The materialist shell game

Materialists sometimes argue that the mind is bound to succumb to naturalistic explanation, because everything else has. How could it be the only hold-out? As I have argued in several places (most recently and at greatest length in The Last Superstition), far from being the knock-out blow some materialists think it, this argument actually shows how very shallow and historically ill-informed much materialist thinking is. For, whether explicitly or implicitly, materialism is committed to the mechanistic conception of matter inherited from early modern thinkers like Galileo, Descartes, Hobbes, Boyle, and Locke, where the core of this conception – or the only part of it that has survived over the centuries, anyway – is the idea that neither goal-directedness or final causality, nor sensory qualities like color, odor, taste, sound, and the like as we experience them, exist in the objective material world, but only in the mind of the perceiver. Matter, that is to say, was simply defined in such a way that (a) mental properties were taken to be paradigmatically non-material, and (b) certain features that common sense and the Scholastic tradition regarded as inherent to matter were re-defined as mental. This both facilitated the giving of “naturalistic explanations” – since whatever wouldn’t fit the naturalistic-cum- mechanistic explanatory model was simply defined away as a mere mental projection in the first place, not part of the material world at all – but also guaranteed that the mind would be uniquely resistant to the same sort of explanatory procedure. For the mind was made the rug under which everything that wouldn’t fit the naturalistic model could be swept. By definition, as it were, the same “sweeping” strategy cannot possibly be applied to the mind itself.

Victor Reppert kindly draws his readers’ attention to a passage in my book Philosophy of Mind where I made this point. But it is hardly original with me. Reppert also cites a passage from Richard Swinburne’s The Evolution of the Soul which makes the same point. Thomas Nagel’s famous article “What is it like to be a bat?” makes it too. (Most readers of this article wrongly focus on the bat example itself, quibbling over whether analogies with human experience coupled with neuroscientific knowledge might allow us to infer what it is like to be one. But in doing so they miss Nagel’s deeper and more devastating point that it is the “objectivist” way in which contemporary philosophers tend to conceive of matter that makes a naturalistic explanation of mind – not just the conscious experiences of bats, but any “subjective” conscious mental state – impossible in principle.)

Indeed, the point is as old as modern philosophy itself. It was central to the thinking of the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth (1617-1689) and the Cartesian Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715), both of whom emphasized that the “mechanical philosophy” necessarily entails dualism. It is also at least implicit in Descartes and Locke. If you are going to insist that matter is comprised only of colorless, odorless, tasteless, soundless particles devoid of any inherent meaning or goal-directedness, then of course qualia and intentionality are going to have to count as immaterial, and color, odor, taste, sound, etc. understood as objective features of nature would simply have to be re-defined (in terms of patterns of motion in particles, or whatever). Hence the reason so few modern philosophers, until very recently, followed Hobbes in his materialism, is not because they were afraid to follow out the implications of modern science, but rather precisely because they did follow out its implications (that is, insofar as modern science tends to take a “mechanical” conception of matter for granted). And the reason so many recent philosophers have followed Hobbes is, I would suggest, that they have forgotten the history of their subject and not thought carefully about the conception of matter they are implicitly committed to. When a contemporary philosopher of mind with naturalistic sympathies does think carefully about this conception, he tends either to come to doubt that naturalistic models of the mind really can succeed (as e.g. Fodor, McGinn, and Levine do in their various ways), or to suggest that it is only by developing some radically new conception of matter that naturalism can be defended (as e.g. Nagel and Galen Strawson do in different ways), or to adopt some “naturalistic” form of dualism (as e.g. Chalmers does explicitly and Searle does implicitly, despite his best efforts to avoid it.)

The upshot is that the materialist’s “everything else has been explained naturalistically” shtick is little more than a shell game. “Everything else” is “explained” only by hiding the recalcitrant features, like a pea, under the shell of the mind. The illusion only works precisely because there is a shell to hide things under, and thus requires dualism. To assume otherwise is like assuming that a shell game scam could successfully be carried out either by hiding, not only the peas, but also every shell under a shell (as reductionist forms of materialism effectively do insofar as they assume that the same strategy applied to explaining heat, color, sound, etc. – that is, carving off and “hiding” the subjective element and re-defining the phenomenon in mechanistic terms – can be applied to mental states themselves) or by getting rid of the shells entirely (as eliminative materialism effectively does). Not even the boldest sidewalk scammer would attempt such folly. For that you need an intellectual in the grip of a theory.
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