a Science & Philosophy

Brains and Minds
Anything approaching a fully satisfactory explanation of the phenomena of knowledge requires the co-operative efforts of all those who believe that there is a world of real existence independent of human minds and that this real existence can be truly known as it really is.
— Francis Parker, “Realistic Epistemology
June 20, 2018
I begin with a quotation from The Quantum Universe, by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw (Philadelphia: Da Cap Press, 2011):

Quantum theory does, admittedly, have something of a reputation for weirdness, and there have been reams of drivel penned in its name. Cats can be both alive and dead; particles can be in two places at once; Heisenberg says everything is uncertain. These things are all true, but the conclusion so often drawn — that since something strange is afoot in the microworld, we are steeped in mystery — is most definitely not. Extrasensory perception, mystical healing, vibrating bracelets to protect us from radiation and who-knows-what-else are regularly smuggled into the pantheon of the possible under the cover of the word ‘quantum.’ This is nonsense born from a lack a of clarity of thought, wishful thinking, genuine or mischievous misunderstanding, or some unfortunate combination of all of the above.... (page 4)

Please keep that in mind: “nonsense”; “a lack of clarity of thought”; “regularly smuggled in to the pantheon of the possible underthe cover the word ‘quantum.’” And now I turn back the page and quote from page 3:

Consider the world around you. You are holding a book made of paper, the crushed pulp of a tree. Trees are machines able to take a supply of atoms and molecules, break them down and rearrange them into cooperating colonies of many trillions of individual parts. They do this using a molecule known as chlorophyll, composed of over a hundred carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms twisted into an intricate shape with a few magnesium and nitrogen atoms bolted on. This assembly of particles is able to capture the light that has travelled the 93 million miles from our star, a nuclear furnace the volume of a million earths, and transfer that energy into the heart of cells, where it is used to build molecules from carbon dioxide and water, giving out life-enriching oxygen as it does so. It’s these molecular chains that form the superstructure of trees and all living things, and the paper in your book. You can read the book and understand the words because you have eyes that can convert the scattered light from the pages into electrical impulses that are interpreted by your brain, the most complex structure we know of in the Universe....

Did you catch it? Did you catch the unscientific leap the authors made? And they do not even seem know that they made it.

The problem here is that they — and perhaps the three previous generations of scientists — have no philosophical training to speak of. They grew up in an intellectual milieu where the dominant philosophies were logical positivism, phenomenalism, and existentialism. And that means that they are unable to discuss the findings of science in a way that is coherent.

I do not say that the relevant math or experiments are flawed. I confess that I have no way of knowing whether they are or not. What I am able to say, however, is that Cox and Forshaw’s account of the world around us is wrong, and I am able to say it because I am fortunate enough to enjoy a certain clarity of thought, which I enjoy not for any virtue of my own, but because I have been fortunate in teachers. They were not positivists or phenomenalists or existentialists. They were not men who disparaged the possibility of knowledge or the reality of the world. And they were not in the habit of making use of a tool in order to deny the existence of that tool.

The leap that Cox and Forshaw made was into the suppositional chasm of material reductionism. They seem to believe that brains think, that brains understand, that brains interpret. The corollary to this view is that thoughts are physical events (or perhaps epiphenomena) that occur in the brain. Not only do they seem to believe both the supposition and its corollary, but they seem to be unaware than any alternative to this view exists. They have accepted a controversial view as what we may call the “background” to their thinking without knowing that it is controversial. They treat the matter as settled.

But how was the matter settled? It was not settled by experimentation. No experiment has ever shown the brain “interpreting” anything. It was not settled by observation. No one has ever observed the brain “interpreting” electrical impulses. And it was not settled by a chain of reasoning. None has ever been supplied one. All we have is the assertion, nay, assumption, that the brain does these things.

It may be that thoughts can be correlated to certain events in the brain. But to assert that is to concede that thoughts and the events are not the same thing. The event may occur in the brain, but it does not follow that the thing with which the event is correlated occurs there. It may also be that the existence of a certain kind of brain can be correlated with the existence of a certain kind of intellect. But, again, to correlate them is to concede that they are not the same thing.

Intellect and brain are no more the same thing than are sight and the eyeball, strength and the arm, speech and the layrnx. It may be that the brain and its activity are a material substrate that the intellect requires in order to function in a material world, but that is not the same as their being the same.

Even to assert that the intellect is an epiphenomenon of the brain’s activity is to presuppose that which has not been shown to be true. The only reason for making that supposition is that one has assumed materialism.

My point here is not that materialism is wrong (though I believe that it is), but rather that it is not a scientific conclusion. It is a philosophical presupposition of certain scientists who seem to believe that science and mathematics are the only sources of knowledge. They reject the credentials of philosophy, but at the same time embrace certain philosophical positions, apparently without even noticing it.

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