In Defence Of ‘Inadequate Philosophy’

[B]ecause all my moral and intellectual being is penetrated by an invincible conviction that whatever falls under the dominion of our senses must be in nature and, however exceptional, cannot differ in its essence from all the other effects of the visible and tangible world of which we are a self-conscious part.
— Joseph Conrad, Author’s Note to The Shadow-Line

Anthony Radice writes a provocative blog as The Traditional Teacher: whilst I often agree with much of what he says, sadly our foundational philosophies could not be further apart.

[P]revalent theories are having a disastrous impact on the world of education. Influenced by these theories, there are many nowadays who think that materialism can be justified by statements such as ‘Evidence suggests that ‘conscience’ and ‘consciousness’ and other mental processes are products of human brain activity’.

I wrote the quoted words in the comments of the Traditional Teacher’s previous blog post [21/6/15], and I stand by them still. I would describe myself as a methodological naturalist rather than as a materialist. The label “materialist” calls to mind the seventeenth century view that there is only “atoms and the void”. This is indeed a mechanistic philosophy perhaps best described as ontological naturalism: in other words, all that exists is atoms and the void. If we know the initial states of all the particles then it would seem that we then can predict the future state of the universe at any time. This does indeed suggest that the past, present and future are pre-determined.

However, it soon became clear that such a view could not be justified. Perhaps a two-body Newtonian system can be deterministic in the sense that its past, present and future can be calculated provided enough information about its state at one instant is known. However, the lack of an exact solution to the famous Three Body Problem shows that even mechanistic ontological naturalism does not automatically entail determinism.

Since methodological naturalism does not involve a commitment to an ontology but rather to a methodology (perhaps best exemplified by the empirical sciences, but not limited to them), it does not entail a commitment to any form of determinism either.

I believe the foregoing shows that both “flavours” of naturalism do not automatically lead to determinism. Mr Radice, however, is not impressed:

Indeed, we have reached the stage where many do not hold others responsible for their actions, at least in theory. Their materialistic determinism leads them to ‘explain’ actions in psychological or social or (insert favourite flavour of determinism) terms. But this doesn’t explain anything, because it leaves out the person. It removes humanity because it removes conscience and freedom. All humanity is excused because humanity, it turns out, does not exist.

Sadly, I do not follow his reasoning. If materialism does not entail determinism (as I think I have shown above), then it does not rule out conscience or freedom or humanity. In fact, methodological naturalism leads me to conclude that there is substantial evidential warrant for supposing that they do exist. And this in spite of the fact, as Mr Radice points out, that they “are not material objects subject to laboratory experimentation”. True, but irrelevant — so are many of the entities and concepts dealt with by modern science: virtual photons for example. I believe philosopher Robert T. Pennock puts it well:

Many people continue to think of the scientific world view as being exclusively materialist and deterministic, but if science discovers forces and fields and indeterministic causal processes, then these too are to be accepted as part of the naturalistic worldview . . . An important feature of science is that its conclusions are defeasible on the basis of new evidence, so whatever tentative substantive claims the methodological naturalist makes are always open to revision or abandonment on the basis of new, countervailing evidence.
Tower of Babel, pp.90-91

Mr Radice seems to believe that since an individual neuron cannot be conscious, this means that a collection of neurons (a brain, for example) cannot be conscious simply because of the action of neurons:

But this sort of statement doesn’t explain what something is, only how it is manifested in the material realm. It mistakes symptoms for the cause. Understanding is always about finding the cause. What causes the brain activity? A human person with freedom and a conscience.

In his philosophy, neural activity is a product of consciousness rather than vice versa. This is a classic case of the Fallacy of Composition: since A is part of B, and A has property X, therefore B has property X. For example, since a single water molecule is not wet, this means that a collection of water molecules cannot be wet, therefore water is not wet. We only experience the property of wetness when water molecules combine on a large scale. Wetness is an emergent property.

Likewise, consciousness is also an emergent property. As Bo Bennett puts it:

[I]t is difficult to imagine a collection of molecules resulting in something like consciousness, because we are focusing on the properties of the parts (molecules) and not the whole system, which incorporates emergence, motion, the use of energy, temperature (vibration), order, and other relational properties.
Logically Fallacious, p.112

Essentially, Mr Radice argues that consciousness is a form of magic with no connection with the empirical universe. Such a viewpoint cannot explain why chemicals such as alcohol and other drugs affect human consciousness, or why brain injuries are demonstrated to cause permanent changes in people’s character.

And one final point:

The Nazis may have been defeated, but their idea that human beings are no more than ‘blood and dirt’ is alive and well, and very fashionable indeed. 

Nazi philosophy is not famous for its internal coherence, but the idea that empirical materialism was a major part of their worldview is not borne out by the evidence.

The party as such represents the point of view of a positive Christianity without binding itself to any one particular confession. It fights against the Jewish materialist spirit within and without . . . The leaders of the party undertake to promote the execution of the foregoing points at all costs, if necessary at the sacrifice of their own lives.
The Nazi Party Programme 1920, Article 24



Filed under Philosophy, Physics, Science, Society

18 responses to “In Defence Of ‘Inadequate Philosophy’

  1. Provocative post! I’m an engineer, so I don’t get lost in the quantum foam as much as some people. Engineers use rules of thumb and models of forces, and solve problems just fine, thanks. Words are models, too, and if saying “I want orange marmalade on my toast” gets me a nice breakfast, I’m okay with it. If saying “I will skip that piece of cake” helps me lose weight, I’m okay with it. If saying people are responsible for their own actions, but legally we need some way to deal with the insane, gets us to a better society, I’m okay with it. How can we administer the Turing Test for machines if we don’t accept that we’re conscious? Maybe “I think therefore I am” still applies.

    • Thanks for the comment, Kate. It was meant to be a provocative post as I wanted to address a certain mindset that enjoys the fruits of science and technology, yet decries their supposed “reductionist materialism”. The assumption that materialism automatically entails predestination and determinism has always puzzled me — even using classical physics alone the measurement uncertainties would preclude the degree of certainty in future predictions required for determinism, or so I believe. Therefore, a dip into the quantum foam is not even needed. I agree that words help us model the world, as the fascinating Wittgenstein proposed (at least in his youth — the later Wittgenstein is another matter). I’m not sure if the Turing test is still a valid one, as I believe that even fairly simple software can be written to fool a human interrogator by simple linguistic processing of the questions to throw back to the interrogator e.g. “Why are you being difficult?” will generate the response “Why do you think I’m being difficult?” and so on. Like you, I currently see no reason to revise ideas of individual moral responsibility, except perhaps in cases of insanity. On “I think therefore I am” I agree with Gilbert Ryle that there isn’t an “I” that is doing the thinking, but rather it is the thinking that is the “I”…

      • You’ve done a lot of reading on this – very neat. We may, indeed, need an updated version of the Turing test. On the mystery of “me” I think the idea that “the mind is what the brain does” captures it well. When my brain ceases to function, that’s the end of me. But that doesn’t relieve me of any of my responsibility to myself and my community. Thanks for this fine discussion. 🙂

  2. I think there is a case for revising ideas onon moral responsibility beyond the mitigation of insanity. We have a mounting body of evidence helping to illuminate human behaviour from a biological perspective, although, as you point out, most of the population prefer to ignore it. Nevertheless, it’s possible to understand pathological or aberrant behaviour sometimes recognising that it is pretty inevitable, given a set of conditions. This doesn’t abrogate actual responsibility for any individual action, but it certainly should be part of the consideration when thinking about how best to deal with those involved.

  3. I didn’t mean to suggest that we should be revising ideas of moral responsibility only in cases of insanity. I am all for constant reexamination for our moral ideas in the light of discoveries in Biology and other sciences. What I meant to suggest is that I currently see no reason to throw out the concept of moral responsibility.

  4. “methodological naturalism does not involve a commitment to an ontology but rather to a methodology (perhaps best exemplified by the empirical sciences, but not limited to them)”

    The trouble with philosophies that consist only of a methodology, is that they usually cannot be justified by their own methodology, and then become the exception to their own rule.

    • I’m not sure that I would call methodological naturalism a philosophy. To my mind it’s simply the working assumption that all hypotheses and events are to be explained and tested with reference to natural causes and events, as opposed to supernatural or transcendental causes or events. As such, it is a part of many varied philosophies, whether it is explicitly acknowledged or not. To be blunt, I think we are all methodological naturalists now, at least in most areas of our life and work.
      It seems to me that all that a philosophy that CAN justify itself using its own methodology can lay claim to is internal consistency and nothing more. While internal consistency is necessary for a philosophy to be true, it is not sufficient.
      On the other hand, methodological naturalism can show that it is uniquely successful in terms of 1) the massive amount of reliable, empirically verified information gathered using it; and 2) its adoption by disciplines as diverse as law, medicine, psychology and — dare I say it? — history, to the exclusion of alternative methodologies such as trial by ordeal, faith healing, claims of demon possession or miracles (e.g. the angels of Mons).

      • “To my mind it’s simply the working assumption that all hypotheses and events are to be explained and tested with reference to natural causes and events, as opposed to supernatural or transcendental causes or events”

        That sounds more like naturalism in general, than methodological naturalism and, for obvious reasons, all hinges on what is meant by “natural” and “supernatural” which are both prime examples of words we use all the time without having precise definitions of what we mean.

        Regardless, if what you have is method not a philosophy then I’m not sure how it addresses the point in the original post, which is philosophical and can only really be addressed by philosophical arguments.

      • I think it’s a useful distinction because methodological naturalism makes no overreaching claims about existence or non-existence, but merely about what constitutes an effective explanation. Defining “supernatural” is difficult but “able to violate natural laws and regularities in capricious and unpredictable ways” would be a start.

        To my mind, the original post argued that materialism entailed determinism and hence “materialists” did not believe in the existence of free will. The Traditional Teacher based this on a comment I made to an earlier post of his where I said “Evidence suggests that ‘conscience’ and ‘consciousness’ and other mental processes are products of human brain activity’”. We had a good-natured exchange in the comments thread (I hope the TT felt the same way about it) but I wanted to challenge what I believe were some misconceptions in his philosophical position.

        Whether or not methodological naturalism is part of an overarching “Philosophy-with-a-capital-P” or not, I believe my arguments and examples were consistent with the tradition of empirical philosophical argumentation and engaged substantively with the accusation of holding a damaging and “inadequate” philosophy.

      • “Defining ‘supernatural’ is difficult but ‘able to violate natural laws and regularities in capricious and unpredictable ways’ would be a start.”

        Part of the problem was defining “natural”. And if we avoid “natural law” by talking about regularities then we are talking about very little other than the unpredictable, and plenty of human beings might well fit that description.

        I suppose by taking issue with philosophical naturalism (or not, depending on whether it is a philosophy) I am getting away from the original issue about behaviour and free will, but I do think that this hinges on our definition of naturalism. I also think that if your definition relies on “natural laws” and “regularities” you will end up with something quite deterministic.

      • Back of the envelope answer: Natural — the properties and behaviour of the universe as revealed by observations. These empirical observations suggest consistent patterns of regularities which can be modelled. These models are tested and refined against empirical observations.

        However, the predictable regularities of natural law do not automatically entail determinism. Even simple systems consisting of a small number of objects interacting via well understood laws can show complex and unpredictable behaviour called emergent properties.

        Also, to be precisely predictable, an exact equation governing the behaviour of the system has to be derived — the so-called ‘solution’. This could, in principle, tell us the exact position at any time in the future. However, an exact solution is impossible for a system of three or more objects. Approximate solutions can be calculated using iterative, “brute force” methods but not exact solutions. This means that it’s behaviour in the long term is not predictable and therefore non-deterministic, even before we take measurement uncertainties and quantum effects into account.

        Human behaviour may be complex, unpredictable and irrational at times, but it is rarely random. To equate free will to randomness is, I think, reductionist.

      • Something can be deterministic but not, practically, predictable.

      • Then how can you tell if its deterministic or not?

      • asystem is deterministic if its future states are dependent only on its past states. How this can be demonstrated to be the case where it is not possible to make reliable predictions is often what’s at issue. Determinism can be an unfalsifiable hypothesis.

      • That definition seems simplistic to me. I think all future states are dependent on their past states to some degree. Surely a system is deterministic only if there is only one future state possible given the previous past states.

        In other words, if it was possible to rewind events back to the previous state and then let the whole shebang run again, the system would only be deterministic if the all the outcomes were precisely the same as the previous “run”. If we do not have the same outcomes given the same initial starting conditions, then I do not see how the system can be classed as deterministic.

        To me, this only seems remotely plausible in extremely simple systems; and even then, empirical limitations on measurement would render it deterministic in a theoretical sense only.

        And that’s before we consider quantum limitations on measurement such as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and the Planck length…

      • I agree with that definition of deterministic. I thought that was what I implied.

      • You used the phrase “dependent on” and that, to me, left open the possibility of past states merely influencing future states, rather than determining them in an absolute sense.

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