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?