Conserns about some anti-materialist arguments

#1
Alex:

I am bothered by some statements that keep surfacing in your interviews. They are related to your proposition that thoughts are non-physical and therefore can't have physical effects on brain or body without disproving materialism. Also your (and your guests') suggestion that the placebo effect somehow disproves materialism.

Your starting point was a scenario with a “great idea” that a person wrote down and which was subsequently read by another person and is in your opinion now “non-physical” and incompatible with a materialist view of the brain.

The engineer in me is pushing me to simplify the example a bit so we can pay attention to the critical aspects and not be distracted by meaningless fluff, such as whether this is a “high level thought”, a “great idea”. Who cares?

So lets just think of a simple square 2 inches on each side. This is certainly an “idea”, not a physical object.

If this thought is written down and then passed to a second person the idea is now in the second person's imagination: a 2 inch square. Just as it is now in your imagination.

Defining this imagined object as a non-physical thing is perfectly reasonable, but I disagree that this is somehow incompatible with a physical brain or has any implications on materialism.

In your discussions you have described what I believe is a false dichotomy between brain and conceptual thought. Here's why I believe it is fallacious.

According to your description it looks like ALL thought can be shown to be non-physical. So you seem to be asserting that any thought is non-physical and is somehow impossible without “mind”. The difference between a “great idea” and a simple geometric image seems to be trivial and a matter of scale and therefore a quantitative and not qualitative difference. They are both concepts of thought. They can both be written down and after the death of the thinker, they can be shown to survive.

How about this alternative scenario? I can program a computer to draw a 2 inch square, then I can take a picture of the square, unplug the computer (thereby “killing it”), and using a vision capture program on a second computer it can “learn” about the idea of a 2 inch square and finally to draw it. Is there really any difference between this machine version of your thought experiment and the human version? Why on Earth would you conclude that a physical brain couldn't interact with a non-physical “idea”?

So I am contending that it is perfectly reasonable and generally acceptable for a physical brain to deal with a simple non-physical concept, just as it is reasonable for a computer to do the same thing. I don't see how these things validate or reject the idea of materialism.

Beyond what I think is flawed thinking in the first place, you go further to say that somehow neuro-plasticity is somehow incompatible with materialism because an ”idea” leading to physical changes in the brain is apparently violating someone's golden rule of materialism. Although you may be right about the fact that is does violate some people's cherished definition of materialism, let's not argue about that (because we can both find varying definitions of materialism to use as a benchmark), and simply look at your case from the other end of the argument: and consider whether the placebo scenario provides some evidence of a non-physical “mind” in action? I say absolutely not.

First a few assumptions that I think we can agree on for now...

- Let's assume for a moment that some level of simple thought is possible within the context of a physical brain (and there's no evidence showing that this is a bad assumption).

- I'm sure we can also agree on the fact that through repetitive use, we can alter physical bodily attributes, such as how weightlifters can build up physical aspects of their body using work-outs.

-The brain is a physical object which has been shown to be involved in human thought in some way and the commonly held view is that the mechanism of thought involves the complex web of neurons, axions, and whole range of chemical and electrical (physical) interactions.

Is it so hard to accept the possibility that by thinking certain things, it is possible to affect the way the body responds to stimulus?

Here's a couple ways to look at the this-

1- Thought leading to macro mechanical action.

Let's start with an example where a fly lands on your leg. You then think a non-physical thought (“boy that fly is annoying, I'd like to shoo it away”) and a physical thing results: your hand moves toward the fly. A totally obvious case where: non-physical conceptual thought leads to physical change/action.

2- Thought leads to micro mechanical changes.

Someone sneaks up behind you and yells “BOOO”. Your heart races and you gasp. Your brain processed some information, perhaps imagined something (non-physical thought like: a boogyman is standing behind me) and initiated PHYSICAL hormonal secretions that caused your body to respond in certain ways.

Aren't these both simple cases where non-physical “thoughts” cause/lead to physical responses. Is there any controversy here? Any reason to point to a non-physical mind to explain this?

Is it so hard to conceive that other thoughts in your brain about sickness or getting well could cause bodily responses that could change a patient's outcome in a medical situation? To me it is easy to conceive of a situation where my brain's though pattern could result in secretion of some hormone or other. These are very interconnected systems after all.

If you accept this, I think it is a simple matter to further to envision a case where: as a consequence of activating certain collections of brain wiring (networks) the brain can be capable of re-ordering itself (re-wiring, perhaps by strengthening or weakening certain interconnections) thus making adaptations which change future action to stimulus. These sorts of self learning/adaptive systems are extremely common in nature and in engineering: why are they they not an obvious thing to consider when speculating about whether the brain could change itself through physical processes over time.

You have several times rejected claims of adaptation on the basis that they are recursive. So what? Why is it necessary for you to know or understand the initial state of any system, in order to accept that it has a feedback/adaptation loop as part of its design? I would say that it is perfectly reasonable for a system to start at some initial state (perhaps even a somewhat random one), irrespective of whether that state is known to you.

In summary I would like you to rethink these scenarios which seem to surface time and again in your discussions and which you seem to think demonstrate that materialism doesn't hold water. Your (and your guest's) logic in these cases seams seriously flawed. It is no surprise that your other guests, who are coming from the opposite point of view, are never convinced by these arguments.

I am of the same opinion as you are regarding the strong evidence of a non-physical component of our existence, I just don't think these particular arguments help your case at all. As a matter of fact, they can be used to show the overall weakness of your position.
 
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S

Sciborg_S_Patel

#2
I would also prefer the neural-plasticity example never be mentioned again.

Didn't Gary Jeffery Schwartz propose it originally? I'd be curious to see why he ever thought it was convincing.
 
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#3
Alex:

I am bothered by some statements that keep surfacing in your interviews. They are related to your proposition that thoughts are non-physical and therefore can't have physical effects on brain or body without disproving materialism. Also your (and your guests') suggestion that the placebo effect somehow disproves materialism.

Your starting point was a scenario with a “great idea” that a person wrote down and which was subsequently read by another person and is in your opinion now “non-physical” and incompatible with a materialist view of the brain.

The engineer in me is pushing me to simplify the example a bit so we can pay attention to the critical aspects and not be distracted by meaningless fluff, such as whether this is a “high level thought”, a “great idea”. Who cares?

So lets just think of a simple square 2 inches on each side. This is certainly an “idea”, not a physical object.

If this thought is written down and then passed to a second person the idea is now in the second person's imagination: a 2 inch square. Just as it is now in your imagination.

Defining this imagined object as a non-physical thing is perfectly reasonable, but I disagree that this is somehow incompatible with a physical brain or has any implications on materialism.

In your discussions you have described what I believe is a false dichotomy between brain and conceptual thought. Here's why I believe it is fallacious.

According to your description it looks like ALL thought can be shown to be non-physical. So you seem to be asserting that any thought is non-physical and is somehow impossible without “mind”. The difference between a “great idea” and a simple geometric image seems to be trivial and a matter of scale and therefore a quantitative and not qualitative difference. They are both concepts of thought. They can both be written down and after the death of the thinker, they can be shown to survive.

How about this alternative scenario? I can program a computer to draw a 2 inch square, then I can take a picture of the square, unplug the computer (thereby “killing it”), and using a vision capture program on a second computer it can “learn” about the idea of a 2 inch square and finally to draw it. Is there really any difference between this machine version of your thought experiment and the human version? Why on Earth would you conclude that a physical brain couldn't interact with a non-physical “idea”?

So I am contending that it is perfectly reasonable and generally acceptable for a physical brain to deal with a simple non-physical concept, just as it is reasonable for a computer to do the same thing. I don't see how these things validate or reject the idea of materialism.

Beyond what I think is flawed thinking in the first place, you go further to say that somehow neuro-plasticity is somehow incompatible with materialism because an ”idea” leading to physical changes in the brain is apparently violating someone's golden rule of materialism. Although you may be right about the fact that is does violate some people's cherished definition of materialism, let's not argue about that (because we can both find varying definitions of materialism to use as a benchmark), and simply look at your case from the other end of the argument: and consider whether the placebo scenario provides some evidence of a non-physical “mind” in action? I say absolutely not.

First a few assumptions that I think we can agree on for now...

- Let's assume for a moment that some level of simple thought is possible within the context of a physical brain (and there's no evidence showing that this is a bad assumption).

- I'm sure we can also agree on the fact that through repetitive use, we can alter physical bodily attributes, such as how weightlifters can build up physical aspects of their body using work-outs.

-The brain is a physical object which has been shown to be involved in human thought in some way and the commonly held view is that the mechanism of thought involves the complex web of neurons, axions, and whole range of chemical and electrical (physical) interactions.

Is it so hard to accept the possibility that by thinking certain things, it is possible to affect the way the body responds to stimulus?

Here's a couple ways to look at the this-

1- Thought leading to macro mechanical action.

Let's start with an example where a fly lands on your leg. You then think a non-physical thought (“boy that fly is annoying, I'd like to shoo it away”) and a physical thing results: your hand moves toward the fly. A totally obvious case where: non-physical conceptual thought leads to physical change/action.

2- Thought leads to micro mechanical changes.

Someone sneaks up behind you and yells “BOOO”. Your heart races and you gasp. Your brain processed some information, perhaps imagined something (non-physical thought like: a boogyman is standing behind me) and initiated PHYSICAL hormonal secretions that caused your body to respond in certain ways.

Aren't these both simple cases where non-physical “thoughts” cause/lead to physical responses. Is there any controversy here? Any reason to point to a non-physical mind to explain this?

Is it so hard to conceive that other thoughts in your brain about sickness or getting well could cause bodily responses that could change a patient's outcome in a medical situation? To me it is easy to conceive of a situation where my brain's though pattern could result in secretion of some hormone or other. These are very interconnected systems.

If you accept this, I think it is a simple matter to further to envision a case where: as a consequence of activating certain collections of brain wiring (networks) the brain can be capable of re-ordering itself (re-wiring, perhaps by strengthening or weakening certain interconnections) thus making adaptations which change future action to stimulus. These sorts of self learning/adaptive systems are extremely common in nature and in engineering: why are they they not an obvious thing to consider when speculating about whether the brain could change itself through physical processes over time.

You have several times rejected claims of adaptation on the basis that they are recursive. So what? Why is it necessary for you to know or understand the initial state of any system, in order to accept that it has a feedback/adaptation loop as part of it 's design? I would say that it is perfectly reasonable for a system to start at some initial state (perhaps even a somewhat random one), irrespective of whether that state is known to you.

In summary I would like you to rethink these scenarios which seem to surface time and again in your discussions and which you seem to think demonstrate that materialism doesn't hold water. Your (and your guest's) logic in these cases seams seriously flawed. It is no surprise that your other guests, who are coming from the opposite point of view, are never convinced by these arguments.

I am of the same opinion as you are regarding the strong evidence of a non-physical component of our existence, I just don't think these particular arguments help your case at all. As a matter of fact, they can be used to show the overall weakness of your position.
Welcome JKMac.
If you really want a reply from Alex you might want to put this excellent post in the show forum. He doesn't hang around here much;)
 
#4
Welcome JKMac.
If you really want a reply from Alex you might want to put this excellent post in the show forum. He doesn't hang around here much;)
Thanks Malf.

Wasn't sure where to post this to make sure Alex saw it. I would like a response from him, but just as much would like to hear from others I am open to the possibility that I am missing something important that would clear this all up for me.
 
S

Sciborg_S_Patel

#5
Thanks Malf.

Wasn't sure where to post this to make sure Alex saw it. I would like a response from him, but just as much would like to hear from others I am open to the possibility that I am missing something important that would clear this all up for me.
Actually I think a lot of people - proponents and skeptics - have asked that the neuro-plasticity argument be retired.

I'd much prefer the arguments made by Clifton's Empirical Case Against Materialism.
 
#6
Actually I think a lot of people - proponents and skeptics - have asked that the neuro-plasticity argument be retired.

I'd much prefer the arguments made by Clifton's Empirical Case Against Materialism.
Speaking of materialism. Does a version of materialism that incorporates "quantum type" strange behaviours, in an attempt to explain the overwhelming evidence of the non-physical aspects of reality, still quality as "materialism" or is it really some whole new category of explanation of how the world works?
 
S

Sciborg_S_Patel

#7
Speaking of materialism. Does a version of materialism that incorporates "quantum type" strange behaviours, in an attempt to explain the overwhelming evidence of the non-physical aspects of reality, still quality as "materialism" or is it really some whole new category of explanation of how the world works?
I think it'd depend on the interpretation and models being proposed to account for such phenomenon.

Charles Tart has said that a good number of parapsychologists believe Psi can be explained via the current assumptions of matter/energy being the firmament.

Braude has written extensively on why he feels this is impossible.

eta: Personally I hate most appeals to QM to explain paranormal phenomenon.
 
#9
eta: Personally I hate most appeals to QM to explain paranormal phenomenon.
Me too. Try to never bring QM up in these sorts of discussions!

Just wondering if hard core materialist use it to bolster their argument. Sort of like the Super Psi approach: covers everything so its nearly impossible to have a real conversation once invoked.
 
S

Sciborg_S_Patel

#10
Me too. Try to never bring QM up in these sorts of discussions!

Just wondering if hard core materialist use it to bolster their argument. Sort of like the Super Psi approach: covers everything so its nearly impossible to have a real conversation once invoked.
I do think there are some interesting ideas proposed by actual physicists relating to the role of consciousness in the universe, but a lot of appeals to QM seem to be poorly thought out.

I think materialist models of Psi were more popular in the past, though IIRC Radin has suggested QM can explain a good deal of paranormal phenomenon?
 
#11
In the opening post, what appears to be a coherent argument is put forward. However I can't help but feel that it is simply a statement of belief. As far as i can tell, there isn't anything grounded in some sort of "ultimate truth" in the ideas presented, rather it is a series of assertions which clearly are going to appear self-evident if one shares that position, or equally will appear full of holes, a house of cards, if one disagrees.

I don't normally enter into these sorts of philosophical discussions, for this very reason. Any conclusions reached must inevitably be based upon some assumptions. The real difficulty is not in the lengthy argument, but in identifying those assumptions and seeing them for what they are.
 
S

Sciborg_S_Patel

#12
In the opening post, what appears to be a coherent argument is put forward. However I can't help but feel that it is simply a statement of belief. As far as i can tell, there isn't anything grounded in some sort of "ultimate truth" in the ideas presented, rather it is a series of assertions which clearly are going to appear self-evident if one shares that position, or equally will appear full of holes, a house of cards, if one disagrees.

I don't normally enter into these sorts of philosophical discussions, for this very reason. Any conclusions reached must inevitably be based upon some assumptions. The real difficulty is not in the lengthy argument, but in identifying those assumptions and seeing them for what they are.
Yeah there are a good number of outstanding, arguable assumptions made in the OP. Most of these points of contention are discussed in other threads like Is the Brain analogous to a Digital Computer?

Seems like the major issue is the comparison of computers to human minds. I'd say the comparison holds when it comes to neuroplasticity*, but breaks down for reasons noted by Compsci Prof Gelernter's Closing of the Scientific Mind and Lanier's One Half a Manifesto.

*There might be an issue with a self-referential program and whether it has intentionality (Point 5), but that IMO is being too generous given what I've read of Schwartz's argument. I think the OP makes a good case against it but I should probably double check what Schwartz said.
 
#13
Yeah there are a good number of outstanding, arguable assumptions made in the OP. Most of these points of contention are discussed in other threads like Is the Brain analogous to a Digital Computer?.
.[/quote]

Lets be clear- the idea is not the computer analogy. That is a minor aspect of my post. It is the fact that Alex and some guests are asserting that something very special is going on when a person has a thought,, it is non-physical and somehow this can't affect the physical. It's almost like there is some law that will be violated. My point is simply that nothing special needs to occur for non-physical to impact the physical. And I give some examples. If there is some aspect of my examples that is off the mark, let me know what it is and I will correct it. Don't get hung up on whether computers can or are or could be intelligent, as that is not the point of the original post.
In the opening post, what appears to be a coherent argument is put forward. However I can't help but feel that it is simply a statement of belief. As far as i can tell, there isn't anything grounded in some sort of "ultimate truth" in the ideas presented, rather it is a series of assertions which clearly are going to appear self-evident if one shares that position, or equally will appear full of holes, a house of cards, if one disagrees
 
S

Sciborg_S_Patel

#14
Gotcha.

Like I said, I think your criticism of the neuroplasticity argument is a good one. I think it should never be mentioned by Alex or anyone else as an argument for immaterialism.
 
#15
In the opening post, what appears to be a coherent argument is put forward. However I can't help but feel that it is simply a statement of belief. As far as i can tell, there isn't anything grounded in some sort of "ultimate truth" in the ideas presented, rather it is a series of assertions which clearly are going to appear self-evident if one shares that position, or equally will appear full of holes, a house of cards, if one disagrees.
Sorry- don't know how to ground my comments in any "ultimate truth". Honestly, that is what I am here to figure out.

But if it helps, I'll tell you that I don't come from a place of I would call "belief". I come from a place of being evidentially informed. The evidence I have collected is starting to coalesce around a set of operating principals but I am not going to try and lay that all out in one email.
 
#16
Sorry- don't know how to ground my comments in any "ultimate truth". Honestly, that is what I am here to figure out.

But if it helps, I'll tell you that I don't come from a place of I would call "belief". I come from a place of being evidentially informed. The evidence I have collected is starting to coalesce around a set of operating principals but I am not going to try and lay that all out in one email.
nitpick: I think you mean you don't come from a place of that you would call "faith". Faith is belief without sufficient evidence. What you are saying is that you have beliefs that are supported by sufficient evidence.

There's nothing wrong with belief - we couldn't function without it!
 

Bart V

straw materialist
Member
#17
Gotcha.

Like I said, I think your criticism of the neuroplasticity argument is a good one. I think it should never be mentioned by Alex or anyone else as an argument for immaterialism.
Does that also go for "self directed neuroplasticity"? If you do not know what that is, ask Bernardo.
 
#18
Yeah, I've got a real issue with the "self-directed" part of self-directed neuroplasty. It implies that the person is willfully carving out new routes. In a manner of speaking they are, in that in the end new routes get carved, but it is not by through deliberate design by the person's will. Rather, we know, from experiments, that when certain practices are followed (such as meditation) for a certain frequency and duration, then the brain will often rewire itself.
It's an indirect result of will, not a direct result. The will may directly lead to the mediation, but it doesn't directly rewire the brain.
 
#19
As a side note, and a technical one, if you want to call someone into a discussion use tagging, which means writing the user name starting with @ symbol.
If you start with that character and then write the first letters of the user name it will autocomplete it for you.
Like this @alex.tsakiris

It changes text style as well. That's a tag and it should(*) show up in the user's notifications, so he'll know you have tagged him.

Cheers

(*) = I said "should" because it depends on the personal settings. I think that by default tagging is notified.
 
#20
nitpick: I think you mean you don't come from a place of that you would call "faith". Faith is belief without sufficient evidence. What you are saying is that you have beliefs that are supported by sufficient evidence.

There's nothing wrong with belief - we couldn't function without it!
Sure. I can buy that.

Sufficient for me anyway. Of course everyone has a different calibration... A fact which is at the core of the discussions/debates seen here.
 
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