Coyne on intentionality

Biologist Jerry Coyne responds to a recent post by Vincent Torley on the topic of whether the brain is a kind of computer.  Torley had cited me in defense of the claim that the intentionality or “meaningfulness” of our thoughts cannot be explained in materialist terms.  Coyne responds as follows:

I’ll leave this one to the philosophers, except to say that “meaning” seem [sic] to pose no problem, either physically or evolutionarily, to me: our brain-modules have evolved to make sense of what we take in from the environment.  

The fallacy Coyne commits here should be cringe-makingly obvious to anyone who’s taken a philosophy of mind course.  Coyne “explains” intentionality by telling us that “brain-modules” have evolved to “make sense” of our environment.  But to “make sense” of something is, of course, to apply concepts to it, to affirm certain propositions about it, and so forth.  In other words, the capacity to “make sense” of something itself presupposes meaning or intentionality.  Hence, if what Coyne means to say is that an individual “brain-module” operating at the subpersonal level “makes sense” of some aspect of the environment, then his position is just a textbook instance of the homunculus fallacy: It amounts to the claim that we have intentionality because our parts have intentionality, which merely relocates the problem rather than solving it.  If instead what Coyne means is that the collection of “brain-modules” operating together constitute a mind which “makes sense” of the environment, then he has put forward a tautology – the brain manifests intentionality by virtue of “making sense” of the world, where to “make sense” is to manifest intentionality.  Either way, he has explained nothing.

Already deep in a hole, Coyne keeps digging:

And that’s not unique to us: primates surely have a sense of “meaning” that they derive from information processed from the environment, and we can extend this all the way back, in ever more rudimentary form, to protozoans. 

Different formulation, same problem.  To “have a sense of ‘meaning’” presupposes intentionality and is therefore hardly a notion to which one can coherently appeal in order to explain intentionality.  “Information,” if meant in the ordinary semantic sense, also presupposes intentionality, in which case appeals to it in this context also explain nothing.  If meant instead in the technical, non-semantic Claude Shannon sense, “information” does not presuppose intentionality, but it does not explain intentionality either, since Shannonian information theory is concerned with the transmission of information in the ordinary, semantic sense, not with its origin.  

So, as I have said, Coyne has explained nothing at all, nor even gestured at a genuine explanation.  True, his remarks were made in the informal context of a blog post; but if one is going to aver confidently that “’meaning’… pose[s] no problem,” he had better give at least some evidence of knowing what the philosophical problem of meaning or intentionality is and what philosophers have said about it.  Coyne, like too many other contemporary scientists – and unlike their more accomplished but less arrogant forebears (Einstein, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, et al.) – seems to think his scientific competence excuses him from having to do his homework in philosophy before commenting on the subject.  Nor is this his first offense.

The folks who hang out in Coyne’s combox seem even less well-informed than he is, if that is possible.  (One of them apparently thinks I’m an ID theorist – looks like he didn’t get the memo.)  So I suppose I need to point out for them that the issue has nothing essentially to do with religion, with “magic,” or with any of the other straw men and red herrings they’ve been furiously dissecting.  But when you “already know” the other side is wrong, what’s the point of finding out what it really thinks, right?

[Readers looking for an introduction to the problem of intentionality might find chapter 7 of my book Philosophy of Mind useful.  Also relevant are many of the posts linked to here.]


Two, four, six, eight! Who do you reincarnate?

Could there be such a thing as reincarnation?  A necessary condition would be the truth of some form of dualism.  So far so good, since (I would say) some form of dualism is true.  But which form?  There are at least three to choose from: substance dualism, the version associated with Plato and Descartes; property dualism, associated with the likes of John Locke, David Chalmers, and (the early) Frank Jackson; and the hylemorphic dualism defended within the Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysical tradition.  Are all of these equally favorable to a defense of reincarnation?

Property dualism might seem adequate to do the trick, especially when conjoined with a Lockean account of personal identity.  Locke holds that for some person existing after your death to count as the same person as you, it is sufficient that that person’s consciousness be continuous with yours in the sense of containing memories of having done the things you’ve done, manifesting your distinctive personality traits, and so forth.  It is not necessary that there be any continuity between your body and his; he will still be you even if he has a completely different body.  Nor is it even necessary that he have your soul in the sense of a Cartesian immaterial substance.  All that matters, for Locke, is that your consciousness has somehow jumped from your current body to his future one, or even (if there are such things as Cartesian souls) from your current immaterial substance to his.  Locke seems to think of mental characteristics like memories and personality traits as comparable to pieces of fruit which might be carried from one bowl to another – not only from one material “bowl” (a body) to another, but (at least in principle) from one immaterial “bowl” (a soul) to another.  Though, since he appears to be a kind of property dualist (at least as a “working” position), it seems the “bowl” would in fact in his view be material and the “fruit” immaterial, surviving the death of one brain and landing safely in another.  (Locke appears to be at best agnostic about substance dualism, opting instead for property dualism as a way of maintaining the immateriality of the mind in the face of the difficulties for the notion of substance his empiricism puts him into.  See pp. 79-87 of Locke for discussion.) 

This might seem to fit in well with the best evidence for reincarnation, viz. reports of individuals who appear to exhibit memories and personality traits of deceased people of whom, under the circumstances, they arguably could not have acquired knowledge via the normal means.  For it seems that an incomplete assortment of memories and personality traits is typically all that such individuals are claimed to exhibit.  That is to say, we don’t seem to have cases like (say) a 19-year-old female saying things like “I’m Jimmy Hoffa, and I can prove it!  Go dig under the concession stand at Giants Stadium and you’ll find my previous body.  Grab me a beer and brat while you’re at it” – acting and talking exactly like the deceased person and having the full complement of his memories, Heaven Can Wait style.  Rather, the purported continuity between the living person and the dead one is at best fragmentary and ambiguous (as in a movie like Dead Again).  If we think of memories and personality traits on the model of immaterial “fruit” spilling from the bodily “bowl” at death, it is no surprise if only some of it makes it into a single new “bowl.”

But in fact property dualism does not plausibly lend support to reincarnation.  Consider that if memories, personality traits, and the like really are analogous to fruit that might persist independently of the brain, they can hardly be properties but must be something more like substances.  For if they were properties (in the sense in which contemporary philosophers use the term “properties,” which roughly corresponds to the Scholastics’ term “accident” – the Scholastics use “property” to refer only to a “proper accident”), then they could not persist apart from the substance in which they inhere.

[Might the doctrine of transubstantiation be brought in to rescue a property dualist construal of reincarnation?  For according to that doctrine, the accidents of bread and wine persist even though the substance of bread and the substance of wine have disappeared.  But this will not help the property dualist construal of reincarnation, at least if we understand reincarnation in the usual way, viz. as resulting from the operation of the law of karma.  For the law of karma is supposed to be an impersonal and natural law, which determines all by itself, and without the intervention of any divine being, that the soul of a deceased person will be reincarnated in a body of such-and-such a type.  By contrast, as traditionally understood (and as required by Thomistic metaphysics) transubstantiation cannot occur in the natural course of things but requires a miraculous suspension of the natural order by God.  In the natural course of things, accidents cannot exist apart from a substance.]

So, reincarnation is more plausibly defensible given substance dualism than given property dualism.  (Locke’s conception of survival of death is not intended to require substance dualism, of course – indeed, it is intended to avoid the need to commit to substance dualism, or to any particular doctrine of substance for that matter.  But it is hard to see how it can do so.  If Locke’s “continuity of consciousness” theory of personal identity were correct, then the extinction of the substance in which your consciousness inheres would surely be your extinction, and any later person who seemed to have your memories and personality traits could only ever be a mere duplicate of you and not the McCoy.)

But here another problem arises.  If reincarnation occurs via the migration of a Cartesian immaterial substance from one body to another, why don’t memories and personality traits persist in a more robust way, reappearing unambiguously and in their entirety in the new body?  For unlike immaterial properties, a Cartesian immaterial substance is essentially ontologically independent of the body, even when it is conjoined with it.  Hence it is hard to see why even the shock of the death of the body would so disorient it that its memories and personality traits reappear in only a fragmentary way.  A “reincarnation hypothesis” put forward as an explanation even of the most impressive instances of individuals who purportedly exhibit memories and personality traits of deceased persons would thus seem hardly more plausible than alternative explanations – possession, say, or information received through unconscious telepathic means from living relatives of the deceased.  These are bizarre proposals, of course, but so is reincarnation.  The point is that even if we do not dismiss alleged cases of reincarnation as mere fraud, there are alternative explanations that are not obviously worse than the reincarnation hypothesis.  Or at least, they are not obviously worse given that if substance dualism is true, it seems we should expect more complete and unambiguous continuity between the deceased person and the person in whom he has allegedly been reincarnated.  (For a sympathetic and philosophically serious discussion of the most impressive cases and of various possible ways to interpret them, see Stephen Braude’s Immortal Remains: The Evidence for Life After Death.) 

What a defense of reincarnation needs, then, is a version of dualism on which something like an immaterial substance survives the death of the body, but in such a fashion that we would naturally expect it to function in a far from optimal way after death, so that lapses in memory and the like would not be so surprising.  And here it might seem that hylemorphic dualism would do the trick.  For the hylemorphic dualist holds that the soul is the substantial form of the body, that capacities like sensation and imagination are material in nature, and that even strictly intellectual activity, which it takes to be immaterial, requires the aid of sensation and imagination.  Hence it is not at all surprising – indeed, it is to be expected – that our mental activity is largely dependent on bodily processes, and that it should be severely impaired by the death of the body.  (We have had reason to discuss these matters earlier, here and here.)  But hylemorphic dualism also holds that the soul is a subsistent form, which persists beyond the death of the body as a kind of incomplete substance.

Tailor-made for a defense of reincarnation, right?  Not so fast.  For the hylemorphic dualist claims, not merely that your soul is the substantial form of a body, but that it is the form of a human body, and indeed the substantial form of your human body in particular.  Hence it cannot even in principle inform the body of some other human being, much less the body of a non-human animal.  Scenarios of the sort one finds in movies like Heaven Can Wait and Dead Again – and, for that matter, All of Me and Freaky Friday – are therefore ruled out as metaphysically impossible.  (Awful luck for us movie fans, but there it is.)  Also ruled out, naturally, are the man-to-brute reincarnation scenarios posited in some religious traditions.  To be sure, hylemorphic dualism does allow for the possibility of your being reunited with your body via resurrection, which might count as a kind of “reincarnation.”  But of course, that’s not what most people mean by the term.

But hylemorphic dualism is true, or so I would argue.  (See chapter 4 of Aquinas.)  Hence reincarnation in the sense in which it is understood in religions like Hinduism and Buddhism is (in my view) impossible.  Therefore, alleged cases of reincarnation, if they are not simply fraudulent, must be explained in some other way.


Comments on comments

I was out of town for several days and not monitoring the comboxes.  Unfortunately, Blogger’s overzealous spam filter kept busy while I was away and it seems some readers had trouble posting their comments.  Sorry about that.

In general, if you post a comment and it does not appear, it has no doubt ended up either in the spam filter or the moderation box.  Rest assured that I will get to it, though on days that I teach it may take me as long as a few hours to do so.  I understand why some readers would try to repost their comments in these circumstances, but if this does not succeed after the first attempt there is no point in trying again (much less trying 30, 40, or 50 times)!  Please be patient – again, I will get to it.

While on the subject of comments: To state the obvious, I moderate with a very light hand.  Many uninformed and obnoxious remarks are allowed to stand, even when they are directed at me, as long as they are minimally substantive (and sometimes even when they aren’t).  My aim has been to allow freewheeling discussion, but I know that some readers think that I have been too tolerant, and over the last several weeks I have come to agree with them.  So, please keep your comments substantive.  I don’t care if things get heated between disagreeing commenters now and again, and I also don’t care if some commenters want to make it clear that they don’t like me.  Goody Two-Shoes I ain’t, and I don’t expect anyone else to be.  But exchanges between commenters that consist of nothing more than the trading of insults will be summarily deleted, as will any other remarks that are excessively or gratuitously nasty (toward me, but also – what seems to be more common – toward some other commenter).

Finally, as always I thank my readers for their comments, questions, and kind words, whether expressed here on the blog or via email.  I read and appreciate them all even when I can’t respond.  My remarks of a year ago still apply.


Review of Examined Lives

If you are a reader of First Things, you might find of interest my review of James Miller’s Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, which appears in the June/July issue.  (I’d link to the online version, but it’s behind a paywall.)  If you’re not a reader, do the good people at FT a favor and pick up a copy – or subscribe, as the magazine begins a new era under the able leadership of new editor R. R. Reno.


Mind-body problem roundup

For readers who might be interested, I thought it would be useful to gather together in one place links to various posts on the mind-body problem and other issues in the philosophy of mind.  Like much of what you’ll find on this blog, these posts develop and apply ideas and arguments stated more fully in my various books and articles.  Naturally, I address various issues in the philosophy of mind at length in my book Philosophy of Mind, of which you can find a detailed table of contents here.  (The cover illustration by Andrzej Klimowski you see to the left is from the first edition.)  You will find my most recent and detailed exposition of the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) approach to issues in the philosophy of mind in chapter 4 of Aquinas.  There is a lot of material on the mind-body problem to be found in The Last Superstition, especially in various sections of the last three chapters.  And there is also relevant material to be found in Locke, in the chapter I contributed to my edited volume The Cambridge Companion to Hayek, and in various academic articles.

On to the posts.  For an account of what the mind-body problem is and how the A-T tradition tends to approach it, see:

It is widely assumed that materialist explanations have succeeded in every other area of inquiry, that it is only a matter of time before the mind also succumbs to such explanation, and that progress in neuroscience supports this judgment.  I maintain that none of these claims is true and that the contemporary presumption in favor of materialism rests on various philosophical confusions, sleight of hand, and historical ignorance.  I develop the theme in general terms in the following posts:

I address the specific claim that the findings of modern neuroscience vindicate materialism in these posts:

“Against ‘neurobabble’” 

Reading Rosenberg, Part VIII [on pseudo-explanations in neuroscience]

Much of what contemporary materialist philosophers have to say in criticism of dualism rests on egregious distortions and/or ignorance of what dualist philosophers have actually said.  A good example of this tendency is provided by the work of Paul Churchland, as I have demonstrated at length in a series of posts:

I discuss a number of arguments in favor of dualism in another series of posts:

Discussions of the ideas and arguments of some historically influential anti-materialist thinkers can be found here:

Problems with Cartesian forms of dualism (which I reject) are discussed in the following posts:

 "Two, four, six, eight!  Who do you reincarnate?"

Defenses of Thomistic or hylemorphic dualism (which I endorse) can be found in the following posts: 

How to animate a corpse [on Cartesian versus Aristotelian conceptions of the soul] 

Discussion of issues surrounding intentionality can be found in several posts:

"Coyne on intentionality"

A lengthy discussion of qualia and Frank Jackson’s knowledge argument can be found here:

Criticism of eliminative materialism can be found in a series of posts on Alex Rosenberg:

“Misinformation campaign” 

Reading Rosenberg, Part IX [on eliminative materialism in Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality]

The ideas of various other contemporary philosophers of mind are considered in the following:

Reading Rosenberg, Part X [on the discussion of Thomas Nagel’s “bat” argument and related arguments in Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality] 

Finally, links to various posts on scientism (which is closely related to materialism) can be found here.
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