Quale Segues

I have talked about the stupidity of dualistic conceptions of mind, and the tendency of philosophers to reify, to portray as real in the concrete sense of, say, a block of concrete, such things as a point of view. I could talk about the highly dubious tension there between on the one hand demanding that mind be understood as fundamentally different to matter, and yet also insisting that mental ‘objects’ be treated as concrete-real. But I won’t.

All I want to reference are what philosophers call ‘qualia’ (singular ‘quale’), and which are the discrete entities constituting the qualitative part of our mental experience. Upon viewing the sky, for example, our perception contains the quale ‘blue’ (at least, in some countries). Of course things that are blue are so because of the particular wavelength of light they reflect, but for philosophers there is also this other thing, which is the blueness in our perception.

If only it stopped there. I stopped there. Of course there is an experience I have, in a manner of speaking, when looking at the sky, but it is nothing more than that. There is no thing more than the reflected light and the electrochemical reactions it stimulates in part of me. It is a convenient fiction, a linguistic device, to refer to discrete perceptions, just as it is convenient to talk of other worlds when considering alternatives and counterfactuals. But just as it is too expensive to commit oneself to infinite real other worlds simply to make the device work (or at least sufficiently expensive to outsource the whole matter to physicists) it is too expensive to countenance these utterly implausible qualia.

I wish to illuminate by means of mockery. The worst cul-de-sac this area of philosophy has built is that of epiphenomenalism. This is a consequence of the non-physical, yet real, nature of qualia. Since they aren’t physical they cannot be caused by, or cause anything in, the brain. And yet even dualists cannot really get by with saying mental objects and experiences have no link to the brain at all. So epiphenomenalism comes to claim that each and every brain event has its corresponding (but utterly causally unconnected, remember) mental event, its quale.

There is no mechanism to explain this. There is no attempt to restore a sense of causality. And, seemingly, there is not a universal pause among all involved where stock is taken and they see a wrong turning must have occurred. Again, this is because of an agenda. There is a desire to continue believing mind, qualia, are not physical. Whether that is because mental states are so special and different to most people they simply cannot grasp that it is a case of organisation of matter, rather than type, which accounts for them, or because they are vested eschatologists who find non-physical entities better candidates for immortality than meat, I leave to the individual.

Either way it seems the worst kind of transgression for anyone who values reason. An abandonment of intellectual integrity, of honesty.

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On The Mistakes of Philosophers 1

Philosophy is a huge mistake. Or, more accurately, philosophy is a huge community of mistake-prone activists proliferating mistakes because of their reliance on previous mistakes. To lay the groundwork somewhat it may be useful to outline one basic mistake everyone makes, philosophers and non-philosophers. That mistake is reification. ‘Reification’ is a necessary piece of terminology because the crude English alternative, ‘thingification’, while amusing, is not a welcome addition.

Reification can cover a number of processes, but it turns up most often in the assumption that because one can conceive, formulate or speak of a thing, that thing exists, and often that is exists in some form more substantive than a mere concept. Now, of course, there must be some sense in which something conceived or spoken of exists, but most people find a useful distinction between the nature of a horse and that of a unicorn.

One specific such mistake relates to dualism, as touched upon in my last post. And it is very famous, so famous that someone has no doubt been dining out on its proceeds for decades now. The relevant question is ‘what is it like to be a bat?’. It is presented this way so that the well known creature, using sound rather than vision as a primary sense, gives the impression of a phenomenology different in type from our own.

Is this an interesting point? Well no. To begin with, it should be the neuroscientists telling us whether this makes a difference, and there is little reason to believe any primary sense used to represent the world in spatial fashion wouldn’t be experienced how we happen to do so visually. But it is even less interesting than a philosopher speaking outside of the discipline. It has this dualistic motive.

All we invited to do is admit the world represented to the bat is different from ours. From there we are invited to admit we therefore do not, and cannot, know the point of view of the bat. Cue the non-sequitur: this thing which it apparently is, the thing we cannot share or experience ourselves, is indeed to be considered a thing. And since it is in principle not open to shared experience it isn’t physical. And if it is not physical, and since it relates to experience of the mind, it is of the different type of substance philosophers love to ascribe to mental states.

A typical philosopher move, and no wonder it is so loved and long-lived. I would note, simply, how poor the notion of any thing it is to be like anything actually is. There is nothing it is like to be a stone, or an atom, but no such other-substance postulate is raised. Nor does the inclusion of a mental component save this. What is it like to be you? Is there one thing, moment to moment, let alone throughout the entire period there may usefully be described as a ‘you’? Is there what it is like to be a human, not just one particular human?

Open questions such as that are not arguments or evidence against, of course. They are simply a procedure. An inoculation, if you like, against lazily accepting something because you have a desire, or vested interest.

Dual to the Death

I must briefly dip into jargon in order to properly aim my displeasure at the type of position so exemplified by Descartes. The word in question is ‘dualism’. This is the formal philosophical position which exploits a very natural, though mistaken, intuition endemic to humanity. The basic position is that mind, mental stuff, is a fundamentally different type of thing to what we normally understand as matter. Two substances, mental and physical, hence ‘dualism’.

This is a natural way to think. Even though we engage endlessly in the pathetic fallacy of attributing human characteristics to inanimate, or barely animate, things, when pushed most people will distinguish between a person and a rock. At least, in terms of cognition. There seems something just too different about the ability to reflect, to imagine, to calculate, to appreciate taste or beauty. Too different, that is, from the crude assemblages of physical matter which are all around.

Although natural, this is of course dangerous. Mostly because it isn’t true. It is more telling of human nature than it is of anything else because there is essentially a straight choice: between admitting that there exist systems of such amazing complexity most people may find them hard to understand, and perhaps of such complexity no one may ever fully understand them, or of sidestepping complexity and just deciding that an entirely new substance exists which ‘explains’ it. One that has no properties which can be discerned or tested, or even investigated, leaving the word ‘explain’ empty and colourless.

Whether something is true or false is not really the most important thing, of course. It may matter more what is most useful to us. And here what we find most useful is what best inflates our sense of self-importance. Which leads to another problem: only a little reflection is required to see how much more impressive it is that a system, a network, fashioned mostly of water and meat, can lead to the staggering worlds of intellect open to some, than an empty, inaccessible postulated substance known as (and by) the mental.

It fails. It fails utterly as science and philosophy. It fails as science because it is in principle not open to testing. It fails as philosophy for many reasons. Not least because it doesn’t explain how the mental has an obvious connection with the brain, and yet somehow never crosses the threshold into visibility. And it fails as one of the vainglorious narratives we perpetuate to make us feel special. Because it is not special, or interesting, or plausible.

But it persists. Not just as the folly of philosophers, but as the generic unanalysed stance of humanity. It is obvious why. In fact I’m tired of pointing it out. When people want to believe something so badly they will clutch onto the most spurious of ideas, it is always the same.

Donkey Cartesianism

One of the most famous statements from Philosophy, one of the few to permeate through into the general consciousness is Descartes’ ‘I think, therefore I am’. Even 350 years on this is still discussed, and perhaps a better rendering of the Latin original would be ‘I am thinking, therefore I am’, meaning that no matter how sceptical one’s endeavour (if our senses are deceived, if we dream, if we’re in the Matrix), we cannot doubt that something is cogitating, even at our most sceptical, and from that certain bedrock we can rebuild what we can know.

Of course, Descartes then rebuilt everything we already thought we knew, rendering the whole sceptical journey somewhat redundant. The most questionable part would seem to be the contention that any level of thought was going on at all, at least by him.

Scepticism in general is a worthy tradition, though epistemological scepticism is definitely something to get over as soon as you realise you cannot usefully contribute anything to a life you don’t believe is really there. But of course Descartes was not a sceptic. He only ever wanted to provide a schema for feeling justified in one’s prevailing beliefs, especially theistic ones. After all, one might grudgingly agree that it is hard to doubt that something is thinking as we sit there wondering what we know. But can we extend the same tentative acceptance to someone’s claim that they feel they have a clear idea of god, and that’s the same thing?

I have probably written about the prejudices of philosophers before, and this is a good example of philosophy being reduced to a platform for simply asserting such prejudices. Scepticism is an antidote against that. To understand that no belief is sacred, that any conviction can be overturned, that all we want to believe should be assailed with the greatest degree of enquiry. If one was not an utter shambles of random, ill-thought out beliefs and stances beforehand, what reason to believe our houses would fly apart in tatters? And if we were… well, what in the end have we lost? What could we gain?

A Socratic, a Nietzschean, sceptic, is one simply averse to dogma, especially one’s own. It is even roughly scientific in character, in that in the best tradition only that which constantly survives tests and challenges is ever given regard, but even then is never given authority, or made off-limits to criticism.

Descartes missed this. Or, rather, he had no interest in it. And yes, within the bounds of philosophical inquiry, this was by no means his worst contribution. The preceding musing is just a precursor to a far more serious detraction I wish to aim at him. All in good time.