We continue looking at what was said at this conference. I must say that if you want to truly understanding the mind of a materialist, this series is absolutely a “must watch”. You will hear things at this conference that would have never been admitted in a public debate. Guards are relaxed. At ease among peers, you will hear how a naturalist thinks. We pick up with Day One, first morning session.
Terry Deacon introduced himself and mentions he was influenced by the thought of Charles Pierce. He has studied differences between human brains and the brains of pigs, bats and monkeys. He said he could change his mind about the “concept of information.” “How is it that a molecule becomes ‘about’ something?” (Good question, Terry).
“I don’t think brains are like computers…I’m not saying it’s not a functionalist physicalist kind of story – I just don’t think our understanding of computation is big enough to accomplish what we want to say about this.”
“I give all the meaning to my computer. My computer is like a car engine that I’ve assigned various values to what it’s doing…and if I’m a computer too then who is assigning it?…you get the same problem running back and back…”
“I don’t think that understanding minds, consciousness or how brains work require us to do quantum theory.”
Next to introduce themselves was Rebecca Goldstein. She says she comes from a very orthodox Jewish family where an ambitious woman was unheard of. She remarked that her parents allowed her to visit the library but they had no idea on how subversive a place it was. It was there she first encountered Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not A Christian.” She says that book really “works on Jews” and that it “completely changed my mind.”
She wanted to work on Quantum Mechanics at Columbia. She left Columbia for Princeton and took classes under Karl Hempel. She read Thomas Nagel’s essay, “What Is It Like To Be A Bat.” The essay spoke to her. She received a Ph.D. in Philosophy and then became a novelist. She has written “philosophical novels.”
What could she change her mind about? “I would like to be convinced that progress could be made in philosophy, I’m not convinced it can be.”
Daniel Dennett sits next to Rebecca and begins by admitting that he didn’t have a science education from youth. He didn’t even study science as an undergraduate. At some point he worked with Quine, “who became my hero and mentor.” [Quine was a confirmed empiricist, pm]. At Oxford he took it upon himself to become self-educated about the brain. His supervisor, Gilbert Ryle, who didn’t have a scientific bone in his body, directed him to good tutors and advisors. He says he has had world-class tutors in evolutionary biology and neuroscience, neither of which he studied formally.
“I don’t spend much time with philosophers these days…when I think of all the wonderful people in the field of philosophy who aren’t here, I’m so glad.” (laughter) Like Owen, I am just appalled to see how in spite of what I think is the progress we’ve made in the last 25 years, there is this sort of retrograde gang, including some young ones, that are going back to old-fashioned arm-chair philosophy of mind with relish and eagerness and it’s just sickening – because their work isn’t worth anything and they lure in other people to do it. It’s cute, it’s clever and it’s not worth a damn.” (Hmmm…wonder what young philosophers you have in mind here, Dan? I can think of one senior statesman of philosophy you are thinking of and that Alex Rosenberg actually voiced, Thomas Nagel. editor)
“I believe that Wilfred Sellers nailed it. He described THE job of the philosopher – the one that is a respectable and valuable service – that is, helping people with their intuitions about how the Manifest Image goes together with the Scientific Image. We know it doesn’t go easily. And ever since Eddington and his two tables there’s lots of scientists who’ve tried. Scientists aren’t particularly good at it. And philosophers aren’t particularly good at it either if they don’t know the science. What I think you have to do is appreciate just how – where the Manifest Image came from – how come there IS a Manifest Image? What – first…there is the Manifest Image of the tick. The Manifest Image of people is very different from the Manifest Image of anteaters or birds, for instance…”
“The issue that is most pivotal is free will. The issue about truth has come up, and it’s interesting that there are some philosophers and scientists who have arrived at the position that believing in free will is so important that we should foster this as a holy myth, even though it ain’t true. If I found myself in that camp I’d be in deep trouble…but in fact I find myself in the camp saying that actually, once you understand what free will is and what it has to be in order to make lives have meaning, there’s no conflict at all – it’s not a holy myth, it’s the literal non-metaphorical truth that compatibilism is true.”
“Functionalism and homuncular functionalism. I am still a homuncular functionalist. My view now is that the brain is largely an anarchist assemblage of selfish neurons which can form correlations and cabals and interact – that you have to take their agendas seriously and then you’ve got a model of computation which is profoundly unlike the model that handles the latter.”
Near the end of the session Sean Carroll said, “The festishization of truth is something we need to – (pause) – overcome? (everyone laughs) I’m still a truth fetishist myself.”
Day One, Morning, Second Session
Two more introductions to go: Jerry Coyne and Steven Weinberg. Note carefully what Jerry Coyne says about evolution and religious faith.
Jerry Coyne begins. “I’m an evolutionary biologist who came to this late. I suspect like Richard, my becoming an atheist and a naturalist was a reaction to the fact that the opposition to what I was trying to teach, which was obdurate, was based on religious faith that you could not dispel by teaching people the facts about evolution…I realized that the way to teach evolution was to get rid of religion and then how do you do that? Well you can reform society but you can also argue against religion. Many atheists have done that very well. I’m writing a book now…about the incompatibility between science and religion so there are a lot of areas in there I want to get people’s takes on at this meeting. That involves questions of free will, questions of mathematics, questions about how we know things, other ways of knowing things besides science. I’m here I guess specifically to address the question of free will. I guess I’m one of the few incompatibilists in this group – I guess Alex is another one. To me the question is largely semantic…My alternative theory is that we’re collations of molecules that obey the laws of physics and sometimes it appears that we do that rationally, but a lot of times we don’t. And my replacement for free will would be the statement that our decisions are made by internal forces that we don’t understand and that we should deep six the idea of free will in terms of this statement.”
On what he would change his mind about – (pay attention to his answer and see if scientism rears its ugly head again. And, does Jerry Coyne have doubts about science being the sole road to knowledge?)
“This is a question I’ve been wrestling with in my book and it’s a powerful weapon in the armamentarium of theologians… that there are other ways of knowing besides science. In other words, art, literature, music are ways of knowing. I’m interested in exploring that question. Of course that’s all used to justify religious ways of knowing but I don’t believe religion is a way of knowing, but I’m interested whether there are other ways of knowing besides science. I’m completely open about this, I haven’t decided. I would like to think that science answers all questions and in that sense I would be a scientist…an advocate of scientism. None of that is to justify religion but theologians use art, music and literature too as ways of knowing and from that then Jesus and revelation as a way of knowing so I would like to be able to discuss that question.” (But Jerry, if you are “completely open” about this, why have you decided that religion is not an option? Just curious. Could it be that you have a prior commitment to materialism/naturalism that rules it out? But of course – you’ve said so.)
Steven Weinberg, last but not least. He began by commenting that he the dullest person in the room because he is a theoretical physicist and always wanted to be a theoretical physicist. He said that he has strong feelings on the subject of morality, consciousness and free will but would not comment on those at the moment but would wait for their proper time in the course of the meetings.