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Sorry, ‘Brights’.

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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.

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Y u no accept my theory!? (Oh no, Dawkins, et al, are really mad!)

angry dennett

(I haven’t written anything in a long time. So, I’m sure, this, below, will be a convoluted blur. But I don’t usually write anything I can’t finish in 10 minutes, so.. to hell with clarity.)

So several of the world’s leading atheist intellectuals decide to have some kind of soiree to discuss how to, in there words, “Move Naturalism forward”. ‘Naturalism’, to those who don’t know, is the metaphysical (although the historical data suggests that nary a scientist there, scientific acumen notwithstanding, is familiar with what the word ‘metaphysical’ even means) commitment to the idea that whatever science can’t understand doesn’t exist. Just like those thoughts in your head; your consciousness, yeah, those, they’re not real. Well, they’re only as real as — they only are, in fact — particles (neurons, perhaps) bouncing around your head. ‘They’re ‘illusions’, I think, is the eliminativist catchphrase. Of course, that raises the question: they’re illusions to whom!? An illusion presupposes a consciousness to perceive it, doesn’t it? So consciousness is an illusion to.. gasp.. consciousness? How morbidly incoherent! But, ah, I shouldn’t be getting ahead of myself, or anyone else.

At one corner is Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist (extraordinaire!) and author of  The God Delusion (available at fine book stores everywhere!). In another is Daniel Dennett, philosopher of science, and author of Consciousness explained. In another corner.. well, let’s just say that just about every neo-Darwinist with an I.Q. above 140 was there — from Alex Rosenberg to Jerry Coyne, to Almighty Darwin knows who else.

So they discuss and discuss, as intellectuals are wont to do, and then discuss some more.

At one point in the ‘soiree’, Dennett amusingly admonishes his colleagues, saying that if they repeatedly tell people that free-will (and, therefore, moral responsibility) and the objectivity of morality (the idea that some things are *really evil*) are really nothing but illusions, then that conclusion, should it be accepted, has the potential to, in Ferguson’s words, “undermine civilization itself”. So Dennett says, well, that they shouldn’t be telling people those things — even if, in what would seem to be the mother of all ironies, it’s what he  actually believes!

Dennett, at another point, bangs his fist on the table (well, not really [I mean the banging part]) and lambasts contemporary philosophers who still refuse to accept the conclusions of naturalism — you know, the idea that we’re really, from top to bottom, meaningless gobs (or particles, if you prefer) of goo:

“I am just appalled to see how, in spite of what I think is the progress we’ve made in the last 25 years, there’s this sort of retrograde gang.[..]They’re going back to old-fashioned armchair philosophy with relish and eagerness. It’s sickening. And they lure in other people. And their work isn’t worth anything—it’s cute and it’s clever and it’s not worth a damn.”

Suddenly, but not unexpectedly, Danny (can I call him Danny?) Dennett, of Thomas Nagel, says: “and then there’s some work that is neither cute nor clever!”

Mr. Nagel, who authored ‘Mind and Cosmos’, has of course been in their cross hairs ever since. I mean the guy, who is a self-professed atheist by the way, concluded in his book that materialism, and by extension, naturalism, is almost certainly false. Nagel makes the argument (the complexity of which makes me unable to get into details) that strict materialism, and therefore, strict naturalism, is so implausible, and in fact so self-defeating, that the universe, or consciousness — or both (actually, both) — can only be explained with recourse to some kind of teleology. The more philosophically astute will understand that to mean that the universe was somehow ‘designed’ or was meant to be the way it is. Now, of course, Nagel, the atheist that he is, suggests this without reference to God. But he probably knows, too, that there cannot be — logically, there cannot be — teleology (design or meaning) without a designer or meaning-giver.

The guys at the table know this too. So they say Nagel is crazy. “How dare he! How dare he not accept naturalism!” O.K., they didn’t actually say that, but they did others to that effect:

“Tom, oh Tom..How did we lose Tom..”

“What has gotten into Thomas Nagel?”

Steven Pinker, another atheist intellectual at the round table of sorts, the guy who wrote this book that claims everyone’s turning so nice and friendly, and that we’ll all be singing kumbaya in no time, contrary to all the evidence we see at youtube comment boxes, or all the evidence available to us in real life, once linked to, through twitter, a negative review of Nagel’s book, and said that it “exposed the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.”

“Thomas Nagel is of absolutely no importance on this subject..”

“He’s a self-contradictory idiot..”

So what has Nagel — who is, again, perhaps the most eminent philosopher still living — actually done to deserve all this negative attention from, of all people, his fellow atheists?

Well, because, in a nutshell, Nagel, their fellow atheist thinker, who just happens to be much more of a ‘freethinker’ then they can ever claim to be, says that “certain things are so remarkable that they have to be explained as non-accidental.”

In other words, it’s that word again; it’s the word ‘teleology’; the word that logically entails the hypothesis these intellectuals have spent considerable time and effort attacking; it’s the word that entails a creator, a designer — a God.

Of course, Nagel spends hundreds of pages in his book exfoliating this conclusion — presumably zero pages of which Dennett had been able to read.