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

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