An Introduction to Philosophy for Deacons: Issue #11

(The following are the written notes/texts of four, three hour, online session presentations given in the months of February through May in A.D. 2018.  A similar set of presentations was given to a previous group some years earlier.  The group consisted of diaconal aspirants, spouses, and diocesan officials of the Diocese of Pueblo in Colorado, United States.  The fifteen articles found here will include thirteen specific philosophical issues, covered in those four online sessions.)

Let us now turn our attention to Issue #11:  Material Reductionism

Roman Catholicism, in its theology and philosophy, states that the human person is an indivisible unity of body and soul.

In his Discourse of Method, Rene Descartes articulates the idea that the human person is composed of a res cogitans (the thinking thing) and a res extensa (a body thing).  He states that the res cogitans (the thinking thing) resides within the res extensa (a body thing).  He states that the res cogitans is the spiritual component of the human person, is the place where the person is found, and is the place where thinking is located.

Further, in his Discourse on Method, Descartes gives birth to the concept and practice of medical technology.  He states that the best way to deal with the illness and physical needs of the human person is to understand that the human body is a machine and should be treated as a machine.  We would say today, that Descartes gives birth to the idea that the human body is a carbon based machine in contrast to those machines/tools which are composed of silicon (e.g. eyeglasses, computer components) or of metal (shovels, tractors).

Modernity, modern western culture, largely embraces the Cartesian ideas that the human person is a spirit in a body, a ghost in the machine; and that our physical needs are best met by treating the human person as an electro-chemical machine.  This idea of the person as a ghost-in-the-machine is called Cartesian dualism.

Material reductionism is a result of the modern adoption of the ideas of the ghost-in-the-machine and of the human body as an electro-chemical machine.

Material reductionism is the attitude that the ideas and images in our minds can be accounted for by chemical and electrical modifications within our physical brains.    We know that, to a degree, this is true.  We know that the actual apple at which I am looking; that the light by which we see that apple is changed into optical electrical impulses and chemical impulses in the material brain which contribute to creating an image of the apple in our minds.

Further, we know that people taking hallucinogenic substances or who suffer from brain injuries or diseases, see (feel, smell, taste, hear) things which are only present in the mind.  For example, a victim of war related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and alcoholism may begin to see snakes which aren’t real.

If the snakes I see are nothing more than some neuro-electrical-chemical activity in the brain, then it becomes possible to assume that other things, such as love, can also be just a neuro-chemical-electrical activity in the brain.

As persons resign themselves to a material reductionist possibility; they become more materialistic, consumptive, self-serving, utilitarian, hedonist.

Sometimes material reductionism will adopt a mental-gymnastics to develop reasons to suggest that the human machine can generate values and virtues which transcend the human machine; which are more than neuro-electrical-chemical states.  Such attempts fail due to being, ultimately, self-contradictory.

A final necessary consequence of the idea that human values and virtues are the products of neuro-electrical-chemical activity, is the belief that non-human entities can also have similar neuro-electrical-chemical values and virtues; non-human animals, human-animal chimeras, advanced algorithmic machines.

Because it is true that the images in our minds of things outside ourselves are, in part the result of optical and cerebral electrical-chemical activity and because synthetic experiences can be created which are indistinguishable from actual experiences; because of these, many persons have lingering doubts about the reality and value of actual human values and virtues.  These doubts coincide with preferences for synthetic experience.  Examples include:

  • phubbing (phone-snubbing) excessive cell phone use in social situations
  • addiction to totally immersive electronic video-gaming
  • doubt of dialogue’s value due to the growing inability to distinguish whether the conversation I am having is with a person or an algorithmic software program.
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