Month: December 2014

Using “Consciousness” in monist/physicalist thought makes no sense

I thought I might publish this little note that I wrote a little while ago on “consciousness” being combined with apparently monist/physicalist/materialist thought.

The modern concept of Consciousness is an idea that was originally derived from Descartes and his famous cogito ergo sum, focus on reflexive thought, and separation of the subject and the object, of the mental and the physical. Doubting anything beyond one’s own thought leads to the idea of a bodyless thinker, a “consciousness”. Descartes solidified a changing view of the word “conscious”, altering a Latin meaning of the word that was closer to a general sense of “knowing”, and changing it into an object or entity that was involved in reflexive thought. Though several variations exist Descartes’ reasoning is typical of Dualist thought generally.

Since then no clear or widely accepted definition of Consciousness has arisen (the first paragraph here is a good illustration of the many alternatives), but it can still be argued that the use of consciousness makes sense in a Dualist framework, where the doubt of everything but one’s own thoughts seems to imply a metaphysical entity that must exist to “do the thinking”. In other words, consciousness makes sense in a Dualist world.

In contrast to Dualist thought stands Monism and Physicalism. They reject the idea that the world is divided into two substances. Monism asserts there must be only one substance, and physicalism asserts that subject is material or physical. Physicalist thought starts not with the self, but general observations of the world, including people. The self is usually established afterwards as one instance of the category of people or humans. We observe human behaviour, and with modern technology, we also observe the brain and postulate it as an explanation for the behaviours. Consciousness never comes into the equation for a Physicalist.

Now it would be very strange and totally unjustified for a Monist or a Physicalist to start using a Dualist concept with a Dualist justification. Yet this occurs in the discussions of prominent Monist scientists using the word “Consciousness” when they are discussing fields such as neuroscience or AI development. Claims that they have “found consciousness in the brain” or that “consciousness is an emergent property” of, say, certain neural networks are commonly accepted without any philosophical questioning. For example Rodolfo Llinás talks about Consciousness and subjectivity (Dualist concepts) as a physical process in the brain (asserting Physicalism).

When Monist scientists talk about Consciousness, they are deeply confused about their philosophical positions. A philosophical Physicalist doesn’t look for physical explanations of Consciousness, he or she asserts that Consciousness is a Dualist concept and has no place in their Physicalist worldview. They assert there is no such thing as mind, as subjectivity, as Consciousness. A Dualist rejects this, and asserts that the mind and the brain are not the same thing. To mix and match Dualist and Monist concepts is deeply confused, even when the person doing it is a brilliant neuroscientist or researcher.

The debate between Dualism and Monism will continue, but both camps can agree that the other’s concepts are centuries-old tested philosophical systems and that mix-and-matching shows an unfortunate intellectual confusion.

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Whoops its a blog post on sociologists

After this reading “How Sociologists Made Themselves Irrelevent“, my rant over on SSC ended up basically turning into a blog post. So here it is. I’ve had a fair bit experience interacting with sociologists and so for those interested I can share a bit of history of the field that might be interesting to those that haven’t had much experience with it.

Sociology is probably best thought of as a loose association of methodologies, ideologies and frameworks for studying the human social world. Quite a few of the early big names in sociology leaned a little conservative, motivated trying to understand the troubling (for them at least) social upheaval occuring around the transition from monarchy to democracy, the rise of nation-states etc, while others like Marx had left wing motivations. Within the field there is a massive variety of focuses from whole of society stuff down to speech analysis and everything in between, and people come up with a dizzing array of theories to explain all sort of stuff we usually take for granted.

It’s influence has never been massive, but it probably peaked at times when it presented itself (to government) as an objective body of knowledge about how society works. Durkheim was the best example of this IIRC, and got quite a bit of funding for research etc. when such funding was rare. Possibly Talcott Parsons too if IIRC.

Problem was, there was a fair bit of stuff presented as objective analysis that was interesting but non-rigorous stuff that just imagined itself to be objective (eg. “structural functionalism”). In the 60s/70s there was a big backlash to this and there was an “anti-positivist” turn. The idea that some sociology was opinions dressed up to appear objective turned into one more along the lines that all social theory/opnion was inherently subjective and that one should instead embrace that and instead use that as a motivator for insight and noble work (eg. advocating an opinion that favours the disadvantage) (this ideas was always a stream, but it became dominant). Generally speaking, this has translating to the field being mostly dominated by the cultural left, shades of post-moderism, SJW elements etc. Not all their ideas are bad, there’s still a big variety of views, and there’s a few quite brilliant people, but there’s a considerable anti-science, anti-objectivity and trench-warfare culture in the field now.

IMO, Orlando Patterson appears to represent this culture to a certain degree. I disagree with his main suggestion in this article. Sociology has little influence because most people perceive it as a series of political opinions and ideas, instead of an attempt to provide a politically neutral knowledge-base about society. I don’t disagree with all those opinions neccessarily, but as far as I can see the idea that there should more advocacy/opnions/politics (“public sociology”) won’t do anything to increase sociology’s influence.

Actually the field has a whole heap of really really interesting ideas for those who are genuine (eg. those who want to help others while minimising harmful unintended consequences). And I don’t think they’re wrong in all of the things they call for by any means. Its just worth remembering that the dominant culture in the field is a little anti-science at times. On the other hand, I often wince when I hear STEM people propose really really half-baked ideas about society that they don’t realise have been trashed or done-to-death years ago in sociology (oblig xkcd is oblig). Some of these ideas seem to gain considerable traction too.

My own theories are pretty simple/straight forward in some ways too, but AFAIK they’ll stand fairly solidly against pretty much all the legitimate (imo) ideas in sociology and a rudimentary knowledge of hard science’s contribution to social science.