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.

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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.