Further argument with John Wright

I have, alas, been rather busy of late, teaching a summer class, so I’ve fallen a bit behind. I will try to respond here to the ideas contained in both this post, the previous one, and your last response to me in the “Reprogramming Metaphysics” post. Even at some length, I will probably not get to everything; apologies.

In the face of this state of affairs we cannot help withholding judgment on the essential statements of monism and materialism. We may or may not believe that the natural sciences will succeed one day in explaining the production of definite ideas, judgments of value, and actions in the same way in which they explain the production of a chemical compound as the necessary and unavoidable outcome of a certain combination of elements. In the meantime we are bound to acquiesce in a methodological dualism.

Since human action cannot be traced back to its causes, it must be considered as an ultimate given and must be studied as such.

I am bound to admit that, as a methodological statement, I cannot argue with this; our technology does not yet permit us to reduce thought to its components. Just as chemistry is reducible to physics in principle, but has to be treated as its own subject in practice, I am by no means arguing that the lawyer, the psychologist, or the neurosurgeon ought to learn quantum mechanics before studying their respective fields. (Although, with that said, it does seem to me that both law and psychology could improve a lot by learning some neurochemistry.) Nonetheless, I think it is a rare chemist who would argue that the reduction is impossible in principle; and so I make that my analogy, and apply it to the mind as well.

1. A statement that there is no truth, if true, is false.


The conclusion to be drawn here, however, is that certain concepts cannot be denied, since the act of denying confirms them: they are rightly called self-evident. They need no further warrant for their truth aside from the mere statement of them.

Nor can I disagree with this; but I can disagree with the further conclusion you draw, that these things do not arise from empirie. A machine which states that there is no truth is giving you bad data. But it does not follow that good data have an existence in themselves. When all is done, the materialist model still contains such concepts as truth; but the understanding of what that concept is, has changed. I have perhaps been rather unclear in explaining this fundamental point.

You cannot deduce the mass of the bullet from its admissibility as evidence; You cannot deduce its admissibility as evidence from its mass. Yet clearly both properties depend on the bullet.

I completely and utterly disagree with that second sentence. The admissibility is not a property of the bullet; it is a property of other pieces of matter – in particular, of the brains and histories of police officers or others who handled the bullet. You cannot deduce the admissibility from the bullet, but it does not follow that it cannot be deduced from empirie! Here you make the mistake of focusing too narrowly; you expect a particular property associated with the bullet to be a function only of the bullet, and then when you cannot find how to reason empirically from the bullet alone, you give up on empirical reasoning completely. This is a mistake; you should instead have broadened your empirical search.

From a legal point of view, that is to say, from the point of view consistent with human justice, the presence or absence of the voltages in question in the cell location or circuit location in question is utterly indifferent to the case; it is irrelevant; it is meaningless.In case where the cellular or circuitry information is not available, or is misleading, it is disregarded.

I must say I am rather less enamoured than you of arguments from fallible human law. But let me ask you this question: Suppose we did in fact find, by some future scientific procedure, that all first-degree murderers have a particular neuron switched on; and all second-degree murderers had a different one switched on. Surely you cannot argue that, in this case, facts about neurons would be of no interest to a court of law?

It is not even very hard to outline the procedure we might follow: Take a brain scan of all those convicted of first-degree murder, and likewise for second-degree, and try to find differences. Allow, of course, for some error; certainly some of the first kind will be convicted, through clever lawyering or the state of the evidence, of the second degree; some in both categories will be innocent; and so forth. But allowing for such error, if we did find that 90% of the first-degree murderers had activation levels thus-and-so, while only 10% of the second-degree murderers did, and only 0.001% of the general population – I defy you to tell me that any jury would then be uninterested in mere empirical facts about neurons!

What empirical test would you or could you possibly perform that would tell you that this new not wholly materialistic universe was not a wholly materialistic universe like your old one was?

Your limitation of having only present-day technology makes this more difficult. My first step, nonetheless, would be to subject random victims, er, test participants, to powerful magnetic fields. In this universe it is known that the right combination of fields can produce a powerful sensation of a numinous Presence of great significance: Catholics insist that the Virgin Mary is hovering over their shoulder, Protestants feel the presence of Jesus, Moslems of Allah; Hinduists feel they are in touch with one of their pantheon; and so on. If this did not work in the new universe, that would be evidence that the mind was indeed a separate thing from the brain.

Thinking about it, there’s a rather simpler idea; I would inject ethanol into bloodstreams. If the victims do not act drunk, their minds are not being influenced by material things. Now, I do understand that “Minds are wholly separate from bodies” is not your claim; but it is the first thing I would test. Science is not for the impatient.

Next, I would try to replicate the visual-neuron-scanning experiment I’ve linked to a couple of times. If I cannot tell, by looking at neurons, what a subject is reading, that is strong evidence that his mind is not working the same way that the ones around here do. I would also try to go that experiment one better, and tell the subject to close his eyes and visualise something, rather than seeing it with his eyes. If I could nonetheless find what he was visualising by scanning his brain, that looks to me like evidence for materialism – so, in the non-materialist universe, I would expect that experiment to fail.

None of these tests, certainly, are conclusive; my next step would be to start a Manhattan-Project-type effort into brain-scanning research and neurophysiology. But they would give me enough to form a balance-of-the-evidence opinion like the one I currently possess.

One can remember the smell of flowers, the taste of food, or the sound of music, but one cannot will his eyes, or even the optical receptors of the brain, to show him a scene.

One most certainly can! Or, to be more accurate, some humans can. I refer you to this discussion of the typical-mind fallacy, which uses mental visualisation as its first example. And, by the by, this is another experiment one could do: Find some eidetic visualisers and some non-visualisers, and look for brain-structure differences. Or, conversely, if the non-materialist universe doesn’t have this variation in human ability, that’s evidence against the materialist hypothesis, since it argues that its minds are more uniform than those which arise from mere physics.

Also this seventh (and sixth) sense thing is a load of bull. It blurs a 2500+ year distinction between the actual senses and the mind. The same objections as to why feeling are not perception apply just as well here.

And when Newton, who is not forgotten, explained how the apple falls, he blurred a 2000-year-old philosophical distinction between the horizontal and vertical directions. In other words, tough.

THE “test-for-justice” algorithm? Surely this test is not the same for every human. Rawl’s algorithm would be wildly different than Jefferson’s and different in a hundred different ways from a hundred different people.

Indeed, I spoke inexactly. I refer you to my thousand-year-judge from many posts back for how to nonetheless extract an objective account of justice.

I advocate that the mind controls the body through acts of free will.

I note again that this requires one of the laws of thermodynamics to be false. This is not an objection to your theory, since we have not checked thermodynamics in every corner of the universe; but it is a point of interest. It also gives rise to still another experiment one can do in the non-materialist universe: Test whether human brains violate thermodynamics. If they do, bing, something non-materialist is going on. This one is instantly conclusive if positive.

Indeed is there ANYTHING ANYWHERE that ANYONE uses empiricism for other than ARGUMENTS ABOUT EMPIRICAL FACTS? Is there anyone anywhere who can even imagine, even as a joke, what proving a non-empirical fact about law, or ethics, or mathematics, or economics, or theology, or any other nonempirical discipline would even mean?

I answered this to the best of my ability, but apparently failed to connect. My answer is that, when a man says “This was a just act”, he is referring to an empirical fact, about his brain. I do not think I can make it any clearer than that. So, really, we are again at the bedrock of our disagreement: We cannot agree on what is happening when an act appeals to someone’s sense of justice. This is why I am keen to discuss the clockwork monkey, because that is a point where we are able to agree on at least a few things, which makes argument more productive. When faced with complete disagreements such as the one above, we can make no progress because neither part can make any argument except a full restatement of his position.

If experience disagreed with math and logic, you would assume logic is wrong, rather than assume, and look for, some overlooked hidden cause of the discrepancy? On what basis?

When an electron is projected at a screen with two slits, what do “logic and math” make you expect, if you are living in the 1930s and have never heard of quantum mechanics? Simple: You expect, and you will certainly call your expectation “logic”, that the electron will pass through exactly one of the slits. A particle can only be in one place at a time; that’s a fundamental property of particles, and of logic; indeed to say otherwise is to say A!=A. Or so you will argue… until experience contradicts you.

The thing that keeps sliding back and forth, friend, is you. You use the empirical data of brain activity as something interchangeably identical to the cognitive process of thought. I have been careful to keep them separate, since it is on that distinction that my argument rests.

Indeed, that is the fundamental point of our disagreement again.

The argument about the wallet was that nobody concludes that two plus two equals three when a dollar is missing from his wallet, because no one actually uses empirical reasoning in isolation from metaphysical and ontological reasoning.

I believe you are mistaken; children learn, at an extremely young age, to count to four in blocks of two; and then they forget that there was a time when they did not know this – and so they think they arrive at the conclusion by reasoning, and that it must be eternally true. No. Even if 2+2=4 is an eternally true statement, you did not come to believe it by reasoning about the properties of ‘2’; you learned it by counting on your fingers. (I remind you of the experiment of New Math in the sixties, when the fashionable educational theory was that children should, indeed, learn 2+2=4 by contemplating the properties of sets. It did not go well.)

You and I agreed that a mad scientist could make a metal copy of a brain, and I admit if the copy were exact, the brain would function, and the person whose brain it was would have, I assume, subject experiences, a point of view.

Very well, we shall have to consider further what we mean by ‘exact copy’. What I meant was that all the neuron-analogues should have the same connections as the neurons, and excite other neuron-analogues in the same circumstances. This is certainly possible with gears and cogs. You, apparently, meant something different. Can you articulate what your exact metal copy does, physically, which is not found in a gears-and-cogs copy? What physical property is the diabolical machinist copying, which the clockwork artificer is not capturing?

One final point. Consider the sense of smell; the chain of causality for the experience of smelling something is thus:

* Roses emit low concentrations of chemicals into the air
* The chemicals arrive at receptors in the nose
* The receptors send electrical impulses to the brain
* The electrochemical state of the brain changes
* The mind (physical or not) changes in response, and is now experiencing the smell of roses.

We see then that the sense of smell, while ultimately caused by the roses, is immediately caused by changes in brain-state; and we presumably agree that one could cause the sensation without the flowers by the right combination of electrical currents in the brain. Now, why should not the sense of justice be similar in its final step? Some atoms move, and the mind experiences the sense of justice, just as it experienced the sense of smell. There is no cause external to the body, but we need not for that reason say that the mechanisms are completely unlike. Yet when I suggested that the final steps were the same, I was howled down as contradicting two thousand years of philosophy. Very well, I bite the bullet: I know more of the world than either Aristotle or Plato did, and when we disagree, I stand my ground. The purpose of standing on the shoulders of giants is not to praise the giants, but to see further. If a layman of the twenty-first century disagrees with Aristotle, the finest philosopher of his day, then so much the worse for Aristotle. Those who would stand on his shoulders must expect to see further.



Filed under Philosophy

3 responses to “Further argument with John Wright

  1. “I answered this to the best of my ability, but apparently failed to connect. My answer is that, when a man says “This was a just act”, he is referring to an empirical fact, about his brain. I do not think I can make it any clearer than that.”

    Is the sentence, “That waterfall is sublimely beautiful” a sentence whose subject is the waterfall, or is it a sentence whose subject is a description of the brain atom motions of the person making the statement?

    If I say, “I see the sun” am I making a statement about the sun, or am I making a statement about the chemicals in my eyeball?

    If I make the statement, “Slavery is unjust” am I making a statement about the justice or lack thereof of human bondage, or am I describing to you the number and position of the electrons in my cortex, thalamus, hypothalamus, and medulla oblongata?

    If I make the statement, “Slavery is unjust” and a Southern Planter who owns slaves strikes me sharply on the head, so that a bone splinter now presses on my cortex, causing me to hallucinate, and my brain state is sufficiently disorganized that any and all statements about my cortex, thalamus, hypothalamus, and medulla oblongata which were true before are now false, does that mean that slavery is now just?

    If I suffered such a bone splinter to the brain, and I now believed as the Southern Planter did that slavery was just, would slavery be just?

    Would slavery be just for all men at all times, or just for me, and only for the period of time until I could have brain surgery and have the splinter removed?

    Once the splinter is removed, statements I make about my brain will be different. Will statements I make about slavery be true or false because and only because the splinter is removed?

    Can I make the statement true for all men of all times that slavery is unjust in to a statement that is false for all men at all times by removing or replacing a bone splinter?

    Is there a difference between a perception and a thing perceived?

    Is there is difference between the sun, an object, and the chemicals in my eyeball, a reaction to an object?

    Is there a difference between justice, a concept, and the things I think in my mind about justice, conceptualization?

  2. Pingback: The Experiment that Proves Empiricism is GET DRUNK! | John C. Wright's Journal

  3. kingofmen

    Is the sentence, “That waterfall is sublimely beautiful” a sentence whose subject is the waterfall, or is it a sentence whose subject is a description of the brain atom motions of the person making the statement?

    Both; it is a description of their interaction.

    If I say, “I see the sun” am I making a statement about the sun, or am I making a statement about the chemicals in my eyeball?

    Both; you describe how the Sun interacts with your eyeballs and ultimately with your brain.

    If I suffered such a bone splinter to the brain, and I now believed as the Southern Planter did that slavery was just, would slavery be just?

    No; again I refer you to our previous discussion, where I outlined how an objective morality can be arrived at without assuming a source external to humanity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s