One of the first books I ever bought for fun with my own money was The Biological Origin of Human Values, by George Edgin Pugh. I still have it. I remember buying it because it was a big, expensive book for a penniless college student; I visited it in the bookstore four times before I finally decided it was worth the money.
Pugh’s was one of the first in a long line of books that by now constitute a publishing genre unto themselves, of books that show how morality, religion, consciousness, love, and so forth reflect the logic of our situation as animals living among animals. This logic is interesting to a number of disciplines: economics, evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, game theory, genetic algorithms, cybernetics, control systems theory, information theory, neurophysiology, cognitive science – and of course, philosophy of mind. I was really into all that stuff. Together with biology, chemistry and physics, it seemed to me that these disciplines bid fair to explain pretty much everything about human beings. It was a Grand Synthesis, in which every level of analysis supervened tidily upon the levels below, so that they translated neatly into each other, with physics at the bottom. Nothing of human life seemed to be left out, at least in principle. It was a beautiful and compelling vision.
There were just two problems.
First, once one understood the animal logic of human behavior, one was left with the perplexing question of how the fire got into the equations. The logic was there, but what motivated its implementation in reality? How did mere logic motivate action? Oh, sure, I could see how one could encode basic moral and aesthetic values, like pain and pleasure – and by extension, therefore, also our higher moral sentiments – in synaptic firing thresholds, and how synapses are logic gates in circuits that control behavior so as to guide the organism toward the maintenance of certain state values – temperature, blood sugar, and so forth. But why did the encoding happen in the first place, when it would have been far easier and far more likely and far more thermodynamically efficient (these being, NB, three different ways to say the same thing) for nothing of the sort ever to have happened? And once the values had been somehow encoded in synaptic firing thresholds, how then afterwards did they ever mean anything? What or who was decoding those thresholds, so that they could be effectual in guiding animal behavior? Who or what was translating a bunch of electronic events into signals?
The Grand Synthesis explained how animals worked, but not why. The logic of motivation does not itself constitute a motivation. The Grand Synthesis provided insight into the order of things, but could not furnish a reason why they should happen, or therefore why they do happen. Such is the famous dichotomy between fact and value. So long as that dichotomy stands, events cannot really be understood except as a brute facts, that just happen, for no reason, to display an apparent orderliness.
Second, the scientific discourse that had produced the Grand Synthesis had proceeded on the basis of an effectual presupposition that the universe is completely dead. It did so for methodological reasons, in precisely the same way, and for exactly the same sorts of reasons, that, in the design of experiments, it sought to control the factors of events: to simplify the analysis, so as to make it tractable, by specifying the subject of inquiry as tightly as possible. Intentionality and teleology, being both uncontrollable and immeasurable, were to be excised from consideration.
But this meant that scientific discourse was limited to a description of a system of dead things. In the final analysis, this methodological simplification said that, whatever else things might be really, for purposes of scientific discourse they were to be treated as dead pebbles bouncing off each other. Now, it is not unusual for an expert used to working with a model to begin mistaking it for the system under consideration. Models are more tractable to thought – that’s why we use them in the first place – so they naturally tend to become the focus of attention. Since dead pebbles were all that scientists ever thought about, qua scientists, it was easy for them to begin thinking that everything is nothing but dead pebbles, and that there is really no such thing as intention – that there just isn’t any such thing as a translation of synaptic firing thresholds into signals. And this lapse was philosophically supported by the fact that materialism was fashionable, and intellectually respectable. This, for reasons mostly having to do not with philosophy, but with a political and ethical rebellion against the authority of the Church, and ipso facto against the authority of scripture and doctrine.
But notice now that if intentionality, meaning and purpose are eliminated from the scientific model of reality, they can play no functional role in the algorithms; they cannot do anything, and nor likewise can they impart any meaning to what happens. But because that model is discoverable only as a feature of conscious experience, the materialist elimination of consciousness from reality has the perverse effect of eliminating the materialist model of reality from the materialist model of reality. If the world is nothing but matter, science is nothing but noise, and the Grand Synthesis does not really exist to be known or understood.
This is rather like arguing that an analysis of the ink – its chemistry, distribution across the average page, and so forth – is all that there is to George Pugh’s book. Silly! And this metaphor reveals a yet deeper problem. If consciousness, knowledge, goodness, beauty and so forth are mere noise – are, i.e., nothing but firing thresholds at synapses, so that there isn’t any message or meaning that has been encoded in those thresholds, or that is ever decoded either – then what, exactly, were the materialist explanations of these items explaining? If eliminative materialism is true, then not only can no one apprehend or understand it, but it is not about anything. The materialist’s object of study is eliminated by his materialism; there is nothing there for him to understand, nothing that the Grand Synthesis can model. The materialist’s scientific description of the order of human behavior ends up being a description of something that doesn’t exist.
Because it has excised teleology, intention, and meaning, the Grand Synthesis cannot understand life, persons, and consciousness. Or books; or itself. Yet materialists are themselves – or at least, they sure seem to be – living, conscious persons who read and write books that grapple with the Grand Synthesis. They cannot therefore write or talk or think sensibly – i.e., they simply cannot make sense – except by using language that treats persons and language as really meaningful. This is why, as Lawrence Auster has often pointed out, they cannot help but import to their discourse terms and concepts – such as “purpose,” “function,” “reason,” “code,” “signal,” “image,” and so forth – that their doctrines rule out of bounds, strictly speaking, as referring to nothing. They can’t help talking as if they mean something by what they say!
To understand intension, “aboutness,” without abandoning the Grand Synthesis, a number of thinkers have turned to various “dual aspect” theories, which posit that there is an inward, subjective aspect to things, as well as an outward, objective surface. Science reckons the latter, while our experience is of the former. Under dual aspect theories, consciousness is what it is like to be a wakeful, alert brain. But the inner, subjective aspect of dual aspect theories is still causally extraneous. It does not add any causal effects to the model, it simply interprets the causal effects already apprehended in the Grand Synthesis as all having an internal, subjective dimension.
But that’s OK. Because under a dual aspect theory, it therefore turns out that physical transactions just are signals. That’s the only way that they can be susceptible to translation in the first place. When you think about it, any “translation” of physical events, as they are construed by materialism, into meaningful signals is quite impossible. To see this, consider a pile of pebbles thrown together in no particular order. They are not wholly disordered, because they are still subject to the constraining order of natural law; but they are not ordered to any particular end, other than the faithful instantiation of that law. They mean nothing other than what they are, indicate only themselves. In other words, they are just like what the materialist thinks everything whatsoever is like. Alright: how would you translate that pile into a meaningful signal? You wouldn’t; you couldn’t. For, there is no particular meaning present in the pile, that might be available for translation. If therefore neural events are ever to be interpretable as signals, they must be pregnant with meaning, with “aboutness,” before any such interpretation occurs. You can’t translate a book whose pages bear no letters, words, or sentences into Italian.
The dual aspect approach is fairly promising. But notice that this is mostly because it is a total repudiation of materialism, so that it “solves” the philosophical conundra of materialism by refraining from the problematic doctrines that engendered them in the first place. It is in fact a return to the Aristotelian notions of substance and causation that were abandoned – not disproven – at the dawn of the modern era. Under a dual aspect theory of consciousness, our feelings of meaning – whether of intending to do, or to indicate – are what it is like to be finally caused. We could then equivalently say that the regularities we observe in nature are what it looks like for things to have intentions toward the actualization of certain forms, that express certain values.
Notice what has just been said: the regularities of physics, and of all the supervenient levels of analysis that together constitute the Grand Synthesis, are what it looks like for the world to seek certain values. Is it too much of a stretch to think that the world seeks certain values because they are good? Well, if our own experience of what it is like to seek certain values is any indication, then … no, it is not too much of a stretch. For, nota bene, our own experience of yearning is the only indication we have, or could possibly have, of what it is like to be a being that, however otherwise different from us, does, like us, tend: that is finally caused, as we are, and is in its nature (in its essential form) ordered to an end. The notion gives the term “strange attractor” a whole new meaning.
But, notice again what has just been said: the world moves according to the Good. The world is a moral project, through and through. The Pauli Exclusion Principle is a moral and aesthetic dictum; atoms seek to complete their electron shells because it is good to do so. Thus, it is not biology that gives rise to morality, but vice versa.
Notice, finally, that this move of repudiating materialism and returning to Aristotelianism has rescued the Grand Synthesis from total incoherence. It has, that is to say, rescued science as a philosophical project – has opened room again, contra Hume, al Ghazali, Derrida and all their ilk, for such a thing as natural philosophy.