Physicalism, again, and consciousness, once more…

“Because an agent’s exercising of a mental power is essentially intrinsically active, it is essentially uncaused. … The agent only needs to be aware of his mental act of choosing to know that it is uncaused.”

–– Taliaferro & Goetz,

“Mental actions producing physical effects is vapid: dualism is false.” But can we say purely physical interactions produce mental states?

Isn’t physicalism just a fallacy of the identity of indiscernibles? “For all mental events M there’s a neural state N, so M = N.” #Leibniz

Drawing illustrating the process of synaptic t...

Drawing illustrating the process of synaptic transmission in neurons, cropped from original in an NIA brochure. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since physicalism P and/or mind-brain identity MBI seem(s) to have cropped up from the neuroenvy post, I’d like to propose what I think is the key to defeating P and MBI.

1. The (Kripkean) modal argument against MBI (MAMBI… sorry, I couldn’t resist) is compelling. Given the truth of the indiscernibility of identicals InId, where a relevant difference can be found between M and B, they are not identical. There are such relevant differences, ergo….

2. MBI is basically a fallacy of the identity if indiscernibles IdIn. MBI: –» for any mental event M there is a corresponding neural state N, so M is empirically indistinguishable from N, therefore M = N –» MBI.

3. A more ambitious but very tentative methodological conclusion I might like to draw from the above two-pronged argumentation is this:

Insofar as identity arguments fail to motivate any serious metaphysical position (assuming a refutation of MAMBI), but only detract from alleged identity theses *about anything*, identity itself is an inappropriate relation to bring to metaphysical questions. As such, no identity thesis is possible, and thus MBI is methodologically possible.

That requires a lot of axiological unpacking, I admit, but it’s just a hunch. Meanwhile, the meat is in the above two points.

4. If the arguments against materialism have ever been any good, then no amount of neuroscientific precision can reverse them. We’ve always known “the body is involved in human thought”, so it’s irrelevant in principle to argue by scope that this or that particular patch of tissue, or this or that complex of neurons, is “involved in human thought”. If it’s ever been coherent to argue against “a body as such” being the organ (tool, proper means) of conceptual awareness, then it’s just as coherent to maintain that claim in the face of something as stunning as, say, optogentics and the neuron-specific location of memories.

The researchers in the article I cited in the neuroenvy thread made bold metaphysical claims on behalf of materialism, but their claims are probative only if the neurons they manipulated are necessary and sufficient for the memories they manipulated. Certainly exciting those optogenetic neurons was necessary to simulate the mouse’s fear response, but the question hinges on whether the same fear memory could be simulated by that neuron itself, in isolation from the mouse as a whole. I contend that it could not, and therefore the neuron is not a sufficient condition for generating memories, and materialism is false, at least on this empirical front. The upshot is that the research actually becomes rather underwhelming, metaphysically speaking. For while the necessity of those neurons illuminates how mice remember fear, the insufficiency of those neurons by themselves to generate the same cognitive content reminds us that it is not the neurons which remember, but rather the mice.


About The Codgitator (a cadgertator)

Catholic convert. Quasi-Zorbatic. Freelance interpreter, translator, and web marketer. Former ESL teacher in Taiwan (2003-2012) and former public high school teacher (2012-2014). Married father of three. Multilingual, would-be scholar, and fairly consistent fitness monkey. My research interests include: the interface of religion and science, the history and philosophy of science and technology, ancient and medieval philosophy, and cognitive neuroscience. Please pray for me.
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