Humanities & Evolution
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This will open by being not a review of the book as a whole but an analyses of the motivation behind physicalism as presented in an article, "Mind Body Dualism and the Two Cultures" by one of the editors, Ed Slingerland. This expands my analysis in my review of his book "What Science Offers the Humanities."
In summary, Slingerland does not give adequate reasons for abandoning what he concedes is the default position, dualism, so I explore what other reasons he may have for opting for physicalism.
He provides context for considering the issue:
The humanities-science divide, then, is fundamentally based upon mind -body dualism.... the other primary barrier to embracing physicalism: the feeling that there is something so special to consciousness that it simply has to constitute an entirely new order of reality
The reasons he gives for denying consciousness such a role confuse consciousness with mere cognition and intelligence, as:
As Daniel Dennet has argued, a crucial and vivid bit of evidence tipping things in favor of the physicalist view of consciousness was the development of artificial intelligence, which finally put to rest the "boggled" argument that no amount of physical complexity could produce creative intelligence.
Must we assume Slingerland is not aware of consciousness as a capability in itself, but only of it having such content as acts of cognition and operations of intelligence that it shares with machines? Does he not experience any difference between experience and matter that he could appreciate others wanting to account for?
Yes, evolution has embedded in us illusions associated with conscious phenomena. But Slingerland assumes the existence of these illusions means there are no such phenomena.
What this [the illusions] means is that the move from physical explanation to human explanation will always feel different to us than the move from physical chemistry to organic chemistry -- though, of course, they are no different in principle.
Not only are physical and human explanation not different in principle, they are to be regarded as different only for heuristic purposes:
It would be foolish to try to replace organic chemistry with physics, or to dismiss the explanatory usefulness of concepts and entities unique to organic chemistry . However, this emergence is clearly understood by everyone involved as merely heuristic.
His proof for why physical and human explanation are not significantly different is, we're equally ignorant about both so they must be the same!
It is exceedingly likely that... it will remain impossible... to accurately predict the future behavior of even a single human being...It is equally likely that... it will never be possible to pick out a single molecule of water ...and predict where that molecule will be one year from now. However, we never doubt that the molecule's future movements will be fully determined by the laws of physics... . we have no more reason to believe that the cascades of neural impulses in our brains are any less determined and governed by physical causation than the water molecule.
He gives empty logic priority over conscious experience. Here's another example. He must know that negative scientific findings cannot prove whether or not we are free, yet he gives the findings of science more weight than our healthy conviction that we are free.
As neuroscientists, we might believe that the brain is a determinist, physical system like everything else in the universe, and recognize that the weight of empirical evidence suggest that free will is a cognitive illusion. Nonetheless, no cognitively undamaged human beings can help acting like and at some level really feeling that he or she is free.
Engaging with arguments as weak as these is beside the point. The more important issue is what lies behind his passion to banish from mind awareness of itself.
When I look for those passions I am disturbed by how dark they appear. However, he is pressing a program for changes in how the humanities should train and instruct:
The physicalist position is that the study of consciousness and its products - -that is, the traditional domain of the humanities -- should be brought info alignment with the manner in which we study other complex (or differently complex) material structures...
So l think the implications of such a program must be explored.
In the following quote, for "daughter" I read "self":
At an important and ineradicable level, the idea of my daughter as merely a complex robot carrying my genes into the next generation is both bizarre and repugnant to me.
Here for "people" I again read "self":
Seeing people as, in essence, very complicated things, however, inspires in us a kind of emotional resistance and even revulsion... that must, I would argue, be felt at some level by any thoughtful and psychologically healthy human being.
And, again, for "individuals" I read "self":
There may well be individuals who lack this sense, and who can quite easily and thoroughly conceive of themselves and other people in purely instrumental, mechanistic terms, but we label such people "psychopaths," and quite rightly try to identify them and put them away somewhere to protect the rest of us.
Slingerland is urging the humanities to embrace and propagate a self concept that he cannot provide good reasons for adopting, that he admits is bizarre and repugnant, that would inspire revulsion in any thoughtful and psychologically healthy human being, that would justify us in labeling people "psychopaths," and putting them away somewhere to protect the rest of us. What could possibly induce someone to recommend that the humanities adopt such a gospel of self-hate?
Is Slingerland tapping into a society-wide self loathing, against which the best defense is denial of one's own consciousness?
What evidence are we challenged to produce to refute his position?
If we had an accumulation of a critical mass of replicable evidence for the existence of some non-physical, causally efficacious, intention-bearing substance, it would be unscientific not to be a dualist...
For the dualist this could be the daily writing of a journal detailing one's awareness of intentions hinging on thoughts and feelings in consciousness having been executed in the outside world. It could even be as immediate as being aware of directing one's attention to serve content associated with qualia, to which matter is not privy. To me, merely experiencing being conscious is proof of dualism, no matter how much of its contents owes its origin to physical stimuli. Are physicalists open to evidence in the form of the contents of their own consciousness? If not, dualists could just ignore them.
They could, but they can't. There is an alien and repugnant monster stalking the physicalism/dualism battleground, lending its support to the physicalist cause:
The Darwinian model of the origin of human being and other animals, and its formulation of the ultimate reasons for many of our abilities and behaviors, while appearing alien and often repugnant, from any sort of normal human perspective, is thus theoretically powerful and satisfying.
Is it the looming presence of this monster that's been breeding self loathing us, as we see ourselves reflected in its shiny scales as mere fodder for mutation and selection, our highest aspiration being to reproduce and see our genes passed on?
Whatever its role in feeding a passion to deny consciousness, I think its main role now is to give physicalists the courage of their convictions. I see Slingerland's endorsement of Darwinism as lending support to this web site's mission.