Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The problems of materialist monism (sketch of a dualist metaphysics for the XXIst Century)

Disclaimer: this post is the opposite of clickbait! It will probably clock in above 3,000 words, dealing mainly with the most abstruse philosophical field (ontology and the ultimate nature of being), so if you are faint of heart of your head gets dizzy when talking of anything more transcendent than a Tom Clancy novel I recommend you skip this one and wait for the next weighlifting post (I’ll try to add in a video or some eye candy to compensate).

After insulting the general intelligence of my readers, let’s cut to the chase. It is no secret that the dominant reason in the Western world (in the whole world, as more and more it takes the lead from what used to be known as the West) has become increasingly monist in the last couple of Centuries. By monist I’m referring to admitting a single nature for what is considered to be “truly out there”, or what “actually exists” (be forewarned that in any philosophically sound group, worthy of a modicum of self-respect, those terms are considered veritable minefields to be avoided at all costs, but it is my intention to keep this post as tongue-in-cheek as possible without falling in outright incoherence). Not any monism, mind you, as in the XVIII Century the Bishop Berkeley was also a decided monist, but he was of a very different kind: an idealistic monist, which recognized only ideas as being truly existent, the material world for him being a illusion, and lacking entirely reality (in a more moderate form, that would also be the position of Plato more than twenty centuries before Berkeley). Now the monists of more modern (should we call them “postmodern”? by all means not! as the adjective has already been reserved for a position that has to do with epistemology and what we can legitimately know for sure –essentially nothing- rather than with metaphysics and what is actually real) persuasion are solidly united in recognizing only matter as the real deal, hence the name of “materialist monism” as a more complete description of what is so prevalent as to be understood when we refer to monism without any further qualification (which is what we ourselves will do from now on).

Now the case for monism seems to be pretty airtight, and all the advances in neurology, biology, evolutionary psychology and even basic physics and chemistry seem to confirm the position that matter is all there is, and that everything we perceive, feel, imagine or dream is but the result of different configurations of matter (the atoms and molecules which compose the neurons which in turn compose our brains). That’s it, and that’s all, and whatever we want to call the “something else” (again: ideas, dreams, figments of the imagination, mathematical theories, numbers, memories, volitions, desires, false beliefs, calculations, schemes, geometrical figures and whatnot) is but a product of how that matter interacts with other matter, under a fixed set of rules, and admitting of one and only one correct way of being described. We may tinker with constructs like “levels of description” (there may be different ones, each appropriate to describe a certain level of complexity in reality, so we do not need to go in the detail of the behavior of each individual quark to describe how certain ideas evolve, just as we don’t go to the detail of each individual quark to describe how a lever, or a combustion engine, works, without having to posit any “fairy like” fluffy stuff which is not resolutely and stolidly material) but those different levels are essentially ways of summarize and simplify, they do not involve any legerdemain or appeal to any break in the causal links that connect each material event with the next. In the first part of this post (that may very well end up being the whole post) I will describe the main arguments for that “airtight” case, and advance how they have been deployed in turn against any possible alternative, and in a second part (or another post) I’ll point out some holes in them, and advance an alternative.

On with the arguments, then. First among them must be the increasing scope of mechanical explanations of the physical world; as we have advanced our understanding of the basic laws of Nature we have been reducing the need to appeal to mysterious interventions of supernatural forces. The phenomena that in days of yonder seemed to justify an enchanted world (from lightning to magnetism, with earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and plagues added for good measures) now are understood as manifestations of a few basic forces which operate impersonally and predictably.

Second would come our understanding of the functioning of the brain, tentative and incomplete as it may still be; from the nature of perception (specially advanced in case of sight, where we have already a fairly detailed comprehension of what happens between the appearance of a new object in the visual field and the report of the subject as perceiving different aspects of it –shape, color, edges, movement-, from the structures involved –cones, batons, optic nerve- to the different “lumps” of cells in the brain that are activated to process each aspect) to a lot of what happens “under the hood” (what we now describe as the automatic, rather than unconscious, nature of much of the processing, calculation and evaluation that happens), passing through the way we form concepts of greater and greater abstraction (through a mechanism of hierarchically ordered neural networks where those neurons that “fire together” end up “wiring together” being able to recognize common features of increasing generality –applicable to wider and wider groups in a never ending recursive loop). In all cases, we have identified a number of disparate mechanisms that seem to explain how we come to perceive, identify trends and patterns and take decisions again without appealing to any mysterious non-material substance (questioning indeed the existence of well ingrained concepts like free will or agency that most consistent monists necessarily consider little more than convenient fictions).

The third argument would be the positing of a credible explanation for the appearance and development of the mechanisms previously described to account for the experience of having a mind; that would be the general process of biological evolution through random mutation and survival of the fittest, which has itself evolved from the crudest first explanations to account for very basic behaviors (males tend to be promiscuous and females nurturing, as those strategies are the ones best suited to propagate their genes given their differential parental investment) to more refined ones to explain the emergence of more refined and complex traits (altruism, emotional intelligence, the capability to lie, to detect lies, to feel empathy, even to unconsciously select the sex of your offspring depending on your position in the social hierarchy).

Fourth and final, the undeniable influence (that seems to go mostly in one direction) of the material conditions of the brain on how we feel and think; from the effect of alcohol and other mind altering drugs in perception and memory to less disabling influences (lithium just makes many depressive moods go away, more sophisticated medications, like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, have deeper and subtler effects, like an increase in self confidence, energy, sociability, ability to focus, etc.), going through the effect on the deepest levels of personality of neurodegenerative diseases (Alzheimer, Parkinson… the decay of groups of neurons and their connections irreparably affect the mental abilities of those affected, until changing them beyond recognition).

So we have at least four groups of arguments for maintaining that our experience of having a mind (the strongest, possibly the only, candidate for some kind of “really existing whatever”) is really nothing but a (somewhat peculiar, somewhat odd) manifestation of certain very specific configuration of matter, of the same matter, with exactly the same features we are used to see, manipulate and predict in our everyday interactions with the world. But furthermore, for the modern sensibility there is a separate group of arguments that are understood to strongly militate against the possibility of that hypothetical “mental” stuff, which in honor of its most forceful and clear sighted proponent (Daniel Dennett) I will call the “Casper argument” (inspired as it was by the cartoon character Casper the Friendly Ghost). According to such argument, the problem with positing any kind of distinctly non-material stuff that somehow is part of our world is that for it to have any causal explanatory power at all it should be able to interact with everyday matter and influence the course of events, and that interaction would be, to say the least, highly problematic, or would force that stuff to behave in a highly inconsistent way (as Casper, famously able to go through walls as if they did not exist, but then somehow to grab a material object like a hammer with his previously immaterial hands and hit some baddie in the head with it, did once and again). Let’s just remember that the problematic nature of such interaction had already been identified by none other than Descartes, whose solution to the problem (positing a spatially concentrated place where that interaction could take place, which ended up being the pineal gland conveniently inside our heads) has been endlessly derided since.

So it seems like a closed case, doesn’t it? There is nothing but matter, matter behaves in a predictable, deterministic way, according to a few, very simple and elegant basic laws, with no space for things like good will, creativity and the like. All our mental lives are just the product of the motion and interaction of that matter, and like it they are equally predictable and determined. Free will is an illusion, the idea that we are somehow responsible of our destiny is an illusion, choice is an illusion, the feeling that we could have done otherwise (for every single decision we have ever made) is an illusion. Darn, even the idea that we “are”, that there is somehow a lump of conscience and mental activity that is a “me” separate from “the world out there” is an illusion, as all there is is a brain (a highly idiosyncratic configuration of your otherwise run-of-the-mill, unremarkable atoms) that has accumulated certain memories and extracted all the wrong conclusions from them (like that it exists in a separate realm which is somehow higher and truer than that of simple, unceremonious matter). I think it is at this point, when you have extracted all that set of inescapable conclusions (and they are really inescapable, if you accept the premise –there is only matter- you have to necessarily accept the end result –there is no “you” to begin with) when the case starts to appear less and less close, and we may want to give it a second look. But it is not just its inability to account for our most basic, everyday intuitions (we have to admit that our intuitions can very well be wrong, as the most cursory historical research can show: our intuition has shown us without any hint of doubt in different epochs that the Earth was flat, that the Sun revolved around it, that the angles of a triangle can only add up to 180º, that slavery was perfectly OK and a fact of Nature and –the most painful for me to mention, as it was shared by one of the minds I most dearly admire- that women were intellectually inferior to men, and morally pretty imperfect too), the dominant monist metaphysics have serious difficulties to account and adequately explain the following facts:

·         The fine tuning of the Universe, which is already pretty different from the old “why there is something rather than nothing” the old Greeks recurred to. What we know of the very precise values the (so far) unexplained constants of Nature have to take to configure, between all the possible universes, one that lasts long enough, at just the right density, for second generation star debris to coalesce at the right distance from new stars to give life a chance to evolve makes it astronomically unlikely that “it just happened to be so”, or that we just happened to be lucky, or that there are just as many universes as possible configurations of those independent constants (that is really a helluva universes, for you non initiated in the mysteries of quantum cosmology), too bad we just can’t know a iota of any of them but ours…

·         The origin of life (which can not be explained by Darwinian evolution, as by definition the whole wondrous mechanism of evolution can not evolve itself into existence, it requires some self replicating units which admit of some variation which in turn translates into differential “fitness” whose random appearance is pretty difficult to explain)

·         The “really hard problem” of conscience (let’s call it the existence of qualia, but not get too hung up on it), or if we will ever be able to find the precise neural correlates of our (even if they end up being entirely neurally based) experiences, let alone replicate them on an "artificial" substrate

·         The nature of mathematical truths (when I think of pi and you think of pi we are thinking of something that is surprisingly the same thing in both cases, of which we can derive the same “qualities” –all of them immaterial- whilst there is not a single atom in common in both experiences that would allow us to say it is a product of having exactly the same neuron configuration)

·         The fact that nature seems so… rational, and that we do in fact possess the kind of reason that can understand (to a really deep level, exhibit A being quantum mechanics) those wonderful few, simple and elegant laws that explain its course. I can admit that evolution accounts for our penchant for conversation, for our ability to make up good stories, even for our musical tastes (so the ultimate explanation of Beethoven’s 9th symphony? The kind of features that make a good composer happened to be convenient for making more babies fifty thousand years ago, sorry, I just don’t have that much of musical ear)… but the ability to formulate and validate quantum electro dynamics? No way Jose. We have to draw the line at some point to what a plausible “just so” story looks like and I draw it here: I really can’t tell what helped or didn’t help our ancestors to reproduce differentially, but I’m not buying that anything having to do with the Heisenberg wave equation had something to do with it. I’ll grant that counting up to ten may give some reproductive advantage, but understanding the fundamental theorem of calculus? Sorry but no, nothing to do with some proto human brain configuration being somewhat fitter (and thus allowing the bearers randomly blessed with that configuration to reproduce more successfully) if it had the capability for abstraction required for such a formulation is going to sound even marginally plausible to me.

So against the four families or groups of arguments for monism we can enumerate five independent groups of problematic features, which could be easily construed as arguments against. Does that mean that some sort of dualism wins the day? Of course not, not all the arguments have the same weight, and numbers alone can’t settle an ages-old discussion. In my own particular case those problems have led me to believe there is a mind behind the “design” that makes the Universe a “Cosmos”, not just any random set of events, happening one after another without any rhyme or reason other than the iron chain of causality that has preordained that things can only happen as they in fact do, but an ordered  sequence that betrays the intent of such a mind, a mind furthermore that is in its essentials like ours, and thus that allow us to discover and understand deeply the laws and principles on which the existing operates. Is that belief “warranted” (to borrow the expression of my admired Alvin Plantinga)? I very much think it is, but I recognize this as a “belief”, not as “knowledge”, so I readily grant that intelligent, well intentioned persons (by the way, my way of looking at things makes me conflate personhood with having a mind that shares with mine the capability of understanding Nature and choosing to break the blind chain of causality, which confers dignity and negates the possibility of assigning a price to such mind, something that monists can not do) could disagree with me, and even could be right, and I wrong (that’s indeed what differentiates a belief from certain knowledge, a believer must be ready to admit that his belief may be false, whilst what he knows for sure, by definition, can not be). And if there is a mind behind the design of the Cosmos, that mind has to be non material (to avoid an infinite regression) albeit capable of interacting with matter (at least to create it in its current configuration), and thus matter is not all that there is (not even, on this account, the more interesting part of what there is).

Which brings me to the last part of this (even for my verbosity standards) long winded post: how would an alternative to monism look like, given what we know about nature, our brains and how they most likely evolved from our simian ancestors. But that alternative will have to wait for a next post (talk about philosophical cliffhangers!) as this one is already too long.


  1. In other words: you could never get over "midichlodians". I can sympathize with that, I also consider midichlodians the most stupid thing in the later Star Wars films (and Jar Jar Binks was there!), but from that to abandoning monism... I wouldn't go that far. But hey, don't despair, episode VII is coming up this Christmas and maybe that will help!

    (Now seriously, I do disagree with quite a few of your arguments and with your main thesis. For instance, the problem of fine tuning is rather a "practical" problem for physicists than a philosophical issue. The need for "fine tuning" is more of an aesthetic problem than anything else; is something that indicates that maybe the theory is incomplete, is missing something, that a more complete theory would not need that fine tuning. There are many cases of fine tuning problems in earlier theories that have been solved in more advanced ones. Of course, you'll always have some final number of constants, probably quite small, that do have a specific value, that happens to be what it is, but that's not a fine tuning problem (as long as none of those constants is bound to a very very small interval for the theory to make sense), but rather just another aspect of the "porpose" or "design" problem: why the world is as it is and not something else (which, in my view, is an irrelevant question even by ontology standards: for something to be, to exist, it has to be somehow, it has to have some defined properties and not others, that's the very essence of being). Another example is your concern with the limited explaining power of evolutionary psychology. I think you even give too much credit to it, and yet, it doesn't matter. Not being able to explain "where something came from" is very, very, very far from being argument enough to claim that it has to come from a different substance. I think it's perfectly fine to just say "we still don't know where it came from" and still think it is something that belongs to the material world. Another one: the nature of mathematical truth. I think all mathematical truth is just tautology, it just doesn't look like that because its complexity rivals our ability to grasp it. And that's where the coincidence of your math, my math and some alien's math comes from. Again, no need for any non-material substance in that. I could go on, but enough for today!)

    1. A thoughtful comment, for which I am most grateful. I do grant none of the "problems" I posited for a monist worldview are in and of themselves insurmountable, but (again, my humble way of looking at them) they happen to be orthogonal (their scalar product is zero... just kidding here ;-) and they happen to, when taken jointly, tilt the balance against such view. Probably for aesthetic reasons indeed. You put it as "things have to be some (very precise and defined) way or other, in our world they happen to be so", I see it as "things could be a myriad (or rather a bazillion gazillion myriads) ways whilst being logically consistent, and for what we know all of them are just not that interesting, but they happen to be the only way we know of in which matter lasts long enough for stars to form and explode, and form again, atoms decay slowly enough for enough of them to be around and form planets, nuclear, alectromagnetic and gravitational force stand in a balance that creates the conditions in which complex, intelligent life can evolve (not fully sure about that last one, but as of now I'll run with it)"... that requires (again, for me) an explanation, and the explanation I lean towards is "it was designed to be so". Again, not 100% sure it is a good explanation, or even if it is good, it is warranted enough.
      Now, if indeed the universe was designed (my hunch, given how I understand what I think I know about it) it follows it requires a different substance, as I mentioned, to avoid an infinite regression (if it was designed by a material entity, where did that entity come from? another Universe which posits the same problems as this one?).
      And I'm OK with math being a tautology, just another way of saying it is observer independent and internally coherent (or non-contradictory)... in the old times we called that "real", but nowadays only what you can weight and measure deserves that name... which causes a wholly different sets of tautologies being peddled as truth, maybe it all boils down to what kind of self-referential statements you want to consider "really real", or "really true", and that the criteria end up being either mostly aesthetical or fully so