INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).

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The Practicality of Science

Avoiding Straw Man Arguments
about "Physicalism"

David Lane

Science as Practical
It just happens to be the case that when studying the ins and outs of our anatomy, scientists have made tremendous progress when they grounded their hypothesis in the empirical arena.

I appreciate Don Salmon’s openness for dialogue and for his willingness to take responsibility for any unclearness in his presentation.

In light of this, I fear that I don’t fully understand why Salmon would then entitle his rejoinder “The Feynman Delusion” since there is nothing in his essay that illustrates where, when, and how Richard Feynman is delusional.

Indeed, I think the real delusion is in Salmon’s persistence in repeating his straw man argument when he writes (yet again) the following,

“There is not a single scientific experiment that could ever be done (at least, not within currently accepted bounds of scientific methodology) to determine the absolute existence of some material or physical "stuff"/object/thing/anti-matter or whatever you want to call it, existing absolutely independent of lived experience.”

Yet, nowhere in my previous essay have I argued for such an agenda. Rather, I wrote this, “Arguing that consciousness has a material basis doesn’t then mean by extension that we have to make an ontological claim such as gravity or any other force is entirely independent of consciousness. That is not necessary, just as when physicists making graphene don’t have to invalidate Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty when they isolate an atomic plane of graphite. Moreover, I am not arguing for a naive dualism of matter and awareness as separate entities, since I think the real blockade is mostly a linguistic confusion over the word matter as indicating something grey, flat, or one-dimensional. When in point of fact and in point of experimentation, it is anything but.”

Perhaps it would be best to focus on how science actually works versus getting caught in an intractable (and, I would suggest, unnecessary) metaphysical debate over “physicalism”.

Let me see if I can illustrate this better by a couple of examples. I have an old 1977 36 foot Roughwater boat called appropriately enough “The Phantom.” Invariably, something always goes wrong each summer with the boat on our trips to Catalina island. Usually it has something to do with the generator. On one particular voyage to the backside of the island to explore surf spots, I noticed that I couldn’t get the generator to turn on. This was a real bummer since without the generator I couldn’t get the onboard refrigerator to work nor could I charge accessory items, such as our portable GPS and our iPhones and iPads.

How to solve the problem? Science confronts difficulties like this all the time and how one proceeds tell us much about how science actually works (versus our idealized and abstract notions of it). As Feynman rightly points out in his now famous lecture on how to do science, we first “take a guess” about what we think is happening. We can, of course, makes all sorts of conjectures about why, in our case, the generator is not working. We could, even, if we were so inclined, make metaphysical guesses, such as there are evil astral goblins ruining the solenoid or that we don’t have enough love and faith in the rubber belts. Eventually, however, no matter what type of guess we make, we have to conduct an experiment or “test” our hunches in time and space. We have to see, in other words, how well our guess will help us solve the problem. And in this sieving process of competing ideas, we discover that some hypotheses are better than others in getting the generator to work again.

In my situation, it turned out that the battery that kickstarted my generator was dead and had to be replaced. It was a simple, even obvious, solution. All my other guesses turned out to be less than sufficient.

A similar example can be drawn from oceanography where wave prediction has been fraught with difficulties for centuries for sailors and fishermen who did not have access to more complete models of how ocean swells are generated, sometimes thousands of miles away by intense winds. In years past, fishermen would imagine all sorts of reasons why waves appeared as they did, but most of such imaginings were too bounded by superstition and folklore to be properly testable.

Today, with the advent of much more sophisticated weather maps and detailed records of how hurricanes and other wind powered storms behave, wave prediction has become both a precise science and big business for the surf industry, as witnessed by the tremendous success of Sean Collins’ company, Surfline, which provides predictive models around the world for professional and amateur surfer in countries from Australia to France to Fiji.

Practical science isn’t necessarily concerned with ultimate philosophical issues, but with getting a particular problem resolved by testing out varying and competing hypotheses.

This is why Richard Feynman rightly points out that science is a process of discovery and that the ultimate progressive tool of any scientific endeavor is to see how well it explains (and predicts and resolves) any particular issue, problem, or mystery.

Science and its Practicality

I therefore do not understand why Don Salmon continues to create a boogie man about science when he writes,

“. . . not to say that I'm trying to prove that such independent matter or physical ‘stuff’ doesn't exist; that's not my intention—only to point out that such a belief is a nonscientific, nonempirical, unfalsifiable assumption.”

Science is not predicated upon an already agreed set of beliefs (if it were, we wouldn’t have the progressive technologies we see today). No, it is a practical affair where results (not ideologies) hold sway. If there really were gremlins that played havoc on generators and we had ample evidence of it, then science (as a process, not as a dogma) would naturally follow up on that line of reasoning.

Thus, the very reason science has tended to focus on the physical substratum of varying phenomena is because it has turned out to be a more fruitful line of inquiry. If it could be shown that King Neptune actually made waves off the coast of New Zealand, then that would be the working model of oceanographers.

But that hasn’t been the case and thus Greek and Roman god conjectures haven’t become the mainstay of our environmental textbooks.

I find it both disingenuous and quite odd that Don Salmon can indulge in such a false and misleading caricature of how science operates, especially related to the brain and self-reflective awareness, when he writes,

“The physicalists have been telling us for more than a century and a half that it is a complete mystery how the stimuli from the ‘outside world’ set our optical, auditory and other nerves in motion and then—suddenly!—across some kind of mysterious ‘gap’—experience takes place. . . . But oh, according to the catechism of promissory materialism, by gum, they're going to find the answer.”

Huh? First, before making such sweeping generalizations it might be wise to be laser specific about what “physicalists” one is referencing, since bundling all empirical scientists in one unified camp is not only completely misleading it is dishonest. Second, not every neuroscientist thinks it is a “a complete mystery” about how outside stimuli engenders optical and auditory experiences. To the contrary, there have been remarkable studies on precisely these issues and some have even led to a major breakthroughs in restoring vision to erstwhile congenitally blind children.

“‘Children who were treated with gene therapy are now able to walk and play just like any normally sighted child,” said co-first author Albert M. Maguire, MD, an associate professor of Ophthalmology at Penn and a physician at Children’s Hospital. ‘They can also carry out classroom activities without visual aids.’ Maguire and Bennett have been researching inherited retinal degenerations for nearly 20 years. Leber’s congenital amaurosis (LCA), the target of this current study, is a group of inherited blinding diseases that damages light receptors in the retina. It usually begins stealing sight in early childhood and causes total blindness during a patient’s twenties or thirties. Currently, there is no treatment for LCA. Children able to see after a single shot of gene therapy. For children and adults in the study, functional improvements in vision followed single injections of genes that produced proteins to make light receptors work in their retinas. Walking along a dimly lit, simulated street route, the children were able to negotiate barriers they bumped into before the surgery. Another child, who since birth, could only see light and shadows, stared into his father’s face and said he could see the color of his eyes. Later they played soccer together.” [cited from: http://www.chop.edu/news/children-with-congenital-blindness-can-see-after-gene-therapy.html]

By centering on the very physical processes of seeing, the scientists found a procedure in which to improve retinal vision in both children and adults.

And so have similar breakthroughs occurred in hearing and smelling. I know the latter from my own personal experience, since I lacked the ability to smell anything for nearly four years until I finally underwent nasal surgery. How did I get my smell back? Because “physically” focused doctors realized that a series of specific non cancerous polyps had developed in my nasal passages and their removal allowed for my sense of smell to return.

To ignore the tremendous progress science has made (because it focused on the physicality of vision, hearing, smelling, and touch) in the past century about how incoming stimuli engenders internal experiences in the brain is to create a false impression about the current state of neuroscience and its evolution.

Quite frankly, I feel our discussion is getting bogged down in metaphysical ultimacies when the core issue should be focused on the most viable pathways for understanding the nature of awareness and why it arises in homo sapiens the way it does.

This doesn’t mean that in our pursuit of third person objective reports we have to somehow a priori exclude first person subjective experiences. To the contrary, they both go hand in hand, as any dentist and any Lasik surgeon knows.

Yet, Don Salmon seems stuck to a definitional cul du sac which betrays what science has uncovered over the past few centuries. He writes,

“So, when someone offers you a physicalist view, remember that he has just disappeared the entire universe—at least, the universe as we know it and live it—no color, all sights have vanished—inexplicable! No sounds, nothing solid or tangible ("solid" that is, in the sense of lived experience, not the physicist's definition of "solid"). No smell, no taste. And since emotion as lived experience, and thoughts as lived experience, and comprehension as lived experience—well, as all cognition, affect and volition as lived experience—is admitted (at least, in dark corners of philosophically inclined academic journals) to be inexplicable—not only does the world disappear but you disappear as well.”

This sweeping claim by Salmon, to put this in the politest of terms, is a classic straw man argument, since offering a physicalist view doesn’t necessitate “disappearing the entire universe” of one’s subjective experiences. Rather, by positing the physical correlations and constraints behind vision, smell, touch, and hearing, damaged senses can be repaired and new vistas reopened. I think Salmon is under the false impression that a physicalist understanding of experience somehow has to negate one’s subjective experience of the same. Salmon also keeps repeating a mistaken canard when he says all of human subjective experience is “inexplicable” when, in point of fact and observation, nothing is farther from the truth.

As I have written previously, if seeing, hearing, touching, and smelling has a physical basis (which it obviously does), then is it really that much of a stretch for those interested in consciousness to focus on the physics of awareness by paying close attention to how our brains give rise to self-reflection? I think not, but Salmon is under the impression that such a quest is akin to searching for the Flying Spaghetti Monster and even goes so far as to write that the scientific work to ground consciousness in its material corpus is “quite a strange notion.”

Strange? I think not, especially when we are all acutely aware of how tiny chemicals can dramatically alter our subjective experiences of the world at large. Indeed, to ignore the physics of awareness is to be blind to the very mechanisms that can both guide and disrupt our lives--from our inner ear equilibrium to nausea inducing vertigo.

Salmon underlines his purview when he writes that “physicalism is a faith-based, unfalsifiable, bizarre, non-empirical, dogmatic belief system which is impeding progress in virtually all areas of science, particularly neuroscience, but in evolutionary biology and physics as well).”

But in making this dogmatic assertion Salmon once again indulges in a straw man argument, since science is essentially a practical process not a faith based one, and the idea of pursuing the physics of our combinatorial awareness isn’t a journey to ontologically prove that all is mere matter. No, it is much simpler than that and much more transparent. It just happens to be the case that when studying the ins and outs of our anatomy, scientists have made tremendous progress when they grounded their hypothesis in the empirical arena. If scientists made greater advances by following ghosts and goblins, then they would follow that pathway instead. But they haven’t and therein lies the key point which is lost here in our discussions.

For instance, I remember twenty years ago of having a truly awful tooth ache (my “first-person” experience of pain was nearly unbearable). Naturally, I tried to figure out the source of where “my experience of pain” arose from. I wish I could say that my Ramana Maharshi influenced meditation sittings helped, but they did not. It was only after I went to a dentist (grounded as he was in the “physicalism” of pain via impacted wisdom teeth) who immediately realized that I had infected root canals and proceeded within all of but an hour to eradicate the source of my immense discomfort. I think I hugged him in the parking lot as we left, so thankful I was that he could be so masterful in alleviating me from my personal tooth torture.

Now most dentists don’t spend their time in dental schools ruminating on the metaphysics of first person awareness vs. third person objectivity, because they take on the whole a much more practical and hands-on approach. They focus, in sum, on the material composition of teeth and their relation to the jaw and mouth. They also, and here we are thankful to live in the 21st century and not prior ones, pay close attention to minimizing the pain associated with dental work.

My argument is that science works precisely because it is practical. But that doesn’t mean that in focusing on physical causes or correlations one has to somehow categorically exclude subjective experiences. Quite the opposite, since any doctor or dentist or neuroscientist worth his/her salt will be keenly interested in what one experiences under differing circumstances.

Hence, the notion that scientists are out to prove the ultimate material basis of all things, particularly consciousness, misses the essential praxis of what science is about. We are all scientists to some measure, as T. H. Huxley famously essayed a 150 years ago,

“The method of scientific investigation is nothing but the expression of the necessary mode of working of the human mind. It is simply the mode at which all phenomena are reasoned about, rendered precise and exact. There is no more difference, between the mental operations of a man of science and those of an ordinary person, than there is between the operations and methods of a baker or of a butcher weighing out his goods in common scales, and the operations of a chemist in performing a difficult and complex analysis by means of his balance and finely graduated weights. It is not that the action of the scales in the one case, and the balance in the other, differ in the principles of their construction or manner of working; but the beam of one is set on an infinitely finer axis than the other, and of course turns by the addition of a much smaller weight.”

And in this pursuit, we are free to conjure up any hypothesis we wish about a given subject, but the linchpin in our theory making is that we are willing to air out our own ideas and have them competitively tested to see how well they hold up under scrutiny and rigorous experimentation. Thus, pursuing the physics of awareness doesn’t automatically prevent any other budding scientist from following a different line of inquiry. It just happens to be the case (presently) that centering on the brain has produced amazing (and useful) results in better understanding a large range of different mental states.

This is why Huxley could argue that it is readily permissible to hypothesize that the moon is made of green cheese. The caveat, though, is that in order for such an idea to hold scientific credibility it must be rigorously vetted amongst other competing hypotheses. And in this winnowing pathway, the most viable overlay holds sway, if even only temporarily since science is always open to evolve and change when better ideas emerge.

As Huxley wisely wrote,

“Do not allow yourselves to be misled by the common notion that an hypothesis is untrustworthy simply because it is an hypothesis. It is often urged, in respect to some scientific conclusion, that, after all, it is only an hypothesis. But what more have we to guide us in nine-tenths of the most important affairs of daily life than hypotheses, and often very ill-based ones? So that in science, where the evidence of a hypothesis is subjected to the most rigid examination, we may rightly pursue the same course. You may have hypotheses and hypotheses. A man may say, if he likes, that the moon is made of green cheese: that is an hypothesis. But another man, who has devoted a great deal of time and attention to the subject, and availed himself of the most powerful telescopes and the results of the observations of others, declares that in his opinion it is probably composed of materials very similar to those of which our own earth is made up: and that is also only an hypothesis. But I need not tell you that there is an enormous difference in the value of the two hypotheses. That one which is based on sound scientific knowledge is sure to have a corresponding value; and that which is a mere hasty random guess is likely to have but little value. Every great step in our progress in discovering causes has been made in exactly the same way as that which I have detailed to you. A person observing the occurrence of certain facts and phenomena asks, naturally enough, what process, what kind of operation known to occur in Nature applied to the particular case, will unravel and explain the mystery? Hence you have the scientific hypothesis; and its value will be proportionate to the care and completeness with which its basis has been tested and verified. It is in these matters as in the commonest affairs of practical life: the guess of the fool will be folly, while the guess of the wise man will contain wisdom. In all cases, you see that the value of the result depends on the patience and faithfulness with which the investigator applies to his hypothesis every possible kind of verification.”

Rationality vs Myth



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