Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Misunderstanding Hume

David Hume is well-known as a materialist and empiricist.  It is inconceivable that he would think of physical objects as being products of the mind.  He viewed objects as being composed of their parts.  But if an object composed of parts is seen as an entity in its own right, that is a perception of the mind.
The WHOLE, you say, wants a cause. I answer, that the uniting of these parts into a whole, like the uniting of several distinct counties into one kingdom, or several distinct members into one body, is performed merely by an arbitrary act of mind, and has no influence on the nature of things. Did I show you the particular cause of each individual in a collection of twenty particles of matter, I should think it very unreasonable, should you afterwards ask me, what was the cause of the whole twenty. This is sufficiently explained in explaining the cause of the parts. - Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
What does this mean?  Hume is saying that the mind has no influence on the things that are assembled into a group, but the mind perceives this assemblage as a whole object.  There need not be any explanation for the object beyond explaining the parts that constitute the whole.  He once famously said, "I am nothing but a bundle of perceptions".

How surprising, then, to see Victor Reppert use this passage as evidence for his supernatural view of mind.

Reppert introduces the passage by saying "What is a naturalistic perspective on what a "whole" is? Here is David Hume."  OK, so far.  But he follows up with this:
What is a whole? It is a product of AN ARBITRARY ACT OF THE MIND," and not something in the nature of things. If the brain is a whole, then it can't exist without there being a mind. It s a mind-dependent object.
This understanding of Hume is a little difficult to comprehend, but I think Victor is saying that a brain is distinct from the assemblage of constituent parts.  It requires a mind to supply the additional something that makes the brain what it is, and therefore there must be a mind before there can be a brain.  This is a gross misinterpretation of Hume, who clearly said that the mind, in perceiving things as whole objects rather than constituent parts, has no influence on the nature of things  So we see a bunch of neurons clumped together, and we perceive this assemblage as a whole object in its own right - a brain.  Our perception of the brain as whole object doesn't change the fact that it is an assemblage of neurons that work together (in a complex manner), and its existence is explained as such. 

The materialist view of mind is that this assemblage of neurons, working together, functions in a way that produces the phenomenon that we perceive as mind.  Mind is not any kind of substance at all, as dualists like Victor would have you believe.  Rather, mind is a function or process.  It is what the brain does, and as such, has no substance at all.  Our perception of mind is our own perception of what is happening in our brain. 

And that explains why many of us are dualists.  It is because we naturally perceive most things as objects that have substance.  So we perceive our own mental activity, and we naively tend to think of this activity as an object with some kind of substance, but clearly there is no physical mental substance, so there must be some other kind of substance that constitutes mind.  And that's what we call the soul.  But David Hume had no such illusion.

It might be possible to disabuse ourselves of this notion of the soul by learning how the brain functions to produce what we perceive as "mind", but for a couple of significant obstacles.  First is the extreme complexity of cognitive function and the fact that science is still in the process of piecing it all together into a complete theory of mind.  The dualist tends to ignore overwhelming evidence for the physical nature of mind, and exploit its complexity for his own purposes.  He sees this gap in scientific knowledge as proof that that science can't explain mind, and his own beliefs about the soul are correct.  His own view is simplistic and doesn't serve to explain how mind actually works.  It merely asserts that there is a supernatural entity that does the job somehow, and that's good enough for him. No further explanation is necessary.

This view of mind as a substance is so strong that a dualist like Reppert can't seem to comprehend the materialist view of mind as a function of the brain rather than a substance.  He tries to equate the materialist view with his own dualism by identifying mind as being composed of physical particles.  He makes ridiculous statements like this:
What matters is what has to be excluded from the "natural" level. If you can't come up with anything that makes something meaningfully naturalistic, then I will advance my Christian theism as a liberal form of naturalism. God then becomes an unusual physical particle, which I will call the theon. - Reppert
And that leads us to the second obstacle to developing a realistic view of mind, which is the fact that the concept of the soul has been incorporated into religious beliefs that are extremely difficult to extricate by means of evidence and logic. These beliefs are hammered into people from early childhood.  The believer is rewarded for learning his religious lessons, and threatened with punishment if he strays from the path of belief.  Thus, he becomes impervious to reason in matters that threaten his religious beliefs, despite any education he might have.  Even if he happens to have a PhD in philosophy, he is apt to interpret the great materialist philosopher Hume in a manner that lends support to his supernatural beliefs.

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