Friday, July 18, 2008

Naturalistic Dualism

In one of the coffee breaks between sessions at GECCO, I was introduced to the concept of naturalistic dualism, which is a stance on the nature of consciousness. The term was coined by David Chalmers, and is described here.

If I understand the basic idea, naturalistic dualism holds that consciousness:
  • Is not a reducible phenomenon
  • Cannot be explained in terms of function
  • Is fundamentally different from anything physical or any function of anything physical, and is therefore a qualitatively different entity from anything else in the known universe
If anybody knows more about this philosophical stance and I'm screwing it up, please correct me in the comments.

Here are some sections from Chalmers paper. See if this makes sense:
Purely physical explanation is well-suited to the explanation of physical structures, explaining macroscopic structures in terms of detailed microstructural constituents; and it provides a satisfying explanation of the performance of functions, accounting for these functions in terms of the physical mechanisms that perform them. This is because a physical account can entail the facts about structures and functions: once the internal details of the physical account are given, the structural and functional properties fall out as an automatic consequence. But the structure and dynamics of physical processes yield only more structure and dynamics, so structures and functions are all we can expect these processes to explain. The facts about experience cannot be an automatic consequence of any physical account, as it is conceptually coherent that any given process could exist without experience. Experience may arise from the physical, but it is not entailed by the physical.
I don't get how it is "conceptually coherent" that any given process could exist without experience. The process that gives rise to experience cannot exist without giving rise to experience.

Look, we can't explain how consciousness works. But every single phenomenon that we now understand in physical terms was once thought to be some utterly mysterious, qualitatively different stuff, usually couched in supernatural terms. The history of science is the account of the majority of people thinking that phenomenon from lightning bolts to disease was some mysterious result of supernatural workings. A few brave, skeptical people thought, "Wait a minute...maybe there's a reasonable explanation for that." And then they did the hard work to try to figure it out.

Now Chalmers has a response to this:
It is tempting to note that all sorts of puzzling phenomena have eventually turned out to be explainable in physical terms. But each of these were problems about the observable behavior of physical objects, coming down to problems in the explanation of structures and functions. Because of this, these phenomena have always been the kind of thing that a physical account might explain, even if at some points there have been good reasons to suspect that no such explanation would be forthcoming. The tempting induction from these cases fails in the case of consciousness, which is not a problem about physical structures and functions. The problem of consciousness is puzzling in an entirely different way. An analysis of the problem shows us that conscious experience is just not the kind of thing that a wholly reductive account could succeed in explaining.
This is if you buy his argument that conscious experience is not the kind of thing that can be explained in terms of physical structures and their function. Which I don't.

This seems to me to be a very counterproductive agenda, especially to a scientist, and especially to a scientist bent on trying to figure out how the mind works.


Ted Kaminski said...

"The tempting induction from these cases fails in the case of consciousness, which is not a problem about physical structures and functions."

How is this not circular logic?

Unlike all that other things we thought couldn't be explained physically, consciousness actually cannot be explained physically because consciousness can't be explained physically!

Derek James said...

Yeah, I just don't see that he makes his case beyond flatly asserting that certain things are the case and others aren't, and circling back on his own assertions and justifications.

Sebastian said...

The problem is that you run in to circular logic problems with naturalist thinking too:

The mind works this way [long naturalist description involving neural complexs A-L, Genetic variables M-S, and environmental inputs T-Z].

How do you know that?

I investigated it.

But couldn't your personal mind be fooled by input Y? Maybe genetic variable M is steering your belief when combined with U.

Well of course.

And if Religious guy over there had neural pathway B (outside of his control) and genetic component N, and environmental component V, he would strongly believe in a non-naturalist view right?

I suppose.

The problem is that your mind can't investigate minds free of the influence of things which influence minds. It is kind of a mental uncertainty principle.

[This is NOT relativism. It is very likely that some descriptions are more accurate than others. But ultimately you have to just trust that your mind is capable of accurately describing the products of your investigation. It isn't proveable by investigation.]

Will Hunter is Becoming a Better Writer Blog said...

Explaining the creation of an apple doesn't explain WHY it was created. We have a theory about why it was created, but its evidence does not come directly from observing its creation, it comes from cutting it open, recognizing seeds, concluding that this is how the tree manages posterity.

This is the same with consciousness and Chalmers' point is that to understand consciousness, you cannot look at the physical function of the brain (apple tree), because this only gives rise to the psychophysical process of "mind" (apple). It doesn't answer why, what is the reason we experience the mind. Hope that helps.

Personally, I subscribe to Whitehead's extensive continuum theory for why mind is experienced. In the continuum, identicalness of certain progressive features like atomic and molecular structures and their psychophysical properties, in the case of the mind, exist because of the continuum’s endeavor toward order. "It is not a fact prior to the world; it is the first determination of order – that is, of real potentiality – arising out of the general character of the world."