Reductive Materialism Requires Philosophical Ignorance

These paragraphs from Ed Feser lay out the case so clearly that I will quote him at length:
Now, Nagel’s point is not that there is something wrong per se with overthrowing common sense in this way (as Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Locke etc. did).  It is rather that whatever value this method has, it cannot coherently be applied to the explanation of conscious experience itself.  If the reductive method involves ignoring the appearances of a thing and redefining the thing in terms of something other than the appearances, then since our conscious experience of the world just is the way the world appears to us, to ignore the appearances is in this case just to ignore the very phenomenon to be explained rather than to explain it.  Consciousness is for this reason necessarily and uniquely resistant to explanation via the same method scientific reductionism applies to everything else.  For the application of the method in this case, writes Nagel, “does not take us nearer to the real nature of the phenomenon: it takes us farther away from it.”  To treat the appearances as essentially “subjective” or mind-dependent is precisely to make them incapable of explanation in entirely “objective” or mind-independent terms. 
Hence “in a sense,” Nagel continues, “the seeds of this objection to the reducibility of experience are already detectable in successful cases of reduction.”  As I have put it myself in several places, the reductive method in question is like the method of getting rid of all the dirt in the house by sweeping it under a certain rug.  While this is a very effective way of getting rid of the dirt everywhere else, it is not a strategy that could possibly be used to get rid of the dirt under the rug itself.  On the contrary, it only makes the problem of getting rid of that dirt even worse.  And that is exactly why the mind-body problem as it is understood today essentially came into existence with Galileo, Descartes, and Co. and has remained unsolved to the present day.  What these early modern thinkers wanted (for certain practical and political ends) was a completely quantitative, mathematical description of the world.  Irreducibly qualitative features -- secondary qualities, final causes, and the like -- since they would not fit this model, were thus essentially defined away as mere projections, “swept under the rug” of the mind as it were.  But that only makes the idea of dealing with the mind itself in the same manner even more hopeless.  For these early moderns, the mind just is, you might say, the holding tank for everything that doesn’t fit their quantitative method.  Naturally, then, that method cannot coherently be applied to the mind itself.
Now the lesson Nagel drew from this in the 1974 article was not that physicalism is false so much as that “physicalism is a position we cannot understand because we do not at present have any conception of how it might be true.”  But the early moderns who inaugurated this conceptual revolution tended to draw the stronger conclusion.  Indeed, writers like Cudworth and Malebranche saw that the method in question can be used to argue for a kind of mind-body dualism.  For if you maintain that color, sound, heat, cold, odor, taste, etc., as common sense understands these features, do not exist in matter, then they do not exist in the brain or body any more than they exist in the material world external to the brain and body.  If they do exist in the mind, though, then the mind must not be material.  Dualism can hardly be refuted by the reductive method, then, precisely because dualism follows from that method. 
Now that conclusion is actually a bit too strong, though the Cudworth/Malebranche style of argument has had defenders down to the present (e.g. Richard Swinburne in The Evolution of the Soul).  For one could argue instead, as Berkeley did, that only the qualities we know of in conscious experience are real and the mathematically-redefined material world is a mere fiction -- idealism rather than dualism.  Or one could argue, as Russellians do, that the sensory qualities presented to us in conscious experience are what “flesh out” the abstract structure described by physics -- thereby putting something like color, sound, etc. as common sense understands them back into matter after all, but in a way that is very different from the way common sense supposes them to be there.   (As David Chalmers suggests, though, this really amounts to a kind of riff on property dualism.)  And of course, we Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophers would reject the assumptions that lead to this tangle in the first place, dismissing Cartesianism and materialism alike as riffs on the same fundamental error of treating what are really just physics’ useful mathematical abstractions from concrete material reality as if they were the whole of concrete material reality. 
What you cannot coherently be, consistent with the reductive method described, is any sort of reductive materialist, which has been at least historically the standard form of materialism.  And this, I would say, is why materialism was so rare in modern philosophy before the late twentieth century.  It takes real historical ignorance seriously to think that the scientific revolution somehow supports reductive materialism and that Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, et al. were non-materialists merely because they didn’t have the courage and/or foresight to follow out the implications of that revolution.  In fact, they were the ones who were consistently following out those implications, while materialists like Hobbes were the wishful thinkers.  Perhaps the proud ignorance of the history of philosophy that some (though by no means all) of the early analytic philosophers exhibited made it possible for materialism widely to come to seem plausible by the 1960s. 


  1. But I woke up from a nap in a plane once, so Feser is an idiot.

  2. I have an experiment. Take a clever working philosopher and hook him up to a machine. Now kill off his neurons one at a time. Give him a quiz after each one. When we are done, if he's still conscious and thoughtful, then materialism is refuted.

    Actually this experiment has been conducted, in rough form, and if you read some Oliver Saks he recounts the effects.

    1. Unnecessary, Ken. Materialism has already been thoroughly refuted.

      "But the scientist genuinely regards philo-
      sophy as vital to his own science ; though he may
      not use the word, which he tends to reserve as a term
      of opprobrium for other people's philosophy. More
      especially, he seems to regard materialism as the very
      foundation of his methods. Now if this were so,
      science would be in a highly precarious position; for
      its methods would be founded on a theory which
      criticism has long ago discredited. For that materialism
      is discredited no student of philosophy can doubt. " -- R.G. Collingwood

    2. Ahh, but what does Collingwood say today? After all, he's seen the experiment close up.

    3. You are confusing materialism with immortality of the soul. They are quite separate issues. Aristotle, Nagel, Chalmers, G. Strawson, B. Russell and many other major philosophers, along with many Buddhists, are not materialists and yet reject the immortality of the soul.

    4. Ooh, the first sentence should have read, "You are confusing anti-materialism with a belief in the immortality of the soul."

      And, of course, one can believe in the latter, without thinking we can ask for journal articles from the dearly beloved departed.

    5. No, I'm rejecting the existence of a soul.

      Collingwood is nice evidence for my side. His body had lots of interesting things to say. Since it malfunctioned though it hasn't. I can present a working body, a broken one, and some betwixt and between. I haven't seen anyone do that with sould yet, except by implicitly labelling the body as a soul or soul box.
      Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis.

    6. OK, but, as mentioned, this is a post about reductive materialism. That is an entirely different matter than whether there is an immortal soul. (I will note, however, that not a single person who has professed belief in the existence of an immortal soul has, to my knowledge, expected it to continue communicating from a dead body! Since the result with Collingwood's body is *exactly what their hypothesis predicts*, it is very hard to see how it is evidence against it!)

    7. "When we are done, if he's still conscious and thoughtful, then materialism is refuted."

      That result might go a long way toward refuting materialism, but the opposite result would not damage non-materialist theories of the mind in the slightest. It is consistent with every form of mind-body dualism I've ever heard of, from epiphenomenalism to versions that incorporate free will.

  3. "It is consistent with every form of mind-body dualism I've ever heard of, from epiphenomenalism to versions that incorporate free will."

    And, of course, no idealist (that I know of) has ever thought that the failure of dead bodies to talk philosophy was a problem!

    1. Kind of you to correctly identify a common idealist failing! Perhaps if they thought out the implications more carefully they'd mend their sorry ways!

      It's Occam's razor again Gene. You seem to need bodies for talk. You seem to need special kinds of organization of body parts. Not remtely clear you need more than that.

    2. Read Berkeley, Ken: you are holding that razor backwards! It's matter that is the unnecessary hypothesis.


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