Supervenience Physicalism and the Darwinian Mind

The notion of supervenience is that, “A set of properties A supervenes upon another set B just in case no two things can differ with respect to A-properties without also differing with respect to their B-properties. In slogan form, “there cannot be an A-difference without a B-difference”. (1) So, this notion when combined with physicalism is the assertion that all mental activity is reducible to physical causes. In other words, there is nothing that happens on a mental level without a supervening physical change in the brain. This does not allow for mental changes to affect the physical only the other way around.

Superveniences establish such a relationship between the mental and the physical, so that any change in the mental is caused by a change in the physical. Just as a shadow is dependent upon the position of the object causing it, so is the mental dependent upon the physical. (2)

Logically, the notion of supervenience physicalism is the default explanation of the mind from a Darwinian perspective. There is research; however, that goes against this notion (3,4). In other words, there is evidence that changes in the “mental state” affect the physical state of the brain.

Darwinists may purport determinism and physicalism in general arguments, but when applied to their own experiences and thoughts, they often balk. The essential problem for them from this framework is that their beliefs in Darwinism are nothing but illusory experiences supervened by physical processes in their brains. Their belief that they are rational scientists, or thinkers, is nothing but the result of complex biochemical processes, which results in the illusion that they have rationally selected among alternative worldviews or interpretations of data.

Many Darwinists, when faced with this type of argument, will retreat from a position of physicalism. Even Darwinists are distressed by, and most often don’t believe in, the notion that their mental processes are fully determined by physical substrates. In fact, they must retreat from this position, because it refutes their notion that they are rational in their abilities to evaluate evidence, or that they have freely chosen their worldviews.

(1). http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/supervenience/
(2). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physicalism
(3). The Mind and The Brain
(4). The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul

Advertisements

6 Responses

  1. And then there are all those “Darwinists” who are explicitly opposed to physicalism, such as John Dewey and Richard Rorty.

    There is research; however, that goes against this notion (3,4). In other words, there is evidence that changes in the “mental state” affect the physical state of the brain.

    Or, the research shows that one part of the brain is affecting another part. It’s not so clear to me that the research lends itself so well to one world-view interpretation or the other.

    The essential problem for them from this framework is that their beliefs in Darwinism are nothing but illusory experiences supervened by physical processes in their brains. Their belief that they are rational scientists, or thinkers, is nothing but the result of complex biochemical processes, which results in the illusion that they have rationally selected among alternative worldviews or interpretations of data.

    This does not make much sense. The notion of supervenience is supposed to rule out any such threat of reduction, because it is states that all As are caused by Bs, we cannot understand what As are in terms of Bs.

    More to the point: to say that mental states are not “real” because they are caused by physical states seems to me, to be honest, confused — because it rests on an assumption that ontological status is based on causation, and it’s not clear why that should be. Let me see if I can make this more clear:

    1) Every mental state is caused by some physical state.
    2) No mental state causes any physical state.
    3) No mental state causes any mental state.
    4) Every physical state is caused by some physical state.

    I think that (1)-(4) will serve as an adequate summary of supervenient physicalism. But how does this show that mental states are either not real at all, or less real than physical states? It really seems obvious to me that superveience requires the reality of mental states — after all, if something is not real, then it cannot be the effect of cause! So supervenience theories are committed to the affirming the reality of mental states, not to denying it.

    Now, having said that, supervenience theories may be committed to a much less interesting and less grandiose theory of the mind than one may get from dualism (for example). Here’s a relevant joke: a lady asks George Herbert Shaw if he believes in infant baptism. Shaw responds, “Believe in it? Madam, I have seen it done!

    Shaw is playing on two senses of “believe”: to think that something exists, and to affirm everything that is commonly attributed to that thing. A supervenience physicalist can happily affirm the existence of mental states without affirming everything that a dualist would say about them.

  2. Carl wrote:

    And then there are all those “Darwinists” who are explicitly opposed to physicalism, such as John Dewey and Richard Rorty.

    Precisely, I wrote:

    Darwinists may purport determinism and physicalism in general arguments, but when applied to their own experiences and thoughts, they often balk. The essential problem for them from this framework is that their beliefs in Darwinism are nothing but illusory experiences supervened by physical processes in their brains. Their belief that they are rational scientists, or thinkers, is nothing but the result of complex biochemical processes, which results in the illusion that they have rationally selected among alternative worldviews or interpretations of data.

    Carl then goes on to say:

    I think that (1)-(4) will serve as an adequate summary of supervenient physicalism. But how does this show that mental states are either not real at all, or less real than physical states? It really seems obvious to me that superveience requires the reality of mental states — after all, if something is not real, then it cannot be the effect of cause! So supervenience theories are committed to the affirming the reality of mental states, not to denying it.

    How do you know any physical state is real? It is the result of blind Darwinian processes. Your consciousness is an illusion. It is determined by physical processes. You don’t have any more choice in what you believe, than I do in the sentences I am typing here. It’s nothing more than the result of determined physical processes.

    Shaw is playing on two senses of “believe”: to think that something exists, and to affirm everything that is commonly attributed to that thing. A supervenience physicalist can happily affirm the existence of mental states without affirming everything that a dualist would say about them.

    But, not by any “volition” of their “mind.” The may affirm or deny any position, but it is the result of physical computational processes, which are the result of physical law extending back to the “big bang” or “big bounce” if you prefer based on your determined current mindset.

  3. Sure — if physicalism requires, or entails, determinism. Does it? How do you know?

  4. Is it bound by time and cause and effect? If so, then yes, it entails determinism. If no, please explain. I don’t see how it could otherwise be called “physicalism.” You won’t want to see it as being bound by determinism, because that means your beliefs are determined. Which on the one hand would be consistent with your overall belief system, but on the other hand, it goes against something deep within your nature.

  5. Actually, I’m not a physicalist, nor a determinist. I haven’t yet had any opportunity here to marshal any of my argument against those views, but let it suffice to say, for now, that I am not. I took some time above to clarify what I thought was meant by physicalism, and by supervenience, but I didn’t mean to come across as endorsing those views.

  6. […] Another resource: A psychologist’s view of the question. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: