Sunday, September 18, 2022

Chomsky on consciousness

On the podcast Mind Chat, philosophers Philip Goff and Keith Frankish discuss the philosophical problem of consciousness with Noam Chomsky.  Goff is a proponent of panpsychism and Frankish of illusionism, where Goff characterizes these, respectively, as the view that consciousness is everywhere and the view that consciousness is nowhere.  (This might be a bit of an overstatement in the case of Frankish’s position, given what he says during the podcast.)  Chomsky’s own position is not easy to capture in a simple label, but I think that it can, to a first approximation, be described as a kind of modest naturalism.  The discussion is very interesting, and what follows is a summary with some comments of my own.

Many readers will recall that I had a recent exchange with Goff myself (here, here, and here).  The issues and arguments that arose there are highly relevant to the discussion with Chomsky and my comments on it below.


Where the study of consciousness is concerned, recent philosophy of mind has followed David Chalmers in distinguishing between “easy problems” and the “hard problem.”  Identifying the neural correlates of various kinds of conscious awareness would be examples of an easy problem.  By characterizing such a problem as “easy,” Chalmers doesn’t mean that it is trivial, or even easy in every respect.  He just means that it is the sort of problem the solution to which seems clearly attainable using existing methods and standard scientific and philosophical assumptions.  The “hard problem” is explaining why any of the neural processes in question are associated with conscious awareness, given that it seems at least prima facie possible that they could do what neuroscience describes them as doing in the complete absence of consciousness.  (This is alleged to be shown by arguments like Chalmers’ “zombie argument,” along with other influential arguments like Frank Jackson’s “knowledge argument” and Thomas Nagel’s argument in his famous article “What is it Like to Be a Bat?”)

Chomsky is well-known for arguing that there are some things we may never be able to explain because evolution has molded our minds in such a way that they fall outside the range of our cognitive powers.  This view has come to be known as “mysterianism,” and some philosophers, such as Colin McGinn, have applied it to the hard problem of consciousness, arguing that solving it is probably beyond our cognitive capacities.

Interestingly, Chomsky himself does not take that view.  Indeed, in his exchange with Goff and Frankish, he suggests that the so-called hard problem is really a pseudo-problem.  He points out that the fact that we can form an interrogative sentence does not by itself entail that it expresses a genuine question.  With some interrogatives, there may be no possible way to answer them, and in that case, he says, we’re not dealing with a genuine question.

To illustrate this general point, he offers as an example the interrogative sentence “Why do things happen?”  There is, he says, no possible answer to this, and so it is not a genuine question.  Now, I don’t think this is actually a good example, because it seems to me that there is a plausible interpretation of this interrogative sentence on which it amounts to a real question susceptible of an answer.  For example, it might be interpreted as asking why the world is such that change occurs in it, rather than being static in the way Parmenides and Zeno took it to be.  And an answer would be Aristotle’s view that substances have potentialities as well as actualities, and that change occurs because these potentials are sometimes actualized.

Perhaps Chomsky would take all of this too to be suspect, but it would be better to have a less tendentious example to illustrate his general point.  And that’s not hard to find.  We could, altering another example famously given by Chomsky, consider the interrogative sentence “Why do colorless green ideas sleep furiously?”  That clearly is something to which there is no possible answer, and it suffices to support Chomsky’s point that not every interrogative corresponds to a genuine question.

Now, Chomsky proposes that though a sentence like “What was it like to see the sunset last night?” asks a genuine question, the sentence “What is it like to see a sunset?” does not.  Similarly, he says, “What is it like to see this red spot?” is a real question, but “What is it like to see red?” is not.  There are, he says, ways we might go about explaining what seeing last night’s sunset was like or what seeing this red spot is like.  By contrast, he claims, there is no way to go about answering questions about what it is like to see a sunset full stop, or what it is like to see red full stop.  Hence these are pseudo-questions.

Yet these pseudo-questions seem, to Chomsky, to be the kinds that the discussion of the so-called hard problem focuses on.  He doesn’t mention Nagel, but he seems clearly to have in mind questions like “What is it like to be a bat?” and the idea that neuroscientific research and the like cannot answer it.  The reason there is such difficulty answering it, Chomsky thinks, is that interrogative sentences like these don’t convey genuine questions.  What are labeled “easy questions” and “hard questions” concerning consciousness pretty much correspond, in Chomsky’s view, to genuine questions and pseudo-questions.

Now, I sympathize with Chomsky’s view that the so-called hard problem of consciousness is a pseudo-problem.  As I said in my exchange with Goff, I would say that the problem arises only if we follow Galileo and his early modern successors in holding that color, odor, sound, heat, cold, and other “secondary qualities” do not really exist in matter in the way common sense supposes them to, but instead exist only in the mind (as the qualia of conscious experience) and are projected by us onto external reality.  If you take this position, you are stuck with a conception of matter that makes it impossible to regard consciousness as material.  The solution, I would say, is simply not to go along with this assumption in the first place, but to return to the Aristotelian-Scholastic view the early moderns reacted against, and which is compatible with the commonsense view of matter.  The so-called hard problem of consciousness then dissolves.  As Chomsky’s remarks later in the discussion make clear, he would be sympathetic with part of this story (though not, I’m sure, with the neo-Aristotelian bit). 

It doesn’t seem to me, though, that Chomsky’s specific way of making the point about pseudo-questions is likely to convince someone who doesn’t already agree that the so-called “hard problem” is a pseudo-problem.  The reason is that questions like “What is it like to see a sunset?,” and “What is it like to see red?” seem to me interpretable in ways that are susceptible of an answer.  For example, if you had never seen the color red, you might naturally ask precisely a question like the second one.  And if someone then showed you a red object, you would surely think that your question had been answered.  Or, if someone said “Well, it’s sort of like seeing dark orange, though not quite.  But very different from seeing pale blue,” then you might judge this answer to be at least somewhat illuminating.

I imagine that Chomsky would respond that this misses his point, and that what he is criticizing is rather an interpretation of the interrogative sentences in question that would not be open to answering in ways like those I’ve described.  That’s fair enough, but then it seems to me that the examples don’t really do the work he needs them to do.  He would need to develop a more metaphysically substantive point about the problematic nature of the notion of qualia.  But then this metaphysical point would be doing the work, and the simple linguistic way of making it that he resorts to at the beginning of the discussion would drop out as otiose.

Conscious and unconscious

The point about pseudo-questions, Chomsky says, is one of the sources of his reservations about the recent literature on the so-called hard problem of consciousness.  It is one reason why, though he does think there are genuine mysteries that we are unable to solve, he isn’t convinced that the nature of consciousness is one of them.

Another problem he has with the recent literature, he says, is that he thinks that conscious and unconscious mental phenomena are so deeply intermingled that he doubts that we can extract the former out and still be left with a coherent picture.  He gives the example of uttering a certain sentence in the course of a conversation.  Obviously a person who does this is conscious, but the decision to utter the sentence is not itself conscious in the same way that, say, a runner might consciously decide to start running when he hears the starting pistol.  (The example is mine, not Chomsky’s.)  The runner might have the explicit thought “Time to go!” but the speaker doesn’t think “Time to utter this sentence.”  He just does it.

This is indeed a very important point, and Chomsky notes that it fits in with his well-known work in linguistics, which posits unconscious mechanisms and rules that underlie linguistic competence.  But in my view it is a point that has been developed in a more penetrating way by thinkers in the phenomenological tradition (such as Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty) than by the broadly functionalist or computationalist approach in analytic philosophy of mind that Chomsky’s work is closer to. 

Indeed, as Hubert Dreyfus has argued (under the influence of this phenomenological tradition) it is a mistake to think of the unconscious on the model of rules (such as Chomskian rules of universal grammar).  For rules always have an explicit content that must be understood before one can apply them.  And to appeal to further rules in order to determine the interpretation of the first set just raises the problem again at a higher level, which threatens a vicious regress.  (See e.g. the discussion of rule-following beginning at p. 174 of Dreyfus’s book What Computers Still Can’t Do.)

Moreover, Dreyfus points out, this computationalist model is an inheritance from the post-Cartesian approach to scientific explanation, according to which explaining a physical event involves identifying the laws by which it follows of necessity from antecedent events, in a manner that might be modeled by a machine.  But this mechanistic model only works when we abstract out of it anything that smacks of the psychological – consciousness, intentionality, and so on.  (This is precisely why Descartes had to relocate consciousness out of the material world and in a separate res cogitans, as Chomsky himself emphasizes later in the discussion with Goff and Frankish.)  Hence an approach that appeals to computational rules, given its essentially mechanistic character, precisely leaves out what is distinctive of the mental, and thus cannot coherently claim to account for the mental.

Ghosts and machines

This brings us to some further important points raised by Chomsky concerning the origins of the modern mind-body problem.  Gilbert Ryle famously characterized Descartes’ dualism as the theory of the “ghost in the machine.”  It is often supposed that modern philosophy and science after Descartes preserved his mechanical model of matter while getting rid of the “ghost” of the Cartesian mind.  But as Goff points out, Chomsky’s view is that the truth is closer to the opposite of this, and in particular that with Newton, modern thought essentially “exorcised the machine while leaving the ghost intact.” 

What does Chomsky mean by this?  He notes that the mechanical conception of nature that was put at the center of modern science and philosophy by Galileo and his successors conceived of matter on the model of machines.  The idea was that the various phenomena studied by the sciences (solar systems, organisms, or whatever) could be understood as operating according to the same principles as mechanical artifacts (watches and the like being a favorite paradigm).  This approach to explanation was adopted by all the major early modern thinkers.

But Descartes held, correctly in Chomsky’s view, that certain aspects of the human mind could not be accounted for on this mechanical model.  For this reason he posited a separate principle to account for them, the res cogitans or thinking substance, and Chomsky takes this to be a perfectly ordinary sort of move to make in scientific investigation.  (Not that Chomsky agrees with Descartes.  He is merely objecting to those who represent Descartes’ positing of the res cogitans as if it were suspect from a scientific point of view or otherwise intellectually disreputable.)

Now, with Newton, Chomsky notes, modern physics abandoned a strictly mechanical model.  What he means is that the early mechanists thought that the simple push-pull kind of causation that one sees in watches and the like could provide a model for how the physical world in general works, but Newton posited forces that did not operate in this way, and indeed the operation of which he did not explain or claim to explain at all.  Gravitation seemed as “occult” as anything the medieval Aristotelians talked about.  Newton’s work was nevertheless accepted because of the tremendous predictive success afforded by its mathematical representation of nature.  Newtonian physics did not truly explain the phenomena with which it dealt, but carried the day because it described them so well.

In the history of physics after Newton, Chomsky says, the prevailing attitude came to be that anything was acceptable if it could be given a precise mathematical expression.  The predictive success of such mathematical theories is what mattered, and the metaphysical question about explaining why things worked in the way the mathematics described receded into the background.  For practical purposes, “matter” came to be treated as just whatever accepted physical theories happen to say about it.  But, Chomsky notes, as early twentieth-century thinkers like Bertrand Russell and Arthur Eddington pointed out, physical theory actually tells us very little about what matter is actually like.  It gives us only mathematical structure and is silent about what fleshes out that structure.

In this way, the early moderns’ clear and concrete conception of the natural world as susceptible of an exhaustive description on the model of a machine or mechanical artifact has been abandoned.  In its place we have a highly abstract mathematical description of nature that tells us very little about its intrinsic nature.  But at the same time, the Cartesian idea of the mind as the repository of qualities that cannot be given a mechanical or mathematical analysis remains.  Hence, Chomsky concludes, what contemporary philosophy and science are left with is the “ghost” but without the “machine” – the reverse of the standard assumption, after Ryle, that modern science leaves us with the machine and has exorcised the ghost.

This is a longstanding theme in Chomsky’s work, which I’ve discussed before.  As my longtime readers know, I am entirely sympathetic to it, and regard it as the key to understanding the intractability of the mind-body problem.  The mechanical-cum-mathematical model of nature presupposed by modern materialism itself generates the hard problem of consciousness.  Materialism thus cannot in principle solve that problem.  Thinkers like Nagel have been making this point for decades, and are often wrongly thought to be carrying water for some variation on Cartesian dualism.  But as Chomsky’s example shows, by no means does one have to be any kind of dualist to see the point.

Panpsychism and illusionism

Now, Russell argued that what we know best is consciousness itself, and that everything else we know, including physics, is derivative from this.  He also held, again, that physics tells us about the abstract mathematical structure of matter, but not about its intrinsic nature.  But if we suppose that consciousness is identical to properties of the brain, then it would follow that introspection gives us knowledge about the intrinsic nature of at least one material object, namely the brain itself.  And this might give us a basis for extrapolating about the intrinsic nature of the material world in general.

Russell himself did not take this in a panpsychist direction, but later thinkers, such as Galen Strawson and Goff, have done so.  Goff argues for panpsychism by way of an appeal to simplicity or parsimony.  I have explained, in my exchange with Goff linked to above, why I think this argument fails.

Chomsky’s own criticism of Goff is that he thinks that panpsychism does not in fact sit well with the whole range of empirical evidence.  In particular, he says that when we take account of the neural phenomena associated with conscious experience, we have reason to conclude that while human beings are conscious, tables, say (which have nothing like the complexity of our nervous systems), are not.  There are also intermediate cases, such as fish, where it is not entirely clear what we should say.  But what we don’t have is any basis for concluding that consciousness exists all across nature, from human beings to ordinary inanimate objects to fundamental particles.  (Goff, as I noted in my exchange with him, is massively overgeneralizing from a handful of cases.)

Goff replies by saying that this objection of Chomsky’s presupposes that we know more about matter than one would otherwise expect Chomsky to think we do, given his endorsement of Russell’s and Eddington’s point about how little physics tells us.  But Chomsky responds by noting that Goff overstates things when he suggests that science tells us nothing about the nature of matter.  It doesn’t tell us nothing, just much less than many people suppose.  And we can have evidence for thinking that some theories tell us more about it than others do.  In particular, Chomsky repeats, neuroscience gives us grounds for concluding that while we are conscious, tables and the like are not.

Here too, I am completely sympathetic with Chomsky.  What I would add can be found, in part, in my exchange with Goff linked to above.  I would also direct the interested reader to my detailed discussion of Russell’s and Eddington’s structural realism in chapter 3 of Aristotle’s Revenge, especially at pp. 158-94.  The view is susceptible of a variety of interpretations, and it is too simple to say flatly that physics tells us nothing about the nature of matter.

Chomsky also engages with Frankish’s illusionism.  Frankish is skeptical of the idea that, in addition to one’s awareness of (say) the taste of the coffee he is drinking, he is aware via introspection of some inner and radically private quale of the taste of the coffee.  The reality is that, in consciousness, we are aware of features of the world and of our reactions to them.  We are not, over and above that, aware of some inner Cartesian realm of qualia.

Chomsky’s response is that he is partially sympathetic to this, but that he would be opposed to throwing out of the picture the psychological reactions we have to the world that people have in mind when they talk about consciousness.  He thinks that the fact that these are genuine phenomena is evidenced by our ability to theorize about them.  (He says that Nelson Goodman’s book The Structure of Appearance is a good example of how one can develop a substantive analysis of the way things seem to us in conscious awareness, whether or not Goodman’s account is ultimately successful.)  Chomsky is also sympathetic to Russell’s view that consciousness is in fact what we know best.

Frankish replies by suggesting that the neural processes underlying introspection can distort things just as much as those underlying perception do.  But as Chomsky goes on to point out, while what consciousness tells us about this or that object or event is certainly fallible, it doesn’t follow that the reality of consciousness itself is an illusion.  (Here’s an analogy – mine, not Chomsky’s.  Suppose I find that a certain person, Fred, is a chronic liar.  This gives me good reason to doubt the things Fred tells me.  But it hardly by itself gives me any reason to think that Fred himself doesn’t exist.)

It might seem that, as with Goff, Chomsky thinks that Frankish takes too far an insight that they have in common.  But Frankish suggests that in fact he and Chomsky are basically in agreement apart from some terminological issues.  In any case, here too I am sympathetic with Chomsky’s remarks, though I imagine that I have a more conservative view than he and Frankish do about how far science might revise our commonsense perceptual representation of the world.  (The interested reader is directed to what I have to say about the primary versus secondary quality distinction at pp. 340-51 of Aristotle’s Revenge; about representationalist theories of perception at pp. 106-13; and about neuroscientific evidence vis-à-vis introspection and perception at pp. 442-56.)

Politics and economics

Goff’s and Frankish’s conversation with Chomsky ends with a brief discussion of matters of politics and economics.  Chomsky says that the excesses of 1920s capitalism were corrected to some extent beginning in the 30s, leading eventually to a somewhat more humane form of capitalism by the 50s and 60s.  Then, he thinks, Reagan and Thatcher turned the world back in the direction of something like the 1920s kind of capitalism.  But, he suggests, something like the reforms that partially corrected that kind of capitalism might occur again.

Chomsky’s description is highly tendentious, which is not to say that I disagree with everything about it.  But his discussion is too brief, and the issues too complicated, for it to be worthwhile commenting further here.  I’ll simply direct the interested reader, first, to this post on my own views about the pluses and minuses of capitalism; and second, to this relatively recent post about Chomsky’s politics.

Related posts:

Chomsky on the mind-body problem

Chomsky’s “propaganda model” of mass media

Problems for Goff’s panpsychism

Goff’s gaffes

The hollow universe of modern physics

Reading Rosenberg, Part VIII [on neuroscience and the reliability of introspection]

Aristotle’s Revenge and naïve color realism


  1. Panpsychism is literally the p-zombie argument in reverse.

    P-zombie: "We can't measure consciousness, so everything that seems to be conscious is actually unconscious."

    Panpsychism: "We can't measure consciousness, so everything that seems to be unconscious is actually conscious."

    They're logically equivalent. If Goff proves that panpsychism is true, he successfully proves that p-zombies exist. Also panpsychism has that new-age hippie feel: "Like woah man! It's, like, we're all in an organic co-op of qualia. You get some qualia. And you get some qualia too. Everyone gets some qualia!"

  2. Hey, Ed. Very nice post!

    Honest question. When it comes to that general point that Chomsky, Nozick, or even Dennett or Dawkins say about "evolution [or in the case of Dawkins, for example, Natural Selection] molded us that way and explains why we have such features as X" what can we say? I tried to formulate something along the same lines as you said in that conversation with Ben Shapiro long ago, that Natural Selection can't explain why we have the 'features' like the mind because Natural Selection works blindly - and I give it a read on my TLS copy on that topic about functions when you're discussing Ruth Milikan's position.

    And I'm asking that because it can create a lot of confusion with other issues e.g someone could think that our unity by the substantial form or even our Immanent Causality could be a product of Natural Selection when in fact something could have nothing to do with the other [but the point is not so easy to grasp like in the case of mind for a non-philosopher like myself]. How can we disentangle these two? And since I couldn't solve or find by myself something directly addressing this i.e how to solve this apparent conflict in the example above, I'm humbly asking it. Could you recommend to me something to read about it? Because it's not really clear to me how to properly answer the purported problem above (sorry if that sounds like a dumb question).

    1. Well, let's grant that that is a plausible explanation. Even if you want to suggest that evolution is a good explanation for why we have such a feature, that itself is a pretty bad explanation for the feature itself.

      If you had no knowledge of biology and asked "what is this pulsing thing inside my chest? This is weird. What's it doing? Why does it seem different than the rest of the things in my body?" You would be thoroughly unimpressed with the response "that's your heart. And it exists there because it was evolutionarily advantageous for you to have one. So we need investigate it no further. So don't go asking any more silly questions."

      Hand waving away consciousness by saying it is caused by evolution is the cause of it, you haven't done anything to address the substance of the philosophical arguments about why consciousness is so weird.

    2. @ Tadeo,

      "I tried to formulate [...] that Natural Selection can't explain why we have the 'features' like the mind because Natural Selection works blindly"

      That's like saying, "If God doesn't exist, what do I say to explain God". In other words, how do you know that natural selection is blind, other than by assuming it, in which case there is nothing that you can say? But there is a lot of randomness in the environment in which natural selection operates. How do you know that God has not set up this randomness through a process above our understanding, the infinite God's acts being above the understanding of our finite minds? If you do not make the unwarranted assumption that you fully understand God's acts, your question falls away to nothing.

      It depends on assumptions that we are not in a position to make.


      Tom Cohoe

    3. Hey, Tom!

      Thanks for answering me!

      "Even if you want to suggest that evolution is a good explanation for why we have such a feature, that itself is a pretty bad explanation for the feature itself."

      I don't want to suggest that evolution is a good explanation for the phenomena, I just asked what can we say in response to that - on a philosophical level. Because these guys I quoted use some energy trying to explain features, functions, etc. based on evolution and I wish to know how to prove on philosophical grounds why appealing to that is wrong.

      In what follows, I will try to give some background.

      "In other words, how do you know that natural selection is blind, other than by assuming it, in which case there is nothing that you can say? But there is a lot of randomness in the environment in which natural selection operates."

      I'm not advocating that it's blind or not. I was quoting Ed - if I get him right anyway - on his answer to Ben Shapiro in this video ( You can see the specific question that Ben is formulating at 39:57 and Ed's response in the following minutes (but I would suggest that you watch the whole video).

      Now, back to Ed's response - again, if I get him correctly - he's not arguing against Natural Selection blindness, he's saying Natural Selection could not explain why the human mind is directed at truth (it is really important to note that he's talking about TRUTH directness, not just any other feature in the present case) and I agree with him (because just like he said, natural selection explains fitness and passing genes). And it's important to note too the fact that he was presupposing that it was true when he formulated the argument - not because he may agree with it or not - but because its trueness or not had nothing to do to the point that he was making (again, he said that natural selection explains fitness, etc. and that's not related with the mind directedness for truth per see).

      So, now that I made this background to avoid any misunderstandings what I'm trying to ask is: could we make a similar answer disentangling body unity and evolution or natural selection claims?

      I do not have any problem with evolution at all. I was just trying to say that someone could conflate two problems (evolution on one side and unity and substantial form on the other).

      For example: if someone says that our unity is caused by "an evolutionary process that co-opted our cells to do what they do now'' someone, plausibly, may think that our unity is just an accidental one.

      Personally, I don't think that's true - I think that's insane - but some people believe this. But I can't just say that that's insane - that would beg the question. Instead, I would have to argue philosophically to show that. And that's what I'm trying to say: these two problems i.e the unity substance's (or we can think of its organs functions related to each other as one indivisible unity) and natural selection or evolution could have nothing to do with it each other - but they might seem at least to be related and someone might argue something like the example I presented. That's why I'm asking Ed if we could (or how to) disentangle the two (like in the same way when he was explaining why truth per se has nothing to do with natural selection).

    4. @ Anonymous:

      Hand waving away consciousness by saying it is caused by evolution is the cause of it, you haven't done anything to address the substance of the philosophical arguments about why consciousness is so weird.

      Naturalists say that when brains reach a certain level of "complexity", they become conscious (something "emerges"). And what does that mean? That's just the process of eduction of the substantial form from the potentialities of prime matter, described by Aquinas 700+ years ago.

      That means that the forms (ADN) are in the potency of prime matter (chemicals) and are then drawn out into act through the agency of the efficient cause (the powers existing in the environment). Once you reach the "threshold of complexity", the form appears and so do the new properties and powers, like being self-conscious and being capable of abstract thinking.

      So naturalists have reached the same conclusion that St. Thomas did. But St. Thomas had a coherent, hyper-extense, detailed up to the point of exhaustion metaphysical system. They claim "emergence" but they can not offer an explanation for it, that's why they hide under the cover of "Natural Selection" and her wondrous powers. And that's too why they hide under the cover of "deep time" as a last ditch effort to look credible. Naturalists, those "wondrous powers" pertain to God and only to God.

      So for those who say that our system is "archaic and obsolete", I respond that the last laugh is on the hylemorphist. A deep, ample, sustained laugh. And there's nothing they can do to salvage their philosophical materialism/ physicalism whatever they call it these days. We've won.

    5. Tom:

      In other words, how do you know that natural selection is blind, other than by assuming it, in which case there is nothing that you can say? But there is a lot of randomness in the environment in which natural selection operates. How do you know that God has not set up this randomness through a process above our understanding, the infinite God's acts being above the understanding of our finite minds?

      I don't think that really works conceptually. It's certainly true that God sets up "randomness" to achieve His ends in ways above human understanding. The events leading to the crucifixion of Christ are an obvious example specifically identified in Scripture, for instance.

      But in that case, the events aren't actually random in the relevant sense, but only apparently random. But once we see the big picture, we realize they weren't really random after all.

      If God orchestrated evolution to bring about humans, then it wouldn't actually be natural selection that did it. It would be a situation more analogous to human breeding, what Darwin called "artificial selection," but far more elaborate.

      When it comes to breeding, we don't say that natural selection isn't blind, but rather that *actual* selection is occurring. The same would apply here. Natural selection would arguably still be occurring as well (as it is in human-bred animals), but it would not be the explanation for why things turned out as they did.

      One implication would be that if you were to seed life an another habitable planet, one where God was NOT orchestrating the creation of human beings, not much would happen evolutionarily, because natural selection in and of itself doesn't explain function.

    6. @ Tadeo,

      I cannot speak for Ed, but I was not arguing for or against natural selection per se. I disentangle truth and natural selection, as science, through my idea that, since a random sequence is a valid image of God, and since we know through quantum mechanics that there is such a thing as a random sequence, a random sequence, being without rules, is a very simple image of God, who also is without rules.

      But God is greater than this or any other image, and is in no way limited by this image. So questions about consciousness do not restrict this image. What it is useful for, to we humans, is to show that we cannot calculate, with our mathematical science, what God's acts will be or are, since we cannot calculate a number (a sequence) whose digits are without a rule (are random), and, since God is truth, this separates truth from natural selection. In short, it is beyond our understanding (at least for me) to know whether natural selection is actual science, although as a theory of science, as Ed said in the video, ("natural selection favors fitness") it explains adaption to the environment of survivors.

      I can't see how your question can give a different answer without assumption, so I can't see it as a real question because the answer is either beyond our understanding, or follows from the arbitrary assumptions in its formulation. I suppose this is a parallel to Chomsky's claim that some questions are not real questions (but I am no fan of Chomsky).

      My answer follows from my belief in God as truth.

      I watched the whole video.


      Tom Cohoe

    7. @ The Deuce,

      "But in that case, the events aren't actually random in the relevant sense, but only apparently random. But once we see the big picture, we realize they weren't really random after all."

      We can't see the big picture through scientific study, and so through scientific study we cannot determine whether or not natural selection is blind. "Actual" randomness versus "apparent" randomness expresses this exactly, so I cannot see that you are saying anything here that differs from me.

      Tom Cohoe

    8. Hey, Tom!

      Thanks for answering me again! I made a reply comment on @UncommonDescent a little bit below and I want to know what you think about what I wrote ( I wish Ed could see it too :( )

  3. As a linguistics undergraduate in the 1960s, Chomsky revolutionised my thinking. I have been fascinated by his thinking, both linguistic and philosophical, ever since.

  4. And I can add a PS about George Lakoff - ditto!

  5. What a great way to summarize some great, ambitious thinking by fallible thinkers. Thank you very much.

    I encountered some of your comments five years ago and didn't really understand them. Not a Roman Catholic, although I believe every philosopher should understand that tradition. I can't believe how much good work you've done in religion/theology and other areas. You're the perfect guide (given my own limitations) to science, mind/language, and definitely to Aquinas. Kind of like that guy who escorted Dante through the penal dominions? Anyway, thanks again.

  6. Chomsky is well-known for arguing that there are some things we may never be able to explain because evolution has molded our minds in such a way that they fall outside the range of our cognitive powers. 

    This sounds suspiciously akin to "The ways of the Lord are inescrutable" :)

    But it makes sense, because naturalism is a religious worldview, but instead of "God" they label the creative force "Natural Selection".

    What's in a name? A creative force by another name a creative force is. But that of the naturalist is dumb (per their own admission), while ours is omniscient. Poor naturalists, whose great-great-great-ancestor is a chemical soup which got actualized by a thunder (ain't Thor an adorable hammer-carrying god?)

  7. @ Tadeo:

    Honest question. When it comes to that general point that Chomsky, Nozick, or even Dennett or Dawkins say about "evolution [or in the case of Dawkins, for example, Natural Selection] molded us that way and explains why we have such features as X" what can we say? 

    We can say that their assertions are not scientific. There's no way for us to test this pseudo-explanation. Contra Gould, we can not replay the tape of evolution (except in our imagination). We have to accept on faith what bottom of the barrel "thinkers" like Mr. Dennett and Mr. Dawkins say about evolutionary outcomes. Argument by authority if there ever was one. But evolution advocates behave exactly like the religious leaders they despise. The irony always puts a smile on my theistic face :)

    1. Hey, Uncommon!

      "We can say that their assertions are not scientific."

      I thought that they (when arguing about why evolution "explains" why we have X, for example) could have been smuggling powers to Natural Selection that it do not have. But since I'm not a literate guy about that I thought that it was good to make that question - since I don't really know how to properly respond to it - and I think that Ed is really familiar with that kind of thing.

    2. @ Tadeo:

      I thought that they (when arguing about why evolution "explains" why we have X, for example) could have been smuggling powers to Natural Selection that it do not have.

      "Evolution" is the apparition of the immense variety of life forms on Earth.

      "Natural Selection" is the attempted "scientific" explanation as to why some things ("forms") prosper and others do not (for example Fodor's pigs without wings, or why unicorns or whales with wheels do not exist). "Natural Selection" is the culler of the infinite potentialities existing in chemicals (matter). ADN would be the forms (species, "you are allowed to exist and you are not allowed"). So "Natural Selection" is nothing more, nothing less than Plato's Demiurge or Avicennas's Giver of Forms. Or Aquinas's Pure Actuality ("whose only bidding matter obeys").

      Which means that "Natural Selection" is a god-like entity. So of course they smuggle powers to it. "Natural Selection" is their idol with feet of clay, which they want to make sound as "scientific". But a god by another name a god is. "Natural Selection" is unfalsifiable and therefore reducible to pseudo-science. The tape of evolution is never going to be replayed.

      If you want to rile up naturalists/ materialists, point it to them. I've seen some become livid with indignation, which has made me extremely happy :)

    3. Hey, Uncommon.

      If you have some time, check this ( Now, this is an example of what I have been trying to say.

      Leaving aside the fact that the text tried to implicitly assert the plausibility of the mitochondria theory as a 'known fact' or true without arguing - when it's in fact just a theory among others. Look what they say about animals - especially multicellular ones. And besides the fact of the 'magical' conjoining of diverse cells or microorganisms inside microorganisms, they are doing exactly as I said in the example.

      As I said, this sounds insane. But based on your comments and @Tom Cohoe - and some things I read of Ed's work - I think we can say something about this. First, even though this is all true and or cells and etc. we're co-opted by 'who knows why' to work together, the history is very different now than it was long ago. Our ACTUAL existence is not like it was long ago. They say in the text that the microorganisms that formed the mitochondria were separable in principle - at least they suppose it is that way. In our actual existence, we can't separate our parts and expect them to work ALONE or in the same way, as it was long ago (again, supposing that they were right) because they are organs - parts of substances - not substances in their own right.

      But one of the major problems I think that all of this has (and I'm basing myself on somewhat the same analysis that Ed does when discussing atomism in his Scholastic Metaphysics book) is when it comes to the first organism because the first organism on earth necessarily had parts that work together - and work for him. So, even if they say that our unity is an accidental one (like atomists say), they can't get rid of substance (and prime matter) in the first place (like atomists).

      What do you guys think? This argument could work?

    4. Now, just to finish what I have been saying if all this they wrote is true - besides the fact that is bizarre to say - would imply that our unity is an accidental one - or that legs, arms, liver, etc., just because they're different (i.e made of different cells) and comes from [insert the natural selection argument here] in different periods of times and because they are made of cells - that really 'work' as individuals - are co-opted to do what they do. So, in fact, what they are saying is that we are just an aggregate! And that sounds odd.

      And when we come to measure all this (presupposing again all of this is right) it seems quite mysterious why in the heck cells 'come together' or were 'co-opted' to form a leg, say, or an organ - that is, to serve a bigger purpose. Do you guys get what I mean? If they were in fact the 'individuals' (the cells or whatever), why come together to form an 'illusion' of one (human being)? That doesn't seem right.

    5. @ Tadeo:

      I'm going out of town and won't be able to reply until Friday. But I am not forgetting you!

    6. @ Tadeo,

      "So, in fact, what they are saying is that we are just an aggregate! And that sounds odd."

      Yes, it does.

      "If they were in fact the 'individuals' (the cells or whatever), why come together to form an 'illusion' of one (human being)? That doesn't seem right."

      It doesn't.

      I believe that our existence was purposely orchestrated by God and that science cannot prove or disprove it, because randomness is far simpler than anything science can attain to. Science tries to simplify and does simplify prima facie discrete data, but the simplification into statements is as far as it can go. A statement obviously has a specific order. It is not random and cannot be further compressed and retain intelligibility. A random process could have come up with the statement or, far more likely, gibberish.

      This is not in any way anti-scientific.

      To put it in terms, not of statements, but of the actual result in the physical environment, the theory based on random mutation and natural selection does not have in it a pointer to which of the almost unimaginably large number of results today that it could have led to.

      Something with purpose chose the result by undetectably choosing the results of the "dice rolls", the choices hidden in what is only random to human intellect.

      That something was God. Believe it, Tadeo, God's purpose, "before the beginning of time", as we say, included your personal existence on Earth today and your ability to choose what to do with your life.

      Tom Cohoe

    7. Hey, @Tom!

      "That something was God. Believe it, Tadeo, God's purpose, "before the beginning of time", as we say, included your personal existence on Earth today and your ability to choose what to do with your life."

      Yes! I do believe in God. Perhaps, believe is not a good word for what I have in mind - but something more certain than that i.e I know that GOD IS!

      But what I had in mind when formulating the thoughts of my earlier comments is the fact that I don't think that we need to put God into that question - that's why I didn't use His name till now. And I think that because it seems there is something murkier lurking in the way evolution and natural selection are said to be (not evolution per see but the way the naturalists and co. say they are).

      So, I think that it is possible to make an Aristotelian-fashioned claim against that based on the facts that we already know. Because I think there must be something wrong with what they say and that on Aristotelian grounds we can prove that. But again, I'm not a philosopher, I'm just a 24-year-old Brazilian so I'm not in any position to affirm that - I just think that it's possible.

      That's why I thought of bringing up that question and seeing what Ed or other A-T guys think of it - besides the fact that I think it's something fundamental to learn about.


      "I'm going out of town and won't be able to reply until Friday. But I am not forgetting you!"

      Hey friend I hope that you have a good trip! See you soon.

      May God be with you and protect you in your tasks!

    8. @ Tadeo,

      I'm sorry that I brought up God and ruined your puzzle.


      Just kidding, of course.

      But I'm afraid I am really not able to understand what you want to do, but it seems as if you want to start with something that doesn't work (I think we both agree on that), and then go through a whole bunch of steps, through Aristotle, who already had a concept of God, although incomplete, and end up at the scholastics and Aquinas, who definitely posits God as the unmoved mover behind all of creation as the reason for why things are the way they are. Now you may successfully avoid mentioning God in this seeking after an answer, but I cannot help but think that your answer, all the same, will be shot through with God.

      But perhaps you are trying to convert these bad guys on the sly. They will not even know that they are being brought to belief in God, and when told, they will be very crestfallen and chagrined. No?

      Now that's funny.


      Tom Cohoe

    9. @ Tadeo:

      Sorry for the delay and thank you for your kind words! :) I have read the article. Some comments:

      1. You're right. Historical science is highly speculative. Lots of these "theories" are events which (purportedly) happened hundreds of millions of years ago and which have left a very weak trace. It's very difficult for us humans to do forensic science with things in the present and there's always room for (sometimes) grave mistakes. So reconstruing things that happened this long ago is an almost impossible task. Some evolutionary "science" consists for example in people who find a tooth and then make a "reconstruction" of the whole body plan of the animal, its environment and behavior. It's funny especially coming from the side of the "we can only believe what our senses tell us". It's an exercise in imagination most of the time. Our Saint knew a great deal about the power of human imagination and its inner workings. But he was intellectually superior to naturalists.

    10. @ Tadeo:

      They say in the text that the microorganisms that formed the mitochondria were separable in principle - at least they suppose it is that way.

      Granting the premise that the theory of endosymbiosis is true, it does nothing to invalidate A-T metaphysics and a lot to support it. I'll go for this: those microorganismos were substances at first ( per se subsistens ), capable of "independent" life and then merged. A new organism (substantial form) emerged (new species). The mitochondria would remain there virtually, until through accidental changes it could no longer re-gain (in a natural manner) its independence, becoming an obligate intracellular organelle. (But maybe it could in a laboratory in presence of human beings with adequate technology).

      2 questions for the darwinian: what does the environment in which a mitochondrion lived prior to the fusion had to do with the intracellular environment in which it found itself after the fusion?? If organisms adapt to their niches, the extracellular life of the mitochondrial organism would have had very little in common with the metabolic machinery of the cytoplasm of the host. Of course these people can elaborate an unfalsifiable nice just-so sory about how it did happen and the "powers" of Natural Selection,* but that's garbage science and should not be tolerated.

      For the A-T proponent, the prime matter had "silent" potentialities that got activated under the circumstances of the fusion (for example metabolical accomodation that did not disrupt the life of any of the symbionts).

      *If they try the "but there were lots of trial-error attempts and then one worked", then they are admitting that there is (was) a tendency, for certain types of microorganisms, to co-join so new environments can be tried after that. And not a "single point mutation or error in the DNA replication machinery" or any other of the silly non-sense these people claim. An tendencies = natures = teleology = Aristotle.

      Endosymbiosis is in my opinion a very powerful argument in favor of A-Thomism and against mechanistic evolution.

    11. Hey, Uncommon

      I hope that your trip went well.

      "Endosymbiosis is in my opinion a very powerful argument in favor of A-Thomism and against mechanistic evolution"

      I like your point. It's well elaborated! You worked really well on the concepts of prime matter and the potentiality 'hidden' in it.

      And btw, I want to thank you for your attention so far. You too @Tom.

      I'm sorry if the topic/questions that I put on the table were repetitive or lame. Here in Brazil none of my friends really like to talk about that and don't care that much and I can say the same thing about our philosophers - they're a bunch of commies and half-baked intellectuals when it comes to anything that detours from politics that they ''know a lot''. In short, I don't have anyone to talk about that kind of thing. There are a lot of other questions that I can't even find materials to work with (all I have is some of Ed's books and the articles that David Oderberg gives for free on his website, and still there are a lot of things that I just can't understand right because it's hard to grasp). So I just want to say that I appreciate a lot of you guys time and effort - that means a lot to me.

      The topic of natural selection and evolution generally opens up a lot of other questions - questions that mere biologists, say, can't answer in principle. The examples that I brought up about counting cells as individuals it's something that was really puzzling me. Of course, as I said I think that's insane. If cells we're conjoined to survive in the first place why do a lot of them have to die every day for the sake of others if the 'plan' was just for the single cell to survive in the first place? Why do we have apoptosis and the like? Or worse, like I said some comments ago replying to Tom, why do the 'true individuals' (the cells) come to form up 'the illusion' of a single individual? It means that the dog we see every day that 'seems' to rely on and works in unity with his own parts as a single thing to chase down the bikers across the street is just an aggregate of individual cells. That's not just disturbing I think that it's evil to think something like that.

      As you guys can see I'm not a pro in biology. That's why I rely so much on the ''armchair'' philosophy. I can see that it is problematic to say that cells are individuals but I don't have a 'biological argument' (whatever that means) to affirm that. But the point is what is the motivation behind that 'science guys' to affirm something bizarre as that? That's something we should repeal because a lot of people just buy these ideas without even thinking about it.

    12. @ Tadeo:

      The trip went well. Thanks a lot! :)

      The examples that I brought up about counting cells as individuals it's something that was really puzzling me.

      It's very telling that no matter how much reductionists obsess about, it seems that life can not be assimilated to non-life. That's why no biologist speaks of atoms as the basic units of life. It's always the "cell" what biologists speak about. As if the Book of Nature were telling us that we are confronting two different, irreducible phenomena. That's why we have books about chemistry and books about "biochemistry". As if it were impossible to bridge the gulf between them in physicalist, step-by-step, gradualistic terms.*

      There's this paper that I believe can solve a lot of your doubts regarding the issue (individuality, wholeness, aggregates, the irreducibility of life...)
      A Study of Substantial Change In the Writings of St. Thomas Aquinas (by Fr. Steven Ledinich).

      It's excellent and free (although not easy and not brief -228 pp). And guess who appear there: our Professor and master Oderberg! :)

      *Gradualists have half the story right btw. Progressive, gradual accumulation of accidental changes in prime matter can bring about substantial change. But you need the substantial form. And once the new substantial form is educed, something totally new appears ("emerges") and quantity becomes now quality (a difference in kind). And after that point, there's no going back. But that jump is something that can only be grasped by the immaterial intellect, not by the physical senses alone. That's why we empiricists and dualists can not agree. That's why we fight and obsess about the fossil record. That's why we're at war :)

    13. Hey again, Uncommon!

      "It's excellent and free (although not easy and not brief -228 pp). And guess who appear there: our Professor and master Oderberg! :)"

      Oh, boy! That's really nice. I will download it right now. Thank you so much for your time and attention, man. I will try not to skip topics (that would be intellectually cheating?) but I'm eager to the specific parts! But I will make a careful reading.

      Thanks again, man. May God bless you!

  8. Also, naturalist's theory of "spandrels" is, again, a re-enactment of the actualization of hidden potentialities existing in prime matter. (an A-Thomistic metaphysical thesis).

    Look at this passage from Coyne (Kastrup's "dim-witted biologist" :)

    "I have no idea whether consciousness is a direct product of natural selection or a byproduct of selection on features like our brain".

    What Coyne is hinting at is that some biological features get actualized (become "real" when subjected to certain "selective pressures" - another name for efficient causes, or the "inherent powers in the environment"), while others remain hidden as potentialities/ "byproducts"). Once those potentialities are exposed to a different set of environmental conditions ("actualizers") they come to the surface and become "real" (phenotype).

    And that's why Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini smelled a rat in Darwin's theory ("What Darwin Got Wrong"), although because they had no A-T training, they knew there was a problem, but not what the solution was. But their intuitions were right, as were Nagel's ones ("Mind and Cosmos, or Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False").

    Fodor, Palmarini and Nagel, whose amoral, atheistic pals made them into pariahs, because they dared to challenge the darwinian paradigm. They have been vindicated.

    Coyne, you little p.o.s., "evolution" is certainly true. But under a darwinian/materialistic paradigm, you can bet your purposeless life that you and your pals are 100% wrong. But thank you for your service. The battle is over. And your side has lost.

  9. Suppose I find that a certain person, Fred, is a chronic liar. This gives me good reason to doubt the things Fred tells me. But it hardly by itself gives me any reason to think that Fred himself doesn’t exist.

    Even if Fred is a chronic liar, and Fred says "I exist". One cannot take a high probability of any of Fred's statements being a lie to be good evidence that his "I exist" is wrong.

    I am reading a book now that trends in the direction of mystical experiences showing people that "everything is connected" and even (at least sort of) that "everything is love" and therefore conscious in some sense or other. (Don't worry, I am reading it with critique firmly in view.) There seems (so far, I haven't finished) no consideration for even a possibility that "everything is connected" and "God made us for love" to leave plenty of room for "things" to be connected to love by being used by conscious beings like us acting out of love, not by being conscious themselves.

  10. Listening to Goff's discussion makes one realize that this is about how language does not access certain brain functions. The older version of brain science as "thinking meat" (Harris), moist robots (Dennett), neural correlates etc, alone has been supplanted by the more Catholic version of the brain model or the "source and summit model" (John Paul II) or the brain is a system of reentrant thalamcortical loops. Hence the conscious functions occur deeper in the brain or areas for which the scientific language has not been developed.

  11. Labeleing something a "pseudo-problem" to be resolved by language seems to be a classic move by those trying to preserve a place for pure armchair philosophy without risking trespassing upon the sacred realm of science. Basically, it means they don't have a solution and they can't think of anything that resembles a solution, so obviously the "pseudo-problem" must be to blame, and not their philosophical preconceptions.

    Mysterianism is, of course, intellectual suicide. If we accept that some area of knowledge exists where our reasoning faculties would simply come up short, we have no reason to believe that we have not already arrived at that point. Reason can either access reality as it is, or it doesn't exist.

    1. @ The Great Thurible of Darkness,

      "Reason can either access reality as it is, or it doesn't exist."

      Can you prove this metaphysical statement of yours without getting into your own bit of "armchair philosophy"? I suppose you just snatched it from the air?

      Ok, we are armchair philosophers and you are a snatcher of facts from the air.

      You successfully posted a joke and should be looking for a theater for your comedy.


      Tom Cohoe

    2. While I hold a lot of skepticism about McGinn's use of mysterianism on the hard problem of conscious thought, as a Cathlolic I also would tend to be very, very cautious about castigating mysterianism altogether. After all, we Catholics are in the position of positing that without the grace of faith, we could not know that God is a trinity of persons, and further that we cannot really understand (fully) the Trinity in our present state (behind the veil, through a glass darkly).

      Suffice it to say: we cannot invoke mysterianism merely because it is a hard problem. There must be a properly accounted reason that explains our inability to access the thoughts needed. In the case of God, we are limited intelligences, and he is unlimited intelligence, and so our minds are not of a nature capable (on their own) of encompassing the whole of God. But that account doesn't work for our own minds: presumably, the nature and workings of our minds are correlative to our minds.

      However, it may be possible to argue that we cannot in principle access the way our minds work directly, because when we are thinking an immaterial thought (say, about pi), we cannot ALSO be thinking second-layer thinking about that thought, (at least, without the danger of disturbing and ending the thought about pi in order to think the thought ABOUT the thought about pi. So, (arguably) we could only ever, at best, draw the conclusions about consciousness in terms of indirect considerations, rather than via direct access / observation. That doesn't (quite) get you to the mysterian "we can't know", but it may limit what can be said with certainty.

  12. "Newtonian physics did not truly explain the phenomena with which it dealt, but carried the day because it described them so well."



    I know that you have made that point, or one just like it a number of times, but it still produces a chuckle at a provoked classroom memory multitudes will have shared.

    "Yeah, but WHAT is it? What is gravity? How does it operate? "

    One's high school physics teacher, like the lawyer who is well adapted to maneuvering through his system whatever it happens to be, just stares blandly back at one, and moves on with, "You might as well ask what numbers are"

    "I did, and Mr. Fillinnamehere said that was a good question. For some other time"

    In dealing with my folks estate, I was thumbing through my father's old "Blue Jacket's Manual".

    Way back when, the US Navy at least admitted that although they knew how to generate and use electricity, they did not quite know what it was. I suppose we have come some distance since 1944. Though there's a guy on YouTube who is arguing that electricity does not actually flow through the wiring that transmits it. Has had some positive comments from people who purport to be well educated in physics.

    I keep forgetting to ask my kid brother about that ...

  13. Jackson's "knowledge argument" needs to be retired since it relies on an assumption that is false to fact, namely, that everything about a physical system can be known beforehand. Quantum mechanics has demonstrated that the future is probabilistic - not determined. Where a photon lands after going through a double-slit simply cannot be predicted. So blind Mary cannot know what she will experience until she experiences it.

  14. Consciousness is not a problem . It is a fact.