

Well, to many of us that is evident, but ANY monotheist must admit his G*d would have some relation to the material world, ie nature. (Check out my blog for my essay on Occasionalism). I believe that all monotheistic systems tend towards Occasionalism, even when outfitted with the old subtle aristotelian forms and substances. G*d would by definition still have override rights, wouldn't He? . So, given earthquakes, tidal waves, hurricane: the Believer, even fancy intellectual one like Feser would have to grant that his G*d allowed it, indeed, planned it, or he denies G*d. That may hint at the old problem of evil (as do many theological disputes), but certainly a hurricane would have, or be directed towards a final cause as much as an oak tree would.....

Feser brings up a few different points (this is from reading his blog and excerpts from TLS. I wouldn't pay a quarter for his cliffsnotes to Mussolini-ism). The points on philosophy of mind, and dualism are slightly different than the old chestnuts on causality. On one hand we are discussing something like human consciousness, ie natural, or dualistic, or something else. Then he shifts into the old classical mode and wants to suggest something like nature as a whole as controlled by G*d. At least to me, those are substantially different claims--I will listen, at times, to his rants on phil. of Mind. But Aristotle and the catholic church are not content with mere epistemology. (as Aquinas says as well....reality was contingent for the older scholastics. Merely by G*d's grace are we allowed to live at all! Pray harder, or the sun might go out....).

Science has done rather well (ie usefulness another issue Feser overlooks) by rejecting the Aristotelian schema (except for efficient cause, broadly). So, like if it works w/o teleology, who needs it, except armchair metaphysicians? In terms of the practical world (science, technology, politics) the Aristotelian schema plays little or no part.

One Brow said...

As a dualist, you think his comments in favor of dualism are stronger than those in favor God (as an atheist).

What a coincidence, eh?

J said...

Feser also tends to ignore the old realist/nominalist debate. Why is that? Perhaps because he realizes those perfidious nominalists (really, early empiricists) like Ockham had some good arguments against the metaphysical realists. In a sense, even with the realist-nominalist classic you can't really prove much. Redness--or "triangle-ness" does seem to exist, but....where? Well, probably as a brain function and associated with specific neural location. A blindman doesn't know what the color red is (or really, geometry, except with a great deal of modern tech., braille, etc): ie. it's abstracted from experience, not a priori (is mathematics as well? ah believe one can argue for nominalist mathematics, but a bit challenging...).

J said...

I did not claim to be a dualist, OB, at least in transcendent cartesian sense. I merely said there are some interesting arguments for dualism. Metaphysically speaking, I'm partial to a neo-Schoepenhauer-esque immanent-idealism (though at times dialectical thinking appeals). :]


Consciousness does exist (or appears to exist). And yet ghosts and souls seem somewhat ludicrous. So ...the Idea must manifest itself somehow in nature, ie physically: ergo, nature thinks! But some parts of nature (ie human brains) are smarter than others (ie, rat brains,,etc.).

That or the Quine/Churchland school, and I'm not quite ready to jettison Mind (beliefs, intention, reason, etc).

One Brow said...

I covered Dr. Feser's expounding on the realism/conceptualism/nominalism debate in TLS, such as it was, in part 3, so I think it's unfair to say he ignores. That he considers it seettled without good reason, perhaps.

I believe that dualism without a transcendant substance is occasionally referred to as property dualism. Whether this applies to you (or to Searle, for that matter), I'm going to pontificate upon. I'll take you and Searle at at your word.

J said...

Well, that's the modern, secular label. But an immanent view needn't be dualist. Vitalism in a sense. We are not merely clocks, or CPUs, or apps running programs OB. Humans built CPUs.

And yes, my views may be similar to Searle's (as far as I understand Doc Searle--he shifts his goalposts every year or so) in so far that he still upholds a thinking subject, for lack of a better term, and avoids the meat-puppet reductionist school. But I think Searle's still sort of with the reductionists and Quine-stein school. At one time I sort of agreed with Quineans, but now have a slight respect for Chomsky's rips of the behaviorists (including WVOQ), and shall we say naive Darwinist-meat puppets.

One Brow said...

I'm still not sure where I stand on teh whole issue. I agree there are stages between property dualism and eliminative materialism, but I'm not sure where I would fit in the spectrum.

DM said...

Looks like your website is under attack from supernatural forces…


http://isgodimaginary.com/forum/index.php/topic,40909.0.html

you really need to add comment moderation to your blasphemy…



let's try again...see if you can follow...i'll make it real simple for you

DM said...

so you see the WTC painted on the house of Nostradamus?

J said...

Bizarre, OB. I get the sense some locals don't care for your ..skepticism. (....Contingencies has been attacked by fundies of various sorts. Including the mormonic sort--possibly the most pathological)

Really, it's difficult to defeat naturalism. Or Darwinian evolution. Or the behaviorist's environmental conditioning. So in regards to nature, I'm a Darwinian naturalist. No need for essences, or final causes, or other spooks. But discussing human thinking's another matter. Language itself is ....odd.

The old monkeys-on-typewriters producing-Shakespeare analogy sort of shows the anomaly of language issue. It hasn't happened. I doubt we will ever see it happen. Maybe in a few centuries (or hundreds of centuries) there will be a cognitive leap, and other primates will develop language, start to count, maybe play flutes. But I wouldn't bet on it. So at the very least the human-primate outperforms other primates. Language thus also suggests uniqueness, including intention. Sort of obvious, but many a bottlewasher forgets it. Yet, like animals we still require food, and other bio-economic necessities. Unique, but not angelic. And Feser-types of course overlook those bio-economic necessities daily.

DM said...

j all your talk means absolutely nothing....blah blah blah....

why bother?


we negate you completely, you insignificant nothing....


rationalresponders.com/comment/reply/19284

J said...

You're nothing, DM the hick. Nada, itself. Like your boss Rev. Hagee, El Windbag Supremo.

Reason tends to frighten biblethumpers, of course.


Now, OB: this dude's even worse than your other troll-klown.

Really, I admit to enjoying certain parts of the God Delusion, though sort of object to Dawkins'...approach. But he was sort of an equal-opportunity non-believer, which is good. Those of who don't attend the xtian warehouses should not forget it's not just DM like biblethumpers out there, but papists, muslims, and orthodox jews (in a sense, the initators with that big bag of BS aka the Old Testament).

One Brow said...

DM,

I followed the link, and a couple more. I didn't see anything worth responding to. Feel free to make a point, if you have one.

J,

I'm nor nearly important enought to merit a concerted attack by anyone, yet. Not sure I ever want to be.

Rob said...

One Brow:

"DM" is annoying spammer Dennis Marzuke aka David Mabus. Google him.

One Brow said...

Rob,

I hope I never have to care enough about spammers to need to Google them. :)