Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Dr. Larry Moran Flunks Philosophy

 
It wouldn't be fair for me to ignore Michael Egnor's devastating put-down demonstrating my ignorance and bigotry [Dr. Larry Moran Flunks Philosophy].

I especially like being called a Darwinian fundamentalist.

The "discussion" is all about Mary's Room. Here's the synopsis from the Wikipedia site.
Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’. [...] What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?
The answer, by the way, is "yes." Mary will learn something when she actually experiences how photons of different wavelengths impinge upon her retina and are interpreted by her brain.

Isn't that profound?


20 comments :

  1. Congratulations! :-)

    I get similar (albeit less noisy) criticism when I give my opinion on things like mysticism to my former Unitarian Church friends.

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  2. Philosophy (or simply, the study of questions that have no answers) is a psychological disorder that causes people to endlessly ponder the in(s)ane, the improvable, and the pointless rather than go out and get a job.
    ...
    As an academic pursuit, much of philosophy is the study of the writings of a lot of dead philosophers and coming up with theories as to what the hell they were talking about.
    ...
    Philosophy has avoided adopting either a purpose or a method, and therefore it is immune to most criticism, since you can never point out that it failed to reach its goal or work as advertised. If you are foolish enough to try to criticize philosophy anyway, your statements will simply become absorbed into the morass as yet another branch of philosophy.

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  3. I don't know how the sudden appearance of new phenomenon would trigger new knowledge - perception yes. The only thing she would "know" is that she's perceiving something new, but she would ground this knowledge on her previous empirical work (and extrapolate that her new awareness likely means that there is new work to do and grant money to find).

    However, not knowing anything of the new perception other than it’s been perceived has she gained anything in the way of knowledge not known before? And, does Mary herself have to know that she knows new knowledge or would having it without knowing it be sufficient. Does this thought experiment require an outside observer to know that she knows if she doesn’t realize she knows the new knowledge?

    The physical characteristics that Mary knows to be associated with each entity that “we” call color, could possibly be called gloznort and bxzzdup, respectively, in Mary's world.

    Upon becoming aware of the new sensation (a physical reaction) she’d have to form an hypothesis regarding the new input and then do some testing before she might come to the conclusion that the new phenomenon that she was experiencing related to her previously acquired data (thereby maybe concluding blue = gloznort & red = bxzzdup)? She could then build this new data into the general set. Now that would be new knowledge that she would know and be able to independently have verified. Science!

    But then what if we and Mary are not real and we only exist as a thought and I’m just thinking there’s a you and a hypothetical Mary? Jeez, then there wouldn’t be a you. It would just be me. Or vice versa.

    Damn evil Darwinism! Now I’m all alone. Or you are. Or something.

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  4. Philosophers have the annoying habit of coming up with these very convenient and simplistic scenarios cleverly disguised as profound thought experiments. Actually this an experiment in reverse, structured with an assumption that needs to be proved. If contingent variables, can be thrown out at will, and whatever is convenient can be assumed as given, not needing proof or evidence, the experiment is useless. When Nagarjuna (the Buddhist) challenged Sankara (the Samkhya'ist) to debate, Sankara suggested that they frame the terms and tools of the debate. Nagarjuna suggested that they use logic, while Sankara disagreed, "Let us use evidence and first define perception. Because using logic, you can prove a dead man is alive!" Nagarjuna noded his head, and agreed to begin the debate the next morning. When the next day dawned, Nagarjuna and his followers were all gone!

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  5. Mary's skin, hair, and eyes have some color she could see directly, as would blood from a minor injury or menstruation; and she might even be able to see her eyes reflected in a dark TV screen, so her experience of the world would not be all black and white while in her room.

    Oh, now I get it: we are supposed to draw conclusions about reality without observing it.

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  6. (For some reason, my earlier attempt to comment disappeared)

    Exactly what would Mary learn when she came out of the room? Presumably, she might already have read descriptions of colour (poetry and the like) and know that colour can affect human emotions. In principle, she might even have some idea how she would respond, what her favorite colour would be -- that should be predictable given sufficiently detailed data on her own neurology. I'm not convinced that "What it's like to experience colour" counts as "knowledge". It seems to me that knowledge has to be a claim *about* something, or it's just a meaningless-mystical abuse of the term.

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  7. I have no reason to believe that Egnor is anything but a competent surgeon.
    But, otherwise, he's a woo master. I wouldn't want him to be dancing around, shaking his dick, and invoking spirits if I were sick, and had to subject myself to his ministrations.

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  8. Why won't Egnor allow comments over there so we can tell him where he is mistaken? It's such a blatant non-sequitur to say that because the experience of redness can't be conveyed to someone who hasn't seen it, that therefore the experience of redness is "immaterial." Well, worse than a non-sequitur, it's a non-starter as "immaterial" is poorly defined. But leaving that aside, if Egnor really believes that the experience of redness is "immaterial," then perhaps he could demonstrate to us how to induce such an "immaterial" experience WITHOUT interacting with anything material (for instance, without looking at a MATERIAL object that is red).

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  9. I think Egnor stole this idea from a novel of David Lodge (I don't remember which one), in which students had to write their answers to a similar question about "Mary the colour scientist". As far as I remember he (Egnor) didn't acknowledge his source or discuss any of the examples in the book. Of course, I could go back and read the article again, but I find that reading Egnor's writings once is quite enough, and in general I prefer to have his thoughts pre-digested by someone sensible.

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  10. Philosophical "know-nothingism" is no prettier than scientific know-nothingism. Philosophy, at its best, examines and organizes the structure of human knowledge and raises questions about we know what we think we know.

    Which is not to say that there isn't bad philosophy right along with bad science, bad literature, bad art, etc.

    What I find amusing about Egnor is his lack of self-awareness, for example, in accusing Larry of sneering at dualism while sneering at "Darwinian fundamentalists" and "dogmatic materialists," rather than engaging their arguments.

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  11. John Pieret says,

    Philosophical "know-nothingism" is no prettier than scientific know-nothingism. Philosophy, at its best, examines and organizes the structure of human knowledge and raises questions about we know what we think we know.

    I agree!

    Philosophy is the most important subject that one can study and it teaches critical thinking in a way that's superior to that of any other subject.

    We all have much to learn from philosophers.

    That does not mean that everything falling under the banner of philosophy is correct. Engor's argument against materialism (scientism) falls into that category. Just because it might be "philosophy" does not make it any less stupid.

    I do mock dualism, Egnor is right about that. If "Mary's Room" is the best that dualists can come up with then they deserve to be mocked.

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  12. John Pieret, the problem isn't with philosophy, but with philosophers in their dotage writing whatever catches their fancy, as also with religionists (Plantinga e.g.,) passing themselves off as philosophers. There can be a philosophy of religion X or even philosophy of religion at large, but there can be no Y'tian/Y'ic philosophy. Further there are very large parts of philosophy today - e.g., philosophy of the mind; that are pure junk, given how much we have learnt about the entity called the mind.

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  13. Further there are very large parts of philosophy today - e.g., philosophy of the mind; that are pure junk, given how much we have learnt about the entity called the mind.

    I don't understand this comment. What have we learned about "the entity called the mind" that is devoid of any philosophical implications? That perhaps the mind is an epiphenomenon and not a separate, dualistic entity apart from the brain? Bear in mind that monism is a particular philosophy of mind, so your comment still makes no sense.

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  14. AL,

    By entity I mean an object of study. Science tells us among other things that what we call the mind is simply emergent from the workings of the brain. It is nothing more than a placeholder. Obviously I do not mean the monist mind/brain either, because that is a v.v.old idea in Indian philosophy, just as atomism - Kanaada.

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  15. Far be it from me to defend Egnor's mangling of philosophy of mind - and if you want assume a materialist philosophy, that's fine. But if you really want to get into these consciousness arguments, you should at least be aware of what you're getting into, otherwise it will be a low-level discussion. Chalmers might be a good place to start:

    http://consc.net/papers/facing.html

    http://consc.net/papers/moving.html

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  16. Anonymous says,

    Far be it from me to defend Egnor's mangling of philosophy of mind - and if you want assume a materialist philosophy, that's fine. But if you really want to get into these consciousness arguments, you should at least be aware of what you're getting into, otherwise it will be a low-level discussion.

    Why does this remind me of The Courtier's Reply?

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  17. Why does this remind me of The Courtier's Reply?

    Now, now! Remember what you said about philosophy and philosophers (assuming you weren't being facetious). Chalmers is a very smart philosopher (Wilkins told me so) and from what I've read of him, he does raise interesting questions about mind within a totally naturalistic framework.

    That's one of the problems with The Courtier's Reply ... it can just as easily be an excuse for know-nothingism.

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  18. John Pieret says,

    Chalmers is a very smart philosopher (Wilkins told me so) and from what I've read of him, he does raise interesting questions about mind within a totally naturalistic framework.

    The reason it reminds me of the Coutiers Reply is that it begs the question.

    Asking me to go out and study all the musing about the problems of consciousness can only be relevant if I agree beforehand that there's such a thing as consciousness.

    Let's look at what Chalmers has to say about the really hard part of the problem.

    The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we think and perceive, there is a whir of information-processing, but there is also a subjective aspect. As Nagel (1974) has put it, there is something it is like to be a conscious organism. This subjective aspect is experience. When we see, for example, we experience visual sensations: the felt quality of redness, the experience of dark and light, the quality of depth in a visual field. Other experiences go along with perception in different modalities: the sound of a clarinet, the smell of mothballs. Then there are bodily sensations, from pains to orgasms; mental images that are conjured up internally; the felt quality of emotion, and the experience of a stream of conscious thought. What unites all of these states is that there is something it is like to be in them. All of them are states of experience.

    It is undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing. Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.

    If any problem qualifies as the problem of consciousness, it is this one.


    My reply is the standard one that's been around for decades in various forms.

    Imagine an android like Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Data sees, hears smells, talks etc. He accumulates information as experience and has the computational power to learn form it.

    Is Data conscious? If the answer is yes then clearly we have established that consciousness can be entirely explained in a materialist fashion.

    If the answer is no, then it is up to the Courtiers to explain how Data differs from real people.

    I don't see it. Until someone can explain what the problem is I'm not interested in delving into the "sophisticatd" solutions.

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  19. I don't see it. Until someone can explain what the problem is I'm not interested in delving into the "sophisticatd" solutions.

    Larry: The problem is that we don't know if Data is conscious or not. You just rephrased the question.

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  20. DK,

    Larry: The problem is that we don't know if Data is conscious or not.

    Exactly.

    They don't know what consciousness is and they don't even know if it exists.

    It sort of like admitting that they don't know if the Emperor is naked or not but, nevertheless, they insist that I learn to appreciate the cut of his shirts and the color of his hosiery before we can have a productive debate.

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