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Some brief arguments for dualism, Part V

The next argument in our series is inspired by Karl Popper, and in particular by some ideas he first presented in his short article “Language and the Body-Mind Problem” (available in his collection Conjectures and Refutations) and repeated in The Self and Its Brain. As Popper originally formulated it, its immediate aim was to demonstrate the impossibility of a causal theory of linguistic meaning, but it is evident from some remarks he once made about F. A. Hayek’s book The Sensory Order that he also regarded it as a refutation of any causal theory of the mind. (See my essay “Hayek the Cognitive Scientist and Philosopher of Mind” in The Cambridge Companion to Hayek.) Hilary Putnam would later present a similar line of argument in his book Renewing Philosophy, though he does not seem to be aware of Popper’s version.

The argument as I will state it is somewhat different from anything either Popper or Putnam has said, though it is in the same spirit. Before stating the argument, it is worthwhile recalling the “mechanistic” conception of the natural world which, as I have emphasized in earlier posts in this series, implicitly or explicitly informs materialism. On this conception, the world is devoid of what Aristotelians call formal and final causes: there are in nature no substantial forms or inherent powers of the sort affirmed by the medieval Scholastics, and there is no meaning, purpose, or goal-directedness either. The physical world is instead composed entirely of inherently purposeless elements (atoms, corpuscles, quarks, or whatever) governed by inherently meaningless patterns of cause and effect. All the complex phenomena of our experience, from grapes to galaxy clusters, from mudslides to minds, must somehow be explicable in terms of these elements and the causal regularities they exhibit.

But in fact there can be no such explanation of the mind, not even in principle. In particular, there can be no such explanation of intentionality, the mind’s capacity to represent the world beyond itself – as it does, say, when your thought that the cat is on the mat represents the cat’s being on the mat.

The reason is this. As already indicated, any materialistic explanation of intentionality is bound to be a causal explanation. That is to say, it is going to be an attempt to show that the intentionality of a mental state somehow derives from its causal relations. The causal relations in question might be internal to the brain (as they are according to “internalist” theories of meaning); they might extend beyond the brain to objects and events in a person’s environment (as they do according to “externalist” theories); they may even extend backwards in time millions of years to the environment in which our ancestors evolved (as they do according to “biosemantic” theories). An adequate description of the relevant causal relations may require any number of technical qualifications (such as an appeal to Fodor’s notion of “asymmetric dependence”). In every case, though, a materialist is bound to appeal to some pattern of causal relations or other as the key to explaining intentionality. He’s got nothing else to appeal to, after all; the basic elements out of which everything in the physical world is made are by his own admission devoid of any meaning (“intentionality simply doesn’t go that deep,” as Fodor insists in Psychosemantics) and anything other than these elements exists only insofar as causal interactions between the elements generates it.

Now, specifying the relevant causal relation entails specifying a relevant beginning point to the series and a relevant end point. We have to identify some physical phenomenon as that which does the representing, and some other physical phenomenon as that which is represented; or in other words, we have to pick out one thing as the thought, and another thing as that which is thought about. To take a simple example, if we imagine that a certain brain process is associated with the thought that the cat is on the mat because it is caused in such-and-such a way by the presence of cats on mats, then we will have to take the cat’s presence on the mat as the beginning of the relevant causal chain (call it A) and the occurrence of the brain process in question (call it B) as the end. (Of course, specifying exactly what the “such-and-such a way” involves can get pretty complicated, as anyone familiar with the contemporary literature knows, but the complications are irrelevant for our purposes here.)

But what objective reason is there to identify A and B as “the beginning” and “the end” of a causal sequence? Consider what happens in a situation like the one in question. Someone flips on a light switch, which causes electrical current to flow through the wires in the wall up to a ceiling lamp. Light from the lamp travels to a cat sitting on a mat below, is reflected off of the cat, and travels to the retinas of a nearby observer. This in turn causes signals to be sent up the optic nerves to the brain, which results in the firing of a certain cluster of neurons, which in turn results in the firing of another cluster, which in turn results in the firing of yet another cluster, and so on and so forth. All this neural activity ultimately results in a behavioral response, such as walking over to the refrigerator to get the milk bottle out so as to give the cat a snack. And this is followed, say, by an accidental dropping of the milk bottle, which results in broken glass, a cut to the ankle, a yelp of pain, and the kicking of the cat.

Now, again, what is it about this complex chain of events that justifies picking out A and B specifically and labeling them “the beginning” and “the end” respectively? Why is it the cat’s presence on the mat that counts as “the beginning” – rather than, say, the flipping of the light switch, or the flow of the current to the ceiling lamp, or the arrival of such-and-such a photon at exactly the midpoint between the surface of the cat and the observer’s left retina? Why is it brain process B exactly that counts as “the end” of the causal chain – rather than, say, the brain process immediately before B or immediately after B, or the walk over to the refrigerator, or the motion of such-and-such a shard of glass from the broken milk bottle as it skips across the floor? Of course, we have an interest in picking out and identifying cats and not in picking out and identifying individual photons, and an interest in brain processes and their associated mental states that we don’t have in shards of glass. But that is a fact about us, not a fact about the physical world itself. Objectively, as far as the physical world itself is concerned, there is just the ongoing and incredibly complex sequence of causes and effects, which extends indefinitely forward and backward in time well beyond the events we have described. Objectively, that is to say, there is no such thing as “the beginning” or “the end,” and nothing inherently significant about any one event as compared to another.

Popper’s point, and Putnam’s, is that what count as the “beginning” and “end” points of such a causal sequence, and thus what counts as “the causal sequence” itself considered in isolation from the rest of the overall causal situation, are interest relative. These particular aspects of the overall causal situation have no special significance apart from a mind which interprets them as having it. But in that case they cannot coherently be appealed to in order to explain the mind. It is no good saying that the representational character of our mental states derives from their causal relations when the causal relations themselves cannot be specified except in terms of how they are represented by certain mental states. A vicious circularity afflicts any such “theory” of intentionality.

Now it is important to emphasize that the point is not that causation per se is interest relative or mind-dependent; the argument is not an exercise in idealism or anti-realism. The overall complex ongoing sequence of causes and effects is entirely mind-independent. The claim, again, is just that something’s counting as a “beginning” or “end” point within the series is interest-relative and mind-dependent. Still, even this much might seem to be too close to idealism or anti-realism for comfort. It might seem to make causal explanations somehow subjective and arbitrary. (Indeed, Putnam attributes something like this sort of objection to Noam Chomsky.) But to fear that the Popper/Putnam argument we’ve been considering might entail that causal explanations are somehow subjective or arbitrary doesn’t show that the argument is wrong.

Is there any way to reconcile the argument with the objectivity and non-arbitrariness of causal explanations? Absolutely. The way to do it is to show that certain physical phenomena really can objectively count as the beginning or end points of a causal sequence after all – that they can indeed be picked out in a way that is not mind-dependent or interest-relative. But how can that be done? By showing that natural objects and processes are by their natures inherently directed towards the generation of certain other natural objects and processes as an “end” or “goal.” That is to say, by showing that natural objects and processes have what Aristotelians call substantial forms and final causes. In short, the way to explain how causal explanations can be objective and non-arbitrary as opposed to subjective and interest-relative is to acknowledge that the mechanistic conception of the world is mistaken, and that the Aristotelian-Scholastic conception that it replaced is correct after all.

So, the Popper/Putnam argument shows that the mechanistic conception of nature to which materialists are explicitly or implicitly committed entails that there can be no materialistic explanation of the mind. (As we have seen in earlier posts in this series, other arguments tend to show the same thing.) And the only way to sidestep the argument is to abandon the mechanistic conception of nature, which entails rejecting materialism anyway. Either way, materialism is refuted.

What positive view results? That depends. If one holds on to the mechanistic conception of nature, the result would seem to be some broadly Cartesian form of dualism – either substance dualism or property dualism. (Popper himself opted for the former. Putnam does not consider what consequences his view might have for the dualism/materialism debate.) If instead on opts to return to an Aristotelian conception of nature – the right choice, in my view – then one is on the path toward hylemorphic or Thomistic dualism. (I examine these options in my book Philosophy of Mind and defend the latter at length in The Last Superstition.)

Hence, one way or the other dualism is vindicated. And as with the arguments presented in earlier posts in this series, it will not to do object to this one that it somehow “violates Ockham’s razor,” that materialism is the “simpler explanation,” and so forth. Such objections can only have force against attempts to present dualism as a “probable” “hypothesis” “postulated” as the “best explanation” of the “data.” That is not the sort of argument I have given. As I have already said, the argument just presented is an attempt to show that materialism fails in principle; it purports to be a metaphysical demonstration of the falsity of materialism, not a piece of quasi-empirical theorizing. If it fails (and obviously I don’t think it does), it does not fail for the sorts of reasons empirical hypotheses do.


Comments (16)

Would it be the same as or different from your argument to say that there is no non-arbitrary way to pick out a particular set of neuron firings as simply _being_ the mental representation of the cat or the thought "the cat is on the mat"?

I thought that that was where you were going at first, but as I went on I became unsure.

Dr. Feser,

The reason for specifying a snippet of the causal sequence is to establish a point of reference for communication. Therefore it is interest relative, but only circular if you want to claim that communication must be circular.

"Substantial forms"?

Did you just come out of a worm hole from the 17th century? Appeals to magic and mystical woo don't count as explanations Dr. Feser. A little book was published in 1687 called The Principia. It happens to be the greatest book ever written by a hominid. Maybe you should give it a gander.

Nature and Nature's Laws lay hid in night,
God said "Let Newton be!"
And all was light.


Hypotheses non fingo.

Perhaps I missed something, but I can't find an appeal to magic anywhere in Feser's essay. Have I missed something? Surely I must have, since Rbaert's post exudes such confidence, and surely Rbaert is an honorable man.

Rbaert says we ought not to appeal to the magic or the mystical (even though Ed's view appeals to neither). Nevertheless, let us assume that Rbaert's normative claim is correct. What are we to make of it? Is he suggesting that our minds are such that certain explanations of phenomena cannot legitimately be entertained by the mind? If so, then Rbaert knows something of the mind's end or purpose, And since Rbaert's claim is apparently a universal prescription, it seems that he has knowledge, however murky, of what a proper functioning mind ought to look like. But this knowledge can not be entirely the consequence of Humean empiricism, for such an empiricism cannot deliver normative claims; it does not tell us how minds ought to function. So, by suggesting that the mind ought not to entertain magical or mystical explanations, Rbaert seems to rely on knowledge of the mind's final cause, which can only be known if one has awareness of a universal: an ideal mind.

This is the philosophical equivalent of subprime lending: loaning ideas to build systems that can never pay back the lender.

I've been thinking about Ed's argument and asking myself what we're talking about in the case of a computer when we say, "Oh, your operating system doesn't recognize that software" or "The operating system recognized the software." It seems to me quite clear that we are using a metaphor of "recognition" to pick out the part of the stream of electrical systems in which the system and the software do, in fact, interact. Similarly, when we say that one part of the computer "sends a message" to the other part that "tells it" to do this or that, we're picking out that part of the causal chain because, in fact, that set of electrical impulses does actually bring it about that the other part of the computer does this or that.

What's interesting to me is that you can't apply this analysis to the thought "the cat is on the mat" all by itself, because all by itself the thought doesn't force you to do anything. That is, you can just think to yourself, "The cat is on the mat" and do nothing about it. So even setting aside the fact that we're clearly engaging in metaphor when we talk about a computer's "knowing" or "recognizing" something, there is the sheer fact that we have no non-arbitrary way of picking out sheer contemplation on the part of the computer or on the part of the human, materialistically conceived. We only talk about computers' thoughts, that is, insofar as those metaphoric "thoughts" affect the behavior of the system.

But I still don't know how close this actually is to Ed's argument.

When Prof. Feser arrives in the thread, he'll be perfectly capable of defending himself, I'll warrant. But looking at Rbaert's post, I do think I detect a result of several common fallacies committed by some contemporary (and often glib) critics of Aristotle: 1) Conflation of Aristotelian 'form' with the Platonic ("magic and mystical woo"), and 2) Miscomprehension of Aristotle/Thomas vis-a-vis the Argument from Cause (allusion and appeal to Newtonian Inertia, if I guess correctly). But how exciting it will be to watch Feser go to work on this himself. And FWIW, I think Dr.'s Beckwith and McGrew are both on to something in their posts. I'll stay tuned...

What's interesting to me is that you can't apply this analysis to the thought "the cat is on the mat" all by itself, because all by itself the thought doesn't force you to do anything.

It recalls a memory of a cat on the mat or a simulation of one if no specific memory is available.

It recalls a memory of a cat on the mat

Vhat is zis "memory" you are talking about? (In materialist terms.)

Hello Lydia,

Re: your first question, the immediate point is that there is no non-arbitrary way to individuate a causal chain of the sort in question. If the only way to identify a mental representation with some neural process would be first to identify some such causal chain, then yes, the impossibility of non-arbitrarily identifying a mental representation with such a neural process would be a further implication. And since (as I have implied) I think identifying such a causal chain would indeed be a prerequisite to identifying a mental representation with a neural process, I think this further implication does follow. But even if it did not, what I have called the immediate point of the argument would still have force as a challenge to the materialist to find some way other than identifying causal chains of the sort in question as a means of explaining intentionality "naturalistically."

Re: your second comment, that's not exactly what I'm getting at, though there is a somewhat similar point one could make that is in the ballpark. In the computer example, of course, we (as designers and users) are clearly the ones identifying this or that step in the process as a case of "recognition" or "failure to recognize" etc. It isn't there in the system intrinsically. What the computer does only counts as "recognition" and the like because we've assigned such a meaning to the processes in question. But there is nothing analogous going on in our brains: No one ever decided "OK, let's count this neural process as pattern recognition and that one as memory" and so forth. (This is part of Searle's point in The Rediscovery of the Mind about why "computation" in the computer science sense is observer-relative rather than intrinsic to the physical world, and thus can hardly be appealed to coherently in any explanation of the mind.)

Hence the difference between the computer and us goes deeper than your example implies. Even if someone could give a "computational" analysis of contemplation-divorced-from-action, it wouldn't matter, because whatever a computer does when it is "contemplating" isn't what we're doing. The computer's activity is just meaningless physical cause-and-effect apart from the intentions of the designers and users, whereas what we do counts as computation apart from such designers or users.

(Unless, that is, you want to bring in intrinsic meaning -- final causality -- and an intelligence outside the material order which at every moment orders things, including neural processes, to their ends, a la Aquinas's Fifth Way -- but I assume this is a way of "rescuing" the computer model of the mind that materialists would not welcome!)

Hello Step2,

Re: your first comment, the reason for specifying the causal chain is not simply for the sake of communication. The reason is for the purpose of identifying some objective feature of the material world that can account for the existence of intentionality, where by "objective" I mean "existing entirely apart from the interests or perspective of some observer." Hence, if the feature in question turns out not to be objective in this sense after all, then we will have a viciously circular pseudo-explanation: Causal chains of sort C "explain" intentionality, but intentionality is itself part of the explanation of why causal chains of sort C exist.

Re: your second point, see my response to Lydia -- and more importantly, read chapter 9 of Searle's Rediscovery of the Mind!

Hello byronicman,

I hate to disappoint you, but there doesn't seem to be anything in "Rbaert's" comment (sounds suspiciously like our old pal Robert to me) to defend myself against. Just some ill-informed mouthing off. What can I say to him but "Give a try actually, you know, reading something about Aristotle and the Scholastics before commenting, huh?"

As it happens, historians of 17th century philosophy and science, and of late Scholastic and early modern thought in general, have now moved beyond the crass PBS-documentary-level cliches "Rbaert" and his ilk still peddle on "skeptic's message boards" and other intellectual slums. And I don't mean historians sympathetic to my views either, but mainstream academics with no ax to grind -- just people interested in the period for its own sake. Check out the notes to my book The Last Superstition for some references.

I don't have to tell you that I'm no philosopher (even though I just did). So, my question might well be radically under-informed. If so, I note my embarrassment in advance.

But on Rbaert's behalf I have a question, not an argument: I was wondering why we'd have to know the real end and purpose of a thing before we could recognize that it was serving well a function we'd like it to serve, even a function distant from its proper purpose.

Perhaps a forced analogy will serve: Why can't we say that our new stainless steel kitchen oven does a great job of keeping the baby warm at night, even though no one at the oven factory who made and designed the oven made or designed it for that purpose, and might well be perfectly appalled at our application of their wonderful device? We don't really know or care for what specific purpose(s) it was made. Even if we did, we've discovered that it serves our alien purpose quite nicely. We've even tossed in the cat on especially cold nights in order to keep it quiet so that we can get some sleep. It comes with no "baby warming" or "cat quieting" settings, but it does the job well, and we're quite happy with the result: Junior is warm and we're well rested.

Even if someone could give a "computational" analysis of contemplation-divorced-from-action, it wouldn't matter, because whatever a computer does when it is "contemplating" isn't what we're doing. The computer's activity is just meaningless physical cause-and-effect apart from the intentions of the designers and users, whereas what we do counts as computation apart from such designers or users.

I completely agree. That was the point of my slightly goofy comment to Step2.

I hate to disappoint you, but there doesn't seem to be anything in "Rbaert's" comment (sounds suspiciously like our old pal Robert to me) to defend myself against. Just some ill-informed mouthing off. What can I say to him but "Give a try actually, you know, reading something about Aristotle and the Scholastics before commenting, huh?"

As it happens, historians of 17th century philosophy and science, and of late Scholastic and early modern thought in general, have now moved beyond the crass PBS-documentary-level cliches "Rbaert" and his ilk still peddle on "skeptic's message boards" and other intellectual slums.

That's about the sort of "defense" I was expecting. It seems with a certain sort of mind, ignorance is a virtue. One sees this with the "Four Horseman" atheist crowd. When you accuse them of being ignorant of Christian tradition, well, they don't seem to take this badly at all. Why should I waste time learning about something that I already know to be false? Now this is really a foolproof way to insulate one's arguments from criticism. As the expression goes, crude but effective. Now Rbaert, sadly, seems to be this sort. If he knew something of Aristotle and Thomas, he'd want to demonstrate that knowledge by making an informed argument, wouldn't you think? I know I would. One wonders if he even knows anything of Newton. There's little evidence in his post to indicate that he does, since it's easy to just drop names. As simply a matter of pride, I don't understand why someone would be so eager, as apparently Rbaert is, to expose himself in this manner. It must be, as you imply, too much time spent in those "intellectual slums." It's a bizarre expression of pride, to go about trumpeting one's ignorance as if it's a great virtue. An intellectually healthy person (like Prof. Bauman) is capable of being embarrassed by his own ignorance, and tries to forge through it as best he can while trying to remedy the situation as fast as possible.

Dr. Feser,

I would suggest that the only things "existing entirely apart from the interests or perspectives of some observer" are in fact things which cannot (at that moment) be communicated.

More importantly, it seems to me like you are implying it is impossible for a materialist to treat intentionality as a dynamic, interactive force. You acknowledge the complexity of it, but then try to simplify it into a basic linear causation. Intentionality clearly has nonlinear characteristics to it, I am sure you know the literature. So I won't deny that there is circularity involved if it is viewed as an isolated stasis, but that isn't how it functionally exists.

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