Whacking on Materialism, with the Ugly Stick

I’ve posted a few entries lately about materialism – not the love of owning material goods, but rather the physicalist idea that every entity is made out of matter. Many people react quite negatively to this notion. To them, the claim that the mind is the brain, or even the idea that mind and brain are intimately connected, seems to undermine our dignity, reducing us to the status of “mere” machines.

Perhaps that’s why some books about mind and brain display morose, robot-like creatures on their front covers. Consider the dust jackets of Jean-Pierre Changeux’s Neuronal Man and Michael Tye’s Consciousness Revisited, amazingly similar even though they were published a quarter of a century apart. Both depict a human head with the brain exposed. Both faces seem passive and morose. Both are rendered in gloomy grays and purples. Tye’s robotic fellow is lying face-up, his bright red eye staring blankly, his visible brain filled with sequences of ones and zeroes. Who would want to be like that?

Here’s Tye’s book:


The cover to Neuronal Man has changed since I bought it years ago. To me the face on the older edition seems empty and sad, whereas the newer countenance seems grim and depressed. Neither one is appealing. Here’s the current edition:


These robotic images could serve as Exhibit A for Harold Morowitz, who warns us that “the way we respond to our fellow human beings is dependent on the way we conceptualize them in our theoretical formulations. If we envision our fellows solely as animals or machines, we drain our interactions of humanistic richness.” (See “Rediscovering the Mind,” in Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett, eds., The Mind’s I, p. 41.)

But not everyone thinks that machine analogies are degrading. Douglas Hofstadter asks, “Why don’t you let the word ‘machine’ conjure up images of dancing patterns of light rather than of giant steam shovels?” (See “A Coffeehouse Conversation,” in The Mind’s I, p. 86.)

Beware of depressing art and poetry, disguised as philosophy.

Roger Christan Schriner

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