Reading Rosenberg, Part X

And now we reach, at long last, the end of our detailed critical look at Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.  In this final post I want to examine what Rosenberg has to say about a set of philosophical arguments he regards as “among the last serious challenges to scientism” (p. 228).  The arguments in question all entail that the realm of conscious experience -- what common sense says we know only “from inside” (p. 238), from a point of view “somewhere behind the eyes” (p. 222) -- cannot be accounted for in terms of neuroscience or physical science more generally.  In his treatment of these arguments, we get Rosenberg simultaneously at his best and at his worst.

Rosenberg takes the sort of argument in question to get its “neatest force” from the example presented by Thomas Nagel is his famous article “What is it like to be a bat?”  Bats get around via echolocation.  What is it like to experience the world that way, as opposed to (say) visually?  You might think it’s like looking at the sonar screen on a submarine, but as Rosenberg says, to imagine that is instead merely to imagine “what it would be like to be a human inside the head of a bat, using sonar screens to convert the acoustical data the bat receives into human visual experiences” (p. 230).  Nor could any amount of neuroscience give us knowledge of what it’s like to be a bat.  The most neuroscience can do is pile up descriptions of the arrangements of neurons, their firing patterns, and so forth.  And what an echolocational experience is like is something you’ll never learn from that sort of thing.  But by the same token, what it is like for a human being to have a visual experience of red (say) is also something you could never know from neuroscience alone.   Hence we have, Nagel argued, no idea how conscious experience could be explained in neuroscientific terms.  

Rosenberg also makes reference to some famous dualist arguments associated with Descartes and Leibniz.  Descartes argued that while one cannot possibly fail to exist as long as one is even wondering whether one exists -- since to doubt this would itself be a kind of thinking, and one couldn’t do such thinking in the first place if one did not exist -- it is possible at least in principle that the entire material world, including one’s own body and brain, could be a hallucination.  Hence if I could exist as a thinking thing even if my body and brain and the rest of the material world did not, I must not be identical to anything material.  Leibniz argued that if we imagined some purportedly thinking, feeling, and perceiving machine expanded to the size of a mill so that we could walk around in it, we would never observe in it anything which might explain such mental activity, but only physical parts mechanically working upon each other.  The same thing can be said of the brain.  As Rosenberg writes:

[A]ll we would ever find are sodium and potassium molecules moving one way or the other, complex neurotransmitter molecules changing molecular shape as other molecules come into contact with them.  We would never find anything that introspection identifies as an experience, a sensation, a feeling, or even a thought about stuff.  We would never find anything that reveals what it’s like to have a sensation of yellow, an experience of pain, a smell or sound, or any other experience.  (p. 234)

(I have discussed Descartes’ and Leibniz’s arguments at some length in earlier posts, here and here.)

Though he does not for a moment agree with any of them, Rosenberg is not dismissive of these arguments.  He regards them as “wonderful, entertaining, thought-provoking riddles” (p. 228).  Descartes’ argument, he says, at least “looks absolutely airtight” (p. 226, emphasis added).  And Nagel’s argument is “really cool… the sort of puzzle any philosopher would give his soul to have invented, if he had a soul” (p. 233).  And this reflects a strength of Rosenberg’s book that I have emphasized before: Despite the utter bizarreness of some of his conclusions -- conclusions most of his fellow atheists would not agree with -- Rosenberg has a better grasp of the philosophical implications of scientism than most of these other atheists do, and realizes that the objections to scientism cannot be as easily dismissed as some of them would like to think.  Indeed, that is why his conclusions are so bizarre and extreme.  Rosenberg sees that a consistent scientism requires a radical abandonment of commonsense notions of meaning, the self, introspection, and the like.

As I have said, though, his treatment of these arguments shows Rosenberg at his worst as well as at his best.  The reason is that his response to the arguments amounts to little more than the combination of ad hominem remarks, begged questions, non sequiturs, etc., that one finds elsewhere in the book.  However clever he acknowledges them to be, Rosenberg insists that such arguments ultimately amount to “grasping at… straws,” often by those who are “credulous about religion” (p. 227); and he assures us that Leibniz’s “theological beliefs made him particularly eager to find arguments against scientism just when it was beginning to pick up speed with Newton’s work” (p. 233).  (Never mind that Nagel is an atheist, indeed someone who in his book The Last Word acknowledged that he “want[s] atheism to be true.”  And never mind that other prominent contemporary philosophers who have presented similar arguments -- such as David Chalmers and John Searle -- are also atheists.)  

As to Rosenberg’s actual grounds for rejecting the arguments, they lay in part in his claim that neuroscience (and, in particular, research on “blindsight” phenomena and the like) has shown introspection to be unreliable.  But we’ve already seen that neuroscience has shown no such thing.  Rosenberg also thinks the case for scientism is so powerful that any arguments against it can safely be rejected, even if we can’t say what is wrong with them:

Does scientism actually have to take Descartes’s argument and others like it seriously?  Does it actually have to diagnose each of their mistakes, or any of them?  No.  Even before you hear them, science provides a compelling reason that they must all be wrong.  One has only to weigh the evidence for scientism -- 500 years of scientific progress -- and the evidence against it -- including those cute conundrums.  It’s clear which side has the weightier evidence.  (p. 227)

Scientism is safe to conclude that there are flaws in Nagel’s argument and Leibniz’s.  We don’t know where the slips occur.  But we know that their conclusions are false.  (p. 235)

But we’ve also already seen that, far from being strong enough preemptively to disable all counterarguments, Rosenberg’s argument for scientism is in fact embarrassingly feeble.  So far, then, Rosenberg has given us no new reasons (let alone good reasons) for doubting that the arguments of Nagel et al. constitute a refutation of scientism.

But Rosenberg makes two further claims, and they deserve closer scrutiny.  Here’s the first:

[T]he arguments against the mind’s being the brain cheat.  They stack the deck against neuroscience so that it cannot succeed in meeting their challenge.  The arguments demand that neuroscience take conscious introspection seriously.  But they subtly deny it the use of any tools to do so.  Naturally, if science cannot apply any of its methods to understand introspection, scientism won’t be able to show what is wrong with the arguments. (p. 229)

This, it seems to me, is quite bizarre.  Suppose a critic of Gödel's incompleteness theorems complained:

Gödel's arguments cheat.  They stack the deck against those who think that every true arithmetical statement in a formal system capable of expressing arithmetic is in fact provable within the system, and that the consistency of arithmetic can in fact be proved from within arithmetic itself.  For Gödel's arguments do not allow their critics to use the tools of formal systems to prove these things.  Naturally, if Gödel's critics cannot apply these methods, they will not be able to show what is wrong with the arguments.

Or suppose you knew someone who insisted that all money is made out of paper, and you pointed out that coins are made out of metal, that in some cultures seashells or stones have been used as money, and so forth.  And suppose he complained:

Your argument cheats.  It stacks the deck against me so that I cannot succeed in meeting its challenge.  Your argument demands that I take coins, seashell money, etc. seriously.  But it subtly denies me the use of any tools to do so.  Naturally, if I can’t appeal to the paper composition of coins, seashell money, etc., then I will not be able to show what is wrong with your argument.

It is obvious what is wrong with these objections.  The whole point of noting that there are such things as metal coins, seashell currency, etc. was precisely to show that not all money does have a “paper composition” in the first place.  Hence to complain that noting that some money isn’t made of paper “cheats” either completely misses the point, or begs the question (if it simply assumes that all money must have a “paper composition”), or is perhaps simply a bit of childish whining.  (“No fair!  You’re example shows I’m wrong!”)  Similarly, the whole point of Gödel's theorems is to show that the formal methods in question cannot prove what the critic thinks they can.  Hence to complain that the theorems “cheat” would be entirely to miss the point, or to beg the question, or to indulge in a bit of whining.

It is hard to see how Rosenberg’s accusation is any better.  He complains that arguments like Nagel’s, Leibniz’s, etc. don’t allow for the possibility that neuroscience might explain conscious experience.  But showing that it is not possible for neuroscience to do so is the whole point of such arguments.  You might think they fail to show this, but accusing them of “cheating” simply misses the point.  Or does Rosenberg mean to insist that anything that is a genuine and not merely illusory aspect of conscious experience simply must be susceptible of a neuroscientific explanation?  In that case he is just begging the question against Nagel and Co.  Or is he simply whining that Nagel and Co. have come with an objection he doesn’t have a good answer to?  (“If Nagel and Co. were right, scientism would be refuted!  All those religious fanatics would have a good laugh at the expense of us rational, reality-based folks!  And that’s just not fair!”)

Surely Rosenberg has something better than this to offer?  He does, but only slightly better.  It is what many advocates of scientism seem to think is their trump card, certain to guarantee victory when confronted with an objection to which they have no other answer.  Here it is: “Science has managed to dispose of all the other arguments that have been advanced to show its limits” (p. 228).  Therefore, it’s just a matter of time before it disposes of arguments like Nagel’s.  How likely is it, after all, that the human mind, this tiny little corner of the universe, should magically turn out to be the one holdout to the centuries-long string of scientific successes?

Now, isn’t that a pretty good argument?  No, it is not a pretty good argument.  It’s actually a pretty bad argument, for reasons I’ve explained before -- in earlier posts (such as this one) and in chapter 3 of Philosophy of Mind and chapter 6 of The Last Superstition.  To see why, consider the following analogy.  Suppose the floor of the house is filthy and mom tells you to get rid of the dirt.  You get out the broom and start sweeping the living room.  After gathering all the dirt into a little pile, you sweep it under the rug which lies under the living room coffee table.  Then you go to one of the bedrooms, sweep all the dirt in it into a pile, and sweep that pile too under the living room rug.  You repeat this process for each room, for the kitchen, hallways, etc.  The house was so filthy that you’ve now got a noticeable bump in the rug made by all the dirt you’ve piled under it.  Your brother says: “Nice work, Einstein, but mom said to get rid of the dirt and all you’ve done is relocated it.  How are you going to get rid of that lump?”  You answer: “Isn’t it obvious?  The same way I got rid of all the other dirt!  The ‘sweep it under the rug’ method has worked everywhere else in the house.  How likely is it that this pile of dirt under the rug should magically turn out to be the one holdout?”  But of course, the lump under the rug is in fact the one pile of dirt that cannot possibly be dealt with the same way.  There is nothing at all “magical” about this; it is simply entailed by the nature of the method.  The “sweep it under the rug” method gets rid of dirt precisely by putting it under the rug.  Hence you are in principle not going to be able to get dirt out from under the rug in that way.   (And if your brother points this out to you, naturally it would be quite silly to accuse him of “cheating” by not letting you use your favored method to solve the problem!)

As I noted in an earlier post in this series, to say that “science has now explained everything else, and so it’s only a matter of time before it explains X (where X = qualia, or intentionality, or some other feature which poses a difficulty for naturalism)” is delusional in just the way that your thinking that the “sweep it under the rug” method would work to eliminate the dirt under the rug would be delusional.  Here’s how the delusion works.  First, “science” is (implicitly if not explicitly) defined in such a way that no explanation that makes reference to irreducibly teleological or qualitative features of the world is allowed to count as “scientific.”  Second, seemingly irreducibly teleological and qualitative features of the world -- apparently goal-directed natural processes, say, or colors, sounds, heat, cold, and the like as these manifest themselves to ordinary experience -- are re-described as mere projections of the mind onto external reality and not allowed to countas truly “material.”  Teleology, color, sound, heat, and cold as we experience them do not (so the story goes) really exist in the material world itself, but only in our subjective mental representations of it; objectively there are only colorless, soundless, purposeless particles in motion, which by virtue of their motions cause us to experience them as if they had the characteristics common sense attributes to them.  (Color, sound, etc. as physical properties are accordingly also re-defined, in terms of surface reflectance properties, compression waves, and the like.)  Third, it then asserted that “science has explained” such-and-such external material phenomena in a way that makes no reference to irreducible teleological or qualitative features.  What is not acknowledged is that this claim is a tautology, since (again) nothing that made reference to such features would be allowed to countas “scientific,” and (again) no features that couldn’t be described in non-teleological and non-qualitative terms would be allowed to count as “material.”  Fourth, it is fallaciously inferred that since this methodological sleight of hand has “shown” that irreducibly teleological and qualitative features do not exist in the external material world, we have every reason to believe that it will also “show” that they do not exist in the mind either.  In particular, it is claimed that mental phenomena like intentionality (the “aboutness” or “directedness” of thought, which is comparable to the “directedness” of teleological phenomena) and qualia (which are what is left of qualitative features like color, sound, warmth, coolness, etc. when they are removed from the external world and relocated into the mind) will be “explained” in the same way that all other phenomena possessed of qualitative features or “directedness” have been explained.  But in fact the mind is the one place to which the method cannot possibly be applied, precisely because the mind is the “rug” under which everything that does not fit the method has been “swept.”  

Indeed, this was, more or less, the point Nagel was making in his famous article.  His point was not just that the experiences of bats are so unusual that neuroscientific inquiry is not likely to tell us what it’s like to have them.  The argument goes much deeper than that.  Nagel’s point was that the very nature of the practice of giving a reductionist account of a phenomenon seems to preclude its application to the realm of conscious experience.  For a reductionist account is couched in entirely “objective” terms, that is, terms that make no essential reference to the point of view of a particular observer.  For instance, the way red looks or the way heat feels, since those are tied to the points of view of particular observers, are stripped away and relegated to the “subjective” realm of conscious experience.  A reductionist account of color might define it instead in terms of the surface reflectance properties of objects, and a reductionist account of temperature might define it in terms of molecular motion -- features which are “objective” in the relevant sense.   But when it comes to explaining the “subjective” point of view of the observer himself, and in particular the conscious look of red or conscious feel of heat themselves, it is hard to see how the same procedure could possibly be applied.  For to strip away the subjective element in this case would just be to ignore that which is to be explained, and thus not explain it at all.  As Nagel puts it: “If the subjective character of experience is fully comprehensible only from one point of view, then any shift to greater objectivity—that is, less attachment to a specific viewpoint—does not take us nearer to the real nature of the phenomenon: it takes us farther away from it.”

Nagel himself did not go so far as to say that this showed that a physicalist reduction of mental states to physical states is false, but he did think it showed that we do not have any conception of how it could be true.  Other writers have drawn the stronger conclusion.  For early modern thinkers like Malebranche and Cudworth, and contemporary thinkers like Richard Swinburne, it is precisely because modern science has removed color, odor, sound, taste, etc., as common sense understands them, from matter -- including the matter that makes up the brain -- and relocated them into the mind, that we should conclude that these mental features are not material.  As Swinburne writes in The Evolution of the Soul:

All ‘reduction’ of one science to another dealing with apparently very disparate properties has been achieved by this device of denying that the apparent properties (i.e. the ‘secondary qualities’ of colour, heat, sound, taste, etc.) with which one science dealt belonged to the physical world at all.  It siphoned them off to the world of the mental.  But then, when you come to face the problem of the sensations themselves, you cannot do this.  If you are to explain the sensations themselves, you cannot distinguish between them and their underlying causes and only explain the latter.  In fact the enormous success of science in producing an integrated physico-chemistry has been achieved at the expense of separating off from the physical world colours, smells, and tastes, and regarding them as purely private sensory phenomena.  The very success of science in achieving its vast integrations in physics and chemistry is the very thing which has made apparently impossible any final success in integrating the world of the mind and the world of physics. (p. 191)

Thus, dualism of the post-Cartesian sort is not some desperate attempt to resist the implications of the modern science; on the contrary, it follows from the conception of matter that is operative in modern science.  Or at the very least, precisely by relocating whatever does not fit the reductionist approach to the “subjective” realm of the mind -- to the realm we know “from inside,” from “somewhere behind the eyes” -- modern science  made that realm more problematic for the materialist, not less.  That is what Nagel’s argument implies, and Rosenberg completely misses the point.

But as we’ve now seen over the course of ten posts, missing the point, begging the question, non sequiturs and ad hominems are standard fare in The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.  For all that, the book is more philosophically substantive and consistent in its scientism than the atheist tomes of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens.  That is why it has merited our attention.  If you are beholden to scientism, you ought to read Rosenberg to see how extreme and bizarre are its true implications.  And how weak are some of the arguments given in its defense, even when presented by a major philosopher of science. 


McInerny on TLS

D. Q. McInerny very kindly reviews my book The Last Superstition in the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly.  From the review:

In his previous publications Professor Feser has shown himself to be a philosopher of the first rank, and in this work he has given us a document of singular importance.  Of all the books written in response to “the new atheists” … this one has to be counted among the very best. There are three principal reasons why this is so.  The first has to do with the style in which the book is written; it is direct, clear, forceful, and—no small matter—witty.  Secondly, the arguments which carry the substance of the book are of the highest quality; they are tightly constructed, masterfully controlled, and compelling.  Thirdly—and I take this to be the book’s strongest feature—there is the manner in which Professor Feser sets the phenomenon of the new atheism in a larger historical/philosophical context, and thereby gives it sharper identity and makes it more fully understandable.  He shows that the new atheism, and the secularism of which it is a particular manifestation, did not come out of the blue, but that it has its roots in our philosophical past; to know that philosophical past is to have a firmer grip on the philosophical present.

As I say, very kind, as is the rest of the review.  One correction, though.  Of the expression “New Atheists,” Prof. McInerny writes: “that designation, I believe, originates with Feser.”  In fact I cannot take credit for it.  I believe I first came across the expression “The New Atheism” in the cover story of the November 2006 issue of Wired magazine, around two years before my book appeared. 


Steng operation

I recently linked to philosopher of physics David Albert’s take down of Lawrence Krauss’s book A Universe From Nothing.  (My own review of Krauss will soon appear in First Things.)  A reader calls my attention to this blog post in which Victor Stenger -- Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii, and author of several atheist tomes -- rides to the rescue of Krauss against Albert.  (If only the other philosophically incompetent New Atheists had such a knight in shining armor!  O Dawkins, where is your Stenger?  O Coyne, where is your Victor?)

Unfortunately for Krauss, the intrepid Stenger shoots only blanks.  And misses.  Krauss, as you may know, argues that the laws of quantum mechanics (QM) show how a universe can arise from nothing.  Albert demurs, and Stenger responds:

[Albert] asks, “Where, for starters, are the laws of quantum mechanics themselves supposed to have come from?”  Krauss admits he does not know, but suggests they may arise randomly, in which case some universe like ours would have arisen without a prescribed cause.  In my 2006 book The Comprehensible Cosmos, I attempt to show that the laws of physics arise naturally from the symmetries of the void.

Later Stenger tells us that the “void” or “nothing” in question “can be described mathematically,” “has an explicit wave function,” and “is the quantum gravity equivalent of the quantum vacuum in quantum field theory.”

Of course, the problem with all of this is the same as the problem with the original suggestion that the laws of QM show that a universe can come from nothing.  The laws of QM are not nothing, and neither are “the symmetries of the void” nor anything that “can be described mathematically,” “has an explicit wave function,” etc.  In general, if you can characterize it in terms of physical law -- which Krauss, Stenger, and like-minded atheists all want to do vis-à-vis “nothing” -- then it isn’t nothing.  It’s something physical, and thus somethingrather than nothing.  Obviously.

Obviously, that is, unless you are a New Atheist dogmatically attached to the utterly groundless proposition that all genuine questions simply must be susceptible of a scientific answer.  At this juncture Stenger does what an increasing number of atheists do when it is pointed out to them that their “explanations” of how the universe arose from nothing merely change the subject -- they feign ignorance of English.  Writes Stenger:

Clearly, no academic consensus exists on how to define “nothing.”  It may be impossible.  To define “nothing” you have to give it some defining property, but, then, if it has a property it is not nothing!

But this is the muddleheaded stuff of a freshman philosophy paper -- treating “nothing” as if it were an especially unusual, ethereal kind of substance whose nature it would require tremendous intellectual effort to fathom.  Which, as everyone knows until he finds he has a motive for suggesting otherwise, it is not.  Nothing is nothing so fancy as that.  It is just the absence of anything, that’s all.  Consider all the true existential claims that there are: “Stones exist,” “”Trees exist,” “Quarks exist,” etc.  To ask why there is something rather than nothing is just to ask why it isn’t the case that all of these statements are false.  Pretty straightforward.  

To admit the obvious, though, would be to admit that there are questions that physics cannot answer, such as where the laws of physics themselves came from -- or more precisely, since “laws” are just abstractions from a concrete physical reality that behaves in accordance with the laws, where this concrete physical reality itself comes from.  That nothing in physics answers this question was Albert’s point, and Stenger says absolutely nothing to answer it.

Of course Stenger thinks otherwise, and the answer he thinks physics provides is contained in these remarks:

Krauss also describes how cosmology now strongly suggests that a “multiverse” exists in which our universe is just one member.  So, the real issue is not where our particular universe came from but where the multiverse came from. This question has an easy answer: the multiverse is eternal.  So, since it always was, it didn’t have to come from anything.

Well, maybe there’s a multiverse, and maybe there isn’t.  “Some cosmologists like to speculate that…” would be a good bit closer to the truth than “Cosmology now strongly suggests that…”  But even if the existence of the multiverse were established conclusively, that would of course just raise the question of why any eternal multiverse exists at all.  Stenger thinks he has an answer to that too, but his answer merely suggests that -- like the better-known New Atheists, and like Keith Parsons and other atheist philosophers of the sort who seem never to have read a theistic book published before 1970 -- Stenger does not understand what the cosmological argument has, historically, been all about.  Here’s what he says:

Albert is not satisfied that Krauss has answered the fundamental question: Why there is something rather than nothing, that is, being rather than nonbeing?  Again, there is a simple retort: Why should nothing, no matter how defined, be the default state of existence rather than something?  And, to bring religion into the picture, one could ask: Why is there God rather than nothing?  Once theologians assert that there is a God (as opposed to nothing), they can’t turn around and ask a cosmologist why there is a universe (as opposed to nothing). They claim God is a necessary entity.  But then, why can’t a godless multiverse be a necessary entity?

But this simply ignores, without answering, the central arguments of the Aristotelian, Neo-Platonic, Thomistic and broader Scholastic traditions, and indeed of modern Leibnizian rationalism -- all of which put forward principled reasons why God alone, and not the material universe, can be a terminus of explanation.  For the Aristotelian, the things of our experience undergo change because they are composed of actuality and potentiality, where change is just the actualization of a potential.  The ultimateexplanation of how change occurs can in principle (so the argument goes) lie only in what can actualize without having to be actualized -- a purely actual actualizer, devoid of potentiality (or to use the more traditional but potentially misleading expression, an “unmovable mover”).  For the Neo-Platonist, whatever is in any way composite or made up of parts must depend for its existence on something which combines the parts.  The ultimateexplanation of all things can in principle (so the argument goes) therefore only be what is utterly simple or non-composite (in the sense of “simple” operative in the doctrine of divine simplicity) and thus not in need of explanation by reference to something outside it.  For the Thomist, whatever is made up of an essence distinct from its act of existence must be caused by something which combines these metaphysical parts.  So the ultimate explanation of things (so the argument goes) can in principle only be that whose essence just is existence, something which is subsistent being itself.  For the Leibnizian, whatever is contingent can have its ultimate explanation (so the argument goes) only in that which is absolutely necessary, that which could not in principle have been otherwise.

Now, that is just to summarize the arguments, not to state or defend them.  I have stated and defended some of these arguments myself at length -- in The Last Superstition, at greater length in Aquinas, and in my 2011 American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly article “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways.”  The latter article also contains an account of why, given the general metaphysical conception of the natural world enshrined in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, it is impossible in principle for the material world or any part of it to persist in being for an instant without a divine sustaining cause.  (It seems you can currently read this article online if you go to this page of Google search results, scroll down to the sixth item, and click “Quick View.”)  

Whether or not you agree that any of these arguments succeed, however, there is no question that they provide answers to Stenger’s query.  The reason God is necessary and the material universe is not is that he is pure actuality while the material universe is composed of potentiality and actuality, and thus in need of something to actualize it; that he is absolutely simple while the material universe is composite, and thus in need of something to compose it; and that his essence just is subsistent existence itself whereas material things (and indeed anything other than God) have an essence distinct from their acts of existence, and thus stand in need of something to cause them.  No doubt some atheists will be inclined simply to scoff at the metaphysical ideas underlying such arguments.  But to scoff at an argument is not to produce a rational criticism of it.  And since the arguments in question are the chiefarguments in the Western tradition of philosophical theology, to fail to produce a rational criticism would simply be to fail to show that atheism really is rationally superior to that tradition.

Stenger also errs in thinking that the proponents of classical philosophical theology suppose that nothing is the “default state” of things.  Who ever said that?  In fact what the chief traditional arguments for theism imply is just the opposite.  Since that which is pure actuality, absolute simplicity, and subsistent being itself cannot possibly have not existed, there could not possibly have been nothing.  The classical theist’s claim is not “There could have been nothing, but there isn’t, and the reason is theism”; it is rather “There could not have been nothing, and the reason is theism.” 

[Some earlier, related posts on bad philosophy disguised as physics and the like can be found here, here, here, here, and here.]

Review of Atkins and Feyerabend now online

You can read my recent Claremont Review of Books review of Peter Atkins’ On Being and Paul Feyerabend’s The Tyranny of Science here.


Bruce and Van der Vossen on private property

I recently called attention to my essay “Natural Law, Natural Rights, and Private Property,” which appears on Liberty Fund’s Library of Law and Liberty website.   Prof. James Bruce and Prof. Bas Van der Vossen each kindly wrote a critical response to my essay.  (Their responses can be found hereand here.)  They raise important questions, and in what follows I want to reply to their objections.  (Naturally it will be helpful if you first read the three original essays before moving on to what follows.)

Reply to Prof. Bruce

Prof. Bruce focuses on the centrality of the family to my account of property rights.  While he is correct to say that I put special emphasis on property’s indispensability to the well-being of the family, it seems to me that he overstates things a bit.  My essay also called attention to the ways in which property is crucial to the flourishing both of individuals and of society as a whole.  Even if one ignored the centrality of the family to the traditional natural law account of private property, then, there would still be grounds in natural law for a right to property.

In any event, Bruce thinks that my emphasis on the family leads to a conclusion that even I would have to grant is absurd.  As Bruce rightly notes, the natural law theorist regards family as something that is good for us given our nature.  In particular, I said in my original essay that given our nature, it is good for parents to provide for their children and good for children to respect and obey their parents.  But I am committed, Bruce seems to think, to the claim that “If something is good for us, we are obligated to do it.”  Hence if it is good for us given our nature to be parents, then it would follow that we are obligated to become parents.  And this is absurd.  For Catholic priests do no wrong in refraining from becoming parents, and neither do others who refrain from marrying and having families.

Naturally I agree that it is not wrong for Catholic priests and others not to marry and have families.  But contrary to Bruce’s suggestion, what I said in my original essay does not imply otherwise.  Bruce’s objection presupposes too simple a conception of specific human goods, and too simple an interpretation of the fundamental principle of natural law that good is to be pursued and evil avoided.  No natural law theorist would say that “If something is good for us, we are obligated to do it, period.”  Nor does their position entail that they should say it.  Human nature is complicated, and what is good for human beings is, accordingly, also complicated.  For one thing, human goods are ordered hierarchically.  The lower goods exist for the sake of the higher goods, and can (all things being equal) in principle be sacrificed for the sake of the higher ones.  For example, spiritual goods are higher than the goods that follow from our animal and social natures.  Hence there is nothing in principle wrong with someone’s sacrificing the goods of marriage and family life for the sake of the higher good of the priesthood or religious life.

Even someone who refrains from marrying for other, lesser reasons does not necessarily thereby do wrong.  Marriage and family are, after all, especially complex goods.  For one thing, they are goods that one cannot acquire easily or entirely on one’s own initiative.  One needs to find a suitable potential spouse (no small feat) and has to get the consent of that potential spouse (also often no small feat!)  One has to be sufficiently mature, prepared financially, and sufficiently free of other commitments.  One also has to be inclined to marry in the first place, and while most people are, some (for whatever reason) are not.  And while for natural law theory we are never permitted to do what is intrinsically wrong, we are permitted to refrain from pursuing some goods if pursuing them would under the circumstances lead to greater harm.  Marrying merely for the sake of marrying, even when one would strongly prefer not to, is obviously the sort of thing that can lead to great harm for all parties concerned.  Perhaps one’s reasons for not marrying are not good ones.  Or perhaps one’s childhood family life was so traumatic that one has been too scarred to find the prospect of a starting a family of one’s own attractive.  Natural law theory does not entail that one must, all the same, press on with marriage to the first willing partner one can get hold of!

Much more could be said about this issue, but my essay was not intended as a complete account of natural law in any case, much less a complete treatment of the ethics of marriage and family.  I was merely providing a sketch of the background ideas relevant to the specific topic of private property.  (I say more about natural law theory in general in chapter 5 of Aquinasand about property rights in particular in my 2010 Social Philosophy and Policy article “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation.”)

Reply to Prof. Van der Vossen

Prof. Van der Vossen gives the impression that my account of the original appropriation or initial acquisition of property is grounded in a Lockean labor-mixing theory.  But that is not the case.  Indeed, I thought I had made it clear in my essay that it is not -- that original appropriation involves first occupation rather than labor-mixing.  To be sure, I allowed that labor-mixing plays a secondary role -- in strengtheningthe presumptive right to a previously unowned resource that is secured by first occupation -- but it is first occupation that is primary.  (I have discussed the objections to labor-mixing theories myself in, among other places, my 2005 Social Philosophy and Policy article “There Is No Such Thing as an Unjust Initial Acquisition.”  As I argue there, these objections are not as decisive as they are sometimes thought to be, though I would now qualify what I wrote there -- when I was still a libertarian -- in light of what I say in the 2010 Social Philosophy and Policy article.  Cf. also the discussion of private property in my book Locke.)

Still, there is less disagreement between Van der Vossen and myself than the reader of our articles might initially suppose.  Van der Vossen holds that in a sound defense of private property, the right way to proceed would be first to argue for the general institution of property, and thento develop a theory of how the initial appropriation of previously unowned resources should proceed -- rather than making a theory of appropriation primary and grounding the general institution of private property in it.  Though he is unsure, he implies that this is my own procedure, and he is correct.  In my own essay (and in my 2010 Social Philosophy and Policy article) I first argue on natural law grounds for the moral necessity of private property as a general institution, and then address the issue of initial appropriation.  

Unfortunately, though he rightly suspects that this is my view, he fails to take account of the fact when he criticizes what I say about appropriation.  In particular, he seems to think that I am attributing to acts of initial appropriation (whether understood in terms of first occupation or labor-mixing) a moral power all by themselves to generate a right to property.  But that is not what I claimed.  Acts of appropriation -- specifically, acts of first occupation -- generate property rights in specific resources only given the general background defense of property as an institution that (I agree with Van der Vossen) must be set out before the question of appropriation is addressed.  I do not claim that such acts have what Van der Vossen calls a “morally magical property” of being able to generate property rights all on their own, free of a larger moral context.  

So, once our respective positions are clarified, my own views on the issue at hand may not be as far from those of Prof. Bruce and Prof. Van der Vossen as it might at first appear.  In any event, I thank them for their useful remarks on my essay.


Links of interest

Over at Public Discourse: William Carroll on chance and teleology in nature.

25 years later, Andrew Ferguson looks back on Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind.

An excerpt from Roger Scruton’s new book The Face of God.  And a Wall Street Journal interview with Scruton on the subject of conservative environmentalism.

Commenting on a recent post of mine, Matthew Anger discusses Fr. Ronald Knox’s views on paganism and Christianity.

Forthcoming in September from secular philosopher Thomas Nagel: Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.

Yet more on “the neuro industry” and its pretensions and dangers.  And more.

Reprints of several volumes of the Leonine edition of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas are now available

Reading Rosenberg, Part IX

Our long critical look at Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality now brings us at last to that most radical of Rosenberg’s claims -- the thesis that neither our thoughts nor anything else has any meaning whatsoever.  To the reader unfamiliar with recent philosophy of mind I should emphasize that the claim is not merely that our thoughts, actions, and lives have no ultimate point or purpose, which is hardly a novel idea.  It is far more bizarre than that.  Consider the following two sequences of shapes: “cat” and “^\*:”  We would ordinarily say that the first has meaning -- it refers to animals of the feline sort -- while the latter is a meaningless set of marks.  And we would ordinarily say that while the meaning of a word like “cat” is conventional, the meaning of our thoughts about cats -- from which the meaning of the word in question derives -- is intrinsic or “built in” to the thought rather than conventional or derived.  What Rosenberg is saying is that in reality, both our thoughts about cats and the sequence of shapes “cat” are as utterly meaningless as the sequence of shapes “^\*:”  Neither “cat” nor any of our thoughts is any more about cats or about anything else than the sequence “^\*:” is about anything.  Meaning, “aboutness,” or intentionality (to use the technical philosophical term) is an illusion.  In fact, Rosenberg claims, “the brain does everything without thinking about anything at all.”
This entails that the marks you are looking at now, as you read this post, and the marks on the printed pages of Rosenberg’s own book, are as completely devoid of meaning as “^\*:” is.  You might as well be looking at the splotches on an oil-stained rag.  That “there literally is no such thing as linguistic meaning” is something Rosenberg is more explicit about his 2009 article “The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality” (a precursor to Atheist’s Guide) than he is in the book itself.  He is also more explicit in the article than in the book that in his view “there literally are no beliefs and desires.”  In the book the emphasis is not on the claim that there are no beliefs, desires, or thoughts of any kind, but rather on the claim that even if in some sense there are thoughts, they have no meaning or “aboutness.”  

Nor does Atheist’s Guide make it clear that Rosenberg is defending a version of what academic philosophers call eliminative materialism; and neither does he address all the objections that have been raised against this position (which, it should be noted, is a minority view even among materialists).  It seems that Rosenberg judged that his assertions were, for a book aimed at a general audience, fantastic enough as it is and that it would be asking for trouble either explicitly to draw out all of their bizarre implications, or to address the technical philosophical questions they raise.   And of course, asking prospective book buyers to purchase a volume which is on the surface written in forbidding philosophical jargon, but which is in fact filled with what the author himself regards as nothing more than meaningless ink splotches, has its drawbacks as a marketing strategy.

In any event, why would anyone say such a bizarre thing as that meaning or “aboutness” does not exist?    Well, consider again the word “cat,” whether written or spoken.  The meaning, as I have said, is entirely conventional or derivative.  There is nothing in the physical properties of ink splotches, pixels, compression waves, or what have you, that gives or could give the marks or sounds they constitute the meaning of the word “cat,” or any meaning at all.  But the same could be said of neurons.  They too seem as obviously devoid of any intrinsic meaning as ink splotches and compression waves are.  Yet if we are to say that a thought is a kind of neural process, we have to say that when we think about Paris (for example) there is a network of neurons that is somehow about Paris.  But then, the materialist Rosenberg asks (as any dualist might):

The first clump of matter, the bit of wet stuff in my brain, the Paris neurons, is [purportedly] about the second chunk of matter, the much greater quantity of diverse kinds of stuff that make up Paris.  How can the first clump -- the Paris neurons in my brain -- be about, denote, refer to, name, represent, or otherwise point to the second clump -- the agglomeration of Paris…?  A more general version of this question is this: How can one clump of stuff anywhere in the universe be about some other clump of stuff anywhere else in the universe -- right next to it or 100 million light-years away? (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, pp. 173-74)

Rosenberg considers various answers that might be given to this question, including materialist answers, and finds them all wanting.  The neurons cannot be about Paris in the way a picture is, because unlike a picture they don’t resemble Paris at all.  But neither can they be about Paris in the way that a red octagonal “Stop” sign is about stopping even though it doesn’t resemble that action.  For a red octagon, or the word “Stop” for that matter, only mean what they do as a matter of convention, only because we interpret the shapes in question as representing the action of stopping.  And when you think about Paris, no one is assigning a conventional interpretation to such-and-such neurons in your brain so as to make them represent Paris.

To suggest that there is some further brain process that assigns such a meaning to the purported “Paris neurons” is, as Rosenberg points out, merely to commit a homunculus fallacy and explains nothing.  For if we say that one clump of neurons assigns meaning to another, we are saying that the one represents the other as having such-and-such a meaning.  That means that we now have to explain how the first possesses the meaning or representational content by virtue of which it does that, which entails that we have not solved the first problem at all but only added a second one to it.  We have “explained” the meaning of one clump of neurons by reference to meaning implicitly present in another clump, and thus merely initiated a vicious explanatory regress.

The only way to break the regress would be to postulate some bit of matter that just has its meaning intrinsically, without deriving it from anything else.  But there can be no such bit of matter, in Rosenberg’s view:

Physics has ruled out the existence of clumps of matter of the required sort.  There are just fermions and bosons and combinations of them.  None of that stuff is just, all by itself, about any other stuff.  There is nothing in the whole universe -- including, of course, all the neurons in your brain -- that just by its nature or composition can do this job of being about some other clump of matter. (p. 179)

Now I would say that there is a sense in which Rosenberg is absolutely right about that much.  For given what most modern philosophers and scientists will allow to count as “physical” or “material,” there can indeed be no such thing as a physical system which has any inherent meaning, “aboutness,” or intentionality.  The reason is that ever since the anti-Aristotelian or “mechanistic” revolution of the early moderns, most philosophers and scientists have stipulated -- and a stipulation is all that it has ever been -- that a physical explanation can make no reference to final causes, to one thing “pointing to” or being “directed toward” some end beyond itself.  As philosopher of science David Hull points out:

Historically, explanations were designated as mechanistic to indicate that they included no reference to final causes or vital forces.  In this weak sense, all present-day scientific explanations are mechanistic. (“Mechanistic explanation,” in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy)

And it is a short step from this mechanistic conception of matter to the conclusion that intentionality of the sort exhibited by our thoughts and words (which is but one instance of “directedness,” “pointing to,” or finality among others) cannot possibly be material.

Now there are several alternative conclusions one could draw from this.  One possibility (the right one, in my view) would be to conclude that the early moderns were wrong and that it is just a mistake to think that “directedness,” “aboutness,” or final causality is not an inherent feature of matter.  This is the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) position.  (That does not entail that human thought is entirely material -- for it has a conceptual structure which in the A-T view cannot in principle be accounted for in material terms -- but the intentionality manifest in the sub-conceptual imaginative and sensory powers of the lower animals would on the A-T view be material.)  A second possibility is to take the Cartesian dualist position that the mechanistic conception of matter is correct and that since intentionality cannot in that case be material, it must reside in an immaterial substance (or, for a property dualist, in immaterial properties).  A third possibility would be the panpsychist position that matter can possess intentionality insofar as all matter is associated with mental properties of some sort.  (This differs from the A-T view insofar as A-T would deny that thought or consciousness of any sort exists below the level of animals.  To be sure, plants and inorganic processes exhibit immanent final causality, but from the A-T point of view it is possible for something to possess inherent finality even if it is devoid of thought or consciousness.)  A fourth possibility would be to take the idealist view that there really is no such thing as matter in the first place, but only mind.

Rosenberg does not accept any of these positions.  (Indeed, he does not even consider them, much less explicitly argue against them.  In general Rosenberg seems to have little knowledge of anything written by philosophers too far outside the naturalist orthodoxy with which he is comfortable.)  But, as I have indicated, he also rejects any materialist account of meaning, “aboutness,” or intentionality.  (And rightly so.  I have criticized such accounts myself in several places, such as in chapter 7 of Philosophy of Mind, in The Last Superstition, and in many earlier posts.  I would argue that all materialist attempts to explain intentionality either fail completely or tend to be disguised versions of dualism or Aristotelianism.)  

Since Rosenberg is committed to scientism, which entails materialism, the only remaining option available to him is the eliminativist move of simply denying that meaning, “aboutness,” or intentionality is real.  To be sure (and as we have seen in an earlier post) Rosenberg has no good arguments for scientism in the first place.  But he is, I think, absolutely correct to hold that if one is going to be consistent in one’s scientism and materialism, then one is going to have to take a radical, eliminative materialist position on intentionality.  Indeed, I made the very same argument in The Last Superstition.  The difference is that whereas I presented eliminativism as a reductio ad absurdum of the naturalistic premises that lead to it, Rosenberg presents it as the sober truth which we ought to embrace, however “difficult to accept,” “counterintuitive,” “bizarre,” and indeed “unwelcome” he acknowledges it to be.  

The problem, though, is not just that denying meaning or “aboutness” is counterintuitive and that Rosenberg’s arguments for denying it are no good.  The problem is that the eliminativist position is incoherent.  It cannot possibly be right.  Now, a common but simplistic way of making this point is to accuse the eliminative materialist of expressing the belief that there are no beliefs, and thereby contradicting himself.  In a reply to critics of his “Disenchanted Naturalist” article, Rosenberg dismisses this objection as “puerile,” and he is right to insist that the eliminativist is not refuted so easily.  For it is not too hard for an eliminativist to avoid using “I believe that…” and similar locutions.  But that is not to the point.  The question is whether the eliminativist can in principle state his position in a way that entirely avoids any implicit commitment to the reality of intentionality.  And many prominent philosophers (Lynne Rudder Baker, Hilary Putnam, William Hasker, and others) have argued that this cannot be done.  Unfortunately, Rosenberg says nothing in response to these more serious critics.  He seems to think that dismissing the “puerile” version of the claim that eliminative materialism is incoherent suffices to dispatch all versions of that claim.  (Here Rosenberg seems guilty of what I have elsewhere called “meta-sophistry.”)

As I have argued in several places (e.g. in chapter 6 of The Last Superstition and here, here, and here) the trouble is that whether or not the eliminativist can avoid using locutions like “I believe that…,”many of the key notions on which his position rests nevertheless crucially presuppose intentionality in one way or another.  For instance, the notion of “illusion” plays a central role in Rosenberg’s book.  It is his main weapon, deployed again and again to deal with all the obvious counterevidence to his bizarre claims.  Yet in what sense can there be illusions, mistakes, or falsehoods of any kind given Rosenberg’s eliminativism?  For “illusion,” “mistake,” “falsehood” and the like are all normative concepts; they presuppose a meaning (whether of a thought, a statement, a model, or whatever) that has failed to represent things correctly, or a purpose that something has failed to realize.  Yet we are repeatedly assured by Rosenberg that there are no purposes or meanings of any sort whatsoever.  So, how can there be illusions and falsehoods?  For that matter, how can there be truth or correctness, including the truth and correctness he would ascribe to science alone?  For these concepts too are normative, presupposing the realization of a purpose, the accuracy of a representation.  

Thus, “Water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen” is true, while “Water is composed of silicon” is false; and the reason is because of the meanings we associate with these sentences.  Had the sentences in question had different meanings, the truth values would not necessarily have been the same.  By contrast, “Trghfhhe bgghajdfsa adsa” is neither true nor false, because it has no meaning at all.  Yet if Rosenberg is right, “Water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen” is as devoid of meaning as “Trghfhhe bgghajdfsa adsa” is -- in which case it is also as devoid of a truth value as the latter is.  Moreover, if Rosenberg is right, every statement in Rosenberg’s book, and every statement in every book of science, is as devoid of meaning as “Trghfhhe bgghajdfsa adsa” is, and thus just as devoid of any truth value.  But then, in what sense do either science or Rosenberg’s own book give us the truth about things?

Logic is also normative insofar as inferences aim at truth and insofar as the logical relationships between beliefs and statements derive from their meanings.  “Socrates is mortal” follows from “All men are mortal” and “Socrates is a man” only because of the specific meanings we associate with these sets of symbols.  If we associated different meanings with them, the one would not necessarily follow from the others.  And if each was as meaningless as “Trghfhhe bgghajdfsa adsa” is, then there would be no logical relationships between them at all -- no such thing as the one set of symbols being entailed by, or rationally justified by the others.  But then, if Rosenberg is right, every sentence, including all the sentences in his book and every sentence in every book of science, are as meaningless as “Trghfhhe bgghajdfsa adsa” is.  And in that case there are no logical relations between any of the sentences in either his book or any science book, and thus no valid arguments (or indeed any arguments at all) to be found in them.  So in what sense do either science or the assertions made in Rosenberg’s book constitute rational defenses of the claims they put forward?

Notions like “theory,” “evidence,” “observation,” and the like are as suffused with intentionality as the notions of truth and logic are.  Hence if there is no such thing as intentionality, then there is also no such thing as a scientific theory, as evidence for a scientific theory, as an observation which might confirm or disconfirm a theory, etc.  Rosenberg’s scientism makes of all statements and all arguments -- scientific statements and arguments no less than moral or theological ones, and indeed every assertion of or argument for scientism itself -- a meaningless string of ink marks or noises, no more true or false, rational or irrational than bosons and fermions are.  No doubt Rosenberg would dismiss this sort of objection as “puerile” too.  But if he is to give us something more than mere abuse -- if he is to give us a rational defense of his position against the objection at hand -- then he owes us more than just a pledge to avoid using the words “I believe that…”  He owes us an explanation of exactly how notions like illusion, truth, falsity, logic, inference, evidence, observation, theory, and the like can be either reconstructed or replaced in a way that does not presuppose intentionality.  And that is something he does not give us.

In fact Rosenberg’s position is even more incoherent than what has already been said indicates, if that is possible.  A central theme of the last part of his book is that “history is bunk.”  For one thing, history as a discipline does not have the kind of predictive power physical science has, and given Rosenberg’s physics obsession that suffices, in his view, to show that it cannot be a genuine source of knowledge.  For another thing, historical inquiry typically presupposes that people’s thoughts are “about” things, that people have purposes and plans, that this “aboutness” and those purposes and plans are part of the explanation of why people do the things they do, and so forth.  And all of that is in Rosenberg’s view false, in part, of course, because he regards purpose and intentionality as illusions:  “Science,” he says, “must even deny the basic notion that we ever really think about the past and the future or even that our conscious thoughts ever give any meaning to the actions that express them” (p. 165).  But it is also because he thinks that the correct explanation of anything that appears to be purposive, in the human world no less than in the biological realm more generally, must be a Darwinian explanation.  In particular, human artifacts and institutions must be explained in terms of adaptation, in the Darwinian sense of “adaptation.”  In the case of the products of individual effort, this is a matter of blind variation and selection at the level of neurons.  In the case of large-scale social phenomena it is a matter of variation and selection at the level of customs, political institutions, and the like. “[A]lmost everything significant in human affairs and its history… is or was an adaption” and “only Darwinian processes can produce adaptations, whether biological or social” (p. 253).

Yet if we cannot so much as think about the future, how can we make predictions?  And if we cannot make predictions, how is physics any more predictive a science than history?  If we cannot so much as think about the past, how can we even come up with (much less be confident in the truth of) evolutionary explanations of social and biological phenomena?  If the products of individuals and social institutions are Darwinian adaptations, then what reason do we have to believe that science -- which is the product of individual and social effort -- is more true than the belief systems Rosenberg rejects (religion, morality, common sense, etc.), or indeed true at all?  For Darwinian processes select for fitness, not truth or falsity.  (Moreover, judging by the extremely tenacious hold even Rosenberg admits religion, morality, and common sense have had and still have on most people, these belief systems would seem to be superior to science vis-à-vis fitness!)  If history does not give us any real knowledge, then how can the history of science give us any real knowledge?  In particular, how can we know that science really is the success story that historians (and, indeed, Rosenberg) tell us it has been historically?  Indeed, how can we know that the scientific evidence really did show what we thought it did last year, last month, or last week, let alone decades or centuries ago?  And how can we know that religion has really been as bad historically as Rosenberg and other atheists say it has been?  Not only does Rosenberg not answer these (rather obvious) objections, he doesn’t even consider them.

Rosenberg also makes use of the trendy notion of “theory of mind” to help explain the origin of the “illusion” of intentionality.  But in so doing he merely yet again makes use of the very notions he is supposed to be eliminating in the course of explaining them away.  Hence he characterizes the “theory” of mind as “the ability to predict at least some of the purposeful-looking behavior of other animals” (p. 198, emphasis added), notes that parents, in applying this “theory,” “start treating [their] baby’s thoughts as being about stuff” (p. 202, emphasis added), and that this and further applications of this “theory” is the source of the “illusion” that thoughts have “aboutness.”  But of course, in the ordinary senses of the words, applying a “theory,” “predicting,” taking something to “look” a certain way, “treating” something as having a certain significance, and (as we have already noted) being subject to “illusion,” are all ways of representing things as being a certain way, whether correctly or incorrectly.  And representation presupposes “aboutness” or intentionality.  Hence one can hardly coherently appeal to these notions in the course of trying to show that intentionality is an illusion, unless one explains exactly how each one of them can both be cashed out in non-intentional terms and still do the work the eliminativist needs them to do.  And once again, this is precisely what Rosenberg does not do.

What Rosenberg does do is to offer some analogies in an attempt to make his position seem less implausible.  They all fail miserably.  For example, he suggests that alterations in the neural activity of a sea slug generate only new habits of behavior but nothing with the intentionality we take our thoughts to have.  But the nervous systems of rats, he says, differ from those of sea slugs only in degree, and ours in turn differ from those of rats only by further degrees.  Thus, Rosenberg concludes, there is no more reason to attribute “aboutness” or intentionality to us than there is reason to attribute it to rats or sea slugs.  But the problems with this argument are obvious.  For one thing, human beings, unlike rats and sea slugs, possess language, write books, engage in philosophical and scientific disputes, and carry out other activities that even Rosenberg would acknowledge seem to involve intentionality, and indeed are generally regarded as the paradigms of intentionality.  So it is no good for Rosenberg to insist against his critics that a comparison of human beings to sea slugs and rats shows that the former have no more intentionality than the latter do, unless he has already, independently shown that these apparently intentional human activities do not really involve intentionality after all.  Otherwise the critic can insist that these distinctively human activities show that the analogy is no good.  Yet the comparison with sea slugs and rats was itself supposed to show that human beings lack intentionality.  Hence the comparison simply begs the question.  Furthermore, whether neuroscience gives us the whole story about human thought and behavior is itself part of what is at issue between Rosenberg and his critics.  Hence to claim that the absence of relevant neurological differences between sea slugs, rats, and human beings shows that there is no difference at the level of intentionality is, once again, simply to beg the question.

Rosenberg attempts another analogy, between human beings and computers.  A computer, he says, can do things like give the correct answers to Jeopardy questions even though “its electronic circuits [aren’t] about anything, including about how to play Jeopardy” (p. 188).  So, if the computer can store “information” without its states being about anything, so can our brains.  Here too the problem with this argument should be obvious.  For one thing, it is false to say that the states of a computer aren’t about anything; they do have intentionality, even though it is only derived intentionality, like the intentionality of words.  And that is why what they do counts as storing “information” about the answers to Jeopardy questions and the like: Human beings designed them to do that, imparting this informational content to their internal states just as we impart meaning to words.  And we were able to do that because we have intentionality in an intrinsic or underived way.  Of course, Rosenberg will deny that that is what we have done, and will deny that there really is intentionality of either a derivative sort or an intrinsic sort.  But the point is that the computer analogy was itself supposed to help to show that there is no such thing as intentionality.  Hence for Rosenberg to deny intentionality as a way of salvaging the computer analogy would simply be to argue in a circle.  He would be appealing to the purported absence of intentionality in computers to bolster the claim that there is no intentionality of any sort, even in us -- and then appealing to the general non-existence of intentionality in order to show that computers in particular don’t have it.

(It should also be emphasized that Rosenberg is fooling himself if he thinks he can help himself to notions like “information,” “computation,” and the like so long as he avoids attributing “aboutness” to the states of a computer.  For notions like “computation,” “information,” “software,” “program,” “symbolic processing,” etc. themselves all presuppose intentionality, for reasons made clear by writers like John Searle and Karl Popper and which we surveyed in a recent post.  Computational notions are intentional through and through, not merely where questions about the specific content of a particular computational state are concerned.  This is not the first time Rosenberg has made this mistake, as we saw when examining his book Darwinian Reductionism.)

A final analogy Rosenberg appeals to is one that purportedly holds between thought and motion pictures.  Movies create the illusion of motion; in reality they are but a series of still photographs projected in rapid succession.  Similarly, Rosenberg says, the collection of neural circuits in our brains creates the illusion of “aboutness” or intentionality, whereas in reality “None of them is about anything; each is just an input/output circuit firing or not” (p. 191).  Once again there are several problems with the proposed analogy.  First of all, it is well understood how a sequence of still images can produce the illusion of motion.  But Rosenberg doesn’t explain the mechanism by which the firing of “input/output circuits” generates the “illusion” of intentionality.  He does say that it is because the outputs of the circuits are “appropriate” to their “specific circumstances” that we suppose them to be “about” those circumstances.  But in what respect are they “appropriate”?  It can’t be that they accurately represent those circumstances, since that would entail, not the illusion of intentionality, but the actual existence of intentionality.  

Nor would it do to say that the outputs of the circuits are caused by those circumstances.  For one thing, there are all sorts of causal factors that might enter into the generation of any instance of neural activity, some contemporaneous with one another, others tracing backward in time indefinitely.  What exactly makes the “specific circumstances” in question (whatever they are) stand out among the other causal factors so as to make the neural activity “appropriate” to them in particular?  (The problem the physicalist has in drawing a principled distinction between “causes” and mere “background conditions” in a way that avoids any reference to intentionality is one that Karl Popper and Hilary Putnam have emphasized, and which I discussed in detail in a recent article on Hayek and Popper.)  For another thing, the neural activity in a sea slug is also no doubt “appropriate” to its “specific circumstances,” yet apparently does not in Rosenberg’s view generate even the illusion of intentionality.  So why and how exactly does our neural activity generate this “illusion”?

A further problem with the analogy (one that Rosenberg himself acknowledges) is that in the case of motion pictures, we have real motion to compare the illusion of motion to.  There may not be real motion in the movie itself, but there is real motion elsewhere, and it is precisely by contrast with it that we can see that the motion the movie seems to present is illusory.  But where intentionality is concerned, Rosenberg says there is no such thing anywhere.  So it is hard to see exactly what Rosenberg is comparing the purportedly ersatz intentionality of our thoughts to when he judges it to be merely illusory.  In fact it is hard to see what it would be even to have the notion of intentionality (whether one considers it an illusion or not) without thereby exhibiting intentionality.  (“Having a notion” or “having a concept” are, after all, themselves intentional notions.)  Indeed, as we have already seen, the very notion of “illusion” itself seems to presuppose intentionality, so that whereas it is easy enough to understand what it means to say that some motion is illusory, it is difficult to see what it could mean to say that all intentionality is illusory.  To be sure, Rosenberg admits the analogy is “imperfect.”  But it is far worse than merely imperfect.  For in drawing the analogy, Rosenberg does absolutely nothing to address the problems of coherence that the critic raises for eliminativism, but instead only offers a further illustration of those problems!

Apparently some editor (or perhaps Rosenberg himself) could see that there is a serious difficulty here, at least rhetorically.  For at the end of the main chapter of Atheist’s Guide devoted to defending the eliminativist position on intentionality (chapter 8), I find that there are in the final, published version two paragraphs absent in the advance reading copy I was sent when I reviewed the book for First Things.  In this new material Rosenberg acknowledges that among his readers, there will be “philosophers [who] are muttering” that his position is “worse than self-contradictory” -- that it is “incoherent” insofar as it entails that “every sentence in [his own] book” is not “about anything.”  To this objection Rosenberg replies:

Look, if I am going to get scientism into your skull I have to use the only tools we’ve got for moving information from one head to another: noises, ink-marks, pixels.  Treat the illusion that goes with them like the optical illusions [discussed earlier in the book].  This book isn’t conveying statements.  It’s rearranging neural circuits, removing inaccurate disinformation and replacing it with accurate information.  Treat it as correcting maps instead of erasing sentences. (p. 193)

But it goes without saying that this is no response at all, but just yet another illustration of, rather than an answer to, the problem.  For “illusion,” “information,” “disinformation,” “accurate,” “inaccurate,” “correct,” and “map,” are, like “truth,” “falsity,” “inference,” “entailment,” “theory,” “evidence,” “observation,” etc., all notions that presuppose intentionality.  And if they can be reconstructed or replaced in a way that avoids any implicit commitment to intentionality while doing the work Rosenberg needs them to do, he needs to show us how this can be done, and he never does so.  All he does is to replace one bit of intentional language with another.  That does absolutely nothing to solve the problem; it just moves it around, like the pea in a shell game.  The trick is to break out of the circle of intentional notions entirely and consistently.  

I suppose it is only fair to note that in an email Rosenberg sent me after my First Things review appeared, he complained that in accusing him of incoherence I had unfairly portrayed him as having made a “callow undergrad mistake,” and that I should instead have “[tried] refuting teleosemantics and other nonrepresentationalist accounts of the propositional attitudes.”  There are several things to be said in response to this:

1. Rosenberg does not explain what “callow undergrad mistake” it is that I have falsely accused him of making.  I certainly have never made what he rightly calls the “puerile” charge that he claims to believe that there are no beliefs.  His incoherence isn’t quite that obvious.  Still, that his position is incoherent in a less direct way is something I have now documented at length -- not only in the current series of posts but in my earlier posts on his “Disenchanted Naturalist” article, as well as (more briefly) in my First Things review.  If I have somehow gotten him wrong, it should be easy enough to explain exactly how I have.

2. For several reasons, it is very odd for Rosenberg to complain that in my review I should have tried to refute “teleosemantics and other nonrepresentationalist accounts of the propositional attitudes.”  First of all, teleosemantics -- a naturalistic approach to intentionality associated with philosophers like Ruth Millikan, Fred Dretske, and others -- is generally regarded as a reductionist position, not an eliminativist position.  Nor is it an approach Rosenberg himself actually appeals to in his book in defense of his eliminativism.  Indeed, where Rosenberg does bother to mention Millikan, Dretske, et al. in the book -- in the section at the end giving recommendations for further reading -- he himself characterizes their approach as reductionist rather than eliminativist, and says that “it didn’t work”!  Now, perhaps Rosenberg thinks that there are insights from teleosemantics and related views which can be salvaged in defense of eliminativism.  But if so, he should have made this claim, and defended it, in the book itself, rather than (as he actually did) giving precisely the opposite impression.  (Is a book reviewer expected to do the author’s work for him on pain of being accused of unfairness?)  

3.  As it happens I have in several places explained why teleosemantic and other naturalistic approaches cannot help to salvage Rosenberg’s position (here, here, and here).  I have also criticized Dretske’s approach in an earlier post, Millikan’s approach in Philosophy of Mind and The Last Superstition, and other naturalistic approaches to intentionality in my article "Hayek, Popper, and the Causal Theory of the Mind" and in other earlier posts.  

In her book Saving Belief, Lynne Rudder Baker aptly characterized eliminative materialism as a kind of “cognitive suicide.”  As anyone who has seen the science-fiction movie Scanners knows, the destruction of a brain is not a pretty thing.  (Extreme content warning on that YouTube clip.)  Good thing for Rosenberg, then, that the mind and brain aren’t identical!
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