Thursday, March 21, 2013

Nagel and his critics, Part VII

Let’s return to our look at the critics of Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos.  New commentary on Nagel’s book continues to appear, and to some extent it repeats points made by earlier reviewers I’ve already responded to.  Here I want to say something about Mohan Matthen’s review in The Philosophers Magazine.  In particular, I want to address what Matthen says about the issue of whether conscious awareness could arise in a purely material cosmos.  (Matthen has also commented on Nagel’s book over at the New APPS blog, e.g. here.)

Origins of the mind-body problem

First some stage-setting is in order.  In Mind and Cosmos, Nagel writes:

Consciousness is the most conspicuous obstacle to a comprehensive naturalism that relies only on the resources of physical science.  The existence of consciousness seems to imply that the physical description of the universe, in spite of its richness and explanatory power, is only part of the truth, and that the natural order is far less austere than it would be if physics and chemistry accounted for everything.  If we take this problem seriously, and follow out its implications, it threatens to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture. (p. 35)

Now some of Nagel’s critics agree with him that consciousness poses a serious philosophical puzzle, even if they think its consequences are less dire for materialism than Nagel supposes.  H. Allen Orr allows as much in his review in The New York Review of Books, and we saw in an earlier post that Alva Noë does so too in his own remarks on Nagel.  But some naturalists are bound to think Nagel must surely be massively overstating things.  For science (so the naturalist supposes) has by now explained pretty much everything else; how could consciousness, which has existed only for a relatively short time and in only a relatively tiny percentage of the universe, possibly be a holdout, much less something which “threatens to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture”?

This attitude -- which, I hasten to add, is not one Matthen himself expresses in his review -- is, I think, very common, but it is grounded in an illusion.  To see the fallacy, consider an analogy I’ve used many times before.  Suppose someone is cleaning the house and carefully sweeps the dirt out of each room into a certain hallway, where he then proceeds to sweep the various piles of dirt he’s created under a certain rug.  You tell him that that’s all well and good, but that he has still failed to get rid of the dirt under the rug itself and cannot do so using the same method.  He replies:

Are you kidding?  The “sweep it under the rug” method is one long success story, having worked everywhere else.  How plausible is it that this one little rug in this one little hallway would be the only holdout?  Obviously it’s just a matter of time before it yields to the same method.  If you think otherwise you’re just flying in the face of the facts -- and, I might add, the consensus of the community of sweepers.  Evidently you’ve got some sentimental attachment to this rug and desperately want to think that it is special somehow.  Or is it some superstitious religious dogma you’re trying to salvage?  What do you think it is, a magic carpet? 

The sweeper thinks his critic is delusional, but of course he is himself the delusional one.  For the dirt under the rug is obviously the one pile which the “sweep it under the rug” method cannot possibly get rid of, and indeed the more successful that method is elsewhere, the more problematic the particular pile under the rug becomes.  The sweeper’s method cannot solve the “dirt under the rug problem” precisely because that method is the source of the problem -- the problem is the price the method’s user must pay for the success it achieves elsewhere. 

Now this delusion is exactly parallel to one to which many naturalists are prone.  As Nagel writes in Mind and Cosmos:

The modern mind-body problem arose out of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, as a direct result of the concept of objective physical reality that drove that revolution.  Galileo and Descartes made the crucial conceptual division by proposing that physical science should provide a mathematically precise quantitative description of an external reality extended in space and time, a description limited to spatiotemporal primary qualities such as shape, size, and motion, and to laws governing the relations among them.  Subjective appearances, on the other hand -- how this physical world appears to human perception -- were assigned to the mind, and the secondary qualities like color, sound, and smell were to be analyzed relationally, in terms of the power of physical things, acting on the senses, to produce those appearances in the minds of observers.  It was essential to leave out or subtract subjective appearances and the human mind -- as well as human intentions and purposes -- from the physical world in order to permit this powerful but austere spatiotemporal conception of objective physical reality to develop. (pp. 35-36)

This is a theme in Nagel’s work that goes back to his famous 1974 article “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”, and as I have emphasized in earlier posts in this series, it is crucial to understanding what he says in the new book.  Human beings are like the hallway in my example, and the human mind is like the rug.  The “mathematically precise quantitative description” of the natural world provided by modern science has been as successful as it has been only because those aspects of the natural world that don’t fit that method -- irreducibly qualitative features like color, sound, etc. as they appear to us (as contrasted with scientific redefinitions of color, sound, etc. in terms of such quantifiable features as surface reflectance properties, compression waves, and the like); and final causes, teleology, or purposes -- were swept under the rug of the mind, re-characterized as purely “subjective,” as mere projections that only seem to be features of the external world but are really only aspects of our perceptual representation of it. 

As Nagel says, it was precisely this methodological revolution that created the mind-body problem, just as the “sweep it under the rug” method in my example creates a “dirt under the rug problem.”  If you essentially define the physical in such a way that it excludes color, sound, purpose, etc. as they appear to us in ordinary experience, and define the mental in such a way that it is the repository of these qualities you have removed from the physical world, then you have carved up the conceptual territory in a way that rules out from the get-go an explanation of the mental in terms of the physical.  Far from constituting a desperate resistance to the implications of the scientific revolution, dualism of this essentially Cartesian sort was a consequence of that revolution.  (And again, color, sound, etc. as they appear to us are to be distinguished from color, sound, etc. as redefined by physics -- though they are sometimes conflated by sloppier naturalists.) 

Early modern thinkers like Cudworth and Malebranche made of this new conception of the physical an explicit argument for dualism, and more recent dualists like Richard Swinburne have done the same.  Naturalists like Nagel, John Searle, and Alva Noë do not endorse dualism, but they do see that the methodological revolution in question is the source of the mind-body problem, and thus can hardly in any obvious way provide a solution to it.  It is the height of philosophical and historical superficiality to suppose otherwise.

Matthen’s misreading of Nagel

Now I am certainly not accusing Matthen of philosophical or historical superficiality; on the contrary, he is a formidable philosopher of perception and scholar of Aristotle.  But his remarks about Nagel’s position vis-à-vis the origin of consciousness oddly take no account of the roots of the mind-body problem in the moderns’ conception of matter -- even though this has for almost forty years been a central theme of Nagel’s work on consciousness, and one revisited in the new book.  (In this respect Matthen’s critique of Nagel’s suffers from the same weakness as that of Leiter and Weisberg, which I discussed in an earlier post in this series.) 

Matthen instead summarizes Nagel’s position as follows:

Nagel’s reasons for thinking that Darwinism is incomplete with respect to consciousness are summarised in an argument he gives in chapter three.  Suppose we knew (a) why all organisms of material constitution M are conscious and (b) how M-constituted organisms emerged by “purely physical evolution”.  (a) and (b) might seem together to imply that we know how and why consciousness evolved, but Nagel thinks they do not.

For though (b) explains event types involving material constitution M, we still lack an explanation of event types involving consciousness.  To understand the latter, Nagel claims, we need to know why evolution produced consciousness.  Such an explanation must make it “likely” that evolution produced conscious organisms under the description “conscious”, and not merely under the description “M-constituted”.  There must be such an explanation, he says, since “organisms such as ourselves do not just happen to be conscious”.

Nagel does not contest the possibility of knowing (a) and (b). (a) is a non-historical reduction of consciousness to material constitution; (b) is an evolutionary account of the emergence of the material properties underlying consciousness.  Nagel’s central contention is rather that (a) and (b) together do not suffice to make the emergence of consciousness non-accidental.

End quote.  Matthen goes on to stress that Nagel’s objection to Darwinian accounts of consciousness is not that the concepts we apply in psychology are different from those we apply in physics; on the contrary, Matthen notes, Nagel says that he “suspect[s] that the appearance of contingency in the relation between mind and brain is probably an illusion, and that it is in fact a necessary but nonconceptual connection, concealed from us by the inadequacy of our present concepts” (Mind and Cosmos, pp. 41-42).  Matthen also suggests that even if “evolutionary theory does not make it probable that conscious creatures will emerge,” it is still perfectly reasonable to “hope… that a material account can be given for each realisation of consciousness” and notes that “neuroscientists are certainly hard at work trying to figure out how particular conscious processes are physically realised in humans and other species.” 

Given all this, Matthen wonders what the big deal is supposed to be: 

[E]ven if there are grounds for pessimism about understanding the emergence of consciousness-as-such in Darwinian terms, this pessimism arises from the fragmentary nature of science and the unavailability of boundary-crossing definitions of consciousness, and not from the exclusion of any material factor.

If I understand him correctly, Matthen seems to think that Nagel’s position really boils down to a complaint that the most we can ever justify is token physicalism rather than type physicalism, coupled with a complaint that what we know about the state of the material universe prior to the existence of consciousness does not make it probable that consciousness would emerge via mutation and natural selection.  And this, Matthen thinks (again, if I understand him correctly), is not the sort of thing that should worry any materialist.  For it is sufficient for the truth of materialism if each individual token conscious state is realized in some individual token material state or other, even if -- given the differences between the concepts we apply in psychology and those we apply in physical science -- we cannot match up types of conscious states and types of material states.  (Cf. Donald Davidson.)  And our inability to tell any detailed story about how consciousness emerged via mutation and natural selection is in no way surprising given the contingencies of natural history and the necessarily fragmentary nature of our knowledge of the relevant facts.

Now if all Nagel is saying is what Matthen attributes to him, then Matthen would be right that it does not constitute a serious challenge to materialism.  But it is not what Nagel is saying.  To be sure, Matthen is correct when he says that Nagel’s complaint is not merely that psychological concepts and physical concepts are different, and he is right to note that Nagel thinks that there may in fact be a necessary connection between mind and brain that is masked by our present concepts.  But that is not because Nagel is open to any kind of token physicalism or otherwise thinks materialism gives us at least a partial explanation of consciousness.  On the contrary, Nagel’s view is that the concepts of mind and matter that have come down to us from the scientific revolution are not merely different -- as the concept of the morning star is different from the concept of the evening star, even though they apply to the same thing (i.e. Venus) -- but that they positively exclude each other, so that what is “mental” in the sense in question cannot be “physical” in the sense in question.  Of the various brands of materialism, Nagel writes:

[A]ll such strategies are unsatisfactory for the same old reason: even with the brain added to the picture, they clearly leave out something essential, without which there would be no mind.  And what they leave out is just what deliberately left out of the physical world by Descartes and Galileo in order to form the modern concept of the physical, namely, subjective appearances.  (p. 40)

It is only given a “major conceptual revolution” that will issue in “new concepts” (p. 42), and in particular some new, non-physicalist, non-materialist conception of the physical, that Nagel thinks the mental and the physical may turn out to be necessarily connected.  Indeed, Nagel holds that “materialism is incomplete even as a theory of the physical world” (p. 45), so that “the usual view of evolution must be revised” insofar as “it is not just a physical process” in the usual sense but must include features to be described by some new “general psychophysical theory” (p. 50).  Such a theory might explain our conscious states in terms of our elementary constituents, but only if “the elementary constituents of which we are composed are not merely physical,” as the physical is understood in physical science (p. 54).  This new view of matter would not be materialist, but perhaps instead closer to a position like neutral monism or even panpsychism (p. 57).

Matthen’s characterization of Nagel’s position is thus highly misleading, for Nagel is not conceding nearly as much as Matthen seems to think he is.  As we have seen, Matthen claims that “Nagel does not contest the possibility of knowing… (a) why all organisms of material constitution M are conscious and (b) how M-constituted organisms emerged by ‘purely physical evolution.’”  But it is only given a radically novel conception of the physical, and not the materialist’s conception of the physical, that Nagel thinks we might know (a) and (b).  Nagel is not saying: “Yes, I acknowledge that the materialist neo-Darwinian position that is my target can at least account for why organisms of material constitution M (where M is understood in the usual materialist way) are conscious, and that it can account for how M-constituted organisms emerged by purely physical evolution (where “physical” is understood in the usual materialist way).  It’s just that I think that more than even that is needed for a complete explanation.” 

On the contrary, Nagel compares the supposition that materialist neo-Darwinism can account for consciousness to the obviously fallacious supposition that to explain the physical means by which a calculator displays the symbol “8” when the symbols “3 + 5 =” are tapped into it is sufficient all by itself to explain why what it does counts as arithmetic (pp. 51-52).  A description of the purely physical features of the calculator can account only for the symbols considered as mere physical marks, and not for their content.  For an explanation of the latter, we need to go outside the purely physical facts to the intentions of the calculator’s designer.  Similarly, the “physical” facts as the materialist conceives of them cannot possibly account for consciousness precisely because the conception of the physical the materialist has inherited from early modern thinkers like Galileo, Descartes, and Co. has defined the mental out of the physical, making the physical as devoid of mental features as the symbols on the screen of a calculator are devoid of any inherent, non-derived arithmetical content.  You will never get even a partial explanation of the arithmetical content, specifically, of the symbols displayed by a pocket calculator by doing physics alone and ignoring the intentions of designers and users.  Neither, in Nagel’s view, will you get anywhere close to an explanation of consciousness if you confine yourself to the physical as the physical is understood by materialists (as opposed to the various conceptions defended by neutral monists, panpsychists, Aristotelians, and others).

Matthen, in short, has simply missed Nagel’s point, and missed it badly, or so it seems to me.  And he has missed it because like some other reviewers he has failed to read Nagel’s new book in light of the themes on the topic of consciousness for which Nagel is best known -- this despite the fact that Nagel summarizes those themes in the very chapter Matthen focuses on in his review. 

In general it is quite remarkable how little attention some of Nagel’s reviewers pay to the actual details of the book.  Someone who has only read the reviews might come away with the false impression that Mind and Cosmos is fundamentally a book about biology (about which Nagel is by his own admission no expert), that his main claim is that the materialist neo-Darwinian account of consciousness and other phenomena is improbable, and that this claim is grounded in common sense intuitions.  In fact it is fundamentally a book about metaphysics (about which Nagel is an expert), it argues that a materialist neo-Darwinian account of consciousness and some other phenomena is impossible in principle, and the arguments in question are grounded not in mere intuitions but in a philosophically rigorous and historically informed analysis that Nagel has been developing for decades (and which is only briefly summarized in the book).  Nagel does think the arguments support some common sense intuitions, but that is different from resting on a mere appeal to such intuitions.  That common sense is right in the relevant respects is a consequence of his arguments, not the foundation of his arguments.

In Matthen’s case I do not attribute his misunderstanding of Nagel’s position to ill will or dishonesty, for his review is substantive and non-polemical.  Elliott Sober acknowledged in his review of Nagel (to which I responded here) that his own “reactions may be mired in presuppositions that Nagel is trying to transcend.”  It seems to me that that is what might be happening here -- Matthen is reading into Nagel a less radical challenge to materialism than is really there, and thus (unsurprisingly) finds it less challenging than it really is.


  1. Marvelous post, thank you Mr Feser.

    An intelligent alien species that had no internal states like our own qualia etc upon studying humans would think they had a sound understanding of all there is to know by studying our outward behaviour, molecular structure, breeding patterns and so on because they would not know what it is even if they heard the humans using words to try and explain it. This makes me wonder what we in turn are not able to see /what higher orders there might be which because we don't experience them we are simply unable to imagine which also may be impossible in principle to find empirically even if we wanted to.

  2. Dr. Feser, your choice of comic-book illustrations continues to amuse. Cosmic Awareness, indeed!

  3. The problem of consciousness is so fundamental a challenge to the materialist world view that it can be hard to see if you're not really looking, and so mental concepts sneak into materialist thinking all the time even though materialists themselves would deny any such thing. After all, thinks the materialist, once we've discovered that "heat" just IS "molecular motion" what more need be said? But, of course, lost in the shuffle is the actually qualitative phenomenon of heat itself. So goes all such thinking. Materialists don't see that the dirt under the rug is enough to blanket the whole carpet. It's as if half of all existence and understanding has simply been forgotten or ignored. What's become truly scary is the way that the philosophic and scientific establishment now simply marches in lockstep and assumes that materialism must be right, full stop, even if consciousness is "mysterious" and "a problem yet to be solved by science." What they refuse to see is that any real solution to the dilemma will be a bitter pill to swallow, upsetting as it will all the presuppositions of their philosophic worldview, a scheme they have spent decades (and centuries) cultivating.

  4. Great post Dr. Feser, thanks! This not the first time I quote you in my blog (which is in Finnish, so I won´t give a link...)

  5. Off topic: there's an interesting discussion about a recent rabbi's contribution at the Huffington Post on Lane Craig's most recent reasonable faith podcast. Craig gives a positive evaluation of Thomistic cosmological arguments among others although, presumably because he does not share Aquinas' metaphysical underpinnings, and a la Swinburne, he rejects the idea that these arguments are demonstrations.

  6. @Anon: I think Prof. Feser is well aware of it - . :-)

  7. Hi Danielius, I was just drawing attention to the Craig podcast rather than the article itself, but thanks for the link to the Feser post.

  8. Feser is cited by name in the mentioned Reasonable Faith Podcast.

    Also, Craig does a good job explaining the essentially ordered series, so it's worth check out.

  9. This is one of the most helpful posts I've seen on Nagel's book (which is on my To Read List). It sounds like he is saying, and that you are also saying, that Keith Ward's reworking of Whitehead's process philosophy, as discussed in Ward's More Than Matter, is how reality is really constructed and functions (a sort of panpsychism from what I can gather ... I'm just a retired layman with a interest in the topic).

    I'm torn between support for that view and a view that might be derived from a Wittgensteinian thought process: that we have created a false problem (he argued that most philosophical problems are non problems). We recognize that we have sensing apparatuses that send signals into the brain and that those are "turned into" representation signals, one example of which might be redness. We say that this redness, which does not equate to anything that actually exists in reality (as red really does not exist ... it is only a range of wavelengths), is subjective and that the redness you see might be different than the redness I see, and we get all flustered and think this is a problem and some sort of deep mystery.

    Anyway, good to see Nagel getting some support instead of just badmouthing. It's high time someone got "out of the box," instead of holding us to the mindset we've had for hundreds of years.

  10. This is totally off topic Dr. Feser, but Dr. William Craig just gave a talk at Texas A&M University and I asked him if he knew of you and what he thought of your work, and he replied that in his debate with Alex Rosenberg, he utilized your "long blog posts" on The Atheist's Guide to Reality and found them "very useful." Just thought I should let you know.

  11. Hi Ed,

    Great post. Much appreciated. The series on Nagel is magnificent.

    Here's a quick question for everyone: how does God know qualia (say, the color yellow or the smell of lilac)?

  12. An excellent and complex topic made readable. The emergence of consciousness from, or its supervenience onto, any correlated physical processes (in brain functioning) appears to parallel the problem of emergence or supervenience of unpredicted properties with respect to any macroscopic system (even one as 'simple' as water or as 'complicated' as semiconductors). How would A-T theory of matter and form resolve this? (and yes, I am still reading your mind-body roundup. Thanks:

  13. @C emerson

    Unpredicted properties don't emerge from macroscopic systems, they emerge from the mind of the beholder in the same way that cherries emerge from squares.

    All physical properties are algorithmically reducible to the behavior of their building blocks without remainder. There is no extra 'magic ingredient' emerging from the side of the physical object or system. The 'magic' is from the mind of the observer. All emergent properies and emergent phenomena are psychological, rather than physical, in origin

  14. Not to sidetrack the discussion.

    But is there a Thomistic philosophical approach to depression and anxiety?

    Thank you.

  15. I'm genuinely not trying to make light of what is a serious issue (mental health care), but I'm sure I remember reading Aquinas saying something about a glass of wine and a hot bath to raise the spirits.

    Perhaps not C.B.T but it'll work for me! That said, maybe others can elucidate a more helpful Thomistic therapy for what is undoubtedly a terrible condition for so many.

    Maritain might also be helpful here, given that he and his wife appear to have made a suicide pact if life, as it seemed to them in their preconversion days, were indeed absurd. I'm not sure if Maritain addressed the issue in writing but the Church and the couple's prayerful spirituality certainly seems to have helped them both.

  16. Unpredicted properties emerge from most every complex new design, be it a car or electronic circuit. Try not to forget that a million years is a long time and that brains have been evolving for half a billion. A lot can happen in that much time, our knowledge of electronics is less than 100.

    As for scientists not giving up, that should be commended. It is the scientist who abandons the quest who should be mocked, not the ones who keep trying.

  17. "Unpredicted properties emerge from most every complex new design, be it a car or electronic circuit."

    Such as?

  18. You want to know what it is like to be a bat?

    Record the bat's experiences, eg. the bat's memory.

    What would a mind completely devoid of senses possibly know?

    This simple question eliminates all forms of dualism, not to mention eliminating any possibility of the mind resulting entirely from anything other than completely physical processes.

    Without physical senses there is no I.

  19. What would a mind completely devoid of senses possibly know?

    The integers

  20. "Unpredicted properties emerge from most every complex new design, be it a car or electronic circuit."
    Such as?

    I think by unpredicted properties emerging he means something you didn't consciously anticipate. Like the number 8 gazillion is "emergent" because you never counted that high before.

  21. Record the bats electrical impulses then figure it out what the heck they mean, THEN IMAGINE, what is like be a bat... Yup, target missed completely.

    A mind without senses can't know anything, this eliminate all forms of dualism, because all forms of dualism defend that mind and brain are completely distinct and have no relation... Or maybe I am too damn ignorant.

  22. Mind is an emergent phenomenon of matter.
    All emergent phenomena are psychological in origin.
    Therefore mind originates from mind.

  23. "Without physical senses there is no I."

    Lol, I'm sure some philosophers would argue that even with physical senses there is no I.

  24. Lol Sean, isn't that a bit cruel for those who defend physicalism, and other forms of philosophy that defend that reality is account for fundamental building blocks and anything that can't be produced by these buidling blocks is an illusion.

  25. Anon above me, you are missing the point of fairy dust Anon.

    He is pressuposing that any form of cognition is physical and can't in principle be any other way and going from there.

    No wait.... This reply doesn't really hurt your position....

  26. Eduardo, regardless of your ability to interpret the impulses, the impulses would, nonetheless, portray what it is like to be said bat.

    And when I said all forms of dualism, I meant all forms of dualism.

    Seanrobsville, how exactly would said senseless mind know anything about integers? Answer of course would not.

    Consider your own internal dialog.

  27. It seems like some people still think that brain damage "refutes" Cartesian dualism. Or that "why would the mind need the brain/body?" is a good objection. I mean really, if you are going to argue against Descartes, you should at least adopt a non-vacuous objection, like the interaction problem.

  28. No it wouldn't... It would just be impulses that I interpret with my Human brain, that is all.

    Sure, why would that question hurt ALL form of dualism? Let's start with the help other people, list ALL forms of dualism shall we?

  29. "What about the Cartesian dualist? Don’t the differences between Descartes’ views and those of his Scholastic predecessors make him vulnerable to the findings of neuroscience in a way the latter are not? No, they don’t. For one thing, and as I have noted in an earlier post, Descartes’ views on this subject were not in fact quite as different from those of his predecessors as is often supposed. For example, Descartes’ view appears to have been that it is the intellect, specifically, which is to be identified with the ego he thinks is capable of existing apart from the body. Sensations, emotions, and the like he regarded, not as purely mental phenomena, but rather as hybrid properties which can be predicated only of the soul-body composite, and not the soul alone. Hence even on Descartes’ view it is not at all surprising that neuroscience has discovered all sorts of correlations between various aspects of perceptual experience and various emotional states on the one hand, and various processes in the brain on the other."

  30. Eduardo, I didn't think it necessary to discuss physiological distinctions, as I supposed that such would be acknowledged as a given. However, even those could be addressed, once again, physically.

  31. Seanrobsville, how exactly would said senseless mind know anything about integers? Answer is... contemplating the empty set.

  32. Alan,

    As for scientists not giving up, that should be commended. It is the scientist who abandons the quest who should be mocked, not the ones who keep trying.

    I hope you won't blow your top, but I disagree (1). I do realize, of course, that that I disagree is not a good enough reason for you to budge from your position (2).

    Silliness aside (see indicated footnotes), the simple fact of the matter is that--if we may go back to it--Turing's test, at least as he defined it, is very much about duping the credulous (3)(4).

    Given that there have been considerably more than a handful of holdouts, i.e., non-credulous people who haven't been duped, it isn't clear to me why one would think that those scientists should be commended who persist in their efforts to dupe the non-credulous.


  33. (1) See 'Scientists give up predicting volcanoes after finding it too hard' here.

    (2) See 'Scientists give up; sloth won't move' here.

    (3) When asked in 1952 if he had a mechanical definition of thinking, Turing replied (here), I don't want to give a definition of thinking, but if I had to I should possibly be unable to say anything more about it than that it was a sort of buzzing that went on inside my head. But I don't really see that we need to agree on a definition at all. The important thing is to try to draw a line between the properties of a brain, or of a man, that we want to discuss, and those that we don't. To take an extreme case, we are not interested in the fact that the brain has the consistency of cold porridge. We don't want to say "This machine's quite hard, so it isn't a brain, and so it can't think." I would like to suggest a particular kind of test that one might apply to a machine. You might call it a test to see whether the machine thinks, but it would be better to avoid begging the question, and say that the machines that pass are (let's say) Grade A. machines. The idea of the test is that the machine has to try and pretend to be a man, by answering questions put to it, and it will only pass if the pretence is reasonably convincing. A considerable proportion of a jury, who should not be expert about machines, must be taken in by the pretence. They aren't allowed to see the machine itself - that would make it too easy... And the questions don't really have to be questions, any more than questions in a law court are really questions. You know the sort of thing. "I put it to you that you are only pretending to be a man" would be quite in order. Likewise the machine would be permitted all sorts of tricks so as to appear more man-like[.]

    (4) In a 1951 paper, Turing wrote (here), To behave like a brain seems to involve free will, but the behaviour of a digital computer, when it has been programmed, is completely determined. These two facts must somehow be reconciled, but to do so seems to involve us in an age-old controversy that of 'free will and determinism'. There are two ways out. It may be that the feeling of free will which we all have is an illusion. Or it may be that we really have got free will, but that there is no way of telling from our behaviour that this is so. In the latter case, however well a machine imitates a man's behaviour it is to be regarded as a mere sham. I do not know how we can ever decide between these alternatives but whichever is the correct one it is certain that a machine which is to imitate a brain must appear to behave as if it had free will, and it may well be asked how this is to be achieved. One possibility is to make its behaviour depend on something like a roulette wheel or a supply of radium. The behaviour of these may perhaps be predictable, but if so, we do not know how to do the prediction. It is, however, not really even necessary to do this. It is not difficult to design machines whose behaviour appears quite random to anyone who does not know the details of their construction[.]

  34. "...neuroscience has discovered all sorts of correlations between various aspects of perceptual experience and various emotional states on the one hand, and various processes in the brain on the other."

    Correlation but not causation. There is no demonstrable mechanistic causal relation between brain states and qualia.

    Even if we knew the complete brain state in terms of the firing of every neuron and configuration of every macromolecule, the qualitative aspect of the mind could never in principle be understood mechanistically.

    For example, if we knew that when neurones A, B and C fired together we experienced hate, and when neurones X,Y and Z fired we experienced love, then we would know that there was a correlation, but the mechanism that bridged the gap between quantitative brain state and qualitative mind state would remain beyond the scope of any neurophysical understanding.

    There is no conceivable mechanistic (i.e. procedural or algorithmic) chain of causality from physical states to subjective qualitative states. So the causality must be of a non-physical type which originates in the the mind rather the biophysical brain.

  35. Sean, except there would be no empty, not to mention no set, as both of these concepts require input , as does any concept, in the first place.

  36. Annndddd.....

    You mean you will adjust the difference between brains and you will KNOW what is like to be a bat?

    I think you are just imagining what is like to be a bat.

    I guess you are arguing that conscious is physical and physical alone, or rather you are stating that it is so. The prove is that, brains store memories, so conscious equals perception, voila conscious is physical.........

    That is the same shit Dennett said once in one of those TED presentations. Anyways, if I could have access to your memories, would I know what is like to be Fairy Dust Anon? Would I know your anger? Is that stored inside memories too, or that will activate anger in me when I see alll those 0's and 1's? Would I know your ideology, or philosophy, would that be clear in those records? Is there a memory for when you reached a conclusion? I remember a physician saying in one of these discussions that the brain forgets a lot of stuff. But even so, if I pack all your memories would have the same conscious as you?

    Be able to live two lives, I wonder what fucked up shit happened to you XD, all those little secrets revealed in 3D.... Hmmmmm

  37. "Correlation but not causation. There is no demonstrable mechanistic causal relation between brain states and qualia."

    I know. I brought up that quote to show that, even in Decartes form of dualism, "bodily correlates" are to be expected. If they are to be expected, then bodily correlates can hardly be a refutation of Descartes. Some people think that, if dualism was true, then we would not need a body or a brain at all. Of course, that's a complete misunderstanding.

  38. Eduardo, you seem to be harboring some hostility.

    Yes, consciousness is the result of completely physical processes.

  39. Then please demonstrate...

    You seem to be very resistance to hostility, apparently that tactic won't work to make you do some actualy argument.

    So let's then see what you got shall we? demonstrate how conscious is physical?

    And don't you dare use the IOU excuse... if you know it is physical, you have a reason to think like that, and I wanna hear it!!!

  40. Materialism, Abstractions and Reification:

    Churchland's Objections:

  41. @Glenn: your comment, with footnotes: a thing of beauty! (on par with Feser's article.) Thank you (both) for making the world a brighter, better place.

  42. "What would a mind completely devoid of senses possibly know? . . .

    Without physical senses there is no I."

    This argument equivocates on the meaning of "senses."

    A mind completely devoid of experience might not know anything, and it's at least arguable that experience must involve some sort of sensory modality: all experience may well involve "sensing" in a broad way, at least if we regard things like intellectual grasp as "sensing."

    But that doesn't get us all the way to physical sense organs. To think otherwise is to make something analogous to the mistake (too common in some circles) of identifying qualia with their usual physical causes—a color with certain wavelengths of light, for example, or a pitch with a certain frequency of atmospheric pressure wave.

    I sometimes have dreams in which I hear (for example) a door slam with such vividness that it actually wakes me up—but there's no physical door slamming and there are no physical sound waves impacting my ears.

    It's true that I wouldn't know what a "door slamming" sounded like subjectively unless I had previously heard the sound through physical sense organs, but that's beside the point. The point is that I can experience qualia without using my sense organs, and so it must be a mistake to identify sensory experience solely with the operation of those organs.

    And at any rate, to assert that all such experiential content must reach the mind from the "outside" through physical senses would beg the question. To say that experience by nature always has an intentional "object" at one pole doesn't commit us to any view as to where that object "comes from."

    So I'm calling it: an undistributed middle, and possibly a petitio principii

  43. And the anony-storm continues.

    I have seen some blogs using this program (blogger) that have no anonymous posting option, instead you need something like a google account, or some other type of commenting account (OpenID).

  44. I wrote hundred of words exploring, what I asked Anon to demonstrate to me...

    but it is too damn long, and sincerely.... I feel like it is worthless to discuss anything with a Fairy Dust... after you don't really exist do you brother?


  45. Glenn: ‘Don’t give up’ was a general admonition, I’ve no issue with moving on to lines of inquiry with better prospects. Mind from brain, however, is far too tantalizing to move away from for long, let’s see where we are in fifty years. Tricksters will always be among us – we can hope for their early exposure.

  46. Scott, using the Name/URL optionMarch 22, 2013 at 2:58 PM


    "And the anony-storm continues.

    I have seen some blogs using this program (blogger) that have no anonymous posting option, instead you need something like a google account, or some other type of commenting account (OpenID)."

    Indeed. And even though it isn't required here, it would be much easier to keep everyone straight if all the anonymous posters would be considerate enough to avail themselves of the Name/URL option. I don't know what's so hard about clicking a radio button and typing a name.

  47. Anonymous: if you are going to argue against Descartes, you should at least adopt a non-vacuous objection, like the interaction problem.

    Yes, those other "objections" completely miss the point. But so does the so-called "interaction problem": just try to explain what's so problematic without defining "action" as "physical action".

  48. What I haven't yet seen in the ComBox, and hope to see, is a brief description of the A-T theory of matter-form and a summary of how that resolves or differs from other mind-brain philosophies. Any Thomists available who want to address that? Thanks in advance.

  49. emerson,

    In Feser's mind-body roundup, check out the posts under

    "Defenses of Thomistic or hylemorphic dualism (which I endorse) can be found in the following posts"

    I also think that Oderberg has a paper on hylemorphic dualism, I'll see if I can find it. Since I'm not an expert, the best I can do is direct you to links. Maybe someone else can give you the basics here.

  50. @c emerson:

    BLS wrote, "I also think that Oderberg has a paper on hylemorphic dualism, I'll see if I can find it."

    He does, and it's here.

  51. What I haven't yet seen in the ComBox, and hope to see, is a brief description of the A-T theory of matter-form and a summary of how that resolves or differs from other mind-brain philosophies. Any Thomists available who want to address that? Thanks in advance.

    Mind-brain problems in other philosophies derive from the idea that the mind is A) the efficient cause of bodily activity and B) a separate substance. How, exactly, is an immaterial substance supposed to interact with a material one as its efficient cause? It's just nonsense. Thomists deny that there is any "immaterial substance" that controls the body. The only substances are form/matter hybrids, and in this respect humans are no different than animals or rocks. The difference is that a human form manifests powers that are not totally reliant on matter: the mental powers of reason. But it must be absolutely clear that the mind is not the form of the body. It's only a power that the human form happens to manifest. This is the reason that it's unified with the body--it's just one of many traits brought out by the form, alongside material traits like sensation. There is no interaction problem, because material and immaterial human traits both originate from the form, which unifies them with each other and with the body.

    Honestly, the Thomistic idea of the mind leans toward monism more than it does dualism, even though it's ultimately neither. I do agree with Freddoso that calling it dualism can lead to newcomers having conceptual difficulties. (Not that similar issues wouldn't occur if you called it monism.)

  52. Thanks to all. Helpful links and helpful explanation.

  53. Interesting point you gave there Rank, why something immaterial can't be something's material efficient cause?

  54. Eduardo,

    I recommend this post by Prof. Feser:

  55. Eduardo: Interesting point you gave there Rank, why something immaterial can't be something's material efficient cause?

    Well, something immaterial can be an efficient cause, actually — for example, angels can act on physical objects. So there's nothing impossible about that kind of Cartesianesque dualism per se. It's just impossible for it to explain a human being (an angel acting on a body isn't a anything; it's two things).

  56. Rank,

    what is your argument that something immaterial cannot be an efficient cause of something material?

  57. Eduardo, consciousness is solely physical because via physical or chemical means, how you are can be changed. In fact, who you are can be changed to such a degree that who you were simply ceases to exist.

    There is nothing but the physical that anchors and defines the you.

    That is why I can confidently assert that the mind is solely the result of physical material processes.

    Any other description is simply an appeal to magic at some level.

  58. "you" can be changed by physical and chemical events.

    * I suppose this is true, given that there is a I, that causal relations that I believe are true are actually true.

    The change can be so great you cease to exist.

    * right.... I guess you are pressuposing no life after death of this phenomena called I... Even so, I don't see the thrust in this part.

    You are defined solely by the physical.

    * well that is just a petition of principle, you are simply saying, that the physical as you have defined in your head accounts for a phenomena that humans call I. But these kind of claims are really hard to be certain, if you don't know all the dimensions of a subiect you can't guarantee in any way what can be excluded from that subject...

    Therefore conscious is physical.

    * I can safely say that, all you got is a possibility, and a very crude philosophical position, and this shit here, I can be certain of.

    The last phrase is just your personal Belief.. Thanks for sharing.... But really I don't care about it.


    Anon I wrote hundreds of words while brain storming about the subject, all these seem very complex and fun subjects to deal with, but I think it is sort of obvious that all you got is personal opinions and no arguments, or personal attacks and mockery....

  59. Hi cemerson, Scott and rank sophist,

    Re the interaction problem, I wrote these papers a couple of years ago:

    Why I think the interaction problem is real and How is libertarian free will possible?

    Re monism vs. dualism:
    I think the Thomistic position can best be described as agency dualism, as opposed to mere property dualism on the one hand and Cartesian substance dualism on the other. What it says is that a human being is one entity, but with two kinds of operations. Some human acts are bodily acts (e.g. sensing, imagining, feeling), while others are non-bodily acts (thinking and choosing). Man is an animal - and in particular a rational animal. Our rational acts are also animal acts. However, not every act of an animal is necessarily a bodily act.

    There's a good paper on this subject by Fr. John O'Callaghan, entitled, From Augustine's Mind to Aquinas' Soul.

    Here's a question about qualia that I've been turning over in my head for some time, and I'd like to hear what people think. Does Frank Jackson's knowledge argument rule out an impassible God? Putting it another way, if God could see yellow, would He be surprised, as Mary the blind super-scientist would? And if not, why not?

  60. dd,

    I didn't mean that something immaterial couldn't efficiently cause (i.e. create) something material--just that the interaction between the two was incoherent. I hadn't actually read Aquinas's treatment of the subject when I said that, so I take a bit of it back. However, the interaction between the material and immaterial is quite strange, and it clearly doesn't work in the way that Descartes needed it to. You can see something about it here:

  61. Anonymous (who else?!?): Any other description is simply an appeal to magic at some level.

    Aw, c'mon, blatantly faking a post to try to prove Green's Law is just cheating!

  62. Wait, is anon talking about a change in personality? If so, then it just seems like the tired old brain damage/brain alteration argument.

  63. Alan,

    Glenn: ‘Don’t give up’ was a general admonition, I’ve no issue with moving on to lines of inquiry with better prospects. Mind from brain, however, is far too tantalizing to move away from for long, let’s see where we are in fifty years. Tricksters will always be among us – we can hope for their early exposure.

    The ability to reason nonmonotonically is a part of being intelligent. And there is no guaranty that something discovered or added in the next fifty years, or even the rediscovery (or finding out) of something(s) already known, won't rationally require a recanting of previously adhered to conclusions. I say this not to stifle enthusiasm or optimism, but to temper them in the interest of being realistic regarding the difference between conjecture and fact.

  64. Rank,

    well it may be strange, but it certainly isn't incoherent. the details of Descartes account of the relation between the two i would agree is false. but the basic point i.e., that an immaterial substance can affect and interact with a material one, remains valid. unless there's a demonstration to the contrary, there's nothing problematic about it.

  65. @Vincent, Eduardo et al,
    Thanks for the informative post and links. The issue, V, of how a 'libertarian' will might be able to 'freely' decide, & whether, E, the human mind can indeed 'create' an original thought - worth examination. I'm still puzzling, V, over your example of two chains of random digits with a macroscopic constraint overlay. Gone for next few days (reclusive trip to Death Valley while the rest of the country is still cold), but will study all these ideas. Thanks.

  66. Rank Sophist: Honestly, the Thomistic idea of the mind leans toward monism more than it does dualism, even though it's ultimately neither. I do agree with Freddoso that calling it dualism can lead to newcomers having conceptual difficulties. (Not that similar issues wouldn't occur if you called it monism.)

    I submit that we start calling it "hylomorphic sesquialism"!

  67. Rank,

    let me further add the following from St.Thomas himself, at ST,I. 75.1:

    "Objection 3. Further, between the mover and the moved there must be contact. But contact is only between bodies. Since, therefore, the soul moves the body, it seems that the soul must be a body.

    Reply to Objection 3. There are two kinds of contact; of "quantity," and of "power." By the former a body can be touched only by a body; by the latter a body can be touched by an incorporeal thing, which moves that body."

  68. Nagel points to a extensive set of bibliographic annotations. The content of the referenced books are, I have found, essential to understanding his extensive thesis, summarized in his brilliant monograph Mind & Cosmos. Some others in this comment thread have mentioned the importance of A. N. Whitehead's process-focused view of nature, which views matter as emergent rather than foundational. I have read several books pointing to Whitehead's ideas as seminal in this regard. First is the deeply reasoned book The Nature of Physical Existence by Ivor Leclerk, who begins with Aristotle, moves through Cusanus and ends with Whitehead. A very valuable read, though I do not see that it leads to anything final, but to the need for more and deeper thinking about metaphysical issues. A second book, Scientific Nihilism: On the Loss and Recovery of Physical Explanation by Daniel Athearn, also ends with an argument based on Whithead's process model of Nature. I found it very valuable in revealing the sad state of 'explanation' in modern physics, but it left me unsatisfied and instead hungry for more reading. A third book, A different Universe" Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Up by Robert B. Laughliin, a Nobel Prize winner in quantum physics, was extremely helpful in explaining the problems of materialist reductionism in modern physics, and the general failure by most scientist to 'get' that virtually all general scientific laws are 'emergent' and not 'reductionist'.

  69. Dr. Feser, your profound and articulate defense of Thomas Nagel's book 'Mind and Cosmos' is recommended by me on my blog: www. specifically on this page: I would love to share more of you wisdom on my blog (always providing a link to your original text, of course). Warm regards, Jack Schwartz aka bioperipatetic.