The Argument From Willful Ignorance

Woman_BlindContinuing on about Nagel’s argument against the physicality of mind, we come to Philip Kitcher’s response to Nagel. Kitcher is a respected philosopher, which is why I was rather shocked to find such anti-intellectual sentiments in his article.

Rather than simply focus on how terrible his argument is, however, I want first to point out how common it is.

In fact, his basic approach can be seen in the comments section of this blog: the idea that, if an argument shows that there is something in our fundamental experience that can’t be explained by materialism, then what we need to do is quit thinking about it.

Personally, I find it hard to express how fundamentally close-minded I find this. Really, I doubt that I can improve on the words of Chesterton. “There is a kind of thought that stops thought, and that is the only kind of thought that ought to be stopped”.

But thought that stops thought is exactly what is being promoted by a professor in the New York times. He writes:

“Philosophy and science don’t always answer the questions they pose — sometimes they get over them.” And, in case anyone thinks he’s lamenting poor behavior on the part of philosophers and scientists, he adds this: “With luck, in a century or so, the issue of how mind fits into the physical world will seem as quaint as the corresponding concern about life.”

Part of me was shocked, but I had to admit that I’ve encountered the basic sentiment in many self-identified atheists. Until now, I’d assumed that it was the provence of the uneducated to claim that we stop thinking when thinking starts to contradict their view. But it seems that this isn’t the case.

In fact, it has often seemed that secularists’ real, lived answer to the issues of meaning of life, morality, and God are not so much denials of theists’ answers as a studious avoiding of the questions. Ignore a question long enough, and it will start to feel unimportant.

At least, this would explain why I continue to encounter such complete indifference to life’s biggest questions.

So, I’m forced to admit that it isn’t all that surprising when the materialist’s answer to the fact that mind cannot be purely physical is “just don’t think about it”.

But this doesn’t even rise to the level of an argument from ignorance. It isn’t the fallacious “we don’t know that I’m wrong, so I’m correct” it is the even more fallacious “we do know I’m wrong, but if we make ourselves willfully ignorant of that fact, we won’t know, so I’m correct”.

The second problem with this ‘argument’ is less severe, but largely by making the first one worse. That is, this tactic rather blatantly contradicts the original case for materialism.

Those that know something about the history of philosophy know that materialism became popular based on its promise that it could explain the world more simply than other views. The idea was that we should dispense with the non-material because we can explain everything without it. Ockham’s Razor, and all that.

But now that it’s being shown that materialism can’t explain the things it was supposed to explain, materialists are suddenly claiming that we just stop thinking that all reality can ever be given a unified explanation. Apparently, we should also stop thinking about the fact that there are more unified explanations on offer.

So, we accept materialism because it can explain everything that theism can, only more simply. Except that it can’t, it simply denies most of those other things. And, in the case of mind, we’ll just agree not to think about that.

And, when one asks why we’re materialists in the first place, we’ll be sure to dismiss that as a silly question.

This is all rather dogmatic, and it is not made less so by claiming that materialism is somehow “good enough” or “gets us pretty far”. These are simply false claims. Nothing shown to be false can be good enough for anyone committed to being rational, and, while science gets us very far, it doesn’t need materialism to do its job.

This is not to mention the very obvious fact that the greatness of science runs counter to the attitude that we refuse to ask questions when the answers threaten to destroy our pet theories.


25 responses to “The Argument From Willful Ignorance

  • keithnoback

    You are saying that we must demand an explanation for the epiphenomenal left overs of qualia above all? God helps us with this how, besides providing a tautology? Do you still think Chalmers is a closet theist? He certainly thinks he has a definitive answer to this conundrum, so do the eliminativists. You just have to accept the other difficulties which come with those theories if you want their neat accounts of experiential qualities.
    I’d point out some of Plantinga’s statements along the same lines regarding the comprehensive intelligibility of theism. All this is problematic only if your over-arching desire is to claim that all other viewpoints but your own are irrational. That is not necessarily the case; there are simply limits to our knowledge which limit our explanations no matter what.

    • Debilis

      No, I’m not demanding that qualia be explained “above all”. Nor am I saying that qualia are “epiphenomenal left-overs”–that’s simply dismissiveness, rather than a real attempt at inquiry. I am, however, insisting that they are part of reality, and need to be explained as much as anything else.

      And, no, God is not a tautology with regard to qualia. Most obviously, because God is not a quale. To insist that a mental explanation (whether theism or any other) is tautological makes no more sense than to insist that materialism is a tautological explanation of matter.

      Again, no. I have never thought that Chalmers is a closet theist. I’ve never claimed that. What I claimed was that Chalmers’ position bears more similarity to theism than the physicalist background in which he’s presenting his ideas–which is absolutely true.

      And you are free to bring up any difficulties you see in other views. I agree that they should be addressed. But the point is that this does not excuse physicalism. We need to look into the best option, not simply insist that the shortcomings of physicalism should be overlooked.

      But the idea that I’m trying to establish that all viewpoints but my own to be irrational has come up a couple of times. I’d like to say clearly that this is not my goal. Clearly, I’m arguing for my viewpoint. And, just as clearly, I believe that some views are irrational.

      Still, my position on physicalist views in general is not that they are flatly irrational, but that they are clearly not the best fit to the “data” of life.

      And this is where I keep coming back. Yes, there will always be limits to our understanding, but this does not remotely mean that we shouldn’t always be on the lookout for better models. But this is precisely what Kitcher is opposing. He recommends halting inquiry–and that is a very different beast from an awareness that we will never know everything.

  • keithnoback

    Oh, I see. You think that I’m proposing that things like the intrinsic qualities of subjective experiences should be disregarded, and that philosophers like Kim or Searle would say the same. I don’t know how else to say this; you’re simply wrong. I’d suggest you read what those philosophers have to say before rendering summary judgment, but if you read their work no more carefully than you read my comments, I’m afraid there isn’t much hope.

    • Debilis

      I’m not sure how to respond to the opening line here.
      As this was written before I responded above, I can’t imagine where you thought I was saying anything at all about you. The article was a discussion of Kitcher.

      As to my personal understanding, no. I don’t think you are suggesting that these experiences should be disregarded (and I definitely don’t think that Kim ore Searle would say this). I was, however, given the impression that you believe that inquiry into what this tells us about the nature of reality is rather unimportant. At least, you offered no alternative explanation, but simply dismissed both Nagel’s and mine.

      Also, could we please try our best not to make this a personal contest? I don’t claim to know what you motivations are, of course, but this reads less like you have a specific position you’d like to defend than that you’d like to prove that you’re more intelligent and well read than I.

      If that’s the case, I’ll simply underline that I’m not terribly interested in which of us is more intelligent or well read. But, if you are more interested in what is true, could you please present the argument that you feel vindicates physicalism (or the specific position you take)? That would be much more helpful than accusing me of being either ignorant or hopelessly biased.

      So, getting back to the point, could you give an argument that, in your view, effectively defends physicalism from Nagel?

      • dpatrickcollins

        Liked this response. Recently, I engaged in two discussions with professed atheists. It is not something I do often. In each case, their agenda seemed to be personal attack and telling me I was “wrong” instead of actually discussing their position and providing reason for why they believed their position was true. I was surprised. I have always assumed that I, as a theist, have a mandate to ruthlessly examine my beliefs with the assumption that all I hold dear may not be true. I often do not find however this commitment is not reciprocated. And this leads me to conclude the atheist (at least materialist) position is not as strong as I initially was led to believe.

        • Debilis

          I actually had an experience where, in a time of extreme doubt about my faith, I questioned some atheists I knew about the alternatives to my beliefs. I was on the edge of abandoning theism, and wanted to know what answers to life’s big questions made them so confident in their attacks of mine.

          They universally said that they had no answers–and certainly nothing that could stand up to the attacks they’d been leveling at theism.

          That definitely made me re-think their challenges. I mainly realized two things:
          1. That I need to compare their lived philosophy to mine, not mine to “a lack of belief”.
          2. That I don’t want to confuse unreasonable demands and mockery for good arguments ever again–nor do I want to make those kinds of arguments.

          In any case, that’s my ramble. Best to you out there.

        • dpatrickcollins

          good ramble 😀 thanks

      • keithnoback

        Forgive me for responding to a polemic in kind. I’m not interested in a pissing contest. I’m not even interested in the merits of one theory over another. I’ll clarify what I’m on about.
        ” … his basic approach can be seen in the comments section of this blog…”
        “…it isn’t surprising that secularists’ answer to the fact that mind cannot be purely physical is “just don’t think about it”
        Nobody is saying that. Some are saying wait and see what comes of neuroscience. These are the optimists (I’m not among them). Some are non-reductive physicalists. Some are reductive physicalists who are acknowledging not the abject failure you’d have them acknowledge, but the limit of their theory as such.
        “According to one of his pupils, Professor Elizabeth Anscombe, Wittgenstein was fond of a German saying that translates as ‘You can’t shit higher than your arse’ …”
        This is a feat which you seem to expect of philosophers and theologians. Only the dishonest ones would claim to accomplish it. I get that idea about your expectation from statements like this one: “This is all rather dogmatic and it is not made less so by claiming materialism is somehow ‘good enough’ or ‘gets us pretty far’. These are simply false claims. Nothing shown to be false can be good enough for anyone committed to being rational…”
        My comment about God offering a tautology regarding qualia was directed at this point. I meant a logical tautology. If you say God is a person, you have neatly taken care of mental phenomena. You needn’t explain them except to say they are basic properties of the deity. You must still account for your knowledge of the deity and his personhood in principle, but once you’ve done that, the rest is taken care of. The eliminativists get by in the same way – if folk psychology is all a garbled mess then once you explain why it is a garbled mess in principle, it needs no further explanation in particular. To say that a certain phenomenon doesn’t succumb to analysis under a certain system doesn’t mean anything more than that. The advocates of that philosophy must simply say that they cannot ‘see into’ that phenomenon. It doesn’t make the philosophy false, it just marks the point where an extra-theoretic view would be necessary, i.e. arse-height. And it’s how high all our arses are. It doesn’t mean the end to inquiry about the phenomenon, just an end to inquiry into the phenomenon without further development of the theory.

        • Debilis

          Okay, fair enough. Though I don’t think I was treating Kitcher with stronger language than he deserved. Still, you are not Kitcher, and I’ll be careful to take a measured approach here.

          Getting to that:
          “Nobody is saying that. Some are saying wait and see what comes of neuroscience.”
          As above, Kitcher is saying that. His position was specifically was that we won’t answer these questions but “get over them” when, in fact, there are answers on the table.

          Perhaps more importantly, “wait and see what comes of neuroscience”, if one understands Nagel, is simply another way of saying “don’t think about it”. This is because the argument is, manifestly, not one that can be addressed by neuroscience. That is Nagel’s entire point.

          To simply appeal to neuroscience, without addressing the logic of his argument, is to beg the question. It assumes that neuroscience studies what Nagel argues it cannot possibly study. Thus, it is to either misunderstand or ignore what he’s actually said.

          But I completely agree that there are different kinds of physicalists. To the reductivists, I’d say that they need to deal with Nagel’s argument–not simply assume that he’s wrong by appealing to future science. To the non-reductivists, I’d say that they need to explain how their views neither collapse back into reductivism nor are forms of dualism masquerading as physicalism.

          Depending on the view that you’re defending, I’d want to see one or the other of these defenses. Otherwise, I haven’t been given a rational reason to change my view.

          Regarding the claim that God is a tautological explanation for qualia, this is simply untrue. It is not a tautology to say that qualia are best explained by the God of classical theism (though that would be a simplification to the point of distortion of my position). There are a number of properties that are dissimilar between these entities–meaning that the statement affirms content not present in the term “qualia”. Hence, it is not a logical tautology.

          In fact, if it were tautological, then admitting that qualia exist would be logically equivalent to admitting that God exists. I don’t believe that, of course, but it does follow from the premise that this is a tautology.

          Nor does this address the parallel to materialism. No one is saying that fundamental particles are a tautological explanation of matter. But that would be at least as true here (as fundamental particles are matter) as it would be to say this about God with regard to qualia. An explanation of mind is not tautological for being mental any more than an explanation of mater is tautological for being material. It is simply the appropriate paradigm.

          “To say that a certain phenomenon doesn’t succumb to analysis under a certain system doesn’t mean anything more than that.”

          How do you know this?
          Nagel has given a very specific argument to show how it does mean more than that. I’ve sketched the argument here. One can disagree, of course, but to simply assert that there is nothing more to learn is (whether intentional or not) an avoidance of thought about Nagel’s actual argument. And this is precisely what I’ve criticized Kitcher for doing.

          “It doesn’t mean the end to inquiry about the phenomenon, just an end to inquiry into the phenomenon without further development of the theory.”

          But this is precisely what Nagel is offering: further development of the theory. He’s recommending that specific changes be made to our explanatory framework based on observation and logical inference. One can attempt to refute him, but simply saying “we need to develop the theory” doesn’t answer the question “how about this development?”.

          But I’m not entirely clear on whether or not you agree with the elimanativists you’re discussing. If this is not your view, please let me know what position you find most persuasive. Better yet, please give me the arguments for that position. I already understand that elimanativists reject qualia, that property dualists believe that they’ve found a monist view that accounts for both mater and mind, and that some people have a vague sense that neuroscience will somehow answer Nagel’s argument about what neuroscience can’t, by definition, ever study.

          What I don’t have is any reason to think that any of these people are right, and Nagel wrong. In this interchange, at least, his is the only argument that has been presented.

  • keithnoback

    Would you agree that, given God, if no God, then no subjects and if no subjects then no subjectivity? What use does a theist have for an explanation like Chalmers’ or Kim’s of psychological, and so presumably neurological, sources of subjectivity? These things are for those who don’t consider subjective experience a basic ontological entity. You can question whether the explanations are adequate in their scope and detail to be consistent with the rest of the theory. Great.
    You want to talk about something else, and you want to come to an ultimate conclusion about truth. Sorry.

    • Debilis

      I would agree with that–but I would stress that the rest of the thoughts here don’t automatically follow from it.

      That God (or whatever entity) is the ultimate causal source of things does not preclude the need for further explanation for those things. After all, God is seen as causing/creating based on a rational order. As such, classical theists do have need for psychological explanations of consciousness if we are to be consistent.

      But I would add that assuming that a psychological explanation can be equated with a neurological explanation is to assume physicalism. That is precisely the position that Nagel is refuting.

      And, yes, I do want to talk about ultimate truth. But, again, I’d qualify that. First (and mostly as an aside), I don’t only want to talk about ultimate truth.

      More importantly, simply saying “sorry” does not address Nagel’s argument. It is not simply a reason to think that physicalist accounts of mind are inconsistent with physicalism. If it can be shown (as the arguments of Nagel and others do show) that physicalism itself is inconsistent with the existence of mind, then that is pertinent to our understanding of ultimate reality.

      Specifically, it shows us that physicalism is wrong to claim that the physical is the whole of reality–or even that it is the whole of what we can know about reality. It is an excellent reason to reject the physicalist paradigm.

      Granted, this doesn’t automatically demonstrate anything conclusive about the nature of ultimate reality, but it does mean that we need to move on from physicalism–which was my point.

      And I think that this might be our confusion. I’m not arguing “physicalism is wrong about the mind, therefore God exists” that would indeed be fallacious. I’m arguing that physicalism is wrong about the mind, therefore, nearly all of the major defenses of physicalism (and, consequently, atheism) are no good.

      Though that doesn’t conclude to God, it is a very significant point with respect to the subject.

      • keithnoback

        You’re arguing past the point. I’m talking about the limits of any metaphysical theory. That is where guys like Kim or Chalmers think they have arrived. The same can be said for theistic models ; I don’t think anyone claims to be able to comprehend the mind of God for instance. These things don’t make a theory false or irrational in themselves. That is the condensed version. I can be more specific when I have a real keyboard:)

        • Debilis

          Please do, when you have the time. I’m genuinely interested. For now, I’ll say two things to that general point:

          First, that I agree that all views have limits. And, second, that I don’t see how that constitutes a refutation of Nagel’s arguments.

          After all, his point isn’t about our inability to comprehend a thing, but, specifically, about what we do comprehend (and how that disconfirms physicalism). Moreover, the fact that all views have limits does not automatically entail that all views have equal limits. Some views are better than others.

          As such, I don’t think the “limits of any metaphysical theory” response applies to Nagel’s argument–or circumvents any need to examine theistic views. In fact, the problem of consciousness is precisely what has led Kim and Chalmers (each in their own way) away from physicalism.

        • keithnoback

          Thanks for your patience. I’m not going to try to address type and token physicalism, theoretic and explanatory reduction, etc. – all the stuff required for a detailed response to Nagel’s concerns. I think it was a mistake for a professional philosopher to attempt to summarize it somehow in the NY Times opinion page, and so I think it would certainly be a mistake for someone like me to attempt it in a blog’s comment section. I like Kim’s theory, and far from moving away from physicalism, he thinks it’s pretty much in the bag. His last book is a good summary, I’d refer you there if you are interested in his take on the matter.
          When I said ‘sorry’, I meant to say, ‘sorry, you are not entitled to an over-arching notion of truth.’ No one is. For this reason, no one can pound their fist on the table and declare this or that system false (though that doesn’t stop people). Even things like logical positivism or substance dualism simply have fuzzy bits which people find problematic when trying to construct explanations based on the premises of those schools of thought. Still, you can find some clever fellows advocating for those positions yet, just because the ultimate truth or falsity of the ideas must remain inconclusive.
          When you start talking about these ideas in terms of truth and falsity, you have helped yourself to a blunt and heavy object, and one on which you have no real handle. Then, someone’s going to get hurt, which is something with a truth to it. Just a little truth, quite self-contained, but the kind of thing we can have.

    • Debilis

      Greetings! I hope all is well with you.

      But, let’s see…

      I’d always love an outline of arguments–I think that is a great way to learn from one another, but agree that this is your call to make.

      I’ll definitely read more of Kim’s work in in the future. But, for now, I’d still say that his movement has been away from physicalism. Or, to put it another way, his physicalism has softened. Of course, defending that would get us into summarizing arguments; so let me know if you’d like to do so on that issue.

      As to the ‘sorry’ issue, I actually disagree fairly strongly here. I do think that people have the right to declare a system false. That is part of sorting out the truth after all, and philosophy is useless if we aren’t interested in truth.

      Nor does it do to say that no one is entitled to an overarching view of truth. This is an absolute relativism which is, itself, an overarching view of truth.

      Nor would I agree with your notions about, say, positivism. Not only would that reasoning defend my position equally (hence, it would be useless for answering anything I’ve claimed), but it is simply not true that positions like logical positivism are inconclusive. I understand that absolute certainty is a rare thing in life, but a self-defeating position is as near it as one gets.

      To draw a quick parallel, absolute certainty is never reached in science, but this does not mean that we should spend all our time emphasizing that views like geocentrism still have defenders (which is true), and that it merely has some “fuzzy bits”, but is ultimately inconclusive.

      In life, we take the best answer on the table. While it is important to note that absolute certainty is not achievable for a human, using this to avoid reaching conclusions seems counter to the entire spirit of seeking truth. Whether the speaker intends it or not, the practical result of this approach is always to shield the currently popular view from legitimate criticisms.

      But you do try to reach a conclusion in your closing, which (regardless of the fact that it is referred to as “little” and “self-contained”) contradicts the preceding approach. The idea that metaphysical positions shouldn’t be approached in terms of truth and falsity is itself a vast, overarching, metaphysical declaration that passed judgment on the majority of great thinkers. By its own standard, we should reject it. No, this doesn’t mean declaring certainty, but it does mean looking at the available arguments and deciding among the views they defend.

      And, so far, I find physicalism to be very weakly defended. In fact, I find it mostly defended by various ways of suggesting that we not consider its truth value, such as in Kitcher’s argument. I think it is clear that (while we can never be fully certain), physicalism is something less than the most reasonable conclusion on offer.

      As such, I’ll take what seems to be the more reasonable view (theism). Really, I see nothing here that gives me a reason to do otherwise.

  • keithnoback

    “No, this doesn’t mean declaring certainty, but does mean looking at the available arguments and deciding among the various views they defend.” That is the difference between truth and things like validity, coherence, etc. which characterize theory, logic, etc., if you wish to avoid category error

    • Debilis

      Greetings once again.

      I’d essentially agree, but I don’t see how I’ve committed a category error in this respect. I’ve made no claims of certainty, or equated truth with the things you mention. I’ve spoken only of the search for truth.

      To that end, I pointed out the truism that these things are as good indicators of truth as one gets.

      While it is mistake to conflate the two, it is a much bigger mistake to think that pointing out the difference defends physicalism from Nagel’s arguments.

      So, while I find the point an interesting tangent, it is a tangent. The question of whether or not it is more reasonable to accept physicalism or theism has not been addressed.

      And this is something I’ve seen often. I find it very difficult to find any arguments for physicalism that haven’t been abandoned as fallacious. As such, I don’t see any rational reason to accept it.

      Okay, moving on to the second comment.
      As I do so, best to you.

  • keithnoback

    Pardon the double-up, but I want to be clear about this. To say truths are local is not to propose a theory of truth anymore than to say vanilla is vanilla and not green is to propose a theory about the taste of green things or to say that intentions are about things is to propose a theory of intention.
    Conversely, is Newtonian Mechanics true or false? The terms are simply not apt. Nor is this a demand for absolute relativism. Truths are just not about anything other than what they are about, otherwise we are talking about explanatory constructs, which as you point out, lack the certainty and transparency we expect from truth.
    This comes back around to the original point. I think this is what Kitcher is getting at when he says we should expect to “get over” a theoretic account of subjectivity. Certain phenomena may be the sorts of things which merit descriptions of their boundaries, rather than theoretical explanations. Information gleaned from scientific investigation can help a in the former projects, in a very limited way (that is something to be learned from logical positivism, and something which you employ in your last comment to advocate for preferring one ultimately unconfirmable explanation over another). This is not sweeping things under the rug anymore than is calling such things properly basic.

    • Debilis

      Here, I disagree.

      To say that a particular truth (“that book is blue” or “My toe hurts”) is local would not be to propose a theory of truth (though it would presuppose at least some things regarding truth in general.

      However, to say that truths in general are local is to propose a theory of truth (relativism). Yes, the truth or falsehood of particular statements are relative to the things to which they refer, but you seemed (and please correct me if I am wrong) to be claiming something much more vast than this: that no one ever has the right to claim that any idea (even a self-refuting one) is false.

      Moreover, this was claimed in the context of saying that we can’t use such methods as checking for logical consistency to gain insight into whether or not a claim is true (again, please correct me if this is not your position). That is a fairly radical theory of epistemology that would defend even the wildest claims.

      So, I’m not claiming that truths are about anything other than what they are about. Rather, I claimed that the arguments against physicalism are about physicalism, and give us good reason to think that they are false. I also claimed that the lack of arguments for physicalism does not give is a good reason to think physicalism is true. I don’t see how this is claiming that truths are about something that they are not.

      The only way I can understand this is as a claim that Nagel’s argument has somehow refuted something different from physicalism. If that is the case, please explain. If, however, it is the argument that we should simply see the argument as a comment about the mind, and not draw broader conclusions from that, then I have two thoughts:

      1. This assumes the argument fails, for those broader conclusions are precisely what it is about (in which case, we need to address the argument itself).
      2. This is simply unsupported. So long as one’s logic is valid, there is nothing at all wrong with drawing additional conclusions based on the knowledge gained from the initial demonstration.

      But, I simply disagree with Kitcher. He has given, and I have seen, no good reason to think that every piecemeal part of subjectivity is properly basic. This would be a wild dismissal of Ockham’s razor, I think, to assume that each of these truths is a brute fact–rejecting all attempts at piecing together a more unified theory. I find that much more “uncomfortable” than several of the other options on the table.

      And that is a key point. It is not simply that physicalism has failed to deal with these issues, it is that there are better options. Simply dismissing the idea that we accept the best of them is anathema to any real seeking of truth, and strikes me as a form of fideism or dogmatism–in which things are believed for reasons other than their being the most rationally defensible view.

      Not only is this no defense of physicalism, it is no critique of theism. The majority of people in the world are theists, of course, and this position maintains that such people need not consider the arguments and respond to them rationally. It is enough, so it would seem, to say that the arguments against theism are simply demands that one offer a unified theory of God, that we should “get over” that, and call our personal experiences (however counter to one another or other facts) properly basic.

      I suspect that few, if any, physicalists would accept that as a defense of theism. But I fail to see how it is any less reasonable than Kitcher’s defense of physicalism.

      Or, more simply: if we aren’t going to use philosophy to determine what is most reasonable to believe, there’s very little point in doing philosophy at all.

      Okay, apologies for the long-windedness there.
      Disagreements aside, I hope all is well with you.

  • keithnoback

    Do you really wish to continue this? It doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. I’m not talking about relativism, I’m talking about minimalism. If you accept the statement that truths are about what they are about and nothing else, this is synonymous with the simple statement that truths are local. To insist otherwise is analogous to accusing the person who says vanilla is vanilla and not green of proposing a theory about the taste of green things. The distinction in question here pertains to what Kitcher seems to want to say about the applicability of theoretical treatments to the subjects in question. I’m using the example of properly basic beliefs as an example of another sort of category distinction which, when employed by theistic philosophers, draws accusations of sweeping things under the rug – an improper interpretation as well.
    As for your larger concerns, you say you have never seen an adequate defense of physicalism while admitting that you have not looked terribly hard. I suspected as much when you set off on this treatment of Nagel’s book as some novel and devastating critique of physicalism. Perhaps there is some new critique hidden in its pages, but on the basis of the reliable sources which have reviewed it and having skipped through it myself (a bad reading habit of mine) it would seem to rehash old concerns. I’ve noted that several philosophers have given pretty well reasoned responses to those concerns. From this point of departure, to provide you with a defense of physicalism would require first providing you with an adequate understanding of physicalism, which a critique like Nagel’s presumes rather than provides. I’m not up to the task, not only because I’m unqualified, but also because I’m too damned lazy. And that’s OK because we can take our time with theories, as they lack the insistence of truths – something in their favor I’d say.

    • Debilis

      Yes, personally, I’ve found this interesting and educational–and very much appreciate the interchange.

      But please let me apologize in advance for the length.

      As to the distinction between minimalism and relativism, I don’t think this is a difference with respect to my objection. Basically, I disagree with this:

      “If you accept the statement that truths are about what they are about and nothing else, this is synonymous with the simple statement that truths are local.”

      No, these are not synonymous unless assumes that “what truths are about” is always local. Yes, they are about “nothing else”, but I can say that the truth that not all things can be accounted for solely by reference to the physical (i.e. mind) is about the fact that there is more to reality than the physical (and nothing else), but that hardly makes it a local truth.

      I’d also like a reason why the “sweeping things under the rug” objection is improper. I don’t think one can simply claim that things are properly basic without some kind of reason–whether that person is a theist or not. In fact, it seems rather like the history of physicalism is one of insisting on monism in the name of Ockham’s razor; then, after (this version of) monism failed, skipping over dualism to a “polyism” that denies that theories should be weighed (by things like Ockham’s Razor). This does seem to be a proposing of many entities while declining requests for a supporting argument.

      But I don’t know what to do other than assure you that I’ve looked for a defense of physicalism–and quite a bit harder than you claim. In fact, I don’t seem to recall how I “admit” that I haven’t looked very hard. Rather, I’ve read far more than many of your comments seem to imply, and I’ve not seen much in the way of a defense for physicalism.

      More immediately, I’ve asked you on multiple occasions to sketch a defense, and I’ve only ever received claims that we should not consider its truth value. This is what I nearly always find (both in interchanges and in reading), and I doubt that physicalists would accept this as a defense of theism.

      Nor do I have reason to think that I deeply misunderstand physicalism. Yes, there is a great deal of nuance to be found in each writer, and, yes, I’ve simplified a great deal in this blog. But, I’ve said nothing about it that betrays the basic concept.

      And, surely, this objection doesn’t apply to Nagel, who supplied the argument I’ve referenced. Or, does it? Are you claiming that Nagel’s argument fails because it fundamentally misunderstands physicalism? If so, one wonders how we can be sure you’ve understood it clearly unless you can explain Nagel’s mistake. And, if not, this doesn’t refute my statements.

      In fact, I think this argument cuts both ways. Nearly all the arguments I’ve seen “disproving” theism are based in deep distortions of what classical theists actually claim. In that case, I simply point out the differences to those making the argument, and explain why that objection does not apply.

      But, in the case of physicalism, I can’t seem to find anyone able to do this. Nor have I happened across such explanations in my readings. I’m simply assured, on the basis of authority, that there is a reason that the arguments put forward by Nagel and others don’t work.

      Quite the contrary, every time anyone has ventured to give me an explanation of physicalism, I’m told precisely what I expect, and nothing that would exclude it from the arguments I’ve rehearsed.

      But my key point would be this: claiming that theories “lack the insistence of truth” is not a local truth. It is either false (as I’d claim), or (if it is true) is a general truth–not a local one. That being the case, it seems to be a counter-example to its own position.

      Nor would that be a point in favor of theories. If I didn’t believe we were discussing what is most reasonable to believe–what is most likely to be true and how I should live my life as a result, then I would indeed be very bored with this conversation. I really see no point to philosophy that isn’t interested in getting at truth.

      If that were what philosophy was, I’d agree with those critics who dismiss it as useless navel-gazing that could be replaced with thinking about and acting in reality.

      And this is where I keep coming back. It would seem that explaining why my comments don’t apply to physicalism (if, in fact, they don’t) would be a much smaller and less radical discussion than an argument that theories cannot and should not reflect truth (and that we should live our lives based on something other than philosophy?).

      Okay, that is quite long enough. But I would like to repeat that I appreciate the interchange. It is definitely thought-provoking.

  • keithnoback

    Well, I brought up the epistemological issue because I think it goes right to Kitcher’s point (if I’m reading him right), and his point was the apparent source of your objection. I think there is some misunderstanding on the question of theories and what they do. I’ll try one more time to correct it. You have already agreed that theories do not lead to certainties. The ultimate problem with logical positivism was that it made a claim to the contrary. Yet people persist in demanding certainties from our theories, be they scientific or philosophical. Theoretical explanations offer perspective, which is significant to us. We should expect that some explanations would be preferable to others based on their completeness, comprehensiveness, consistency – all those things which explanations strive toward. Again, I’d ask you to answer a question which you have avoided: Do you think Newtonian Mechanics is true or false? It was not a rhetorical question. I’ve tried to explain why those terms, if we are strict in our usage, do not apply in such cases. An inadequate theory does not murder the truth, which seems like the subtext of your post and was the prompt for my comment in the first place.
    Regarding the thing you are really interested in, I’ll give you a teaser, “…It is called an explanatory gap because it evidently calls for an explanation of why pain, not itch or tickle, arises out of C-fiber stimulation, and why and how conscious experience arises from neural states. But it is also a predictive, or epistemic gap: as the emergentists claimed, it seems possible for us to know all about the physiology of a creature, say Thomas Nagel’s famously inscrutable bats, but have no idea of the qualitative character of its inner experience. Prima facie, an unbridgeable gap seems to exist, separating even the most complete and perfect knowledge of the brain as a biological/physical system from the knowledge of the conscious experiences that may be going on in that brain.
    Exactly what needs to be done to close this gap? Two ideas have often been mentioned for closing this gap, and these are reduction and reductive explanation. The thought is that if we could reduce pain to C-fiber stimulation, or reductively explain pain in terms of a neural state, that would suffice to eliminate the gap. But what is reduction and what is reductive explanation? And how do they manage to close the gap? These are among the questions we will be taking up here.” pg. 94 Physicalism, or Something Near Enough. Full disclosure: I receive no remuneration from sales of Dr. Kim’s book. I won’t type out the rest of it either. If you want my own, crude take on these issues, I’d direct you to the posts Bloody Mary, Determinism and the Demon Experience, and Cult of the Range Fed Turtles at my page. I won’t copy and plop them in your comments, ’cause now it’s my turn to apologize for the length of this comment.

    • Debilis

      Greetings once again!

      Let’s see… I do indeed agree that we can’t get to absolute certainty (in the overwhelming majority of cases) from a theory, and that people do often demand certainty from them.

      However, I’d disagree with the notion of that asserting otherwise is the fundamental problem with logical positivism. Rather, it’s fundamental problem is it’s logical incoherence. After all, I’d make the same criticism of a revised version of logical positivism that made no claims of certainty.

      I agree with the notion that theories give us perspective, but this is only true insofar as we can make some (tentative, not certain) claims about the way things really are through them. So long as theory is detached from consideration of reality (i.e. truth values), then it has no perspective to offer.

      Apologies for not answering the following question sooner! I had thought I’d answered the heart of the issue, but here it goes:
      “Do you think Newtonian Mechanics is true or false?”

      I think that this is a fairly good example of my point, actually. Newtonian Mechanics is a good approximation of physical motion. Or, more bluntly, it is partially true. Better, more accurate theories are available that seem to be closer to the truth. As such, I think we should accept the most accurate theory on the table, while acknowledging the particular points in Newtonian Mechanics that are true.

      No, I don’t think this theory “murders” the truth. In fact, I think the theory advanced the truth when it was presented. It was the most accurate theory on the table at that time. As such, it should have been accepted at that time.

      Even today, it is a good way of advancing a student’s knowledge of the truth–but this is not to say that we shouldn’t ultimately accept better theories as we come to understand them.

      So, apologies if it seemed that I was claiming that every theory can be neatly fit into a binary schema of “true” or “false”. I don’t believe that. What I believe is that theories contain mixtures of truth and falsehood, and that we should adopt the one that has the most truth–that is, most accurately represents reality. I’d agree that this isn’t easy, but it is worth undertaking.

      In fact, let me ask a question in response. Do you believe that Young Earth Creationism gives us perspective?

      Personally, I don’t think so. This is precisely because I think it does not account for the way things are (that is, it contains very little truth). But, if you aren’t interested in the truth value of theories, I don’t see why this should make it less valuable as a means of gaining perspective, in your view.

      But, of course, I strongly doubt that you would say that Young Earth Creationism is as valid a perspective as Neo-Darwinism. But this seems to be what your view entails (in that you seem to avoid considering the truth value of theories). Could you please explain?

      To continue a bit, I really don’t see a reason to think that physicalism is more like Newtonian Mechanics than Young Earth Creationism. The claim that the physical comprises all of reality is certainly not helpful, and methodological naturalism in science is not unique to physicalism.

      As such, I simply see no way in which we gain perspective on reality from embracing physicalism. And there seem to be better perspectives on offer.

      But, moving on…

      Thank you for your response to the issue of the mind-body problem. I thought that was an excellent summary, and appreciated the quotation.

      To respond:

      “Two ideas have often been mentioned for closing this gap, and these are reduction and reductive explanation.”
      I’d like to interject here that non-reductive explanations have been put forward. We should acknowledge this fact and consider them as well. I know this doesn’t directly deny this (I’ll touch on that below).

      I’ll glance at the posts as well (and appreciate the courtesy). And I’m sure I’ll get around to reading more of Kim sooner or later. I’m currently reading Mackie and Searle, so this might be a while.

      But my greater point is that (from what I have read so far) it seems to be more than the title in which Kim asserts that “something near enough” to physicalism is physicalism–or somehow defends physicalism from challenges.

      And this just strikes me as sloppy thinking. Brilliant as he is, Kim strikes me as biased on this point. As someone who takes a non-reductive approach himself, it seems completely strange that he would be so careful to avoid admitting he does not actually accept physicalism.

      That is, after all, why he’s reduced to using the phrase “near enough”. It seems that he agrees that what we might call “physicalism proper” can’t answer these challenges. And that we need to propose something in addition to “physicalism proper” to deal with them.

      But that just is to reject physicalism.

      That being the case, it does not seem to “give us perspective” to insist that this is basically physicalism any more than it would be helpful to demand that General Relativity is “near enough” to Newtonian Mechanics.

      This seems rather like a stubborn holding onto the Newtonian Mechanistic image of reality even as one acknowledges that Einstein’s equations are more accurate.

      It seems fairly obvious why this view will ultimately be discarded.

      But, I’ll have a look at the posts you mention. I am definitely curious as to which view you accept.

  • keithnoback

    You are sympathetic in temperament at least with Rutherford (it’s all physics or stamp collecting). We don’t disagree on how we should view Newtonian Mechanics except on the manner in which it is superseded. As a more cut and dried example, there is the question of whether physics eliminates the explanatory need for chemistry if chemistry can be reduced, as an analytic theory, to physics (this is the sense of reduction which Nagel references). This gets into the mire, and all I’m asking is that we acknowledge our position. Along the same lines, I think there is a consistent YEC position to be had. It’s not to be found on the internet and owes more to George Berkeley than Ken Ham, but is alive and well in many of the rural churches where I grew up.
    I’d wondered if you were reading Searle, since he is one of those fond of yelling false! False! He subsequently goes on to explain that he means something a little different. He is a non-reductive physicalist. The problem with that class of idea is that it tends to run afoul of causal exclusion and offers no good alternative account of the phenomena which mind-brain identity can explain. Instead, those models resort to the properly basic, or something near enough. That’s an appealing move, but once you bring properly basic ideas onboard, they tend to multiply lest their parent be reduced. I’d consider those ideas incomplete or reducible rather than false. It seems like a distinction without a difference, but it goes to whether we think that things like chemistry or Newtonian mechanics, and their philosophical analogs, retain any explanatory power. That turns out to be a thorny issue.

    • Debilis

      To start, I completely agree that we should acknowledge our position. If my insistence that we reach the best conclusions we can has drifted into the statement that we can know reality with certainty (or even near-certainty), I apologize. This would indeed be wrong.

      But I also want to avoid the opposite mistake: avoiding any conscious conclusions on the grounds that there is a degree of uncertainty. This will result in making our decisions unconscious, which is equally problematic.

      This was my point in mentioning Young Earth Creationism. I agree that some defenses of it are better than others, but this was not my question. Rather, I asked whether you felt that these theories represented an equal claim to truth as Neo-Darwinism. The significant point being made is that, if not, it follows that we can (tentatively) make a claim of truth (YEC is false), even while admitting that there’s always the chance that we could be wrong.

      Again, the point here is that, as it is not possible to function without drawing conclusions, it is better to draw those conclusions consciously and rationally.

      As a bit of an aside, I’m aware that Searle is a non-reductive physicalist (as I’ve already pointed out, I’m reading him). And, yes, I’m aware that he makes claims of falsehood of others. This is only relevant if (1) it can be shown that he is wrong and (2) I had given any indication that I’m simply repeating Searle. My reaction to him is mixed, and I’ve held the opinions I’ve mentioned above since before I’d read anything of his.

      “The problem with that class of idea is that it tends to run afoul of causal exclusion and offers no good alternative account of the phenomena which mind-brain identity can explain.”

      This is a conclusion which is controversial. As such, it seems to be in support of the idea that we can reach conclusions about controversial issues (but please correct me if I’m wrong). But, as I’ve dwelt on that long enough, I personally agree that we should consider the relative strengths and weaknesses of this view.

      And I agree that there are problems with Searle’s view. In fact, I should say that I’m not convinced of it myself. Still, I do think that it is a more plausible view than epiphenominalism, which cannot account for mental causation at all, or reductive physicalism, which cannot account for the mind at all.

      Yes, it resorts to axioms in places (which is a problem, and one that makes me wary of the idea). Still, it acknowledges that there is something there (i.e. beliefs, desires, and mental causation) in the first place. And this is a step in the right direction.

      More than that, this objection seems to assume that the epiphenominalists and/or the reductive physicalists don’t require axioms. By my reading, they do, but simply needn’t state them, as they are axioms popularly held in our cultural moment.

      So, again, we will reach conclusions. The only choice seems to be selecting them consciously or unconsciously.

      But Nagel goes even further than Searle. Though (given your critique of Searle) I think you’d like the humility of his tone much better. He suggests some possible changes, but frequently admits that he lacks answers to important questions.

      So, thorny issue indeed. Still, my basic position is that claiming that physicalism is near enough to the truth simply isn’t near enough for real understanding. I think it’s clear (though not certain) that there is more to mind than that, the debate is over what that “more” is.

      Hence, I think the movement here is away from physicalism.

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