The Deniers

Esteemed philosopher Galen Strawson has a very good piece on the poverty of materialism as an explanation for consciousness (“The Consciousness Deniers”). He traces the lineage from early behaviorism to Dennett-style functionalism, leading to the absurdity that is reductive materialism:

It’s true that we can’t understand how experience can be wholly a matter of neural goings-on, when we start out from the way the brain appears to physics or neurophysiology. Crucially, though, there’s no reason to give the way the brain appears to physics or neurophysiology priority over the way it appears to the person having the experience. Rather the reverse, as Russell pointed out as early as 1927: he annoyed many, and incurred some ridicule, when he proposed that it was only the having of conscious experience that gives us any insight into the intrinsic nature of the stuff of the brain. His point was simple: first, we know something fundamental about the essential nature of conscious experience just in having it; and second, conscious experience is literally part of the physical stuff of the brain, if materialism is true…

But then—in the middle of the twentieth century—something extraordinary happens. Members of a small but influential group of analytic philosophers come to think that true naturalistic materialism rules out realism about consciousness. They duly conclude that consciousness doesn’t exist. They reach this conclusion in spite of the fact that conscious experience is a wholly natural phenomenon, whose existence is more certain than any other natural phenomenon, and with which we’re directly acquainted, at least in certain fundamental respects. These philosophers thus endorse the Denial.

The problem is not that they take naturalism to entail materialism—they’re right to do so. The problem is that they endorse the claim that conscious experience can’t possibly be wholly physical. They think they know this, although genuine naturalism doesn’t warrant it in any way. So they, like the behaviorists, claim that consciousness doesn’t exist, although many of them conceal this by using the word “consciousness” in a way that omits the central feature of consciousness—the qualia, the “heady luxuriance.”

The situation grows stranger when one reflects that almost all their materialist forebears, stretching back over 2,000 years to Leucippus and Democritus, completely reject the view that experience can’t be physical, and hold instead (as all serious materialists must) that experience is wholly physical. Russell made the key observation in 1927: “We do not know enough of the intrinsic character of events outside us to say whether it does or does not differ from that of ‘mental’ events”—whose nature we do know. He never wavered from this point. In 1948, he noted that physics simply can’t tell us “whether the physical world is, or is not, different in intrinsic character from the world of mind.” In 1956, he remarked that “we know nothing about the intrinsic quality of physical events except when these are mental events that we directly experience.” But the Deniers weren’t listening, and they still aren’t.

Russell’s view (from his book The Study of Matter) strengthens a more phenomenological approach to understanding consciousness and possibly (qua Heidegger) can show us a path away from the trappings of scientism and towards a more authentic Being.

Of the fetishized philosophy of materialism’s underlying assumptions, Strawson writes:

One of the strangest things about the spread of the naturalism-based Denial in the second half of the twentieth century is that it involved overlooking a point about physics that was once a commonplace, and which I call “the silence of physics.” Physics is magnificent: many of its claims are either straightforwardly true or very good approximations to truth. But all of its claims about the physical are expressed by statements of number or equations. They’re truths about quantities and relational structures instantiated in concrete reality; and these truths tell us nothing at all about the ultimate nature of the stuff of reality, the stuff that has the structure that physics analyzes. Here is Russell again (in 1948): “the physical world is only known as regards certain abstract features of its space-time structure… we know nothing about the events that make matter, except their space-time structure.”

I’ve been taking a strong interest of late in various critiques of rationalism (e.g., Hobbes, Burke, Oakeshott, MacIntyre), that is, critiques of the idea of abstraction as the purest form of Truth and only valid way to get to Truth, as it is defined. This approach, with its origins in the physical sciences, ignores the realm of Practical Reason and its existentialist role (see Aristotle) and has, since the Enlightenment, crept into the social sciences (the Science of Man) and political philosophy. This has led to many ongoing attempts toward systematized political programs (whether Marxism, Neoliberal, or Libertarian) which, I increasingly believe, are variations of the same theme: utopianism. In each case, the Truth sought after (‘communism’, ‘progress’, ‘freedom’) is an idealized social state, itself a telos borne of abstract reasoning, and is ultimately a folly blind to the overdetermined realities of human existence.

This does not mean that we are atomized individuals; far from it. Out of practical necessity, we form groups, make tribal alliances, and negotiate the world. We do this, however, under the auspices of Practical Reason. It is when we then attempt to systematize these Practical actions vis-à-vis Abstract Reasoning that the trouble begins. Philosophical systems are constructed and proposed, and then the purity spiraling begins.

Increasingly, I have been wondering “How is it that Man continuously pursues such utopian dreams?” Strawson writes:

The explanation is as ancient as it is simple. As Cicero says, there is “no statement so absurd that no philosopher will make it.” Descartes agrees, in 1637: “Nothing can be imagined which is too strange or incredible to have been said by some philosopher.” Thomas Reid concurs in 1785: “There is nothing so absurd which some philosophers have not maintained.” Louise Antony puts it like this in 2007: “There is… no banality so banal that no philosopher will deny it.”

Descartes adds that when it comes to speculative matters, “the scholar… will take… the more pride [in his views] the further they are from common sense… since he will have had to use so much more skill and ingenuity in trying to render them plausible.” Or as C.D. Broad says, some 300 years later: some ideas are “so preposterously silly that only very learned men could have thought of them… by a ‘silly’ theory I mean one which may be held at the time when one is talking or writing professionally, but which only an inmate of a lunatic asylum would think of carrying into daily life.”

Such are the blind alleyways that ‘philosophy’ can take even the best of minds.

To this list of utopianisms, are we to add those who dream of pure, harmonious, authoritarian ethnostates run by a benevolent class of elites? Is the paternalism required always fated to ultimately reach Great Terror proportions? Are such political beliefs a characteristic of what we might call the Denier of Human Imperfectability? In short, can something straight really be built from this crooked timber of humanity?

If not, what is the best political program we ought to be pursuing?

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