moral truth

To demonstrate not only the difference between scientific/descriptive knowledge and metaphysical/prescriptive knowledge, but also the greater degree of both accessibility and authority in the latter, consider the following:

There are scientific experiments which everyone knows (accessibility: tick) without question (authority: tick) simply should not (prescriptive: tick) be performed ((and there honestly is no need for me to give examples of such experiments)).

EDIT: lest it need to be said, the previous post makes no claim, of course, for human omniscience in any area.

53 comments

  1. Honestly I can’t think of a scientific experiment that absolutely everyone knows without question simply should not be performed.

    Sure there are badly designed experiments that you’d think would be rejected but people with agendas will still support them (e.g. alternative medicine).

    There are experiments that almost certainly won’t tell us anything new or for which the knowledge gained isn’t very useful but some people might support them anyway (hello Phds!).

    There are experiments that seem morally repugnant meaning deciding not to do them is recognising a poor benefit-cost relationship but the ends they could still justify the means for some.

    Your argument stands only if you can show that there exists a perfectly well designed experiment that will teach us something useful and with a positive benefit-cost relationship that is universally rejected (and I mean universally, most people isn’t enough). I.e. it would be rational to do the experiment but for some other reason we won’t do it. Otherwise we already have reasons to reject it that don’t require special explanation.

  2. Ian,
    When I say ‘should not’ be performed, I’m not meaning because they are a) poorly designed experiments or b) don’t tell us much , nor c) that the knowledge ‘benefit’ wouldn’t be worth the moral ‘cost’ (which is effectively the same point as ‘b’).

    (in passing, we only know what ‘useful’ knowledge is when we’ve agreed on the metaphysical/moral goal – which I think are often self-evident)

    The simple point is that there are obvious/self-evident “moral-Truth-goals” which override secondary concerns about how well the experiment is designed (a), how much/little knowledge we’d gain, and if it’s worth it (b & c). Indeed, the very idea of a ‘benefit-cost’ tension (heck, just the idea of a ‘cost’) is impossible to measure without assuming an agreed “moral-Truth-goal” – i.e. it is ‘costly’/’undesirable’ to do ‘x’…

  3. When I say ’should not’ be performed, I’m not meaning because they are a) poorly designed experiments or b) don’t tell us much , nor c) that the knowledge ‘benefit’ wouldn’t be worth the moral ‘cost’ (which is effectively the same point as ‘b’).

    I di realise that :) My point was that I can’t think of an example of an experiment that shouldn’t be done that doesn’t involve one of those three as the reason.

    The simple point is that there are obvious/self-evident “moral-Truth-goals”

    If they are so obvious and self evident then why can’t I think of any?

  4. Maybe it will help if I word it this way; some scientific experiments simply should not be performed – not because they are poor or unfruitful, but because human actions which carry the label ‘science experiment’ are just as subject to ethical concern as actions which carry other labels.

    To be clear, I do admit of a “spectrum of agreement” regarding what experiments should not be performed – and would not claim that one end of the spectrum is 100% agreement, either (though still I’d use the language of self-evident/obvious). Using lab rats, for example, constitutes an immoral experiment for animal rights activists. And a far greater percentage would agree that the Nazi concentration camp experiments were immoral. The lack of 100% agreement on each/every possible experiment does not, in my view, make science any less subject to ethical evaluation.

  5. I think either the topic drifted or I missed the point earlier on. My interest is in this notion of “self-evident wrong”.

    With that in mind it occurs to me that we can actually ignore science and focus entirely on the ethics issue since science isn’t anything special in that sense and focusing on experiments probably confuses things.

    In order for you to be able to say anything is “self-evidently wrong” you must be able to show that other reasons are not why we consider it wrong. If there are reasons why it is wrong then there is no need for a “self-evident wrongness” behind it – it is contextually-evident (for lack of a better antonym).

    For example if it was self-evidently wrong to kill someone intentionally regardless of the situation then there would be no argument that killing a person to stop that person killing a million others is “wrong”.

    Now I am pretty sure you don’t see things that black & white but therein lies a fundamental problem with the idea of “self-evident wrongness”. It requires a black & white view of the world to make any sense.

  6. I’m sorry Ian, but I’m struggling to see how the existence of self-evident reasons for something being wrong makes it any less self-evidently wrong?

    Perhaps I should clarify, and thanks for forcing me to (helps me communicate/think better!); I’m not equating ‘self-evident’ with ‘free-of-reasoned-reflection’.

    I’m rather referring to ‘self-evident’ in the context of the demand for ‘evidence’ to support one’s moral goals, values and ethics. To say that peace is a self-evident goal is to say that the goodness of the desire for goal of peace is itself the ‘evidence’ for it. It doesn’t mean that the concrete expression of the pursuit of peace doesn’t need to be worked out; quite the contrary, but merely that the starting point, the goal is simply and obviously a good goal. This view requires, it seems, an epistemic position that allows for desires/emotions to be carriers/sources of Truth.

  7. …and I should add that everyone who agrees that (for example) the pursuit of peace is ‘Truth’-fully a good goal is effectively (know it or not) using desire/emotion as a Truth source anyway. Again, there is no objective, scientific ‘fact’ that makes peace any more ‘right’ than conflict. Nor health any more ‘good’ than disease. Entire sciences (political theory in the former case, and medicine in the latter) are founded on non-‘scientific’, yet immanently ‘good’ goals.

  8. I’m not equating ’self-evident’ with ‘free-of-reasoned-reflection’.

    I also realise this. But you are essentially taking it for granted that there is something beyond reasoned reflection to this and to demonstrate that you need to show an example where this is clear. There is no easier way to do this than to find an example that is counter-intuitively seen as good. I am open to other methods though.

    I’m rather referring to ’self-evident’ in the context of the demand for ‘evidence’ to support one’s moral goals, values and ethics. To say that peace is a self-evident goal is to say that the goodness of the desire for goal of peace is itself the ‘evidence’ for it. It doesn’t mean that the concrete expression of the pursuit of peace doesn’t need to be worked out; quite the contrary, but merely that the starting point, the goal is simply and obviously a good goal.

    It is simple and obvious that most people think it is a good goal. That is not what matters in this discussion though. It is a whole other thing to say it is a good goal – something I don’t think is possible and the core of this discussion IMO.

    This view requires, it seems, an epistemic position that allows for desires/emotions to be carriers/sources of Truth.

    They are very good indicators of what individuals and groups think is good. Again that isn’t the real point here though.

    …and I should add that everyone who agrees that (for example) the pursuit of peace is ‘Truth’-fully a good goal is effectively (know it or not) using desire/emotion as a Truth source anyway.

    Again, only as a source of truth about what people think.

    Again, there is no objective, scientific ‘fact’ that makes peace any more ‘right’ than conflict.

    In fact it is quite easy to build a case that warfare is a good thing. Certainly it accelerates technological, medical and scientific advances, it provides a selection pressure for the human genetic pool, it acts to control population numbers, and so forth. This isn’t advocacy for war but war isn’t innately bad and I very much doubt we’d be here without it in some form.

    Nor health any more ‘good’ than disease. Entire sciences (political theory in the former case, and medicine in the latter) are founded on non-’scientific’, yet immanently ‘good’ goals.

    I’ argue their primary goal of any science is to understand their respective field. However we all think being more healthy or having better governance frameworks are worthwhile so we support, fund, and encourage them.

    I still see no sign of the innateness anywhere.

  9. Ian,
    On showing an example:
    Take the Nazi concentration camp experiments. These were ‘scientific’ in nature, yet thought to be immoral by most people (perhaps not those who ordered them, of course, hence the lack of ever having 100% agreement). Again, these experiments are immoral, not because of poor experiment design or lack of knowledge gained, etc. But simply because they are dehumanising and degrading – i.e. they conflicted with common/shared/’obvious’ goals for humanity. Again, no claim from me of 100% agreement, but merely stating that we are right to prevent experiments like this from happening because experiments are actions like any other and are subject to moral concern.

    On ‘thinking’ a goal to be good, v. it ‘being’ a good goal:
    Again, I make no claims that anyone has moral omniscience (complete/infallible knowledge of all moral goals/principles), and I don’t claim that there are any moral goals/principles that have 100% human agreement. I do, however, think that we have to take such an epistemically tentative position as to insist that all moral ideas are mere opinion. We don’t ‘know’ everything, but we don’t know nothing either ;) Humility must be called for, but if this moral relativism is applied directly to practice, we would have no grounds to prevent anyone from doing anything. What level of epistemic certainty regarding moral goals/principls/actions do you think we need to have before we can rightly stop people from doing things?

    On warfare:
    Indeed, I don’t think war is innately bad either. It’s all about goals. Warfare that serves the goal of peace could be good (though this probably should requre calling it ‘peacekeeping’ and not ‘warfare’ – as Derek Webb writes in his song ‘my enemies are men like me’, ‘peace by way of war is like purity by way of fornication’!). Which of course rasies the question of epistemic certainty regarding the goodness of goals (i.e. the goal of peace).

    On innateness:
    Yes, the goal of science (good or bad – methinks the former) is to understand its subject matter. But again, if ‘health’ and ‘better’ governance are not necessarily (meaning ‘of necessity’ or ‘could not be otherwise’) ‘good’ goals, then support, funding and encouragement would be no different morally than no support, no funding and no encouragement.

    And I’m actually not saying there ever/always will be a ‘sign’ or ‘evidence’ of innateness. Actually that’s kind of the point of something being ‘innate’ – I don’t need ‘evidence’ that black people are equal to white people – it is self evident. Anyone who diagrees I’m happy to call a racist. But the point is that science, with its ‘facts’ and ‘measurements’ cannot adjudicate the racism (or any moral goal) issue one way or the other.

  10. I agree with most of what you’ve said except that I think you are essentially equating “I/we/99% of people think X is bad” with “X is bad”.

    but if this moral relativism is applied directly to practice, we would have no grounds to prevent anyone from doing anything.

    If most people think doing X is bad then they will prevent people from doing X. It actually doesn’t really matter why they think that, it is just an observed fact and not really in dispute. This is an entirely different discourse from how it is that people come to think that which is where the innateness is relevant. Moral relativism only means that the source is localised, not universal. It doesn’t mean anything goes.

    What level of epistemic certainty regarding moral goals/principles/actions do you think we need to have before we can rightly stop people from doing things?

    Any individual could stop another individual on the grounds they don’t like them doing X for whatever reason. Societal rules are generally formalisations of such thoughts that are common to most people and once a society agrees to them that is sufficient reason.

    And I’m actually not saying there ever/always will be a ’sign’ or ‘evidence’ of innateness.

    In this there is a danger of this innateness joining Sagan’s garage-bound dragon…

    Actually that’s kind of the point of something being ‘innate’ – I don’t need ‘evidence’ that black people are equal to white people – it is self evident. Anyone who disagrees I’m happy to call a racist.

    Except that it almost self-evidently isn’t true. Blacks and whites are not equal – they are just very similar. The same could be said for Kiwis and Germans. We could argue for example that, where race doesn’t distinguish people, they should be treated similarly as a general principle (such as in politics) but they are not equal. More relevantly, I don’t see any innateness in this principle.

    But the point is that science, with its ‘facts’ and ‘measurements’ cannot adjudicate the racism (or any moral goal) issue one way or the other.

    Science can only deal with what we know, which is that people think that racism is wrong. Since we know that, science can interpret it. However until you can give a reason that doesn’t boil down to “cos I said so” for the innateness, there is no reason to suppose it is there – we need a reason to think it is that way.

  11. I think you’d have to admit that this relativism does actually mean not only that ‘anything goes’ but also ‘anything is stoppable’, or to put it simply, relativism means both ‘live and let live’ and ‘kill or be killed’ – or still simpler, ‘it’s all good’ and ‘everything/everyone sucks’. It is based on an ontology of inherent meaninglessness.

    The usual reply is that ‘well we make our own meaning’, to which I say, yes, but we take some meanings more seriously than others. There is no reason to disbelieve or deny that we actually are imperfectly, non-omnisciently discovering/uncovering Truth – that is beyond objective/subjective divides. And when we stop a rape from happening, we are acting not merely as though we ‘think’ it’s wrong, but that we ‘believe’ it’s wrong (and, depending on one’s grammatical expression of their epistemic position, that we ‘know’ it’s wrong)

    it’s all epistemology on this topic

  12. I think you’d have to admit that this relativism does actually mean not only that ‘anything goes’ but also ‘anything is stoppable’

    So in essence what you are saying is that people’s opinions are utterly meaningless? It doesn’t matter if people don’t like certain acts or why they don’t like them, if it isn’t objective then they don’t count? No I disagree with this.

    There is no reason to disbelieve or deny that we actually are imperfectly, non-omnisciently discovering/uncovering Truth – that is beyond objective/subjective divides.

    There is no reason to believe it either and that is a much bigger problem for your position.

    And when we stop a rape from happening, we are acting not merely as though we ‘think’ it’s wrong, but that we ‘believe’ it’s wrong (and, depending on one’s grammatical expression of their epistemic position, that we ‘know’ it’s wrong)

    The only way this could be true is if you can show that people will stop rape even if, rationally, the rape seems to be the right thing to do. If there are rational reasons for stopping the rape then the objective dislike is at best superfluous.

  13. So in essence what you are saying is that people’s opinions are utterly meaningless? It doesn’t matter if people don’t like certain acts or why they don’t like them, if it isn’t objective then they don’t count? No I disagree with this.

    So do I – I’m not a moral relativist :) So how does the sea of moral opinion fit into your view?

    There is no reason to believe it either and that is a much bigger problem for your position.

    Whether or not thre is reason to believe it is an epistemic issue. Belief, ‘knowing’, certainty, etc., etc.

    The only way this could be true is if you can show that people will stop rape even if, rationally, the rape seems to be the right thing to do. If there are rational reasons for stopping the rape then the objective dislike is at best superfluous.

    It doesn’t matter (in terms of argument) if people ‘will’ stop it; my point was about the motivation for why people would stop it.

  14. People do have moral opinions and that isn’t in question or in debate (it is an observable fact). What is not clear is precisely how people obtain those moral opinions and it is this arena that our discussion necessarily lies. You cannot conflate these two issues because they are entirely different questions.

    Now you claim there is some objective external source of these moral opinions such that if this did not exist, our moral opinions would essentially have no power – is that a fair assesment? If not, how would you clarify that statement to better reflect your views?

  15. Ian,
    on ‘how people obtain those moral opinions’:
    I actually don’t think ‘how’ is the issue. It’s about whether or not we can call these opinions ‘true’ in any sense of the word.

    on ‘objective external source’:
    I like the question of whether or not moral opinions have ‘power’. Another word might be ‘authority’. It’s common to ask ‘who says so?’ in moral discussions. I do think that if moral ‘authority’ is constrained to only humans, then this ‘authority’ would rest in whatever the ‘majority’ view was. Or perhaps whatever the ‘majority’/’accepted’ view was for a particular group of people? And the line would be very arbitrary as to the group size (nation? city? community? family? individual?)? Who’s to say that its not possible for one person in the world to hold a unique but still true moral thought and everyone else have it wrong?

    I do ultimately think there is an ‘other’/’objective’ ground for moral goals and principles, but (this is key) we are not all-knowing and don’t have complete/perfect/’objective’ access to this ground, so our knowledge of it will always be via other-than-‘objective’ means. Things like emotion, intuition, reason, logic, tradition, etc. are, for me, valid ways of pulling back the curtain, digging, uncovering, revealing, discovering and otherwise, imperfectly ‘knowing’ what is right and wrong.

    I cannot prove ‘factually’ that murder and rape are wrong. But if someone has a epistemic framework (i.e. there must be scientific ‘evidence’ for it, etc.) that says they are not wrong or that we cannot know they are wrong, I am simply compelled by emotion, intuition, tradition, reason, etc. to question their epistemic framework.

  16. You assume that there are two ‘types’ of knowledge – metaphysical and scientific. I think this assumption is unjustified, so let’s unpack what you are talking about.

    Metaphysical knowledge? What (on earth) does that mean and how is it ‘knowable’? Can you provide an example?

    Greater authority? You need to clarify what this means. Why is metaphysical knowledge – assuming that is such a wee beastie – ‘greater’ than knowledge derived from the physical world?

    Wider accessibility? What does this mean and why is it a point in favour of metaphysical knowledge?

  17. Hi tildeb,
    I need to be brief as getting ready for easter weekend.
    If you are curious about metaphysics, then i recommend having a look at the S.E.P. entry on metaphysics as a first port of call? Its a basic long-standing view that there is more than one kind of existence (i.e. the changeable and the unchanging), which is only opposed by some kind of physicalism/materialism/naturalism.

    The ‘authority’ bit simply observes that scientific ‘facts’/’data’ have no prescriptive function apart from making use of them (i.e. interpreting/framing them) in a metaphysical framework of values and goals. And ‘accessibility’ simply observes that one looks in vain for a human not talking/thinking about ‘right’/’wrong’ issues – it’s universal.

    Again, I may not be able to reply quickly, cheers.

  18. Fair enough. Don’t know if I should say “Enjoy your weekend” or “Happy Easter” or simply “Cheers.”

    Comment when you can.

    In the meantime, the mistake assuming these two kinds of knowledge is based on language; if you think of metaphysics as a noun, you are in trouble. If you think of it as an adjective, then you are being accurate. If something is unchanging, it is a concept that describes some other notion. As such, the concept itself can be a noun only in terms of it being a representation and not in terms of the concept itself as a separate, non-material thing that possesses existence. We may describe the relationship between quantities with specific names, like the quantity ‘four’ that is greater than three but fewer than five. But we make an error arguing that the notion of ‘four’ is therefore an unchanging thing rather than a representation.

  19. Thanks, yes I meant metaphysics as a ‘noun’ in the sense of a category of enquiry distinct from ‘physics’ (i.e. the physical sciences). And yes, the ontological status of the quantity ‘four’ is one thing, but the ontological status of the concept of human dignity, worth, purpose, etc. are another. Btw, I’m not a substance dualist, so I don’t think (say) human value is ‘floating’ up in the sky somewhere. The human ‘person’/persona/’soul’/self/etc. is, in my view, wholistically and inseperably ‘woven’ in with the human body, though is not exhaustibly defined in terms of ‘only’ the body. One has to use metaphors with such things, of course.

  20. I’m surprised: most religious people – most notably catholics – assume dualism and rely on Aristotelian physics as a basis for their science. And yes, a category is a noun but what falls into one is not necessarily so. That’s why language is so important: any idea/notion/concept falls into the generic term ‘metaphysical’ but too many people assume that makes these ideas themselves a noun rather than an adjective and that’s often where we run smack into dualism. For example, you suggest that ‘person/persona/soul/self is ‘woven’ into body but stand back from the inevitable conclusion they can somehow be different than ‘only’ body. I think this is very woolly thinking – sort of a philosophical release valve kept handy to avoid answering the hard questions and the hard truth that accompanies them. If person/persona/soul/self is not ‘necessarily’ body, then what is it?

  21. tildeb,
    let’s not pretend that one view is ‘woolly’ and the other is rock solid. Eliminative materialist accounts of the human person are just as unprovable and ‘woolly’ as sharp Platonic dualistic soul/body distinctions are.

  22. Not true. Specific local damage to the brain results in specific deficits both bodily and cognitive in function. I think there is a very strong case to be made that the mind is what the brain does.

  23. The mind/body ‘problem’ is centuries old and is anything but resolved. When people declare victory for one side or the other, I get skeptical :)

    And what ON EARTH does the link between local brain damage and cognitive functional deficit have to do with the mind/body discussion!!?? Answer: Probably about the same amount that the link between sledgehammer-impact-with-radio and radio-functional-deficit has to do with the ‘radio-waves/radio’ discussion!? The analogy is imperfect, I know, but you get the point: What Platonic dualist would deny that damage to the brain would result in a significant affect to mental function!?

  24. Resolved? Why do you think I wrote “a very strong case” if I meant “resolved?” All I am doing is following the evidence that the mind is what the brain does. Assuming anything else requires evidence but, until now, no other explanation and very little meaningful evidence for it has been any better informed. But that state of ignorance is changing very quickly now.

    To assume that the mind is separate from the body or attuned in some way to some other cause other than its biology requires evidence, whereas there is nothing but growing evidence that the mind is entirely dependent on the brain and the body’s biology. Because there is no evidence to the contrary, and we have just begun to gain the ways and means through neuroscience to investigate brain functioning itself to provide alternative and scientifically valid explanations for causation, I think a very strong case can be made already that there is NO separation of mind and body.

  25. tildeb,
    the whole point is that there is no positive ‘evidence’ that the mind is nothing more than a function of the brain, so your language of ‘following the evidence’ is a kind of category mistake. The only thing we are sure of is that the mind has at the very least a fundamental relationship to the brain. And the thing is, we didn’t need neuroscience to tell us this.

  26. No positive evidence? I’m not sure what ‘negative’ evidence might look like! But I think there is evidence of a direct causal relationship. I think cognitive impairment reveals a great deal of how ‘the mind’ is ‘the brain.’ I think it is one and same thing, although our language allows us to use one word to describe the physical entity and the other word to describe at least one part of its function. But just because we use different words doesn’t mean the two are different things, nor indicate that I’m making a category mistake. They are inseparable parts of the whole (growing your own brain both physically and cognitively is rather remarkable evidence I would call in every sense ‘positive’). Informing how the physical informs the cognitive or how the cognitive can cause change in the physical is certainly not furthered by metaphysical considerations nor religious assertions; the epistemology will (and has) come with evidence from neuroscience.

  27. Nothing you’ve said addresses the fundamental problem in trying to prove non-x in terms of y. Again, even Plato could agree (if he had known of such things) that the physical brain was changeable. I’m not sure how much further we can go here :)

  28. Let me try another approach – you seem to favor analogies – and see if addresses your concern about what you think is a category mistake on my part.

    If you ‘believe’ that a flock of, say, birds can only be (in actuality) one thing (X) with discrete edges and singular movement and purpose, then it will be difficult to grasp how the flock is really a conglomeration of individuals (Y) with individual discrete edges (physical boundaries), individual movement and will, individual purposes all acting cooperatively to form what appears to be a single agency.

    Our minds are much like that flock but evidence of what constitutes how it functions – its epistemology – resides in how the individuals parts that make up the whole behave: all the neurons and axons that make up the pathways and networks that function in various ways to give us the appearance of a single mind. But appearances can be deceiving: the flock and the individual bird are not two separate ‘things’ at all even though at first glance it may appear that way. The flock is what this bird and that bird and that other bird does. You must have many birds to have a flock: the dependence is absolute. Thought of another way, the flock is a meta-expression of the individual birds.

    Likewise, the mind is not in any way separate from what all the individual neurons and axons do but a conglomeration of them. You must have brain to give the appearance of mind. The dependence is absolute and not two separate things. Thought of another way, the mind is the meta-expression of the individual neurons and axons.

    Maybe that will help the discussion.

  29. If you wish to understand flocking behaviour, you must first understand the behaviour of individual birds. If you wish to understand how the mind works, you must first understand how the brain works. Knowledge of the small informs the knowledge of the large.

  30. Great example, Tildeb. Termites are also a good example of individuals without much of a clue who are able to build air-conditioned apartments when all of those behaviours are combined. The world is full to the brim with examples of complexity from simplicity but it’s very counter-intuitive and difficult to accept (especially when ‘we’ are ‘inside’ the very brain we are trying to understand).

  31. honestly guys, how in the heck does ‘complexity from simplicity’ (let’s just stick with the brain for the moment) begin to contradict even the most dualistic, starkly anti-physical, Platonic notion of a soul/mind?

  32. I don’t know about ‘contradict’ but it certainly helps provide a naturalistic explanation for what we perceive as the ‘mind’. As Tildeb says, there is a ton of positive evidence pointing *towards* the mind being a product of the brain and nothing towards body/mind dualism. You’ve got to wonder what motivates people to continue with beliefs based on absolutely no evidence especially when the evidence for a perfectly natural explanation keeps mounting and mounting.

    If you do have evidence that supports body/mind dualism I’d be interested to hear it.

  33. This is interesting. Why do we assume that this ‘positive evidence’ (presumably neurology) says anything at all directly/substantively about a ‘mind’? For the eliminative materialist, neurology observes the mind-which-equals-brain directly, but for the Platonist, neurology observes the brain-which-is-distinct-from-mind in greater and greater detail.

    Why, in other words, do we think/assume that growing understanding of brain phenomena is opposed in any way to mind as distinct from (but of course related to) the physical brain?

    The ‘evidence’ of our minds is immediate, obvious and yet easily overlooked. We get used to being conscious of our sentient experiences. Many have particularly seen rationality/reason/logic as something that cannot be explained in terms of neurological phenomena alone. Neurons don’t care about logical contradiction, etc. I claim no expertise on the mind/body problem, but have seen enough to be wary of people who assume that increasing knowledge of the physical equates to ‘explaining away’ the other-than-physical.

  34. Why do you assume that positive evidence for lightening being electrical discharge says anything at all about a malevolent ‘storm deity’? Eliminative materialist observations don’t at all disprove the ‘storm deity’ but the evidence for the ‘storm deity’ is immediate, obvious and yet easily overlooked. How can electrical activity in atoms seek out people to kill or cause trembling in any person that observes it? Etc, etc.

    As for your “Neurons don’t care about logical contradiction” surely you see that this is like saying that because a CD is made of binary pits — just 0s and 1s — they can’t be the cause of music because we *know* that 0s and 1s aren’t musical. The claim is that the mind is what the brain does. Not that each component of the brain is capable of everything the whole is able to do (this is where the flock and the termites example is extremely relevant — how can a bunch of termites build an air conditioned mound when no termite understand air conditioning?).

  35. Not to attack analogies (they always fall down eventually), but the CD analogy beautifully leaves room for a composer, performer, technician, etc. that are not themselves ‘in’ the CD.
    Or perhaps we could shift the analogy and say that each note (f#, Aminor, etc.) and each beat sound is not ‘music’ in and of itself, but when organised/arranged/etc., it becomes music.
    Mind is transcendent of mere sentience. It is not raw experience itself, but is the ‘thing’ that takes the phenomena of sense-data and ‘organises’/’arranges’ the experiences into mental ‘objects’ (ideas, songs, formulae, theories, etc.).

    Of course, a blow to the head will affect the mind in the same way that breaking a guitar string will affect the musician’s ability to play the g-chord. Not because the g-string is the musician, but because the g-string is what the musician uses to play the chord.

  36. how did we end up talking about mind/body problem in a post about morality? oh yes, two kinds of knowledge and ontology, etc. fair enough. :)

  37. Dale, when you say, “each beat sound is not ‘music’ in and of itself, but when organised/arranged/etc., it becomes music” you are exactly making the point that the mind is what the brain does.

    And in your example of the guitarist, we can equally say that if you take a hammer to the guitarist we’ll break the music. That’s because we have direct, observable evidence of a guitarist as a part of the system producing music whereas we have no evidence of the ghost in the machine that you propose that exists separate to the mind.

  38. yeah, all analogies break down :) Although, let me push back a bit?

    It is important that the beats don’t ‘make’ music or ‘do’ music. There is a triple distinction here:
    ‘beats'[parts/components]
    ‘music'[sum/composition]
    & ‘musician'[agent/composer]

    This could/would be roughly paralleled by:
    ‘neurons/synapses'[parts/components]
    ‘brain activity'[sum/composition]
    ‘mind'[agent/composer]

    Or:
    ‘g-note-on-g-string’
    ‘g-chord’
    ‘g-chord player’

    The ‘hammer to the guitarist’ example is perfectly compatible with a distinct mind. We can and do ‘do stuff’ to our minds, this can be due to ‘extra-mind’ influence (affecting the brain), or ‘intra-mind’ (lazy thinking and/or ‘switching off the mind’).

    The evidence for the ‘mind’ is in our subjective, internal, experience of thinking, etc.

    There are plenty of people who can describe this a lot better than I can, but my main contention here is that increase in brain understanding doesn’t ‘confirm’ or ‘point’ to any side of the mind/brain issue.

  39. Sorry Dale but the guitarist example doesn’t help your cause at all for the simple reason that we have physical evidence of the guitarist. We hit him and the music stops. We hit the guitar and the music stops. What you are proposing is not based on good evidence of any kind.

    You say, “The evidence for the ‘mind’ is in our subjective, internal, experience of thinking, etc”. But this is exactly consistent with what we’d expect the experience to be for any system that is capable of recursive representation of objects including itself. A system that was able to communicate its experiences without knowing in advance how everything works. It’s also consistent with our experiences of gradually becoming aware as we do in childhood; if the brain is gradually being configured by the environment and, in turn, by itself it makes perfect sense that our consciousness appears to ‘fade in’. Dualism doesn’t offer any satisfying explanation for this. Nor does it for drug-induced psychosis, unconsciousness, dreams, split brain experiments, etc, etc. The hypothesis of the mind being what the brain does fits perfectly. No one claims there is no such thing as the mind but that the mind *is* what the brain does or is a function of the brain. It’s not external to the brain.

  40. IF we have ‘physical’ evidence of the guitarist, then surely we’re not making the category mistake of asking for ‘physical’ evidence of a non-physical mind, yes? Our subjective experience of consciousness is immediate, obvious and universal (though not ‘physical’ of course) ‘evidence’ of mind.

    And I’m interested in any other examples of a “system that is capable of recursive representation of objects including itself”, etc. – as far as I’m aware, the human mind is the only thing that truly does that? It felt like you were hinting at there being other things. Describing something by saying it’s like itself is not a very good descriptive method :)

    And the language of ‘external’ may not be helpful. We’re merely saying that the mind is not only the ‘sum of the parts’, but is more (certainly not less, of course).

    And Dualism isn’t really threatened by the obvious fact that humans are born, mature and develop (and have brain influences, injuries, etc.). Plato was certainly aware of birth, dreams and the effect of substances on the brain.

    It’s actually a brain-only view which skips over and leaves out things (like rationality, etc.), because it apparently thinks (assumes from the outset?) that consciousness is ‘explained’ fully in terms of physical brain processes alone.

    ***

    A further thought to bring it back to the original post a bit is that it would be interesting for the mind/brain discussion to (for a crude example) test people’s logical capacity with more and more extreme amounts of damage to the brain (or some similar experiment). The point of the post is that we rightly don’t permit certain ‘inhumane’ experiments, because our subjective/intuititve/traditional/emotional notions of it being inhumane are more morally authoritative than any ‘objective’ ‘facts’ we may have about our species.

  41. There two significant considerations we must remember: Dale, you have already accepted the proposition that mind is not a thing but a function yet continue to suggest that it may be a thing, to which Damian and I have argued that it only appears to be some thing. Because this is a central point, let’s look at it for a moment: if mind were indeed separate or distinct or somehow apart in any way from what the brain does, then how could we find evidence for this? From where might mind come? How does it arrive? How does it leave? How does it grow and change over time? Is there, in fact, any available evidence to suggest (other than word games) to suggest evidence that mind is any thing other than what the brain does? I don’t so. But there is a lot of evidence that the function of mind is altered directly by cause and effect of changes to the brain. From this we can deduce that mind is a product of brain and, without any evidence to suggest otherwise, solely a product of brain function. You may disagree with that conclusion but unless and until evidence of some ‘musician’ is brought to the table, the notion of any meaningful difference between mind/body is pure speculation.

    Prescriptive oughts and shoulds to be meaningful rather than fanciful must be based not in some metaphysical realm of dualistic imaginings as likely to be false as true and just as easily dismissed but brought forth from the reality of descriptive natural materialism providing us with tangible evidence of cause and effect for our considered prescriptive judgment.

  42. only time for a quick comment,
    Again, the unique, private, subjective, obvious, immediate experience of thinking, reasoning, enjoying, remembering, etc. is ‘evidence’ of what we automatically take to be a ‘mind’ which is certainly not physical. My point is that all the neuro/bio observations we could ever muster would not even begin to negate or explain-away or make irrational this sense of a ‘mind’ as distinct-yet-fundamentally-related-to the body/brain.

  43. I don’t grasp how you can say the experience of thinking, for example, is certainly not physical. Is it a ‘thought’ that you are claiming is not physical or the process of formulating one? If it’s the former, then you are making a category mistake by assuming a ‘thought’ is a thing. If it’s the latter, then the process clearly is physical. Hence, my confusion.

  44. ideas are manifestly not physical. and again, don’t make the mistake of assuming that just because there are describable, observable physical correlates of human thinking, then ‘thoughts’ are automatically nothing more than those physical correlates.

  45. Ideas are not physical not because they are supernatural but because they are representative. You are confusing nouns with adjectives.

  46. Of course thought are not physical correlates; they are cognitive representations put together by neural activity. Neural activity is physical and natural leading to what appears to be a different noun but is in fact an adjective, the same way flocks are the combined activities of individual birds that appear to be something quite different in its entirety than the individual activity that makes it up. A flock is not a bird nor is a flock nothing more than a bird. Your body is a flock of cells working cohesively together but not just a group of cells, and so too is your mind a group of neurons working together but not just neurons. And its all perfectly understandable relying only on natural materialism. No supernaturalism is required.

  47. I genuinely don’t get what you’re saying about nouns/adjectives. Do you mean like a flock is not a ‘flock’ (noun) but is only a bird-ish (adjective) group? or perhaps flock-ish (adj.) group of birds?

  48. We have all kinds of nouns in our language like ‘flock’ that are in reality merely a linguistic convenience that inaccurately describes what we are seeing. We make a category mistake when we assume that because our language indicates a noun, that noun exists as an actual thing when in fact, in reality, in truth, that actual thing does not exist. Because we observe a group of birds acting together, we assign a word to this bird behaviour and use it as a noun. But that noun is not reliable evidence that the thing it describes actually exists. A flock is not a thing in truth: it is word.

  49. not only do I see no reason to deny that both can be true (flock AND birds, etc.), but also if we take this logic, then a human is also ‘not a thing in truth’: it is a word (which we use to refer to a collection of body parts… wait… cells… wait… atoms… wait… sub-atomic particles… wait… tiny material units we don’t know about. Effectively, anything more than an atom (etc.) is ‘not a thing in truth’?

  50. Exactly right. This understanding is essential regarding both the epistemology and ontology of material naturalism. Your body (including your brain) is indeed a ‘flock’ of cells, to which we ascribe all kinds of words that describe very complex behaviour and intricate relationships. From such humble and simple material beginnings come astounding complexities. No god, no supernaturalism, is required.

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