Thursday, July 19, 2018

Philosophy's Interaction Problem

One of the enduring philosophical questions is whether our cognitive experience is the product solely of our material brain or whether there's another fundamentally different substance involved which works in tandem with the brain to produce that experience.

This other substance is usually called mind or soul. Materialists, i.e. those who believe that the only substance that exists is matter, argue that all of our cognitive experience can be explained ultimately in terms of electrochemical reactions in the material substrate of the brain.

They reject the notion that we're also possessed of an immaterial mind. For materialists the word "mind" is simply a word we use to describe the function of the brain, just as we use the word "digestion" to describe the function of the stomach.

Perhaps the chief argument that materialists have employed over the years against the notion of an immaterial mind is what's called the "interaction problem". If mind and brain are completely disparate substances, the argument goes, how could they interact? We have no difficulty, for instance, imagining ourselves grasping and lifting a mug with our hand because both our hand and the mug are material objects and we can easily visualize similar substances interacting with each other (parenthetically, it's actually difficult to imagine how even material objects can interact, but more on that below).

However, if we try to imagine how a mind could raise a mug we find that it seems incomprehensible. How does an immaterial mind "grip" a material mug to raise it?

There are various ways to respond to the interaction problem, which philosopher J.P. Moreland calls the most overrated problem in all of philosophy, but physicist William Murray at Uncommon Descent replies by noting that the belief that matter is the fundamental substance that makes up our universe is itself a scientifically obsolete notion.

The problem isn't how mind and matter interact, the problem is why we should think that matter exists objectively at all:
Modern physics has long ago disproved the idea that “matter” exists at all. ...

Just because we perceive a world of what we call “matter” doesn’t change the fact that we know no such world actually exists regardless of what our perception tells us. What we call “matter” is a perceptual interpretation of something that is not, in any meaningful sense, “matter”. We know now (current science) that matter is, at its root, entirely “immaterial”, despite what our macro sensory perceptions have told us for millennia (like the sun moving through the sky).

Materialists are clinging to a pre-Victorian perspective of what it is we are perceiving, long since discarded after over a hundred years of experimental results.
Murray then responds specifically to the interaction problem:
Now we get to the so-called “material-immaterial interaction problem”. First, there is no “material world,” so it’s problematic to begin [the discussion] with a term that draws from an archaic, unscientific understanding of what it is we are perceiving.

Second, has the “material-material” interaction problem even been addressed, much less “solved”? We have absolutely no idea how “matter” interacts with other “matter”. We can describe the behavior of that interaction, then use a term to refer to that model as if that term was an actual “thing”, but describing the behavior is not explaining the how of the interaction.

When so-called dualism objectors [i.e. materialists] can first explain matter/matter interaction, and when they can tell us what they mean by “material” and “immaterial”, they will then have a meaningful foundation to form a cogent objection to the idea of material/immaterial interaction.
In other words, our inability to explain or imagine how mind and matter interact is no reason to forfeit a belief that they do.

Another way to look at the problem of how fundamentally disparate substances can interact, without denying that there is such a "thing" as matter, is to note that we witness the interaction between material and immaterial all the time. Electrical signals in the material brain produce immaterial sensations like color, sound, and pain. Two magnets will attract each other, but what that magnetic force is and how it pulls another magnet is a mystery. We know these phenomena happen even if we can't explain how they happen.

Likewise with the mind and the interaction problem. Just because we can't explain, or even imagine, how a mind/matter interface would work, we nevertheless have good reason, given our conscious experience, for thinking there is one.

Indeed, belief in the existence of an immaterial mind, long thought to have been buried in the philosophical graveyard, has been recently resurrected as both philosophy and physics breathe new life into it.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Maybe Trump's Partly Right

President Trump is being hammered with criticism from both left and right for his apparent acceptance of Vladimir Putin's assurance that the Russians didn't meddle in the 2016 election despite the assessment of our intelligence agencies that they did. He's also taking a lot of heat for his tweet that poor relations with Russia are the fault of past clumsiness in the crafting of United States foreign policy.

I would have preferred that he not have made either of these claims, or if he had, that he employ the qualifier "largely" in the second one, but even so, David Goldman at PJ Media makes a compelling case that Trump was "largely" correct in what he said about American policy toward Russia.

This is not to absolve Russia which is led by brutal, amoral men, Mr. Putin chief among them, but as Goldman argues, the United States has, going back to President Clinton, repeatedly interfered in Russian politics and repeatedly sought to undermine the Russian government.

I should mention that whether Goldman's argument is sound or not he's not a Putin fanboy. He writes that,
I'm no Russophile. I'm an old Cold Warrior. I don't like Putin. I don't even like Dostoevsky (he invents improbable characters to suit his theological agenda) or Tolstoy (Pierre Bezukhov and Anna Karenina bore me). I don't especially like Tchaikovsky or Mussorgsky. I don't like drinking Russian-style (get as drunk as you can as fast as you can). I like a lot of individual Russians -- they have guts, and tell you what they think. I'm so leery of Putin's machinations in Europe that I prefer Angela Merkel to the Putin-friendly German right wing.

Nonetheless, it was America that made a mess of relations with Russia, and President Trump’s tweet this morning was right on the mark. You can usually gauge the merits of this president's public statements by the decibel level of the protests.
Despite losing a ton of credibility with me for his opinion of Dostoevsky he nevertheless makes a convincing case about Trump's claim about American policy toward Russia. Here are a few excerpts:
President Trump offended the entire political spectrum with a tweet this morning blaming the U.S. for poor relations with Russia. “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity,” the president said, and he is entirely correct. By this I do not mean to say that Russia is a beneficent actor in world affairs or that President Putin is an admirable world leader.

Nonetheless, the president displayed both perspicacity and political courage when he pointed the finger at the United States for mismanaging the relationship with Russia.

Full disclosure: I was a card-carrying member of the neoconservative cabal that planned to bring Western-style democracy and free markets to Russia after the fall of Communism.

...Unfortunately, the delusion that the United States would remake Russia in its own image persisted through the Bush and Obama administrations. I have no reason to doubt the allegations that a dozen Russian intelligence officers meddled in the U.S. elections of 2016, but this was the equivalent of a fraternity prank compared to America’s longstanding efforts to intervene in Russian politics.

The United States supported the 2014 Maidan uprising in Ukraine and the overthrow of the Yanukovych government in the hope of repeating the exercise in Moscow sometime later.

Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland pulled whatever strings America had to replace the feckless and corrupt Victor Yanukovych with a government hostile to the Kremlin. She didn’t say it in so many words, but she hoped the Ukraine coup would lead to the overthrow of Vladimir Putin.

Evidently Nuland and her boss, Hillary Clinton, thought that the Ukraine coup would deprive Russia of its Black Sea naval base in Crimea, and did not anticipate that Russia simply would annex an old Russian province that belonged to Ukraine by historical accident.

The Maidan coup was the second American attempt to install a Ukrainian government hostile to Moscow; the first occurred in 2004, when Condoleezza Rice was secretary of State rather than Hillary Clinton.

As I wrote in Asia Times a decade ago, “On the night of November 22, 2004, then-Russian president - now premier - Vladimir Putin watched the television news in his dacha near Moscow. People who were with Putin that night report his anger and disbelief at the unfolding 'Orange' revolution in Ukraine. ‘They lied to me,’ Putin said bitterly of the United States. ‘I'll never trust them again.’ The Russians still can't fathom why the West threw over a potential strategic alliance for Ukraine. They underestimate the stupidity of the West."

Russia is in crisis, but Russia always is in crisis. Russia has a brutal government, but Russia always has had a brutal government, and by every indication, the people of Russia nonetheless seem to like their government. If they want a different sort of government, let them establish one; what sort of government they prefer is not the business of the United States. America’s attempt to shape Russia’s destiny, starting with the Clinton administration’s sponsorship of the feckless, drunk and corrupt Boris Yeltsin, had baleful results.

So did the State Department’s attempt to manipulate events in Ukraine in 2004 and 2014.
There's more from Goldman at the link.

Mr. Trump's comments certainly seem to be unfortunate even were they technically correct, but before jumping on the outrage bandwagon, I'd like to know what was said in the private meeting between the two men. The tone could have been very much different, for all anyone knows. Perhaps both men agreed that henceforth they would refrain from surreptitious political interference in each other's countries and for the present they'd put the current unpleasantness behind them. If so, that would be a good thing.

Whether this is what happened or not, certainly the president, as The Federalist's Megan Oprea writes, has been tough on Russia policy-wise, and those actions are far more important than his words, which are not infrequently more misleading than edifying anyway.

In any case, one of the more amusing aspects of the hostility Mr. Trump has incurred for his statements implicitly disparaging our intelligence agencies and blaming America for our tattered relationship with the Russians is that so much of it comes from the progressive left which has historically been hostile to our intelligence agencies and arrantly prone to "blame America first" for whatever evils are afoot in the world.

You'd think that the left would be praising the president for his statements which diminish our own intelligence service and blame America for a truculent Russia rather than castigating him for it, but consistency is not a virtue held in high regard among leftists. It's rather jarring to see the left wrap themselves in the flag and make patriotic noises.

It seems that whatever this president says or does, a lot of people will happily abandon whatever principles and positions they formerly held in order to adopt a stance in direct opposition to him.

This being so, perhaps if President Trump wants to defeat the Democrats in November he might consider announcing that he's going to join the Democratic Party. Upon hearing that news the entire left in this country would promptly flee the party and rush to the polls to vote Republican.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Revolutions French and American

As America and France celebrated the anniversaries of their respective revolutions this month several commentators reflected on similarities between the two historic struggles.

Yet other than occuring within a decade or so of each other (1776 and 1789 are the years in which the American and French revolutions began) and aspiring to establish Constitutionally protected rights, the two revolutions and their aftermaths were really very different.

For instance:
  • The French were seeking to topple their monarchy, Americans were seeking to withdraw from one.
  • The French revolution led to instability and a series of tyrannies that lasted for decades. The American revolution led to a stable, ideologically moderate republic.
  • The French revolution devolved into horrific bloodletting, The American revolution did not.
  • The French revolution led to a regime that was exceedingly hostile to Christianity. The American revolution was led by men who were themselves Christians or sympathetic to Christianity.
Regarding this last point, Jeff Sanders at PJ Media writes:
Beginning in 1793, the French revolutionary government abolished the Catholic monarchy and confiscated all church property. Cities and streets that had been named after saints were given secular names. Some 30,000 French priests were exiled and hundreds were murdered by mobs. The Christian calendar was replaced by one that measured the years beginning not with the birth of Jesus, but with the first year of the revolution. The seven-day week was also banned and replaced with a ten-day week.

Churches and monasteries across France were closed. The amazing abbey at Cluny (with its enormous library and archives) was burned in 1793. The church had been the largest in the Christian world until St. Peter's was built in Rome, but it was plundered and its stone was later used for buildings in town. Most of it is still nothing but ruins today.

Statues of saints and crosses were destroyed. Churches were forbidden to ring their bells.

In the French Revolution, the government banned Christian holy days such as Feast Days of Saints, Christmas, and Easter. In the place of these days, government leaders established a "Festival of Liberty" or a "Festival of Reason." The beautiful, magnificent Cathedral of Notre Dame became known as the "Temple of Reason" for a time, and people had services dedicated to their "Goddess of Reason."

Every attempt was made to erase any vestige of Christianity.

The famous revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre actually established his own religion — it was called "The Cult of the Supreme Being" (he was a deist). He inaugurated this new religion on June 8, 1794 (Pentecost on the Christian calendar) with a procession and "divine service." Six weeks later the revolution turned on him, placed him in the same cell where Marie Antoinette had stayed before her execution, and he was sent to the guillotine on July 28, 1794.

The American Revolution, however, was not like that at all. In fact, in America the Christian faith has traditionally been nurtured and protected by society as a whole, and respected by government as part of every person's natural freedom of conscience (until recently). The First Great Awakening (a national revival led by such men as Jonathan Edwards) had a tremendous impact upon colonial America....

In America, Christians were part of the "revolution." Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, only two were confirmed deists (Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin). Two were Roman Catholic, and the other 52 were all members in good standing in orthodox Protestant churches. They never saw themselves as anything else but Christians who were taking a stand for freedom against tyranny.

They saw their Christian faith as an ally, not as a hindrance. In fact, Sam Adams stated on July 4, 1776: "We have this day restored the Sovereign to whom all men ought to be obedient. He reigns in heaven, and from the rising of the sun to the setting, let His kingdom come." (He certainly was no deist.) One of the signers of the Declaration was a clergyman himself, the Reverend John Witherspoon (ordained Presbyterian minister and president of the College of New Jersey at the time).

The Continental Army was so full of ordained clergy in its ranks that the British would refer to those men as "the Black-Robed Regiment."
As for the bloodshed in the wake of 1789 Sanders writes:
Between 1793 and 1794 some 16,594 death sentences were handed out ... most without a trial (certainly not any kind of trial we would call fair today). It was Robespierre himself who justified mass executions without trial. He believed that a government executing all suspected "enemies of the state" was actually being quite virtuous: "Terror is nothing more than speedy severe and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue."
Robespierre himself was taken to the guillotine in 1794.

France today is a wonderful country with wonderful people, but their revolution and the Terror which ensued was quite different from the American experience in the late 18th century.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Amazing Cephalopods

We've posted this wonderful video on Viewpoint in the past, but I thought newer readers might like to see it because it raises some fascinating questions:

How did the physiology necessary for cephalopods to camouflage themselves like this arise through stochastic mechanisms like genetic mutation and natural selection? How did the behavior that these animals display evolve by those same mechanisms?

If mutations affect DNA and DNA programs for proteins, and proteins create tissues and enzymes, etc. what is it that mutations act upon in the organism that gives rise to behavior? How does the octopus "know" to make itself look like the particular background it finds itself in, and how did, or could, such a phenomenon evolve through purely mechanistic processes?

Anyway, keep in mind as you watch the video that, on naturalism, these creatures evolved these marvelous capabilities purely by undirected random mutations in their genome.

If you don't keep that in mind, you might find yourself strongly tempted to think that maybe the cephalopod's amazing abilities are the result of intelligent engineering of some sort and that naturalism, despite its popularity among intellectuals, offers completely inadequate explanations as to how living things came to be the way they are.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Fading Habit

A friend told me the other day of a dinner to which he and his wife had been invited along with several other couples, all of whom were very well-educated people and folks with whom he looked forward to interesting conversation.

After dinner, however, the guests were ushered to the host's home theater where they sat and watched a movie for a couple of hours. By the time the movie concluded it was time to leave for home.

My friend mentioned how disappointing it was to be in the company of well-informed, intelligent people and have so little time to talk with, and learn from, them.

Maybe I'm wrong about this, but it certainly seems that meaningful conversation is becoming a fading habit, an increasingly rare form of social interaction. It almost seems like a social impropriety to invite people to gather simply for the purpose of discussion. Instead, it seems that often when people come together they spend the time watching television or a movie, or playing a game, or, worst of all, staring at their phones, but they don't have much meaningful interaction. If they do talk it's often very light and "safe". It's rarely about anything that matters.

A hostess who invites people to her home for an evening of intelligent conversation nowadays might expect a lot of demurrals from prospective guests who prefer that any conversation incline toward superficial, frivolous, or gossipy fluff.

Why is that?

Perhaps one reason is because fewer people today read good books. I once had a teaching colleague who boasted that he hadn't read a book since he graduated from college over forty years earlier. I don't think he was atypical. People often neither have the inclination nor make the time to read and, when they do, what they read is often the equivalent of junk food.

If people don't read good books, books that invite the reader to think, they certainly limit the range of what they have to talk about, which suggests another reason why people might tend to avoid meaningful conversation.

The most important topics are sometimes those we feel least informed about. We may be conversant on pop culture, sports, or neighborhood goings on, but on issues of national moment - politics, social issues, religious matters - all we have, perhaps, are feelings, and exchanging feelings, as opposed to exchanging ideas, doesn't take us far or teach us much.

So maybe some people are as reluctant to be drawn into conversation on significant matters as non-swimmers are to be drawn out into deep water. They feel much more secure wading in the shallows and they resent someone coaxing them out of their comfort zone.

It's too bad. Meaningful conversation enriches our lives. It's a good way to learn, to expand our world, and to achieve a kind of intellectual cross-pollination. It'd be a tragedy if we lose altogether the ability to talk to each other about things that really matter.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Materialism: The Teenage Princess

I ran across this old post in the archives and thought it'd be worth posting again:

One of the charming quirks in the behavior of young girls - my daughter's friends, for example - is that they instinctively defer all decisions involving the group to a particular individual as if she were somehow anointed by God for preeminence. There need be no verbal communication in these interactions, they just happen as a matter of course, as if everyone tacitly understands that there's a hierarchy of status which no one in the group is to challenge.

If one of the lower ranking girls should have the temerity to dissent from the dictates of the alpha female the unfortunate young lady would suffer immediate social excommunication and be banished from the royal court. I once asked my daughter why girls accept this state of affairs as normal, to which she replied with a shrug which suggested that she had no idea and that no one really wonders about it except me.

I thought of this, oddly enough, after reading writer Susan Ives' complaint that "Intelligent design disrespects faith, discounts faith, destroys faith."

Faith, Ives avers, is:

...belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence. Faith falls into the realm of metaphysics - literally, "beyond physics," the branch of philosophy that seeks to explain the nature of reality and the origin and structure of the world. When we try to prove and promote the metaphysical through the physical - when we muddle faith and science - we are, in effect, saying that faith is not enough, that faith, like science, requires proof. Faith that requires proof is no faith at all.

Ms. Ives constructs a strange argument. Suppose it were the case that science demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that the universe and everything in it were indeed the product of purposeful, intelligent engineering. Would Ms. Ives then feel that her faith was devastated beyond repair? Would she greet the news with fascination or would it throw her into a religious crisis? Simply to pose the questions, I think, is to answer them.

Her confusion stems from a Kierkegaardian view of faith that makes it the more virtuous the less evidence there is to support it. Her view is that metaphysics and physics are sealed in airtight compartments without either ever leaking into the other. This is pretty naive. The idea that faith is somehow vitiated by empirical evidence is really quite peculiar. Jesus, after all, offered his disciples plenty of empirical evidence that he was the Son of God and he expected those demonstrations to strengthen their faith, not destroy it.

All of that aside, though, Ms Ives completely misrepresents Intelligent Design. ID is not an attempt to "prove" that God exists. Nor is it an attempt to demonstrate some tenet of religious faith to be true. It is simply a conclusion inferred from observations of the physical world that powerfully suggest that the universe in general, and life in particular, appear strongly teleological.

If this teleology is not just an illusory appearance but a factual reality, it would certainly be of religious interest, just as Darwin's claims have been of religious interest to people, many of them atheists, but so what? Should we shrink from investigating the nature and structure of the cosmos just because it might bolster one's faith or encourage another one's skepticism?

Ms. Ives seems to be implicitly arguing that Christians and other theists should not be engaged in the scientific enterprise, nor should they be doing philosophy, because the more they understand about God's creation, and the more scientific and philosophical support they find for their religious beliefs in the creation they study, the more damage they'll do to their faith.

This is ludicrous, of course. Most of the great scientists of the past, Newton, Boyle, Maxwell, Galileo and so on were Christians who delighted in the attempt to understand more about God through their science. They were all "intelligent design" proponents though the term wasn't in use during their era, and they saw no problem in deriving nourishment for their faith from the fruits of their science.

What does all this have to do with teenage girls? Well, Ms Ives is either arguing that Christians should not undertake to study the world or she's advocating a teenage girl version of theory precedence, viz that Christians engaged in science and philosophy dare not presume to arrive at conclusions at odds with the reigning materialist paradigm.

Materialism is the tacitly acclaimed alpha theory that all must acknowledge, to which all must pay deference and which no one dare flout on pain of social ostracism and intellectual banishment. It's the metaphysical assumption whose rightful place, like that of the teenage princess, at the very top of the theoretical hierarchy is always assumed and never challenged.

Why Ms Ives thinks materialism should be granted this place of epistemological privilege, though, and what there is about materialism that has earned it such lofty status, she doesn't say. Perhaps the reason she doesn't is that, as with the teenage princess, there really is no good justification for the deference materialism expects to be shown.

It survives atop the heap only so long as people like Ms Ives unthinkingly assume it just belongs there.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Walk Away

The Democratic Party seems to be facing a significant defection among disillusioned, white millennials.

An online movement titled Walk Away, led by Brandon Straka, a young, gay, former liberal, is urging young voters who hold liberal values to wake up to the fact that the Democratic party is no longer a liberal party but is rather the antithesis of the values liberals hold.

He documents his indictment of the contemporary Democratic Party in this impressive video:
An article at PJMedia gives some background on the Walk Away movement:
Young people do not like President Donald Trump, but whites between the ages of 18 and 34 said they are equally likely to vote for a Republican as for a Democrat in the elections for Congress this November.

A full 39 percent said that "if the election for U.S. Congress were held today," they would vote for the Republican in the district where they live. Another 39 percent said they would vote for the Democrat.

This represented a nine-point shift away from Democrats since 2016. That year, only 33 percent of young white voters said they would elect a Republican to Congress, while 47 percent said they would choose a Democrat.

Young white men made the greatest shift toward the GOP. In 2016, nearly half of them (48 percent) said they would vote for a Democrat, while only 36 percent said they would vote Republican. This year, 46 percent said they would choose a Republican, while only 37 percent said they would vote Democrat — a 21 percent shift in favor of the GOP.

Brandon Straka, a gay man from Nebraska, identified himself as "The Unsilent Majority" and launched a campaign urging people to reject the Left — for the same reasons he became a liberal.

In the "Walk Away" viral video, Straka denounced racism, misogyny, "tyrannical group think," junk science, "hate," and "a system which allows an ambitious, misinformed, and dogmatic mob to suppress free speech, create false narratives, and apathetically steamroll over the truth." He said he became a liberal for these reasons, and he "walked away" for the very same reasons.

"For years now, I have watched as the left has devolved into intolerant, inflexible, illogical, hateful, misguided, ill-informed, un-American, hypocritical, menacing, callous, ignorant, narrow-minded, and at times blatantly fascistic behavior and rhetoric," Straka declared.
He's right, of course. Today's conservatives are in fact classical liberals, whereas today's leftist progressives have more in common with the totalitarians of the 20th century and the tyrants of Orwell's 1984, than they do with anything that can rightly be called "liberal".

Straka's video makes a compelling argument in support of the claim that no one who loves freedom and abhors hatred should feel comfortable in today's Democratic Party.