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Vitalist nonsense versus Science.

  1. Dec 20, 2003 #1
    I don't normally lump all of scientific discovery and inquiry into just "science", nor do I normally call an idea "nonsense", but I have reasons on this particular occasion.

    Vitalism was the idea that, no matter how well science and philosophy could explain the function that produce "life", they could never explain what the "life" itself was. This is nonsense. It was shown, through many different fields of science and philosophy (hence the lumping together..."science"), that "life" had no meaning except for those exact functions that the vitalists had deemed unsatisfactory.

    So, science has discovered that some supposed "mysteries" are not mysteries at all, but there simply needs to be a re-intuiting of the concept being studied - such that the function that were said to "produce" the mysterious phenomenon can now be seen to be the phenomenon, and there is nothing more to add.

    The reason I bring this up is because of the current problems with consciousness. People constantly say that scientific explanations of the functions of the brain will not be enough to explain how they "produce" consciousness. Well, I say (in agreement with Daniel Dennett and many cognitive scientists) that these functions are the consciousness, and there's nothing more (mysterious) to find.

    Indeed, I'm surprised that the proponents of the vitalist view of consciousness can't see that they are doing just what the previous vitalists did with regard to "life". In fact, one philosopher has gone so far as to mention these previous vitalists, but then to say that he was different in his view of consciousness, since no physical function could ever be shown to be "subjective awareness"...isn't that exactly what the "life" vitalists said?!? It's not like people with such views are saying that you can't explain these mysteries because the physical functions can't be explained well enough. No, they are/were saying exactly what Chalmers (the aforementioned philosopher was David Chalmers, btw) said: "You can explain all of the physical functions, but you can never explain why this produces the mysterious phenomenon.
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  3. Dec 20, 2003 #2
    Ok. You think Dennett is right and Chalmers is wrong, and there's a few non-philosophers who agree with you. What's your point? And what's vitalism got to do with anything?

    Do you actually have an answer to Chalmers, or have you just made your mind up?

    Are you aware that Dennett has no impact at all on the debate, other than to generate more of it?
  4. Dec 20, 2003 #3
    Ok. You think Dennett is right and Chalmers is wrong, and there's a few non-philosophers who agree with you. What's your point?

    And what's vitalism got to do with anything?
  5. Dec 20, 2003 #4


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    In other words our posts are futile unless we can "Fisk" Chalmers? Nuts to that. And be careful what you ask for.

    Without any refereence to Dennett, Chalmers or anybody else's favorite guru there is indeed a lot of unexamined vitalism in the debates on consciousness. And it is right to show it up.
  6. Dec 21, 2003 #5
    But see, it ISN'T like that. Life is not a feeling, that's the difference. We can look at something and say "That is alive" or "That is not alive", but we can't look at something and say "That is conscious" and "That is not conscious". That's the first big clue that it is something more than a process.

    What it ties into is the question of "Do concepts exist?". When you think, for example, of a horse- is that thought only a pattern of electrons in your brain (technicly if your answer is no, it isn't a PATTERN either, since patterns are concepts), or is it something else? The image of a horse that you have in your mind, is that image simply some electricity (I use ideas like "electricity" and "patterns" here, but be aware that if concepts are not real these things are not real either, since their definitions are concepts. They would still "exist" in a way... Maybe. Heh.), or is it an image produced by electricity?

    This question ties into yet another, "Are subjective experiences the only things that matter, or is there some sort of objective reality? What is reality?". Two, actually. I'm not going to go into all of this, we would simply travel along a vast chain of philosophical questions. You see my point though, I hope?

    You can easily imagine yourself without consciousness. You would not have a field of vision; your eyes would take in information and transmit it to your brain as electrical impulses, but there is no reason you would actually "see" the image (you might argue that the definition of "see" is what I have just described. However, you can imagine the same function being carried out without the actual "image" being percieved- therefore there must be some seperation). Variables would be extracted from the image and fed into the programs of your brain (like a computer). Complex equations would take place, chemicals would be released and affect these equations, neurons would fire all over the place... And then a signal would be transmitted to the group of cells known as an "arm" or a "leg" or whatever other part of the body they might be, and it would carry out a task. You can imagine this entire process without the actual quality of "seeing" or of "feeling". There is no reason why you should FEEL an emotion instead of just having the chemicals effect your behaviour. That is what consciousness is, and that is why it is not defined simply as the processes.

    I realize that you might just deny this... It is not undeniable fact. Consciousness isn't the processes occuring, it is FEELING the processes occuring. You can deny that you feel anything, but that doesn't serve much purpose. Whether you feel anything or not(or whether you understand the distinction of experiencing and feeling or not- I've talked to some people about this who simply could NOT understand me, but they showed up a day or two later and said they thought and thought and finally got it) is irrelevant, because other people do. You can deny that all you want, but it won't make a difference, because people know they do feel. And feeling is not a function of these processes- self awareness is, experience is, but not feeling. It's impossible for it to be a physical function.

    Anyway, I shall stop now. Hopefully you understand what I'm saying. :)
  7. Dec 21, 2003 #6
    Did I say that? Uh, no.

    I asked what the point of the post was. It's an interesting topic but there's nothing to say to someone who just asserts their opinion with no reasoning to accompany it.

    Perhaps, but vitalism in its old form is dead. It just muddles the issues to lump it together with the the issue of consciousnes. A bit of rigour wouldn't go amiss around here imho. Too much temperamental opinion.

    It's a fascinating and difficult topic, one which baffles everyone in science at the moment. People post here as if they've never looked into, but are certain of the answer. This stifles sensible discussion.
    Last edited: Dec 21, 2003
  8. Dec 21, 2003 #7


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    You say that vitalism is dead, and that the consciousness discussion is not about vitalism. I say that any position that claims outright that "there are some things scientists will never know" is pure vitalism, unless it's superstition. And that is what I read Chalmers as saying.

    And yes I do go back a long way with the arguments of Searle and Nagle and all, and I dearly hope we're not going to retrace that whole weary road again.
  9. Dec 21, 2003 #8
    The claim that there are some things that science will never be able to know has got nothing at all to do with vitalism. Try reading Colin Mcginn and 'mysterianism', and he's a materialist.
  10. Dec 22, 2003 #9
    "there are some things scientists will never know"... Science can never provide an understanding of itself. Science is a set of laws describing the physical universe, not a description of those laws. Saying that a certain set of these laws being realized in a certain way IS something else makes no sense. There could be laws governing the laws of science, and laws governing those laws. Without knowledge of such, we can't provide an unquestionable description of any final result (in this case consciousness). Here is how it appears:

    sciencelaw1 sciencelaw2 sciencelaw3

    You can easily say, if we know this to be correct, that the correct combination of sciencelaws produces consciousness, and you are equally validated in saying that these sciencelaws ARE consciousness. A definition or a description of production- they are essentially the same. For instance:

    3lines intersectinglines

    That is a definition AND a description of production. Both mean the same thing. However, since science does not describe itself, our consciousness definition could look like this:

    otherlaw6 otherlaw7
    law1 law2 law3 law4 law5
    sciencelaw1 sciencelaw2 sciencelaw3
  11. Dec 22, 2003 #10
    Of course, that could apply to our triangle example as well... However, triangles are man's creation- so we know all the laws that apply to them (seeing as we created those laws). Consciousness is not our creation... so we dont know all the laws. Also, no one has ever (to my knowledge) actually provided a definition of consciousness (or the functions that produce/define it). What would they be? Everyone's brain is different, yet we are all conscious... Are animals conscious? Computers? Rocks? These discussions aren't very productive without an actual specification of the things that produce/define consciousness itself.
  12. Dec 22, 2003 #11
    Ah, but we can't. Have you been to my other thread "Why call it 'alive'?"? There is no working definition of life. However, there is the biological definition, and from that we can say "this is alive and that is not alive", but this speaks only of functions, which the vitalists thought was not enough. Consciousness, as per the intentional stance, is also "just a function" which the current vitalists don't seem to think is enough.

    I actually (currently) think that the image of a horse is a spatial stimulation of synchronously-firing interneurons in the neocortex, which was begun in response to the observation of a horse.

    But this is a vitalist-type statement, and flies in the face of the Scientific Method. This Method would dictate that there "FEELings" are "just" chemicals that effect your behavior. Why should there be anything else?

    But "feeling" is also a process.
  13. Dec 22, 2003 #12
    The claim that there are some things that science will never be able to know isn't exactly my definition of "vitalism". It is, IMHO, the claim that some mysteries exist on a plain beyond that of the physical processes that "produce" them. The problem with this is that, in the first instance (the instance to do with "life"), it was shown that the supposed "mystery" really was (not "was produced by", but was) the physical processes involved; and, in the second case (with regard to consciousness) it is now stunting science's ability to do what it does, since so many people are still holding to the vitalist view that "you may explain all of the physical processes involved, but you will never explain the mysterious phenomenon that they produce.
  14. Dec 22, 2003 #13
    That is not vitalism, that is mysticism.

    Nobody has shown that (if I understand you right). It's the just the scientifically orthodox hypothesis.

    You're muddling vitalism with a load of other things here. Vitalism is a claim about life, not about the epistemlogy of science.

    I'm sure it's a nuisance that some people's opinions about the limits of science are stunting science's growth. However they are not all vitalists, most of them, like Plato, Popper, Kant, McGinn, Plank, Penrose and Hawkings, are just very aware of the difficult logical relationship between scientific hypothesising, indeed all hypothesising, and what all these hypotheses are about, namely reality itself and what is really true.

    I don't think many of these folk would be pleased to be called a vitalist.
  15. Dec 22, 2003 #14
    While I agree with Canute here, I also think that vitalism is the metaphysical doctrine that living organisms possess a non-physical inner force or energy that gives them the property of life of organic matter. Maybe this helps, maybe it doesn't.

    Why are the people you selected pretty much all dead? I have a question. What's wrong with mysticism? To begin, mysteries about life persist in the face of reductionist science.
  16. Dec 22, 2003 #15


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    Not one of these worthy gentlemen has stunted the growth of science. No, not even Plato. Nor have the philosophers who have erected "The Hard Problem" into job security. Science ignores them and goes about its business.
  17. Dec 23, 2003 #16
    I see. So vitalism was just a form of mysticism (to do with the essence of "life")?

    Yes, it is the scientific answer. And since it was the scientific answer in this case, why should we not assume (as has Dennett) that the scientific answer to the problem of consciousness is that it is the process?

    Well, I wont state my personal opinions about those particular people; however, I know that Chalmer's view looks just like the vitalist view of life, and that's why I posted this thread: To see if the consciousness problem can be gotten rid of by a more scientific approach.
  18. Dec 23, 2003 #17
    Of course your're right. I was pointing out to Mentat that it was a bit daft to think that they had.

    As you say, science has no way of addressing the hard problem, but must carry on regardless.
  19. Dec 23, 2003 #18
    I suppose so. I'm not quite sure of the defintions of these things.

    Science doesn't have an answer. It has a hypothesis.

    Because nearly everybody else thinks the idea doesn't make any sense. Science would love to adopt Dennett's view, but it can't. It doesn't add up, even to most scientists.

    I doubt that Chalmers would agree.

    The evidence of science, and the analysis of the logic of the situation by philosophers suggests that it can't. Perhaps science can 'get rid' of it if decides to redefine itself slightly, but not otherwise, at least according to most people who don't earn a living looking for it scientifically.
    Last edited: Dec 23, 2003
  20. Dec 24, 2003 #19

    Actually Chalmers' position is much more complex,he doesn't claim that science cannot explain consciousness,he is only skeptical that neurology alone will be able to explain it.I have saved once from the net an interview with Chalmers,here is an excerpt from it:

    You argue in your work that neuroscience will not be able to give a complete theory of consciousness. Do you think that current scientific work on consciousness is misguided?

    Chalmers:Sometimes the sort of non-materialist view I put forward is seen as anti-scientific, but I don't see it that way at all. I argue that neuroscience alone isn't enough to explain consciousness, but I think it will be a major part of an eventual theory. We just need to add something else, some new fundamental principles, to bridge the gap between neuroscience and subjective experience. Actually, I think my view is compatible with much of the work going on now in neuroscience and psychology, where people are studying the relationship of consciousness to neural and cognitive processes without really trying to reduce it to those processes. We are just getting much more detailed knowledge of the associations and correlations between them. Things are still in early stages, but one can imagine that as we build up and systematize our theories of these associations, and try to boil them down to their core, the result might point us toward the sort of fundamental principles I advocate. Of course that's a long way off yet.

    Basically he argues,without making positive claims,that the actual knowledge is necessary but not sufficient to explain all features of consciousness as we know it.His position is rational the 'zombies','Mary's chamber' or 'Chinese room' philosophical arguments against the computational emergentist approach are enough to back a rational skepticism.Indeed,nonwithstanding Dennet's brave attempt,we are far from having sufficient reasons that the emergentist computational theory of consciousness is (approximatively) correct.I would name it a conjecture,we are only at the beginning of our quest to find a 'holistic' theory of consciousness (any unbiased scientist will recognize this).

    I would argue also that vitalists do not make the generic claim that science cannot understand life,maybe some of them but not all,many of them merely doubt that the current known facts can lead to a successful theory of life.A sort of 'interactionist dualism' (we cannot put in evidence currently,the interaction being too weak) is still a feasible posibility (though we have no dualist scientific hypothesis as of now).Indeed,at most,Dennet's arguments are efficient against the cartesian type of dualism,but not against all types of dualism.Eccles' hypothesis (though it does not attain the status of scientific hypothesis) is a good example:dualism neither needs a 'cartesian theatre' nor break the conservation of energy law...The mistery remains...only time will settle things...
    Last edited: Dec 24, 2003
  21. Dec 26, 2003 #20
    What's the difference?

    And yet all of the scientific attempts at explaining consciousness have fallen right into Dennett's predicted standards (and I've read at least 4 by now).
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