Understand HOW does not mean we comprehend WHAT or WHY

June 3, 2008

I’ve always found it difficult to understand eliminative materialists. For those who don’t know their basic position is that concepts like beliefs, feelings etc will be come redundant with the advance of neuro-science in the same way as we no longer need the concept of witchcraft. Probably the leading advocates are Paul and Patricia Churchland

Living as I do in Wiltshire with the summer solstice approaching and the Wicca movement assembling around the stones I am not sure we have got rid of witchcraft by the way. A view that is supported by reports of burning Harry Potter books in the US.

However that aside apart I can see the argument. As science advances we can increasingly understand how things happen and yes we can eliminate accounts of human consciousness that are incoherent with that scientific understanding. A lot of this is useful, the elimination of behaviorism and the information processing model of the human brain is to be welcomed, and the sooner HR departments and IT vendors catch up the better; not that they show much sign of doing so.

Now I share the naturalising position of the Churchlands, the belief (sic) that scientific research is fundamental to philosophy and in particular philosophy of mind. But I don’t support eliminative materialism. We may be able in the future to understand all the neurological and chemical processes within the human brain that give rise to consciousness. However it does not follow from that assumption (which is anyway a long way off by the way and its not clear it is possible) that I can therefore account for or predict all human actions. If we take consciousness as an emergent property not just of the individual brain, but also its evolutionary history and social interaction then it is necessarily more than the sum of its physical components. Understanding the how, does not mean that we have eliminated the need to understand what and why. There is no incompatibility between taking a materialist perspective and religion, or to have to engage in dualism to do so.

This is one of the great contributions of complexity theory, although its not fully understood. The whole concept of emergence and strange attractors (not just as mathematical models but as the results of human social processes) enable us to have a scientific understanding of who something inexplicable and potentially mysterious can emerge from the explicable and material. Our ethics, aesthetics and metaphysics need to be coherent (that word again) with science but they are not entirely bound by it.

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