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Another Reason to Doubt the Relevance of Jeffrey Shallit

Michael Egnor

Materialist mathematician Jeffrey Shallit has a post on an article in the Globe and Mail about philosophy and the immateriality of the mind. Shallit’s post is titled “Another Reason to Doubt the Relevance of Philosophy”. Shallit doesn’t think much of philosophy:

If philosophers think the view that “The brain is not an organ of consciousness. … The brain has no cognitive powers at all” deserves anything more than a good horselaugh, this simply shows how irrelevant philosophy has become…Our future understanding of cognition will come from neuroscience, not from Wittgenstein.

Philosophy is plainly irrelevant to Shallit, which is the problem. Wittgenstein may not inform Dr. Shallit’s understanding of cognition, but Descartes, Kant, Hume, James, Skinner, Block, the Churchlands, Ryle, Rorty, Turing, Jackson, Pinker, and Dennett, among many other philosophers, do inform Dr. Shallit’s understanding of cognition. But Dr. Shallit doesn’t seem to be aware that his own materialist views are a philosophical stance. There is no escape from philosophy; there is merely bad and good philosophy. Science itself is a philosophical enterprise (natural philosophy).
The Globe and Mail article raises some important issues in the quest to understand the mind. The article opens with the question:

Has the Western world succumbed to the disease of scientism – a misguided belief in the infallibility of science?
So says philosopher Peter Hacker, emeritus research fellow at Oxford’s St. John’s College.


[scientism] “pervades our mentality and our culture. We are prone to think that, if there’s a serious problem, science will find the answer. If science cannot find the answer, then it cannot be a serious problem at all. [This prevailing scientism] is manifest in the infatuation of the mass media with cognitive neuroscience … people nattering on what their brains make them do and tell them to do. I think this is pretty pernicious – anything but trivial.”

The journalist Michael Posner observes:

Mr. Hacker’s remarks form part of a larger critique of how neuroscience is grappling with human consciousness, the great divide for philosophers and scientists.

Posner writes

Consciousness, of course, is one of the great, unsolved conundrums of modern science. Where, if anywhere, does awareness reside? How, if at all, can it be explained? Is the mind separate from its body? Or does everything, ultimately, reduce to biochemistry and quantum physics, including our private, inner-most experiences of the world?
From the time of Aristotle and Plato, these questions have largely been the preserve of philosophy. But the past several decades have witnessed the steady rise of cognitive neuroscience, which maintains that all human faculties, including consciousness, can now (or one day will) be explained by neural oscillations in the cerebral cortex – accountable by simple measurements of neurons and synapses.

Questions about the mind-body relationship are still the preserve of philosophy, but today that preserve is mostly bad philosophy. Materialist theories of the mind are beset with insoluable problems.

But the philosophers are refusing to go down without a good conceptual scrap. Mr. Hacker, for one, says it’s nonsense to attribute consciousness, knowledge and perception to mere physical processes in the brain. “One sees with one’s eyes and hears with one’s ears,” he insists, “but one is not conscious with one’s brain any more than one walks with one’s brain. The brain is not an organ of consciousness. … The brain has no cognitive powers at all. There is no such thing as a brain’s thinking, wanting, reasoning, believing or hypothesizing.”

Posner and Hacker are right. Scientism — the philosophical assertion that the empiric methods of science represent the only valid method of ascertaining truth — is a transparently mistaken ideology that has greatly impaired our efforts to develop a coherent valid understanding of the mind. Scientism is of course self-refuting: the claim that empiricial science is the only valid method of ascertaining truth is itself not a claim that can be evaluated by empirical science. Scientism is an effort to circumvent scrutiny of the materialistic philosophy that underpins it.
Modern materialism arose several centuries ago with the emergence of Mechanical Philosophy, which is based on the metaphysical assumption that only material causes and truncated efficient causes exist in nature. Materialist philosophers truncated the classical four causes of change in nature — material, efficient, formal, and final — to just two, and in doing so, eliminated the concepts of essence and teleology from the study of nature. For materialist scientists, nature was understood as mere matter in motion.
Mechanical Philosophy got along passably with Newtonian physics and Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory, but in the 20th century its inadequacy began to show. Big Bang cosmology and quantum mechanics were a devastating blow to mechanism in science (creation ex-nihilo and quantum indeterminancy are inexplicable by appeal to materialist presuppositions), and the problem of the mind-brain relationship will ultimately prove fatal to mechanism.
Here’s why. Mental acts have properties such as intentionality (the aboutness of a thought) and qualia (the subjective experience of color, taste,etc) that are utterly inexplicable if nature, of which man is a part, is understood to be mere matter in motion — material and efficient causes. Intentional “aboutness” is teleological (final cause), in the sense that thought is directed at an end, and qualia is most adequately understood as inherent to mental experience, an “essence” (formal cause) of mental experience, as it were.
In order to account for formal causation (qualia) and final causation (intentionality) in mental acts, a much deeper understanding of nature is needed. One framework for such understanding is classical hylemorphism, which is the understanding of nature as composites of form and matter.
In the hylemorphic understanding of the mind, the mind is a power of the soul, which is the form of the body. What actually exists is neither the soul (form) nor the body (matter) independently, but the person, who is a composite of soul and body. Thus, the brain is merely an organ associated with cognition; the subject of cognition, that which understands, is the person, not the brain or even the mind, understood in isolation.
Cognitive science can tell us much about the properties and function of the brain. But it will not tell us about the metaphysical status of the brain or of the mind or of the truth or falsehood of materialism, because empirical science (natural philosophy) can’t address such issues. Only other disciplines of philosophy can. The profound philosophical questions about the nature of the human person are in the realm of metaphysics, and must be answered by metaphysical inquiry.
Dr. Shallit is of course ignorant of all of this and sees nothing absurd about the assertion that the brain, rather than the person, is the subject of cognition. Dr. Shallit isn’t one to let philosophical insight interfere with his philosophy. A notable and peculiar characteristic of scientism is the arrogant Luddism of its half-educated practitoners.