Dr. Dawg

Scientific heresy

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I haven’t yet read philosopher Thomas Nagel’s new book, Mind and Cosmos, but I plan to do so in the near future. My appetite is whetted, to begin with, by his insistently non-reductionist view of consciousness (first expressed in his 1974 essay, “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?”). But it is the shrieks of outrage from the scientific community that has thoroughly aroused my curiosity.

It appears that he has affronted the orthodox powers that be by questioning the explanatory power of evolutionary theory. Reductionists like Stephen Pinker are beside themselves with fury: “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker,” he harrumphs.

Does consciousness, Nagel’s main interest, fit neatly into neo-Darwinian theory? Daniel Dennett, another “soft machine” theorist, thinks it does, and he wrote a book rather presumptuously entitled “Consciousness Explained” that purports to situate it in the evolutionary stream of things. He attacks the “easy problems” of consciousness with great wit and intelligence, but—like so many before and after him—he founders on the rocks of what David Chalmers calls the “hard problem”:

It is undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing. Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.

There is a vast literature on consciousness, to which Chalmers has contributed substantially. Interestingly, both he and the embattled Nagel are atheists.

But these days, if you try to avoid the vulgar materialism that is all the rage, you find yourself being lumped in with the creationists and God-botherers. It didn’t help Nagel to receive the kiss of death from the likes of William Dembski. Others have recently been down the same road—Raymond Tallis, for example. He’s an atheist too.

Can neo-Darwinism or physics account for consciousness? I share Nagel’s scepticism. But scepticism is really all we have. What he and other opponents of brute materialism do is to raise difficult questions about too-easy assumptions and explanations. Those explanations always seem, at least to me, to glance off the as-yet-impregnable Hard Problem.

Dennett, for one, says there is no Hard Problem. But that’s just wishing it away. Not only is experience, our rich, possibly superfluous inner life, irreducible to purely material explanation, but personal identity—this consciousness, my consciousness, what makes it mine as opposed to everyone else’s, including a perfect replica of me—isn’t touched.

One has to wonder what the Angst of the materialists is all about. Skepticism, after all, is what permits science to advance. The answer, I think, is that orthodoxy is being challenged, allied with the fear—not entirely unfounded—that without materialism we’ll succumb to that other form of vulgarity, religion. If I am correct, the sterile materialism of Dawkins and Dennett is, at least for some, a strategic question.

If we can escape this binary, however, we might begin to think in new ways. Nagel thinks we should. Every age is afflicted with the hubristic belief that the important questions have been settled for all time. Every succeeding age proves that belief to be wrong, but the same sin is re-committed in a new guise. By raising difficulties and asking questions, do Nagel and other sceptics offer us a way out?

ADDENDUM: A note to the wiseacres who will inevitably want to raise global warming as a parallel issue—it isn’t. Climate sceptics have been buried under a mountain of evidence, just like Holocaust-deniers. Not all scepticism is justifiable: sometimes it is simply mischief-making.

With the Hard Problem of consciousness, however, it is not easy to imagine what evidence would consist of. On one side (and there are not two, but several), it’s all materialist suppositions; on another, it’s all questions. Perhaps—and this would be terrifying to many, even most—the questions cannot, finally, be either answered or avoided.

[H/t Peter1, b/c]

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on April 4, 2013 3:08 PM.

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