Babies aren’t Bathwater

baby-bathwater-755135Once again, Alex Rosenberg almost perfectly enshrines modern prejudices about science and the search for knowledge:

Cognitive neuroscience has already established that many of the most obvious things introspection tells you about your mind are illusions. (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 148)

That science has found surprising things is not in dispute; I love reading on these as much as anyone (as my wife can attest). Rosenberg’s mistake, in my view, is to leap from this conclusion to the idea that we should reject introspection completely. He boldly declares:

The notion that thought is about stuff doesn’t even approximate what is going on in the brain. (ibid, p. 208)

This is, of course, both unwarranted and self-contradictory in at least two ways. I’ve already discussed the idea that the thought about the idea that thoughts can’t be about things is incoherent. But it is no more so than the idea that neuroscience can invalidate introspection as a source of knowledge about our minds.

That is to say that neuroscience relies on introspection. It maps brain-states, and correlates them with what test subjects tell the scientists about what they are experiencing internally. In short, introspection is a foundational tool of neuroscience.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that introspection is perfect any more than our sensory perceptions are perfect. But, as with the physical senses, science is a tool to correct our mistakes and sharpen those perceptions, not simply reject them.

This unwarranted jump from “introspection isn’t perfect” to “introspection is completely worthless as a source of knowledge” seems fairly common, and I think we need to be careful about it. Rosenberg himself criticizes others for trying to take an overly simple approach to philosophy, and I think his warning applies here.

It would, after all, be very easy if everything that existed were observable through science. It would give us the comfort of certainty about what life is like, and clear-cut answers to its biggest questions. Part of me suspects that this is the reason why materialism is so appealing to many.

But, whether or not I’m right about that last, it is too simple–too easy to say that we can simply wave off our basic experience of life. We can’t simply reject introspection, as Rosenberg suggests.

Of course, I would argue that refusing to reject introspection means rejecting materialist accounts of the mind. And this is precisely why Rosenberg is so interested in discrediting introspection; he knows it is inconsistent with his materialism.

As much has been said, I’ve still not touched on all the ways in which Rosenberg shows how materialism breaks down into self-contradiction. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that his book has done more to convince me of the falsehood of materialism than anything I’ve read from a theist.

7 responses to “Babies aren’t Bathwater

  • myatheistlife

    Perhaps for Rosenberg introspection is incompatible with his materialism, but it is not so for mine.

    • Debilis

      Yes, I suppose that is what our other discussion is about.

      Still, I think Rosenberg has a good point here. The intentionality (or “aboutness”) of thoughts does seem to be outside of materialism’s explanatory powers. At least, I’ve been left with this conclusion.

      This is doubly true for those materialists who insist upon evidence for things (as Rosenberg does), as it is impossible to produce material evidence for intentionality.

      • myatheistlife

        The problem of intentionality is rudely complicated by the misunderstanding of how thought works in the first place. If, for simple example, we say that all thought/mind is governed or ‘programmed’ by basic primal needs we can see that thinking about a better way to get apples out of trees is initiated by hunger where hunger presents a need, the apple in the tree presents the problem, our brains model this problem and apply non-random substitutions in the simulation to work out one or more ways to bring our hand closer to the apple. You’ve seen people do impossibly stupid things in aid of a reasonable goal – because their model did not simulate possible outcomes, only the get closer to the apple part… like stacking a box on a chair on a box on a ladder to clean the entry way window.

        Thought has intentionality based in and on the problems presented/acquired in search of completing the simulation for this need or that. It is more complex because humans create their own problems … such as ‘what is space made of?’ and such is the difference between us now and pre-modern humans. When we learned to paint on cave walls the race to cerebral life had begun.

    • Debilis

      Apologies for being a bit late on this. I seem to have overlooked it.

      To respond, I agree that thought is an attempt to simulate reality; I simply don’t see how such a simulation is consistent with materialism.

      A simulation, by your description above, is an intentional state. That is, it is about reality (however imperfectly). That being the case, to say that thought is a simulation is simply to say that Rosenberg is incorrect. It is not to answer his challenge.

      Simulations like the ones you describe, then, are precisely what materialism denies. This is why Rosenberg has rejected them.

      • myatheistlife

        Well, then I’m a materialist who apparently denies materialism? wait… wut?

        I’m saying that thought is firmly bounded by and bourne of material issues: matter, primal need driven by the body and so on. The fact is that you would be very fortunate indeed if you could think of something that is completely unrelated to anything you or humanity has ever experienced or otherwise talked about.

        This is why scifi aliens are so human or animal like and why gods are so much like petty humans. All of our thoughts are based on materialist things. Remember when people thought the moon made of cheese? Space exploration taught us an immense amount. Now we can imagine many more things and model many more problems.

        The real problem with introspection is not that it cannot help, but that we think incorrectly about what thought is in the first place and so our tools for examining introspection are critically flawed.

    • Debilis

      I’m aware that your position that thought is based on physical experience. But that is off topic of the discussion. Rosenberg isn’t claiming that thoughts are about the physical, he’s claiming that they aren’t about anything at all.

      He’s making the case that there can’t be any such thing as a simulation, about the physical or anything else. If you are taking the position that thoughts are such a thing, you’re claiming that he’s wrong.

      Obviously, I have no issue with that–as I also reject his elimativism. My point is that this is not a reason why he is wrong. He’s given reasons why a purely physical brain can’t possibly run simulations, and those need to be addressed.

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