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Non Fiction

Materialism and Ignorance

Materialists conclude that nothing exists except for matter, hence, they assert that consciousness is wholly due to material functions within the brain, and they object to the “duality” of body and mind propounded by Descartes and theologians before him as completely fictitious.  This is the very purpose of eliminative materialism as philosopher Paul Churchland’s answer to reductive materialism, because the latter, according to Churchland, relies on human “folk psychology”.  Folk psychology is just another way of saying that human knowledge of how our mind works has been based upon misconceptions and limitations in human experience (just as humans used to mistake natural phenomenon for the wrath of God) which Churchland explains by listing mistaken scientific discoveries in the Enlightenment that have been debunked in the modern age.  Thomas Nagel on the other hand, points to the subjectiveness of consciousness as the point in which materialists are missing; Nagel does not attack materialism nor defend duality in any way.
Although eliminative materialism takes into account human ignorance in regards to how the mind works in terms of past and present knowledge, it does not take into account the future.  There are theoretical physicists who have proposed and scientists who have been pushing the boundaries in discovering new forms of non-matter (such as dark matter, anti-matter, and dark energy) that can completely revolutionize what we know about ourselves and the universe (or universes) around us.  Materialism, when seen in this new light, will certainly become (in a few hundred years, or sooner perhaps) as ignorant as folk psychology seems to materialists now.
Eliminative materialism has a sole purpose in reinventing human conceptions of thought process from mistaken but widely accepted terms, such as, behavior, and applying abstract thoughts in the mind to physical experiences in the brain.  Reductive materialism did not go far enough in explanation for Churchland because it applied the same concepts in psychology to physical processes. As a neuroscientist, Churchland knew that there were inconsistencies with reducing thought to physical processing in human brains through accepted concepts about the mind, so he proposes that people throw away all pre-conceived notions about the mind in order to explain it as a direct result of matter and its movements.
Churchland’s first argument in his dissertation on eliminative materialism involves applying the logic in reductive materialism to situations like witchcraft. If reductive materialism was used, then one would simply place another cause behind witchcraft instead of satanic possession; his point being that a completely new framework is needed to explain the phenomenon (which would be psychoses).  His second argument in support of eliminative materialism is seemingly wise, but ultimately contradictory because he questions our past understandings about the self but does not sufficiently apply it to his own theory or the present.  This leads him to discuss probabilities, in which he is right when whittling down the possibility of reductive materialism but still does not apply the concept of probabilities thoroughly to his own.  The probability of the existence of anything other than matter affecting the human mind is completely left out of the question. This is because Churchland assumes that any argument for the non-material would involve the mind or soul, products of folk psychology, which he already thought he disproved using inductive reasoning.  Yet Churchland’s arguments are lacking anyway because he focuses on the philosophy behind neuroscience while excluding other factors from human consciousness, which is the main concern regarding human perception of the self.
Thomas Nagel agrees that physicalists have misconceptions when it comes to human consciousness because they focus on the brain and overlook subjective experience in itself.  Nagel uses the bat to explain a being with processes completely different from ours, in that the animal senses the world around it through sonar, a sense unknowable to human beings. This is meant to demonstrate the subjectivity of experience, which in turn points to the unique individuality of consciousness.  Perhaps one day technology will break the boundaries of this limitation. Nagel acknowledges that materialists could be right in physicalism, but he asserts that the physical does not explain consciousness in and of itself.  Nagel essentially argues that materialism is not wrong because it correlates behavior and consciousness in one sense, but that it does not get the whole picture surrounding consciousness, and completely ignores subjectivity altogether.  However, he does not claim that there is something else affecting the mind or how one perceives the world around them other than the physical processes that materialists espouse.
In reality, the probability that materialists are right is not as strong as Churchland and his supporters would lead one to believe.  Churchland attempts to leave open his eliminative materialist theory to human discoveries about the physical world in the future, but this completely leaves out the probability that there will be scientifically explainable phenomenon discovered in the mind that have nothing to do with matter. The existence of the non-material is not mere conjecture, nor is it theoretical nonsense that could not be applied to our material world in actuality.  The probability question deserves the weight of ongoing experiments such as the large hadron collider, which put theoretical physics into action on a sub-atomic level here on Earth. Yet when the idea that something like dark energy can directly affect the universe is brought up, one usually does not delve into the aspects of the human mind.  Since non-matter does not take up space and does not abide by the limitations of matter, it is possible that dark energy, or other forces, can affect the mind and how one perceives the world around them.  Dualism is not what is in question here, but rather, the idea that forces materialist would assume were spiritual in nature and in fact, non-existent, could be explained through non-material things.  Churchland has fault in both his limitations and expectations.  Three hundred years from now, his theories and their basis will be as antiquated as Enlightenment ideas are in philosophy now.  The argument here is that since non-material forces are already being applied theoretically to the universe, why shouldn’t they be applied to consciousness, behavior, and perception?  The probability that humans know even less than what they think about the world around them is definitely higher than what physicalists embrace so assuredly.

Categories
Non Fiction

The Impact of Pragmatism on Epistemology

February 20, 2011

Two preeminent philosophers during the Enlightenment era, Renee Descartes and John Locke, led the debate over epistemology on whether or not humans gain knowledge from sensual perception or innate ideas.  Descartes believed that humans rationalize and can deduce reason, meaning that there are innate ideas which everyone  have.  John Locke on the other hand, denied anything he perceived as pre-conceived notions about understanding knowledge using reason and innate ideas, but endorsed empiricism through sensual experience.  Rationalism and empiricism came from opposite spectrums on the matter of understanding knowledge, with empiricism being the more revolutionary of the two.  Empiricism relied upon understanding your surroundings through what was sensually experienced, not through any universal innate ideas that were achieved through mere reason.  This concept was elucidated by Locke when he wrote, “how men, barely by the use of their natural faculties, may attain to all the knowledge they have, without the help of any innate impressions”(Locke, Essays Book One Chapter 2).  Yet empiricism and rationalism fell short in explaining epistemology as comprehensively as William James’ explanation of pragmatism, revealing “pragmatism [as] a mediator and reconciler [and] that she ‘unstiffens’ our theories”(James, What Pragmatism Means).  James meant “our theories” to mean the classic empiricism pitched against rationalism battle, and he believed his theory on pragmatism to arbitrate the incendiary conflict between rationalist and empiricist thought.
Rationalism was the preliminary theory of epistemology that was propounded by Descartes in early 17th century Europe.  Descartes’ Meditations introduced his rationalist philosophy quite unexpectedly by commencing with Descartes writing that he, “rid [himself] of all the opinions [he] had adopted” because he did not trust what he knew purely from his senses which have fooled him in the past(Descartes, Meditation 1).  Descartes rationalism was influenced by Plato which can be seen from The Allegory of the Cave in which men are tricked by their senses into believing that shadows are the only reality.  Descartes’ rationalism was unique because he attempted to rid himself of all former knowledge that was based upon the senses, but it was still derived from notions of philosophy influenced by classical viewpoints on innate ideas and the religious perception on God being the eternal source of all truth.  Descartes proposition “I think, therefore I am”, was his solution to not knowing the certainty of all things.  From this grain of truth Descartes saw a budding conviction that was the first and foremost innate idea- existence.  If one could confirm one’s own existence, which one could according to Descartes, through thinking, then one proved that innate ideas exist in which they could deduce through rationalization.  Descartes expounded that a human was a thinking thing, and it “is a thing that doubts, understands, [conceives], affirms, denies, wills, refuses; that imagines also, and perceives”(Descartes Mediation 2).  Thus, to Descartes, rationalism proved the existence of God through the fact that God was the originator of innate ideas and thus the provider of man’s ability to think.
Empiricism was enormously revolutionary during the Enlightenment because it differentiated from status quo religious thought that there were undeniable truths that, as Descartes pronounced, were “stamped upon the soul” by the creator, or God. One did not have to be a deist or a christian in order to comply with empiricism, they simply had to believe that human experience or experimentation could reveal the truth without there ever being innate ideas.  This is why empiricism catered to skeptics and those who were irreligious, which brought about organized religious structures to persecute some of those who supported empiricism and were believed to be atheists.  Although John Locke did not claim to be an atheist, and through his Essays he exclaimed the point he was focusing on was that there are no innate ideas.  Locke did not want to prove that there was no God, but that God did not create universal truth that could be found through rationalization.  Locke believed that everyone was born with a “blank slate” and that there could not be any innate ideas because “No proposition can be said to be in the mind which it never yet knew, which it was never yet conscious of”(Locke, Essays Book 1 Chapter 2) and he used the example of “children and idiots” to deter the notion that everyone can have the capacity to understand innate ideas.
Yet with psychology’s development came psychoanalytic concepts explored by Sigmund Freud that seemingly proved by the 20th century that there are concepts that the mind does not consciously understand: the subconscious and the unconscious.  William James was a contemporary of Freud and thus had an understanding of epistemology quite different from the aforementioned philosophers, which of course, made his understandings in relation to rationalism and empiricism more comprehensive than Locke and Descartes.  James was able to correlate empiricism and rationalism through understanding truths in different lights, which James designated as pragmatism.  Pragmatism as understood by James put a person in a less challenging position to prove or disprove an argument than by rational deduction or heuristically.  Pragmatism more or less focused on whether something was truthful based upon the circumstances of what was happening.  James’ example about whether or not does a man go around a squirrel rotating around a tree explains that it “depends on what you practically mean by ‘going round’ the squirrel”(James, What Pragmatism Means).  He then goes on to explain two distinctions that could be made based upon the English definition of “going round” and that the meaning of the “pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences”(James, What Pragmatism Means).
Thus, both rationalism and empiricism could be regarded as two distinct approaches to finding “practical consequences” that the pragmatic method requires.  Although, James decided that pragmatism “is at a great advantage both over positivistic empiricism, with its anti-theological bias, and over religious rationalism, with its exclusive interest in the remote, the noble, the simple, and the abstract in the way of conception”(James, What Pragmatism Means).  Pragmatism, as James has portrayed it, has had superlative qualities to rationalism and empiricism because it has had more scope in considering truth through a more versatile understanding of it, thus designating pragmatism as the quintessential democratic philosophical method.  To put it simply, rationalism had the intellectual advantage because it allowed man to deduce reason from things which his body could not understand through perceiving using the senses.  Empiricism on the other hand, relied upon truth through hypothesis and experimentation, while the pragmatic method used both rationalism and empiricism in order to make a more comprehensive understanding of what is right and wrong.  James was able to resolve the conflict between rationalism and empiricism through philosophical compromise that allowed more viewpoints to be determined and ultimately more arguments to be arbitrated by simple pragmatic method revealing that truth depended on the surrounding circumstances.