Why So Many Smart People Are Such Idiots About Philosophy

I was reminded this afternoon of an article I’d read a year ago titled “Why are so many smart people such idiots about philosophy?” By “smart people” they meant Bill Nye, but not only. The article covers Nye’s absurd, incoherent, idiotic response to a question posed by a philosophy student.
So the question. Why is Bill Nye such an idiot?

The answer is very simple. Philosophy demands that you question your own thinking and challenge your own assumptions. Philosophy takes for granted that you might be wrong about literally anything and everything. When your job is to be right all the time, as is the case with characters — “popularizers of science”– such as Nye and Tyson and Dawkins, philosophy is uncomfortable and feels useless — because you can’t be right all the time if you’re sometimes wrong, even if you only just might be wrong.

More generally, though, scientists use a set of assumptions, a philosophical system, that is already established. Their job isn’t to challenge it but to apply those assumptions, to run the sacred program of the Scientific Method, to play the Science game.

If your job is to assert the correctness of a particular worldview, if it involves assuming the correctness of that worldview, then the tools for questioning worldviews are hostile towards you. They are necessarily wielded against you.

Here’s a quote from Bernardo Kastrup that considers this problem from a slightly different angle.

Because our culture mistakenly takes technological success for evidence of a deep understanding of reality, we are all guilty, at least by omission, of allowing the neo-priesthood of science to appoint themselves arbiters of truth. This is as insane as appointing a five-year-old kid, who happens to break records playing computer games, chief architect at a major computer company. Does the kid’s game-playing prowess necessarily imply deep understanding of the underlying computer engineering? The fact that one has figured out, through expensive trial and error, how to play the game of technology does not imply any deep understanding of what’s actually going on. Our failure as a culture to truly grasp this has allowed the appointment of five-year-olds to the role of civilization’s guides.

This is how such smart people can be such idiots.

In Mind

My world burned December 21, 2012, and from the ashes a new one emerged.

I won’t describe the burning, but the seed of transformation appeared immediately after when I stumbled across this blog.

More specifically, I encountered this simple, absolutely brilliant argument:

Materialism requires the following four statements about reality to be true:

  1. Your conscious perceptions exist;
  2. The conscious perceptions of other living entities, different from your own, also exist;
  3. There are things that exist independently of, and outside, conscious perception;
  4. Things that exist independently of, and outside, conscious perception generate conscious perception.

The first statement is very similar to the famous cogito ergo sum. If there is anything you can be absolutely certain of, it is that your perceptions exist; in order to refer to anything else, you would have to refer to your perceptions first.

The second statement involves a small leap of faith. It supposes another instance of the one thing known for sure to exist. It proposes that your perceptions are not the only perceptions.

Statement three requires a huge leap of faith. It postulates not another instance of a known thing, but whole new ontological category. It postulates that there exist not only your perceptions but things outside of those perceptions, which you can not know even in principle, because to know them would be to have them within your conscious perception.

The fourth statement is a far greater leap of faith, as it supposes not only that there exist things outside of consciousness but that they generate consciousness. As Bernardo says, “This is quite an extraordinary statement in that it completely inverts the natural order of inference: normally, one infers the unknown from the known, not the known from the unknown.”

The fourth point — essentially, the assertion that mind is generated from matter — is the most problematic and its greatest problem is well known to the field of study called philosophy of mind as the Hard Problem of Consciousness. The whole Universe can be described by physics by the usual means and nowhere within the resulting calculations would we ever find consciousness. We would never, in any possible mathematical formula, find experience. There is nothing red or blue about a wavelength of light, for example, and nothing red or blue about the firing of neurons in the back of your head. A complete mathematical description of the Universe simply is not a complete description of the Universe.

The most common attempt to solve the Hard Problem is to appeal to the principle of emergence, often likening consciousness to the emergent properties of water, which are not found in the molecules of water themselves. A water molecule is not wet. On the level of molecules, wetness as a property simply doesn’t exist, but when water molecules interact wetness seems to appear out of nowhere. At first glance, this may seem like a fine attempt at an explanation, but it ultimately fails, and very simply. What emerges from a system can always be derived from the properties of the system. Using the water as our example, the behavior of water referred to as “wet” can be modeled from the behavior of individual water molecules. So, also, can the hexagonal structure of a snowflake. As David Chalmers says in his book The Conscious Mind,

But emergent properties of this sort are not analogous to consciousness. What is interesting about these cases is that the relevant properties are not obvious consequences of low-level laws; but they are still logically supervenient on low-level facts.

That is, the behavior of a school of fish is dependent upon and explained by true facts about the fish. What is sometimes called strong emergence, the kind of emergence proposed to explain the emergence of consciousness, is really a form of property dualism in that it proposes that a phenomenon may exist independent of the facts of its parts, thus it is itself a refutation of Materialism.

In order to avoid the problems inherent in the assertion that mind is a product of mindless matter, many people increasingly turn to Panpsychism for an explanation. Panpsychism is the doctrine that consciousness is inherent in all things — that consciousness is an irreducible property of matter. This does eliminate the Hard Problem, sort of, but it seems to put the cart before the horse.

The problem with Panpsychism is that it still assumes points three and four of the Materialist ontology to be true. Panpsychism solves some problems created by the fourth point, but essentially ignores that the problems need not be in the first place.

Matter is, fundamentally, an inference. Even within the Materialist framework matter of itself is inherently unknowable. Within the Materialist framework, everything we know is an attempt at a reconstruction of the world by our brains, as informed by our senses. According to Materialism, the whole Universe as you can ever know it is inside your head and you as a personal consciousness are trapped forever inside of it. According to the Materialist ontology, what is truly real is a shadow universe, akin to a set of mathematical equations, which informs the universe we know and which is fundamentally inaccessible to us, always and forever.

We know matter only as a concept. Matter is an abstraction, and the abstraction is derived from experience. Thus, Materialism seeks to explain experience itself in terms of an abstraction, which is itself derived from experience. Materialism, we see, is an exercise in circular reasoning.

Bernardo likes to say that proposing the existence of this hidden universe outside of mind is no different from proposing the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Most of this clicked with me instantly that morning. I understood it without a problem. But some of this has taken some time to develop, in particular the felt, intuitive understanding of what this means. Old habits of thought take time to adjust and I can tell even now, nearly four years later, that I am still adjusting in some ways.

I’ll try to show you what I mean. Have a look for yourself.

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Take a look at something. Anything. By seeing, that which is seen is in consciousness. You are aware of it, even if you insist that what you see is solely a creation of your brain. Even if you insist that it is an illusion, the illusion is what you see. What you see is in consciousness; it is a particular excitation of consciousness, and the same is true for what you hear and what you feel and anything you happen to imagine. We quickly realize that that is all there is. Stated very simply, we are only aware of that of which we are aware, or if you prefer: we are not aware of what we are not aware of. Everything you know is in some sense in consciousness.

Observe your own body. Your arms and legs. Even the thoughts running through your head and these words born of these letters. These are all within consciousness. Consciousness, therefore, is not inside of your head — reach up and touch it. Rather, your head is inside consciousness. Your body is within consciousness, and so, also, is the rest of the Universe.

Your mind is not inside of your brain; your brain is inside Mind.

When I finally realized this point — that mind is a container within which I and the world exist — everything seemed to pop out at me, as though the world had been flat for so many years and in an instant returned to its proper three-dimensional state.

Look at that glass of water on the desk or whatever it is, wherever it happens to be. Look at it! It is really there. I mean it is really, really there! It has shape, place, tangibility.

What we are dealing with now, having discarded the third and fourth assertions of the Materialist ontology, is an Idealist ontology, and as we have seen, an Idealist ontology is immeasurably more parsimonious than Materialism in that it explains literally everything that Materialism explains and very probably much more while using fewer assumptions.

In our attempts to explain or describe the world, we are forced to explain each given thing in terms of something else. And we then explain that in terms of another thing, and so on until eventually we are forced to stop at what we call an ontological primitive — something that can not be explained in terms of anything else, something in terms of which everything else is explained or described.

Physicalism, the specific form of Materialism we actually encounter every day, informed by physics as we know it, holds a whole array of particles and forces and physical laws to be brute fact. They simply exist. Every fundamental particle and force and law of nature is thus an ontological primitive, as are space and time.

Idealism entails only one ontological primitive: Mind.

Everything you know is an excitation of Mind.

Everything you don’t know is also an excitation of Mind.

So many constraints fall away. The Universe opens itself up to us.

My body is an image of a process in Mind. When this image passes away, the form of my self-reflective awareness may be dramatically altered, but Mind itself remains.

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Bernardo likes to use whirlpools to illuminate the discussion. He says that we are like whirlpools in a vast river, and, as such, suggesting that brains generate consciousness is like suggesting that whirlpools generate water. Again, my brain is the image of a process in consciousness much like fire is the image of combustion, not the cause of combustion. Fire is what combustion looks like and my brain is what certain processes in consciousness look like when observed from a second-person perspective. Ripples in the water, then, are things that we observe in our environment, particular excitations of consciousness, which can enter into individual self-reflective centers of lucid awareness.

But most importantly, we are all a part of the same river. We are all living a shared dream. This waking world that we all seem to inhabit together, which seems to be the same for everyone, then, is what we can call consensus reality. We all act together to create it. In so many ways, we seek agreement on what reality is. It’s passed on to us through our parents, through language, through the rest of the community and reinforced in so many ways through conversation, books, television, and so on. Storytelling is world building.

Reality is Mind. The content of reality is story; its structure, myth.

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We can come to the same place from another angle. This is a quote by one of my other great inspirations, Richard Tarnas, in his book Cosmos and Psyche:

Let us, then, take our strategy of critical self-reflection one crucial and perhaps inevitable step further. Let us apply it to the fundamental governing assumption and starting point of the modern world view–a pervasive assumption that subtly continues to influence the postmodern turn as well–that any meaning and purpose the human mind perceives in the universe does not exist intrinsically in the universe but is constructed and projected onto it by the human mind. Might not this be the final, most global anthropocentric delusion of all? For is it not an extraordinary act of human hubris–literally, a hubris of cosmic proportions–to assume that the exclusive source of all meaning and purpose in the universe is ultimately centered in the human mind, which is therefore absolutely unique and special and in this sense superior to the entire cosmos? To presume that the universe utterly lacks what we human beings, the offspring and expression of that universe, conspicuously possess? To assume that the part somehow radically differs from and transcends the whole? To base our entire worldview on the a priori principle that whenever human beings perceive any patterns of psychological or spiritual significance in the nonhuman world, any signs of interiority and mind, any suggestion of purposefully coherent order and intelligible meaning, these must be understood as no more than human constructions and projections, as ultimately rooted in the human mind and never in the world?

Perhaps this complete voiding of the cosmos, this absolute privileging of the human, is the ultimate act of anthropocentric projection, the most subtle yet prodigious form of human self-aggrandizement. Perhaps the modern mind has been projecting soullessness and mindlessness on a cosmic scale, systematically filtering and eliciting all data according to its self-elevating assumptions at the very moment we believed we were “cleansing” our minds of “distortions.” Have we been living in a self-produced bubble of cosmic isolation? Perhaps the very attempt to de-anthropomorphize reality in such an absolute and simplistic manner is itself a supremely anthropocentric act.

The Universe speaks to us. We only need to learn how to listen.