What is a soul?

To be more precise, what is a human soul?  Or to be even more precise, what is a human being?  For that is really the key question; and I sometimes think that the biggest obstacle to understanding what the soul is is the word “soul.”  People too readily read into it various erroneous notions (erroneous from an Aristotelian-Thomistic point of view, anyway) -- ghosts, ectoplasm, or Cartesian immaterial substances.  Even the Aristotelian characterization of the soul as the form of the living body can too easily mislead.  When those unfamiliar with Aristotelian metaphysics hear “form,” they are probably tempted to think in terms of shape or a configuration of parts, which is totally wrong.  Or perhaps they think of it in Platonic terms, as an abstract universal that the individual human being participates in -- also totally wrong.  Or they suspect that since it is the form of the living body it cannot coherently be said to subsist apart from that body -- totally wrong again.   So let us, for the moment, put out of our minds all of these ideas and start instead with the question I raised above.  What is a human being?

To ask what a human being is is to ask what the nature of a human being is.  What makes human beings the kinds of things they are?  What makes them distinctive?  What sets them apart from other kinds of thing?  To answer this it is useful to consider those kinds of thing which, on the Aristotelian-Thomistic view, come just below and just above human beings in the hierarchy of reality: non-human animals, and angels.

An animal is something which by its nature not only exercises vegetative powers like taking in nutrients, growing, and reproducing, but is also capable of sensation and imagination, of appetite, and of locomotion or the ability to move itself in response to the promptings of appetite and in pursuit of what it senses or imagines.  Particular kinds of animals will, given their natures, exhibit this repertoire in their own distinctive ways.  For instance, land animals will exercise their locomotive powers by walking, hopping, or slithering, fish by swimming, and (most) birds by flying; and each will do so by means of its own distinctive organs -- legs, fins, wings, and so forth.

Now of course, not every single individual animal will perfectly exercise the capacities that are natural to it, or even actually possess the organs that are its natural means of exercising them.  A dog might injure or lose a leg, or even fail to develop legs in the first place because of some prenatal defect.  But it is still of the nature of such a dog to have legs, and to walk and run with them.  In the extreme case, we can even imagine a dog which (as a result of an accident, say) has lost not only its legs, but its sense organs and higher brain functions, and is kept alive through intravenous feeding -- reduced, in effect, to a portion of its vegetative functions.  All the same, the nature of such a dog, no less than that of a healthy dog, is to have sense organs, legs, and all the rest.  That the dog has been prevented from realizing that nature doesn’t change the nature itself; and should the dog be somehow restored to health and functionality, it is precisely those doglike attributes that it had lost that would be restored to it, rather than some other attributes.

Consider now an angel, which stands on the other side of the metaphysical divide marked by human beings.  An angel is, by nature, a creature of pure intellect, which entails -- given that, as Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophers argue, intellect is necessarily immaterial -- that an angel is essentially immaterial.  (The wings, white robes, and long blonde hair are symbolic -- suitable for children’s prayer books but not for metaphysics!)  Being immaterial, angels cannot be damaged or physically malformed the way an animal can.  (Of course, angels can be morally defective -- there are fallen angels, after all -- but that is a failure of will, which is an immaterial power that follows upon intellect.)   Indeed, being immaterial, they have no tendency toward corruption at all.  They are of their nature immortal.  

And now we come to human beings.  A human being is by nature a rational animal.  That is to say, a human being is something which by its nature exercises both the animal powers of nutrition, growth, reproduction, sensation, appetite, and locomotion, and the intellectual and volitional powers possessed by angels.  Hence it exercises powers of both a material and an immaterial sort.  For that reason it is to a large extent capable of damage and malformation, as an animal is; but not completely so.  In particular, a human being can be damaged to such an extent that it completely loses the organs of its animal and vegetative powers, and thus cannot exercise them at all -- to such an extent that only its intellectual and volitional powers remain.  But those intellectual and volitional aspects of human nature, precisely because they are immaterial and thus do not depend on any corruptible material organ, cannot themselves perish, any more than they can in the case of an angel -- though they would be impaired given that the human intellect’s normal source of data is the sense organs, which are material, and given that its activity is normally carried out in conjunction with imagination, which is also material.

Now what we’d have in the case of a dog which had lost its legs, its sense organs, and its higher brain functions is the stub of a dog, the bare minimum consistent with the dog’s surviving at all.  The nature of such a poor creature would not have changed, but it would have been reduced to realizing only the smallest fragment of what would naturally flow from that nature.  You might almost say that it had been reduced to little more than the nature itself, with almost nothing in the way of a manifestation of that nature.  And a human being damaged to such an extent that it could exercise none of its animal capacities and retained only its intellectual and volitional faculties in an impaired state would, you might say, be a stub of a human being, the bare minimum consistent with a human being’s surviving at all -- a human being reduced to little more than its nature, with almost nothing in the way of a manifestation of that nature.  The key difference would be that whereas the severely damaged dog of our example could also go on utterly to perish, this stub of a human being could not.  It is immortal, though the full human being is not, which is why resurrection is necessary.  (To be sure, God could annihilate this “stub,” just as He could annihilate anything; but as with an angel, nothing in the natural order could destroy it, because, being immaterial, it would have no inherent tendency toward corruption.)

Now such a stub of a human being is what a soul is, or a disembodied soul anyway.  This is why Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophers often call a disembodied soul an “incomplete substance” -- not because they are trying incoherently to fudge the difference between a Cartesian res cogitans and the idea of the soul as a kind of form, but because a disembodied soul relative to a living human being is like a legless, senseless, brain-damaged dog relative to a healthy dog.  The severely damaged dog is in an obvious and natural sense an incomplete substance, and the disembodied soul is an incomplete substance in just that sense -- it is an incomplete, damaged human being.  

This is also a way to understand the sense in which the soul is the substantial form -- that is to say, the nature -- of a human being.  A nature or substantial form is not a Platonic abstraction.  It exists in a concrete individual thing, as its principle of operation and the source of its properties.  It is there as long as, and only as long as, the individual thing itself is there.  But when the operations and properties in question are prevented from being manifested, what we are left with in effect is the principle or source without that which flows from it.  Thus to reduce a human being to the bare minimum consistent with its being there at all is to reduce it as far as possible to its nature or substantial form -- that is, to its soul alone.

Some might insist that if the intellectual and volitional powers of a human being persist in even an impaired form after the animal powers have been destroyed, this must be because the former inhere in a substance distinct from that in which the latter inhere, as Descartes held.  But this is like saying that since the stub of a dog would continue to exist in the absence of its legs, eyes, ears, etc., it follows that the stub in question (an eyeless, earless, brain-damaged torso) and the legs, eyes, ears, etc. are all distinct substances.   And they are not; rather, they are all aspects of one substance -- the dog itself -- and can be made sense of only by reference to that one substance.  Similarly, that the impaired intellectual-cum-volitional stub of a human being would continue to exist in the absence of its animal powers does not entail that the stub in question and the animal powers must be grounded in distinct substances.  They are not; rather, they too are aspects of the one substance -- the human being himself -- and can be made sense of only by reference to that one substance.  

I noted in a recent post that those beholden to scientism tend to reify abstractions -- to abstract the mathematical structure of a concrete physical system and treat it as if it were the entirety of the system, or to abstract the neurobiological processes underlying human action and treat them as if they were the whole source of human action.  I also noted that while those prone to scientism are notorious for this, Cartesians are guilty of reifying abstractions too.  Specifically, they abstract from the one substance that is a human being its intellectual aspect and its animal aspect and make of them two substances -- putting asunder, as it were, what God and nature had joined together.  And when they finally recombine them, what they are left with is nothing human at all, but a bizarre shotgun marriage of angel and animal, or ghost and machine.  But sometimes a man is just a man. 


Radio Free Aquinas (Postponed)

I’ll be on The Frank Pastore Show on KKLA radio on Friday, March 30 (tomorrow) at 6pm PST to discuss Thomas Aquinas.  (You can find a podcast of my earlier appearance on the show here.)

UPDATE: Sorry, Frank has had to postpone at the last minute -- I'll announce the new date of the interview once it's rescheduled.


Kitcher and Albert on Rosenberg and Krauss

In The New York Times, philosopher of science Philip Kitcher is critical of Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.  In the same paper, philosopher of physics David Albert takes apart Lawrence Krauss’s A Universe From Nothing.  I suppose it needs remarking, for any ill-informed, kneejerk ad hominem-prone New Atheist types out there, that neither Kitcher nor Albert is known for being an apologist for religion.  (I reviewed Rosenberg’s book in First Things a few issues ago, and have been going through the book with a fine-toothed comb in a series of posts since then.  My review of Krauss’s book is forthcoming.) 


Scruton on “neuroenvy”

We’ve had several occasions (e.g. here, here, and here) to examine the fallacies committed by those who suppose that contemporary neuroscience has radically altered our understanding of human nature, and even undermined our commonsense conception of ourselves as conscious, rational, freely choosing agents.  In a recent Spectator essay, Roger Scruton comments on the fad for neuroscientific pseudo-explanations within the humanities, labeling it “neuroenvy.”

Here’s an especially insightful passage from the piece:

Neuroenvy… consist[s] of a vast collection of answers, with no memory of the questions.  And the answers are encased in neurononsense of the following kind:

‘The brains of social animals are wired to feel pleasure in the exercise of social dispositions such as grooming and co-operation, and to feel pain when shunned, scolded, or excluded.  Neurochemicals such as vasopressin and oxytocin mediate pair-bonding, parent-offspring bonding, and probably also bonding to kith and kin…’  (Patricia Churchland).

As though we didn’t know already that people feel pleasure in grooming and co-operating, and as though it adds anything to say that their brains are ‘wired’ to this effect, or that ‘neurochemicals’ might possibly be involved in producing it.  This is pseudoscience of the first order, and owes what scant plausibility it possesses to the fact that it simply repeats the matter that it fails to explain.  It perfectly illustrates the prevailing academic disorder, which is the loss of questions.

This seems to me almost exactly right.  Consider the way addiction is often discussed these days in pop science and journalistic contexts.  Everyone has always known that smoking, drinking alcohol, taking drugs, looking at pornography, eating sweets, etc. can be habit forming.  Everyone has also always known that the reason has to do with the pleasure involved in such activities.  Yet when neuroscientists tell us that such activities involve an increase in dopamine levels, which are associated with pleasure, this is treated as some major breakthrough in understanding addiction, even one that undermines our belief in moral responsibility.  Hence we are told in one pop science article that:

In the past, addiction was thought to be a weakness of character, but in recent decades research has increasingly found that addiction to drugs like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine is a matter of brain chemistry.

To see how very silly such a remark is, suppose someone who has been reading up on the chemistry of paint decided that he had hit upon something that would revolutionize aesthetics, declaring:

In the past, the beauty of a great painting was thought to involve craftsmanship, composition, a balance of colors, and so forth, but in recent decades research has increasingly found that it is a matter of paint chemistry.  

The reason I say that Scruton has things “almost exactly right” might be evident from this comparison.  Paint chemistry might have some relevance to understanding the beauty of a painting; for example, it would not be without interest if it turned out that certain colors retained their vibrancy for a longer period of time if they were painted with paint having such-and-such a chemistry.  Similarly, we can allow that neuroscience can give us some insight into human behavior.  (Obviously, if one were chemically to intervene so as to prevent an increase in dopamine levels, this might have an effect on the subject’s tendency toward addiction -- though whether this would be a good way to deal with addiction is another story.)

But paint chemistry is obviously only a part, and a relatively small part, of understanding the beauty of a painting.  And brain chemistry is only a part, and a relatively small one, of understanding human nature.  In particular, it gives us only what Aristotelians call the material cause of human behavior, and part of the efficient cause; but it does not give us the formal or final causes, or the entirety of the efficient cause.  All four aspects are irreducible components of any action, and an analysis which focuses on one or two is like an analysis of a painting which focuses exclusively on the chemistry of the paint.  Scruton gestures in the direction of this point when he writes:

We should recognise that not all coherent questions about human nature and conduct are scientific questions, concerning the laws governing cause and effect.  Most of our questions about persons and their doings are about interpretation: what did he mean by that?  What did her words imply?  What is signified by the hand of Michelangelo’s David?  Those are real questions, which invite disciplined answers.  And there are disciplines that attempt to answer them.  The law is one such.  It involves making reasoned attributions of liability and responsibility, using methods that are not reducible to any explanatory science, and not replaceable by neuroscience, however many advances that science might make.  

Questions of meaning, responsibility, reasons for action and the like are questions about the formal and final causes of the behavior of rational animals, and thus lie necessarily beyond the domain of reductive neuroscience.  When I intentionally type these words into my computer, there is the material cause of the action, which is the associated neural and other physiological activity, and the efficient cause of the motion of my fingers, which includes this physiological activity; but there is also the final cause of the action, which is the end or goal of conveying some philosophical ideas, and the formal cause, which is the human soul -- “human soul” here understood, not in the popular sense of a wispy, ghostly thing that enters into a body in order to animate it and exits it at death,  and not in the Cartesian sense of an immaterial substance, but rather in the technical Aristotelian sense of the substantial form of a rational animal.  And the efficient cause of the action includes the intellectual activity distinctive of something with that sort of substantial form (as contrasted with the merely sensory or imaginative powers that a non-rational animal possesses) -- where the intellectual element and the neural element are not two things (as they are for the Cartesian dualist) but rather two irreducible aspects of one thing (just as a sentence is one thing with two aspects, material and semantic).  

This Aristotelian understanding of a human being, like the Aristotelian understanding of every natural substance, is radically anti-reductionist.  The “higher-level” features of human beings -- their thoughts, volitions, actions, perceptions, and other activities and properties of the organism as a whole -- are no less real and fundamental than their “lower-level” features (e.g. their neural processes).  Indeed, the latter are themselves only properly understood by reference to the whole of which they are a part.  To give a purely neuroscientific description of human behavior is to abstract from actual concrete reality, just as to ignore the differences between a falling human body and a falling sack of grain for the purposes of physics is to abstract from actual concrete reality.  In both cases the exercise in abstraction can be very useful for certain purposes.  And in both cases it would be ludicrous to treat the abstraction as if it captured the whole of the phenomena in question.

Materialists and Cartesians alike share the tendency to reify abstractions and then reduce the things of our experience to the abstractions.  In particular, both treat the necessarily partial description that natural science gives of the human body as if it were an exhaustive description.  Cartesians just tack on to this abstraction a separate “immaterial substance.”   They rightly see that there is no way that a completely materialist analysis can account for consciousness, intentionality and rationality -- that is to say, for those human activities and properties that science itself, in whose name the materialist puts forward his reductionist position, necessarily presupposes.  But having reified abstractions -- reducing the human body to the sort of mechanical system describable by physics and raising the human mind to a complete substance in its own right -- they make of a human being a bizarre Rube Goldberg contraption, a ghost mysteriously moving around bits of clockwork, which understandably raises the suspicions of materialists.  

Materialists typically assume that the Cartesian move is what anyone who criticizes their reductionism must be committed to.  (See chapter 4 of Aquinas for a detailed account of the differences between the Aristotelian-Thomistic and Cartesian views of human nature.)  And so deeply and unreflectively have they imbibed reductionist thinking that they fail to perceive that the arguments that they think prove reductionism really only assume reductionism -- begging the question, and none too subtly at that.  In particular, they fail to see that the stuff about increased dopamine levels “proves” that addicts lack moral responsibility, or that Libet’s experiments “prove” that we lack free will, only if we already assume that human action is entirely reducible to the neural phenomena in question, which is of course precisely what is at issue.  And they would also beg the question were they to insist that categories like formal and final causation are acceptable only if they can somehow be reduced to those recognized by physics, chemistry, biology, or neuroscience.  

Meanwhile, critics like Scruton and Raymond Tallis, while they rightly denounce reductionism of both a materialist or Cartesian sort, fail to put in its place a systematic rival metaphysics like the Aristotelian one.   Powerful as their criticisms are, their positive account of human nature is bound to seem obscurantist to those who cannot see any plausible alternative to materialism as a general conception of the natural world.  For it takes a metaphysics to counter a metaphysics.  Until materialism, scientism, and naturalism are not only criticized but replaced with something better, they will not lose the baneful grip on modern culture that Scruton and Tallis rightly deplore.


The Unliterate Hallq

“Unliterate” is a neologism used to refer to someone who is able to read but doesn’t bother to do so.  Atheist blogger Chris Hallquist, who calls himself “The Uncredible Hallq,” might consider adopting it as a replacement for his current adjective. “The Non-credible Hallq” would be a good choice too.  About my recent post on the Reason Rally, Hallquist writes: “Ed Feser has a post up denouncing the Reason Rally on the grounds that it is a mass gathering and all mass gatherings are bad.”  He then accuses me of “hypocrisy” for not similarly denouncing the Catholic Mass and Catholic World Youth Day.  He suggests that “it should be obvious that Feser started with his conclusion (atheists are evil) and then set out in search of a way – no matter how lame – to justify it.”  But did I really say that all mass gatherings are bad?  Did I hypocritically make an exception for rallies for causes to which I am favorable?  And did I say that the reason I objected to the “Reason Rally” is because its participants are atheists, or that all atheists are evil?

As those who have bothered to read my post already know, what I actually said there was:

I dislike such rallies even when the cause is good and the participants well-meaning.  They may sometimes be necessary, but they are always regrettable and to be avoided if possible.

The reason is that reason is impossible with a crowd.  Serious matters require calm reflection, sufficient background knowledge, careful distinctions, the give and take of objections and replies, and always the willingness to submit oneself to superior arguments and objective truth.  But the thinking of a crowd is, in the best circumstances, dumbed down, slipshod, and banal…

And in combox remarks posted three days before Hallquist’s rant, I wrote:

[W]hat I had in mind were rallies intended to promote some program or ideology and… I dislike such rallies even when I am sympathetic to the cause.

Hence, I don't much like even e.g. pro-life rallies or Tea Party rallies, even though I despise abortion and big government as much as the next guy.  I'm not saying that such rallies, or even all rallies of the left-wing sort, count as raving mobs -- of course they don't, and I never said they did.  The point is that they are still rallies, and thus prone to a mild level of groupthink where one is moved by feeling and group identity rather than reason.  And the reason why that matters is that the point of political rallies is to promote an end which should be primarily rationally- rather than emotionally-driven.  Still, I also explicitly said that such rallies are sometimes necessary.  They just rub me the wrong way.

At the same time, not all crowds count as rallies.  For example, concerts, sporting events, funerals, and events whose aim is religious devotion (e.g. outdoor Masses or gatherings to receive a papal blessing) are not intended to promote an end of a political or quasi-political sort.  These don't bother me at all, because they don't involve the paradoxical attempt to promote an ideology or program in an emotive rather than rational way…

It's silly to accuse… [any] school of thought (including atheists) of "groupthink" merely because they share firmly held opinions.  That's not what "groupthink" is.  Groupthink is evidenced by things like being moved by the feelings prevailing in a mob rather than by reason (as at a rally) or by mostly reading only each other's work, and ridiculing and demonizing outsiders without even attempting to understand their views (as "New Atheists" do though other atheists -- e.g. Mackie, Smart, Smith, Sobel -- do not).

Are some conservatives and Christians guilty of groupthink?  Sure. Are some left-wingers and secularists innocent of groupthink?  Sure.

End quote.  So, contrary to what Hallquist tells his readers, I explicitly denied that all mass gatherings are bad, I explicitly said that I dislike rallies of a political or programmatic sort even when I am sympathetic to the cause, I explicitly noted why there is a principled difference between such rallies and other mass gatherings (such as religious gatherings), I explicitly said that what was problematic was promoting a practical agenda about complex matters in an emotive rather than rational way (rather than the content of the rally, atheist or otherwise), and I explicitly acknowledged that not all atheists are guilty of the sort of groupthink I was criticizing.  One is tempted to conclude (to paraphrase the Unliterate, Non-credible Hallq) that “it should be obvious that Hallquist started with his conclusion (Feser is evil) and then set out in search of a way – no matter how lame – to justify it.”  

This isn’t the first time Hallquist has exhibited his unwillingness actually to read something before criticizing it.  In a bizarre blog post about my book Aquinas some time back, Hallquist complained that in the 15 pages of the book he’d bothered to read, all I’d done was defend Aquinas’s metaphysics against certain objections, but hadn’t made a positive case on its behalf.  In particular, he complained that while at pp. 8-23 I provide an exposition of some of Aquinas’s key metaphysical claims and respond to various criticisms, I don’t thereby show that those claims are true.  And on the basis of these 15 pages, he judged that:

[S]howing that objections to a view fail is different than showing the view is correct, and as far as I can tell Feser isn’t even trying to do the second thing, at least in the bits of Aquinas I’ve read.  That means that, personally, I don’t find the book very interesting…

Because he doesn’t even try to show Aquinas was right, Feser can’t expect atheists to be very interested in his book.

Now, leave aside the obvious point that one can hardly make the case for a certain view without dealing with objections that have been raised against it.  (And you can be sure that if I had not dealt with the objections that have been raised against Aquinas, Hallquist would have been badmouthing me for that.)  Let’s just consider the fact that most readers in Hallquist’s position would think: “Gee, I’ve read 15 pages and I still haven’t seen what I’m looking for.  But maybe it’s there in the remaining 177 pages of text, so I’ll keep reading before drawing a sweeping conclusion about the book, or at least before posting a sweeping conclusion about it on my blog and thereby making a complete ass of myself in public.”  

But most readers aren’t the Uncredible Hallq.  Because most readers, you know, read.  And as those who have actually read the book know, in the long chapter on Aquinas’s metaphysics, pp. 8-36 are mostly devoted to an exposition of his general metaphysical claims (though there are in fact some positive arguments for those claims there too), while pp. 36-61 are mostly devoted to making a positive case for those claims.  And of course, positive arguments for various other aspects of Aquinas’s philosophy can be found throughout the rest of the book.

“[M]ost of what [Feser] write[s],” Hallquist assures us in his recent post, “is a transparent post-hoc rationalization for bigotry.”  This from a guy who by his own admission draws sweeping conclusions about what’s in a book whose conclusions he dislikes without bothering to read it first!

Really, what is it with these New Atheist pots constantly calling the kettle black?  Do they get paid per kettle or something?


Natural law and the right to private property

My essay “Natural Law, Natural Rights, and Private Property” has just appeared over at Liberty Fund’s new Online Library of Law and Liberty website.  Also posted there are two responses to the essay by philosophers Bas Van der Vossen and James Bruce.  Give them a read, and while you’re there take a look at the rest of the website, where you’ll find lots of interesting stuff.


“Reason Rally”: Doubleplusgood newspeak for groupthink!

There is a view of life which conceives that where the crowd is, there also is the truth, and that in truth itself there is need of having the crowd on its side.  There is another view of life which conceives that wherever there is a crowd there is untruth, so that (to consider for a moment the extreme case), even if every individual, each for himself in private, were to be in possession of the truth, yet in case they were all to get together in a crowd -- a crowd to which any sort of decisive significance is attributed, a voting, noisy, audible crowd -- untruth would at once be in evidence.

For a “crowd” is the untruth.

Søren Kierkegaard, “That Individual”

One of the symptoms of groupthink is the members’ persistence in conveying to each other the cliché and oversimplified images of political enemies embodied in long-standing ideological stereotypes…

When a group of people who respect each other’s opinions arrive at a unanimous view, each member is likely to feel that the belief must be true.  This reliance on consensual validation tends to replace individual critical thinking and reality-testing.

Irving Janis, Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, Second edition

I have always hated mobs.  Thus I dislike mass demonstrations with their slogans and banners, marches and sit-ins, and all the rest of the obnoxious apparatus of modern protest.  Usually the cause is bad, and the participants are ignorant yahoos.  But I dislike such rallies even when the cause is good and the participants well-meaning.  They may sometimes be necessary, but they are always regrettable and to be avoided if possible.

The reason is that reason is impossible with a crowd.  Serious matters require calm reflection, sufficient background knowledge, careful distinctions, the give and take of objections and replies, and always the willingness to submit oneself to superior arguments and objective truth.  But the thinking of a crowd is, in the best circumstances, dumbed down, slipshod, and banal; and at its worst there is no madness or evil to which a crowd might not descend.  A crowd shouts, chants, emotes, and is always, always demanding this or that -- it is appetitive rather than cognitive.   In a crowd, the rational in rational animal is always in danger of giving way, leaving just the animal, indeed a herd of animals.  The individual, or a small group of friends, can dispute with Socrates about the good, the true, and the beautiful.  The crowd votes to execute him.  The individual, or a small group of disciples, can have their hearts moved by Christ.  The crowd shouts for His crucifixion.

How fitting, then, that the Counter-Religion that is the New Atheism has now decided to make of itself a mob.  Something called the “Reason Rally” is scheduled for March 24 at the National Mall in Washington, D. C. and the Counter-Prophet Richard Dawkins is headlining as chief rouser of the “rationalist” rabble.  The name alone exposes it for the farce that it is -- a “Reason Rally” being (for the reasons just given) somewhat akin to a “Chastity Orgy” or a “Temperance Kegger.”   As always, the New Atheist satirizes himself before you can do it for him.

The aim of this “movement-wide event,” we are told, is “to unify, energize, and embolden” the secularist faithful.  Naturally, this is not the reason of Socrates, but that of the “Religion of Reason,” of the French and Russian Revolutions, of Comte.  It is “Reason” as a slogan, something to stick on a banner and march behind, and in the name of which to promote an agenda and shout down critics.  Fortunately, the “movement” hasn’t yet reached the guillotine stage, and the mob will have to satisfy itself with “music, comedy, great speakers, and lots of fun” -- rather than, say, storming Vatican City and arresting the Pope, as Dawkins would no doubt prefer.   And it seems some advance footage of the fun has somehow already been made available.

OK, just kidding -- and in fact it has not yet been announced whether a Two Minutes Hate will be part of the proceedings.  But it would certainly be fitting given that it is the loathing of the perceived enemies of “reason,” rather than the love of truth and of rational argument, that will unite the communion of non-believers on the Mall come March 24.  That, in any event, is the conclusion to which one is unavoidably led when considering the work of Dawkins and fellow “Reason Rally” speakers like P. Z. Myers, whose modus operandi is to spew venom at critics while explicitly refusing, as a matter of general policy, to engage rationally with their criticisms.  

Thus, that Dawkins’ arguments are directed at ludicrous straw men has been demonstrated time and again (for example, here).  Yet he resolutely declines to answer those who have exposed the numerous errors and fallacies in his writings -- dismissing them as “fleas,” without explaining how exactly they have got his arguments wrong -- or, in general, to debate anyone with expertise in the philosophy of religion.  Meanwhile, the even more vitriolic P. Z. Myers’ main claim to New Atheist fame is his “Courtier’s reply” dodge, a shamelessly question-begging rationalization for remaining ignorant of what the other side actually says.  New Atheists will ridicule their opponents, but actually read only each others’ work.  Hence Christopher Hitchens derives his main arguments from Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss learns everything he needs to know from Hitchens, and Dawkins has his confidence in the atheist worldview bolstered from reading Krauss.  And now this mutual mental onanism will be expanded across the National Mall.  Somewhere Joycelyn Elders is smiling.

As Alex Rosenberg, without a trace of irony, assures the secularist reader of his Atheist’s Guide to Reality, “we won’t treat theism as a serious alternative that stills [sic] needs to be refuted.  [We] have moved past that point.  We know the truth.”  And that, dear reader, is what passes for the “reality-based” alternative to “faith-based” thinking -- just like black is white, ignorance is strength, war is peace, and a “Reason Rally” is somehow different from groupthink.  A purer specimen of the phenomenon described by Irving Janis in the passage quoted above cannot be imagined. 

Reading Rosenberg, Part VIII

And now, dear reader, our critical look at Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality brings us to the pseudoscience du jour.  Wittgenstein famously said that “in psychology there are experimental methods and conceptual confusion” (Philosophical Investigations, II, xiv, p. 232).  He might as well have been talking about contemporary neuroscience -- or, more precisely, about how neuroscience becomes distorted in the hands of those rich in empirical data but poor in philosophical understanding.  Every week seems to bring some new sensationalistic claim to the effect that neuroscience has “shown” this or that -- that free will is an illusion, or that mindreading is possible, or that consciousness plays no role in human action -- supported by arguments notable only for the crudeness of the fallacies they commit.  

Tyler Burge has given the label “neurobabble” to this modern intellectual pathology, and Raymond Tallis calls it “neurotrash,” born of “neuromania.”  I’ve had reason to comment on it in earlier posts (here and here) and an extreme manifestation of the disease is criticized in the last chapter of The Last Superstition.  M. R. Bennett and P. M. S. Hacker subject neurobabble to detailed and devastating criticism in their book Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience, and Tallis does a bit of housecleaning of his own in Aping Mankind.  Neurobabble is a key ingredient in Rosenberg’s scientism.  Like so many other contemporary secularists, he has got the brain absolutely on the brain, and maintains that modern neuroscience vindicates some of his more outrageous metaphysical claims.  In particular, he thinks that so-called “blindsight” phenomena establish that consciousness is irrelevant to our actions, and that neuroscientist Benjamin Libet’s experiments cast doubt on free will.  (Jerry Coyne, in a recent article, has made similar claims about free will.  What I’ll say about Rosenberg applies to Coyne as well.)

The big picture

Some general remarks are in order before turning to Rosenberg’s specific claims.  Consider that every written token of the English word “soup” is made up of marks which look at least vaguely like “s,” “o,” “u,” and “p.”  But of course, it doesn’t follow that the word “soup” is identical to any collection of such marks, or that its properties supervene on the material properties of such marks, or that it can be explained entirely in terms of the material properties of such marks.  It would be absurd to suggest that students of language should confine their attention to such material properties, or that any features of language that could not be detected via the study of such properties aren’t real.  Everyone who considers the matter knows this.  To take another example, borrowed from psychologist Jerome Kagan, “as a viewer slowly approaches Claude Monet's painting of the Seine at dawn there comes a moment when the scene dissolves into tiny patches of color.”  But it doesn’t follow that its status and qualities as a painting reduce to, supervene upon, or can be explained entirely in terms of the material properties of the color patches.  It would be absurd to suggest that students of art should confine their attention to such properties, or that any features of a painting that could not be detected via a study of such properties aren’t real.  Everyone who considers the matter knows this too.  

Yet when neuroscientists discover some neural correlate of this or that mental phenomenon, a certain kind of materialist concludes that the mind’s identity with, or supervenience upon, or reducibility to, or complete explanation in terms of neural processes is all but a done deal; and when they fail to discover any such correlate, such a materialist will conclude that the mental event or process in question doesn’t really exist.  In fact such conclusions presuppose, rather than establish, neuroscientific reductionism -- just as someone who concluded that sentences and their meanings don’t really exist, but only ink splotches do, or that paintings don’t really exist and only isolated color patches do, would be presupposing rather than establishing reductionism about language or art.  It is first assumed by such materialists that all that really exists is what can be put in the language of physiology, neurochemistry, and the like; and then it is “inferred,” in an entirely question-begging fashion, that what we take ourselves to know from introspection is either entirely reducible to what the neuroscience textbooks tell us or doesn’t really exist at all.  Circular reasoning of this sort pervades the neurotrash literature.  

New Atheist vulgarians like Coyne will no doubt retort that the only alternative to their crass reductionism is a belief in ghosts, ectoplasm, or some other spook stuff of the sort beloved of the more ideological sort of materialist, who only ever wants to attack straw men.  Of course, dualists of either the Cartesian or Thomistic stripe are not in fact beholden to such concepts.  (See my series of posts on Paul Churchland for an illustration of how badly some materialists caricature dualism.)   But the anti-reductionist position does not require a commitment to dualism in any case.  The objections of Burge, Tallis, Bennett and Hacker do not presuppose dualism, much less any theological point of view.

Rather, what is necessary is just the ability to see that it is only persons, rather than any of their components, who can intelligibly be said to be conscious, to think, to perceive, to act, freely to choose, and so on (just as it is paintings and words, rather than the paint or ink splotches they are made up of, that can intelligibly be said to represent things, to have syntactic and semantic features, and so forth).  Hence, from a failure to locate such activities at the neuronal level, it simply does not follow that the activities do not exist -- again, one must presuppose reductionism to draw that sort of conclusion, so that a failure to locate the activities at the subpersonal level hardly establishes reductionism.  Similarly, it makes no sense to attribute the activities in question to the subpersonal level (as some reductionists do) -- to characterize neural processes as “deciding” this or “perceiving” that.  Only persons decide, perceive, think, freely choose, etc., if anything does.  Hence it is to the level of persons as a whole, and not to their parts, that we must look if we are fully to understand what is happening when we think, perceive, feel, choose, act, etc.

Appeals to the predictive and technological successes of neuroscience no more establish that neuroscience gives us an exhaustive picture of human nature than the predictive and technological successes of physics tell us that physics gives us an exhaustive picture of reality as a whole.  I explained in an earlier post why the latter sort of inference is fallacious, and parallel considerations show why the former sort is fallacious.  Mathematical models in physics are abstractions from something concrete, something apart from which the mathematics would be entirely inefficacious.  The models surely capture something real, but by no means the whole of what is real.  To think otherwise is sort of like thinking that what is “really” in a photograph is only what is captured by the outlines one might find in a coloring book.  Neuroscientific models are no different.  They too are abstractions from concrete reality, a reality that outstrips the model.  They no more provide an exhaustive description of a person than a chemical analysis of the ink in a book exhausts the content of the book.

Arguments to the contrary typically not only beg the question, but are inconsistent.  For instance, arguments for the untrustworthiness of introspection crucially rely on evidence derived from introspection.  Mental properties that are claimed not to exist at the personal level are smuggled in at the subpersonal level.  Such question-begging reductionism and inconsistency often take the form of what Bennett and Hacker call the mereological fallacy (and what others have called the homunculus fallacy).  Higher-level, personal features of human beings (decision, awareness, intentionality, etc.) are “explained” or explained away by appealing to purported lower-level, subpersonal features of the nervous system, but where the purported lower-level features are really just further instantiations of the higher-level features in question -- in which case they have really just been relocated rather than either explained or eliminated.  

Another fallacy often committed by the neuromaniacs involves ignoring the distinction between normal and deviant cases.  Dogs naturally have four legs.  Everyone knows this, and everyone also knows that it is irrelevant that there are dogs which, as a result of injury or genetic defect, have less than four legs.  No one would take seriously for a moment the suggestion that the existence of the odd three-legged dog should lead us to conclude that it isn’t really natural after all for a dog to have four legs.  Everyone also knows that dogs tend to prefer meat to other kinds of food.  Though dogs will eat other things and the occasional dog may even prefer other things, that does not undermine the point that there is a tendency in dogs toward meat-eating.  No one would take seriously for a moment the suggestion that the existence of the odd dog who prefers fruit and vegetables shows that dogs are “really” all herbivores.

Yet such common sense goes out the window with neurobabblers, who (as it were) allow the deformed tail to wag the otherwise healthy dog.  In particular, the way people behave in artificial experimental conditions (such as Libet’s experiments) is taken to determine how we should interpret what happens in ordinary conditions, rather than the other way around.  Unusual behavior on the part of subjects with neurological damage is taken to show what is “really” going on in normal subjects (as in “blindsight” and “split-brain” phenomena).

We will see how some of these general features of the arguments of neuromaniacs manifest themselves in what Rosenberg has to say.  Notice first, though, that nowhere in what has been said so far has there been any appeal to “intuition.”  Neuromaniacs like to pretend otherwise -- to pretend that their critics have only inchoate hunches on their side while the neuromaniacs have science on theirs -- but this is sheer bluff.   (And I for one hate arguments that appeal to intuition.)  The appeal has rather been to mundane facts, to the plain evidence of everyday experience -- that is, to empirical evidence of the sort those beholden to scientism pretend to favor.  In fact their attitude to empirical evidence is ambivalent.  When doing so will enhance their appeal to the mob, those committed to scientism will play up their just-the-facts-ma’am homespun common sense.  But once the bait is swallowed, they will switch gears and insist that common sense and ordinary experience actually get much or even everything wrong -- conveniently forgetting that this casts into doubt the very empirical evidence that was supposed to have led to the scientistic picture of the world in the first place.  The paradox is as old as Democritus, and Rosenberg is just an extreme case of a general pattern one finds throughout the literature of scientism, materialism, and naturalism.  

The neurobabbler, then, is committed to a position that is not only radically at odds with what the actual evidence of experience tells us, but arbitrary and inconsistent in its treatment of that evidence.  The burden of proof is on him to show, in a non-question-begging way, that his position is even coherent -- not on us to show that he is wrong.  

The blindsighted leading the blind

In “blindsight,” a subject whose primary visual cortex has been damaged to the extent that he is no longer capable of having conscious visual experience in at least certain portions of his visual field is nevertheless able to identify distant objects in those portions of the field, by color, shape and the like (by pointing to or reaching for the objects, say, or by guessing).  Though blind, the subject can “see” the objects in front of him in the sense that information about them is somehow getting to him through his eyes even if it is not associated with conscious experiences of the sort that typically accompany vision.

What this tells us, Rosenberg insists, is that “introspection is highly unreliable as a source of knowledge about the way our minds work” (p. 151).  Indeed, Rosenberg claims that “science reveals that introspection -- thinking about what is going on in consciousness -- is completely untrustworthy as a source of information about the mind and how it works” (pp. 147-8, emphasis added).  In particular, “the idea that to see things you have to be conscious of them” is “completely wrong” (p. 149).  But there are three problems with these claims.  First, the “blindsight” evidence cited by Rosenberg does not in fact show that introspection is unreliable at all, let alone “highly” or “completely” unreliable.  Second, even if it is partially unreliable, it doesn’t follow that to see things you needn’t be conscious of them.  Third, the blindsight cases in fact presuppose that introspection is at least partially reliable.  

Take the last point first.  The blindsight subject tells us that he has no visual experience at all of the objects he is looking at -- that he cannot see their colors or shapes.  How does he know this?  Via introspection, of course.  The description of the phenomenon as “blindsight,” and the argument Rosenberg wants to base on this phenomenon, presupposes that he is right about that much.  If he’s wrong about it, then that entails that he really is conscious of the colors, shapes, etc. -- and such consciousness is, of course, precisely what Rosenberg wants to deny is necessary to vision.  Moreover, the argument also presupposes that the subject can tell the difference between being blind and having conscious visual experience -- something the subjects in question did have in the past, before suffering the neural damage that gave rise to the blindsight phenomena.  Hence, their introspection of that earlier conscious experience must also be at least partially reliable.

So, the subject cannot be completely wrong if the argument is even to get off the ground.  But isn’t he at least partially wrong?  Well, wrong about what, exactly?  Rosenberg says that the example shows that introspection “is highly unreliable as a source of knowledge about the way our minds work,” and he asks rhetorically: 

After all, what could have been more introspectively obvious than the notion that you need to have conscious experience of colors to see colors, conscious shape experiences to see shapes, and so on, for all the five senses? (p. 151)

But this is sloppy.  Strictly speaking, what we are supposed to know via introspection by itself are only our immediate conscious episodes -- “I am now thinking about an elephant” or “I am now experiencing a headache” or the like.  No one maintains that the claim that “You need to have conscious experience of colors to see colors, etc.” is directly knowable via introspection, full stop.  The most anyone would maintain is that introspection together with other premises might support such a claim.  So, even if the claim turned out to be false, that would not show that introspection itself is unreliable.  It could be instead that one of the other premises is false, or that the inference from the premises is fallacious.

Now, blindsight subjects also say that it feels like they are guessing, even though their judgments are more accurate than guesses.  Doesn’t this show that introspection is deceiving them?  It does not.  For what is it that they are supposed to have gotten wrong in saying that it feels to them like they are guessing?  Certainly Rosenberg cannot say “It feels to them like they are guessing but in fact they are conscious of the colors and shapes”-- since his whole argument depends on their not being conscious of the colors and shapes.  But then, what is it that they are “really” doing rather than guessing?  Again, what is it exactly that they are wrong about?

Suppose you hit me in the back with a stone and I say that it felt like a baseball.  Did introspection mislead me?  Of course not.  It wasn’t a baseball, but what introspection told me was not what it was, but what it felt like, and it really did feel like a baseball.  The judgment that it was in fact a baseball was not derived from introspection alone, but from introspection together with certain other premises -- premises about what that sort of feeling has been associated with in the past, what objects people tend to throw under circumstances like the current ones, and so forth.

Similarly, when the blindsight subject says that it feels to him like he is guessing, the fact that his answers are better than what one would expect from guesses does not show that introspection is wrong.  It still does feel like a guess, even if it turns out that it is more than that.  It is the feel of the experience alone that introspection gives him knowledge of, not the entire reality underlying the feeling.  The judgment that it is merely a guess is not derived from introspection alone, but from the introspective feel of the experience together with premises about what experiences that feel like this one have involved in the past, assumptions (false, as it turns out) about whether people can process visual information without consciously experiencing it, and so forth.  Blindsight cases show only that the inference as a whole is mistaken, not that the introspective component by itself is mistaken.  

Rosenberg might respond: “But the blindsight subject doesn’t merely say it felt like he had guessed.  He says he did guess.  And isn’t that mistaken?”  But what is the difference, exactly, between feeling like one is guessing and really guessing?  To guess is to propose an answer without thinking that one has sufficient evidence for it.  And that is just what the blindsight subject does.  True, we have reason to think that information is getting through his visual system in such a way that it causes him to answer as he does.  But he has no access to that information, and thus it doesn’t serve as evidence for what he says.  The neuroscientific evidence suggests only that his guesses have a certain cause.  It does not tell us that they weren’t really guesses after all. 

So, Rosenberg hasn’t established from blindsight alone that introspection is even sometimes unreliable, let alone that it always is.  But the deeper problem with his argument is that, from the fact that some of the information typically deriving from conscious visual experience can in some cases be received through the visual system without the accompanying experience, it simply does not follow that all such information always does (or even can) be received without conscious experience.  Again, the subjects cited by Rosenberg were not always blind; they had seen colors, shapes, and the like in the past and then became either permanently or temporarily unable to have conscious visual experiences.  There are no grounds for saying that this past experience is irrelevant to their ability somehow to process visual information “blindsight”-style -- for denying that they can identify colors and shapes now, without visual experience of them, only because they once did have visual experience of them.  You might as well say that, since many deaf people can read lips, it follows that perception of sounds isn’t necessary for speech.  Obviously, lip-reading is a non-standard way of figuring out what people are saying, and is parasitic on the normal case in which sound perception is crucial.  Similarly, Rosenberg has given us no reason whatsoever to doubt that blindsight is parasitic on cases where conscious experience is necessary for color perception.  As with the three-legged dog, the deviant case must be interpreted relative to the normal case, not the other way around.

As Bennett and Hacker note, there are also problems with the way the so-called “blindsight” cases are described in the first place.  For one thing, the typical cases involve patients with a scotoma -- blindness in a part of the visual field, not all of it -- who exhibit “blindsight” behavior under special experimental conditions.  In ordinary contexts their visual experiences are largely normal.  For another thing, how to describe the unusual behavior is by no means obvious, precisely because while in some ways it seems to indicate blindness (the subjects report that they cannot see anything in the relevant part of the visual field), in other ways it seems to indicate the presence of experience (precisely because the subject is able to discriminate phenomena in a way that would typically require visual experience).  In short, the import of the cases is not obvious; even how one describes them presupposes, rather than establishes, crucial philosophical assumptions.  It is quite ludicrous, then, glibly to proclaim that “neuroscience” has established such-and-such a philosophical conclusion.  The philosophical claims are read into the neuroscience, not read off from it.  

Libet, learn it, love it

In Benjamin Libet’s famous experiments, subjects were asked to push a button whenever they wished, and also to note when they had consciously felt that they had willed to press it.  As they did so, their brains were wired so that the activity in the motor cortex responsible for causing their wrists to flex could be detected.  The outcome of the experiments was that while an average of 0.2 seconds passed between the conscious sense of willing and the flexing of the wrist, the activity in the motor cortex would begin an average of 0.5 seconds before the wrist flexing.  Hence the willing (it is suggested) seems to follow the neural activity which initiates the action, rather than causing that neural activity.  

Jerry Coyne tells us that:

Recent experiments involving brain scans show that when a subject "decides" to push a button on the left or right side of a computer, the choice can be predicted by brain activity at least seven seconds before the subject is consciously aware of having made it.

Writers like Rosenberg and Coyne find all this extremely impressive.  According to Rosenberg, the work done by Libet and others “shows conclusively that the conscious decisions to do things never cause the actions we introspectively think they do” and “defenders of free will have been twisting themselves into knots” trying to show otherwise (p. 152).  Coyne assures us that:

"Decisions" made like that aren't conscious ones.  And if our choices are unconscious, with some determined well before the moment we think we've made them, then we don't have free will in any meaningful sense.

To be sure, Libet himself qualified his claims, allowing that though we don’t initiate movements in the way we think we do, we can at least either inhibit or accede to them once initiated.  Even Rosenberg allows that Libet’s experiments by themselves don’t prove that there is no free will.  But he insists that they do show that introspection is not a reliable source of knowledge about the will.

What’s really impressive about all of this, though, is how easily impressed otherwise intelligent people can be when in the grip of an ideology.  And the fallaciousness of the inferences in question is not too difficult to see.   To begin with only the most obvious fallacy, Rosenberg’s and Coyne’s argument presupposes that the neural activity in question is the total cause of the action, which is of course precisely part of what is at issue in the debate between neurobabblers and their critics.  And for the critics, both the neural activity and the “feelings” experienced by Libet’s subjects are merely fine-grained, subpersonal aspects of the person -- where it is the person as a whole, and not any of his parts, who is properly said to be the cause of any of his actions.  Just as the significance of a word or sentence is crucially determined by the overall communicative situation of which it is a part -- you are not going to know whether “Shut it!” is merely a terse request to close the door, or a quite rude command to keep silent, without knowing the context -- so too the significance of both a neural process and a conscious experience cannot be known apart from the larger neurological-cum-psychological context.  Treating the wrist flexing and the neural activity in question in isolation merely assumes reductionism and does nothing to establish reductionism.

After all, neural activity and bodily movements as such do not entail action, free or otherwise.  The spasmodic twitch of a muscle involves both neural activity and bodily movement, but it is not an action.  So, whether such-and-such a bit of neural activity or bodily movement is associated with a genuine action cannot be read off from the physiological facts alone.  In particular, there is nothing in the physiology as such that tells us that the neural activity Libet is interested in counts as a “decision” or an instance of “willing.”  And what exactly justifies us in identifying this neural activity as “the” cause of the action in the first place, as opposed to merely a contributing cause?  And what do we count as “the action”?  Moving one’s hand?  Pressing the button?  Following the prompts of the feelings the experimenters have told one to watch for?  There is no way to answer apart from appeal to the intentions of the subject -- in which case we have to rely on his reports of what he had in mind, rather than the neurological evidence, contrary to Rosenberg’s insistence that introspection is of no value.  And as Tallis points out, the intentions of the subject long predate the neural activity Libet fixates upon.  Those intentions were formed during conscious episodes that occurred minutes or hours before the experimental situation.  (And this is just to note some of the more obvious problems with Libet’s claims.  The variety of ways Libet’s evidence can be interpreted has been explored in detail by Alfred Mele.)

As Tallis also points out, arguments of the sort inspired by Libet’s work typically presuppose an extremely crude model of what counts as an action.  One would think from the way Rosenberg and Coyne tell it that intentional actions are those preceded by a conscious thought of the form “I will now proceed to do X.  Here goes…”  But a moment’s reflection shows that that sort of thing is in fact extremely rare.  Indeed, that most intentional action is not “conscious” in this way is something common sense knew long before Libet came on the scene.  To borrow some examples from Tallis, when you do something as simple as walking to the pub or catching a ball, you carry out an enormous number of actions “without thinking about it.”  You do not consciously think “I will now move my right foot, now my left, now my right, now my left, etc.” or “I will now run, I will now jump, I will now flex my fingers, etc.”  You just act.  Yet your actions are paradigmatically intentional and free -- you are not having a muscle spasm, or sleepwalking, or hypnotized, or under duress, etc.  To be sure, that by itself doesn’t show that free will exists.  But the point is that Rosenberg, Coyne, and their ilk have not shown that free will does not exist, because free will is not the straw man they are attacking.

Indeed, not only is a conscious feeling of the sort Libet and his admirers describe not necessary for free action, it is not sufficient either.  As Bennett and Hacker point out, feeling an urge to sneeze does not make a sneeze voluntary.  Since Libet himself is willing to allow that we might at least inhibit actions initiated by unconscious neural processes, even if we don’t initiate any ourselves, Bennett and Hacker observe that:

Strikingly, Libet’s theory would in effect assimilate all human voluntary action to the status of inhibited sneezes or sneezes which one did not choose to inhibit.  For, in his view, all human movements are initiated by the brain before any awareness of a desire to move, and all that is left for voluntary control is the inhibiting or permitting of the movement that is already under way. (Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience, p. 230)

As this shows, the very idea that “free actions,” if they existed, would be those preceded by a certain kind of “feeling” of being moved to do this or that, is wrongheaded.  In particular, it is a crude mistake to assimilate willing to the having of an “urge.”  As Bennett and Hacker emphasize, being moved by an urge -- such as an urge to sneeze, or to vomit, or to cough -- is the opposite of a voluntary action.  And when Libet instructs the subjects of his experiments to note when they have certain “feelings” or “urges,” he not only manifests his own sloppy thinking about the nature of action, but encourages similarly sloppy thinking in his subjects, which casts into doubt the value of the whole experiment.  The subjects start looking inwardly for “feelings” and “urges” as evidence of voluntary action -- something no one does in ordinary contexts, because in ordinary contexts voluntary action doesn’t involve feelings and urges in the first place.  Of course, one might respond that Libet may not have intended to suggest that a decision to move one’s wrist is exactly like having an urge to sneeze or to vomit.  But that only reinforces the point that the relevant conceptual issues bearing on the nature of action have been poorly thought out by those making sensationalistic claims about what the neuroscientific evidence has “shown.”

Losing consciousness

It’s time to bring this long post to an end.  But we’re not done with Rosenberg yet.  In general, he assures us, “consciousness can’t be trusted to be right about the most basic things” (p. 162).  Yet science itself, in whose name Rosenberg makes this bold claim, is grounded in observation and experiment -- which are conscious activities.  How exactly are we supposed to resolve this paradox?  Rosenberg never tells us, any more than Democritus did (though at least Democritus could see the problem).  But even this incoherence is as nothing compared to that entailed by Rosenberg’s denial of the intentionality of thought.  It is to that denial -- the crowning lunacy of scientism -- that we will turn in the next post in this series.
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