So I was having a pleasant little bit of a Twitter back and forth with theologian and apologist Randal Rauser on philosophy of mind. Then I went about part of my holiday weekend and when I checked Twitter again I had my mentions blown up and saw that our exchange had attracted some others and got more than a bit testy, and I think confused.
Bad things happen when you try to discuss something like philosophy of mind on a platform like Twitter.
Randal then wrote a blog post regarding the discussion with others on Twitter, which prompted me to finally make good on my comment to Randal about writing my own post about why I thought reductionism wasn't all that implausible.
I should start off by pointing out why I think reductionism of the mind is plausible - but rather than write all that out, I should point to an excellent comment by The Thinker over on Randal's blog which points out that given everything we know about physics - particularly about the atoms that make up our very material brains it effectively rules out the idea that there's something else out there that can affect our brains without violating the known laws of physics. Given that said laws are extremely well established, we should be very skeptical of things which claim to violate them.
So by reductionism about the mind, I mean to say that mental events just are physical events in the brain, and nothing more.
Randal attacks this notion head on using a very well known objection known as "qualia". Here's a quote from Randal in his comment section where he gives an excellent and succinct presentation of the problem:
"If a thought/sensation just is a pattern of neurons firing then every property of the thought/sensation is a property of the pattern of neurons firing.
With that in mind, imagine a neuroscientist who perfectly understands the pattern of neurons firing when a patient tastes cinnamon. But that neuroscientist has himself never tasted cinnamon. Is it your view that the neuroscientist would know the taste of cinnamon just as if he himself had sucked on a cinnamon stick all in virtue of knowing the pattern of neurons firing in the brain of the person who tasted cinnamon?"
I must admit that this kind of objection always struck me as a bit odd, and I think I have a response to the problem that seems to resolve the issue for the reductionist. That said, I'm no expert on the topic so perhaps I'm making a mistake with this and so I invite Randal or anyone to point out exactly where this response goes wrong or is confused.
In short, I think people who use the qualia objection don't take the reductionist conception of mind as far as they should when they craft their thought experiment.
Dat Qualia Tho
The response is that a thought/sensation isn't "just a pattern of neurons firing" it's a pattern of neurons firing through the relevant parts of the brain which can produce the thought/sensation.
Since I'm a computer engineer and I have some professional experience with analog computers, which I think the brain is a kind of - lets use an example to illustrate what I think is going on.
Think back to when we used analog televisions with analog broadcasts. So your local TV stations had giant transmitters which would encode all of the video and audio information of a TV show and send it out over the air waves embedded in electromagnetic energy. Each TV at the time had an antenna and a tuner, which would be set to the right channel, which would then decode that electro-magnetic signal and pass it through a variety of electronics which would then produce the audio and video of the show.
So to go to Randal's example of the taste of cinnamon, the taste of cinnamon is a specific pattern of neurons which fire in a part of the brain when they receive a specific stimulus. This is the signal in our TV analogy. The neuroscientists would be like an engineer who received the signal on an antenna and hooked that up to an oscilloscope. Via the o-scope, the engineer can measure everything there is to know about the electromagnetic signal: Frequency, amplitude, etc. but the engineer can't actually watch the TV show unless he ran that signal through the proper electronics in the a TV set that would be able to decode the video and audio information.
This doesn't mean that there was something more to what happened in our antenna's and TV sets when they received the signal and decoded it to produce the video and audio - it was the signal combined with the TV electronics which produced the video and audio.
Something About Mary
One famous thought experiment about qualia is Mary's Room which is very much like Randal's example with cinnamon. What I'd like to do is to take my analogy and apply it a bit more. I'm not going to detail Mary's room, so if you're not already familiar with the thought experiment, click the link!
One thing to point out is that knowledge about "what it is like to see red", on a reductionist theory of mind would itself be physical changes in the brain. We do know that when try to use our memory or knowledge to think of things like images, or sounds parts of the brain that are involved with processing those sensory inputs are involved.
So in the case of Mary, while she may know all sorts of things about the firings of neurons in regions of the brain related to seeing the color red this isn't the same thing as actually stimulating the relevant parts of her brain that enable her to see red in the first place. So it's not surprising that when she is released from her room and actually has her eyes process light of the right wavelengths that she gets new information.
But I think things can be made stronger for the reductionist. Lets say Mary has a team of other super brilliant scientists, all of which only wear black and white clothes and use black and white instruments, or otherwise blindfold Mary to prevent her from actually seeing the color red while she's in her room.
Lets say they create a device that is able to inject the right stimulus at the end of the optic nerves, say the pattern of synapses which will cause the neurons in Mary's brain to fire in the precise sequence she knows is related to seeing red.
Then they do this for all the other colors, and Mary is then told what each color she's having represented through her mind by these synapse firings.
Once this is finished, Mary is removed from the machine which stimulated her, and her blindfold is removed.
Mary is then shown colors via her eyes for the first time in her life.
What do we think happens to Mary at this point:
1.) Will Mary gain any new information?
2.) Will Mary be able to correctly identify which color is which based on the information she got in her procedure?
I believe the reductionist can easily answer "No" to (1) and "Yes" to (2) because the reductionist theory is that seeing color really just boils down to a pattern of neurons firing in the relevant parts of her brain.
Importantly, information about that pattern of neurons firing is not going to be equivalent to actually having the pattern of neurons firing in the relevant part of the brain. It's like running a TV signal through an o-scope vs. an analog TV.
A Quick Note To Randal
So just as I hope Randal will point out where I've made a mistake in my thinking, I intend to point out where Randal has made a mistake in his.
In his post Randal says the following:
"The observer effect is a well-established phenomenon in which minds can effect physical events merely by observing them. Consequently, I am left puzzled by the insistence of some that our current understanding of physics precludes the ability of the mind to affect the world."
This is simply wrong headed. Nothing about the observer effect indicates that there must be some kind of a immaterial mind that therefore has a causal effect on the physical world.
The observer effect can be replicated with a camera or similar physical, non-conscious device, without any human's present. It's related, I think, to the total entropy created in the physical system which is perfectly consistent with the idea that mental events are physical events.
Similarly, ideas that reductionism is self-defeating by saying that "minds can cause physical events" is a bit of a red herring. The reductionist need not say that there is no such thing as a mind, they deny an immaterial mind. If they think the mind is purely physical, then of course the mind can affect physical reality.
This isn't to say that Randal has done something wrong, a lot of stupid things are said in these discussions and a lot gets lost, especially on Twitter. As such I can easily see why Randal would interpret things in such a way to see the reductionist saying something incoherent like "we don't have a mind that causes physical events!" and so write his reply.
My point here isn't necessarily to convince dualists, it is to try and stake out a position that shows reductionism isn't incoherent or self defeating.