Thursday, January 01, 2009

Another Way of Knowing?

Thanks to one of our favorite IDiots, Michael Egnor, we now have an answer to an important question. The question is whether there are ways of knowing other than science (evidence + rationalism). Egnor's answer is .... wait for it .... subjective experience! [My Challenge to Dr. Novella: The Materialist Color Tutor’s Dilemma].
Imagine a tutor who specializes in teaching children about color. He’s a materialist, named…Steve. He knows all that is known about color. He knows the physics, the optics, the chemistry, the neurobiology, everything. A family retains him to teach their child, a prodigy, all that can be known about color.

Tudor Steve goes to work. He teaches the little genius about quantum mechanics with relevant application of string theory to flesh out the more subtle issues, then goes on to teach the precocious child chemistry, optics, neurobiology, all of the material and physical facts about color. The child excels in color class in school, acing all of the exams on the physics and the chemistry and the neurobiology.

Then, one day, the boy confides in tutor Steve: the child is color-blind. He has learned all of the physical facts about color, but he has no idea what color looks like. He knows that tutor Steve is a materialist, so he assumes that all there is to know about color can be explained from a materialistic standpoint, including what color looks like. That’s why the child’s parents hired Steve the materialistic color tutor.

So the boy asks tutor Steve:

"Please explain to me what color looks like."

Materialist color tutor Steve has a dilemma. Material facts about color can, of course, be taught. But can ‘what it is like to see color,’ the subjective experience of color, be taught? If it can’t, then there is knowledge of color that is not material knowledge. Therefore materialism cannot completely explain the subjective experience (the qualia) of color. Therefore subjective experience is something in addition to matter. And therefore dualism is necessary to explain the mind.

How would materialist tutor Steve explain what color looks like to a person who is color blind?
That's a tough question all right. But it's only one of many difficult questions of this type. Here are some others that Michael Egnor might want to ponder.
  • How do you explain intelligence to someone who is stupid?
  • How do you explain what it's like to be abducted by UFO's if you've never been kidnapped by aliens?
  • How does a bat explain echolocation to a human?
  • How do you explain astrology to someone who doesn't know their birthday?
  • How do you explain love, or anger, to someone who has never been angry or in love?
  • How do you explain homeopathy to someone who has never been cured by drinking water?
  • How do you explain Canada to someone who has never been there?
  • Where are the weapons of mass destruction?
  • Does Michael Egnor exist?
Hands up, all those who think these questions reveal non-scientific ways of knowing about the truth? How many think that human feelings and emotions cannot be explained by science and scientific reasoning? Has Michael Egnor proved that UFOs astrology homeopathy God exists?



28 comments :

  1. It's questions like these that diminish my appreciation for philosophy. These kinds of questions are considered very seriously in philosophy (e.g. Nagel & Chalmers), and not just to reveal idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies in how we use language but as substantive issues casting doubt on materialism and empirical science.

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  2. He's doing a bait-and-switch, the daft idiot.

    Okay, I think it's somewhat true that we can't convey the full subjective experience ('qualia') of seeing colour, but we can establish what colours are, what distinguishes one from another, and test indisputably that different colours refer to real phenomena. We can study the wavelengths, present sculptures made of balls of different colours and ask people to spot the patterns, present cards of different colours to volunteers and ask them to name the colour to test for inter-subjective differences. All of this is empirical and scientific.

    So what knowledge does this alternate form of knowing give us?


    Let's not forget that some people experience Synesthesia where they may see numbers as different colours, or may "hear" colour. Is this an alternate way of knowing? Are we supposed to believe that these numbers or sounds really have a colour?

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  3. As far as I can see, all he has proven is that the concept of a God-of-the-gaps is still going strong. Yes, there is a gap between our knowledge of the physics of electromagnetic radiation and the neurophysiology of the brain and why certain wavelengths of visible light are represented by what we call the color red, for example, in our perceptual models. But we have no reason to assume that this gap will never be closed and certainly no reason to infer from this temporary ignorance the existence of a God.

    It seems to me that as gaps get narrower or are closed altogether, what is left to nourish the faithful's belief in their parochial God is thin gruel indeed.

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  4. I think it's accurate to say that subjective experience is perhaps the only way to know about - well, subjective experience. But it fails as a way of knowing about anything else. Sure, if someone suffers from CIPA you can't really explain to them what pain feels like. But for the rest of us, feeling pain doesn't explain anything about nociceptors. People have felt pain for all of human history but have only begun to understand the mechanism very recently, and that was only possible through science.

    So yes, subjective experience is a valid way of knowing - but not for knowing about the nature of the world, only about your awareness of it.

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  5. So, by Egnor's definition, any knowledge that can't be taught is non-material? How ridiculous!

    Egnor's argument also assumes that "what it is like to see color" is actually a coherent concept that goes beyond the material facts (e.g. wavelength, photopigments, etc.). I don't think it is.

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  6. Well...you could possibly connect the light source to a device that exploits the photo electric effect, which then produces a sound based on the electron current generated by the energy of the photons. As we know, the current and hence the sound would then be proportional to the energy and thus to the wavelength of the photons. Different colors could then emit different sounds and one could train the color-blind child to identify colors by sound.

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  7. I notice upon re-reading the article that Egnor fails to describe any sort of methodology or alternate way of knowing. He seems to point out one of several sources of input or lines of evidence and then with a wink-wink, nudge-nudge, hints that this is a way of knowing. Hardly. Subjective experience is taken into account as a source of evidence but it's fallible and limited, things Egnor seems blissfully unaware of.

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  8. This is no problem for materialism. If materialism is true, it would be possible (in principle at least) to produce the experience of color in a color-blind individual by medically correcting whatever relevant part of their nervous system is making them colorblind. Egnor could in principle, do it with his training as a neurosurgeon.

    For materialism to truly be in trouble, there should be NO WAY whatsoever to produce color experience through material acts such as neurosurgery, and I doubt Egnor is prepared to try to prove this true.

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  9. These sorts of arguments crack me up.

    Here is what I say: these things (emotions, appreciation of color) are the result of chemical reactions in the brain.

    What would happen if, say, someone gets a severe brain injury that destroys the appropriate parts of the brain? What happens to "love", anger, color appreciation, etc?

    Of course, it all goes away!

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  10. To be fair, I think he's just trying to give some support for dualism. It doesn't work though.
    I have no idea what a computer feels like, but I still know everything it does is due to known physical principles.

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  11. Egnor is simply rephrasing the "Mary's Room" philosophy of mind question:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary%27s_room

    Hands up, all those who think these questions reveal non-scientific ways of knowing about the truth?

    All it says is that there is a type of knowledge that is inaccessible to science. No one else (including scientists) can ever know how you perceive the color "red". Not ever. No one ca argue with that. So strictly speaking, there is knowledge that is inaccessible to science. The question then becomes, how such subjective knowledge (accessible only to one observer) can exist in an open physical system.

    Has Michael Egnor proved that UFOs astrology homeopathy God exists?

    Non-sequitur

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  12. Anonymous says,

    All it says is that there is a type of knowledge that is inaccessible to science.

    What "knowledge" is that, and how important is it?

    Do you think it's highly significant that I will never truly experience what it's like to see the word through the eyes of a fruit fly? Why does that mean that materialism is invalid?

    No one else (including scientists) can ever know how you perceive the color "red". Not ever. No one ca argue with that.

    And your evidence for that statement is .... ? Why are you so confident that scientists will never know how you perceive the color "red"? Do you know something about the future that I don't?

    Is the end of the world at hand?

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  13. "Is the end of the world at hand?"

    Yes! Get you ready!

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  14. What "knowledge" is that

    Ahem. I guess I'll have to repeat for those who are a little slow: The knowledge of what it's like to perceive reality through another perspective, mind, collection of atoms, etc, other than the way it's currently being experienced. Becoming a different subject ("what is it like to be a bat?" - Nagel).

    To simplify things in philosophical arguments, simple subjective feelings, sensations, etc are often used - like color perception. But all experience may actually fall into this category.

    and how important is it?

    I don't know Larry, that's a value judgment you have to make for yourself. How important is anything to you? But in the context of this argument, it's importance is obvious, as I already stated, so I'll repeat it for your benefit: How can *any* knowledge be theoretically (not just practically) restricted to only one observer in an open physical system, where anything can interact with anything else?

    Why does that mean that materialism is invalid?

    Not invalid, but possibly incomplete. As the argument goes, if the experience of being "you" as a subject was entirely physical/material, then that experience should be observable by others in an open physical system - just like the chemical reaction between acetic acid and sodium bicarbonate is not restricted to one observer.

    And your evidence for that statement is .... ? Why are you so confident that scientists will never know how you perceive the color "red"? Do you know something about the future that I don't?

    If you can think of a way for me to be you (without the baldness), let me know ;)

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  15. This question is a classic "pseudoproblem", an artifact of the weird and creative ways that human beings use language.

    According to materialism, consciousness is a particular kind of information processing that brains do. The question thus asks, "Can a person's brain be in a particular neural state without being in that particular neural state?" Of course not. For a color-blind person to subjectively perceive color, his brain must be put in a particular neural state.

    If materialism is true, then a color-blind person could subjectively perceive red by having the appropriate neurons stimulated.

    Just because a person's brain cannot be put in a particular neural state by hearing and reading statements about color does not invalidate materialism in any way, just as that you can't lift a rock by heating it does not invalidate the law of gravity.

    Furthermore, the foundation of empirical epistemology is subjective experience. A scientific person can rationally assent to all true statements about color by his own experience even if he is colorblind.

    The pseudoproblem just trades on an equivocation of "knowledge" (true statements and subjective experience) and asks what underlies the foundation of our knowledge (if something were to underlie subjective experience, then subjective experience would not be the foundation).

    Philosophy at best can tell us nothing about the world; it can only tell us about how we use language — and even then the scientific study of linguistics and psychology is better.

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  16. If materialism is true, then a color-blind person could subjectively perceive red by having the appropriate neurons stimulated.

    Yeah but Mr. Egnor wants materialist tutor Steve to explain it just using words and language. Egnor doesn't want materialist tutor Steve to actually use materialist scientifical type stuff.

    How would materialist tutor Steve explain what a strawman looks like to a creationist who is blind? That is the real question...

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  17. Ahem. I guess I'll have to repeat for those who are a little slow: The knowledge of what it's like to perceive reality through another perspective, mind, collection of atoms, etc, other than the way it's currently being experienced. Becoming a different subject ("what is it like to be a bat?" - Nagel).

    Why is that in principle inaccessible to science? As has already been mentioned by me and then several others, if the materialist presumption is true, and "qualia" emerge from neural states, then it is possible for you to experience the "qualia" of other beings by duplicating their brain states in yours. This may not be possible in practice, but that does not rule it out in principle, ergo Egnor's attempt to refute materialism a priori by what he thinks is a reductio ad absurdum falls apart, because materialism is internally consistent at least in this regard.

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  18. if the materialist presumption is true, and "qualia" emerge from neural states, then it is possible for you to experience the "qualia" of other beings by duplicating their brain states in yours. This may not be possible in practice, but that does not rule it out in principle

    I can partially accept that claim "in principle" given the materialist presumption and the impossibility of it in practice, however, there is still the issue of whether or not a manufactured duplication of an observation is equivalent to multiple observers observing the same phenomena. The primary issue is testing - how can you verify that they are identical, since they are two separate experiences? If two observers were observing the same experience, that would not be an issue.

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  19. ...BTW, there are other philosophical issues with the materialist presumption, in that it may not be as "material" as you think. Consider this thought experiment: Imagine replacing each one of your neurons, one-by-one, with equivalent synthetic components. If you do it accurately, in theory, your subjective experience should not be affected. You could then replace each synthetic component, one-by-one, with a network plug-in, each tied to different computers all over the globe. You wouldn't expect your subjective experience to change, but it would now be "materially" distributed all over the globe. So the materialist presumption is actually more of a "functionalist" presumption. Your actual subjective experience would then be correlated with software or information, and not actually material. A strange thing to ponder - if the material presumption is correct.

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  20. "So the materialist presumption is actually more of a "functionalist" presumption. Your actual subjective experience would then be correlated with software or information, and not actually material. A strange thing to ponder - if the material presumption is correct."

    Functionalist explanations are emergent from component interactions, not DIVORCED from material reality.

    In your example, if the synthetic components are too badly damaged, then the person will still die. No matter how you convert the components, the system integrity must be maintained, and it's impossible to build any kind of system without material components.

    If you're not convinced, try building a system from pure "information" and "software" (can you even order software that didn't come via something material like a disk or a cable???), preferably a machine that can regenerate amputated limbs.

    That would be a far greater contribution to humanity than a twisted word game.

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  21. Functionalist explanations are emergent from component interactions, not DIVORCED from material reality.

    Quite true. However, there's an important difference between software and subjective experience. If I have enough patience and time and equipment (logic analyzers, etc), I can sit in front of a computer and figure out everything that's going on with the software. You can't do that with subjective experience. The only way to do that is to change "myself" (the subject) somehow, as AL mentioned. That's not a twisted word game.

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  22. To add-on to the pile-on...speaking of amputated limbs, phantom limb syndrome is a great example of the neural substrate argument to experience, that is a neural state existing without the related component.

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  23. Your actual subjective experience would then be correlated with software or information, and not actually material.

    Those electrons and electromagentic waves running on a distributed network are perfectly material. And so would be the subjective experience in your hypothetical example!

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  24. And so would be the subjective experience in your hypothetical example!

    I'm afraid that doesn't quite follow. As I stated previously, multiple observers can figure out what any software system is doing, given enough time and patience. Only one observer can what "you" experience, and that is you. In an open physical system, that should not be possible.

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  25. multiple observers can figure out what any software system is doing, given enough time and patience. Only one observer can [tell] what "you" experience, and that is you.

    The whole premise of reductionism is based upon the idea that, given enough time and patience, multiple observers can tell what I experience...
    And as it stands now, reductionism is not falsified. Ergo, your statement is wrong/unproven.

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  26. Anonymous said:"I can sit in front of a computer and figure out everything that's going on with the software. You can't do that with subjective experience."

    You are apparently unaware of or uninterested in psychophysical experimentation which pretty much accomplishes what you are asking. These types of experiments are used specifically to elucidate perception. Granted, we still don't know what the bat hears, but we can produce an envelope of physical parameters around that perception and know what the limits and many of the details within those limits actually are. In other words, we can approximate the bat's perception. For that matter, we only know that someone is color blind as a consequence of those types of experiments. Will we ever know precisely what another individual experiences? Probably not but I wouldn't bet the farm against it and I wouldn't trumpet that as a strike against the value of science.

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  27. I wouldn't trumpet that as a strike against the value of science.

    Nor would I, but that's not really the point, is it?

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  28. The whole premise of reductionism is based upon the idea that, given enough time and patience, multiple observers can tell what I experience...


    I don't think that's the premise of reductionism, but if it is, it's certainly a weak premise for reductionism to be based on.

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