Monthly Archives: March 2015

Consciousness (IV) — The Case of the Lunatic Fish

(I) — Atheism, Science, Philosophy: The Origins of the Conflict

 (II) — Digging Up the Conflict’s Roots
 (III) — Does the World Pantry Stock More than Sugar?

Too many of the academic philosophers of consciousness are overly concerned with the paltriest aspects of consciousness, and work their tails off trying to convince themselves and others that they are no threat to physicalism. While man’s nobility lies in the power of thought whereby he traverses all of time and existence, our materialists labor mightily to make physicalism safe for the smell of cooked onions.” — Bill Vallicella

At last, we can approach an introduction to the subject of our actual topic: Consciousness. The first thing we need to get clear about here is: what are we talking about when we use that word, “consciousness”? And the first problem that appears in attempting to answer this question is that language systematically fails us.

It isn’t that my understanding of what I’m trying to discuss is vague. It isn’t that the thing I am trying to discuss itself is necessarily even vague. It’s that language isn’t built to address it. In the roughest outline, language evolved from the roots of a process that involved something like people pointing at external objects they could both commonly recognize, and correlating that object to the production of a particular sound. On the one hand, consciousness in the sense I’m referring to isn’t an “object” amongst other objects which I can clearly point to. On the other hand, consciousness in the sense I’m referring to is present in absolutely everything—in one sense, it would be correct to say that it is literally the only thing you have ever known, felt, or experienced. It isn’t impossible to level an intuitive grasp on what the kinds of phrases I’ll be using refer to, but it isn’t always immediately easy. A gradual and slow introduction is necessary.

Part of the problem is precisely that consciousness is in any other object or process I could conceivably point to: there’s no way for me to talk about consciousness without at the same time talking about some other object or process that isn’t in and of itself, strictly speaking, consciousness at all—and this makes offering explanations of things other than consciousness and then claiming to have explained consciousness itself frustratingly easy to get away with. But for anything at all that I could imagine pointing to, your experience of that thing would be—prepare for an incredibly unwieldy phrase—all and only composed of you having the experience of experiencing only the purely experiential elements of that thing in your ongoing stream of experience. And your experience of it is all that you actually have.

Any concept, thought, or experience of anything whatsoever that you ever have at all is, in fact, made up of literally nothing other than those elements which I am calling “consciousness.” But I can’t directly use any sort of language that is capable of pointing you to the part of that which is “consciousness” directly, because all that language can actually do is point at these other things in which consciousness is contained. I am left in the difficult position of having to ask you to try to recognize aspects and properties of your thoughts and experiences which are present in absolutely everything you have ever thought or experienced at all, which is not about the particulars of any of these particular thoughts or experiences at all, and which you have never had anything else to contrast with (because, by definition, anything that could provide such contrast by lacking these elements could never be thought or experienced).

Thich Nat Hahn quotes Siddhartha Gautama in Old Path, White Clouds as saying: “ . . . my teaching is a method to experience reality and not reality itself, just as a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself. A thinking person makes use of the finger to see the moon. A person who only looks at the finger and mistakes it for the moon will never see the real moon.” While this may sound either irritatingly vague, pretentiously obvious, or both (and I am certainly not trying to compare myself to Buddha!), I think it describes the situation: there is simply no way I can try to describe what I am talking about, in principle, that does not require some effort on the part of the reader to grasp the concept on his own using my words as tools—because there is simply a huge gap between the phenomena I am trying to describe and anything that language is capable of doing to allow me to try to point in its direction. (In fact, I contend that this is exactly why many fallacies are able to become as prevalent as they are in philosophy of mind: it is easy to become misled into thinking that an explanation of something other than consciousness itself is actually an explanation of consciousness.)

David Foster Wallace, in Infinite Jest, offers us an appropriate parable: “This wise old whiskery fish swims up to three young fish and goes, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ and swims away; and the three young fish watch him swim away and look at each other and go, ‘What the fuck is water?’” As he elaborated in a 2005 commencement speech to Kenyon College, “The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” What the word and concept of consciousness is referring to is only hard for us to see at first because we are swimming in it—and swimming in it is quite literally the only thing we have ever done (—in fact, even the very part of us that is doing the “swimming” is it).

If I try to point at water to direct your attention to the thing I’m trying to talk about, you may look straight through it and think I am pointing at something else—if I try to point to the water beside me, you’re going to look through the water itself and believe I’m pointing instead at some nearby rock. If I try to point to the water below me, you may look through the water again and believe that I’m pointing at the ocean’s floor. The best I can hope for is to tell you to trust me when I say that I’m not going to be pointing at the thing you’re going to think I’m pointing at, and that the thing I’m pointing at is something that’s everywhere; something that is everything other than the things you’re going to think I’m pointing at—and then hope that what I’m trying in this frustratingly indirect way to attempt to express will, at some point for you, just “click.”

It’s no wonder it’s so easy for materialists to claim that anyone who suggests that there are flaws in materialism is just blathering nonsense. Dismissing the lunatic fish that keeps pointing at things, asking you if you can see them, and then yelling at you for thinking he’s pointing at the thing he’s very clearly and obviously pointing at is easy. Listening long enough to start to think the fish might not be so lunatic after all, understanding what he means, and trying to find a more efficient way to explain what he’s trying to say to anyone else—besides joining him in pointing at things and then yelling at people and making it seem clear to everyone else that you’ve simply gone mad and become one of the lunatics too—isn’t nearly as easy a route to making it look like you have a solid grasp on things and know what it is that you’re talking about.

Sadly, in most cases the best way to try to even begin to ‘point at’ some aspect of the meaning of consciousness is to invoke a thought experiment which demonstrates, by illustrating in practice, some type of contrast between consciousness and other forms of phenomena: one way to sharpen the relief of our concept of consciousness is by emphasizing what it is not. The unfortunate problem this poses is that these also happen to be the very same thought experiments which are supposed in other contexts to be taken as arguments refuting physicalism—and this, in turn, makes it unavoidably all too easy for the physicalist to charge that these arguments ‘beg the question’ by assuming whatever conceptualized understanding of consciousness they’re supposed to be taken to prove.

This pitfall plagues nearly all discussions in philosophy of mind, but it results less from the quality of accurate thought or rational argument that it is possible to produce within philosophy of mind than it does from the very inescapable nature of the case: consciousness itself is intrinsically a subjective, first–person phenomena, which cannot even be identified objectively as a phenomena which exists at all in third-person (without a first–person subject who can infer its existence through analogy with his first–person knowledge of his own case). Unique to absolutely any other phenomena (even though, ironically, we only know of any other phenomena whatsoever within and through the subjective lens of conscious experience itself), there is no common objective external reference point which any of us can appeal to in discussing it—everyone must look, independently, at his own private, subjective experience. Even the best arguments here are only capable of “pointing at the moon;” and they will inevitably appear “circular” just so long as someone either refuses to look, or tries but still fails to see it for themselves.

The only response that can be given to this is that circularity and ‘begging the question’ are not fallacies of thought, but fallacies of argument. An argument is circular and will ‘beg the question’ if it contains premises which will be seen with equal skepticism by someone who is skeptical of the conclusion of that argument for the same reasons they are skeptical of the conclusion. This is classified as a fallacy because the goal of an argument is to prove that skepticism wrong to the satisfaction of the skeptic—so an argument that begs the question fails at this task because it merely repeats implicitly the conclusion the skeptic doesn’t want to accept as one of its assumptions. The fact that the question-begging argument fails to objectively disprove the skeptic doesn’t mean, however, that any train of thought that is circular is either false or irrational for an individual to accept. The real question worth asking is: “Is this circle making contact with reality?”

And there very well may be true statements which we absolutely cannot, in principle, support in any way without at some point “begging the question.” To return to a previous example, there is absolutely no way to argue against solipsism without ‘begging the question.’ If someone truly disbelieves that anyone has any inner experiences whatsoever except for himself—if he believes that the world is his own private dream, or that he has been plugged into a virtual reality simulator in which he alone is actually a real player (and not just generated artificially by the computer), or that he (alone) is God creating a simulation of a world to inject himself into—then yelling at him angrily: “I have a life! I have a consciousness! Damn you![1] would only meet a response of: “Yes—that’s exactly what I’d expect computer generated characters to say inside of this virtual reality game.”

You absolutely know without a shred of doubt that he is absolutely wrong—and yet, you just as absolutely have no conceivable way of “proving” it to him with any sound, non–circular argument. Appropriately, the example of solipsism deals (in different ways) with the same subject matter addressed in philosophy of mind: private subjective experience. The solipsist denies its existence anywhere but in the one case he experiences immediately and directly—his own. For this, the solipsist is universally considered absurd. Yet the eliminative materialist goes on to not only do that, but to deny it in even the one case he actually experiences indisputably, immediately and directly for himself—and for this he’s respected enough to publish in prestigious philosophy journals.

With that said, I’ll now label three aspects which I think are central to what consciousness is, and then I’ll proceed to discuss thought experiments which I think help illustrate something in their direction. Obviously, for now this can be only a broad outline of terms that will only later be explained, and so not much of it is going to be particularly helpful (yet—bear with me).The first: phenomenal experience—which is private, subjective and qualitative (and suffuses absolutely everything contained in and expressed by the first–person perspective of conscious awareness); the second: intentionality—the ‘world–reflective’ nature of thought as well as the ability of representational symbols such as the words composing this page to possess “meaning” (derivative of the fact that thoughts contain and represent intrinsic meaning); and the third: the uniqueness of our personal identities (over time) as conscious beings—consciousness entails a referent for the indexical “I” which is unique from all other “I”s in a way that physical entities as ordinarily understood are not unique from each other. In consciousness as we in this world know it, each of these separate aspects tie together at once to create a singular unity of all of these in one phenomena; and we can only get an attempt at ‘pointing at’ the unified phenomena of consciousness as a whole indirectly, by attempting to ‘point at’ each of these elements of the phenomena separately in turn (and each, once again, even more indirectly).

It will be spelled out, in turn, how physical phenomena as we ordinarily understand them (and perhaps, or perhaps not, as we can only understand them [3]) lack every one of these elements. If this is so, then our options with regards to the above elements of consciousness are: either explain how they could appear as an inevitable physical and logical consequence of building blocks of physical processes which lack every one of these elements completely, or else conclude that none of these phenomena really exist. And if it turns out that we can’t coherently do either of these, then the final options become straightforwardly: (1) either reformulate our entire conception of what it is for something to be “physical,” if we can identify a way to do so that is both (a) coherent and (b) actually does successfully the gap we’ve previously identified [3], or else (2) admit that consciousness is simply a phenomena in its own right, characterizable by its own distinct traits and properties which are dramatically unlike those which characterize those other entities which we ordinarily classify as “physical.” I believe I have argued to rational satisfaction that nothing, in principle, actually successfully manages to rule this option out. I hope to continue to show that further considerations turn out to render it the only truly live choice—and at least, at a bare minimum, by substantial leaps and bounds the most natural and well–justified inference.

~.::[༒]::._It’s All In Your Head_.::[༒]::.~

The most obvious element of consciousness is the most pervasive and yet also the hardest to pinpoint clearly with language: experience. Academic philosophers, rarely particularly concerned to make their discussions of the deepest mysteries of human existence comprehensible to the standard human being, have coined the particularly unhelpful term, “qualia.” [2] To make matters worse, philosophy’s thought experiments invoking “qualia” often have a bizarre tendency to focus in narrowly on isolated examples like the existence of color in their illustrations, as if there were anything uniquely peculiar to color as such.[4]

Both the bland, lamely technical–sounding choice of the term “qualia” and the frequent narrow choice of focus on color as if it in particular posed some special problem in distinction to everything else might seem to some readers on first sight to imply something to the effect that the physicalist picture is, so far as it goes, accurate and complete—only it turns out that there’s just one tiny detail in a small corner of the picture we can’t fill in: namely, this abstract worry about “qualia,” which somehow seems to apply particularly to the case of color perception. This impression helps make it easier to write the “problem of qualia” off mentally as something that we can just relax and expect to be resolved by scientific discovery in time.

But the situation that this implies could not be further from the truth; the problem runs infinitely deeper. “Qualia” is not some queer, technical detail, as the word by its impression would seem to connote: it is as immediate to us as the fact that we are experiencing anything at all. And there is nothing special about color: what goes for color goes for absolutely every aspect of every other form of experiencing whatsoever that we are capable of, every bit as strongly; what is mysterious here is nothing peculiar to color per se, or even to vision in general, so much as it is to the nature of experience altogether as a whole.[4]

Discussing color is just one way of attempting to ‘point at’ one of the key aspects of what it is about experience in general which makes it mysterious. But surely focusing on it in isolation is far from an ideal way to point the mind towards the general encompassing mystery. The thing about color that makes it problematic in this way applies to literally absolutely every other aspect of thought and experience whatsoever simultaneously. And this is where arguments more or less necessarily can only “point at the moon,” leaving it in principle up to the reader to have to carry on where the pointing expressed by the words drops off, and perform the actual act of looking at the moon for himself—this is where I become the lunatic fish who can only keep pointing in different directions and claiming to be pointing all the while at the same thing (which, if you can’t figure out what I’m trying to say for yourself, will look absurd—clearly I keep pointing at different things!)

In a sense, what we’re getting at here is a kind of reiteration of the old philosophical trope, “If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” The correct answer is “no”—the force of the tree’s collapse might cause a vibration of molecules in the air, but these do not become “sound” unless and until there is a conscious observer in the vicinity whose mind can translate those vibrations into a subjective, qualitative experience.  But the question is: Why does this even happen at all? This is the essence of the bridge we are trying to gap—subtracting from the picture that there is anyone around to have a conscious experience of the forest, what we have in the forest is not sound, but a vibration of physical particles that can be characterized purely in terms of the inert motions of blind particles through space, driven by mechanical cause and effect.

But if you pay attention to it, you should easily be able to realize that you never actually have anything like this revealed to you by your experiences at all. You never have any experience that is “of” blind, inert vibrating molecules—or of any other sort of purely physical phenomena besides. Your actual experience is, in fact, all and only composed “of“ the fundamentally subjective, qualitative phenomena known as “sound” itself, and this phenomena only exists in the form in which we know it to exist within your very experience itself. And the qualitative way in which “sound” exists inside your first–person subjective experience is wildly unlike the quantified way that we presume physical motion of any sort exists within unobserved physical space.

“Yes, but those experiences are still created by the underlying physical processes, are they not?” For the moment, just bracket that assumption off to the side. First, because it’s exactly the assumption that the reasoning here is and is going to be casting reasons for doubt over in the first place. But second and more to the point, because what I’m talking about here is your experience. Your experience simply does not reveal to you a world of vibrating photons, atoms, and molecules. What it reveals to you is a world of colors, sounds, tastes, bodily sensations, emotions. . . all things that are defined, completely through and through, by their qualitative essence as ways that experiences can feel.  (It also reveals a world of things like intentions, desires, representation and meaning—but these fall under intentionality, and will have to be incorporated into the picture separately).

We’ve seen in previous entries that the definition of physicalism is that “[the world at its most fundamental core is] fermions and bosons, and everything that can be made up of them, and nothing that can’t be made up of them. All the facts about fermions and bosons determine or “fix” all the other facts about reality and what exists in this universe or any other. . . Another way of expressing this fact fixing by physics is to say that all the other facts—the [ . . . ] psychological, social, economic, political, [and] cultural facts supervene on the physical facts and are ultimately explained by them.” We’ve also seen that historically, for the atheist, the key point of the advance of science is precisely that it removed God from the picture precisely by removing mental phenomena from our conception of how the natural world works. Physical processes, no matter how we conceptualize the specific details, cause things to happen without desiring, planning, or otherwise intending to—these are all traits (or at least apparent traits) of minds. The physicalist, as the quote from Rosenberg himself shows, assumes that whatever the particular details might be, whatever the physical processes are, they will basically be like this. And most certainly, they lack experiences—whatever they do, electrons, fermions, or bosons do not feel [3]. This means that, for the purposes of our analysis, it simply does not matter what the actual traits of the ultimate physical phenomena that physics will settle on might be: no physicalist accepts that they will differ in any way from these essentials, and it is from these essentials alone that our analysis proceeds.

Now, the plainest thing in the world to see is that the question of whether something is an experience or not is absolutely binary: the answer is either “yes” or “no,” and there are absolutely no steps in–between the two. The question of when a pile of sand goes from being a “heap” of sand to becoming a “mountain,” for example, is one that has rough edges: at exactly which point in the process of removing singular grains of sand from a “mountain” has it devolved into a “heap?” At exactly which point in the process of adding singular grains of sand to a “heap” does it become a “mountain?” Reasonable people could disagree, and there is no objective way to determine the answer. Some questions are like this: the question of when a new “species” has evolved has rough edges, and evolution can address the transition from one species to another through the small, gradual steps that are involved without needing to bridge any fundamental gap of absolute difference between an original “species” and a second. But the question of conscious experience is not like this—the difference between something being a subjective experience and something not being a subjective experience is as absolute as absolute can get. There may be various degrees of complexity or sensitivity or detail within an experience, but either something is an experience or it isn’t.

There is no middle ground between the two—but this also means there is no ground that can be covered in any gradual steps as a means of bridging the gaps between the two. And there is, therefore, no way to proceed gradually in steps from non–experience to experience. The move from non–experience to experience, if it happens, could only happen as an extraordinary leap across galaxies which happens all in one sudden and dramatic inexplicable move. Leibniz first and most clearly described the problem inherent in this on the record in 1714: “It must be confessed, moreover, that perception, and that which depends on it, are inexplicable by mechanical causes, that is, by figures and motions, And, supposing that there were a mechanism so constructed as to think, feel and have perception, we might enter it as into a mill. And this granted, we should only find on visiting it, pieces which push one against another, but never anything by which to explain a perception.” But the “pieces which push one another” that describe Leibniz’ mill are just exactly what describe the essence of the physical entities accepted as the (and the only) basic building blocks of the universe by physicalists—and gradual, almost imperceptible additions of singular (and mechanical) grains of sand at a time are exactly the way evolutionary accounts perform their explanatory work (and the only way that they can).

The tools that physicalism offers us are, in principle, no help to us here. We aren’t merely failing to see how an explanation from tools like these could be possible; we can positively see that an explanation of a phenomena like this with tools like this cannot be possible—in just the same way that we can see that a two–dimensional canvas is not capable in principle of allowing us to draw a three–dimensional object on its flat surface. Picture all the blind physical entities you like moving in any inert causal pattern you wish—at no point are you just going to be literally looking at a subjective private conscious experience. You don’t have to sit and contemplate the entire near–infinite combination of ways to picture blind physical forces moving through space in order to see why. It’s right there contained within the very concepts themselves.

To elaborate on what I mean by calling them “private,” for a moment, while we’re here: if we think of the field of conscious experiences that a conscious observer possesses like an immersive “movie” playing inside their mind (and rest assured, anyone who tries to argue that something like this isn’t true, however they may want to present the pretense of having made some complicated new discovery, is merely denying a primary datum of experience), then when we look inside someone’s physical brain, we see nothing at all like this anywhere. And just as with Leibniz’ mill, we can’t even see anything that indicates that they should be there. So, then: exactly how is it that it is there—and why?

One concept that the physicalist will often appeal to in his defense here is “emergence.” In the end, this is little but a fancy word and a convenient black box that allows the physicalist to pretend he is actually imagining what an explanation of the appearance of consciousness might look like without actually doing anything like that at all—but merely hand–waving in syllables. “Emergence,” as a concept, is supposed to refer to systems that possess traits which none of the ingredients adding up to make up that system individually possess. On the surface, of course, that sounds promising. But as soon as we consider a single example of it, we’ll realize how bankrupt the promise of explaining consciousness through “emergence” actually is.

One of the most paradigmatic examples of the concept of “emergence” is the “emergence” of the patterns of physical behavior we call “wetness” from the molecular behaviors of H2O. None of the individual molecules that go up into creating a liquid are “wet,” and yet as a consequence of their interactions, the resulting substance ends up despite this being “wet.” What this is supposed to suggest to the emergent physicalist is that if water can be wet without the molecules that make up water being wet, then maybe a physical system can realize phenomena like subjective experience without the neurons (or even lower–level physical items) that make them up possessing subjective experiences, too.

But how does that concept actually work? How it works in the case of water is that we are, in the first place, identifying a structural, relational phenomena when we target ‘wetness’ for explanation—foremost among those traits, for example, we are identifying the fact that most things will sink when placed in water. And then, when we zoom in on the underlying physics, we are just getting a closer view of what is obviously the very same exact structural, relational phenomena: so we explain the fact that many objects will sink when placed in water, for example, through the fact that molecules of H2O connect loosely enough to allow other molecules to fit into the gaps of space between them and therefore fall through.

The key to understanding the relationship involved in this picture is to see that if we understand the micro–physical details about how H2O molecules move in space, no further question about how the “macro”–phenomena of “wetness” appears out of this can even so much present itself to a curious mind. Once other molecules are slipping through the gaps of space between loosely linked molecules of H2O, it is plain to see that what we have here is already just exactly the phenomena we call sinking, and hence the relationship involved in any possible ordinary example of “emergence” is that of one structural relationship “explaining” another structural relationship. I use scare–quotes around the word “explaining” because we aren’t actually even talking about one thing explaining another; we are just talking about taking what is obviously one structural, physical relational phenomena and zooming in on its structural, relational details.

Structural, physical relational details (like a molecular understanding of H2O) can help us to understand physical–structural phenomena (like why things sink in water). But nothing that is in any way actually new is “emerging” anywhere in this story; “emergence” just refers to our ability to take some structural, physical relational phenomena,  and come to understand it better by zooming in on its structural, physical relational details. Structural relational details can help detail structural relational phenomena, but the very point we’ve labored throughout this entry to emphasize is that conscious experience is not a structural, relational phenomena; so trying to “zoom in on” underlying structural relational details to account for consciousness just simply misses the fact that it is not a structural relational phenomena we’re looking to explain in the first place. What we need to explain here isn’t the mere functional fact that a pair of eyes open in the morning, a brain calculates how to move itself through space, and then hands select a food to consume, but the fact that from the moment I wake up, these things happen within a subjective, qualitative movie (that no one else can see besides me) composed of the feeling of hunger, the felt desire to alleviate it, the qualitative, subjective sight of the room I wake up in combined with all the qualitative sensations of my body and the room and smells around me, and a decision—for reasons—to choose one method of alleviating that hunger over the others.  So long as structural relational details are all we have to “build” our picture out of, we won’t find anything to explain the existence of invisible subjective experiences floating mysteriously anywhere inside Leibniz’ mill no matter how we put together those details. 

Surprisingly, some who call themselves physicalists will actually acknowledge that everything said up to here is true, and still try to amend the definition of “physicalism” in such a way as to allow them to keep calling themselves “physicalists” in some other sense. Jaegwon Kim in particular chose for the most up–to–date monograph covering his long–evolving views a title which reflects this effort explicitly: Physicalism, or Something Near Enough.” Even after spending ten years or more of his career coming around to the view that physicalism of the ordinary sort can’t be saved, Kim still rests his entire continued project on the hope to at least find “something near enough.” And what Kim does, in short, to try to cede as little ground to the force contained in arguments like these which even he, a ten–year–running physicalist, couldn’t fail to find compelling against his previously held stance, is suggest that we can get “near enough” to a physicalist worldview by contending that even if physical phenomena strictly considered are not all that exists, the physical dimension of reality is still, at least, “causally closed.”

Causal closure of the physical domain is a principle which almost all physicalists will accept in some form. In Jaegwon’s words, what the principle states is that: “if we trace the causal ancestry of a physical event we need never go outside the physical domain.” What Jaegwon Kim realized was that if we combine this claim with the realization that subjective experience can’t be reduced to or accounted for in terms of physical mechanism,  then we end up with a description of reality known as epiphenomenalism, on which experiences more or less dangle off the edges of the world before simply falling off (I’ll explain this more in a minute). Jaegwon’s description of the state of play was thus that the choices are to either claim that subjective experience can be reduced to physical description (which is what he had, by then, saw the same compelling reasons to reject which I am outlining here), reject the principle of causal closure, or else accept epiphenomenalism—and so, refusing to reject the principle of causal closure and hoping to find in it “something near enough” to physicalism to rescue him from the stark position which admitting the clear point that subjective experience cannot be reduce to physical description had placed him in, Kim settled for epiphenomenalism. It isn’t physicalism strictly speaking, because conscious experiences—which seem to dangle awkwardly somehow off of some causally irrelevant metaphysical edge of the world—can’t be explained, but isn’t it still “something close enough”?

Pay close attention: this is going to be another one of those places where, as with Daniel Dennett’s outright denial of the existence altogether of subjective experience, I accept everything argued for by a physicalist philosopher right up to the point at which they’ve identified the logical choices, and just before they make a decision between them reflecting the bias towards physicalism. I think Kim’s description of the state of play is absolutely correct. However, I also think—as I will show in a moment—that epiphenomenalism is a viewpoint that we can conclusively refute and rule out completely. If I’m right, then that means going all the way towards rejection of even the principle of causal closure is the only choice—because, eliminativism, reductionism, and epiphenomenalism all being false, conscious experiences are both real, irreducible to anything else, and demonstrably have unique causal influences all of their own over the world in their own right. If I’m right, then what this ends up getting us close to is an interactionist form of dualism arrived at by a logical, rational, piecemeal divide–and–conquer process of elimination. 

One of the easiest ways to explain an epiphenomenalist relationship is by example. If you stand in front of a mirror and jump up and down, your reflection is an epiphenomena of your actual body. What this means is that your body’s jump is what causes your reflection to appear to jump—your body’s jump is what causes your real body to fall—and your body’s fall is what causes your reflection to appear to fall. It may seem to be the case that your reflection’s apparent jump is what causes your reflection to apparent fall, but this is purely an illusion: your reflection doesn’t cause anything in this story; not even its own future states. If we represent physical states with capital letters, states of experience with lower–case letters, and causality with arrows, then a diagram would look something like this:


Thomas Huxley, not the first to espouse the view but the first to give it a name, described it by saying that consciousness is like the steam–whistle sound blowing off of a train that contributes nothing to the continued motion of the train itself. We shouldn’t fail to realize how extreme the dehumanization of this view is, even still, despite the fact that it acknowledges conscious experiences as real: if this is true, then nobody ever chooses a partner because they are experiencing love; nobody ever fights someone because they are experiencing anger; nobody ever even winces because they are experiencing pain. Rather, a blind inert physical state moves by causal necessity from one state to the next; and it is the meaningless motion of these blind inert forces by causal necessity that explains everything—conscious experiences just happen to incidentally squirt out over the top of these motions as a byproduct, and you are, in effect, a prisoner locked inside the movie in your head with your arms and legs removed and absolutely no influence or control whatsoever over what does or does not happen inside of it. In the words of Charles Bonnett writing in 1755, “the soul is a mere spectator of the movements of its body.”

I would ask you to contemplate the severity of what might result if someone were to actually take this proposal seriously and really honestly begin to look at life and their own conscious existence in this horrific and dehumanized way, but according to the claim of epiphenomenalism, believing that epiphenomenalism is true never has any causal effect on anyone’s physical behavior—nor on any of their future mental states—in the first place either. A series of blind, inert physical events leads to their brain responding physically to the input of symbols and lines (and it is only a mere epiphenomena of this that they have any experience of “understanding their meaning,” but any “ideas” contained therein—as such—would simply in principle have no ability to play any further causal role in anything further whatsoever, either of the individual’s future conscious beliefs or their future physical behavior); and from here a purely physical sequence of physical causation leads to further physical states (which then happen to give off more epiphenomena in turn). On this view, the fact that pain even feels painful” is a mere coincidence; for it is not because we feel pain and dislike it that we ever recoil away from a painful stimuli: one physical brain event produces another, and it is only a mere unexplained coincidence that what the first physical brain event happens to give off like so much irrelevant steam is a feeling that just so happens to be painful in particular. 

It literally could just as well have been the case that slicing into our skin with a knife would produce the sensation that we currently know in the world as it is as “the taste of strawberries,” and the physical world (according to epiphenomenalism) would proceed in just exactly the same way as it does now. This would be true because: (1) epiphenomenalism admits that conscious experiences are something over and above physical events, and we do not know why particular conscious experiences are linked with particular physical events (since the former are not logically predictable from the latter given that claims that it “emerges” are acknowledged by definition by epiphenomenalism to fail), and (2) none of them play any causal role in anything anyway. Our conscious lives could have consisted of one long feeling orgasm, or one long miserable experience of pain, or one long sounding “C” note combined with the taste of blueberries and a feeling of slight melancholy, and again, everything in the physical universe would have proceeded in exactly the same way it does now. And it is only a coincidence of whatever extra rule specifies that particular conscious experiences superfluously ‘squirt out’ and dissipate into the cosmic aether like steam that our world happens to be otherwise.

Unfortunately, while most people—including philosophers—are content to stop here and reject the view for sheer counter–intuitiveness alone, philosophy of mind has been somewhat lazy at producing actual logical objections to it. Actual refutations of epiphenomenalism often aren’t very well known, but there is one that is absolute and undeniable and refutes even the possibility that anything like epiphenomenalism could possibly be true completely once and for all. That is: if epiphenomenalism were true, no one would ever be able to write about it. In fact: no one would ever be able to write—nor think—about consciousness in general. No one would ever once in the history of universe have had a single thought about a single one of the questions posed by philosophy of mind. Not a single philosophical position on the nature of consciousness, epiphenomenalist or otherwise, would ever have been defined, believed, or defended by anyone. No one would even be able to think about the fact that conscious experiences exist.

And the reason for that, in retrospect, is quite plain to see: on epiphenomenalism, our thoughts are produced by our physical brains. But our physical brains, in and of themselves, are just machines—our conscious experiences exist, as it were in effect, within another realm, where they are blocked off from having any causal influence on anything whatsoever (even including the other mental states existing within their realm, because it is some physical state which determines every single one of those). But this means that our conscious experiences can never make any sort of causal contact with the brains which produce all our conscious thoughts in the first place. And thus, our brains would have absolutely no capacity to formulate any conception whatsoever of their existence—and since all conscious thoughts are created by brains, we would never experience any conscious thoughts about consciousness. For another diagram, if we represent causality with arrows, causal closure with parentheses, physical events with the letter P and experiences with the letter e, the world would look something like this:

… e1 ⇠ (((P⇆P))) ⇢ e2 …

Everything that happens within the physical world—illustrated by (((P⇆P)))—would be wholly and fully kept and contained within the physical world, where conscious experiences as such do not reside; the physical world is Thomas Huxley’s train which moves whether the whistle on top blows steam or not. And e1 and e2 float off of the physical world—for whatever reason—and then merely dissipate into nothingness like steam, with no capacity in principle for making any causal inroads back into the physical dimension of reality whatsoever. This follows straightforwardly as an inescapable conclusion of the very premises which epiphenomenalism defines itself by. But since the very brains which produce all our experienced thoughts are contained within (((P⇆P))), in order to have any experienced thought about conscious experience itself, these (per epiphenomenalism) would have to be the epiphenomenal byproducts of a brain state that is somehow reflective or indicative of conscious experience. But brain states, again because per epiphenomenalism they belong to the self–contained world inside (((P⇆P))) where no experiences as such exist, are absolutely incapable in principle of doing this.

To refer back to our original analogy whereby epiphenomenalism was described by the illustration of a person jumping up and down in front of a mirror, then: it would be as if the mirror our brains were jumping up and down in front of were shielded inside of a black hole in a hidden dimension we couldn’t see. Our real bodies [by analogy, our physical brains] would never be able to see anything happening inside that mirror. And therefore, they would never be able to think about it or talk about it. And therefore, we would never see our reflections [by analogy, our consciously experienced minds] thinking or talking about the existence of reflections, because our reflections could only do that if our real bodies were doing that, and there would be absolutely no way in principle that our real bodies ever could.

The fact that we do this, then—the fact that we do think about consciousness as such, and the fact that we write volumes and volumes and volumes and volumes philosophizing about it, and the very fact that we produce theories (including epiphenomenalism itself) about its relation to the physical world in the first place—proves absolutely that whatever the mechanism may be, conscious experiences somehow most absolutely do in fact have causal influence over the world. What we have here is a rare example of a refutation that proceeds solely from the premises of the position itself, and demonstrates an internal inconsistency.

But Jaegwon Kim has already identified all the possible options for us! Either experiences and physical events are just literally identical (which even Kim himself rejects, for good reasons we have outlined here), or else epiphenomenalism is true (which Jaegwon Kim accepts, but which the simple argument outlined just now renders completely inadmissible)—or else the postulate of the causal closure of the physical domain is false—and conscious experience is both irreducible to and incapable of being explained in terms of blind physical mechanisms, and possesses unique causal efficacy over reality all in its own right.

How the hell does conscious experience get there in the first place, then? How could it be possible for conscious experiences to have causal efficacy over a physical world if the two really are as different as they’ve been described here to be? The ordinary atheistic account of reality starts with only blind physical entities, and as it is ordinarily conceived, proceeding from here by the blind mechanistic accounts of cosmological and evolutionary science is supposed to be sufficient to account for everythingand this is precisely what was supposed to have rendered the speculative accounts of religion obsolete. So if the account above is correct, just where does its truth leave that narrative? And indeed, if that blind mechanistic account of the Universe were completely true, we wouldn’t be conscious entities who had any conscious experiences of anything at all.

So how can something like conscious experience even exist within a world like ours at all? In future posts, we’ll explain what intentionality and ‘thisness’ are and incorporate both into the picture and show that the mystery (and the absolute incapacity of the physicalist tools to even possibly begin to account for it) ultimately goes much deeper than even this. Then, we’ll look back and try to figure out what exactly we’ve proved, and begin to deal with a variety of more detailed objections to the train of reasoning presented thus far. For now, I have no choice but to pause here, and hold off on making strong pronouncements until intentionality and ‘thisness’ have been included in the discussion and incorporated into a more fully fleshed out conception of the basic nature of consciousness itself.

This does, however, readily bring us up to speed to contemplate one mystery that will be discussed in extensive detail later: how subjective experience could possibly “interact” with a physical world. While the fact that it requires this sort of “interaction” is often taken to be a reason to reject dualism (the notion that conscious experiences are neither reducible to physical processes nor causally epiphenomenal with respect to them), this can’t be right: the question of how conscious experiences and physical structures relate in general is just the basic question which all philosophy of mind deals with, and to say the least, the supposition that subjective experiences and physical structures could somehow be “identical” is no less incomprehensible than the notion of the two interactingin fact, I will argue that whereas the notion of subjective experiences and physical structures being “identical” is incomprehensible because it is senseless, our inability to fully conceptualize “how” an interaction between experience and the physical would “work” just represents a limitation of our own conceptual facultiesand not one of the nature of reality.

[1] Disgustipated — Tool

[2]  In the paper Quining Qualia, Dennett makes the following statement (which will, no doubt, sound obscure to most readers—bear with it; you’ll see the point by the end): “The infallibilist line on qualia treats them as properties of one’s experience one cannot in principle misdiscover, and this is a mysterious doctrine (at least as mysterious as papal infallibility) unless we shift the emphasis a little and treat qualia as logical constructs out of subjects’ qualia-judgments: a subject’s experience has the quale F if and only if the subject judges his experience to have quale F. We can then treat such judgings as constitutive acts, in effect, bringing the quale into existence by the same sort of license as novelists have to deter mine the hair color of their characters by fiat.”

How seriously would this statement be taken if we just substituted the word experience where the word qualia appears? “The infallibilist line on experience suggests that one cannot in principle be mistaken about one’s experience (say, that one is experiencing pain), and this is a mysterious doctrine (at least as mysterious as papal infallibility) unless we shift the emphasis and treat experience as a logical construct out of peoples’ judgments that they are having experiences: a subject is having experience F if and only if the subject judges himself to have experience F. We can then treat such judgings as constitutive acts which, in effect, bring the experience itself into existence by the same sort of license as novelists have to determine the hair color of their characters by fiat.”

Come again? Does the philosophical term “qualia” make it more or less easy to get away with making an utterly absurd, ridiculous claim sound deep and scientific? The use of technical neologisms like “qualia” and academic philosophy’s tendency to try to dignify itself by modeling philosophical discussion on the logical language of mathematics or programming with phraseology like “F if and only if P > Q, where F is . . . ” is what allows people like Dennett to get away with saying things like, “The only thing it means to have an experience is to claim to have an experience. Your experiences of the world ‘exist’ in the same way that Atticus Finch ‘exists’ in the universe of To Kill a Mockingbird (which is to say: they don’t)” while concealing this absolute blabbering nonsense behind language just obscurantist enough to create a facade of apparent scientific objectivity.

[3] I will discuss, at some later point, whether we can in fact reconceptualize the physical world to possess properties like subjective private experiences and intentionality  ‘all the way down’ intrinsically and thereby resolve the problems that would follow otherwise.  This view, which can take various particular forms, is known as panpsychism. While I applaud its commitment to taking the problems of philosophy of mind seriously (as they are precisely the ones I am endorsing as serious problems here) enough to consider something many people would otherwise automatically write off as absurd in an attempt to resolve them, I think it ultimately fails to resolve them as well, for its own reasons, which I won’t be able to begin to explain until later. For now, including caveats for panpsychism in every paragraph would just be too overwhelming, especially for the fresh initiate to philosophy of mind; so in this and everything that follows, for the sake of clarity, simplicity, and ease of communication, I bracket it to the side to be addressed separately in its own later post.

[4] A footnote for those already familiar with the philosophical arguments or those prepared to take a substantial detour without my added guidance: see Frank Jackson’s presentation of the Knowledge Argument. Why is Mary only colorblind (or inside of a black and white house)? The experience of seeing black and white is still qualitative in all the ways that matter. Surely that doesn’t make the example ideal for showing us the thing that it’s trying to show to us. Why not stipulate that Mary is blind, and has no subjective experiences of vision (“qualia”) at all? It is important to note that even if we experienced nothing but a permanently “black” visual field, if we were experiencing that black visual field, that would still be every bit as much a qualitative subjective experience in the problematic sense as a “color” like red. The “lights” would still be “on” for that experience of permanent pitch darkness, if we were experiencing that permanent pitch darkness, even if we didn’t know to call it that because we had never experienced anything else to contrast it with, in a way that there are no “lights on” for a visual experience of pitch darkness when an atom mindlessly buzzes around in space.The real underlying problem these points are getting at is that physicalism can’t account for the first–person subjective “point of view” in general. Why is there even a “point of view” “inside” the brain at all? (Anything—anything whatsoever—that a “first–person point of view” is composed of would be, in the only sense really relevant to this stage of discussion, “qualia.”) For that matter, why not stipulate that Mary is a robot who has no subjective experiences of anything at all, and then ask whether this robot would be capable of forming any knowledge on the basis of the physical facts of the universe alone that subjective experiences of any kind exist anywhere? Isn’t it obvious that these minor tweaks to the argument are immediately more powerfully illustrative?

Consciousness (III) — Does the World Pantry Stock More than Sugar?

Previous posts:
(I) — Atheism, Science, Philosophy: The Origins of the Conflict
 (II) — Digging Up the Conflict’s Roots

The basic approach of my analysis will be to argue that when we look at the potential tools of explanation provided to us by the physicalist account, we simply do not have the resources within it to explain the kinds of things we know need explaining in consciousness. In short, I will defend the claims that: (1) We know at least some aspects of what needs to be accounted for, in consciousness, through our very direct experience with and within the phenomenon of consciousness as conscious beings; (2) when we look at the tools which physicalism restricts us to for explaining things, these simply are not capable in principle of being used to explain what we know needs to be explained.

What are the physicalist tools of explanation? The physicalist answer to the question, “What is the world really like?” is described in the words of Alex Rosenberg: “It’s fermions and bosons, and everything that can be made up of them, and nothing that can’t be made up of them. All the facts about fermions and bosons determine or “fix” all the other facts about reality and what exists in this universe or any other. . . Another way of expressing this fact fixing by physics is to say that all the other facts—the chemical, biological, psychological, social, economic, political, cultural facts supervene on the physical facts and are ultimately explained by them.” On a physicalist account, if we identify some aspect of consciousness which we think stands in need of explanation, we have two options: first, we can try to explain how it results as the inevitable, logically entailed product of “the physical facts” being what they are; and second, if the phenomena in question can’t be accounted for in this way, then the only way to continue to hold on to physicalism is by accepting that the phenomena itself just doesn’t exist—because, per physicalism, if it isn’t accounted for by the physical facts, then it can’t. The only alternative to these two options is to accept that something exists which is not accountable for in terms of “the physical facts” as we normally understand them—and to consider this is to consider denying the very truth of physicalism itself: if this is so, then either there is more to reality than “physical” objects and forces, or else our understanding of what it means to be “physical” is so far off–base that we might as well call some entities we know exist non–“physical” anyway.

Thus, my approach will be: (1) to identify some aspect of conscious experience which at least appears to need to be explained; (2) establish that this phenomena cannot be accounted for in ordinary physicalist terms—which calls either the phenomena itself or the terms of physicalism into question; and finally, (3) establish that this is not a phenomena we can coherently do away with; that proposing that it just might not actually exist at all is not a viable option—and thus, that it is the terms of physicalism, and not the phenomena which we’ve identified, which must go. Some physicalists will be under the impression that any argument of this general form must, necessarily, be an “argument from ignorance.” Is this so?


For a simplified analogy: suppose I find myself inside of a strange house, and suppose I am told two things upon being discovered: first, that absolutely nothing else can come into or out of any part of the house; and second, that absolutely no foods, food ingredients, condiments, or anything otherwise edible whatsoever exist or ever have existed anywhere inside the house besides sugar. Now suppose that, after some period of time, I smell the scent of something cooking, and I walk into the kitchen to find out what it is—and after making my way there, I discover a freshly baked chicken pot pie.

What am I to think? It seems that this event would put me in a situation comparable to that of a physicalist asking questions about consciousness: my first option is to decide that the chicken pot pie after all must in fact have been made, somehow, from nothing but sugar. If I decide that this isn’t possible, then the only remaining option that allows me to continue believing the claim I was given upon entering the house—that sugar was the only “ingredient” contained in that microcosmic world—is to decide that what I’m looking at must not be an actual freshly baked chicken pot pie at all: perhaps, for instance, it’s a wax simulacrum. But if I can satisfy myself that it is real, then the only rational option that this leaves me is to accept that since (1) I’m looking at a genuine, freshly baked chicken pot pie right now; and since (2) that simply can’t be explained with an ingredients list containing nothing but sugar, (3) the claim I was given upon entering that sugar is the only ingredient ever inside of the house was false.

We can, at least in some circumstances, reason backwards from consequential phenomena we see to determine if a given claim about what kinds of “ingredients” went up into making it are plausible or not, without requiring an absolute knowledge of those ingredients—I don’t, for example, have to have the absolute knowledge that would be provided by a video recording of everything that has ever happened in the kitchen in order for it to be rational for me to decide that I was either lied to or misled. The arguments for dualism, I will argue, are something of this sort. We have, in our own inner experience of consciousness, the evidence of at least certain phenomena which we can directly observe—comparable to a chicken pot pie. If the arguments I intended to make succeed, then the physicalist claim may turn out to be comparable to the claim made in our story that sugar is the only ingredient that the closed world of the house has ever contained.

For another comparable example to demonstrate why the claim that these are “arguments from ignorance” is wholly mistaken, consider a flat, two–dimensional surface like a canvas; and then, consider a three-dimensional object—whether a prism, or a cube, or a pyramid. Supposing someone offers you a canvas and asks you to draw one of those objects—and I mean a real, three–dimensional drawing; not a two–dimensional rendering of one: how should you respond? Obviously, you should respond that this is impossible. And you have absolutely no need to sit and devise a thousand ways to attempt doing it before you can be absolutely justified in this conclusion: simply by understanding what the concept of a three–dimensional object entails, and understanding what resources the concept of a two–dimensional surface offers, it is not just that you can’t see how this could be possible—no; on the contrary, you perfectly well can see that it is impossibleAnd you have absolutely no need to “empirically test” that claim by drawing lines a million different ways across the canvass in order to know it. (Conversely, if someone tells me that there is a three–dimensional object behind me, I can know immediately without even needing to turn around that what they are referring two will not be something drawn on a single flat, two–dimensional surface.)

And so, again, if I make an argument analogous to the claim that physicalism is offering a two–dimensional surface to try to account for the three–dimensional phenomena that is consciousness, there is no appeal to “ignorance” contained in this form of argument; rather than arguing from what I don’t know about consciousness, I would be making an argument from what I know about what the concepts of consciousness, and of physical reality, do entail, to draw out an illustration of where a conflict of some sort positively lies. (And this isn’t always easy to explain, even when the conflict itself is simple! Just try imagining how you would go about explaining the fact that a three–dimensional object can’t be drawn on a two–dimensional surface to someone who didn’t get it and wasn’t able to plainly see the fact for themselves. Imagine that, no matter hard you tried, they just kept mocking you for thinking you could know that when you haven’t tried every single conceivable way to draw lines on a two–dimensional surface yet.)

As I proceed in this, I will be relying on the words of the physicalists themselves. As suggested by the earlier discussion, there will on any given aspect of consciousness generally be two different types of physicalists: those who think we can explain a given phenomena in the terms of, and as the unavoidable physical and logical consequence of, the inert causal operations of underlying blind physical forces, and on the other hand those who conclude that, since we can’t do that, the phenomena is one we must simply be prepared to do away with and deny that actual reality of, whether we like it or not. I will side with the former in accepting that there are very good reasons to want to retain some of these phenomena; that eliminativism is not a viable choice, because it clearly denies some aspects of reality which, whether the physicalist likes it or not, are simply real (or, in other words: that the pot pie is not a wax simulacrum, but really does contain edible chicken, which thus gives us a thing standing in need of explanation). However, I will side with the latter in accepting that the “naturalizations” (or “reductions” to physical explanation) of these phenomena attempted by the former are impossible, and fail.

Where I differ from both is—a position I argued for in the previous entry—in denying that there is any good reason to stay committed to the premise of physicalism in this situation in the first place, other than mere prejudice—held as dogma—about what kinds of entities the world is or is not possibly free to contain, obtained not for any truly rationally justifiable reason (as I will proceed throughout to argue) but rather simply because of the way that the social battle between science and religion has warped understanding of both. If we had no objective proof of the claim that the world pantry contains nothing but sugar in the first place, if we have every reason to believe the chicken pot pie in front of us is in fact edible, if we have every reason to think chicken pot pies can’t be produced out of sugar as a lone ingredient—then we should be prepared to take the possibility that the world just simply does happen to contain more than sugar seriously. And there’s simply no reason in principle why we shouldn’t.

We have already seen in part (I), for example, that when Daniel Dennett finds himself faced with this situation in trying to locate subjective experience on his philosophy’s two–dimensional canvas of the world, and finding it impossible to explain it in mechanistic terms, he decisively prefers to bite the bullet and literally deny outright that he—or anyone else—ever has any experiences of anything at all. If I can establish that Dennett has the situation correct right up until the final point where he decides that this is the more appropriate bullet to bite, and ride on the coattails of this kind of philosophical work right up to the point where I think it’s very clearly the appropriate time to jump off, then a meaningful argument against physicalism is most certainly possible to make.

Along the way, I will try to explain just what makes all of this so interesting, in concrete terms that hold practical relevance to our lives—I will, in other words, try to keep these questions held in a focus that is “human.” As a human being myself, these questions are personally, directly interesting to me, on a private level. As a religious nonbeliever, I have a personal stake in various aspects of the dialectic between science and religion outlined in the previous sections. These are not simply abstract technical questions I happen to find interesting, like (say) an engineer fascinated by mathematics trying to solve an engineering problem. They concern the very core of the very basic human question, “Who (and what) am I?” And I will argue that physicalist perspectives do, in fact, dehumanize us—in fundamental and significant ways.

At these stages of argument, it should not be mistaken that I am ever arguing that the reason we should reject a physicalist account is just because it dehumanizes us (in the sense of “making us feel dehumanized,” or at least being something which arguably should). Rather, if a physicalist account should be rejected, it should be rejected first and foremost because it either explicitly denies, or else by failing to be able to account for them implicitly denies some parts of what we really, truly, in fact and in reality, actually are. However, an intrinsically connected component piece of this picture is that if an account does explicitly or implicitly deny some aspect of what we really are, then believing an objectively impoverished account of the world may lend itself to a subjectively impoverished internal or relational life.

Believing in the claim of solipsism, for example (e.g., that my subjective experience is the only one that truly exists in the world, whereas everyone else is something like a figment of my imagination, lacking actual internal experiences completely, so that life is quite like a computer game in which everyone else is artificially computer generated while I am the only actual player) would—first and foremost—be a philosophical mistake. However, we would be justified to oppose that mistake both because of the objective, abstract errors that it commits as well as, simultaneously the internal, emotional, and social consequences that would likely result from someone’s believing it: the two are, in other words, not necessarily separable—solipsism would have these consequences because of its mistakes, and those mistakes are important because of the consequences. Where arguments for the socially or psychologically detrimental possible consequences of physicalist accounts are made, they should not be mistaken for emotional appeals to consequences which simply argue that we must believe these accounts are false because we shouldn’t want them to be true; we have (so I will claim) all the demonstrable reasons for believing them false we should need, but if accounts of the world and the self are factually impoverished, they will arguably lead to an impoverished relationship to the world and to the self in consequence, and we can oppose them for both reasons at the same time.

There is, of course, nothing unusual about this: physicalists often care about refuting dualism at least in part because they believe it represents some obstacle to the successful continuance, in some way, of science. Liberals and conservatives care about refuting each others’ claims about how economics works not just because they care about the abstract details about how economies in theory work, but because they care about what the best way to improve peoples’ lives should be. Philosophies of any kind are frequently inseparable to a large extent from the mentalities which are attracted to adopting those philosophies and from the psychological influences they will tend to have on the minds which adopts them. Most likely only a narcissist who isn’t inclined to care much about the feelings of other people in general would ever be inclined to adopt a philosophical claim like solipsism in the first place.

These prefaces have, finally, laid the backdrop for a more productive discussion to begin of the actual philosophical questions raised by consciousness and prepared me to state the thesis I intend to defend: physicalist accounts are both metaphysically impoverished and psychologically impoverishing. There is no fallacious argument from ignorance represented by the first half of that sentence, and there is no fallacious appeal to emotion or consequences represented by the second. Consciousness is a three–dimensional object that simply cannot in principle fit into any two–dimensional conception of the world. It is not our understanding of consciousness that must be squashed down into perverted, diminished form in order to fit the presupposed canvas of our worldview—but our conception of the world that must expand in order to accommodate what kinds of things actually do turn out to exist within reality as it is. And our appreciation of the mystery of conscious existence as it really is will be profoundly enriched for it.

My reasons for expressing interest in this topic earlier were incomplete. I also think that there are very real and profound mysteries around the existence and nature of consciousness, and that properly contemplating them is in fact an intrinsically valuable experience—much like the experience of glancing up at the stars on a dark night and contemplating the smallness of our relative size within the vastness of space: I consider it the sort of experience that has the power to place our everyday experiences within a freshly conceptualized context that, simply through our appreciation of it, can transform our understanding of ourselves and thus the way we process and experience the same old ordinary events we were experiencing before we spent that time staring out at and contemplating ourselves within the context of the stars—with the difference that a proper contemplation of consciousness through the questions of philosophy of mind creates the distant stars from something that could not be closer to each of us: our very own being. Realizing the distance between ourselves and our understanding of even the most basic nature of our own being should, in turn, instill a kind of existential humility most often sorely lacking in both the evangelistic religions and the atheist campaigners against religion alike. Those who would tell us that the sky is not a window into the infinite depths of space, but merely a painted dome (as might well have been “parsimonious” to assume in some ages past) are not only incorrect—they rob us of the experience of the awe of contemplation.

Continued Posts:

(IV)  The Case of the Lunatic Fish

Consciousness (II) — Digging up the Conflict’s Roots

Previous posts:
(I) — Atheism, Science, Philosophy: The Origins of the Conflict

Intuitively, the atheist feels vaguely, without necessarily even having any consciously or explicitly identified set of reasons, that if human consciousness could not be explained in thoroughly physical terms, this would somehow pose a dangerous threat to his entire worldview—and he enters into the discipline of philosophy of mind with this prejudice coloring his perception from the moment he begins to explore its questions.

Plenty of forms of “atheism” the world over (present even in the religious sects of Buddhism and Hinduism) seem, without believing in any deity at all, to have no issue with nevertheless acknowledging the existence of what the typical Western atheist would even describe as, for all intents and purposes, “souls.” Yet, however much these perspectives may lack belief in a deity, the term “atheism” doesn’t call them to mind for us because the word—whatever its formal denotation—does, in fact, connote a specific, developed worldview—which generally holds something like the series of claims that: (1) the scientific method is the most effective, or the only way to investigate the physical world; (2) the world itself is, at root, fundamentally ‘physical’ through and through; and (3) since the world is thoroughly physical and science is the best (or only) way to investigate the physical, science is capable of doing everything religion is ever supposed to have, answering every question about ‘who we are, why we are here, and where we are going’ in what are ultimately purely mechanistic terms (summarized by the scientific accounts of cosmological and evolutionary sciences, conceived of in a physically deterministic sense) and thus rendering any sort of religious speculation whatsoever absolutely superfluous. In the minds of many, it is this capacity of science to now replace the answers once given to great questions by religion with its own which has made it possible for atheism to become “respectable.”

Yet this trend, I have argued, is not because of any necessary direct logical connection between the nature of human consciousness and the existence of God per se, but because of the contingency that the religions of the West have historically chosen to predicate themselves on particular tellings of stories in history rather than, strictly, on metaphysical and theological beliefs per se—as science progressed, it inevitably found these historical claims to be untrue (the world, for example, is most certainly greater than a mere six thousand years old); and as it did so, the battle lines became drawn around science and religion in particular, with the conflict between the two hardening and changing the shape of each of them in turn, like two people in an abusive relationship who begin to hate the foods the other eats, or the small habits they practice, for no reason other than the fact that these are what the person they feel so much disdain for likes and does, the relationship thus giving them tastes (and distastes) they might never have formed outside of it through their own solitary development. The battle over religion having formed around the pivot point of crisis established by modern findings of science which directly contradict the  claims of religions which have chosen to center themselves on historical, empirical claims, a tendency thus develops within an atheism that evolves out of this condition to increasingly want to strengthen the force of science’s argument against religion by denying that anything could possibly stand, in any way, beyond the reach of full explicability by science and the peculiar methods of investigation which science is suited to at all.

The first and most fundamental mistake committed by the atheists’ typical approach, however, is that it philosophizes science unconsciously, without knowingly and explicitly owning up to what it is doing. The true internal nature of the “physical” entities investigated by science is left entirely unrevealed by the strict facts of science itself. Strictly speaking, even the fact that those entities are “physical” in any way that is ordinarily assumed at all is left unproven by science, and is unnecessary as an assumption for just continuing to engage in scientific practices—strictly speaking, science simply allows us to predict what we will observe in the future based on the correlations we find between our observations today. Yet, this endeavor, in and of itself, says absolutely nothing about the possibility that something like Berkeleyan idealism could be true: what if our observations correlate in the ways that they do not because there are truly “physical” entities existing “out there” at all, but because we are living within a virtual simulation rather akin to a dream world created by God, who actively chooses to always allow our observations (which are all that ever actually exist) to consistently correlate?

“Science,” insofar as it simply applies the scientific method of testing and refining hypothesis to increase the accuracy of our predictions, simply says nothing whatsoever about whether the correlations it finds exist for a reason like this one, because the entities it observes truly are blind and physical forces composing the “rock bottom” of reality, or for some other reason besides (there could perhaps be a thousand examples in between these two extremes). As a practice, it simply says nothing about any of these possibilities; and it simply doesn’t need to. A practice that tests and refines hypotheses about our future observations simply says nothing, in and of itself, about the intrinsic nature of the reality behind our observations or about how it is that our very observations are possible (or what their relationship is to the world) in the first place.

The atheist commits himself to particular philosophical interpretations of precisely what science does and can reveal, and in precisely what way it reveals to us what it reveals. So far as it goes, this is fine—anyone else would be applying their own philosophical interpretations should they want to provide any alternative answer to the same questions, too; and one of these interpretations does, after all, have to be true. The problem is just that these interpretations typically are not acknowledged as such and instead are treated as if they are simply what “science” itself transparently reveals to us to be true—and this isn’t so. The best explanation for science’s success may lie in the interpretation that all reality is in fact composed at its root of only blind physical forces operating by mathematically capturable laws; but science itself quite plainly does not intrinsically reveal to us that this is true as a transparent fact.  If we branch off from here into philosophy of mind and we begin to find that this interpretations doesn’t allow us to do a great job of accounting for the possibility of consciousness, we are perfectly well within our rights to question that interpretation and consider whether alternatives, in light of the questions raised by philosophy of mind, don’t do a better job of allowing us to hold together a more cohesive understanding of the full phenomena of the world around us.

However, we shouldn’t miss the point that the reason admitting this isn’t so simple is because, to a large degree, the entire purpose for which science is adopted against religion by the atheist in the dialectic is precisely that it removes the mind and mental concepts from the picture. Scientific cosmology is important because it removes the requirement for any intention within a (divine) mind to create behind an explanation for the existence of  “creation.” Evolutionary biology is important because it removes the requirement for any intention within a (divine) mind to design behind an explanation for the build of all life forms on Earth. Where once we had mind and intention and purpose and desire as the bedrock of our ultimate explanations for these things (e.g., that God wanted to do it, for such-and-such reasons), now we have replaced them with blind, mindless causality that is best described by deterministic mathematical laws.

And so the hard–line philosophy of physicalism becomes so intimately associated with “atheism” as to become nearly its synonym because it seems natural to the atheist to assume from here that as the deepening of our understanding of reality progresses, it will continue to move in this direction: it will continue to dethrone the place of consciousness in reality; it will continue to reduce “mind” to the mere byproduct of the physical; it will continue to reduce what once seemed to be “intention” to the blind forces of mere brute causality; and it will, finally, result in a picture in which everything that exists is the mere byproduct of a world running blind on fixed, predetermined rails that no one built, and where consciousness is—at best—something that shows up at some later point inside the train and whose role is limited—at most—to the ability to glance out at the predetermined rails the world is running on from the window.

The question philosophy of mind brings us to is whether this process can continue once it reaches up to the consciousness we all experience—once it moves from eliminating the existence of intentionality in a hypothetical divine mind in favor of a story that replaces this with blind causality on to carrying this project through to the task of similarly dethroning the “purposes,” “desires,” and conscious intentionality we all experience first–hand and to reducing even these fully to blind forces of brute causality as well. This is the project which physicalism does—and must—set for itself, and we should not fail to see that this redefining of who and what we are at the core of our everyday experienced being is even more extreme than any dethroning of any particular religious claim by science has ever been.

There is again, however, absolutely nothing inherently contrary to the project of science, conceived of in the clearest and most unassuming terms, in accepting the possibility that some phenomena which are irreducibly “mental” could indeed simply turn out to be part of the rock bottom list of “things which reality is composed of.” The atheist (or naturalist or physicalist) is not relying on anything which has been strictly proven when he assumes that this cannot be so. What he has against this possibility is, in the most literal sense of the word, a prejudice—a prediction, however based it may be off of what the atheist considers to be a trend in this general direction. The problem is that this prediction is so often assumed to be so much more than it actually is—it is assumed to be, or at least spoken of as if it is, something that has actually been proven somehow by the facts strictly demonstrated by science as such. A couple of parables will serve to help illustrate the risks contained in holding on to this assumption too fervently.

To adapt an analogy first proposed by the philosopher David Chalmers, let’s rewind ourselves for a moment back to the time of Newton. All that we know of the “rock bottom” kinds of entities that science suggests the world contains at its root as the building block of all further entities is the atom, and the only kind of interaction we know of that takes place as the building block of all further interaction between things in the world is direct physical contact between these entities: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction;” and so the world is much like a complicated collection of very tiny billiard balls bouncing into each other. Now, consider the confusion that Newton expressed from within this view of the nature of the world about gravity when he wrote: “It is inconceivable that inanimate Matter should, without the Mediation of something else, which is not material, operate upon, and affect other matter without mutual Contact… That Gravity should be innate, inherent and essential to Matter, so that one body may act upon another at a distance thro’ a Vacuum, without the Mediation of any thing else, by and through which their Action and Force may be conveyed from one to another, is to me so great an Absurdity that I believe no Man who has in philosophical Matters a competent Faculty of thinking can ever fall into it.”

Because Newton had no reference point within the list of entities which the science of his day had so far established to make up the most basic “building blocks” of reality which he saw any option of “reducing” an explanation of gravity into, he was left to simply regard this “action at a distance” to be some kind of bizarre mystery. Of course, in the modern day, most of us know the correct answer (or at least, something much closer to it): the “vacuum” which Newton spoke about is not just vacant space—space, itself, turns out to be a “thing;” a thing that can be curved; a thing in its own right, not reducible to any other “bedrock” entities, but existing all on its own right beside them. Newton was confused because he couldn’t explain gravity in terms of local atomic interactions. His confusion was appropriate: it can’t be. But the answer to that conceptual dilemma could only come in realizing that atomic forces and local “billiard ball” interactions between them are not the sole building blocks of reality; something new simply had to be added to our list of what those entities are. And there was absolutely nothing contrary to the project of science in allowing ourselves to admit that space itself was just such an entity.

Now, for  another example (this one closer to Chalmers’ own use of it, but still modified slightly for my purposes), let’s move to the early 19th century, at a time when the phenomena of electromagnetism had yet to be discovered. Suppose someone has, by accident, discovered a magnet, and set up shop on the side of a street somewhere using those magnets to cause lead shavings to “levitate” while claiming to have discovered “magic.” They would call this “magic,” of course, merely because it violates their own expectations about the world—expectations set, quite simply, by an incomplete worldview that does not tell them about electromagnetism but instead references only atomic phenomena. A modern day skeptic who encountered this street magician might insist that science shows that no such thing is possible (per the assumption that “science shows” that all that exists “at rock bottom” are atoms, which cannot interact with each other “at a distance”)—and his way of refusing to accept that “magic” is real would be to insist that whatever is going on, it must be explicable in terms of the particular entities so far acknowledged by the science of his day—direct physical contact between atomic particles. However, no such reduction would ever be possible: the phenomena produced by electromagnetic forces would, quite simply, never be explained in terms of local mechanical interactions between atomic particles. Yet if the skeptic were stubborn, he might continue insisting on to no end that unless and until we’ve explained the street magician’s trick in terms of such interactions, we haven’t understood what’s going on. But—we could easily imagine him swearing to us—once we understand all the facts, we willone day!—know exactly how the phenomena in front of us is explained by local, atomic interactions.

And while his claim would, in one sense, be impossible to refute, and our skeptic might have gone on making this unredeemable promise to us forever, we know today that he would simply be wrong. Once again, the correct answer is that electromagnetism was simply a new phenomena, belonging to the “bedrock” of reality itself, in its own right; and is not something reducible to the terms and functions of any other “bedrock” entities like atoms. The correct response to this encounter with “magic” absolutely would have been to accept that something we previously would have considered “magical” and counter to our then–so–far recognized entities and laws simply was, in fact, real—that it was not the magic tricks with magnets that were not as they appeared, but our own assumptions about reality that were at fault as a result of the fact that they were incomplete. The analogy should be clear enough: physicalists often promise that even if we don’t know the details at present, a completed science of consciousness will absolutely—swear!—be able to explain exactly how subjective consciousness is explained in terms of the somewhat less linear, yet still most assuredly blind, mechanical and deterministic[1] entities and forces (and laws describing them) acknowledged by current science, once its understanding is complete.

How much stock should we put in this sort of promise? Is it possible we could be in a similar position with regards to consciousness as Newton was towards gravity, and as a skeptic before the time of Maxwell would have been towards magnetic “magic tricks”—encountering a new, and fundamentally different sort of entity whether we realized it or not, and yet potentially indefinitely refusing to acknowledge this, out of nothing more than sheer prejudice about what kinds of phenomena reality can or cannot contain—committing ourselves to a promise of eventual reduction which is irredeemable in principle (because the phenomena is one that exists in its own right, and simply does not reduce) and therefore committing a mistake we might never even see the error in, because no length of time in which the promise goes unredeemed is ever going to “prove” that it is irredeemable because it was made in error?

[1] I use this word in the loose sense that even if the laws are probabilistic and “random,” as the laws of quantum mechanics may be, they still “determine” when a randomized roll of a metaphorical dice in some equation will be performed as a part of the equation itself. Even “random” laws are still “deterministic” in this basic sense.

Continued posts:
(III) — Does the World Pantry Stock More than Sugar?
(IV)  The Case of the Lunatic Fish

Consciousness (I) — Atheism, Science, Philosophy: The Origins of the Conflict

The typical person who develops an interest in philosophy of mind comes into the matter through a prior interest in the topic of philosophy as a whole. Predominantly, those who find themselves attracted to philosophy (other than philosophy of religion) are atheists—and by and large, those who are members of an organized religion will tend to perform their “philosophizing” amongst those who share their religion, rather than amongst the mixed environment of a formal philosophy class.[1] It could even be said that for many, the very project of philosophy itself is to build a worldview which fills in the gaps to answer the questions once addressed by religion, in the wake of religion’s demise. Nietzsche, writing in 1882, gave the clearest precedent for this conception of philosophy when he wrote, “God is dead. . . And we have killed him. . . What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us?”

Generally, the kind of atheist who decides to pursue philosophy will have a consciously dim view of religion’s influence in the world—a declaration of atheism most usually does not just express a belief that the claims of religion happen to be false, but even further, that it would be positively worth the effort to erase religion from the world. Whether Karl Marx writing in 1833, “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness;” Sigmund Freud writing in 1929, “The whole [religious worldview] is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above [it];” or Sam Harris in the 21st century writing, “If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion,” rarely is atheism expressed as a position on something which rational people could disagree about; most often it is, in effect, synonymous with the belief that religion positively ought to be eradicated. Even more rarely, for example, do we hear the opinion expressed by someone who happens to think God does not exist that the fact is disappointing. 

The average  individual enters the debate on philosophy of mind, at the very least, with the solid impression in the background of his awareness that the scientific method generally seems to be resolving questions previously thought to lie in principle beyond its scope and fall instead within the realm of religion. To the first question, “Why are we here?” the Christian account of an intentional creation of the world by God  (as well as the argument that the existence of “creation” logically requires the existence of a creator) has been nullified by advances in the sciences of cosmology and evolutionary biology. As Richard Dawkins puts it: “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually respectable atheist.”

Though we may lack a full understanding of some of the details (such as the exact mechanism of anthropogenesis), science is generally supposed to have already fleshed out a relatively complete picture of the course of the Universe as a whole and of the place of human beings within that picture; and it is assumed to be on an inevitable path of continuing to fill in all missing details until a final account is complete—and it is the advance of this picture, which begins with a Big Bang, proceeds to the gradual formation of galaxies and to the formation on some planets in these systems of single-celled organisms, finally to the evolution of human beings through a process of natural selection out of these origins, and then ultimately to the collapse of the Universe into a final state through either heat death, a “Big Crunch” back into its original state before the Big Bang (which may or may not eventually result in yet another Big Bang), or a “Big Freeze”—that has made it possible for disbelief in the existence of God to be, at least from the viewpoint of people like Dawkins, “respectable.” Notably, this story begins with only physical entities and forces in its account, and it proceeds through a purely physical sequence of causation to account for absolutely everything in existence.

While many adherents of an organized religion may attempt to incorporate the facts revealed by science into their belief structure, an all-too-common response is to deny their truth entirely. Religious criticism of the scientific findings of Charles Darwin began within Darwin’s own lifetime, with the 1847 publication of the Princeton Biblical scholar Charles Hodge’s What is Darwinism? which concluded with the answer: “It is Atheism” (a point taken to be the decisive argument against it); and the conflict continues today, with as many as four in ten Americans still believing, over 150 years after the first publication of On the Origin of Species, that God created all life in Earth in exactly the same form it exists today just 10,000 years ago or less. (In fact, if the chronologies recorded in the Bible are added up together, and we were to assume that every detail and length of time was recorded accurately, there would in fact be just six thousand years between God’s creation of all life on Earth and the present day.)

Clearly, a battle has formed, in which the interplay between these two sides has caused them to mutate in response to each other. On one side, we have those who are committed to the belief that one particular book from one particular ancient culture accurately records the entire story of all life from the beginning of time itself, and who believe they can consider this “knowledge” without any need to first investigate the claims they have made and test them (except, at best, as an afterthought). However sophisticated or even seemingly plausible the objections may be which any particular religious believer can produce against the idea of evolution, the root of his objection is almost always the same: he has read Genesis 1; and Genesis 1 says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. […] And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly […] Let the land produce […] livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” […] Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness (…).” Having read these words, the religious individual needs look no further, unless to produce more complicated justifications for what he already knows whether he can produce arguments or justifications for it or not. In at least the basic outline, the religious believer knows without a doubt exactly when and how the sequence of creation went down.

And on the other side, we have the atheist who understandably sees this commitment to the belief that one “knows” things they haven’t arrived at through questioning and testing to be irrational; sees the need to admit, first and foremost, our lack of automatic knowledge and the fundamental need for a careful method of investigating and testing claims in order to thereby discover the truth; but who then almost inevitably goes further, and advances an account on which science is supposed to have revealed a full and complete account of absolutely everything, revealing a world composed at root of nothing but blind physical objects and forces crunching, banging, expanding, and evolving through purely blind physical sequences of causation to produce everything that there is, by sheer accident. In the words of Richard Dawkins, “The universe [is] […] at bottom […] nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

While the strict definition of the word “atheism” may state that it merely denotes a lack of belief in the claim of God’s existence, by all measures of popular usage, the term has indeed largely come to connote positive belief in a substantially developed worldview rather than a mere, simple lack of belief that the God of popular theism exists. And that worldview has evolved (excuse the pun) in a specific number of ways, for specific reasons. The peculiar battlegrounds on which religion has fought with its skeptics has caused those skeptics’ worldviews to shift, in response, in ways that they might not have otherwise in attempt to hold their ground on those particular fields. In India, for example, 77% of respondents gave the affirmative answer to the question, “Do you agree that enough scientific evidence exists to support Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution?”—compared to just 41% of the United States. In a culture where the dominant religions advance a cyclical cosmology incredibly similar to the Big Bang–Big Crunch–Big Bounce model of modern cosmological science and evolution faces less opposition from the religious, the non–religious are less likely to worry that the truth of evolution might render our lives without “purpose” (the cyclical worldview of their religion does not advance the need for any linear “purpose” to begin with), or even that it undermines the likelihood of the existence of the soul—as one school of Hindu thought, known as Samkhya, even accepts the notion of reincarnating individual souls while rejecting the existence of God! Whatever the formal definition, few in the West think of a worldview like this one when the word “atheism” is used.

The peculiar set of religious claims which the non-religious act in reaction to in the West influences the shape that the worldview of those who reject religion here will take in response to that rejection. There will be a tendency amongst those who see reason to be hostile towards religion to feel an automatic distaste towards anything which it promotes — Nietzsche, to take the most obvious example, wrote that Christianity “turned every value into a disvalue [and has] contempt for every good and honest instinct (emphasis mine).” (Similarly, the religious will broadly tend to form their own reaction to these trends in turn by growing less and less trusting of science and the claims of scientists in general.)

In his 1983 Science on Trial: The Case For Evolution, evolutionary biologist Douglas J. Futuyman writes: “Some shrink from the conclusion that the human species was not designed, has no purpose, and is fully the product of mere material mechanisms—but this seems to be the message of evolution.” Notice that Futuyman is not content to end the sentence with the statement that evolution gives us the message that “the human species was not designed”—even though this, formally, is all that the theory of evolution in and of itself necessarily seems to prove. Futuyman makes the leap to the further statement that the message of evolution is that the human species “has no purpose, and is fully the product of mere material mechanisms” in reaction to the fact that these happen to be frequent further concerns carried by Christianity.

It was not Darwin—who wrote in The Origin of Species that “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved”—who raised concerns that evolution would render life “purposeless,” but his Christian critics. Darwin even confessed this of his own personal views elsewhere: “With respect to the theological view of the question. This is always painful to me. I am bewildered. I had no intention to write atheistically. [ . . . ]  There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars [ . . . ] [Yet] I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. [ . . . ]  I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.”

Simply in and of itself—so far as it goes—the evidence of evolution strictly says nothing at all about, for example, a topic like free will. Could we imagine that the free, conscious decisions that species make about how to use their inherited abilities could play some role in how they might go on to evolve? Sure, we can. Does any of the hard evidence supporting the fact that evolution occurs rule this possibility out? Not really. What of the fact that the developing embryo seems to reenact stages of evolution—what of the fact that humans and other primates share the same broken, nonfunctional genes in the same specific places in their genome—what of the fossil record addresses the metaphysical question of free will? Strictly speaking, none of it does. But, for better or worse, evolution ends up getting absorbed into a materialistic and deterministic worldview in which man is fully “the product of mere material mechanisms”—largely as a result of where the battle lines end up drawn around religion (and Christianity, in particular): because the progress of science began to dismantle religions which chose to base themselves so largely on false historical claims, this led to a battle with lines drawn between “matter” and “spirit:” if science is going to be the weapon that destroys religion, then it must destroy the religious concept of the “soul” as well. Again—the dialectic looks much different in India. The particular shape and form that this conflict takes is a result of the contingencies of the particular claims made by the religions of our culture; this conflict becomes the branching point at which two groups split and evolve in differing directions specifically in reaction to each other.

Daniel Dennett, one of the so-called “Four Horsemen” of contemporary atheism, is an example of one very prominent atheist tackling the questions of philosophy of mind. Yet, his readers do not always understand what his position on the relationship between conscious experiences and the brain is. His position is that there is, in fact, no relationship between conscious experiences and the brain because there is no such thing as conscious experience. An exchange between Daniel Dennett and John Searle in the New York Review of Books makes this clear. Searle directly accuses Dennett of saying it—and Dennett explicitly accepts the charge. “To put it as clearly as I can: in his book, Consciousness Explained, Dennett denies the existence of consciousness. […] For him, it refers only to third-person phenomena, not to the first-person conscious feelings and experiences we all have. […] I think most readers, when first told this, would assume that I must be misunderstanding him. Surely no sane person could deny the existence of feelings. But in his reply he makes it clear that I have understood him exactly. He says, “How could anyone deny that!? Just watch…”

How, and why, does Dennett arrive at this conclusion? We begin to put together how it might have happened in the introduction to his book Consciousness Explained, where he writes: “in this book, I adopt the apparently dogmatic rule that dualism is to be avoided at all costs.” Dualism—the idea consciousness can’t be explained in terms of blind, physical mechanism, but is—somehow—something additional to that, something which exists in its own right and perhaps has the capacity to interact with the world all on its own. Dennett adopts this “dogmatic rule” against dualism even though he admits that “It is not that [he] think[s] [he] can give any knock-down proof that dualism […] is false or incoherent.” Yet, does not every single one of us have all the evidence we need to know that the claim that nobody ever has any feelings or inner experiences is absolutely false and incoherent? The main reason Dennett does give for adopting his “dogmatic rule” is what he calls “[the] fundamentally antiscientific stance” of dualism. What does he mean by “antiscientific?”

Dennett goes on to express his disappointment that “[t]he few dualists to avow their views openly have all candidly and comfortably announced that they have no theory whatever of how the mind works” and explains that this leaves him with “the lurking suspicion that the most attractive feature of [the dualist idea] is its promise of being mysterious” before concluding, finally, that his justification for the “dogmatic rule” is that “given the way dualism wallows in mystery, accepting dualism is giving up.”  This clearly raises the simple question: is there, in fact, some mystery left over about the existence of conscious experience, after Dennett’s attempt at an account? A critic would say that there absolutely is, and that the dualist is not “giving up” on addressing that mystery nearly as much as Dennett is: in other words, that pretending that a mystery doesn’t exist is absolutely no good way to go about solving one if one actually is there—and all of this serves to most dumbly beg the question: “So, is there a mystery here, or not?”

It seems as though Dennett’s own preposterous “explanation” of consciousness, itself, suggests an answer: faced with what he sees as a decision between either acknowledging that consciousness is, in some sense, “mysterious,” or else denying the very existence of his own subjective feelings and experiences altogether, Dennett prefers to bite the bullet covered in strychnine. If we were to encounter someone telling us that trees don’t exist, we would reflect for a moment on our basic experiences with the world,  recall our many countless experiences with trees, and write them off as a lunatic in a worryingly dangerous level of denial. Why, when Dennett tells us that nobody ever has any experiences of the color green when they look at a tree, or of the roughness of the texture of bark when they touch one, should we take him a whit more seriously or consider him a whit less insane?

It goes without saying that typically, when someone begins to enter a state of denial, there are powerful underlying psychological forces which cause them to do so. Can Dennett’s place at the forefront of the social battle between science and religion be ignored? Could it simply be that the need to see science as something promising completely objective answers to every conceivable question religion has ever played any part in attempting to address could be so strong that Dennett would literally rather deny that he ever has any experiences of anything than acknowledge that the existence of these experiences might, in any way, pose mysterious problems which he himself can’t immediately see any clear answer for?

And if these psychological motives can be so strong for Daniel Dennett, might that be enough reason for all of us to question the impact that this social background might have on our understanding of the issues raised by philosophy of mind as well, and cause us to wonder what we might have thought had we approached those questions with a “beginner’s mind,” without that influence? What might we have thought about them had we approached them with an open mind, starting fresh and clear from the beginning?

[1] See, for example, the PhilPapers survey which finds that 66.2% of all respondents favored atheism, compared to only 18.6% of all respondents favoring theism. By contrast, amongst all respondents specializing in philosophy of religion, the numbers are reversed: 68.4% favor theism, whereas only 18.6% were found to favor atheism.

Continued posts:

 (II) — Digging Up the Conflict’s Roots
 (III) — Does the World Pantry Stock More than Sugar?
(IV)  The Case of the Lunatic Fish