X-Rated Introspects

I feel motivated to write a few words on a subject not generally considered a major issue in Philosophy of Mind, but often referenced and almost always assumed with controversy to be as portrayed. It is also a term, and a process, in common usage. I speak of introspection.

In common usage it generally means taking an opportunity to reflect a little, especially when done in a self-referential way. As usual, philosophical usage takes an original meaning and distorts it. In philosophy it is taken to be the process whereby we have direct, intimate and essential knowledge of our inner lives.

So, in philosophy of mind it is often cited as a reason to reject the mind being physical, or at least explicable to us even if we can’t deny the physical brain does determine/cause mind somehow. The basic thought will use an example, such as pain. That whereas a neuroscientist, using a scanner, and the latest empirical theories can note many things about a pain, but not how it feels, we beings with minds can know this, via introspection. And words such as ‘direct’, ‘essence’ are thrown up time and again. Almost as if, when experiencing a pain, one could look inwards as if a tag were there, citing intensity, spatial location, character and so on. I’d like to point out that it does not. In fact no process of introspection is anything like as direct or information bearing as the dismal philosophers of mind uncritically assume.

Staying with pain as an easy example. We do get information from pain, but some actual reflection indicates it is not particularly direct, and not in itself very detailed information at all. A pain can be generally located, though ask what the volume or surface area of a pain is would yield only bafflement (I will say only that general location is quite an obvious feature of something evolved to indicate damage, as pain no doubt is).  There is nothing precise about it. Nor is the location information featured in the pain itself. How often does one use fingers, or similar, to test painful areas, both for area, depth and intensity? (Intensity is another good one, for how does one judge pains oneself has experienced if not only with reference to others? The pain itself does not tell us how intense it is.) It is not information in the pain, rather it is acquired experience of pains, and wider interaction with wider senses and other bodily locations that offers information.

This is just one example, but it does generalise. Think on affective states. Of course they carry with them various sensations and impressions, but without reference to experience of other instances of similar states, and their place in the wider context of emotional landscape they are fairly empty and vague. If one didn’t know love until you realised how much you loved a particular person, why did you think so before? Where was the information nugget saying one’s first experience was only two out of ten love-intensity for you?

This is just by way of defusing the idea of direct, privileged access to our own mental states, simply because they are occurring in our own bodies. It is worth pondering because it undermines so much of the reason dismal philosophers of mind want to reject the idea that neuroscience is a more powerful tool to understanding mind than having a bit of a think.

A Manual Cant

Western philosophy has many faults, though, as I have once alluded to, it remains in general best default style of philosophy by not being composed entirely of faults, as with certain other traditions going by the same name.

One element of the tradition which I generally hold to be a strength is the commitment to using examples and thought experiments in order to highlight overarching, or underlying, principles that may hold across numerically distinct cases. The same type of strategy is often employed within science, a less often dismissed tradition, when we deliberately exclude the factors of friction or air resistance when performing simple calculations. The point is not that we do not believe these factors to exist, or to be relevant in any circumstance where we may apply whatever calculations or considerations we are making, but rather that in such cases we are simplifying in order to more readily bring out the laws/principles etc. with which we are concerned

And so it goes with philosophy, in analytic/Western tradition anyway. Many examples/thought experiments are highly artificial or contrived. Depending on exactly how such an example or experiment is being used we may have good or bad reasons for identifying it as useful. If used as in science, to simply highlight the salient factors while suspending others, we are normally fairly safe. Fair dispute can always arise as to the legitimacy of salience and suspense, and this is philosophically valid.

What is not philosophically valid is to appraise the, understood from start, contrived example and find fault because it may only be a limited representation of the actual world. At that point one does not find fault with a philosophical conjecture, one fails to do philosophy at all.

The example which has not only got my goat, but also skinned, butchered and prepared it with spices, is one which relates to a thought experiment which is in itself so flawed that valid philosophical objections abound. They abound to such an extent the failure to select one, but instead to raise a non-philosophical objection makes me want to defend the tradition that otherwise I spend much time criticising.

The example is one from the camp which objects to the idea of mind and mental function being physical. This position remains popular, as I have said not because it has any coherence, or any explanatory force, but because adherents have prior, prejudicial reasons for not wanting to accept a realistic, scientific picture. The circumstances of the example are thus:

A researcher (described as ‘brilliant’, so to reject the notion he/she is just stupid and missing something that way) into mental/perceptual states has spent her entire life confined to a monochrome environment, has learned her discipline entirely from monochrome books and monochrome televisions/television programmes. The contention is that this researcher therefore knows all the physical facts about colour, and colour representation within human neurological systems. Yet if this researcher then leaves those confines and sees a red object, the experience of perceiving this is a new fact, and therefore a non-physical fact is identified and identified with a mental event, in this case that of the quality of red perception.

Everyone should note that the example is highly contrived. Hopefully most people would frown and at least have some inkling that the immediate objection lies in how a physical fact seems to have been delineated here. Which is correct. The example actually performs the most unforgiveable and elementary dialectical error possible, that of begging the question. (Note that ‘begging the question’ actually means specifically using some or all of a sought conclusion within the argument used to establish that conclusion. It does not mean what people typically use it to mean, which would be something closer to ‘bringing, or raising the question…) The non-physicalist using this example has defined physical facts very narrowly, has in fact assumed perceiving such things as colours are non-physical, and used that baseless assumption to prove his point.

That is a valid objection, and a philosophically valid example of an objection. It removes the legitimacy of the dialectical strategy. One might also attack how narrowly the nature of ‘knowledge’ is presented here, such as distinguishing ‘knowing that’ from ‘knowing how’ (as many non-English languages explicitly have embedded) – that a comprehensive store of knowing-that type knowledge about how the brain works in colour perception does not include the more first-person knowing-how (or knowing-of, to express oneself awkwardly but perhaps more accurately) of experiencing such perception without that suggesting any mysterious, fundamentally other-substance type entities.

What is not a valid objection is to read the literature, go through the example and thought experiment, and state that the major barrier to understanding what is going on is that it doesn’t seem plausible that the researcher simply won’t have seen red before. That perhaps he or she cut themselves on one of their textbooks. Perhaps this is a valid objection if we were planning to actually lock someone in a monochrome room. But we weren’t. We were not engaging in socially dubious neurological research, we were engaging in an abstract thought experiment.

Perhaps many might still think ever bothering to engage in such abstractions is a pointless endeavour. I disagree, but at least that can be argued for. But then we may wonder whether Newton was being pointless not including the solar wind in calculations about planetary motion (simply because no one knew about them at the time is no excuse, since we still do the same calculations for most such purposes). It’s the same strategy. You might doubt whether science or philosophy is worth doing, but if so have the good taste to raise valid objections.

Normal Belief

I pride myself on meeting theists on any field of conflict. Not that I ever initiate anything – being an atheist I don’t suffer from the poor taste which leads people to force, by whichever method, others to believe what I do. But since many of them will not leave well enough alone, and that even others who may use the same term for themselves as I do are cowed or deluded into thinking religion has some privileged position, someone has to.

It is not a battle I expect to win. So often the conflict, at least for me, is played out among the philosophical arguments, or the deep psychology which is part pan-human critique and part mocking narrative. Regarding that first theatre, the arguments only exist for philosophers and theologians to beat each other with, with ever larger and subtler clubs until they have moved far, far beyond anywhere that typical believers or non-believers would recognise. Wherever they are, and whatever they are doing, it is not what provides the background radiation of belief.

No child ever knelt and abandoned reason because in their crayon daubings they came to realise that god must exist because he is perfect, and non-existence is a lesser property than existence (which, of course, it isn’t, and so much for the ontological argument). No, they do so because their parents, their community, their civilisation abused them with indoctrination. With or without intent and awareness, of course. And only as part of the general run of indoctrination – the word having a neutral use close to education (though I feel free to use it otherwise). Good, bad, useful, maladaptive. Children soak everything up, they are pre-programmed to do so. And though most leave behind santa claus and goblins, because most adults quiet early on cease to act as though they have any reality, adults continue to behave in extreme, bizarre and yet certain ways regarding religion. Most children have no chance.

The literature is extremely varied on what may prove more effective than showing all arguments for theistic belief to be empty and baseless. The more positive ones tend to focus on the social needs that religion meets, and which in general can easily be met in humanist/atheist ways. That is not empty, though given my dim view of the sorts of needs religion allows humans to cater for there is more a case for more radical change than this implies. Much less hopeful is the consideration that our mental architecture is simply hardwired to be predisposed to theistic modes of thinking. Whether this is because we have parts of the brain where generally termed ‘religious experiences’ occur, or where we hear things we take to be from god, or simply that we evolved in a manner that positively selected those who attributed agency to almost everything. The former consideration there is dire. How tragic to imagine that everything I hold to be enlightened comes from a malfunctioning part of my own brain. That I am simply missing my inner mental god. And worse, to imagine that short of universal surgery or drastic gene therapy we’re almost all doomed never to get beyond the mistaken and infantile commitment to the supernatural.

The latter consideration is less doleful. Of course it makes sense in the evolutionary setting to attribute agency to everything. When you’re dealing with people, for want of a better word there is essentially ‘agency’ in everything. And though thinking that a rock looks malevolent, in the evolutionary setting, in shape or colour, and so avoiding it is not likely to lead to instant death, failing to imagine that this log-like thing floating down the river might actually be a massive predator intending to drag me underwater and flense me to the bone may well do.

But that at least can be worked against. It can be worked against independent of whether all of our strident social needs are met, whether we feel worthwhile or part of anything, whether we acknowledge any source of authority other than ourselves. In fact doing so forms the larger part of the entire creative project and area of philosophical literature which deals with the variety of atheism I espouse. Far from meekly worrying what may be lost in rejecting the old conventions there is a genuine commitment to what for more elegant, consistent, realistic, affirming worlds may built.  They can be. But most will not do this. And this, more than the strength of any argument, is why I believe my position will ultimately fail.

It’s All Good (Even When It’s Not)

Back to the random thought generated posts. This time it is on a purely linguistic confusion, augmented by all the resultant general confusion, with the foundations laid by absent effort to untangle pre-existing confusions.

The concept of altruism receives a certain amount of attention in philosophy, and outside of philosophy, which is a relatively rare occurrence. It occurs in very different subject areas within philosophy however, and very little work seems to be done to disambiguate the usage.

There is the standard usage of it, occurring within natural language and ethics: altruism is the stance or the actions performed whereby one person helps another, even if it as one’s own expense (I’m ignoring any who say any benefit to oneself negates an action or a stance as altruistic, as this is needless self-flagellation). In this arena there is a standard discussion of whether this is a good, with the usual split between kind and unkind people obliviously emitting their prejudiced bleats into the ether. This post has not the space for me to go into why acting according to either carrot or stick is besides every point and cheapens every such agent.

The other common usage is in philosophy of biology, with its worldly correlate simply being the concept in biology. Obviously the concepts are related, but they are still entirely separate. In this arena the idea is whether organisms and species gain survival advantage by acting to promote the survival or wellbeing of others even if it disadvantages them. Note that this is supposed to be in entirely Darwinian terms. This is not an ethical stance.

And here we run into the very disappointing confusion. Since ‘altruism’ looks very much like ‘altruism’ various considerers run haphazardly over conceptual boundary lines. For example, in crude Darwinian terms evolutionary altruism looks unsuccessful. Poachers, cheaters will survive more readily than altruists. Altruists will keep watch, sacrificing themselves to warn others, will share food and go hungry etc. People have therefore argued that altruism is not supported, and have imported it into ethics to justify behaving like cads. However this is no more sustainable or justified than to argue that because the less well adapted in general fail to survive we are justified in sterilising or gassing those people we judge less fit.

Arguing the other way, philosophers and scientists have worked out mathematical models showing that, where there are interbreeding separate populations of a species evolutionarily altruistic behaviour promotes group/species survival even if it can lead to individual organism non-survival. Fair enough. An interesting, if dry biological consideration. But when taken to mean that altruism (and now crossing the border illegally into ethics) is simply a mathematical function of biological organisms and this somehow deprives ethical altruists of their self-congratulatory conception the argument becomes just as poor as those of the biological determinists having a gas above.

They are separate. We don’t derive any normative imperative to act with ethical altruism from biological or evolutionary function, nor do we understand the general biological or evolutionary altruism of organism as always, or ever, being a function of ethical philosophy.

You will act as whatever you are in terms of ethics no matter what you believe or why you think you believe it. And you will survive or die as an organism or species regardless of what you take your ethics to be. In the meantime, have the good grace not to conflate concepts in wildly different contexts. Or at least keep it away from me if you cannot help doing so.

T(r)ue Class

These posts are largely randomly generated depending on where the mind (this mind) happens to be going, but sometimes one runs directly into an issue that prompts a thought requiring expression. In this case it is a basement-level consideration, one that perhaps can help to show whether any kind of philosophical mindset is available to anyone aiming to apprehend it.

There is a form of error familiar in philosophy, one which is largely conceptual, and so although not a great indicator of any real-world confusion is at least a good indicator of when our use of language or conceptual categories may be leading us astray.

The famous example of this error, known as a ‘category error’ or ‘category mistake’ is given by this analogy. Suppose one is showing a tourist (presumably a tourist because one cannot expect foreigners to get things right, or, more charitably, just as someone likely to be unfamiliar) around a university. Upon showing them the halls of residence, the admin block, the lecture theatres and playing field etc. the tourist then asks ‘yes, yes, but where is the university?’. That an error has occurred is usually obvious. We all understand that there is no such thing that is the university over and above its constituent parts, their organisation, and their functions. So the question strikes us as odd. Or it should.

The example above was raised notably as an argument by analogy to show how crude dualistic notions on mind and body separation are mistaken. To say it is a mistake of logical categories to imagine that in addition to the structure (brain) and function (mental activity) we understand to constitute mind there is still yet another thing which is Mind, or a mental substance entirely different in nature to the physical. Which is fair enough, though we are dealing with a question of conceptual ordering and logic which is posterior (that is, both after and, in comparison, arse) to the actual make up or ontology of reality.

I have come across objections less cogent than whether an issue of logical or conceptual ordering can genuinely tell us about the nature of a real object or event. The best example being on the lines of if one cannot find an exact one-to-one mapping of the parts of a university to the parts of a mind then the argument fails. Which is unfair of me. This is a failure to understand what an analogy is, as a method of highlighting, explaining, pointing one in the direction of the actual argument or point to be made. This is not a failure of philosophical thinking as such, it is simply a failure.

Worse, philosophically speaking, is a reaction to a further example which was added to this argument by analogy, that of a sporting team. Again, one can talk about the various players, the equipment and so forth, but perhaps our dense tourist makes the same mistake, and asks about where the team spirit is. This is both an extension and an elucidation. It maintains the same issue of a category error, and yet derives much more from the function of the team, rather than the more obvious example of the organisation of a university campus. It also brings in an idea closer to the one being argued against in the dualistic conception of mind. People quite naturally feel there is something mysterious, something other, unusual, unique, about mind, especially in humans, that they do not as naturally assume about something also fairly nebulous such as team spirit. Far fewer want the ontological commitment of a separate entity which is team spirit.

The first part of the philosophically poor reaction was to contend this was not at all the same kind of argument; even that because a university is nothing like a cricket team it makes no sense as an argument. But again, this is unfair, because this has failed to even engage or reach any level of philosophical enquiry. The second part is of this reaction was to even suggest the argument has brought up the consideration that perhaps something such as team spirit does has a separate, over and above thing-like existence than a simple function of a team.

I do not make much of the category error consideration in debating why crude dualism (or any dualism, not sure why I qualify myself there) is false. There are many more and much clearer objections to that view. But if one cannot even grasp the place, intention and function of the points within an argument what hope is there for any clear understanding of any philosophical consideration?

I often come across the contention that philosophy is empty. I often decry swathes of it myself for being so. But it is an earned dismissal.

Suffer Not. The Fools.

Although in these posts I have tended to focus on fairly formal philosophical points, albeit in a strictly non-academic fashion, I am motivated to give a slightly more autobiographical tale which deals with my furiously anti-theistic nature.

There are a number of traditional areas within philosophy for non-theists and theists to clash (and it is intended to arrange the –ism and its negation in that form, since the form of non-theism I am concerned with, atheism, is not a belief or belief system about something, it exists only to reject an assertion of belief). Early in life I felt the weakest, most trivial and most easy to be a theistic apologist for was the problem of evil.

The problem of evil is quite easily summed up. Monotheistic notions of god tend to focus on a list of omnis, the ideal or perfect embodiments of goodness, power and knowledge. Thoughtful people have noted that the world is, in many ways, appalling, which does not sit well with there being an all-powerful, all-benevolent being, with the perfect knowledge of how to use that power with that loving intention.

As just stated, as a child I felt theists could argue it away. The arguments are again fairly traditional. One is free will. We have free will, and it is a great good, because it lends genuine moral authority to our actions, and although it allows the possibility of evil action that is outweighed by the possibility of good. This fails. For one, in a previous post, I showed that the concept of free will is incoherent. For another, although ‘evil’ is naturally indexed to human agency, events covered by the problem of evil include more general horrors, such as natural disasters, extinctions, things which are typically caused by no human agency. But also that evil can easily befall anyone regardless of whether they have employed their apparent free will badly. It is not clear how a murdered infant is placed in the great good of free will. What is clear is that it requires a special level of delusion to maintain that it is.

Another argument is that from ignorance, which is and always has been an evasion of the most cringing and cowardly nature. It is rarely the first choice of dialectic for the theist, and tends to be employed whenever that theist runs up against the realisation they are clearly extemporising, or that the rehearsed positions given to them make little sense. The ignorance in question is that of how such frail, mortal, limited creatures as ourselves should be able to comprehend the nature of things such that we could question god, and the apparent paradox of evil. In one sense the strategy works. In the end a truly rational being has to concede one could always be mistaken. The flawed conclusion this is extended to is that we have no right to trust our own reason or judgement, especially when it touches upon questioning the divine. Even for theists the commitment is intermittently applied, as various specific epistemic claims are made about god, and mystery is appealed to, again, only when challenged and the utter lack of any evidential knowledge is confronted.

A subordinate part of criticising the argument from ignorance (or humility, as those not so antipathetical might render it) is the halfway house worthy strivers sometimes reach, which is to wonder why such disapprobation, torture, death and eternal damnation are cited consequences of trying to use faculties ostensibly granted by the being in question. Perhaps an apologist can claim it as a kind of test. After all, so much of religion is about dismissing reason in order to treat ludicrous beliefs and practices as if they were acceptable, why not just extend that to reason wholesale? In one sense that is unassailable. If you take that strategy it bypasses reason, and no argument can work against it. At this point in the autobiographical tale, however, timidity needed to be discarded. If that is the type of behaviour or decision required by god then I for one will have none of it. I would expect better of a petulant child, let alone the arbiter of the universe. Of course, that is not any kind of argument against theism, it is just a refusal to be infantilised and worthless.

The final point I want to highlight here (though certainly not the final point possible) is what truly made me restore this strand of despising religion to a place of value in arguments against preserving any notion of good in religion. It really is just a question of scale, and refusing to be selective. It seems to be difficult for most people to apprehend quite how widespread, constant, endless and absurd in magnitude suffering is. Why restrict suffering, pain, mishap to humanity? Theists in general imagine humanity to be the point of creation, or what creation is for, and perhaps this is not too troubling with standard creation myths. But only the most committed, delusional theists can accept the literal truth of creation myths. It doesn’t require any argument to accept the primacy of evidence relating to the development of life and the world. That is simply inescapable. And so to consider humanity a goal, a reason for it all, is to accept hundreds of millions of years of the kind of short, bloody, agonising, fear-filled existence every creature of a certain level of complexity has suffered in that time. Just to get to us? But of course, it wasn’t to get to us. It just was and it just is.  

All things bright and beautiful? Every little flower that opens is as likely to be feeding a parasite whose young devour their implanted host alive. Which is certainly dubious creation, for something benevolent, but it is fairly devoid of complex intention at the point of being enacted. We really need humanity to understand true horror. Or we would, if there were not a psychological mechanism whereby people learn to acclimatise, ignore or plain deny the horrors, everyday and exceptional, that we perpetrate upon ourselves and each other every day. For now I leave it simply a point about the existence of horror and suffering, and hope that anyone might muse upon its prevalence and how this sits with any idea of this being the best possible world, or any design of a benevolent being.

Perhaps later we might consider exactly which sections of humanity contribute most readily to human-derived suffering. It is a special talent and worthy of much discussion.