Monday, 7 November 2011

No Matter, NeverMind

A criticism of scientific knowledge is a must, now that we see it being peddled as the only source of knowledge that can be relied upon in its entirety. It's amusing that the same folks who worship at the altar of reason, rationale and logic, are unable to exercise the same when it comes to their own beliefs. The proponents of materialism believe that the gamut of knowable phenomena is exhausted by matter and energy, and that scientific knowledge occupies the pivotal position, epistemologically. That only matter, energy and matter-energy relations exist. Even if it seems futile to point out the obvious error in pre-supposing and mentioning 'relations' in a framework that fundamentally tries to do away with it, there are other salient features of this pseudo-philosophy that raises philosophical brows.
At the outset, materialism crumbles by the might of its own supposition: that scientific knowledge is the most eminent form of knowledge. Funnily though, till date, and in principle, there is no scientific method to verify or arrive at this claim. This in itself is reason enough to abandon such a seemingly conflicting belief. But the remaining statutes of the claim collapse under their own weight.
Perhaps the biggest bone of contention for a materialist would be the dichotomy of the mind and body. Unfortunately for them, their belief seems to be the anti-thesis of a fairly old intuition, of Descartes', called Cartesian dualism. Descartes came up with this theory in the 17th century, so that makes the antithesis also quite outdated . Cartesian dualism has itself been the source of a lot of mindless squid ink over the mind-body problem for centuries now. Reducing the mind to a supernatural entity was of course rather naive.
But this is no defense for those hapless materialists whose standard response to any proposition aiming to show the absurd proposition of identifying the brain/body with the mind is: "There is no place for your ectoplasm or spirit or supernatural ghost tripe in the head". Seems to me, these guys could learn from a simple maxim: The opposite of a non-truth is not the truth.
For one, there are many alternatives to Cartesian dualism that seems to allude that the mind is indeed beyond the brain or the body. One of the chief contenders for this could be Aristotlean Hylomorphism, but that's a different topic for another day. 
But now to see why identifying the brain with the mind leads us to some insurmountable difficulties. Till date, there has been no coherent principle or theory in neuroscience backing this belief. The only empirical evidence is in the form of the largely dubious brain scans that purport to show that anything we call 'mind' is just certain 'activity' or neuronal firing in select areas of the brain. In other words, the neuronal firing is the thought/emotion/intention/belief (unless you're an eliminative materialist, for then you'd just say thoughts/emotions/intentions don't exist). If you think this is hardly controversial, perhaps the analogy may make it easier: it's like saying the footprint was the cause of the step. Our thoughts leave a trail in the 'physical' brain, but identifying the trail with the real thing is illogical, innit?
Other problems soon follow. What is mathematics in the light of all this? Our materialist has two options. Either he believes that mathematics is a property of the world, or it's a property of the mind. We can't really say it's a property of the universe because, it would seem this 'property' has been ascribed to it. And secondly, many, many fields of mathematics describe things that don't represent anything even remotely familiar in the known world. Complexity theory, the Mandelbrot set, value of Pi. There are more irrational numbers than rational ones. Scientists deal with imaginary numbers all the time. So where does mathematical knowledge come from, if its subject matter is only internal? Some mathematicians like Roger Penrose still do not rule out a Platonic realm of mathematics from where we access these truths.
The other option then, is, that mathematics is all in the mind.
Now, why neuroscientists of the materialist stripe swallow this tripe is clearly obvious. For anyone who believes that matter and energy are all that's there, this is a textbook case of applying the Occam's razor.
Let's take mathematics. If mathematics depends on the mind, and if you put them in the same ontological category, it would seem that mathematics does not exist without the mind. The matter-hatters commit a mindless blunder when they reduce mind to matter. Thoughts, intentionality, meaning and qualia -- any way to explain them as a physical property leads to circular reasoning. Applying reductio ad absurdum, let's say all our thoughts, desires, intentions, beliefs and feelings are a result of complex neuronal firing and hormonal sloshings. If this be the case, it wouldn't even make sense to believe this reasoning, since belief just is another firing of the neurons and how on earth is it supposed to have any truth value? The materialist is then forced to concede that meanings and beliefs are an illusion. Just short of digging his own grave.

The other intriguing property of thoughts, intentions and qualia is that they are irreducible. The colour red is red. There is no simpler constituent that makes up the colour. Red is just the 'qualitative feeling' we experience when subjected to electromagnetic radiation of a certain length (700 nm). The same goes for beliefs and intentionality. They cannot be reduced any further. Our thoughts are always 'about' something, even 'about' other thoughts. The aboutness cannot be simplified further because a thought about a cat just is about a cat. It might lead to other thoughts about cat-related things. But the specific thought about the cat, or for that matter anything else, cannot be reduced to anything simpler.
Another crucial wench in the materialist worldview is: if our beliefs are just brain-states or an electro-chemical property of the brain, then even the 'belief' that beliefs are brain-states will be another brain-state. One would be hard pressed to infer a truth value from a brain-state. Do the ripples in the lake have truth value?
But that's not even the biggest hole in naturalist thinking. It is this: If brain-states have any truth value, it would seem that truths originate in the brain, corresponding to a particular state. In that case, mathematical truths would have no independent existence without the brain. If the naturalist, or materialist, holds that mathematical truths are independent of the brain, is there a mathematical realm where they exist, beyond the physical world? If so, why shouldn't there be necessary truths that transcend the physical world? If these truths can be accessed by the mind, there exist in the mind certain truths that have a non-physical origin.