The Last Superstition: Material Brains, Immaterial Software

Chapter 5: The Mind-Body Problem

After spending several pages, as is his wont, trashing Locke, Descartes, and other people he doesn’t agree with, Feser tells us why materialist explanations of the mind are doomed: the human mind is all about final causes: we plan, we imagine, we make mental images and so on. All of these involve “directedness toward” some object or aim, or intentionality. In other words, the mind is obvious proof that final causes exist.

And it should be obvious that it is simply a conceptual impossibility that it should ever be explained in terms of or reduced to anything material […]: material systems, the latter tell us, are utterly devoid of final causality; but the mind is the clearest paradigm of final causality; hence the mind cannot possibly be any kind of material system, including the brain. [p. 194]

There’s that word “obvious” again. Feser really ought to stop using it, since it causes so much trouble. Here, he’s committing the fallacy of composition. In fact, what Feser is saying is listed as an example of the fallacy at

Your brain is made of molecules. Molecules do not have consciousness. Therefore, your brain cannot be the source of consciousness.

By coincidence, I recently saw Daniel Dennett present his talk, Consciousness: Whose User Illusion is it? in which he used examples that apply here as well: you can pick up a camcorder at Best Buy, record a video, and burn it to a DVD, but there are no pictures on the DVD. You can look through a microscope, but you won’t see tiny pictures on the disk. You can listen as closely as you like without hearing people talking. The pictures and sounds are not there. And yet the DVD does quite well at recording pictures, sounds, and video for later playback.

So do camcorders have an immaterial component? What about my car radio, which, since it can tune in on a radio signal, has some infinitesimal amount of intentionality; does it have an infinitesimal immaterial mind?

This sort of thing is why I can’t take Feser seriously. It’s one thing to proceed logically from premises that I don’t accept, or to value different things differently and come to opposite conclusions. But Feser commits a lot of elementary logical fallacies (or at least allows them to end up in print), and so he comes across as either a sloppy thinker or a dishonest one; either he can’t see the fallacies that lead to his desired conclusion, or he’s trying to fool people into thinking that his (and, their, presumably) conclusions follow logically from uncontroversial premises.

Series: The Last Superstition

I Am Chase and/or Sanborn

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Intuition Pump

So the other day, I found myself inside a philosophical intuition pump. But first, a bit of background:

Qualia (singular quale), in philosophy, are basically the sense of perceiving something. If you’ve ever had that discussion about “how do I know that what you see as red is what I see as red?” or “what’s it like to be someone who actually enjoys Brussels sprouts?”, then you’ve thought about qualia.

Daniel Dennett wrote Quining Qualia, a paper that argues against qualia, or at least against the notion that they’re a useful concept. In it, he introduces several intuition pumps, analogies intended to help us wrap our minds around the problem. One of them is:

Intuition pump #7: Chase and Sanborn. Once upon a time there were two coffee tasters, Mr. Chase and Mr. Sanborn, who worked for Maxwell House […] Along with half a dozen other coffee tasters, their job was to ensure that the taste of Maxwell House stayed constant, year after year. One day, about six years after Mr. Chase had come to work for Maxwell House, he confessed to Mr. Sanborn:

I hate to admit it, but I’m not enjoying this work anymore. When I came to Maxwell House six years ago, I thought Maxwell House coffee was the best-tasting coffee in the world. I was proud to have a share in the responsibility for preserving that flavor over the years. And we’ve done our job well; the coffee tastes just the same today as it tasted when I arrived. But, you know, I no longer like it! My tastes have changed. I’ve become a more sophisticated coffee drinker. I no longer like that taste at all.

Sanborn greeted this revelation with considerable interest. “It’s funny you should mention it, ” he replied, “for something rather similar has happened to me.” He went on:

When I arrived here, shortly before you did, I, like you, thought Maxwell House coffee was tops in flavor. And now I, like you, really don’t care for the coffee we’re making. But my tastes haven’t changed; my . . .tasters have changed. That is, I think something has gone wrong with my taste buds or some other part of my taste-analyzing perceptual machinery. Maxwell House coffee doesn’t taste to me the way it used to taste; if only it did, I’d still love it, for I still think that taste is the best taste in coffee. Now I’m not saying we haven’t done our job well. You other tasters all agree that the taste is the same, and I must admit that on a day-to-day basis I can detect no change either. So it must be my problem alone. I guess I’m no longer cut out for this work.

Chase and Sanborn are alike in one way at least: they both used to like Maxwell House coffee, and now neither likes it. But they claim to be different in another way. Maxwell House tastes to Chase just the way it always did, but not so for Sanborn. But can we take their protestations at face value? Must we? Might one or both of them simply be wrong? Might their predicaments be importantly the same and their apparent disagreement more a difference in manner of expression than in experiential or psy chological state? Since both of them make claims that depend on the reliability of their memories, is there any way to check on this reliability?

So the other evening, I opened a bottle of riesling and poured myself a glass. It was quite good, [insert a bunch of pretentious oenological terms like “fruity” and “bouquet”]. I recapped the bottle and put it back in the fridge.

The next evening, I opened the bottle and poured myself a second glass. But this time, it tasted distinctly more sour than I remembered it.

My first thought was “Well, crap. This means that I have to either drink a whole bottle in one sitting, or pay $12 for one glass of wine.” But I asked frequent Epsilon Clue commenter Fez, who knows more about wine than I do, and he said that my story didn’t match his experience; that he’ll often recork an opened bottle and drink it the next day.

So now I’m not sure what’s going on. It’s possible that this particular bottle went sour overnight. Maybe reds last longer than whites. Maybe whatever I had for dinner those two nights affected my taste buds. Maybe something else.

But what’s interesting to me is that what was originally intended as a hypothetical example to make a philosophical point has become more concrete and personal for me, with literally tens of dollars at stake.

Defining God Into Existence

One of the more slippery arguments for the existence of God is the ontological argument. It goes roughly as follows:

  • God is the most perfect being imaginable.
  • A being that exists is more perfect than one that doesn’t.
  • Therefore, God exists.

The details vary from one apologist to the next, depending just how much circumlocution he wants to employ, but that’s the gist of it.

A lot of people can see that there’s something wrong, but like a stage magic trick, it’s not obvious what the problem is.

It’s easy to show that something’s wrong, by the way: just replace “God” with “ideal beer”:

  • The ideal beer is better than any other beer.
  • A beer in my hand is better than a beer that isn’t.
  • Therefore, I have an ideal beer in my hand.

It’s exactly the same argument as before, so if it worked, there should be a beer in your hand. And yet, somehow, there (most likely) isn’t. (You can also do this with The Ultimate Plague, is 100% communicable and 100% fatal. But it can’t kill anyone if it doesn’t exist. Therefore, the Ultimate Plague exists, and we’ve all died of it.)

So how is the magic trick done? Basically, it plays fast and loose with language.

It starts out well: the first line defines what we mean by “God”, and the second line sees what follows from the definition. In other words, if we define “God” as meaning a perfect being, then it follows that anything that falls under that definition must also exist.

At this point, some people object that existence isn’t a property like having a brain, or being bigger than a breadbox. I’m not picky. I’ll accept anything that can be answered with Yes/No/Maybe/Dunno as a property. If you show me something and ask if it’s a quadruped, I’ll count its legs and if it has four of them, I’ll say yes. Similarly, if you show me something and ask whether it exists, I’ll say yes.

Definitions are useful, not simply for what they include, but also for what they exclude: if I define a cat as a four-legged mammal, then you can look at a pencil, see that it doesn’t have four legs, and therefore isn’t a cat. You can look at an iguana and see that although it has four legs, it isn’t a mammal, and therefore isn’t a cat (same with four-legged tables). Then you can look at a horse, see that it has four legs and is a mammal, and therefore falls under my definition of a cat. Fair enough. I shouldn’t have made the definition so broad.

And then we get to

Therefore, God exists.

Did you notice the ol’ switcheroo being pulled? Up until now, we’ve been talking about the definition of the word “God”; now we’ve switched to talking about God him/her/itself. If we wanted to be precise, we should write

  • Let us define “God” as the most perfect being imaginable.
  • A being that exists is more perfect than one that doesn’t.
  • Therefore, if an entity matches the definition of “God”, then that entity exists.

Actually, I guess this argument is a deepity: it has two readings, one which is true but trivial; and one which is false, but would be earth-shattering if true.

Or, to put it another way, the ontological argument reduces to “Show me a god, and I’ll show you an existing god.” It tells you which properties an entity has to have to be considered “God”, but doesn’t show that there actually are any entities that match that definition. Ditto the ideal beer and the Ultimate Plague.

Creative Ignorance

The other day, I was in a discussion about whether computers can be creative. Personally, I thought the answer was a big “duh, yes”, if only because programs (often even my own) often do things that surprise me, but at least I managed to shift the conversation toward the question of “what is creativity? How will you recognize it when a computer achieves it?” And along the way, I noticed a couple of things about creativity.

For one thing, the perception of creativity can depend on the audience’s ignorance. Years ago, I wrote a custom email filter for my boss, because none of the commonly-used ones could easily do what he wanted (like filter on the number of people in the “To:” and “Cc:” lines). When I showed it to him, he thought it was the most amazing thing ever, that we should write a paper about it, and send it in to a research journal. I told him that this was too trivial, and that I couldn’t in good conscience call it groundbreaking or innovative, and that I’d be embarrassed to send it to a research journal.

In short, my boss thought my code was innovative because he knew far less than I did about the state of mail filters. And to this day, whenever I see a statue or painting or something and think, “Oh, that’s cleverly cool! I never would’ve thought of that”, I immediately have second thoughts along the lines of “Yes, but that’s because you don’t hang out with artists and go to galleries and such. The person who did this probably just took five or six ideas that were floating around the technisphere and tweaked them.”

A lot of the proposed definitions of “creativity” circled around the general idea of “using a tool in a new or unexpected way”. And it occurred to me that you don’t need intelligence to be creative in this way. If you don’t know what a tool is for, you won’t be burdened with preconceived ideas of how you ought to use it. In fact, that’s how natural selection works: it has no intelligence whatsoever, and doesn’t know that wings are “for” protecting eggs, and doesn’t punish those individuals that manage to use them for gliding or flying.

Of course, if you’re an adult human, then you’re intelligent (at least compared to natural selection or a bacterium), so this type of creativity is harder. But you can use first sight.

In Terry Pratchett’s A Hat Full of Sky, Tiffany Aching is said to have “first sight and second thoughts”. First sight is the ability to see what’s actually in front of you, rather than what you think is there.

There’s an old story about a student who was asked on a test to measure the height of a building with a barometer that I’m sure you’re all familiar with. Because the problem specified the use of a barometer, clearly the instructor expected students to use the barometer for the thing that barometers are supposed to be used for, namely measure air pressure.

The student’s smartass answers seem creative (oh, come on, admit it: you thought it was cool, the first time you heard the story) is that he ignores the fact that barometers are for measuring air pressure, and sees its other properties: it has mass, so it can be swung like a pendulum; it has length, so it can be used to count off units of height; it has value, so it can be offered as a bribe.

Outside of the world of contrived puzzles, first sight can also be useful, because it lets you stop asking “what is this for?” and start asking “what can I do with this?”. That last question, in turn, breaks down into sub-questions like “what tools do I have?”, “what properties do they have?”, and “how does this property help me solve my problem?”

For instance, spreadsheets are nominally for tabulating data, aggregating sums and averages of interesting numbers, and like that. But people have noticed that hey, Excel does arithmetic, so why not use it as a calculator? I’ve also worked with people who noticed that hey, it lays things out in neat columns, so why not use it as a to-do list?

When technology advances, old tools sometimes become cheap enough to do simple tasks. Car phones have existed for a long time, but if you grew up in the 1960s, you probably decided that they were just fancy toys that rich people used to flaunt their wealth. But in the 1990s, they became cheap enough that anyone could have one. So if you were running a business in the 90s and were expecting people to use pay phones to stay in touch with the office while they were traveling, you were going to have your lunch eaten by the people who had looked at the field the way it was, not the way you imagined it, and realized that they could just give all their salespeople and field techs cell phones.

On a grander scale, the Internet was originally set up for government researchers to share data, and as a nuclear-war-resistant means of communication for the military. It certainly wan’t built to help you find friends from High School or coordinate popular uprisings in the Middle East. That part came from people looking at the thing for what it was, and ignoring &mdash: or often ignorant of — what it was supposed to be for.

What’s interesting about this, I think, is that you don’t need to be a genius to be creative. In fact, you don’t even need intelligence at all. A lot of creationists look at the complexity of biological systems and can think only in terms of a superior intellect putting the pieces together to achieve a goal.

But if I’m right, then it’s possible to be creative simply by being to stupid to know what’s impossible. Creativity can be what Dennett called a crane, rather than a skyhook.

Analogy O’ the Week

Daniel Dennett, about why God allows innocents to suffer:

The Problem of Evil, capital letters and all, is the central enigma confronting theists. There is no solution. Isn’t that obvious? All the holy texts and interpretations that contrive ways of getting around the problem read like the fine print in a fraudulent contract–and for the same reason: they are desperate attempts to conceal the implications of the double standard they have invented.

(emphasis added.)

As usual, Dennett manages to clear away the rhetorical brush that hides the central problem, and gets to the point. I’ll have to remember this analogy.

Ben Stein vs. Daniel Dennett

There are people out there who want to keep science in a little box where it can’t possibly touch God.

Scientists are not allowed to even think thoughts that involve an intelligent creator.

— Ben Stein in the teaser trailer to Expelled

There are obstacles confronting the scientific study of religion, and there are misgivings that need to be addressed. A preliminary exploration shows that it is both possible and advisable for us to turn our strongest investigative lights on religion.

Religion is not out-of-bounds to science, in spite of propaganda to the contrary from a variety of sources. Moreover, scientific inquiry is needed to inform our most momentous political decisions. There is risk and even pain involved, but it would be irresponsible to use that as an excuse for ignorance.

— Daniel Dennett, summaries of chapter 2 of Breaking the Spell, pp. 28, 53

Then there’s Victor Stenger’s book, God: the Failed Hypothesis, which considers the proposition that God exists as a testable hypothesis. Oh, and Dawkins dedicates a chapter to the God hypothesis as well in The God Delusion.

So who are these scientists that Stein is going on about, the ones who want to “keep science in a little box where it can’t possibly touch God”? Call me cynical, but I wonder if they aren’t the ones who are afraid that science would either disprove God or make him irrelevant.