An Argument Against Materialism

If materialism were true, we should be able to know about matter by introspection; but we don’t, so it isn’t. For materialism is a theory of the nature of mind—what constitutes mental states—and so we ought to know this nature by knowing about the things that have it; but we don’t. If it is the nature of pain to be C-fiber firing, then knowing what pain is should give us knowledge of that nature; yet we know nothing about C-fiber firing by knowing our own pains. Introspection should reveal pain to be fibrous and staccato, because that is what the neural correlate of pain is; but it is blind to these cerebral facts. We don’t even know that the correlate is extended just by knowing our pains, or indeed that there is such a correlate. Shouldn’t the nature of pain communicate itself to us through our faculty of introspecting pain? Why the epistemic cut-off? There isn’t even a hint of the nature of pain in our introspective knowledge of it, as materialism views this nature; but that is puzzling and unexplained. The most obvious explanation of this lack of physical knowledge is that materialism is not true. Contrast two other theories of mind: behaviorism and functionalism. Our ordinary knowledge of mind incorporates information about the behavioral and functional aspects of mental states: we know that pain leads to withdrawal behavior and that it has a certain functional role vis-à-vis belief and desire. The nature of mental states, according to these theories, is not cut off from our self-knowledge, just as one might expect—we know quite a bit about this nature just by having and knowing about mental states. But in the case of central-state materialism we appear completely in the dark about what really constitutes our mental states, as if behind a brick wall. Thus the theory strikes us as startling, surprising, thrilling even (also rebarbative). It seems like a departure from common sense not a continuation of it.

There doesn’t seem to be any logical necessity about introspective ignorance of the brain: people could know their brain states (conceived as such) by inner sense. Consider a possible world in which people have sensations of pain and also introspective intimations of the cerebral correlates of pain. The pain is felt but so is the corresponding brain activity. In such a world the materialist doctrine would not seem far-fetched or counter-intuitive because ordinary knowledge of pain would include facts about its material nature (according to materialism). People would think, “Oh, that’s why I feel my brain that way when I have a pain, because pain is a state of my brain!” And maybe in that world materialism is in fact true: thus its truth conveys itself to the introspective faculty. The case would be like that of behaviorism and functionalism. There would be nothing puzzling in people’s epistemic situation with respect to the mind. But in our world there is no such knowledge of the real nature of mental states, as materialism conceives that nature; and that is puzzling. The dualist will insist that this is exactly what we should expect, since mental states have no such physical nature. The materialist thus faces a challenge—how to explain our ignorance of the nature of our minds given the materialist doctrine. How can introspection be so blind to the truth?[1] Opponents of materialism will conclude that this is not the nature of mind, which is precisely why we don’t introspect minds in the way we should if materialism were true. The relation between mind and brain naturally strikes us as extrinsic, contingent, correlative, not as a relation of identity or constitution: why, if that is what it is? What the materialist cannot do is point to some aspect of our introspective knowledge that anticipates the truth of materialism—as behaviorism, functionalism, and dualism can with respect to their own theories.

It would be wrong to object that the same is true for other kinds of theoretical identification, as with water and H2O or heat and molecular motion, because here ordinary perceptual knowledge does anticipate the theories in question. That is, our ordinary knowledge of water and heat already represents them as material phenomena of some sort, even if the theoretical details remain to be discovered—they clearly belong with other recognizably material things. But in the case of mental states that is precisely not the case: we don’t already conceive them as material and simply await further information about their material nature. No one thinks that materialism about water and heat is a surprising discovery. Thus there is a crucial distinction between the two cases: our ordinary conception of the mental does not already represent it as material in some way yet to be determined, while for water and heat their material nature is a given. This is because introspection tells us nothing of the mind’s (alleged) material nature, not even of the most general kind. So the question remains: how can the materialist explain our lack of knowledge of the real nature of our own minds? Maybe he can, but the question poses a serious challenge. One would think we have an inkling at least of the real nature of our minds via introspection, but according to materialism we could go through our whole lives and never even think of it.[2]

 

[1] One possible explanation might look like this: there is no biological payoff in knowing the material nature of our mental states, so we are not set up to have such knowledge—it’s just a question of whether the knowledge would be useful. I take it the problems with this kind of explanation are obvious (we know lots of useless things, etc.).

[2] An analogy: an idealist might contend that the real nature of material objects consists in dispositions to cause sensory experiences, but she wouldn’t maintain that this nature is closed to our knowledge, since we are well aware that material objects are associated with dispositions to bring about sense experience. But in the case of materialism the constitutive facts are supposed to lie outside our ordinary awareness of our mental states. That asymmetry cries out for explanation. A dualist will certainly see it as confirmation of his position.

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18 replies
  1. Joseph K.
    Joseph K. says:

    I enjoyed this post from start to finish.

    Yesterday I was groping for the right word to describe the repellent quality of a certain minor materialist’s crass prose. A word that appears in this post answers the purpose perfectly, namely ‘rebarbative’. My thanks, good sir.

    Reply
  2. Oliver S.
    Oliver S. says:

    Reductive materialists have argued that although conscious states are brain states, an introspective neurology is impossible because the experience-constituting neural processes present themselves to our inner sense in a neurologically opaque and unanalyzable “gestalt or overall manner.” (Armstrong) The complexes of neural processes which are our experiences are innerly “perceived…in a ‘gestalt’ way that cannot, in perception, penetrate to their deeper, micro-physical nature.” (Armstrong) Owing to our holistic-simplistic gestalt perception of our experiences, we cannot introspectively perceive (or conceive) them as neural processes; but it doesn’t follow that they aren’t neural processes.

    (Quotes from: D. M. Armstrong, The Mind-Body Problem: An Opinionated Introduction,1999, pp. 128+134)

    Reply
    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      What a feeble attempt to explain our lack of neurological knowledge by Armstrong: even a gestalt perception represents its object as physical, but that is not true of our introspective knowledge.

      Reply
  3. Dermot O’Keeffe
    Dermot O’Keeffe says:

    I’m stuck.
    Let’s say that music is a property of physical ( air waves) but to the musicologist it’s essence is captured only in musical terms, not in those of the physics of air waves.
    So couldn’t mental states be properties of neurological states, and therefore have different essences with distinct modes of access?
    An imperfect analogy I know.

    I feel rather desperate to understand this relationship. Any ideas for more essays on this blog or elsewhere would be very welcome!

    Reply
  4. Colin McGinn
    Colin McGinn says:

    First, you use “it’s” when you should use “its” (not allowed on this blog!). The question you ask is massive and amply discussed in the philosophical literature. You can find many essays on it by searching on this blog.

    Reply
    • Dermot O’Keeffe
      Dermot O’Keeffe says:

      Apologies for the typo, for typo it was.

      If consciousness originated as a kind of tropism, I imagine the trick was to be sensitive to the light, not to the plant’s own physical structure.

      If ( if!) mental states are physical I’m not sure I would expect them to understand the fact.

      Reply
  5. Milen Mirov
    Milen Mirov says:

    I completely agree with your argument against materialism. However, the materialism discussed here is a rather restricted version of materialism as a philosophical position. Materialism as a philosophical position maintains that there are two realities in the world , which “compete” to be its substance – matter (objective reality) and consciousness (subjective reality). These two realities exhaust everything there is, i.e. something is either objective reality or subjective reality. But only matter (objective reality) exists as a substance, i.e. as something which is self-sufficient and does not need anything else (for example consciousness ) to exist. Consciousness cannot exist and does not exist without matter and this is at least so because matter = objective reality = external reality is the contents of the consciousness, i.e. is what consciousness is about in the literal sense. Self-consciousness and introspection does not exist without consciousness. But consciousness does not exist without matter also because the latter is somehow its substrate. And although admittedly it lacks extension it is very clear that it only exists “around” brains which do have extension.
    Idealism, from this point of view, maintains that the substance of the world is non-material, i.e. it is somehow made of subjective reality and the objective reality exists thanks to this “ideal”, psychic-like reality. In other words, the contents of the world belong to the consciousness and objective reality gets its existence and contents from it. In its simplest form this sounds like “the world exists because I think of it”.
    Therefore, to be a materialist in view of the ontological status of consciousness could mean that you identify mental states with brain states (e.g. pain with C-fibre firing or whatever neurological science can tell you about the brain). And the criticism of this type of materialism in the post is fully deserved, justified and correct. This type of materialism, based on “our world” have very little to say about consciousness.
    But that is not the only possible materialism. I want just to outline very briefly another possibility which is to think of consciousness as a relation. If I am not mistaken your book “Consciousness and its objects” is not incompatible with it.
    Consciousness can logically be thought of as a relation between two segments of the objective reality – the human beings and their environment. A relation does not exist in the things that are related, although it is based on their properties. There is no doubt that consciousness is a product of a long evolution and the science can trace back its origins to the most primitive forms of reaction to the environment in the single cell organisms.
    Logically speaking the world consists of objects, properties and relations. The materialism criticised in the blog is “object and properties” materialism, which claims that consciousness is a material property (or properties) of a material object. The other possible materialism (“relational” materialism) will be a position maintaining that consciousness does not exists without matter (it needs it twice – as substrate and contents ), but it is not a material property. It is a relation of the human beings to their environment. Therefore, there is no point searching for it in the brain, because it is not there. Where do we search then for it? This obviously takes us to the problem of the ontological status of relations, but I have no intention going into it.

    Reply
    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      I see the logical possibility of such a relational view, but I would need to know more about what kind of relation it might be. Not the usual kinds of organism-environment relations, to be sure.

      Reply
      • Don Salmon
        Don Salmon says:

        Colin, I know you’ve said this in many different ways, so I apologize for repeating it – but I still don’t understand why any argument about materialism doesn’t start with the reminder that “matter” (not as defined by physicists, but the philosophic sense of “matter” as being an ontological primitive) is (a) a model, for which there can never be, by definition, any empirical evidence; and (b) is not (philosophically speaking) needed for any scientific experiment or theory.

        I so often see materialist critics (like Nagel, for example) critique materialism due to its more obviously insufficiency for accounting for purpose and goals in biological organisms or for consciousness i general.

        But I still don’t see how materialism accounts for anything – for existence itself, for the emergence of the orderly processes we refer to as “laws,” for the persistence/stability of these laws, for the emergence of life, sentience, emotion, reason, self awareness, etc.

        What am I missing? (Or am I missing anything?)

        Reply
        • Colin McGinn
          Colin McGinn says:

          There is the problem of what “matter” means (pressed by Chomsky and others); it is usually used as the opposite of “mind” (whatever that means). Does anyone hold that materialism accounts for “existence itself” or the existence of laws? Of course, many people have doubted that all aspects of reality can be explained physically.

          Reply
  6. Gideon Röhr
    Gideon Röhr says:

    It seems to me that introspection is an inappropriate term when it refers to the ability to observe consciousness and, in particular, thought. I agree with Gilbert Ryle that there is no such thing as introspection. It would mean that, assuming that introspection is also a conscious process, another consciousness would be required, which now introspects the first one. That would ultimately amount to an infinite regress. Isn’t it the case that we can observe what we thought (through remembering, i.e. ex post), but not the process of thinking as long as it is in progress, since thinking while it is taking place takes up all of our consciousness?

    Reply
    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      Let “introspection” be the name of whatever faculty it is that allows us to know our mental states. Then introspection indubitably exists (it need not be viewed as “observational”). There is no regress because we need not introspect our introspective acts. We can clearly introspect our current mental states, as when I now think “I am seeing green leaves”.

      Reply
      • Gideon Röhr
        Gideon Röhr says:

        The explanation of what is meant by “introspection” did not convince me. I think that we do not know our mental states but ARE in them, which is something else. To recognize or to know means, after all, that there is a something that I recognize or know about. In the external world, this something is always an object or thing, that is, a something opposite me. But in our “inner space” (consciousness), that is, in what is called subjectivity, there is no object next to us as subjects, subject and object coincide. So I cannot perceive, recognize, look at or introspect this inner space, i.e. thoughts, ideas etc., as I am not aware of the CONTENT of the thoughts, ideas … but only (vaguely) aware that it is I who have them. Thoughts, as long as they last, take up all my inner space. In a sense, I am myself temporarily my thoughts…. I can therefore – this is apparently a peculiarity of cognitive processes – NOT communicate a thought to a friend while I am thinking it (the communication would immediately displace it), whereas I could without difficulty report a pain simultaneously with my experience of it.

        Translated with http://www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)

        Reply
        • Colin McGinn
          Colin McGinn says:

          The relationship between the subject and his psychological states is no doubt obscure, and has been much discussed by philosophers, and should not be modelled on the case of external objects, but it is hard to deny that I know I am in pain when I am or know that I am thinking about Paris when I am, etc. We can use “introspection” as the name of this faculty while leaving open how it works. There have been theories of the self as a bundle of mental qualities, but not many people have been willing to say that no one knows his state of mind (except Wittgenstein).

          Reply

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