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Reconciling mind with materialism, twenty-five years on

Jerry Fodor posits that the reason "we're all materialists" is the alternatives seem even worse

From philosopher of mind Jerry Fodor:

“…we’re all materialists for much the reason that Churchill gave for being a democrat: the alternatives seem even worse. The new research project [science of mind] is therefore to reconcile our materialism to the psychological facts: to explain how something that is material through and through could have whatever properties minds actually do have….

To be a materialist is to take the view that thinking creatures are material through and through. This implies three major questions, to which a theory of mind—call it philosophy, psychology, cognitive science, or what you will—is required to find answers: 1. How could anything material be conscious? 2 How could anything material be about anything? 3. How could anything material be rational? These questions are now the agenda in the philosophy of mind.

I can tell you the situation in respect of the first question straight off. Nobody has the slightest idea how anything material could be conscious. Nobody even knows what it would be like to have the slightest idea about how anything material could be conscious. So much for the philosophy of consciousness. The second question is in a slightly less parlous condition….

…[S]omebody has actually had a deep and beautiful idea about how to answer question three.” (p. 5) – “The big idea: Can there be a science of mind?” _The Times Literary Supplement_ (London), July 3, 1992, Issue 4657. pp. 5-7.

Thinking of philosophical materialism as a science must have seemed like a step forward at the time.

Over twenty-five years later, there have been dozens of theories of consciousness jostling for the podium, most of them “worse than wrong,” even in the eyes of a sympathetic observer (2016). Not only has the materialist approach failed but in recent years, its failure has brought serious intellectual figures round to such views as consciousness is an illusion or that everything is conscious.

It is past time to consider non-materialist approaches. Certainly, they cannot do any worse. Information theory may help them do much better though they will likely disconfirm naturalism as a guide to the universe. Robert R. Marks, for example, asks,

When a paper document is shredded, is information being destroyed? Does it matter whether the shredded document is a copy of an un-shredded document and can be replaced?

Likewise, when a digital picture is taken, is digital information being created or merely captured?

The information on a DVD can be measured in bits. Does the amount of information differ if the DVD contains the movie Braveheart or a collection of randomly generated digital noise?

When a human dies, is experiential information lost? If so, can birth and experience create information?

If you are shown a document written in Japanese, does the document contain information whether or not you know Japanese? What if, instead, the document is written in an alien language unknowable to man.

These questions, even unanswered, help us understand life from the perspective of information theory, as opposed to materialist theory. As Norbert Weiner (1894–1964), the father of cybernetics, once said, “Information is information, neither matter nor energy.” More.

Some will, of course, try to dodge the questions by redoubling the effort to build machines that think and hyping the claims for them. The rest of us will learn new insights about life by including information in the picture.

Note: Jerry Fodor is willing, in principle, to ruffle feathers. He is the author of What Darwin Got Wrong (2010). The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes, “Perhaps needless to say, this view has occasioned considerable controversy.”

See also: Neurosurgeon outlines why machines can’t think: The hallmark of human thought is meaning, and the hallmark of computation is indifference to meaning.




Reconciling mind with materialism, twenty-five years on