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. 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.

  2. 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 . . .

  3. 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.


  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 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?

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. Pingback: Noted for August 23, 2013

  14. 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, 🙂

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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?

  21. 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:)

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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.