Feser's Philosophy of Mind, #3

This chapter deals with materialistic views of mind, namely that reality, and therefore the mind:

consists of purely material or physical objects, processes, and properties, operating according to the same basic physical laws and thereby susceptible of explanation via physical science. There is, in short, no such thing as immaterial substance, or soul, or spirit, nor any aspect of human nature which, in principle, elude explanation in purely physical terms.

I note, purely in passing, that the second sentence doesn't necessarily follow from the first. In any case, Feser then proceeds to argue that it is difficult to see how things like cultural conventions, for example, are:

… hard to reduce to the properties of molecules in motion.


There seems to be no way to match up sets of logically interrelated mental states with sets of merely causally interrelated brain states, and thus no way to reduce the mental to the physical.

Here is how it's done. We have no problem understanding that there are quarks and electrons. We have no problem understanding that quarks combine to form protons and neutrons, and that protons, neutrons, and electrons form atoms. Atoms form trees and stars, bacteria and brains.

Instead of combing things into more things, consider the case where two things are "combined" into one of the two things. Consider the physical process where an apple and an apple combine to an orange, and apple and an orange combine to an apple, an orange and an apple combine to an orange, and an orange and an orange combine into an apple. Or consider the case where an apple and an apple combine to orange, while apple and orange, orange and apple, and orange and orange combine to apple. There are sixteen ways for these combinations to happen. We can demonstrate that repeated application of either of two of these processes can reproduce all of the others.

This is a purely physical process. Instead of using apples and oranges, we can use more or fewer electrons flowing through a wire. We can use variable resistors to make a physical process that combines more and fewer electrons just like we combined oranges and apples. Let's call this collection of variable resistors and wires a "device". These devices can be strung together into complex networks.
We can show that arrangements of these devices are equivalent to neurons and computer gates. Furthermore, and this is one of two key insights, arranging devices and wires one way gives one behavior; arranging devices and wires another results in a different behavior.

This is important, because we normally think of a computer as an arrangement of wires and devices that takes a program as input, performs the steps in the program, and produces a result. This leads us to believe that a computer cannot do anything without programming. Feser falls into this way of thinking when he writes:

A computer program is something abstract – a mathematical structure that can be understood and specified, on paper or in the programmer’s mind, long before anyone implements it in a machine.

While this isn't wrong, it hides the key concept that the arrangement of the wires and devices is the program. No external program is necessary. If it were cost effective, instead of writing abstract programs that run on a general purpose computer, we could custom build an arrangement of wires and devices for each program we wished to run.

Once we understand that the physical network itself is the program, we have to ask how we can get meaning out of networks of apples and oranges or high and low voltages. Consider the network that given an apple and an apple, or an orange and an orange, produces an apple and when given an apple and an orange or an orange and an apple produces an orange. This is equivalent to the question "are the inputs equal" with "apple" being assumed to be "yes". We could just as easily chose the network that takes apple and apple or orange and orange and outputs orange. The choice of which network to use is completely arbitrary, but networks that use this convention can now be constructed that can compare two things for equality. This is the second key insight. Meaning is achieved by building a network that uses one of the two inputs to answer the question "are these things equal?" And once you have that, you have the basis for constructing systems that can, for example, associate sights with sounds.

One network can wag a tail at the enjoyment of a bone, another network can contemplate the ontology of thought. Dogs don't discuss epistemology simply because their brain wiring is insufficient for the task.

So the question isn't "is thought a physical process?" It certainly is. Logic is built into the very fabric of reality. The "devices" are just logic gates. The astounding thing is that a network of these gates can recognize and describe themselves. Furthermore, our brains aren't capable of proving that logic can be separated from reality. Every attempt to do so changes reality such that we destroy our ability to think.

The real question is "how did these complex networks arise in the first place?" But with the current state of the art, the answer to that question depends very much on your philosophical assumptions.

Feser's Philosophy of Mind, #2

Feser ends chapter one by introducing the "mind-body" problem which is this: if the brain is purely physical, how can something that is composed of atoms think and be conscious of itself and its surroundings? Are mind and "matter" two fundamentally different kinds of things ("dualism") or are mind and matter different forms of the same thing? In chapter 2, Feser presents three arguments for dualism, and one argument against it. The three positive arguments are the "indivisibility," "obviousness," and "conceivability" arguments, while the "interaction" argument is the negative argument. I will not consider the interaction argument here.

The indivisibility argument goes like this. Matter is one form of substance which can be divided into parts. Atoms can be divided into protons, neutrons, and electrons; protons and neutrons can be divided into quarks; quarks and electrons are made up of strings (assuming string theory is true), with the string being the fundamental indivisible unit of matter. What remains after each division is of the same kind — it's matter all the way down — and since it doesn't divide into something else, it's one "substance". A mind, however, is not divisible. The "I" is one (considerations of schizophrenia not withstanding). Therefore, the "string" and the "mind" are two fundamentally different things.

A problem with this is that "matter" is not the only component to the physical universe. Along with strings (or higher level particles), there is space-time, motion, energy, charge, etc… To hold to dualism is to say that mind is not only not any of these things, but is also not some form of combination of these things. If mind is some form of combination of these things, then the "indivisibility" of the mind might only hold when the combination of these things are working in concert. Break the synchronization of the parts and the mind ceases to function correctly (or at all).

The obviousness argument holds that just as oranges and apples are obviously different, mind and matter are obviously different. That is, because we perceive them differently, they are fundamentally different. Oranges and apples have different shapes, textures, colors, and tastes. But the indivisibility argument shows that apples and oranges aren't fundamentally different. They are just different arrangements of the number and kinds of atoms, which are just different arrangements of electrons and quarks. The dualist's perceived difference between mind and brain, like the difference between apples and oranges, could be explained by the operation of nature where the mechanism isn't immediately obvious. Someone who has never seen a modern phone might wonder at a symphony coming from someone's pocket. Humans are not violins and to hear the Brandenburg Concerto #3 coming from someone's pocket might cause no end of consternation and speculation as to its cause. Saying that mental stuff is different from physical stuff is to put a label on a lack of knowledge and put it in its own category.

The conceivability argument is as follows:

That is to say, it is entirely conceivable that one could exist as a disembodied mind, with one’s body and brain, and indeed the entire physical world, being nothing but a figment of one’s imagination. But then it is conceivable and therefore at least metaphysically possible for the mind to exist apart from the brain. Therefore, the mind is not identical to the brain.

The problems with this are manifold. First, the mind is not identical to the brain, any more than a symphony is identical to an orchestra. Therefore, this doesn't show that the mind can exist apart from the brain. Second, the conceivability argument can be used to show that solipsism is true. But in chapter 1, Feser argues against solipsism, thereby undercutting the power of the conceivability argument. Third, Feser himself admits the weakness of conceivability arguments in the next chapter by writing:

But conceivability arguments, if they prove anything…

Conceivability arguments prove nothing at all.

The indivisibility, obviousness, and conceivability arguments are so bad that professors who present them should be stripped of their degrees and run out of their supporting institutions.

And I say this as a convinced dualist. But I am a dualist who thinks that matter and mind are so entangled in a loop that they are impossible to separate without destroying our ability to think about them (cf.
The Physical Nature of Thought).

Feser's Philosophy of Mind, #1

In the first chapter of Feser's Philosophy of Mind, Feser attempts to justify belief in a physical external world using Occam's Razor. That is, given the two hypothesis that either the external physical world exists independently of us, or that it is a simply some form of illusion, application of Occam's Razor justifies belief in the first option.

There are several problems with this argument. First, Occam's Razor is a heuristic. It is simply a guideline, a good guess, when choosing between alternatives. But anyone familiar with search techniques in artificial intelligence knows that even good guesses can ultimately lead to less than optimal or even wrong conclusions. If you don't end up in a dead end, there might still be an untried path to a more favorable outcome.

Second, and more importantly, Occam's Razor only applies when all other considerations are equal. That is, Occam's Razor should be used only when both systems give the same independently verifiable answer to the same questions. Both the
Ptolemaic and Copernican systems predict the same positions of the planets in the night sky. But the Copernican system is simpler and so is justified by Occam's Razor. So the use of Occam's Razor is therefore not applicable in this case, because the answers to the same questions can be wildly different in the Realist and Solipsist systems.

Third, we can't really tell which system is simpler. Since we don't ultimately know what reality really is, any argument that the implementation of reality in one form is simpler than the implementation of reality in another is dubious, at best. No one has any idea what it takes to implement the reality that appears to be external to us, any more than we have any idea that we know what it takes to implement a mind that thinks there is an external reality.

Fourth, if a system with an entity which manipulates our minds is more complex than an external reality, then Feser has justified disbelief in Theism in general, and Christianity in particular, since God is one more complicating factor in an already complex system. Given that Feser is a theist, he may want to reconsider this use of the razor.

So Occam's Razor fails as a means to justify realism over solipsism. Granted, Feser conditions this justification with “If all this is right…" but, still, an inauspicious start to this book. The correct answer is that we choose one or the other simply because we choose one over the other. Post hoc rationalizations as to why we made a particular choice will vary depending on which system we chose.

Grudem's Systematic Theology, #2

The following practice question in chapter 10 of Grudem ties together my major complaints, so far, of his text: namely that there is weak, to non-existent, development of the doctrines of epistemology and ethics. To be sure, Grudem has said correct things about each, but he is inconsistent in his application of those things. I've already mentioned one problem with his exposition of ethics in a previous post; this post looks at a problem with both epistemology and ethics.

How can we be sure that when we reach heaven God will not tell us that most of what we had learned about him was wrong, and that we would have to forget what we had learned and begin to learn different things about him?

     — page 152, question #2

The answer that I think Grudem expects, based on the contents of the chapter, would be something like: we can be sure that what God has revealed to us about Himself is true, because He understands that our knowledge of Him requires the revelation of Himself [Mt 11:7], He desires His people to "know him, the only true God", [Jer 31:34], He reveals Himself truly [Num 23:19], and that He would not deceive us, because He is Truth [John 3:33] and the ultimate good. [1 John 1:5].

But the correct answer is, "we cannot be sure."

Part of the problem is semantics. Grudem doesn't define the difference between "sure" knowledge and "uncertain" knowledge. I recently had a conversation at Starbucks about epistemology with an Emory graduate student concerning the question, "do you know that you are at Starbucks right now?" He ended up asking me this several times as we went back and forth trying to clarify various issues. While he always responded in the affirmative, my only answer was "I believe that I am." He based his answer on the assumptions that, first, there really is a reality that is external to us and, second, that our senses give us a (mostly) accurate indication of the nature of that reality. I have no problem with either of those two premises but, as anyone who has read Descartes or watched the movie
The Matrix knows, that might not be an accurate view of reality at all.

What are the differences between sure and uncertain knowledge? I claim that I know that two plus two equals four. I also know that if a plane is flat that the angles of a triangle sum to 180 degrees, but that if a plane is curved, the sum of the angles will be more than 180 degrees if the plane is positively curved, and less than 180 degrees if the plane is negatively curved. I claim I know these things, because the results are self-contained. No connections to external things are needed for these statements to be true.

But the moment we consider objects external to ourselves, things become more complicated. If I physically measure the angles of a triangle, I get 180 degrees as the answer (within the margins of measurement error). This means that, locally, space is flat. But what result would we get if the sides of the triangle were thousands of light-years apart? That depends on the overall curvature of space which, in turn, depends on the total amount of mass. We think the mass is such that, overall, space is flat. This knowledge is less certain because it depends on a correspondence between a model and a measurement between the model and the thing being modeled. Here, the uncertainty is whether or not the mental model is in a one-to-one correspondence with the external object.

Then, if there is uncertainty whether or not a mental model corresponds to an external object, there is also uncertainty whether or not the right mental model is being used, since there is usually an abundance of mental models, but (supposedly) only one reality. Our hope is that we can find a mismatch between one of the models and the external thing, so that the number of models can be reduced, but even if that's possible, it's usually a painstaking, time consuming effort. But what happens if there is no known way to distinguish which of two explanations are correct? Is whatever I am in a place physically external me that serves coffee, or is this all just a simulation? I just don't really know, and while I am not a solipsist by choice, I cannot logically defend that choice against the alternatives.

In one sense, scientists, theologians, and philosophers face the same problem: a multiplicity of explanatory models. The scientist can test the model against Nature and hopefully converge on the correct model. If Christianity is right, then the theologian has no such recourse. While we can experience God, and we believe that God reveals certain aspects of Himself to us, we cannot experiment on Him. In fact, we are forbidden to do so: "Do not put the Lord your God to the test" [Mt 4:7]. Philosophers don't have either recourse.

At best, theologians can test what they think God has revealed for consistency, under the assumption that God is consistent. But then the problem of ethics arises. Grudem writes:

God's righteousness means that God always acts in accordance with what is right and is himself the final standard of what is right.

     — page 204

In particular, this means that God does not have to conform to our expectations of goodness. If, at the end of all things, God were to say "just kidding", He would be righteous in doing so.

This is actually an important thought experiment, because we learn that we cannot judge God according to our expectations, nor can we judge God by any external moral standard. All we can do is trust Him and if things don't happen the way we want them to, we have no other recourse than to say, "You, alone, are God."

Grudem's Systematic Theology, #1

Based on the recommendation of my Sunday School teacher, I picked up Grudem's Systematic Theology. I've gone through the first eleven chapters. While there are a few gems here and there, they are overshadowed by the egregious parts, such at this philosophical argument for the unchangeableness of God. Here, Grudem attempts to supplement the Biblical statements on God's unchangeableness with an argumentum ad absurdum:

At first it might not seem very important for us to affirm God's unchangeableness. The idea is so abstract that we may not immediately realize its significance. But if we stop for a moment to imagine what it would be like if God could change, the importance of this doctrine becomes more clear. For example, if God could change (in his being, perfections, purposes, or promises), then any change would be either for the better or for the worse. But if God changed for the better, then he was not the best possible being when we first trusted him. And how could we be sure that he is the best possible being now? But if God could change for the worse (in his very being), then what kind of God might he become?

     — page 168

The fundamental flaw with this line of reasoning is that it assumes that there is a fixed standard against which one or more of God's attributes can be compared. Furthermore, if God changes, and this standard does not, then this means that the measure is external to God. But this cannot be so, since God is not answerable to any external thing. So if God were to change, the standard itself would change — since God is His own standard of good and evil. The statement, "then any change would be for the better or for the worse" is wrong. Were God to change, both the initial, intermediate, and final states would all be perfect.

This lack of understanding of measures of good and evil permeates Reform theology. But that's a post for another time.

Update 10/5:

Grudem is woefully inconsistent. Later in the book, he writes:

He is therefore the final standard of good.

     — page 198

This is exactly what I said ("God is His own standard of good and evil"), but Grudem didn't integrate this with his argument on page 168.