Philosophical Failings: The Brain and the Mind

brain_mindOn the 3/24 episode of The Atheist Experience, some guy named Johanan called in and wanted to argue philosophy.  Give it a listen, starting at about 36:39 and I think you’ll realize why I, like most people, consider pure philosophy little more than mental masturbation.  The guy just kept going on and on about the mind not being physical and no matter how many times Matt told him that the mind is a manifestation of the physical brain, he just wouldn’t listen.  It’s usually pretty easy to figure out where these guys are going wrong logically, but most of them just have no interest in correcting their errors, their whole point in using philosophy in the first place is it allows them to use wiggle words and fast-talk to get around actually having to demonstrate their arguments.

That’s why I really hate the pure-philosophy people, the ones who have no interest in how their arguments apply to the real world.  In fact, as soon as you bring up the real world, they simply lose interest in talking to you, they live their lives dealing with a hypothetical reality, not a demonstrable one.

He immediately starts talking about substance dualism, which is an absurd concept that most people don’t take seriously.  It essentially states that there are two fundamental types of existence, mental and material.  It was a position championed by Rene Descartes under the name Cartesian Dualism.  It argues that the mind is entirely separate from the physical and that they perform two different functions.  The material world forms all that we see, touch and experience and the mental world generates thought and identity.  Of course, this was long before we knew much about brain function and certainly long before we recognized that the mind is an emergent property of the physical brain, therefore most people have rejected substance dualism as a valid philosophical view.

Then he starts arguing that the mind is not reducible to non-mind.  Wait a minute, didn’t he just  agree with Matt that substance dualism was invalid?  In fact, *ALL* dualistic views are inherently faulty, including property dualism, which this falls under.  The mind is just not some magical, mystical thing, sorry.  I don’t care if you want to make it a different substance, or in this case, simply a substance with different emergent properties, it makes no damn sense.  This is exactly why I think noodling your navel and not having a solid grounding in the physical sciences makes people stupid.  I really wish Matt had headed him off at the pass and said that all forms of dualism are just complete and total bullshit, entirely unsupported by any evidence.  In fact, I’ll go one step further and say that I think anyone who is still arguing dualistic nonsense is doing so, not from a rational, intellectual, objective perspective, but from a wholly emotional one.  They want to feel special.  They want to think that the human mind is some magical, mystical thing that exists beyond the physical world.  They don’t want to think that man is just a highly evolved animal, but that man is wholly separate and special.  That kind of thinking is entirely bullshit.

Of course, the inevitable, he claims that it is impossible to attack hard solipsism, which is absolutely false.  There are many successful attacks on solipsism, I’ve talked about it before on this very blog.  What he asks for, however, is absolute proof that solipsism is false and that’s just not a rational standard.  There is nothing in science that is absolute.  It just doesn’t work that way.  We can only go where the evidence leads and the evidence all leads toward an objective universe where we are actual, physical people and our minds are a function of our physical brain.  We simply have no evidence otherwise.

The problem is, these people desperately want solipsism to be true.  They spend all their time living in their own heads where it’s more emotionally comfortable.  They can just pretend that the big, bad world out there is an illusion and they can remain safe inside their skulls.  Oh wait, they don’t think their bodies are real either, they’re a brain in a vat or mental energy floating around in the clouds without a care in the world.  They don’t want to be stuck in their pathetic dumpy little bodies.  In fact, I can use Johanan as an example of the absurdity of solipsism.  If  you honestly and truly believed that your mind was the only mind in existence, that all of the things you “see” and experience were just illusions caused by your mind, why would you call a public access call-in show in Austin, Texas to talk to people you don’t believe exist?  Why would solipsists do any of the things they do?  They go buy food for a body they don’t think is real, they refrain from running over “unreal” pedestrians on the highway, none of it makes any sense if solipsism is true.

Next he argues for modal logic, which is rejected by many philosophers for precisely the reason that Matt mentions.  It does, by necessity, argue using possibilities, not actualities.  It is concerned with things that might be, not things that actually are.  In fact, as Johanan kept saying, it’s worried about things that you can conceive, not things that you can observe.  Well news flash for you, just because you can conceive of something doesn’t mean it’s actually so.  In fact, this is the same downfall shared by the classic theist argument from degree.  Just because you can imagine something beyond which there is nothing better that you can conceive doesn’t mean that that better thing is actually real.  Take the classic argument of the flying car.  I can imagine a flying car quite easily, in fact, people have been imagining it for a long, long time.  So where is the flying car?  Anyone seen one?  Of course, this gives me a good excuse to include this funny piece of unrelated animation.

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Seriously, the more I think about this and the more I look into the arguments I’m sure Johanan was talking about, the more stupid it all seems.  So let’s just look at what I am assuming he meant and leave it at that before my head explodes.

P1.) Minds COULD exist in purely solipsistic universes.
P2.) Solipsistic universes are purely mental and immaterial. (as everything material* is an illusion of the mind)
C1.) Minds can exist in immaterial universes. (from P1 and P2)
P3.) Nothing material can exist in an immaterial universe.
C2.) Minds can not be material in any possible world. (from C1 and P3)

P1 fails immediately because we’ve established that dualism is bunk, it is a product of primitive thinking before we discovered that the mind is simply an emergent property of the physical mind.  This is where 100% of the evidence lies.  Secondly, it asserts the  existence of a purely solipsistic universe, of which we have no examples.  As I said before, this line of philosophy relies heavily on “if you can imagine it, you can use it” irrational thinking.

P2 is simply an assertion for which there is no supporting evidence.  As I said, we have no examples of a solipsistic universe, therefore just assigning an arbitrary characteristic to a wholly hypothetical construct really gets you nowhere.  It’s exactly what is done by most theists with regard to their deities.  You can’t prove the deities are real, but they arbitrarily assign characteristics to the deities, which are conveniently the same kind of characteristics they desire their deities to have.

C1 fails, from the inherent failures of P1 and P2.

P3 is true, but only in a definitional sense, it really tells us nothing we don’t already know.  It’s like saying “no dead things are alive”.  It’s true, only because the terms used are defined as being contradictory.  You cannot be  both dead and alive at the same time, just like you cannot be material and immaterial at the same time.

C2 simply leaps a whole ocean full of sharks.  Even ignoring the inherent failures of the other propositions, it simply does not follow, but when you add in how absurd the whole argument is, it’s just laughable.  It really just is mental masturbation, it relies on the redefinition of terms, blind assertion and the assigning of undemonstrated characteristics.

In fact, it ends up looking a lot like religion, doesn’t it?

Philosophy ends up being pretty darned useless in the real world.  It tells us nothing about the actual reality that surrounds us and functions, most often, as a means to rationalize beliefs that the claimant already had.  I find virtually no constructive use in that at all.

6 thoughts on “Philosophical Failings: The Brain and the Mind”

  1. I completely agree, when Matt started talking to that guy and it was clear he wasn't going to just hang up on him right away I was disappointed.

    As to the argument that you outlined near the end, I think the only real serious problem I have is with the last step, but like you said it is a ridiculous leap. How do you jump from minds can be in an immaterial universe to minds can only exist there? It's just stupid.
    My recent post Genesis 18: Abraham Negotiates With God

    1. Like I said, it's all mental masturbation. First off, we already know that the mind is an emergent property of the physical brain, that means that in an immaterial universe, if such a thing actually exists, that there would be no minds because there can be no physical brains. No brain = no mind and the whole argument is moot. So many of these armchair philosophers only worry about things they can "imagine" and then go on to assert that because they can imagine a thing, that thing must be true. It's truly absurd.

      1. Yeah, I'm with you. I suppose it is possible that there could be an immaterial universe, but if such a thing exists it would have to be so different from anything we experience that there's almost no point in us talking about it. Could there be a mind there? I suppose so, as long as we are considering the absurd of an immaterial universe, why not an immaterial mind as well, but it would necessarily work differently from ours as our minds are products of our brains. But to try to bring any of this discussion back to our universe is just stupid. You are right, as soon you start the argument with "assume there is an immaterial universe" the whole thing just become masturbation.
        My recent post Genesis 18: Abraham Negotiates With God

        1. Sure, there could be. It's possible. However, it doesn't matter if it's possible, it only matters if it's actually true. It all turns out to be mind games, playing "what if" and then pretending that your "what if" is actually true. That's why I don't debate any of it, it all ends up being "well, this philosopher said this, therefore it's true…" and it's all just nonsense they're pulling out of their ass, fast-talking to people who don't know or care if it's real.

          That's why I find most philosophy to be pointless, it doesn't actually get you anywhere.

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