Churchland on dualism, Part II

Let’s continue our look at Paul Churchland’s critical discussion of dualism in his textbook Matter and Consciousness. I have noted that while Churchland neglects even to mention the most important arguments for dualism and devotes space to arguments that dualist philosophers themselves don’t actually put much stock in, he does at least discuss two arguments that many such philosophers do think important: the argument from introspection and the argument from irreducibility.

As Churchland summarizes the argument from introspection, it states that the thoughts, sensations, desires, and emotions we encounter in introspection are just plainly different from electrochemical activity in neural networks. As he summarizes the argument from irreducibility, it states that language, reasoning, the introspectible qualities of sensations, and the meaningful contents of our thoughts cannot plausibly be accounted for in materialist terms; for example, knowledge of the molecular structure of a rose and/or of the brain would not allow a physicist or chemist to predict what it would be like to experience the smell of a rose.

Churchland’s summary of these arguments is superficial. For example, it is clear from his gloss on the argument from irreducibility that he regards Frank Jackson’s famous “knowledge argument” as an important instance of it. Yet he does not actually state Jackson’s argument, thus denying the unwary reader an opportunity to appreciate its full power. (Churchland does briefly discuss Jackson’s argument later in the book, but only after having disposed of dualism and plumped for materialism, thus giving the misleading impression that the argument is merely a puzzle an already-established materialism must solve rather than an independent argument for dualism in its own right.)

Worse than this, though, are the responses he gives to the two arguments in question, which are presented as decisive but are in fact exceedingly feeble. The argument from introspection has no force, Churchland assures us, because introspection cannot be trusted in light of the fact that there are clear cases from the history of science showing that our natural powers of observation have misled us in other domains. What cases are these? “The red surface of an apple does not look like a matrix of molecules reflecting photons at certain critical wavelengths, but that is what it is,” Churchland says; “The sound of a flute does not sound like a sinusoidal compression wave train in the atmosphere, but that is what it is. [etc.]”

The problem with this response should be obvious, at least to someone with knowledge of the history of the mind-body problem and of modern philosophy generally. In particular, there is an obvious reason why the cases Churchland appeals to not only do not make the point he thinks they do, but in fact make the case for dualism even stronger. For the reason the identities in question – red with such-and-such a light wavelength, sound with a such-and-such a wave pattern, etc. – are plausible in the first place is that the early modern thinkers who inaugurated the “mechanical” conception of nature that informs modern science introduced a crucial distinction between features of the observable world that are observer-relative and those that are observer-independent – the famous primary quality/secondary quality distinction (spelled out in different ways by Galileo, Descartes, Locke, et al.). Colors, sounds, heat, cold, and the like as common sense understands them were relegated to the “observer-relative” side of the divide, and color, sound, heat, cold, etc. as objective, physical properties were, accordingly, redefined in terms of wave activity, the motions of particles, or some other “observer-independent” phenomena.

To see how this works in the case of one of Churchland’s examples, let’s distinguish between RED (in caps) and red (in italics) as follows:

RED: the qualitative character of the color sensations had by a normal observer when he looks at fire engines, “Stop” signs, Superman’s cape, etc. (which is different from the qualitative character of the sensations had by e.g. a color blind observer)

red: whatever physical property it is in fire engines, “Stop” signs, Superman’s cape, etc. that causes normal observers to have RED sensations

Now what seems to common sense to be very different from “a matrix of molecules reflecting photons at certain critical wavelengths” is RED. And sure enough, what science has shown to be identical to “a matrix of molecules reflecting photons at certain critical wavelengths” is only red, not RED. Indeed, part of the reason for distinguishing red and RED is precisely that RED seems clearly not to be identical to something like “a matrix of molecules reflecting photons at certain critical wavelengths,” since the “matrices of molecules” etc. are what they are regardless of who is looking at them while qualitative character is observer-relative.

Part of the problem with Churchland’s response to the argument from introspection, then, is that it commits a fallacy of equivocation: The sense of “red” in which “Red seems different from any property of a matrix of molecules etc.” (i.e. RED) is different from the sense of “red” in which “Science has shown that red really is just a property of a matrix of molecules etc.” (i.e. red). A similar fallacy is committed when he appeals instead to sounds or any other sensory qualities. Thus his examples do not show that our powers of observation have misled us in other domains, and thus should not be trusted in the case of introspection.

That’s one problem with his response. Another is that when we understand what is really going on in the history-of-science examples Churchland appeals to, we can see that they actually strengthen the case for dualism rather than undermine it. For if colors, sounds, heat, cold, etc. as common sense understands them – that is, in terms of their qualitative, phenomenal character – exist only in the mind of the observer and not in the physical world (which is comprised of nothing more than colorless, odorless, soundless, tasteless particles in motion, or whatever), then it seems clear that they cannot exist in the brain, or in any other physical object or system of physical objects, either. Hence they must be immaterial. As I have noted before, that was exactly the conclusion explicitly drawn by early modern thinkers like Cudworth and Malebranche – and at least implicitly by Descartes, Locke, and the other early modern advocates of the “mechanical philosophy” who also happened to be dualists – and by several philosophers since. Their view was that dualism, far from being a pre-scientific holdover destined to be abandon once we have sufficient knowledge of the brain, in fact follows from the very mechanistic conception of matter taken for granted in modern science. The basic problem was one of the themes of Thomas Nagel’s celebrated 1974 article “What is it like to be a bat?” (though Nagel is less committal there about precisely what philosophical conclusion we ought to draw from the problem). It was explicitly appealed to in defense of dualism in Richard Swinburne’s 1986 book The Evolution of the Soul.

Now Churchland or some other materialist might think there is a way to carve up the conceptual territory that doesn’t have such an implication. Fine and dandy, let’s hear it and evaluate it. But he oughtn’t to pretend that the “reductions” in question clearly favor materialism when in fact, historically, they were taken to favor the opposite view! And, especially, he oughtn’t to convey this false impression when purporting to offer an evenhanded presentation of the case for dualism.

Churchland’s treatment of the argument from irreducibility is equally bad. As evidence that our powers of reasoning can in fact be accounted for in materialistic terms, he appeals to the existence of electronic calculators. As evidence that language can be similarly accounted for, he appeals to the existence of “computer languages.” He fails even to mention the most glaringly obvious reply to such “explanations” – that they involve nothing more than a couple of bad puns, since so-called calculators don’t literally “calculate” and computers don’t literally possess “language.” Rather, both electronic calculators and computers generally are inherently devoid of any intentionality or powers of reasoning whatsoever, and have simply been designed by human beings – who do have genuine powers of reasoning and language – to carry out certain operations that aid us in our exercises in calculation and the like by simulating certain mental processes. To “explain” mental phenomena in terms of what computers do is thus precisely to get things back-asswards, since what computers do cannot be accounted for apart from the human minds which assign to their states and operations whatever meanings they have.

Again, the point isn’t that Churchland might not have a way to respond to such arguments. The point is that he pretends that the claims he makes easily and uncontroversially rebut the argument from irreducibility when in fact his claims are extremely controversial even among non-dualists. (John Searle and Hubert Dreyfus are only the two most prominent non-dualist philosophers to have criticized the suggestion that mental processes can be explained in terms of “computational” ones.) The hapless beginning student coming away from Churchland’s discussion would have no idea that his “Gee whiz, look what computers can do!” shtick is, by itself anyway, philosophically about as serious as “proving” that time travel is theoretically possible based only on what one saw once in a Star Trek episode.

Churchland also suggests that whatever explanatory difficulties materialism has are at least equally matched by any dualist attempt to explain mental phenomena in terms of “nonphysical mind-stuff.” Here again Churchland proves only that he doesn’t understand what the main arguments for dualism actually say. As I noted in my first post in this series, those arguments are not quasi-scientific “explanatory hypotheses” in the first place, but rather attempts at metaphysical demonstration. They do not “postulate” “mind-stuff” (whatever that is) any more than mathematicians “postulate” the existence of the number 48 as the “best explanation” of why 47 and 49 do not fall right next to each other in the series of natural numbers. If the arguments fail, they do not fail for the sorts of reasons that explanatory hypotheses fail (considerations of parsimony, lack of fit with existing empirical theory, etc.), any more than an attempted mathematical proof, when it fails, can fail for such reasons.

But that brings us to Churchland’s positive arguments against dualism, which we’ll look at in a third post.
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