Reason is larger than science.
September 5, 2013 8:28 AM   Subscribe

[Pinker] conflates scientific knowledge with knowledge as such. In his view, anybody who has studied any phenomena that are studied by science has been a scientist...If they were interested in the mind, then they were early versions of brain scientists. If they investigated human nature, then they were social psychologists or behavioral economists avant la lettre. Leon Wieseltier pens a response to Steven Pinker's essay on scientism, both in the pages of the New Republic. Others, including some prominent atheists, have taken issue with Pinker as well.
posted by shivohum (79 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
I could imagine liking an article with this title / thesis, but oh god, Leon Wieseltier.
posted by grobstein at 9:03 AM on September 5, 2013


Wieseltier is mostly tendentiously misreading Pinker--although, of course, Pinker tends to gleefully beg for tendentious misreading. In the end it's not a very enlightening exchange. Part of the problem is that most of the terms in the debate (down to what we mean by "science") are inherently question-begging.
posted by yoink at 9:06 AM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Who exactly are these anti-scientism people engaging with? The Vienna Circle? The "New Atheists"?
posted by thelonius at 9:13 AM on September 5, 2013


Who exactly are these anti-scientism people engaging with?

The new atheists, yes, but also just generally the large hosts of prominent naturalists who think consciousness and personality can be reduced to brain states and evolutionary psychology, that intelligence is just a complex mechanism, that values can eventually be reduced to empirically testable propositions, that the humanities are "easy" and relatively low on substance compared to the sciences and that they should be de-emphasized in schools, that religion is just "obviously" wrong and primitive, etc.
posted by shivohum at 10:17 AM on September 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


Part of the problem is that most of the terms in the debate (down to what we mean by "science") are inherently question-begging.

I couldn't agree more, and these are terms on which PZ Myers most enjoys spinning his wheels in theatrical frustration. I share the same sort of academic background as Myers, but I tend to be more put off by his chuffed manner than enlightened by it, since it seems to miss really fundamental parts of the discussion like the meaning and nuance of terms. I really want him to be able to hold up against his own writing the same mirror he holds up to other people's writing, because maybe if the light's right he'll see this.

"I’ve been harsh to Pinker’s claims, but you probably shouldn’t see it as a disagreement. Read further into his essay, if you can bear it..."

[rolls eyes]
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 10:31 AM on September 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Shivohum, those are not all equally contraversial positions (nor are they all held by the same people). Personally I see nothing unreasonable about 1 and 2 -- they certainly seem valid as initial assumptions. 3 is the subject of much debate at the moment; most of the arguments seem to involve people oversimplifying and strawmanning each other so I'll stay clear for now. 4 is not a position I would entertain for a moment, and I should hope it's a minority view. 5 seems overinclusive and oversimplified, but there are those who take that position. Substitute "theocracy" or any diminished case of it for "religion" and I concur with it, though.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:39 AM on September 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


that intelligence is just a complex mechanism

Just?
posted by dirigibleman at 10:56 AM on September 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


I'm all for full-throated defenses of science, but if Pinker's going to ask people put aside misconceptions and oversimplifications of scientific practice, I wish he'd do the same with his treatment of humanistic practice. A few things that jumped out at me from his essay
Political debates have traditionally been deliberated through case studies, rhetoric, and what software engineers call HiPPO (highest-paid person’s opinion). Not surprisingly, the controversies have careened without resolution.
These matters may careen on without resolution because they are irresolvable in any final sense. This isn't to say that science can't better inform our understanding of political problems and, through its application, improve our situation. However, part of the value of traditions like rhetoric is helping us cope with disagreement when clear answers can't be found (either immediately or ever).
Diagnoses of the malaise of the humanities rightly point to anti-intellectual trends in our culture and to the commercialization of our universities. But an honest appraisal would have to acknowledge that some of the damage is self-inflicted. The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness.
I thank Pinker for actually taking into account political influences on the state of higher education, but I can't help but say that an honest appraisal would also acknowledge the disproportionate weight between those influences and purported self-inflicted damage. Further, such "damage" can't be understood apart from the willful distortions and unintended misunderstandings of "postmodernism" that played a role in creating the current political context where public higher ed continues to be defunded. Pinker complains when people tar science with gotcha terms like "determinism, reductionism, essentialism, positivism," yet engages in the same practice when he turns his attention to the humanities.
The humanities would enjoy more of the explanatory depth of the sciences, to say nothing of the kind of a progressive agenda that appeals to deans and donors.
According to some approaches to defining disciplinarity, what Pinker calls lack of explanatory depth is what defines the humanities as the humanities. See Susan Peck MacDonald's Professional Academic Writing in the Humanities and Social Sciences for more on this line of thought.
posted by audi alteram partem at 11:43 AM on September 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Supporting George_Spiggott: If anybody's an empirical naturalist, it's me, and I don't buy all of shivohum's list or think it belongs together.

1 - Every shred of evidence says it's true. Nobody's even detected a sign of anything else.

2 - Just short of analytic.

3 - Obviously, extremely, and dangerously false, and I'm not sure I've ever talked to anybody who thought that after giving it any disciplined thought.

4 - Easy: obviously false; look at the vocabulary alone. Low on substance: true in many areas, but not universal; the standards of substance demanded tend to be weak for sure, though. Should be demphasized: undecided, leaning toward a weak yes, but purely as a matter of resource allocation.

5 - True for most definitions of "religion".
posted by Hizonner at 11:54 AM on September 5, 2013


I recently read this absurd piece about how great science is now, to the point that before the 20th century you were better off not going to a doctor at all. It was so blazingly ignorant, so filled with assumptions, I was left wondering how the author could even call himself a scientist.

Process is great but, yeah, it's results that count.
posted by effugas at 1:04 PM on September 5, 2013


Hizonner, if I'm reading you correctly, you are claiming that every shred of evidence says evolutionary psychology is true, and nobody's detected a sign of anything else? If so, are you perhaps conflating evolutionary psychology with evolutionary biology? Let me put aside my own disciplinary perspectives and simply say that the propositions of evolutionary psychology, despite their popularity in non-scientific media, have not reached the level of consensus that evolutionary biology has achieved, by rather a long shot.

Also... your (5) demonstrates that you know little to nothing about the empirical study of religion.
posted by carmen at 1:09 PM on September 5, 2013


effugas, you should take a look at The Youngest Science by Lewis Thomas. It's a great read -- he's hilarious -- but his main thesis is to point out to our comfortable modern laity just how new is the practice of medicine as we now understand it. To put it succinctly, a century or a bit more ago, we couldn't cure shit.

I don't know what article you're referring to, but from the way you've represented it I'm not at all sure Dr. Thomas would disagree.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:11 PM on September 5, 2013


Also, this is by far my favourite (NSFW) response to Pinker: In which Steven Pinker is a total ignoramus
posted by carmen at 1:12 PM on September 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Actually, I think every shred of available evidence says you can reduce consciousness to brain states without reference to evolutionary psychology. However they came into being, brains are physical systems. Nobody has found any element of consciousness that's not correlated with some (naturally explicable) brain state, and perhaps more importantly nobody has explained how any such element could possibly be observed at all.

So you don't actually even need to mention evolutionary psychology in the "and". You can reduce consciousness to the physical whether evolutionary psychology is true or not.

As to whether evolutionary psychology is true (or interesting), it's pretty obvious that brains evolved. So it should be possible to construct a correct evolutionary psychology if you had the right data. If you had such a correct evolutionary psychology, it would probably explain a lot about consciousness.

On the other hand, it's very likely that the people recognized as practicing the discipline usually called "evolutionary psychology" have said both true and false things under that banner. I do not have sufficient knowledge to say which are which, or whether the true things outnumber the false ones. I've certainly seen some pretty weak sauce offered as "evolutionary psychology". Nor do I know whether the data to construct a correct evolutionary psychology could actually be gathered, but I tend to doubt you could get a lot of the details.

You're right that I don't know of anything in the empirical study of religion that shows that it's anything but wrong. And I don't believe you do either, until you tell me what it is and show me some evidence for it.

Religion can obviously be empirically shown to exist, but that doesn't make it any less wrong. And "primitive", as used in the original post for its connotational value, is a value judgement, and therefore not subject to empirical refutation. It seems pretty primitive to me, and it does seem to be losing its hold as the space of the "unexplained" gets smaller.

I'm sure you can find some rarefied definition of "religion" that I would have to admit included things that weren't obviously wrong, but I don't think such definitions are what people are usually talking about.
posted by Hizonner at 1:56 PM on September 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


From the top linked article, this is something you see over and over again in the counterarguments to atheism: the "ho-ho, hardly anybody really believes this" whopper:
Too many of the defenders of science, and the noisy “new atheists,” shabbily believe that they can refute religion by pointing to its more outlandish manifestations. Only a small minority of believers in any of the scriptural religions, for example, have ever taken scripture literally. When they read, most believers, like most nonbelievers, interpret. When the Bible declares that the world was created in seven days, it broaches the question of what a day might mean. When the Bible declares that God has an arm and a nose, it broaches the question of what an arm and a nose might mean. Since the universe is 13.8 billion years old, a day cannot mean 24 hours, at least not for the intellectually serious believer; and if God exists, which is for philosophy to determine, this arm and this nose cannot refer to God, because that would be stupid.
I just now inadvertently did a freudian </bollockquote> in closing that quote. And it is bollocks. The people who write this either know vanishingly few non-theologian theists, or they dishonestly expect that atheists don't know any. To believe this you have to have never seen the inside of a Sunday school, you have to have never heard Kirk Cameron open his mouth, you have to have stoppered your ears to every straight-faced anti-evolution pitch to come over the airwaves or across in print.

I'm sure there are liberal sects which teach a nuanced, metaphoric view of biblical fact. I'm also sure that practically no ordinary self-described person of faith I've ever met was taught that way, or thinks that way.

Not long ago I watched Richard Dawkins undergo a (not undeserved, frankly) hostile interview on Al Jazeera. At one point he asked his host, the intelligent, thoughtful, Oxford-educated Mehdi Hasan, whether he truly believed that the prophet had literally ascended bodily to heaven borne by winged horses. Hasan replied unequivocally that he did believe it, supporting it simply by saying he believed in miracles.

This business that believers treat scripture as figurative in eminently sensible ways, guided by a church establishment or prevailing conventional wisdom that discourages literal interpretation is a nonsense with no basis in the broader culture that I have seen, and yet these guys retreat into it every time as if it were something terribly obvious.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:35 PM on September 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


Personally I see nothing unreasonable about 1 and 2 -- they certainly seem valid as initial assumptions. 3 is the subject of much debate at the moment; most of the arguments seem to involve people oversimplifying and strawmanning each other so I'll stay clear for now. 4 is not a position I would entertain for a moment, and I should hope it's a minority view. 5 seems overinclusive and oversimplified, but there are those who take that position. Substitute "theocracy" or any diminished case of it for "religion" and I concur with it, though.

Wow it's the opposite for me. 1 seems like the most obviously wrong and not worth considering for a femtosecond, but I guess it depends on what "reduction" means and what "brain state" means. Brain state would have to be expanded to include conscious states, and it seems to me we are missing the fundamental pieces with which to do that. 2 depends on how "intelligence" is defined. To me intelligence requires understanding, which requires consciousness, so it is in the same category as 1. I think values rely on a sense of conscience or right/wrong, so also falls in the same category. 3 and 4 are the most problematic. Humanities should obviously be taught in school and are a lot of fun but they don't seem to sit on a very firm theoretical foundation, and students shouldn't be mislead into thinking they do (if they don't). There seems to be a general idea in the sciences that humans have 99% of everything figured out, and I think the better attitude is we have no idea what is really going on, but it is a lot of fun to use the tools we've been given (reason, logic, whatever) to try to figure things out. 5, I think a literal interpretation of "scripture" is obviously "wrong," but I'm all about religion as literature, tradition, community, culture, and as a somewhat "scientific" investigation into morality. Or whatever.
posted by Golden Eternity at 3:23 PM on September 5, 2013


Hizonner, all states of consciousness occur within the context of brain biology, that's a given. I'm not sure makes any sense to say that all states of consciousness are reducible to brain biology, though. I don't think you could, for example, induce the desire to post a comment on metafilter through the manipulation of the biological state of the brain, without any external context. I don't think you could give one person a phrase and a means to manipulate the biological brain-state of another person, and have the phrase-holder produce the phrase in the not-phrase-holder.

As to empirical studies of religion, I would say once again you obviously don't know any. I'm constantly amazed at how people who insist on empirical understandings of the physical world are willing to use their own anecdotal and experiential perspectives to explain the social world. The two major religions of Christianity and Islam alone have over 3 billion followers. Claiming that these religions can be boiled down to a few simple "wrong" beliefs is itself a belief statement, not a knowledge one (which is why the accusation of scientism).

Empirically, religions engage primarily with questions of meaning, being, belonging, and with rituals that help organize and define various social states. For example, many many religions have a variety of answers to the question of what to do when someone dies. Not (just) what has become of someone who's dead in a metaphysical sense, but literally what to do. How to announce the death, who is in charge of the body, what should be done with it, how to process and deal with grief, how to rearrange the relationships of people and property that were ruptured by death. Obviously these sorts of questions can be answered without reference to religion but what I hope is equally obvious is that 1) religious answers to "who should I call when my mom dies" are not any more right or wrong than non-religious ones; and 2) that questions, methods, and standards of evidence for truth claims in science are not really going to produce a sensible answer to this question.
posted by carmen at 3:31 PM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm sorry, but as far as I'm concerned that's a redefinition of what "religion" is. What you're talking about there is the sociology of religious believers, not religion.

Are you saying that most religious believers would say that, for example, the question of the existence of God was less essential to their religion than the question of how you announce somebody's death? Give me a reference for that.
posted by Hizonner at 3:45 PM on September 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


carmen: "I don't think you could, for example, induce the desire to post a comment on metafilter through the manipulation of the biological state of the brain, without any external context. I don't think you could give one person a phrase and a means to manipulate the biological brain-state of another person, and have the phrase-holder produce the phrase in the not-phrase-holder. "

While your examples are certainly out of reach at this point it appears that this is not because what you propose is utterly impossible but merely because we're not quite there yet in terms of comprehension of the underlying mechanisms and sophistication of tools:

"Contrary to what most of us would like to believe, decision-making may be a process handled to a large extent by unconscious mental activity. A team of scientists has unraveled how the brain actually unconsciously prepares our decisions. Even several seconds before we consciously make a decision its outcome can be predicted from unconscious activity in the brain." ScienceDaily, 4/15/08

If you can potentially identify decisions before they rise to the level of conscious awareness in a subject you'll likely also be able to disrupt those patterns at the level of the brain somehow, thus changing the outcome. This next experiment seems to demonstrate this possibility (albeit in a crude and primitive way):

"Playing a computer game with his mind, Dr. Rajesh Rao (prev.) sent a brain signal to Dr. Andrea Stocco on the other side of the UW campus, causing Stocco's finger to move on a keyboard." (from a recent post on MeFi)

This experiment demonstrates influence over behavior by means of manipulating the brain of a subject.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 4:30 PM on September 5, 2013


Hizonner, there are religions in the world that don't even have gods, but they all tell you what to do when someone dies. You can call that the sociology of religion if you want to, but the fact of the matter is that things like shaving your head, spending a week not speaking, ritually consuming the flesh of the dead, defleshing and bleaching bones before burial, burying on consecrated ground before decomposition are all various ways of dealing with death that are deeply wrapped up in belief about things that are not "true" in the sense that you mean. People don't do these things because they're sociological, they do them because they have meaning, they answer questions about "what next" and they answer those questions in ways that incorporate belief, symbolism, experience, and knowledge. They are deeply embedded in ontologies of being, and we may be able to identify some of the fundamental aspects of those ontologies as wrong, but what I am arguing is that the empirical study of religion--that is, the observation and analysis of what religious people say and do--has shown that religious belief and practice have purpose and meaning that goes beyond whether there is a "spiritual" world/afterlife/god/whatever. Religions answer questions that are both important and deeply embedded in both experience and belief. You can't reduce them to "right" or "wrong." (Or you can, I suppose, but that reflects a belief system, not a knowledge-claim that can be verified through empirical research.)

My own work on belief intersects more with the rituals of death than the broader study of religion, so off the top of my head, here is a reference on the symbolism and beliefs connected to death and funerary rituals: Death and the Regeneration of Life.

Hairy Lobster: my point was more that you can't create the sort of complex behaviour that we see people engaging by biological brain-state alone. One needs an environment and a context. I'll grant you that I'm not particularly current on cognitive psychology, but what I understand is happening in the biology of genetics certainly supports a very important and arguably irreducible connection between the biological organism and its environment.
posted by carmen at 5:35 PM on September 5, 2013


Nobody has found any element of consciousness that's not correlated with some (naturally explicable) brain state, and perhaps more importantly nobody has explained how any such element could possibly be observed at all.

Well, no element of consciousness except for... the conscious part, the "what it is like to have the experience of something" aka qualia aka the "inner movie."

Moreover, correlation is not explanation.

In a blog post of mine, I use the philosophical thought experiment of spectrum inversion to demonstrate how science cannot, in principle, ever fully explain inner conscious experience. It is of course a point that has been made by many others.

If science cannot fully explain consciousness, the entire edifice of reductionistic naturalism/scientism falls.
posted by shivohum at 5:47 PM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Shivohum: You're certainly right that qualia can't be explained yet, but assuming in advance that they are inexplicable is incompatible not just with science but rationality in general. Put another way, making that assumption removes one from the conversation, because if we're going to assume a finite bound on the explicability of the world, we could have done it at the beginning of the scientific revolution and saved everyone a lot of money on air travel.
posted by pixelrevolt at 6:14 PM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


but assuming in advance that they are inexplicable is incompatible not just with science but rationality in general.

This is conflating rationality with science. Qualia are rationally explicable via humanistic forms of explanation. They are not explicable, and never will be, in scientific terms, and this is so not because of any rash assumption but because of a fact of the world: the demonstrable fact of the privacy of inner experience.
posted by shivohum at 6:17 PM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


shivohum:

Qualia is radically affected by purely physical manipulation of the brain. At least that's the case as reported by those affected. Are you going to argue that they're all zombies?

If not, then there's no sign that physics doesn't explain everything about how qualia behaves even if it doesn't explain what it "is". On the contrary, there's every reason to believe that physics does explain the entire behavior of qualia (and if it didn't, you could extend it to).

Physics doesn't appear to have any underlying moral content, or any conscious guiding spirit. If it doesn't, then qualia emerges from a substructure without those as ontologically fundamental elements.

Of course, I could be wrong about those matters of fact, but, if I am, my wrongness is going to have to show a measurable, physical manifestation... because otherwise it can't affect qualia.

I can't explain the emergence of qualia, and I don't know whether I'll ever be able to. I can't explain why quantum field theory should be true, either. And if somebody manages to explain QFT in terms of some more fundamental theory, then I can't explain why that should be true. Yet nobody seems to argue that physics doesn't explain anything about, well, physics.

There may or may not be a "bottom", beyond which no further explanation is available. It may either be the "real" bottom, or simply the point at which one stops being able to observe anything useful as evidence about the layer below. There's almost certainly no real way of knowing the difference.

One may recognize that one doesn't know something, or even that one can't know something. Such ignorance is still ignorance even if you call it "mystery". It doesn't license just plain making things up about what's underneath and calling them "truth". If there is no standard for truth, then nothing, not everything is a path to truth.

And, yes, I can in fact define what I mean by "truth". It would run a bit long.

By the way, I don't object to the charge of scientism. I just think scientism is right. Unfortunately there's no good word for that, since "scientist" is taken...
posted by Hizonner at 6:20 PM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


"the demonstrable fact of the privacy of inner experience"

If I build a telepathy machine, does that invalidate your argument?
posted by Hizonner at 6:22 PM on September 5, 2013


Are you going to argue that they're all zombies?

Not at all. They may or may not be zombies. The key point is: we can never know. We can only assume, because we can never look at the "inner movie" in someone else's mind.

If I build a telepathy machine, does that invalidate your argument?

Nope, because how will you ever know that the telepathy machine is working? You will never know whether you and the other person see the same thing when they look at the display of the machine; even if you use the same words, it does not mean you both use the same words in the same way.

I address this argument in my inverted spectrum argument in my link above :-).
posted by shivohum at 6:33 PM on September 5, 2013


This is my point: a debate between two parties is pointless unless they agree on certain underlying values like (for example) openness to evidence, capacity for error, etc. Citing a 'demonstrable fact' to assert qualia will never be explicable indicates you believe that we cannot be mistaken about that fact, AND that any evidence to the contrary we obtain in the future will be mistaken. We're probably in 'agree to disagree' territory here, but just out of curiosity, I'd be interested to hear a rational explanation in 'humanistic form' (what does this mean?) of qualia.
posted by pixelrevolt at 6:40 PM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Nope, because how will you ever know that the telepathy machine is working?

The same way I know I talk to other conscious beings. The same way I know I and they exist. Which is to say, I suppose, that I don't really (for differing values of "really"). But the universe, including us, is made up of stuff, and science tells us how that stuff works or stops working, such as in the case of brain damage. We don't know everything and never will, but we can learn more, and in that regard, qualia doesn't matter to me. If a future telepathy machine can give us something along the lines of this or this, then that's good enough for me.
posted by audi alteram partem at 6:47 PM on September 5, 2013


Citing a 'demonstrable fact' to assert qualia will never be explicable indicates you believe that we cannot be mistaken about that fact, AND that any evidence to the contrary we obtain in the future will be mistaken.

Correct, because I think to ask empirical science to explain qualia is a category error. I think geology will never prove the Riemann hypothesis. Is there any evidence that could ever persuade me or anyone otherwise? No. Does this reflect badly on geology? No. Does this belief preclude openness to evidence, capacity for error, etc.? Nope.

just out of curiosity, I'd be interested to hear a rational explanation in 'humanistic form' (what does this mean?) of qualia.

I mean that explanation happens better via art and literature than via science, and that ultimately, in fact, "explanation," if that's the right word for it, happens finally on a private basis for each individual personally.

How would you address my spectrum inversion argument?
--
Which is to say, I suppose, that I don't really (for differing values of "really").

Right. And in that "really" is everything. Because you know there is something to know -- your personal, inner private movie. You're experiencing it right this second. Where is it? You know you cannot directly know it of anyone else, nor can anyone else directly know it of you.

qualia doesn't matter to me.

And that's totally fine. As long as we all agree that there's a fundamental incapacity of empirical science getting at it.
posted by shivohum at 6:51 PM on September 5, 2013


How does the non-materialist theory have any explanatory power at all? Human minds are made of non-material....consciousness-stuff? That somehow interacts with the body?

I also don't understand how this non-material stuff provides the meaning and value that foes of materialism often claim that the materialist theory cannot. Minds made out of....mind-stuff....have value, but physiological ones don't?

I'm led to the suspicion that the debate is, at root, theological.
posted by thelonius at 6:53 PM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


As long as we all agree that there's a fundamental incapacity of empirical science getting at it.

Well I can't agree to that because I don't think there's an "it" there. I don't think we have enough common ground for any sort of sustained argument here, but just to sum up my position: Where is my experience? It is in my brain. Injure or destroy my brain, my experience stops. I suspect there's a lot that empirical science will tell us in the future about how consciousness works.
posted by audi alteram partem at 6:59 PM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Human minds are made of non-material....consciousness-stuff? That somehow interacts with the body?

Sure. It makes as much sense as anything else. Alternatively -- and this is the alternative I prefer -- you could just argue that the only stuff is conscious stuff, and everything else is just a part of that. That gets rid of the interaction problems.

Minds made out of....mind-stuff....have value, but physiological ones don't?

It's not so much that they have value in themselves, but that the fact that they are private and different from dead matter requires that they be investigated using the tools of art and literature and the humanities... and that introspection matters.

The point is to demarcate a particular realm of inquiry, the personal and artistic realm, that has its own mode of explanation and its own satisfactions. It's a realm that we have no reason to ever believe science will ever comprehend -- so if we want to comprehend it, we'd better use the only tools that will work.
--
Where is my experience? It is in my brain. Injure or destroy my brain, my experience stops.

Destroy a radio and the sound stops, but that doesn't mean that radio stations don't exist. Where in your brain is the inner movie? How can you ever know that someone else's inner movie is like your own, that when you both use the word "red," it shows up the same way in that movie?
posted by shivohum at 7:07 PM on September 5, 2013


The two major religions of Christianity and Islam alone have over 3 billion followers. Claiming that these religions can be boiled down to a few simple "wrong" beliefs is itself a belief statement, not a knowledge one

While these religions cannot be reduced to a few simple beliefs, they do for the most part require certain simple beliefs. To be a Christian, as determined by essentially all other Christians, you must "believe in one God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and Earth, and of all things seen and unseen, and in one Lord, Jesus Christ," etc. (You can argue about whether or not the Holy Spirit proceeds from just the Father or from the Father and the Son.) To be a Muslim, you must believe that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet. These two religions are very clear on this point - personal, singular God - in Christianity, it's even very important that God is male.

In Christianity you have to believe a dude was dead for three days, then got up and preached for forty. If you say otherwise, almost all Christians will say you are not a Christian. Used to be they'd murder you.

You do have your Unitarians, atheist Buddhists, and so on that aren't concerned with truth statements about God, heaven, angels, and so on, but let's not kid ourselves and pretend that most religions/religious people fall into that category.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 7:09 PM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


The inverted spectrum isn't an argument, it's an appeal to intuiton. It holds no force for those who either don't share the intuition or believe the intuition mistaken.
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 7:11 PM on September 5, 2013


Yup, definitely agree to disagree time. It probably shouldn't be a surprise that people can't agree when they come to the table with radically different definitions of words like 'science' and 'rationality' and also quite clearly the word 'explanation'.
posted by pixelrevolt at 7:12 PM on September 5, 2013


The inverted spectrum isn't an argument, it's an appeal to intuiton. It holds no force for those who either don't share the intuition or believe the intuition mistaken.

Metaphysical arguments always are appeals to intuition, but that doesn't mean there's no debate possible.

I'm curious at what the reasoning is behind not sharing the intuition. Is it that people deny they see colors? Or that they deny that other people do? What exactly is denied here and on what basis?

Here's my guess: people both a) do understand and b) really don't have an answer to the inverted spectrum problem, but they feel that this is some sort of trick of words, some gimmick, and that in fact "somehow" science will find a way, as it has always done. Am I wrong?
posted by shivohum at 7:18 PM on September 5, 2013


Yes, you are wrong. The act of disagreeing with you isn't inherently disingenuous.
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 7:22 PM on September 5, 2013


You're welcome to disagree, but usually disagreement takes the form of objections. I would love for you to state your exact reasoning behind exactly which contentions in the inverted spectrum problem you disagree with. It would be illuminating.
posted by shivohum at 7:24 PM on September 5, 2013


You assert that science is ignorant about where "red" is in the brain. Your terms are so vague that it's not at all clear how to map this assertion against current research into visual physiology. In fact a ton of work is being done in this area, to the point where they've developed techniques for externally reproducing approximations of what a person sees via computer assisted image correlation. I don't know how far this work has gone in the direction of identifying commonality between the brains of different individuals, but certain rather elegant experiments suggest themselves pretty readily based even on a popularization of this research.

To what extent are you simply guessing at what science actually knows about the terms of your thought experiment?
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:34 PM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sure. It makes as much sense as anything else. Alternatively -- and this is the alternative I prefer -- you could just argue that the only stuff is conscious stuff, and everything else is just a part of that.

I'd agree that some kind of metaphysical idealism is preferable to the grotesque difficulties of dualism in the Cartesian style, but, to me, that's not saying much. Idealism needs a more robust argumentative case than that!

The inverted spectrum problem raises, for me, a broader difficulty with philosophy. For many philosophers, the only important thing about an idea is that it be logically possible, that it be conceivable. This is actually a very weak standard. For example, it is logically possible that Bugs Bunny could become President of the United Nations. All that is needed is to revise the charter so that a fictional cartoon character is eligible for election, and for Bugs to defeat the other candidates. While the empirical probability of this is pretty much zero, it is logically coherent.

Now, I am no expert on this, but from what I understand, it is far from the case that there is a simple linear relationship between the physical characteristics of an object, the frequencies of light that it reflects and absorbs, and the color that we perceive that object as. Color perception turns out to be a lot more complicated than that. So, while it seems to be a coherent possibility that some people have an inverted spectrum of color perception, it seems quite unclear to me that this is something that would be actually possible in human physiology. What else would be affected? Surely this couldn't happen in isolation, and there would be other (to us) bizarre features of the mentality of such a person.

One could accept this, I suppose, if only for the sake of argument, and also argue that this is totally beside the point - that all we need is to be able to postulate some unknown type of being who can, in fact, have this sort of perceptual system, and that this establishes the logical possibility of the inverted spectrum. But would that not abandon the actual inquiry into how human minds are constituted?
posted by thelonius at 7:38 PM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


While these religions cannot be reduced to a few simple beliefs, they do for the most part require certain simple beliefs... You do have your Unitarians, atheist Buddhists, and so on that aren't concerned with truth statements about God, heaven, angels, and so on, but let's not kid ourselves and pretend that most religions/religious people fall into that category.

Do you think it's some kind of coincidence that all these billions of religious people are concerned with "truth statements" about things that aren't actually empirically verifiable? You don't need an advanced education to notice that when people die they're gone and you never see them again. This suggests that these religious "beliefs" are somewhat different in nature from beliefs like "I believe that if I punch this wall my hand will hurt."

shivohum, from your blog post:

It shows that scientism, which holds that everything there is can be understood by examining the physical world, cannot explain what it is like to have an experience – which is the most fundamental, everyday thing there is!

I would question that experiences are the most fundamental things there are. Most of what human beings do is inaccessible to consciousness. You have no idea how you breathe, how you remember things, how your body gets from point A to point B, any of that stuff. Your feelings have no idea how your body was designed, how it happens that your biochemistry and biology work out so that you can survive on this planet. You don't directly experience how your experiences are generated -- if you relied on your feelings alone you would have no idea what a brain is. Human beings are also fundamentally social animals and it is not at all clear to me that important things like capitalism and food distribution and political hierarchies and war and mate selection simply boil down to qualia.

Furthermore, I could be misunderstanding, but this: Alternatively -- and this is the alternative I prefer -- you could just argue that the only stuff is conscious stuff, and everything else is just a part of that. -- sounds like an extreme version of solipsism to me.
posted by leopard at 7:39 PM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Destroy a radio and the sound stops, but that doesn't mean that radio stations don't exist.

This analogy doesn't map onto my position. My position's analogy would be: destroy a radio transmitter and the signal ends. Destroy the brain and consciousness ends.

Where in your brain is the inner movie? How can you ever know that someone else's inner movie is like your own, that when you both use the word "red," it shows up the same way in that movie?

Where in my brain? Somewhere. Understanding how consciousness is generated by the brain is an ongoing research project in multiple areas of scientific research.

I know people's experiences are similar or not because we can communicate. As I hinted at above, the issue of qualia isn't really an issue in my worldview. I don't need to know "really" (in your sense of "really") that first-hand experiences of consciousness are the same.
posted by audi alteram partem at 7:41 PM on September 5, 2013


The inverted spectrum relies for its force on the reliability of introspection. I simply don't trust my intuitions of qualia to the extent necessary for the inverted spectrum to be a strong argument. I don't trust these intuitions because similar intuitions I have about the way I think can be shown false (eg A decision I introspect I made for one reason can be shown to be caused by something else entirely or even forced).
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 7:45 PM on September 5, 2013


To what extent are you simply guessing at what science actually knows about the terms of your thought experiment?

I'm not guessing at what science knows or doesn't know. I'm pointing to a fundamental barrier to scientific knowledge of any kind.

How can you know, for example, what a person is seeing on a computer screen for the purposes of image correlation? The researcher asks, "What do you see on the screen?" And the subject says, "A rose." "And what color is it?" "Red." And the researcher walks away satisfied, because those were the hypothesized responses.

But the ability to predict the verbal responses of the subject says nothing about the internal movie of the subject, for while two subjects may both respond "A rose" and "Red", the actual image they see on their internal "movie screen" may be radically different. There's just no way to know. Their verbal responses are identical, but they are also perfectly consistent with totally different personal qualia.

--
I'd agree that some kind of metaphysical idealism is preferable to the grotesque difficulties of dualism in the Cartesian style, but, to me, that's not saying much. Idealism needs a more robust argumentative case than that!

Hehe, I'm not sure how much more robust it gets. A substance of pure intelligence and awareness from which the changes in the world appear and disappear seems like a flawless explanation to me :-).

Surely this couldn't happen in isolation, and there would be other (to us) bizarre features of the mentality of such a person.

I think philosophers have looked into this, and certain very narrow cases of spectrum inversion seem both conceivable and physiologically possible. Though in fact each individual human brain is distinctive from every other. How do we know what those differences mean? The tiniest differences in physiology could conceivably, and possibly, dictate unfathomable changes in private experience.

But would that not abandon the actual inquiry into how human minds are constituted?

I don't believe so. It simply realizes that there the inquiry into the mind necessarily makes use of multiple methodologies and epistemologies that cannot be reduced into each other.
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I would question that experiences are the most fundamental things there are.

Right, I guess I didn't mean fundamental in the causal sense. You're right qualia by themselves can't explain the things you mention. But qualia are the immediate fact of life. You and I, right now, are experiencing this web page. What is this experience? Not what causes it -- but what is it? Where is it?

sounds like an extreme version of solipsism to me.

Not solipsism, but the philosophy called idealism. They do sound similar, but they're quite different.
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The inverted spectrum relies for its force on the reliability of introspection.

How is there any question of reliability? There's no question of deciding why it is you experienced one color or another, nor even what color you experienced in the past. The only point is that you experience color at all -- really, that you experience anything at all. Can you not say, right now, that you are experiencing the blue of this web page? If so, that's all that you need to then hypothesize that what you and someone else both call blue might be experienced in different ways.
posted by shivohum at 7:58 PM on September 5, 2013


Solipsism is the position that I am the only mind; I don't know of any philosophers who actually held this view. Unfortunately, people also use seem to use it as a fancy synonym for "selfish".

Smullyan says that anti-solipsism, the view that I am the only mind that is NOT real, is more interesting.....
posted by thelonius at 8:03 PM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


However they came into being, brains are physical systems.

However computers came into being, they are physical systems. But they support software which, viewed from the level of the physical electronics, is doing something ultimately inscrutable.

The physical argument is null and void since what's going on within the emergent phenomenon 'running' in the brain is far, far beyond the gamut of a reductionist POV. We can't begin to explain how an infant bootstraps language, but scientism would like to hand-wave away transcendental experience. I call it hubris ... stupid hubris, even.
posted by Twang at 8:10 PM on September 5, 2013


If consciousness can never be fully explained by science, it means that there is a realm of personal, private truth which must be investigated by other means.

Doesn't this require that the access to "personal, private truth" be more reliable than anything science can accomplish? If one doesn't accept the premise that there's something categorically special or "true" about this access, seems like the inverted spectrum doesn't get you far.
posted by cheburashka at 8:16 PM on September 5, 2013


Right, I guess I didn't mean fundamental in the causal sense. You're right qualia by themselves can't explain the things you mention. But qualia are the immediate fact of life. You and I, right now, are experiencing this web page. What is this experience? Not what causes it -- but what is it? Where is it?

I didn't mean fundamental in the causal sense either. I'm saying that if you decide to take the view that qualia are just a mass delusion of some sort, that our consciousness is so unreliable that it doesn't even exist -- I don't entirely believe this, but bear with me -- then very little about our lives would change. It really doesn't *matter* if our internal color spectra match up (assuming that this is even a coherent concept). I'm looking at this blue website right now, but is the my experience of blue really more fundamental than the process by which I'm typing out these words? Where on earth do they come from? How on earth does this happen? My subjective experience has no idea, and will never have any idea!

Saying that qualia are really important is kind of like saying that a person's facial expressions when they take a shit are really important. They're so mysterious and private and unknowable! Personally I believe that consciousness is an intellectual mystery, but the first step in understanding it is knocking it off a pedestal. It's fundamentally unreliable and limited. Once we accept that, then we can start making some progress. We are never going to fully understand it, but that doesn't mean it's fundamentally magical and transcendent. I'm not aware of any people without brains who claimed to be conscious.
posted by leopard at 8:16 PM on September 5, 2013


Personally I would grant you the entire inverted spectrum problem as you present it, and even agree to be skeptical of the assertion that qualia are illusions (although I'm not closed to the possibility). I simply think you give the second objection short shrift by saying that the fact we cannot conceive how to explain qualia yet implies anything about the future. In the late 1800s, we could not conceive how the sun could have shone for more than a few hundred million years. More broadly, profound discoveries are inconceivable before they are made, because conceiving the idea IS discovering it.

This is all probably moot if you subscribe to idealism, which (forgive me) is not different enough from solipsism to matter. Solipsism and all its variants can never be proved or disproved, but they can be shown to be unnecessary complications of realism, making them undesirable from an explanatory point of view (naturally only in my definition of explanation). It goes something like this: predict where Mercury will be in 12 years time, and explain why. To make the prediction correctly, in either viewpoint you need General Relativity: no getting around that. The realist's job is over at that point, because GR isn't just an equation, it carries explanatory content to the effect that there are real physical objects embedded in a non-Euclidean spacetime. The solipsist is faced with the extra step of explaining why their 'subconscious mind', or whatever metaphysical entity is proposed by the particular variant of solipsism, is presenting them with the illusion of perfect adherence to natural law.

Twang: The final explanation of qualia may be reductive, or it may be emergent. There's no reason to be closed to either possibility ahead of one's actual knowledge.
posted by pixelrevolt at 8:18 PM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Twang: "However computers came into being, they are physical systems. But they support software which, viewed from the level of the physical electronics, is doing something ultimately inscrutable."

What? Software isn't inscrutable from the level of physical electronics. Sure it's neither easy nor particularly useful to describe software in terms of the physical state of a machine, but to claim its impossible is trivially false.
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 8:20 PM on September 5, 2013


Doesn't this require that the access to "personal, private truth" be more reliable than anything science can accomplish? If one doesn't accept the premise that there's something categorically special or "true" about this access, seems like the inverted spectrum doesn't get you far.

You can always speak with unhesitating of what you are experiencing right now. What you say about it may be wrong, but you have indisputable access to it. And through the "right now," you have everything else as filtered through the right now. Now further assumptions are required if you want to know if your memory right now of what you experienced yesterday is accurate; as we know, memory is not always accurate. But the fundamental experience of right now is always accessible by you in a way that it can never be accessible by anyone else.
--
I'm looking at this blue website right now, but is the my experience of blue really more fundamental than the process by which I'm typing out these words? Where on earth do they come from? How on earth does this happen? My subjective experience has no idea, and will never have any idea!

It does of course matter that you have the experience of blue. If you didn't, you would be a zombie. Moreover, your subjective experience very much does have an idea, as any and all ideas are mediated by subjective experience. Science doesn't have access to qualia, but science is in qualia -- science is, after all, just a thought experienced by scientists.

--
I simply think you give the second objection short shrift by saying that the fact we cannot conceive how to explain qualia yet implies anything about the future.

The problem is not just a lack of better theories, but an argument of total incommensurability. The scientist's own mind makes it impossible to know what is in someone else's mind. The contents of that other person's mind are only known through the scientist's mind, which might be altering them. So to know them directly, the scientist would have to cease to be and become that other person.

Unless you can honestly tell me that there's a serious prospect of science-without-the-scientist anywhere in the future, there's no way around this problem.

The solipsist is faced with the extra step of explaining why their 'subconscious mind', or whatever metaphysical entity is proposed by the particular variant of solipsism, is presenting them with the illusion of perfect adherence to natural law.

The metaphysical entity explains qualia, of course, which materialism cannot explain. Moreover, the idea of such an entity is both satisfying in the philosophical sense and suggestive for a private domain of self-investigation. Perhaps if there is such an entity, there is a way of communicating with it, for example.
posted by shivohum at 8:45 PM on September 5, 2013


You can always speak with unhesitating of what you are experiencing right now. What you say about it may be wrong, but you have indisputable access to it. And through the "right now," you have everything else as filtered through the right now. Now further assumptions are required if you want to know if your memory right now of what you experienced yesterday is accurate; as we know, memory is not always accurate. But the fundamental experience of right now is always accessible by you in a way that it can never be accessible by anyone else.

Nope, I assert that I can be just as mistaken on introspection as I can on any other matter. There is no special magic that prevents me from misapprehension in this and only this.
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 8:54 PM on September 5, 2013


Nope, I assert that I can be just as mistaken on introspection as I can on any other matter. There is no special magic that prevents me from misapprehension in this and only this.

You can, of course, be mistaken as to exactly what you introspect. You cannot be mistaken as to the fact that you introspect. It's like a particular room to which you and only you can ever enter. You can misdescribe it, but it doesn't change your exclusive view of it.

It's like you're sighted in the land of the blind. Of course you can misdescribe what you see, but that doesn't change the fact that you alone can see it.
posted by shivohum at 8:58 PM on September 5, 2013


You can always speak with unhesitating of what you are experiencing right now. What you say about it may be wrong, but you have indisputable access to it. And through the "right now," you have everything else as filtered through the right now. Now further assumptions are required if you want to know if your memory right now of what you experienced yesterday is accurate; as we know, memory is not always accurate. But the fundamental experience of right now is always accessible by you in a way that it can never be accessible by anyone else.

Hmm, I'm not a philosopher, but this to me sounds like we are back to the Cogito. In any event, as the above is stated, I still don't see how this gets us far in terms of "truth" or the limits of science in any manner that is of more than passing interest. Let's say that I can hook a person up to Brain Master 3000 and have them running around claiming what they used to call blue to be red. Or predict with a high degree of reliability exactly what they will say in the next 10 minutes. Or scramble something up in there to make them a prize-winning novelist. What would still be interesting about the way that someone's "fundamental experience of right now" limits science, and what could it tell us about "truth"?
posted by cheburashka at 9:18 PM on September 5, 2013


It does of course matter that you have the experience of blue. If you didn't, you would be a zombie.

Why does it matter if I'm a zombie? There are so many important things we have no direct experience of. For example, we don't have special access to how our thoughts are formed. When I am writing a response to you, my mind somehow selects arrangements of words, I have no idea how, I only get the words as they pop into my mind and I start typing them on my computer. Oh noes, help, I'm a zombie!

Moreover, your subjective experience very much does have an idea, as any and all ideas are mediated by subjective experience.

This is not true, many ideas are not mediated by subjective experience at all. If someone insults me, I have a physiological response that kicks into gear very quickly. I don't need to have conscious understanding and awareness in order for my heart rate to change, my posture to change, etc. I don't have to wait for my subjective experience to catch up to react.

Science doesn't have access to qualia, but science is in qualia -- science is, after all, just a thought experienced by scientists.

Not true. Science is a social institution constructed over hundreds of years by millions of individuals, how it all works is well beyond the comprehension of any individual mind.
posted by leopard at 9:28 PM on September 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


George,

I've got lots of love for modern medicine, but it's not like Willow Bark magically became effective when it was reduced to Aspirin. And large scale stuff (wound care, amputation, etc) has always had some degree of effectiveness. Heck, we see dental work thousands of years ago.

People have been getting injured since before we were people and it's not like the market desire to do something about it only just got satisfied. We're better now (though we're about to get worse, thanks to insane overuse and underdevelopment of antibiotics).
posted by effugas at 11:56 PM on September 5, 2013


What would still be interesting about the way that someone's "fundamental experience of right now" limits science, and what could it tell us about "truth"?

What would still be interesting would be what experience is actually like. What experience is like is pretty damn interesting for almost everyone human. Every impulse to art or literature or music speaks to a desire to analyze and know what it is like to be us, what our inner movie is like. And the Brain Master 3000 would say little to nothing about it.
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Why does it matter if I'm a zombie?

For one thing, if you were a zombie, no one should feel bad about hurting you. In fact, there would be no "you" to hurt.

This is not true, many ideas are not mediated by subjective experience at all.

No, all ideas are mediated by experience, and all ideas you know of exist in your experience. Their referents might lie outside your conscious awareness, but they only come to your attention in your attention, as ideas.

As soon as you notice the fact of a physiological response, it becomes an idea. The "unconscious" itself is an idea, a conscious idea, and everything we know about unconscious ideas is conscious. Physiology and biology are all ideas, too, by the way, and we know them only through our minds. These ideas refer to things outside our experience, but we can never touch those outside things except through ideas. They're only significant to us because we are consciously aware of them.

Ideas are always in someone's experience: they're thoughts. Things may go on outside your subjective experience, but insofar as you can think about these things that go on outside your awareness -- they're in your awareness. And as they are in your awareness, the way they are presented in your awareness can never be reduced to something outside your awareness. Because qualia determine that.

Science is a social institution constructed over hundreds of years by millions of individuals, how it all works is well beyond the comprehension of any individual mind.

This does not contradict the fact that it exists only in the experiences of scientists. The idea of social institutions also exists in scientists' minds. That doesn't mean it isn't real. Minds are quite real.
posted by shivohum at 6:27 AM on September 6, 2013


effugas, setting bones and pulling teeth, sure, there was always someone around the farm or in the village who knew how to do that. Willow bark is a palliative not a treatment for much of anything, and yes, maybe you were lucky enough to live where someone knew folk remedies like that which actually did something useful. Sometimes they even knew about an herb or two useful in binding wounds to reduce infection, but more often they didn't, and besides, they didn't actually know what infection was.

But illness and disease? It's just as your article said -- they simply had no real treatment for any of the things that afflicted and killed people, and their attempts were rarely better than doing nothing and often much worse, being based on imaginary principles. There was a particular fondness, which persisted well into the Victorian era, for using tiny amounts of deadly poisons, for example, probably because they obviously did something as opposed to nothing, which I guess was perversely encouraging. They'd bleed you, wrap you in sheets and leave you in tubs of freezing water and do other weird shit -- pretty much anything that caused a noticeable change in the body because, hey, at least they were having an effect and maybe any change would tip you into wellness.
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:00 AM on September 6, 2013


For one thing, if you were a zombie, no one should feel bad about hurting you. In fact, there would be no "you" to hurt.

I don't see why my zombie status has anything to do with people feeling bad about hurting me. Isn't the whole qualia argument here predicated on the idea that no one else has any idea why my qualia are "really" like? Maybe I *like* getting hurt. Maybe the feeling I get when you punch me in the face is the same feeling you get when you have an orgasm. If my qualia are private experiences that only I have access to, how do they become the foundation for *your* moral behavior?

Their referents might lie outside your conscious awareness, but they only come to your attention in your attention, as ideas.

This is circular. Of course I am only aware of the things that I am aware of. My point was that there are things that *matter* to me, that are really important to me, that I have no awareness of. You guys are making conscious awareness out to be the end-all and be-all of everything, when it seems to play a poignant but relatively small role in my existence.
posted by leopard at 7:12 AM on September 6, 2013


I don't see why my zombie status has anything to do with people feeling bad about hurting me.

Huh? If you were a zombie that would mean you had NO experience at all. There would be no person there to enjoy pain or whatever. It is the first stance of morality that you do have experience.

People treat you as not-a-zombie precisely because they don't know differently, and they treat a punch as if it hurts also because they can't confirm otherwise, and they assume that you're like them.

If in fact you were a zombie, it wouldn't change people's behavior unless they could tell, of course. Certainly you would cease to exist, though. If you knew about the impending death of your qualia, the fact that your body would go on would be cold comfort.

My point was that there are things that *matter* to me, that are really important to me, that I have no awareness of.

Nope. Those things that matter to you only matter to you insofar and when they hit your conscious awareness. Their status outside that awareness is inferred only, and those inferences themselves occur within your conscious experience. It is true that you cannot explain everything in your conscious experience with reference to sensory experience; but you can explain it with reference to ideas about the outside world, which are themselves in consciousness.

Take the example you gave above of the words that come into your head as you're typing. It is true that you do not know where those words come from. But that very phenomenon arises in your consciousness, the question arises in your consciousness, the importance it has is in your consciousness, and any answer you theorize or test, will also be -- in your consciousness. There and there alone do things have value.
posted by shivohum at 7:46 AM on September 6, 2013


Are we taking the inverted spectrum thought experiment seriously or not?

No one can know what my conscious experiences are like, or if I even have any conscious experiences at all, so other people's morality cannot directly depend on what those experiences are like. QED.

It can, as you say, depend on *assumptions* about those experiences, but assumptions are just assumptions. Since qualia are apparently outside the realm of science, these assumptions can never be empirically verified.

Those things that matter to you only matter to you insofar and when they hit your conscious awareness.

Yes, if we define our terms so that things only matter when they hit my conscious awareness, then things only matter when they hit my conscious awareness. I don't think of myself as just the voice in my head and the sensations in my mind, however. I think of myself as a biological organism that is part of the great chain of life and as a social organism that is part of a vast human community. In these contexts, my conscious experience is not incredibly important. Animals eat, drink, shit, raise children, and get into fights with or without conscious experience. Consciousness is important and I value it but it's not as important as you're making it out to be.
posted by leopard at 8:28 AM on September 6, 2013


Yes, "mattering to you" is a conscious experience, imo. Without conscious experience nothing would matter to you because you would not be able to have the experience of something mattering.
posted by Golden Eternity at 12:06 PM on September 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I sort of worry about Pinker. He started out so cheerful and reasonable, and has become inexplicably paranoid. He never just sets out ideas these days, he's always refuting a dangerous enemy, nearly always one that doesn't exist or isn't attacking him or his views.
posted by Segundus at 1:51 PM on September 6, 2013


Yes, "mattering to you" is a conscious experience, imo. Without conscious experience nothing would matter to you because you would not be able to have the experience of something mattering.

Things matter to you when you have interests. Something can have interests without having consciousness. Things matter to cockroaches even if they don't realize it. Look at the world around you, it has extraordinary amounts of physical, chemical, biological, and social complexity. What consciousness adds to the mix is that it allows organisms to tell each other (and themselves!) that things matter. That's important, but it's more like frosting than the substance of a cake.
posted by leopard at 4:00 PM on September 6, 2013


This does not contradict the fact that [science] exists only in the experiences of scientists.

Am I missing something here? Science is different from other types of knowledge because it specifically tries to describe objective proof via hypothesis testing, and secondly it systematically criticises and reviews and publishes that proof. This is part of an ongoing mechanism to understand and describe objective reality apart from the biases of its observers. In addition, we understand that this process is done by humans, and that mistakes happen, so the evidence for any theory is only ever provisional.

That has nothing to do with the belief that science is always right and will eventually uncover all the secrets of the universe and your deepest thoughts, or the belief that scientific truths can or should be used to change the world because we can. But these beliefs appear to be widely held in our society.
posted by sneebler at 4:08 PM on September 6, 2013


No one can know what my conscious experiences are like, or if I even have any conscious experiences at all, so other people's morality cannot directly depend on what those experiences are like.

You only make the assumption because you yourself have qualia. Without your qualia, you would have no basis for that assumption. So without your qualia, you couldn't be moral. In fact, you wouldn't exist. QED.

In these contexts, my conscious experience is not incredibly important.

A "context" itself is only a context in your conscious experience. You can only even think about contexts in your conscious experience.

Something can have interests without having consciousness.

I don't know how you're using words here. So a rock can have an interest in falling when you drop it? Is that the kind of interest you mean?
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Am I missing something here?

You are. Look up the inverted spectrum argument I make in my blog post linked above. The conscious experiences of other people are always seen through your own conscious experience, which is why you can never enter someone else's experience directly. That's what prevents science from having objective proof in certain domains.
posted by shivohum at 6:47 AM on September 7, 2013


What would still be interesting would be what experience is actually like. What experience is like is pretty damn interesting for almost everyone human. Every impulse to art or literature or music speaks to a desire to analyze and know what it is like to be us, what our inner movie is like. And the Brain Master 3000 would say little to nothing about it.

It seems to me that science can tell me far more about both my own inner experience and certainly others' inner experience than anything else. Perhaps put another way, even taking the inner-experience limit of science, it remains the best way of analyzing referents of that experience, including and perhaps especially others' experience. In fact, it would seem paradoxical to think that art, literature, or music could do better, because they are themselves referents.
posted by cheburashka at 11:43 AM on September 7, 2013


shivohum: You only make the assumption because you yourself have qualia. Without your qualia, you would have no basis for that assumption. So without your qualia, you couldn't be moral. In fact, you wouldn't exist. QED.


But the whole point of the inverted spectrum argument is that no one has any idea if I have qualia or not. Except me. For all you know, I am a zombie and I don't even exist. You may claim to have qualia and I'll take you at your word but why does that make you an authority on my qualia?

I really don't get this. On one hand, you're arguing that qualia are inaccessible to science because consciousness can only be experienced directly. On the other hand, you are arguing that of course everyone has qualia, because if we didn't have qualia we wouldn't exist and there would be no reason for anyone to treat anyone else well. Suddenly the magical transcendence of qualia ("is your green the same as my red? science can never know!") gets replaced with a "no shit doofus, everyone is obviously the same as everyone else" philosophy.

So a rock can have an interest in falling when you drop it? Is that the kind of interest you mean?

No, I meant a cockroach can have an interest in staying alive. Or, you know, a giraffe can have an interest in not getting eaten by a lion. Do you not believe these things? I mean, no giraffe has ever said, "I don't want to be eaten by a lion, I have qualia, help me!" so maybe giraffes don't really care. On the other hand, they seem to care, they run away and stuff like that. Do you think giraffes have interests? What about babies? Since you believe qualia are beyond the realm of scientific inquiry, isn't it impossible for anyone to know if a baby has qualia or not? And if a baby doesn't have qualia, does it not exist? And does that mean it's OK to throw a baby down the well if you feel like it? Please keep the all-important inverted spectrum argument in mind as you answer these questions.
posted by leopard at 1:00 PM on September 7, 2013


On one hand, you're arguing that qualia are inaccessible to science because consciousness can only be experienced directly. On the other hand, you are arguing that of course everyone has qualia, because if we didn't have qualia we wouldn't exist and there would be no reason for anyone to treat anyone else well.

That's not what I'm arguing. I'm arguing that other people's qualia are inaccessible to science, but that your own qualia are accessible to you. And that because your own qualia lead you to make assumptions about other people that form the basis for morality, and indeed for everything, hey, they might be kind of important to understand. And since you can't fully understand them with science, you might want to try other tools.

No, I meant a cockroach can have an interest in staying alive. Or, you know, a giraffe can have an interest in not getting eaten by a lion.

I think all these things have qualia. It is like something to be each of them, which is one of the reasons why it's important not to cause them unnecessary pain. You're confusing qualia with higher-level thought.

I mean, no giraffe has ever said, "I don't want to be eaten by a lion, I have qualia, help me!" so maybe giraffes don't really care.

Huh? This has nothing to do with qualia.
posted by shivohum at 1:58 PM on September 7, 2013


I'm arguing that other people's qualia are inaccessible to science, but that your own qualia are accessible to you. And that because your own qualia lead you to make assumptions about other people that form the basis for morality, and indeed for everything, hey, they might be kind of important to understand.

Yes, my qualia are accessible to me, but NOT TO YOU. You have no idea if they even exist. Because you think you have qualia, you feel entitled to make assumptions that form the basis of everything, but you have NO IDEA if these assumptions are accurate or not -- in fact, you are explicitly arguing that it is IMPOSSIBLE for you to find out if these assumptions are accurate.

Furthermore, you don't need qualia to make assumptions about things. Why couldn't a zombie or a robot assume that they should be nice to other people? Or if you don't like that language, why couldn't you program a robot that didn't have any qualia but treated other robots and living beings with respect and kindness? I don't see how qualia form the foundation for morality, much less everything.

Or put another way, I understand that you are saying that (1) you feel pain and (2) you assume that other living beings feel pain and (3) that you don't want other living beings to feel pain because you yourself don't like pain, and that this is the foundation for your moral beliefs. But what I'm saying is that (2) and (3) are doing 99% of the work here, and (1) is actually entirely irrelevant. The inverted spectrum argument that you injected into this discussion explicitly states that (2) and (3) are not logically connected to (1). So (1) is a red herring, and not the foundation for the entire universe as you are suggesting.

I think all these things have qualia.

But you DON'T KNOW. That's just your opinion. If I tell you that being a cockroach feels like absolutely nothing, how on earth are you going to prove me wrong?

And by your logic, since you need to have qualia in order to have interests, the only thing in the universe that you can truly be confident has interests is... yourself. This is why your philosophical approach basically boils down to solipsism.

TL;DR -- something that is only knowable by a single entity is not actually a solid foundation for morality and existence.
posted by leopard at 5:03 PM on September 7, 2013


Because you think you have qualia, you feel entitled to make assumptions that form the basis of everything, but you have NO IDEA if these assumptions are accurate or not -- in fact, you are explicitly arguing that it is IMPOSSIBLE for you to find out if these assumptions are accurate.

Of course, but if you didn't have qualia to begin with, why would even bother to assume that?

It's your qualia that even gives you the notion that other people even might be beings.

Or if you don't like that language, why couldn't you program a robot that didn't have any qualia but treated other robots and living beings with respect and kindness? I don't see how qualia form the foundation for morality, much less everything.

Maybe you could program such a creature, but why should they be kind and respectful if other people have no qualia?

But what I'm saying is that (2) and (3) are doing 99% of the work here, and (1) is actually entirely irrelevant.

A contradiction, since by your admission 2 and 3 are doing 99% of the work. Even per your statement, there's a crucial and foundational 1% -- without which there would be no reason at all for 2 and 3 in the first place.

Why would you assume that other living beings felt things (2) unless you yourself had some understanding of what pain was?

And anyway you cannot even "make assumptions" without qualia in the first place.

If I tell you that being a cockroach feels like absolutely nothing, how on earth are you going to prove me wrong?

I'm not. But if there's any reason at all to believe that it does, it starts from my qualia.

And the very debate happens -- in qualia. The question of what good logic is, this very debate: all happen in qualia. Context, assumptions -- in qualia.

something that is only knowable by a single entity is not actually a solid foundation for morality and existence.

The fact is that you only know the world as it appears in your qualia. Every other thing is only known to you as an inference, and that inference itself happens in your qualia. So it might be kind of important to understand it.
posted by shivohum at 5:29 PM on September 7, 2013


Why would you assume that other living beings felt things (2) unless you yourself had some understanding of what pain was? ... And anyway you cannot even "make assumptions" without qualia in the first place.

You don't need to explicitly assume that other living beings feel things in order to behave "morally." Ants cooperate with each other without explicitly assuming things about the importance of other ants. Or maybe when an individual ant plays its role in some ant colony you think there's some inner monologue going on about its participation in society and what obligations it has towards other ants?

Once again, you have no idea, and the fact that you have qualia sheds zero light on the nature of ants, who do engage in highly social forms of behavior.

And the very debate happens -- in qualia. The question of what good logic is, this very debate: all happen in qualia. Context, assumptions -- in qualia.

Can you play chess with an inanimate object? Or do you think that Deep Blue has qualia? I don't think Deep Blue experiences anything when it plays chess -- I'd consider it a chess zombie. But if you can play chess with a zombie, then why can't you also have a debate with a zombie that makes assumptions and considers context? The distinction between a logical argument and a chess match seems to me to be one of degree, not of kind. Once again, qualia are irrelevant.

So it might be kind of important to understand it.

I just don't get this! Your whole point is that science is limited because qualia are private experiences inaccessible to third parties. But this objection cripples *any* approach to understanding qualia, not just the scientific method. You may be an authority on your own experiences but that's as far as it goes! If the inverted spectrum argument is a blow against science, it is also a blow against any "understanding" that any alternate method claims to provide. For some reason you seem to think that genuflecting to qualia gives you some special advantage in this arena.
posted by leopard at 6:54 PM on September 7, 2013


You don't need to explicitly assume that other living beings feel things in order to behave "morally."

You do. Ants can act any way they like, but they are not moral creatures. Morality requires higher-level thinking and conceptualization. Ants cannot do that. Also, inherent in the concept of morality is the idea that there is something that other people and animals experience. Ants cannot think that idea.

Social forms of behavior are not necessarily moral forms. Our interpretation of ants' behavior is an interpretation that happens in our minds, in our qualia, by the way.

But if you can play chess with a zombie, then why can't you also have a debate with a zombie that makes assumptions and considers context?

Actually Deep Blue doesn't play chess. Deep Blue is just a set of computer chips and electrical wires and displays. We interpret what we see on the screen as a chess game. It's the programmers who have decided how to tweak Deep Blue's electronics so that it does what they are satisfied with, the satisfaction being something they experience in their qualia.

Similarly, zombies are just automatons. Without experiencing themselves, there is no consideration of context, etc.

If the inverted spectrum argument is a blow against science, it is also a blow against any "understanding" that any alternate method claims to provide.

Given that our inferences about others are just that -- inferences that cannot be substantiated -- these inferences are still made with reference to our own experiences. We must rely on our own imaginative understanding of ourselves to make sense of other people. This imaginative, empathetic understanding of other people is based on a humanistic understanding of ourselves.

But the bigger issue is that qualia are not just important for updating moral rules, but that they are the source of value and morality at all in our own lives. Even forgetting society's rules, if you want to understand yourself, you will have to understand qualia.

And you can investigate your own qualia as its domain of non-scientific inquiry. There is understanding to be had there, completely apart from being able to have knowledge about others' private experiences.
posted by shivohum at 8:24 PM on September 7, 2013


Your definition of qualia is basically so broad as to be meaningless -- from your last comment basically anything to do with the mind = qualia.

I don't really know what else to say. I guess you are convinced these things are black-and-white -- you either have meaning, thought, and morality, or you have meaningless, thoughtlessness, amorality. There is no middle ground, no quasi-meanings, no quasi-moralities, no quasi-thoughts. You either have the real deal or it's a fake simulation completely devoid of genuine meaning. And I just don't think that's how the world works. I mean, what do you think was the first living thing with qualia? And how did it get its qualia, was it like Michaelangelo's Creation of Adam? What was the first living thing with morals, with higher-level thought?

Are you familiar at all with evolutionary theory? Is it really unfathomable that you could have a living being with quasi-thought, that had a nervous system that was responsive to external stimuli and therefore behaved as if it was "kind of" aware of its surroundings, and then over millions of years natural selection shaped other living beings that were more and more sophisticated in how they responded to their environments (including their fellow creatures) with this sophistication existing in the form of internal representations that were stored in brains, and eventually there were internal representations of internal representations, along with the development of language, and finally there were primates who could speak to themselves and were thus convinced that this is REALLY REALLY REAL as opposed to all the other stuff that had been going on for billions of years? No, it was just a magical qualia injection that did the trick?
posted by leopard at 9:07 PM on September 7, 2013


Your definition of qualia is basically so broad as to be meaningless -- from your last comment basically anything to do with the mind = qualia.

Not really. It's just having the experience of something. All I'm saying is that the only knowledge you and I have is what we get through our experience. Do you really not see how that's true? Everything else -- everything -- everything is an inference. Do you have proof otherwise? And if that's true, and if the ideas of science cannot, for inverted spectrum reasons, explain it -- why aren't you interested in actually understanding what it is that animates you from moment to moment?

I mean, what do you think was the first living thing with qualia? And how did it get its qualia, was it like Michaelangelo's Creation of Adam? What was the first living thing with morals, with higher-level thought?

Don't confuse these things. Qualia are necessary for morality; morality is not in everything. As for what has qualia, I'd argue that every living being has some variety of it, probably. As for morals, I think it requires language and concept. That means, as far as we know, it's for humans only (maybe arguably some chimps have some primitive version of it).

internal representations of internal representations

Internal representations don't explain qualia. I thought you already understood that with the inverted spectrum problem.

If you have a scientific temperament, then you want things explained. If you realize that science as you know it cannot explain something as all-pervasive as the very instrument that allows for the experience in the first place, the thing that lets we even exist, I'd say that you have... a problem. A giant problem. Might want to fix that.

No, it was just a magical qualia injection that did the trick?

You don't need magical "injections" of qualia. Qualia probably exist in primitive ways in primitive creatures; but it's not by virtue of "neurons" that they do, that's all. Qualia itself is a fundamental property of the universe, not something built out of dead matter.

I find it interesting, your urge to downplay the most fundamental part of life, the instrument through which you know any science at all, and which science cannot explain. A scientific temperament would want to understand the most giant, obvious thing, and not try to hide it away or call it meaningless.

But of course the reason all modern scientism-ists try to do that is because qualia is inconvenient for that worldview. It's the lump under the rug that won't go away, that can only be pushed around.
posted by shivohum at 9:20 PM on September 7, 2013


Internal representations don't explain qualia.

I wasn't trying to explain qualia, I was trying to explain thought. You are arguing that you need qualia to think, I am arguing that you can "quasi-think" with qualia-free internal representations. Once again, you are freely conflating qualia with anything mind-related, and then wondering how I could doubt that there could be mind without qualia.

A scientific temperament would want to understand the most giant, obvious thing, and not try to hide it away or call it meaningless.

A scientific temperament wants to reject philosophies that are incoherent dead ends. How can you claim to understand other minds if you don't even know if they exist (note how you use the weasel word "probably" as if that means anything in this context)? In your philosophy one of the most important facts about the universe is that you might be a brain in a vat for all you know. This is completely useless as a starting point for understanding anything. A scientific temperament, one that is actually interested in making progress in understanding things, acknowledges that we can't logically prove that we don't live in the Matrix, and quickly goes on from there to focus on the aspects of minds that are empirically accessible to third parties. There are plenty of these: speech acts are public information, behavior is public information, abstract internal representations can be inferred from behavior (e.g., you can measure the Stroop effect to develop and rule out theories about how words are stored and retrieved in the mind), and so on. Scientists also recognize the banal truth that they are human beings with minds and rely on introspection for ideas. Scientists do not have all the answers but they make actual progress on the problem of understanding what minds are and how they work.

Contrast with your approach, which is to assert that minds other than your own are fundamentally unknowable, and then to feel that this liberates you to assume that minds in general work however you want to say they work ("probably"). Then you say things like "qualia itself is a fundamental property of the universe, not something built out of dead matter" as if that conversation is going to go anywhere. This is a worldview that relishes in obscurantism and the impossibility of progress. It takes an intuition -- "consciousness is a magical free-floating thing" -- and elevates it into an overarching principle that doesn't help us understand anything. Look, I get the intuition completely, I'm human. But the obvious way of looking at the world isn't always right, people often have bad intuitions. There are a number of philosophers who have developed other intuitions -- intuitions of mind (and life) as a machine, intuitions of consciousness as inessential to decision making (the tail being wagged, so to speak) -- that while somewhat challenging at first, actually open up doors that allows us to better understand the universe. Is it really a surprise that people with a scientific temperament are drawn to these philosophies instead of yours?
posted by leopard at 10:01 PM on September 7, 2013


In your philosophy one of the most important facts about the universe is that you might be a brain in a vat for all you know.

Argh, damn it, this is misstated. The fact that is really central to your philosophy is that you might have the only mind in the universe for all you know. Your one-two punch is that qualia are both really really important (the source of all meaning and morality in the universe) and completely inaccessible to third parties (so you only know about your own).

This doesn't alter the rest of my comment.
posted by leopard at 10:12 PM on September 7, 2013


A scientific temperament wants to reject philosophies that are incoherent dead ends.

Then it should start with naturalism.

How can you claim to understand other minds if you don't even know if they exist (note how you use the weasel word "probably" as if that means anything in this context)?

Strictly speaking, you can't. You can only actually know facts about the presumed representations of them. That's just the truth and we have to face it.

A scientific temperament, one that is actually interested in making progress in understanding things, acknowledges that we can't logically prove that we don't live in the Matrix, and quickly goes on from there to focus on the aspects of minds that are empirically accessible to third parties.

Except that the fact of the privacy of your experience has nothing to do with simple Matrix-like skepticism of everything. It simply points to a domain of experience that can only be investigated with non-scientific tools.

This is not a made-up problem: you actually experience this private domain every single second of your existence.

Consciousness is not some magical free-floating idea: it is the most primary experience any of us have, and it is totally unexplainable using scientific tools.

Science is welcome to explore the public things you mention (realizing that the investigation is itself occurring in subjective experience); but should acknowledge that there is a separate, private fact of qualia that can only be investigated using artistic/humanistic tools, and only on a personal rather than public basis.

Scientism wants to eat up this latter domain, pretend it doesn't exist. It wants its domain AND to deny the existence of the other domains. That's not real science; that's a kind of fanaticism.
posted by shivohum at 10:30 PM on September 7, 2013


I did not want to derail the whole thread with a comment about not being sure that "scientism" exists, earlier, but, if anyone is reading.....

I guess what I really think is that it's not clear what a person is talking about when they complain of scientism. Sometimes they are identifying a coherent philosophical position. Sometimes they are just complaining about the trendiness of neuroscience, or of funding of humanities programs or something like that. Sometimes they are making a broader critique of culture and society, and they aren't really identifying a belief system. But that's how words work, I suppose, so, deal with it.

So, just keeping to scientism as a philosophical position, just assuming that it is one, for the sake of argument....what is it?

All varieties of naturalism? Surely I don't need to believe in supernatural powers to study Shakespeare and appreciate art.

But maybe it is difficult for me to remember that, for a lot of people, it seems perfectly clear that, unless our ontology has something other than matter and energy and time and space and planets and stars and animals in it, something spiritual and totally outside of physical law, space, and time, life is completely meaningless, and there are no values at all, since there is no way to objectively rank which ones are the right values to have!

So, if a person was a very firm believer in this kind of world view, they might say, yes, any naturalism is part of what I mean by scientism. But to me, it has to mean something a lot more restrictive, more specific.

What, I'm not totally sure.....a kind of fusion of the ideals of 18th Century Rationalist philosophy with the techniques and results of the physical sciences, perhaps. A cultural inferiority symptom that causes people like Freud and Jung to insist that they were doing "science" on the same plane as physics or biology, whereas (I think) they were clearly doing something else, something new.

And I detest the ahistorical arrogance and philosophical ignorance that's produced by the educational system . Many people trained in science seem to think that it's just obvious that people like Aristotle were simply idiots, because they didn't give birth to 16th Century experimental science, coming out of his head full-grown, like Athena. They don't see at all how it is problematic to identify reality with immediate sense experience, especially when their own discipline ultimately produces powerful considerations that vitiate naive realism. And so on.

But, the actual working scientists I have known weren't like this at all. I know this is just anecdote, and I haven't met all the scientists! They were really really busy with their work, and they didn't have a lot of interest in polemics for materialism of the mind or things like that.

But...there is a petulant tone about a lot of these anti-scientism pieces in print these days. I read one that said it is clear that "physics" fails completely to explain the mind - as if that is what physicists are trying to do! You see this false dilemma a lot - science can't totally explain this, so, the theological position, which they have promoted to the default alternative to a complete, exhaustive, rationalist-scientific theory, must be true. The humanities should look to their own house more, I think. They have adopted wholesale a pseudo-scientific publishing model, and in some fields, a pseudo-scientific concept of their discipline as progressing by teams of specialists solving small "problems". I won't even get into a critique of "theory", which is a pretty heterogeneous thing that I don't really know enough to talk much about (my background was in traditional philosophy....let's say Marx and The Frankfurt School etc. were not on the menu).

Anyway, for what it's worth, that's my little take. Thanks for the post, which had a great discussion, and is a fun place to think out loud about these things.
posted by thelonius at 7:33 PM on September 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


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