Friday, December 4, 2009

Let them fall as they may...

Last week I was approached by a man selling, of all things, broom handles. Not brooms, just the handles thereof. I instantly thought of selling spoon handles without spoon heads, but the thought left me as I was brought under his spell.

"I, sir, want you to buy three broom handles from me," he crooned.

"But why do I need broom handles?" I asked. "I have brooms."

"Sounds reasonable enough, but let me put it this way," he crooned anew. Whereupon he took five or six broom handles from his cart, grasped them in two hands as one upright bundle, and then let them fall like giant pick-up sticks. "That, sir, is why you should buy three broom handles from me," he concluded.

"I don't follow," I admitted.

"I shall rephrase my argument," he said, whereupon he gathered the scattered broom handles again to form a standing column. He opened his arms and the sticks fell to the ground akimbo. "As I say, sir, that is why you should make my broom handles yours."

"But you haven't given me any reason," I objected, weakly, afraid I was missing something obvious.

"Ah, but I have, sir," he countered, "for I have sent millions of photons into your retinae, along with soothing auditory undulations through the air into your ear canals, and thereby triggered deterministic responses from you which mean you should buy three of my broom handles."

"But I don't see how that is true at all," I objected, more confidently. "You've given me no argument, no reasoning, as to why I should buy them."

"You say tomayto, I say tomahto," he retorted, with a flick of his fingers. "We all know every action of the human is just an action of the human body, and every action of the human body is just an orchestrated cofiring of millions of synapses and efferent nerve impulses. For all I know, you don't want my broom handles--yet--because you had too little, or maybe too much, coffee for breakfast."

"Look," I set in, "even if I grant that we are deterministic organisms, you have to admit your impulses aren't the right ones to trigger my unfree response to your sales pitch. You should at least try to manipulate the relevant areas of my brain. I'm not determined to respond to falling broom handles."

"So," he replied, "you mean to say you have a good reason for not buying my broom handles?"

"Yes. I don't want to buy them," I answered.

"But that's hardly a good reason, sir, since, as we both know, your desire not to buy them is just a deterministic result of 'what lies beneath'. You think the irrational, deterministic fall of my broom sticks is a bad reason, or no reason at all, for deciding to buy them, yet you claim the equally meaningless, deterministic swirl of neurotransmitters in your brain is a good reason not to buy them. Now I don't follow, sir."

"Clever argument," I began, "but the difference is that I can decide from 'within' my own network of determined responses. My deliberation is an internal factor for my reasoning, but your broom handles are outside the relevantly determined network."

"So now you mean to say the real you, the you I should be trying to convince to buy, is a free-floating eye hovering over all the deterministic synapses in your brain that can freely choose which of them to activate? I thought materialism led away from Descartes's so-called ghost in the machine, not towards it."

"No, what I mean is that whatever my consciousness might be--maybe its in my ventromedial prefrontal cortex, like I remember Steven Pinker said--it is the segment of the deterministic world that you need to work on to get me to buy your broom handles. And I admit they are nice broom handles, don't get me wrong."

"So you mean to say I have a free choice about which part of you I run down? Now I am the free-floating analyst of an otherwise locked-down deterministic world?"


"On top of that, how do you or I even know where you and I begin and end in contrast to the environment that determines us? If your consciousness module--maybe in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, like you say--is determined by surrounding modules for perception and motor activity, and if those modules are determined by everything else causally pressing in on them, then how do you make a distinction between inside and outside? I'm just as essential a causal determinant in your whole make-up as the air, the force of gravity, the strong and weak attractions in your molecules, and so on. That's why I have just as much reason to believe dropping broom handles will win you over. I have no reason to trust the automated output of your brain as an truly rational, deliberate basis for you not buying my goods, and therefore you have no reason not to trust that my broom sticks fall in a way that argues compellingly for buying my broom handles. The propositional content of anything you say is a mere epiphenomenon of the air being emitted from your lungs into my ears. Or do you believe that Platonic strips of meaning are waiting for us to say them in any language at any time--that Meaning In General floats 'somewhere out there' waiting to form grammatical sentences which convey it? Do you really think the immaterial meaning of a sentence can effect its material production? If you do, then why not allow for all kinds of immaterial causation? If you don't, though, why do you think an abstract coherent meaning adds anything at all to the causal efficacy of the things we say and hear? It's not up to you to say what a good reason should be for your decisions, since your reasons for parsing good and bad reasons are just deterministic prejudices and impulsive cognitive blind spots that define 'you' long before you ever had a say about it--not that having a say about it would do much good."

By then I was hankering for a broom to sweep the little man away.

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My neural firing is a purposeless, unreasoning and deterministic as the toppling of broom handles. Why is the former "rational" but the latter is not?

"If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true ... and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms." -- J. B. S. Haldane, Possible Worlds

"One absolutely central inconsistency ruins [the popular scientific philosophy]. The whole picture professes to depend on inferences from observed facts. Unless inference is valid, the whole picture disappears.... [U]nless Reason is an absolute[,] all is in ruins. Yet those who ask me to believe this world picture also ask me to believe that Reason is simply the unforeseen and unintended by-product of mindless matter at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming. Here is flat contradiction. They ask me at the same moment to accept a conclusion and to discredit the only testimony on which that conclusion can be based." -- C. S. Lewis, Is Theology Poetry?

"If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees." -- C. S. Lewis, Is Theology Poetry?

"It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. If you are merely a skeptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, "Why should anything go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?" -- G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

"...with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?" -- Charles Darwin, to William Graham (3 July 1881)


Chad said...

Wow, did this actually happen exactly the way you described it? You had a seemingly 30 minute conversation with some salesman in Taiwan?

The Cogitator said...


No, dude, this did not actually happen. It's just a piece of philosophical fiction, a kind of semi-surreal Platonic mini-dialogue.

As for the content, what say ye?


Isaac said...

Cute Chad, If someone was dropping broomsticks in front of me I'd be wary he had a partner behind me stealing from my bag.

I'm a mild thantopobe in that I fancy existing and I don't like that I'll inevitably be faced with a cessation of my current consciousness. To assuage this fear, I remind myself that I had no fear before I existed and I know that I will have none when I expire, but that doesn't really help. Then I think of my consciousness from an earlier part of my life. That was me then but not the same me as I am now and if somehow I could transpose a me onto a former me I would in effect be terminating that consciousness with another. So when I experience things by simply passing though time my consciousness changes, so in effect the older me has died many times and what is left is the current me. This bums me out further in that I can't define self per se and then I wonder how can I know that I even exist in the first place. If I lose a finger am I still me? Probably, but what if I loose part of my brain through aging or chemical experimentation, is that still me? Then I usually pound my pillow and go back to bed, putting of hard questions in favor of catching up on my latest TV drama or shooting zombies on the playstation. What gets me every time is the way that time keeps going, deadlines come and go and always seem to go by faster than I think I should. Hence I know my time is limited... should I care?

The Cogitator said...


You're worried about mereological essentialism, not classical essentialism. Try some Alfred Freddoso and David Oderberg and hylomorphism for starters!

As for caring or not, well, methinks you protest too much, closet philosopher. ;)