Naturalism, Materialism and Causality

For thousands of years, philosophers have argued that people are somehow different from the rest of the world and have somehow become more than the sum of our parts.  This has lead to the famous mind/body distinction with the addition of a soul in some philosophical systems that include religious thought.

A fairly typical expression of this school of thought is something like this quote from this (unfortunately unnamed philosopher) from the University of North Carolina:

Yet the most extensive knowledge of the biology of the brain, body and external environment would still not yield an explanation or description of what it’s actually like to feel pain, taste chocolate, see green, or experience beauty.  No amount of understanding the “parallel computing power” of the brain will explain a belief in God or a fear of death.  In short, biology and physics cannot explain consciousness.

The opposite way of thinking, which goes by the name of physicalism, naturalism or materialism, says that “Yes, indeed, biology (and by extension chemistry and physics) will explain all that.   No need for a non-material “mind” or a supernatural “soul.”

It seems to me that we have a language issue when looking at this issue.  For example, it is abundantly clear that machines can distinguish different colors, but can they “experience” them?  What does it even mean to “experience”colors.  Could we possibly explain the “experience of color” to a blind person?  Do birds and other animals “experience color?”  If so, do they have a mind?  Where does this “mini-mind” come from, if not their tiny little bird brains?

For me, naturalism makes the most sense.  What we call “mind” is the workings of our physical brains.  How does this phenomenon arise?  Well, we are not sure yet, but I agree with Daniel Dennett that basically, there is no “hard problem of consciousness,”  That it is simply an emergent property of brains.

It is not hard to figure out where I come down on this issue, I am naturalist, I think that “mind” is simply what we call the workings of the brain, nothing more or less.  Animals have a form of consciousness because they share some of the structures of our brains, and they fall short of our level of consciousness because their brains lack some of the complexities and structures that we humans have.

Now, it could very well turn out that I am wrong on this, although I don’t think there will be any sort of definitive answer in my lifetime or maybe even the life times of my children.

If you disagree with naturalism, I can assure you that you are in good company.  Many philosophers, both secular and religious believe that, ultimately, mind cannot be explained by physical processes.  Obviously such a belief held by many people who have studied the issue much more thoroughly than I cannot be simply dismissed by me.  I do not dismiss such people, I just happen to side with the many people who have also deeply studied this issue and land of the side of naturalism.

I will also say that I have read many arguments for some sort of mind/body dualism.  I don’t find them convincing and I highly doubt that new argument in this field is going to come along in the next few weeks to change my position.

I am saying this, in part, because much of the reasoning for posts that I have planned in my head really come back to this question.

As a naturalist I believe that our thoughts, feelings and behaviors arise from the meat computer that is in our heads and that the brain evolved because it had survival benefits, not because it is the best or most elegant solution.  I think our brain is like a Swiss Army knife, the tools are somewhat useful, but not always ideal for the job.



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