Animals are conscious! In other news, sky is blue, water wet

A reader calls my attention to a Discovery News story which breathlessly declares: 

A prominent group of scientists signs a document stating that animals are just as “conscious and aware” as humans are.  This is a big deal.

Actually, it is not a big deal, nor in any way news, and the really interesting thing about this story is how completely uninteresting it is.  Animals are conscious?  Anyone who has ever owned a pet, or been to the zoo, or indeed just knows what an animal is, knows that.  

OK, almost anyone.  Descartes notoriously denied it, for reasons tied to his brand of dualism.  And perhaps that is one reason someone might think animal consciousness remarkable.  It might be supposed that if you regard the human mind as something immaterial, you have to regard animals as devoid of consciousness, so that evidence of animal consciousness is evidence against the immateriality of the mind and thus a “big deal.”  This is not what the article says, mind you, but it is one way to make sense of why it presents the evidence of animal consciousness as if it were noteworthy.

The trouble is that there is simply no essential connection whatsoever between affirming the immateriality of the human mind and denying that animals are conscious.  Aristotelians, for example, have always insisted both that animals are sentient -- indeed, that is part of what makes them animals in the first place -- and that human intellectual activity is at least partly immaterial (for reasons I’ve discussed in many places, most recently here).  Descartes’ reasons for denying animal consciousness have to do with assumptions peculiar to his own brand of dualism, assumptions Aristotelians reject.  And they have to do especially with assumptions Descartes made about the nature of matter as much or more than they have to do with his assumptions about the nature of mind -- assumptions about matter that materialists (no doubt including at least some among those scientists cited in the Discovery News article) share.

I’ve discussed the modern, post-Cartesian conception of matter and the role it played in generating the so-called “mind-body problem” many times in many places (including hereand here).  The key point for present purposes is that in characterizing matter in purely quantitative, mathematical terms, Descartes left no place in it for qualitative features like color, odor, taste, sound, smell, heat and cold as common sense understands them.  Accordingly, he treated these qualitative features -- as Galileo before him and Locke, Boyle, and countless others after him did -- as entirely mind-dependent, existing only in our conscious experience of the world but not in the world itself.  They are analogous to the redness you see when you literally look at the world through rose-colored glasses -- not really “out there” but only in the eye of the beholder.  What really exists “out there,” on this sort of view, is only color, sound, heart, cold, etc. as redefined in terms of physics -- surface reflectance properties, compression waves, molecular motion, etc.

Now, if these qualitative features as common sense understands them exist only in the mind and not in the material world, it follows that these features cannot themselves be material.  A kind of dualism follows, then, precisely from the conception of matter to which modern philosophers -- including materialists-- are generally committed.  Indeed, as I have also noted before (most recently here), early modern writers like Malebranche and Cudworth saw in this new conception of matter such an argument for dualism, as have contemporary dualists like Richard Swinburne.  The so-called “qualia problem” that contemporary philosophers of mind fret over has (contrary to what some of the materialists among them seem to assume) nothing whatsoever to do with an unwillingness to follow out the implications of modern science, but on the contrary is the inevitable result of the conception of matter to which modern scientists in their philosophical moments have wedded themselves.

In any event, if we say that these qualitative features -- redness, coolness, etc. as we know them from introspection -- exist only in a mind-dependent way, only in conscious experience, that raises the question of what a mind is.  And for Descartes, a mind is just the sort of thing whose existence he is left with when everything else has been doubted away by the end of the first of his Meditations -- the sort of thing which can think to itself “I think, therefore I am,” and which can know that it and its conscious experiences of the world exist even if the external material world itself does not.  

This gives us Descartes’ novel form of dualism.  The human body, as he understood it, is just one entirely mathematically definable bit of the material world among others, entirely devoid of qualitative features and thus of the consciousness that, as he saw it, is presupposed by them.  What makes a human being more than a mere unconscious mechanism is that conjoined with this body is a res cogitans in which alone consciousness resides.  Apart from that, a human being would be no more conscious than a toaster oven, even if it acted like it was conscious -- which is precisely why the post-Cartesian understanding of matter and mind has given rise to the notion of a “zombie,” in the technical sensefamiliar from contemporary philosophy of mind.  This notion of a “zombie” -- and thus the “hard problem of consciousness” which has gotten so much attention in recent years and which many philosophers and scientists falsely suppose is a scientific problem susceptible of a scientific solution -- are artifacts of an entirely philosophical, historically contingent, and eminently challengeable (indeed, I would say clearly false) conception of matter.  

Be that as it may, Descartes’ strange view about animals pretty naturally falls out of this set of assumptions.  If the entire material world, including the human body, is utterly devoid of anything like the qualitative features we know from conscious experience, and consciousness resides only in a res cogitans, then whatever lacks a res cogitanscannot be conscious.  But the mark of a res cogitans is the sort of higher cognitive activity represented by fancy philosophical thoughts like “I think, therefore I am,” and (more generally) expressible in language.  Whatever gives every sign of being devoid of the sort of intellectual activity associated with language accordingly gives every sign of being devoid of consciousness.  Hence we have (again, given the assumptions in question) every reason to conclude that non-human animals are essentially “zombies” -- they act like they are conscious, but they are not.

Now, this crazy outcome is, certainly for us Aristotelians, a clear reductio ad absurdum of the premises that led to it, and just one of the many evidences that the moderns were wrong to abandon the Aristotelian-Scholastic philosophy of nature (which is, of course, not to say that they were wrong to abandon the erroneous scientific ideas that had gotten entangled with that philosophy of nature).  But there is nevertheless a kind of logic to Descartes’ position.  One sometimes hears stupid remarks about Descartes to the effect that his views about animals reflected mere anthropocentric prejudice or the like.  (See this golden oldie from the long-defunct Conservative Philosopher group blog, wherein I criticized one such attack.)  Descartes was wrong, but no one who shares his basic assumptions about the nature of matter -- which probably includes most contemporary philosophers and scientists, albeit they share those assumptions unreflectively and only in broad outlines (namely Descartes’ emphasis on quantitative and mathematically definable features) rather than in the details (e.g. Descartes’ commitment to plenum theory, which no one accepts any longer) -- has any business dismissing his views out of hand.  For it is precisely those essentially anti-Aristotelian, anti-Scholastic assumptions that led to his bizarre views about animals.  

Another reason some might think animal consciousness is noteworthy is that they might think it supports materialism.  In particular, they might suppose that given that animals are purely material and yet are conscious, that gives us reason to think that the human mind in its entirely is material.  But this is just a non sequitur, and once again presupposes an essentially Cartesian understanding of the relevant issues.  Because he took all consciousness to reside in the res cogitans and regarded the res cogitans as immaterial, Descartes’ position implies that sensation and imagination are immaterial.  Hence if sensation and imagination turn out to be material after all, the post-Cartesian philosopher understandably concludes that the remaining operations of the res cogitans, and higher cognitive activities in particular, might be susceptible of materialist explanation as well.

But the Aristotelian tradition has in the first place always regarded sensation and imagination as corporeal faculties, and as having nothing essentially to do with the reasons why our distinctively intellectual activities are incorporeal.  It is only because they take for granted the desiccated, purely quantitative post-Cartesian conception of matter that contemporary philosophers and scientists regard sensation and imagination as at least philosophically problematic and are impressed by any evidence for the essentially bodily character of sensation and imagination.  The Aristotelian finds himself stifling a yawn.  “Big whoop.  We’ve been saying that for centuries.”

In any event, merely to insinuate that evidence for the corporeal nature of conscious awareness is evidence for the corporeal nature of abstract thought would just be to beg the question against the Aristotelian tradition, which maintains that strictly intellectual activity on the one hand and sensation and imagination on the other differ in kind and not merely degree, so that to establish the corporeal nature of the latter is irrelevant to the question of whether the former is corporeal.  (I’ve addressed this issue many times as well, once again most recently here.)  Hence, to establish that animals have conscious awareness of a sensory and imaginative sort -- something the Aristotelian not only has never denied but has insisted upon -- simply does nothing to show that the distinctively intellectual powers of human beings might be given a materialist explanation.  (Though in fairness, the Discovery News article doesn’t say otherwise.  I’m merely speculating about why anyone might find remarkable the inherently unremarkable claim that non-human animals are conscious.)

So, Discovery News, Discovery Shnews.  For the reallyinteresting developments in animal psychology, you’ve got to rely on The Onion:

Gee, Another Lie

Mitt's adoring wife ("I just love women," she proclaimed as many shifted uncomfortably in their seats) told an adoring audience that her man is self-made. Yeah, she did. Well, he isn't, and it's not that he was born into privilege, which he was, unlike nearly everyone; it's that he took advantage (in all senses of the word) of government bailouts when he'd nearly ruined his business:

Mitt Romney likes to say he won't "apologize" for his success in business. But what he never says is "thank you" – to the American people – for the federal bailout of Bain & Company that made so much of his outsize wealth possible.

According to the candidate's mythology, Romney took leave of his duties at the private equity firm Bain Capital in 1990 and rode in on a white horse to lead a swift restructuring of Bain & Company, preventing the collapse of the consulting firm where his career began. When The Boston Globe reported on the rescue at the time of his Senate run against Ted Kennedy, campaign aides spun Romney as the wizard behind a "long-shot miracle," bragging that he had "saved bank depositors all over the country $30 million when he saved Bain & Company."

In fact, government documents on the bailout obtained by Rolling Stone show that the legend crafted by Romney is basically a lie. The federal records, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, reveal that Romney's initial rescue attempt at Bain & Company was actually a disaster – leaving the firm so financially strapped that it had "no value as a going concern." Even worse, the federal bailout ultimately engineered by Romney screwed the FDIC – the bank insurance system backed by taxpayers – out of at least $10 million. And in an added insult, Romney rewarded top executives at Bain with hefty bonuses at the very moment that he was demanding his handout from the feds...

Well, surely that'll do it. Those "we built it" chanters at the RNC will finally acknowledge that no one makes it entirely on her own around here, and the plans of their party will see to it that it stops happening at all, mostly. (I threw in the "mostly" because of this guy -- well, he did have a gun, and a camera, and tools, and the occasional visit by an airplane...)

Like several of the speakers at the RNC who claimed to be self-made but received significant government money (and even those who didn't, became successful -- Romney has said it himself -- in part on the wings of educators, people who built roads with taxpayer money, the union workers who built, with government money, too, the hall in which the RNC is holding its days-of-ignorance-nights-of-deception rally) Mitt Romney would be a financial failure were it not for the infusion of taxpayer money into his struggling and initially mismanaged firm.

We already knew The Rominee "saved" the Olympics on the backs of American taxpayers. Now, it turns out, the same is true of his highly-touted and lowly-intentioned private enterprise. Is it a big deal? Well, no, it shouldn't be. Because it's undeniably true, except to teabaggers, that we can't get along without government, that no one in America ever has. So, who cares, right? Well, other than the fact that Ryan/Romney and all other Rs have decided to base their campaigns on lying about it, no one, I guess.

Certainly not teabaggers and those who love them, those who'll swing the election to a pair of constant and easy liars. Unless they were to decide to seek what we in the real world like to refer to as "information." (I'm putting air-quotes around that, too.) News. Facts. Truth.

Yeah. Like that'll happen.

Eastwood Speaks

In case anyone missed it -- presumably because of trying to smother her/himself with a pillow during the RNC -- Clint spoke at the convention last night, addressing Imaginary Obama in an empty chair (and rambling on for so long they couldn't show the Movie of Mitt in prime time). It's become quite an internet meme, and it's pretty damn funny. Chris Rock tweeted "Eastwood on phone to Obama after speech: it went as planned, sir."

But I think the above sees it most clearly, as metaphor for what's motivating teabaggers.

(For the record, I admire Eastwood a lot for his movie-making, producing ones that are thought-provoking and, even, daring.)

Regular Folks

Wonder if he wore his pressed jeans to this event:

Gov. Mitt Romney's campaign toasted its top donors Wednesday aboard a 150-foot yacht flying the flag of the Cayman Islands.

The floating party, hosted by a Florida developer on his yacht "Cracker Bay," was one of a dozen exclusive events meant to nurture those who have raised more than $1 million for Romney's bid.

"I think it's ironic they do this aboard a yacht that doesn't even pay its taxes," said a woman who lives aboard a much smaller boat moored at the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina.


The event ... appeared on no public calendars...

I really can't say: is this monumental arrogance, or simple stupidity; is this stuff so normal in Romneyworld that they don't give it a moment's thought? Is avoiding taxes, having no sense of responsibility or obligation to exceptional America -- a matter of pride? Do they pat themselves on the back, thinking only suckers pay taxes?

For any true conservative, anyone who claims to love this country, to vote for these guys is to relinquish any claim on honesty or concern for our future. A vote for Mitt Romney is a vote to enable a brand of cynicism that should have no place in our government, a level of denialism and mendacity that's unprecedented, that cashes in our future survival as a nation for their immediate greed. It's undeniable. Seriously. These are horrible people. They need to be rejected, and their party needs to regain its sanity, for the good of us all. It would make all of us better.

Only voters can make it happen, and only time will tell if it's already too late. I don't think that's hyperbole: With its rank dishonesty, its pigheaded unwillingness to compromise, its trading rationality for religion, its deliberate appeal to the basest of its base while hiding billionaires controlling their message for their own purposes, today's Republican party is dragging us away from democracy. (I'd have followed "dragging" with "kicking and screaming," but, clearly, their perfectly propagandized followers think they're being taken to Disneyland. I've always found political conventions to be silly at best, no matter what party. But the spectacle of deliberate lying, the same lies repeated over and over, being cheered as if it were truth at this year's RNC is as bad as it gets.)

I know I'm repeating myself, and descending far into blatherdom. But how can you not? This is America now: a land of liars and denialists, still claiming exceptionalism as if the word applies any more, and only needs the saying to be true.


Liar In Waiting

Before he became VP nominee, I knew Paul Ryan wasn't very good at math. His budget claims have never added up, and he's afraid to show his work. But being arithmetically challenged doesn't necessarily imply rank dishonesty. Nor, for that matter, does his far-right position on women's choice and other social issues. It's consistent, I'll give him that.

But last night he gave what is demonstrably one of the most dishonest speeches ever heard at a national convention -- at least by a member of the ticket. Clearly, if he had integrity before, he's been fully assimilated by Romneyborg. (Which suggests any perception of integrity was false in the first place.)

At least five times, Ryan misrepresented the facts. And while none of the statements were new, the context was. It’s one thing to hear them on a thirty-second television spot or even in a stump speech before a small crowd. It’s something else entirely to hear them in prime time address, as a vice presidential nominee is accepting his party’s nomination and speaking to the entire country.

The article details the specifics, as do many others. (How blatant must it be when even someone from Fox "news" chimes in?) Read them if you can stand it. Paul Ryan got up there and lied to the country he claims to love, lied without embarrassment. Lied like it came easily, lied like a man with no core. Like the man to whom he's handed his integrity and the contents of his scrotum, he treats voters as if they're stupid; as if he assumes they'll trade in their rectitude as willingly as he did, as if it means no more to them than it does to him. Those in attendance ate it up, of course; lies are what they demand, what they've been fed for so long by their "news" source of choice that they can't tell the difference, nor make an effort to find out.

What an astonishing thing: Today's Republican party is going all-in on lying as essential strategy. Clearly, they don't believe they can win if they tell the truth, about themselves, about their opposition. And they assume they've succeeded, aided by their Foxorovebaugh machine, in removing from enough people the ability or desire to care. To tell lies from truth.

The question is whether they're right. You know how I answer.

[Added: wonder of wonders, I guess when it's that blatant lots of people notice, and it shakes the media from its "everyone does it" obsequiousness. Here's a list, and it's not all flaming liberals. The question remains, however: will any self-identified Republicans/conservatives finally have enough of it and try to rescue their party from its mendaciousness by voting the current breed out of office, and withholding their vote for R and R? Given their recent history, I'm not at all optimistic. Which is a real shame. Because we need sane conservatives in the conversation.]

Game Plan

There's no way I could, even for the sake of my loyal readers, hungry as they are for my opinions, watch the R convention. But I have read about it, and watched a couple of clips. So it's become very clear: the Romney camp, and the entire cadré of R mouthpieces, have decided to base the rest of their campaign entirely on two lies. What does that say about what's left of their ideas?

1) Obama gutted welfare reform.

2) We built that.

There it is: it's all they think they've got. Rather than try to convince people of the worthiness of their ideas, everyone of which comes pre-failed since Ronald Reagan tried them and George Bush took them to their illogical limit, they've thrown in the towel on discourse and gone all in on deception. Which is surprising in a way, because the last three decades have been nothing if not the careful and successful dumbifying of their potential electorate. At this point they could say pretty much anything -- like, you know, it's Obama that's trying to destroy Medicare; Obama's vast wealth means he's out of touch; we loves us some women's rights -- and their Foxified voters would lap it up like labradors. But, then, they're aiming at those mythical undecideds, and they've decided this is the only way to reach them.

How unsure of their message must they be? How derisive of those voters to whom they're broadcasting their lies?

I suppose it'd be a waste of pixels, once again to point out the obvious falsehood of the claims they've now made central to their appeal. I could repeat that every fact-checker, every impartial commentator, has said the welfare claim is an out-and-out lie, that what Obama did is grant flexibility requested by several governors, including, way back, Mitt Romney himself. And that the flexibility is predicated on getting more welfare recipients working, not fewer. (Interestingly, unsurprisingly, now that Mitt has made the lie his favorite subject -- justifying it by saying it's working, and announcing that he doesn't care about the facts,* literally -- a couple of the governors are trying to wiggle out of the fact that they made the requests. Morals? Ethics? Honesty? In today's Rs?)

You didn't build that, said Barack Obama. If unwittingly ripe for decontextualization, it was a truism: if we stop providing the infrastructure that people need to succeed, success won't happen. It's such a truism that Mitt Romney, who's never said anything without subsequent changing of his mind, has said it himself, even as yelled out the lie to an credulous audience. (What an unmitigated asshole!)

(It occurs to me that there's another lie coming out of the convention as well: in displaying a "debt clock" they're ignoring the causes and blaming it all on Obama. The truth of the matter is quite different. But who cares, right?)

Now we know, beyond the slightest doubt: Republicans have decided they can't win without lying, that they've concluded that people whose votes they seek won't choose their candidates based on honest characterization of their plans, or a true discussion of Obama's. How pathetic, how cynical. How derisive they are of voters. How poorly it speaks of a national political party, choosing to base an entire campaign for the presidency, for control of the government, unapologetically, inarguably, on lies. How Orwellian. How characteristic of those regimes they claim to hate!

Soon enough, we'll find out: how dumb are American voters? Sadly, I think I know the answer.

[As is often the case, after I write something I read the words of another who says it better. This time it's Robert Reich.] [And here's another. And another. Lots of people besides me look at Romney and his current party and see the same thing. Just not teabaggers and Foxophiles. Not, in other words, people willing and/or able to process information.]
* That link is worth reading, by the way: from a more credible and impartial source than myself (a Christian one, even!), it outlines Romney's love of the lie and how he gets around the fact-checkers.



Having heard complaints about how hard it can be to read the admittedly bizarre and often-unreadable word verifications that Blogger uses, I've once again removed the requirement. (I have nothing to do with the nature of the word verification, only the ability to activate or inactivate it.) I'll still be moderating, which I've been doing a little more actively lately. As some have noticed.

Anyhow, like unplugging a sewer, I've been getting spam comments again, dozens, and it's really annoying. It's not that it's hard to mark them as spam and delete them forever; I think it's that I get all excited to see a new comment (I do like them, you know), only to find, when opening it, that it's ridiculous bogosity. And, typically, poorly constructed, plainly bullshit stuff. Blogger claims to have spam detectors, and indeed they do. But any program that lets this crap through ain't worth the electrons its printed on.

I don't know how spambots work, but I'm sure no one -- not even a person of teabagger mentality -- is stupid enough individually to send out this stuff, expecting it to get through.

So. Know how much I care, you too-few readers (numbers do steadily increase, but it's still nothing compared to Surgeonsblog, of which I was rightly -- so I'd argue -- proud.) I'm making it easier for you at the cost of my own columnar epithelium.

Vox Populi Vesani

Gotta give him some credit: at least he didn't say Obama created the hurricane. Just that he made the hurricane center meteorologists lie about it.

There are so many things about which one could say "it tells you all you need to know about today's Republican party." But right up there at the top is the fact that Rush Limbaugh holds so much sway over it. Millions of devoted listeners lapping him up. Speaks at all their gatherings. All its potentates kowtow to him, seek his imprimatur. When Rush sneezes, hankies are lifted toward him by knee-bended teabaggRs, heads bowed in obeisance, hoping a little of his frothy sputum drips on them.

I don't follow Rush Limbaugh, but I can't avoid reading about him once in a while. I don't know if this is an escalation from cynical money-making phony bombast to card-carrying insanity, or if he's always been this crazy. But I have no doubt there are millions nodding their heads in agreement as he suggests that the national weather service is a pawn of the White House, willing to cost communities millions by making false predictions for political purposes. And, since it must be true that most of them are career professionals, staying in place across administrations, we have also to conclude that they bend with the winds. Which seems appropriate.

With demonstrably insane leaders spouting conspiracies, rejecting facts (one of Romney's people, defending their totally dishonest welfare ads on the grounds that they're effective, just said "we're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers"); with a platform proudly built on denialism, hate-mongering, and rejection of the very idea of expertise and education, how can it be that today's Republican party appeals to anyone at all, let alone about half the country?

If America is exceptional in any way, it's that it's flourished by virtue of commitment to public education, to embracing innovation, welcoming immigrants, calling out fakers, demanding an aggressive and free press, willingness to provide the basics of what average people need to succeed. Respecting opposing views, keeping religion (mostly) separate from public policy. Think of where today's Republicans stand on any of those issues, and of where their retreat from them is taking us. The party that tosses around the word "exceptionalism" like a bludgeon, thinks saying it is enough; and it rejects everything that, until now, has made it possible. (Count the times the word is used at their convention. Observe the items in their platform that will usher in an end to it.)

Proudly uninformed, actively rejecting knowledge and deriding -- mocking!! -- expertise, trying to reduce what was once (arguably) the world's best system of public education to nothing more than Sunday School, spouting conspiracy theories with every exhalation, retreating from a melting-pot of ideas to an insular and frightened paranoid parochialism, today's Republicans are, in every way, exactly the opposite of what's made America successful. And what's most appalling of all is the ease with which their Limboid view of things has taken hold.

But then, it's exactly because it's easy. Easy is easier. The world has become too difficult for the Republican mind to manage. At the very time when reason and cooperation are most critically needed, they recoil in horror and retreat to mumbledom, catch phrases, easy and doctrinaire answers, fantasy. Need I point out the similarities to, you know ... that religion thing, the fundamentalist variety, anyway, on which the R party rests its case. The problem is that singing and praying and testifying might be just dandy for your mortal soul, but they aren't enough when there are worldly problems to solve. Nevertheless, responding to the difficulties we face, today's Rs are just singing louder, praying harder, and listening to their media testifiers as if their non-truths will set them free.


A friend sent a link to an article that mentioned something I'd missed: Todd "No-One-Gets-Pregnant-From-Legitimate-Rape" Aikin Akin is on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee! Science. Technology. Nor is he the only teabagging crackpot sitting thereupon. If you have the fortitude, drill down through this article, and be petrified. I won't spoil the fun by posting its rundown of each of the members, but it's all there. As is this thought:

So what gives? Why are there so many congressmen so blind to science, as it were? These Congressmen aren’t necessarily dumb people—in fact, most of them aren’t. But they, like everyone, are prone to confirmation bias, wherein our pre-existing ideologies (something this Congress has no shortage of) trumps our ability to gather information in an objective manner. We’ll discard good info if it doesn’t support our more deeply felt beliefs. It doesn’t help that those deeply held beliefs are massaged by moneyed interests in Congress—family values groups reward pols for anti-abortion stances, the massive fossil fuel industry gives them a pretty good reason to vocalize anti-climate change views, and so on.

In fact, a number of recent studies have shown, for instance, that better-educated conservatives are even less likely to believe in climate change, and that obtaining more data does little to sway their views. In other words, it’s not an inability to read complicated science journals that lands these folks at a point where they disregard science. It’s because the science in question doesn’t seem to make room for their beliefs: in lower taxes, in eliminating pollution regulations on business, being opposed to abortion, and pro-Intelligent Design ed, etc.

How far beyond appalling is it that people like these sit on such an important committee? Not to mention that they've all been voted into office, by voters, fellow citizens, the very people whose future is so jeopardized by such ignorance. People by definition already victimized by anti-intellectualism, and proud as hell of it. In what scenario will they ever change their minds?

I don't see it getting better, which is why I've begun to think the election will be lost. Of late, having been born of Reaganism, Americans seem especially prone to recoiling from the hard stuff, to resorting to magical thinking when the going gets tough. And to selfishness, when pitching in is what's most needed. Even if these tendencies are mostly seen among those of teabagging proclivities, their numbers are enough to bring it all down. What would it take for those who elected such blockheads ever to un-elect them, to abandon the force-fed ignorance they so desperately need to maintain equilibrium? Ain't happening: as we've seen with blinding clarity, you don't need to control all branches of government to bring it all crashing down. Enabling ignorance works.

In a democracy like ours (meaning one that's no longer based on a thoughtful electorate and cooperation among legislators, but on the power of moneyed interests and their ability to deceive the willingly deceived and buy off the rest) this sort of ignorance is self-perpetuating. Because, in a continuous feedback loop, it leads to the degradation of education, to unwillingness to invest in those things that might improve it and give kids a chance to learn. The more people like this roam the halls of Congress, the more certain it is that Americans will lose the ability or desire to recognize the danger. While America willingly cedes the future to more enlightened countries, ones willing to invest in its kids, our citizens elect more and more Aikins Akins, sealing their fate.

So maybe I should put it this way: We're approaching critical mass (if we haven't already passed it): the upcoming election is the last chance to reverse the deadly feedback loop. If the Rs win, the slim chance of mitigating the trend will be lost forever. Because when, in the formerly great (or, at least, non-awful) Republican party, there's no more countervalance to guys like Aikins Akin, support for education will be lost, disinformation the goal. It'll be meltdown: China syndrome. In more ways than one.


Think, McFly, think!

As Aristotelians and Thomists use the term, intellect is that faculty by which we grasp abstract concepts (like the concepts man and mortal), put them together into judgments (like the judgment that all men are mortal), and reason logically from one judgment to another (as when we reason from all men are mortal and Socrates is a man to the conclusion that Socrates is mortal).  It is to be distinguished from imagination, the faculty by which we form mental images (such as a visual mental image of what your mother looks like, an auditory mental image of what your favorite song sounds like, a gustatory mental image of what pizza tastes like, and so forth); and from sensation, the faculty by which we perceive the goings on in the external material world and the internal world of the body (such as a visual experience of the computer in front of you, the auditory experience of the cars passing by on the street outside your window, the awareness you have of the position of your legs, etc.).

That intellectual activity -- thought in the strictest sense of the term -- is irreducible to sensation and imagination is a thesis that unites Platonists, Aristotelians, and rationalists of either the ancient Parmenidean sort or the modern Cartesian sort.  The thesis is either explicitly or implicitly denied by modern empiricists and by ancients like Democritus; as I noted in an earlier post, the various bizarre metaphysical conclusions defended by writers like Berkeley and Hume largely rest on the conflation of intellect and imagination.  But the irreducibility of intellect to imagination is for all that undeniable, for several reasons. 

Thinking versus imagining

First, the concepts that are the constituents of intellectual activity are universal while mental images and sensations are always essentially particular.  Any mental image I can form of a man is always going to be of a man of a particular sort -- tall, short, fat, thin, blonde, redheaded, bald, or what have you.  It will fit at most many men, but not all.  But my concept man applies to every single man without exception.  Or to use my stock example, any mental image I can form of a triangle will be an image of an isosceles , scalene, or equilateral triangle, of a black, blue, or green triangle, etc.  But the abstract concept triangularity applies to all triangles without exception.  And so forth.

Second, mental images are always to some extent vagueor indeterminate, while concepts are at least often precise and determinate.  To use Descartes’ famous example, a mental image of a chiliagon (a 1,000-sided figure) cannot be clearly distinguished from a mental image of a 1,002-sided figure, or even from a mental image of a circle.  But the concept of a chiliagon is clearly distinct from the concept of a 1,002-sided figure or the concept of a circle.  I cannot clearly differentiate a mental image of a crowd of one million people from a mental image of a crowd of 900,000 people.  But the intellect easily understands the difference between the concept of a crowd of one million people and the concept of a crowd of 900,000 people.  And so on.

Third, we have many concepts that are so abstract that they do not have even the loose sort of connection with mental imagery that concepts like man, triangle, and crowd have.  You cannot visualize triangularity or humannessper se, but you can at least visualize a particular triangle or a particular human being.  But we also have concepts -- such as the concepts law, square root, logical consistency, collapse of the wave function, and innumerably many others -- that can strictly be associated with no mental image at all.  You might form a visual or auditory image of the English word “law” when you think about law, but the concept lawobviously has no essential connection whatsoever with that word, since ancient Greeks, Chinese, and Indians had the concept without using that specific word to name it.  You might form a mental image of a certain logician when you contemplate what it is for a theory to be logically consistent, or a mental image of someone observing something when you contemplate the collapse of the wave function, but there is no essential connection whatsoever between (say) the way Alonzo Church looked and the concept logical consistency or (say) what someone looks like when he’s observing a dead cat and the concept wave function collapse.  

The impossibility of materialism 

Now, the reason why intellectual activity cannot in principle be reduced to sensation or imagination is, as it happens, related to the reason why intellectual activity cannot in principle be reduced to, or entirely supervenient upon, or in any other way explicable in terms of material processes of any sort.  For like mental images, the symbols postulated by cognitive scientists (“sentences in the head,” “maps,” or what have you), and any other possible purported material embodiments of thought, (a) necessarily lack the universality that concepts have, (b) necessarily lack the determinacy that concepts have, and (c) generally have exactly the loose and non-essential connection to the concepts they purportedly embody that the word “law” has to the concept law or a mental image of Alonzo Church has to the concept logical consistency.

There is no way the materialist is ever going to square this circle.  To “explain” intellectual activity entirely in terms of material processes is inevitably at least implicitly to deny the existence of the former, or of some essential aspect of the former.   For instance, if you identify thought with material processes, you are necessarily committed to denying, implicitly or explicitly, that our thoughts ever really have any determinate content.  A number of materialists have seen this -- Quine, Dennett, and Bernard Williams are three examples -- and have decided to bite the bullet and accept that the content of all thought and language is inherently indeterminate.  (This is, for instance, the upshot of Quine’s famous “indeterminacy of translation” and “inscrutability of reference” theses and of Dennett’s “two-bitser” example.)

But such claims are indefensible, for reasons James Ross has trenchantly spelled out.  First, if you deny the determinacy of thought, there is no way you will be able to make sense of the vast body of knowledge embodied in mathematics and logic, all of which presupposes that we have determinate concepts.  And there will in that case be no way you will be able to make sense of empirical science, which presupposes mathematics and logic, and in the name of which these materialists endorse their indeterminacy theses.  Second, if you deny the determinacy of thought, then you are committed to denying that we ever determinately think in accordance with valid forms of inference -- modus ponens, modus tollens, etc. -- or that we ever really add, subtract, multiply, etc.  You have to hold that we only seem to do so.  But that entails that we never in fact reason logically or in mathematically sound ways.  This not only (once again) makes science unintelligible, but it also undermines absolutely every argument anyone has ever given, including every argument for materialism.  Third, even to deny that our thoughts ever have a determinate content -- for example, to deny that we ever determinately employ addition as opposed to Saul Kripke’s notion of “quaddition” -- you first have to grasp what addition is and then go on to deny that we ever do it.  But that means that you must have a thought with a certain determinate content even to deny that you ever have thoughts with that specific content.

So, anyone who thinks that thought can even in principle be entirely material hasn’t thought carefully enough about the nature of thought.  The materialist refutes materialism every time he so much as tries to argue for it.  Or so I would argue, and have argued at length elsewhere (e.g. in chapter 7 of Philosophy of Mind, chapter 4 of Aquinas, and at greatest length in my forthcoming American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly article “Kripke, Ross, and the Immaterial Aspects of Thought”).  But I’m not going to say anything more about that subject here, because it’s not relevant to the point I do want to make in this post.  So, if you want to insist that intellectual activity is material, then fine, that’s another subject.  The point for present purposes is that thinking in the strict sense -- grasping abstract concepts, formulating propositions, reasoning from one proposition to another -- is different from forming mental images or the like (even if it is somehow material in some other way).

Science is an essentially intellectual activity

Now everyone knows that this is true where physics and mathematics are concerned.  Of course, we do find it useful to form mental images when we try to grasp the abstractions of these disciplines, at least initially.  We draw geometrical figures on paper, think of points as little dots and of lines as the sort of thing you might draw with a ruler, imagine particles as little round objects moving about and of the structure of spacetime as like a rubber sheet we might twist around in different shapes.  But none of this is strictly correct, and the deeper we understand the concepts involved, the more we see that these visual images are just crude approximations.  That’s why physicists prefer to put things in mathematical terms.  They are not trying to show off or to be difficult for the sake of difficulty.  It is rather that it is precisely those aspects of nature which can be modeled mathematically that they are interested in as physicists.  Hence to put their ideas in non-mathematical terms simply fails to get at the essence of what it is they are trying to describe.  (The mistake some of them make is in assuming that a mathematical description exhausts nature, as opposed to capturing merely an aspect of nature.  But that’s a different subject, which I have addressed here, here, and here.)

This was part of the point of Descartes’ consideration of the possibility that he might be dreaming when he thinks he’s awake, or that the world of his senses might be a hallucination put into his consciousness by an evil spirit.  He was not interesting in providing fodder for college dorm room bull sessions or science-fiction screenwriters.  Nor was he merely interested in raising and responding to the problem of epistemological skepticism.  What he was trying to do was reinforce the idea that physics as he wanted to (re)define it -- and he was one of the fathers of modern science, as well as being the father of modern philosophy -- is something that can be understood only via the intellect, and not via the senses or the imagination.  Even if physical theory must be tested via empirical observation, its content is something that is expressible only in highly abstract terms that we must grasp with the intellect rather in terms of what we can imagine or perceive.  As with the concepts law and logical consistency (to cite some examples given above), any mental imagery we associate with the concepts we learn from a physics textbook are bound to be misleading and will have little or no essential connection to the realities to which the concepts correspond.  That is precisely why modern physics is so hard -- it requires a degree of abstraction of which few are capable.

Philosophy and theology are also essentially intellectual activities

Now the key concepts of the great systems of metaphysics -- whether Platonic, Aristotelian, Thomistic or other Scholastic systems, or modern rationalist systems like those of Descartes and Leibniz -- are also of the sort that can be grasped only via a high degree of intellectual abstraction, with little or nothing in the way of assistance by mental imagery.  Indeed these concepts are if anything of an even higher degree of abstraction than those dealt with by the physicist.  For many of them concern not just material being, nor even the most abstract aspects of material being, but being as such.  When the metaphysician inquires into the nature of existence, or essence, or causation, he wants to know not merely what it is for this or that material thing to exist or have a nature or have a cause, nor even merely what it would be for some particular immaterial thing to exist or to have a nature or a cause.  He also wants to know what existence as such is, what causation as such is, and so forth.  His enterprise requires taking the mind as far from mental imagery -- as far from what we can visualize, for example -- as it can possibly go.  Thus, while metaphysics does not involve complex calculations or the like, it is in another respect even more difficult than physics insofar as it requires an even greater sustained effort of abstraction.  

Hence, when it is said by the Scholastic philosopher or theologian that God is pure actuality, subsistent being itself, and absolutely simple, or that the human soul is the substantial form of a living human being, you are going to misunderstand these concepts completely if you think of them as literally having anything to do with what you can visualize in your mind’s eye.  For example, if you think of an explosion (say) when you think of God qua Actus purus actualizing the world, or of a tiny marble-like object when you think of absolute simplicity, or the dotted-line outline of a body when you think of substantial form, you will be misunderstanding these concepts as badly as -- indeed, far worse than -- you would be misunderstanding molecules if you thought of them as literally being little balls held together by sticks, or of spacetime as if it were literally a kind if sheet with indentations in it.  Similarly, if you think of Descartes’ notion of res cogitans on the model of “ectoplasm,” or goo of the sort you’d see in Ghostbusters only invisible and intangible, or as “bits of non-clockwork” (as Gilbert Ryle described it), then you will be taking it to be nearly the oppositeof what Descartes actually had in mind.  For these are all quasi-material kinds of thing insofar as they imply extension and/or composition.  And Descartes’ whole point was that a res cogitans is neither extended nor composed of parts.  It is precisely the sort of thing you cannot visualize, nor model on the workings of any kind of material system whatsoever, even the most ethereal.

Double standard

And this is where so many New Atheist types come to grief.  (As I find I keep having to reassure the hypersensitive reader, no, I don’t mean all atheists.  I mean the kind of atheist who seriously thinks a Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, or Laurence Krauss deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with J. L. Mackie, J. Howard Sobel, or Quentin Smith.)  Those among them who actually know something about science (and not merely how to shout “Science!”) are well aware that you are not going to understand physics properly if you take too seriously the mental images we tend to form when we hear terms like “spacetime,” “particle,” “energy,” and the like.  They are well aware that physics requires us to abstract from ordinary experience, to move away from what we can visualize or otherwise imagine.  The man on the street may think that whatever is real must be something you could in principle see, hear, touch, smell, or taste, but the more scientifically savvy sort of New Atheist knows that this is a vulgar prejudice, and that it is with the intellect rather than the senses that we truly understand the world.

And yet, when dealing with metaphysical or theological concepts New Atheist types suddenly become complete Philistines, feigning an inability to grasp anything but the most crude and literal physical descriptions.  Hence if you claim that the human mind is immaterial, they suppose that you simply mustbe committed to the existence of a sort of magical goop that floats above the brain; and if you say that the universe has a cause they will insist that you must believe in a kind of super-Edison who draws up blueprints, gets out his tools, and sets to work.  And when you object to these preposterous straw men, they will pretend that they cannot understand your language in any other way, that it is mere empty verbiage unless read in such a crassly mundane fashion.  Of course, if they held physics to the same narrow, literalistic standard, they would have to dismiss wormholes, quantum foam, black holes, gravity wells, electric fields, centers of gravity, and on and on.  (I’ve discussed this double standard before, here and here.)

It is no good to object that the predictive and technological successes of physics justify this double standard, for two reasons.  First, the predictive and technological successes of physics are relevant only to the epistemic credentials of physics, but not to its intelligibility.  In other words, that such-and-such a theory in physics has been confirmed experimentally and/or had various practical applications is relevant to showing that it is correct, but it is not necessarily relevant to interpreting the content of the theory.  Physicists knew well enough what Einstein was claiming before tests like the 1919 and 1922 eclipse experiments provided evidence that he was right.  Similarly, though string theory has proved notoriously difficult to test, we know well enough what the theory means; the trouble is just finding out whether it’s true.  (No one would make the asinine claim that string theory simply must be committed to the existence of literal microscopic shoelaces unless and until some experimental test of the theory is devised.)  

So, even if it were correct to say that metaphysical and theological claims cannot be rationally justified, it simply wouldn’t follow that such claims must be given the crude readings New Atheists often foist upon them, on pain of being empty verbiage.  But it is, in any case, not correct to say that they cannot be rationally justified, which brings us to the second problem.  That the methods of empirical science are rational does not entail that they are the onlymethods that are rational.  In particular, and as I have pointed out many times, it is simply a blatant non sequitur to claim that science’s success in discovering those aspects of reality that are susceptible of strict prediction and control shows that those aspects exhaust reality.  This is like a drunk’s insisting that because it is only under the streetlamp that there is light to look for his keys, it follows that the keys cannot be elsewhere and/or that there cannot be methods by which they might be sought elsewhere.

As I have also pointed out many times, the premises from which the historically most important arguments for God’s existence proceed derive, not from natural science, but from metaphysics and the philosophy of nature.  They are, that is to say, premises that any possible natural science must take for granted, and are thus more secure than the claims of natural science, not less -- or so many natural theologians would claim.  Obviously such claims are controversial, but the point is that to insist that metaphysical and theological assertions must be justified via the methods of natural science if they are to be worthy of attention is not to refute the metaphysician or theologian, but merely to beg the question against the metaphysician or theologian.  Philosophical arguments are different from empirical scientific arguments, but they are no less rational than empirical scientific arguments.  

Thinking abstractly

Some readers might wonder how what I am saying here squares with what I said in a recent post about the danger of reifying abstractions.  But there is no inconsistency.  Naturally, I was not saying in the earlier post that abstraction per se is bad; indeed, I said the opposite.  What I was criticizing was treating as substances (in the Aristotelian sense of that term) things which of their nature cannot be substances.  Mathematical features of reality, for example, are aspects of substances and of relations between substances, rather than substances in their own right.  Hence it is an error to treat the mathematical description of nature that physics gives us as if it were a complete description.  Bodily organs like brains are also not substances but rather components of substances (namely of certain kinds of organisms) and intelligible only by reference to the complete organisms of which they form integral parts.  Hence it is a category mistake -- deriving from a tendency first to abstract the brain from the organism and then fallaciously to treat it as a substance in its own right -- to speak (as some neuroscientists and philosophers do) of the brain or its components as if they “see,” “interpret,” etc., or to conclude that since free choice, purpose, etc. are not to be found at the neurological level of description, it follows that they don’t exist at all.  These concepts apply in the first place only to the organism as a whole, and not to its parts.

The arguments of natural theology that I am defending do not commit errors like this.  They abstract from experience, but they do not fallaciously treat accidents as if they were substances or parts as if they were wholes.

In any event, it is only by learning to think abstractly -- to engage in rational thought in its highest and purest form -- that you are ever going to understand metaphysical and theological arguments well enough to earn the right to criticize them.  “New Atheists” -- by which, again, I do not mean all atheists, but rather the likes of Dawkins, Coyne, Myers and their innumerable online clones -- have not earned this right, precisely because they do not think at this high level.  Indeed, they do very little thinking at all where metaphysics and theology are concerned, unless you count smartass remarks aimed at straw men followed by mutual high fives “thinking.”  When dealing with one of these brainiacs, you might as well meet him where he’s at and channel Biff Tannen:

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