Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What Accounts for Mentality?

I've been studying neuroscience and mind theory for almost a decade. It's no secret that I don't believe the soul is immortal; however, when I read Antonio Damasio's work on Descartes, Francis Crick's "Astronishing Hypothesis" and Joseph LeDoux ("Synaptic Self"), I was convinced that mentality has to result from brain activity. In other words, while science cannot provide the knock out punch for the Witness understanding of the soul, the neuroscientific evidence overwhelmingly seems to be on our side. But scientific knowledge is provisional and limited. Therefore, it only takes us so far.

While I've been excited about the harmony between science and how Witnesses understand biblical anthropology, one Witness friend with whom I shared these findings said I should exercise caution: he feels that only Jehovah knows how mentality actually comes about. I respect this friend greatly, but I could not help but wonder what else accounts for mental states, if we're purely physical and don't have souls. In any event, two possibilities seem viable for me at this time:

1) Mental states could supervene on brain states

2) Mental states are identical with brain states

By supervenience, I simply mean a form of "dependence" such that M (mental states) depends on B (brain states), which is another way of saying that differences in B constitute differences in M (and vice versa). Another term for supervenience is property dualism (e.g., contrasting the physical properties of a painting over against its microphysical properties).

As support for the idea that minds could turn out to be continuous with matter, Anthony Appiah writes:

"We have learned about the properties of matter by seeing what can be made of it: we know that it is the kind of thing that magnets can be made out of, because we have found magnetic substances; we know that it is the kind of thing bacteria can be made out of, because we have found bacteria. Why is it especially hard to accept that it is the kind of thing minds can be made out of? Indeed, since the one thing of which each of us surely has the most extensive direct experience is our own mind, shouldn’t we be puzzled, if we are puzzled by anything, by the nature of matter? How can it be, one might want to ask, that a world made of the sorts of things and governed by the sorts of laws that physicists now believe in should give rise to the astonishing range of experiences that each of us has every day?" (Thinking It Through, page 52).

But Kevin Vanhoozer does not want to reduce mental properties to physical properties. He believes we should maintain some type of distinction between the two. Either way, I believe that physical factors completely explain mental states. Jehovah God created us as completely physical beings.


Nathan said...

Hi Edgar,

Fascinating post! Thanks for sharing.

It seems at least possible that our introspective understanding of a certain type of "qualia" might be represented differently in one individual's brain scan when compared to another's despite any applied symbolic or linguistic references being identical. Such comparisons might indicate that brain states are not identical with mental states, thus making mentation more than just the sum of its parts and opening up the discussion to substance dualism or supervenient causation etc. However, in my estimation it could also be argued that supervenience would seem to permit the creation of a laboratory mind – if only trained experts could arrange matter in just the "right" way. I'm not convinced that such a thing would ever be possible, but neither am I persuaded that the invalidity of this kind of proposal lends credence to substance dualism either.

I'm inclined to think that if Christian materialism is the correct view of the mind then Jehovah must have baked into physical reality some type of controlled randomness that gets vouchsafed only by particular constellations of matter, making the ensuing aggregate capable of action as well as reaction. To support this, it might be possible to run an argument for materialism based upon the miraculous:

* A great God would likely favour great miracles.
* Mind from matter is a greater miracle than mind over matter.
* Therefore, a great God would likely favour creating mind from matter than mind over matter.

Nevertheless, I have also wondered whether something like a deep Thomistic teleology, that is to say recognising intentionality within matter (as opposed to an epiphenomenal account), might help elucidate the mind/body problem. If it isn't turtles all the way down then we must inevitably get back to God or risk facing the absurd – and it would seem more than reasonable to suggest that a loving God would want evidence of his own intentionality coded into an analysis of our minds. At any rate, although the Bible reveals that humans are both physical and spiritual, I agree that the Scriptures seem to indicate the latter to be a capacity rather than a constituent of humanness. On this our publications have long reported similarly.

Might our ultimate resolution to the mind/body problem be a case of "Physician cure thyself!"? Can the mind really plumb the depths of the mind?... Now that would be a great miracle indeed. ;)



Edgar Foster said...

Thanks for always providing substantial and beneficial feedback, Nathan.

As you likely know, the physicalists have sought to combat qualia by suggesting that qualia (subjective sensations or raw feels) are external rather than internal. A noted proponent of this view is the late Fred Dretske. The subject of "what-it-feels like to X" is notoriously difficult and it has lead some to be dualists of one stripe or another, but dualism has its own problematic aspects, even if we accept hylomorphic dualism rather than substance dualism.

I also like the argument that you propose for Jehovah possibly bringing forth mind out of matter. I know you're just weighing possibilities without being dogmatic. However, John Searle and Nancey Murphy posit a similar notion about how consciousness arises from matter. Searle in particular, argues that our conscious states arise from neurobiological processes. He illustrates this position by appealing to thirst (a conscious state which is a result of neurobiological factors such as saline imbalances, etc). If this conscious state could be explained by neuroscientific and biological data, then why couldn't all conscious states be explained in that fashion. We already explain emotions, instincts and rationality by using neuroscience. Yet, at one time, philosophers thought the soul was responsible for each one of these phenomena.

On the other hand, I am sympathetic to the belief that our minds somehow manifest intentionality given to us by God. His spirit is able to guide our minds; we can pray to Jehovah and he responds. There will undoubtedly always be a certain mystery that attends being (Gabriel Marcel).

Nathan said...

I always appreciate your incisive comments, Edgar. It's a privilege to speak with you.

Searle's example of thirst is an excellent one. Though, I personally have a hard time extrapolating these types of physical reactions (lack of mineral salts and hydration causing a neurobiological feeling) to non-deterministic volitional actions (thinking to produce a feeling). At least to me, there seems to be a sizable conceptual gap between states induced by an agent and states induced by a reagent. Of course, much of this issue boils down to the inexplicability of free will within a physical system – hence the reason why naturalist's often prefer determinism and theists often prefer some form of dualism.

Ultimately, there must be something fundamental to matter that we're all just missing (and no, I'm not alluding to Nagelian panpsychism). We know that a materialist account of matter must allow for something like reflexive self-directedness (matter intentionally directing matter intentionally directing matter) within a closed system such as the brain. But how exactly the aboutness of a thought redounds to the aboutnesses of subsequent thoughts is a mystery that leaves me with such a stupefaction at God's ways that I can only cry uncle and ask for my baby bottle back.



Edgar Foster said...

Hi Nathan,

I'm teaching a course on free will this semester, which examines some of the questions you raise. Firstly, while most neuroscientists would probably say that free will is illusory or non-existent, Benjamin Libet reasons that free volition "is at least as good, if not a better, scientific option than is its denial by determinist theory."

See http://www.centenary.edu/attachments/philosophy/aizawa/courses/intros2009/libetjcs1999.pdf

Nancey Murphy also presents a controversial take on free will in her book "Bodies and Souls, Or Spirited Bodies." She wants to suggest that "downward causation" could possibly occur wherein freedom could arise from a wholly deterministic system. That part of her study gets murky and complicated with all of the engineering diagrams. But I think she's on the right track with the idea that freedom could likely emerge from the brain and our embodied lives.

Intentionality is a difficult problem, no matter how one tries to explain it. I can still ask how self-reflexivity occurs in the case of an immaterial substance. That question technically would be outside the bounds of physics or neuroscience--potentially giving us no scientific (empirical) means to ameliorate our theoretical concerns about intentionality. The very notion of a substance like the soul is equally mysterious. Ned Block has demonstrated that appeals to the soul don't completely thwart determinism or satisfactorily account for free will either.

The Bible seems to presuppose freedom and the early fathers usually advocated free will too. Aquinas insisted that our moral lives would become meaningless without free will: there are good biblical and historical reasons for accepting the idea. Yet, as you pointed out, it still remains a mysterious phenomenon.



Nathan said...

I've enjoyed this discussion, Edgar. Your most recent blog post on hylomorphism was appreciated too.

My primary reason for accepting the likelihood of a material account of the mind is the Scriptural support it enjoys. It seems to me that the best evidence that the only component of man that does not ultimately originate from this world is his spirit (Ecc. 12:7). If there is anything else, the Bible doesn't speak unambiguously of it (not without contorting elementary pneumatology/somatology).

Despite being admittedly partial to a material account of mind, I do find some of the attendant problems it nurses extremely challenging. In my opinion, consciousness, intentionality and rationality are likely going to remain some of the hardest problems to ever solve. Colin McGinn thinks that the answer is probably beyond the collective human mental capacity, but that won't stop the philosophers and neuroscientists from trying.

At any rate, in the odd chance that we have to accept something like a mysterian view of the mind then all glory be to God for making his ways so unsearchable (Rom. 11:33). Any humiliation that might arise within our own minds at not being able to "know" will forever be overshadowed by the exaltation of the mind of God.

If you happen to find the time, I would definitely appreciate hearing about how your new philosophy of mind class goes. All the best for the coming semester!



Edgar Foster said...

Hi Nsthan,

I'll try to reply more fully when my internet service at home is restored. Likely, I'll be without service for 2-3 days. But, regarding free will, I'll attempt to share points from that class too.