Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Absent-minded Science, Part II: The Zombie Defense

And here's Part II of this seven-part series on absent-minded science:

Here’s a head-scratcher for you: Can zombies argue that they don’t exist? Empirical evidence suggests they can. Or does it?

The philosophy of mind is a thriving field in recent decades, with new books and articles appearing with increasing frequency. This article is the second in an occasional series on the role of mind in the universe and, thus, in science.

Strangely, modern science is dominated by the idea that to be scientific means to remove consciousness from our explanations in order to be “objective.” This was, of course, the rationale behind behaviorism, a now-dead theory of psychology that took this trend to a perverse extreme. Behaviorists like John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner scrupulously avoided any discussion of what their subjects thought, intended, or wanted and focused, instead, entirely on behavior. They believed that because thoughts in other people’s heads, or even in animals, are impossible to know with certainty, we should simply ignore them in our theories. We can only be truly scientific, they asserted, if we focus solely on what can be directly observed and measured: behavior.

This point of view is known most generally as “positivism,” which asserts that only those things we can measure directly should be part of our theories in science. Positivism has held sway in various branches of science to varying degrees over the last couple of centuries. Early in his career, Einstein was strongly inspired by Ernst Mach’s version of positivism, creating his special theory of relativity in 1905 partly as a response to this philosophy (and thus expelling the luminiferous ether from physics as “superfluous”). But Einstein learned better, rejecting positivism by the middle of his career as inadequate.

Read the rest at IONs

Absent-minded Science, Part I

This is an expanded version of an oped that ran earlier this year in the Independent. I'm now an "official" blogger for the Institute of Noetic Sciences, based in Petaluma. IONs, as they are known, is recently famous for being featured in Dan Brown's book, The Lost Symbol, due to the fact that some of their research is focused on parapsychology.

Absent-Minded Science, Part I

We learn from an early age that “to be scientific” means avoiding attributing to nature humanlike tendencies such as mind or purpose. To be “anthropomorphic” in science is a cardinal sin. Modern science, with its amazing successes in improving human understanding, did in fact spring in part from this tendency, made clear with Descartes’ philosophical separation of reality into two categories, physical stuff and mental stuff. The mental stuff is the realm of spirit, and this is God’s domain. The physical stuff is also God’s handiwork, but it works according to identifiable rules (laws) that humankind may discern through careful observation and experiment.

However, as with most big ideas, Descartes’ idea was overly simplistic and, we now know, inaccurate. Very few modern scientists or philosophers would argue in favor of Cartesian dualism, though this view is still fairly common among more religious-minded people. But its direct residue is “reductionist materialism,” which simply ignores the mental-spiritual realm that Descartes proposed and attempts instead to explain everything as simply matter in motion. Recent challenges to Cartesian dualism and reductionist materialism from a non-religious perspective come from such philosophers as Galen Strawson, David Chalmers, and David Ray Griffin, who realize that modern science went astray long ago by trying to expunge mind from its explanations.

The problem becomes apparent when we try to explain mind itself within the “scientific method,” which does its best to ignore mind in nature. The prevailing theory of mind argues that mind emerges from mindless matter when a certain level of complexity is reached in both evolutionary history and in each organism. That is, at some point in the history of life on our planet, a mind appeared for the first time where it was wholly absent before. In this view, the constituents of matter are completely devoid of mind until the required level of complexity is reached – whether physicists decide that matter is ultimately comprised of quarks, energy, fields, strings, or what have you.

But here’s the problem: It is literally impossible for mind to spring forth from that which is wholly devoid of mind.

Read the rest at IONs