Gilbert Ryle contra Descartes

Clara asked:

What are the strengths and weaknesses for Gilbert Ryle`s answer on cartesian dualism?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Ryle combatted the notion that ‘mind’ indicates an immaterial substance in opposition to physical substances. He termed this concept ‘the ghost in the machine’ and its elaboration a ‘category error’. His target was Descartes and the academic industry devoted to the dual substance doctrine, both labouring under the handicap of their inability to account for the co-operation of these disparate substances in humans.

Its strength is, that the arguments are convincing exemplifications of Occam’s Razor. Don’t propose the existence of an entity superadded to our faculties which can handle all our sensory and intellectual capacities on their own. It is (he says) like asking for a torch to shine on things for us to see, and then for another torch that enables us to recognise them.

Hence his analogy to the university, which is an entity comprising many colleges; meanwhile the word ‘university’ does not denote an additional entity, but is simply the collective noun that embraces them all. If we wish to know what ‘the university’ does, we must visit each college in turn; and similarly with the mind, which can only be spoken of intelligibly if we attend to the capacity of each of its faculties. Accordingly Ryle devotes most of his book to their discussion.

So far so good. The more general problem is, however, that our capacity to sense and think does not receive a better, but merely an alternative explanation. A ready-made counter to Ryle is his own emphasis on the behavioural phenomenology which, possibly unperceived by him, demands the coordination of facultative activity for the purpose of enabling consciousness. We are well enough cognisant of the fact that a huge percentage of neuronal activity is never transmitted to our conscious states. It seems therefore, that we need a second torch after all — namely a torch that shines on the conclusions of neuronal activity and consigns all intermittent, suggestive and half-baked results to the garbage bin. As if, in Ryle’s example, a dozen labs run the same experiment, but on comparing results, two or three achieve promising part-conclusions that can be dovetailed to produce one paper.

Further objections to Ryle offer themselves readily. The first is, that pointing the finger at Descartes simply makes him the scapegoat for a universal belief among the overwhelming bulk of mankind since time immemorial. Moreover, as the current (philosophical as well as neurophysiological) literature shows, the Cartesian idea is not passe, but still widely accepted. Indeed, the Nobelist John Eccles believed that he had discovered a site in the brain where the conversion of ‘spiritual’ into ‘physical’ energy is enacted, and quite a number of writers still seek to explain the mind in Cartesian terms, even when they eschew the dual substance doctrine. None of them would agree that they are in pursuit of a category error.

Indeed it could be argued from AI principles that a computer’s CPU is nothing other than Ryle’s ghost. In parallel computing systems, the facultative neuronal activity is replicated which, as mentioned above, must be coordinated. The difference here is, that the CPU does not represent a conscious state that enables an intentional decision, but only the merger of digital streams in which the decision is already part of the conclusion.

Effectively therefore, Ryle got rid of a name that served us to identify a specific mental capacity; but his explanations related to the capacities themselves lack the last ounce of conviction, because the name was only ever a crutch for philosophers to debate its merits and for Everyman to lean on. Meanwhile his own leanings towards behaviourism have long ago reached their use-by date; and whether the functionalism that grew out of it constitutes an improvement or the final cul-de-sac of this line of thinking, will have to be seen.

Questioning Avicenna’s cosmological proof of God’s existence

Desmond asked:

Avicenna is well known as the author of an important and influential proof for the existence of God. This proof is a good example of a philosopher’s intellect being deployed for a theological purpose, as was common in medieval philosophy. The argument runs as follows:

There is existence, or rather our phenomenal experience of the world confirms that things exist, and that their existence is non-necessary because we notice that things come into existence and pass out of it. Contingent existence cannot arise unless it is made necessary by a cause. A causal chain in reality must culminate in one un-caused cause because one cannot posit an actual infinite regress of causes (a basic axiom of Aristotelian science). Therefore, the chain of contingent existents must culminate in and find its causal principle in a sole, self-subsistent existent that is Necessary.

This, of course, is the same as the God of religion. Which is the premise in this statement?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

The Muslims of Avicenna’s era had Aristotle’s writings to work with; and this whole proof is simply lifted from him. However, it is not conclusive, as the monotheist Avicenna (and the Christian Aquinas in his footsteps) took on board the ‘infinite chain of locomotive causes’ which seems compellingly to end in an atemporal uncaused cause, but ignored that the latter is not ‘locomotive’.

These two words, gently reminding us of the need for an interface, comprise the cardinal hinge… it’s the same issue we encounter in several other problematic ultimate principles, such as the incompatibility between life and non-life, between mind and muscles. But unlike a theologian, an honest philosopher will keep talking until he’s blue in the face, seeking a viable resolution to an irresolvable dilemma. Avicenna, Aquinas & Co. had only to say ‘yes’ to authoritarian dogma and their case (and their life) was safe.

So the premise behind these and all other ontological proofs is, indeed, the concept of an infinite and timeless entity (‘God’) being charged with creating finite and temporal existents. Moreover ex nihilo, simply on the strength of uttering the words ‘Let there be X’. What kind of an entity this ‘God’ might be, is not up for discussion. The more vague, the better. Which is why, in my view, neither Avicenna nor Aquinas are philosophers, though admittedly endowed with philosophical intellect.

Causal theory of perception vs naive realism

Tasiri asked:

Suppose you are a causal representative theorist. Provide five reasons why you think your theory is superior to naive realism.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

This is either very easy or very difficult, depending on which side you’re on.

Naive realism is the thesis that the world is pretty much as we sense it. There is a direct connection between sensible phenomena and the apparatus we possess to discern them. (1) However, our senses do not pick up everything (dogs, fish, birds, insects etc. have sensitivities that elude us), so that our confidence and trust in their efficacy is more or less forced on us, inducing us to look for technological aids to improve our range.

And so we turn to the intellectual aspect, finding ourselves in possession of faculties that can delve deeper than naive realism, whether for intellectual satisfaction or extracting benefits from the world that rely on insights which causal representation confers on us. (2) Chief among them is the ability to frame concepts from a causality-based understanding. This can go much further than naive realism inasmuch as it encourages a grasp of features that are not part of the sensory spectrum. (3) It is a tremendous advantage to our efforts to categorise things on the basis of causal, rather than merely perceivable criteria and (4) encourages experimentation with a view to discovering further causal connections that do not make themselves manifest without deliberate and targeted prodding. (5) Accumulating such intellectual and technological devices enhances our mastery of nature. Therefore it should not be omitted from discussion, that all science is predicated on this kind of understanding.

So here are 5 reasons to fit the bill.

Yet causal representation also has its downside: It is not fool proof! Just one example in illustration: we are capable of devising causal connections in our minds that have no demonstrable correlate in reality — e.g. superstitions fall into this class. Moreover, causal representation it is utterly helpless with explaining intentionality, especially human spontaneity. The theory of evolution is one intellectual construct that loses all its inner coherence when intentionality is ignored. But this is too far-reaching an issue to be broached here.

In sum: It is easy to list 5 good reasons for preferring causal representation over naive realism. But it skirts the realisation that naive realism is practised by every living thing (including humans) to survive; therefore it is prior even in the human context, as without it, no causal theories could have been framed in the first place.

Spinoza’s mind-body paralellism

Donna asked:

What is Spinoza’s mind-body parallelism?

Answer by Billy Wheeler

Spinoza’s mind-body parallelism is an attempt to explain how the mind and body “seem” to interact if the mind and body are made of distinction substances. This is effectively a problem for dualist theories of mind and first comes up in Elizabeth of Bohemia’s letters to Descartes. He took it for granted that a physical body and a non-physical mind could interact. However, if the mind is as he says “non-extended” then it cannot really come into contact with the body. And as Elizabeth makes clear, most causal interactions involve some kind of physical contact.

Spinoza doesn’t address quite the same problem as Descartes, because for Spinoza there is only one substance: God. Nonetheless, mind and body are different attributes of this one substance. In reality there are no causal interactions between them: there is only the appearance of causal interaction. This is because God has made it so that every instance of a mental attribute is “matched” or “paired” with a bodily attribute. Hence their parallel occurrence.

More on Descartes’ watermark argument

Baseer asked:

How does Descartes use the Watermark argument to prove the existence of the external world?

Answer by Billy Wheeler

Descartes’ “watermark”, also known as his “trademark” argument, is connected to knowledge of the external world through a number of steps in Descartes’ Meditations.

Firstly, Descartes starts with the assumption that we all have an idea of a perfect being. Such a perfect being, Descartes believes, has the traditional theistic properties of being all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving. Next, it seems sensible to ask where this idea originated. Was it from perceptual experience or do we have it innately? Descartes’ here relies on a controversial metaphysical principle known as the “causal principle” which states that there must be as much perfection (or reality) in the effect as there is in the cause. On this basis, Descartes argues that his idea of God could not have originated from experience as we never do experience anything as perfect as God. In other words, we have no perceptual experience of a being that is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving. In fact, if you follow the logic of the causal principle, only an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving being could have caused this idea. Therefore, as we have this idea, it must have been caused by God. And so God exists.

This then connects back to knowledge of the external world because if God exists and he created us, then his all-loving nature means that he would not have created a being with faculties that routinely deceived them. When our faculties do go wrong, this is typically due to a fault of our own, such as being drunk or sick or not taking into account other physical factors. For example, we know that a stick does not really bend when submerged in water, even if it appears this way to our senses, and we can correct our beliefs accordingly. As a result, Descartes’ claims we have no reason to doubt the testimony of our senses systematically any more. And given that our senses routinely point to the existence of an external world, so we are justified in believing in its existence.

Is my banana snack free or determined?

Seher asked:

Suppose that you perform an action, and you feel as though you did it as a matter of free choice. Does that feeling of freedom really mean that the action is free?

Suppose that God knows that at midnight tonight you’ll eat a banana. Does that mean your action is determined?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I don’t need to “suppose” that I have free choice in what I decide upon — I have it, as long as it can be done and is legal. The word “suppose” in fact indicates a presumption on your part that there is a something questionable about it. But the plain reality is, that free choice is the foundation of life across all life forms, inasmuch as they/we would all be extinct without it.

That’s a challenge for you to think through; and when you have properly attended to all the pros and cons (especially in regard to evolution), you will see the necessity of free choice operating throughout.

Accordingly the introduction of God changes nothing, because you assume that the idea of God is self-explanatory and save yourself the indispensable specification of which/whose God you have in mind. So I will guess that your notion is of an omniscient biblical God watching me eating a banana at 12 midnight on March 29, 2019. Now you want to know if my act determined? Well, that’s pretty simple. If God willed it, then it is. If God did not will it, then I must have; but obviously one of us did, the difference being atemporal there, temporal here, as well as fore-ordained there and spontaneous here. In the former case that moment is etched into the Almighty’s memory as a content that must accompany him from the beginning to the end of time. Frightfully boring scenario — especially if you now multiply it by all the zillions of other determined actions of mice and men throughout eternity.

I hope you can see the absurdity of the situation: If everything that happens in the living realm is atemporally determined, then God is trapped as if by iron chains in his own cage of determinism. Does this make any sense to you? Or would you be tempted to acknowledge it as an oxymoron, mere playing with words, to which no denotation, nor a half-way acceptable connotation can be affixed?

Willing and striving

Tentia asked:

I am currently thinking about the will and striving. The will sometimes strives to negate, obtain, or create, or something of the sort.

In the event that this is the result of alienation (from the will and its object), the willing subject might encounter obsctruction or refutation from obtaining the object of striving.

The will might enter into a process of hoping for reconciliation. This process might include work. But nonetheless reconciliation is deferred.

Do you or any philosophers have anything relevant to say about this process of willing, striving, obstruction, hope and deferral? For example, that the object of the will might be an illusion, and the consequences for the willing subject, if letting go of such an illusion does not result in a reconciliation but rather nihilism?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Willing and striving are the signatures of living creatures. Necessarily they imply an object or objective. For example food or procreation or mere survival. Obstructions of various kinds are par for the course. Then the creature will certainly feel alienated, frustrated, confused. If it is a human creature, imbued with human-type intelligence, reconciliation is certainly one option of remedying the disjuncture. But if the object or objective was an illusion, the end result need not be nihilism. You have the option of unmasking the illusion as what it is, or you can simply live with it (as e.g. with optical illusions).

However, nihilism is a specific type of ‘rebellion’, usually aimed at specific illusions at large in the social order with which the subject cannot be reconciled — mostly religious, moral, traditional and conventional attitudes which the subject has ‘seen through’, therefore opposes them either actively or passively. Another, somewhat less aggressive term for this type of alienation is ‘disillusionment’.

It became a fairly widespread intellectual issue in the 19th to middle 20th century, when Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Camus expended considerable philosophical ammunition on it. Kierkegaard was another writer of this inclination, that was later called ‘existentialism’; also the poet Baudelaire and the novelists Turgenyev (Fathers and Sons), Dostoyevsky (The Devils) and Kafka. Freud contributed an essay entitled The Future of an Illusion, and in my generation, the litterateur George Steiner published In Bluebeard’s Castle, which is short enough to read in a day. You will find a great deal of relevance to your question in these texts.