Thomas Nagel

Is Consciousness an Illusion?

Scientists seem to have pinpointed the physical source of consciousness. But the execrable Daniel C. Dennett, for whom science is God, hasn’t read the memo. Dennett argues in his latest book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, that consciousness is an illusion.

Another philosopher, Thomas Nagel, weighs in with a dissenting review of Dennett’s book. (Nagel is better than Dennett, but that’s faint praise.) Nagel’s review, “Is Consciousness an Illusion?,” appears in The New York Review of Books (March 9, 2017). Here are some excerpts:

According to the manifest image, Dennett writes, the world is

full of other people, plants, and animals, furniture and houses and cars…and colors and rainbows and sunsets, and voices and haircuts, and home runs and dollars, and problems and opportunities and mistakes, among many other such things. These are the myriad “things” that are easy for us to recognize, point to, love or hate, and, in many cases, manipulate or even create…. It’s the world according to us.

According to the scientific image, on the other hand, the world

is populated with molecules, atoms, electrons, gravity, quarks, and who knows what else (dark energy, strings? branes?)….

In an illuminating metaphor, Dennett asserts that the manifest image that depicts the world in which we live our everyday lives is composed of a set of user-illusions,

like the ingenious user-illusion of click-and-drag icons, little tan folders into which files may be dropped, and the rest of the ever more familiar items on your computer’s desktop. What is actually going on behind the desktop is mind-numbingly complicated, but users don’t need to know about it, so intelligent interface designers have simplified the affordances, making them particularly salient for human eyes, and adding sound effects to help direct attention. Nothing compact and salient inside the computer corresponds to that little tan file-folder on the desktop screen.

He says that the manifest image of each species is “a user-illusion brilliantly designed by evolution to fit the needs of its users.” In spite of the word “illusion” he doesn’t wish simply to deny the reality of the things that compose the manifest image; the things we see and hear and interact with are “not mere fictions but different versions of what actually exists: real patterns.” The underlying reality, however, what exists in itself and not just for us or for other creatures, is accurately represented only by the scientific image—ultimately in the language of physics, chemistry, molecular biology, and neurophysiology….

You may well ask how consciousness can be an illusion, since every illusion is itself a conscious experience—an appearance that doesn’t correspond to reality. So it cannot appear to me that I am conscious though I am not: as Descartes famously observed, the reality of my own consciousness is the one thing I cannot be deluded about….

According to Dennett, however, the reality is that the representations that underlie human behavior are found in neural structures of which we know very little. And the same is true of the similar conception we have of our own minds. That conception does not capture an inner reality, but has arisen as a consequence of our need to communicate to others in rough and graspable fashion our various competencies and dispositions (and also, sometimes, to conceal them)….

The trouble is that Dennett concludes not only that there is much more behind our behavioral competencies than is revealed to the first-person point of view—which is certainly true—but that nothing whatever is revealed to the first-person point of view but a “version” of the neural machinery….

I am reminded of the Marx Brothers line: “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” Dennett asks us to turn our backs on what is glaringly obvious—that in consciousness we are immediately aware of real subjective experiences of color, flavor, sound, touch, etc. that cannot be fully described in neural terms even though they have a neural cause (or perhaps have neural as well as experiential aspects). And he asks us to do this because the reality of such phenomena is incompatible with the scientific materialism that in his view sets the outer bounds of reality. He is, in Aristotle’s words, “maintaining a thesis at all costs.”

Nagel’s counterargument would have been more compelling if he had relied on a simple metaphor like this one: Most drivers can’t describe in any detail the process by which an automobile converts the potential energy of gasoline to the kinetic energy that’s produced by the engine and then transmitted eventually to the automobile’s drive wheels. Instead, most drivers simply rely on the knowledge that pushing the start button will start the car. That knowledge may be shallow, but it isn’t illusory. If it were, an automobile would be a useless hulk sitting in the driver’s garage.

Some tough questions are in order, too. If consciousness is an illusion, where does it come from? Dennett is an out-and-out physicalist and strident atheist. It therefore follows that Dennett can’t believe in consciousness (the manifest image) as a free-floating spiritual entity that’s disconnected from physical reality (the scientific image). It must, in fact, be a representation of physical reality, even if a weak and flawed one.

Looked at another way, consciousness is the gateway to the scientific image. It is only through the  deliberate, reasoned, fact-based application of consciousness that scientists have been able to roll back the mysteries of the physical world and improve the manifest image so that it more nearly resembles the scientific image. The gap will never be closed, of course. Even the most learned of human beings have only a tenuous grasp of physical reality in all of it myriad aspects. Nor will anyone ever understand what physical reality “really is” — it’s beyond apprehension and description. But that doesn’t negate the symbiosis of physical reality and consciousness.

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Related posts:
Debunking “Scientific Objectivity”
A Non-Believer Defends Religion
Evolution as God?
The Greatest Mystery
What Is Truth?
The Improbability of Us
The Atheism of the Gaps
Demystifying Science
Something from Nothing?
Something or Nothing
My Metaphysical Cosmology
Further Thoughts about Metaphysical Cosmology
The Glory of the Human Mind
Mind, Cosmos, and Consciousness
Is Science Self-Correcting?
“Feelings, Nothing More than Feelings”
Words Fail Us
Hayek’s Anticipatory Account of Consciousness

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.”


Related posts:
Atheism, Religion, and Science
The Limits of Science
Three Perspectives on Life: A Parable
Beware of Irrational Atheism
The Creation Model
The Thing about Science
Evolution and Religion
Words of Caution for Scientific Dogmatists
Science, Evolution, Religion, and Liberty
The Legality of Teaching Intelligent Design
Science, Logic, and God
Capitalism, Liberty, and Christianity
Is “Nothing” Possible?
Debunking “Scientific Objectivity”
Science’s Anti-Scientific Bent
Science, Axioms, and Economics
The Big Bang and Atheism
The Universe . . . Four Possibilities
Einstein, Science, and God
Atheism, Religion, and Science Redux
Pascal’s Wager, Morality, and the State
Evolution as God?
The Greatest Mystery
What Is Truth?
The Improbability of Us
A Digression about Probability and Existence
More about Probability and Existence
Existence and Creation
Probability, Existence, and Creation
The Atheism of the Gaps
Something from Nothing?
My Metaphysical Cosmology
Further Thoughts about Metaphysical Cosmology
The Glory of the Human Mind
Pinker Commits Scientism
Spooky Numbers, Evolution, and Intelligent Design

Is Taxation Slavery?

Thomas Nagel writes:

Some would describe taxation as a form of theft and conscription as a form of slavery — in fact some would prefer to describe taxation as slavery too, or at least as forced labor. Much might be said against these descriptions, but that is beside the point. For within proper limits, such practices when engaged in by governments are acceptable, whatever they are called. If someone with an income of $2000 a year trains a gun on someone with an income of $100000 a year and makes him hand over his wallet, that is robbery. If the federal government withholds a portion of the second person’s salary (enforcing the laws against tax evasion with threats of imprisonment under armed guard) and gives some of it to the first person in the form of welfare payments, food stamps, or free health care, that is taxation. In the first case it is (in my opinion) an impermissible use of coercive means to achieve a worthwhile end. In the second case the means are legitimate, because they are impersonally imposed by an institution designed to promote certain results. Such general methods of distribution are preferable to theft as a form of private initiative and also to individual charity. This is true not only for reasons of fairness and efficiency, but also because both theft and charity are disturbances of the relations (or lack of them) between individuals and involve their individual wills in a way that an automatic, officially imposed system of taxation does not. [Mortal Questions, “Ruthlessness in Public Life,” pp. 87-88]

How many logical and epistemic errors can a supposedly brilliant philosopher make in one (long) paragraph? Too many:

  • “For within proper limits” means that Nagel is about to beg the question by shaping an answer that fits his idea of proper limits.
  • Nagel then asserts that the use by government of coercive means to achieve the same end as robbery is “legitimate, because [those means] are impersonally imposed by an institution designed to promote certain results.” Balderdash! Nagel’s vision of government as some kind of omniscient, benevolent arbiter is completely at odds with reality.  The “certain results” (redistribution of income) are achieved by functionaries, armed or backed with the force of arms, who themselves share in the spoils of coercive redistribution. Those functionaries act under the authority of bare majorities of elected representatives, who are chosen by bare majorities of voters. And those bare majorities are themselves coalitions of interested parties — hopeful beneficiaries of redistributionist policies, government employees, government contractors, and arrogant statists — who believe, without justification, that forced redistribution is a proper function of government.
  • On the last point, Nagel ignores the sordid history of the unconstitutional expansion of the powers of government. Without justification, he aligns himself with proponents of the “living Constitution.”
  • Nagel’s moral obtuseness is fully revealed when he equates coercive redistribution with “fairness and efficiency,” as if property rights and liberty were of no account.
  • The idea that coercive redistribution fosters efficiency is laughable. It does quite the opposite because it removes resources from productive uses — including job-creating investments. The poor are harmed by coercive redistribution because it drastically curtails economic growth, from which they would benefit as job-holders and (where necessary) recipients of private charity (the resources for which would be vastly greater in the absence of coercive redistribution).
  • Finally (though not exhaustively), Nagel’s characterization of private charity as a “disturbance of the relations … among individuals” is so wrong-headed that it leaves me dumbstruck. Private charity arises from real relations among individuals — from a sense of community and feelings of empathy. It is the “automatic, officially imposed system of taxation” that distorts and thwarts (“disturbs”) the social fabric.

In any event, the answer to the question posed in the title of this post is “yes”; taxation for the purpose of redistribution is slavery (see number 2 in the second set of definitions). It amounts to the subjection of one person (the taxpayer) to other persons: deadbeats, do-gooders, and  demagogues. If “slavery” is too strong a word, “theft” will do quite well.