Monday, March 24, 2008

Arguing with Eliezer: Part II

[My promised concluding thoughts...]

Clearly our disagreements run too deep to do full justice to them in a mere blog post. But I at least hope I've succeeded in indicating where one might reasonably depart from Eliezer's reductionist line. There are also a couple of ad hominem points which struck me as noteworthy. (See my previous post for real arguments; this is mere commentary.)

One is that our beliefs are shaped in reaction to others. Intelligent non-philosophers typically only come across stupid, woolly-headed non-reductionists. The most prominent public intellectuals are typically scientists of a reductionist bent, like Dawkins, whose most prominent opposition is from anti-intellectual rubes and intellectually bankrupt religious apologists. From a purely sociological perspective, it's no surprise that intelligent people might initially be drawn to the former camp. (I know I was.) But that's no substitute for assessing the strongest arguments -- the ones you've probably never even come across unless you've spent a few years doing academic philosophy, or associate with others who have -- on their merits.

Since Eliezer's posts are mostly directed at a general audience - most of whom have not carefully reflected on their beliefs - I agree with 99% of his criticisms. Folks often commit the mind-projection fallacy, are fooled by an empty dispute that 'feels' substantive, and can be irrationally resistant to perfectly legitimate scientific reductions. These are all important insights (though hardly news to philosophers). But he overgeneralizes -- just as to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

I think the core problem here is methodological. Eliezer assumes that a debunking explanation of a belief is enough to refute it. Rather than doing the hard work of philosophy -- assessing the arguments for and against P -- he shifts to cognitive science, explaining why I might offer such arguments even if P is false. But this is to commit the genetic fallacy. Any reflective non-reductionist will grant that you can explain all the physical facts (incl. their brain states and vocalizations) without reference to any non-physical facts. Of course. But that doesn't imply anything about whether their belief is justified. Explanation and justification are two completely different things.

Reductionists make this error because they assume that all that stands in need of explanation is the third-personal data of science. Hence (they assume), if you can explain all the empirical data - including the vocalizations of your critics - then there's nothing left for said critics to base their arguments on. This type of genetic fallacy is no fallacy, on this view, because a full empirical explanation exhausts all possible justification.

But this is clearly question-begging, or worse. It assumes an indefensible scientism from the start. Non-reductionists take it as given that there is more than just third-personal empirical data that calls out for explanation. There is the manifest fact of first-personal conscious experience, and the normative facts about what we ought to believe and do, etc. A debunking explanation of why we believe in these phenomena is not sufficient unless one has also successfully debunked the phenomena itself. But that requires actually engaging with non-reductionists and the arguments we offer, rather than simply psychologizing us.

Reductionists, when short on real arguments, like to appeal to meta-arguments, e.g. induction on the historical successes of science. 'There have always been nay-sayers, who questioned the ability of science to explain phenomenon X, and every time they've been proven wrong!' It's a familiar sentiment. But it's also pretty weak. If you bother to look more closely, there are principled reasons to think these cases different. All those examples they point to are instances of third-personal empirical phenomena. I grant that science is supreme in that domain. But, to turn the tables, it's never had any success outside of it. So there's no general reason to think that normativity or first-personal subjective experience are susceptible to purely scientific explanation. So, again, these simplistic meta-arguments are no substitute for the real thing.


  1. I think a danger of the shift to cognitive science that you mention -- unless perhaps it is a rigorous application of cognitive science, which is both difficult and time-consuming -- is that it can become a sort of selective obscurantism: you block arguments you don't want to consider on a basis that has nothing to do with their merits, and dismiss positions you're not interested in without rational evaluation of the position itself. As I said, I think a rigorous shift to cog. sci. would often be worthwhile -- but in a rigorously cog. sci. approach you'd be careful not to do it, because you'd recognize that there are lots and lots of potential factors that have to be considered before an adequate explanation is found, and you'd have to take the trouble to make necessary distinctions and qualifications about what this or that approach can and can't get you. What people are really tempted to do is to shift not to cognitive science but to some folksy pastiche of it, based on a mix of naive introspection, motivated reasoning, unexamined assumptions, and quick inferences based on scattered studies.

  2. Where, in the world of third-personal phenomena consisting of physical properties (i.e. electrons & protons), do we find the mental properties of, say, 'meaning of life', 'feeling of love', 'joy' or 'pain', 'the color of red'? Instead, we find 'non-evaluative', physical particles moving in a certain way. The irreducible first-personal phenomena do not seem to be exhaustively explained by or reduced to any third-personal phenomena. Specifying the molecular structure of the NaCl at certain physical conditions would exhaustly explain what 'salt' is, because salt does not have any further first-personal properties. But, when one tastes the salt, specifying the molecular structure of one's metal states (third-personal brain cells, firing of neurons, etc) would still leave something out, namely, one's first-persoanl sensation (mental state or consciousness) of the taste of the salt....

    On the other hand, it is seemingly difficult, if not impossible, to arrive at a unified theroy that would account for both first- and third-personal phenomena.

  3. Hmmm to me there is no issue at all with that arising from electrons and protons - in fact it's confusing to hear people say that it can't. Maybe it is the same for Eliezer.

    And I find that in itself evidence I'm probably right since if the alternative was the case it should be intuitive to me but my theory has no strong opinion on whether it should be intuitive for anyone else.

    So am I souless (OK maybe a little) or is my experience of self unreliable?

    I am now envisaging a numerous situation where a person who believes in this sort of experience as the ultimate evidence insists that I shouldn't believe their own account of their experience because I don't experience it.

  4. Note the difference between "arising from" versus "reducing to". In the former case, we have two phenomena bound by law-like connections. In the second case, we have one phenomenon being described in two different ways. (Sane) non-reductionists will agree that neurons and such give rise to consciousness (in virtue of the psycho-physical bridging laws that happen to hold in our universe). They merely insist that the fact that you're conscious is a different fact from the fact that your neurons fire in such-and-such ways.

  5. > that you're conscious is a different fact from the fact that your neurons fire in such-and-such ways.

    does that say more about what one considers a fact to be than about the actual state of affairs?

    For example the common saying "X is more than the sum of it's parts"

    In one sense it is trivialy true ie 2 is more than "1"+"1" it is a whole new concept "2"!
    But in another it is trivially false. Same principle gets more and more obscure as you face more complex issues until one has 'sentient being' vs 'a specific collection of energy spots upon a space/time membrane'

    I presume there should be no issue in accepting both points of view simultaneously.

  6. >In one sense it is trivialy true ie 2 is more than "1"+"1" it is a whole new concept "2"!

    Firstly, the new concept '2', even if it might have originally arisen (who knows) from an arithmetical calculaton of '1' + '1', once we have it, it cannot said that it can be reduced to merely '1' + '1' because there is a lot more to be learnt about the new concept '2'. (its factors, whether it's a prime #, etc).

    Secondly, even if the concept "2" can be reduced to '1' + '1', its concept operates under a separate conceptual category because it is not an occupant of the 'spatial-temporal world'. Knowing what kind of conceptual category the concept '2' belongs, it is reasonable that we'd stop entertaining the idea that '2' is a female or has a brother.

    Similiarly, the first-person mental concept (i.e. the perception of 'redness' or 'pain') belongs to a conceptual category that is distinct from the 'third-person' physical concept, therefore, it cannot be said that the phenomenal quality of 'redness' is nothing but (or reduced to) a certain electromagnetic wave hitting one's retina creating the firing of neurons, etc, but all these 'brain processes' would not give you the phenomenal quality of 'red' or 'pain'. The two distinct conceptual categories -'mental' and 'physical' seem, in advance, to be mutually exclusive.

    By saying that first-person mental states 'arise from' or 'emerging from' third-person brain processes
    is not enough to solve the mystery of mind-body gap. A 'third-person' physical theroy of consciousness, at best, can show us only the sophicated mechanism of the physical stuffs in the brain that give rise to the 'first-person' qualia, not what the 'first-person' qualia are themselves.

  7. Indeed,
    no more need for philosophers to debate this issue - I've solve it.

  8. I mean 'distinct facts' in the coarse-grained sense that it's logically possible for them to come apart, i.e. for one to hold in the absence of the other.


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