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Minds and Brains

Scientism and Consciousness

The mechanists bend themselves into amazing logical pretzels trying to explain consciousness away. Their reasoning is essentially this: The universe somehow produces something we call consciousness. They “know” that the universe is entirely mechanistic in nature. Therefore mechanistic principles must somehow account for the appearance of consciousness.

In other words, they are seduced into circular reasoning. Their conclusion that consciousness must be mechanistic is founded on their absolute conviction that everything in the universe is mechanistic. Naked circular reasoning, standing out there for everyone to see, is transparently false, so they try to dress it up with sensible-sounding arguments. That is how they twist themselves into those logical pretzels.

It would be both impossible and fruitless to provide a complete catalog of all the sophistical contentions they have put forth, but two principal lines of argument we give a sense of the rest.

One is that consciousness is an illusion[*]. Upon examination, this line of thinking usually turns out to be about whether or not we are directly conscious of the real world, and thus is really about whether the real world exists (an interesting but entirely separate issue), or it is about whether there exists an “I” that experiences things. Both of these arguments are red herrings. The issue is just whether or not consciousness —simple awareness —exists. It is not about whether we directly experience the outside world, or if there is some kind of inner being (philosophers call this a homunculus) that has the experiences which we call consciousness. These are strawman arguments. They are redefining consciousness as something easily attacked and then proceeding to demolish the fabrication.

The other main argument against mind is one made popular by the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Ryle set out to attack the dualistic notion of mind and matter associated primarily with Descartes. In his The Concept of Mind he derided dualism (the idea that brain and mind are distinct and separate) as believing in the ghost in the machine. Dualism is also a red herring. The issue is not whether mind and matter are two distinct things, but whether or not mind exists. (Rather, dualism is a separate issue, but one which serves to confuse the important one).

Consider a coin. It has two sides: heads and tails. Suppose we were investigating a peculiar type of coin that was accessible only through an elaborate machine. Sometimes when we looked at the coin through this machine, we saw heads and sometimes we saw tails. We could not just pick up this coin and turn it over, so we could not be absolutely certain that heads and tails are not two distinct things. If we had no experience with coins, we might believe that we were looking separate entities that appeared at different times. Further investigation might, however, lead us to suspect the truth. We would not, in all likelihood, be inclined to claim that tails was an illusion produced by heads.

The mystery of the coin is pretty easily solved; the mystery of mind and brain is much more complicated. The mechanists make it infinitely more difficult by refusing to recognize that mind exists. Oh, they know that it exists, but since they also know that nothing can exist that is not mechanistic in nature, they redefine it in mechanistic terms. Ryle and his followers say that those who think that mind is something different from the brain (or from the behaviors that we associate with mind) are the victims of linguistic confusion. Ryle uses the expression category mistake. He gives a number of examples, of which this is the first:

A foreigner visiting Oxford or Cambridge for the first time is shown a number of colleges, libraries, playing fields, museums, scientific departments and administrative offices. He then asks ‘But where is the University?’ . . . It has then to be explained to him that the University is not another collateral institution, some ulterior counterpart to the colleges, laboratories and offices which he has seen. The University is just the way in which all that he has already seen is organized. (16)

The first thing to note here is that Ryle is accusing the dualists of making a pretty stupid mistake. Dualism may be false, but it is not likely to be the result of a rather simple linguistic error. Essentially this argument is saying that the relationship between brain and mind is the same as that between the dancer and the dance. The mind is just what the brain does. It is nothing but what the brain does. Unfortunately for this notion, it would be possible to be aware of ones own mind without ever knowing that such a thing as a brain existed. My experience of seeing a horse leap over a hurdle is very different from the aggregate of firing synapses that occur in my brain when I witness such a demonstration of equestrian skill.

The mechanists approach to the mind-body problem is like Alexander's approach to the Gordian Knot. They solve the problem by boldly declaring that it does not exist.

This sort of thing is very frustrating to a madman. The sane scientist, armed with his certain knowledge that physics has the answer to everything, looks at consciousness, redefines it in physical terms, and declares Voila! Problem solved! And only an idiot or a lunatic could not see it, it is so simple! The lunatic feebly answers by quoting Abraham Lincoln: How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg.

This is an instance where scientism actively thwarts science. An attempt to discover the relationship between mind and brain would be an extremely useful line of scientific endeavor, but it is impossible so long as the scientists refuse to admit that mind exists, let alone examine it on its own terms. There are a few lonely scholars who are attempting to investigate mind as mind. Foremost among these is John Searle. If you are interested, he has written many books, the most relevant being Minds, Brains and Science, The Mystery of Consciousness, and The Rediscovery of the Mind.

[Next page: Falsification and the Myth of Science]