Sunday, 31 July 2011

My Problem with Dualist Arguments

There are plenty of reasons to believe in some sort of physicalist account of mind and reject the notion of dualism. Yet when I talk to dualists about it, they feel the same way about dualism. Of course this should be no surprise, as Catholics tend to feel that there are good reasons to be Catholic, and those who believe in psychic powers don't do so despite thinking there's a weak case for it.

Yet that we can justify what we already believe in doesn't mean that the case is very good. Perhaps the case for physicalism is really poor and the case for dualism overwhelming, from my perspective I try to understand where the case to the contrary is coming from and see whether that fits. At least in my head, I've got a list of certain things that dualism would have to account for in order to be considered a possibility. I've put these forward numerous times to dualists - yet I don't get any answers back at all.

Perhaps from their perspective, the problems are insignificant. Or perhaps I have fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the problems involved in the philosophy of mind. I don't know, all I can do is keep reading, listen to experts, and discuss the issues with others. Which brings me to the point of this post...

When it comes to intelligent design, most arguments for intelligent design fixate around the notion that there are certain patterns we can see in nature that are hallmarks of being designed. How a designer acts in order to design is a different question that a designer was involved - that a watch has a watchmaker can be inferred without knowing how the watch was made. So while evolutionary biologists will ask for a mechanism, the ID proponent doesn't claim to be able to show that - just to show that a designer was involved. This is done by trying to show that natural mechanisms cannot account for what we know designers can.

In a recent discussion with a dualist, I encountered the same such argument. That it didn't matter how mental phenomena worked, but that mental phenomena by definition could account for what physicalist models couldn't - and thus dualism. My objection to this is that labelling them mental stuff doesn't actually explain anything at all, but the goal of the argument isn't there to act as an explanation; it's there to demonstrate dualism - whatever that means. So me calling dualism incoherent and not actually explaining those things any better than a physical model would be missing the point.

Yet to what extent does this explanation carry? To my mind, such arguments are merely labelling our ignorance. What does mental causation mean, for example? To say that mental causation is part of the definition of dualism doesn't give any conception of possibility. A physicalist account involving neural networks and firing synapses is at least an attempt to make sense of mental causation. Dualism makes no such attempt, yet physicalism is judged on what is seen as a failure of explanation.

It's in that respect that explanations like Intelligent Design, God, pyramid-building aliens, or mental forces have a distinct advantage over any naturalistic explanation. The naturalistic explanations try to explain how something works, which for the most part are going to be imperfect and incomplete, yet the failure of such explanations is seen as evidence for explanations that don't even try to explain the evidence. In other words, just arguments are just taking our ignorance and giving it a label.

If such explanations were true, however, they would have empirical consequences. If dualism was true and there was mental causation outside the brain, then that would have empirical consequences. No matter how much personal introspection one does, if the brain is shown to be closed causally, then mental causation has no place in which to operate. This problem was not lost on Descartes, but it seems to be ignored some 400 years later by modern-day dualists. That we're living in an era of exploration of the brain should be all the more reason to be more empirical about it. It says a lot in the age of empirical inquiry that people are avoiding putting would could be scientifically-testable to the test.

Of course, all this might be a rationalisation on my part... but I really don't know why there's not even an attempt to turn dualism into an empirical model that can be tested and potentially falsified by scientific inquiry. Being "not even wrong" shouldn't be a selling point!

Friday, 29 July 2011

Newspeak Emergent

Nineteen Eighty-Four was one of those books I read as a teenager that helped shape my views on personal liberty. I'm not sure how much I still hold to those near-anarchic ideals, but individual liberty is still very much a concern of mine.

Of many of the themes explored in Orwell's classic, Newspeak stands out for me as the most striking. For those unfamiliar, Newspeak involved impoverishing the English language in order to control the thoughts of the population.

Any look at political language today involves such revisions, as it did back in Orwell's time. We, as a population, in general recognise this as political speak and are generally distrustful of politicians who use it. That top-down abuse of language remains a concern, though what I find more concerning is the bottom-up abuse of language - especially when it comes to words that carry moral condemnation.

When making analogies there are always some similarities between the two situations. The strength of analogies is they can help convey understanding by giving another way to look at it. Weak analogies have the problem of being easily misunderstood, and analogies that come with implied moral condemnation that may or may not apply.

Godwin's Law is the name for the idea that the longer a discussion goes on, the greater the likelihood of someone being compared to Hitler. Yet in any sense that carries the implied moral condemnation, what behaviours could possibly fit the analogy? Giving people healthcare? Teaching evolution? Eating meat? Supporting legal abortion? Arguing against US military aggression*?

The moral outrage in all those situations is very real, but the whole point of those discussions is that there's disagreement between how people see those moral behaviours. Telling people their views are akin to a deliberate and vicious genocide is hardly fair - at least in all those circumstances. It's not like people are comparing people to Hitler when there's ethnic cleansing in Africa...

Words like homicide, sexism, racism, slavery, genocide, persecution, all mean something. Using them out of context, or stretching the definitions to include the moral condemnation is pushing language towards a state of Newspeak - a Newspeak of our own making, emerging from our personal disagreements and shifting the lexicon away from a sense of perspective.

The key difference in this case, is that while Newspeak sought to remove language that could convey concepts that would undermine the totalitarian state, we're participating in the devaluing of meaning. The words still exist, but become effectively meaningless. Any minor controversy being given the suffix "gate" has succeeded in devaluing what Watergate symbolised.

But we still value, and value greatly. We may value individual liberty or the rights of the animal, we may value autonomy or equality for all in a society. We may value security or the propagation. And it's because we value that the forces that look set to destroy such values as being fascist in nature. But it seems that the valuation is at the expense of the valuation of language itself, the importance only conveyed in such a way as to make what seem innocuous transgressions as grievous acts against all that is good.

In some cases such moral outrage is just stupid (universal healthcare**), yet that doesn't take away from the underlying pernicious nature of such arguments. We're left arguing in terms of moral outrage; not in terms of outcomes - moral or otherwise. We are creating our own Newspeak, and doing so with great enthusiasm.

* Back when I was a bit younger and new to internet arguments, I got photoshopped with a Nazi symbol on my shirt for arguing against US foreign policy.
** I'm still baffled by this, in what possible world can this even begin to make sense?


"It is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science." - Charles Darwin

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Irrelevant Arguments

How it is people come to believe what they do and why is a very different story to the arguments and reasons used to defend such beliefs. As Michael Shermer argues in The Believing Brain, beliefs come first then come justifications. The danger for all us who wish to hold beliefs for rational reasons is that often those reasons are mere rationalisations.

I've been reading a recent back and forth between various academics about the cosmological argument, and it's got me wondering just why the cosmological argument matters. What does the origin of the universe say about the role of an interventionist deity who shares many anthropic traits and will grant us eternal life if we only would believe the right thing? Very little really, even if it were an argument for a deity it wouldn't be able to infer any of the traits and characteristics that we call God. So why waste any intellectual energy on it?

Perhaps it's that philosophers of religion waste intellectual energy on it, perhaps it's that the origin of the universe craves an answer. Though from my perspective, it's an irrelevant argument. Would the failure of the cosmological argument disprove God? would the success of the argument demonstrate God? In both cases, I'm pretty sure the answer is no. It's no, not because we've sat through and worked out the metaphysical implications of the argument, but it's no because the cosmological argument has little to do with the belief in God itself.

A few months ago, I got into an argument with someone who was obsessed with the notion of a necessary being. His argument went something akin to the following:
  1. X is necessary
  2. If X is necessary, then there needs to be a necessary being

  3. Therefore, God exists
What the X was is irrelevant, as is the argument in general. Why if something is necessary there's a further necessary step to a being is beyond me, but what was even more beyond me was how that related to an interventionist deity who the person had a personal relationship with.

I don't think this is true of all arguments, at least some arguments (like the design argument or personal revelation) seem consistent with what this interventionist deity is meant to be. A weeping statue or cancer going into remission at least have that sense of being about what people profess to believe in. If something is outside of space and time, can it have actions within it? It seems an odd question, especially when it's placed up against having a personal experience of God's presence.

This is no-doubt going to come across as arrogance from a non-philosopher who doesn't properly value philosophy of religion; that I don't grasp the nuances of the arguments that otherwise make them self-explanatory as to their value in the search for God. And if that is the case, please don't just dismiss me on those grounds, but explain why it's important. Why are arguments like the cosmological arguments, so abstracted from what it is people believe and why, are arguments that need to be taken seriously? To quote philosopher Julian Baggini:
Academics in particular maintain the illusion that, on the contrary, things like the complex details of the latest revision of the ontological argument might actually matter when it comes to determining whether or not God exists. If they did, we might see more regular changes of mind. As it is, philosophers of religion seem to be at least as consistent in their fundamental commitments as anyone else.

Friday, 22 July 2011


"We can treat others badly who do not share our values because it feels right." - Bruce Hood

Sunday, 10 July 2011

When Price Fixing Goes Wrong

The regional price fixing on Steam is frustrating; my general way of dealing with it is to not buy a game until it's reduced to nearly nothing and make a complaint on the Steam Facebook feed.

In any case, it's funny when there's a loophole in the price fixing, where the game is available cheap by getting it through a package that isn't marked up for the privilege of living in Australia. On the Steam sales today (10/07/2011) this happened with Dead Space 2:

Buying the game on its own, with the 50% discount comes to a total of $35USD. But if you buy it in a bundle with the original Dead Space, it comes to $20USD. You can save $15 and get an extra game too!