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The history of science is full of cases where people thought a phenomenon was utterly unique, that there couldn’t be any possible mechanism for it, that we might never solve it, that there was nothing in the universe like it.

The history of science really gives you perspective on how easy it is to talk ourselves into this sort of thinking – that if my big, wonderful brain can’t envisage the solution, then it must be a really, really hard problem!

– Patricia Churchland

The context is philosophy of mind. Basically, the thesis is:

The idea of the mind being anything special, that is not amenable to a physicalist explanation, will be relegated to the dustbin of history similar to élan vital and other occult ideas. Why should it be the only exception?

But one could also be deeply impressed by Descartes' “correct” (of course, only as it seems until now) premonition that the mind poses an intractable problem, and (presumably) nothing else. His prediction fits the predicament we find ourselves in.

Or maybe Descartes wasn't so clear-sighted but rather shrewd: Maybe he just invented a better Procrustean bed for nature than physicalism. Accepting the mind as sui generis and immaterial, allowed him (and everybody else who at least implicitly is committed to his dualist bifurcation of reality) to push away any difficulties and recalcitrant features not incorporatable in the mechanistic/reductionist/physicalist picture of the external world… as mere mental “illusions” or “projections”. Like William Barrett stated:

The qualitative world of our everyday life, with all the color, warmth, and vibrancy of its texture, is thrust out of the world that is real for physical science, and relegated as an unreal specter to our own purely subjective consciousness.

It would be quite bad for Churchland's argument if – ironically – the power of this cunning Cartesian paradigm is inextricably linked to the success of reductionist science and therefore the motivation for physicalism.

One also has to notice the fact that we tend to cling to paradigms familiar to us. Classical physics is (aside from a few cracks) completely deterministic and even someone as intelligent as Einstein had difficulties to let go of that.

Is there a way to strengthen Churchland's argument so such rejoinders and skepticism get defused? Did anybody sympathetic to Churchland's argument go into a little more detail?

  • I think there's a fundamental disconnect here. What you're calling a historical-trends argument for physicalism (let's call that HTAP) isn't an argument for physicalism at all; it is, instead, a call for caution regarding arguments for the apparent impossibility of physicalism. One can give arguments for physicalism, but not of the form "non-physicalists were wrong about élan vital therefore physicalism is true". – H Walters Apr 29 '18 at 16:37
  • I do not really see a rejoinder. I am not sure Descartes ever implied "nothing else" but he'd be massively wrong if he did, there are intractable problems even in mathematics. There is no big difference between life and mind either, the scientific statuses of élan vital and ghost in the machine are similar, one can argue that both are on the way to be dispelled, or not. And it is hard to see a connection between the generic move of setting aside what is not ripe for research at the moment and focusing on what is, and the status of anything in particular. – Conifold Apr 29 '18 at 20:32
  • @Conifold (1) “nothing else” = “no problems regarding general properties / phenomena are in principle intractable”. It doesn't mean we can solve all specifica like the n-body problem. (2) Substance dualism is disproved if one can prove that physical causal closure holds in the brain. Such an experiment isn't remotely possible yet. AFAIK élan vital was formulated too boldly: there's a difference even on the level of chemistry – which synthesis of urea disproved. More careful formulations of élan vital are still possible but such a view, contrary to dualism, lacks any a priori motivation. – wolf-revo-cats Apr 29 '18 at 23:39
  • @HWalters But how carefully do the counterarguments have to be developed to not get dismissed by Churchland's argument? Theoretically not even empirical evidence of breakage of causal closure would constitute a counterargument – this can be explained by an incompleteness of the physical theory. Polemically put, where's the difference between a Jehovah's Witness' belief that counterarguments to her religion are just attacks by Satan and Churchland's “caution”? If one presents such a dismissive attitude it would be fair to at least also hint on what could convince one to change one's mind. – wolf-revo-cats Apr 30 '18 at 0:07
  • So-called wild problems are "in principle intractable". Substance dualism can not be proved or disproved, only undermined, the same is true of physicalism, failure to produce neural correlates for mental phenomena would undermine it over time. There is no point to "critical experiments" for such broad generalities, they stand or fall as heuristic regulative ideals, motivated by history or whatever, not as falsifiable "claims". And someone with a research programme is entitled to dismissing skeptics out of hand as long as it remains viable. – Conifold Apr 30 '18 at 0:21

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