Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Noumenal soul and the causal order

      If I don't know 'what I am' but only know 'that I am', does that mean that 'I' ultimately refers to something unknowable? a Kantian noumenon?
      In the Critique of Pure Reason Kant is absolutely convinced of the truth of Newtonian mechanics. Kant saw it as the task of metaphysics to establish, a priori, the underpinnings of the Newtonian view of the world of phenomena.
      This leads him, in Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals into extraordinary gyrations, attempting to reconcile free will with determinism. Every action my physical body performs is determined. And yet, these actions when motivated by thought of the Moral Law are 'free'. The only difference between actions motivated by empirical desire and actions motivated by the Moral Law lies in the way they are 'rationalized' by the agent, whether as hypothetical or categorical imperatives.
      This isn't the kind of 'freedom' we want or is worth wanting, would be my reply. The day I was born determined absolutely, on Kant's Newtonian picture, that I would become a person who was only motivated by the Catagorical Imperative, or a person who ignored morality and just did what he wanted — or something in between. as most of us are.
      I remember reading some time ago a contemporary criticism of Kant's 'causal whirligig'. Looking up the phrase on the internet I found this, in a letter from Hamann to Herder:

      Hume is the man for me, for he at least honors the principle of belief, and includes it in his system, while our contryman [i.e. Kant] keeps on chewing the cud of his causal whirligig, without a thought for belief. I don't call that honest. (Quoted in Louis Dupré The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture.)

      I've mentioned in a YouTube video P.F. Strawson's scepticism in The Bounds of Sense about Kant's alleged 'proof' of universal determinism. The most Kant can establish, Strawson thought, was that there must be a rough causal order, sufficiently 'regular' to allow for us to distinguish (most of the time) between veridical perception and false sensory judgements.
      This misses, perhaps deliberately, Kant's point: Either there is such a thing as objective truth or there isn't. If there isn't, on the basis of causal linkage, a definite answer — even though we may never discover this — to every question that can be raised about the past, then there is no objective truth. There are merely Humean 'beliefs' more or less well supported (or provoked by) experience. An intolerable conclusion, for Kant.
      To allow for free will by smashing the scientific picture of the world and allowing random irruptions in the causal order is surely too high a price to pay for free will. Hume, for one, does not consider this a serious possibility. His 'rules' for judging cause and effect would be rendered useless. Hume is in fact a compatibilist about free will. Nothing is to be gained by making the agent a roulette wheel, capable of generating random uncaused 'actions'.
      However, there is an alternative, a 'loop hole'.
      In an essay I wrote in my first year as a graduate student at Oxford (in Hilary Term 1977, for M.J. Woods) I believed that I had found a way round the standard objections to mind-body interaction:

      Let C be a system constituted by individuals which may be in one of two states, 0 or 1. Let 0–>1 be a 'random' process which has a relaxation rate R (i.e. there are on average R transitions 0–>1 per second). Such a system might be a substance whose molecules are changing from a higher to a lower energy state. We may suppose that a Cartesian mental event is able to determine whether molecule A or molecule B undergoes the change of state 0–>1, and that such interactions can occur without violating the law of statistical mechanics according to which the relaxation rate for C is R. The  brain functions as a relay which converts local changes of state of certain kinds of molecule into, say, electrical impulses.

      On this picture, we know what the 'soul' or 'I factor' does, but there is no suggestion that one could ever deduce from this what it is. It remains 'noumenal', in Kant's sense.

      That was, in fact, the last time I seriously considered the possibility (and only hypothetically) that mind-body interactionist dualism might be true. (I don't recall Woods' reaction to this particular essay but I can picture him now, squirming in his seat, as I read my essays out aloud, following the usual practice. Having me as a student was a penance.)

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Monday, 24 July 2017

Between 'I am I' and 'private objects'

      'I exist, although I might not have existed.' — What kind of fact is that? Whom am I informing? and on what occasion?
      For the longest time (four decades, in point of fact) I found the following argument persuasive:
      'I am I' can only ever be the assertion of a tautology. I might as well say, 'a turnip is a turnip', or, 'everything is equal to itself' (the so-called 'law of identity').
      If one tries to fill out the content of 'I am I' by describing 'what only I can know' about the contents of my consciousness, the end result is nugatory, sheer emptiness. 'Always get rid of the private object in this way,' advises Wittgenstein. 'assume that it constantly changes, but that you do not notice the change because your memory constantly deceives you.'
      It is futile even attempting to state what I mean when I say (to myself) 'I exist', or 'I am I', because a statement is necessarily something that conveys meaning to another individual, another subject, another 'I'.
      That's not the end of it, however, because there is still something to say. Previously, I was quite inventive in finding 'things to say'. In The Metaphysics of Meaning, I argued that the temptation to assert 'I am I' as if it meant something is the expression of a deep metaphysical illusion. In Naive Metaphysics, I took a different tack, arguing for a metaphysical contradiction between 'the subjective and objective worlds'.
      An 'illusion', a 'contradiction'. Anything, but actual, literal fact.
      If materialism is absurd, as I claimed, and for the reasons I gave — that materialism cannot account for 'my existence' — then there is, there must be an actual fact here. But how to express it? I can't state it. I can't even 'show' it (whatever that would mean) because showing, like stating, implies another subject that the putative 'fact' is shown to.
      'I can show it to myself.' — That's the question. How can I?
      — I am beginning to see the point of Sartre's take on this seeming paradox in Being and Nothingness, following on from his earlier essay The Transcendence of the Ego. I can be consciously aware of objects, as in ordinary sense perception, or I can be aware of my awareness, or aware of my awareness of my awareness, etc. At each iteration, an 'object' is brought into being, but the actual subject, the ego, never appears. The subject of a mental act, can never as such be an object. In the terminology of Being and Nothingness, the 'For-itself' cannot as such be something 'In-itself'.
      And yet, as Sartre notes, we constantly make other subjects 'objects' of our awareness, and moreover are aware of being 'made into objects' by another subject's 'look' (as in the famous story of the keyhole http://follydiddledah.com/image_and_quote_8.html). Sartre saw this pessimistically as a dialectic without a resolution, a battle that neither side can ever win.
      Leaving aside Sartre's dialectic of self and other, I will always and forever be distinct from GK, the spatio-temporal continuant from whose physical point of view I encounter, engage with, act upon the world. Freedom, true freedom, is the impossibility of encompassing the actual subject within the causal order. Every change that I bring about in the world, through my actions, comes (as it were) from outside the world.
      And now it occurs to me that there is a very simple and familiar way to model this.
      Previously, I have used the concept of virtual reality (as in a 3d shooter game) as a model for Aristotle's hylomorphism. The 'objects' in the game are defined by rules (their Aristotelian 'form') that dictates how they behave in a given 'physics model'.
      For example, in the 3d shooter game 'Marathon', gravity is lower than it is on Earth, that is to say, qua virtual object you can 'fall' a greater 'distance' without 'hurting' yourself. When designing a Marathon scenario, physics models can be varied according to taste.
      In the virtual environment of the 3d shooter game, 'monsters' are 'bots' whose behaviour is written into the program. This behaviour is more or less predictable: some monsters will give chase if you shoot at them, others will wait for you to come to them. But there are also one or more virtual agents or 'marines' whose movements are actions of the players, interacting with the program. Each player is outside the world of the program, a human being in the real world. (One thing marines and monsters have in common is that marines, like monsters, are more or less easy to 'kill'.)
      However, the model can be iterated. The 'players outside the program' might be virtual agents in a more comprehensive program — if what we term 'the universe' is just virtual reality or computer simulation. The alien beings playing this game will themselves appear as 'human beings', jostling along with any number of indistinguishable 'human bots' whose behaviour is written into the 'universe program'. (We can call these 'zombies'.)
      How do I know that I am not a mere 'human bot' or zombie? I just know, because I have point of view, I am an agent. But that's all I know. I know that I am, but I don't know what I am.
      For what it's worth, my sense is that, at the present time, the possibility that the universe might be a computer simulation is given more credence than the possibility that mind-body interactionist dualism might be true. What I seem to be moving towards is the notion that these two seemingly distinct possibilities might ultimately amount to one and the same thing.
      But aren't these hypothetical 'alien beings' themselves spatio-temporal continuants inhabiting a 'real' physical world? Sure, if you are taking the model literally. I am suggesting that one might view this rather along Aristotelian lines — effectively, a version of idealism: less extreme than Platonic idealism, but an idealism nonetheless. There is no physical mega-computer generating 'the world'. There is just purposeful reason (Aristotle's 'unmoved mover') that has created our world of 'forms'.
      The form of a person would be to exist as 'a being such that its own existence is an issue for it' — an existential take on Aristotle's 'rational biped'.

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Monday, 17 July 2017

Poverty of materialism

      Let's get one thing straight. Materialism isn't some new-fangled philosophy. It is as old as philosophy itself. There has always been the belief or supposition that material entities configured in the right way could somehow give rise to the spark of consciousness.
      Back in the time of the Presocratic atomists — or Epicurus, or Lucretius — the materialist party were the revolutionaries attacking the popular idea of a 'soul'. Their arguments, no less than the arguments deployed by materialists today, were founded on a challenge laid down to the soul party. You don't know what wondrous things might arise from a system of material particles configured in the appropriate way.
      According to the Stanford Encyclopedia, Aristotle reports that the soul atoms of Democritus were 'fiery'. (I seemed to remember that soul atoms were meant to be 'slippery' but that would be water, according to the article.) It is disappointing that Democritus didn't see that heat or fire is something that requires explanation in terms of the 'logic of locomotion' (as Jonathan Barnes calls it). On the other hand, Democritus would be regarded as a genius if he had anticipated the kinetic theory of heat.
      Let that pass.
      The case of Democritus illustrates the point that materialists, when pushed, will tend to appeal to special properties of material systems, such as electrical current or quantum effects. We don't know how, but somehow a computer that works in the way a brain does can do things that a mechanical computer such as the one designed by Charles Babbage in 1849 could never do — even if we built a Babbage Engine the size of a planet.
      The problem with this idea is that it breaks with the assumption that every computer is functionally equivalent, in principle, to a Turing Machine. (For 'Turing Machine' see https://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/projects/raspberrypi/tutorials/turing-machine/one.html.) There are practical limits to what a purely mechanical computer can do, but those are the only limits. Theoretically, there is no limit. If the brain is just a computer, then in principle — if one had a suitable physical material and appropriate machinery — one could build a Turing machine that was conscious.
      Materialists believe this. They have to, because that's their position. Never mind how completely ludicrous it is. — But then again how do I know it's ludicrous? Isn't that just my knee-jerk reaction? Where's my argument?
      Let's play a game of imagine.
      Imagine that God exists, but that He didn't create the universe. God sees all by 'intuitive perception' (according to Kant). God doesn't have a point of view, because His point of view is the 'View from Nowhere' (Nagel).
      God has been traversing endless space and time looking for a universe in which life exists. Or, rather, he 'flips' between numerous universes the way one might turn pages in a book. Page after page of chaos, random combinations of particles, weird 'laws'. Then, at long last, he finds our universe of universal laws and order. The Goldilocks universe where the evolution of intelligent creatures is possible.
      From the 'view from nowhere' God spies these creatures, these 'humans', and sees how their brains give rise to intelligent behaviour, the treasures of literature and art, wondrous inventions. God has no difficulty with the materialist theory because He can see that it is indeed the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
      — The problem with this picture is that, with all His immense knowledge, the ability to 'intuit' the position and velocity of every particle, or measure every field or charge or wave, God doesn't know what I know: that I exist. (I argued this point in Naive Metaphysics, but I was still nominally attached to the materialist party then.) God knows what my brain is doing, down the finest detail, He can predict my every action or utterance, but the one thing He can't do is distinguish me from my doppelganger, my perfect physical copy.
      I exist (or 'I exist now') isn't simply a fact that I know. It is an absolute reality. It is the actual. It is the one indestructible piece of grit in the materialist machine that brings it grinding to a halt. I exist. To exist is to exist here and to exist now. There is no 'here' or 'now' for the view from nowhere. All places are 'here', all times are 'now'.
      It follows by reductio ad absurdum that the 'God' I have described could not exist. What such an all-seeing God is alleged to 'know' — the truth of materialism — could not be the case.
      So, how is it that materialists don't see this?
      The reason is the same as it has always been: materialism is an ideology.
      An ideology becomes stronger, more resilient, the more people subscribe to it. As a materialist you are the one asking for evidence, for proof. You can scoff at those who assert that they 'exist'. What is that statement, after all, but sound waves caused by events in the brain? As for you, yourself, it may not be possible to imagine how you could be a Turing Machine, but imagination isn't required. You just know that you are.
      — That's why I say that materialists don't know that they exist.

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