Friday, March 09, 2007

I am my brain: a rebuttal

The two articles of mine, I am my brain and Morality based on the here and now inspired fascinating discussion on whether consciousness is simply a by-product of the physical brain, or whether consciousness is a separate entity operating outside the confines of the brain.

Currently, I fall into the materialistic camp, but the discussion prompted me to look for arguments against a materialistic view of consciousness. I didn’t have to look very far: one of the books in my shelf is Lee Strobel’s The Case for a Creator, and at the end of the book Strobel interviews apologist Dr J.P. Moreland, who presents a number of arguments for a dualistic view of consciousness.

Briefly, his major arguments are as follows:

Prisoners of determinism
If consciousness is simply a by-product of the physical brain, then all our thoughts and actions are simply following the laws of physics and chemistry. Thus, we do not have free-will. I’m currently working through Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves which is a response to this argument.

Trusting consciousness
If consciousness evolved by purely random, natural forces from matter without any direction from a Superior Intelligence, then how can we trust anything from the mind as being rational or true? How can we trust something that is a product of random forces and non-rational laws?

Embracing panpsychism
Some materialists argue that consciousness is simply a by-product of the brain’s complexity. Moreland argues that by advocating this argument, materialists are no longer treating matter in traditional scientific sense (i.e., that matter is ‘brute stuff’ that can be completely described by the laws of chemistry and physics). Instead, materialists are attributing mysterious ‘spooky’ or ‘proto-mental’ attributes to matter. Moreland argues that this view, which he calls panpsychism, is a view that sits closer to theism than atheism.

The unified self
When we partake in any activity, many different centres of the brain are activated, producing separate experiences. If we were simply a product of our brains, then we would be a confusing crowd of different parts and experiences, happening all at once. In reality, there is something that keeps all these different activities in a unified whole, a unified experience of oneself. Moreland argues that the existence of this binding agent, the experience of a unified self, suggests that there are two parts involved in consciousness.

Mental states are different to brain states
Moreland argues that brain states – which can be observed by doctors using brain scanners – are not necessarily about anything in particular. Although a doctor can see which parts of the brain are firing at any given time, the doctor cannot say what actual thoughts (i.e., mental states) the patient is having. The fact that mental states are different to brain states points to a dualistic nature of consciousness.

For those of you who have read The Case for a Creator: have I correctly outlined Moreland’s arguments? While writing this post a list of objections to some of these arguments immediately came to mind, and I was tempted to include these in the post. However, I have decided to exclude my opinions for the time being and ask what your thoughts are regarding these arguments.


CyberKitten said...

There are *so* many tangled arguments here... [grin]. So I'll just 'have a go' at one of them for now.

Putting forward Strobel's argument you said: If consciousness is simply a by-product of the physical brain, then all our thoughts and actions are simply following the laws of physics and chemistry. Thus, we do not have free-will.

I certainly agree with the first part (as I expect you know) that consciousness is a by-product of the functioning of a sufficiently complex brain. However, it is rather less clear that our thoughts & actions are simply caused by physics and chemistry. We do not know how thoughts are caused. We can detect electrical activity within the brain but what actually *causes* thought.... I have no idea. Not being anything like an expert in this area I'm not sure if anyone else has a clear idea either. In addition it could easily be the case that thoughts and action are indeed based in the mundane world of physics and chemistry but this underlines our lack of knowledge in this area where they apply to mental activity.

Lastly even if mental activity is a purely physical-chemical process it does *not* inevitably follow that we do not have Free Will because of it.

Anonymous said...

Personal identity is a huge topic in metaphysics and surely is an issue that will not be resolved here.

However, merely claiming that you are identical to your brain is not going to be as cut-and-dry as it may seem.

The idea that “you” are identical to your psychology is not new; guys like Locke, Derek Parsons advocated it, but other thinkers (like David Lewis) attacked it.

Lewis elucidates the case, that, if you are identical to your psychological state, then what do we make of a being like Methusalah who lives for 900+ years? If, say, our psychological state breaks down and dramatically changes after roughly 100 years, how can we say that Methusalah(a) is the same as Methusalah(b)?

Also, consider the fact that not all our cognition is in your head; much of it is done inside your spine, at the base of your neck, etc. When a doctor taps your knee with a mallet, the jolt of your leg in reaction is not your brain reacting, but the nerves in your spine. When your hand touches a hot stove, your hand retracting instantly is not your brain reacting, but also from the nerves in your spine. Keep in mind, those axons don’t just stay in your cranium, but go throughout your body.

If you get your hand chopped off, and yet you are your “brain,” how can you say that such-and-such’s hand is yours, his, hers? What do we make of babies born without cerebral cortexes? Do we not give them identities? Do they not have identities?

Similarly, as the Ship of Theseus Paradox (aka Washington’s Axe or the Sorites Paradox) shows, our parts are lost and replaced over time; viz. every cell in your entire body is replaced after roughly eight to ten years. Touching a table wipes of molecules; how can you *really * say that it is the same table moment to moment, hmm, Heraclitus?

Now, it is the case that we are composed of material things; our bodies and our brains are purely physico-chemical entities, pace dualists. The thing is, as Spinoza argued, if everything is Natural, that is, everything that is natural is governed by natural law, then it follows that everything that happens, happens necessarily (i.e. strong determinism).

We, too, are natural beings existing in the natural world. Do amalgamations of atoms, all governed by natural laws, make a free “bundle” of atoms (that is, our bodies)?

Spinoza said no, since we are Natural beings, we too are governed by natural law. As he notes in Appendix 36 of “Ethics,” believing we are “free” is the same thing as a rock in flight believing that it, too, has a choice where it lands.

Enter Dennett, right?

As much as dualists like Moreland et al. want us to be, we are not monads. However, if we are monists or pluralists ontologically, our basic everyday conceptions of identity break down at fundamental points.

- M

p.s. All of Strobel's books are masterpieces of sophistry...

Mark said...

Hey Kevin

Just wanted to praise you for your awesome research and posts. It really boggles my mind some of things you mention and is truly food for thought.

Keep it up man

Steve Hayes said...

I'm not familiar with Moreland, and from what you've said, it doesn't sound very convincing to me, and isn't really something I'd want to go into.

I have, however, blogged on this, at Notes from underground: Consciousness of absurdity and the absurdity of consciousnesswith a link to here, so just thought I'd let you know.

Anonymous said...

Hi all,

Having been a student of Moreland, taking courses on Philosophy of Mind and Consciousness, he is one of the top experts in this field, and has written many scholarly articles. In his courses we read from the top materialist authors, such as Searle, Kim, Churchland, Frank Jackson, etc.

If you want a fuller treatment of his dualistic views, read his "Body and Soul." I highly recommend it. Before you dismiss these arguments, you may want to consider that dualism is the "common sense" view of the self (via introspection), and when ideas run counter to common sense we should make sure that we devote a good amount of time to think about it, rather than dismiss it too quickly. And of course we should investigate neuroscience, but I suggest you consider again what neuroscience is actually finding, and whether this in fact does rule out dualism.

brigid said...

About the "Unified Self"

Moreland makes it sound like the brain is composed of many little brains--a compound brain--with each part producing its own experience, each having its own memory, each with its own cognition. Bunk. Clever use of words.

About free will: I do not believe in a free will, and this enhances my dignity. I am a lesbian; I have no choice; I must be who I am. To be consistent, a serial killer must be who he is.

About not trusting one's mind or reality or whatever the hell he said. If we are insane or suffering a high fever, we can't. He is confusing a sound mind with an unsound mind.

Nice to know you.


ercatli said...

Thanks for interesting questions. I have read both Strobel & Dennett, and I am closer to Moreland than Dennett, though not in total agreement.

Dualism says (more or less) that there is something more than our brains and their electrochemistry, a 'self" or something. If dualism is false, there is nothing else to control our thoughts than our brains, our thoughts are electrochemical events, and any control we exercise is also electrochemical events. It seems inevitable that our thoughts are determined, as many naturalists conclude.

As far as I can recall, I found Dennett's argument hard to follow and unconvincing. I think he argues that freedom from external coercion is freedom enough (ie we don't need freedom to control our brains because our brains are us). But the chain of causation that led to us and our brains started way before we were born, so we are all externally determined, by the genes we were given, etc. So I think his attempt to have both determinism and freedom at the same time fails.

Dennett's position is termed "compatibilism" (determinism and freedom are both compatible) and there are standard philosophical arguments on both sides.

The argument about trusting our reasoning is also complex. Naturalists argue that our reasoning has evolved by natural selection to produce "true" outcomes, but their opponents argue that while this can explain simple practical thinking like "That's a tiger, better run", it cannot explain the abstract thinking we are doing to hold this discussion. For a well argued discussion of this point, I'd recommend this essay by Alvin Plantinga - Naturalism Defeated - it's a long and challenging read, but at least try the first half, it is well worth it.

Thanks again.

ercatli said...

Woops! I think I said most of that stuff on a previous discussion. Sorry to repeat myself. I guess I am at least consistent! : )