Is a Neuron’s Firing About Paris?

091009092351-largeIn examining consciousness from a materialist perspective, Rosenberg concludes that there is no such thing. This is because neurons simply by firing can’t really be about anything outside of themselves, in the way we think of our thoughts as being about things.

In using the example of thinking about Paris, he writes:

The Paris neurons aren’t about Paris in the same way, for example, that a picture postcard or a diorama or pop-up book’s three-dimensional layout is about Paris. (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, pp. 174-175)

He goes on to consider the idea that some other neurons might interpret those neurons as being about Paris (the way we interpret language). But this leads him to the problem that the neurons doing the interpreting would first have to know what Paris is. That is, they would have to have a thought about Paris. Thus, he adds:

What we need to get off the regress is some set of neurons that is about some stuff outside the brain without being interpreted— by anyone or anything else (including any other part of the brain)— as being about that stuff outside the brain. (ibid, pp. 178-179)

There is simply no way of doing this while adhering to materialism.

Rosenberg is so convinced of materialism that he concludes that humans don’t actually have thoughts about anything. Now, if you find that a long list of objections to this conclusion forming in your mind, you are not alone. Many issues have been raised here, but space only permits me to address the most basic two:

First, the existence of one’s own thoughts is undeniable. It is not simply that it is better evidence than materialism, but that it is something we cannot even doubt without assuming it to be true. What is doubt, after all, if it doesn’t involve thinking about an idea outside of one’s neurons?

Second, because we cannot doubt our thought without assuming it, Rosenberg’s argument is actually logically incoherent. Though it follows from his materialism, this argument undermines itself. If neither Rosenberg nor the reader can think about, say, the idea that our thoughts might be illusions, there is no reason at all to believe it is true.

So, if materialism contradicts the idea that we have thoughts, then, so much the worse for materialism.

5 responses to “Is a Neuron’s Firing About Paris?

  • myatheistlife

    Good post.

    Doubt is an expression of the value of the estimation of accuracy of an analysis of current state of the simulation that we are running in our heads. It is the label for the state of the meta data resulting from the analysis of the simulation in our head regarding a given situation.

    The trouble is that the materialist view is not 100% right. We naturally assume that materialism is always the pure fundamentalist view of materialism. The extremist materialilsm defines thought and free will out of the picture without allowing for emergent properties to develop. That conflicts with evolution. See what I did there? They will agree that the brain is analyzing sensory data but do not consider what happens when the same brain analyzes the analysis of the sensory data and so on. They know that human brains differe from the brains of our cousins in specific ways but do not allow for those differences to do anything.

    That said, a materialist or atomist view is correct when it is adjusted to account for these emergent properties of strictly materialistic mechanisms. Consciousness is not magic, it just seems that way because we can’t examine how it is functioning inside our heads with our own thoughts.

    • Debilis


      I completely agree with you regarding the idea that not all materialists take the strictest view. Of course, my personal position is that I’m not aware of any way that the concept of emergent properties can really explain the intentionality of thoughts so long as we claim that all that is going on in the brain are processes that science can study.

      In fact, Rosenberg’s argument is essentially the idea that the term “emergent” doesn’t actually mean anything. It is coupled with the claim that consciousness arises in the brain, but isn’t an explanation as to how such a thing could happen. This is the idea he’s criticizing here.

      So, I also agree that consciousness is not magic. In fact, that’s why I personally reject the “emergence” view: in the end, that term always seems interchangeable with the word “magic”.

      I lean toward the idea that materialism itself is false: that “physical as science defines it” and “magic” are not the only options. So far hyleomorphic dualism strikes me as the most reasonable position on mind.

      • myatheistlife

        Hylomorphism is no more of an explanation than that of ‘god did it’ … it gives you enough of an answer to think you know something but adds no explanatory power while also not actually explaining anything.

        To say that one aspect of a living thing is life explains nothing about what life is, nor how it gives rise to thought or anything else.

        Some questions would be: where does life go when we sleep? Where does it go when we are in a coma? when we are knocked unconscious?

        If a ball of clay were to be made square we could say it lose the property of spherical-ness, so if we make it a ball again it’s not the same ball. When people recover from a coma they are the same persons, unless they have lost memories. Simple edge cases do not perform well for dualism of any sort because they offer no explanation for such things.

      • myatheistlife

        I’m still working on a reply to that longer one we were doing

    • Debilis

      Greetings once again!

      Personally, I think both God and hylemorphism are good explanations of things–when the question warrants that explanation, of course.

      These ideas are much better defined, and much more detailed, than most who dismiss them indicate.

      That is to say that hylemorphism is not simply the claim that life is an aspect of a living thing. With regard to the question of consciousness, it is the claim that the modern understanding of matter is deeply flawed. Insisting that matter should be stripped of subjective properties will, of necessity, strip one of any possibility of a material account of consciousness. This is rather straight forward.

      As to the hylemorphic dualist’s approach to life, I have two thoughts. First is that these all seem to be based on the assumption that the hylemorphist sees life and consciousness as the same thing (which is not the case). And, second, these questions are far more difficult for the materialist than the dualist.

      This brings me back to my original claim: that materialism cannot account for consciousness, and in facts excludes it. One need not accept hylemorphism to see that (in fact, I’m not entirely convinced of it myself).

      Okay, that’s one down. I’m off to the others.
      But best to you in any case.

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