Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Materialism,Weirob and the Perception Problem

In January I reviewed a John Perry book. Now I will present some of the issues more in depth. In John Perry’s book “A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality” there is a philosopher name Wierob who is on her death. To pass the time and perhaps have some hope for an afterlife, she debates her friend a chaplain by that name of Miller on the subject of souls and the afterlife. Wierob does not believe it is possible for an afterlife. Miller on the other hand believes that there will be an afterlife. In this essay I will argue that one of the arguments given by Wierob, I call the perception argument, is weak. First I will lay out the argument presented by Weirob. Next, I will counter this argument by presenting a counter argument. Then I will take on a few objections that I think the dead Wierob would have fired at me had she lived long enough. Before I begin, I will lay on the table just what I will be assuming so that one given my assumptions would follow my argument. I assume that we believe that our friends, relatives, acquaintances and loved ones genuinely have subjective-mental states. Even poor Weirob believed this.

Weirob wants reasons to believe in the afterlife. Miller argues that, given our soul, we would have an afterlife to look forward to. Weirob points out that we never perceive a soul. If personal identity corresponds to our soul then we never know that the physical body that we meet corresponds to the same soul that directed the body earlier. This is a particular problem that would relate to us all. Suppose you met your wife on Monday, you assume that the body corresponds to the person of your wife, but the next day you would have no assurance that the soul of your wife corresponded to the same body.

Let us suppose that there are no souls. Let us suppose that all that constitutes personal identity is some aspect of the body. When a person meets a friend on Monday and on Thursday, one assumes several things about that the person. The assumption that is made during our meeting with that person is that that same body on Monday as well as on Thursday is accompanied with a subjective-mental state. Perhaps I should say that that body “accompanies” a subjective mental state but rather that body contains a subjective mental-state. Now remember we are not assuming here a mind body dualist position we are assuming a mind-body materialist position. On Monday when I go to class to meet Dr. Hutcheson I have perception of his body but I do not have perception of his subjective mental states. The question that I should then ask is this: Does he have subjective mental states? If so, how do I know? I hold that Dr. Hutcheson in fact does have subjective mental states. It is important to note that we do not in fact observe Dr. Hutcheson’s subjective mental states. If perception is what verifies knowing Dr. Hutcheson has a subjective mental state then the fact of Dr. Hutchesons subjective mental state cannot be verified. Thus, if I am required to be able to perceive X in order to believe X exist, then other peoples subjective mental states are outside of the realm of knowledge.

Another example of the perception problem is the problem presented by Hume. Suppose that we perceive pool ball A strike ball B then B moves. Suppose we see it a thousand times we still do not see the “causation” behind it all. For all we know it could turn out that B could do something unexpected.

Also we must note that, except for those lucky few who have found a place to buy a magical crystal ball, we do not perceive the future. Thus given the perception criteria we have no knowledge that the future will resemble the past given the same circumstances. For all we know, for example, there might be a brief period of time in the future when gravity will randomly malfunction.

This problem is importantly related to Wierob’s argument because she cannot have it both ways. She cannot reject the idea of a souls continual correspondence to a particular body because the soul is not perceived and still accept that there is a non-empirical subjective mental-states in the people that she meets. This strict empiricism also gives us the problems of skepticism toward induction as well as causation. The criterion that Wierob has given us not only leads her toward skepticism of souls, but a whole lot of other things including causation and that her friend Miller really has a subjective mental state of feeling her speak to him. Thus it is not right to object to the continuity of the soul in a particular body because of a lack of perception. If it is a problem of perception that she wants it is a problem of perception that she will get.

Now she could respond that we do in fact see the body and that the body contains the subjective-mental state. Thus, she might think that we see the mechanism that created the subjective-mental state. However this would not be a solution to the problem because we still do not actually perceptually verify the subjective mental state. Further more, it is at least possible, there is nothing logically contradictory, about a body interacting within an environment without a subjective mental state. It is at least possible that others are in fact similar to zombies. Like zombies others might have no subjective mental feeling but interact as if they do.

It might be given in response that we could always ask. This simplistic solution still does not verify for us the truth of the other persons subjective mental state. Suppose that we had a computer has a special program. This program is designed by its creator to respond every time you type “do you have a subjective mental state or feelings” into a bubble on a screen, with a voice “yes I do have feelings and please do not punch so hard on my keys.” Given the fact of its programming alone, this would not establish that the computer does in fact have subjective mental states. What is needed is to be able to perceive the subjective mental states.

It might be responded that we know that others have subjective mental states because we have ourselves subjective mental states. However this commits one to the same problem that Wierob pointed out. Trying to generalize from one owns personal example would be too hasty of a generalization.

Now someone could respond that they do not believe in induction, causation, other people subjective-mental states and least of all souls. I respond that they have bitten the bullet. I am astonished and astounded at their willingness to believe in just a very few things.

However, I seriously doubt that anyone believes that. Here I deviate a little from arguing with poor dead Wierob. It seems to me doubtful that someone would really have doubts about causation, induction and other people’s mental states. I could believe that someone genuinely does not believe in souls (although by what I have argued lack of perception should not be the reason). What I am saying is not that it is impossible that someone has those beliefs or rather the lack thereof, but rather it would be difficult for me to accept someone really having a lack of belief in causation, induction and other people subjective mental states. The reason for this is that it is hard to take someone serious that claims that they believe a belief say -X but act and revolve their whole life as if X.

If I have argued cogently we cannot deny the existence of souls because of a criterion of perception, to do so is to put not only souls to doubt but so also other peoples subjective mental states and other areas of knowledge that we rely on every day.

Written by Stephen Stanford

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