Sunday, May 29, 2011

A little bit of naturalist apologia

We live in a world where most natural phenomena, from the micro level of atoms, cells and molecules up to the macro level of galaxies and the universe itself, seem to be describable and explicable in physical terms. Physicalism (I mean by this term the metaphysical position that only the physical universe exists) is, as I said, by no means triumphant (and it is a reasonable point that contemporary physics itself presents us with a still-mysterious and newly-strange picture of the universe). There are ongoing popular metaphysical arguments about evolutionary biology and about cosmology, for example. But it is a striking fact about contemporary culture that psychology (and by extension the behavioral and social disciplines) are still not considered to be integrated into our otherwise generally physicalist metaphysics. Put another way, while many people today have firmly internalized physicalist intuitions about organic life, say, or about distant celestial objects, physicalist theories of mind still meet with resistance today, even among secular people who have broadly physicalist attitudes.

I’m not someone motivated mostly by ideology. I’ve always been impressed by Socrates’ description (in the Theatetus) of the search for knowledge as the activity of becoming aware of what it is that one truly believes, and then stating that belief, above all to oneself, as clearly and courageously as possible (in fact Socrates is claiming, contra his relativist antagonists, that this is the essential, unavoidable human activity). I’ve had the salutary experience of changing my mind and reversing myself several times during my relationship with philosophy of mind. Now I just want to develop the soundest view of the matter that I can, as one climbs a mountain. One of the worst faults a philosopher can have is the tendency to magical thinking: trying to make a brief for what one wants to be true.

However another couple of paragraphs of self-explanation are warranted. I know this because I have spent the past ten years or so teaching the philosophy of mind to undergraduates at two large state universities. Inevitably this involves, among other things, leading a lay audience to discuss, usually for the first time, the topic of naturalism with regard to human nature and to the mind. Of course there are people who arrive in the classroom already thoroughly naturalistic. But consistently there are people who struggle with this topic for deeper, cultural reasons. Although this discussion is rarely included in books on philosophy of mind, I have found that it is best to present some apologia at the beginning for students who may have some preconceptions that can turn them off, as well as to reassure them that I too think that these are legitimate concerns that can be discussed if they wish.

OK, so here’s an ideological argument: Humans are depressingly alienated from nature. Our relationship with the rest of the biota on this planet is not a good one. Urgent action is necessary to stem climate change, species extinction and other environmental problems that pose grave threats. However we also need longer-term cultural evolution, a change in our attitude towards our relationship with nature, and this change is effected to some extent by cultural workers such as artists, philosophers and writers.

It is my opinion that human exceptionalism, and a lot of bad metaphysics down a lot of centuries that came with it, is one root of our dysfunctional relationship with nature. I think that naturalism about psychology is the most progressive view. I think that naturalism is also the most spiritual view. And it is the healthiest view of human nature. I may be all wrong on all of that. But the reader ought to understand that I concede no quarter of the argument between physicalism about the mind and its alternatives, including discussions in terms of enlightenment, ethics, freedom, spirituality and so forth. Those discussions, however, will form little or no part of this book.

A programmatic point that will be discussed, though, is the importance of clearing up some of the logical and linguistic problems that we continue to have with our concept of “mind” in order to make progress in experimental science. Theory can have a good deal to say about the development of experimental protocols, and good theory will make these implications clear.

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