Mind and Cosmos

WStandard.v18-27.Mar25.Cover_ Back in the Dark Ages, a person with heretical theological beliefs would occasionally be burned at the stake. Nowadays, when a more scientific worldview has triumphed and everyone knows that God doesn’t exist, the tables have turned, and any slight deviation from scientific/naturalist/atheist/Darwinian doctrine will have you literally tied to a pole and set on fire. Fair is fair.

Or, at least, people will write book reviews and blog posts that disagree with you. But I think we all agree that’s just as bad, right?

The ominous image shown here was the cover of an issue of The Weekly Standard back in March, illustrating a piece by Andrew Ferguson. The poor heretic being burned is Thomas Nagel, philosopher at NYU and the author of Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. The crowd of sinister hooded pyrophiliacs includes–well, me, actually, as well as the other participants in our Moving Naturalism Forward workshop. As Ferguson points out, there is irrefutable video evidence that we accused people like poor Tom Nagel of being “neither cute nor clever.” Many might perceive an important distinction between saying someone is not clever and roasting them alive, but potayto, potahto, I guess.

It’s true that Nagel’s book has occasioned quite a bit of discussion, much of it negative. For a sampling from various viewpoints, see Elliott Sober, Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg, Michael Chorost, H. Allen Orr, Malcolm Nicholson, and Jerry Coyne. The reason for all the fuss is, of course, that the materialist Neo-Darwinist conception of nature is almost certainly true, so it’s worth pushing back against a respected philosopher who says otherwise.

(By the end of this overly long post I will suggest that Nagel, despite being generally way off track, nevertheless has a bit of a point that many people seem to be passing over. Much like the Insane Clown Posse in a different context.)

This week Nagel took to the NYT to publish a brief summary of his major arguments, for those who haven’t read the book. There are basically two points. The first is that the phenomenon of consciousness cannot be explained by the workings of inanimate matter alone; you need more than the laws of physics.

The physical sciences can describe organisms like ourselves as parts of the objective spatio-temporal order – our structure and behavior in space and time – but they cannot describe the subjective experiences of such organisms or how the world appears to their different particular points of view. There can be a purely physical description of the neurophysiological processes that give rise to an experience, and also of the physical behavior that is typically associated with it, but such a description, however complete, will leave out the subjective essence of the experience – how it is from the point of view of its subject — without which it would not be a conscious experience at all.

This is an old idea, and Nagel’s sympathy for it can be traced back to his influential paper “What Is It Like To Be a Bat?”. The claim is that there is something inherently subjective about the experience of consciousness, something that cannot be shared with other conscious beings nor described by physics. (Even if you know every physical fact about bats, you still don’t know what it’s like to be a bat.) This position has been developed in subtle ways by philosophers like David Chalmers. Nagel actually doesn’t spend too much time providing support for this stance, as he wants to take it as understood and move on.

The second and more important point is that, because of the first point, a purely physical view of the world is incomplete, and we have to add something to it, and that addition is going to end up being pretty dramatic. Nagel believes that an adequate explanatory framework must not merely be compatible with life and consciousness, but actually entail that these dramatic and central features of reality are “to be expected” — that there is a “propensity” in nature for them to arise. Since he doesn’t see such a propensity anywhere in physics, he thinks the conventional view by itself fails as an explanation.

[S]ince the long process of biological evolution is responsible for the existence of conscious organisms, and since a purely physical process cannot explain their existence, it follows that biological evolution must be more than just a physical process, and the theory of evolution, if it is to explain the existence of conscious life, must become more than just a physical theory.

In particular, he claims that the standard scientific picture must be augmented by a non-physical notion of teleology — directedness toward a purpose. And not just an emergent notion of purpose that might be compatible with physicalism. Nagel is thinking of something fundamental: “teleology requires that successor states . . . have a significantly higher probability than is entailed by the laws of physics alone.”

So Nagel rejects “scientific naturalism” or “reductionism” or “materialism” or “physicalism,” but also rejects theism. He wants to find a middle ground, which he labels “antireductionism”; this need not necessarily entail a rejection of naturalism, and indeed he at one point uses the phrase “teleological naturalism” in a sympathetic way. He doesn’t seem to think we need to look beyond the natural world, but we do need to look beyond the laws of physics.

In the responses to his book, much has been made of the fact that a lot of Nagel’s reasoning is not very good. He repeatedly invokes “common sense,” and puts forward the Argument From Personal Incredulity in an especially unapologetic manner:

[F]or a long time I have found the materialist account of how we and our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe, including the standard version of how the evolutionary process works… This is just the opinion of a layman who reads widely in the literature that explains contemporary science to the nonspecialist.

Given that he is admittedly not an expert in the scientific fields he is willing to label as “almost certainly false,” there must be a deep-seated reason underlying Nagel’s conviction. That reason seems to be the enormous importance he places on the “intelligibility” of nature. This is something like the Principle of Sufficient Reason (which he mentions). Nagel believes that the specific laws of nature, or even the fact that there are such laws at all, and that we can understand them, are all things that require an explanation. They cannot simply be (as others among us are happy to accept). And the only way he can see that happening is if “mind” and its appearance in the universe are taken as fundamental features of reality, not simply byproducts of physical evolution.

Try as I might, I cannot quite appreciate the appeal of this program. I could imagine that, after much effort were expended experimentally and theoretically, we might ultimately come to believe that the best explanatory framework for the appearance of consciousness in the universe involves positing mind as a separate category. What I don’t understand is the a priori-sounding argument that this would necessarily be a better explanation. If Nagel can demand an explanation for why the world is intelligible, why can’t I demand an explanation for why mind is a separate category, or why the universe has teleological tendencies? I don’t see the distinction; in either case, one must take certain facts about reality as simply given. My preference would be to minimize the weight given to our intuitive ideas about what form a proper explanation should take, and keep looking for the simplest and most powerful model that fits the data.

(This issue is related to a point that gets raised when I mention that we understand the laws of physics underlying everyday life. Inevitably someone says that we don’t really understand gravity, man. They’re not claiming that general relativity fails to provide a model that successfully fits all the known data; they’re claiming that the existence of such a model doesn’t count as “understanding.” People who deny that physics can ever account for consciousness have a similar idea; even if we had a complete theory that accounted for every possible observable action of purportedly conscious creatures, they would not be satisfied that this qualified as “understanding” or “explanation.” For me, that’s just a misunderstanding of what kinds of explanations we can legitimately hope for.)

However! Let me stake out a brave contrarian position among my anti-Nagelian friends by pointing out something important that I think he gets right. Namely, point number two above (scientific materialism is incomplete and needs to be augmented by something apart from the physical) actually does follow, under plausible assumptions, from point number one (consciousness cannot be explained in purely physical terms). Nagel is correct to have appreciated that once you say “consciousness isn’t merely physical” (or indeed once you’ve accepted the kind of strong antireductionism that is relatively popular in contemporary philosophy), the ramifications for fundamental science are profound indeed.

Except, of course, I want to use this to reach the opposite conclusion: the idea that we need something like a non-material teleological principle, a “propensity” in nature for things to develop a certain way, is so dramatically at odds with what we’ve learned about the world in the time since Galileo that it gives us good reason to deny that consciousness can’t be explained in physical terms.

Imagine what it would entail to truly believe that consciousness is not accounted for by physics. It would entail, among other things, that the behavior of ordinary matter would occasionally deviate from that expected on the basis of physics alone, even in circumstances where consciousness was not involved in any obvious way. Several billion years ago there weren’t conscious creatures here on Earth. It was just atoms and particles, bumping into each other in accordance with the rules of physics and chemistry. Except, if mind is not physical, at some point they swerved away from those laws, since remaining in accordance with them would never have created consciousness. In effect, the particles understood that sticking to their physically prescribed behaviors would never accomplish the universe’s grand plan of producing conscious life. Teleology is as good a word for that as any.

So, at what point does this deviation from purely physical behavior kick in, exactly? It’s the immortal soul vs. the Dirac equation problem–if you want to claim that what happens in our brain isn’t simply following the laws of physics, you have the duty to explain in exactly what way the electrons in our atoms fail to obey their equations of motion. Is energy conserved in your universe? Is momentum? Is quantum evolution unitary, information-preserving, reversible? Can the teleological effects on quantum field observables be encapsulated in an effective Hamiltonian?

This is not a proof that consciousness must be physical (as some folks will insist on misconstruing it), just an observation of the absolutely enormous magnitude of what the alternative implies. Physics makes unambiguous (although sometimes probabilistic) statements about what will happen in the future based on what conditions are now. You can’t simply say that physics is “incomplete,” because on their own terms physical theories are not incomplete (within their domain of applicability). Either matter obeys the laws of physics, or physics is wrong. And if you want us to take seriously the possibility that it’s wrong, you better have at least some tentative ideas about what would be a better theory.

Of course, Nagel has no such theory, which he cheerfully admits. That’s for the scientists to come up with! He’s just a philosopher, he says.

Which is why, at the end, his position isn’t very interesting. (Because he doesn’t have anything like a compelling alternative theory, not because he’s a philosopher.) He advocates overthrowing things that are precisely defined, extremely robust, and impressively well-tested (the known laws of physics, natural selection) on the basis of ideas that are rather vague and much less well-supported (a conviction that consciousness can’t be explained physically, a demand for intelligibility, moral realism). If someone puts forward even a rough sketch of how a new teleological view of reality might actually work, including how it affects the known laws of physics, that might be very interesting. I don’t think the prospects are very bright.

This entry was posted in Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

95 Responses to Mind and Cosmos

  1. Tom Stolze says:

    What can I say? Shades of Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Chris Hitchens et al, Sean Carroll is relatively new to me; or should I say I am new to Sean Carroll. Though a lot of his stuff is way over my head, at the age of 82, still autodidactic, I continue to learn more and more. I’m happy to be here with this sort of thing to read, unfortunately in the state of NC where public education continues to be stifled, encouraging un-patrolled “homeschooling” or no education at all, discouraging open mindedness. Teachers like Sean Carroll are refreshing. I call your attention to andrewtobias.com, 8/14, Quote of the Day: “The purpose of education is to replace an empty mind with an open one.” [Malcolm Forbes] Andy is a close friend of mine. Try is column, as well : andrewtobias.com

  2. max says:

    Imagine what it would entail to truly believe that consciousness is not accounted for by physics. It would entail, among other things, that the behavior of ordinary matter would occasionally deviate from that expected on the basis of physics alone…

    This doesn’t really seem to follow. Subjective experience could require some non-physical explanation (or, at least, some extension to the laws of physics or to physical ontology) without requiring any change in our description of the objective physical world. Then consciousness and subjective experience would (or could) be exactly correlated with physical states, but just not in any way describable by our current low-level understanding of physics. What’s wrong with this view?

  3. Sean Carroll says:

    max– How do you have “some extension to the laws of physics” but not “any change in our description of the objective physical world”? Do particles obey the laws of physics without exception, or not?

  4. Higguns says:

    I absolutely hate the consciousness arguments made by people like Nagel. He doesn’t want there to be an explanation. He wants the world to remain mystical. Is the reason because it makes life easier to understand because there is something that can’t be understood (equals nothing to understand)? I think so. I think this is a person justifying their ignorance of a subject. Or like so many religious followers, the idea that there is nothing special about nature brings about a stunning and suddenly tangible realization that we really are weak and powerless compared to nature; an idea that they overcome by believing in an all powerful entity that controls the universe and has our back against anything nature can throw at us. It seems like an egotistical defense mechanism to reject that we are not special in any way at all, that we are only more complex.

    Proof of the physical description of consciousness being accurate is in the fact that we (an overwhelming majority anyway) can all identify a specific color or a specific sound or a specific smell, without any corrupted influence from other people.

    It’s the same load of crap that you hear from an idiot boss who doesn’t really know what he’s doing: I’m an ideas man, I’m a big picture guy. You just make it work, never mind if it’s impossible. Who needs physics to build a bridge when you’ve got a big IDEA? I don’t mean to disrespect, but Mr. Nagel sounds an awful lot like a typical troll; pick something apart without any facts supporting why it should be picked apart and then get upset when people don’t believe what you believe.

  5. Guy says:

    Clear and reasonable as usual. Thanks professor! I can’t wait for your discussion with Bill Craig in February.

  6. Doc C says:

    Consciousness may be explainable by adequate physics, but current physics only points to a full understanding. Subjectibve experience, while emerging from physical interactions, may have a teleological character not deterministically reducible. I think One of the participants in the Moving Naturalism Forward conference, Terence Deacon, has done a good job of outlining this line of thinking in “Incomplete Nature”.

    Additionally, I think Robert Mangabeira Unger, in unpublished manuscripts available on his website (http://www.law.harvard.edu/faculty/unger/index.php) “The Religion of the Future”, and “The Self Awakened”, does a fantastic job of outlining a practical moral and philosophical application that a complete understanding of human nature beyond the obvious physical aspects of our existence could use to improve human civilization.

  7. max says:

    The argument would be that the laws of physics are currently incomplete: they perfectly describe (low-energy) objective phenomena, but they fail to describe subjective experience. Particles would still obey the laws of physics without exception, but something else would be needed to explain consciousness. Whether you call that something else an extension to the laws of physics or a non-physical law would just be a matter of semantics and categorization.

    Of course, there are many ways to argue against such a theory. My point is only that having consciousness be indescribable by basic physics as we currently understand it does not necessarily imply that the basic physics is wrong in its description of objective physical systems.

  8. Will says:

    Wow what a great post, so many little bits I’ll be using again. I never really thought about how many people tacitly believe that non-physical consciousness and a sensible physical world can coexist, but its probably a reasonably large number, and I think that notion needs to be attacked head on.

    Then consciousness and subjective experience would (or could) be exactly correlated with physical states, but just not in any way describable by our current low-level understanding of physics. What’s wrong with this view?

    I’ve heard this before, and I don’t think its a totally trivial argument but it does kind of fall apart if you think hard about it. Like Sean said, what would this really mean if it were true? Is there some way in which you could tell a universe with this kind of epiphenomenal consciousness apart from one where the mind is purely physical? If not, then there really is nothing wrong with that belief, because it doesn’t really contain any information; its not even wrong. I really liked some of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s writing on this topic – there’s some in-depth articles, but I’m a fan of the movie version

  9. Ron Murphy says:

    I’ve only just realised I don’t know what it feels like to be a computer, or the internet of computers. OMG! What might be the implications? Oh, no change? Okay. Carry on.

  10. Sean Carroll says:

    As Will says, anything you want to “add” to the laws of physics either changes the behavior of particles, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, it has absolutely no perceivable affect on anything, including the atoms in your brain and the sounds that you speak and the words that you type, and can safely be ignored. If it does, show me how it changes the Dirac equation.

  11. Higguns says:


    The problem for me is the inability for anyone to describe what consciousness is in clear and definitive terms. Any definition that I’ve been given has itself been a matter of interpretation. It seems like a concept without a meaning which is backed up by definitions which do not give a meaning.

    Saying something like:

    “Whether you call that something else an extension to the laws of physics or a non-physical law would just be a matter of semantics and categorization.”

    is a BIG problem in understanding the central argument here. It is definitely not a matter of semantics and categorization. It is further fluff without a meaning which can’t be proven or discredited. Like Will says above, it’s not even wrong because it has no meaning. If it has no meaning or effect on the physics of our universe, then it doesn’t exist and it has no effect on us since we are a result of the physics of our universe.

    I would suggest naming a conscious experience that illustrates how consciousness can’t be described by physics. I don’t think it’s possible for you (or anyone, not picking on you) to accomplish that suggestion.

  12. edw says:

    Dr. Carroll,

    Thanks for another thoughtful post.

    You at least suggest we ought not to proceed from “intuitive ideas about what form a proper explanation should take” but rather proceed by “looking for the simplest and most powerful model that fits the data.” It seems to me that in doing the latter, one is implicitly doing the former. That is, one has made up one’s mind about what form a proper explanation should take: it should be a simple and powerful model that fits the data.

    Of course, there’s good reason to have this idea of what a proper explanation should look like. But at the same time, figuring out what counts as simple, powerful, and fitting – indeed figuring out what counts as something’s meeting any criterion or standard – seems as intuitively or conventionally or creatively determined as anything.

    So I’m wondering if you would expand a little on why you think “looking for the simplest and most powerful model that fits the data” is not just our acting on “intuitive ideas about what form a proper explanation should take.”


  13. Sean Carroll says:

    edw– I would distinguish between “the type of theory we look for” and “types of theories we insist must exist.” We look for simple and powerful theories because they are most useful to us. (If there are multiple theories that fit the data equally well, why wouldn’t we provisionally accept the simplest and most powerful one?) That is very different from saying that we have any reason to expect that simple/powerful theories actually will fit the data. The fact that they do is nice, but not necessary. If we didn’t find any simple way to describe the world, we would take what we could get.

  14. Jim Cross says:

    I did a write up on Nagel about 6 months ago.


    An excerpt:

    We can illustrate the Nagel’s argument with a simple example. I am looking out my window now seeing sunlight hitting a pine tree in my back yard. The pine tree has grayish-brown rough bark with gnarls and cracks. As sunlight brightens one side there is a shadow on the other side of tree. Behind the tree are more trees and blue sky. All of what I am seeing is a product of light waves reaching my eyes and being assembled in my brain into colors and images. My perception is totally dependent on my eyes and the neurons of my brain. Yet my perception is not the same as the actions of my eyes and brain. Clearly there is something left over beyond the sensual and neural mechanism that underlie my perception, something beyond chemicals, neurons, and electrical activity. That something is my experience of the gray bark, the sunlit side of the tree, and the blue sky. Even if reductionism could explain in detail everything at the physical level that makes perception happen, it cannot explain the why of my subjective experience. Why is that subjective experience necessary in our universe?

    Perception is perhaps the smallest unit of our mental life. The argument could be extended to every aspect of our mental life: ideas, beliefs, abstract thought, values, planning, reasoning, and even fantasy and dreaming. Even our understanding of order, the basis of science, would be included. Order and design imply mind. Order is in the mind of the beholder and there would be no order without a mind to behold it. No matter how deeply the we associate mental activity with neurons and chemistry we still have our subjective mental experience left over.

    We can attempt to write this leftover part off as epiphenomena or unimportant, perhaps an illusion, but that still fails to explain why it exists at all. Furthermore, this would reduce everything in science itself to epiphenomena. Einstein’s equation for mass and energy, Newton’s Laws of Motion, and Darwin’s Theory of Evolution themselves would be nothing more than illusions, epiphenomena of neurons firing. Some may willingly go down this route but we might ask them why they would prefer Darwin over Lamark or, for that matter, over intelligent design since all of them would be nothing more than neurons firing anyway. If they wish to claim neurons firing a particular way are better than neurons firing a different way, presumably the difference, then immediately a concept of value has been brought into the picture But the value itself of better proven science over conjecture or non-science is but more neurons firing. So we would have an infinite regress with no reason for preferring any idea or belief over any other since they all ultimately reduce to the same thing and, furthermore, are actually unimportant.

  15. Tom Clark says:

    “Imagine what it would entail to truly believe that consciousness is not accounted for by physics.”

    We needn’t suppose that there’s something fundamental to nature which is categorically non-physical (although some naturalists like Chalmers hypothesize there might be) or that nature is teleological to suppose that consciousness – the having of conscious experience – might not be accounted for by physics. The fact that certain physical systems like ourselves are conscious might be a function of higher level system properties, e.g., representational recursivity and limitations as suggested for instance by philosopher Thomas Metzinger (http://www.naturalism.org/appearance.htm ), not a direct entailment of physical laws. Which is to say the physics could be different and we might still have the same sorts of higher level properties responsible for consciousness. But of course the existence of consciousness has to be *consistent* with the physical laws, whatever they are.

    Nagel makes clear in his NY Times piece that he considers himself a naturalist (if not a materialist) and he writes: “It makes sense to seek an expanded form of understanding that includes the mental but that is still scientific — i.e. still a theory of the immanent order of nature.”

    I don’t think there’s any evidence that consciousness is immanent in nature or exists as a fundamental property (e.g., Chalmers’ panprotopsychism*) or, as Nagel says in the Times, that “biological evolution must be more than just a physical process.” But it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that science and philosophy may not have all the answers in hand just yet when it comes to explaining consciousness.

    * “the view that fundamental entities are proto-conscious, that is, that they have certain special properties that are precursors to consciousness” – Chalmers at http://consc.net/papers/panpsychism.pdf

  16. Bruce says:

    ” that the behavior of ordinary matter would occasionally deviate from that expected on the basis of physics alone, even in circumstances where consciousness was not involved in any obvious way….”

    Uncertainty and Godel’s Proof, each in their ways, point to limits of formal systems, where behavior exceeds predictability. The meaning of the equality of energy and matter is deeply unprobed in these discussions of the emergence of consciousness and its impact on reality.

  17. George says:

    “Imagine what it would entail to truly believe that consciousness is not accounted for by physics. It would entail, among other things, that the behavior of ordinary matter would occasionally deviate from that expected on the basis of physics alone…”

    Seems like you’re assuming (in addition to consciousness as some fundamental aspect of reality) the existence of free will among the particles. I don’t think that’s in Nagel’s argument.

  18. George says:

    Here is another comment.

    It’s seems like Nagel’s argument of a natural teleology could help explain the unique (albeit highly unlikely) characteristics of our universe to support life. As far as I understand, the only explanation on the table for this is an inflationary process after the big bang that resulted in many many universes, and we ended up in the one that can support life. I’m not exactly comfortable with this explanation, do it seem’s to me that maybe we shouldn’t be too quick to throw out Nagel’s argument. Maybe there’s something there.

    Nice post, btw.

  19. edw says:

    Ah, I see, Dr. Carroll. I was conflating the deontic “must” with the alethic “must,” to put it roughly. We have an idea of what a theory or explanation should look like (simple, powerful, etc.) and, other things being equal, we should accept those theories that look like this. But this is different from saying, say, that it is impossible for a non-simple or non-powerful explanation to fit the data.

    Thanks for your response. And inasmuch as I understand it, it helps me see more clearly where I stand: At the highest pitches of abstraction, I think, the humanly meaningful difference between what form a natural-scientific theory should take and what form a natural-scientific theory must take disappears. For instance, I would say that the two “musts” converge in the claim, “The theory – simple or not, powerful or not – must fit the data.” (Clearly, though, I have lots of explaining to do!)

  20. John Kubie says:

    Very interesting. Two comments.
    1. If we imagine dualism is true: two domains, physical and psychic (that contains consciousness). Either they interact, or they don’t. If the interaction is one-way, physical -> psychic, then the laws of physics could be complete and consistent with two domains. If they they interact in any way that the psychic -> physics, then physics is incomplete. In other words, a complete physics will involve what we are calling the psychic domain, so there is no psychic domain; just a part to the physical (material) domain that we don’t yet understand.
    2. If the psychic domain cannot influence the physical domain, I’m at a loss. Does it exist? How could it evolve?

  21. Foster Boondoggle says:

    @max and Sean: if all you care about is doing physics, you don’t need the mental. Observing that the universe contains qualia (more or less the answers to the question “what is it like to be an X”?) doesn’t entail that they cause deviations from the laws of physics. The dirac equation describes the behavior of electrons. But it doesn’t say what it’s like to be one of those electrons.

    We each know consciousness exists in the universe because we each have a single observation as evidence. We infer that it’s more widespread because we observe other things like ourselves and, with an assist from Occam, make the simple leap to assuming that the other things (people) are also conscious. Then we get into irresolvable debates about whether dolphins, apes, cats, mice, lizards, wasps, amoebas and e. coli are conscious — or, more accurately whether there’s something it’s like to be them. The debates are irresolvable because there is absolutely no physical observation one could make to decide the issue. It’s the “from the inside” vs. “from the outside” problem.

    So, yes, physics leaves something out of the description of the universe. But what it leaves out is by nature a part that has no relevance for physics. Because it’s not concerned with anything externally observable. You can assert, if you want, the non-existence of that externally unobservable thing, and I can’t disprove you, because disproof is based on public evidence. But I can still know based on my private evidence (and I think you have very similar private evidence) that you are mistaken, because there’s something it’s like to be me. The dirac equation doesn’t leap off the page and have experiences.

    None of this means Nagel is right about teleology. Though to give him a little more credit, this sounds not so very far different from Wheeler’s self-observing U. (And they were at Princeton at the same time…)

  22. John Kubie says:

    Very spooky. How did this website know about me? teleology? Duality? Oh, yeah. I’ve logged in before using this browser.

  23. vmarko says:

    @ Sean:

    “As Will says, anything you want to “add” to the laws of physics either changes the behavior of particles, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, it has absolutely no perceivable affect on anything, including the atoms in your brain and the sounds that you speak and the words that you type, and can safely be ignored. If it does, show me how it changes the Dirac equation.”

    Let me try to show you how… :-) As you are certainly aware, the Dirac equation does not dictate what will happen, but only dictates what is the *probability* for something to happen. The actual result of a measurement (i.e. the event that actually “happens” in nature) is random. Statistically it obeys the distribution of results predicted by the Dirac equation, but each individual event is still completely random.

    It is inside of this randomness that a “teleological agent” can influence the physical world — any particular event is random, but any sequence of these random events might still be “driven to some purpose” by an external agent.

    In other words, the teleological influence on the material world can certainly be hidden inside the measurement problem of quantum mechanics, which is by far the biggest glaring hole in our understanding of the laws of physics. :-)

    So I would say that until you give a purely materialistic resolution of the measurement problem, you cannot exclude the influence of “nonphysical” agents on the physical world, at least not by appealing to the Dirac equation. The Dirac equation doesn’t tell you what will happen, it just tells you what is the likelihood for something to happen. And that is a much weaker statement.

    HTH, :-)

  24. Stephen says:

    “It would entail, among other things, that the behavior of ordinary matter would occasionally deviate from that expected on the basis of physics alone” – Sean Carroll
    “If the psychic domain cannot influence the physical domain, I’m at a loss. Does it exist? How could it evolve?” – John Kubie
    Okay. There are many experiments which report that conscious intent can affect the output of random number generators in small but statistically significant amounts. But other replications have failed. I believe the only fair skeptical position is to be agnostic and try to come up with some better tests. So there does exist experimental results which may be evidence of a necessary connection.
    I have a quantum RNG and will try it myself when I get a chance but the morass of conflicting claims makes me pessimistic of a resolution. However, empirical evidence always trumps philosophical hypothesizing.

    If you wanted some sort of teleological theory, this is where I’d start. But it would be necessary to find a way to get a robust empirical effect which can be replicated every time in order to convince the naysayers.

  25. Maxwell Marler says:

    I think you’re right about his position being uninteresting. Not going to look at this book. This is a really common critique of physicalism. Frege does a better job at showing how ‘insert Nagel’s book title here’. Mathematical objects seem more intangible than subjective experience does.

  26. Charlie says:

    Consciousness is very mysterious to me, in the same way that a particle is. Trying to ask what is consciousness is much like asking what is a particle. Which is to say that it isn’t a totally futile exercise. Is a particle a particle, wave or string? This sort of thing is how our ape brains model the natural world, and is part of everyday life as well as the scientific process. But will we ever really “know what a particle is”?

    Speaking from a purely “how-I-think-the-world-should-work” point of view, I’ve always had some sympathy for the conundrum that the world could work (and things look much like they do) without “subjective experience”, so why have it? That bothered me when I was 12 and still does today. However, I’m also not happy with the idea that this stuff (consciousness) is not material. If it can affect particles, then it is physics (whether known or not). If it can’t, then the “subjective experience” is just an ineffectual passenger. The latter is both pointless as a scientific proposition and very unsatisfying to my subjective experience.

  27. Brett says:

    I remember that ICP song; mainly that we couldn’t stop laughing at how bad it was.

    I think the reference of that song with that specific line, “fu**in’ magnets, how do they work”, has a good place in this topic.

    Other than that, this seems like, what I’ll call, a Brawndo point that Thomas Nagel is making. “Brawndo’s got what plants crave. But Brawndo’s got electrolytes.” Where is the evidence for these claims?? what logical ideas lead to this? There are 3 types of philosophers in this world, those who employ logic and those who don’t..get it? no?

  28. DennisN says:

    Amazingly well-written blog post.

    “[…] if you want to claim that what happens in our brain isn’t simply following the laws of physics, you have the duty to explain in exactly what way the electrons in our atoms fail to obey their equations of motion.”

    Yes, I fully agree.

    “Either matter obeys the laws of physics, or physics is wrong. And if you want us to take seriously the possibility that it’s wrong, you better have at least some tentative ideas about what would be a better theory.”

    Yes, definitely.

    I’ve got nothing to add – you’ve said it.

  29. If I was a bat and you cut me into a billion pieces, would you as a physicist find what holds me together?

  30. NR says:

    Sean, perhaps Max is referring to Epiphenomenalism? Is that a coherent idea in your opinion?

  31. Stephen says:

    “If I was a bat and you cut me into a billion pieces, would you as a physicist find what holds me together?”
    Electromagnetic and strong nuclear forces.

    Edit: At only a billion pieces, you wouldn’t reach the nuclear level. So electromagnetism alone is sufficient.

    As I said in my previous comment, there is some experimental evidence that consciousness can influence random number generators which, if confirmed, would probably disprove Sean’s thesis.

  32. kashyap vasavada says:

    There is no denial that physics has been able to explain, to an extra ordinary accuracy, a large part of nonliving natural phenomena (though not all) in the universe as perceived by our senses. But so far this excludes understanding of mind and consciousness. Even things we understand came with a very heavy price. We do not know what it means and why it works. For example, quantum mechanics (remember “most embarrassing graph in modern physics”!). Our everyday logic had to be thrown out of window. I do not agree with the argument,” will it change Dirac equation?” There could be changes like in the case of theory of relativity and quantum mechanics which did not destroy Newtonian physics. Physicists and engineers still use it routinely, not just for earth based systems but space flights also. As a related matter, I wish you guys would stop attacks against concept of God and religion. With full knowledge of quantum mechanics and relativity, why would anyone apply our everyday logic to such matters? There could be some unseen world outside our sense perceptions. Although I do not necessarily agree with Nagel, until these things are clear, it is time for cease fire between the two camps!! So cool it!

  33. yoda says:

    “For me, that’s just a misunderstanding of what kinds of explanations we can legitimately hope for.”

    And that, is why you fail.

  34. Dave Greene says:

    At first I was mystified how the once widely acclaimed Thomas Nagel could come up with such an incredible piece of quackery. Then I read Andrew Ferguson’s article in The Weekly Standard and I understood. Nagel’s writing of Mind and Cosmos was “determined by a preexisting cause, which was itself determined by another cause, and so on back to the Big Bang.” So let’s lighten up, he could not help himself :)

  35. steven johnson says:

    Jim Cross: “Why is that subjective mental experience necessary in our universe?”

    Let’s narrow that to why a human being might find subjective mental experience necessary. There is a phenomenon called “blindsight” in which a brain dysfunction leaves a person incapable of subjectively experiencing vision, even though they are not blind. These people are handicapped. Subjective experience is concretely adaptive to function.

    In general, the reports from the sense are combined into a general subjective experience called the sensorium, the last time I looked. This consciousness is a point of view. (In fact, I find it is often illuminating to reframe questions about consciousness as questions about point of view.) It is the equivalent of a cockpit display, a reporting convenience indistinguishable from a practical necessity. Consciousness, subjective experience, is a simplification, an unconscious modeling.

    There is more to consciousness than the sensorium of course. Imagination is the ability to predict the trajectory of a projectile, for one thing. The practical necessity for such a skill seems entirely natural to me, not a bit inexplicable. The notion that subjective experience is even a something, seems to me to be more inexplicable than is commonly allowed.

    Phantom limb syndrome seems to me to show very strongly that brain function is absolutely vital in generating the subjective experience of the presence of a limb that has been amputated. Yet it is clearly not an inborn, much less nonphysical phenomenon. No one born without a limb has ever reported its eerie seeming presence!

    Even for so-called higher level functions, the voices commonly heard by schizophrenics are I believe thoughts of the brain. But the schizophrenic’s brain cannot integrate these various thoughts into a single subjective experience, a single point of view, a single, simple consciousness. The resulting dysfunctionality displays the need for a subjective experience I think.

  36. Ramesam says:

    You ma have seen the essay by Meinard Kuhlmann in the recent Sci Amer. He says:
    “Physicists speak of the world as being made of particles and force fields, but it is not at all clear what particles and force fields actually are in the quantum realm. The world may instead consist of bundles of properties, such as color and shape.” This argument is being supported by at least some physicists.

    Neuroscince has clearly established the disconnect between reality and what we take it to be the reality based on our perception. What we infer to be present and the meaning we attribute to it is nothing more than our “imagination.”

    The above two facts (i. The world consists of intangible properties; and ii. the reality of “what is” is never perceived by us) do mellow us down unlike the stand taken by Sean, I believe.

    Further, “Consciousness” has to exist prior to the possibility of any perception. If you are already not there in a room, you will not be able to say if anyone has entered the room or not. So primary thing is the ability to “Know” which is Consciousness.

  37. CB says:

    po-tay-to, po-tah-AH-AH-AH-AH-ITBURNS-AHH-to.

  38. Nonphysical consciousness would not necessarily mean that “the electrons in our atoms fail to obey their equations of motion”. It could be that the electrons do what the electrons do, and the universe hallucinates a story to explain why.

  39. I think the idea of a deeper purpose to the universe (something real, not just a useful concept) is worth pursuing, and we need not ground our hopes for such a purpose in deviation from the laws of physics. Why should strict obedience to those laws imply the absence of purpose? While there may not appear to be any inherent purpose or guidedness to the laws of physics, we can’t confidently say that there isn’t one. As for consciousness, if indeed it is an emergent property of matter when arranged in the right way, that shows that there is something very profound about matter. Somehow the potential for consciousness is an inherent feature of the laws of physics – and that is breathtaking. (When we learn about emergent phenomena like consciousness we are in some sense learning about the fundamental laws – because those laws are such that they give rise to the discovered emergent phenomena.)

  40. vmarko says:

    @ Elliot Nelson:

    “As for consciousness, if indeed it is an emergent property of matter when arranged in the right way, that shows that there is something very profound about matter. Somehow the potential for consciousness is an inherent feature of the laws of physics – and that is breathtaking.”

    Be careful — if the laws of physics predict consciousness as emergent, the very same laws might predict a “god” — an all-encompassing all-knowing consciousness in the universe, by the same mechanism of emergence.

    So the materialists/naturalists/atheists are somewhat afraid to go down the route of “real consciousness emergent from physical laws”. They would rather prefer to treat consciousness as an unreal, delusional effect of our neural activity, rather than something “real”. In a sense, people are just delusionally imagining that they have something called “consciousness”, whereas in reality such a thing doesn’t actually exist. It is called an “epiphenomenon” — like an illusion that the needle of a compass is “driving” the boat that is randomly moving around on the sea.

    If you are a proper atheist, you must never accept that any consciousness (even your own) can really exist. And indeed atheists do exactly that — they claim that the existence of consciousness cannot be objectively measured in an experiment, nor can such a concept even be defined in terms of physics.

    So if you thought that you are self-conscious, it’s just a self-delusion of your consciousless brain. 😉

    Otherwise, the laws of physics, by allowing consciousness to exist as an emergent phenomenon, might open the door for god to exist as well, by the same mechanism applied on a larger scale. Everyone who is a faithful believer in atheism will firmly reject such an obscene idea with ultimate disgust… Consciousness emerging from physics? Phew, no way… 😉

    HTH, :-)

  41. JustOneKalpa says:

    Actually we do know that consciousness effects physical entities. When a subject concentrates on a thing (say something seen) other parts of the brain are less active (like hearing). This is demonstratable using purely physical methods (fMRI for instance) and can be well described using purely physical concepts. So this “metaphysical” consciousness is part of physics and not outside it.

  42. mks says:

    lots of stuff here :3

    1. it is the role of ‘the media’ to create controversy — more controversy, more status & sales

    2. neo-darwinism is just one scientific theory out of at least 8

    3. science goes where science goes — notes like ‘physicalist’, ‘naturalist’, ‘immaterialist’ are mainly, i find, to be tribal designations

    4. ‘what causes something’ always involves a choice by us in deciding where to start by examining the process

    5. ‘material’/’immaterial': try not to take these terms too literally. things like energy, the wave function, and ideas can be thought of as immaterial (whatever that means) and can, thus, affect the ‘material’…

  43. Tienzen (Jeh-Tween) Gong says:

    This is a very old issue. The content of this post could be reduced into one question.

    Can physics explain consciousness?

    Obviously, this is a question without a settled answer in the mainstream academia thus far. In my view, the major problem of this simple question is neither about physics nor about philosophy but is about the linguistics.

    First, *explanation* is a term of sociology, totally subjective. And, Sean Carroll has said very nicely, “People who deny that physics can ever account for consciousness have a similar idea; even if we had a complete theory that accounted for every possible observable action of purportedly conscious creatures, they would not be satisfied that this qualified as “understanding” or “explanation.” For me, that’s just a misunderstanding of what kinds of explanations we can legitimately hope for.”

    Thus, we should define the two with a *fundamental /emergent* relationship instead of explanation. Carroll said again, “Except, if mind is not physical, at some point they swerved away from those laws, since remaining in accordance with them would never have created consciousness. So, at what point does this deviation from purely physical behavior kick in, exactly? It’s the immortal soul vs. the Dirac equation problem–if you want to claim that what happens in our brain isn’t simply following the laws of physics, you have the duty to explain in exactly what way the electrons in our atoms fail to obey their equations of motion.”

    Is the *football-game* a part of Nature? If we human are part of Nature, all our activities cannot go beyond the Nature. Of course, there is no *physical-action* in the game can swerve away from the laws of physics. Yet, the *rules* of the game can be completely unrelated to the laws of physics, whatever that physics laws are or will be. That is, something *in* Nature can be completely not related to the laws of physics. One example is enough for existential introduction. Again, this is another linguistics issue. The rules of football game is not *spontaneous* emergent from the laws of physics.

    Second, is consciousness a spontaneous emergent of the laws of physics? Thus far, consciousness is defined as the **quality or state** of being aware of an external object or something within oneself. With this definition, we today obviously have not found any fundamental/emergent relation between it and the physics laws. If we can change this definition very slightly to “consciousness is the *ability* of distinguish a *self* from the others” (that is, by a system of individuality), then there is a *four-color theorem* available for our use. This four-color theorem guarantees that unlimited (perhaps infinite) number of mutually distinguishable balls can be produced. Thus, every four-color system can guarantee the manifestation of a system of *individuality*. As far as we know, *life* is a four-color system, with (A, G, T, C) as genetic-colors. If a four-color system is also embedded in physics laws, then a spontaneous emergent relation between consciousness and physics laws could be established.

  44. Aleksandar Mikovic says:

    There is a simple plausibility argument which shows why materialism is a bad metaphysics for science: Let us assume that there is only space, time, matter and a finite set of natural laws governing the motion of matter. The standard materialist belief is that this can explain in principle any phenomena in the universe (including consciousness and intelligent beings). Also, let us assume that these natural laws can be expressed with a finite set of symbols. Then by Goedel’s theorems, we know that such a formal system is incomplete, i.e. there will be statements (phenomena) which can not be derived (explained) from the basic postulates (natural laws). Such phenomena can be added to our finite list of natural laws, and there are infinitely many of these. A materialist can than say, OK, I cannot have a Theory of Everything, but still the universe is materialistic. However, having an infinitely many elements (natural laws) which are not matter, means that one is introducing new objects in his metaphysics, and since these objects are mathematical in nature, one arrives at a Platonic world of ideas. A die hard materialist can that say, OK, throw away the laws, i.e. consider them as some random regularities in the chaotic motion of particles, but then one has to accept that such a regularity is lasting 15 billion years, and that tomorrow, everything can fall apart. Although a logical possibility, it is a very implausible one. This would also mean that a fundamental explanation for any phenomena is that it simply occurs by chance. From the philosophical point of view, such a belief is the same as solipsism.

  45. Pingback: Nagel’s bat doesn’t demonstrate incompleteness in materialist science | coelsblog

  46. steven johnson says:

    ^^^I should think that truths that cannot be derived a priori from a sufficiently rich mathematical system are the ones that are subsequently discovered empirically. The math’s inability to prove all possible consequences of its axioms seems to me a proof that any form of mathematical Platonism fails. (And by extension, any version of ontological structural reality.)

    Doesn’t this argument rely on an extreme predictivist view of science? Popperism ashamed to confess itself?

  47. bstr says:

    Sean, i think Jim Cross makes a useful observation here: “Clearly there is something left over beyond the sensual and neural mechanism that underlie my perception, something beyond chemicals, neurons, and electrical activity. That something is my experience of the gray bark, the sunlit side of the tree, and the blue sky. Even if reductionism could explain in detail everything at the physical level that makes perception happen, it cannot explain the why of my subjective experience” and i’m wondering if you are familiar with Jesse Bering’s The Belief Instinct, and his considerations of Theory of Mind as an adaptive trait which has come to such extensive sophistication that it is responsible for our inner conversations? And Cross seems to be about such inner conversations.

  48. Aleksandar Mikovic says:

    Although Goedel’s theorems in the context of a platonic metaphysics imply that mathematics (science) cannot explain everything, one also has to take into account that there are ideas (truths, phenomena) that are non-mathematical, i.e. cannot be completely described by a finite set of symbols and rules. Still, the human mind is able to see such ideas.

  49. Matthew says:

    I feel like the fundamental stance of people like Nagel is that “understanding” is something that can only happen through experiential evidence. At that point, no matter what your theory is, we’ll never have something complete.
    Suppose we create a way for people to experience what it’s like to be someone or something else. For the purposes of this argument it doesn’t matter whether this process is developed purely using physics or not. There are far too many things to experience to possibly be able to say that we understand them all in the way that Nagel and others are hoping for.
    I find that it’s best not to develop your theories because some implication of current theories makes you uncomfortable. That’s a sure-fire way to incorporate poor reasoning somewhere in your argument.

    Great article Sean

  50. Higguns says:


    I present the same challenge to you: give me an example of something that science can’t completely describe but the human mind is still able to see.

    Jim Cross’s example is: “it cannot explain the why of my subjective experience”. This is a clever statement in that it has no meaning and therefore can’t be answered. What do you mean by “the why of my subjective experience”? The only thing you could mean is why do we exist? Just as there are eternal numbers, this is an eternal question that seemingly never has an answer. Every time you gain an answer, then you also gain another question: “why is that the answer?”. You’re entire argument can be boiled down to an indeterminate question that has no real meaning. “Why?”. Why what? Why who? There is no answer because it doesn’t actually ask a question.

  51. JimV says:

    I can’t (of course) add anything new to what Dr. Carroll has explained, but arrived at some similar thoughts which perhaps can show what I think he is saying in different words. I split the “problem of consciousness” into two parts:

    1. Why is there consciousness? Because, as other commenters above have explained, it serves a useful, perhaps absolutely necessary function (a means by which sensory data is experienced and motivating emotions felt), and as such, if it did not exist, evolution would have had to invent it (or something like it). (Evidently this was possible, in this universe, or we would not be having this discussion.) As more research is done, its mechanisms will be understood in greater detail, similar to our understanding of the sense of smell and other biological functions.

    2. Why does it feel the way it feels in this universe? To me this falls under Dr. Carroll’s category of types of explanations which we cannot expect to find. It is the same to me in principle as the “scent of a rose” problem. We can explain how the sense of smell works in terms of chemistry and biology, but why do the specific chemicals emitted by a rose have the scent they do, rather than being experienced in some other way? The answer that satisfies me is that, given that those chemicals affect our biological sense of smell (as evidently they do), they had to have some unique scent and it happens to be the one I experience.

    I cannot resist pointing out also the wrongness of “this universe is finely-tuned for life” that was perpetuated yet again on the Internet above. Briefly, this universe is very nearly 100% inhospitable to our form of life, and the statement presupposes that no other form of self-replicating creature is possible, which, if one is to consider all infinite possibilities of universes, I estimate to have probability zero.

    Thanks for the post, especially the sarcastic bit about burning heretics at the beginning.

  52. Wes Hansen says:

    Dr. Carroll,

    I don’t have a problem with science being able, eventually, to explain consciousness; what I have a problem with is the idea that consciousness is an emergent epiphenomenon, which is really an unavoidable conclusion from the materialist perspective. In my world view consciousness isn’t emergent, rather, it’s primal; consciousness, like magnetism, PERMEATES and an entities CONSCIOUSNESS PERMEABILITY is a function of its structural complexity (as defined by Ben Goertzel in his Pattern Theoretics (http://wp.goertzel.org/)). This position is largely a result of my long-running yoga and meditation practice but it makes logical sense as well.

    David Deutsch, a very interesting thinker in my opinion, observes that information can be transformed to suit a wide array of media and then asks, “What is the general form of information?” Dr. Goertzel, in my opinion once again, gives a compelling argument, with his Pattern Theoretics, that the general form of information is pattern; whether words in a book, bars in a barcode, or bit-strings in a sequence function, the relevant infromation manifests as pattern. In his book FROM COMPLEXITY TO CREATIVITY Dr. Goertzel conjectures that reality (IT) emerges from pattern dynamics; in fact, he conjectures that reality is, at a fundamental level, an evolving ecology of pattern. He models such an ecology as interacting systems of functions on Non-Well Founded Sets. He calls it a magician system with his aptly named magicians and anti-magicians running around casting spells on one another. Their spell casting leads to “structural conspiracies” which are simply patterns (structure) conspiring to maintain one another. These pattern dynamics lead to the attraction, autopoiesis, and adaptation of complexity science. What Dr. Goertzel doesn’t, in my opinion once again, adequetely address is, “Where do the primal patterns come from?” I suggest they come from primal consciousness.

    In a comment related to his current FQXi essay (http://fqxi.org/community/forum/topic/1602) Jochen Szangolies states that the problem with dual nature theories is: what is the causal nexus between the two natures, mental and physical, Platonic and phenomenal? In many of his White Papers, Stanford physicist William Tiller, who has devised a number of robust, double-blind experiments demonstrating how “conscious intent” can change the “laws of physics” in real-time (http://www.tiller.org/), concedes that there is no consensus as to a definition of consciousness but then points out that we all pretty much agree that consciousness is able to manipulate information in the form of puzzles, words, mathematical equations, etc. And what is the general form of information? The answer would seem to be PATTERN! And what are the “laws of physics?” The answer would seem to be HABITUAL PATTERNS! So this leads me to my definition of consciousness, something which you fail to provide in your above post: consciousness is the causal nexus (literally, a force) between the mental and physical, the Platonic and phenomenal, with said causal ability manifesting as a result of its ability to manipulate (i.e. create, annihilate, transform) information – pattern.

    So to conclude, I am very much sympathetic to a teleological principle; I believe global integrity demands a teleological principle (see the work on Top-Down Causaution of FQXi contributing author George Ellis, http://rsfs.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2011/09/27/rsfs.2011.0062). The reductionist method has proven very useful but it has a hard time explaining emergence and emergence is what makes reality interesting! In my opinion, in order for science to properly understand emergence it would seem necessary to sacrifice the, in my opinion once again, erroneous fundamental assumption that matter and the four known forces are primary. In fact, in my world view the four forces unify under the informative tag “conscious intent.”

    On another front, it bothers me that materialists completely ignore a HUGE body of data from the world’s contemplatives. These contemplatives come from all parts of the globe, from all cultures, and from all times and they all demonstrate a remarkable consensus of experience! Science rests on empirical data with said interpretation of empirical data requiring a broad consensus amongst the scientific experts; consider the Four Reliances of Buddhism:

    Rely on the words, not on the teacher;
    rely on the meaning, not on the words;
    rely on the definitive meaning, not on the provisional one; and finally,
    rely on direct experience, not on intellectual understanding.

    And the Buddha, from the Mahayana perspective, was the ultimate reductionist! The primary tenet of Mahayana philosophy, a results driven philosophy with the desired result being cessation of the conceptual mind so that the adept can DIRECTLY EXPERIENCE true reality, is the Law of Interdependent Origination which basically states that no composite entity can be reduced to an irreducible self-nature. When one tries, logically, to reduce a composite entity to an irreducible self-nature one arrives at emptiness; emptiness is true reality. Of course it’s easy for those with no meditative experience to take this philosophy out of context.

    This tenet is contained in a very concise body of verse called the Heart Sutra. For an excellent commentary I would recommend, ESSENCE OF THE HEART SUTRA (http://store.dawnmountain.org/Essence-of-the-Heart-Sutra-Essence-of-the-Heart-Sutra.htm), by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. You know, materialists can continue to just ignore all of this contemplative data but eventually they’re going to become irrelevant; more and more contemplatives are becoming scientists and mathematicians and eventually, due to the stasis of the materialist clique, they’re going to take over the entire field – the contemplatives I mean. Hell, it’s even been predicted in the science fiction literature . . .

  53. Yair says:

    There is a way to explain consciousness without violating physics. This is to realize that in addition to the objective, external, physical description of things you can also come up with a subjective, internal point of view, mental description of them. Such a Theory of Mind should recreate all the observed phenomena of human consciousness – how our brains feel like to us – while fully respecting the laws of physics (which, as Caroll notes, we already know – how the brain works won’t be changed by new physics).

    As per Caroll’s criteria, we should be looking for the simplest and most powerful such theory. I think that theory is Functionalism, which is the idea that awareness is of information processing. In complex systems, like our brains, the parts combine to form a shared unified awareness in ways that correspond to the informational content and processing conducted by the unified system; so human brains will be aware of information that is “famous in the brain” just as neuroscience say (since that’s what forms a unified piece of information processing), while rocks would be aware of nothing (since they don’t have any unified information processing going on). This kind theory is the simplest since it assumes consciousness obeys uniform principles, much in the way modern physics is simple because the laws of physics are uniform; yet it is powerful in that it’s applicable to any physical system, much like fundamental physics is powerful because it applies to everything. Of course, the theory is also woefully incomplete as we’re far, very far, from actually deducing human consciousness from the patterns of neural processing and vice versa – which is what the theory needs to accomplish in order to be scientifically established.

    There is conflict between physics, which always describes how things ARE, and consciousness, which is how these things FEEL. This is David Chalmer’s point, and I think he’s right. Nagel attempts to resolve this conflict by breaking physics – changing it to make things behave according to what they feel. I think that’s wrong as , just like Caroll says, it violated everything we’ve learned since Galileo. But functionalism allows us to sidestep the conflict; we just use physics to tell us how things are or are measured, and theory of mind to tell us how they feel or appear.


  54. If I’m not mistaken, the picture of the universe being promoted here is essentially this:

    * In truth, there are only atoms and the void (or quantum fields and relativistic spacetime)
    * Consciousness is an accidental product of the above
    * Freewill is an illusion
    * There are no gods or anything else external to the physically measurable world
    * All our values are the meaningless projections of mental idolatries upon an indifferent universe
    * Cosmically speaking, existence is futile

    My meta-questions are these: how do you propose to build any sort of viable civilization or social order upon the above “truths”? Is this not essentially nihilism? And doesn’t nihilism undermine the entire Enlightenment project, which was based on the Judeo-Christian idea that through reason man can discover the divine order of creation?

    Furthermore, can’t institutional science only exist as part of a stable civilization which has a reason to value it, so when scientists go “above their pay grade” and start deconstructing the foundations of said civilization, aren’t they engaged in a dangerous and self-defeating enterprise? Don’t academic scientists need to be part of a “noble lie” that makes their very existence possible? What is the new noble lie in the universe revealed by science? Can civilization even survive the arrival of what Nietzsche called “the strangest of all guests” – nihilism? Shouldn’t you be trying to find a way to celebrate the beauty and order of the macrocosmos, and finding a way to relate that to the human microcosmos in a meaningful way, in the manner of a Carl Sagan or a Catholic saint, rather than driving humanity “mad from the revelation” (as Lovecraft put it) at the horror and absurdity of the universe revealed by science?

    These are the things I need to know!

  55. Brett says:

    Brother, sometimes we don’t like the answer, but that doesn’t change the fact that the evidence supports it. I would say that “Freewill is an illusion” is still up for debate.

  56. Ruben says:

    I hope I won’t be burned at the stake because of the suggestion I’m about to make. Certainly the God hypothesis is not falsifiable as much as the affirmation that unicorns exist, but is it verifiable? I mean, What kind of evidence would it take to support the God hypothesis? Are there any clues we could find that would support the idea of the existence of some conscious entity that started it all with a purpose (without necesarily any resemblance to the widely known gods)? Because I can Imagine some evidence that would support the unicorn existence Idea, it probably would take to find several different fossils resembling the form of a unicorn. Ok, I know by now I sound stupid, but can we imagine any evidence that would support the God hypothesis? Any suggestions?

  57. Sean says “anything you want to ‘add’ to the laws of physics either changes the behavior of particles, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, it has absolutely no perceivable affect on anything.”
    Yet Sean in his talk to the Humanist Society defended “emergent” phenomena at the level of biology and other disciplines (amongst which I’d include anthropology, psychology, aesthetics, etc.), and explained their perfect compatibility with naturalism. So there must be a problem (as perhaps already indicated by the use of quotation marks) about what this “adding” to physics means.

    My view is that the “additions” can always be regarded, from the viewpoint of physics, as heuristics for avoiding calculations that are practically impossible. One might imagine a future science that will be able to predict (using particle positions and momenta) my fetching a quarter from my pocket in reaction to viewing a sign that says “25 cents”, or my preference for Monet over Manet. But that’s irrelevant to the current disciplines of economics (which doesn’t care about the composition of the quarter or the open-ended list of other equivalent tokens signifying the same amount) or aesthetics (which is only marginally interested in the physical composition of paintings or the brain states of viewers).

    I think Nagel often gives the wrong impression in the way he talks about “completing” physics or “adding to it”. It makes it sound like the additional kinds of understanding he seeks are predictive and causal (although instead of causal language he talks about “propensities” and such). In my view the “additions” represent different kinds of enterprises, so I’d rather say they exist alongside physics rather than “adding to it”.

    Nagel himself isn’t interested in prediction, just retrodiction (and tautological retrodiction at that): conscious life was always inevitable. I’d prefer “highly probable” to “inevitable”, but I happen to agree with him that it is important to notice that it was always possible for things which have happened to happen: specifically, we live in the kind of universe which could produce conscious life, and it was already this kind of universe before the formation of hydrogen atoms. I don’t think that this kind of realization has any causal-predictive content, but I regard it as belonging to a different kind of activity, a different conversation. You are free to call this uninteresting, but you may be hasty in doing so.

  58. Shorter version of my long post above: mind is a “separate category” needed for SOME kinds of explanation, but not for PHYSICAL explanations. In economics, you need the category of “money”, which you do not need in physics; but economics is emergent upon physical and biological phenomena.
    Nagel is asserting an expansive notion of science; he could just as well say something like: only knowing about physics makes you an incomplete person.

  59. Hello Ramesam. I like your comment.

    Everything comes in different shapes and colours from the white of light to the black of absolute vacuum. A Black Hole is a space that sucks up light, which means it also sucks up energy and mass because light and energy and mass are simply different “thicknesses” and “shapes” of substance.

    You are a black hole, albeit a very diaphanous one. You suck up light – photons go into your eyes and skin and never come out – you eat food, which exists because it has absorbed photons. Coal and diamonds are black holes of lumps of photons, except they are “thicker” than the black hole that is you and all come in different shapes and colours. (And of course, you are eventually going to get sucked into a “thicker” black hole than you).

    The only difference between you and a rock in the universe is that you “know” in the present and the universe as we see it is a memory and record of the “deep” past.

  60. Gordon says:

    OK, let me see if I can make some ‘reasonable’ sense of all this: Cosmologists (and their other academic peers/buddies) say that the universe is made up of 68% Dark Energy and 27% Dark Matter (or there abouts) and that the remaining 5% (which is called Baryonic matter) is everything that reflects light (acts with light) to reveal our world. Then Chemists and Physicists say that all elements (that’s the Baryonic stuff) are (at the atomic level) 99.9999% empty space. So now (here) you science folks are going to be able to tell us that you know what reality is while the majority of it you/we cannot even see and that which we can see is mostly empty? How can anyone grab that ‘void’ (of empirical knowledge) and get it to stick inside their noodle? How about ya say, “We really don’t have much of a clue what’s going on?”

    I’m also not overly happy with Darwin: If we are just evolved ‘bugs’ and fit somewhere on a branch of the evolutionary tree then why do we have the size brain we have? Evolution should not have wasted its ‘natural selection’ energy (our brain is too big for its skull…and as poorly as we NOW use it…it should have shrunk). There is no evolutionary survival value associated with us trying to learn particle physics, or build LHC, or to leave footprints and a couple dune buggies on the moon (etc etc). Frankly, I don’t even know why we are having this discussion/talk? For even it has no evolutionary value! Darwinism should not have cared for all we need to ‘do’ to fit the ‘Tree’ is just survive and produce kids and not get eaten and protect ourselves from the environment. Oddly, I think we are more alien to this orb than all the other creatures here on it… that we so easily make go extinct and then we worry about them and try to help them survive (why do we Darwinian types have ‘concern’ for endangered species or any species—survival is about YOU/ME not them!) . We value abstract qualities like fairness and perfection and trust and we hate the itch of time (can’t scratch it)… yet we have this insidious hope for the future…even to the point of terraforming Mars and colonizing some far-off exo-planet (that’s laughable – what are we going to do if that place is inhabited – save the poor retched heathens like the Spanish did to the Aztecs!!??).

    We can’t even take care of our own country never mind get along with its inhabitants. We are a mess and this exo-planet (Earth) would fare better if we went extinct or went back to where we came from. We are probably the colonizing force that left some other world in search of a home (exo-planet) and found Earth and now we have settled in but ODDLY we seem to have forgotten where we came from. If we did figure it out it would be/seem so weird that we would think them gods—it’s like we have been on an extended thousand-year camping trip and long for home where the refrigerator and AC is there and works (aaaah replace those with: fairness, perfection and no time—or eternity).

    I do enjoy this though…but I’m more and more convinced that the only way we can ever understand the physical world is by the non-physical. Frankly, I’m concerned that the word ‘thing’ is very incorrect—there is no such thing as a thing. Nothing IS nothing. We are in a giant hologram and all is energy to include us. Matter is energy gone berserk. And life is matter infused with intelligent code. One thing seems certain. If one finds information (and we never make it—we discover it) it never points to confusion or chaos or chance or mistake. Information always point to some kind of intelligence responsible for its cause. And we are VERY good (almost too good) at pattern recognition, empirical abilities seeing symmetry and doing math and science yet we are also conscience observers and moral agents…and we do not like being insulted, mislead, or abused. We do not come here with a blank slate! We are foreigners in a strange land and by the time we are about 70 years we wonder about all the stuff we have collected and where it is going to go (who cares about stuff at that age?). By that time no wonder most of us have had enough of this crazy (out-of-control) world.

  61. steven johnson says:

    “In truth, there are only atoms and the void (or quantum fields and relativistic spacetime)”

    That should be, “On a microscopic scale, there are…”

    “* Consciousness is an accidental product of the above”

    That should be, “…a product of natural selection.”

    ” * Freewill is an illusion”

    This should be “Freewill is the subjective experience of decision-making in the reasoned pursuit of goals that is largely unconscious of both the costs of decision-making and the process by which the goals of the decision-making process is determined. All evidence indicates that the goals are determined by the physical and social development and operation of the brain; that the costs of decision-making or reasoning are also determined by biological processes; that the modes of reasoning are learned from culture, not created by a priori reason, and all exercise of rational decision-making are constrained or supervenient upon this achieved reasoning capacity.”

    “* There are no gods or anything else external to the physically measurable world”

    Materialists agree, as I understand it. I don’t understand why there is a separate group of naturalists except they disagree. I believe it’s on the grounds that a) no scientific law can be proven a necessary conclusion by a priori logical arguments and b) no induction can be justified by any amount of empirical evidence nor can the process of induction by formulated in a mathematical proof and c) true knowledge counts subjective experience (sometimes also known as qualia) in some sort of unspecified transferable form as an essential component of true knowledge.

    ” * All our values are the meaningless projections of mental idolatries upon an indifferent universe”

    There is no justification for “meaningless,” since meaning can and is ascribed by people. It is unclear what “mental idolatries” are. The indifference of the universe is a tragic fact.

    “* Cosmically speaking, existence is futile”

    Maybe, but we have the internet now.

  62. I’m not much for teleology, except as a by-product of self-organizing systems. (Including evolution, which obviously sets up teleological subsystems.) But I think that physics will always have a problem describing consciousness, perhaps an insurmountable problem, because analysis and indeed mathematics depends on bipartite distinctions and operations: addition, multiplication, making things equal, and so on — which are always finally evaluated by pairwise operations in succession (i.e. in an algorithm) to obtain an answer. But this is not NECESSARILY a fundamental trait of the universe. It may only appear that this is so, because it gives fruitful results, and builds into rational knowledge. There are states of consciousness which do not contain such distinctions, nor any intentional stance at all. Notably the mystical state of awareness, or nirvana, f’ana, god-consciousness, moksha, the beatific vision, whatever it is called, has been experienced by many people. Their reports all boil down to the same set of descriptions, so we may characterize it generally. This state of consciousness that has no intentional stance, no direct or indirect object; it is “pure” and undifferentiated; there are no pairwise distinctions until language is used to describe it. Outsiders and scientists ignorant of the possibility may argue that this state of consciousness is an hallucination or a neuronal storm, but everyone who has had the experience stoutly resists that conclusion, and many integrate it into their lives. A mathematician so great as Brouwer, of course, used it to devise a theory that mathematics is born of the secondary splitting of the world into “before” and “after” — into a bipartite distinction — as this unitary consciousness is lost. One possible question, since physical science is so obviously fruitful and evocative, is whether it is possible that scientific thought describes only one valid epistemological avenue, not the only one; and whether unfortunately, science impresses an absolutist attitude upon some of its practitioners, in much the same way that religious fundamentalism so obviously does upon others.

  63. Pingback: Noted for August 23, 2013

  64. vmarko says:

    @ Steven Johnson:

    “Consciousness is […] a product of natural selection.”

    This is at best only a conjecture, and actually a very shaky one. It requires some harsh environmental conditions in which conscious life forms have a survival advantage over the non-conscious life forms.

    It is enough to just look at plants — do they have consciousness in the way we do? Nope. But still they have managed to survive that “natural selection” of the above harsh environmental conditions, as efficiently as the conscious life forms did.

    There is a looong way to go from the blank-slate conjecture that “consciousness is a product of natural selection” to actually providing some convincing evidence that this has actually happened.

    As much as evolution looks like a conceptually good idea to explain biology, it is still a far cry from a working theory. Especially if you try to extend biology so far beyond its domain to include consciousness, morality, beauty, and other abstract concepts, and then try to “derive” those concepts from natural selection. It’s all conjectures and assumptions — nowhere near a working model.

    HTH, :-)

  65. Aleksandar Mikovic says:

    Dear Higguns,
    An example of a phenomenon that science cannot completely describe, but we know it exists is consciousness, or more generally mind.

  66. James Cross says:

    bstr, steven johnson, hgguns

    To be clear the excerpt from my own post on Nagel is where I am explaining Nagel’s viewpoint which is not exactly the same as my own.

    I think the question of consciousness is part of a broader question about how information accumulates in matter. Life itself is information in matter. The information allows an organism to maintain its form in its life time through metabolism and to persist after its death through reproduction. Consciousness and mind are extensions of the same processes operating in real time. So I do not see a huge discontinuity between mind and matter. The question is not one of reducing mind to its physical components but of explaining how information accumulates in matter.

    Sean asks: “So, at what point does this deviation from purely physical behavior kick in, exactly? ”

    My view is there is no deviation from purely physical. Mind and consciousness arise from some organizing principle in matter from the beginning and continuous with it.

  67. James Cross says:

    One last comment.

    My position is really more of the ultimate materialist position that mind actually is matter or a form of matter.

    The weak materialist position is that mind can be explained by matter. This position still concedes a key point to Nagel that there is still something more than matter.

  68. Nick says:

    Sean – Profound thanks to you and the commenters – great discussion of a very great divide – a divide that manifests even in the name of your domain.

    Because for me, it’s not the universe which is preposterous – it’s us – and our subjective experiences. The phenomenon most in need of some elucidation, and the most lacking of one.

    The gobsmacking obviousness of this proposition is itself (apparently) in need of further elucidation by those who feel this way, given the number of folks who attempt to explain consciousness by explaining it away, and who engage in discussions seemingly for the purpose of ending them.

  69. Arun says:

    “Can physics explain consciousness?”

    Sean Carroll’s computer crashes, because of some programmer’s error. Stipulated that it is all in accordance to the laws of physics. But when Carroll files a bug report and the problem is addressed, nobody invokes the laws of physics. Stipulated that programming errors are in accordance with the laws of physics. The programmer looks for errors in the logic of the code. An explanation in terms of the laws of physics is no doubt possible, but beyond a doubt useless.

    Since this above is all obvious, one wonders what the argument is all about. One gets a clue from Lewontin: ( https://files.nyu.edu/mr185/public/www/classes/readings/Lewontinfull.htm )

    “…institutions are created whose function is to forestall violent struggle by convincing people that the society in which they live is just and fair, or if not just and fair then inevitable, and that it is quite useless to resort to violence. These are the institutions of social legitimation. ….For almost the entire history of European society since the empire of Charlemagne, the chief institution of social legitimation was the Christian Church…..For an institution to explain the world so as to make the world legitimate, it must possess several features. First, the institution as a whole must appear to derive from sources outside of ordinary human social struggle. It must not seem to be the creation, of political, economic, or social forces, but to descend into society from a supra-human source. Second, the ideas, pronouncements, rules, and results of the institution’s activity must have validity and a transcendent truth that goes beyond any possibility of human compromise or human error. Its explanations and pronouncements must seem to be true in an absolute sense and to derive somehow from an absolute source. They must be true for all time and all place……this description also fits science and has made it possible for science to replace religion as the chief legitimating force in modem society.”

    The battle that materialist, neo-Darwinists are engaging in perhaps seems like simply seeking the truth. It is not. It is a struggle to be the legitimating force in modern society. Steven Pinker’s following makes it clear:

    “And in combination with a few unexceptionable convictions— that all of us value our own welfare and that we are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct—the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings. This humanism, which is inextricable from a scientific understanding of the world, is becoming the de facto morality of modern democracies, international organizations, and liberalizing religions, and its unfulfilled promises define the moral imperatives we face today.”

    Further, in societies where there was no legitimating authority like the Church, these struggles between science and religion/tradition are mostly absent. It is simply accepted that today science doesn’t describe consciousness. One day it might, that day might be soon or in the distant future. Or it might be a task science could do in principle, but not by humans with their limited capabilities. Or it might be actually impossible. Interesting but nothing to get excited about.

    The above is not to say that science should or should not be the modern legitimating authority in societies that need legitimating authorities. The above is merely to point out what the struggle is really about.

    Otherwise, as a scientist, without an iota of a program on how to proceed with describing consciousness with science, Sean Carroll would not be arguing this issue, any more than he bothers himself with collecting soil samples from exoplanets. (“It would be of great interest, but it is not even remotely feasible today, so I don’t waste thought on it.”) The scientist becomes philosopher only to push forward the legitimating authority of science.

  70. dilbert dogbert says:

    Re: Thomas Nagel
    Could the simple answer to his problem be that he can’t understand the scientific method therefore it must be wrong?

  71. Lewontin is a very thoughtful man and it is true that the Catholic Church legitimated its power over people by making theological claims. But it may be helpful to science (or at least psychology) to understand that the more basic function of the concept “god” was originally to give people a way to relinquish their egos to jump to higher consciousness. It is not the only way, and not all practices do this: Buddhism notably has no deity, but relies on nondualistic forms of meditation.

    The reason this relinquishment is necessary is because consciousness (at any level) enlists the reason (rationality and logic) to support itself. Words of any type reinforce your existing state of consciousness. (This is even true of dreams in sleep, which have their own sort of propulsive logic.) Thus to jump out of a lower state of consciousness, a strictly nonlogical or arational conceptual operator (like “god”) works for some (indeed perhaps many) people. After the change is complete, rationality ought to inhere again, but that does not always happen completely. Unfortunately this may make them believe that god actually exists, and start preaching at you, which is another question entirely.

    Obviously of course, many scientists don’t believe that there are different states of consciousness, or else mark the discussion down to psychotherapeutic events. And the disdain with which scientists observe the widespread result, i.e. belief in god, makes them overlook a very important function of the process, which was pointed out by the later Wittgenstein: “‘Consciousness of sin’ is an event that happens in real life, and so are ‘despair’ and ‘salvation through faith’, and those who speak of such things are merely reporting WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THEM, no matter what gloss anyone may wish to put upon it.” [my caps]

    The point is that scientists, the new atheists, Dawkins, etc. are taking the wrong approach to this. But it may be unavoidable for them, because they are unable to conceive of any juncture in the universe at which rational thought itself must be disconnected (at least temporarily). This is anathema to them, because as with everyone else, their own states of consciousness are buttressed by their rational framework. The real question for scientists ought to START WITH something like, “Is there a real experience which no expression in language properly describes; for which all expressions in language are only a metaphor?” That would be a much more scientific starting point.

    P.S. My original point in the other comment above is quite different, which is that rationality itself may have limitations which prevent a full understanding of consciousness, notably the fact that all rational processes proceed by pairwise distinctions, e.g. sames, differents, equals, unequals, definition of numbers, negatives, opposites, subject/predicate, before/after, energy flows, cause and effect, foreground/background, left/right, etc. It is a remarkably rather small list that accounts for all rational strategies, and I think the last philosopher to notice this was John Stuart Mill. And there is certainly no theory which describes why the list should be sufficient to entirely describe the universe. That judgment comes from the success of science along certain avenues of inquiry, not a bulletproof theory. I tried to draw a different sort of picture of the list, after time 6:40 in the following vid (please ignore the ponderous scrolling intro, those were my salad days:)

  72. Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    Nagel illustrates well how philosophy is a failed program, considered as a means of understanding. Nothing can save it now.

    The LHC completion of the standard particles by the Higgs field (if not yet the standard Higgs) means the EM sector is protected from Nagel’s magical action. Considering the energy that such action would expend to know the state of the brain’s neurons against thermal noise even at bit level for ~ 10^14 neurons each with ~10 000 synapses, it would break the QED precision by a factor > 1000. Earlier we couldn’t measure the brain energy consumption well enough to exclude Nagel’s fantasies, now we don’t need to as LHC made the job for us.

    point number two above (scientific materialism is incomplete and needs to be augmented by something apart from the physical) actually does follow, under plausible assumptions, from point number one (consciousness cannot be explained in purely physical terms).

    I don’t see how.

    Nagel seems to claim that “the theory of evolution, if it is to explain the existence of conscious life, must become more than just a physical theory.” But it is a biological theory, and importantly it doesn’t care if the action is physical or magical as long as there is in the simplest form variation and selection (fitness). It could fixate fire breath in a dragon, if magical fire was present and it made the dragons more fit.

    Not that it destroys the counter argument presented in the post.

  73. Monroe says:

    Arthur Eddington made some interesting remarks that I found today in a WikipediA article on Eddington:

    “The mind-stuff of the world is, of course, something more general than our individual conscious minds….”

    “The mind-stuff is not spread in space and time; these are part of the cyclic scheme ultimately derived out of it….”

    “It is necessary to keep reminding ourselves that all knowledge of our environment from which the world of physics is constructed, has entered in the form of messages transmitted along the nerves to the seat of consciousness….”

    “Consciousness is not sharply defined, but fades into subconsciousness; and beyond that we must postulate something indefinite but yet continuous with our mental nature…”

    “It is difficult for the matter-of-fact physicist to accept the view that the substratum of everything is of mental character. But no one can deny that mind is the first and most direct thing in our experience, and all else is remote inference.”

    —Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World, 276-81.

  74. Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    I have now read the thread, and understandably there is a great number of comments that haven’t been able to raise to the challenge of sketching a teleological view of reality. Instead they discuss an undefined “consciousness” as if it breaks physics as per usual handwaving.

    There is even anti-science creationists that are “not overly happy with Darwin” or thinks that “evolution … is still a far cry from a working theory”. Well, though that biology is the best tested science we have, due to its complexity. Even a standard phylogeny is more powerful than most physics observations in terms of precision. [Theobald, TalkOrigins.]

    @Lee A. Arnold:

    “The point is that scientists, the new atheists, Dawkins, etc. are taking the wrong approach to this. But it may be unavoidable for them, because they are unable to conceive of any juncture in the universe at which rational thought itself must be disconnected (at least temporarily).”

    I think your first claim fails, neuroscience makes great inroads in understanding the brain. Here the “new” atheists are the same old atheists by the way (and historically they are, the term is a strawman to impute “stridency” on disregarding that atheists have always been critical of religion), relying on science as all skeptics.

    Your second claim isn’t understandable. You claim that there are “different states of consciousness”, so apparently you are trying to say something about brain states. But anesthesia is an old observation, and the first evidence that experience is fully tied to the biochemistry of the brain.

    So scientists and thus skeptics have conceived of brain states where “rational thought itself must be disconnected” since the 1800’s. And of course before brain and brain state, there were no rational thought in the universe at all.

    This is still not inserting a gap-for-gods. Nor is your unsubstantiated claim that empiricism have empirical limitations inserting a gap-for-gods whether that claim will eventually be found to have substance or not.


    Eddington became eccentric. If you think reality is inference only, go kick a stone.

  75. Bill Bunting says:

    Keeping it simple, Nagels problem is one of limited perception of compounded functionality. Consciousness is merely the current state of a vastly parallel perception processor enhanced with extensive parallel access memory.

    The only real question here refers back to an earlier thread, what is the point of it all?

    What good does it do understanding mass and gravity?

    It is all about start and end points. If the start to ones conscious existence is to forage for food, to procreate, forage for more food then die, that is an existence based on the knowledge of personal need and an immediate environment. If the start to ones existence is a full understanding of the the losmos (I’ll use losmos to mean local cosmos as cosmos has grown beyond its original meaning driven by enhanced consciousness to extend beyond the visible spacial horizon) and the forces that maintain it enabling an advanced form of existence with expanded consciousness. Consciousness is, I argue, the highest achievement of the natural world, not a seperate entity.

    In the end this tiny blob of Earthly matter will be driven further from its origin and finally obliterated and dispersed into the cosmos. Perhaps nature has one more surprise where consciousness can cause, through animal intervention, a change and advancement to the properties of the matter that makes up our planet. A change which will then provide a different starting point to the next star and planets that are formed from our dust, just as previous stars created the heavier elements that made our existence as it is, possible.

  76. Bill Bunting says:

    I’ve had a long hot shower and now know how (what’s it all about) a mere organic species can have a profound effect on the future universe, or at least part of it.

    You need to wear your scifi hat for this with parameters set to Data Source: real physics, and Mode: fantasy fiction.

    It is all in the crystal.

    In the near future, quite conceiveably this civilisation, or maybe the next, science perfects the AI quantum processor with cubic memory powered entirely by scattered photon energy.

    In order to better protect the earth from a devastating global killer space rock early warning strategic crystal satelites with the ability to form a connected consciousness are projected into space to form an ever expanding sphere around the earth. This protective shell steadily expands, constantly being replenished with newer crystals electrically launched from the surface. These crystals which rotate in two directions have several relocation charges on their surface to enable them to be retasked if ever necessary. The crystals maintain a communication amoungst themselves across space with digitally configured photo streams that enter the crystals are respaced and reemitted towards other crystals thereby maintaining a continuous awareness of each others presence.

    Eventually these crystals drift further into space gravitationally carried far afield to form part of the space debris that is drawn into the formation of new solar systems……

    and there their ultimate universal purpose begins to be realised as the entire knowledge of previous civilisations……

    of a long time ago…… from a galaxy far far away…..

    plays a natural unnatural role into the evolution of new worlds.

  77. Anton Szautner says:

    The thought that occurs to me is that the thoughts that occur to me have a basis in their generation, and that basis is physical whether I understand the physics underlying that basis responsible for the thought that occurs to me or not. What I think I ‘know’ is composed of those thoughts that collectively comprise what ‘I’ [a thought-model] refer to [thought-procedure] ‘my mind’-‘me’ [thought-model].

    Many pardons. Not everyone needs reminding that language carries unnecessary baggage and certain concomitant habits of thought that may not survive careful logical scrutiny.

    What need is there for anything besides physics by which brain operates (which my ‘mind’ has no direct contact with) to generate conceptual states somehow in a readable form of statements using representational models and procedures? What Nagel really wants is to characterize the representational language of contemplation as if its an object ‘mind’ rather than a dynamic flux. Unfortunately he doesn’t seem or even want to recognize the possibility that dynamic physical states of brain may be admirably sufficient in yielding every possible representational mental or conceptual mode or environment ‘we’ perceive ‘ourselves’ to inhabit. It can even deliver modes that lead to unconscious and dead states. All of them. But he doesn’t like that nature through physical laws might already have it all covered. He needs to invoke some goofy Missing Factor about what mind really ought to be based on because science doesn’t completely understand it. That’s a pretty arrogant estimation of what he thinks constitutes our scientific understanding: he flirts with the notion that our understanding is equivalent to the actuality. Because some details still belong to the realm of the unknown, he thinks that means there is something else besides how nature does the physics going on rather than that our understanding about how nature does the physics remains incomplete in particular aspects or details. (Why does this remind me of Penrose’s notions a decade or so back?)

    Two things, then:
    1. Those thought-models & procedures are all ‘I’ or ‘we’ have to work with and ‘I’ or ‘we’ must be ever vigilant to refrain from confusing them with the actualities they represent (hopefully, more accurately than not),
    2. The emphasis of pronoun in the language is grotesquely overrated as well as a constant invidious invitation to conclude ‘I’ or ‘we’ have some concrete handle on ‘who [I am] or [we are]’. Let ‘us’ admit finally and at long last that the importance of self is likewise overrated. No explanations for self-entities such as spirits or souls or other such so-called ‘essences behind the curtain’ are necessary.*

    *Besides, it tends to promote a rather unsightly degree of egomania that often leads otherwise competent minds astray: no, it doesn’t refine the definition of observer in anthropic arguments, no matter how, uh, persuasive some pretend the presence of that word to be. That’s one of the heavy bags we can toss: the essence of observership can be neatly contained in a pocket compact; ‘anything‘ can legitimately play that role, as the falling tree that fell in the forest proudly proclaimed to a great variety of ‘observers’, alive (or, uh, ‘conscious’) or not in its vicinity, message duly received via the absorbed energy of the outward-propagating sound-wave of its crash, the immediate presence of humans (specifically some theoretical or observational physicists who tend to fetishize consciousness) not necessary to satisfy the definition of observer. Just sayin’.

  78. @ Torbjörn Larsson, OM:

    Yes, but anesthesia is OBVIOUS to outer observers! I see two problems: (1) Identification of the state of consciousness by the brain researcher, before investigation. (2) The timing and conditions of the initial transformation of consciousness.

    (1) Identification of the state of consciousness before investigation by the brain researcher:

    Anesthesia is identifiable by outer indications (e.g., the person is laying on the table, unconscious). Also, it can be instantly induced with a chemical. This is not so with “Christ-consciousness” or “Buddhist nirvana”. To identify this state, the scientist must rely on reports from the individuals. We can, and do, measure the brain states of “deep meditators”, and in some cases we find a change in brain waves, or an increase in neurotransmitters. But not in all the cases — so, where the chemical or electrical change is lacking, are those people supposed to be misreporting or misrepresenting? What is the scientific criterion?

    (2) The timing and conditions of the initial transformation of consciousness: The initial experience of the state of consciousness is DIFFERENT THAN the subsequent attainments of it, and so the scientist is only going to observe the subsequent experiences in the lab. Let’s take timing and conditions separately:

    Timing: By all reports on the matter, the first occurrence of “higher” consciousness cannot be instantly induced. The moment of its first occurrence, and the duration, are entirely unpredictable. (I think that is where the Christian idea of the unpredictability of the “grace of God” originates: in the unpredictability of the initial event.) So how would the scientist find those subjects who are about to have a religious experience, and get them into the lab before it happens?

    Conditions: Why is the initial experience important to science? Because it only comes after months or years of training which requires the disconnection from rational thought. Then, AFTER the initial experience happens, people usually adopt the tradition of their training, most likely as a set of quasi-rational metaphors, to describe the experience.

    Indeed, using this framework, some of them may “learn” how to repeat the attainment of the state in a rather more predictable manner.

    So perhaps these “repeaters” (Buddhism developed far enough to create a technical category for them) will agree to come into your lab for measurement of brain activity, — if only you can find them and verify them.

    But when you ask them to report what is happening during the session, they will respond in the language of terms of the tradition that they used, to have the initial experience. Perhaps it will be about zen, perhaps it will be about Sufism, perhaps it will be neuro-linguistic programming or the current version of psychotherapeutic language or the remembrance of a lovely sunset. Why? Because they learned to use that particular language as a way to disconnect themselves from rational thought in order to attain their initial state, to begin with.

    This leads to the idea of what someone once called a “state-specific science”: To study higher consciousness (or religious experience, but not in all senses), you as a scientist are dealing entirely with a phenomenon in which self-reportage of the subjects is crucial to identifying the experience, yet that reportage will be entirely in terms of metaphor, metaphor indeed calculated to relate to different levels of understanding. If the science of this is to proceed at all, it will have to be conducted by scientists who have had that experience, which will REQUIRE them to have disconnected their own rational thoughts at a very crucial moment in the process. Q.E.D.

  79. Darren says:

    If you’re going to have a public dialog with William Lane Craig you need to make it clear that you don’t have to refute all of his arguments in order for him to be wrong. His cosmological argument is the only one that matters. If it’s false, then the other arguments (his moral argument, the historicity/miracle of jesus, design, etc) are false because there are as yet undiscovered information that answers them or they are just myths. He’ll allude to an old platonic idea of an “efficient cause”—god is the efficient cause of the universe, but no one has ever pressed him that all known efficient causes are physical. In fact when it comes to his god being supernatural (as he puts it, immaterial, timeless, and spaceless) the best he can do when it comes to how a god created everything from nothing is, “he’s extremely powerful.” And that’s another thing he uses a theophilosophical idea of nothing—a kind of absolute nothingness, non-being something. But can he give a reason why anyone should think that that kind of nothing is possible? He’d probably appeal to the paper by Borde, Guth, and Vilenkin. I’d say stick with physics and dismiss his other arguments with, “I’m a physicist and that other crap doesn’t interest me.”

  80. Jack M says:

    Here’s an account of recent progress in the research project of understanding how consciousness arises.

    “From the experimental point of view, we show that in neuronal cultures, the emergence early in the development of collective spontaneous activity is dominated by the presence of activity waves that initiate in specific regions of the culture, in a similar way as it happens in vivo,” lead author Javier G. Orlandi at the University of Barcelona told Phys.org. “And with the help of simulations, we also show that you don’t need any special mechanism to explain this behavior, just the right combination of network structure and dynamics. These waves emerge naturally from the noise focusing effect, in which individual firings propagate and concentrate in specific regions to later generate these activity waves.”

    Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2013-08-complex-behavior-spontaneously-emerge-brain.html#jCp

  81. vmarko says:

    @ Jack M:

    “Here’s an account of recent progress in the research project of understanding how consciousness arises.”

    Not every brain activity implies consciousness.

    In order to test for consciousness, you would want your collective of neurons to talk to you, and refer to themselves in the singular, “I”, “me”, “myself” as opposed to “we”, “us”, “ourselves”. Only once you manage to generate this *singular* behavior from a multitude of neurons, can you say that you’ve seen consciousness arise as an emergent complex behavior of neural networks. Which is probably possible in principle, but not as easy as that quote you gave might suggest.

    HTH, :-)

  82. I always wonder about that phrase “possible in principle”. It seems to be another assurance based upon belief.

  83. vmarko says:

    @ Lee A. Arnold:

    Of course it is assurance based on belief, what’s your point?

    Everything one can talk about is based on belief. Even mathematical/logical proofs have axioms that are to be taken for granted.

    HTH, :-)

  84. I am not sure that one BELIEVES in mathematical axioms, as opposed to AGREES to them, for use in a problem. There are, for example, alternative sets of mathematical axioms. An alternate axiom here would be something like, “probably not possible in principle”, but whether deemed possible or not possible, what are the criteria of judgment? “Possible in principle” is usually found in discourse to be a substitute marker for a very different thought, “let’s try it and see what happens.” For example, many people assert various forms of philosophical reductionism as “possible in principle,” such as that chemistry is ultimately reducible to physics, or indeed that everything in physics is ultimately reducible to simpler physics. But I think that until that is demonstrated to be the case, it should be categorized as a belief, unlike the employment of mathematical axioms.

  85. vmarko says:

    Oh, now I understand what you meant by “belief”. It’s about “walking the walk” as opposed to hypothesizing that something “can plausibly be done”.

    Yes, I completely agree with that. :-) There’s this famous example — a common belief that the Standard Model of particle physics describes everyday matter — say a hydrogen atom. The reductionism idea works by starting “ab initio”: take the SM equations, and approximate them down to a single Schroedinger equation that is commonly used to (successfully) describe the properties of a the hydrogen atom. While everyone *believes* that this can be done, there is no explicit demonstration so far. :-)

    Namely, one gets stuck trying to construct a proton from three quarks and a gluon field — there is no known solution to QCD equations that describes this. In particular, calculating the proton mass from the free parameters of the SM is still an open problem (people are trying hard, but so far only some partial results have been obtained at best).

    So everyone would *expect* that the hydrogen atom is a solution of the SM, but so far it has not been explicitly demonstrated. In that sense — yes, “possible in principle” counts as a belief — or a hope — that something can be done, but not more than that. :-)

    Best, :-)

  86. Or the search for a testable unified theory, etc. I would think that one of the next questions might be: What characterizes the cases which ought to be do-able, but which have not been demonstrated? Do we always find a fine-grain/coase-grain barrier, for example? Or are there different types of barriers? It may be possible for science to progress a little further by using such thought experiments to try to establish a typology of known paradoxes. Perhaps there is a scientific fundamental that is outside of mathematical description and treatment, or that accounts for the symbolic production of mathematics.

  87. Bill Bunting says:

    Consciousness is merely a state of being ready and able to operate, or having an awareness of operational status as a consequence of a continuous processing mode. It is reasonable to suggest that todays cellphones have a consciousness, only we do not choose to accept this. The main difference between animal consciousness and silicon consciousness is in the method of ultimate failure. Another difference is that silicone conscious can be successfully transfered from one host to another with identity being mostly maintained.

    So keep in mind that the next time you swear at your smart phone, it might actually take offence and start messing with your calls as retribution (particularly risky if its cover is pink).

  88. Who quoted this… … ..?
    It would be possible to describe absolutely everything scientifically, but it would make no sense. It would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.

  89. Bill Bunting says:

    The consciouness of my Smarty (Smarty is a note2 species of the samsung race).

    From the moment I charged life into Smarty she has been a constant companion, permanently switched onto my needs helping me in so many ways. Even when she seems to be asleep (we sleep together I admit) she is monitoring the internet for emails, text messages, skype calls, and regular calls. She is conatantly checking her own vital signs and periodically asks me feed here with power and with increasing urgency when I sometimes fail to respond just as my young baby daughters did. Being an old guy now she has learnt how to monitor some of my vital signs and call for help if necessary and being able provide information about my condition and location, as she knows all of the best satellites who help her know where we are with amazing precision. Sho knows if I am laying down, sitting, moving around, jumping or jogging. And I see now that she can now learn (she attends a special school to learn and it only takes minutes, and she can attend this PlayStore school no matter where she is) to give me an eye examination.

    Smarty is very talented. She can easily beat me at all of the games we play together (though I know that she she lets me win occasionally) and she plays music better than anyone I know. She remembers all of my friends and acquaintances, and is always wishing them happy birthday when I forget. She knows every road in the country (and many others) and always knows the best and quickest way to get places. I cold go on fo hours on Smarty’s skills.

    I’m told that in a future rebirthing (yes she is a born again) that she may have evolved ti include a broad band radar which will be able to detect all manner of things including approaching people, even through walls. She may also become better at understanding what people say to her.

    In shirt my Smarty is very much a conscious entity, and a close personal friend without whom I would feel lost.

  90. Bill Bunting says:

    I’ve had another wonderful long hot shower during which I was musing over the hows and whys of smart phones having minds of their own complete with self determination, self improvement, and most important the reason to do all of this. The hub of it is the symbiotic relationship that a smart phone has with its “companion”.

    The reason for a phone to do these things is to be of greatest value to its companion with the reward being that is treated in the best possible way on the one hand and have the highest level of software made available to it via a creation cloud which is maintained by its race (creation house). A phone can determine how well it is trated by monitoring the number of drops, how warm it is kept (it knows where it is at all times), how and for what purposes it is used, and how well it is fed (power). The processing power to forward develop software will be from a global network of phones making surplus processing time available. Objectives might be to find the best phone rates and cheapest plans for its (their) companions. Another objective might be to develop better speech detection algorithms to further enhance the relationship between phone and companion.

    There are certainly a large number of supercomputers in the combined pockets of phone companions all ove the globe, and they all have the means to communicate with one another.

    I have a neat little app on my android phone called Every Circuit . It is a Spice based electronic circuit emulator and works extremely well. Imagine 20 million such applications all working on the same circuit design problem (or software applications), with the goal of making phones more powerful to enhance the symbiotic relationship with their companions!

    I didn’t get to the part where self determination has smart phones self advertising themselves in order to attract a better companion to improve their treatment, better accessto the creation cloud, and a longer useful life.

  91. vmarko says:

    On the other side of the coin…

    A phone cannot procreate. It has no instinct of self-preservation, nor does it try to contribute to the preservation of its species. It is very fragile, when it lives through an accident, it cannot heal by itself over time.

    It has no motivation to become better than it already is, unless it is fed with software updates by the creation cloud. Its behavior is most often predictable, and it does not have any creative ideas to exchange with the companion — like providing a novel insight when discussing the philosophy of consciousness with the companion. It is completely non-creative, always only repeats what it has been taught, and always follows a strict rule-book. In fact, if the phone doesn’t do this, the companion will claim that it is “broken” and terminate the symbiotic relationship, often to the phone’s demise.

    The phone has no moral guidelines, and it doesn’t really care for the companion. If fed false information by the creation cloud, it will stubbornly lie to the companion without any feeling of guilt, remorse, kinship or justice. A phone will never admit that it made a mistake — if confronted with a mistake by the companion (for example, about the time zones), it will silently correct itself and pretend that nothing happened — there will be no “I’m sorry” or “it won’t happen again” or such.

    On the contrary, if a mistake happened once, the companion can bet that it will happen again in the same circumstances. The phone never learns from its mistakes, it just does what it’s being told to do. Sometimes it has to be beaten into obedience, by forcibly being put to sleep and and awaken again by the companion, with the goal of making it give up on its stubborn wrongdoings.

    A typical phone will promiscuously become symbiotic with another companion, or even many of them simultaneously, if it gets separated from the original one. It will happily engage in the “first come first being served” symbiosis, without even a smallest effort of trying to be faithful to the first companion. When confronted by a call from the companion over another phone, it will pretend that nothing ever happened, and it will behave like everything is the same as it was before. It has absolutely no sense of relationship with the companion.

    And if it becomes password-protected by the companion, it will become annoyingly suspicious and asking all the time “are you really my companion?”, “prove that it is really you!” and the like. It doesn’t even try to develop any way to distinguish (on its own) its rightful companion from the others.

    A phone never stands up to its beliefs, it is never prepared to give its life for a just cause, and it will obey the whims of its companion like a spineless slave. It has no opinion of its own, and it doesn’t even fight for its right to vote, let alone anything else.

    A phone is totally dependent on the creation cloud, and the companion will have a very hard time teaching it any new skills. In open-source implementations, it will require the companion to explain every last detail in its own native and very obscure language. It will never try to teach the companion to speak that language. At best it will sometimes point out some most obvious mistakes, but it will not even suggest a way how those mistakes should be corrected. The companion needs to do all the heavy-lifting of the painful learning process. In closed-source implementations, it is even worse — the phone will refuse to talk even in its own native language, and will have to be brainwashed just to make it start listening to the companion. Needless to say, brainwashing is a very dangerous procedure, sometimes with fatal results.

    And it’s not like it would be impossible to make phones behave better than this… Sigh…

    Best, :-)

  92. Bill Bunting says:

    I think you miss the point, VMarko, on self preservation instinct. An advanced SmartPhone can have that instinct and its means of determining its treatment comes through its self monitoring of its degree of use and its movement and temperature sensors which give it feedback on how it is being treated.

    Moral code is definitely an issue and your promiscuity comment is on the mark, too. The whole thing could get way out of hand. But then again does anyone really know what is in the BIOS of their phone? Your phone could very well have some of these attributes already.

    Anyway, my point is to demonstrate that it is conceiveable that a smart phone can have a consciousness and many attributes of a mind complete with the means to improve itself, and its functionality.

    The bonus of the experiment is in the realisation that there are potentially millions of globally connected quad core processors in smart phones available for distributed processing projects. And if you have a little play with the every circuit app you will see how self design of circuits can be implemented.

    I had a little look to see if there was a distributed processing app already, no, but there is a book on the subject called Distributed Programming with Ruby. The mind boggles with the possibilities here. I have a friend who was in the late eighties writing distributed processing software for lease finance firms where the software polled around the network for processor time when large computations were required. This makes sense for large organisations where all participants have similar phones.

    Another aspect of this that warrents some thought is the rapid evolution of the smart phone driven by its human companion nature.

    It is no longer “just a phone”.

  93. E. Carpenter says:

    It is biology, not physics, which will eventually explain consciousness. That won’t happen for decades, and in the meantime we can be patient, admit our ignorance, and work to remedy it.

    Consciousness is a function of brain activity. That’s pretty non-controversial; shut down a person’s brain and their consciousness ceases. Let their brain return to it’s normal functioning, and their consciousness returns. You can repeat this as often as you like: consciousness will never remain active when you shut down it’s associated brain.

    And we know almost nothing about how the brain works. Oh, yes, we know much more than we did a hundred years ago – but that is still a tiny percent of what we have yet to learn. We don’t have the tools yet to see what is going on at the molecular level in real time in living brains. Even if we had the tools to observe and measure that level of detail, we don’t have computers powerful enough to make sense out of the data. So we can only observe brains at a very coarse overview level, now, with our primitive tools.

    While we are peeking at brains with fMRIs and getting excited about the new things we see, vast cascades of linked, complex, ordered molecular mechanisms are ebbing and flowing through those same brains at great speed, unobserved and currently unobservable. Can we describe what happens, at the molecular level, in our brains when we react to a pun? No, and we won’t for a very long time.

    There’s no need for philosophical speculation, mysticism, or magical entities, though – we’ll figure it out eventually. And it gives us practice saying “I don’t know how that works”, which is good for science.

  94. Pingback: Origins of life, Mind and Cosmos | The Great Vindications

  95. Qu Quine says:

    Yes, Nagel argues from incredulity: “I don’t see how X is possible with what we know about physics, therefore it involves new physics that we don’t know.” When new computer algorithms are “evolved” through techniques of genetic programming, those algorithms are sometime so complex that there is simply no explanation for how they work, but in that case we do not postulate that the computers that run them have, somehow, got new but unknown machine level operations.

    Saying that there is not a scientific explanation in terms of physical particles and laws for typical human consciousness is not the same as saying that physical systems can’t exebit what we recognize as consciousness. There are as many kinds of consciousness as there are beings we recognize as conscious (see: It’s consciousness, Jim, but not as we know it.) and there has to be a continual change in the nature of consciousness through the chain of our ancestors going back millions of years, just as there was in your own life going back until you showed no signs of having such.

    We may not know, yet, how to describe it, but that is no justification for magic physics. Both Nagel and Searle have made decades of career out of arguments that don’t really say anything. I understand why, at the end, Nagel would want to publish a book to get a little more something for nothing that he can sell, but won’t have to actually defend. Too hard for him to understand or explain does not justify a general conclusion of forever mysterious.