Consciousness and Dualism (Part 1)

Chapter 3 of Mind and Cosmos is simply titled, “Consciousness.”  Here, Thomas Nagel seeks to lay out the complete case for his assertion that naturalism, materialism, reductionism, etc., cannot fully explain consciousness.  He doesn’t define consciousness in this chapter, but he has written about it earlier in this book and in many other books and articles.  When I think about the issues Nagel is raising, I find that I need a clear definition of consciousness before understanding very much of what he is saying.

The reason consciousness is such a difficult word is that there are so many perceptions of what it is.  One extreme position is that consciousness doesn’t exist!  Usually what is meant by the non-existence of consciousness is that it is an accidental byproduct of evolution, sort of like the color of blood.  It is not a fundamental function; it simply emerges when physical organization becomes complex enough.  However, there is no explanation as to why consciousness should emerge from complex function in the way that one can explain the color of blood from its composition.

One way that Nagel defines consciousness is in terms of subjective experience, such as our sense of taste or our experience of color.  He has written elsewhere that we cannot be certain that other people experience the taste of chocolate the same way that we do.  We can agree to name a certain taste “chocolate,” but we cannot really be sure that we each experience that taste in the same way.  It is possible to extend the example of taste to other subjective experiences such as love, fear, pain, revulsion, shame, etc.

Once we consider the entire range of subjective experience, I think it is relatively easy to argue that such experience would develop naturally as a necessary attribute by natural selection.  That reasoning might go like this:  It is not only the individual that is important to evolution.  The kinship group, tribe or other social grouping is also important because such groups ensure the survival of the individual.  Groups can raise armies and provide for the common defense.  Groups can help ensure that individual DNA gets passed on to the next generation, and so forth.

But groups require social cohesion.  Groups don’t like individuals who don’t play well with others.  In order for an individual to be a good member of a group, that individual must consider the sensibilities of others.  The individual must develop empathy for others in order to understand why it might be wrong to take unfair advantage of other group members.  As Nagel has written elsewhere, an understanding of one’s own subjective experience is necessary for empathy.

The memory of our own subjective experience requires consciousness.  We must be able to focus our attention on experiences that cause feelings and remember them.  He has also referred to this ability as mental capability or “mind.”  The evolutionary reasoning alone seems to provide solid evidence for the reality of subjective experience and consciousness.  It’s at least as real as any other objects of philosophical inquiry such as the existence of the external world.  We cannot live successfully in the real world without a solid belief in the external world and the subjective experiences of ourselves and others.

So, if the case for evolution naturally explains the development of subjective experience and consciousness, what is missing?  What is missing is the reductionist, scientific explanation that shows why subjective experience and consciousness arises from the physical aspects of evolution.  Unlike the color of blood which can be explained in terms of its molecular composition, subjective experience has no obvious connection to the physical.

At this point one has to decide whether to consider dualist solutions to the problem.  And Nagel gives a very good explanation of the history of proposed solutions.  The problem begins with the nature of the post-enlightenment scientific revolution and he assigns a major role to René Descartes.  Descartes’ major accomplishment was the discovery of analytic geometry:  Descartes showed how geometry could be analyzed numerically.  This development was essential for the later development by Newton of the laws of motion.  Without analytic geometry, Newton could not have subjected motion to numerical analysis.  This led to the development of calculus which laid the foundation of all modern scientific explanation.

However, Descartes is famous for something else.  He thought deeply about consciousness and its connection to the nascent materialist explanations of the world.  The new developments in science were possible because they set aside the experience of consciousness.  A detailed, numerical description of the physical world became possible by leaving out any explanation of the mental world.  Descartes attempted to include the mental world as an associated phenomenon of the material world without an explicit, physical connection.  That is the source of his famous dictum, “Cogito ergo sum,” or “I think, therefore I am.”  Descartes’ assertion means that mental phenomena and physical phenomena arise together; we would not know that we exist in a material sense without consciousness.

This explanation of consciousness by Descartes is known as Cartesian Dualism and it has been the source of ongoing controversy about the nature of the world.  If one accepts dualism, then there is something other than matter in the universe and that something can be called spirit or soul or sometimes, “the ghost in the machine.”  Therefore, dualism is the bane of those desiring a materialist explanation.  And that includes Nagel.

But Nagel also shows how difficult it is to avoid dualism when all materialist explanations have failed.  Those difficulties have challenged me.  I will write about them next time.

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Theism and Materialism

In Chapter 2 of Mind and Cosmos by Thomas Nagel, the author explores the typical positions held by proponents of theism and by proponents of evolution.  His focus is sharpened by analysis of the different ways that each point of view attempts to make sense of human beings who are part of the world that ought to be intelligible to us.

According to Nagel, theists appeal to a deity who is outside the natural order, but who nevertheless provides intention and directionality to the natural order and who assures us of the basic reliability of our observational capacity and our reasoning ability.  It is a reassuring position at the expense of requiring a power outside of the natural order.  It suffers from a lack of any serious attempt to make human beings intelligible from within the natural order.

Evolutionary naturalists, on the other hand, claim that humanity is intelligible from within the natural order based on science and reason.  But, again according to Nagel, the problem is that both science and reason are the products of evolution and we have no authority outside of ourselves to substantiate the reliability of our understanding of science.  In Nagel’s terminology, evolutionary naturalism undermines its own claim of reliability.  Ultimately, the evolutionary explanations fail because the science that we possess has failed to explain consciousness and therefore failed to explain why we should trust the judgments arising from our consciousness.

I think Nagel is stretching too far for a criticism of the evolutionary point of view.  Its main problem is the inability for science to explain consciousness.  To find fault for the inability of evolution to provide reassurance that our reasoning is sound is the same criticism that can be applied to the theist position.   Both positions are based on faith!  Theists have faith in God based on a religious community and Darwinian evolutionists have faith in science based on the scientific community.  If anything, the evolutionary point of view has the advantage in that the scientific community is generally more unified and disciplined than the religious community.

The primary distinction between the two points of view, then, is the position and importance that each assigns to humanity.  Theism relies on a power outside the normal purview of science to explain and give meaning to human life and consciousness while evolution relies solely on current science at the expense of diminishing any essential or transcendent importance for human life and consciousness.

Nagel is searching for middle ground.  He wants an explanation for consciousness that does not rely on a power outside the natural order.  At this point in his book, I think he fails to see that any such explanation will be relying on faith in something.  Whether that something is science or philosophy or some combination, it will still be the object of faith.  Given the constraints on his search that there can be no power outside the natural order, his explanation would not be able to claim any more authority than evolutionary materialism.

From my point of view, a form of theism that provides a way for God to work through the natural order provides the best alternative.  The importance and discipline of science is maintained and modified so that human life and consciousness have access to transcendent power for guidance and assurance.

Scientific reductionism ends at the quantum boundary, so the assumption of transcendent consciousness working at the quantum level provides for the needed adjustment to science while maintaining the entire scientific edifice based on empirical evidence and reductionist explanation.  And there is scientific evidence for an order producing power working at the quantum level.  This evidence is being developed by the nascent scientific discipline of quantum biology.

The strongest evidence to date comes from quantum action during photosynthesis, but I expect much more evidence as quantum biology matures.  After all, isn’t all of physics based on quantum action?  The only alternative besides dualism would be a view that posits new scientific principles acting at the biological level.  But, it seems to me that there is too much continuity between chemistry and biology.  That continuity leaves little room for wholly new principles to be plausible.

What if Evolution had Produced an Unintelligible World?

In Chapter 2 of Thomas Nagel’s book, Mind and Cosmos, the author explores more deeply the reasons why materialist reductionism is necessary for science and why mind cannot be explained by such a reductionist approach.  One important observation is that we believe that the world is intelligible:

“Science is driven by the assumption that the world is intelligible. That is, the world in which we find ourselves, and about which experience gives us some information, can be not only described but understood. That assumption is behind every pursuit of knowledge, including pursuits that end in illusion. In the natural sciences as they have developed since the seventeenth century, the assumption of intelligibility has led to extraordinary discoveries, confirmed by prediction and experiment, of a hidden natural order that cannot be observed by human perception alone. Without the assumption of an intelligible underlying order, which long antedates the scientific revolution, those discoveries could not have been made.”

On the one hand, I can hear the Darwinian materialist answer that evolution could not have done otherwise since we have evolved to be successful in the existing world.  Of course we understand the world!  Our survival depends on it!  However, this response only provides a partial answer.

Clearly, we are dependent on biological adaptation to the physical world.  All of our physical movements in the world depend on an intuitive understanding of the physical laws that govern such activity.  We could not long survive without intuitively grasping the law of gravity.  One could even argue that our direct experience with electricity and with radiation have come so recently that we have not yet had time to evolve an intuitive understanding of these forces.

Yet, it is difficult to see why evolution would need to respond to the electromagnetic force or the nuclear force by making them comprehensible, since direct experience with these forces is rare.  Why wouldn’t evolution respond to electricity and radiation by providing either immunity or an avoidance reaction?   So the question raised by Nagel boils down to why have we been so successful in understanding such non-intuitive phenomenon as electromagnetism and nuclear energy?

Our success at understanding non-intuitive scientific principles is even more remarkable when we consider how our minds are wired.  From my viewpoint as a computer programmer, the human brain works in a very inefficient manner.  We don’t simply compute responses to input stimuli as one might expect.  The mind is actually continuously generating expected results and comparing the expected results to observed activity and our attention is drawn to areas where the expected results do not match reality so we can make quick adjustments.

Our minds are wired to be generators of outcomes based on intuitive narratives that we have learned from experience.  This is why professional tennis players and baseball players can hit a ball that is travelling faster than we can consciously follow.  Professional players have learned to see clues about the physical dynamics of play that they have learned from experience and sometimes cannot even consciously explain.

In fact, our need for a narrative to generate expected outcomes is so great that it doesn’t much matter how good the narrative is as long as it does better than random chance.  That is why superstition can sometimes have such a strong grip on our outlook if we have had experiences that have confirmed those superstitions.  The same can be said about political and social beliefs.  The simple narrative always has an advantage over the more complex narrative because it is easier to use based on the way that our minds are wired.

So we are not naturally predisposed to understanding complex and abstract subjects like electromagnetism.  Yet we seem driven to explain the physical world even if we do not need such explanations for individual survival.  One could say this is about group power, but it seems to me that curiosity precedes the desire for prestige and power.  Time after time the satisfaction of curiosity is the only reward.  Few persons make the important discoveries that pay off in terms of power and prestige.

Nagel thinks this character of intelligibility leads to an important conclusion.  Since we have evolved to find the world intelligible, and we, ourselves, are part of the world, then we must be able to understand ourselves.  We are certainly driven to try.  I am still waiting for a clear answer.

Can the Philosophy of Mind Revise Science?

Thomas Nagel makes an astounding claim in his book, Mind and Cosmos.  That claim is that the entire edifice of science must change in order to accommodate the fact that human beings have evolved with minds that cannot be explained by science.  His reasoning in Chapter 1 goes like this:

“The great advances in the physical and biological sciences were made possible by excluding the mind from the physical world. This has permitted a quantitative understanding of that world, expressed in timeless, mathematically formulated physical laws. But at some point it will be necessary to make a new start on a more comprehensive understanding that includes the mind.”

“Mind, as a development of life, must be included as the most recent stage of this long cosmological history, and its appearance, I believe, casts its shadow back over the entire process and the constituents and principles on which the process depends.”

Nagel discounts intervention by an intelligent designer, but favors some sort of teleological explanation that can be contained within the laws of nature.  Presumably, Nagel’s teleological principle would modify the laws of physics so that those laws would be more likely to support the genesis of life and the evolutionary direction that he perceives.  What sort of modification could that be and still have the laws of physics support reductionism?  Although Nagel doesn’t require reductionism in his approach, I am adding the requirement of supporting reductionism because some form of causal reductionism is necessary to maintain the history of successful scientific explanation.

First, teleology is a philosophical position that attributes to nature the ability to proceed toward a final goal or objective.  That would seem to imply that whatever adjustment is made to physics, that it would need to be sophisticated enough to be able to correlate long term implications with assign short-term actions.  Short term actions that did not correlate strongly with the desired long term outcome would need to be minimized.

Second, in order to change physics so that the entire structure of physics does not have to be re-built requires a rather subtle change.  One way that I have stated that change is as a bias in the laws of physics that favor life.  I think that still works in Nagel’s framework, although in order to be more compatible with Nagel, perhaps the bias also needs to favor consciousness.

Third, the place to insert such a subtle change so that it doesn’t greatly disturb the whole structure of science is at the most fundamental level.  For physics that would be at the quantum level.  And some physicists do argue that quantum physics is incomplete as it is now constituted.

There may be many such modifications, but the simplest modification that I can imagine would be a decision process in quantum physics that favors life and consciousness.  The decision process would need to produce the exact same results that quantum experiments currently confirm.  And it would need to provide for the action of biological molecules in the simplest organisms and in the most complex organisms.  Presumably such a bias would also greatly increase the likelihood that life originated from the available raw materials, either on Earth or nearby.

In such a framework where a decision process favoring life and consciousness has been added to quantum physics, the fundamental particles would be representatives of the decision process rather than mechanistic material particles.  Some explanation would be needed to differentiate the constituents of inorganic matter from living biological matter.

In order to explain mind with this new edifice, it will be necessary to explain how individual particles can bind together into larger entities that possess the attributes of a single mind.  That may not be easy, but it is probably easier than explaining how mind can emerge from a collection of mechanistic particles.

I believe that such a decision process requires an intelligent power at least as powerful as the human mind, but probably vastly more powerful since this power must encompass the entire scope and history of the Universe.  That is why I take the theistic position contrary to Nagel’s atheistic position.

I am looking forward to a more specific proposal from Nagel as I plunge into Chapter 2.

Has Scientific Reductionism Failed?

Yesterday, I began reading Thomas Nagel’s book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.  This book has generated a lot of controversy and I wanted to comment on some of the author’s statements as I encountered them rather than waiting until I had finished the book.

In Chapter 1, Nagel lays out his basic argument.  He is asserting that the central concept about the nature of the universe held by most secular-minded persons is not true.  That concept is that life began from a chemical accident several billion years ago and once life began to evolve, it proceeded by random mutation to develop new species arriving at humankind all within a time frame set by the age of the earth and the age of the universe.

According to Nagel, the reason that most secular-minded people hold this view is that many scientists present this view as the only possible scenario: “But among the scientists and philosophers who do express views about the natural order as a whole, reductive materialism is widely assumed to be the only serious possibility.”

Nagel goes on to say that reductive materialism has failed: “The starting point for the argument is the failure of psychophysical reductionism, a position in the philosophy of mind that is largely motivated by the hope of showing how the physical sciences could in principle provide a theory of everything.”

Later, Nagel qualifies this by saying he is mainly speaking about materialist reductionism as it applies to biology (and mind, presumably).  And here is where some clarification is needed.  Nagel uses several phrases to describe the type of reductionism he is speaking about.  In Chapter 1 they are:  “psychophysical reductionism,”  “physio-chemical reductionism,” and “materialist reductionism.”  What they all have in common is reductionism, so it will help to understand what reductionism is.

Reductionism is the idea that any complex entity can be completely understood and explained by analysis of its parts.  It is like peeling back the layers of an onion to reveal the innermost layer which presumably is the fundamental layer from which everything can be explained.  Within the physical sciences this approach has been very successful.  The innermost, fundamental layer for the physical sciences is the layer described as the “Standard Model of Particle Physics.”  This model describes the fundamental particles such as the electron and proton (quarks) as well as the fundamental forces such as the electromagnetic force.

The standard model has been very successful.  Its most recent achievement was the prediction and tentative confirmation of the Higgs Boson, also known as the “God particle,” a name suggested by a journalist, not a scientist.  So I was taken aback when I first read that reductionism had failed.

I think that Nagel is referring to the current inability to explain biology and particularly mind in terms of the features of the standard model.  I think that is an accurate statement:  living organisms cannot be fully understood or explained by appealing to their constituent particles and fundamental forces, if those entities are understood mechanically.

What I think is missing is the realization that the standard model may not be the most fundamental layer of scientific reductionism.  It is simply the layer that is best understood.  The standard model describes phenomenon at the quantum boundary.  Its particles and forces are the smallest measurable entities on which science can perform experiments.  The components of the standard model are conceptual entities.  But they are conceptual entities that have a huge advantage over the layer beneath them: they are measurable.

One could argue that the quantum layer is more fundamental than the standard model.  The huge problem is that the quantum layer contains conceptual entities that cannot be measured, even in principle.  The conceptual entities of the quantum layer are quantum states and they cannot be measured.  But quantum states are the mathematical entities that are essential for the success of the standard model.  So who is to say that quantum states are any less real than electrons and protons?

At the quantum boundary, science has encountered the absolute limit on what can be measured.  So, in that sense, science has reached the limit of what it can confirm experimentally.  But, if one believes that the quantum world is real, then an entirely different picture emerges from the standard model.  Instead of mechanistic particles, the quantum world suggests that elementary particles are computed entities.  One does not need to attribute classical computation to these tiny bundles of energy.  What is important is that there exists a decisional process in the universe that determines the specific outcome whenever one of these particles participates in the transfer of energy from one place in space-time to another place in space-time.

In other words, the fundamental particles are more mind-stuff than material-stuff.  I think that counts as a success for scientific reductionism, not as failure.  Of course the problem is that one must make a leap of faith to the point of view that the quantum world represents reality.  That might be a leap too far for the many who have been trained in the classical view of reality.