Mind, Cosmos, and Consciousness

The appearance last year of Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos greatly irked atheistic materialists (a.k.a. naturalists). They need not have been irked, for Nagel’s argument fails to negate materialism.

To begin at the beginning, I turn to Andrew Ferguson’s recounting of the reactions of prominent atheistic materialists to Mind and Cosmos:

… The naturalistic project has been greatly aided by neo-Darwinism, the application of Darwin’s theory of natural selection to human behavior, including areas of life once assumed to be nonmaterial: emotions and thoughts and habits and perceptions….

… Thomas Nagel is a prominent and heretofore respected member of the country’s intellectual elite. And such men are not supposed to write books with subtitles like the one he tacked onto Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False….

Nagel’s tone is measured and tentative, but there’s no disguising the book’s renegade quality. There are flashes of exasperation and dismissive impatience. What’s exhilarating is that the source of Nagel’s exasperation is, so to speak, his own tribe: the “secular theoretical establishment and the contemporary enlightened culture which it dominates.” The establishment today, he says, is devoted beyond all reason to a “dominant scientific naturalism, heavily dependent on Darwinian explanations of practically everything, and armed to the teeth against attacks from religion.” …

Nagel follows the materialist chain of reasoning all the way into the cul de sac where it inevitably winds up…. He has no doubt that “we are products of the long history of the universe since the big bang, descended from bacteria through millions of years of natural selection.” And he assumes that the self and the body go together. “So far as we can tell,” he writes, “our mental lives, including our subjective experiences, and those of other creatures are strongly connected with and probably strictly dependent on physical events in our brains and on the physical interaction of our bodies with the rest of the physical world.” To believe otherwise is to believe, as the materialists derisively say, in “spooky stuff.” …

Materialism, then, is fine as far as it goes. It just doesn’t go as far as materialists want it to. It is a premise of science, not a finding. Scientists do their work by assuming that every phenomenon can be reduced to a material, mechanistic cause and by excluding any possibility of nonmaterial explanations….

… From a fruitful method, materialism becomes an axiom: If science can’t quantify something, it doesn’t exist, and so the subjective, unquantifiable, immaterial “manifest image” of our mental life is proved to be an illusion.

Here materialism bumps up against itself. Nagel insists that we know some things to exist even if materialism omits or ignores or is oblivious to them. Reductive materialism doesn’t account for the “brute facts” of existence—it doesn’t explain, for example, why the world exists at all, or how life arose from nonlife…. On its own terms, materialism cannot account for brute facts. Brute facts are irreducible, and materialism, which operates by breaking things down to their physical components, stands useless before them. “There is little or no possibility,” he writes, “that these facts depend on nothing but the laws of physics.” …

Among these remarkable, nonaccidental things are…. [c]onsciousness itself….

In a recent review in the New York Review of Books of Where the Conflict Really Lies, by the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, Nagel told how instinctively he recoils from theism, and how hungry he is for a reasonable alternative. “If I ever found myself flooded with the conviction that what the Nicene Creed says is true,” he wrote, “the most likely explanation would be that I was losing my mind, not that I was being granted the gift of faith.” He admits that he finds the evident failure of materialism as a worldview alarming—precisely because the alternative is, for a secular intellectual, unthinkable. He calls this intellectual tic “fear of religion.”

“I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear,” he wrote not long ago in an essay called “Evolutionary Naturalism and the Fear of Religion.” “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

Nagel believes this “cosmic authority problem” is widely shared among intellectuals, and I believe him. It accounts for the stubbornness with which they cling to materialism—and for the hostility that greets an intellectual who starts to wander off from the herd. Materialism must be true because it “liberates us from religion.” The positive mission Nagel undertakes in Mind and Cosmos is to outline, cautiously, a possible Third Way between theism and materialism, given that the first is unacceptable—emotionally, if not intellectually—and the second is untenable. Perhaps matter itself has a bias toward producing conscious creatures. Nature in that case would be “teleological”—not random, not fully subject to chance, but tending toward a particular end. Our mental life would be accounted for—phew!—without reference to God. (“The Heretic,” The Weekly Standard, March 25, 2013)

Nagel’s admission — “I hope there is no God!” — is admirable for its candor. Most atheistic materialists rationalize their disbelief by assuming that science can explain everything, including (quite wrongly) the mystery of existence. The false assumption that science can explain everything undermines (or should undermine) the credibility of every atheistic materialist. No one who assumes the answer for which he claims to be searching deserves to be taken seriously.

That said, I lend no more credence to Nagel’s “Third Way” than I do to the out-and-out materialism of Nagel’s critics. That is to say, Nagel and his critics are all incredible, in the proper meaning of that word.

Ironically, when it comes to consciousness, there’s no need for a nonmaterialistic explanation. To understand why, let us begin with Nagel’s reason for rejecting a materialistic accounting of consciousness:

… Since our mental lives evidently depend on our existence as physical organisms, especially on the functioning of our central nervous systems, it seems natural to think that the physical sciences can in principle provide the basis for an explanation of the mental aspects of reality as well — that physics can aspire finally to be a theory of everything.

However, I believe this possibility is ruled out by the conditions that have defined the physical sciences from the beginning. The physical sciences can describe organisms like ourselves as parts of the objective spatio-temporal order – our structure and behavior in space and time – but they cannot describe the subjective experiences of such organisms or how the world appears to their different particular points of view. There can be a purely physical description of the neurophysiological processes that give rise to an experience, and also of the physical behavior that is typically associated with it, but such a description, however complete, will leave out the subjective essence of the experience – how it is from the point of view of its subject — without which it would not be a conscious experience at all…. (“The Core of ‘Mind and Cosmos’,” The New York Times, August 18, 2013)

Nagel make too much of subjectivity. Every person’s experience of any phenomenon is, of course, subjective. Why? Because every person is unique, and no instrument yet devised (or likely to be devised) is capable of capturing the unique way in which a particular person experiences something.

But this uniqueness has nothing to do with the essentially material basis of experience. It just means that no two persons can have the same “inner” experiences, just as no two persons (it is said) can have the same fingerprints.

I don’t mean to minimize the difficulty of finding a clear and convincing material explanation of consciousness. But such an explanation is possible, at least in outline; for example:

One way to think about the relationship between brain and consciousness is to break it down into two mysteries. I call them Arrow A and Arrow B. Arrow A is the mysterious route from neurons to consciousness. If I am looking at a blue sky, my brain doesn’t merely register blue as if I were a wavelength detector from Radio Shack. I am aware of the blue. Did my neurons create that feeling?

Arrow B is the mysterious route from consciousness back to the neurons. Arrow B attracts much less scholarly attention than Arrow A, but it is just as important. The most basic, measurable, quantifiable truth about consciousness is simply this: we humans can say that we have it. We can conclude that we have it, couch that conclusion into language and then report it to someone else. Speech is controlled by muscles, which are controlled by neurons. Whatever consciousness is, it must have a specific, physical effect on neurons, or else we wouldn’t be able to communicate anything about it. Consciousness cannot be what is sometimes called an epiphenomenon — a floating side-product with no physical consequences — or else I wouldn’t have been able to write this article about it.

Any workable theory of consciousness must be able to account for both Arrow A and Arrow B. Most accounts, however, fail miserably at both. Suppose that consciousness is a non-physical feeling, an aura, an inner essence that arises somehow from a brain or from a special circuit in the brain. The ‘emergent consciousness’ theory is the most common assumption in the literature. But how does a brain produce the emergent, non-physical essence? And even more puzzling, once you have that essence, how can it physically alter the behaviour of neurons, such that you can say that you have it? ‘Emergent consciousness’ theories generally stake everything on Arrow A and ignore Arrow B completely.

The attention schema theory does not suffer from these difficulties. It can handle both Arrow A and Arrow B. Consciousness isn’t a non-physical feeling that emerges. Instead, dedicated systems in the brain compute information. Cognitive machinery can access that information, formulate it as speech, and then report it. When a brain reports that it is conscious, it is reporting specific information computed within it. It can, after all, only report the information available to it. In short, Arrow A and Arrow B remain squarely in the domain of signal-processing. There is no need for anything to be transmuted into ghost material, thought about, and then transmuted back to the world of cause and effect.

Some people might feel disturbed by the attention schema theory. It says that awareness is not something magical that emerges from the functioning of the brain. When you look at the colour blue, for example, your brain doesn’t generate a subjective experience of blue. Instead, it acts as a computational device. It computes a description, then attributes an experience of blue to itself. The process is all descriptions and conclusions and computations. Subjective experience, in the theory, is something like a myth that the brain tells itself. The brain insists that it has subjective experience because, when it accesses its inner data, it finds that information. (Michael Graziano, “How the Light Gets Out,” Aeon, August 21, 2013)

I applaud Nagel’s skepticism about materialism. He is right to say that it doesn’t account for the “brute facts” of existence. But Nagel overshoots the mark, and discredits himself, when he tries to enlist consciousness and its products (e.g., emotions, moral reasoning) as “brute facts.”

Materialism is valid insofar as it extends to the workings of the universe and its components (human consciousness included). Materialism falls short when it comes to explaining how the universe came to be, and why its workings seem to obey “laws.”


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Atheism, Religion, and Science
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The Thing about Science
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Words of Caution for Scientific Dogmatists
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