22 December 2008. More than four years after the radio interview at left I managed to record it (the link at left not now working well). Please click this audio link to hear it, if I am lucky. It lasts ½ hour.
What follows is a recent e-mail I sent to philosophy professor Patricia Smith Churchland of the University of California at San Diego. She has been widely honored, yet I find her work, like that of academic philosophy in general, dismally lacking in any true insight, instead abounding in fallacious reasoning, accompanied by a characteristic disdain for any "folk" wisdom. I would like this e-mail to indicate my ability to penetrate subjects that thinkers unsuccessfully wrestle with, but my experience is that serious and honest scrutiny of what I say is for me difficult to obtain. I nevertheless continue in my efforts. (The following critique is in an altered shorter version presently on the Amazon.com page for the book at issue.)
From: Paul Vjecsner [email@example.com]
Sent: Friday, October 10, 2003 9:59 AM
Dear Professor Churchland:
As the above subject line indicates, this is a response to your book Brain-Wise. I at first felt there is no point to writing more than a brief reaction, since you would not pay much attention anyway. But then I thought I could post this letter on my website as comments on the subjects in general.
Since you do not spare in your book strong characterizations of your opponents and their work, I will be equally forthright, and I should say my approach will not be as feeble as the reviews of the book in the science weeklies. I indeed hold that not only your own work but that of your colleagues in the field is hugely deficient.
Let me first say that although you refer to the adage of not seeing the forest for the trees, I cannot think of any work more involved in this mistake. Principally, you put the cart before the horse in such as epistemology. Seeking all the answers through scientism, especially by studying the brain, you forget that all knowledge, including that of the brain, comes to us by courtesy of consciousness. You go into arguments about “simples” as not really the constituents of knowledge, and consciousness itself as needing definition via brain processes.
With your samples on page 264 you argue for non-simples as known by other than conscious inference, i.e. as just as basic as simples. Whether inferred “consciously” or not, we know that complex objects, mainly of the world, are inferred, if inadvertently, from repeated acquaintance with their constituent images in consciousness. In other words, we know that the ultimate destination and judgment of received information concerns its immediate form in conscious mind. Even presuming an “unconscious” mind, as has been the practice after Freud, to ascertain it we need its manifestation in consciousness.
As to the definition of consciousness itself, or of other entities, you throughout commit the gross fallacy of equivocation. Remember that definition is an arbitrary matter. What a term stands for is decided by choice, along with usage. The mentioned fallacy resides in trying to prove something about the referent of a term by redefining it. One is then not speaking of the same thing and hence not proving or disproving something about it. By usage, “consciousness” refers to the general occurrence of imagery, of apprehensions, in our head, and I am not going to endlessly define the defining words in this respect, taking it that you know what I mean. I might only stipulate that the sense I speak of is not only consciousness of the outside world, unlike in sleep, but all apprehension.
This brings me really to what seems your main endeavor, to equate consciousness with some part of the brain. What is interesting is that with all your efforts you don’t make clear what sort of finding would establish that identity or the lack of it. And, accept it or not, I can demonstrate to you here and now that consciousness cannot be identical with any of the brain (I have gone into these and other matters in a book of mine, but I don’t intend here to sell it to you, merely to confront your reasoning). The reason the identity is impossible is that the attributes of the brain or other physical matter are different from the attribute of consciousness. We recognize material things by the likes of three dimensions, which also distinguishes them from e.g. mental concepts like circles or squares, whereas the contents of consciousness, of which all these are part, go way beyond them.
Your book, of course, goes into other things as well. How poor is your logic is illustrated by an early example (p.55). You write, in a manner, that if A causes (implies) B, supposing this to be a genuine law, then not-A causes (implies) not-B. This commits the fundamental fallacy of “denying the antecedent”. I wonder accordingly what your logic class (225) must be like. You also keep speaking of modern logic as a powerful system, belittling Aristotle’s logic and nearby ones as a hodge-podge (260). Without going into detail, let me say I find that it is modern logic which is a monstrously unwieldy hodge-podge, falsely believed to prevent paradoxes and achieving nothing else. What is powerful are the advances in mathematics, which still rely on syllogistic and Stoic logic, and on Euclid’s “common notions”. Further, you frequently brand others’ arguments as circular, but commit persistently the circularity of arguing for the brain as the self while beforehand assuming that the brain, not the self, learns (321) and so forth. Without more here, let me suggest that one could say that the power of consciousness alone “just is” the self, without need of a “substance” or “stuff”, whatever that would be. This should be to your liking, it being like your saying that heat “just is” micromechanical motion instead of some “stuff” (22-3), etc.
The problem with such definitions is, as noted, that they can result in equivocations (heat is a sensation, whatever the cause). Consciousness as the seat, as I just indicated, of our self-interests is not new, but your problem is especially not understanding the nature of definitions (267). You write that the definition of Earth as “thing that does not move” proves wrong. It seems that statements you attribute to others are often concocted by you, so you can counter them. I have never heard of such a definition of Earth, but if anyone chooses it then anything that moves is not Earth by that meaning, even if such a thing does not exist. We give names to many fictitious things, and there is no law against it. More laughable is your discussion of “atom”. If defined as indivisible, then an object thought to be indivisible but found not to be is not an atom by that definition. It has been convenient to retain the old name, but that means it was redefined. You call the suggestion that the name be changed idiotic. What is idiotic is to say that the indivisible is divisible. You engage in the same absurdity regarding parallel lines. According to you, straight lines that do not meet (meant by “parallel lines”) meet. It is evident that you don’t know much about geometry. That definition is in fact in use to this day. What some of non-Euclidean geometry does assert is that all straight lines meet, which is to say that parallel lines don’t exist (in that geometry), not that they meet.
It seems best if I don’t wade here through most of the rest of your book, which goes on tiresomely reciting minutest details of neuroscientific studies that, as observed above, are irrelevant to the issues you try to resolve. Let me rather turn to your last chapter, which apparently aims at some grandiose assessment of the human condition.
Your treatment of arguments for the existence of God is to me inadequate, especially if it is an attempt to refute that existence. You say there are two main lines of argument concerning the evidence for it (376). The second, usually classified as cosmological, could be said to have died with Thomas Aquinas. But there are three of them commonly referred to. The first one you treat of is termed a teleological one, and there are also ontological ones, which still survive in some form unlike your second one. About the first one that you cite let me just say that it is weak by focusing on the organism’s structure, to the neglect of its live behavior. I delved into these questions at considerable length, and this is not the place for me to expound on them. Anyone interested can have access to my discussions. My present point is that if weaknesses are found in some of the arguments, the question as a whole of the existence of God is not thereby settled.
There is one more point I might make about your first argument in this. You emphasize that it is claimed “inconceivable” that the complex organisms could occur by chance (377-8). I am not aware of such express “arguments from inconceivability”, and it may be another one you manufactured, in order to counter it. But your attempt is unconvincing. You cite cases of thinking something inconceivable only to see it happen. This is not strict inconceivability, such as applied to logic. It is merely an expression of great doubt in view of one’s experience. The truly inconceivable does not depend on experience but on “all possible worlds”, in the sense in which a logic diagram can demonstrate an impossibility.
Finally, I’d like to address your concluding thoughts. Your reference to humility in the light of the idea that we are an insignificant part of the vast universe, without a supreme being above us, is something I heard before. I can first remark that the conception of us as at the center of the universe does not stem from theism, but from the primitive experience that we live on that “unmoving” Earth, with the cosmos revolving around it. And theism, contrary to the foregoing intimation, is more certainly that which evokes humility, by acknowledging a higher power over us, whereas the concept that we are our own masters, aided by our increasing power over nature because of science, can lead to arrogance.
This is an example of how both sides of an argument can be defended on grounds of moral superiority, which perhaps should be left out of such disputes.
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