Consciousness (XII) — From Chalmersian “Laws” to Transmigration

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Questions about the ontological status of “laws” feature prominently in many debates between atheistic and theistic philosophers. In his 1859 Treatise on Theism, Francis Wharton (the author of Wharton’s Rule of Concert of Action which states that guilt of conspiracy to commit a crime requires more parties than are necessary to commit it) writes: “The existence of a comprehensive and beneficent system of law, in fact, is the strongest evidence of the existence of a Divine lawmaker… There is a vital distinction between a causal law, i.e. one that rules the genesis of events, and an empirical law, one that merely registers their occurrence. There is a vital distinction, for instance, between the time–tables issued from period to period by the officers of an extended railroad and the systematized observation of running by even a long and accurate series of travelers. The records of the latter are open to error… let a traveler rely on the latter, and he will find that though in a mere statistical point of view the results, like empirical laws in general, are interesting as helps to the memory, and useful as the base for business tables, they are in themselves of no permanent and absolute value as indications of the future. … The results of empirical observation are, therefore, incapable of becoming permanent laws for the future.”

Emanuel Haldeman–Julius (founder of Haldeman–Julius Publications) and Rev. Burris Jenkins debated the question in a 1930 debate titled “Is Theism a Logical Philosophy?” In the negative argument, Haldeman–Julius writes: “The fundamental error is found in the theist’s habit of confusing a human law with a natural “law.” A legislature passes a law saying that after a certain date it shall be illegal to behave in a certain way, to have liquor, for instance. If you break this law, and are not caught, nothing happens except the usual next morning headache. If you are caught, you may be sent to the penitentiary. Or let us say that the people make up their minds to break the law so flagrantly that enforcement falls down and the law is either ignored or repealed. That is a human law. That implies a lawmaker, of course. But it is treacherous logic to say the “laws” of nature are the result of the will of a lawmaker. The scientific use of the word “law” as applied to nature means only this: things in nature act in certain ways — their movements are Uniform — and when you use the word “law” you merely describe how things are observed to conduct themselves.”

In the modern day, the theistic philosopher Keith Ward writes: “The existence of laws of physics does not render God superfluous. On the contrary, it strongly implies that there is a God who formulates such laws and ensures that the physical realm conforms to them.” Bede Rundle, in an atheistic response in ‘Why There is Something Rather than Nothing,’ writes that: “[I]t is wrong to regard laws of Nature as basic. That status goes to whatever it is—the characteristics and behaviour of particles, gases, and so forth—that the laws codify. Indeed, the notion of a natural or physical law, or at least the use to which this is put, is often questionable. Not because there is no place for the notion, but because those who insist on the reality of such laws tend to model them on legal laws, as if the natural variety likewise enjoyed an independence of the actual behaviour of individuals, to the point even of antedating and dictating that behavior. … it is not as if God might rewrite the laws of Nature and inanimate things, being now differently governed, would thereupon proceed to behave differently—though just some such view was in no way foreign to the seventeenth–century conception of laws of Nature as divine commands. With legal laws there is an intelligible relation between the law and behaviour: understanding a law, and having a motive to act in accordance with it, we act. Substitute inanimate bodies for comprehending agents and we sever any such intelligible tie; the law is in no sense instrumental in bringing about accord with it. … What would God have to do to ensure that atoms, say, behave the way they do? Simply create them to be as they in fact are.  Atoms having just those features which we currently appeal to in explaining the relevant behaviour, it does not in addition require that God formulate a law prescribing that behaviour. Again, the point is addressed by David Marshall Brooks, in The Necessity of Atheism: “A “law” of nature is not a statute drawn up by a legislator; it is the interpretation and the summation which we give to the observed facts. The phenomena which we observe do not act in a particular manner because there is a law; but we state the “law” because they act in that particular manner. [So] it cannot be said that the laws of nature are the result of a lawmaker….”

John Lennox writes in God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? that: “We certainly expect to be able to formulate theories involving mathematical laws that describe natural phenomena, and we can often do this with astonishing degrees of precision. However, the laws that we find cannot themselves cause anything. Newton’s laws can describe the motion of a billiard ball, but it is the cue wielded by the billiard player that sets the ball moving, not the laws. The laws help us map the trajectory of the ball’s movement in the future (provided nothing external interferes), but they are powerless to move the ball, let alone bring it into existence.” He even makes the interesting note that “the much maligned William Paley” recognized the point: “It is a perversion of language to assign any law, as the efficient, operative cause of any thing. A law presupposes an agent; for it is only the mode, according to which an agent proceeds: it implies a power; for it is the order, according to which that power acts. Without this agent, without this power, which are both distinct from itself, the law does nothing; is nothing.”

Likewise, C. S. Lewis writes in Chapter 1 of Mere Christianity, that “When you say that falling stones always obey the law of gravitation, is not this much the same as saying that the law only means “what stones always do”? You do not really think that when a stone is let go, it suddenly remembers that it is under orders to fall to the ground. You only mean that, in fact, it does fall. In other words, you cannot be sure that there is anything over and above the facts themselves, any law about what ought to happen, as distinct from what does happen. The laws of nature, as applied to stones or trees, may only mean “what Nature, in fact, does.”.” In the atheist Richard Carrier’s response to Victor Reppert’s presentation of one of C. S. Lewis’ arguments in C. S. Lewis Dangerous Idea, he writes: “The “law” of gravity … ‘is’ in every place and time where the physical conditions that manifest gravity exist.” A thousand more examples await anyone who searches a phrase like “laws lawgiver atheism Christianity.” Keep this point in mind and try not to get lost in the chaos of changing topics—the reason for it will eventually become clear: “laws” are only our descriptions of what actually existing things do. By and large, the atheist’s only option is to say that the actually existing things whose behavior are physical objects and forces themselves. The theist can (though does not necessarily) adopt a kind of idealism and say that the “agent” responsible for the law is in fact the ordering power of the mind of God—and not the intrinsic properties of physical objects and forces themselves—but to avoid this possibility, the atheist’s only option—again—is to contend that it is the intrinsic properties of physical objects and forces themselves which are actually directly responsible for the behaviors which we label, after the fact, in the terminology of “laws.”

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This won’t, perhaps, be the most efficient way for me to make the following point, but I’d like to illustrate it this way for a reason. Consider, for a moment, the Kalām cosmological argument. Kalām attempts to proceed from the premise that the Universe began to exist (supported by empirical premises acquired from Big Bang cosmology, and philosophical premises regarding paradoxes implying that actual infinites—such as an actually infinite past—cannot possibly exist in reality) and the premise that anything that begins to exist must have a cause, to the conclusion (supported by a variety of further considerations) that the cause of the Universe must be “God” (a changeless, timeless, singular disembodied mind). What are the most plausible ways out of this argument for the atheist?

Some will simply reject the argument that everything that begins to exist must have a cause—usually, this is done by arguing that the initial coming into existence of the Universe is a special case because, as Gott, Gunn, Schramm, and Tinsley write: “…time [itself was] created in that event … [so] it is not meaningful to ask what happened before the big bang; it is somewhat like asking what is north of the North Pole.” For my part, I simply cannot bring myself to find this approach even slightly plausible. It is incoherent to ask what is north of the North Pole, but it is not incoherent to ask what is above the North Pole—there is something above it even if there isn’t something “north” of it, and if someone were to ask what was “north” of the North Pole, this would, in all probability, be what they actually meant. Notice that in this statement, Gott, Gunn, Schramm and Tinsley themselves cannot escape causal language: “time,” they write, “[was] created.” While it should go without saying that the ways in which we happen to use language don’t necessarily entail any particular philosophical truths, I think in this case it reflects the fact that we simply can’t coherently think in any other but causal and temporal terms—and I can only infer that this is because in this case the idea simply is as incoherent as it would be to say that the North Pole exists with nothing “above” it (not even space?). Critics of this approach make the further point that we can easily see that it isn’t a logical necessity that all causes precede their effects “within time”—for example, Kant famously asked his readers to imagine a Universe where a heavy ball sat on a cushion from the moment that Universe came to exist: the ball would be the cause of the depression in the cushion even though the ball (or the pressure from the ball) did not precede the cushion (or the depression within the cushion) in any temporal sequence of events within that Universe—so that even if it were meaningless to ask what came “before” the Big Bang, this still wouldn’t render it meaningless to ask what caused it.

More plausibly, then, the atheist can attack the premise that an infinite past is either logically impossible or scientifically ruled out by modern cosmology. For example, on some multiverse cosmologies, a quantum void of some sort could be the “heart” of all Existence, the changeless center–point from which every contingent, changing universe is born—through quantum physical mechanisms rather than the intentional conscious acts of a God. (Note as well that the very fact that these hypotheses exist already shows that it is not unmeaningful to ask what preceded the Big Bang. We do not know that nothing came before the Big Bang—there are competing hypotheses, and the very idea that the “Big Bang was the objective beginning” scenario should be preferred itself requires the assumption that the notion is coherent to begin with. Asking what happened before the Big Bang is more like asking what is above the highest building we can see than it is like asking what is “north” of the North Pole—if the answer is “nothing,” then that is surprising, and someone who gives this answer has as much of a burden to advance the truth of the claim with a proactive argument as anyone else. If the Big Bang is truly the first moment of “objective time,” then asking what came before it may be like asking what is “north” of the North Pole—but it would have to be demonstrated that we cannot, for that, nonetheless coherently ask the equivalent of whether there is nonetheless something “above” the North Pole. We do not know that the Big Bang is truly the first moment of “objective time”—indeed, it is hard to see what empirical discovery could ever qualify as confirming absolutely that we know we’ve found the first moment of Time Itself—and part of the very question of whether the inference to that interpretation of our historical–cosmological knowledge is viable requires the premise that a state of affairs where there is nothing “above” a given point in space—nothing “before” a given point in time—is a coherent notion in the first place. If we have a priori reason to think that it is not, then that a priori consideration provides a constraint against what an accurate description or explanation will have to look like in principle.) Let me emphasize that nothing peculiar rests on this being my personal perspective on Kalām—I simply want to use it for an analogy in a point I will tie in much later.

So in any case, look what has happened here: if we take this approach, then we have concluded that the physical universe itself must be eternal in order to escape the need to explain its coming–to–be in a way that might entail the need to account for it with reference to something non–physical—even though we cannot confirm its eternality (any more than we could confirm its finality) ‘empirically.’ This is, in my view, a legitimate way of reasoning—and I think if you reject it, then you can’t escape the force of the theistic conclusions that would otherwise follow.

Once again, keep this point in mind for later as we now move on and try not to get lost in seeming chaos as the subject once again proceeds through another quite drastic change: the most plausible route for the atheist through the Kalām cosmological argument (in my estimation) is to insist that the beginning of time simply doesn’t need to be accounted for with some further explanation because it had no beginning—time is eternal, and the past is infinite. Even if my estimation of this argument is wrong, the analogy will still be relevant, because it at the very least could have come out that this would have been the most reasonable way to think about Kalām.

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Perhaps the single biggest problem with Chalmers’ philosophy is that it entails epiphenomenalism. My arguments will be to the conclusion that a much more substantialist and interactionist view of consciousness than Chalmers’ is the only way to avoid these implications. Chalmers approach to getting out of the threat that epiphenomenalism poses to the validity of his view is to argue that “what is a problem for all is a problem for none”—namely, to try to say that epiphenomenalism is a threat to the interactionist account as well, in just the same way, so it therefore poses no special problem for his view in particular. I’m going to take the liberty of stating that Chalmers is patently wrong on this point. Contra Chalmers, epiphenomenalism does pose a specific peculiar threat to his view which it absolutely does not for an interactionist view. And every fundamental issue regarding the nature of human consciousness from this point forward intimately turns on this one issue about which Chalmers is unequivocally mistaken.

“What is a problem for all is a problem for none” is a valid approach, if the reasoning underlying it is actually valid—but in this case, Chalmers’ reasoning quite plainly is not. Ironically, he realizes his own mistake within the very paragraphs in which he presents this argument—and then steps back and repeats it anyway. We’ll begin to see how significant the consequences of correcting this mistake are soon. He writes: “…All versions of interactionist dualism have a conceptual problem that suggests that they are less successful in avoiding epiphenomenalism than they might seem….” Why? Because “ … even on these views, there is a sense in which the phenomenal is irrelevant.” And what sense is that? Experience is irrelevant even on interactionism, according to Chalmers, in the sense that we can always describe a sequence of events without including experience in that description: “We can always subtract the phenomenal component from any explanatory account, yielding a purely causal component.” Thus, consciousness on the interactionist’s account has “ … a sort of causal relevance but explanatory irrelevance.” This is the sole line of reasoning on which Chalmers’ decision to commit to epiphenomenalism despite its apparent problems rests: even if consciousness does in fact play a causal role in reality, we could talk as if it doesn’t—therefore, it doesn’t matter whether our theory allows that consciousness actually does play a causal role in reality or not. And so, “the denial of the causal closure of the physical therefore makes no significant difference in the avoidance of epiphenomenalism.

Chalmers’ reasoning on this point is uncharacteristically sloppy, and mired in straightforward and inexcusable confusion. It doesn’t matter whether we can talk as if consciousness plays no causal part in reality. What matters is whether or not it actually does. On Chalmers’ view, it doesn’t. On an interactionist account, it does. With respect to the threat of epiphenomenalism, that is everything that matters (and it matters tremendously). We will see that correcting this error has deep consequences for where the lines of reasoning I’ve been defending and arguing for here (some points of which are borrowed from Chalmers or at least take Chalmers as their starting point) ultimately end up taking us.

The question posed by epiphenomenalism is whether consciousness actually is a causally relevant feature of reality—and Chalmers does not actually deny that consciousness is causally relevant on the interactionist picture of reality. He merely suggests that the “explanatory irrelevance” which he claims consciousness has on interactionism is somehow just as bad as the causal irrelevance which consciousness has on his view. But what does “explanatory irrelevance” actually mean, here? What concept is Chalmers actually using that phrase to express? It means here that we can create a story and leave a given feature out of our description. But from the fact that we can create such a story, it does not follow that this “story” actually describes reality as it actually is. I can create a story of World War II that does not mention Hitler, or anti–semitism. Does that give Hitler, or anti–semitism, “a sort of causal relevance but explanatory irrelevance” with respect to the events of World War II? (What the hell, Chalmers?)

If an “explanation” is something that actually describes realitythen consciousness cannot have “explanatory irrelevance” in spite of “causal relevance”—period. An “explanation” that does not explain why reality actually is as it actually is is no “explanation” at all. “Causal relevance” would mean that consciousness as such is, in fact, part of the reality that we want to describe. From the fact that we can create false descriptions of reality, nothing of any significance—nothing about reality as it actually is—follows. On interactionism, any true description—that is, any actual “explanation”—will in fact be the one which keeps consciousness intact. I can describe reality without referring to consciousness—but so what? I could also describe World War II without mention of Hitler, or Judaism. I could also describe the phenomenon we call “gravity” without referring to the structure of space–time—by simply restricting myself to talk about material objects, and saying for example that “objects undergo an intrinsic pull to move towards the largest object closest to them.” Does it follow from this that the physical structure of space–time itself is “irrelevant” to reality in any meaningful way on a viewpoint that takes the gravitational force as such to be one of reality’s fundamentals? Absolutely not; and the suggestion would be, quite frankly, idiotic.

On an interactionist view of consciousness, “can” I give an account of any sequence of events which leaves the causal contributions of consciousness out of the story? Sure. But will that story be true? No—and that is the only point that matters. Supposing for a moment it were true that a God created the Universe,  I “could” in that case nonetheless give an account which leaves God’s irreducibly intentional concious act of creation out of the story. Would that make God “explanatory irrelevant” to the world’s creation and would this “explanatory irrelevance” therefore be just as good as atheism? No—because my “story” would be just that—a “story”; and not a real description of why reality actually is as it actually is. If an “explanation” is supposed to actually explain why things actually are how they actually are, then assuming God created the Universe, the account which left God out would not be an “explanation” at all—so if God did in fact create the Universe, God would not be “explanatorily irrelevant” to how the Universe was created. But on Chalmers’ view, when I give those accounts of sequences of human behavior which leave consciousness out of the causal story, those accounts are true—they are accurate descriptions of why what happened actually happened. Consciousness–as–such, on Chalmers’ account, is therefore “explanatorily irrelevant” because it is causally irrelevant. And Chalmers cannot weasel out of that by simply pointing out that we could tell a story which leaves consciousness out even if consciousness were in fact part of the correct story—the fact that we “could” tell that story is irrelevant. I “can” tell a story in which unicorns replaced the role ordinarily played by either God or the Big Bang singularity in the story of the creation of the Universe. The fact that I “can” tell such a story entails absolutely nothing whatsoever about reality except that I am capable of saying something that is untrue about reality. To suggest that that is in any way comparable to the scenario in which either God or a Big Bang singularity actually did in fact play no causal part in bringing the Universe as we know it into existence in reality is a shameless piece of confusion.

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However, there is one legitimate basis—in Chalmers’ defense—for his having acquired this confusion: John Eccles, who Chalmers quotes in this section as the substantialist–interactionist example, takes some steps in drawing his account which inadvertently provide unintended support to an intuition which rests on a misunderstanding of dualism. Though Eccles himself seems not to actually commit the mistake in his own mind, he speaks in a way that doesn’t always leave this clear—and in doing so he does the public relations side of interactionism a disservice. Allow me to illustrate.

In 1989, John Eccles published a paper titled “A unitary hypothesis of mind–brain interaction in the cerebral cortex.” Much of the paper consisted of a legitimate argument showing that quantum physics allows viable room (or did given the most up–to–date knowledge of the time) for irreducibly conscious causation. But the way Eccles spoke of conscious causation is unfortunate and extremely amenable to a common conceptual confusion. He writes:   “The hypothesis has been proposed that all mental events and experiences, in fact the whole of the outer and inner sensory experiences, are a composite of elemental or unitary mental experiences at all levels of intensity. Each of these mental units is reciprocally linked in some unitary manner to a dendron … Appropriately we name these proposed mental units ‘psychons.’ … It may seem that in this intimate linkage of dendrons and psychons the new unitary hypothesis of dualist interactionism is merely a further refinement of the materialist identity hypothesis … [but] this is a mistake. Independence of existence is accorded to psychons….” It seems that this way of speaking suggests a model where psychons are analogous to dendrons at least in that they are discrete, quantifiably measurable units. And this naturally predisposes anyone trying to visualize Eccles’ “psychon–dendron interaction” on par with the mechanical type of interaction that takes place between dendrons and dendrons themselves, or between billiard balls on the very Newtonian picture of reality whose accuracy the rest of the paper denies.

On the one hand, Eccles seems to realize the hazards in his way of speaking—for he clarifies: “ Psychons are not perceptual paths to experiences. They are the experiences in all their diversity and uniqueness.”

Yet, on that same page, Eccles draws a picture of the connection between “dendrons” and “psychons.” And this is unfortunate, for it suggests yet again at least implicitly that consciousness is the kind of thing that could possibly be drawn. But anything that could be drawn would be, by definitiona physical–relational structure—and the arguments for dualism proceed largely precisely through illustrating the very fundamental insight that qualitative conscious experiences and intentionality can’t be analyzed or understood through descriptions of mechanistic operations between physical–relational structures in the first place. This makes even accidentally construing consciousness as something that could be analyzable in terms of the causal properties of discretely quantified units incredibly unhelpful—the fact that consciousness is not the kind of thing that could possibly be “graphed” in principle is exactly the very point that the dualist needs to insist until it ‘clicks’ in the mind of his opponent. While Eccles seems to have realized it, it doesn’t pervade his way of speaking or representing the principles he tries to talk about—and that lack spills over into Chalmers’ comprehension of what an interactionist consciousness would be like as well. The fact that we cannot, in principle, visualize interaction between subjective/qualitative consciousness and objective/quantitative physical structure is exactly the point Descartes emphasized to his critics all the way back then: “[the interaction problem] arise[s] merely from [critics’] wishing to subject to the scrutiny of the imagination matters which, by their own nature, do not fall under it.” Eccles simply should not have encouraged this already all–too–easy psychological tendency by trying to “imagine” (e.g., represent with images) the process of interaction even with caveats. 

All Eccles actually wanted to communicate in the section in which this drawing appears is that there is a causal link of some kind between the qualitative properties of a conscious experience and the physical states of the brain—which no one has failed to understand must necessarily be true in some way from the moment it was observed that blows to the head or intake of alcohol or bad food could alter the state of one’s consciousness. Very little is contributed to that point by speaking of “psychons” or implying even by inadvertent accident that the “psychons” composing our qualitative conscious experiences and intentionalistic conscious thoughts could actually be represented by a diagrammatic drawing of physical structures—but opportunity to emphasize something extremely crucial to the interactionist idea is lost.

Qualitatively subjective and intentionalistic consciousness is the very medium in which all our thoughts exist, and these qualitative, subjective, and intentionalistic properties are without exception the sole exclusive mode in which they have their existence. Yet, in all cases except for thinking about consciousness itself, when we turn our attention to causal relationships, we are overwhelmingly used to thinking of mechanical interactions between structures. This is exactly why getting an intuitive grasp on the mind–body problem is so hard—universal habit has it engrained in us in all other cases except this one to think of causation in terms of mechanistic procedures mediating structurally depictable forces and objects through space. However much Eccles may have tried to caveat his illustration with emphasis that it is not a depiction of mind–brain “identity”, Chalmers’ confusion is all the confirmation needed to show that Eccles—and those who defend the idea that consciousness as such is an irreducible and causally active component of reality all in its own right, in general—should go much farther to guard against these overwhelming psychological tendencies. To properly understand what interactionist dualism entails, we must guard at all times against the tendency to revert in habit back to depicting irreducibly qualitative, subjective, and intentionalistic consciousness’ interactions with the structures of the physical world by such close analogy with mechanical interactions between physical structures within the physical world. And as Eccles unfortunately slips back just far enough into this habit enough to make his explanations easily amenable to this very rampant confusion, the confusion is carried over by Chalmers who now proceeds to take the structures Eccles has used to represent the fundamentally non–structural and point out that we could have these same structures perform their structural work without their needing to be conscious at all—and this is how Chalmers ends up with the confused and mistaken conclusion that dualism does not truly provide an “out” from the threat of epiphenomenalism created by combining the premise of causal closure of the structurally depictable physical dimensions of reality with the premise of consciousness’ irreducibility to those physical structures.

Chalmers writes: “Imagine (with Eccles) that ‘psychons’ in the nonphysical mind push around physical processes in the brain, and that psychons are the seat of experience.” Already, Chalmers supposes that “psychons” are first and foremost structural entities which “push” in virtue of their structural properties—and happen to be “the seat of experience” only as a secondary coincidence. The picture Chalmers is getting—not unreasonably, given the unfortunate way Eccles chose to represent it—is that a “psychon” is really a structural sort of thing that has causal dispositions in virtue of its structure, with conscious properties somehow tagging along as an “extra” to the mechanical processes they physically engage in. Indeed, on this picture, a “dualism” of this kind would have no virtues whatsoever over materialism: why not tack those conscious properties onto material structures instead of whatever these extra ghostly structures are? But this is unequivocally the wrong way to think about interactionist dualism. Interactionism is not the idea that there is some special kind of “stuff” that does what it does in virtue of the structural kind of “stuff” that it is but which then just happens to have conscious experiences tacked onto it as a secondary coincidence—where it would have otherwise been the same basic kind of “stuff” had we taken it and had these secondary coincidental experiential properties removed. Interactionism is the idea that conscious experience itself is the “special stuff,” and that the “stuff” that is conscious experience itself interacts with the rest of the physical world in a distinct way that is nonetheless every bit as unanalyzable and basic as mechanical causation between purely structural entities themselves—remove the properties of experientiality from consciousness, and you don’t have a structural kind of “stuff” left minus a certain extra tacked on property—nothing is left at all because consciousness just is the phenomena of subjective experience. And while it appears that Eccles understands that this is not the way to think about it and he warns against taking his language as implying the suggestion that we should, his language is nonetheless incredibly hard to take as adding anything new to the picture except that very suggestion. The point that should be emphasized is that consciousness is not analyzable in terms of structure; and that it is consciousness itself—defined by the essential, irreducible properties of qualitative subjectivity and intentionality—which is causally relevant.

This is again exactly the core point addressed in the previous entry — “The Nature of Scientific “Explanation” and the Interaction “Problem”: Descartes, in addressing his opponents’ objections to idea that consciousness and the (rest of the) physical world could possibly interact, in principle, if they were different in anything like the way Descartes suggested they were, responded that the problem “arise[s] merely from [critics’] wishing to subject to the scrutiny of the imagination matters which, by their own nature, do not fall under it.” If consciousness itself is a “fundamental” entity unanalyzable in any other more fundamental terms, then conscious–physical interaction is just as ultimately unanalyzable in any but its own category—in principle—as physical–to–physical causation is at the bottom line. As James Moreland was also quoted as saying in that essay, “One can ask how turning the key starts a car because there is an intermediate electrical system between the key and the car’s running engine that is the means by which turning the key causes the engine to start. The “how” question is a request to describe that intermediate mechanism. But the interaction between [consciousness] and [the brain] may be … direct and immediate. [And if] there is no intervening mechanism, [then] a “how” question describing that mechanism does not even arise”—just as it would not arise—and could not be answerable even in principle—for us to ask something like “How does pushing the gas pedal cause it to move?” The relationship between pushing and being pushed is simply one of the most basic fundamental terms in which physical causation takes place—and this relationship is simply unanalyzable in terms of anything more basic than itself. Yet notice that when we speak of the “intervening mechanism[s]” of the electrical system structurally mediating the structural relationship between the key and the car’s running engine, every single one of our most ultimate terms will involve direct and immediate, unmediated, interactions at each step—each ingredient of our “explanation” of the intermediate steps of causation between the key and the car’s running engine will, individually, be as unanalyzable themselves as the question of “how pushing the gas pedal causes it to move.” At the core of every sort of “explanation” that we are actually capable of are terms which themselves simply cannot in principle be “explained.” The interactionist suggestion is therefore simply that mental–to–physical causation is at the bottom line simply one of the “bedrock and thus unexplainable” kinds of events that take place in the world, rather than one of the kinds which are “secondary and derivative from other bedrock terms and thus explainable through reduction to those other, ultimate terms”.

The interactionist dualist suggests that interaction between irreducible consciousness and physical structure is every bit as “basic” and direct and therefore unanalyzable in terms of anything more fundamental as the most basic ingredients of the terms of explanation of mechanical interactions between physical structures. Our inability to analyze or “explain” the nature of irreducibly conscious interaction is not like an inability to explain how a key causally connects to a car engine—it is analogous to our inability to analyze or “explain” the most basic and irreducible terms of physical causation itself, such as how the mass of an object of a given size and density causes the surrounding spacetime fabric to curve, or how an object’s velocity at a given moment causes its velocity in the very next. The only answer that is possible even in principle for these questions is to simply accept that the very terms themselves are primitive and irreducible. The dualist suggestion is thus that my irreducibly conscious intention to move my hand causes the neurological process which results in my hand’s movement in just as basic and unanalyzable a way as the other examples just given here—and this is how dualism escapes the threat of epiphenomenalism. Eccles, by speaking as if consciousness interacts with the brain through intermediating mechanisms that can be diagramatically visualized as physical structures—even if that is not what he meant—obscures the incredibly overwhelming significance of this basic and core fundamental point, and it is understandable why Chalmers ends up confused. In other words, Eccles rather inadvertently pushes the problem back a step: rather than consciousness–as–such interacting directly with dendrons, if this interaction is mediated through psychons that can be depicted in any structural sort of way, now we just push the issue back to consciousness–as–such interacting directly with psychons to achieve the effects which psychons are capable of producing on dendrons. Why include “psychons” in the middle of the picture at all, except to get around the fact that we can’t directly visualize mental–to–physical interaction in principle (which should be precisely the crucial point the dualist should have to emphasize in the first place)?!

Thus, Chalmers writes that “We can tell a story about the causal relations between psychons and physical processes, and a story about the causal dynamics among psychons, without ever invoking the fact that psychons have phenomenal properties. … It follows that the fact that psychons are the seat of experience plays no essential role in a causal explanation, and that even in this picture experience is explanatorily irrelevant.” No. We could only tell a story about “psychons” —and actually be describing “psychons”—if “psychons” were in fact performing their causal relations with physical processes in virtue of their structural properties. (And while I have objected above that that is the impression that Eccles indirectly went a long way to feed, it is not what he was actually trying to say).  But if the phenomenal properties themselves are causally active, then our so–called “story” simply is not a description of reality itself—and it is therefore no “explanation” in any meaningful sense of the word. Eccles’ unfortunate way of speaking implicitly lends itself to Chalmers’ faulty interpretation. Correcting it to throw out Eccles’ useless and misleading neologism, the entire point of the dualistic position is to say that consciousness is not a fundamentally structural phenomena which simply happens to possess “phenomenal properties” as if by accident—“consciousness” itself fundamentally is those very “properties.” Consciousness itself is just exactly the very basic phenomena of experientiality itself. Consciousness—experience itself—is what is playing the causal role, if dualism is right.

That avoids epiphenomenalism in a most obvious way that it is inexcusably purblind not to see. The premise that the structural and mathematically and spatially definable (e.g., “physical”) aspects of reality are “causally closed” combined with the premise that phenomenal and intentionalistic consciousness is neither identical to nor “composed of” mathematical and spatial structures specifically leads to epiphenomenalism by modus ponens. Furthermore, this poses an absolutely insuperable problem for Chalmers’ view of consciousness for a reason Chalmers himself explicitly acknowledges. And it is unbearably obvious, when looking at that reason, why eliminating the premise of causal closure of the “physical” eliminates the entailed conclusion of epiphenomenalism. Again, against Chalmers’ attempt to use a meaningless notion of “explanatory irrelevance” to escape the claim that his view faces the problem that it peculiarly winds up in epiphenomenalism, epiphenomenalism does specifically threaten Chalmers’ view in particular, because it follows by modus ponens from the combination of the conclusion that consciousness as such is irreducible to physical structure with the premise that interaction between physical structures is “causally closed.” And this problem ends up absolutely slicing the legs off of all of Chalmers’ further proposal from here. The only valid option that Chalmers (or anyone who follows his reasoning up to here) is left with is either to go back on all of the antireductionist arguments that got us here first place and become reductionists or eliminativists of some kind, or else drop “causal closure.”

In The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, Chalmers writes (pp.216–217): “[There are] constraints … in generating a theory of consciousness. The most obvious is the principle we rely on whenever we take someone’s verbal report as an indicator of their conscious experience: that people’s reports concerning their experiences by and large accurately reflect the contents of their experiences. … If the principle turned out to be entirely false, all bets would be off: in that case, the world would simply be an unreasonable place, and a theory of consciousness would be beyond us. In developing any sort of theory, we assume that the world is a reasonable place, where planets do not suddenly pop into existence with fossil records fully formed, and where complex laws are not jury–rigged to reproduce the predictions of simpler ones. Otherwise, anything goes.”

But now recall the central core of my argument against epiphenomenalism in entry (IV) of this serieswhich was precisely the fact that it would render us incapable of ever talking about the qualitative properties of consciousness as such, in principle!

Quote: “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—roughly—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….

… 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 yourbody’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 fall. It may seem to be the case that your reflection’s apparent jump is what causes your reflection to appear to fall, but this is purely an illusion: your reflection doesn’t cause anything in this story; not even its own future states. …

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 identified 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.”

It should be too obvious to need stating that supposing that consciousness itself is a causally active phenomena in the world irreducible to any others avoids the conclusion that consciousness is causally inactive (which is exactly all that is meant by the term “epiphenomenalism”). Yet, Chalmers wants to retain the principle of causal closure: “[On] the dualist view I advocate … causal closure of the physical is preserved; physics, chemistry, neuroscience, and cognitive science can proceed as usual. In their own domains, the physical sciences are entirely successful. They explain physical phenomena admirably; they simply fail to explain conscious experience.” In other words, explanations of what happens in the world—according to Chalmers—are absolutely complete without any reference to conscious experience. This can only be true if consciousness is causally inactive and therefore explanatorily irrelevant.

To avoid this implication, Chalmers wants to say that epiphenomenalism isn’t a special problem for his view in particular because the dualist faces it too. But to defend this suggestion, he says something absolutely witless: that consciousness is “explanatorily irrelevant” on the dualist’s account as well, because we can make up a story of things that doesn’t make reference to consciousness. But the difference is whether that story is correct, or not. On the dualist’s account, any such account will be false because on the dualist’s account, consciousness–as–such is a phenomena that does play a direct role in “what happens”. But on Chalmers’ account, the point is that the account that makes no reference to consciousness will be true. And that is the only difference that means anything. If by “explanation” we mean an account that actually explains why things actually do what they actually do, then if consciousness is—per interactionism—causally relevant, then it is not “explanatorily relevant”—whereas, for Chalmers, so long as he continues to holds on (as I contend he shouldn’t) to the principle of causal closure of the physical and insists (as I contend he should) that consciousness is irreducible to any explanation in terms of physical structure, epiphenomenalism follows by strict modus ponens. 

Epiphenomenalism is an absolute non–starter—not only for the independent reason explained above (that it is refuted by the fact that we demonstrably do think and talk about consciousness–as–such), but specifically against Chalmers’ own view for a specific reason he identifies: “The most obvious” assumption needed for Chalmers’ proposal for a theory of consciousness to be even slightly imaginable “is the principle we rely on whenever we take someone’s verbal report as an indicator of their conscious experience: that people’s reports concerning their experiences by and large accurately reflect the contents of their experiences.” If epiphenomenalism is true, then no one is ever capable of giving a single accurate report of their conscious experiences as such. Chalmers is committed to epiphenomenalism so long as he commits to both the irreducibility of consciousness to the “physical” properties of reality, and to the premise that those “physical” properties are “causally closed” with respect to each other. And interactionism is the way out, unless Chalmers wants to take back his arguments (which I consider resoundingly successful) against “reductive” accounts of conscious experience which try to “identify” it (one way or another) with something other than conscious experience itself—but these are the very arguments he has made his name by (and again, I whole–heartedly endorse them).

In Chapter 5 of The Conscious Mind, Chalmers actually takes these issues on directly. There are, he writes, four relevant premises to consider: “1. Conscious experience exists. 2. Conscious experience is not logically supervenient on the physical (e.g. “identical to” or “emergent from” “physical” facts about spatial–structural relationships). 3. If there are phenomena that are not logically supervenient on the physical facts, then materialism is false. 4. The physical domain is causally closed.” He explains that his own view results from the acceptance of all four premises. Again, we have already seen that this is the combination of premises which result in epiphenomenalism by modus ponens. However, in this section, he presents a subtly more developed argument for why the dualist fares no better than the materialist. Again, he repeats himself: “The deepest reason to reject [interactionist dualism as an approach to resolving the conflict between causal closure of the physical and the irreducibility of consciousness to the physical] is that [it] ultimately suffer[s] from the same problem as a more standard physics: the phenomenal component can be coherently subtracted from the causal component. On the interactionist view, we have seen that even if the nonphysical entities have a phenomenal aspect, we can coherently imagine subtracting the phenomenal component, leaving a purely causal/dynamic story characterizing the interaction and behavior of the relevant entities.” Of course, we have also seen why this is wrong: the ability to create “a story” doesn’t entail that that story would actually be correct. 

This time, however, Chalmers addresses this type of response, and proposes a counter–argument (which I have partially addressed already, but will now proceed to do so in more detail): “Various moves can be made in reply, but each of these moves can also be made on the standard physical story. For example, perhaps the abstract dynamics misses the fact that the nonphysical stuff in the interactionist story is intrinsically phenomenal, so that phenomenal properties are deeply involved in the causal network. But equally, perhaps the abstract dynamics of physics misses the fact that its basic entities are intrinsically phenomenal (physics characterizes them only extrinsically, after all), and the upshot would be the same. Either way, we have the same kind of explanatory irrelevance of the intrinsic phenomenal properties to the causal/dynamic story. The move to interactionism … therefore does not solve any problems inherent in the property dualism I advocate.” This would be a viable argument—if panprotopsychism were otherwise a viable choice. But it isn’t—for entirely different reasons altogether.

  _______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______


In Chalmers’ exploration of the options, after rejecting the reductionist approaches altogether (with arguments I wholeheartedly endorse), he reaches the conclusion that “the best options for a nonreductionist are type–D dualism, type–E dualism, or type–F monism: that is, interactionism, epiphenomenalism, or panprotopsychism.”

We’ve seen already why epiphenomenalism must, necessarily, fail. (I’ll be deducing additional reasons for this failure using Chalmers’ own premises against each other shortly—and proceeding from there to apply the same argument to an even more radical and significant conclusion.) Panprotopsychism, on the other hand, is the idea that consciousness as we experience it in the human mind emerges not from the geometric–structural and spatial–relational mechanically–causally disposing properties of physical entities, but rather from some other intrinsic properties of these entities. Now, the “pan” in “panprotopsychism” means “everywhere.” The “psychism” means “consciousness.” So “panpsychism” means “consciousness everywhere.” But “proto” means something like “precursor.” Thus, there is a distinction in theory between panpsychism and panprotopsychism. Where panpsychism says that consciousness itself must be everywhere, panprotopsychism says that merely the “precursors” of consciousness must be everywhere.

But what are the options for what these “precursor” properties might be? To return yet again to my essay (IV) from this series, “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 between experiences, 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 only option for what these “intrinsic properties” might consist of is therefore consciousness itself. Thus, there is no valid way to formulate any working theory of what “panprotopsychism” could possibly mean except for it to boil straight down into fullblown panpsychism where conscious experiences which are actually, literally experienced actually, literally exist everywhere. Yet, if we take the panpsychist approach to consciousness, then as I explain in my entry (VII) to this series, we simply end up running the same process of reasoning against the relationship between the subjective mental properties and the objective structural properties of the microphysical entities proposed to have conscious experiences on panpsychism that we ran against the relationship between the subjective mental properties of the human mind and the objective structural properties of the human brain to arrive at panpsychism as a potential solution to begin with: and this time panpsychism doesn’t exist as a way out to the problems—only dualism does.

As I explain in entry (VII), the panpsychist cannot say that the subjective mental properties of microphysical entities are “identical to” the objective structural properties of the microphysical entities, for reasons the panpsychist himself already accepts. But even if he did, he would precisely undermine his own reasons for rejecting the ordinary mind–brain “identity theory” in the first place—and the panpsychist suggests panpsychism precisely as a solution to that failure. So the ultimate nature of everything must be either physical or mental (with the other standing in some extraneous relationship to the first). But the panpsychist cannot say that everything at root is mental—because this simply recreates the “Hard Problem of Consciousness” in reverse: namely, this would now leave us having to ask: how do we get physical properties from the mental? And this is every bit as incoherent as trying to imagine how we could get the subjectively experienced qualitative taste of strawberries from blind senseless particles bouncing around in some complex combination. But even if the panpsychist bites this bullet, then once again he would lose any reason to propose panpsychism as a solution to the materialist Hard Problem of Consciousness in the first place. Finally, the panpsychist can adopt the kind of panpsychism which Chalmers flirts with and suppose that the world is composed of universally “physical” entities which possess “mental” properties “on the side,” but this leads to epiphenomenalism. And it turns out that there is no way to be a panpsychist without committing to a premise that one would precisely need to reject in order not to be a reductionist of some kind in the first place. Hence, “panprotopsychism” is out too.

Of Chalmers’ three most promising options—dualism, epiphenomenalism, and panprotopsychism—only dualism is left. And interactionism actually does avoid the problems that arise on panpsychism (the only possibly viable physicalist competitor to interactionism, and the position which his defender of “the standard physical story” necessarily ends up in given the lack of sensible steps between the strict, sharp binary line between something’s either being an experience of some kind or not): it has no need to incoherently try to derive the physical–structural from the qualitative–experiential (as the idealist panpsychist would). It has no need to incoherently try to suppose that the objective/structural and subjective/experiential properties of reality are literally identical with each other (as either the “identity theorist” or the “identity theorist”–panpsychist would). And it does not modus ponens itself into epiphenomenalism—as the “property dualist” and “property dualist”–panpsychist do. Panpsychism still ends up demonstrating why the objective structural and subjective experiential properties of reality (a) cannot be supposed to be either identical to or composed of the other and (b) must necessarily interact in a direct, unmediated, and “basic” (although mysterious) way. So Chalmers’ attempt at a counter–argument to the point that interactionist dualism actually would avoid epiphenomenalism—in a way that someone sticking to “the standard physical story” can’t—because dualism would hold no virtues over panpsychism—fails, because there are entirely other reasons aside for panpsychism’s failure (although they turn out surprisingly upon reflection to be just the same exact reasons why the materialist perspectives which panpsychism proposed itself as a solution to failed in the first place). Interactionism remains the only way out of this otherwise inescapable loophole of logical quagmire, and we have arrived at it by what I previously, in an early entry called “a logical, rational, piecemeal divide–and–conquer process of elimination.” 

And with how all these other arguments interrelate established, I can move on to the more important point of this entry. First, I will adapt the points made in the first section of this entry to show yet another reason why Chalmers’ particular way of trying to make dualism “naturalistic” fails—and yet another reason why interactionist dualism solves the problems inherent in Chalmers’ attempt at an account. Then, I will apply those same points to a slightly separate issue and draw a much more radical and surprising conclusion from relatively simple premises.

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______


Chalmers attempts to make his dualism “naturalistic” by talking about “laws.” On Chalmers’ account, “psychophysical” laws exist in the same way that “physical laws” do. The conclusion of arguments establishing that consciousness cannot be reduced to unconscious processes is that consciousness itself is a fundamental bedrock ingredient of the Universe. Up to this point, I agree—but there is a deep and significant problem with how Chalmers tries to characterize this.

Consciousness, as both Chalmers and I agree, is fundamental. What Chalmers says next is that: “Where we have new fundamental properties, we also have new fundamental laws. Here the fundamental laws will be psychophysical laws, specifying how phenomenal properties depend on physical properties. These laws will not interfere with physical laws; physical laws already form a closed system. Instead, they will be supervenience laws, telling us how experience arises from physical processes. We have seen that the dependence of experience on the physical cannot be derived from physical laws, so any final theory must include laws of this variety….” We’ve already addressed the fact that supposing that these laws “will not interfere with physical laws” locks consciousness–as–such out of the causal nexus—and any premise which entails this result simply refutes itself. But that is not the issue I am concerned with here—the issue I am concerned with here revolves instead around how we are supposed to characterize these “laws”.

Before getting into that, however, let’s take a closer look at what Chalmers says about them in The Conscious Mind. Describing the epistemological process by which we come to understand the world, he writes: “At first, I have only facts about my conscious experience. From here, I infer facts about middle–sized objects in the world, and eventually microphysical facts. From regularities in these facts, I infer physical laws, and therefore further physical facts. From regularities between my conscious experience and physical facts, I infer psychophysical laws, and therefore facts about conscious experience in others. I seem to have taken the abductive process as far as it can go, so I hypothesize: that’s all.” I find no problem in this paragraph. “At first, I have only facts about my conscious experience”—absolutely. And the microphysical facts supposed by the materialist to constitute everything are an inference from this primary fact, not something ever primarily known—“From here, I infer facts about … objects … and eventually microphysical facts…”—absolutely. But is inferring from physical regularities to the existence of “physical laws” the same thing as inferring from regularities in conscious experiences to the existence of “psychophysical laws?” That depends—as we will soon see—on what it means to call something a “law.” It is time to recall our earlier discussion in section 1.

Chalmers’ goal is to prove that “Even if consciousness cannot be reductively explained, there can still be a theory of consciousness. We simply need to move to a nonreductive theory instead.” His unique idea is that “We can give up on the project of trying to explain the existence of consciousness wholly in terms of something more basic, and instead admit it as fundamental, giving an account of how it relates to everything else in the world.” And this project will be “naturalistic” because “Such a theory will be similar in kind to the theories that physics gives us of matter, of motion, or of space and time.” How so? Because “Physical theories do not derive the existence of these features from anything more basic, but they still give substantial, detailed accounts of these features and of how they interrelate, with the result that we have satisfying explanations of many specific phenomena involving mass, space, and time.” So far, so good—and this description so far applies to the approach I have defended in this series. But the following sentence is where the central problem begins to show itself: Chalmers believes that ”they do this by giving a simple, powerful set of laws involving the various features, from which all sorts of specific phenomena follow as a consequence.”

Thus, “By analogy, the cornerstone of a theory of consciousness will be a set of psychophysical laws governing the relationship between consciousness and physical systems. … Given the physical facts about a system, such laws will enable us to infer what sort of conscious experience will be associated with the system, if any. These laws will be on a par with the laws of physics as part of the basic furniture of the universe. It follows that while this theory will not explain the existence of consciousness in the sense of telling us ”why consciousness exists,” it will be able to explain specific instances of consciousness, in terms of the underlying physical structure and the psychophysical laws. Again, this is analogous to explanation in physics, which accounts for why specific instances of matter or motion have the character they do by invoking general underlying principles in combination with certain local properties. … There need be nothing especially supernatural about these laws. They are part of the basic furniture of nature, just as the laws of physics are. There will be something “brute” about them, it is true. At some level, the laws will have to be taken as true and not further explained. But the same holds in physics: the ultimate laws of nature will always at some point seem arbitrary. It is this that makes them laws of nature rather than laws of logic.” Finally, “ … For a final theory, we need a set of psychophysical laws analogous to fundamental laws in physics. These fundamental (or basic) laws will be cast at a level connecting basic properties of experience with simple features of the physical world. … When combined with the physical facts about a system, they should enable us to perfectly predict the phenomenal facts about the system. … Once we have a set of fundamental physical and psychophysical laws, we may in a certain sense understand the basic structure of the universe.”

It should be obvious how closely many of these statements correspond to what I have said in my own recent discussion of the “conceptual” interaction problem in entry (X) of this series—but I think there is something tremendously significant that Chalmers has handled here in a very poor and unclear way. This brings us now to the central core of the question Chalmers has handled inadequately: would “psychophysical laws” truly be analogous to the physical laws whose existence we all accept? That depends on how we characterize what it means for something to be a “law”—on what it means fora law” to be “part of the basic furniture of nature.” In what sense do we accept that these other “laws” exist to begin with? Note what Chalmers says: “[Psychophysical laws] are part of the basic furniture of nature, just as the laws of physics are.” Is he right? The statement that physicallaws” are part of the basic furniture of nature” is not even explicitly stated here, but it is an absolutely crucial assumption underlying the analogy. What does it mean to say that “physical laws” are part of the basic furniture of nature? 

Recall what we saw in the first section of this entry: theists are well–known for making the argument that if certain kinds of “laws” exist, there would have to be a “lawmaker”—God—to account for their existence. The “vital distinction” is between “a causal law, i.e. one that rules the genesis of events, and an empirical law, one that merely registers their occurrence.” The theist argues that the “laws” of nature are more than our mere recordings of what things do—that they somehow instead “rule the genesis of events” in their own right.  And what is the atheist response? The atheist doesn’t deny that “laws” of this sort would entail a “lawmaker.” The atheist rather denies that “laws” of this sort are the kinds of “laws” that our world actually has—and says that when we derive “the laws of nature,” we aren’t discovering some independent thing called a “law” that is actually “governing” the behavior of the universe; we are, instead, merely creating descriptions of what things in the world do in and of themselves, in virtue of their own intrinsic traits. So as we saw in, for example, Bede Rundle’s critique of the argument, ““the law” is in no sense instrumental in bringing about accord with it. … What would God have to do to ensure that atoms, say, behave the way they do? Simply create them to be as they in fact are.  Atoms having just those features which we currently appeal to in explaining the relevant behaviour, it does not in addition require that God formulate a law prescribing that behaviour.” But contrast this with how Chalmers himself characterizes the nature of his “psychophysical laws!”  “We can use Kripke’s image here [to illustrate what the situation is like, if dualism is true]. When God created the world, after ensuring that the physical facts held, he had more work to do! He had to ensure that facts about consciousness held. The possibility of zombie worlds or inverted worlds shows that he had a choice. The world might have lacked experience, or it might have contained different experiences, even if all the physical facts had been the same. To ensure that the facts about consciousness are as they are, further features had to be included in the world.”

If we accept Chalmers’ arguments that consciousness is irreducible to anything other than itself and is therefore fundamental in its own right, then we are precisely postulating the existence of Chalmersian “psychophysical laws” because we need the “law” to do something that the actual things in the world do not inherently do in and of themselves by virtue of their own intrinsic traits—but it is exactly for this very reason that the existence of any such “law” is necessarily impossible! Not, at least, so long as we reject the “panprotopsychist” approach, in which the emergence of consciousness would be explained by the “intrinsic properties” of “physical” objects rather than their structural/relational properties, in which case the “laws” could be construed as describing what these actual properties of actual entities do in and of themselves—but I have explained why I think that option likewise absolutely fails in 5.

These are the kinds of “laws” that would exist as “causal laws … [which] rule the genesis of events…” and would therefore require an active power behind the physical world itself which “formulates such laws and ensures that the physical realm conforms to them….” Notice what Chalmers says in discussing “[the] worry … about how consciousness might have evolved on a dualist framework….” The worry, he writes, is that “a new element pop[s] into nature, as if by magic….” However, “ … this is not a problem.” Why? Because “Like the fundamental laws of physics, psychophysical laws are eternal, having existed since the beginning of time.” And he wraps his explanation up: “It may be that in the early stages of the universe there was nothing that satisfied the physical antecedents of the laws, and so no consciousness … In any case, as the universe developed, it came about that certain physical systems evolved that satisfied the relevant conditions. When these systems came into existence, conscious experience automatically accompanied them by virtue of the laws in question. Given that psychophysical laws exist and are timeless, as naturalistic dualism holds, the evolution of consciousness poses no special problem.”

But “the fundamental laws of physics” are not “eternal”—and this is not a way that a naturalist is epistemically allowed to think about the nature of “laws!” The “law of gravity” “exists” in the absolutely derivative sense in which “it” can be said to “exist” only just so long as the actual thing we call “space–time” exists with the actual properties residing within that actual thing by virtue of which it demonstrates the patterns of behavior which we label “the law of gravity.” But there is no “law of gravity” whenever a spacetime with those actual properties is not around—cue our quotation from Richard Carrier earlier;  “The “law” of gravity … ‘is’ in every place and time where the physical conditions that manifest gravity exist.”—the “law” of gravity is not an actual thing, but merely our labels—applied after the factto the actual thing. So it does not “exist” when the actual thing which intrinsically causes those behaviors to manifest does not exist. And if we suppose that it does, we have to face the argument that a “law” of this sort could only be imposed upon the universe from outside. So likewise, “psychophysical laws” in the purely descriptive–recording sense (the only sense in which the naturalist can accept that any kinds of “laws” exist at all) cannot exist so long as consciousness is not already around for us to describe. Not unless these are the kinds of “laws” which are fundamentally and categorically unlike the other “laws” of nature in that they represent a “governing power” all in their own right!

To explore this, for a moment, even further, I quote from John Foster’s “Regularities, Laws of Nature, and the Existence of God.” Foster writes of a characterization of what it means for something to be a “law” which arguable does not apply to ordinary physical phenomena in general. But where Foster writes of the law of gravitation (which could be construed as holding in virtue of the intrinsic properties which the actually existing structure of the actually existing spacetime fabric in our world actually has), I will substitute talk of psychophysical laws—and it will be clear that Foster’s theistic construal of the nature of laws which arguably does not apply to “laws” of nature in general does clearly apply to Chalmers’ formulation of the psychophysical laws: “A [psychophysical] law of nature is a fact of natural necessity—the necessity of [psychophysical relationships] being regular in a certain way. But in exactly what sense does the relevant regularity count as necessary? Well, the first thing that needs to be stressed is that the necessity involved is not a form of strict or absolute necessity. The claim that it is a [psychophysical] law of nature that … [say, the chemical properties of opiates bring about the subjective experience of qualitative “happiness”] … does not imply the absolute impossibility of cases in which this regularity fails: it does not imply that there are no possible situations, of any kind [e.g. in Chalmers’ “possible worlds”], in which [the “psychophysical law”–like relationship between consciousness and physical states of the brain]  does not behave this way… the [psychophysical] laws of nature (assuming they exist) are themselves only contingent. The law [which speciefis that conscious experiences appear under x physical conditions] holds, let us assume, in the actual world. But we can certainly envisage worlds in which it does not; and, in being able to envisage such worlds, we can also envisage worlds in which, in the absence of this law, the associated regularity does not obtain—worlds in which there are the same intrinsic types of matter as those which feature in the actual world, but in which [conscious experiences do not appear under these physical conditions]. … Being only contingent, [psychophysical] laws of nature are not forms of strict necessity. So in what sense are they forms of necessity at all? We want to say that [consciousness appears under x physical conditions because it has] to. But how are we to construe its having to if there are [possible worlds] where … [it doesn’t]?”

Foster writes here that giving a ‘naturalistic’ account of such “laws” is problematic because they are contingent—they “could have” been different. For a case like gravity, this argument can be undermined by saying that once the intrinsic nature of matter as it actually is in our actual world is what it actually is, and once the intrinsic nature of the fabric of spacetime in our actual world is what it actually is, there is nothing for a “law” to add to the picture. Therefore, no constraint is imposed on the world from outside—the “law” of gravity is fully explained by features contained fully within the actual entities within the actual world—and can therefore be wholly accounted for by giving an explanation of how matter and spacetime came to possess the actual intrinsic properties which they actually do within the world, with no additional explanation of how this “law” is imposed upon that world from without necessary. But the kinds of “laws” which Chalmers proposes here would require additional explanation after all the actual properties of all the actual things in the actual world have been described (and that is exactly the reason why Chalmers thinks he needs to posit them!) It is unbelievably ironic, in this context, that Chalmers borrows the vocabulary from Kripke of speaking about God having more work to do He writes, for instance: “In general, if B–properties [first–person subjective facts about qualitative experiences] are merely naturally supervenient on A–properties [third–person objective facts about physical states] in our world, then there could have been a world in which our A–facts held without the B–facts. As we saw before, once God fixed all the [facts about physics], in order to fix the [facts about qualitative conscious experiences] he had more work to do.” Indeed, these actually are exactly the kinds of “laws” that could only be “fixed” by an outside force demanding that the universe behave in this way and not that despite the entities already existing within the universe simply doing so in virtue of their own intrinsic traits—exactly the kind which have always led to the inference to a “lawmaker”—God—in traditional theistic thought.

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______


But suppose you accept everything said up to here. And suppose, to try to come to terms with this scenario and remain as “naturalistic” as possible, you come to accept some kind of multiverse scenario on which a mechanism is responsible for bringing the contingent laws of nature about (or perhaps only the “psychophysical” laws since “laws of nature” in this sense still don’t exist at all)—with the particular form these laws end up taking being explained in terms of the details of whatever this mechanism is. Thus, we can have “laws” imposed on the world from outside—but this “outside” is, itself, another ultimately “physical” blind mechanism. Without considering the whole further extensive background of issues underlying this approach (even at 13,000+ words, I am striving for as much brevity as possible to get to the point!), allow me to assume for the sake of argument here that such an approach is otherwise plausible. The problem then would simply become pushed back yet another step—all the way to the origins of the universe itself.

Suppose we program a computer to blindly and randomly generate mathematical functions. With x’s and y’s and numerical values as the available ingredients on the left hand of the equations, we’ll get plenty of x’s and y’s and numerical values as “outputs” on the right hand of the equations. But once again, no equation that results from this kind of mechanistic process will ever produce anything like “x• y – 9(x + y) = {the subjective sensation of qualitative blue}”. How could it? The ingredients simply aren’t there in blind mechanism for specifying anything other than more blind mechanisms—and this is exactly the starting point which the “naturalistic dualist” took for his starting position to begin with, so it’s not a premise he can consistently just up and suddenly do away with here.

Per the “naturalistic dualist’s own starting premises,” this still can’t be a way out. Whatever mechanism of quantum fluctuations at the core of the multiverses generates universes, per the very premises the “naturalistic dualist” started out by accepting it would have to be capable of knowing what consciousness is in order to specify consciousness within its mechanisms—in other words, it would necessarily have to be conscious (if the anti–reductionist arguments succeed, then you can’t even infer the existence of experiential facts from any number of “physical” facts)—it would have to be more like God than a blind, unconscious quantum Singularity. Hence, even if we could accept a naturalism on which “laws” are truly “ordering powers” in their own right, imposed upon the Universe from without (in some quantum void at the center of the multiverse, say), a blind mechanism for the generation of these “laws” still couldn’t account for a “law” which specifies a relationship between otherwise blind mechanisms and something that is neither identical to nor composed of blind mechanisms at all. To make dualism properly “naturalistic” will require some other approach.

The naturalist can’t have “laws” of this sort at all; and yet, even if he could, he still couldn’t account for how the laws would specify consciousness in particular within their equations if the “lawmakers” were blind mechanisms lacking consciousness—for exactly the same reasons the anti–reductionist arguments pushed him to hypothesize the existence of “psychophysical laws” in the first place. Only God could account for the existence of “laws” of this kind of sort in the first place; but even if some sort of multiverse–generator could account for them, the “multiverse–generator” would still once again have to be something more like God than a mechanism to account for how “laws” of this general kind could possibly specify consciousness within their equations specifically.

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______


There is however one incredibly ironic but simple approach which I think obviously works.

And that is to suppose that “psychophysical laws” are “empirical laws” which merely consist of us “registering the occurrence” of actual events in the world between actual entities, and not “causal laws” which “rule the genesis of events” and are actually causally “instrumental in bringing about accord with themselves.” How?

By supposing a substantialist view by which rather than the psychophysical law bringing it about that under x physical conditions, y phenomenal property is contributed to a conscious experience, “the psychophysical laws” are just our descriptions of what things do in and of themselves in virtue of their own intrinsic properties and traits—which necessarily has to entail that consciousness itself is already a fundamental thing within the world and the so–called “psychophysical laws” are not actual  “things” in the furniture of the world—consciousness itself is; the so–called “laws” are just our after–the–fact descriptions of what we observe of its behaviors in relation to the world.

Again, Bede Rundle: “Newton’s laws can describe the motion of a billiard ball, but it is the cue wielded by the billiard player that sets the ball moving, not the laws. The laws help us map the trajectory of the ball’s movement in the future (provided nothing external interferes), but they are powerless to move the ball, let alone bring it into existence.” Likewise, psychophysical laws can describe how consciousness (the subjective stream of intentionalistic thought and qualitative experiences) relates to the rest of the world, but these “laws” are merely our descriptions of consciousness itself—just as the “law” of gravity is merely our description of how the fabric of space–time itself actually behaves, not in virtue of ‘orders’ from some external law, but in virtue of the intrinsic, tangibly existent properties of the actually existent fabric of space–time itself. This clarification of the nature of “laws” can—ironically—save us from the entailment of inescapably theistic conclusions in the case of consciousness just as much as it can in the case of something like gravity. The only reasonable position can be that the “laws” are our description of what the thing which we call “consciousness” does—rather than the reverse, implied by Chalmers’ equivocations around the idea of “law,” that “consciousness” is our label for what the laws” somehow force to happen.

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______


At least, that could work for what we might call the “day to day” operations of consciousness. Once a given stream of consciousness is already in place, we can say that a “law” is merely our description after the fact of how “the conscious self and its brain” themselves interact in virtue of what they themselves intrinsically are. But this brings us back to why the problem Chalmers responded to earlier—“how [might] consciousness [have] evolved on a dualist framework…[?]”—was problematic to begin with: “did a new element suddenly pop into nature, as if by magic?” The problem should now be somewhat more obvious: if the Hard Problem is real, then consciousness is neither “identical to” nor “composed of” (a relationship which could also be labeled with phrases like “emergent from” or “reducible to” which appear to describe a different kind of relationship, but do not; and merely label the same relationship somewhat differently) mechanical procedures which lack consciousness. If that is so, then nothing about the evolution of these mechanical procedures themselves can account for why the entire stream of consciousness suddenly “pops” into being as a “new element … as if by magic.” Nothing happens, in any physical terms, during the series of blind mechanical events between a blind, unconscious sperm making contact with a blind, unconscious egg and carrying out a mechanical procedure by which DNA mechanically directs the program of building a physical input–output system which could possibly explain why subjective streams of qualitative experience suddenly appear—if Chalmers is correct up to here (and I think he is, and defend that position elsewhere), nothing about the mechanical programming of DNA as a structural, physical entity can explain why that mechanism in virtue of its mechanistic properties brings about a conscious being instead of a human zombie who is just as unconscious as the original sperm and egg, or the microparticles making these up, themselves—and that’s exactly why we thought we ought to consider postulating a new type of extra, additional “laws” to account for why consciousness does appear to begin with. Again, this follows from precisely the same anti–reductionist arguments which we took as our very starting point in the first place: just as the blind mechanism of particles coursing through space cannot be literally identical to or constitutively compose a first–person–subjective qualitative experience, so it follows from this very same exact starting premise that they cannot possibly be said to bring the entire stream of  first–person–subjective qualitative experiences into being in virtue of what they intrinsically are, in and of themselves—not unless, contra the core starting point of Chalmers’ entire position, conscious experiences and intentionality can be given a “deflationary” explanation and there is no “Hard Problem” after all.

But any “law” of the kind necessary to bring about subjective streams of qualitative experience (and intentionality) in this situation would, once again, be equivalent to a law that says “every time the 8 ball falls into the left corner pocket, an orange angel is born in a newly created Heaven”—it would propose to “connect” events which by all admission simply have no intrinsic connection in virtue of what the entities related by this “connection” actually are in and of themselves—by the very same exact premises that got us here in the first place. Recall Bede Rundle once again: “Newton’s laws can describe the motion of a billiard ball, but it is the cue wielded by the billiard player that sets the ball moving, not the laws. The laws help us map the trajectory of the ball’s movement in the future (provided nothing external interferes), but they are powerless to move the ball, let alone bring it into existence.” Or, if it does, then that can’t be the kind of “law” whose existence the “Naturalist’s” worldview can with any plausibility allow him to accept.

So it goes, likewise, for consciousness: we couldn’t possibly have that sort of “law” exist in such a way that it itself, as a “law,” as an actual thingruling the genesis of events” as an “operative power” in its own right, could suddenly bring streams of consciousness into existence under particular conditions (which in virtue of what they are in and of themselves have no intrinsic power to do such a thing at all (where this is precisely the reason we saw the need to posit this kind of “law” to begin with)), unless a conscious “lawmaker” who “formulates such laws and ensures that the [world] conforms to them” were our explanation for the origins of such a “law.”

However — recall the atheist response to the Kalām cosmological argument which I endorsed as by far the most plausible: what was our most effective option for avoiding the argument that an explanation for the origins of the physical universe would require God? We did it by denying that it is necessary for time to have had an origin—by denying that either cosmological science or philosophical paradoxes render the idea of an infinite past—whose existence we, notably, cannot “empirically” confirm!—invalid or implausible. The same approach is available here.

The same approach which the atheist plausibly takes in the context of the cosmological argument—making the inference to the empirically inconfirmable conclusion that the Universe’s temporal past (defining “Universe” in such a way that it may include much more than our four–dimensional region of it which appears to have formed at the moment of the Big Bang) must be eternal—can be used here to avoid the kinds of “laws” that only God could account for as postulates to account for the coming–into–existence of uniquely individual streams of experience.

What would the approach entail in this context? It would entail that when we speak of the “psychophysical laws,” in particular, which specify the conditions in which a unique stream of consciousness comes to beeven in these cases we still are simply creating descriptions and labels after the fact about how consciousness itself—in virtue of the actually existing traits of the actually existing phenomena of consciousness itself—inherently behaves.

In other words, it would have to follow that we are not identifying a “law” which, by its own “ruling” power, brings that conscious stream into being—but for any actually–existing consciousness to interact with the rest of the physical universe at the moment at which a given physical organism and stream of consciousness begin the process of interaction—the stream of consciousness itself would have to already pre–exist as an already actually–existent phenomena in order that it could be a thing whose behavior our “laws”—which are not antecedent powers but merely consequent descriptions of phenomena themselves—consequently describe. And notice, too, that the same implication would follow with respect to any “psychophysical law” which described the cessation of a stream of consciousness upon biological death of the brain: nothing in these physical events themselves could possibly intrinsically account for the cessation of that stream, any more than the 8 ball falling into the right corner pocket could intrinsically account for a blue angel in an alternate dimension dying. Thus, we could not possibly have the kind of law which would specify that the stream of consciousness must in fact cease at death, either—not without a “lawmaking” God.

If: •(1) Laws which truly “govern” rather than merely describing the behavior of Nature—particular when such laws are supposed to include subjective consciousness as parts of their equations—cannot exist without a conscious “Lawmaker”, And •(2) Consciousness (first–person subjective qualitative experiences and intentionalistic thought) cannot be reduced to blind physical mechanism (and panpsychism is not a way around the need to get consciousness from blind physical mechanism), then it follows from these two simple premises that: either (A) God exists, or else (B) the stream of consciousness is eternal. For my part, I cannot find any way to plausibly or coherently reject either (1) or (2). This leaves me in the rather awkward position of having to either take an option I find literally incoherent, or else face up to accepting either (A) or (B). Yet, ironically, it seems to me that (B) is where the only salvageable attempt to make dualism “naturalistic” inevitably ends up. Ironically, this turns out to be exactly the worldview mentioned inadvertently in some of the opening stages of this series—that held by Samkhya–type schools of Hinduism, or by the somewhat more personalist varieties of Buddhism, in which there is a kind of mind–body dualism which allows for the possibility of reincarnation—without theism. Is it possible these actually plausible worldviews?

Now that the groundwork has been laid, get ready for this series to finally start getting truly “crazy.”


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