Friday, July 30, 2010

INCEPTION and the Philosophy of Mind

Christopher Nolan is one of my favorite directors.  So naturally, I saw Inception opening night.  Apart from its visually stunning effects and complex storyline, I was excited by some of the ideas presented in the film, and their relevance to the philosophy of mind.  In fact, I think Inception may unwittingly provide some naive answers to one of the major problems I've been researching - mental causation.

In the philosophy of mind, a major topic of debate is how the mind - something that is popularly thought to be immaterial - can cause effects in the physical world.  That is, how can a person's mental states (i.e. beliefs, desires, etc.) lead to physical events (e.g. raising one's arm)?  Beliefs and desires aren't physical things, are they?  How much do your beliefs weigh?  What is the volume in cubic centimeters of your desires?  If mental sates aren't physical, then how can they "cause" physical events?  This is commonly referred to as the problem of mental causation

Dualists (of which there are a great variety) suppose that mind and matter are two ontologically distinct entities.  In other words, dualists believe the mind (including its mental states) is real, even though it is immaterial.  Physicalists on the other hand deny this, and instead claim that there is no "mind" in the immaterial sense, only the brain.  This is because physicalists deny that anything non-physical exists.  Thus, it is no surprise that dualists and physicalists offer different solutions to the problem of mental causation.

One obvious way physicalists try to get around the problem is by denying that mental states are non-physical.  They would apparently do this by defining a "mental state" as a particular configuration of brain chemistry at a given time.  So, my "desire" to drink some water is really nothing more than my neuro-chemistry being in a dehydrated state, which leads to me pouring myself a glass (this is an extreme simplification, but you get the idea).  As I see it however, the physicalist position has a major problem; a problem that Inception will help to illustrate.

The goal of the main characters in the film Inception is to implant an idea in a person's mind (don't worry, I'm not giving away the plot), in the hopes that the idea will eventually grow and cause the person to act how they want.  It's not exactly brain-washing, but sort of.  Through the use of ideas, you're causing a person to think and act a certain way, while making them believe it was their own choice, so to speak.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character illustrates this concept in the film by telling someone, "Don't think of pink elephants."  Inevitably, the person ends up thinking of pink elephants, and the cause of him thinking it was the verbal command not to!  Thus, Levitt's character successfully implanted the idea of pink elephants in the man's mind.  In my view, this concept provides an entertaining illustration of why the physicalist position on mental causation fails.  Here's why:

In order to deny that mental states are immaterial, physicalists appeal to something called the "Completeness Principle."  According to this principle, every physical effect must have a sufficient physical cause.  In other words, if an effect is physical, then it can always be traced back to an initiating cause that is also physical.  The causal chain is "complete" in its physicality.  Any appeal to a non-physical cause is superfluous.  Physicalists boast that the completeness principle enjoys centuries of empirical support through science.  Even so, I think the principle is, well, incomplete.

As Inception illustrated, our communication through language often results in physical effects.  The verbal command, "Don't think of pink elephants" causes a person to think of pink elephants.  Likewise, the command, "Please pass the salt," results in the physical action of someone raising their arm, grasping the salt, and handing it to you.  Let's do a little experiment.  If you're reading this right now, raise your right arm over your head and then put it back down again.  Did you do it?  C'mon, humor me a little.  Okay, if you did it, what was ultimately the cause of you raising your arm?  If we could trace the chain of causation back, where would it start?  Can we agree that the initiating cause of you raising your arm was my suggesting it?  If so, was that a physical cause?  I don't see how it could be.  Can we measure my suggestion?  Does it have a weight or volume?  No, it does not.  If we can "send" ideas through language, and ideas are immaterial, and those ideas cause physical events, then the completeness principle is false.  It follows that physicalism is false.

At this point a physicalist may interject and deny that ideas are immaterial things, because they are always in material form.  Have you ever experienced an idea separated from matter?  Probably not.  You hear ideas through sound waves - material particles vibrating at particular frequencies.  You see ideas through print - ink on a page, pixels on a screen.  You even think about your own ideas with the use of your brain - a labyrinthine amalgam of chemicals, tissue, and electricity.  Ideas cannot be separated from matter.  The physicalist is right about this.  However, it does not follow that ideas and matter are the same thing.  The simple fact that the same idea can be communicated through a variety of different material mediums shows that the idea is not the same thing as the matter which expresses it.  The ideas that I'm expressing to you right now are not merely pixels on a screen.  The ideas are the meaning those pixels happen to represent, not the pixels themselves.  We could change the pixels without changing the meaning (ideas).  And in the case of one's brain, ideas can actually change the physical medium.[1]

We may summarize the argument thus far.  Call it "A Naive Argument Against Physicalism:"

1.  If physicalism is true, then the completeness principle is true.
2.  The completeness principle is false.
3.  Therefore, physicalism is false.

Since this argument is a work in progress, I welcome suggestions, comments, and criticisms.


1.  Read a little about "neuroplasticity."  Thinking certain ideas can actually change the physical structure of your brain.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Modern Myths of Science and Religion - Part 2

This is the second in a series of posts to critically examine popular misconceptions of the relationship between science and religion.  The first post examined the "Myth of Religious Neutrality."  This post will examine what historian David Pingree called "Hellenophilia" - the myth that the ancient Greeks invented science.

Like many young college students, I was taught during my undergraduate that the ancient Greeks were the first people to think scientifically about the world, because they were the first civilization to jettison religious explanations of nature.  There were concrete benefits to this Greek new way of thinking, no doubt.  It's good that we don't still attribute lightning to the finicky moods of Zeus.  However, the more I study the history and philosophy of science the more I think the popular view I was taught in my undergraduate is wrong.

The late historian of science David Pingree was particularly annoyed by the popular bias in academia toward the ancient Greeks.  In fact, he made up his own word for it - "Hellenophilia."  In an article in the history of science journal, Isis, he explains what he means by this:
...[A] Hellenophile suffers from a form of madness that blinds him or her to historical truth and creates in the imagination the idea that one of several false propositions are true.  The first of these is that the Greeks invented science; the second is that they discovered a way to truth, the scientific method, that we are now successfully following; the third is that the only real sciences are those that began in Greece; and the that the true definition of science is just that which scientists happen to be doing now, following a method or methods adumbrated by the Greeks...[1]
In my experience, the reasoning employed by the typical "Hellenophile" goes something like this:  "Science can only offer natural explanations.  No theories involving gods, spirits, or any other kinds of superstition are allowed in what we call 'science.'  If a theory does involve one of these prohibited explanans, then it is not science.  It is religion.  And since the ancient Greeks were the first people to stop explaining nature in religious ways, and to start offering natural explanations, then they were the first people to do real science."  As I see it however, this view is wrong for two primary reasons.

First, it is philosophically prejudiced.  As I explained in my last post, no one's view of the world is completely free of religious commitments.  Everyone has metaphysical assumptions about what holds divine status (yes, even atheists).  And these assumptions will inevitably have some influence on how we interpret reality.[2]  The ancient Greeks were no different.  For instance, their metaphysical assumptions about the nature of the heavenly (divine) realm led them to incorporate "a strong prejudice in favor of circles or spheres rotating with uniform motion" into their astronomy.[3]  In other words, their religious assumptions influenced the kinds of theories they allowed into their science.

Unfortunately for the Greeks their assumptions were wrong, and their science suffered because of it.  Hellenistic astronomy had deep flaws which led to inaccurate predictions.  It was not until later - when the Greeks began to compromise their metaphysical commitment to circular and uniform motion - that their science was able to improve in its level of accuracy.[4]  Thus, the Greeks did not completely jettison "religious" explanations from their science, as the Hellenophiles say.  They simply exchanged one kind of religious assumption for another.  To say that the Greeks were the first people to think "scientifically" is merely to express a philosophical preference for the particular kind of religious assumptions that the ancient Greeks held.

Secondly, it is historically ignorant to say that the Greeks invented science.  Ancient Babylonian astronomers carried out the longest scientific research program in human history, and achieved a level of quantitative prediction that far surpassed the ancient Greeks.  Moreover, they did this nearly 400 years prior to Hellenistic astronomy.[5]

From approximately 740 BC to 60 BC, Babylonian scribes observed the daily motions of the celestial bodies, and recorded their observations in the Astronomical Diaries.  Within this huge set of observed data, Babylonian astronomers discovered mathematical patterns that allowed them to successfully predict future astronomical events, to a great degree of accuracy.[6]  If this is not science, then I don't know what is.  There's one problem though:  Babylonian astronomy was highly superstitious and largely motivated by astrology.  Can we still call it science?  According to the popular Hellenophilic view we cannot, even though it was more quantitative and had greater predictive power than Greek astronomy.

What do you think?  Must a theory be completely void of "religious" or superstitious assumptions in order to be considered "scientific?"  Was Greek astronomy completely void of religious assumptions?  Which was more scientific, Greek or Babylonian astronomy?  These are very difficult questions to answer.


1.  David Pingree, "Hellenophilia versus the History of Science," Isis, Vol. 83, No. 4 (Dec., 1992), p. 555.

2.  See Roy Clouser (2005), The Myth of Religious Neutrality.

3.  David Pingree, "Hellenophilia versus the History of Science," Isis, Vol. 83, No. 4 (Dec., 1992), p. 557.

4.   Apollonius (c. 220 BC) and Hipparchus (c. 140 BC) introduced "eccentric models" of orbital motion in an attempt to correct the inaccuracies of Greek astronomy.  This was an aesthetic compromise however - a step away from the metaphysical commitment to geometric beauty held by their predecessors.

5.  The Hellenistic period of astronomy seems to begin around the time of Eudoxus, Plato, and Aristotle - all of which lived c. 370 BC.

6.  For an in-depth treatment on this, see N.M. Swerdlow (1998), The Babylonian Theory of the Planets.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Modern Myths of Science and Religion - Part 1

This is the first in a series of posts to critically examine popular misconceptions of the relationship between science and religion.  These misconceptions can rightly be called myths, because they continue to be believed and perpetuated in popular culture, despite being debunked by the latest scholarship.  The myth I will address in this post is what philosopher Roy Clouser has called "The Myth of Religious Neutrality."

There is a widely held belief today that science and religion are fundamentally opposite ways of explaining reality.  As Stephen Hawking recently put it, "[R] based on authority, based on observation and reason."  This view can be summarized in the "Faith vs. Reason" dichotomy, and it is ubiquitous throughout our culture.[1]  Examples of it can be found in everything, from popular TV shows such as "House," (which I love) to bestselling books like The God Delusion.

A part of this popular view is the idea that religion has historically kept people in the dark - the darkness of superstition and ignorance - while science has progressively liberated society from that darkness.  For instance, people used to think lightning came from Zeus, until we discovered static electricity.  We believed disease was punishment from the gods, until we developed germ theory.  You get the idea.  Thus, most people think science and religion are either in conflict, or don't overlap, or both.  Christopher Hitchens gives a biting articulation of this view, in his book God Is Not Great:
...[Science] offers the promise of near-miraculous advances in healing, in energy, and in peaceful exchange between cultures.  Yet millions of people in all societies still prefer the myths of the cave and the tribe and the blood sacrifice [Religion].  The late Stephen Jay Gould generously wrote that science and religion belong to "non-overlapping magisteria."  They most certainly do not overlap, but this does not mean that they are not antagonistic.  Religion has run out of justifications.  Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important.[2]
The take away message from Hitchens and others is that if religion has anything left to say, it is irrelevant in the light of science.  It's important to notice that, within the view I've been describing, there is a tacit assertion that science is entirely objective and free of religious assumptions.  As we will see however, that is not exactly the case.

C.S. Lewis once wrote, "What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience."[3]  Lewis's point was that everyone holds certain metaphysical assumptions - beliefs we assume to be true without verification.  And those assumptions influence how we interpret the world.  This is certainly the case with religious believers.  It is equally true of scientists.

In his book, The Myth of Religious Neutrality, philosopher Roy Clouser argues that religious belief is necessarily among the assumptions that all people have.  According to Clouser, everyone believes in a self-existing entity - i.e. something that does not depend on anything else for its existence.  For some people, this entity is God.  For others, it is the universe itself, or simply energy.  Either way, we all hold to some assumption about what is 'ultimate' or 'prior' to everything else.  Clouser says this is what we mean by "the Divine."

Some scholars have criticized Clouser's definition of the divine, but it seems to agree with the view held by many philosophers - everyone from Aristotle, to Leibniz and Spinoza - that whatever metaphysical 'substance' is 'ultimate,' or exists 'on its own' is what we mean by "God."  If this is the case, then all scientists have an assumption of what is divine.  Whether they are like Newton and believe the divine entity is a personal God, or they are like Stephen Hawking and believe the divine entity is the embodiment of the laws of nature, their assumptions will likely influence the way they interpret the world (i.e. the theories they formulate to explain reality).

If Clouser's thesis is correct, then religious assumptions have played a major role in scientific theories from the very beginning.  In the next post, I will discuss how religious assumptions heavily influenced the theories of what many scholars say were the first people to think "scientifically" about the world - the ancient Greeks.


1.  I think the "Faith vs. Reason" dichotomy is a false one.  To see why, read my previous post here.

2.  Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Toronto: McCelland & Stewart, 2007) page 282.

3.  C.S. Lewis, Miracles (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996) page 2.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Plato's Secret Music: Science and the Divine

According to a recent NPR report, historian and philosopher of science Jay Kennedy has discovered a hidden musical code embedded in the writings of Plato.  NPR is not the only news organization to report on Kennedy's findings.  However, the report concludes with some interesting comments from Kennedy, on what he thinks the implications are for science and religion.  His remarks provide the perfect opportunity for me to share some things I've been learning in my graduate studies.

In his research, Kennedy discovered there was a reference to music every twelfth line of Plato's manuscripts.  He also knew that ancient Greek music was based on a twelve-note scale, instead of the eight-note scale we use today.  Thus, he reasoned that the pattern found in Plato's writings was not merely a coincidence.  Rather, it was put there deliberately.

Music is mysterious and beautiful; it is also mathematical.  The Pythagoreans - followers of the philosopher-mystic-mathematician Pythagoras - believed math, and consequently music, held divine status.  They literally worshiped numbers.  Kennedy proposes that Plato was a closet Pythagorean, and that he wanted to convey this divine message to discerning readers by embedding a secret code in his writings.

The idea that math holds divine status is still around today.  Recall the comments from Stephen Hawking, discussed in my previous post, when he said, "What could define God [is thinking of God] as the embodiment of the laws of nature" (i.e. the mathematical laws of physics).  Judging from his comments, I suspect Hawking may be a modern day Pythagorean.  In fact, this view seems increasingly popular among those who want to reconcile science and religion, without allowing room for belief in a personal God.  Hence, Kennedy's remarks:
'Plato's philosophy shows us one way to combine science and religion,' Kennedy says.  'The culture wars we're having today — about evolution for example — see science and religion as two polarized opposites.  Plato's hidden philosophy shows us that he combined an emphasis on mathematics with an emphasis upon beauty, music, art and divinity.  The founder of western culture, in fact wanted us to combine science and religion.'
Kennedy sounds hopeful that promoting the Pythagorean view might help calm the war between evolutionists and creationists.  Given the politicized nature of the debate however, I can't see many creationists being soothed by the suggestion that God is simply a math equation.  Nevertheless, Kennedy's research touches on a larger body of historical facts, which, if taken seriously, could change the way we think about the relationship between science and religion.

In the next few posts, I will share some things I've been learning in my graduate studies about the historical interaction of science and religion - i.e. how science and religion have interacted.  It will surprise you.  It may even change your view on how science and religion should interact.