Evolution Icon Evolution

Among the Mind Deniers: A Darwinist Mathematician Reflects on Philosophy


Darwinist mathematician and computer scientist Jeff Shallit has a low opinion of philosophy of the mind — not just any particular theory, but the whole endeavor. Shallit’s post, with my commentary:

Most Philosophers Have Nothing Interesting to Say About the Brain

If you want to understand the brain, look to neuroscience.

Neuro: brains, etc. Science: the study of… It’s like asserting: "If you want to understand the heart, look to cardiology." Shallit, a Darwinist, has a weakness for tautologies.

Most philosophers (unless they have some decent neuroscience training*) have simply nothing of interest to say.

Philosophy of the mind is the most active field of analytic philosophy, and has a provenance that dates to Plato and Aristotle. Shallit finds it uninteresting. The disappointment in the philosophy community is palpable.

The reason why is that (a) their speculations were not tied to any physical models…

Exactly why Shallit believes that being "tied to physical models" is a criterion for interest in an academic discipline is unclear. Most academic disciplines aren’t tied to physical models. For example, pure mathematics is by definition not tied to physical models. Shallit is a mathematician.

and (b) their claims were often so vague or incoherent they could not be verified…

Shallit has a point here. Many philosophers of the mind are materialists, with a penchant for Darwinian speculation. Unverifiable incoherence is a fine pr�cis of materialism and Darwinism.

and (c) when the claims were more precise, there was rarely an effort to prove or disprove through experimentation.

Philosophy is not natural science, so it’s difficult to see why it needs verification by the methods of natural science. Some philosophical disciplines of course make reference to things in nature, but most verification in philosophy is logical, not empiric, as befits the discipline. Perhaps Shallit will confirm his philosophical assertion "philosophy must be verified by experimentation" by doing an experiment.

Shallit mourns the demise of Positivism.

Instead, philosophers gave us time-wasters like the "Chinese room argument" (still taken seriously by some very smart people, which I find astonishing) and the silly and overblown early anti-AI claims of Hubert Dreyfus (who actually got awards for his work).

Critics of strong AI have made sound arguments that computers do not and cannot think. The critics are exactly right. It is a quip in the field of philosophy of the mind that much of the philosophy literature of the past quarter-century has been spent trying to refute Searle’s Chinese Room Argument. Unsuccessfully.

Of course, it’s going to be really hard to understand how the brain works. That’s because the immense complications of the brain did not arise through intelligent design — which would have given us nice discrete subsystems that interact in controlled and efficient ways — but rather through the rather higgledy-piggledy bricolage of billions of years of evolution.

Exactly what evolution has to do with philosophy of the mind is obscure. Darwinists like Shallit invoke evolution in all sorts of tangential discussions, like Bolsheviks invoked the Revolution ("my farm tractor has a flat tire, praise the Revolution").

Shallit’s claim: the brain is a "higgledy-piggledy bricolage," therefore evolution.

Shallit’s claim: the brain is like an (intelligently designed) computer, therefore evolution. For Darwinists, evolution is a metaphysical Swiss-army knife.

Nevertheless, we’re making some small progress in understanding the brain and the mind and the mind-body problem and perception and memory and awareness and "understanding" and consciousness and free will, and other conundrums that have baffled philosophers for thousands of years.

Memory, perception, free will, and other mental powers have been studied for millennia, with profound insights by Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, Hume, Husserl, Putnam, Nagel, to name just a few. Neurobiological correlates of memory, perception etc. have been studied over the past few centuries by Broca, Sherrington, Penfield, Libet, to name just a few.

Philosophy is the study of the essential properties of mental powers. Neurobiology is the study of the biological correlates of these powers. Neither discipline supplants the other; philosophy and neurobiology complement each other.

In the blinkered world of materialist Luddites like Shallit, the world was in the dark B.D. (Before Darwin). It seems that none of the eminent philosophers of the past two millennia realized that "things change and survivors survive" explains everything.

For example, read Crick’s The Astonishing Hypothesis.

Crick asserted that we are merely neurons and neurotransmitters, nothing more. His book is a 336-page mereological fallacy. No mean achievement.

The tools philosophers used — until recently — were simply too puny to get anything reasonable done.

Tools that are "too puny" — logic and reason.

When you read a philosopher on the brain or the mind, look for the warning signs.

Philosophy should come with a warning sticker: "Learning may be hazardous to your materialism."

Here’s one: do they treat things like "consciousness" and "understanding" as a binary property — that something either has or doesn’t have? Or do they explicitly recognize that these could lie on a continuous (or at least variable) spectrum? If the former, beware.

Shallit apparently believes that the stuff he puts in sneer quotes — consciousness and understanding — really exist, but as a continuum. If consciousness and understanding are a continuum, materialism is on the low end of it.

… For philosophers who really do have something to say, look at, for example, the Churchlands.

Paul and Patricia Churchland are materialist philosophers who champion reductive materialism, which is the viewpoint that the mind does not exist at all. We have been tricked by "folk psychology" into thinking that we think. We are merely brains, tricked by our neurotransmitters into believing that we have beliefs.

Shallit thinks this form of materialism is particularly profound. Actually he doesn’t think … or… he thinks that he doesn’t think that he does think…. Goodness gracious, materialism is confusing.

What is revealing about Shallit’s denial is the extent to which materialists will go to insulate their ideology from critique. Philosophers raise profound questions about the validity — and even the coherence — of materialist theories of the mind. Rather than take those critiques seriously, Shallit denies the relevance of philosophical inquiry.

Of course, none of Shallit’s Luddism about philosophy can be tested by experiment, as he insists philosophy must be tested. His denial of philosophy is itself a philosophical stance, albeit incoherent. Materialist denial of the mind is Positivism’s death jerk.

Image: Jeffrey Shallit/Wikipedia.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.