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Sep 26 2012

Plantinga, Nagel, and Evolution

Andrew Sullivan links to a number of other sources talking about a new book by Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga. Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel reviews that book and gives it far more deference than it is due, mostly because Nagel appears to be pretty clueless about evolution.

The interest of this book, especially for secular readers, is its presentation from the inside of the point of view of a philosophically subtle and scientifically informed theist—an outlook with which many of them will not be familiar. Plantinga writes clearly and accessibly, and sometimes acidly—in response to aggressive critics of religion like Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. His comprehensive stand is a valuable contribution to this debate.

I say this as someone who cannot imagine believing what he believes. But even those who cannot accept the theist alternative should admit that Plantinga’s criticisms of naturalism are directed at the deepest problem with that view—how it can account for the appearance, through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry, of conscious beings like ourselves, capable of discovering those laws and understanding the universe that they govern. Defenders of naturalism have not ignored this problem, but I believe that so far, even with the aid of evolutionary theory, they have not proposed a credible solution. Perhaps theism and materialist naturalism are not the only alternatives.

But this is nonsense. Evolution accounts quite well for the development of consciousness. Consciousness is an artifact of the brain, which we know evolved over very long periods of time. We can trace that evolution very easily through many lines of evidence in several fields, from paleontology to molecular biology to cognitive neuroscience. We may not yet know the very precise details, but there is no evidence at all that consciousness operates on anything but a material basis. The fact that we can alter consciousness by altering the biochemistry of the brain clearly argues otherwise. And Jerry Coyne points out that, even if there are some yet-unanswered questions on this front, Plantinga’s god-of-the-gaps argument has never been valid:

Nagel has fallen for the God-of-the-gap trap. The credible solution is to do more work to find out how the structure of the mind produces consciousness, and how natural selection might have acted to promote that feature. Does Nagel think that science has used all its resources on this problem, and failed? Does he not know how relatively primitive neurobiology is right now? Nagel has just thrown up his hands and said, “You people haven’t explained it, therefore perhaps Plantinga is right.” Or there might be “another alternative.” Curious that Nagel doesn’t propose what that alternative might be. I guess he’s purveying a Philosophy of the Gaps.

This is made all the worse by the fact that Plantinga’s basis for his doubt about evolution as an explanation comes from Michael Behe’s utterly discredited claims about irreducible complexity. This is hardly surprising, since Behe’s argument is also a god-of-the-gaps argument.

50 comments

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  1. 1
    divalent

    Ed said: “Evolution accounts quite well for the development of consciousness.”

    Hmm, I think that’s quite a stretch. At this point, it’s probably more reasonable to say that nothing we know about consciousness is inconsistent with it having developed through natural processes, and that, moreover, nothing about it seems to require supernatural intervention.

  2. 2
    drewtipson

    I’m going to disagree a little bit here. I don’t deny that consciousness is clearly a physical phenomenon that’s very directly and predictably affected by observable changes in the brain. But I think there is and will always be a lot of elbow room for a “philosophy of the gaps” here until someone comes up with a good philosophical explanation of what consciousness IS.

    It’s just never going to be enough to point out all the ways in which certain physical properties give rise to consciousness or not until we can explain what the phrase “gives rise to” is actually doing. Why do we have internal states and perceptions at all? Why is being a conscious being “like” anything at all? If we could one day build androids that act and perceive and make decisions like humans, and yet have no internal experience as we do, what is making up the difference?

    I would never argue that we can’t someday have answers to these questions, but I do think that conscious internal experiences are a mystery on a completely different level than simply explaining the existence of intelligence, creativity, etc. Nagel is leaving the door open, and I think he’s probably right to at this point, regardless of any good evidence of a supernatural element, and regardless of Plantinga having no explanation for it himself (and this, really, is the true failure of his theology: to provide any intelligible alternative). It’s just too much of an open question to start asserting that we know it’s all down to the material causes we know about so far. Whatever the causes, I’m sure they will ultimately be intelligibly understood within the realm of physics and science. But that realm of explanation obviously has a lot more to it that we’ve yet to really account for. So I’m more sympathetic with Nagel here than you seem to be (though I agree that his sympathy goes wrong when it gives credence to Plantinga’s belief that his ideas have a better solution, or even any intelligible solution at all.)

  3. 3
    kosk11348

    Defenders of naturalism have not ignored this problem, but I believe that so far, even with the aid of evolutionary theory, they have not proposed a credible solution.

    But what “credible solution” have the defenders of supernaturalism offered to address the problem? Plantinga says that a magic man must have built our brains to be reliable but accumulative sin has reduced functionality. Is that more credible? No? Then how naturalism be in trouble?

  4. 4
    No One

    “and understanding the universe that they govern.”

    We govern a universe? News to me.

    And on another note, how do we know that other animals are not conscious? The mirror experiment seems to point in that direction.
    So what is the god up to with that?

  5. 5
    Reginald Selkirk

    The interest of this book, especially for secular readers, is its presentation from the inside of the point of view of a philosophically subtle and scientifically informed theist…

    You won’t catch any biologists referring to Plantinga as “scientifically informed.” When it comes to evolution, he literally does not know what he is writing about. And the ironic bit is he was one of those criticising Dawkins in The God Delusion for being philosophically unsophisticated.

    Now despite the fact that this book is mainly philosophy, Dawkins is not a philosopher (he’s a biologist). Even taking this into account, however, much of the philosophy he purveys is at best jejune. You might say that some of his forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores; the fact is (grade inflation aside), many of his arguments would receive a failing grade in a sophomore philosophy class.

  6. 6
    Michael Heath

    Plantinga’s criticisms of naturalism are directed at the deepest problem with that view—how it can account for the appearance, through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry, of conscious beings like ourselves, capable of discovering those laws and understanding the universe that they govern. Defenders of naturalism have not ignored this problem, but I believe that so far, even with the aid of evolutionary theory, they have not proposed a credible solution.

    Another clown who thinks that because he’s informed in one area he’s informed in all areas.

    Charles Darwin, not perfectly applicable but still:

    It has often and confidently been asserted, that man’s origin can never be known: but ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.

    The Descent of Man, Introduction pg. 4 according to: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Charles_Darwin

  7. 7
    Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

    @NoOne

    Read again. “. . . those laws [i.e. of physics and chemistry] and the universe that they [i.e., the laws] govern.”

  8. 8
    Nick Gotts

    If we could one day build androids that act and perceive and make decisions like humans, and yet have no internal experience as we do, what is making up the difference? – drewtipson

    We will never be able to do that: if we build “androids that act and perceive and make decisions like humans” they will necessarily have “internal experience”. Such androids would have to assert that yes, they do have internal experience, yes they are conscious. Moreover, they would have to believe it – if they didn’t, they would not be making decisions and acting as we do, because deciding to say something you believe is different from deciding to say something you don’t believe, we act differently when we say things we believe from how we act when we say things we don’t believe, and the same differences would have to occur in them if they are to decide and act as we do. How do you know another person has “internal experience”, other than by behavioural criteria which you could also apply to an android? I suppose you might say that other people have the same sort of brain as you, and that might make the difference; but no-one has exactly the same brain as you, so how could you know that doesn’t make a difference? Read Dennett’s Consciousness Explained if you haven’t done so; if you have, read it again!

    It’s not surprising Nagel falls for this line: one of his best-known articles is What is it like to be a bat?, in which he claims we can’t conceive what it is like; but we can: we can discover, experimentally, what perceptual discriminations bats can and can’t make, how information from their various senses is integrated, what actions they can and can’t perform. There’s nothing else to know.

  9. 9
    ttch

    Although Nagel claims to not actually be an ID supporter, in his latest book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, he

    argues in favor of skepticism about materialist and reductionist views of the emergence of life and consciousness, writing that the standard neo-Darwinian view flies in the face of common sense. He argues that the principles that account for the emergence of life may be teleological, rather than materialist or mechanistic.

    (quote from Wikipedia)

  10. 10
    No One

    Hercules Grytpype-Thynne @7

    I got that. Snark deeper.

  11. 11
    unemployedphilosopher

    @Nick Gotts:
    You say:
    Read Dennett’s Consciousness Explained if you haven’t done so; if you have, read it again!

    Why? It’s a terrible book. Dennett doesn’t explain consciousness, he talks around it. Even Jaegwon Kim — iirc, the first to posit the supervenience theory of consciousness, which don’t even get me started on — has distanced himself from Dennett in Physicalism, Or Something Near Enough. Kim isn’t always the most accessible, but you can find good, if indirect, rebuttals in Cartwright’s The Dappled World and Teller’s article How We Dapple The World.

    The thing is, Hume and Kant were basically correct. There’s a barrier that we can’t cross, empirically — that is, as Nagel puts it elsewhere, there is no view from nowhere. Because we’re stuck in the world, we can’t objectively observe the world. And because we’re stuck with the perceptions we have, we can’t conceive of other ways of perceiving — at least, not in the way that we can conceive of a hyperintelligent shade of blue. If you’re not a tetrachromat, and since your handle is Nick I’m guessing you’re not, there’s no way that you could know what it’s like to see the world with four types of cone instead of the usual three. And if you are, you can’t tell anybody about it, because of the limitations of language.

    None of this excuses Nagel’s deference to Plantinga, of course. Yes, qualia still need explaining. Yes, there’s the Leibniz problem for truth conditions. There is more to know; that doesn’t mean we need a God, just better science. Or more science. Or, I suppose, a good stiff drink and some backgammon, as Hume prescribed.

    *Fun fact: you can use Plantinga’s ontological argument to prove the existence of a metaphysically necessary plate of spaghetti.

  12. 12
    anteprepro

    #9: Holy shit! “Common sense, therefore design”. He really argues against evolution because it isn’t intuitive? I guess he is the exact opposite of the “philosophically subtle and scientifically informed theist” that he imagines Plantinga to be.

  13. 13
    unemployedphilosopher

    #12: That’s not what Nagel is saying; “teleological” does not mean “designed”, it means “ends-driven”. Or, I suppose more accurately, “ends-caused”*.

    He’s not arguing against evolution, he’s just saying that purely mechanistic arguments can’t really account for all of it. Which is true: humans have been driving the evolution bus for a lot of species for a long time. Look at wheat! How awesome is that?

    *Technically this is also incorrect; the root is one of Aristotle’s four aitai, usually translated as “cause” but not entirely accurately.

  14. 14
    Scott Hanley

    I’d read Jerry Coyne’s dismissal of Plantinga and then read Nagel’s more respectful review, so I decided I ought to read the book for myself. I quit halfway through and would have hurled it with great force, if that copy didn’t belong to the library.

    Plantinga’s dismissal of evolution hardly rises to the level of God-of-the-gaps; instead, he just insists that none of the evidence rises to the level of airtight proof that philosophers and mathematicians would consider “proved.” Like a mouse escaping a box, the slightest opening will do.

    But when it comes his turn, the requirements for proof disappear, quite mysteriously. I would have needed pencil and paper to track the number of times Plantinga advanced his alternative views with “Suppose that …” and “And also suppose …”, followed by “And further suppose that ….” He posits any number of properties for God, on no better evidence than that it fits his own conception of God. No external evidence required.

    So any level of uncertainty, between absolutely proved and absolutely disproved, is simply interpreted in his favor and filled with convenient suppositions. As far as I got into the book, his entire argument was built on that cheat. And, because he can tailor his suppositions to fit the desired outcome, he can even pretend that he’s more logically explained the world than has science.

    Plantinga claims there’s no conflict between religion and science. Huh. The conflict is in the methodology and standards of evidence, and that conflict stains every page of this book. The fact that Nagel could accord this book any respect just goes to further a growing suspicion I have, a suspicion that philosophy is largely a great waste of intellect and should be ignored at every opportunity.

  15. 15
    consciousness razor

    He’s not arguing against evolution, he’s just saying that purely mechanistic arguments can’t really account for all of it. Which is true: humans have been driving the evolution bus for a lot of species for a long time. Look at wheat! How awesome is that?

    I think the issue is that it would only be true if humans aren’t “purely mechanistic,” for which there is no evidence. Since it seems that we are, the fact that we engage in artificial selection (including the fact that it is awesome, if that is a fact) would just be more thing that is “purely mechanistic.”

    The scare-quotes are there because I think “mechanistic” might not be the right word for the job you want to do, but I stuck with it above since it was convenient. Quantum mechanics arguably isn’t “mechanistic” in a certain sense in the way Newtonian mechanics is, but that’s not the sort of problem most (except maybe Chopra) have with people being natural entities according to naturalism. Their problem is basically that naturalism is just too darned naturalistic, oddly enough.

    *Technically this is also incorrect; the root is one of Aristotle’s four aitai, usually translated as “cause” but not entirely accurately.

    Maybe “reason” is closer, if that doesn’t necessarily imply a physical mechanism — but “ends-reasoned” would be awkward and a little confusing in its own way.

  16. 16
    andrewlephong

    What exactly is the supernatural explanation for consciousness? You never get this. You just get attacks on attempts at naturalistic explanations, and then are told that the supernatural, whatever that is, is a viable alternative.

  17. 17
    Michael Heath

    Scott Hanley’s post @ 14 illustrates why I so greatly appreciate the commenters here in Ed’s blog (along with Ed of course!). This sort of quality analysis reinforces the benefit of more humans learning to think critically and applying such skills. Bravo!

  18. 18
    rbh3

    drewtipson wrote

    I’m going to disagree a little bit here. I don’t deny that consciousness is clearly a physical phenomenon that’s very directly and predictably affected by observable changes in the brain. But I think there is and will always be a lot of elbow room for a “philosophy of the gaps” here until someone comes up with a good philosophical explanation of what consciousness IS.

    Two questions: (1) If “consciousness is clearly a physical phenomenon,” why would one plump for a philosophical explanation rather than a naturalistic scientific explanation? And (2) what would a “philosophical explanation” look like, if it’s not a naturalistic scientific explanation?

  19. 19
    Nick Gotts

    And because we’re stuck with the perceptions we have, we can’t conceive of other ways of perceiving — at least, not in the way that we can conceive of a hyperintelligent shade of blue. If you’re not a tetrachromat, and since your handle is Nick I’m guessing you’re not, there’s no way that you could know what it’s like to see the world with four types of cone instead of the usual three. And if you are, you can’t tell anybody about it, because of the limitations of language. – unemployedphilosopher

    Tosh. Of course I can conceive that, and with sufficient technology, I could be given glasses that would simulate it to a reasonably high degree of accuracy, by imposing (say) a grid of lines – white on dark backgrounds, black on light ones – that was more wavy the more light of a fourth wavelength was incident from a given direction: this would enable me to make the discriminations a tetrochromat can, and given a sufficient period of habituation, they would become as automatic as those I make now. You clearly know doodly-squit about how perception works. Look up experiments with inverting glasses, for a start.

    Yes, qualia still need explaining.

    No, they don’t.

  20. 20
    unemployedphilosopher

    @Scott Hanley (#14):
    You say:
    The fact that Nagel could accord this book any respect just goes to further a growing suspicion I have, a suspicion that philosophy is largely a great waste of intellect and should be ignored at every opportunity.

    Which is very funny, because what you just did was totally philosophy. Is “proof” possible in most things? No, of course it isn’t. [insert standard Cartesian argument here; blah blah skepticism etc.] Does that mean that we should blindly accept the best science of the day as proof enough? Also no. The world we inhabit is a strange and wonderful thing, as Sagan said. There’s always more to discover.

    @consciousness razor(#15)

    The problem isn’t that it’s not all mechanics; the problem is how we can explain things. That was an awkward sentence, but I can’t think of a better way to put it. If you want to discuss economics, for instance, talking about the way that gluons moderate the strong nuclear force will be pretty much useless. And yet this is what some contemporary philosophers of mind (Paul and Patricia Churchland, for instance) seem to think is the answer to everything. Well, assuming a Grand Unified Theory of Physics, anyway.

  21. 21
    lofgren

    But when it comes his turn, the requirements for proof disappear, quite mysteriously. I would have needed pencil and paper to track the number of times Plantinga advanced his alternative views with “Suppose that …” and “And also suppose …”, followed by “And further suppose that ….” He posits any number of properties for God, on no better evidence than that it fits his own conception of God. No external evidence required.

    This seems perfectly fair. I read books like that all the time. In fact I have a whole bookshelf full of science fiction and fantasy that take exactly this approach to the world.

  22. 22
    unemployedphilosopher

    @Nick Gotts (#19):

    You say:

    You clearly know doodly-squit about how perception works. Look up experiments with inverting glasses, for a start.

    and further:

    No, they don’t.

    OK, first: inverting glasses experiments are really cool. But what you’re saying here is that you, absent said liney-wimey glasses, can conceive of what it’s like to be a tetrachromat, and that’s just false.

    Why not just say that, with sufficient technology, we could give you extra cones and then you’d know what it’s like? Sure, absolutely you would. Like the people who learn how to do echolocation are probably closer to knowing what it’s like to be a bat than are you or am I. I have to admit, I wouldn’t want to understand the whole “hanging upside down and eating bugs” thing on anything like a visceral level, but hey, if Nagel wants to get into that, I don’t mind.

    Second: If qualia don’t need explaining, either you think they are explicable, or you think they don’t exist. If you point me at fMRI or Dennett for the first, you’re wrong; if you think the second, you’re crazy and I can’t continue this conversation on that path.

    Again, I want to reiterate: Nagel is far too gentle on Plantinga’s latest. I’m not saying “Therefore, God.” All I’m saying is that there is a lot of work to be done, and that should not be controversial.

  23. 23
    consciousness razor

    The problem isn’t that it’s not all mechanics; the problem is how we can explain things.

    Nagel says some of these problems are basically inexplicable or intractable (by a naturalistic account), which is to say that there is no “how.” He’s not concerned with giving some other method of explanation. He’s saying there isn’t one.

    If you want to discuss economics, for instance, talking about the way that gluons moderate the strong nuclear force will be pretty much useless. And yet this is what some contemporary philosophers of mind (Paul and Patricia Churchland, for instance) seem to think is the answer to everything.

    Citation needed. That’s a pretty ridiculous example, actually. Have fun finding a professional philosopher of mind who has said as much and meant it (not just what they “seem to think” according to you, with nothing backing it up). I’m sure neither of the Churchlands qualify, though I don’t pay attention to everything they do.

  24. 24
    consciousness razor

    Second: If qualia don’t need explaining, either you think they are explicable, or you think they don’t exist. If you point me at fMRI or Dennett for the first, you’re wrong; if you think the second, you’re crazy and I can’t continue this conversation on that path.

    First, “crazy” shouldn’t be used as an insult. Second, that’s not a valid argument.

  25. 25
    unemployedphilosopher

    @consciousness razor (#23):

    Nagel says some of these problems are basically inexplicable or intractable (by a naturalistic account), which is to say that there is no “how.” He’s not concerned with giving some other method of explanation. He’s saying there isn’t one.

    (Note to self: figure out blockquotes)

    That’s not the impression that I got from his latest book, though I do admit I mostly skimmed it, so I could well be incorrect, or perhaps overly charitable in my interpretation of what I read. I think my point stands, though; “purely mechanistic” descriptions are limited in their explanatory power.

    Citation needed.

    Yes, it’s a ridiculous example. That’s why I used it. It’s also why I got out of phil mind. See Matter and Consciousness, especially chapter 2, if I recall correctly. The argument for eliminative materialism entails that everything — literally everything — is explicable in terms of basic physics; it states outright that qualia don’t exist (that’s chapter 3 or chapter 4); and thus requires that we ultimately explain the Greek economic crisis in terms of quarks.

  26. 26
    Raging Bee

    …we can conceive of a hyperintelligent shade of blue.

    SHIT, the prebvious color of my living-room walls was intelligent?! It shoulda said something before I painted it over…

  27. 27
    unemployedphilosopher

    @consciousness razor (#24):

    First, of course it’s not a valid argument. It’s an exclusive disjunction: Either Nick is asserting something that is false, or (he?) is asserting something so obviously false as to demonstrate a complete lack of connection to the world. In the first case, (his?) claim (that qualia need no explanation) is false; in the second, I have no way in which to talk with (him?). Since no argument was given for the original claim, I don’t feel any particular onus to provide one for mine.

    If you, or anyone else, think that I was using “crazy” as an insult, I apologize for that; I didn’t intend to offend or insult anybody.

    Second: There is no second. Miss Zarves is unavailable for comment.

  28. 28
    Nick Gotts

    unemployedphilosopher

    But what you’re saying here is that you, absent said liney-wimey glasses, can conceive of what it’s like to be a tetrachromat, and that’s just false.

    No, it’s just true: I can conceive of what it’s like. I would be able to make perceptual discriminations I can’t make now. If I knew enough about the tetrachromatism, I would know what additional discriminations I could make under what circumstances. That’s conceiving what it’s like.

    If qualia don’t need explaining, either you think they are explicable, or you think they don’t exist. If you point me at fMRI or Dennett for the first, you’re wrong; if you think the second, you’re crazy and I can’t continue this conversation on that path.

    So you admit you have no evidence or argument to show that they exist. Beyond our behavioural dispositions, and the perceptual discriminations we can make, there is nothing to explain. Talk of “qualia” is a form of reification, like treating “Truth” or “Beauty” as objects, or as Dennett says, ascribing the sleep-inducing property of opiates to a virtus dormitiva. (Incidentally, you quite obviously haven’t understood Dennett if you think it would make sense to point to him to “explain qualia”.)

  29. 29
    unemployedphilosopher

    @Nick Gott:

    If I knew enough about the tetrachromatism, I would know what additional discriminations I could make under what circumstances. That’s conceiving what it’s like.

    OK, I think I see the problem. We’re not on the same board when it comes to the semantic value of “conceive”. Yes, you’re correct: I’m sure most of us here can think about what different behaviors we might exhibit were we suddenly gifted with liney-wimey glasses or extra cones.

    But that’s not the issue I’m trying to drive at, the one Nagel raises in the bat article. That issue is: What would it be like to see the world with eyes having four cones? What different experiences would we have? Beats the heck out of me, at least until my liney-wimey glasses arrive in the mailbox.

    So you admit you have no evidence or argument to show that they exist.

    Oh, no. Lots of evidence. I’m experiencing some evidence right now, in fact. See, I just barked my shin on the coffee table, and it hurts like nobody’s business. That’s a quale, right there. Not my favorite one, I’ll admit.

    Beyond our behavioural dispositions, and the perceptual discriminations we can make, there is nothing to explain

    You mean that there is nothing more that current, and admittedly incomplete, science can explain? If so, hurrah! We’re finally on the same page. Since maybe you haven’t gotten this yet, let me once again say: I am not arguing for anything mystical. I am only saying that the work of science is not yet done.

    as Dennett says, ascribing the sleep-inducing property of opiates to a virtus dormitiva. (Incidentally, you quite obviously haven’t understood Dennett if you think it would make sense to point to him to “explain qualia”.)

    Dennett was hardly the first to make that claim — if I recall correctly, it was Leibniz, but I may be wrong about that. And I should have said “explain away” rather than “explain”, which is totally my fault. Oops?

  30. 30
    John Hinkle

    An old saying:

    A philosopher starts with a pen and a stack of paper.

    A scientist starts with a pencil, a stack of paper, and a waste basket.

  31. 31
    slc1

    Re Scott Hanley @ #14

    The real problem with Plantigna is that he doesn’t understand that there is no such thing as proof in science. Proof is a concept in mathematics and symbolic logic. In science there is only evidence that supports a given hypothesis or evidence that falsifies it. He is not alone in this regard, all too many non-scientists and more then a few scientists fail to understand this.

    Thus, Plantigna produces no evidence that falsifies evolution, he instead tries for a god of the gaps argument (e.g. evolution doesn’t explain X, therefore, there must be something wrong with the theory). Of course, the number of times in the history of science that god of the gaps arguments have proven to be unnecessary as the gaps are filled in would fill several volumes.

    Prime example, the stability of the Solar System, where Newton opined that god occasionally had to intervene to maintain the system, due to the interplanetary interactions. A hundred years later, Laplace filled in the gap by showing that the interplanetary interactions did not destabilize the system over long periods of time.

  32. 32
    aaronbaker

    KG @ 8:

    It’s not surprising Nagel falls for this line: one of his best-known articles is What is it like to be a bat?, in which he claims we can’t conceive what it is like; but we can: we can discover, experimentally, what perceptual discriminations bats can and can’t make, how information from their various senses is integrated, what actions they can and can’t perform. There’s nothing else to know.

    You’re kidding, right? Nagel’s point is that we can’t replicate the subjective quality of being a bat–and reciting a list of the attributes of bat perception, like echo-location et al., does NOT come close to proving that he’s wrong.

  33. 33
    aaronbaker

    KG @ 8:

    We will never be able to do that: if we build “androids that act and perceive and make decisions like humans” they will necessarily have “internal experience”.

    “Necessarily” is a strong word. Maybe drewtipson should have avoided the phrase “like humans,” but what is there about action, or even perception and decision, that always and everywhere entails internal experience? Are those 3 things inconceivable in the absence of internal experience? There are computers in the world now that receive and analyse light, sound waves, physical contacts, without interior experience–isn’t this a variety of perception?

  34. 34
    consciousness razor

    It’s an exclusive disjunction

    Okay, but it’s not a valid one. It could be that qualia (or “qualia” or whatever they are) are inexplicable. They don’t need to be explained in that case either.

  35. 35
    consciousness razor

    You’re kidding, right? Nagel’s point is that we can’t replicate the subjective quality of being a bat–and reciting a list of the attributes of bat perception, like echo-location et al., does NOT come close to proving that he’s wrong.

    I can’t replicate the subjective quality of being myself — not even to myself! What is it like to be me? I seriously do know how to even begin answering that question for myself, much less another person or another species. So what good is the question, if it’s not clear what it means and what a satisfactory answer would be?

  36. 36
    aaronbaker

    So what good is the question, if it’s not clear what it means and what a satisfactory answer would be?

    Well, like all other philosophical questions (which, in the modern usage of “philosophy,” seem always to be questions without satisfactory answers), it reminds us of the limitations of our knowledge. E.g. Socrates: I’m wise because I know I don’t know jack. I’m inclined to think that if philosophy has any practical value at all, it consists in letting us in on what’s problematic and why.

  37. 37
    consciousness razor

    Well, like all other philosophical questions (which, in the modern usage of “philosophy,” seem always to be questions without satisfactory answers), it reminds us of the limitations of our knowledge.

    Bullshit. That’s not all it’s meant to do.

    I should probably just ignore the claim that applies to “all other” philosophical questions. It’s more like “why is there something rather than nothing?” or “why did the chicken cross the road?”

    E.g. Socrates: I’m wise because I know I don’t know jack.

    Not “because.” Eh…. This is pointless.

    I’m inclined to think that if philosophy has any practical value at all, it consists in letting us in on what’s problematic and why.

    Sure, but in this case, it apparently doesn’t help. What is problematic and why?

  38. 38
    jj1800

    “I don’t know, therefore the least probable explanation” OR “Am I just off my nut?”

    Ah yes, the hard problem of consciousness. Although philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscience professionals have yet to come up a single definition of consciousness that they all can agree on, there is still enough overlap in their definitions that point to a common thread; it always involves a material brain with neurons and synapses. Humans, chimps, bonobos, porpoises, crows (draw the line wherever you like) all have this one thing in common; a material brain with neurons and synapses. In the human brain (I believe from the last paper I read), I think, has more than a billion neurons and more than a trillion possible synapses that they can fire between.

    So the sophisticated theologians’ response to the hard problem of consciousness is then, “It must therefore come from an even more aware consciousness that has ABSOLUTELY ZERO neurons and ABSOLUTELY ZERO synapses.

    So, is this the argument to the least probable explanation or I’m I just off my nut? Because if I’m not nuts, than I can’t understand why anyone hasn’t pointed out that the supernatural argument certainly is.

  39. 39
    aaronbaker

    37:

    Bullshit. That’s not all it’s meant to do.

    Didn’t say it was.

    Not “because.” Eh…. This is pointless.

    In the Apology, Socrates is made to say (sorry, no Greek font): “As if one were to say that this one of you, gentlemen, is wisest, who just like Socrates knows that he is worth nothing truly in respect to wisdom” (hoti houtos hymon, o anthropoi, sophotatos estin hostis hosper Sokrates egnoken hoti oudenos axios esti tei aletheai pros sophian.[23b]). Earlier, he says, of the first unwise person he questions, that “he supposes he knows something [while] not knowing it, but I, as is the case, don’t know, nor do I suppose” (oietai ti eidenai ouk eidos, ego de, hosper oun ouk oida, oude oiomai [21d]). How am I misreading this?

  40. 40
    martincothran

    … there is no evidence at all that consciousness operates on anything but a material basis.

    So what is consciousness made of, Ed?

  41. 41
    davem

    But I think there is and will always be a lot of elbow room for a “philosophy of the gaps” here until someone comes up with a good philosophical explanation of what consciousness IS.

    I’ll bet my pension that the first explanation of consciousness comes from a biologist (or just maybe a mathematician), not a philosopher. I’ll also bet it that computer scientists will create artificial intelligence about 3 months later, probably using a physically different method to do it.

  42. 42
    RickR

    martincothran- “So what is consciousness made of, Ed?”

    It isn’t “made of” anything. Consciousness is an emergent property of the brain. It’s what the brain “does”.

    You might as well ask “what is circulation made of?”

  43. 43
    aaronbaker

    I can’t replicate the subjective quality of being myself — not even to myself!

    I’m thinking more and more that I shouldn’t have used “replicate.” Substitute “experience.” You certainly experience the quality of being yourself, whether or not you have a persistent experience of it.

  44. 44
    consciousness razor
    Bullshit. That’s not all it’s meant to do.

    Didn’t say it was.

    Hmm…. “it reminds us of the limitations of our knowledge” describes epistemology, which is not “all other philosophical questions.” So that’s either not what you meant or I’m misinterpreting you.

    I’m thinking more and more that I shouldn’t have used “replicate.” Substitute “experience.”

    That doesn’t change a whole lot, as far as I’m concerned, but okay….

    Nagel’s point is that we can’t replicate [experience] the subjective quality* of being a bat–and reciting a list of the attributes of bat perception, like echo-location et al., does NOT come close to proving that he’s wrong.

    We can’t be bats because … we’re not bats. Well I guess that’s true.

    But wait, when you say “what is it like to be a bat?” do you mean what it would be like for us to be bats or for bats to be bats, or does it mean the same for both? Or would it be different for each of us, and maybe different for different bats too? Any which way, I don’t think the question is being asked of bats. If the question is, “What is it like for X to be not-X?” then the answer is “anything whatsoever,” because anything follows from a contradiction.

    *This is just kind of a nitpick, but notice that “experience the subjective quality” is redundant. There’s no sense in talking about “objective experience” or “non-experienced subjectivity”, or “non-qualitative experienced subjectivity” or anything else that doesn’t involve all three, because they all mean the same thing. “Being a bat” (or an X) in this case also seems to mean being that kind of subject (a bat or another X).

  45. 45
    drewtipson

    Nick Gotts (formerly KG):

    I think my point is that we may one day be able to say more about what internal perception IS and why it’s happening. When we do, I expect it will be explicable scientifically. But I don’t deny that it’s a pretty darned wacko thing.

    I think anyone who thinks we already have a good answer, or that the question is uninteresting or unsolvable, is underestimating just how big of a deal it will be when we do finally have a good answer.

  46. 46
    drewtipson

    rbh3:

    Sorry: by “philosophical explanation,” I should have just said “explanation.” Though empiricism is a philosophical position. Lucky for it that it’s the philosophical position that basically takes our common reality seriously, which happens to be the only way anyone is ever likely to agree on what is or isn’t true/knowledge.

  47. 47
    lancifer

    unemployedphilosopher,

    “Because we’re stuck in the world, we can’t objectively observe the world.”

    You are playing semantics here. You have defined objective and subjective to be unbridgeable constructs. If you were truly “outside” of the “world” you would have no way to make observations and thus no information to process about the world one way or another.

    We are on the earth but we can certainly make objective observations about it’s rotation, gravitational force, chemical composition etc. Your insistence that consciousness is not a physical phenomenon that can be objectively observed is an assertion without support.

    I’m not saying that there aren’t epistimological limits to knowledge but they are somewhat higher, and more subtle, than you have invoked. You seem intent on setting the boundary conditions so narrow as to allow only mysticism or total ignorance as rational positions on the nature of consciousness.

    I second Scott Hanley’s comments on the current state of what passes for “philosophy”.

    …philosophy is largely a great waste of intellect and should be ignored at every opportunity.

  48. 48
    martincothran

    RickR:

    It isn’t “made of” anything. Consciousness is an emergent property of the brain. It’s what the brain “does”.

    You might as well ask “what is circulation made of?”

    To simply say consciousness is what the brain “does” is hardly an enlightening assertion. That is what we are supposed to be satisfied by as an account of consciousness? We know what blood does in circulation and the entire account of it is material. How do you say the same thing of the contents of consciousness? What do thoughts or ideas or concepts consist of?

    Waving a magic word wand and simply saying consciousness is what the brain “does” doesn’t tell us anything about what consciousness is.

  49. 49
    rbh3

    martincothran says:

    September 27, 2012 at 12:31 am
    … there is no evidence at all that consciousness operates on anything but a material basis.

    So what is consciousness made of, Ed?

    And cothran later in the thread:

    Waving a magic word wand and simply saying consciousness is what the brain “does” doesn’t tell us anything about what consciousness is.

    Fallacy of reification alert in both Cothran quotes. They’re equivalent to asking what waves on a lake are made of. Consciousness is not a ‘thing’ made of stuff; it’s a process composed of patterns of neuronal activation instantiated in a matter-and-energy brain, just as waves are patterns of behavior of water molecules instantiated in bodies of water. (Note carefully that I do not claim that water waves must be fully explicable at the micro-level of water molecules; higher-level concepts and variables are useful there.)

    That is not, of course, the end of the account; it’s a beginning place. Regarding consciousness as what the brain does points directly to research directions that are becoming more and more fruitful.

  50. 50
    aaronbaker

    consciousness razor:

    correctly or not, I don’t believe that only what are usually called epistemological questions tell us something about the limits of our knowledge. Ethical, metaphysical, and as far as I can tell, ALL other philosophical questions communicate something to us about the limits of our knowledge. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that there’s an epistemological component to all philosophical questions.

    Now maybe I misunderstood your “bullshit” ejaculation, but I also believe that reminding us of the limits of our knowledge is not ALL that philosophical questions do–and I don’t think I said anything that should be construed as implying otherwise.

    “’experience the subjective quality’ is redundant”: Yes, which is why I left “subjective” out of my reformulation above: I said: “You certainly experience the quality of being yourself.”

    I would put Nagel’s intuition this way: as a human being, I have consciousness and this consciousness has certain qualities. I have reason to believe (if I’m not a solipsist) that other human beings are likewise equipped. But I also know that their interior lives, their consciousness, MUST differ from mine because they reveal to me that they differ: e.g. a person blind from birth has no conception of what it is like to sense red or green. Also, a Republican who likes anchovies and heavy metal clearly apprehends the world and himself/herself in ways different from mine; a member of the opposite sex does as well, and so on. Nagel, without being explicit about human differences, draws the plausible inference that a member of another species must have an interior life, a consciousness, very different from any of our consciousnesses–such that we cannot accurately imagine what it is like to be such a creature. This inability would, I would suggest, persistently be the case for every one of us, however much or little our own subjective natures change. This seems to me be so obviously true as to verge on banality–but evidently not everyone agrees.

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