Sorry, ‘Brights’.


Stephen Barr, with respect to Thomas Nagel’s much despised anti-materialism
book Mind and Cosmos, gets it exactly right:

The big question, of course, is whether minds can be understood completely in this way. Thomas Nagel contends that they cannot be and that materialism must therefore be false. His main argument is that materialism cannot account for three aspects of mind: consciousness, cognition (specifically, certain features of human rationality), and the human capacity to apprehend objective values. He argues, moreover, that even if materialism could explain how minds can exist in a purely physical world, it has no plausible account of how and why they did in fact come to exist. Darwinian evolution, being a purely physical theory, is not enough.

For mind (or consciousness) to be fully explained in purely physical terms, or,
more importantly, for a materialist account of consciousness to be true, mental states and brain states have to be one and the same. It’s not enough that both be correlated or causative, they have to be exactly the same.

To see how absurd this is, here’s an example: Pope Benedict is Cardinal Ratzinger. There’s not one Pope Benedict and one Cardinal Ratzinger, there’s just this guy who is both Pope Benedict and Cardinal Ratzinger. By the same token, a mental state (like the experience of the color red, say) and a brain state (like a bunch of neurons firing, say) must be, at least for the materialist, one and the same  —  and in the manner, I should add, that Benedict is Ratzinger.

But how can this be?

Certainly there’s no strain in seeing how they’re correlated, or even how one causes the other, but that they’re one and the same thing seems to be more than just intuitively false.

This is a point of which some (actually, a lot of) materialists I’ve encountered aren’t fully aware. They’ll often — and, often risibly — point to the fact that we can see, through neural-imaging technology, brain states evoking specific mental states, which is, to them, apparently evidence that both brain and mental states are one and the same.

But that one produces the other and therefore both are one and the same seems to me to be obviously false. If anything, much like how flipping a switch opens a light bulb, it simply means that a brain state can evoke a mental state, full stop. In much the same way that the flipping of the switch is not the  illumination of the bulb (and not in the way that Cardinal Ratzinger is Pope Benedict), the brain state is not the mental state. Indeed, it simply does not follow they are one and the same, and that, owing to their obvious qualitative differences, they cannot even in principle be said to be one and the same, in which case purely materialistic accounts of the mind are untenable.

Of course, non-theists like Chalmers and Nagel, who can be said to have given up on materialism, and have thusly earned the ire of a lot of the militant materialists, have proposed other, let’s say, friendly-to-theism solutions to the mind-body rut. Chalmers, for instance, defends a form of dualism that’s much unlike the more parochial Cartesian ‘ghost in the machine’, while Nagel is a neutral monist, which to me seems to be a view that is eerily similar to panpsychism. To make the long story short, however, the fantasy of the science fetishists the world over  (particularly of those ‘brights’ of the new atheist cabal) that science will in time give us a complete picture of reality, is slowly seeming to be unrealizable.


Posted on May 17, 2013, in philosophy, science and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Usually I don’t study post on blogs, but I would like to say that this write-up extremely forced me to try and do it! Your writing style has been surprised me. Thanks, extremely good article.

  2. I’m not quite sure where you got the idea that materialists believe certain neurochemicals or brain states cause the experiences we have or as you say ‘mental states’. Of all the writings I’ve encountered, it has been stated that they are one and the same. There is no causation issue. As Gilbert Ryle says, the “purchaser may say that he bought a left-hand glove and a right-hand glove, but not that he had bought a left-hand glove, a right-hand glove and a pair of gloves” (The Concept of Mind). This category error is true for brain states and mental states.

    • That’s actually more ludicrous. You are in effect saying an experience of red is a neuron firing — that they are one and the same in the way that Benedict is Ratzinger; that there is absolutely no qualitative difference between the two, which is prima facie preposterous

      Of course, there is absolutely no evidence for this, and it seems downright bizarre, but so committed are they to a materialist metaphysic that it’s what they have to say.

      • I don’t find it ludicrous at all. What is absurd is that you stated in your opening sentence of the paragraph that “Pope Benedict is Cardinal Ratzinger” and then used this statement to later argue how this is incorrect. Surely Benedict is Ratzinger, two names for the same person. I find there that there is no qualitative difference between the two, any found would just simply be a misuse of language. In other words, the ‘is’ you used in the opening statement refers to the fact that the two people are the same and I presume what you are arguing is that there are qualitative differences between the roles of Pope Benedict and Cardinal Ratzinger. You cannot conflate these two different meanings to then argue materialism is flawed.

        As for your point about evidence, there is plenty of evidence, due to fMRI scans, that the experience of colour is in fact various neurons firing round the brain. But since you have brought the topic up, I would like to see whether you can point me towards any empirical evidence for immaterial mental states.

  3. @Helena (I’m just posting this below your comment because for some reason the ‘reply’ button seems to have disappeared.)

    Unless I’m misreading you right now, it seems you misunderstood.

    See, it is you who says the experience of the color red *is* a bunch of neurons firing (or whatever the brain state for this is) . You have to understand what this means. This means that a neuron firing and the experience of red are identical (they are one and the same) and are so in the way that Ratzinger is Benedict.

    In other words, there is absolutely no difference between a neuron firing and the experience of the color red; there is NO difference between the mental state and the brain state; we don’t have 2 things — a neuron firing, and an experience of red — but one thing, with two labels.

    This is prima facie absurd. And the onus is on you (or on the materialist), I’m afraid, to explain why the thought of London, say, is identical to electrical impulses in the brain.

    When you think of London and form an image of it in your mind, do you suppose the same image (of London) would be found inside your brain? If not, then how is it that they are, as materialists (of the Denettian variety) claim them to be, identical? Are you not aware that just half an atom of difference means they cannot be identical, thusly making physicalism (materialism) false?

    Where is your –or, the — evidence for this? Fmri scans? What does an Fmri scan tell us? It tells us there’s a brain state that’s correlated to a mental state. A particular neuron fires, a subject experiences red, voila[!], we now apparently have evidence the neuron firing is quite literally the experience of red.

    But that, I’m afraid, presupposes rather than establishes materialism.

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