Thursday, April 23, 2015

Sketch of a dualist metaphysics for the XXIst Century – Part II

If instead of trying to organize an engineering firm I wrote scripts for TV shows for a living, after my last post I would let a week or two pass without mentioning it, dealing with more mundane matters (the prospects of a Grexit, which is keeping me busy lately, or the adjustments in my training routine derived from the fact that I spend too much friggin’ time writing blog posts and too little actually training) to build my readers’ (all two of them) expectations… but I’m not, and I really like the subject, and I’m of the opinion that in most of life’s endeavors, you gotta hammer the iron while it’s still hot, so in this post I’ll complete the sketch of the title, presenting an alternative to the dominant ontology of our modern world. As unfashionable and outside the mainstream as it may sound, I am going to defend that it makes more sense, even for a scientific point of view, to consider that there are two kinds of “substance” out there, and that both make equally part of the fabric of reality: a material one and a “cognizant” one, which is decidedly immaterial (more about it later on).

Now such a contrarian position, to have a minimum of credibility, should not just counter the four arguments against dualism I advanced in my previous post, namely:

·         M.1 – The explanation of more and more aspects of reality in entirely material terms

·         M.2 – The explanation of more and more aspects of our mental life in similarly material terms

·         M.3 – The positing of a plausible explanation of how those same aspects of our mental life came to be that excludes any non material entity (that is, through the theory of evolution)

·         M.4 – The influence on physical and chemical conditions surrounding the brain in purely mental states (from drugs to illness and injury directly affecting how we feel, how we think and how we act)

But it should also be able to defend itself against the five arguments against monism (as if it succumbs to some or all of them it is not really helping us much, is it?):

·         D.1 – Why the Universe seems so precisely fine-tuned

·         D.2 – How life originated (so fast)

·         D.3 – Why we have qualia (why we are conscious)

·         D.4 – The nature of mathematical truths

·         D.5 – Why reality is rational (or why we can understand it to such a deep level)

We can dispose of those five right away and without great effort: the universe is fine-tuned because it was actually designed by a mind with the ability to translate its design into something actually existing. A pretty clever one, by the way. Quoting from Hume (somebody you wouldn’t expect to see invoked for such an argument) “a purpose, a design, an intent is evident everywhere you look” (a pity Natural Theologians like William Paley got too hung up on the biological world towards the end of the XVIII and the beginning of the XIX centuries, so when an alternative was found for that particular kind of apparent design –the Theory of Evolution- all the rest of Nature’s “designish” features, from the movement of Earth at precisely the right distance of the Sun to its light tilt to allow for recurring seasons and a plus on adaptability to a changing environment, were hastily forgotten). The designer that conceived and put into place the ordered cosmos we live in included in its blueprint the material conditions for organic life to develop, in such a way as to be able to evolve in all its wondrous complexity from the simplest origins. Such life, after millions of years of evolution refined complex structures (central nervous systems with enough possible configurations) as to somehow –in a process we barely comprehend, and more about that later- bind with a totally different aspect of reality that until the appearance of those nervous systems had laid unused, or uninstantiated, namely conscience, or in Cartesian terms, res cogitans. One of the features of those consciences is that they can, through a non sensory based capability (let us call it for now intuition) identify and experiment a kind of non material truth, aka mathematics (which of course are “discovered”, as they are independently “out there”, and would be even if there were no conscious beings to perceive them; I have always found the idea that mathematical concepts are “constructed” or “built”, and that different intelligent beings could construct a set of mathematics entirely different from ours’ utterly preposterous). There is only one kind of “cognizing substance”, as there is only one logic, one way of (correctly) identify mathematical truth and one Reason. It may be that, finite beings as we are, we can not know it fully, but our cognizant part participates in the nature of the “mind” that designed and created everything (I could spend a little time explaining why it could only be One, and not Many, but I trust my readers to be able to achieve such simple feat of logic all by themselves), so we can reason (partially, and more slowly, and clouded with uncertainty, and sometimes befuddled by doubt, but the essential way of working necessarily has to be the same) as the Designer reasoned (damn, that is exactly what “reasoning” consists in, sharing in the universal and only valid Reason), so there is no surprise in the fact that we can deeply understand reality. As Stephen Hawking famously said (when he was a clearer thinker, well within his domain of Physics, and was not bamboozled by a hack like Mlodinow in writing bad Metaphysics like the whole sorry mess that is The Grand Design): when we finally devise a “Grand (unified or not) Theory of Everything” we will understand the mind of God, as that is exactly what revealing the functioning of Nature consists in: in gaining a deeper insight of what He was thinking when he did the Original Design, in getting at a clearer picture of the Simple and Elegant rules he put in place. That is why the rules are simple and elegant in the first place, because they are the product of a mind, and not a haphazard collection of regularities that just happened to materialize from nowhere. A simplicity and elegance, by the way, that are entirely impossible to substantiate within the domain of Science…

It may be argued that by positing a mind with the ability to create the whole Universe I’m not explaining anything, but rather putting it beyond any possible explanation, as that almighty designer could have chosen to design things in an entirely different way, and the argument would serve equally well as a justification for that (those statements that are valid not matter what things turn out to be can be safely considered to lack any explanatory power or, in Popperian terms, being unfalsifiable, not to belong to the domain of Science). I do not intend for a moment to present this thinkings as scientific (hell, that’s why it is called “metaphysics” in the first place: “beyond physics”, for those of you Greek illiterate). I will only note that postulating a single substance and declaring that is all that there is and every possible alternative is “magical thinking”, “appealing to the big fairy in the sky”, “conjuring the patriarchal, vengeful and archaic image of an authoritarian father on steroids” and any such nonsense we hear every time the monist consensus is challenged is just as metaphysical as everything I’ve been speaking so far. There is no way to identify Science “from within” with how it should discourse, and what is a valid concern and what not. Science can not dictate to itself that it has to prefer the most parsimonious explanation (aka Occam Razor, as much as I agree with it), or that the simplest, most elegant formulation is to be preferred. So all I’m saying is Science itself has given us very reasonable grounds to doubt a thoroughly materialistic explanation of reality can ever be complete or convincing, and the reason it looks so (in the eyes of certain very specific “public intellectuals” with very specific agendas that push them to be specially biased in this regard) is because the dominant reason (empathically not with capital “R”) has blinded us towards the implications of some discoveries, and favored the emphasis on other ones, as those enabled the whole of society to focus more single mindedly their energies towards the production and (increasingly unequal) distribution of strictly material goods. Hell, I do not even claim to be original in that statement, as somebody as free from any doubt of secret theist sympathies as Tom Nagel has argued pretty much the same in his recent Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly Wrong (which has been greeted with a fascinating mixture of horror, dismay and panic from the ivory tower of most academic philosophers, convinced as they are almost to a man that any question of the basest materialism could only come from unenlightened bigots, fundamentalist snake oil salesmen and new age besotted potheads)…

So I hope I have convinced the skeptical reader there is a case to be made for an alternative to monism without belonging to any of the previous categories, and without loosing one’s scientific bona fides. But after confirming that the objections to monism (D.1 to D.5) do not affect dualism (indeed, that dualism is the only possible answer to those objections, raised in the first place by the deep understanding of reality that Science has enabled) we still have to answer the four original  arguments against dualism (M.1 to M.4), if we do not want to retreat into an unbridled skepticism and conclude that we can not know anything for sure about ultimate realities, and that at the end of the day every statement we advance on that field may be equally proved false. The first one (M.1) we can dispatch without much effort: we have gotten better in the last four centuries explaining the evolution of the natural world in purely material terms. Or rather of parts of the material world (what comes under the label “classical view”), as other critics have noted how some interpretations of the most advanced physics challenge some basic assumptions of that explanation that would allow for a much enhanced role on it of “non materially caused” agencies. At the most fundamental level we still do not know how to explain the collapse of the wave function of any phenomena under observation, or can tell much of the nature of matter (that ultimate bastion of materialism!) below the Planck scale, or even decide if time is real and space is an illusion (as the phenomena of quantum nonlocality would suggest) or the other way around. Not to get too technical here, let us leave it at this: even if we reached a complete and coherent explanation of every and all physical events (something that is in no way guaranteed, but which gives rise to some pretty interesting speculations), that would not preclude the existence of realities beyond the physical.

A similar argument can be applied to the second group of arguments: we know how some parts of our mental lives depend on their physical substrate, and we even have some (just so) stories about how they came to be. They by no means exhaust the totality of the realm of the mental; just to name a few, we are pretty clueless about how memories are formed, manipulated and retrieved, and every time I read a piece of news in the paper about how “scientists (they are always termed so, although by the content of the experiments sometimes they deserve more to be called “quacks”) implant memories/ read memories/ improve our understanding of how memories are formed in mice/ worms/ men/ bacteria” I feel like suing them for duplicitous advertising, as nothing of the sort has happened. Likewise, we have not advanced much beyond Hume’s ideas on what makes us consider something worthy, or attach value to it (for him it has to do with the amount of pleasure or pain we expected to derive from it, which he in turn inherited from Locke and Hobbes), which seems to be a huge part of what makes us both conscious and intelligent, and we have not yet even started to fathom how to replicate such fueature in an artificial substrate (I would dare to guess that it explains much why AI has advanced so little after a few promising starts: it has much more to do with “minding” about things that with recognizing patterns, the only reason we are so besotted with the latter is because we seem to have finally learned how to algorithmize it). So we tend to publicize a lot the (comparatively few) aspects of the mind we understand enough as to replicate them (or what we understand to be their main features, we may be even getting that little entirely wrong) whilst we conveniently paper over the myriad things we are clueless about. It may be argued that that’s how science works, and we will be knowing more and more about the “mind”, as we have been knowing more and more about atoms, stars, heat, electromagnetic waves and living organisms in general. Maybe, maybe not, I’ll just say that I’m so far utterly unimpressed with the much vaunted advances of “neuroscience” (I tend to see 99% of it, stealing a term from Raymond Tallis, rather as “neurobabble”) and that I not see further advances as making any significant dent in my opinion on the whole field.

Of course, thinking we haven’t got any good explanation of mental phenomena I could hardly concede I am satisfied with the origin of such explanations. But even if 100% of our conscious experiences were fully accounted for by the measurable changes experimented by our neurons (a pretty odd idea if you come to think about it, but one that has undoubtedly come to be the overwhelming consensus in today’s world) I do not feel that finding a plausible story on how that state of events came to be would add to it a iota of force. I’m perfectly fine with the Theory of evolution as a catchall explanation for all the biological phenomena of the world (that already points to a troubling feature of such theory: it has a peculiar epistemic status all of its own, as it makes precious few quantifiably falsifiable predictions that would allow its refinement, or the choice between its competing alternatives), I just do not see how having an explanation for the complexity of the material aspects of life has anything to do with the possibility of it having some additional (nonmaterial) aspect attached, other than we have to accept such “additional aspect” could not have evolved. Which would be perfectly fine, unless we reject the possibility of anything that has anything at all to do with living beings not to be the product of evolution. That is indeed the default position of most philosophers that talk of such issues, but come to think about it, it is a totally unwarranted belief. To begin with, the plante we live in, which has more than a little to do with us, is not the product of (biological) evolution. Neither is the Sun, or the Moon. If we need an example closer to home, entirely in the mental realm, we can think about the number pi, which is a definitely nonmaterial entity which I would defend is not the product of evolution either. The philosophers I’ve mentioned would have you believe pi is just a byproduct of certain neuronal configuration that you happen to have, and as such it is a product of evolution as much as your opposable thumb, but as I’ve already mentioned, that is pretty odd: “your” pi happens to be exactly the same pi as your neighbour’s (or, for what it’s worth, mine). I firmly believe that if an advanced civilization were to evolve in a planet around Rigel-9 (of which we may never have any notice) they would sooner or later develop the concepts of circumference, radius, and ratio between both that would end up being “our” very same pi, how could it be otherwise? That’s why I said that mathematical concepts are “discovered”, not “constructed”, or “created”, and why by the end of the day I do not have a problem assuming that the biological forms we call human bodies, product of evolution from much lowlier forms of life, do not exhaust what human beings are, as for that you need to add to the evolved body a (possibly non evolved, or at least partly non evolved, although more about that later) mind, capable of conscience, of self awareness, and of free choice (not uninfluenced, choice, mind you, so it is a partial freedom we are talking about here, again more on that later on).

Now I will admit that the fourth group of arguments is the toughest nut to crack, as I myself have struggled with the devastating reality of the mind decaying in parallel with the body of a loved one, and have to admit that when the body ceases to function, the mind for all we know ceases to manifest itself (and when the body is either impaired or enhanced, the mind is similarly affected). So, given how far we’ve come, I’ll leave the answer to that argument (and a bit more on the features of that nondescript, generic mind I’ve been talking about so far) for the next post!      

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