Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Obiter dictum…

Despite all I have written in the past couple weeks about qualia and consciousness, I admit that the argument from qualia against materialism––not physicalism––does not feel to me as strong as my argumentation might suggest. As, for example, Dr. Feser has noted on more than one occasion, "the problem of qualia" did not figure into pre-modern ontology like it does in modern debates. Suppose, in other words, that qualia can be explained in neurophysiological terms. What would that cost us? Not as much as I think most people think. I admit to being able to conceive of how matter might develop into conscious entities. In other words, insofar as I arguendo grant "the Darwinian anthropic axiom"––viz. that current phylogenetic variation with selection over time accounts for "our being here"––I ipso facto grant that our being conscious––as we undeniably are––is but a demonstrable result of that prior (Darwinian) development. To say, therefore, that it is impossible for "conscious beings like us" to have come about by such means is but to deny those (Darwinian) means, at which point the debate shifts from qualia to natural selection per se.

The issue, then, is not the supposed sheer inconceivability of phenomenal consciousness being instantiated in physical entities, but rather the issue of how to explain our phenomenal consciousness as physical beings. As Jerry Fodor says in a May 2007 LRB book review,

Why not just say: some things are true about the world because that’s the kind of world it is; there’s nothing more to make of it[?] That sounds defeatist perhaps; but it really isn’t since, quite plausibly, it’s the sort of thing that we will have to say sooner or later whether or not saying it would help with the hard problem.

Typical scientific explanations appeal to natural laws. Some natural laws are explained by appealing to others, but some aren’t; some of them are basic. … Eventually, we get to laws about whatever the smallest things are (or, perhaps, to laws about the fundamental structure of space-time); and there we simply stop. Basic laws can’t be explained; that’s what makes them basic. There isn’t a reason why they hold, they just do. Even if basic physical laws are true of everything, they don’t explain everything; in particular, they don’t explain why, of all the basic laws that there might have been, these are the ones there actually are. … At a minimum, it seems that the various sciences form some sort of hierarchy, with physics (or whatever) at the bottom. …

Maybe, however, there’s something wrong with this view and we’ll finally have to do without it. Maybe the hard problem shows that not all basic laws are laws of physics. Maybe it shows that some of them are laws of emergence. If that’s so, then it’s not true after all that if Y emerges from X there must be something about X in virtue of which Y emerges from it. [My emphasis.]

Piggybacking on Fodor, my point is that maybe we just live in a world in which, to be a material being of such-and-such an emergent composition, entails being a conscious being. I want to stress however that this does not entail a capitulation to physicalism, which I really do think is incompatible with the reality of irreducible subjective experience (ISE). Moreover, insofar as I grant the viability of "materialism" arguendo, I think the reality of ISE entails a serious reconception of "matter," namely as something which includes integral powers proper to ISE.

So, yes––no surprise––I am still urging hylomorphism, but as I have expressed before, hylomorphism is, and should be presented as, much more "materialistic" than it is conventionally depicted. After all, it is call HYLOmorphism, not pure Morphism (à la Platonic or Berkleyan Idealism or, perhaps, Meinongism), and so the integral role of matter cannot be gainsaid in hylomorphism. If there is, say, an objective way-for-a-rock-to-be, explicable in materialist, scientific terms, I admit that I don't see why in principle there cannot also be a-way-it-is for a phenomenally conscious agent to be. After all, "a-way-to-be" is but a loosely unpacked way of saying "form." Why should a rock's being the way it is be the-way-it-is? Despite the naïvéte of crude materialists, that lowly way-of-being is ultimately as inscrutable as the "fundamental" laws which attach (normatively) to its actual-way-of-being" (i.e. its morphé μορφέ). Therefore, a thing's actual existence (i.e. its proper act of being)––even as it is amenable to a rigorously scientific analysis––, does not remove its metaphysical contingency and ontic finality with respect to God qua Disposer of Forms. (By ontic finality I mean that any thing's specific act of being is actualized only with respect to an agent not susceptible to further potentiation; and as God is Actus Purus, He alone is the adequate agent for specific actual ways of being which suffuse the known world.) By extension, even if we should arrive at a fully "materialist" account of my conscious operations qua neurophysiological functions, this 'reduction' compromises neither 1) the formal coherence of my ISE as an irreducibly integrated reality nor 2) my contingency as 'a glorified rock' in the power of God. Indeed, the type of modular complexity which, say, Marvin Minksy invokes to rebut ISE is best construed as the formal dematerialization of our brain's endlessly plastic material potentia. In other words, we don't see blue! because "it's really just blue" but it's really blue because we experience it as really blue.

Wittgenstein was fond of saying that "Everything is what it is and not something else." So, too, ISE is what it is even if it includes non-conscious counterfactual grounding elements. (By counterfactual grounding elements, I [suppose I] just mean the sufficient and nearly-necessary grounds for the existence of ISE.) Indeed, paradoxically, were there only ISE in the cosmos (à la panpsychism), there would not be ISE, since ISE devoid of objects of perception would not be ISE. Indeed, the immanently potentiated objects of ISE exists precisely as objects of ISE, and therefore ISE cannot account for itself in purely phenomenal terms. (In other words, imagine seeing seeing seeing…seeing X! without succumbing to a fatal regress of contentless seeing.) Eventually accounting for how we have ISE would not negate the fact that we have ISE. Naive materialists are, therefore, well ahead of themselves to dream otherwise, and hylomorphists are well behind themselves, as it were, to fear suchwise.


Crude said...

See, I'm with you and I'm not with you on this subject. At least if I understand you correctly.

What you seem to be saying is that sure, it's possible that materialism can still be true even if ISEs exist. Just, we'd have to radically redefine what "materialism" is (I've harped on this with the panpsychist objection, etc), or radically redefine the physical such that strong emergence - stuff that "just happens" and is not a weakly emergent result of basic laws - is acceptable.

I've actually gotten into this over at Feser's blog, lightly, in the past: If we redefine 'materialism' as broadly as you're suggesting, then screw it: A-T is materialism. Just as Feser has noted that if "scientism" is redefined to include philosophy as part of science, then Catholicism is a scientific discipline and Aquinas was a scientist (as is Feser. Hell, as is you and I, likely.)

I think it even goes further, given your distinction between hylomorphism and mere morphism. "Matter" isn't what everyone used to think it was. Maybe the new "matter" is Berkeley's "thought"? Again, I've seen more than a few physicists recently cast the fundamental constituent of reality as information itself. So, what the heck are those guys now? Is that the new materialism too?

Either way, that leads to my objection. The sort of "fully materialist account of your conscious operations" is a "materialism" that looks nothing like what materialism ever has been before, and shockingly like those things "materialism" was supposed to have rejected. That wouldn't be a victory for materialism. It would be the ultimate defeat.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

I knew you'd have an interesting take on this post.

It's tricky. I think ultimately I agree with you Hegelian intuition, i.e. that the concessions materialism MUST make to good neuro- and cognitive science with respect to hylomorphism will mean the ultimate "sublimation/deletion" of materialism per se. But maybe I'm also trying to be pastoral/diplomatic along the way. I.e., I think it's legitimate to disarm as many false obstacles to faith as possible if the faith can actually be shown to accord with "scientific results" and vice versa. I'm a controversialist only by habit, not at heart, so I hope to defuse confused disputes more than make sheer polemics.

You know?

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

If, e.g., you read R. D. Ellis's response to Nicholas Humphrey in "How to Solve the Mind-Body Problem," you'd probably be like me: howling and grinning and pulling my hair out at how much ("enactive") formal finality Ellis defends in "the latest cognitive science research" *without* making the obvious step to a metaphysic that actually tolerates finality and form. I may blog about that book, as it was a nice surprise how much in it accords with real Aristhomistic anthropology. E.g., while it was a big kerfuffle in the response papers that Humphrey distinguished sensation from perception, the exact same claim is to be found in Donceel's 1964 (?) "Philosophical Anthropology" and Sanguineti's "Logic", inter alii. Point being: why were/are dusty Scholastics ahead of the curve by centuries and decades to "cutting edge" claims in current cogsci?

Crude said...

I think I understand what you mean, and putting it as "disarming obstacles to faith" makes it clearer. You're stressing the side of hylomorphic dualism that embraces matter - though a "different kind" of matter as we normally think of it - to show that, hey, brains being a necessary condition for certain kinds of thought, etc, isn't opposed to hylomorphism. Do I have you right there? (I note that over at Just Thomism, the question "If Aquinas a physicalist?" has come up. Good timing.)

My main problem with this example is that the sort of "materialism" you speak of - one for which qualia is taken as basic (either in a panpsychist sense, or a strong emergence sense) - seems to be utterly unlike what "materialism" ever has been in modern philosophy. The material, the physical, has for a long time now specifically been conceived as this 'stuff' that has no mental properties whatsoever, and was entirely motion and charge and, etc, etc. Adding consciousness to it a la panpsychism is to talk about something utterly different. To add strong emergence to the 'materialist' view of the world is almost worse, since it involves consciousness and life being written into the laws of the universe in such an exceptional way as to make fine-tuning arguments look piddly in comparison. I'm reminded of the end of one review of Strawson's books on NDPR - 'If the only choices available to the monist are eliminative materialism or panpsychism (or, I'd add, strong emergence), dualism is looking better than ever.'

So it's not that I have a problem with "matter" as such. As you point out, hylomorphic dualism has a place for matter. Just, the sort of matter it has a place for is not the matter the materialists have been talking about for a while. And when they (not if, but when - I regard it as inevitable) they start expanding their definition of 'material' even further to include what you're talking about, I think the change and how drastic it is should be hammered home again and again.

(By the way, it's funny you would talk about granting 'The Darwinian anthropic axiom' when Jerry Fodor is your center-stage "materialist" for this post. You know Fodor's views on Darwinism, right?)