…and its perils.
My respect for Steven Pinker has declined as a result of this episode.
I guess I’d have to read the book, but I’m a bit puzzled. As a probe of what we think we know, it appears rather incomplete.
What is the issue here? The book blurb on Amazon says that the materialistic approach to life doesn’t explain a variety of mind-related phenomena and apparently for that reason alone, there’s a window for all sorts of non-materialistic things to come in. That sounds an awful lot like a “God of the gaps” argument. Science has explained all sorts of things, but because it hasn’t explained the mind (or whatever comes next) yet, there’s a possibility of all sorts of weird things intruding.
But there are fundamental limitations to empiricism. First, that one can see only what is possible to see, which will allow all that weird stuff in, no matter how good a job we do of explaining the mind (or for that matter, all of reality) in the future.
For example, if we’re in a computer program that happens to be a perfect simulation of the reality we perceive, then we can say very little about the computer (aside from some observations of how much information it stores).
He didn’t need our present level of ignorance of the mind to say that materialism is incomplete. It is like all other empiricism-based ideas, fundamentally incomplete.
Further, scientific philosophy doesn’t deal in absolutes. There is no expectation that we will in finite time come up with the definitive theory of everything which explains all phenomena exactly. So some ignorance of the mind (and to a greater or lesser degree, everything in reality) is normal.
For example, if we’re in a computer program that happens to be a perfect simulation of the reality we perceive
If it were imperfect, how would we know? The incongruities would seem perfectly logical to us on the inside, and would have explanations no less airtight than anything else.
Anyway, I decided long ago I’m not a computer program; if I were, I’d be Windows — and I would have crashed by now.
Put in simple terms, the reductionist science of the materialists is self-refuting — for it eventuates in the reduction of the scientist himself to mere matter in motion. It eventuates in a theory that explains in materialist terms why the theory itself is being proposed and thereby subverts any claim it has to be true. Reduce the scientist to a biochemical reaction and you destroy the science.
I’m back to ask one question: how is the above passage not nonsense?
Since I’m here: Paul A. Rahe’s piece mischaracterizes what Pinker said. Pinker said “What has gotten into Thomas Nagel? Two philosophers expose the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.” and then he links to a review site. The piece claims that Pinker somehow politicizes the argument, but he did no such thing. Even if you think Nagel’s current work isn’t shoddy, or, on the other hand, even if you think Nagel wasn’t ever a great thinker, there is no reason here to think less of Pinker.
I also see no reason to think that Nagel’s argument makes any sense whatsoever. This has nothing to do with politics, or intellectual herasy — sometimes an argument is just shoddy.
Here’s the shoddy argument, in terms of spacecraft instead of brains: if you want to build a crewed spaceship, you’ll have to worry about something called an environmental control and life support system (ECLS). The ECLS will be built out of various mechanical bits. The mechanical bits will be made of neutrons, protons, and electrons. Chemistry and physics have something to say about neutrons, electrons, and protons. But they have nothing to say about an ECLS — you can search a physics textbook and not find even one reference to an ECLS. Therefore (and this is the shoddy part), there is something about a spacecraft’s ECLS that can’t be explained by physics.
Well, sure, it is true that getting really good at physics won’t make you a master ECLS designer, so in some sense, the study of physics really can’t explain an ECLS. But it would be shoddy, at best, to then point to the ECLS on a spacecraft and say “That ECLS is amazing! It ignores the laws of physics!!! Therefore it must rely on some non-physical property!” You know, like magic. Don’t believe in a magical ECLS? Well, then maybe you’ll find Nagel’s argument a bit shoddy too.
(D’oh. Forgot something. I left off the second “S” in ECLSS because I was going to make a point about how “systems” are conceptual (like numbers) but that doesn’t make a system any less physical when it is instantiated in a spacecraft.)
It appears to me Nagel is simply saying, don’t assume you know things which you do not. I see that a lot, and people mistakenly think that extending technical concepts which have been successful in explaining specific phenomena to a more complicated, though related, situations is “science”. And, so we end up with post-normal science fiascoes like AGW.
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