Thomas Nagel is not crazy

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Thomas Nagel is not crazy

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The philosopher Thomas Nagel thinks the materialist scientific worldview cannot explain consciousness. Is he right? Image: perpetualplum

If we’re to believe science, we’re made of organs and cells. These cells are made up of organic matter. Organic matter is made up chemicals. This goes all the way down to strange entities like quarks and Higgs bosons. We’re also conscious, thinking things. You’re reading these words and making sense of them. We have the capacity to reason abstractly and grapple with various desires and values. It is the fact that we’re conscious and rational that led us to believe in things like Higgs bosons in the first place.

But what if science is fundamentally incapable of explaining our own existence as thinking things? What if it proves impossible to fit human beings neatly into the world of subatomic particles and laws of motion that science describes? In Mind and Cosmos (Oxford University Press), the prominent philosopher Thomas Nagel’s latest book, he argues that science alone will never be able to explain a reality that includes human beings. What is needed is a new way of looking at and explaining reality; one which makes mind and value as fundamental as atoms and evolution.

For most philosophers, and many people in general, this is a radical departure from the way we understand things. Nagel, according to his critics, has completely lost it. Linking to one particularly damning review in The Nation, Steven Pinker tweeted, “What has gotten into Thomas Nagel? Two philosophers expose the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.”

Nagel’s pessimism about science’s ability to explain things like consciousness has a long history. In his seminal 1974 essay “What is it like to be a bat?”, he argues that even if you knew every single physical fact about someone, you’d still have no idea what it is like to be them. I could know everything there is to know about perception, but I’ll never know what it feels like to be colour-blind, save some horrible accident. Similarly no matter how much we know about bats’ ability to use echolocation we can never really know what it is like to be a bat flying about in the dark, navigating with reverberating sound waves. So, given that we are all conscious beings, it seems science is missing out on something quite fundamental. There are facts, or parts of reality, it leaves behind.

Nagel’s argument has been criticised in a variety of ways. Philosophers like Daniel Dennett or Paul Churchland argue that Nagel’s whole approach is flawed. We are of course conscious, but consciousness is a phenomenon that can eventually be explained by science the same way heat and colour are. The residual “what-its-like-ness” is just an outdated term with no real meaning, rather like obsolete scientific theories about the “ether” or “phlogiston.”

But this line of attack is hard to accept. To us it really does feel as if there is something “it-is-like” to be conscious. Besides their strange account of consciousness, Nagel’s opponents also face the classic problem of how something physical like a brain can produce something like a mind. Take perception: photons bounce off objects and hit the eye, cones and rods translate this into a chemical reaction, this reaction moves into the neurons in our brain, some more reactions take place and then…you see something. Everything up until seeing something is subject to scientific laws, but, somewhere between neurons and experience, scientific explanation ends. There is no fact of the matter about how you see a chair as opposed to how I see it, or a colour-blind person sees it. The same goes for desires or emotions. We can look at all the pieces leading up to experience under a microscope, but there’s no way to look at your experience itself or subject it to proper scientific scrutiny.

Of course philosophers sympathetic to science have many ways to make this seem like a non-problem. But in the end Nagel argues that simply “the mind-body problem is difficult enough that we should be suspicious of attempts to solve it with the concepts and methods developed to account for very different kinds of things.” And I think many of us are sympathetic to this line of reasoning.

Nagel, however, goes much further, which is what makes Mind and Cosmos interesting. Even if we agree with him that consciousness presents a serious problem for the idea that science can explain all of reality, Nagel’s next move is more controversial. He asks what reason there can be for the existence of consciousness. He rules out intelligent design and God, and even evolution. Nagel concludes, in a vein similar to the German idealist philosophers of the late 18th and early 19th century, that the nature of reality is such that there is a natural progression towards consciousness.

By this stage Nagel’s argument might have begun to appear absurd. However, he begins with modest considerations. It seems reasonable to suppose that for every truth there must be an explanation for why it is the case, often called “the principle of sufficient reason.” One may be tempted to deny this. There may be some inexplicable truths. But then one is faced with justifying why no explanation is needed. Why not just accept the brute fact that objects fall rather than bothering with Newtonian physics? There may be inexplicable facts deep in the fabric of reality, but most of them need explanation. One such fact that needs explaining is that there are conscious beings.

What sort of explanations are there for human consciousness? One is that there is some God or supernatural entity out there who endowed us with consciousness. But this explanation comes with its own vast set of problems. What is the explanation for God’s existence? Is he a part of nature? If not how can he cause things? Is he omnipotent? Can he create a boulder so big he can’t move it, and so on.

Another explanation looks to the theory of evolution. Darwin’s account of evolution, broadly speaking, says that animals’ traits will largely be determined by the environment they have existed in—namely the traits that allow one organism to survive and reproduce rather than another. Thicker furs in colder climates and sharper teeth for carnivores are good examples of adaptive traits. Consciousness could be like teeth or fur; a trait that allowed our ancestors to survive and reproduce. However, the principle of sufficient reason resurfaces. What does being conscious add, in terms of pure adaptability, over and above having really good adaptive behavioural patters? Why aren’t we unconscious primates who unreflectively go about our business?

Seeing these problems Nagel concludes that the Darwinian answer is irreparably flawed. Ruling out divine intervention or design, evolution, and inexplicability, what reason is there left to explain consciousness? The only remaining answer, Nagel argues, is that on a fundamental level there is an end towards which the cosmos is naturally inclined: a natural teleology. Part of this natural teleology is a tendency for there to be creatures that are conscious. The universe, in a way of speaking, wants to become conscious. This conclusion may look no less strange or absurd than when I first introduced it, but it is at least clear that Nagel did not pluck it out of thin air. And even if we do not agree with his conclusion, the route he takes to arrive there raises many serious questions for philosophical naturalism (the theory that science exhaustively explains the universe).

I have overlooked two significant aspects of Nagel’s book. In addition to all the problems surrounding consciousness, Nagel argues that things like the laws of mathematics and moral values are real (as real, that is, as cars and cats and chairs) and that they present even more problems for science. It is harder to explain these chapters largely because they followed less travelled paths of inquiry. Often Nagel’s argument rests on the assumption that it is absurd to deny the objective reality, or mind-independence, of certain basic moral values (that extreme and deliberate cruelty to children is wrong, for instance) or the laws of logic. Whether this is convincing or not, depends on what you think is absurd and what is explainable. Regardless, this gives a sense of the framework of Nagel’s argument and his general approach.

As often happens when a philosopher deviates from scientific orthodoxy, Nagel’s book has been thoroughly denounced. Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg, in their highly critical review for The Nation, led the charge, asking, “Are we really supposed to abandon a massively successful scientific research program because Nagel finds some scientific claims hard to square with what he thinks is obvious?” Elliott Sober, in the Boston Review, wrote “[Nagel] argues that evolutionary biology is fundamentally flawed and that physics also needs to be rethought—that we need a new way to do science.” Nonetheless, says Sober, “Nagel acknowledges that he has no teleological theory of his own to offer. His job, as he sees it, is to point to a need; creative scientists, he hopes, will do the heavy lifting.”

Now to my knowledge at no point in Mind and Cosmos (or elsewhere) does Nagel suggest that scientists put down their microscopes, shut down their particle accelerators, and abandon their research programmes. In fact he explicitly states that “For all I know, most practicing scientists may have no opinion about the overarching cosmological questions…their detailed research and substantive findings do not in general depend on or imply [materialist reductionism] or any other answer to such questions.”

What Nagel does suggest is that philosophers, or scientists who wish to provide philosophical insight look at the relationship between mind and nature in a different way. In particular, philosophers should stop assuming that reality will one day be exhaustively explained by science, and start trying to incorporate other methods of explanation into our worldview.

In response, philosophers like Weisberg and Leiter and Sober tend to dig their heels in, reiterate the pragmatic values of science, and conclude that these values are sufficient to justify philosophical naturalism. But this is not a satisfactory counterargument. Nagel and most critics of naturalism agree that our best methodology for predicting and manipulating natural phenomena is science. But why suppose that reality is exhaustively described by science in its current form? There are plenty of things that aren’t obviously describable in scientific terms which are part of reality: mathematics, logic, language, history, and, here we go again, consciousness. It is never going to be possible to put these under a microscope.

There is also no obvious reason why the scientific method (granting that there is a coherent singular scientific method and content, which is itself dubious) warrants one picture of reality over another. A scientist might share Nagel’s philosophical perspective, but this won’t make any difference in the lab. There s/he will get along just fine with scientists who hold the more common materialist/naturalist metaphysical viewpoint. They’ll both have the same conditions for falsification and crafting a hypothesis and they’ll both read the same studies and keep the same standards for accuracy. In fact it’s hard to see if they’d ever know each other’s respective worldviews unless during a lunch break an impromptu debate on metaphysics breaks out.

Of course Weisberg-Leiter, Sober, and others have answers to these criticisms. These debates are not new, and they’ve generated mountains of books and papers in the philosophy of science, mind, metaphysics, and epistemology. Regardless, one of the motivating factors behind Nagel’s book, one largely glossed over by his critics so far, is that even with the extraordinary success of science, there is no obvious way it could account for things like consciousness, rationality, or moral values. We can disagree with Nagel that those things need to be part of our picture of reality.  We can disagree with Nagel that there must be one coherent way of describing reality. We can even disagree with Nagel that there is an appearance-reality distinction. But we can’t keep gesturing to science’s great pragmatic value as a way of papering over its incomplete metaphysics.

Mind and Cosmos is ambitious in scope, philosophically creative, decently written, and, most importantly, short. This makes it more enjoyable and readable than most philosophy titles out there, which are getting worryingly larger in volume and narrower in scope. Nagel’s arguments against naturalism as an account of reality are powerful and demand close consideration, even if his positive arguments for a natural teleology end up looking every bit as intuitively implausible as a description of reality that leaves out consciousness.

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  1. October 23, 2012

    Kallan Greybe

    It looks as if Nagel may have fallen into the fairly famous trap of adaptationism, the idea that every trait of an organism is specifically adapted for a purpose. It’s the same fallacy that drives some of the worst excesses of evolutionary psychology, and trust me, you’ll get your fair share of biologists keen to argue against evo-psych. There’s a fairly famous Stephen J Gould/ Richard Lewontin paper that’s considered the usual response.

    http://faculty.washington.edu/lynnhank/GouldLewontin.pdf

    In summary the argument is that it’s perfectly possible that consciousness is just a by-product of the process that allows us to put together a creature that responds appropriately to its environment. Sure, this doesn’t of course say that evolution has given *the* explanation for consciousness. All it establishes is that the existence of consciousness is neutral relative to evolution as an explanatory theory overall.

    • October 23, 2012

      lamo

      I think Nagel is using a broad definition of reason here. (Not saying that his reason works). Scientists rarely use teleological reasoning. If you allow more things to be reasons, there is less scope for some fact to be an incidental particularity. So, Nagel can agree with the criticisms of evpsych, but say that he has an easier task because he has a bigger pool of reasons to search in.

      • October 24, 2012

        Kallan Greybe

        Okay, so the argument if I read it right is that Nagel thinks something like in order for consciousness to arise is a reason for things to happen. Two ways I can think of that maybe working (maybe you can think of more.)

        One could be something like the classic anthropic principle: consciousness *has* arisen, therefore everything that was necessary for consciousness to happen, necessarily has happened. The next step is to say that something over and above evolution has to come into our explanation because evolution only gives us physical facts and we need something over and above the physical facts to explain consciousness in Nagel’s scheme.

        The second could be something like there are certain mechanical reasons why for instance legs are shaped the way they are. A lot of the specifics may be different but the overall function has to work in very similar ways. So, in principle, there is such a thing as the ideal leg mechanically, and you can think of all legs as necessarily evolving to fit that leg, but that leg itself doesn’t need to be explained using evolution: it’s described using a completely different science.

        Of the two, the first has to rest pretty heavily on Nagel’s views about consciousness and for my money I’m with Dennett and the Churchlands in that I don’t think there’s any reason we should expect the facts of our consciousness to fit our intuitions. The second maybe has more legs, but I’m left curious about why we would consider it a flaw in evolution as opposed to one more tool in science, one I’m pretty sure biologists are already using.

        • October 27, 2012

          lamo

          Teleological reasoning can be broader than anthropic reasoning or an overlay over an already complete, local step by step model. This is strange, used as we are, to mechanical explanations. However formally, there is no mathematical obstruction for a system to obey non-local evolution laws. The Principle of Least Action in classical mechanics is an alternative global way of expressing the evolution of a system which is equivalent to the local Newton’s laws description. Quantum mechanics has some non-local aspects but not in a way that allows information to be transferred. Physicists sometimes work on genuinely non-local models. In any case, this would be a big break in science if a non-local model becomes accepted. Not sure if Nagel has enough evidence to demonstrate the need for such a break.

           
        • October 27, 2012

          Kallan Greybe

          Possibly is the best I can say I’m afraid. I get the Principle of Least Action as a form of teleological explanation. I certainly also get why you say that mechanistic explanations are intuitively very satisfying (I went to a conference recently where more than a few people were arguing they are in fact necessary) but the view of science in the 20th century is generally critical of causal explanations all together, not just in the places you cite, in favour of mathematical generalisations. If what you’re suggesting then is that physicalism is committed to a mechanistic explanation of consciousness, then that seems to me to run counter to the received wisdom about scientific explanation.

          As for whether Nagel himself gives a suitable theory, I think both of the reviews suggest that he’s pretty light on the details when it comes to giving a proper teleology of science.

           
        • October 27, 2012

          lamo

          Not suggesting that physicalism (whatever it means, I actually dont think it is a sensible concept as there is no clear way to draw a boundary around models which look like our current physical models in the space of possible mathematical models and experimental interpretations) is committed to local, step by step, mechanical models. I was going for the opposite actually since one can trivially right down a math model which is non-local without a equivalent local model(although no such model has experimental success). So, we seem to be agreeing here.

          But yes, it would very strange. Not just because it is non-intuitive, but also because the basis of scientific theories are experiments isolated from outside influence, where one can make predictions. In a non-local model, this would not even be theoretically possible. Otoh, one could get incomplete local descriptions from a non-local model. Since we are resigned to incompleteness in any case in quantum theory, this shouldn’t be a fundamental obstacle.

           
        • October 27, 2012

          lamo

          Small correction, when I said no such model has experimental success, this is not completely true. As I said quantum mechanics has some non-local aspects and the Bohm interpetation works with a globally complete, but locally incomplete model. My rough understanding is that this is non-locality in space not non-locality in time which is what is relevant to Nagel.

           
  2. October 26, 2012

    John Puddefoot

    Nagel is mistaken about natural teleology and Dennett and others are wrong to dismiss Nagel’s “what is it like to be a bat?” question just because they cannot deal with it. The reason they cannot deal with it is that Nagel is right to pose the question as fundamental in a deep sense. It is irrelevant whether inside-looking-out-ness is an evolutionary adaptation; what matters is that it is a reality shared with most of the higher animals. It is also irrelevant whether science can explain it: of course it can; to have an inside-looking-out-ness we need brains of a certain sophistication. Dual aspect theories that go back to Spinoza and ultimately Aristotle are basically right and basically explain the mind/body problem without remainder. Unfortunately, most commentators don’t understand the argument and try to look for something MORE than just being-a-body-with-certain-kind-of-brain as an explanation, whereas that IS the explanation: being that kind of body means it is like something to be you; not being it (in a lesser sense) means it isn’t. Why is this so problematic?

  3. October 27, 2012

    Mr Mann

    Yes, quite. Actual anti-Cartesians, Heidegger (if one can ignore his personal egregiousness), Wittgenstein, Marx, et al., understood well enough that there is, and or, was, no mind-body problem at all. Insofar, that is, that they were able to accept the purposeful reality of the human being as an actually existing thing, and not as it were, as a mere mind and or brain-bound monad. To this extent there truly is a natural teleology, that is to say, as is exhibited by our daily lives. We know, as did Aristotle, that there is no problem here. Besides, whatever it is that Nagel is smoking, Dennett, and indeed, other so-called ‘philosophical naturalists’, would appear to be smoking it too. As they tend, rather ironically given their stated aversion to ‘metaphysics’, to maintain equally elaborate, and at that, just as thoroughly nonsensical ontologies (e.g. laws of nature and other such chimerical beasts; ‘two-draft models of whatever the hell have you’; ‘computational theories of whatever it is mind is meant to be’; ‘determinism’, which is itself subtly anthropomorphic; logical necessity as opposed to historically developed convention; the belief that ‘artificial intelligence’ is about something other than whether or not we’re willing to employ a certain word; they also tend to believe in something called ‘science’ which isn’t simply a word of a similar use and provenance as, say, for example, ‘sport’) Suffering from what Peter Hacker has called ‘degenerate Cartesianism’, wherein the brain supplants the immaterial mind as the chief locus of certain eminently silly problematics. We are our bodies, and we do not stand in any causal relation to ourselves. Also, can we all please desist from the mystifyingly inane use of the word consciousness! Which is of course that which I happen to lose every evening and happily regain each morning I wake. If dear old Ludwig were here he’d ask us to be quiet. Although maybe the flies are simply unwilling to leave their bottles.

    • October 28, 2012

      Kallan Greybe

      No, I think you’ll find Dennett at least is well aware of the dangers of Cartesianism: he is a protege of Ryle, the man who gave us the whole Cartesian Theatre analogy after all. If anything his idea is to build a thoroughly pragmatic physicalist philosophy of mind, one that Wittgenstein wouldn’t in principle disagree with I think:

      “The Multiple Drafts model makes [the procedure of] “writing it down” in memory criterial for consciousness: that is what it is for the “given” to be “taken” … *There is no reality of conscious experience independent of the effects of various vehicles of content on subsequent action (and hence, of course, on memory)*.”
      (from Wikipedia, emph mine)

      I can’t see anything there that the Investigations Wittgenstein would object to, can you?

      As for ontologies, well modern philosophy has pulled back quite a lot on the anti-metaphysics so it’s probably safer to say for a lot of physicalists the metaphysics is an open question with extremists every which way. Equally your criticism of the Cartesian turn, and implicitly empiricism in general, is a bit of a straw man in this debate given that Logical Positivism, or to be more precise given your arguments Logical Empiricism, isn’t very well thought of at the moment.

      Also, one last comment, I find your mentions laws of nature as an ontological problem for physicalists and naturalists more generally a strange one, simply because the move towards law like descriptions was the move away from including ontological implications in our explanations. This is what the move away from causal explanations towards mathematical descriptions of phenomena is trying to do and it’s been pretty much successful. Empiricism, in the very stripped down Cartesian sense you’re criticising where the only thing we’re interested in is the naked experience, is simply one further thinning of the ontological layers and one that we can safely separate from the question of natural laws. No, the real challenge to natural law accounts is a purely epistemological one about whether or not we’ve found genuine laws or mere accidental generalisations.

      In any case, that’s me tapped out. It does look like I’ll need to take time off to reread Consciousness Explained now though. Thanks for the jog Mr Mann.

    • April 8, 2014

      Jacqueline

      Excellently put. I should just like to add Merleau-Ponty’s dual aspect, viz: I am my body, and I have a body.

  4. October 27, 2012

    Alyson

    If, as I would contend, consciousness is the organisation of matter into form then it is a force, intrinsic to everything from molecules to large life forms.

    To quote from wiki though, ‘In their controversial Orch-OR theory of consciousness, Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff postulate that microtubules in neurons conduct quantum-level manipulations of matter, which produces consciousness’.

    At its most fundamental organisational level, light would seem to be the energy which powers consciousness. The observation of exchanges across synapses by neuroscience, evidences a mapping of information, also exchanged throughout the body, and possibly a wider energy field, postulated as an electro-magnetic field or aura of consciousness, personal to each individual.

    The anthropic principle allows the inference that consciousness is present in all living forms, which organise their own growth, such as plants seeking water or turning towards the light, flowers closing at night etc. Synchronicity may just be quantum reality in action.

  5. October 28, 2012

    myatheistlife

    One need not be a philosopher to ponder the meaning or purpose of consciousness. There are many paths that will bring a person to such a point.

    My unprofessional opinion goes like this:

    It is possible that evolutionarily speaking, the greater volume of sensory data that is available, the greater a need to interpret that data. As we stack bigger/better processing on top of the data it is not difficult to see that having a manager process, a supervisor to make more of the data than simply processing it to usable data. Seeing your food does not require the abilities we have with sight… as an example.

    That we are able to think and plan in abstract ways and without being in the environment that we are thinking about only gives us further advantage not only against the environment but against other mammals like us.

    Consciousness, as in humans and mammals, is more probably an emergent phenomena. Recent acceptance of consciousness in animals attests to these thoughts.

    The problem that I see is that we are attempting to see how consciousness works (thus being able to better guess why it exists) from within consciousness. This is ripe for all manner of errors, for we do not easily separate emotion from thought, nor sensory data from experience. We say we feel tired, not that we are out of energy. We say that a sunset is beautiful not that it is a colorful event that happens every 24 hours or so. The very language that we use to describe consciousness is rife with bias.

    I don’t think we’ll understand why there is consciousness until we understand what it is. My bet is that it is our ability to empathize and think abstractly turned inward on the machinery that implements those functions. From thinking about what is that round red fruit on that bush to what am I is not difficult to understand. That is to say that the very processes that made us more competitive and adaptable necessarily lead to consciousness. What was useful to evolution became a preoccupation for the mind that was capable of such thought processes.

    The ability to think about the fruit and in abstract ways is evolutionarily useful. They tell you that others can see you better than you can see yourself, an adage which tells us that our own perceptions of ‘us’ is not as accurate as our perceptions of others. The processes we use to think (consciousness) are separate from the processes we use to analyze sensory data for it is the additional sensory data that makes our perceptions of others different than our perceptions of ourselves.

    We are meat machines with a flawed self analysis process. Consciousness is probably the experience of being a part of that processes, seeing it from the controller process’ point of view. I’ve been looking for research or stories about those who have physiological problems which suppress a sense of self. Does anyone have links? There is lots of self help sites that come up, but not serious research.

  6. October 30, 2012

    Mike

    “But this line of attack is hard to accept. To us it really does feel as if there is something “it-is-like” to be conscious. ”

    It also feels like the sun is going around the earth. To many people, “it feels like” supernatural beings are talking to them.

    “even with the extraordinary success of science, there is no obvious way it could account for things like consciousness, rationality, or moral values. ”
    This is like one of those statements made by scientists 100 years ago, saying that everything was already wrapped up and the scientific enterprise was over.

    It seems that Nagel is proposing a “philosophy of the gaps”. If _he_ can’t work it all out _now_, then there is a massive problem.

    • October 30, 2012

      Mike

      [clicked reply by accident, and didn't find an edit feature]

      last para:

      It seems that Nagel is proposing a “philosophy of the gaps”. If _he_ can’t work it all out _now_, then he insists there is a massive systematic problem.

  7. October 30, 2012

    Peter Hardy

    “even with the extraordinary success of science, there is no obvious way it could account for things like consciousness, rationality, or moral values. We can disagree with Nagel that those things need to be part of our picture of reality. ” – Erm, how exactly could we disagree with that? You don’t have to be a rationalist to think it absurd to deny reason. And consciousness and morality are more directly part of our experience than scientific data ever could be.

  8. October 31, 2012

    Ron Murphy

    Some more thoughts to add to myatheistlife’s points …

    Nagel’s argument rests on a similar flawed argument that theists often try to pull. In their case they have to presuppose a God in order to do all the divine stuff that is then supposed to be evidence for God. There’s just no reason to presuppose God.

    In Nagel’s case he is making a claim about how science can’t explain the mind, but presupposes there is a mind there that cannot be explained by science. Totally bogus. If there is no mind then there is no mind to explain. What we do have to explain is how the brain gives the impression of a mind, how the brain makes itself think it has a separate mind. And we know brains can fool themselves in many ways.

    All this stems from the illusion of a mind. Yes, I know, compatibilists don’t like the illusion trick when it comes to free-will, and maybe don’t like it when it comes to the mind. But the point of the illusion is what is being missed. The point of an illusion is that it damned well feels like what we seem to be experiencing is real, even though it is not.

    It doesn’t matter how much we know about the solar system, when you go through your day the sun does appear to move across the sky while we on the surface of the earth seem to be stationary. It’s an illusion. It’s the effect on the senses of the phenomena that causes the illusion. So it sure does feel like my mind is something that exists and is to a great extent independent of my brain/body. Even when I get a headache, it’s a headache not a mindache.

    The explanatory detail may be incomplete, but there are significant reasons why the mind feels free, or why we feel we are self-aware and conscious.

    There is no evidence for anything other than physical brain stuff.

    The brain has no internal sense equivalent to touch, so the conscious brain cannot feel itself and therefore appears disconnected from its physical substrate. But the conscious brain is able to monitor and control aspects of its own operation.

    The unconscious brain can be influenced to make a decision without the conscious knowledge of the subject, and yet the subject’s consciousness can confabulate a conscious explanation for the decision. The conscious brain, the mind, feels like it’s making decisions even when we know of occasions when it is not.

    If a complex mechanistic system could monitor its own processes, but not the physical substrate what would it feel like for that system? If that system could monitor its environment and its own processes in really complex ways, without the detail being available to it, what would it feel like? Maybe it feels like this.

    The introspective subjective experience is not the right tool for examining the introspective subjective experience. It’s such a dumb idea to think it is.

    What else has an independent mind got going for it? What criticism of physicalism is left of any worth? The only hard part of the hard problem is developing the science to actually give us the access to the brain. Getting subjects to volunteer their brains for live and living experimentation is a hard problem too. These very specific hard problems are preventing progress. The ‘mind’ proponents’ mind is a mind-of-the-gaps, pretty much as God is often used as a God-of-the-gaps.

    • March 25, 2013

      David Bailey

      ” Totally bogus. If there is no mind then there is no mind to explain. What we do have to explain is how the brain gives the impression of a mind, how the brain makes itself think it has a separate mind.”

      The crucial point is not whether the mind is separate from the brain, it is to explain its properties! The problem is that, as David Chalmers pointed out, physical components interact to give physical consequences, but it isn’t possible to convert that into sensations. If a neurotransmitter binds to a receptor, that receptor may send s signal, etc., but that is a sequence of physical steps that don’t explain why the process might feel like sex, or thirst, or intellectual longing, or whatever.

      • March 26, 2013

        Ron Murphy

        “David Chalmers pointed out, physical components interact to give physical consequences, but it isn’t possible to convert that into sensations.”

        How does he know that? Has he performed some convincing science that demonstrates that? Or is it nothing more than a guess that he persuaded to by nothing more than his own presupposition that the mind is indeed something additional. Is he merely presupposing a sort of dualism and and therefore declaring that the physical brain isn’t that? These philosophers are so biased by their own preconceptions about what the answer must be.

        • March 26, 2013

          David Bailey

          The problem is that physical interactions between particles, or larger structures, can only give rise to more physical results. The very equations that are supposed to describe matter completely, only describe physical results. Therefore you are forced to either ascribe some extra mental properties to matter (panpsychism) , or accept Chalmer’s conclusion – which he actually only actually stated as a ‘hard problem’.

          Note that appeals to complexity will not work, because even a very complex assembly of physical components would be subject to the above argument!

          Don’t you find it a bit worrying from your point of view that materialism seems to rely on such intrinsically unlikely arguments as yours?

           
  9. October 31, 2012

    Ron Murphy

    Peter Hardy,

    From our understanding of evolution we know that our ancestors had less capable brains than ours. Going back further they had no brains at all. Humans very clearly have a physical experiential heritage. Physical interaction with the environment came before brains. There is zero evidence or reason to suppose consciousness is experienced in anything other than biological brains so far.

    But unfortunately this hasn’t always been clear. Both humans as a species, and as living individuals, we have a problem when it comes to observing the onset of conscious behaviour. We have no historic memory of it as a species, and we individually have no memory of it from infancy. By the time we start to think, to analyse ourselves, we are already conscious beings.

    But evolution is clear. Consciousness is an evolutionary add-on. We like to think it’s an upgrade of sorts because we think it gives us an advantage. The more sophisticated the thinking capacity the better survival capacity it seems to confer. But let’s not get carried away. Many life forms have existed for millions of years without the benefit of a nervous system let alone a conscious brain.

    The unfortunate aspect of all this is that our pre-scientific thinking history has presumed that the mind is what it’s all about, when it isn’t. Granted, the conscious brain is pretty important to us, and we wouldn’t be able to do all this contemplation and reflection without it. But that doesn’t mean it’s our primary source of knowledge. Physical experience is. There is strong scientific evidence that if you deprive a developing brain of sensory experience it will stop developing. The physical brain, and hence the supposed mind, is absolutely dependent on its very physical interaction with its environment.

    This problem is what I refer to as the problem of the primacy of thought. Our history of philosophy and theology shows that we have given primacy to what we have presupposed is a mind. This is an antiquated perspective perpetuated by Nagel and other mind benders. It’s time to get over it.

    If you want to reject this perspective, then I don’t see how you can do that without rejecting evolution. And if you reject evolution I don’t see how you can’t therefore reject the whole of science. Maybe you do.

  10. October 31, 2012

    Alyson

    Ron I appreciate the points you are making and would just like to add a further complexity to it.

    Focussing on consciousness as a property of mind, as opposed to an organising property of matter is a distinction which I contend is not considered enough. Each atom is mostly empty space, and light particles would seem to be the power which goes into the formation of molecules, throughout the universe. Even plants organise matter using light, and make rudimentary decisions about direction, closing petals at night etc; crystals grow in the earth and emit faint luminosity. The human brain, in this framework of thought, is the hub for exchanging information between inner and outer experience. It is not a filing cabinet or a machine. Neural networks light up pathways across the grey matter, and energy holds the whole body together, as a unified whole. We feel experience and we categorise it using words and mathematics. These are complex manifestations of consciousness but do not explain what consciousness is.

  11. November 2, 2012

    Kuldip Singh

    The human body has 10 doors,viz..
    i) 2 eye sockets
    ii) 2 nostrils
    iii) 2 ears
    iv) 1 mouth
    v) 2 excretory openings
    vi) 1 opening through which the soul enters and leaves the body, also known as the 10th door.
    For those who are able to travel astrally, they are able to open their 10th door at will.This gift only comes through the grace of The Unseen Force.
    When I go to a hospital to visit young people who have sustained head injuries in a motor cycle accident- I remind them that the 10th door cannot be opened by falling off a motor cycle.
    Try explaining this by ” the world of subatomic particles and laws of motion that science describes?”

  12. November 2, 2012

    Ron Murphy

    Alyson,

    Forgive me, I’m not sure I’ve entirely understood your point. I’m not sure whether you are making a case that consciousness only corresponds to the dynamic organisation of matter, which is how I see it, or that consciousness is the organiser of matter. I agree with the former.

    I see consciousness as nothing more that the behaviour of the brain. It is an emergent behaviour rather than an emergent property – the term ‘property’ doesn’t do justice to the dynamic nature of the brain. This begs the question about in what sense it is emergent, does something physical emerge, appear, become created, etc.?

    Without stretching the computational features too far I think computer software is a good analogy. There is no thing that you can touch that is computer software. You can touch computer memory, disk drives, cables, etc., but you can’t touch software. Software ‘exists’ only as patterns in the substrate on which it runs or is held or is transmitted.

    When you download software from the internet you get nothing physical of what was on the server. The software, such as it is, arrives at your computer as a stream of electrons. They are not even the same electrons that leave to server. It is the energy from the power supply in your PC that creates patterns in your computer that match the patterns in the server computer. If you could break open the memory in your computer without stopping it running you would not see a thing called software. You would see the silicon based transistors changing state as the power supply matches the minute signals coming down from the internet. There are shades of the first and second law of thermodynamics at work here. Energy may be moved around, but it is also conserved. And the power supply has to provide more energy than the useful energy that creates the pattern in memory that represents the software.

    This is how to view consciousness. In fact this is how to think of all information in the brain, unconscious as well as conscious. There is a power source, the body which transforms energy from food. Some of the energy supplied is used to run the brain – about 20W. It processes signals arriving from the senses. Of course the brain is a little more dynamic than computer hardware. It needs to be kept running all the time. There is no off switch, and you cannot power it down and expect to power it up again. And ‘near death’ is not death – the brain is still alive during this experience. Perhaps the closes thing to computer operation in this respect is when the screen goes dark and the disk turns off for power saving purposes – the computer sleeps. Again there are differences. I doubt that current computers dream of electric sleep, even if future androids might.

    The important part of the analogy has nothing to do with computer algorithms, machine instructions, or CPU’s. The analogy is that in both cases the hardware, computer or brain, is being activated by a power source, being kept alive, and all the time is creating and changing patterns in the elemental components, transistors or neurons, are what constitute this ghostly stuff called software or thoughts, data or knowledge.

    A computer can display a spread sheet and can perform operations on numbers in the spread sheet, and those numbers might represent something meaningful to us, such as the state of the family budget. The meaningfulness of this representation has no corresponding meaning to the parts of the computer, such as the memory for example. When a computer memory holds a bit of data, as a zero or one, there is no sense in which this has meaning to the memory chip that holds it in the fleeting energy state of its transistor.

    Similarly the state of a synapse of a neuron has no meaning. It doesn’t in itself represent anything. Meaning only comes about as a relative relationship between all the other neurons and the extent to which those patterns correspond to something else, something external. Meaning is what the individual brain makes of the relationships between its data. Knowledge, meaning, ideas, concepts, are entirely relational phenomena.
    So, to use your terms, there is no complex manifestation of consciousness that is not patterns in neurons: data made from the states of the components, information patterns, relative relationships. That’s what consciousness is – all of this happening in a brain; brain behaviour.

  13. November 2, 2012

    Ron Murphy

    Kuldip Singh,

    I take issue with the notion of the 10th door. You have no evidence for this. It is made up. Fantasy.

    As for astral travelling, the notion does not conform to known physics. What measurements do you have knowledge of that can demonstrate that astral travelling takes place? It has taken science a few centuries to get to grips with known forms of energy, how it can be transformed and used. But I don’t know of anything that demonstrates these other forces of woo.

    There is nothing physical that goes off travelling among the stars, since to do so in the time someone is supposedly doing it would use far more energy than a brain can use or supply through the body. I therefore presume you think this happens by some non-physical means. By what method do you detect this mechanism?

    The trouble is that what is described as astral travelling and other mystical phenomena can easily be explained by natural effects and similar effects from drugs. You don’t even need drugs to have mental experiences that seem to defy physical reality. Close your eyes and imagine yourself flying unaided like Superman. I presume this isn’t too difficult to conjure up. The brain can imagine things that don’t actually happen. Close your eyes really tight, or put pressure on your eyelids, and you will stimulate remarkable images. Take a brain that hears voices, and you will have an example of neuronal activity in the auditory cortex that can be detected with fMRI – the brain is generating signals, forming transitory patterns which because of past experiences are perceived as voices. Take a brain opened up for surgery and electrically stimulate tiny regions and you can invoke favourite music pieces in the mind without any input from the ears. Have someone reporting an out of body experience describe details of the room, which has been changed without their knowing, and their reports will be wrong. Out of body experiences too can be stimulated by manipulating the brain.

    So, the following are reasons why astral travelling is nonsense:

    1) No evidence of non-physical forces.

    2) The incoherence of non-physical force concept – if it’s non-physical how do you know about it?

    3) Evidence that reported experiences are natural and can be artificially stimulated.

    4) The contravention of physical laws.

    Some mystics think they can explain matters of consciousness with such weak fabrications and zero evidence, and yet poo-poo the serious inferences from known science just because we don’t have all the details. Rationality, it seems, is a rare resource. Perhaps it’s that that has gone off to the stars.

    “Try explaining this by ” the world of subatomic particles and laws of motion that science describes?””

    OK. Fantasy, as formations of patterns in a physical brain where the represent something that hasn’t happened. We call it imagination. Just like the latest James Bond movie, the actor the brain is real, and the dialogue, the imagined thoughts, are real patterns in the brain, but the story told is a fantasy.

    • November 3, 2012

      Kuldip Singh

      Way back in 1972, I told a person with very high level of consciousness, here, in Punjab, India that I would be going to a small town in Malaysia to attend a wedding.
      The next morning, this person described in vivid detail, the Sikh temple where the wedding was going to take place.
      For somebody, who had not traveled to as far as Delhi, obviously had some special skills. Remember, this was decades before the time of Google Maps,et all.

      In December, 1985, I met with my Spiritual Master, in his Ashram, in Punjab. During this meeting, the Master told me,
      “ By the turn of the century, your Malaysia, Singapore, America, England, Europe will all go downhill.”
      I asked my Master, “ Which country would rise? “
      The Master replied, “ India.”
      I asked “ Why? “
      The Master replied, “ The time will come, when on the land, where deep meditation has taken place would thrive. All other countries would go through difficult times.”
      Having faith in my Master’s words, along with my wife and 2 young children, we migrated to Punjab, in December 1986.This was the time after the attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar, as a consequence of which Punjab was going through a period of religious militancy.
      Way back in 1986, migrating to India was the least fashionable choice to make.

  14. November 2, 2012

    Alyson

    ‘Nagel argues that things like the laws of mathematics and moral values are real (as real, that is, as cars and cats and chairs) and that they present even more problems for science.’

    This sentence seems to say that one thing which is repeatably evidenceable, i.e. mathematics correlates to another: moral values, which are relative, and posits that both are equally real. Both however are constructs which are applied to the structuring of information. Mathematics would seem to have clear rules that can be universally applied, compatible with new horizons in physics which open up different models of reality. Quantum is an aspect of this advance, and stems from the established fact that light is simultaneously a wave and a particle, i.e. caused and non-local.

    Morality however is pivotal to social organisation and the creation of a deity is relative to the human idea of self as contextual to an other. We do not comprehend ourselves in isolation, and our sense of self is constellated via relationship. To allocate a causative deity to this process can allow an abdication of individual responsibility, for actions which may justify harm to others, on the basis of a directive from this idea of an over-lording deity. Harming children may be against Christian values but not accorded the same value in other religious models.

    The different models proposed by different religions would seem to nullify his hypothesis on the universality of morality, and a look at political models of property would justify better the behaviours of adherents of different religious models.

    Nonetheless every atom has a polarity and applies energy to sustain its form. This I take to imply that light energises matter. These ‘less travelled paths of inquiry’ open up theoretical patterning which may require mathematical formulae to establish as fact. ‘Often Nagel’s argument rests on the assumption that it is absurd to deny the objective reality, or mind-independence, of certain basic moral values (that extreme and deliberate cruelty to children is wrong, for instance) or the laws of logic.’ Yet I would argue that we can debate different models and improve on assumed absolutes, using reason and logic. This book appears to take a brave stance and a timely opening up of debate around what is real, and what is a construct.

    The notion of empathy vis-a-vis the personal experience of a bat is one of the knotty questions which is often avoided to sustain an illusion of our integrity. ‘Whether this is convincing or not, depends on what you think is absurd and what is explainable.’ I look forward to reading Nagel’s book because it opens up to discussion subtexts in our understanding which have been decided previously in philosophy and may now need to be reviewed in the light of modern knowledge. Psychology post-Freud, has given us a better understanding of internalised super-conscious constructs which predict our likely response to any given situation (parents an authority figures we carry in our minds). The notion of a deity is usually construed as such a socially formative influence.

    That suggests to me that a polarity of good and evil is misinterpreted in the political constructs central to organised religion. It is after all Constantine who gave us the model of Christianity on which our Protestant laws are based.

    I agree that ‘The unconscious brain can be influenced to make a decision without the conscious knowledge of the subject, and yet the subject’s consciousness can confabulate a conscious explanation for the decision. The conscious brain, the mind, feels like it’s making decisions even when we know of occasions when it is not.’

    Indeed, Ron, objectively examining decision-making can lead one to question the extent of one’s real autonomy in any given situation.

    I cannot go along with the 10 doors concept for astral travelling, Kuldip, yet consider that a universal energy template of the body may be less contained than the physical form on its own. However, like the bat, the individual cannot fully convey to another that his own experience means what he thinks it means, especially when that other does not have the same experiential framework to empirically confirm its veracity.

  15. November 16, 2012

    Ferg

    Malcom,
    I’m impressed! If I am reading you right, there is a “natural progression toward consciousness.” Does this mean that moral values are an outgrowth of this progression? I think this is actually a justification for a god and I would like to understand the “vast set of problems” you mention.

  16. November 24, 2012

    Andy Smith

    Much of the perceived need for teleology can be avoided if one simply accepts the mountains of evidence that natural selection favors increasing complexity. See, e.g., John Stewart’s Evolution’s Arrow. Stewart’s thesis is that evolution has an inherent or intrinsic drive to produce lifeforms of greater complexity. This sounds teleological, and depending on one’s definition of teleology could be understood as such, but Stewart’s basic point is that increasing complexity increases survival, and therefore is quite consistent with Darwinism. One does not have to believe that all evolution moves towards greater complexity (as Stewart does) to recognize that some evolution does.

    There remains the problem of consciousness, specifically the hard problem or Nagel’s what it is like. Two comments here. First, a natural teleology will not solve this problem. The gap between consciousness and the physical world does not disappear because one either rejects natural selection or adds some other process to it. Everyone should be very clear about this.

    Second, because natural selection apparently is capable of creating creatures and processes of greater complexity, this can be a major part of the solution to the problem of how greater consciousness has evolved. One could, for example, postulate that consciousness is an inherent and irreducible feature of all physical matter. If this were indeed the case, all increase in consciousness could be accounted for by its association with physical matter of increasing complexity.

    • November 26, 2012

      Ron Murphy

      Andy,

      Although difficult and not yet achieved in detail I think the explanation for consciousness will come from reductionism.

      Protiens are merely molecules, and it’s the atomic level interaction of forces, most notably the electomagnetic interaction of the nucleus and the electrons, that determine the forces that act on the components of a molecule to fold it in a particular way. This is understood easily when looking at simple molecules, such as the polarity of water molecules. The same principles apply to complex molecules like protiens.

      And the same again applies to the formation of DNA and RNA, and the mutual interaction of these molecules with protiens, where DNA through RNA provides instructions for the formation of proteins, and some of those very proteins cause the formation, the replication, of hte DNA. Watching video simulations of these very physical processes its hard not to impart teleological descriptions, or ‘designed’ machine, on them:

      http://youtu.be/yqESR7E4b_8

      But these are very physical processes, that function simply because of the physical atomic interaction of the components. They are all working by means that are compatible with the second law of thermodynamics. Every action is following a least energy principle, but nowhere is any magical force imparted by any teleological magician.

      And in the brain it’s more of the same: physical processes at work…

      http://youtu.be/90cj4NX87Yk

      http://youtu.be/4AnPVuzF7CA

      The problem with the ‘hard problem’ is that it is approaching the problem of consciousness from the high level appearance of consciousness, through introspection. This is not the right tool for the job. It is no more the right tool for studying consciosness than it is for studying epilepsy. Introspection can tell you that your brain is having an experience, and it can give you your personal perspective of it, your interpretation, your ‘mental’ image of it, but it cannot tell you what it is or what is making it work.

      We have evolved to construct a convenient ‘mental’ interpretation of the physical world, but that ancient tool is no more use for studying the brain than is an ancient spear any use for brain surgery.

      Until philosophers (like Chalmers) get over this fact they will be stuck in their little philosophical world, while science passes them by.

      • December 14, 2012

        Dario

        Apparently, you have it all figured out. But for the benefit of others, let me offer my way of understanding why there’s a problem here: Nagel et al need not deny that the brain produces the mind nor that brain science can further inform us about how it does that. But that’s missing the point Even if neuroscience/evolution could, it wouldn’t tell us about conscious mental life, only about how it’s produced. And if the features of consciousness (qualia) are essential to having a mind, it follows that complete knowledge of how the mind is produced by the brain would not give us complete knowledge of the mind. I”m reminded of a recent discussion I heard by a neuroscientist claiming to be able to explain how the brain produced laughter and why we would evolve a sense of humor. Suppose that he’s completely right. Would that help us to understand laughter and the funny? Likewise for consciousness in general.

        • December 14, 2012

          Ron Murphy

          “it follows that complete knowledge of how the mind is produced by the brain would not give us complete knowledge of the mind”

          I didn’t realise it was required to.

          If you simply mean that understanding consciousness by science won’t let you experience consciousness, then so what. I already experience it. I know what it feels like to be a human. Do I need to know what it feels like to be a bat?

          Computer science doesn’t give us the perspective of being a computer chip processing some data. I don’t know what it feels like to be a computer. So what? To what extent does this hinder my understanding of how a computer works?

          It seems like if we could understand consciousness from a physical perspective, theorise about it, develop simulation models, even construct conscious non-biological systems, we’d still get someone like Chalmers asserting that we didn’t understand it, not really.

           
  17. January 5, 2013

    Brak

    @Ron Murphy: The philosophical debate initiated by Nagel has always been about (roughly) whether complete knowledge of the brain would allow one to know what it’s like to have a given conscious experience. Nagel’s whole point (at least in “What Is it Like”) is precisely that understanding the objective functioning of a conscious mind (“how it works”) sheds no light on the subjective character of consciousness, which is its defining feature. You might be right that Chalmers et al will assert that we don’t fully understand it come what may–doesn’t mean they’re wrong.

  18. January 7, 2013

    Ron Murphy

    Brak,

    “has always been about (roughly) whether complete knowledge of the brain would allow one to know what it’s like to have a given conscious experience” echoes the Mary thought experiment. If the supposed complete knowledge about the brain does not explain the subjective experience then it wasn’t complete knowledge. If Mary comes out and experiences colour then she didn’t know everything about colour, since to experience something is to acquire some sort of knowledge of it.

    It may well be that third party scientific understanding never encompasses the subjective experience. But so what. We have a pretty good understanding of how touch and pain work through science while scientific instruments do not express in any way how pain feels. But we also know a lot about starlight – far more than our eyes reveal, without our astronomy instruments experiencing what it feels like to see starlight. We know a lot about what goes on in a nuclear explosion, but we tend not to discredit our understanding of it because we don’t subjectively experiences it. There are many things we understand quite well that we would wish not to experience subjectively. Do we reject all scientific knowledge because we must, by virtue of our biology, interpret it through our senses and our subjective brain experiences of those senses?

    If we come to understand consciousness sufficiently to be able to build artificial conscious systems, AI, should we still worry that we don’t know what it feels like to be a robot? In what significant sense are we lacking in understanding at that point? Won’t it be sufficient to understand what it is about biological systems that makes them conscious? Won’t it be sufficient to be able to construct varieties of conscious behaviour?

    Chalmers might not be wrong – it may be that we never understand the subjective experience. The point is that Chalmers is asserting certainty in claiming we never will, and that seems like bad philosophy.

    • March 24, 2013

      Oscar

      Hello Ron,

      I’ve enjoyed reading your entires (I’m avoiding work).

      I’m intrigued by something. There seem to be all these folks who find it terribly obvious that if an explanatory system for conscious organisms can’t in some way transmit what-its-like-ness then it must be incomplete – and then there’s you, and doubtless plenty more folks, who find the reverse equally obvious. “So what?” you wonder.

      I was wondering if you could help me understand the root of the contrast. What is it, from their perspective, that would still be necessarily lacking from any otherwise exhaustive collection of information about consciousness, even enough as to enable flawless recreation of conscious behaviour? Is this a matter of paradigms?

      • March 27, 2013

        Ron Murphy

        What is it, from their perspective, that would still be necessarily lacking”

        That’s what I’d like to know. Terms like ‘qualia’ get thrown around, as if giving some perceptual experience a name will make it a real entity independent of the physical brain that’s doing the experiencing. But it seems like a sham to me.

        • March 27, 2013

          Oscar

          “That’s what I’d like to know.”

          Perhaps you haven’t tried hard enough to reach their perspective. That can be the trouble with paradigms.

          If you’ve decided what explanatory sufficiency or completeness means is exhaustive physical information and models that can perfectly reproduce physical phenomena, then that’s probably because you’ve decided physical stuff is already, definitively, all of stuff, and anything else is so much wiffle misdescribing things that are most properly or usefully reduced to the physical.

          If on the other hand you think that’s obviously a reductive view (suddenly using the latter word with a pejorative tone instead of one of relief) discarding stuff most properly retained, an arbitrary line-drawing or unjustified weighting, then you’ll probably disagree.

          So perhaps this will continue to seem obvious to both sides because one will say – “well show me this non-physical stuff” and the other will say “I can’t, it’s non-physical.” and both will think they have won that exchange because of an irreducible assumption – a foundation for the obvious – on both sides.

          The good ol paradigmatic dialectic of what counts as ‘existing’.

          And even if they can see the distinctions, one will argue their paradigm is more useful, the other that theirs is more complete. They may even write books and long discussion threads about it.

          And I will chip in, snug in my comforting agnostic duvet.

           
  19. January 25, 2013

    Al_de_Baran

    Late to the party here, but I’d simply like to add that Ron’s comments indicate just how hard Scientism dies. It will take time to kill this misbegotten beast, but any effort toward that end is worthwhile.

  20. January 25, 2013

    Ron Murphy

    Al_de_Baran,

    “but any effort toward that end is worthwhile”

    I’ll look forward to responding to your effort.

  21. February 7, 2013

    Anonymous

    This is the best review I’ve read of Nagel’s work, and I agree with you entirely about the weak response by Leiter and Weisberg. I too was surprised by the “pragmatic appeals” to science that were offered as if that settled the matter. Thank you for addressing the issues fairly and saying what needs to be said.

  22. February 9, 2013

    proximity1

    RE:

    “In response, philosophers like Weisberg and Leiter and Sober tend to dig their heels in, reiterate the pragmatic values of science, and conclude that these values are sufficient to justify philosophical naturalism. But this is not a satisfactory counterargument. Nagel and most critics of naturalism agree that our best methodology for predicting and manipulating natural phenomena is science. But why suppose that reality is exhaustively described by science in its current form?”

    Yes, you’re right, they do sort of seem to “dig their heels in.” And that’s really the whole trouble. They needen’t. Despite present appearances to the contary, “science” isn’t in trouble. But some scientists seem to think so and to appear very much like they lack the courage of their convictions. When I find scientists like that–and there are many, esp. on discussion blogs–I also tend to find that their convictions such as they exhibit any, are pretty shoddy, petty and selfish looking.

    So, we get–and we’ve long had–failing understanding of science as a method and of reason well-exercised. That’s why people can mistakenly wonder,

    “But why suppose that reality is exhaustively described by science in its current form?”

    No respectable scientists do suppose that reality has been or shall be exhaustively described by science in its (i.e. in science’s) current form any time “soon”–or ever.

    Ours is a partial explanation given by science–but its being partial is not in and of itself a defect or any cause for denying the validity of the partial view and what that view suggests about the world–as we know it and as it remains unknown to us.

  23. February 25, 2013

    Brig Klyce

    “There may be some inexplicable truths.” We know very well that there are. The first is existence: Why is there anything rather than nothing. It is important to remember that science can’t explain everything. (I happen to think that life, similarly, is inexplicable. If, contrary to both Darwinism and creationism/ID, life has always existed, most other facts about it fit together neatly.)

  24. February 26, 2013

    Ron Murphy

    Brig,

    It’s even more important to remember that philosophy, religion, fictitious ‘other ways of knowing’ explain even less.

    What aspect to life is inexplicable? Then, with your “If life has always existed”, what empirical evidence do you think might exist to support that hypothesis? Where does that notion come from, out of the blue?

    As it happens it seems that science has done a pretty good job so far of explaining what life is, in terms of complex physics and chemistry in vast energy gradients. There are details missing, sure. But that doesn’t mean other stuff can be simply made up in the imagination to fit the gaps, a God of the gaps, or a teleology of the gaps.

    • February 26, 2013

      Brig Klyce

      Before the Michelson-Morely experiment, science was pretty sure there was an ether to carry light waves. When efforts to detect it failed, the theory was replaced. With respect to the origin-of-life from nonliving chemistry, efforts so far fail. I am betting that they will never succeed. Of course I could be wrong. But if not, there are other ways to account for what we actually observe. Life from the eternal past is one. It is not consistent with current assumptions. Neither was Special Relativity.

  25. February 26, 2013

    Ron Murphy

    Brig,

    I’m not sure if your “Why is there anything rather than nothing.” was a rhetorical question expressing some dumbfoundedness about the actual question. The trouble is we’re all dumbfounded on that point.

    If all of current physics, theoretical and experimental, stumped on that one them I’m pretty sure some crusty theologian contemplating the nature of God, or some smart ass philosopher dreaming up solipsism isn’t going to know either.

    What on earth do any of us know about what is required or not in the business of universe building, or in the matter of somethings and nothngs. We barely have a grasp on the simplest of nothings – space time. Remove all the matter we can detect from the space between the stars, and yet this particular nothing can be warped by any mass passing through it? What sort of nothing can be bent like that? We are so in the dark that all theological and philosophical bullshit is just that. It’s an empirical question we can’t answer right now.

    • February 26, 2013

      Brig Klyce

      I can’t agree that Why is there anything…? is an empirical question, although some of your others might be. I was originally surprised that Nicholson said so timidly, “There may be some inexplicable truths.” May be?!

  26. February 26, 2013

    Ron Murphy

    Brig,

    How can “Why is there anything?” be anything other than empirical? Do you imagine you can just imagine an answer? When one philosopher imagines one answer, and another a different answer, how do you test which is right?

    When one philosopher says, “You can’t get something from nothing”, how precisely does he come to that conclusion other than be some imagined presupposition about what nothing actually is, and how something can or cannot come from nothing. What you find is that such statements contain a presupposition, or actually define the nothingness such that it can’t have anything come from it. Well, a different philosopher might presuppose things can come from nothing, or he defines a certain kind of nothing from which something can arise. How do you test which is right? Empirically.

    And if you can’t yet test empirically, because we don’t yet know how to test it, or because we’re so far off coming close that we don’t even fully understand the nature of the problem, then this does not automatically mean it is non-empirical, and it doesn’t mean we invoke the God of the gaps type argument.

    There may indeed be things we can never know. But like trying to prove a negative we might never know what they are. So, I don’t think anyone is in a position to say what we cannot know, for sure. We can only say that if there’s no evidence for something, then we have no grounds for claiming it true; or if the facts are consistent with a claim both being true and being false then the claim is empty.

    Just look at all the weirdness physicists and cosmologists have discovered, through science. Even thorough math based physical theory has to wait for experimental or observational evidence to support it. Philosophers rarely come even close to imagining what science later goes on to discover. Even on occasions when it looks like great foresight, such as Greek atomism, it can be put down to straight forward choices: things can be divided endlessly, or they can’t, and if they can’t that inherently means something ‘atomic’. But neither the Greeks or any later philosophers came close to imagining the weirdness of physics as we currently understand it, as was empirically discovered.

  27. February 26, 2013

    Brig Klyce

    I think we must disagree on the definition of Nothing. By my definition, Nothing has no properties, no tendencies, no possibilities, no observables, …nothing. “Empty” space with the ability to generate particle-antiparticle pairs or big bangs, for example, does not qualify as Nothing. So I see no way to explain existence-versus-nothing empirically.

  28. February 26, 2013

    Ron Murphy

    Brig,

    My point entirely. You are defining ‘nothing’ just so as to meet your requirement that something can’t come from it. Empty space is not nothing as traditionally conceived because it is empirically (theoretically and experimentally) shown not to be a ‘nothing’ which cannot be the source of something.

    Simply listing some words as part of your definition, and putting a capital letter in front of it, does not convince me you have actually any experience of such a defined nothing to be sure something can’t come from it.

    The point is that until something can be tested, or even theorised about to some extent, then it’s a mere pissing contest.

    If you define a particular Nothing that can’t be a source of something then fine; but you have not shown that there is such a Nothing out there for us to worry about whether it can or can’t be a source of something.

    What if all ‘nothings’ are always of the sort that can produce something? We don’t know what’s ‘outside’ our universe, or even what that means. Maybe there is no Nothing but ‘always’, ‘forever’, ‘for eternity’, ‘everywhere’ always ‘something’ from which other ‘somethings’ can come and go? Even the terms I’ve used there can’t really be said to represent what I’m using them for. We have neither the language or the empirical basis to say with any certainty that “You can’t get something from nothing’” because we don’t know the limits on ‘somethings’ and ‘nothings’.Equally, the statement “You can get something from nothing.” is also meaningless.

    All we can do is go by what we find empirically and say that this is the best we can do.

    The “can’t get something from nothing” is nothing more than a rhetorical ploy used by theologians, and some philosophers, who don’t like either the uncertainty that science brings, or its suggestion of the meaningless unguided nature of reality, or both. But this is what we get from science whether we like it or not. There is no evidence of anything else.

  29. February 27, 2013

    proximity1

    All these recent comments by Ron Murphy put things (back) into their proper perspective.

    RM, thank you for taking the touble to type out what needed to be pointed up–even if it ought to be, or especially since it ought to have been, obvious.

    • February 27, 2013

      Brig Klyce

      Ron Murphy doubts that I “have actually any experience of such a defined nothing to be sure something can’t come from it.” Right. I am talking about the nothing that might exist instead of something. If nothing were to exist, absolutely there would be no way to experience it, nor anyone to experience it, nor anything to experience. I am not talking about a little piece of nothing in the midst of everything else.
      I am suggesting that there is no necessity for there to be anything at all. But there is, and that is a puzzle that science will never explain. I think I am on firm philosophical ground here.

  30. March 21, 2013

    Dan spira

    If I became a Higgs boson does what I presently view as material become abstract? Consider journeying upwards, composition not reduction, from the quantum world, looking at the interactions from the bottom up. While there is some hope for determinism our present understanding, (model) of the quantum world is still probabilistic. So if we are just “moist robots” when a silicon sentient being can equal or exceed the most stringent Turing test, in personality and behavior, equaling or exceeding humanity, we will have proven the merits of materialism? All at once becoming imperfect Gods and possibly bested by our own creation. Nietzsche is right! But I jest, if this does occur at what point(s) does an ‘artificial’ entity become sentient; and is it just the sum of its parts?

  31. March 21, 2013

    Ron Murphy

    Brig,

    Unfortunately philosophy itself isn’t on firm ground at all. Deductive arguments always require the proof of their premises in order to make any valid argument sound. And that leads to an infinite regress of deductions in principle; but in practice we soon come across premises we can’t prove. Your total argument relies on your preconceived understanding of nothingness, which is one thing, and any nothingnesses that might actually be possible.

    “If nothing were to exist, absolutely there would be no way to experience it, nor anyone to experience it, nor anything to experience.”

    So on what basis do you suppose you could go there and verify that nothing could come from it? How exactly do you know that all that we know of didn’t in fact come from nothing? Mere metaphysical speculation on your part.

    • March 25, 2013

      Brig Klyce

      You suppose that something can come from nothing? “Mere metaphysical speculation on your part.” I’m standing by my position. I think we’ve covered this.

  32. March 25, 2013

    David Bailey

    I am working my way through Nagel’s book, and I must say, I think he is touching a raw nerve among those who believe in standard materialism.

    One of his key points (rephrased by me) is that if our logical minds are merely the product of evolution – honed to keep us safe and well fed on the plains of Africa – why should we trust them to theorise about the nature of reality or of mathematics? Belief in materialist science undermines the value of the very minds that conceived science in the first place!

    Like Nagel, I am not religious, but I have doubted the materialist view of reality for some time. For me, the first hint came from watching the boastful claims about the future of Artificial Intelligence (back in the 1980′s) crash and burn by the end of that decade with essentially nothing to show for all the effort. I no longer think that intelligence is equivalent to a computation.

    • March 26, 2013

      Ron Murphy

      David,

      “if our logical minds are merely the product of evolution – honed to keep us safe and well fed on the plains of Africa – why should we trust them to theorise about the nature of reality or of mathematics?”

      Or trust the philosophies of Nagel or Chalmers for that matter, on the nature of consciousness. It’s a pity that these philosophers don’t apply their scepticism to their own perspective.

      I’ve tried to put it perspective here: http://ronmurp.net/2011/12/23/thought_v_experience/

      This is the whole point that we learn from science, and is confirmed, as much as it can be so far, by science: introspection is not a reliable tool. That is why science is a group activity with rigorous rules that are intended to compensate, as much as is possible in the hands of humans, for these very flaws.

      “Artificial Intelligence (back in the 1980′s) crash and burn”

      So early attempts at artificial intelligence turned out to be wrong? Isn’t that science doing what it does? Trying and learning, and if it’s wrong then it’s wrong, so it moves on with other ideas. Check again with AI in 100 years, 1,000 years, and see how it’s doing. Philosophy and theology have been banging the same drum for millennia and haven’t produced anything new. So your complaint about AI ‘crashing and burning’ seems a little premature. It’s not as if they’ve given up.

      • March 26, 2013

        David Bailey

        I guess I learned something slightly different from science!

        There have been a series of scientific revolutions – such as relativity and quantum mechanics – that have managed to transform our conception of reality, while leaving the old experimental results unchanged within experimental error! Faced with the puzzle of consciousness, and the paradoxes that Nagel and others are pointing out, there is absolutely no reason why another scientific revolution should not resolve the difficulty by somehow incorporating consciousness in a fundamental way into the universe. As before, existing experiments would not change, but there would be new phenomena to explore.

        It is not as though Nagel is putting a dagger at the heart of science – he is just suggesting new directions that might be fruitful.

        The artificial intelligence (AI) failure was spectacular in the fay that so many materialist thinkers believed it had to be possible – indeed that it would be relatively easy (I believed this too, for a while). It showed me how an unbending belief in materialism could warp people’s judgements.

    • March 26, 2013

      proximity1

      RE:

      “One of his key points (rephrased by me) is that if our logical minds are merely the product of evolution – honed to keep us safe and well fed on the plains of Africa – why should we trust them to theorise about the nature of reality or of mathematics? Belief in materialist science undermines the value of the very minds that conceived science in the first place!”

      —————————-

      David,

      If that is a valid criticism, then it applies, doesn’t it?, as well to Nagel’s own arguments no less than to theorizing about the nature of reality or of mathematics. Once there, one has to distrust any and all theorizing –or, conversely, one has to accept that, though sometimes in some ways and always in certain other ways our mental processes and the sensory data they provide mislead us, they don’t always completely fail us in all respects.

      It’s a stark choice logic allows us: Either we dismiss sensory data as always false or we admit that it is sometimes warranted. Then we’re faced with the work of responsible thinking creatures to try and discern the distinction between the former and the latter.

      I haven’t yet met a complete and consistent solipcist–who doubts not only his immediate past but also everything, including the present, and his solipcistic theories, too.

      Materialist science–is there another kind?–has already led to accepting as true and as given that our sense data aren’t infallible, and that our reasoning can be faulty and that we often lose our way. Science takes a sceptical view of everything, including its own bases for operation. How do we do other, better, than that and still lead lives that present a decent chance of being worth living?

      • March 26, 2013

        David Bailey

        Nagel’s argument does not apply to himself because he doesn’t accept the premise that our minds are solely the result of natural selection acting on the genetic code. As he shows in his book, it would be inconsistent to propose a totally physical explanation for evolution, but deny such an explanation for consciousness itself – because evolution is supposed to have resulted in thinking organisms.

        For me, non-material science would be one that includes an irreducible mental component. In the past, science has developed my embracing new kinds of explanations that would previously have been considered invalid. For example, Newton’s laws introduced action at a distance. He didn’t explain gravitational attraction in terms of contact forces (though I think others did attempt this) he introduced a new concept – the field. I think science needs something vaguely analogous to get out of the mess that Nagel vividly describes.

        • March 26, 2013

          Ron Murphy

          David,

          But these ‘laws’ are only our models for what we think is reality. Their importance comes from the fact that they are shown to work, and are adopted, or are shown not to work, and so are discarded. They are not adopted on the basis of purely rational thought about whether some philosopher thinks them true or not, whether some philosopher thinks them likely or not, whether some philosopher thinks them impossible or not.

          For “non-material science would be one that includes an irreducible mental component” can you explain how you would test it to distinguish it from fantasy?

           
        • March 26, 2013

          David Bailey

          Ron Murphy,

          It seems to me that we can’t assert physical laws while doubting our own collective competence to understand them! Earlier observations – such as the rate of fall of various objects under gravity were maybe – just maybe – within the competence of minds evolved for the African plains, but the modern fundamental laws are far removed from that – indeed they are too sophisticated for most of the World’s population to understand!

          Some will argue that our ancestors needed ‘maths’ to estimate the angle to throw a spear, or to navigate their territory – but we both know just how far this is removed from even high school algebra, let alone the theory of General Relativity!

          To me, what is incredible, is that facts like this, don’t at least create doubt in those who hold the full materialist world view. Materialism isn’t a religion – nobody is going to be denied their place in heaven because they doubt materialism!

          Why is the alternative so terrible – it might be extremely interesting. As I have argued already, it won’t be the end of science – just the start of an exciting new chapter!

           
        • March 27, 2013

          proximity1

          RE: (by D.Bailey)

          “Nagel’s argument does not apply to himself because he doesn’t accept the premise that our minds are solely the result of natural selection acting on the genetic code.”

          As a matter of fact, nor do I. I don’t know of any present-day reputable scientists who’d reduce things to this level of simplicity: …”our minds are solely the result of natural selection acting on the genetic code.”

          It’s one thing to argue, as I do, that mental work and its products are materiall-based–entirely materially-based, not infused with anything supernatural–and something wildly different to assert that “our minds are solely the result of natural selection acting on the genetic code”. –which I don’t and haven’t asserted to be the case. I don’t even accept that genes, DNA, constitute a determining “coded” “blueprint” which operates in a direct and deterministic manner. Instead, I take the view of what is now called “Stochastic genetic expression”, abbreviated as “SGE”. This doesn’t need anything other than matter and probablistic occurrance to provide a consistent picture of the emergence of intelligent life and, later, of consciousness.

          So, to resume, from your comment,

          “Nagel’s argument does not apply to himself because he doesn’t accept the premise that our minds are solely the result of natural selection acting on the genetic code.”

          I think you’ve mlssed the point here. Nagel isn’t showing that mental activity is more than material, he’s presupposing it, without evidence in support. Further, this, on Nagel’s part, isn’t worthy of the term you use to describe it, namely, an “argument”. It’s an assumption, and an unsupported one, and on this we’re supposed to take it that an “argument” has been built. But there isn’t one. There’s an assumption: mental work and products are more than merely the results of matter and materially-based processes alone. And the “argument” starts and ends right there, with an assumption, taken as given. Period.

          —————————————–
          RE:

          “As he (Nagel) shows in his book, it would be inconsistent to propose a totally physical explanation for evolution, but deny such an explanation for consciousness itself – because evolution is supposed to have resulted in thinking organisms.”

          Yes, I see what you mean. Nagel claims to start from a position which is not purely materially-based, and, thus, he can claim to appeal to sources which are–whether admitted as such or not– quite literally supernatural in character. The problem is that there is no necessity to make such an appeal. And therein lies Nagel’s mistake. If Nagel could show how and why material sources are not both necessary and sufficient for a valid and worthy partial explanation of intelligent life (as that is familiarly understood and used) and consciousness, as it is used and understood by neurological sciences, then that would be one thing. But he doesn’t do this. Instead, he posits it, and he does that by stating that, for him, no other view (than appeals to supernatural influences) is credible.

          Never mind that such a case isn’t “scientific”–I’m not so worried about the fine points of science-method. The problem is that it isn’t an interesting or compelling case at all. “I just can’t believe ‘X’ could be true.” is not a respectable “argument when it doesn’t have something compelling in facts and reasoning to go with it.

          B y the way, I’d argue that to suppose that “consciousness” and “intelligence” are synonymous is a mistake. A great many living organisms qualify as intelligent without possessing consciousness. On the other hand, consciousness presupposes intelligence–but the converse isn’t true.

          But both intelligence and consciousness are natural phenomena arising in (emerging from) material substance.

           
  33. March 26, 2013

    proximity1

    RE:

    ” I no longer think that intelligence is equivalent to a computation.”

    And you’re right to see that it isn’t.

    There is abundant intelligent life on earth without even including human kind. That intelligence is evolved from natural sources. We can conceive, design and construct things; but “intelligence” isn’t among them. It is a naturally-occurring phenomena and we don’t even yet know how to correctly define it, let alone create it artificially.

    So, we have a right to wonder:

    Why don’t the A.I. people keep in mind the simple principle: “G-I, G-O” ? (That is, “Garbage (i.e. “nonsense”) in, Garbage out.”

    • March 26, 2013

      David Bailey

      The reason AI is so vital to this debate, can be seem best by a gedanken experiment. Suppose it becomes possible to scan a human brain with such a fine resolution that its description could be transferred to a computer equipped with a program that could simulate its time evolution.

      The computer resource required would be horrendous – particularly if the process had to take place at the quantum mechanical level – but it is already clear that materialistic assumptions do imply AI!

      Of course, it was assumed that such a process could be vastly simplified into something that would really run on a computer.

      Prior to about 1980, it was often stated that AI was simply waiting for sufficient computer resources to be available. Computer power increased massively during the 1980′s, and that excuse is rarely encountered now – real AI would be close to a proof of materialism (leaving aside perhaps, the question of whether the programs felt the relevant emotions and experiences).

      • March 26, 2013

        Ron Murphy

        This is where philosophical imagination fails completely. The common phone owned by millions has more computing power than many mainframe computers of the 60′s. And son’t be persuaded by complaints that Moore’s law will reach a limit, because that doesn’t account for new technologies.

        And the other thing you’re forgetting is that the brain was designed to be efficient, it evolved to be sufficient. There is likely much redundancy in it, if we’re talking about what is minimally required for consciousness. Just look at some of the tiny animal brains that are conscious. If you want human-like consciousness with planning, prediction, language, and all the other capabilities we have then we still need to get to understand how it works, before we can deny that we can create artificial examples.

        Try Gregg Egan novels. In his ‘copies’ of human minds they run at non-real-time rates.

        The trouble is, once you try to argue the technical specifics of a philosophically derived denialism you soon find that you have to appeal to current limits in technology to back up the argument. So, a 17th century engineer might have derided the possibility of non-horse driven locomotion because he couldn’t imagine a fuelled engine, combustion or electric, that might power the car.

        Science turns up stuff that philosophers never imagined. Human philosophers don’t have the imaginative capacity to imagine what will be possible, so they have some preconceived limit in their minds and declare the impossible. Scientists have that same limited imagination – they never know what is going to work. But by not being limited by denialism they are able to discover – and often discover solutions that they didn’t anticipate. So I don’t have the blinkered view restricted by current limitations that you do. And while I can’t say for sure that we’ll understand what consciousness is enough to create AI that satisfies even the most pessimistic philosopher, I can’t say we won’t; and if anything I think it likely we will.

        • March 26, 2013

          David Bailey

          I rather like Greg Egan’s novels, but I read them more or less as a reductio ad absurdum argument against materialism!

          Here is another reductio ad absurdum argument.

          Let us assume that the brain simulation experiment discussed above succeeds, and we have a computer C running a program P and producing some outout O. Let us also assume that the computer is conscious (or explain why it would not be).

          For convenience let us assume the simulation corresponds to a period of introspection, so no input is required (this isn’t really necessary, it just makes things neater). So we have:

          P+C => O

          This is, in effect, a theorem in logic, specifying how the program (and hence the brain simulation) will evolve. Notice that:

          1) If we knew the theorem, we wouldn’t need to run the program!

          2) Theorems don’t really belong to a specific point in spacetime – they are universally true. (Remember the theorem depends on the specific design (C) of the computer).

          Now suppose the program is simulating something very emotional. Does that emotion happen several times if the program is run more than once? Since the emotion is in effect tied to a theorem, does it even belong to spacetime at all?

          In a sense, a computer only tells you something that would be obvious if you had sufficient intellect! It doesn’t have any side effects like experiencing emotion – even the aha! moment of proving a theorem – it can’t be equivalent to a brain.

          Considerations like that, add to my suspicion that human thought cannot be computerised. However, that seems to undermine physicalism itself because the brain can be thought of as a sort of computer.

          In other words, if the mind were just a computation, it would be constrained by the obvious limits of computer calculations – they simply deliver an output, they don’t experience anything.

           
        • March 27, 2013

          proximity1

          RE : “And the other thing you’re forgetting is that the brain was designed to be efficient, it evolved to be sufficient. ”

          I think you meant to write,

          “And the other thing you’re forgetting is that the brain wasn’t designed to be efficient, it evolved to be sufficient. ”

          didn’t you?

           
      • March 27, 2013

        proximity1

        RE : (from D. Bailey) …”Suppose it becomes possible to scan a human brain with such a fine resolution that its description could be transferred to a computer equipped with a program that could simulate its time evolution.”

        Why should anyone suppose that? Why?

        And, this, from Ron Murphy,

        “I can come up with plenty of evidence that brains fool themselves in specific ways that demonstrate the introspective method, that you use to make you think you are conscious, is a flawed system. Science was developed specifically to overcome these personal biases,”

        puts the matter neatly and precisely. Nagel’s reasoning is in itself an object-lesson in the robust character of the “materialist” science which Nagel criticizes as at fault here. From that “hook”, there is no “getting off”, not even for Nagel. By his own devices and according to his own terms of reasoning, his so-called argument falls flat.

  34. March 26, 2013

    proximity1

    Of course, machines, “computers,” don’t “compute” in the sense that humans compute. Computer-machines are devices which are designed to receive and feed electrical signal flows along pre-determined pathways, and to sort those flows according to impulses which have a pre-determined numerical value of “0″ or “1″–which, “to the machine”; mean strictly nothing. An electrical charge is an electrical charge–positive or negative in polarity but “meaning” nothing, whether alpha or numeric. The programmers determine which charges under which conditions are valued as “zeros” or “ones”, just as their programmed syntax determines what, in various circumstances, a “zero” or a “one” value denotes.

    Inside the machine, there is absolutely no thinking going on, no computing of the human kind, and certainly no “intelligence”.

    Humans take a concept, “number”, and manipulate that concept in meaningful ways. They have an idea of what “zero” or “one” means. Machines not only don’t have an idea, they can’t have an idea. They’re devices which have an internal electrical flow–because people put it there.

    Our thinking is spontaneous and automatically self-generating. That puts it in a class apart from artifice.

  35. March 26, 2013

    proximity1

    RE:

    ” It seems reasonable to suppose that for every truth there must be an explanation for why it is the case, …”

    I don’t think it’s so reasonable to suppose that. There can be truths for which an “explanation”, a “why” isn’t available.

    “…often called “the principle of sufficient reason. One may be tempted to deny this. There may be some inexplicable truths. But then one is faced with justifying why no explanation is needed.”

    What’s “needed” and what’s possible to “satisfy” aren’t necessarily matched sets.

    That word “need” is terribly loaded with prior assumptions that are going unexamined. I argue that we “need” to examine those prior assumptions for their validity rather than simply take them unnoticed and unexamined.

  36. March 26, 2013

    Ron Murphy

    David,

    On the progresss, and otherwise, of AI, in perspective…

    With respect to AI and its computational nature there are several issues. First, it is a common mistake to equate computation generally with what we think of as procedural algorithmic programming languages. The term computation has to be understood in its proper context. Some of the current ideas about how the brain works still allow for small scale obvious computational activity – such as the summation of inputs to a neuron that are required to make it fire its action potential. The trouble is that this sort of activity at this scale is already difficult to model. By the time we get to other scales its hard to conceptually match simplistic models to such complexity. It’s a long road.

    Try this video first: http://www.ted.com/talks/jeff_hawkins_on_how_brain_science_will_change_computing.html This is interesting, not only because of Jeff’s anticipation of where we might take it, but it also includes an explanation that (in 2007) those working on this stuff already know why the simplistic AI models from previous times were bound to fail – but that’s something you discover by trying.

    You can put it into this context. Psychologists for most of the 20th century were working with a black box model of the brain. They only saw the external behaviour of the human. That leads to a couple of specific problems…

    First, the same physical faults in two brains might result in different behaviour because so many other factors come into play. Many people seem to have the brain of a psychopath, but don’t do stuff we think psychopaths do: murder. When studied one of the key differences seems to be childhood experiences: an abused child with a psychopathic brain is more likely to become a psychopathic killer; while someone from a loving environment, while lacking somewhat in empathy perhaps, for example, would otherwise be a ‘normal’ member of society.

    Second, different faults can result in the same behaviour. So, a psychological symptom, like depression, might be caused by many internal causes.

    It’s becoming easier to be more specific in diagnosis, and more targeted in treatment, because the brain sciences generally, but especially neurology and neuroscience generally, are helping us to understand the brain.

    And of course this has been symptomatic of earlier AI. Yes, much of it did fail, because it was based on black-box models of the brain – some of them hopelessly informed philosophical ones, based on, guess what, philosophers taking a black-box view of the brain and making shit up.

    The difference is now that much psychology (but not all – see this debate) is using more ‘scientific’ methods to investigate the brain and not just to provide therapy based on some imagined psychological model. And, surprise, surprise, AI is learning more from the brain too.

    Check out this set of videos and see how much further this has come along since Jeff Hawkins started down this course. And he’s just one example. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J33B-tEtPjA&feature=share&list=PLepHs0thoryPNVLgdV6HOqlcFcjyFmYb1. Try looking up stuff on other models of the brain, such this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Connectome.

    Once you realise the astonishing complexity of the actual physical brain it puts all simplistic philosophical conceptual models of mind into the shade. This sort of complexity should be difficult to understand. This is far more progress in a few tens of years than made in thousands of years of philosophy.

    When philosophers who don’t really get it still insist on pushing their preconceived introspectively acquired notions of consciousness, intelligence, free will, I’m not really surprised that they are pretty much most neuroscientists and AI developers ignore them and simply get on with the job.

    I agree with one thing though: that we don’t yet understand consciousness. But that applies to these philosophers too. They don’t understand what it is they are actually denying we will ever understand.

    I can imagine back a couple of hundred years with some naysayer philosopher insisting man will never fly, because he simply does not have the breast bone structure to carry the musculature for wings sufficient to fly unaided. Then came planes, hang gliders, wing suits, and I suppose we’re still not done with novel methods of achieving flight.

    I can also imagine some philosopher a thousand years from now having an argument with some AI system about whether it’s conscious or not. I suspect the AI system will doubt very much that the philosopher is conscious at all.

    So, I find it just as easy to imagine AI consciousness as much Nagel or Chalmers perhaps imagine it impossible. How do you decide such debates, other than by trying. If we all gave up every time some philosopher of other naysayer said something was impossible we’d still be back in the Dark Ages.

  37. March 26, 2013

    Ron Murphy

    David Bailey,

    Again you’re presupposing what you want to show. You are presupposing that consciousness is something that isn’t an aspect of physical brain behaviour, or computer behaviour.

    Let us also assume that the computer is conscious (or explain why it would not be).

    Let us also assume that the brain is conscious (or explain why it would not be).

    On what basis are you supposing these two assumptions are distinct, other than a presupposition that the former is suspicious, because we haven’t come across that yet, and the latter not, because we have known examples of it?

    Let us assume that the brain simulation experiment discussed above succeeds, and we have a computer C running a program P and producing some output O.

    Let us assume that the real brain (not the simulation) simulation experiment discussed above succeeds, and we have a computer C running a program P and producing some output O.

    What makes you think these are distinct statements about material objects, other than some presupposition that they are distinct?

    “If we knew the theorem, we wouldn’t need to run the program!”

    I’m not sure what you mean by that.

    “Theorems don’t really belong to a specific point in spacetime – they are universally true.”

    I don’t know what this means.

    Your two paragraphs after those points seem to suppose that the computer doesn’t experience the emotions that are a consequence of the theorem. If it is genuinely running something that is comparable to what is happening in a human brain experience those emotions then I don’t know how you can tell whether it will or not. You are using some simplistic notion of a theorem without knowing whether your use of it, in either case of brain or computer, or both, applies or not.

    I’m not sure what you think the association is between ‘theorem’, ‘software’, ‘brain processes’ that makes any of them similar or distinct.

    You seem to be insinuation something with regard to theorems that I see people apply to other ‘abstract’ entities. Like software. Software does not exist as a material entity. Software is merely a pattern in material stuff. When a software phone app resides on a server somewhere waiting to be copied it resides their as patterns in the medium of the server – disk drive states typically. When you ‘download’ the app to your phone other patterns in totally different media are constructed that in some way represent the app – typically this is an encoding into some protocol, which is instantiated as patterns, signals, in electronics, in wires, in electromagnetic radiation, eventually into a pattern in the memory of your phone device. To run the app your phone merely makes more patterns in the states of its electronic circuitry and in states of the display screen. All this is achieved by putting energy into this process at various stages to change states of devices, wires, radio signals. There is no such thing as the actual ‘app’. But this abstract nature of software does not mean that the concept of software is not useful. And yet neither does it mean that software therefore exists as some spiritual entity like a soul.

    Similarly, we have as yet no other explanation as to what thoughts are, other than ‘software’ and ‘data’ (and in this respect ‘software’ is ‘data’ – the distinction is one we make in computing, but not all the time), patterns in the physical states of the brain. The odd bit, the as yet unexplained bit, is why we ‘feel’ the emotions when we humans have them. Well, it’s not that hard to explain. Emotions are just those brain activities that stir other physical behaviours in our bodies, and that’s why we ‘feel’ emotions. And they are tied to very specific chemical processes and the presence of absence of specific chemicals, such as some of the known neurotransmitters and hormones. There is a reason we ‘feel’ emotions: they are physical.

    The likely problem with your wondering whether the computer simulation might ‘feel’ the emotions may have more to do with embodiment – that, from our only experience of conscious systems, humans and other animals, those conscious systems happen to be embodied. It may be that to be conscious like a human requires a body that can feel the consequences of certain thoughts. If that is the case then your simulation has to simulate the bodily experiences of the simulated mind too, or to ‘wire up’ the simulation to external experiences.

    On the other hand it may well be that your simulation does actually ‘feel’ the emotions in an entirely conscious sense. So, maybe we have to embody AI if we want it to have ‘feelings’; or maybe we can have a conscious but unemotional detached system that has all the hallmarks of cognition but none of the emotions. Again, going of current neuroscience the former seems as though it might be likely because we seem to need emotions to make decisions – read Antonio Damasio. But again, that is based only on our experience with wetwear, not hardware.

    My point here is not to give any real explanation of what consciousness is, but to suggest some possibilities that make any simplistic attempt to draw some equivalence between general principles about algorithms and messy human brains is so fraught with unknowns that you can’t possibly conclude anything from your point.

    This is an empirical problem. Only doing the science will we discover things that will inform us further. Claims that we will never understand consciousness, or that we will never produce AI consciousness, are based on such flimsy simplistic logic with yawning caverns full of possible presuppositions that might be totally wrong. To assert that these are unachievable, as some philosophers do, just seems like very bad philosophy to me.

    • March 26, 2013

      David Bailey

      Ron Murphy,

      You didn’t seem to get my theorem argument at all. A computer program without input (in this case derived from a brain by brain scanning) runs to produce some output – that is all it does.

      The relationship between program and output is fixed, and should work the same way each time it is run (assuming any random numbers are seeded identically).

      That fixed relationship between program and output is a (very messy!) theorem, and all the computer will do is generate that output each time it runs.

      This is absolutely no problem, unless you start to claim that running the program will have side-effects, such as experiencing phenomena, or emotions. Once you start to propose that, you have to think about the fact that the program isn’t really doing anything but confirm a relationship/theorem between the program P and its output O. It doesn’t make much sense to claim anything else of the program, does it!

      More generally, I am extremely curious as to why some people here, seem so wedded to materialism despite its problems. After all, normally in science it is possible to discuss alternative ideas at the same time without creating such an intense reaction.

      What is it about the idea that consciousness is fundamental to the way the universe works, which upsets people so much?

  38. March 26, 2013

    David Bailey

    Ron Murphy,

    You said (about why we feel emotions):
    “Well, it’s not that hard to explain. Emotions are just those brain activities that stir other physical behaviours in our bodies, and that’s why we ‘feel’ emotions. And they are tied to very specific chemical processes and the presence of absence of specific chemicals, such as some of the known neurotransmitters and hormones. There is a reason we ‘feel’ emotions: they are physical. ”

    Is that really an explanation?

    Does a computer feel emotions when it stirs up activities in the printer!

    Can you explain emotions by referring to specific brain chemicals? These bind to a receptor to pass their message on. Can’t that be simulated on a computer?

    If a signal is passed on by a chemical, is that conceptually different from if it had been passed on by an electrical signal?

    Conscious phenomena are very, very hard to explain conventionally, which is why people have struggled over such issues so much.

  39. March 27, 2013

    Ron Murphy

    David Bailey,

    OK. It turns out I did get your theorem argument. I thought there was something more profound in it than I saw. Apparently not.

    It runs without input? Well that’s not quite right. At the very least it has some source of energy. That’s an input, and it’s not trivial. This applies to the brain too.

    With your computer you are defining it such that it can do stuff, and has an output. Well (barring energy input) then so what?

    Just stating “in this case derived from a brain by brain scanning” doesn’t tell us anything at all. What sort of scanning? What is scanned? Implicit in this is the notion that from a physicalist perspective it should be sufficient to simulate consciousness; but then you set up conditions which you suppose show it isn’t simulating consciousness according to your criteria. That’s moving the goal posts.

    This is a bit like the Mary colour scientist nonsense of a thought experiment, where the philosopher defines in one sense that Mary knows everything about colour, then Mary leaves the grey environment and experiences red for the first time, implying that experience is something more than simple knowledge. But it’s hog-wash. It relies on a very naive understanding of knowledge. If Mary experiences something she did not before then she has new knowledge – she knows what it feels like to see red. Human experience is the very nature of knowledge acquisition. The original premise that she knew everything about colour prior to experiencing red was wrong.

    Here you are implying that the scan is complete in some way that would satisfy me, and yet incomplete in some way that would satisfy you, therefore the computer omits something crucial to consciousness from your perspective. The whole thought experiment is flawed.

    When you get round to discovering what exactly it is that can’t be scanned that is essential to consciousness, and what it is about some ‘computer’ that can’t simulate a brain, then we can examine that case. What do you suppose this elusive aspect of consciousness is that can’t be got at? If it can’t be got at by science how do you come to know of it?

    But, sticking with your description, then yes, all things being equal the program will run the same again. What’s the problem?

    The problem is that your simplistic definition hides the real complexity of even a simple computer, let alone a brain. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but computer programs in real computers never run exactly the same each time. There are some general conditions that change. A computer of any complexity is forever shifting things around. There is always an interlacing of programming tasks so they are never run in exactly the same way, with the same timing, every time. You’ll notice this in any modern computer. The gross redundancy in computer design hides a lot of the micro variability too. There are error checking operations that mask errors. Computer components operate differently over time and at different temperatures. Each bit in a memory cell has its state determined in terms of many electrons, and each bit on each occasion it is set will have different numbers of electrons. The signals that fly around in a computer only approximately resemble the pure square waves we see in diagrams. A digital computer is not the neat theorem processing machine you think it is. And that’s before we get onto the problem metastability in electronic systems: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metastability_in_electronics.

    So, even something as simple as a modern laptop is already an indeterminate system on many scales. Your computer isn’t the simple thing you think it is. Have you noticed how computers that are used over time start to act erratically, sometimes slower than usual, sometimes having unexpected failures, or hanging up needing a reboot? This is a computer that has had many inputs, some of which consist of many programs, lots of junk, lots of data. They accumulate tasks and become very messy. A very simple analogue of an experiencing human brain that picks up all sorts of strange ideas over time.

    Scale this up to the complexity of a real brain, where many different parts are acting in parallel all doing their own little thing, with untold number of inputs arriving continuously, awake or asleep, and you’ll see that your example with ‘no inputs’ isn’t telling us anything at all about brain simulation. It isn’t even a good example of a simple computer.

    And, I’ve no need to propose side effects. You are projecting your dualistic notion of something extra into the thought experiment from the start. If you really have scanned a brain sufficiently to record enough of its state, and if the computer is capable of emulating what a wet brain does, then you have consciousness right there. That is the point. Unless you really can demonstrate there is something extra, rather than presupposing it.

    I’m not sure you get the complexity of massively parallel autonomous systems. The term ‘computational’ doesn’t mean the thing you seem to think it means by your simple theorem example. Your “(very messy!)” is no more than a token gesture to the complexity that your “program P and its output O” totally ignores.

    I’m not wedded to materialism, merely dating it. I’ll dump it for a more exiting date, if I find one. You could try this set of posts to see why: http://ronmurp.net/thinking/.

    “After all, normally in science it is possible to discuss alternative ideas at the same time without creating such an intense reaction.”

    Yes. I merely ask for some evidence that backs up the explicit claims made by philosophers:
    1) Consciousness will never be fully understood.
    2) AI will never achieve the equivalent of human consciousness.

    Shaky thought experiments filled with unsupportable presuppositions that result in question begging don’t amount to evidence.

    “What is it about the idea that consciousness is fundamental to the way the universe works, which upsets people so much?”

    Nothing about it upsets me at all. It would be fascinating to science if that were the case. The sheer lack of any evidence whatsoever that this is the case is our only complaint.

    Are you wedded to that particular notion? What on earth gives you the idea that consciousness is fundamental to the universe? We only know of it on this planet, and then only in a tiny fraction of its living population, and even then the only consciousness worth speaking of is in a very limited number of species. And given this unfolding of evidence: http://ronmurp.net/2011/12/23/thought_v_experience/, it seems that consciousness is more of add-on and not the least bit fundamental.

    Again I’m puzzled by the idea that some people think we cannot understand consciousness and yet they understand it enough to say it will never be understood, and they understand it enough to recognise it as fundamental to the universe? Where does one gain such expertise in both consciousness and cosmology?

  40. March 27, 2013

    Ron Murphy

    Oscar,

    “Perhaps you haven’t tried hard enough to reach their perspective.”

    I have tried, but I’ve not been persuaded by any of it. This is where I’ve tried: http://ronmurp.net/2010/05/03/contingency-of-knowledge/. I say there that I can’t refute solipsism, but all rationalisms and idealisms, if you follow their methods of reasoning, give no good reason for not resorting to solipsism. It’s not that there are no other ways of conceiving of the whole of reality or any particular aspects of it (they seem to be countless – if they can dream they will come with their ideas), it’s that given we only have senses and reason they never provide any evidence or reason. What else is there?

    “So perhaps this will continue to seem obvious to both sides because one will say – “well show me this non-physical stuff” and the other will say “I can’t, it’s non-physical.” and both will think they have won that exchange because of an irreducible assumption – a foundation for the obvious – on both sides.”

    Not so, because after their “I can’t, it’s non-physical” the next questions are: Then how do you know of it? What faculty are you using? When you’ve done that how can you convince me that this supposed faculty is distinguishable from hallucination or illusions or fantasy? Perhaps this should be a practice in Philosophy 101 courses: where all students are invited to doubt physical reality by punching each other on the nose. How many of the idealists would insist that the pain is not mere illusion of physicality and not sue the professor? Dr Johnson’s “I refute it thus!” was not an absolute logical refutation but it is pretty persuasive. Have you noticed how mystics and rationalists when holding conferences actually take their physical bodies with them? Has there ever been a test where they hold remote conferences communicating by pure thought alone, and then successfully reported on their experience of each other’s’ presentations?

    “The good ol paradigmatic dialectic of what counts as ‘existing’.”

    I’m not sure what that has to do with anything, since all parties are subject to this dilemma on equal grounds. Except, material objects tend to slap you in the face. Do you know of anyone who has come back from the dead recently – say someone who has been cremated so there’s no possibility of the mistake of being merely apparently dead? If someone who claims they have been astral planing how do you distinguish the fact of that as opposed to the fantasy of it? When someone supposes that consciousness is the foundation of reality, on what basis do you suppose they know that to be the case, as opposed to whimsical musing on the infinite possibilities that occur to them? How do you debate with a true solipsist who thinks that you are merely part of the imagination of his solipsist mind? Do you know any solipsist who refuses to eat and drink because he thinks they are aspects of an illusion of physicality? If you can’t convince yourself you actually exist physically in some sense do you ever take that challenge seriously by testing it, say by walking under a bus? Sure you might appear to stop existing in this apparent aspect of reality but maybe it’s enough to wake you up into the real non-physical reality you suspect might be behind this apparent one.

    I don’t actually know for sure that I am here in any physical sense. In many respects I’m not – my ‘identity’ is an illusory thing. But I find it odd that people are so thoroughly sceptical about physical reality itself seem to find it difficult to accept one simple illusory aspect that fits well with all our physical models: the illusion of free will. They are very choosy about what they are sceptical about. They never seem to be overly sceptical about their own ideas, whether they are some form of idealism reached through pure rationalism, or solipsism, of the spiritual, or consciousness and the will not being subject to, indeed aspects of, an actual physical world that to all intents and purposes slaps them silly if they genuinely try to challenge it instead of making up stories.

    “one will argue their paradigm is more useful”

    Can you demonstrate or argue what the usefulness is of any other ‘paradigm’? Pick any.

    “the other that there’s is complete.”

    This is clearly false. I’ll even concede that most proponents of alternative paradigms tend not to say they are complete. And the very nature of science is based on the possibility of endless discovery so that it is never complete. Where do you get this idea of completeness? There are some rationalist systems that do seem to claim completeness, but even then proponents don’t claim they personally have complete knowledge but that their God does – but then you wonder, well, if their knowledge is incomplete how sure are they about what they think they know about their God, who always conveniently becomes ineffable when questioned about him in detail.

    “And I will chip in, snug in my comforting agnostic duvet.” Was that a type for ‘smug’ you missed their? :) Some do say ignorance is bliss, so enjoy the self-indulgent bliss by all means. But why then have you bothered to read and join in here? Is your smugness/snugness becoming boring?

    • March 27, 2013

      Oscar

      Ho hum. Not sure you followed me as it seems you’re responding to a rather different agenda. I’ll see if I can clarify. Let’s go from the bottom up.

      Funnily enough I did write ‘smug’ initially, as lets’ face it there is something rather smug about the hedginess of the agnostic, as compared to the gutsy hubris of the alternatives. Then I decided that snug sort of fulfilled that function too, and I liked the duvet image.

      ““the other that there’s is complete.” This is clearly false.”

      Of course that’s false. It’s also a misquote (and misspelled and mispunctuated, which must be some kind of libel when in quotation marks). What I said was;

      “one will argue their paradigm is more useful,”

      Which you then exactly did (with a burden of proof argument, which is a little lazy if you don’t mind my saying).

      “the other that theirs is more complete.”

      Note “more” here, which you omitted. I agree that few thoughtful nonnaturalists (unnaturalists?) would claim completeness. They do often claim their thinking offers a more complete view of the universe than that which purports to reduce the apparently nonphysical to the purely physical. That’s the whole point really – they think when you do that something is lost. The naturalist/physicalist does not. (I’ll assume your comments about god etc after that were dealing with the misconstrued claim.)

      “come back from the dead / astral planing / consciousness is the foundation of reality / you are merely part of the imagination / illusion of physicality ”

      Straw men. All these rather odd claims weren’t the subject really. If you recall, I was asking only about those who think that consciousness and what-it’s-likeness have at least a reasonable claim to exist. Broadly, I think a majority would take denying any experience of those things to be rather odd too. If I’ve understood you, however, you’d like to group them with your list above, going on your following comment “my ‘identity’ is an illusory thing”.

      That’s where the burden comes back though; because whilst mainstream of thought tends to reject resurrection, astral planing and so on as commonsensically unevidenced – it also tends to accept that selfhood/consciousness/what-it-is-likeness does indeed ‘exist’ in some important sense lost to any current attempt at physicalist reduction. Why? Because literally everyone, even Ron Murphy, has some experience of it. It may indeed be an illusion – but if it is, it’s such a ubiquitous one that the burden of proof for it’s excision from discourse seems to lie with it’s would-be excisors.

      Your questions to the invented nonnaturualist beg the question, as they presume evidence must be in the form of a shared physical referent as opposed to a widely presumed equivalent subjective one. But that’s to be expected, and again this is the entire claim really, as it’s the basis of the physicalist paradigm that any such evidence is not evidence at all as only the physical can be said to exist. “Paradigms can’t usefully assess each other” might almost be a paraphrase of Gödel.

      As a side note, I’d say that one can’t properly be a proponent of a paradigm. One is subject to them.

      • March 27, 2013

        David Bailey

        “It may indeed be an illusion – but if it is, it’s such a ubiquitous one that the burden of proof for it’s excision from discourse seems to lie with it’s would-be excisors.”

        I would go a little further than you, and say that that statement is clearly false – because an illusion needs a subject with an identity on which to operate!

        I think strange statements that attempt to downgrade consciousness in various ways – some would like to deny it exists – cut to the heart of this debate.

        Materialist philosophy is most obviously wrong, exactly because it forces its followers to make ever more extreme assertions in order to continue to defend it! One is reminded of the White Queen, who would, “believe six impossible things before breakfast”. Put another way, if all the people who work at the LHC have been fooled about their own identity, why believe them when they say they have found the Higgs Boson?

        The worrying thing, is just how much evidence of phenomena that clearly do not fit the strict materialist philosophy, have been discarded by people willing to deny their own identity!

  41. March 27, 2013

    Ron Murphy

    Oscar,

    Quite right on the misquotes, so scrub my misreading of you on those.

    Taking it from “one will argue their paradigm is more useful” and “Which you then exactly did (with a burden of proof argument, which is a little lazy if you don’t mind my saying).”

    The burden of proof would be of concern, if it were a matter of proof. I don’t see how it can be, given the apparent lack of any means for anyone to provide the required proof. So it is about ‘arguing’ why one is more useful, but not in some ultimate deductive sense, only sufficient to be persuasive. So this is only ever about how and why one perspective should be more persuasive. Which brings us back to how we figure stuff out. And that is why most of us tend to agree we have senses and reasoning, unless you go down the route of solipsism.

    “I was asking only about those who think that consciousness and what-it’s-likeness have at least a reasonable claim to exist”

    And I agree. But that is only ever persuasive that I exist, and not that anyone else does, or any other consciousness does, or that consciousness is anything other than a solipsist experience of some sole mind.

    But, other than someone who claims actual solipsism (or some idealist rationalism which can be reduced to solipsism), you find all other takers do accept at least other minds. Why? Because they experience interaction with them? And yet they feel that is a serious experience but any physical experience is entirely false, so that only multiple consciousness’s exist? The possibility that I am a sole consciousness in this body (imagined to be physical or actually physical) and that all other minds I encounter are no more than philosophical zombies is just as persuasive it seems to me.

    So, it still comes back to either solipsism, or some multiple consciousnesses, based on experience; but then since that experience of other consciousnesses seem only to be effective when those consciousnesses are embodied (other than some mystical systems that do claim consciousness of sorts beyond death, and some even prior to birth), and then only when the container bodies are alive.

    “Broadly, I think a majority would take denying any experience of those things to be rather odd too.”

    I agree. But note that the physicalist isn’t denying the experience. They are merely saying that if physicalism holds then the experience that consciousness is something else, or has some non-physical component, is an illusion. They are persuaded that physicalism holds, and so consciousness is an illusion, and one that is so persuasive they cannot dismiss it themselves, as an experience. Now I’m not sure why this is problematic, since all it is calling for is one description, from an experiential perspective, and another description form an intellectual analytical perspective. It seems that all opponents of physicalist materialism seem quite happy to hold to intellectual descriptions that don’t match with their experiences.

    We experience optical illusions, but because optical illusions can be viewed from a different physical POV we get to see through the illusion. Like physicalism of the ‘mind’ we can both experience the optical illusion and intellectualise the illusory nature of it, plus we get to experience the breaking of the illusion. The experience of consciousness (and mental illusions generally, such as hearing voices, blind sight… it’s a long list) is an entirely introspective POV, with no opportunity to challenge it. So, unless those that think consciousness is something non-physical do want to resort to those other (straw men) methods, then by what means do they assure themselves it is not an illusion?

    Why would they think it is an illusion? Because of all the neuroscience that demonstrates many illusions that many who hold to a separate consciousness need to explain. Again, if you pursue their line of argument you end up voting for something that is less in-your-face than physical experience (and rejecting all that this entails: evolution, neuroscience, …), or simply deny all physical experience and all other minds and go right to solipsism. Instead it seems many proponents of a separate consciousness seem to pick and choose what they will accept as physical experience and what they will not, what the implications of science are and what they are not – but they never get to explain why their particular perspective should be taken seriously.

    “If I’ve understood you, however, you’d like to group them with your list above, going on your following comment “my ‘identity’ is an illusory thing”.”

    Only in the context of how they come to be argued for. I’m not saying they are grouped together because they are similar in their specific claims. Panpsychism seems quite different from theism. But their common method is as follows: they experience what appears to be their own consciousness and suppose that there is something that is this conscious entity; to varying degrees they accept the material world (though for some it is entirely imaginary); they refuse to accept the possibility that their consciousness is an aspect of dynamic matter; they come up with other explanations that go beyond both of the two very basic experiences of their personal consciousness and their material bodies; they will use reason and evidence to support their case in a rather pick and mix manner, with no reason or evidence for their specific choices. So, to be clear, they are arbitrary not only in what they choose as their model, but also in their reasons (or evidence – but that’s only usually introspection).

    It is only the materialist and the solipsist that accepts both experiences, of consciousness and the material world, and tries to unify them. You have to think the entirety of science is an invention of the mind if you are going to reject this approach – unless you can explain which bits of the material world one might reject, and which bits of science one might reject, and then explain those choices. Only the solipsist has an unassailable alternative point to make. And I don’t think it an accident that materialism and its implication for physicalism and illusory consciousness is at one end of the spectrum and solipsism at the other. All other ideas seem to fall somewhere in between for what seem like very personal biased reasons.

    On this basis it seems to me that I could choose materialism or solipsism. But if I suppose that solipsism is the case it appears I can’t do anything to overcome the now supposedly imagined physical realities – I can’t mentally stop breathing for any significant amount of time and have that appear as the physical stopping of my breathing. I can’t will that apparent material experience away and stop breathing altogether. So, my reasoning then is that if in solipsism the imagined physical reality is still so persuasive, why not accept it on face value (which is what others do of consciousness). And this is what I do. A accept materialism is being most persuasive, but fully accept it might be part of my solipsistic experience. I haven’t yet had any reason to change this working model. On the odd occasion strange things seem to happen – such as when my keys go missing, it still seems easier to accept that my physical brain forgot the experience it had of putting them down somewhere, rather than thinking, oops, there goes my solipsist mind flipping my reality around by making my keys vanish. Solipsism seems like harder work in that you have to be second guessing how your mind is manipulating your physical experiences.

    “It may indeed be an illusion – but if it is, it’s such a ubiquitous one that the burden of proof for it’s excision from discourse seems to lie with it’s would-be excisors.”

    If you hold to solipsism then there is indeed a stand-off of ideas. But for anywhere in between you have to reject many examples form science that show introspection to be flawed, so that if you accept any degree of materialism and its science then it is telling you that your introspective experience of consciousness is a flawed perspective. As has been mentioned before, unless you reject evolution and neuroscience it is clear that the human brain evolved, but it did not evolve to do introspection on its own existence, it evolved as a tool for dealing with the physical world around it. Science isn’t some special magic; it is only taking that basic evolved capability and overcoming as much as possible the limitations of the system through the methods used. Animals have been breaking open skulls and other body parts for billions of years; and mammals have been testing their environment to determine how it works, what can be eaten, what cannot, and so on. Doing science is far closer to what comes naturally to all animals that didn’t have a serious neural cortex to use. The intellectual conscious language based thinking that humans do is relatively new to evolution. What makes you think we are equipped to do introspection that well? You have to reject or ignore a lot of evolution to think that consciousness is the foundation, let alone rejecting the basic physical nature of the early abundant elements like hydrogen, and rejecting that all the heavier elements were made in stars, and that eventually complex chemical reactions started life and lead to brains, conscious brains, human brains. There’s a lot of science that is consistent with the materialist explanation and only a vast variety non-materialist descriptions with no reason to choose any of them.

    On top of that the human ‘mind’ of the mind model cannot detect its own neurons firing – it cannot ‘feel’ its physical container contribute to the thinking. So the ‘mind’ does indeed feel like a separate entity – which is what is being claimed. But if a physical ‘brain’ of the physical brain model is doing the conscious work and it too does not provide physical sensation of its thinking conscious mechanism then it too will feel like a separate mind. An analogy is that using our simple senses we cannot tell whether the sun is going round the earth or the earth is revolving in front of the sun. They are indistinguishable. Similarly the physicalist and the separate consciousness models are indistinguishable from a personal introspective POV. So all points you make in favour of the persuasiveness of the existence of consciousness don’t tell us which is right. But a third person scientific POV finds nothing that is this separate consciousness.

    So, given all the above, this is why physicalism is the best working model of reality I can come up with. But I’m still open to reason and evidence for the alternatives.

  42. March 27, 2013

    Ron Murphy

    David Bailey,

    “I would go a little further than you [Oscar], and say that that statement is clearly false – because an illusion needs a subject with an identity on which to operate!”

    You already presuppose that identity is something that requires a mind-subject separate from the brain-body system. If the subject is the brain-body system that is physical but feels it has a separate mind what you have is a positive feedback system. A mechanistic system can detect some aspects of its internal operation, learns to treat that as a special perspective, and then postulates a separate mind. What would it feel like for such a physical system that could perform introspective examination to a limited degree but couldn’t detect the physical connection in that process? How would it know it wasn’t a separate mind?

    “Materialist philosophy is most obviously wrong, exactly because it forces its followers to make ever more extreme assertions in order to continue to defend it!”

    They are only extreme to someone who presupposes that they are wrong. Materialism is only obviously wrong to those with too big a commitment to their own ideas: http://ronmurp.net/2011/09/06/stating-the-bleeding-obvious/

    “Put another way, if all the people who work at the LHC have been fooled about their own identity…”

    Well, how could they test if they had been so fooled? Introspection isn’t up to the job. So we come up with the theory of mind, that other bodies that we sense are present when behaving as we do have minds too just like us. That seems persuasive. There appear to be other minds, but they only appear to be present in physical bodies. Am I really supposed to accept that their minds are real but their bodies are not? If their bodies are real then … science, evolution, neuroscience … consciousness is a new evolutionary outcome, evidence of mental illusions is increasing all the time, introspection is flawed, there is no evidence for the non-physical mind.

    “The worrying thing, is just how much evidence of phenomena that clearly do not fit the strict materialist philosophy, have been discarded by people willing to deny their own identity!”

    Such as? Please, give some examples.

    I can come up with plenty of evidence that brains fool themselves in specific ways that demonstrate the introspective method, that you use to make you think you are conscious, is a flawed system. Science was developed specifically to overcome these personal biases.

    • March 27, 2013

      David Bailey

      “A mechanistic system can detect some aspects of its internal operation, learns to treat that as a special perspective, and then postulates a separate mind. ”

      Yes it can – my computer can sense when it is getting hot, and turn up the fan – so would you claim that it sits somewhere on the same consciousness scale that we sit on?

      “Well, how could they test if they had been so fooled? Introspection isn’t up to the job. ”

      OK – but how could they test anything else – if they could be fooled about their own identity, they could be fooled about the operation of their hardware and software! Your philosophy is utterly corrosive to the idea that consciousness is competent at anything! Note that the point at issue, is not whether the mind is distinct from the brain, but whether the mind/brain could be fooled about having an identity!

      Yes we can be fooled by certain optical illusions, say, but we quickly learn in school to be cautious about such things. If you want to incorporate consciousness in physical science, you can’t do it by asserting that everything that is hard to explain, must be an illusion!

      “They are only extreme to someone who presupposes that they are wrong. Materialism is only obviously wrong to those with too big a commitment to their own ideas.”

      I’d say you have to have a hell of a commitment to materialism to assert some of the things that you assert (and you are not alone, of course).

      This is what puzzles me – and probably puzzles Nagel – I really can’t understand the intense dislike of a science augmented by Nagel’s ideas. What is so awful about augmenting science with irreducible consciousness, just as it got augmented in the past, with fields and action at a distance, quantum wave functions, etc..

      I mean, Einstein didn’t accept QM for a long time, and I am sure there were plenty of others with the same opinion. We all accept it now – together with the idea that there is some sort of irreducible randomness to the world (unless you prefer the Many Worlds interpretation). Why is irreducible/fundamental consciousness such an impossible extra step for you to contemplate?

  43. March 27, 2013

    proximity1

    “This is what puzzles me – and probably puzzles Nagel – I really can’t understand the intense dislike of a science augmented by Nagel’s ideas. What is so awful about augmenting science with irreducible consciousness, just as it got augmented in the past, with fields and action at a distance, quantum wave functions, etc..”

    “I mean, Einstein didn’t accept QM for a long time, and I am sure there were plenty of others with the same opinion. We all accept it now – together with the idea that there is some sort of irreducible randomness to the world (unless you prefer the Many Worlds interpretation). Why is irreducible/fundamental consciousness such an impossible extra step for you to contemplate?”

    The problems with it arise as soon as one starts to combite two things:

    1) serious thought about “consciousness” and 2) some, even basic, knowledge of the facts of biology.

    Let’s take an example. Most of us agree that humans are one of the animal species which possess or can possess consciousness–as familiarly understood. And I suppose that you agree that they / we do.

    Okay. If consciousness is “irreducible”, if it’s “fundamental”, then I suppose that, if humans have consciousness, then this quality is, in humans, also an irreducible quality, and not, as I would argue, a phenomenon that is emergent and something composed by physical biological processes, thus, not irreducible (Source; Damasio, A. Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, 2010 Random House) .

    Are you with me so far?

    Question:
    (Concerning a normal human foetus of, say, 30 weeks old, in utero, )

    Is that foetus conscious?

    If so, when did it become conscious and how do you determine that it is conscious? If not, why not? Again, how do you determine that it is not conscious? In other words, when, normally, does an individual become conscious and how is this determinted?–according to you and your view of things, that is.

    Please, cite your sources for your claims and assertions. Thank you.

  44. March 27, 2013

    proximity1

    RE :

    “I mean, Einstein didn’t accept QM for a long time, and I am sure there were plenty of others with the same opinion. We all accept it now.”

    Einstein never came to terms with, that is, never accepted as a comfortable fact, his findings concerning quantum mechanics. They were (and they remain) irreconcilable with his theory of general relativity. And, today, it’s still not true that “we all accept it now” –not, at any rate, “as is”. There is something amiss in either general relativity or in quantum mechanics (or, indeed, in both of them) because they are not compatible as currrently understood.

    Here’s Hermann Weyl, writing in the preface to the first American edition (1950) to Space, Time, Matter, first published in 1921)

    A new development began for relativity theory after 1925 with its absorption into quantum physics. The first great success was scored by Dirac’s quantum mechanical equations of the electron, which introduced a new sort of quantities, the spinors, besides the vectors and tensors into our physical theories. See Dirac’s book, The Principles of Quantum Mechanics, 3rd ed., Oxford Clarendon Press, 1947. The generally relativistic formulation of these equations offered no serious difficulties. But difficulties of the gravest kind turned up when one passed from one electron or photon to the interaction among an indeterminate number of such particles. In spite of promising advances a final solution of this problem is not yet in sight and may well require a deep modification of the foundations of quantum mechanics, such as would account in the same basic manner for the elementary electric charge e as relativity theory and our present quantum mechanics account for c and h .
    (H.W. , Zurich, October,1950)

  45. March 27, 2013

    Ron Murphy

    “so would you claim that it sits somewhere on the same consciousness scale that we sit on?”

    I wouldn’t claim it.

    But it’s a possibility. Where it lies on the scale from bacteria and other systems all the way though many systems with a brain, is hard to tell, because they are quite different. But then we don’t really know much about the conscious experience of even many animals that are quite like us. Just as we have a theory of mind about other people we sometimes suspect we over anthropomorphise about our pets and some of the apes, or intelligent birds like members of the crow family.

    This is the point we keep coming back to. You seem to be under the impression materialism is an assertion, whereas for the most part it is an observation of the material and the lack of observation of the mental as something separate, except and only for the very personal case of our singular self, which we known to be unreliable.

    The theory of mind we individual hold about other people seems supportable, because of all the similarities we observe, and because of the extent to which we have language to report to each other about ourselves. But this is a real problem when it comes to understanding the extent to which other animals experience consciousness – what does it feel like to be a bat. Given computers are very different, in being non-biological, not having anything close to a brain in terms of how they work.

    So there is a bipolar perspective at play here.

    Working up from inanimate matter, through simple living organisms, to those with simple central nervous systems of a few tens or hundreds or neurons, through other mammals, apes and on to humans, we still don’t understand at what point consciousness ‘turns on’, or if it’s a gradual thing at all. But, coming up in that direction everything looks physical and there is no evidence of anything being added anywhere along the way. It really does look like a change in behaviour of what amounts to the same physical stuff, but on a more complex scale. This is a completely consistent explanation.

    Working down from humans we are tempted to see our consciousness as something additional and non-physical, because that’s what it feels like. But then as we dig down to ‘lesser’ examples of consciousness we can’t sustain the story of separate consciousness. Dualists (and theists who see humans as special) really have to insist, with no justification to back it up, that humans are indeed special and do have an additional entity which is their consciousness. But then they get into ridiculous arguments internally about whether certain animals are considered to be persons, or, for the religious, for which this is particularly tricky, whether they have souls or not.

    “OK – but how could they test anything else”

    Not by introspection but by third person POV.

    “Note that the point at issue, is not whether the mind is distinct from the brain, but whether the mind/brain could be fooled about having an identity!”

    We know already it is fooled. We are not the same bunch of atoms that we were a year ago. The whole concept of identity is wrapped up in the intropsective view of memory. Biological memory may well work as well as it does because generally neurons do not divide the way other cells do. Most of the capacity to learn and change our mental states over time seems to come from the change in synaptic connections between neurons. Damage to areas of the brain wipe out complete memories, or stop new memories being created. Bran decay and sever damage does change personality and identity, depending on where the damage is, so you can lose your own identity, as it appears to yourself, or you can lose your external identity as you appear to other people. Identity is very much about the long term persistence of memory in the brain.

    “If you want to incorporate consciousness in physical science, you can’t do it by asserting that everything that is hard to explain, must be an illusion!”

    I’m not asserting that at all. You take the wrong causal connection form what I said. It is an illusion because of the effect, that it feels separate, and because of our limited access to it prevents us from seeing the illusion from a different POV. That particular point has nothing to do with it being hard to understand. I’m not claiming my cat has trouble with the same illusion, but I still don’t understand my cat’s brain.

    “I’d say you have to have a hell of a commitment to materialism to assert some of the things that you assert”

    Well, most of the things I say aren’t asserted. (1) I am concluding, from physics, and from lack of contradicting evidence, that we are physical entities and there is no sign of anything additional. (2) I am concluding, from evolution, that the great range of life from non-brained all the way to humans shows no sign of anything non-physical appearing anywhere. (3) I am concluding, from neuroscience, that there are many mental illusions that should make us suspect introspection as a tool for telling us anything about our consciousness at all, beyond the feeling that we have it.

    For (3) take out of body experiences. They feel very real. Sue Blackmore used to have them (don’t know if when still does) and was committed to that aspect of consciousness as any dualist. But she went into neuroscience and has demonstrated to her own satisfaction that they are mistaken beliefs about illusory mental experiences. Others have carried out experiments where they can stimulate the brain to have experiences that seem like they are absolutely real to the subject, but which are entirely false.

    “I really can’t understand the intense dislike of a science augmented by Nagel’s ideas.”

    Science is not augmented by his ideas, any more than they are by an astrologer. Simply coming up with these notions isn’t science and doesn’t contribute to science.

    “What is so awful about augmenting science with irreducible consciousness”

    Nothing. I really don’t know where you the idea that I’m against it. I’ll say again, it would be fascinating if you could demonstrate it. My beef is entirely about the claims for it, without evidence. But, just to put that in perspective, I think it would be interesting to science if Jesus did resurrect himself some days after death; or if, as some Creationists have it, humans and dinosaurs roamed the earth together. That would really upset the science apple cart. The thing is, young scientists that come along love to challenge their older mentors, so you would never be short of takers in science if these ideas were remotely supported by evidence. I don’t think you fully appreciate the excitement of new and unusual science. It take a lot of effort for excited scientists to restrain themselves from becoming too accepting to new ideas before they are tested.

    “just as it got augmented in the past, with fields and action at a distance, quantum wave functions”

    They augmented science because they were evidenced based. If anything the evidence in some of these has been so counter intuitive that it took some effort to accept them. Spot the similarity? It’s the materialism that is counterintuitive and the materialism for which there is evidence. Your intuited (and mine) consciousness has no evidence going for it. I find it ironic you offer these counterintuitive examples when you are making so much of your intuitive claims about consciousness.

    “We all accept it now – together with the idea that there is some sort of irreducible randomness”

    We accept it now solely to the extent that it is evidenced. And if it turns out to be augmented further by results that change our perspective yet again our perspectives will be changed, and will not be glued to traditional philosophical notions about how the world is. Physics is an on-going project, so I think it would be premature to pick any of it as an example to make your case. You are after all arguing for the static traditional view that is suggested by our intuitions.

    “Why is irreducible/fundamental consciousness such an impossible extra step for you to contemplate?”

    I make the point again. It isn’t impossible for me to contemplate. I simply see nothing going for it, so I don’t hold it in any special regard as an idea.

    So, on that point, let me ask,

    1) How do you specifically get passed your personal experience of being conscious and extrapolate (or is it interpolate) from there that consciousness is fundamental?

    2) Do you reject evolution and what it tells us about the variation in brains and degrees of consciousness, and that we came from simple organisms with no brain and no consciousness?

    3) What specifically do you understand about consciousness that would lead you to believe we will never understand it?

    4) And if you do think we will never understand it, how come you know so much about it to be able to assert we won’t understand it.

    5) On what basis would you suppose consciousness is something additonal to the material world?

    6) What proximity1 asked about the foetus and the precursor collection of cells from conception on?

    7) What evidence of phenomena do you have that clearly does not fit the strict materialist philosophy?

    8) You seem to set some store by emotions. Do you think they are in some respect an indicator of separate consciousness, or do you accept that they are even easier to explain in terms of physical brain chemistry and biology than general consciousness?

    That would be helpful.

  46. March 27, 2013

    proximity1

    D. Bailey– RE electric computers, electric thermostats, electric cooling-fans

    Your computer has a thermostat–probably digital nowadays. The thermostat is no more thinking than a thermometer thinks. It’s a guage of the temperature. At a pre-determined temperature, the thermostat’s guage triggersa switch ‘on’ conntected to the cooling fan. And ‘off’ again when the temperature falls to a predetermined level. There’s no thinking involved on the part of these devices. They’re pre-set, programmed, like your computer by designers aand engineers. Such things aren’t even remotely analogous to consciousness.

    If it were not for your (probably) accepting as a comfortable fact that there is a phenomenon we call gravity, how would you otherwise seek to explain the fact that a stone sinks when tossed into a pond? The stone “likes diving” when placed in water?

    • March 27, 2013

      David Bailey

      Proximity1,

      I did not want to suggest for an instant that a computer thermostat was equivalent to our consciousness, merely to probe what Ron Murphy thinks – and for what it is worth, he thinks it is a possibility!

      I also don’t need a video about how a computer works, but I guess you hadn’t been following my discussion with Ron Murphy, and so took what I said out of context.

      • March 28, 2013

        proximity

        RE:

        “I did not want to suggest for an instant that a computer thermostat was equivalent to our consciousness, merely to probe what Ron Murphy thinks – ”

        You say one thing and then you say its contrary. How am I to judge which you really mean and which are just there to “probe what Ron Murphy thinks”?

        For you, what’s the point of responding to R.M.’s

        “A mechanistic system can detect some aspects of its internal operation, learns to treat that as a special perspective, and then postulates a separate mind. ”
        with this:

        “Yes it can – my computer can sense when it is getting hot, and turn up the fan – so would you claim that it sits somewhere on the same consciousness scale that we sit on?”

        You mean now to say that you don’t claim that your computer can sense when “it’s getting hot, and turn up the fan”? That’s not your belief, then? Then why’d you preface it with “Yes it can–” ?

  47. March 27, 2013

    proximity1

    “We will expose what a computer really is.”

    —– Richard Feynman, September 26, 1985, in a video “workshop”, “Idiosyncratic Thinking”,

    Feynman discusses for the lay audience what computers are and how they operate–inside and out.

    Watch the video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKWGGDXe5MA

  48. March 28, 2013

    Kuldip Singh

    This from my Spiritual Master- The Philosophy pf Thought.
    ” The mind accepts that thought, which the mind likes.”
    Hence,if I read an article about the the Big Bang Theory,and if my mind likes the article,I will say Big Bang took place.
    However,if my mind does not like the arguments in the article,my mind will not accept the Big Bang Theory.

    • March 28, 2013

      proximity

      RE :

      “However,if my mind does not like the arguments in the article,my mind will not accept the Big Bang Theory.”

      True, the argument(s) should have something essential to do with whether or not “a mind” shall “like” (i.e. accept) or dislike (i.e. reject) a theory, an idea, a belief. Hence, what a “mind likes” seems to have a relation to the mind’s assessment of the validity of the arguments’ content.

      Upon closer inspection, we might see that this is not the same thing as to say, in sum, “One agrees with what one likes and dismisses what one doesn’t like.” In reasoned thought, a mind can come to accept an idea which was formerly neither liked nor accepted –and this can happen from the logical strength of the arguments which support the formerly disliked and unaccepted idea.

      • March 29, 2013

        Kuldip Singh

        You wrote – ” and this can happen from the logical strength of the arguments which support the formerly disliked and unaccepted idea.’

        The point I am trying to stress is simply this -’ from logical strength’ – I accept the argument that Big Bang was a reality.

        This need not necessarily mean that Big Bang took place.

  49. March 28, 2013

    Kuldip Singh

    If you scroll to 3rd November,you will see the following comment that I have reproduced below.
    Way back in December 1985 nobody on Planet Earth accepted what the Master told me.

    “In December, 1985, I met with my Spiritual Master, in his Ashram, in Punjab. During this meeting, the Master told me,
    “ By the turn of the century, your Malaysia, Singapore, America, England, Europe will all go downhill.”
    I asked my Master, “ Which country would rise? “
    The Master replied, “ India.”
    I asked “ Why? “
    The Master replied, “ The time will come, when on the land, where deep meditation has taken place would thrive. All other countries would go through difficult times.”
    Having faith in my Master’s words, along with my wife and 2 young children, we migrated to Punjab, in December 1986.This was the time after the attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar, as a consequence of which Punjab was going through a period of religious militancy.
    Way back in 1986, migrating to India was the least fashionable choice to make.”

    I have had the privilege of meeting Masters with extremely high levels of Consciousnesses. This level of Consciousnesses is beyond the realm of logic.

    • March 29, 2013

      David Bailey

      How do you see this relating to Nagel’s book?

      • March 30, 2013

        Kuldip Singh

        David ,

        You asked, ” How do you see this relating to Nagel’s book?”

        Truth be told- I have not read Thomas Nagel’s book. I am, however very interested in Spiritualism and higher Consciousnesses. This is why I am following this thread with great interest, since lots of you folks are also interested in Spiritualism and higher Consciousnesses.

        The current economic situation is not surprising to me. Simply because the Master told me this would happen. That too, way back in December 1985.

        “Many years ago, I asked my Spiritual Master, “All the chaos in this world, who is responsible for it?” The Master replied,”2 classes of people who live by the principle of divide and rule. One is politicians and the other preachers.”
        We need to find people who are neither politicians nor preachers to run this World.

        I posted the following comment in April 2012.

        ‘A few years ago, when 2012 was trending, on the Agora’s 5 Minute Financial blog, somebody asked, “Will the world come to an end in 2012?” The blogger replied, “No, the world will not come to an end in 2012, but the world as we know it will cease to exist.”
        I take this to mean that wars, religious bigotry, hatred, suffering etc will come to an end.
        Short term there will be pain. Long term –There will be peace on earth and goodwill towards all mankind.

        Currently, nobody is able to comprehend trends anywhere-be it economics, or share markets. The only trend being correctly predicted is that incumbent politicians in Europe will not be re elected.’

        To solve the problems we are currently facing in the World, we need to find leaders who are neither politicians nor preachers.
        I posted the following comment on a TED Conversations thread,
        http://www.ted.com/conversations/1398/do_you_believe_that_our_future.html?c=541479

        “Christians have been praying,
        ” Thy Will be done,
        on Earth,
        as it is in Heaven.”
        When The Almighty establishes His Will on Earth, believe you me, all the wheeler dealers, lobbyists, pedophiles, what have you -they all will rue their actions.
        Also, yes Spiritual Leadership is not about control. It is about leadership in action, through thought, word and deed.”
        You will need to go to the thread to view the full conversation.

        Also, if you went to November 2 on this thread, I posted my comment on astral traveling.
        Ron Murphy commented that astral traveling could be due to drugs. I would distinguish between pseudo astral traveling, which is drug induced and the real thing.

        I am aware that there is a school of thought that says, ‘if you cannot measure it, it does not exist.’
        My definition of singularity – an equation which mathematicians cannot solve!

        Consciousnesses is like feelings – it can neither be measured nor can it be described.

        I take this opportunity to wish everybody – Happy Easter.

  50. March 28, 2013

    David Klassen

    Ron Murphy (October 31st) says that physical experience is our primary source of knowledge. Indeed, it does seem to be a precondition for knowledge. Even Thomas Aquinas said that all knowledge begins with the senses. Yet, what we call knowledge exceeds what comes to us in physical experience through sense perception. When Ron Murphy says (February 26th) that “All we can do is go by what we know empirically,” he is evidently wrong if by empirically he means through physical experience and sense perception. For example, rules of logical inference, although they may only become known in the course of sense perception, are not themselves objects of sense perception. The axioms of logic are among what Murphy (March 21st) calls “premises we can’t prove.” Yet they are indispensable to all rational discourse, and also to science inasmuch as it seeks to draw logical inferences from sense perception and build up a systematic body of knowledge. Bertrand Russell describes how our knowledge depends upon intuitions of such self-evident general principles in chapter 11 of Problems of Philosophy:

    http://www.ditext.com/russell/rus11.html.

    Nagel says it is absurd to deny logic, and I think he is right, since all good science presupposes logic. But logic, which is not an object of sense perception but of intellectual intuition, is included in that part of our knowledge that exceeds what comes to us in physical experience through the senses. Thus, there are limits to what can be known empirically through the scientific method. We have other ways of knowing which science itself presupposes and relies upon.

    • March 29, 2013

      David Bailey

      Science isn’t maths, and there really isn’t such a thing as a scientific proof – common sense always has to be used.

      For example, if you plot voltage against current across a resistor, you will get a straight line within experimental error (ignoring obvious caveats). Does that prove Ohm’s law? No, because the line might deviate wildly at points that were not measured – however dense the points are! You can only do a finite number of experiments, you never get a proof in the mathematical sense.

      Common sense is at the heart of the scientific process.

      • March 29, 2013

        David Klassen

        “Common sense” is a pretty loose term. However, it is not sensible at all if it is illogical. We wouldn’t think that Ohm’s law is true to a very high degree of probability if there were significant counter-examples. We use the principle of non-contradiction to draw the inference that certain hypotheses are false. Those that stand up to many trials without counter-examples are believed to be very probably true. Once Ohm’s law, or any other law of science, is established by induction to a high degree of probability, we draw inferences from it and construct more elaborate scientific theories. For example, once we know that P = I * R, and that P = V * I, we can deduce that P = I squared * R = V squared/R (source: Wikipedia article, “Basic Electrical Theory”). It seems to me that any usable notion of common sense incorporates logic, and that science can’t do without logic.

        • March 29, 2013

          David Bailey

          Sure – science needs logic and maths, but it also needs common sense. So for example, I think Nagel and Chalmers are right to use common sense to point out that combining purely physical components, only generates physical outcomes – that you can’t bridge the explanatory gap to produce actual qualia.

          Some people will argue that this isn’t quite a proof (somewhat analogous to my Ohm’s law example), and that it might be that some way would be found to bridge the gap (without suggesting one) – but common sense would assess Chalmers’ argument as being pretty strong – precisely because it is so general. This would pave the way to pour some serious scientific effort into exploring a physical/mental explanation of reality.

          My point is that if science demands something akin to mathematical contradiction, it will never change direction. Common sense played a part in the past. For example, it wasn’t for many years that double slit experiments could be performed one photon at a time – ruling out some form of photon-photon interaction. QM didn’t have to wait for that – people saw the writing on the wall. I think Nagel and others can see the need for another scientific shift, but they are opposed by folk who want to resist this at all costs!

           
  51. March 28, 2013

    David Bailey

    Proximity1,

    You said:
    “If so, when did it become conscious and how do you determine that it is conscious? If not, why not? Again, how do you determine that it is not conscious? In other words, when, normally, does an individual become conscious and how is this determinted?–according to you and your view of things, that is.”

    I certainly agree that many animals have consciousness, and clearly a foetus must become conscious at some point. Asking how this happens, can only be answered by considerable speculation – so here is mine.

    One alternative model for what the brain does, is that it acts as a transmitter/receiver of consciousness, rather than generating it itself. This might help to account for what must go on in the womb when the brain reaches a certain level of complexity. The idea that the brain connects (or tunes in) to some ‘signal’ could also help explain a lot of puzzling facts:

    1) The fact that the brain/mind seems to have abilities (as I mentioned above) such as maths, that can’t possibly be explained by evolutionary pressure. I’d say this is a VERY strong reason to doubt that our minds are just a product of evolution – but if they evolved to communicate with another realm, this might make more sense.

    2) The fact that some severely autistic individuals seem to have access to whole realms of knowledge – such as music – that normally need to be learned.

    3) The relatively common phenomenon of “Near Death Experiences” might be better explained by such a model.

    4) If any ‘psi’ phenomena are real, and there is considerable evidence for some, but I don’t want to get into that discussion here, they obviously demonstrate that the mind/brain can do things that, by definition, do not have conventional scientific explanations.

    5) The extraordinary accounts people give of hallucinatory drug trips. There seems no obvious reason why a molecule binding to a receptor in the brain would unleash an experience that is utterly unrelated (and irrelevant!) to normal existence!

    Obviously there are ways of dismissing such points, but unfortunately there are no knock-down arguments in all this – it is not like working out the energy levels of the hydrogen atom, or whatever – all people can do, is decide how the arguments stack up as they see it. I could write the conventional response to each of the above points, but I honestly don’t believe them!

    Like Nagel, I am not religious, and I feel that religions lack all control of the arguments they deploy – they just muddy the water. The fact that some people want to disprove evolution because they want to prove the time-line of one holy book in one interpretation, is just crazy. However, that doesn’t mean that Nagel is wrong to question evolution by natural selection – it isn’t necessarily right, just because some idiots would desperately like it to be wrong!

    • March 30, 2013

      proximity1

      How many such transmitters do you imagine there could be? One for each individual? Where are they, or where is it , if it is only a single tranmitter, located? Do all animals receive transmission from the same transmitter? If not, why not? If so, how does it distinguish its signals over the wide ranges of more or less developed consciousnesses?

      At what point does it occur to you that your speculations here make many superfluous suppositions which physical evidence neither needs nor supports as elements of a convincing chain of reason?

      You’ve apparently supposed that from certain supposed mysteries about consciousness–based on your erronous ideas about what is or isn’t true or possible or founded by reasonable evidence–that the way is open to magical thinking about physiological behavior.

      Ex. “The fact that the brain/mind seems to have abilities (as I mentioned above) such as maths, that can’t possibly be explained by evolutionary pressure. I’d say this is a VERY strong reason to doubt that our minds are just a product of evolution – but if they evolved to communicate with another realm, this might make more sense.”

      Why? Why is it more reasonable (‘makes lmore sense’) to suppose that math reasoning evolved for use by and among those who possess it rather than as a means to communicate with antother realm? Why does this hypothesis make more sense than the evolutionary explanation?

      You claimed above that consciousness was to be understood as an irreducible feature of human beings. Now, you’re proposing that it is reducible to a quality which is reducible to remote transmission by another unidentified souce–though it would seem the source is non-human. Thus, you’ve done two things with what you called an irreducible quality of human life (i.e. consciousness) : you’ve removed its locus from human individuals themselves and sited it somewhere else.

      So now, human consciousness is no longer something that humans have; it’s something that is lent by remote transmission from some mysterious source. Thus, it’s no longer ours by natural evolutionary processes,; it’s ours by virture of some remote transmitting source. Why is this a superior hypothesis?

      As far as I’m concerned, you’ve just disqulified yourself from furhter consideration on my part in this forum.

  52. March 29, 2013

    David Klassen

    David Bailey (March 29th)

    I don’t dispute your point that common sense dictates that purely physical components don’t generate qualia. (I once asked a physicalist neuroscientist, William Newsome of Stanford University, how consciousness arises from the brain. He said it is a complete mystery, though it is a dogma of neuroscience.) My point adds to that. I would follow philosopher of science Karl Popper who pointed out in The Self and Its Brain (co-authored by neuroscientist John C. Eccles) that logic is not a physical thing. Physical components don’t generate logic either. Logic consists of laws of thought, unlike the laws of science which govern the physical realm and which are subject to empirical testing. Popper basically argues that if you wish to be a consistent physicalist or materialist, you can’t acknowledge the truth of logic, since logic is not physical, so you must in a sense be irrational. You could also look at the “Prolegomena to Pure Logic,’ which is the introduction to Husserl’s massive tome, the Logical Investigations. Husserl asks, among other things, how the contingent processes of the brain could produce the necessary laws of logic, so we would know them as necessarily true.

  53. March 30, 2013

    proximity1

    correction:

    ” Why is it more reasonable (‘makes lmore sense’) to suppose that math reasoning evolved not for use by and among those who possess it but rather as a means to communicate with antother realm? Why does this hypothesis make more sense than the evolutionary explanation?”

    • March 30, 2013

      David Bailey

      Well I don’t see any evidence that maths abilities beyond simple arithmetic has any evolutionary advantage. Indeed, to the extent that these might distract our hunter gatherer ancestors, they would quite probably have been detrimental! Even now, the maths geek isn’t usually a great hit with the girls!

      On the other hand, maths does have a feeling of accessing something absolute – something utterly timeless. Clearly different people may feel that to different degrees, and may give it greater significance, but it is hard to deny.

      I find it impossible to justify the evolution of advanced maths abilities on evolutionary grounds – if you disagree, at least suggest a plausible scenario!

  54. January 5, 2014

    Stephan Gregor

    “.. he argues that science alone will never be able to explain a reality that includes human beings. What is needed is a new way of looking at and explaining reality; one which makes mind and value as fundamental as atoms and evolution. . .”
    No philosopher, I, so I can ask: What is wrong with the idea that any description of reality must take into account all expressions of the human mind in reference to reality? In practical terms, ‘values’ are more real to me than atoms, and it is impossible for me to think about evolution without being aware of mind as that which informs my reflections about that which informs my experience and experience in itself.

  55. January 5, 2014

    Stephan Gregor

    “Philosophers like Daniel Dennett or Paul Churchland argue that Nagel’s whole approach is flawed. We are of course conscious, but consciousness is a phenomenon that can eventually be explained by science the same way heat and colour are.”
    Until consciousness is ‘explained’ by science, it is meaningless to call Nagel’s approach ‘flawed.’ Dennett and Harris and other neuroscientist-philosophers conceive and write some marvellous things, but it seems to me they are blind to begged questions, the most glaring being the notion that a component – our minds – of the largest system of which our minds are aware – the universe – can apprehend the larger (apparently-infinite) set of which it is a considerably insignificant subset. Put another way, it is hubris to imagine that science, an invention of mind, can ever be adequate to apprehend mind …. or is it consciousness …. or is it …. ?
    Meditation and Eastern metaphysics have taken humanity a lot further down this road than science is capable of taking us.

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Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson
Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson writes about philosophy, literature and film. Follow him on Twitter @mt_nicholson 




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