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Consciousness and the limits of Science

Let me begin by nailing my colours to the mast. I count myself a materialist, in the sense that I take consciousness to be a species of brain activity. Having said that, however, it seems to me evident that no description of brain activity of the relevant kind, couched in the currently available languages of physics, physiology, or functional or computational roles, is remotely capable of capturing what is distinctive about consciousness. So glaring, indeed, are the shortcomings of all the reductive programmes currently on offer, that I cannot believe that anyone with a philosophical training, looking dispassionately at these programmes, would take any of them seriously for a moment, were in not for a deep-seated conviction that current physical science has essentially got reality taped, and accordingly, something along the lines of what the reductionists are offering must be correct. To that extent the very existence of consciousness seems to me to be a standing demonstration of the explanatory limitations of contemporary physical science.

Michael Lockwood, philosophy professor and fellow of Green College, Oxford, in his article Consciousness and the quantum worlds. In Q. Smith and A. Jokric (eds.), Consciousness: New Philosophical Perspectives, 447–467. Oxford: Clarendon (2003).

Bill Vallicella on eliminative materialism

The “maverick” philosopher William Vallicella has started a number of entries on materialism, focusing particularly on eliminative materialism. This bears serendipitously on some debate which has been ongoing here. This started with Samuel Skinner in ‘Atheists Should Not Criticize Hitler’, which prompted my reply post, ‘Whence Cometh Value?’, and most recently discussion has been ongoing between Mike, Keith, Rob and myself in the comment thread of ‘Jesse Kilgore commits suicide after reading Dawkins’. The discussion has shifted subtly from the initial thesis that objective morality is unjustified in a non-theistic worldview, toward the thesis that non-theistic views preclude, by definition, any kind of abstracta such as meaning, value, purpose, qualia (pain, pleasure, and other sorts of subjective experiences), and so on. This is essentially the same point of contention around which eliminative materialism hinges, so I’d urge those involved in the debate here to better familiarize themselves with the issues by referring to Bill’s brief primer, ‘Eliminative Materialism Defined’. He concludes, and I think rightly so, that

The fundamental error of the eliminative materialist, then, is to imagine that belief, desire, and other mental states are theoretical posits of a false theory he calls ‘folk psychology.’ This is just nonsense: pain, desire, and the like are immediately given. There is nothing theoretical about them. It is the eliminative materialist who is in the grip of a false theory, namely, the theory that nothing can be real except what the physical sciences posit as real.

The eliminative materialist is engaged in a sensless enterprise: he attemts to prosecute the philosophy of mind while denying the very data of the philosophy of mind. What could be more absurd? Blinded by his scientism, he cannot admit what we all know to be the case: that we believe, know, desire, recollect, expect, fear, etc.

I’ll post updates to this series here when they are published.