Friday, May 17, 2013

Nagel and his critics, Part IX

Returning to my series on the critics of Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, let’s look at the recent Commonweal magazine symposium on the book.  The contributors are philosopher Gary Gutting, biologist Kenneth Miller, and physicist Stephen Barr.  I’ll remark on each contribution in turn.

I found Gutting’s review interesting but somewhat frustrating.  On the one hand, unlike some other reviewers Gutting realizes that the heart of Nagel’s position is metaphysical rather than empirical, and that Nagel’s point vis-à-vis consciousness is that the materialist conception of the natural world not only doesn’t account for consciousness but, implicitly, positively excludes consciousness.  On the other hand, like some other reviewers, he still seems to think that Nagel’s critique of Darwinian accounts of consciousness has something essentially to do with probabilities.  As I have argued in previous posts in this series, that is not the case.  And thus it simply misses the point to criticize Nagel (as Gutting, like other reviewers does) for offering insufficient empirical grounds for challenging the consensus among biologists, or failing to justify his probability judgments.  His point about the evolution of consciousness isn’t an empirical or probabilistic matter in the first place, but a metaphysical one.  He is saying that given a materialist account of matter, the origin of consciousness via evolution is not merely improbable but impossible.  Probabilities enter the picture only once evolution is interpreted in light of some different metaphysics of matter -- neutral monist, panpsychist, or whatever.

In the latter part of the chapter on consciousness in Mind and Cosmos, Nagel does indeed address the question of how “likely,” given a “reductive” theory, the rise of consciousness is in “geological time” (pp. 60-61).  The trouble is that too many of Nagel’s commentators (including, it seems to me, Gutting) fail to read these passages in context. 

On p. 54 Nagel distinguishes a “reductive” view from a “reductionist” view.  Materialism would be a “reductionist” view, but a “reductive” view could be one that reduces consciousness to lower-level elements that are understood in a non-materialist way.  He also distinguishes a “constitutive” account of consciousness, which deals ahistorically with how consciousness is related to the physical aspects of an organism, from a “historical” account, which deals with the question of how consciousness arose in the course of time.  He says, though, that “the historical account will depend partly on the correct constitutive account.”  And he goes on in pp. 54-58 to consider, as possible non-materialist constitutive theories, views like strong emergentism, neutral monism, and panpsychism.  Then on p. 58 Nagel writes:

[L]et me now turn to the historical question, again on the assumption that psychophysical reductionism is false.  The prevailing naturalistic answer to the historical question is the materialist version of evolutionary theory, supplemented by a speculative chemical account of the origin of life.  The question is: what alternatives to this picture open up if psychophysical reductionism is rejected? (emphasis added)

So, when Nagel gets to the remarks about what is “likely” in “geological time” etc. he is talking about what is likely given a non-materialist metaphysics.  He is not there criticizing materialist Darwinian accounts of consciousness on the grounds that they don’t make the rise of consciousness in the course of natural history sufficiently probable.  That question is not for Nagel a matter of mere probability in the first place. 

I emphasized, in my own review of Nagel for First Things, the various respects in which Mind and Cosmos evinces a neo-Aristotelian position.  Gutting rightly notes, however, that there are strands in the book which might be taken instead in an idealist or Whiteheadian process philosophy direction.  Naturally I think Aristotelianism is the way to go, but the other approaches would also be improvements on the lazy and philosophically shallow materialism that permeates so much of contemporary intellectual life.

Kenneth Miller’s remarks on Nagel provide an instance of the latter.  Miller seems to think that consciousness is something that might be explained with some further work in neuroscience.  But that is, of course, entirely to miss the point of Nagel’s arguments, which imply that it is impossible in principle for a purely materialist theory, including a purely materialist neuroscientific theory, to account for consciousness.  Nor, contrary to what Miller suggests, do Nagel’s reasons have essentially to do with Cartesian dualism or with what is “conceivable,” and they certainly have nothing to do with Nagel’s “personal preferences.”

As I have emphasized in previous posts in this series, Nagel’s main point vis-à-vis consciousness, first put forward in “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” and restated in other works (including Mind and Cosmos), is that it is precisely the materialist’s own conception of matter that poses the key problem for a materialist account of consciousness.  For from the time of Galileo and Descartes onwards, matter has been defined in such a way that heat, cold, color, sound, odor, taste, and the like as common sense understands them, are extruded from matter -- including the matter that makes up the brain -- and counted as existing only in the mind’s perceptual representation of matter.  What exists in matter is only heat, cold, color, sound, etc. as redefined for purposes of physics (sound as compression waves, heat and cold as molecular motion etc.).  This is the origin of the “qualia problem” for materialism.  For if color, odor, sound, heat, cold, etc. as common sense understands them exist only as the “qualia” of our experience of matter and not in matter itself, then they are either immaterial or (if one wants to take an eliminativist line) not real at all.  Either way they will not be explained in materialistic terms, no matter how much neuroscientific data we pile up.  (Among my earlier Nagel posts, see this post, this post, this one, and this one for more detailed discussion of this issue.)

Miller does give Nagel some praise for being an outsider with the brass to challenge the conventional wisdom in biology, but he does not realize how beholden to it he is himself.  Ironically, Miller cites Erwin Schrödinger as someone who raised useful questions from outside biology in his book What is Life?  What Miller does not seem to realize is that Schrödinger also took a view very similar to Nagel’s vis-à-vis consciousness -- perhaps because, as a physicist, he was more sensitive to problems about the nature of matter as such than biologists tend to be, and it is the nature of matter as such, and not merely the current state of neuroscience, that lies at the heart of the problem of consciousness.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that physicist Stephen Barr, unlike Miller, does see the problem for materialism to which Nagel is calling our attention, and sees that it is precisely the methods of modern science that generate it.  Barr writes:

As a physicist, [Nagel’s antimaterialist] conclusion seems to me obvious and to follow directly from the very nature of physical science and the way it explains things. According to physics, every physical system is completely characterized—indeed, defined—by a set of “variables,” which mathematically describe what its elementary constituents are doing and whose evolution though time is governed by a set of mathematical rules and equations…

Even if one knew all the variables of a physical system, their values at one time or at all times, and the equations governing them, there would be no way to derive from that information anything about whether the system in question was conscious, was feeling anything, or was having subjective experiences of any sort.

Of course, we sometimes infer from its physically observable behavior that a being has feelings. When my dog begs for a strip of bacon, I know it’s because he enjoys the taste. But that conclusion is based on an analogy between the dog’s reactions and mine, not on a mathematical or logical derivation from physical facts. Nor could it be based on such a derivation, for such things as enjoyment or taste are not quantities, and physics deals only with quantities—quantities that appear in equations and quantities that are measured.

End quote.  If anything, Barr argues, Nagel is too quick to reject dualism in favor of some non-materialist form of naturalism.  Nagel’s reason for rejecting it, as Barr notes, is that he thinks it entails abandoning hope for an “integrated explanation” of mind and body (Mind and Cosmos, p. 49).  To Barr’s response, I would add that if Nagel pushed his neo-Aristotelianism further he might find that a kind of dualism -- namely what David Oderberg calls “hylemorphic dualism” -- is compatible with an integrated account of mind and body. 

On an Aristotelian hylemorphic conception of human nature, sensation and imagination, which we share with non-human animals, are corporeal, but not because they are reducible to matter as the materialist understands it; intellect, which we don’t share with the animals, is incorporeal, which entails a dualism of sorts; but a human being is nevertheless one substance rather than two, contrary to Cartesian dualism; yet this is not because the incorporeal aspects inhere in a material substance, contrary to property dualism, and it is not because neutral monism, idealism, or panpsychism get things right either (they don’t).  In short, for the Aristotelian, the way the modern, post-Cartesian philosopher of mind typically carves up the basic conceptual lay of the land is totally wrong, and precisely because of the desiccated conception of matter introduced by Galileo, Descartes, and their successors.  (For more on this large topic, see chapter 4 of Aquinas, and earlier posts like this one and this one.) 


  1. Thanks for your comments, Ed. I think that by responding to these most recent reviews you've helped to clarify Nagel for me even more.

    But I'm still having difficulties. If I remember Barr's review, the problem is that all of physics can be explained in terms of a modern understanding of matter. How then does an Aristotelian view "fit in" with modern physics? Further, Barr seems to accept the materialist neo-Darwiniam account of evolution, which would, it seems, leave out any sort of Aristotelian account of evolution. He appears to want to prescribe dualism only to human beings, not to animals. Thus all those qualia that we suspect animals enjoy would have had no affect on the history of evolution.

  2. Let me add a further difficulty that I have. Nagel writes about the problem of explaining the origin of life. And yes, it has remained a mystery for modern materialists. But from a strictly empirical point of view, there doesn't appear to be any inherent properties in matter to form into living organisms. Once they exist, organisms have inherent properties to survive and reproduce themselves, certainly. But getting a living organism to begin with? That seems to be a problem both for modern materialists and Aristotelians. It's why I tend to favor that disreputable hypothesis known as Intelligent Design.

  3. What does Nagel mean by "psychophysical reductionism" though? Would it include something like the metaphysics postulated by David Chalmers? Chalmers postulates that the physical world has "causal closure", meaning the behavior of physical systems is not influenced by any extra-physical causes. He also assumes that the physical world obeys the bottom-up sort of physical laws that are often labeled "reductionist", where the behavior of any physical system could in principle be predicted with ideal accuracy (though these might be statistical predictions, if quantum mechanics involves true randomness), if one knows the precise initial state of all the most fundamental entities that make up physical systems (whether strings or quantum fields or what have you), and some set of fundamental mathematical laws governing the behavior of these entities. But this reductionism concerning ideal predictions of behavior is not the same as ontological reductionism, because Chalmers is not an eliminative materialist about qualia, he thinks qualia must be considered ontologically separate from physical states, and postulates that some sort of "psychophysical laws" might determine which physical states give rise to which states of consciousness.

    From summaries and excerpts, I had thought that Nagel's attack on "reductionism" is more broad than just an attack on the ontological aspect of reductionism, I was under the impression that he was also attacking reductionist claims about the analysis of the behavior of systems in terms of fundamental physics, which Chalmers has no issue with. And of course, if one takes a view like that of Chalmers, then any facts about the probability of some event occurring in the physical world (the origin of life, or the origin of organisms with intelligent behavior) would be exactly the same as they would be under strict materialism, the only difference would be one's ontological interpretation of the event. I haven't read Nagel's book yet though, am I misunderstanding what he is arguing?

  4. I'd appreciate anyone who can elaborate on the exact differences between hylemorphic dualism and property dualism.

    At least, it is hard for me to imagine that consciousness can be reduced to a property of matter (a property that is outside the purview of science) without feeling like we're drifting into hylemorphism.

    Is it that the property dualist rejects teleological causes?

  5. Here's a recent paper that would seem to support a view of eovlution that would be more in line with Aristotelianism. However, that would still leave the problem of the origin of life.

  6. Existence is a vat Happiness. Lie is not suffering. Life is Happiness. Existence is Happiness. It is pristine Beauty - Absolure, Self-Radiant, Self-Existing, never diminished. Yet you believe something else about it. You are superimposing your atrocious beliefs on this vast display of light, beliefs you must outgrow.

    It is the same as everything that is right here, right now - exactly the same, but Infinite and Inherently Perfect.

    It is a Perfect Dance without motion, without any conversation, without are forewarning, without and preparation, explanations or strategies, all of which shut down the intrinsic Beauty of Infinite Life. It just IS.

  7. Bilbo: the problem is that all of physics can be explained in terms of a modern understanding of matter. How then does an Aristotelian view "fit in" with modern physics?

    Well, since "all of physics" is defined according to the modern understanding of matter, that's not really a problem; it would have to work that way. I guess what you're getting at is what does that amount to for Aristotelianism: the idea is that colour is not "just" frequencies of light, but rather than frequencies of light are "just" one way that colour manifests itself — the quantitative way. A coloured object really, physically has both the qualitative aspect (e.g. "redness") and the quantitative ("4×1014 Hz"), even though physics studies only part of that reality. (There are other facets of Aristotelianism, such as the ever-popular formal and final causes that physics sometimes pretends to ignore, but is really there in the background all along; so in that sense, modern science fits more with the Aristotelian view than with the modern definitions.)

    Further, Barr seems to accept the materialist neo-Darwiniam account of evolution, which would, it seems, leave out any sort of Aristotelian account of evolution.

    Since we're talking in terms of metaphysics rather than physics, there are many possible ways that biological evolution might happen, depending on what the laws of biology in this world actually turn out to be. All you need is that some law of nature dictates that under such-and-such conditions, an X will produce a Y. If the laws of biology are such that this will happen when you get, say, enough mutations of the right kind, then evolution could indeed work in a Darwinian fashion (assuming Darwinism actually fits the facts, of course). It's up to biologists to figure out what those laws are by studying the evidence.

    But getting a living organism to begin with? That seems to be a problem both for modern materialists and Aristotelians. It's why I tend to favor that disreputable hypothesis known as Intelligent Design.

    Well, I would argue that the fundamental idea behind intelligent design is perfectly fine, apart from possible philosophical problems associated with the capitalised version. But of course, in Aristotelian terms, you don't really get a living organism from something non-living. That is, there isn't some thing that is inorganic and then becomes alive; since to be a living thing means to have a different form, there can be only a non-living thing that gets replaced by a different, living thing. But God can of course create beings such that it is a genuine natural result that a particular setup naturally causes an organism to come into being.

  8. Wow that was profound Anonymous 2:50 AM. Who could argue with that? Open and shut case. The bit about “…a Perfect Dance without motion,” just, wow. What’s with Feser and cogent arguments am I right!? Doesn’t he know the world runs on perception and universe nectar…? I don’t care what anyone says Anonymous 2:50 AM you’re a smart guy.

  9. Well, Anonymous, I think I'd have to say that if the "intrinsic beauty of Infinite Life" were so easy to "shut down" that we could do it merely by "superimposing . . . atrocious beliefs" on it, then I surely wouldn't be willing to call it "Inherently Perfect."

    But I do like the idea of existence as "a vat Happiness." I can't be the only one thinking of Hilary Putnam here.

  10. Feser thinks with his head. Anonymous thinks with his Being.

    Therein lies the difference.

  11. Feser thinks with his head. Anonymous thinks with his Being.

    Therein lies the difference.

    Herein lies another difference:

    Feser types with his fingers. Anonymous types with his Being.

  12. Let's try this:

    1. Arjunanymous (aka Anonymous) didn't say of 'atrocious beliefs' that they shut down the 'intrinsic beauty of Infinite Life', only that they must be outgrown. What it is that does shut it down, at least according to him, he takes care to explain in the paragraph strategically placed last in his comment, i.e., any or all of the following things: motion, forewarning, preparation, explanations and strategies.

    2. A whatever-it-deserves-to-be-called (with a purpose (and a passing nod to one individual mentioned in the OP)) on 'vat Happiness':

    What is it like to be a vat of Happiness?

    I want to know what it is like for a vat of Happiness to be a vat of Happiness. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task. I cannot perform it either by imagining additions to my present experience, or by imagining segments gradually subtracted from it, or by imagining some combination of additions, subtractions, and modifications.

    In short, I haven't the foggiest notion.

    But that I cannot know what it is like for a vat of Happiness to be a vat of Happiness does not mean that I cannot know what it is like for me to try to imagine what it is like. Not only can I know what this is like, I can express what the experience of it is like. So, listen up for a real-time report of my experience as I endeavor to imagine what it is like for a vat of Happiness to be a vat of Happiness:

    My limbs are weakened,
    My mouth is parching.
    My body trembles,
    My hair stands upright.
    My skin seems burning.
    My brain is whirling
    Round and round,
    I can stand no longer.

    Actually, that wasn't a real-time report of my experience as I endeavored to imagine what it is like for a vat of Happiness to be a vat of Happiness, but a real-time report of my recollection of Arjuna's articulation to Krishna of his, Arjuna's, despair (as found in one translation of the Bhagavad-Gita).

    Of what did Arjuna despair?

    There had been, over the then recent past, many motions, much forewarning, considerable preparation, numerous explanations and several secret strategies. Two armies were on the verge of engaging in battle, and Arjuna was called upon to participate in this imminent war. But now, actually seeing relatives from both sides of his family in each of the two armies, the reality of the matter hit home, and he was fraught with despair. We are told that upon completion of his long soliloquy (of which the above is but a small part), Arjuna threw aside his arrows and his bow, and sat down in the seat of his chariot, his heart overcome with sorrow.

    Now, we must pause here, as an important question begs to be asked:

    Was Arjuna's heart overcome with sorrow due to a realization that motions, forewarnings, preparations, explanations and strategies had (Ach du lieber!) shut down the 'intrinsic beauty of Infinite Life'?


  13. No, of course not--as Scott has put it, rather rightly (albeit also differently), the 'intrinsic beauty of Infinite Life' can no more be shut down by any doing of humans than the blazing sun can be snuffed out by thick, dark and storm-laden clouds spread across the sky.

    Let us turn now to Krishna's response to Arjunanymous' lament.

    Krishna starts off by chiding him for his untimely "scruples and fancies". After all, there is a battle to be waged, and now is not the time for, let us say, wishy-washy wimpiness.

    "Shake off this cowardice," says Krishna. "Stand up."

    (While Krishna did indeed say this in response to Arjuna's articulation of his despair, I have unfairly characterized the nature of that despair. There is, in fact, a genuine, understandable basis to it (which basis is mentioned in the second paragraph below).)

    But Arjuna is still confused. He explains the source of his confusion, and then says, "My mind gropes in darkness. I cannot see where my duty lies. Krishna, I beg you, tell me frankly and clearly what I ought to do. I am your disciple. I put myself in your hands. Show me the way."

    Now, Arjuna actually is royalty, and the leader of one of the two armies about to duke it out--and one relative, whom he loves, is the leader of the other army. He, Arjuna, is torn between whether to: a) be loyal to his duty as leader of his army, and thus (possibly) be responsible for the death of his beloved counterpart relative; or, b) be true to his heart, and allow himself to (possibly) be killed instead. He is caught in a bind. An immobilizing bind.

    Krishna, knowing this (he ought to--he actually is God in disguise (as the driver of Arjuna's chariot)), responds with, "Your words are wise, Arjuna, but your sorrow is for nothing. The truly wise mourn neither for the living nor for the dead."

    His response continues, and at one point he says, "That Reality which pervades the universe is indestructible. No one has power to change the Changeless. Bodies are said to die, but That which possesses the body is eternal. It cannot be limited, or destroyed. Therefore you must fight."

    Krishna, of course, was not saying that Arjuna must fight because that which possess the body is eternal, and can be neither limited nor destroyed.

    Not at all.

    Rather, Krishna was saying that: a) Arjuna must fulfill his duty (as the royal leader of his army); and, b) because that which possess the body is eternal (and can be neither limited nor destroyed), Arjuna's sorrow over the potential consequences of the discharging of his duty is misplaced (at least insofar as it immobilizes him, or seduces him into shirking his responsibility) and for naught (the most it can do in the (then) current situation and circumstances is weigh him down and have him to drag his feet).

    3. Of course, and in regard to the salient point (see first four statements of fourth paragraph prior), Scott's short version was, is and shall continue to be sufficient unto itself: if the "intrinsic beauty of Infinite Life" were so easy to "shut down" that we could do it merely by "superimposing . . . atrocious beliefs" on it, then I surely wouldn't be willing to call it "Inherently Perfect."

    - - - - -

    (Nagel was quoted from (with two obvious changes), as was one translation of the Bhagavad-Gita. And the portrayals above of Arjuna being 'immobilized' by the 'bind' he was in and of the dilemma he faced are from a lecture I attended quite a number of years ago.)

  14. Why am I not surprised by Kenneth "orthodox Catholic" Miller's position on materialist reductionism as it applies to the human person?