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Evolution News and Views

The Battle for Your Mind

P.Z. Myers and Steven Novella have recent posts on a new front in the war between materialism and reality. Having convinced only a small fraction of Americans that chance and tautology -- i.e. Darwinism -- adequately explains life (despite a court-ordered monopoly on public education for the last half-century), materialists are moving on to your mind. Materialism posits that your mind is meat. No soul, no spirit, just chemicals, congealed by natural selection to dupe you into believing that you're more than an evanescent meat-robot.

It's a hard sell, but that's not to say that materialists haven't tried. In the first half of the 20th century, behaviorists (e.g. B.F. Skinner) proposed that internal mental states were irrelevant or didn't exist at all. All that mattered in the study of the mind was stimulus and response. Behaviorism turned out, unsurprisingly, to be a sterile avenue of research, as one might guess about a theory of the mind that denied or ignored mental states. As a theory of the mind, it is now largely regarded as insane, even by materialists. Behaviorism may be the only scientific theory to be finally extinguished by a joke:

After a night of passion, one behaviorist rolls over in bed and says to the other: "that was good for you; how was it for me?"

Atheist-materialist Sigmund Freud constructed an immense theory of the mind. A literary theory, that is. Freudian concepts of the human psyche remain embedded in our culture, but not in our laboratories or in our academies, and Freudianism plays no significant role in neuroscience or in modern analytic philosophy. Reference to "penis envy" at a college seminar will elicit a legal, not a scientific, response.

In the second half of the 20th century, materialists advanced identity theory, which is the theory that the mind just is the brain, entirely. Your thoughts are synapses, or chemicals, or electrical gradients, or whatever, as long as it's material. Mental states are brain states. That's all there is. Identity theory went through some iterations, until it was pointed out that identity theory violated the centuries-old maxim of the indiscernibility of identicals (Leibniz' Law), which noted that things couldn't be identical unless they shared all properties. That's what "identical" means. Thoughts aren't the same thing as synapses for the simplest of reasons: they're not the same thing. The mind (subjective experience, meaning, beliefs, etc) and the brain (mass, volume, temperature, etc) share no properties at all. Oops.

Identity theory went down the materialist memory hole several decades ago (except for P.Z. Myers, who didn't get the memo), to be replaced by functionalism. Functionalism for a while was all the rage, but it's lost much of its luster. Functionalism is the theory that the mind isn't the brain, but the mind is what the brain does. Like computer hardware running a program. One has the amusing suspicion that the hardware/software theory of the mind has more to do with the Digital Age zeitgeist than with genuine neuroscientific insight. Pleistocene materialists, had they paused to ponder such matters, probably thought the mind was like fire, or a wheel. But the mind isn't really like a computer, in many important ways. Computers don't really seem to have subjective states or beliefs, for example. The human mind doesn't seem to merely "run programs." Functionalism offers no coherent explanation for the two most salient characteristics of mental states: qualia and intentionality. Qualia is subjective experience, and there's no reason to infer that running programs transforms third-person ontogeny (it) into first person ontogeny (I). The description of pain is not the same thing as the experience of pain. Some functionalists, for example Daniel Dennett, elide this obvious defeater for functionalism by denying that qualia actually exist as real subjective experiences. Yet Dennett, presumably, still asks for Novocain at the dentist's office.

Intentionality is the "aboutness" of a mental state. It is essentially meaning, and meaning is a hallmark of minds and is never observed in matter except as a characteristic imparted to matter by a mind. Ink on paper has no meaning unless it is processed (written and/or read) by a mind. Minds impart intentionality, and there's not a shred of evidence that matter (even brain tissue) alone can impart intentionality. Minds can't come entirely from matter because intentionality doesn't come from matter.

Some materialists deny the reality of intentionality, and describe it as a trick played by our brains. We don't really have "meaning." We just have brain states, which we misinterpret as having meaning. Two principal proponents of this view are Paul and Patricia Churchland, materialist philosophers who actually think that minds don't exist at all. They advocate what is called eliminative materialism. Eliminative materialists assert that we are just brains, and that beliefs, meaning, and desires aren't real. Only the brain is real. Our belief that we have minds is "folk psychology," which is a cornucopia of naïve inferences (such as the naïve view that we have beliefs, opinions, desires) held by the benighted mass of humanity who don't understand the real materialist nature of man. Eliminative materialism, while popular within the materialist community, has made little progress outside of the materialists' locked ideological ward. Benighted "folk" have difficulty accepting the belief that there are no beliefs.

The most recent materialist "insight" about the mind has been evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology is the "science" of explaining the human mind as a material residue of brain mutations in our survival-challenged ape (err...hominid) ancestors. A recent notable contribution of evolutionary psychology to our understanding of the human mind is a Nature Genetics article announcing that the human mind evolved because of one of our million year-old mutant hominid ancestors got better spit. The press release, which invariably accompanies evolutionary "discoveries," announced that the explanation for the human brain is to be found "in the cheeks," specifically in the saliva in the hairy cheeks of an extinct hominid. Better spit -- better digestion -- better brains -- better apes. Ecce homo. Evolutionary psychology's salient accomplishment is to have made itself immune to parody.

Which brings us to Steven Pinker, a professor of (evolutionary) psychology at Harvard, who has made a career out of using the popular press to point out the ugly implications of the current evolutionary materialist theory of the mind, and to champion those implications. As the evolutionary theories of the mind change hourly, Pinker has been prolific. His recent essay in The New Republic, "The Stupidity of Dignity," is the clearest example I know of the materialist understanding of the mind applied to modern medical ethics. Pinker argues that our traditional understanding of human dignity, based as it is on several millennia of religious and philosophical insight, will have to be discarded in light of our new "evolutionary" understanding of human beings and of the human mind, for whom autonomy -- the struggle for survival -- is paramount. Pinker asserts that autonomy, not dignity, must be the basis for medical ethics, because dignity is antiquated "theocon" religious nonsense. Pinker fails to note that the autonomous are those who least need the protection afforded by medical ethics. It is precisely those who aren't autonomous who most need protection based on dignity, and they need protection from those who are autonomous. The materialist understanding of man isn't the basis for a new ethics. It's the end of ethics.

The materialist project to explain the mind reads less like a compendium of scientific and philosophical investigation than like a psychiatrist's case log. Succinctly, the materialist project is batsh*t. The mind is a catastrophe for materialism. Materialism doesn't explain the mind, and it probably can't explain the mind. Materialism flounders on the hard problem of consciousness -- the problem of understanding how it is that we are subjects and not just objects. Now a number of scientists and other academics are challenging this repellent materialist nonsense. There's no scientific or even logical justification for the inference that the mind is merely the brain, without remainder, and the philosophical and sociological implications of the materialist view of the mind are abhorrent. Now there's a reality-based push-back to materialist superstition, and the materialists have an insurrection on their hands.

The meat-robots are stirring.