Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Philosophy Is Not Dead, and We Have Not Killed Her

Perhaps the most galling feature of the resurgence of "scientific" materialists is how truly terrible the science itself is. Take this passage from an interview with neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky:
A muscle did something. Meaning a neuron in your motor cortex commanded your muscle to do that. That neuron fired only because it got inputs from umpteen other neurons milliseconds before. And those neurons only fired because they got inputs milliseconds before and back and back and back. Show me one neuron anywhere in this pathway that, from out of nowhere, decided to say something that activated in ways that are not explained by the laws of the physical universe, and ions, and channels, and all that sort of stuff. Show me one neuron that has some cellular semblance of free will. And there is no such neuron.
Not to put too fine a point of it, but the reductionism here simply doesn't reflect the state of the field, even ignoring that question-begging word "decide". But it doesn't hurt to start there: on some level, "decide" is exactly what each neuron does. His description of a game-of-Moustrap-like chain from stimulus to response is, as a rule, the exception: the typical neuron in the brain is taking in a complex of inputs to which it responds in a manner over which there is a great deal of argument, including models that are frankly probabilistic, beyond the feedback which is part of so many neural circuits. Likewise, the implicit reduction of a thought to a single neuron firing is laughably simplistic, even without considering that we don't have any substantial idea of how anything beyond a fairly limited set of sensory impressions are realized in the brain, and certainly nothing as abstracted as a rational thought, or even an emotion.

The truth is that even the computers to whom analogy is often made are beginning to exceed our comprehension as their complexity grows. When the top go-playing program is set against itself, for example, the result is play that has been described by experts as "Amazing. Strange. Alien." Some of this appears to rise from limits of human ability to process the board as a whole, but other peculiarities of its play in these matches have resisted analysis. And the game of go, it should be remembered, had up to this time resisted computational attack by sheer combinatorial depth, not because of any complexity of its rules. The brain is hardly so symmetrical.

It is not unreasonable to hold this doctrine (for that is what is) subject to the demands of scientific proof. I do not accept that one can argue free will out of existence in this way: that the brain is mechanically deterministic is a hypothesis which needs explicit experimental proof, which we certainly do not have and which is certainly not going to be produced without a huge advance along several fronts of neurology and cellular biology. But beyond that, anyone is welcome to ask of these dogmatic skeptics, "what exactly do you mean by the will, anyway?" And at that point, we plunge headlong into the discomforting domain of the philosophers.

And it certainly discomforts them, at least if statements from the likes of the popularizers are any sign. If Stephen Hawking claimed that philosophy has become irrelevant because its practitioners haven't kept up with scientific developments (which he did), if Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson can, between the two of them, ridicule philosophers as concerned with irrelevancies, it is a sign of how insular and self-inflated the voices of secular materialism have become. Or rather, it points, philosophically, to the intellectual impoverishment of their own, well, philosophy. To turn to Philosophia's spurned sister, the theologians have not in fact been particularly discomforted by scientific advance; it is self-doubt that has proven their greatest threat. If we are reduced to a "god of the gaps", well, that's an aesthetic objection, to which reality need not conform.

And if humans created philosophy, as Nye claims, well, natural science is of the same ilk. He is hardly a model of intellectual rigor, and one would really consider the guardianship of that rigor to belong to philosophy; but even by standards about which there is no real controversy, these statements don't withstand even casual scrutiny. They have the same quality of rationalization about them that they attribute to others.

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