The Limits of Philosophy: Its Disenchantment and A Case for Epistemic Humility, #3.

Mr Nemo
13 min readFeb 26, 2024

By Joseph Wayne Smith

(Philosophy Talk, 2016)

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

1. Introduction

2. Example 1: Analytic Philosophy

3. Example 2: Materialism or Physicalism and Naturalism

4. Example 3: Skepticism and the Limits of Philosophy

5. Conclusion: Where To Now, Philosophy?

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The essay that follows will be published in five installments, one per section; this is the third installment.

But you can also download and read or share a .pdf of the complete text of the essay, including the REFERENCES, by scrolling down to the bottom of this post and clicking on the Download tab.

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The Limits of Philosophy: Its Disenchantment and A Case for Epistemic Humility

Conflict over the attention space is a fundamental fact about intellectuals. It follows that intellectuals produce multiple competing views of reality. And this disagreement will go on in the future, as long as intellectual networks exist. (Colins, 1998: p. 876)This fellow isn’t insane. We are only doing philosophy. (Wittgenstein, 1969: p. 61e).

There is simply no avoiding the conclusion that the human race is mad. There are scarcely any human beings who do not have some lunatic beliefs or other to which they attach great importance. People are mostly sane enough, of course, in the affairs of common life: the getting of food, shelter, and so on. But the moment they attempt any depth of generality of thought, they go mad almost infallibly. The vast majority, of course, adopt the local religious madness as naturally as they adopt the local dress. But the most powerful minds will, equally infallibly, fall into the worship of some intelligent and dangerous lunatic. (Stove, 1991: p. 184)

W.C. Fields once said that scientists have discovered that the universe is composed of three elements: oxygen, nitrogen and horse manure. Philosophers have not neglected this third element in their quest for a general description of the universe. (Sorensen, 1991: p. 184).

3. Example 2: Materialism or Physicalism and Naturalism

Most contemporary Anglo-American philosophers could be said to be practicing “Analytic philosophy” in a broader sense than that defined above. Their concern is to use the theories and empirical data, largely from the natural and mathematical sciences, along with the use of mathematical or symbolic logic, in order to address perennial philosophical issues, as well as other philosophical issues arising from the sciences themselves. Some philosophers want to “naturalize” epistemology, seeing traditional philosophical questions and concepts being replaced by more precise scientific ones (Quine, 1969; Churchland, 1990; Sorell, 1991), although most are satisfied with developing a scientific philosophy, in epistemology and metaphysics or ontology (the theory of what exists and does not exist) (Sellars, 1963).

Most leading philosophers in the Anglo-American tradition today are naturalists. Naturalism historically has been associated with the proposal that cognitive enquiry should be conducted in accordance with the results and methods of the natural sciences and that the world should be understood in terms compatible with materialism, namely, the view “that nothing exists except for spacetime, material objects and events in spacetime, and the properties exemplified by spacetime and the objects and events therein” (Rea, 2002: p. 8). As Wilfred Sellars has aphoristically put it:

in the dimension of describing and explaining the world, science is the measure of all things, of what is that is, and of what is not that it is not (Sellars, 1963: p. 173; see also Armstrong, 1968, 1978–1979)

A materialist research program within the naturalism camp is physicalism, which as Esfeld has observed, sees physics specifically, the most “basic” or “fundamental” of the physical sciences, as the “measure of all things” (Esfeld, 1997: p. 319). For physicalists, current microphysics is not the “measure of all things,” but the general idea is that present day physics is a good approximation, or is in the general direction, to a “final physics” or a theory of everything (Esfeld, 1997). This act of “faith,” to use Roger Penrose’s term, is made in the face of the logical inconsistency between the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, and the problems of empirically testing string theory, among other issues (Penrose, 2016).

Physicalism in the 20th century aimed to resolve problems such as the mind-body problem: how does consciousness, subjective awareness, the self, and the entire landscape of our mental life relate to a biochemical system such as the human brain?, and how do various brain processes relate to thoughts, purposes, intentions and ideas (Mandell, 1988)? Materialism or physicalism is one answer to this question, and this position has been the dominant philosophy of mind in Anglo-American Analytic philosophy since the 1950’s, with some dissent nowadays (Bayne, 2021).

One of the best-known philosophical exports from Australia is central state materialism, or “the contingent identity thesis,” which holds that consciousness is just a brain process and that mental phenomena are just brain phenomena, and this identity thesis is not a conceptual or analytic truth but instead necessary a posteriori (Smart, 1963; Armstrong, 1968). Central state materialism proposed a typetype identity theory, namely that types of mental states such as a sensation of pleasure, are identical with types of central nervous system states. Type-type identity theory was abandoned by most materialists or physicalists by about 1970 because of the functionalist argument that the same type of mental state could be implemented or realized by widely differing neutral structures. Other materialists or physicalists believed that a more radical approach was needed. Many materialists or physicalists then explored functionalism, the idea that the mental is a feature defined by a functional role, but which is implemented or realized by different kinds of neural “hardware.” Computer metaphors likening the mental to computational states and the brain to computer hardware, were widely accepted and employed. This position was much explored for a while before eventually essentially fading from philosophical interest (Fodor, 1981).

Eliminative materialists see future neuroscience and artificial intelligence leading to the elimination of “folk psychology” based upon commonsense mentalistic propositional attitudes. Mind-talk in science will be eliminated or replaced (Stich, 1983; Churchland, 1988, 1989; Everitt, 1981; Gordon, 1986; Madell, 1986; Bogdan, 1988; Graham & Horgan, 1988). Other materialists or physicalists, yet again, felt that the concept of supervenience was the best way of understanding the mind-body relationship (Davidson, 1993; Kim, 1993). Stated simply, the idea of supervenience is that there is no mental difference without a corresponding physical difference. Thus, mental phenomena supervene on physical phenomena. There are difficulties for any such view, because the question of the identity and individuation criteria for properties is an open philosophical question (Van Gulick, 2001). But even before this conceptual problem was dealt with, champions of the supervenience such as Jaegwon Kim conceded that the supervenience concept was too weak to aid physicalism because the supervenience relation could also obtain for rival metaphysical theories such as Cartesian dualism, i.e., the ontological theory proposed by René Descartes, to the effect that the mind and body are ontologically distinct realms that somehow also causally interact, so long as “there were invariant correlations between the two” (Van Gulick, 2001: p. 8; Kim, 1999). However, there is a critical reply to the idea of supervenience as applied to the mind-body relation, namely that supervenience implies that the relationship between the mental and the physical is solely a one-way street: the facts of neurology determine the facts of psychology, and not the other way around, which yields the possibility of epiphenomenalism — the view that the mental and the physical are ontological distinct substances, and mental states are the causal effects of physical events, but mental events are never the causes of physical events — as an example of a non-materialist/physicalist theory of mind that’s fully consistent with supervenience (Van Gulick, 2001).

Materialists or physicalists about the mind, being naturalists, had hoped that neurophysiology, cognitive science, and the research program of “artificial intelligence” would ultimately supply the empirical support for their metaphysical work, although most materialists or physicalists were also careful to point out that the mind-body problem is a metaphysical rather than empirical problem that could be completely solved by scientific data (Chappell, 1981; Tännsjö, 1987: p. 451). There is certainly a large body of cognitive and neuropsychological data that can be interpreted so as to fit neatly with the materialist or physicalist worldview, because neuroscience itself has been strongly committed to reductionist principles. But there are also neurophysiological data which, whilst not empirically refuting materialism or physicalism, also make it very difficult to establish the neural correlates of consciousness, which will now be detailed (Hodgson, 1994; Noë & Thompson, 2004; Hohwy & Frith, 2004).

The neuroscience literature provides examples of highly intelligent, or at least people of a normal/functioning intelligence, who have “water on the brain” or hydrocephalus. Correspondingly, John Lorber once presented a paper entitled “Is Your Brain Really Necessary?” at a scientific conference (Lewin, 1980). He reported on one high IQ mathematics student who gained a first-class honors degree in mathematics, and was socially normal, but had “virtually no brain” (Lewin, 1980: p. 1232). A brain scan revealed

that instead of the normal 4.5-centimeter thickness of brain tissue between the ventricles and the cortical surface, there was just a thin layer of mantle measuring a millimeter or so. (Lewin, 1980: p. 1232)

Most of the subject’s cranium was filled with cerebrospinal fluid. There are also more recent examples of this “no-brain” phenomenon (Feuillet, 2007). While many hydrocephalics suffer physical and intellectual disabilities, many do not, and have normal brain functioning, even though the neurology of their brains is highly abnormal. This indicates, at the very least, that the neurophysiology of the brain is highly plastic, because of the large degree of redundancy and spare capacity of the brain. It might also indicate that the cerebral cortex does not carry out all of the activities it has been traditionally though to carry out, and that other structures in the brain may carry out those functions instead, or at least act as an effective “back up” (Bergland, 1988; Edelman, 1978). Another view is that “the scope of possible explanation should not exclude extracorporeal information storage (Forsdyke, 2015: p. 341). Whatever the ultimate results of this debate actually are, it is established fact that it will be some time, if at all — assuming the human race survives long enough — before neurophysiology can displace the ordinary psychology of human mental life, of emotions, desires, and beliefs. As David Chalmers has put it:

Consciousness … is as perplexing as it ever was. It still seems utterly mysterious that the causation of behavior should be accompanied by an inner subjective life. We have good reason to believe that consciousness arises from physical systems such as brains, but we have little idea how it arises, or why it exists at all. How could a physical system such as a brain also be an experiencer? Why should there be something it is like to be such a system? Present-day scientific theories hardly touch the really difficult questions about consciousness. We do not just lack a detailed theory; we are entirely in the dark about how consciousness fits into the natural order. (Chalmers, 1996: p. xi)

Matters are even more difficult if parapsychological phenomena are accepted as real facts in need of explanation, and not bogus (Dybvig, 1987; Beloff, 1987; Radin, 1997; Storm & Goretzki, 2021). If parapsychological phenomena such as ESP do indeed occur, then there would need to be changes to neurology and perhaps even physics in order to account for them in materialist or physicalist terms, since these phenomena prima facie defy simple materialist or physicalist explanations, as numerous articles in the highly readable popular American journal, The Skeptic, point out in detail. Hence many thinkers doubt whether such phenomena are real. On this issue I remain agnostic, a fence-sitter until more scientific evidence, for or against, is in.

There are also some deeper metaphysical problems confronting materialism or physicalism, for example, how to make sense of the meaning of “physical” in “physicalism.” What is the “physical”? In an influential discussion of the literature on this question, Barbara Montero says that the question of physicalism only is a real issue if the physicalist’s notion of the physical excludes in principle some phenomena from being physical (Montero, 2001: p. 62). I made a similar critique of physicalism in a paper published in 1983 and a book in 1984, as others also have before (Chomsky, 1968; Smith, 1983, 1984; Hempel, 1980). If the “physical” is understood in a narrow way, then materialism or physicalism is false, because current physics is likely to be strictly false, but if the “physical” is understood in a wider sense based upon a future physics — including one perhaps influenced by human-spawned super-intelligent machines — then intuitively, non-physical items might be included (Crane & Mellor, 1990; Pettit, 1993; Robinson, 1993; Poland, 1994; Tye, 1996; Melnyk, 1997; Hutto, 2000; Crook & Gillett, 2000). But worse yet, the “materialism” or “physicalism” in materialism or physicalism is at the very least prima facie inconsistent with modern physics, as Montero and others have observed:

Current physics, which posits such things as particles with no determinate location, curved space-time, and wave-particle duality, tells us that the world is indeed more ghostly than any ghost in the machine. And if the existence of ghostly phenomena does not falsify physicalism it is difficult to say what would. … Bertrand Russell made this basic point in 1927: “matter,” he said, ‘has become as ghostly as anything in a spiritualist’s séance.” (Montero, 2001: pp. 62–63; see also Montero, 1999; Russell, 1992: p. 78; Daly, 1998)

There is also an interesting literature discussing quantum theory and consciousness, that has anti-physicalist implications (Penrose, 1994; Pylkkänen, 1995; Esfeld, 1999; Stapp, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006 a, 2006 b; Schäfer, 2006; Klein, 2006; Laszlo, 2006; Helrich, 2006), which I’ll discuss in another essay.

Running parallel to the mind-body debate have been two other debates that also interconnect.

The first debate is about the characterization of the doctrine of naturalism, in which a number of philosophers have argued that the doctrine of naturalism is self-defeating or incompatible with other epistemological and metaphysical theses (Koons, 2000; Rea, 2002). I will not attempt to summarize this debate in detail here; but the main problem in a nutshell is that definitions of “naturalism” are either refutable, vacuous, or self-defeating, by presupposing an indefensible or at least undefended account of what “nature” and the “supernatural” are (Rea, 2002).

The second debate is about the unresolved controversies in the philosophy of science about the nature of science and scientific method (Newton-Smith, 1981). Again this is a vast topic that again cannot be summarized here in detail. But the dialectical situation should be a familiar one by now to readers: attempts to present a general account of the scientific method, including skeptical accounts, have been undermined by on-going waves of criticism. An important book on this topic by Philip Kitcher, The Advancement of Science, notes that

little headway has been made in finding a successor for legend [once-received philosophy of science or logical empiricism]. If anything, recent work in the history of science and in the sociology of science has offered even more sweeping versions of the original critiques. (Kitcher, 1993: p. 8)

It is something of a scandal that those who put all the weight of their metaphysical systems upon science have actually not as yet resolved this issue.

In concluding this section, we should note that when confronted with this array of problems, some philosophers have moved away from reductive materialism, to a non-reductive materialism (Post, 1987) and others have adopted more traditional non-materialist theories (Smythies & Beloff eds. 1989; Foster, 1991; Hasker, 2001; Langsam, 2001; Bolender, 2001; Strawson, 2006). And some philosophers believe that the mind-body problem is not solvable in terms of current science (McGinn, 1989; Nagel, 1994; Kirk, 1991). No doubt, if any of these alternative positions begins to get substantial followings, another wave of criticism will leave these positions wrecked as well. After all, these alternative non-materialist positions — substance dualism, idealism (that fundamental reality is mental), panpsychism (that all matter has a mental aspect to it) and so on — are mutually inconsistent with each other, so unless the world is inconsistent in this respect, only one of them, at best could be “true.” This does not mean that the entire debate has been for nothing; on the contrary we have become clearer about what we don’t know, which positions fail and which arguments are unsound. What, however, I hope that this brief survey has shown is the bewildering difficulty in addressing even one philosophical problem, let alone sketching a new worldview as some of the ecological critics of the establishment suppose. The discussion of the mind-body problem has not been an accidental choice of problem to discuss; this problem has had an enormous amount of attention devoted to it not only by philosophers, but also by cognitive scientists and neuroscientists. If this problem has not been resolved, then it does not build up confidence that other philosophical problems can be decisively resolved.

Indeed, Eric Dietrich and Valerie Hardcastle in Sisyphus’ Boulder: Consciousness and the Limits of the Knowable (Dietrich & Hardcastle, 2005), have made this very point, namely, that the solution, if there can be one, of many philosophical problems depends upon solving the hard problem of consciousness and the related problem of subjective and objective points of view (Dietrich, 2023); but there is no solution, or at least any sort of reductive solution as proposed by physicalism and naturalism; so there can be no complete theory about what it is to be human (Dietrich & Hardcastle, 2005: p. 102). We are therefore correct in following Robert Hanna in holding that consciousness is sui generis, a fifth fundamental force in the natural universe, and that is that (Hanna, 2023). This is a conclusion that is unsettling for mainstream professional academic philosophy and science alike, that see their sacred mission not to be acknowledging and admiring the butterflies of reality, but instead to be tearing them apart to see how the bits into which they’ve dissected prima facie phenomena actually make things work, thereby killing the goose that laid the golden eggs.

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Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.