Getting Clear About Materialism

Edward Slingerland in The Immanent Frame:

[David] Brooks’s piece [“The Neural Buddhists” in the NYT] is also characterized by a confusion concerning what “materialism,” as an ontological claim about the world, might be. This seems to be the result of conflating the philosophical position of materialism, or physicalism, with the common use of the word “materialist” to refer to people or beliefs that are perceived to be selfish, unemotional, or unloving. For instance, emotions are not, as Brooks suggests, any more “squishy” than anything else: they are reactions subserved by an entirely material body-brain system. “Hard-core materialism,” like that of Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, does not preclude the existence of emotions, love, or unselfishness—in fact, quite the opposite is true. Recent work on the apparently hard-wired nature of altruism and fairness are entirely compatible with, and indeed predicted by, the neo-Darwinan, physicalist model of the self. It is often in the interest of selfish genes to build selectively unselfish “hosts” to get them into the next generation, and these hosts work best when pre-loaded with a spectrum of fast, “emotional” responses to their environments, including the all-important environment of other people. Human beings, as well as other social primates, seem to be built by their genes to be guided primarily by reactions we would characterize as “emotional,” to have the capacity for deep familial and romantic love and attachment, and to perform great acts of apparently selfless altruism for kin or ersatz-kin (such as co-religionists and fellow soldiers). Similarly, there is no reason to think that because consciousness depends upon “idiosyncratic networks of neural firings,” the relationship between neurons and consciousness is “mysterious” or somehow non-physical: the collection of dust particles I see on the floor next to my desk is idiosyncratic, but not non-physical. Again, Brooks’s conclusion here seems to involve unexamined, and unjustified, folk beliefs: if my neural network is “idiosyncratic,” then it’s unique to me, and I am non-physical, something other than my brain or my body; therefore, idiosyncratic neural networks mean that hard-core materialism is wrong.