Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Materialist Superstition

Michael Egnor discusses six aspects of our mental experience that make a dualist explanation of that experience more plausible than a materialist explanation. The six he describes are: Intentionality, Qualia, Persistence of Self-Identity, Restricted Access, Incorrigibility, and Free Will.

Egnor gives a good summary of each of these and concludes that materialism, the view that the material brain is the sole locus and cause of our mental life, can't explain any of them. It's worth the read especially for philosophy students. For example, here's what he says about free will:

If the mind is entirely caused by matter, it is difficult to understand how free will can exist. Matter is governed by fixed laws, and if our thoughts are entirely the product of brain chemistry, then our thoughts are determined by brain chemistry. But chemistry doesn't have "truth" or "falsehood," or any other values for that matter. It just is. Enzymatic catalysis isn't true or false, it just is. In fact, the view that "materialism is true" is meaningless...if materialism is true. If materialism is true, then the thought "materialism is true" is just a chemical reaction, neither true nor false. While there are some philosophers who assert that free will can exist in a deterministic materialistic world (they're called "compatibilists"), and some have argued that quantum indeterminacy may leave room for free will, the most parsimonious explanation for free will is that there is an immaterial component of the mind that is undetermined by matter.

Egnor is correct, of course. If a belief, say, is just a particular chemical reaction that occurs in my brain what sense does it make to talk of beliefs being true? Chemical reactions aren't the sorts of things that are true or false. Furthermore, how do mere chemical reactions produce something like an understanding or a doubt? To say that matter is the ultimate source of all our mental experience really does seem to fly in the face of our deepest intuitions about that experience.

Check out what Egnor says about the other five elements of our mental lives for which materialism seems ill-equipped to offer a plausible explanation.


More Bus Ads

You may have seen the story last week about the ads placed on buses in Washington D.C. by the American Humanist Association asking, "Why believe in a god?" and then urging us to "Just be good for goodness' sake." The ads will run through December. Last month the British Humanist Association ran a similar campaign on London buses with the message: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

The ads cost the AHA $40,000 so one might wonder why they'd spend so much money to try to convince people that God is not necessary. Spokesman for the Association Fred Edwords explains, sort of:

"We are trying to reach our audience, and sometimes in order to reach an audience, everybody has to hear you. Our reason for doing it during the holidays is there are an awful lot of agnostics, atheists and other types of nontheists who feel a little alone during the holidays because of its association with traditional religion."

Anyone who thinks Christmas and Thanksgiving in the U.S. have anything to do with religion hasn't been in either a public school or a shopping mall lately, but, be that as it may, Edwords claims that the purpose of the ads isn't to argue that God doesn't exist or change minds about a deity, although "we are trying to plant a seed of rational thought and critical thinking and questioning in people's minds."

Well, they've been successful, at least with me. They've planted one question in my mind, which is: What on earth does it mean to be good for goodness' sake?

The article notes that Humanism offers itself as "a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism, affirms our responsibility to lead ethical lives of value to self and humanity."

Well. Where does this responsibility come from? In what sense am I responsible to humanity? What is the nature of this responsibility if I am not morally accountable to anyone but myself for my actions? If I choose to shirk this responsibility in what sense am I doing something morally wrong? I wonder if the people who designed the Humanist ad would be so good as to design more such ads with answers to those questions.

Unfortunately, I don't think answers will be forthcoming. The bus ad is simply making one of those vapid statements like "We are the world" or "Have you hugged a green plant today?" It sounds clever and meaningful until you think about it, which, contrary to what the Humanists say about their ad, you're not really supposed to do.

The article closes by observing that there was no debate at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority over whether to accept the ad. Spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said the agency accepts any ads that aren't obscene or pornographic. Too bad they don't expand the criteria to include "vacuous".