Towards A Good Samaritan World

Thursday, September 14, 2006

BEYOND PHYSICALISM AND DUALISM

Nato writes:

I see no special tension between Darwinian thinking and non-physicalisms such as dualism. It is Darwinian thinking and essentialism that are ineluctably antagonistic... I new realize that through evolutionary processes, real souls can develop from less real souls, going all the way back to things that are clearly not souls*. Whether the "soul" in question is composed of non-physical stuff or is a category of logical relations examples of which matter sometimes instantiates, one can (frequently) use Darwinian processes to get there from here.


Why does Nato have to be so gratuitously mysterious about souls? "Non-physical stuff?" That seems like, at worst, a contradiction in terms ("stuff" is physical), at best, a metaphor that is probably bad and misleading (why should souls resemble matter sufficient to justify calling them "stuff"? They don't seem to.) A "category of logical relations examples which matter sometimes instantiates?" Except that logic is far from the only capacity of a human mind, and indeed the word "soul" seems to connote a different element: the emotional, aesthetic, ethical, etc. To describe the soul as "logical relations" is a starting-place at best, and not a very promising one.

One point: I'm certainly not a physicalist, but I also don't particularly consider myself a dualist, either. It seems to me that there are lots of things: matter, yes (probably-- that's "conjectural," again); minds/souls certainly ("I think therefore I am"); but also ideas. Also beauty, a property that might be considered to have an independent existence even if it is supervenient upon matter, but there's no reason to think it is supervenient upon matter. Also God.

There's a virtue in being reductionist in the natural sciences, at least when the things you're reducing really are reducible to what you think they are, which sometimes happens. But I think one must remain open-minded in one's metaphysics.

Nato "clarifies":

I should clarify: certain kinds of things - and I regard these things as real in their own right - exist in a non-material way. They are things whose existence is defined by logical relationships of parts. A book that one might cite, for example, is not its pages, but rather a set of characters or semantic contents that always assume the same relationship with one another, whether this is instantiated as bits in a computer, ink on a page, or whatever. Souls, in my view, are the same way. On the other hand, if souls have some essence beyond this, some non-physical soulstuff that accompanies this logical relation, then they require that one be at least a dualist.

Where my "logical relations" concept stands in relation to your conception of "ideas" isn't perfectly clear to me.


And why, one may ask, does Nato believe in specifically this kind of non-material entity? Why accept the existence of non-material entities at all? Or, if you do, why accept precisely this kind of non-material entity?

By far the most interesting aspect of Dennett's philosophy is the notion that he weaves called "Design Space." He uses a literary device: imagine a library which contains every possible book of 1 million characters or less (in the Latin alphabet). It is, in fact, a finite, yet incredibly vast. The device of a Borgesian library Dennett applies to the biological world: imagine all possible DNA sequences and the creatures that would arise from them! Thanks to Design Space, Dennett reverses the myth gap with Providential accounts of creation; Darwinism because fascinating, intoxicating even. And yet here's the irony: one can't help begin to wonder, What is this Design Space? Is it real? What is its ontological status? Certainly many things exist in Design Space that do not exist in physical space. Do they exist then (exist, full stop) or not? If so, what are they? If not, how is it that we're able to think about them? Thus Dennett achieves his Pyrrhic victory: having peddled the "universal solvent" of Darwinism and momentarily driven all foes before the reductionist cause, he finds metaphysics and mystery sneaking in again, behind his back. Only he never seems to notice: he is one of those people who has a paradigm and perceives what his paradigm permits him to see. But a perceptive reader can't help but notice that the joke's on Dennett.

Nato seems to be falling into a similar trap. It is "not clear," he says, what I mean by "ideas"? But we talk about ideas all the time, this is common sense, there's no problem with that. Nato seems to think that all ideas need to be reducible to "logical relations," which, in turn, have some sort of non-material existence-- yet he denies other non-material essences. Why should we embrace, or even entertain, this idiosyncratic ontology, I wonder? At least pure physicalism has a certain brutal simplicity about it. What is the appeal of this newfangled neo-dualism?

2 Comments:

  • I should clarify: certain kinds of things - and I regard these things as real in their own right - exist in a non-material way. They are things whose existence is defined by logical relationships of parts. A book that one might cite, for example, is not its pages, but rather a set of characters or semantic contents that always assume the same relationship with one another, whether this is instantiated as bits in a computer, ink on a page, or whatever. Souls, in my view, are the same way. On the other hand, if souls have some essence beyond this, some non-physical soulstuff that accompanies this logical relation, then they require that one be at least a dualist.

    Where my "logical relations" concept stands in relation to your conception of "ideas" isn't perfectly clear to me.

    By Blogger Nato, at 7:07 AM  

  • Is a googolplex plus a googolplex equal two gogolplex? I don't think physicalism requires that we withhold judgement because there aren't enough particles in the universe to perform a counting test. Is the phrase "two googolplex exists" false? This depends on what we mean by "exists", of course, but the dimensions of that question might be better viewed by an opposing phrasing: "There's no such thing as two googolplex." What do we make of this? If we regard this latter phrase as true because it's forever impossible to enumerate two googolplex physical items, then we'd have to rule that the answer to "what is two googolplex plus two googolplex?" is indeterminate, rather than four googolplex.

    Since I don't see anyone doing that, I presume there are either no true physicalists or physicalism doesn't entail that only matter has an ontological status. I choose the latter.

    When I wasn't sure where "ideas" stood in relation to "logical relations," I was mostly expressing that I wasn't sure if your concept of "idea" might not be similar to or even almost identical to my concept of logical relations. In colloquial use, "idea" gets heavy usage in a wide variety of circumstances, so one should be a bit cautious regarding the sense in which another introduces such a flexible word into a philosophical discussion.

    By Blogger Nato, at 9:37 PM  

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