Nagel reviews Plantinga in the NYRB

Update: Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll nicely picks apart (“unpacks,” to use the odious jargon of postmodernism) one part of Plantinga’s argument: the claim that science, like religion, ultimately rests on faith. As we all know, this is a base canard whose force depends on conflating two disparate ways to construe faith.”  Among Sean’s criticisms is this:

Sometimes you will hear that “science requires faith,” for example faith that our sense data are reliable or that nature really obeys laws. That’s an abuse of language; science requires assumptions, just like anything else, but those assumptions are subject to testing and updating if necessary. If we built theories on the basis of our sense data, and those theories kept making predictions that turned out to be wrong, we would examine and possibly discard that assumption. If the universe exhibited a chaotic jumble of non-lawlike behavior, rather than falling into beautiful patterns, we would abandon that assumption as well. That’s the most compelling thing about science: it always stands ready to improve by casting out an old idea when the evidence demands it.

_______

Philosopher and Sophisticated Theologian™ Alvin Plantinga recently published another book in his continuing attack on naturalism, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism.  It’s a dreadful tome that I discussed in a recent post (see included links for more on Plantinga’s bizarre apologetics), and I’ll just quote myself to describe what the book is about:

My latest incursion into Sophisticated Theology™ involves reading Plantinga’s new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (2011, Oxford University Press).  His thesis is, as usual, that there is no conflict between science and religion, but a profound one between science and naturalism.  I won’t reprise his argument except to say that involves the specious claim that natural selection could not have given us senses that enable us to reliably detect the truth, so that ability must have been conferred by God (see my post on that argument here).

Plantinga also claims that our ability to detect the “truth” (which includes, of course, the presence of God and Jesus) must therefore be the result of a sensus divinitatis (“divine sense”) installed in us by God.

If you want to see Plantinga’s argument taken apart, read the short (77-page) book Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?., which is a back-and-forth between Plantinga and Dan Dennett. (Spoiler: Dennett wins by using the Supermanism Gambit.)

Plantinga has always evinced a sympathy for Intelligent Design, too, and in the book (and elsewhere) he praises the pathbreaking work of IDer Michael Behe of “irreducible complexity” fame.

So how could a famous real philosopher—not a theologian but an unbeliever—dole out any praise for Plantinga’s book? I’m referring to Thomas Nagel, who has reviewed Plantinga’s book in the last issue of The New York Review of Books.  Perhaps it’s germane that Nagel, a highly respected philosopher of mind at New York University, has just published his own anti-materialist book that attacks evolution:  Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Concept of Nature is Almost Certainly False, whose Amazon blurb includes this:

The modern materialist approach to life has conspicuously failed to explain such central mind-related features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, and value. This failure to account for something so integral to nature as mind, argues philosopher Thomas Nagel, is a major problem, threatening to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology.

Nagel’s NYRB review of Plantinga, “A philosopher defends religion,” isn’t wholly positive, but it’s laudatory enough to be disturbing, and make me wonder what in the world has happened to Nagel. From Nagel’s review:

God endows human beings with a sensus divinitatis that ordinarily leads them to believe in him. (In atheists the sensus divinitatis is either blocked or not functioning properly.) In addition, God acts in the world more selectively by “enabling Christians to see the truth of the central teachings of the Gospel.”

If all this is true, then by Plantinga’s standard of reliability and proper function, faith is a kind of cause that provides a warrant for theistic belief, even though it is a gift, and not a universal human faculty. (Plantinga recognizes that rational arguments have also been offered for the existence of God, but he thinks it is not necessary to rely on these, any more than it is necessary to rely on rational proofs of the existence of the external world to know just by looking that there is beer in the refrigerator.)

Here Nagel misses a big opportunity: to point out that the sensus divinitatis is also operating improperly in every religion except Plantinga’s own brand of Christianity: Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Mormons, Scientologists—you name them—have all perceived different truths with their sensi divinitati.  So have the many sects of Mormons, as a reader noted yesterday. And apparently that sense didn’t exist (or wasn’t working right) in humans anywhere outside of Eurasia until fairly recently. God really screwed up here.  But Nagel does get in a telling lick:

It is illuminating to have the starkness of the opposition between Plantinga’s theism and the secular outlook so clearly explained. My instinctively atheistic perspective implies that if I ever found myself flooded with the conviction that what the Nicene Creed says is true, the most likely explanation would be that I was losing my mind, not that I was being granted the gift of faith. From Plantinga’s point of view, by contrast, I suffer from a kind of spiritual blindness from which I am unwilling to be cured. This is a huge epistemological gulf, and it cannot be overcome by the cooperative employment of the cognitive faculties that we share, as is the hope with scientific disagreements.

Sadly, Nagel hands out approbation to other claims by Plantinga:

Still, when our faculties lead us to beliefs vastly removed from those our distant ancestors needed to survive—as in the recent production and assessment of evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson—Plantinga’s skeptical argument remains powerful. Christians, says Plantinga, can “take modern science to be a magnificent display of the image of God in us human beings.” Can naturalists say anything to match this, or must they regard it as an unexplained mystery?

This argument—that humans can do stuff that was never directly favored by natural selection—is identical to Alfred Russel Wallace’s argument for God based on the observation that the brain of a “savage” is “an organ quite disproportionate to his actual requirements.” Thus, although Wallace hewed in the main to his rival Darwin’s views, they diverged when it came to human cognition. Darwin saw this as just another product of natural selection; Wallace imputed it to God or another teleological force.

But hasn’t Nagel ever heard of a “spandrel“? Our complex brain, evolved to live in groups, produce language, and suss out the complex mentalities of our group-mates, has simply proven capable of being co-opted for other things.  Is playing the piano proof of God? What about building airplanes? Crows and monkeys can make tools to get food despite their ancestors never having done so (this ability is passed on culturally): did God give these animals a “Corvus divinitatis” or a “Simias divinitatis”?

In the last two paragraphs, Nagel foreshadows what will come in his own book, I think:

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

No it’s not. Read the book if you don’t believe me.

Nagel concludes:

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

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

Alvin Plantinga, Utrecht, the Netherlands, 1995. Photo by Sijmen Hendriks, taken from NYRB review. LOLphilosopher annotations by JAC

201 Comments

  1. BilBy
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 5:15 am | Permalink

    “The modern materialist approach to life has conspicuously failed to explain such central mind-related features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, and value. This failure to account for something so integral to nature as mind…is a major problem, threatening to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology”
    OK, I need to read the book to see what Nagel says, but that para. had me spluttering with something akin to rage.

    • Tim
      Posted September 17, 2012 at 6:01 am | Permalink

      I agree. When I read

      The modern materialist approach to life has conspicuously failed to explain such central mind-related features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, and value…

      I think, gee, let’s see if we can formulate some silly analogues:

      Modern physics has a theory of sound that fails to account for why Beethoven inspires greater admiration than Ted Nugent (but who doesn’t?). Likewise, those smarty pants physicists think they have a materialistic theory of color, but they can’t explain the appeal of the Mona Lisa.

      On the other hand, I have a similar reaction to JC telling us that accepting determinism means thst free will is an illusion because of the quantum mechanics and statistical thermodynamics work. (I’ve always been “willing” to jettison the loaded modifier “free”.)

      • Kevin
        Posted September 17, 2012 at 9:16 am | Permalink

        “cheap” will, maybe?

        • Posted September 17, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

          There ain’t no such thing as a free will!

          /@

  2. Lewis Carroll
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 5:33 am | Permalink

    All you need to know is that Nagel praised Stephen Meyer’s fraudulent book, “Signature in the Cell”. It seems that Nagel is more than eligible for the senior citizen discount for philosophers, if you get my drift.

  3. Posted September 17, 2012 at 5:41 am | Permalink

    A similar debate has been ongoing in our local secular group, too. I’m always surprised by the people who come out on the side of ” we cannot explain everything about human nature and consciousness with science.” Just because every neurobiological mechanism has not been identified doesn’t mean that scientific study cannot or should not continue to build a workable model of these processes. I don’t know why secular people would be motivated to take this stand, but there must be a reason other than wanting to impart supernaturalist causes- understandable if one is religious!

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted September 17, 2012 at 9:58 am | Permalink

      Here’s what is not understandable to humans: very large numbers!

      A trillion. What does a trillion look like? How do a trillion molecules of element “X” look, in the palm of your hand? If a trillion tons of dirt were moved, how long would the line of pickup trucks be if each carried a ton?

      The survival of our hunter/gatherer ancestors relied on extremely fine discernment between a movement of grass caused by the wind, and the same movement caused by a lion. The processing of this information, the storage and recall of this information is an extremely complex task. Add in peripheral information that also must be either added, subtracted, or ignored (I’m cold, I’m hot, I’m hungry, I’m cold, the child is crying, the birds are quiet, the wind is blowing east, west, and…etc). And even a trillion synaptic connections may be unable to reliably do the job, in all circumstances.

      So, if one is unable to explain the mechanism for human survival, using our neurology, how is one able to dismiss the physical interactions of EIGHTY trillion synapses, that produce consciousness, musical creation and discernment, etc., as “just not possible…it must be a divine origination.”??? EIGHTY TRILLION information switches could be capable of far more that simple acceptance of deity-work!!

      Wallace gives the non-savage too much credit!

      • Posted September 17, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

        “If a trillion tons of dirt were moved, how long would the line of pickup trucks be if each carried a ton?”

        A little longer than the semi-major axis of Pluto.

        /@

        • Scott near Berkeley
          Posted September 17, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

          Ahh, you’re not giving me a visual that I can hang me hat on.

          I have a similar problem with the notion that everyone knows, or has an intuitive feel, about the size of Manhattan, in New York City….

          “It would cover an area the size of Manhattan five feet deep…”

          “Enough people, standing shoulder to shoulder, to cover Manhattan…”.

          “As long as it would take you to cover Manhattan with paper plates, one per second…”

          Hate that! Been to Central Park, Am Muse Natl History, Times Square…still -hate- that!

          Again, we all have difficulty intuitively grasping the sense of thousands, millions, and upward…they aren’t useful numbers to hunter/gatherers, or shaman/theologists.

          • Posted September 17, 2012 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

            Watching a solar eclipse — or, even better, a transit of Venus — can really help give you a visceral understanding of the scale of the Solar System.

            Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait quite a while for another opportunity….

            Cheers,

            b&

          • Posted September 17, 2012 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

            “Ahh, you’re not giving me a visual that I can hang me hat on.”

            Oh, if that’s what you want… ;-)

            /@

  4. John K.
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 5:43 am | Permalink

    A sensus divinitatis eh? To that I say:

    Quidquid latine dictum, altum videtur.

    http://www.proz.com/kudoz/latin_to_english/poetry_literature/66370-quidquid_latine_dictum_altum_videtur.html

    I propose a different latin name for this “divine sense”:

    credulus ignoramus

  5. Posted September 17, 2012 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    A similar debate has been ongoing in our local secular group, too. I’m always surprised by the people who come out on the side of ” we cannot explain everything about human nature and consciousness with science.” As Dr. Coyne indicated, just because every neurobiological mechanism has not been identified doesn’t mean that scientific study cannot or should not continue to build a workable model of these processes. I don’t know why secular people would be motivated to take this stand, but there must be a reason other than wanting to impart supernaturalist causes- which is understandable if one is religious!

    • Posted September 17, 2012 at 6:05 am | Permalink

      Many people have a form of the “secular miraculous” tucked into their back pocket for deployment in case of emergency, such as when they flash on the truth that objective reality is what is, there is no more and no exit.

      • darrelle
        Posted September 17, 2012 at 6:29 am | Permalink

        Well there is an exit, but where’s the fun in that?

        • Posted September 17, 2012 at 7:00 am | Permalink

          darrelle, i get your humor and it gave me a short laugh.

          After laughing, however: The word “exit” connected to death is just what they want to hear. So, I am going to repeat: there is no exit.

    • darrelle
      Posted September 17, 2012 at 6:27 am | Permalink

      I am not so sure there is another reason. I think maybe such secularists just really, really crave for humans to be magically special in some way. It is a desire for transcendent experience, a desire to be in some way transcendent, that overpowers their reasoning abilities and results in what amounts to an argument from ignorance.

      The idea that because we have not yet figured out just how consciousness works that it must be beyond our capabilities to do so, is not reasonable. In just the past 15 years we have learned more about consciousness than in all of our previous history. Our abilities to interrogate this phenomenon are just now getting to the point where we can reasonably expect to begin to understand it, as opposed to guessing or making stuff up.

      Other methods have had thousands of years to figure it out, with nothing to show for it. Science has had something like 200 or 300 years, being generous, 50 to 100 years more accurately. And science is already getting results. Apparently these people are either ignorant of the current state of cognitive studies, or just choosing to ignore the data. For the average person that is regrettable but understandable. For an academic like Thomas Nagel that is a serious error for which his peers should severely criticize him.

      • Posted September 17, 2012 at 8:43 am | Permalink

        I think maybe such secularists just really, really crave for humans to be magically special in some way.

        Yes, but there’s generally only the one human in particular whose magical specialness is under consideration.

        Our horizons and our perspective make basically impossible for us to comprehend how utterly irrelevant we are to the Cosmos.

        You know how there’re countless trillions of bacteria in your body alone that don’t even register on your consciousness because they’re too small to see and, even when they do make their presences known, it’s not in any way that you’d ever individually identify any one of them?

        And you know how there’re so many people in just your country that it can easily feel like your vote / voice is simply irrelevant?

        Yeah, well the insignificance of the bacteria in the human population pales before the insignificance of the Milky Way Galaxy in the Cosmos.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Scott near Berkeley
          Posted September 17, 2012 at 10:03 am | Permalink

          If there is one favorite creature of The Deity, it must be the phage. Far more, xxx trillion times more plentiful than “the poor (humans)”.

          • Posted September 17, 2012 at 10:11 am | Permalink

            Great point!

            We all know Haldane’s comment on the divinity of beetles. Perhaps somebody with some numbers at fingertips could put together a comparison — something like number of (humans :: number of beetles) :: (one human :: bacteria in said human’s gut). But with numbers not pulled out of my…er…gut….

            b&

      • Posted September 17, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

        Sounds a little like wishful thinking. A human quality- I’m sure that I’ve fallen victim of it at one time or the next. But your answer helped me look at the issue in a different way- and I do agree that perhaps these secularists who are looking for transcendent explanations for consciousness are motivated by a desire to feel special. Religions play on that need and indeed reinforce that conviction. Must be that some need it more than others. Thanks for your reply.

      • sunyavadi
        Posted September 20, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

        Nagel understands the facts and limitations of the neurobiological sciences quite well, actually. The fact that you believe that consciousness is something that can be, or needs to be, ‘explained’ in terms of neurobiology and analysis of scientific data denotes a fundamental philosophical error. Consciousness is not a ‘that’ to us; it is prior to all attempts at investigation and analysis; it is that in which everything is given, which makes scientific analysis possible in the first place. The issue of understanding consciousness is not really different to the issue of self-knowledge, which was articulated in the socratic dialogues BC.

        Furthermore the analysis and explanation of reality in terms of fields, forces and particles, might now proceed forever, to all intents, without revealing a fundamental or absolute truth. ‘The atom’ was actually the form of the absolute; that is why it had explanatory value. Now that it has been resolved into fields and forces, its utility as an ‘explanation’ for the human condition and a source of philosophical illumination is practically zero. The majority of physicists adhere to some version of the Many Worlds Interpretation, which is death to any kind of coherent philosophy, as far as I can see.

        So rather than dissing Nagel, take the time to read him.

  6. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 5:57 am | Permalink

    involves the specious claim that natural selection could not have given us senses that enable us to reliably detect the truth

    In Plantinga’s case, that seems to be so. He reliably fails to detect the truth.

    The modern materialist approach to life has conspicuously failed to explain such central mind-related features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, and value.

    Materialism has also consicuously failed to explain unicorns and leprechauns.

    • Bebop
      Posted September 17, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

      But intentionality, meaning and value exist in the real world…

  7. Posted September 17, 2012 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    Whitehead called the history of Philosophy “footnotes to Plato.” If you trace the progression with that filter in place as “retaining Plato’s supernatural realm”, you can see that each manifestation of neo-Platonism was an attempt to sustain Plato’s supernatural, but with increasingly secular language. “Transcendental Idealism”, the “Noumenon,” “a priori truths” etc. The opposite pole is Aristotle’s metaphysical stance that reality consists of “this world of particulars only.”

    “The credible solution is to do more work to find out how the structure of the mind produces consciousness, and how natural selection might have acted to promote that feature.” Acknowledged. However, unless that process proactively shuts down non-religious a-causality, the pressure to go around the findings of neurobiology will not cease.

    Woo-Metaphysics is still woo even when God is not mentioned. That is the plane on which this battle must be won, in my opinion.

    • Posted September 17, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

      Whitehead called the history of Philosophy “footnotes to Plato.”

      I can only conclude that Whitehead must not have been very familiar with the history of philosophy outside of Europe.

      • Posted September 17, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

        I have two responses to that:

        1) okay okay okay, “Western” philosophy;

        2) some believe that Plato is a footnote to Eastern philosophy/religion.

        Nevertheless, the point is: ANY philosophy that grants succor to “supernatural” is part of the problem.

        • Posted September 17, 2012 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

          I think I forgot to put the smiley after my post. So here it is :).

          • Posted September 17, 2012 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

            o.

            Yes, in that case, the smiley should have been there. ::::: sigh ::::

            ….well, do you have substantive comment? Like, do you think Plato yanked his supernaturalism from Eastern Religion?

            • Posted September 18, 2012 at 7:57 am | Permalink

              Well, I am not an authority on the history of philosophy, but my inference would be that he did not. This opinion is based on the fact that there wasn’t much contact between the “East” (The Indian and Chinese type cultures) with the “West” (Middle East, Africa and Europe) till after the times of Alexander and Chandragupta Maurya. For instance, before this, Indian maps ended somewhere near the boundaries of modern day Persia and Greek maps somewhere near the boundaries of modern day India.

  8. TJR
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    Plantinga in short:

    Q: How do you know god exists?

    A: I just know, OK!!

    • MKray
      Posted September 17, 2012 at 7:22 am | Permalink

      Cf. I just know that homeopathy cured me, OK?

  9. Posted September 17, 2012 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    I read the Plantinga/Dennett book and was aware at one point that I was reading it with my mouth open so staggered was I that an apparently intelligent man as Plantinga could be so vacuous. The wilful ignorance and intellectual cowardice of theism shone through.

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted September 17, 2012 at 10:37 am | Permalink

      Willful ignorance in the service of fundamental cowardice.

      And, By “fundamental” I mean “all-encompassing”.

      Simply put, these seekers of a supernatural existence are deeply afraid of the idea that when they end, when they die, that’s it. Utterly gone, in the same way as all the delicate, wonderful, artistic, skillfully rendered features of an ice sculpture, dissolved and disappeared into a common formless pool of water.

      • Posted September 17, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

        But doesn’t that add to the beauty of ice sculptures? Like hanami.

        /@

  10. Posted September 17, 2012 at 6:09 am | Permalink

    Greetings,

    There are clearly a number of problems with Plantinga’s and Nagel’s arguments.

    If, as Nagel says, “even though it is a gift, and not a universal human faculty.”, then this appears to be Calvinistic in tone. If it’s not granted to all – and when is it granted to anyone? – then, it would appear that, some souls are heading for Hell.

    If it’s granted to someone during this life, then God is intervening – which robs them of their free will (assuming that Plantiga believes in God-given free will). If we have God-given free will, God cannot intervene in any way, shape or form – not even to so much as tweak a sub-atomic particle somewhere in the cosmos.

    And your point, Prof. Coyne, about Nagel missing the fact that believers of other religions “barking up the wrong tree” means that this “sensus divinitatus” is malfunctioning for them, is well made.

    Further, if it’s malfunctioning for them, how do Plantinga and Nagel not know that it’s also malfunctioning for Christians?

    As Joseph Stiglitz said about Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand”, “the reason the invisible hand often was invisible was that it wasn’t there.”

    And so it is with this proposed “sensus divinitatus”.

    Kindest regards,

    James

    • Sastra
      Posted September 17, 2012 at 9:27 am | Permalink

      I wonder if Nagel doesn’t think the “conflicting sensus divinitatus” objection matters because, from the point of view of an atheist, religions are all religions. The underlying sense that there is a Higher Power, a moral impulse, or a mindlike orientation to reality connects them all, regardless of details.

      Plantinga could say then that the sensus divinitatus of people in other religious is poorly tuned — like a radio or television which gets a lot of static or poor reception. You can still tell there is something out there; you misinterpret the details.

      He could say it. He would sound like an idiot — but since when has that ever stopped an apologist?

    • Posted September 18, 2012 at 5:09 am | Permalink

      The “divine sense” is also as far as I can tell what Bunge calls an “male fide ad hoc hypothesis” (the religious are not the only ones who make up latin phrases ;)). These are ad hoc hypotheses introduced to save another hypothesis from refutation but which are not independently testable. I don’t know how to test Plantinga’s idea *even on his own terms*. For example, does he hold that there are clergy members of his favourite religion who can reliably tell believers by (say) looking at them? I doubt it.

  11. andreschuiteman
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 6:09 am | Permalink

    Philosophy must be in a deplorable state for a concept such as the sensus divinitatis to be taken seriously. Is Plantinga with his special pleading really worth more respect than, say, an astrologer, or any other crank whose profession it is to make stuff up? If Nagel’s aim is to demonstrate that much of philosophy is utterly irrelevant, this review is a case in point. Judging from the title, his forthcoming book is another.

    • lamacher
      Posted September 17, 2012 at 7:55 am | Permalink

      Now, the ‘sensus divinatus’ is closely related to Constantine’s ‘sol invictus’, just somewhat more ineffable.

  12. Calvin Chan
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    Nagel isn’t the only secular philosopher disenchanted with naturalism.

    If anyone is interested, I’d recommend the following article, by Timothy Williamson:

    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/04/what-is-naturalism/

    Williamson is the Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford and, like Nagel, a decided atheist. The article is not entirely agreeable, but it does raise some good points against naturalism from a logician’s perspective.

    Naturalism, in the rich and substantive sense, is the thesis that knowledge of the world must be discovered by the scientific method. Like Williamson, I resist this kind of “naturalism” because it does not seem able to account for our mathematical knowledge.

    We don’t ascertain or falsify mathematical truths by any empirical investigation. We just figure them out in our heads. Yet mathematical truths seem as certain, if not more, than scientific truths.

    • Sastra
      Posted September 17, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

      I think the mathematical objection only works if “naturalism” is defined in the very poor way it is being defined here. There are better definitions.

    • Myron
      Posted September 17, 2012 at 9:23 am | Permalink

      I hate it when “naturalism” is (mis)used as a synonym of “scientism”.

      • Posted September 17, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

        But see John S. Wilkins’s Scientism and methodological naturalism:

        Science just is methodological naturalism. Anything scientists can observe reliably and intersubjectively, and which behaves in a regular enough fashion, is investigable. Anything that can’t be or doesn’t, isn’t.

        /@

        • Posted September 17, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

          @Ant, FCD…

          1) How would one determine that there are things which science, or reason, cannot eventually investigate?

          2) Just because an investigatory methodology has not yet been established for something affords no justification for either a) dispair; or b) declairing that some other “way of knowing” exists.

          • Posted September 17, 2012 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

            1) Why would I want to?

            2) Yes. So?

            /@

            • Posted September 17, 2012 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

              ok, then please explicitly explain why and with what meaning you quoted Wilkins

              • Posted September 17, 2012 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

                Because I misread Myron’s comment. :-o

                /@

      • Posted September 17, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

        You’ve put your finger on a critical pulse-point. The opposition loves both words, not to mention they love to conflate them.

        “Naturalism” fairly screams out that it has a worthy opponent, “supernaturalism.” This affords “the supernatural” a stolen place of honor: it is seen as just as likely to be reality as the natural world. This unleashes Plato, his line, religion and the entire history of various irrational metaphysical positions.

        “Naturalism” is a redundant truth, referring to the natural world. The world is the world, period; “natural” is unnecessary.
        “Supernaturalism” is an inherently self-contradictory concept, that a thing could be a thing (exist) yet be outside nature (the set of all existing things.)

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted September 17, 2012 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      I believe the first mathematics was done by the Egyptians, and it was done and derived by observation and for practical reasons. It was not derived out of pure mental exercise.

      Each year, the Nile would flood all the fields for growing crops. After the river receded, geometric “truths” were eventually constructed/discovered, that allowed boundaries of fields to be laid out on featureless ground. It’s no accident that Pythagoras came up with “A-squared plus B-squared equals C-squared” after areas of land had been demarcated using mathematics, for many prior centuries.

      • zendruid1
        Posted September 17, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

        My understanding FWIW is that the Egyptians learned their surveying techniques by rote, and Thales observed and codified them.

        • Scott near Berkeley
          Posted September 17, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

          Looks like the Babylonians preceded Thales, Euclid, and Pythagoras:

          http://math.rice.edu/~lanius/Geom/his.html

          • Posted September 18, 2012 at 5:13 am | Permalink

            But the Greeks invented mathematical proof, which changed the world (for better for the most part but also for the worse in some respects, as when people hold it up as a standard for knowledge, rather than for justification, say.)

            • Posted September 18, 2012 at 5:26 am | Permalink

              “…for the worse in some respects, as when people hold it up as a standard for knowledge, rather than for justification, say.)”

              can you explain? why is a proof not a standard for knowledge?

    • Posted September 17, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

      Greetings,

      I think that our ability to conceive mathematical knowledge is due to our brains’ inherent sense of perspective: our ability to distinguish objects which are near and far away.

      This ability to relate objects around us as they relate to us and each other enables us to relate the height of a tree and its shadow, its “hypoteneuse” and the relevant angles.

      Even our ability to perceive/conceive the relationship of the circumference of a circle to its diameter is the result of this evolved sense of perspective inherent to perception.

      At least, that’s what I think – it’d be interesting to hear what Prof. Coyne thinks!

      Kindest regards,

      James

    • Posted September 18, 2012 at 5:11 am | Permalink

      Because they are simply (to speak very sloppily) equiconsistent sets of statements. 2+2=4 only given certain assumptions. 2+2=3 in another system, 2+2=2 in yet another, and so on.

  13. Vaal
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    When perhaps the most highly regarded Christian thinker of the time must resort to this “God as a properly basic belief” and “sensus divinitatus” stuff, there’s almost nothing more that need be added. It announces it’s desperation as loudly as a sinking basket full of howler monkeys all holding shooting flairs.

    So…let’s see, evolution does a nice job of explaining not only why we could have the cognitive apparatus we do, it also helps explain the many ways in which our thinking
    misfires, our biases etc.

    Plantinga’s hypothesis of a sensus divinitatus explains all this…how?

    Oh that’s right, he doesn’t really have to lower himself to explain all the troubling physical facts that we naturalists and science take on. To do so is to wallow in shallow materialism, don’t you know. Rather, once you invoke the supernatural you absolve yourself from the labor of mere mechanistic explanations. “I don’t know…God’s magic does it.”

    We have so much to learn from these guys!

    Vaal

    • footface
      Posted September 17, 2012 at 7:08 am | Permalink

      But isn’t the claim that this divine sense is an actual, literal, physical thing? A thing that can be “blocked,” that can “malfunction”? This seems to make too many testable claims to be purely supernatural. Or to pass the smell test.

  14. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    But even those who cannot accept the theist alternative should admit that Plantinga’s criticisms of naturalism are directed at the deepest problem with that view—how it can account for the appearance, through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry, of conscious beings like ourselves, capable of discovering those laws and understanding the universe that they govern.

    I would have thought that it was ‘sciences job’ to account for those things. Naturalism, as a philosophy or world view, merely asserts that there is nothing outside nature.

    We’re clever, we’re natural, get over it.

    • Posted September 17, 2012 at 6:41 am | Permalink

      @DiscoveredJoys

      “Naturalism, as a philosophy or world view, merely asserts that there is nothing outside nature. ”

      Wrong. Naturalism does not mention anything outside of nature. Only those attempting to valorize the supernatural mention the supernatural. The burden is on you to prove it exists.

      Realize this: “Nature” is a stand-in term for the metaphysical position of “this world of particulars” including everything in existence everywhere. “Super” natural means “things outside of nature.” Therefore ‘supernatural’ is a complete contradiction on its face.

      It is an insult to use the word “is” as you did in the formulation quoted above. “Is” is the axiomatic assertion of existence; to say someTHING “is” outside of existence is void.

      • DiscoveredJoys
        Posted September 17, 2012 at 7:01 am | Permalink

        I think you have read things into my words which I didn’t intend.

        • Posted September 17, 2012 at 7:02 am | Permalink

          Ok. Where did I misinterpret?

          • DiscoveredJoys
            Posted September 17, 2012 at 8:03 am | Permalink

            Well I didn’t mention the supernatural for a start. Why should I try to prove it exists when I suspect it doesn’t?

            • Posted September 17, 2012 at 8:25 am | Permalink

              well then, we appear to be talking past each other.

              I withdraw my comments posted in contra your post, but stand by the content independantly:

              Rationals should not need to prove or even assert that the “supernatural does not exist.” Let those asserting it DOES exist, prove it.

              • DiscoveredJoys
                Posted September 17, 2012 at 8:46 am | Permalink

                There we were – agreeing vociferously after all!

              • Posted September 17, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

                “but stand by the content independantly”

                We are hanging on your every word! ;-)

                /@

  15. Posted September 17, 2012 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    Thank you Jerry for your tireless efforts at exposing this codswallop.

    In my view, Nagel correctly perceives in materialist naturalism a threat to his cherished view of himself as self-made. IN defense of that view of himself, he’ll take all the allies he can find, even Plantinga. Nagel’s forthcoming book will find a wide audience of folks wanting to see themselves likewise.

    I couldn’t bring myself to read it Jerry, but I expect you will.

    It’s dirty work, but I’m glad somebody’s doing it. Thanks again.

  16. Mark
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    The idea that “the fit between the natural order and our minds is produced intentionally by God” and that this explains why humans can reliably do math and science is an odd one.

    After all, most humans cannot do math and science reliably. Getting a Ph.D. in math or physics requires years of arduous work and — for most people who try it — the experience of many discouraging failures.

    Even the elite few who make it make mistakes or inject unjustified assumptions into their work. This is why Karl Popper pointed out that the only way to reliably evaluate science is to constantly test the claims of science against empirical evidence. He used the example of general relativity and its unique prediction that gravity would bend the light from stars. General relativity is accepted by scientists not because scientists are so cocky about their (or at least Einstein’s) reasoning faculties but rather because the theory correctly predicts things we observe in the real world.

    So we are simply back to the empiricist assumption that we really only know the universe to the extent that we can trust our senses. And evolution by natural selection gives a plausible reason for thinking that our senses do indeed give a not-wildly-inaccurate impression of the world around us.

    Platinga’s argument is incredibly weak on this point and Nagel should have nailed him for it.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted September 17, 2012 at 7:16 am | Permalink

      Actually General Relativity predicts the light from stars should be bent by gravity about twice as much as Newton’s gravitational theory does.

      But point taken.

    • andreschuiteman
      Posted September 17, 2012 at 7:31 am | Permalink

      Pla[n]tinga’s argument is incredibly weak on this point and Nagel should have nailed him for it.

      Especially since Nagel is German for nail.

      • darrelle
        Posted September 17, 2012 at 8:36 am | Permalink

        *chuckle*

  17. Greg G.
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    the specious claim that natural selection could not have given us senses that enable us to reliably detect the truth

    Plantinga is right about that. Michael Shermer talks about Type 1 errors vs type 2 errors. If a creature senses something out of the ordinary, it is best to assume a live danger because waiting to determine the truth risks the consequences of natural selection. Acute senses often detect spurious events so assuming an agent is almost always wrong but it’s better to be wrong alot than to be right most of the time.

    This naturally selected common sense leads one to believe there is agency behind other misunderstood phenomena. Thor or Boanerges are thought to be behind thunder and lightning.

    So it is prudent to be wrong almost all the time about agency when it comes to naturalistic events because it has been shown to be correct often enough but it has never been shown to been shown to be true when a supernatural agency has been assumed.

    • darrelle
      Posted September 17, 2012 at 7:42 am | Permalink

      He is? Natural selection could not have given us senses that enable us to reliably detect the truth?

      Aside from the issue of trying to provide evidence for “could not,” if that were true then how could we have created the technologies that we have? How could we have discovered so many explanations for real phenomena that allow us to reliably make accurate predictions regarding those phenomena? There is a huge difference between being susceptible to error and being incapable.

      It seems clear that the issue is proven beyond reasonable doubt that we are capable of detecting the truth. Of course, if a philosophically inclined person wishes to argue for some abstruse Platonically perfect definition of truth, then maybe not in that case. But in that case, what is the relevance?

      • Greg G.
        Posted September 18, 2012 at 6:29 am | Permalink

        While I suppose it could be possible for a mutation to give us the ability to perceive truth, it doesn’t seem to have happened. We are susceptible to illusions, sleight of hand and deliberate ruses. Some plants make a living by exploiting the imperfect senses of animals with visual and chemical lures.

        Natural selection works by selecting heritable advantages that need not be perfect. Even science, using our senses augmented by instruments, gives us provisional theories with a claim of a final truth.

        Given enough time, our senses can work out a more accurate approximation of truth but natural selection often works against this approach due to the second of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Safety.

        Natural selection favors prudence over truth because of time and energy trade-offs vs. risk. The ability to detect truth would be more beneficial in saving resources if it didn’t cost more. If it were possible, it is amazing that no creature actually has senses that cannot be fooled, so absence of evidence is evidence of absence for a truth sense.

        Plantinga seems to believe we can detect truth through our senses and that the ability couldn’t come from natural means. I disagree with the former but agree with the latter.

        • darrelle
          Posted September 18, 2012 at 7:34 am | Permalink

          I understand and agree with your individual points, but I don’t reach the same conclusion as you, that we can not detect truth through our senses. I think the difference may be due to different ideas about what “through our senses” means. I think your position is that we use other mental faculties, reasoning, logic, etc. to discover truths in spite of our senses. Is that accurate?

          In my view, all interactions with reality are mediated by our senses. Senses include more than just the sensor hardware i.e., eyes, ears, scent receptors, skin. Senses also include the hardware and software to interpret the data received by the sensors. Yes, our sensory systems are far from fool proof. But much of the time they do provide us with accurate models of reality. Yes we have devised technologies to help us sense things better, but we still must use our senses to experience the data garnered with those technologies. We have figured out how to use our imperfect senses to discover truths. And all of that is a product of evolution, a result of natural selection. And it is all accomplished through our senses, there is no other way. Well, not so far at least.

          Unless you mean to say that you don’t think humans have discovered any truths? Then the difference of course would be due to different ideas about what “truth” means.

        • Bebop
          Posted September 18, 2012 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

          In a lot of cases, truth = usefulness. Although truth may be an elastic concept, usefulness is more practical. I guess what works may be more useful than the truth…

  18. Daniel Schmuhl
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    I do think that Nagel overstates things but he does have a point. Neuroscience isn’t even close to solving the hard problems of consciousness, free will, self etc. I just don’t think philosophy is going to solve them either.

    • lamacher
      Posted September 17, 2012 at 8:04 am | Permalink

      Your final sentence is true. Philosophy has no chance of discovering the roots of consciousness in that it is not an empirical discipline. The penultimate sentence indicates the current situation, but neuroscience has made huge strides, and is where the solution resides.

  19. dunstar (@eightyc)
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    Jerry’s, “No it’s not. Read the book if you don’t believe me” line is the best i’ve read in months! lolz. that is a awesome line!

  20. Daniel Schmuhl
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    I don’t see any reason why science can’t eventually explain some of these phenomena though. It seems like it’s far too early to just give up.

    • Bebop
      Posted September 17, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

      You mean to find a material cause for meaning?

  21. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    Nagel seems to be an atheist who would like to be part of the theological conversation (though without the disdain for other atheists that Joseph Hoffman has).

    This results, however, in his ignoring the question, “Why the Christian God?”

    I would argue that there is in fact a degree to which it is hard-wired into the human psyche to anthropomorphize the world around us and to attribute agency to fire, wind, rain, etc. (See the recent book “Born to Beleive” by Andrew Newberg.) This tendency is, I suppose, what Plantinga is getting at by “sensus divinitas”.

    But modern art and New Age religion are filled with attempts to rework and generate very different concepts of God rather than the traditional Christian one and they have just as much “sensus divinitas” as Plantinga. Surely, no matter how much slack you cut him here, it is obvious that Plantinga’s !*specifically*! evangelical beliefs are the result of cultural conditioning!!

    Yes, naturalists have “not proposed a credible solution”, but that’s present tense. How about have “not YET proposed a credible solution”? So, yes, that falls into the God-of-the-gaps trap (or is that the gaps claptrap?)

  22. MNb
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    I’m quite happy that my sensus divinitatis doesn’t work. It’s obviously harmful to human logical skills.

    “The modern materialist approach to life has conspicuously failed to explain …”
    Yeah, god of the gaps without god.

    “they have not proposed a credible solution.”
    Give scientists a little more time, will you?

  23. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    It is no secret that the next, and possibly last, god-of-the-gaps war between fact and belief will be centered on neuroscience. Having had all other venues closed off, from evolution over initial cell formation (say, Shoztak’s protocells) to formation of universes and laws, Sophisticated Theologians™ have no other recourse.

    Plantinga has an uncommonly long wind up, but Nagel seems to go directly to the parade grounds. Sophisticated Theologians™ can probably stand guard for decades because the problem is that consciousness et cetera has fuzzy or trivial definitions.

    But if they do that, they will look like Monty Python’s Black Knight:

    “What are you gonna do, bleed on me?”
    “I’m invincible!”
    “…You’re a loony.”

    Plantinga also claims that our ability to detect the “truth” (which includes, of course, the presence of God and Jesus) must therefore be the result of a sensus divinitatus (“divine sense”) installed in us by God.

    I think I will call that Plantinga’s Black Knight Defense. It is even more bleedingly obvious non-testable circular than “divine command theory”.

    “None shall pass!” is not an argument.

  24. Myron
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    “Nagel has fallen for the God-of-the-gap trap.  The credible solution is to do more work to find out how the structure of the mind produces consciousness, and how natural selection might have acted to promote that feature.  Does Nagel think that science has used all its resources on this problem, and failed?” J. Coyne

    This is the alternative that Nagel has in mind:

    “Some form of natural teleology…would be an alternative to a miracle—either in the sense of a wildly improbable fluke or in the sense of a divine intervention in the natural order. The tendency for life to form may be a basic feature of the natural order, not explained by the nonteleological laws of physics and chemistry. This seems like an admissible conjecture given the available evidence. And once there are beings who can respond to value, the rather different teleology of intentional action becomes part of the historical picture, resulting in the creation of new value. The universe has become not only conscious and aware of itself but capable in some respects of choosing its path into the future—though all three, the consciousness, the knowledge, and the choice, are dispersed over a vast crowd of beings, acting both individually and collectively.
    These teleological speculations are offered merely as possibilities, without positive conviction.”

    (Nagel, Thomas. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. p. 124)

    Maybe he intends to reintroduce something like the concept of entelechy into natural science, but he nowhere says so explicity.

    entelechy (from Greek ‘entelecheia’), in philosophy, that which realizes or makes actual what is otherwise merely potential. The concept is intimately connected with Aristotle’s distinction between matter and form, or the potential and the actual. He analyzed each thing into the stuff or elements of which it is composed and the form which makes it what it is (see hylomorphism). The mere stuff or matter is not yet the real thing; it needs a certain form or essence or function to complete it. Matter and form, however, are never separated; they can only be distinguished. Thus, in the case of a living organism, for example, the sheer matter of the organism (viewed only as a synthesis of inorganic substances) can be distinguished from a certain form or function or inner activity, without which it would not be a living organism at all; and this “soul” or “vital function” is what Aristotle in his De anima (On the Soul ) called the entelechy (or first entelechy) of the living organism. Similarly, rational activity is what makes a man to be a man and distinguishes him from a brute animal.
    Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a 17th-century German philosopher and mathematician, called his monads (the ultimate reality of material beings) entelechies in virtue of their inner self-determined activity. The term was revived around the turn of the 20th century by Hans Driesch, a German biologist and philosopher, in connection with his vitalistic biology to denote an internal perfecting principle which, he supposed, exists in all living organisms.”

    (“Entelechy.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2010.)

    • Myron
      Posted September 17, 2012 at 9:09 am | Permalink

      entelechy. Hans Driesch (1867–1941), this century’s leading neovitalist, was much impressed with his discovery that, despite extreme interference in the early stages of embryological development, some organisms nevertheless develop into perfectly formed adults. In a thoroughly Aristotelian fashion, therefore, he became convinced that there is some life-element, transcending the purely material, controlling and promoting such development. Denying that this ‘entelechy’ is a force in the usual sense, Driesch openly argued that it is end-directed. In his later writings, Driesch moved beyond his Greek influences, starting to sound more Hegelian, as he argued that all life culminates ultimately in a ‘supra-personal whole’.”

      (Honderich, Ted, ed. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. p. 255)

    • Posted September 17, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

      Hmm… does Nagel post here as “Bebop”?

      /@

      • Bebop
        Posted September 17, 2012 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

        :p

  25. Sastra
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    The modern materialist approach to life has conspicuously failed to explain such central mind-related features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, and value. This failure to account for something so integral to nature as mind, argues philosopher Thomas Nagel, is a major problem, threatening to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology.

    And pray tell how an ancient non-material approach to life manages to explain anything mind-related? It doesn’t explain them — it just repeats the question and puts it in the form of an answer.

    Consciousness? Oh, that’s explained by Consciousness being Consciousness. No history, no development, no reason it is the way it is and not some other way. No components, no parts, not made of anything except maybe the consciousness it’s made of. No method, no mechanism, no chain of cause and effect for how it works and does what its supposed to do. No location, no situation, no way it is oriented in space and time. Just … consciousness. Slap this vacuous explanation down on the table, look at it — and pronounce yourself finally satisfied.

    Finally, we have an account for consciousness! And, silly us, it was right there waiting for us where we had left it — back when we were four years old.

    Now repeat the above with “intentionality,” “meaning,” “value,” and, of course, “mind.” Notice how it not only works for all of them, but notice how it resembles God.

    That’s mighty suspicious.

    Supernatural “explanations” don’t explain. They don’t even try. They make us think like four year olds and then give up.

    • Myron
      Posted September 17, 2012 at 10:35 am | Permalink

      The current materialistic “explanation” of the evolutionary emergence of consciousness is “It just so happened”.

      • Posted September 17, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think anyone puts that forward as an explanation; it’s a working assumption (per Sean Carroll).

        /@

    • Bebop
      Posted September 17, 2012 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

      “Consciousness? Oh, that’s explained by Consciousness being Consciousness. No history, no development, no reason it is the way it is and not some other way.”

      Otherwise it wouldn’t be irreducible, immaterial, beyond time and matter…

      • Posted September 17, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

        You have yet to provide any empirical evidence that consciousness is “irreducible, immaterial, beyond time and matter”, let alone any testable hypothesis that follows from that, um, assumption.

        Hmm… I think you’ve just proved Sastra’s point: “it just repeats the question and puts it in the form of an answer.”

        /@

        • Bebop
          Posted September 17, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

          Go see #36 below for an answer but wouldn’t it be logical that if a “thing” that has an immaterial and uncreated nature exists for real, no empirical evidence could be provided about its nature?

          Let’s think about it again. That no-thing that is consciousness is what allows you to get all the empirical evidence you’ll need to find in the universe, but it is normal that it can’t find itself. That would be like asking water to wet water or fire to burn itself.

          • Posted September 17, 2012 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

            To be charitable, #36 is a pile of fœtid dingos’ kidneys.

            Let’s think about it again. If this immaterial thing interacts with our material brains, it must yield empirical evidence (given the right instruments).

            But analogies certainly aren’t evidence.

            Nevertheless, here’s another one for you.

            /@

            • Bebop
              Posted September 17, 2012 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

              Analogies aren’t evidence but they can be useful to explain things.

              I agree that #36 wasn’t my best but that fire can’t burn itself is a pretty good analogy for explaining why consciousness can’t be found and why we can experience it and see the traces it leaves when interacting with what it is not.

              • Posted September 18, 2012 at 12:12 am | Permalink

                “fire can’t burn itself is a pretty good analogy”

                No. No it isn’t.

                Why should consciousness be like fire? Why should finding consciousness be like burning fire?

                You can explain “fire not burning itself” in terms of chemistry; in terms of what can you explain consciousness not finding itself?

                /@

              • Bebop
                Posted September 18, 2012 at 9:49 am | Permalink

                Don’t need to be a chemist to explain why fire can’t burn itself or that water can’t wet water. If I pour some water in my glass that has already water in it, will the water in my glass become wetter? No because water can’t wet water. It is in the nature of water to wet, but despite that, it cannot wet itself.

                So the analogy works. I don’t expect you to believe that consciousness has an uncreated nature but if it would be the case, then, it would be logic that consciousness can’t know itself because consciousness (water) can’t know (wet) consciousness (water).

                We can see the interactions it has with the physical world, the material biological traces it leaves and the immaterial effects like meaning, reason, morals, knowledge, values, etc… it produces but we can’t witness consciousness itself because consciousness (fire) can’t know (burn) consciousness (fire).

              • Posted September 18, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

                Um, yes you do. And to understand what “to wet” actually means you need molecular physics. (It’s something to do with the meniscus and angles where the liquid meets another substance; water wets, mercury doesn’t.)

                Your problem is, you think that your analogies explain your assertion about consciousness, whereas actually they only illustrate something that yet lacks an explanation.

                I’m afraid it’s you who is all wet, Bebop!

                /@

              • Bebop
                Posted September 18, 2012 at 11:02 am | Permalink

                You don’t need to know chemistry to deduce that water can wet things. All you need is water and a rock water, or water and a t-shirt. And if I add water to water, I can deduce without any help of a chemist that water doesn’t wet water.

                And why the analogy when applied to consciousness doesn’t work?

                Again, I don’t expect you to believe that consciousness is uncreated, I’d like just to understand why the analogy – consciousness (water) can’t know (can’t wet) consciousness (water)- doesn’t work or is not a good one.

              • Posted September 18, 2012 at 11:17 am | Permalink

                You don’t need to know chemistry to deduce that water can wet things. All you need is water and a rock water, or water and a t-shirt.

                Water can wet some things — not anything or everything.

                First, there’re all sorts of neat hydrophobic surfaces, for starters, that water doesn’t adhere to; it just runs off.

                Next, what of other fluids? Water and alcohol are perfectly miscible, and alcohol is capable of wetting most substances as water — but, I’d be willing to bet, it’s not a perfectly congruent set, and that there are some things water can wet that alcohol can’t and / or vice-versa. So, does water wet alcohol?

                And what about oils? Drop some water in a jar of oil, and is the water somehow wetting the oil? Now, add some detergent. Is it the water that wet the oil, or is it the detergent?

                And gasses? Does steam wet the air?

                How ’bout at the molecular level? If you place a single water molecule on a piece of paper, is the paper now wet?

                Take something that’s wet and put it in the freezer. It’s still covered in exactly the same water as it was before, so it still must be just as wet, right?

                I could go on — such as hygroscopic substances or cupric sulfate, but you should get the point by now.

                That’s the problem with deepities such as “water can’t wet itself.” Sure, they sound profound, but they really don’t mean diddly squat. Indeed, they’re best suited to puns and jokes — “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.”

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Bebop
                Posted September 18, 2012 at 11:25 am | Permalink

                I was asked why empirical evidence about an immaterial and uncreated consciousness can’t be found.
                I think the fact that water can’t wet water is a very good way to explain why consciousness, if it is true that it is uncreated, can’t know itself. That’s it.

              • Posted September 20, 2012 at 12:22 am | Permalink

                “That’s it.”

                I think you’ve erroneously omitted “sh” from the last word there.

                Once again: An analogy is an illustration, not an explanation.

                /@

      • Sastra
        Posted September 18, 2012 at 8:30 am | Permalink

        You’re playing tennis without a net. The scientist is trying to explain consciousness and you’re avoiding explanation by calling your inability to explain a better explanation.

        How easy. And how easy to apply it at any point.

        I can’t understand what it means for something to be irreducible, immaterial, and beyond time and matter. I cannot intuitively picture this in my head. Neither can you. Neither can anyone.

        Why would THIS then not also be an amazing thing which “calls for explanation?” Why instead do you demand that every last detail in the chain of matter-to-mind be explained or it’s just too, too incomprehensible?

        It has been said that the natural/supernatural divide is whether mind comes from matter or matter comes from mind. In a supernatural universe, there is at least one mental thing which has no material substrate or history. But, in the universe we find ourselves in, they all appear to. We’ve got far more evidence on our side than you have on yours. All you have is something you can’t wrap your mind around. But you can’t wrap your mind around what you laughingly consider YOUR “explanation,” either. We got details; you wave your empty hands.

        • Bebop
          Posted September 18, 2012 at 10:02 am | Permalink

          “I can’t understand what it means for something to be irreducible, immaterial, and beyond time and matter. I cannot intuitively picture this in my head. Neither can you. Neither can anyone.”

          Maybe it is because you didn’t do what is required to get it. For some material and cultural reasons, your mind works in a certain way. Doesn’t mean that this way is absolute and cannot be modified. The average way is perfect for the everyday life and that is what made our evolution possible. But now that your survival is assured, that no tigers (or ligers) want to eat you, that you have food, a roof, etc… you are able to increase even more the quality of your self-awareness and switch your mode of perception. The oriental traditions developed a lot of technics so you can witness for yourself the uncreated nature of a part of your self.

          That means to have access to a non-dual mode of percpeption where things are not grasped through opposites so that concepts like “eternal (beyond space and time)” or “irreducible” can make sense despite what logic and our cognitive abilities taught us.

  26. Myron
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    “Nagel has fallen for the God-of-the-gap trap.” – J. Coyne

    Not really, if I understand him correctly, because he seems to argue that materialism-cum-Darwinian-evolutionism are in principle incapable of explaining (the emergence of) consciousness, intentionality, and reason(ing) in nonteleological terms, i.e. in terms of efficient causes alone.

    • Sastra
      Posted September 17, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      And the nonteleological terms are in principle incapable of being explained in terms of anything other than themselves. Such terms are too vacuous an explanation to account for anything.

      Call it “God-IS-a-gap.”

    • Posted September 17, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

      If that is his argument, it’s far, far from compelling.

      /@

  27. Myron
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    As for teleology in biology:

    “[I]t is not just biological explanations that are ‘teleological’, i.e. that cite future ends, goals, or purposes to explain past structures, processes, and events. The whole vocabulary of biology is teleological. Consider some of the most basic nouns in biology: codon, gene, promoter, repressor, organelle, cell, tissue, organ, fin, wing, eye, coat, stem, chloroplast, membrane. Almost all of these terms are defined—at least conventionally—by what the thing does, or what it does when working normally. And not just anything it does, for each of these does many things. Take a shark’s fin, for example: it provides stability while swimming, but it also reflects light, makes turbulence behind it in the water, adds weight and surface area to the body, signals to humans the presence of a predator near the surface, attracts the interest of connoisseurs of shark fin soup, and so on. But only one (or maybe a couple) of these things a fin does is its function. The function of a fin is the only one among these effects that define what is to be a fin: a fin is an appendage of a fish or whale, one of whose functions is to provide stability. In other words, it is something the animal has ‘in order to’ provide stability while swimming. Well, if fish have fins in order to swim stably, one may ask, who arranged this neat trick for them? And the same question arises for practically every other feature of organisms that has biological interest. For almost everything biological is ordinarily described in terms of its function. So almost everything biological raises a teleological problem. In contrast, a question such as ‘What is the function of the electron?’ is not one physicists ordinarily consider.”

    (Rosenberg, Alex, and Daniel W. McShea. Philosophy of Biology: A Contemporary Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2008. pp. 13-4)

    For more, see:

    * Ayala, Francisco J. “Teleological Explanations in Evolutionary Biology.” Philosophy of Science 37, no. 1 (March 1970): 1-15. http://colinallen.dnsalias.org/Secure/X755/1970-Ayala.pdf

    “The ultimate source of explanation in biology is the principle of natural selection. Natural selection means differential reproduction of genes and gene combinations. It is a mechanistic process which accounts for the existence in living organisms of end-directed structures and processes. It is argued that teleological explanations in biology are not only acceptable but indeed indispensable. There are at least three categories of biological phenomena where teleological explanations are appropriate.”

    * Teleological Notions in Biology: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/teleology-biology/

    • Skeptic Griggsy
      Posted September 17, 2012 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

      Bunk!
      Teleological explanations explain nothing! They are backwards causation.
      Ernst Mayr instead notes teleonomic processes at work in biology. In “What Evolution Is,” he explains why teleology is nothing.So-called purposive explanations are just easier means of explanation,less awkward. Read Paul B.Weisz’ ” The Science of Biology,” whence I developed the teleonomic argument, with WEIT’s ” Seeing and Believing” as further confirmation.
      Here Strato and Thales are right, and Aristotle, also a naturalist, is wrong!

  28. s krishna
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    My question is why only Christian religion is considered? Should not other monotheistic religions like Islam be also considered?

  29. Roo
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Lunchtime again and I have not read the comments above yet, apologies! I have a question though. Does physics have any sort of a role in natural selection? Or is every part of it explained by, well, selection? Know that I’m coming at this from a completely amateurish position, so if the answer seems obvious to you, sorry.

    I don’t know a great deal about cosmology, for example, but certainly amazing things happen and are produced in the universe just via, I don’t know, the laws of physics I suppose. When looking at something as complex as human consciousness, is it a give that in has to have arisen through natural selection, or is it also possible it arose the way that things as amazing as solar systems arise, simply as a byproduct of the laws in our universe? I hope that question makes sense, sorry. Just curious.

    • darrelle
      Posted September 17, 2012 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

      In the sense that everything is comprised of elementary particles, forces and fields, the study of which we call physics, yes. In principle all aspects of biology could be explained by interactions between those basic components of reality. In practice there are not very many physicists working on biological problems. It is a case of the problem (how reality functions) being so big that specialization is the only practical way to make progress on figuring it all out.

      • Roo
        Posted September 20, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

        Thank you Darrelle!

      • Posted September 20, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

        Beware the red-hot contention between theoretical physics and neurobiology: it can destroy your love life!

      • Posted September 20, 2012 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

        Whoops, i forgot to link, not embed……

        Beware the red-hot contention between theoretical physics and neurobiology: it can destroy your love life!

        Big Bang Big Smack!

  30. couchloc
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    “Does Nagel think that science has used all its resources on this problem [of consciousness], and failed? Does he not know how relatively primitive neurobiology is right now? Nagel has just thrown up his hands and said, “You people haven’t explained it, therefore perhaps Plantinga is right.””

    Yes Nagel does think there are reasons why science in anything like its current form cannot explain the nature of consciousness, and these are principled reasons. So he would deny it is a practical problem which can be solved by doing more empirical research. Further, the suggestion that “he’s just thrown up his hands” at the problem is pretty silly if you actually know anything about what Nagel has written on the subject. For several years he has presented one of the most serious challenges to materialism which exists (and let me mention that he’s an atheist). To suggest that his response to the problem is nothing more than “throwing up his hands” is to fail to appreciate the careful arguments he’s offered. You might consider reading his book, “The View from Nowhere” (Oxford) which presents his view by arguing that subjective features of the world cannot be explained empirically because scientific objectivity (third personal intersubjective agreement) is not helpful in explaining personal subjectivity (first personal, subjective awareness). Even Galileo Galilei would agree with Nagel that we need to “remove” subjective experience from our analysis of the world to understand it in properly objective terms, and so Nagel has a point in this context. To dismiss Nagel as not knowing enough science or enough neurobiology is to miss the point.

  31. Georgia
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Actually, some types of inter-species altruism already have been attributed to corvus divinitatis. See 1 Kings 17:4-6.

  32. Peter Beattie
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    » Jerry:
    Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Mormons, Scientologists—you name them—have all perceived different truths with their sensi divinitati.

    I’m not entirely sure how those matters are handled in the New World, but in Rightpondia we would still insist on calling those sensus divinitatum (with a long second vowel in the plural “sensus”). ;)

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted September 17, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      I know (or rather, I don’t–I don’t know Latin). I was obviously acting like a theologian and making stuff up!

      • Skeptic Griggsy
        Posted September 17, 2012 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

        Why, yes!
        And do you approv eo f my naming the argument the Coyne-Mayr-Lamberth teleonomic one?

        • Skeptic Griggsy
          Posted September 17, 2012 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

          Sorry for the typos.

  33. lapeto
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Finnish creationist Tapio Puolimatka likes to bring up Nagel to “show” that there is something wrong with naturalism and evolution.

  34. Marjorie Spencer
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Ultimately there is no real mystery in what’s up with Nagel, and possibly Plantinga although I’ve never read him. For him there is a gap, yes, but not necessarily one where some god resides. It’s the one that used to have mind on the other side of body, and now simply doesn’t. Nagel, as a philosopher of mind, sees that our ability to explain human experience, mind-mediated, is not as developed as our ability to explain the physical world, and he is not prepared to say that a whole host of things we have named and can identify as they arise, from smells to concepts to counterfactuals, do not exist.

    The argument, I believe, is that until we have some way to explain mental events _as experienced_ and not just as they arise via material events, we have not solved the mind/body problem. My guess is he wouldn’t mind at all if we did solve it.

  35. Johannes
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to point out that there is another position in the theistic (specifically Christian) camp which radically differs from that of Plantinga. The key issue is distinguishing faith from fideism.

    Faith is assenting to what has been revealed by God. But reason must be used to know, first that God exists, and secondly what specific entities or ensemble of entities are the medium that He has used to conduct his revelation. Faith is not a leap in the dark.

    Therefore there are two levels of knowledge related to faith. First the knowledge of the basic truths that form the base for faith, a knowledge which is acquired using reason, and then the knowledge of the revealed truths, which is acquired using faith.

    The most basic truth is the existence of God, and it can be grasped by reason based on the observation of the world and of man. That’s why St Paul blames the Gentiles in Romans 1:19-21 for not having acknowledged God.

    The next basic truths are that Jesus Christ is from God, and that a specific Church is the one founded and assisted by Jesus. These truths can be grasped by reason based on the “motives of credibility”, which are basically historical, unless you see a miracle. (To note, the Church part holds only for Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodoxs, not for Protestants. Protestants have only the Bible.)

    From that base, the truths revealed by God through the Church (or through just the Bible for Protestants) are believed by faith.

    In short, faith is assenting to what is revealed by divine authority. But reason can and must be used to determine (on the basis of motives of credibility) who has divine authority. Otherwise, faith would be a leap in the dark.

    For anyone interested, this issue is extensively dealt with in this article and subsequent discussion:

    http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2009/05/wilson-vs-hitchens-a-catholic-perspective/

    from which I quote this paragraph that deals directly with the quote from Plantinga:

    Plantinga treats belief in God’s existence as a properly basic belief. The notion that belief in God’s existence is properly basic is something alien to the Thomistic tradition. And that is because God is immaterial, whereas we know only through our five senses. Therefore until the beatific vision, our belief in God’s existence cannot be basic, but only by inference from causes, or by testimony. Plantinga treats God’s existence as “hard-wired,” as he does our belief in other minds, and the incorrigibility of perceptual beliefs, and belief in the past. But this very way of thinking about belief-formation, namely, as being hard-wired to form a true belief [i.e. that God exists] neither by inference nor by direct perception of God, disconnects intellect from reality. It does this by proposing that the intellect forms belief by a mechanism, rather than by receiving forms only through the senses. But from a Thomistic point of view, by characterizing the intellect as jury-rigged to arrive at truth, rather than as directly perceiving the truth itself insofar as it is able through the senses, Plantinga’s epistemology starts already with a concession to skepticism, i.e. we’re already cut off from reality, and have to hope that this mechanism by which we arrive at beliefs is reliable.

    • Posted September 17, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

      The most basic truth is the existence of God, and it can be grasped by reason based on the observation of the world and of man.

      …except, of course, that it can’t.

      We have made empirical observations of everything from the very very small to the very very big, probed the origins of the Universe itself, plumbed the depths of the nature of reality, and come to understand the origin and development of life on Earth.

      And not only is there not one single hint of a shred of evidence of anything divine anywhere in the entire body of science, there aren’t even any gaps left in which one could hypothetically hide.

      Oh, to be sure, there are plenty of gaps in human knowledge yet to be filled, but those gaps are akin to the empty spaces in the maps of geographers in the sixteenth century. All the continents were known with their general outline, and there wasn’t any question of the shape of the Earth — even if there were still some pretty major features to discover and map, including entire mountain ranges and river basins, not to mention everything under the surface of the ocean.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Johannes
        Posted September 17, 2012 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

        Ben Goren, what you are arguing against is the Intelligent Design position. Classical theism does not need ID, and is actually better without it. We don’t need any gaps.

        BTW, Alvin Plantinga is a theistic personalist, not a classical theist. And Paley-style “design arguments” have at least a tendency in the theistic personalist direction.

        If anyone is interested in the difference between classical theism and theistic personalism, see

        http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com.ar/2010/09/classical-theism.html

        • Posted September 17, 2012 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

          Did Feser interview God for that linked essay?

        • Posted September 18, 2012 at 8:19 am | Permalink

          No, I’m not arguing against ID — at least, not exclusively.

          ID is just one of the gaps where the gods have supposed to have been hiding, but they’re also supposed to hide in personally significant random variations (such as when a believer compels a god to his or her bidding by way of spells / prayers / whatever); the Big Bang; what happens after death; cognition (especially including on moral matters); and the like.

          We’ve examined each and every phenomenon that the religious have claimed for their gods, and found no more evidence of gods than for ghosts, dragons, Leprechauns, Santa, or any other faery tale character. Which is hardly surprising, since that’s exactly what gods are — faery tale characters.

          I mean, isn’t it obvious? The primary source for the most popular pantheon is an anthology that opens with a story about an enchanted garden with talking animals and an angry wizard. The other popular pantheon features blue-skinned men with elephant heads and a dozen arms.

          How thick do you have to be to figure out that these are children’s stories?

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Posted September 18, 2012 at 8:25 am | Permalink

            Wow that was a close call Ben. I thought you were going to go after Professor Tolkien there for a moment.

  36. Bebop
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    And what about Spiritual Materialism?

    A spiritual materialist only needs to consider that consciousness is a basic uncreated component of the universe, like energy, which could cumulate a high degree of subjectivity and self-awareness when experienced within complex organic machines like humans.

    Now, that implies that consciousness has an immaterial nature that our senses aren’t able to see or detect, like gravity. It can be experienced but not seen just like light can’t light up light. Light can only light up what it is not, like matter or darkness. That is why our consciousness wouldn’t be able to see what consciousness looks like. It would then make sense that our consciousness would only detect the interactions it produces when it deals with matter.

    But I would still call this Spiritual Materialism in the sense that its immateriality wouldn’t prevent it to be some(no)thing…

    Spiritual Materialism would then explain meaning, value, will, morality, religions, life in general and would give to the theory of evolution a teleological attribute without changing much (even not randomness) about what we know about it.

    • Posted September 17, 2012 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

      I understand that you haven’t the foggiest idea what consciousness is and that you’re grasping at straws to try to explain it — and that that, in turn, explains all these utterly bizarre fantasies about consciousness that you keep building and tossing around.

      But, once again, for the umpteenth time, there isn’t any deep mystery about consciousness. Yes, the details and even the general outline are fuzzy, but not in any way that could be hiding vampire bunny rabbits or chocolate-covered faery dust.

      There’s more than enough raw computational complexity in the brain to account for consciousness and everything else there is about cognition. There aren’t even any hints of any mysterious outside forces acting on brains, and the types of fantasies you keep inventing would require gross violations of everything we know about the universe in order to function.

      Is the world not fascinating enough for you that you must fabricate puzzles that aren’t even there?

      If your interest in understanding consciousness were sincere, you’d be devouring the neuroscience section at your local library. To date, there isn’t even a hint that you’ve read the jacket of the most elementary introductory book on the subject, which is more than enough to explain why all of our attempts to get through to you are falling on blind eyes.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Bebop
        Posted September 17, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

        You can be a reasonable atheist and still believe that materialism isn’t the answer.
        I suggest that you explain to us how value, meaning, qualia or morality can pop out of matter because it would save a lot of time to a lot of people.
        Looks like a lot of scientists ignore what you know about consciousness.

        • Ichthyic
          Posted September 17, 2012 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

          not that the man apparently isn’t a pariah these days, but you could save yourself some time if you read this:

          instead of reading things written by Carl Jung or Chogyam Trungpa?

          • Bebop
            Posted September 18, 2012 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

            Our sense of what is right and wrong comes from the same sense that what is ugly and beautiful, or high and low, or left and right. We have what a lot of the oriental traditions call a default dual mode of perception (the original sin accordingly to christians).

            But thanks, I’ll take a look.

            • Posted September 18, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

              Our sense of what is right and wrong comes from the same sense that what is ugly and beautiful, or high and low, or left and right.

              Again, powerfully, no.

              Our sense of left and right has looooooong since been known to be based in the hemispheric nature of our brains.

              And Jerry has posted on the recent studies done with monkeys who are unfairly rewarded treats — the mistreated monkey will scornfully refuse the unjust reward, for example.

              Really, truly, honestly, will you pretty please with sugar on top spend some serious quality time in the neurosciences section of your local library? You might as well break out Hellenistic four-element physics to explain why water is wet — which is damned near what you’re doing when playing that “water can’t wet itself” deepity.

              If you had received a proper science education in high school, none of this would be a mystery to you. I swear — none of it is rocket science, all of it you can verify for yourself, and it’s far more fascinating (and relevant!) than your faery tales.

              There is such a wonderful gift awaiting you. The smartest people in all of human history have pooled their intellects over the years, and the fruits of their labors are yours for the taking…if only you would go to the library, if only you would take some classes, if only you would stop trying to re-invent the wheel for yourself.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Bebop
                Posted September 18, 2012 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

                I’m not saying that there are not biological or physical reasons for telling the left from the right, au contraire.
                I say that this is also behind the reason why we can tell what is right from what is wrong.

        • Myron
          Posted September 17, 2012 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

          Of course, atheism doesn’t entail materialism. It doesn’t even entail naturalism, since atheists may believe in all sorts of nondivine supernatural entities (beings or powers).

          • Sastra
            Posted September 18, 2012 at 8:36 am | Permalink

            Wouldn’t “supernatural entities (beings or powers)” simply be a (nontraditional) form of God?

        • Posted September 18, 2012 at 7:58 am | Permalink

          I suggest that you explain to us how value, meaning, qualia or morality can pop out of matter[.]

          Sure — as soon as you tell us when you stopped beating your wife.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • couchloc
            Posted September 18, 2012 at 8:22 am | Permalink

            Ben Goren,

            This is hardly a loaded question being asked of you. You made the claim that the explanation of consciousness lies in neuroscience. As you said, “there’s more than enough raw computational complexity in the brain to account for consciousness and everything else there is about cognition.” You’re merely being asked to tell us what this explanation amounts to.

            You seem to think it’s obvious what the explanation is, but, as a matter of fact, psychologists like David Barash (who is also an atheist and materialist) directly contradict your account, since he thinks neurobiology hasn’t come close to an answer for the problem.

            http://chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/the-hardest-problem-in-science/40845

            If you think he’s wrong, fine, but then you owe some explanation.

            • Posted September 18, 2012 at 8:40 am | Permalink

              <sigh />

              Haven’t we been through this before?

              http://gizmodo.com/5843117/scientists-reconstruct-video-clips-from-brain-activity

              Watch the movie, read the article, follow up with Professor Gallant’s scholarly articles and the like, and then tell me if you still think everything that goes on inside our heads isn’t actually going on inside our heads.

              Cheers,

              b&

            • Posted September 18, 2012 at 8:45 am | Permalink

              Here’s Professor Gallant personally explaining his findings:

              b&

              • couchloc
                Posted September 18, 2012 at 9:28 am | Permalink

                From your article linked:

                “As the sessions progressed, the computer learned more and more about how the visual activity presented on the screen corresponded to the brain activity.”

                I’m sorry but I don’t see how showing “correlations” between brain activity and “visual activity on a screen” solves the problem of consciousness. Are you aware that even Descartes believed there were certain “correlations” between brain states (his pineal gland) and mental states? His theory is not inconsistent with the existence of some correlations. If you think finding correlations are sufficient to solve the hard problem of consciousness, then I’m afraid you’ve missed the point. Nothing presented in this article explains how a material state (a brain, a computer) could be conscious in the sense of exhibiting awareness.

                “Sigh”

              • Posted September 18, 2012 at 9:57 am | Permalink

                I’m sorry, couchloc, but your objections really aren’t making any sense to me. It’s coming across as if I had just explained Newton’s and Kepler’s mechanics to you, and you’re still wanting to know what keeps the lights in the firmament from falling down if they’re not holes in the Celestial Dome.

                You yourself have made the point that the brain is building a visual map correlating to the scenes projected upon the retina. Here we have proof, in a most visceral manner, that, when we have an image in our minds, we really do literally have an image encoded in our brains.

                What more could there possibly be? You are conscious of the visual world around you because your brain has an encoded representation of that visual world — just as, when a visually-guided robot maneuvers through its world, it sees it surroundings by visually encoding them in its electronic circuits.

                About all that could even hypothetically be left would be that old dualistic nonsense about our brains being transceivers to the spiritual realm. That’s not what you’re on about, is it?

                b&

              • couchloc
                Posted September 18, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

                “Here we have proof, in a most visceral manner, that, when we have an image in our minds, we really do literally have an image encoded in our brains.”

                And are those images in our minds IDENTICAL to the images encoded in our brains, or are they CORRELATED with the images in our brains? What does your data establish?

              • Posted September 18, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

                If you can explain what, exactly, what you mean by the terms, “mind,” and “brain,” as well as how you distinguish between the two, I might have a chance at offering you a coherent answer.

                b&

              • couchloc
                Posted September 18, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

                It is not my explanatory burden to explain your claim, I take it. You have argued that we can explain consciousness by appeal to neuroscience. And, further, you have now claimed that “when we have an image in our minds, we really do literally have an image encoded in our brains.” I’m asking you to explain what this claim of yours means since I’m trying to understand your account and am not sure I have yet.

                A= an image in our minds
                B= an image encoded in our brains.

                What is your explanation of the relation between A and B?

                (1) A is identical to B
                (2) A is correlated with B
                (3) other?

                Thanks.

              • Posted September 18, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

                A= an image in our minds
                B= an image encoded in our brains.

                What is your explanation of the relation between A and B?

                (1) A is identical to B

                This exactly.

                Anything else would mean something non-materialistic is going on, and that, in turn, would radically overturn everything we know about every branch of science, from physics to thermodynamics to communications theory and information technology.

                I suppose it’s conceivable that there could be something non-material going on. But that’s far less likely than the chances that the Sun won’t rise tomorrow.

                Note that, just as computers work symbolically in complex ways, we can be certain that brains work symbolically in complex ways. But, fundamentally, what your brain is doing is (logically) no different from what a computer is doing.

                Here’s another take on the matter. If you were to build a computer model of a brain down to the atomic level, it would have all the same consciousness and qualia and the rest as any other brain. If not, if there’s something missing, then you’re in woo-woo spirit land.

                And, not coincidentally, you could also harness that whatever-it-is that’s extra to power a perpetual motion machine.

                As I wrote: don’t bet on it.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • couchloc
                Posted September 18, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

                Ben,

                Notice, though, that your article doesn’t say (1) but (2):

                “The readings were fed into a computer program in which they were divided into three-dimensional pixels units called voxels…. This process effectively decodes the brain signals generated by moving pictures, CONNECTING the shape and motion information from the movies to specific brain actions. As the sessions progressed, the computer learned more and more about how the visual activity presented on the screen CORRESPONDED to the brain activity.”

                This is not really to give an explanation of type (1). The experiment correlates activity in the brain with reproductions of the images viewed on the screen by the individuals. So neural activity is being correlated with images on a screen. Note that the experimenter nowhere states he has access to the “images in the mind” of the subjects in the study. So, with all due respect, I don’t think this shows neural activity is identical to the images in the mind of the individuals. And without (1) I’m afraid I don’t see that the problem has been solved.

              • Posted September 18, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

                The fact that the signals can be decoded into images demonstrates that the original images have been encoded. This is basic information science.

                That Professor Gallant is using a different method to decode the signal from the normal / intended method is irrelevant — just as it’s irrelevant that cryptographers decode messages without using the original encryption key.

                When it comes to computation, the difference between correlation, correspondence, and all the other dismissive terms you’re tossing about are either entirely meaningless or amount to nothing more than statements of efficiency.

                Put simply, Professor Gallant has just put a signal analyzer to a brain and performed the exact same analysis of a visual cortex as an engineer at Intel might perform on a video card.

                Again, unless you want to go off the deep end with perpetual-energy spiritualism, the case is as firmly closed as any in science.

                Insisting that we need something more than the brain to explain cognition is no different from insisting that we need something more than the heart to explain circulation, or that vision isn’t a function of the eyes.

                b&

              • couchloc
                Posted September 18, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

                (1) “When it comes to computation, the difference between correlation, correspondence, and all the other dismissive terms you’re tossing about are either entirely meaningless or amount to nothing more than statements of efficiency.”

                What?! The term “corresponded” is from the article YOU linked to. Now I’m to blame for terms you introduced into the discussion but profess you don’t like? That seems a tad unfair.

                (2) “The fact that the signals can be decoded into images demonstrates that the original images have been encoded. This is basic information science.”

                When you say “the images have been encoded” what’s the relation between “the images” and “the code”? These are the same thing in your view? I think you want to claim something like this, but it seems odd in my view. I mean, the images are “colored” but I take it the “symbolic coding” you speak of is not colored. (My image of a parrot is red and yellow; is the symbolic coding also red and yellow?) So I don’t see how they are literally one and the same thing [identical] on your view. I’m not professing any spiritual energy or anything like that, I’m just not understanding what your neuroscientific explanation amounts to.

                Cheers.

              • Posted September 18, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

                When you see a parrot, the light reflected from the bird forms an image on your retina (after being focused by your eye’s optics).

                The rods and cones in your eye convert the photons into electrical signals that directly correspond to the location, wavelength, and intensity of the projected image.

                Those electrical signals propagate through the optic nerve and into the regions of the brain that Professor Gallant imaged in his study.

                Thanks to his study, we know that the correspondence is maintained. He was able to take measurements of the activity in the brain and reconstruct the original image as projected on the retina, with some understandable loss in fidelity considering the crudeness of his apparatus.

                We also know from other work, especially with injuries and surgeries, that this area of the brain is responsible for our ability to visually perceive things.

                And we also know from information science that this is perfectly analogous to how image processing happens in the computers we’ve designed. The encoding schemes are different, of course, but the process is identical.

                The conclusion is therefore obvious: when we visually perceive things, it is because that portion of our brains has encoded a representation of the scene projected onto the retina. That perception is then available for further analytical processing, just as a computer might analyze the image it’s digitally encoded.

                It is exactly this process of encoding and analysis that is what we point to when we say that we see something, even though we are not consciously aware of the firing of the neurons and what-not.

                And we can state all this with confidence as high as we can that it is the mechanical action of the heart that is responsible for blood flow in the veins. And it is with the same confidence that we can state that there isn’t anything else going on.

                Now, are there still details to work out? Of course. Lots of ‘em. But there’s still lots we don’t know about the heart, as well. That doesn’t mean that we need to keep the door open for something more mysterious going on in the brain any more than we need to keep the door open for something more mysterious going on with the circulatory system.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • couchloc
                Posted September 18, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

                I did my dissertation on vision and am aware of all the details involved in the processes you describe. I think you explain all of this in a very nice manner. Be this as it may, I feel there is still something that has not quite been explained on your account which is needed to claim that one “has used neuroscience to explain consciousness.” So I want to say this about your account: I don’t disagree with the story you are telling about the neural processes, but I think you are interpreting it as showing something that hasn’t been shown. The opponents of yours who are bothered by the nature of “consciousness” (e.g., Tom Nagel, John Searle) wouldn’t disagree with most of the details of your account of the neural processes–they both think neural processing underlies our mental states. But they would still not see this as what’s relevant to explaining consciousness because what you’ve described isn’t quite what’s needed for the explanation. (I don’t think they are simply being fussy here; there’s an important point about what is required for such an explanation.)

                To understand this, take your claim above:

                “It is exactly this process of encoding and analysis that is what we point to when we say that we see something, even though we are not consciously aware of the firing of the neurons and what-not.”

                According to this, “we are not consciously aware of the firing of the neurons” when we see something. This seems exactly right.

                But notice you said before that the encoding of the neural activity in our brains IS IDENTICAL TO the image that occurs in our minds. It is this remark that I find puzzling. If the encoding of the neural activity in our brains (B) is literally one and the same thing as the image in our minds (A), then my conscious awareness of one should ipso facto include my awareness of the other (they are the same on your view). So you seem to be asserting three claims which are logically inconsistent it seems.

                (1) I am consciously aware of my image in my mind.
                (2) I am not consciously aware of the neural activity in my brain.
                (3) My image in my mind is identical to this neural activity.

                (As I put it before: If my image of a parrot is red and yellow, and someone claims this image is identical to the symbolic coding in my brain, then the symbolic coding should be red and yellow too. But I take it that’s absurd.)

              • Posted September 18, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

                Here’s a thought experiment.

                Imagine some point in the future where Professor Gallant or one of his students figures out now just how to read what’s going on in the brain, but to alter it. Hand-waving, here, but imagine inducing currents in a precisely-controlled manner.

                And let’s say that you’re looking at a red parrot, but they do whatever manipulation is necessary to change the “red” encoding into “blue” encoding.

                I’m guessing you’d agree with me that you’d see not a red parrot but a blue one.

                Let’s also hypothesize another scenario, one that’ll definitely happen much sooner. You’re in the machine, but your eyes are closed. You’re asked to envision a red parrot. The computer scan reconstructs the image and, sure enough, it sees that you’re seeing a red parrot (though, unless you’re a trained artist, it’s probably not a very clear picture of one).

                We already know from Professor Gallant’s work that the mapping works in the one direction: you’re presented with an image and your brain reliably encodes it. To me, that coupled with everything else we know is more than enough to settle the case.

                But when the other direction is also established — and, if I had to hazard a guess, you’d agree with me that it someday will — will that still not be enough for you to establish that Professor Gallant is directly (though imperfectly) observing visual cognition?

                If not, then let me turn the question back on you: what, exactly, is it that you’re describing with this “cognition” term (or whatever), and how would you go about identifying it? What experiment would you propose (even if wildly impractical) to set it apart from the already-not-badly-mapped goings-on in our brains?

                b&

              • couchloc
                Posted September 18, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

                “But when the other direction is also established …. will that still not be enough for you to establish that Professor Gallant is directly (though imperfectly) observing visual cognition?”

                Interesting example. No, I don’t think it would be enough. We would only be able to say that we’re directly observing something correlated with visual cognition, not the visual cognition itself. To observe the visual cognition itself would mean that we would have to observe the individual’s “image in his mind” (e.g., the red and yellow parrot in his perceptual experience). But how could we observe that? You might as well say that observing someone’s shadow was the equivalent of observing the individual walking down the street, but these are not the same thing.

                “If not, then let me turn the question back on you: what, exactly, is it that you’re describing with this “cognition” term (or whatever), and how would you go about identifying it? What experiment would you propose (even if wildly impractical) to set it apart from the already-not-badly-mapped goings-on in our brains?”

                The cognition term refers to the “image in the mind” that we are consciously aware of when we observe a parrot. It is tied to the individual perceptual experience of the world I undergo. It cannot be shared. What experiment would I propose to set it apart from neural activity? Well, I don’t think I can give you an experiment that could demonstrate its existence to other individuals, since I think by definition images in the mind are private, internal states. So any attempt to subject it to some third-personal, experimental test wouldn’t be able to measure it directly (although you could measure the correlated brain activity). All I can say is that we have first-personal conscious evidence of its existence.

                Now, before you suggest that this sounds too woo-ey, note that we both agree the “image in the mind” of the parrot is red and yellow colored. So we certainly have criteria for the existence of such states since they have properties.

              • Posted September 18, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

                To observe the visual cognition itself would mean that we would have to observe the individual’s “image in his mind” (e.g., the red and yellow parrot in his perceptual experience). But how could we observe that? You might as well say that observing someone’s shadow was the equivalent of observing the individual walking down the street, but these are not the same thing.

                If that’s your standard of observation, then I think you’re being most unreasonable.

                All we’ve ever seen of almost all of everything accepted by science is, indeed, the equivalent of observing somebody’s shadow.

                The Higgs Boson and all other elementary particles? We’ve never seen one, only the traces that decay byproducts leave in cloud chambers.

                The Big Bang? All we’ve got is static on the radio from the Cosmic Microwave Background.

                Gravity? Deflections of springs and measurements of how long it takes objects to fall.

                The charge of an electron? Observations of an oil droplet suspended in midair.

                Indeed, by any other standard, the evidence that Professor Gallant has produced is breath-taking. He’s scanned brains and decoded those into full-color (fuzzy) movies of what the subjects were watching! He’s literally projecting the mind’s eye onto a screen, right there for the world to see!

                How much do you want to bet that, some years from now, he’s going to show somebody an optical illusion and discover that the brain scans match what we see, not what is shown? Would that convince you?

                b&

              • couchloc
                Posted September 18, 2012 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

                But look, I think the shadow point actually helps my view if you think about it. You write:

                “All we’ve ever seen of almost all of everything accepted by science is, indeed, the equivalent of observing somebody’s shadow.

                The Higgs Boson and all other elementary particles? We’ve never seen one, only the traces that decay byproducts leave in cloud chambers.

                The Big Bang? All we’ve got is static on the radio from the Cosmic Microwave Background……”

                In each example you give, we observe one thing (traces in a cloud chamber) and infer the existence of another (elementary particles). We don’t observe the elementary particles themselves. But this is just because there is a *difference* between the traces and the elementary particles. We know this is the case with your example, and nobody would confuse the evidence we have for elementary particles with the particles themselves. But I feel that this is exactly what you’re doing in the case of the “image in the mind” and “neural activity in the brain.” You seem to want to say they are the same thing, when in fact the one is merely evidence for the other and they are distinct. This is what Nagel and Searle are trying to point out. The fact that two things are correlated with each other does not imply that they are “the same thing” or that you can “explain” one in terms of the other. One thing may be evidence for the other, as you rightly note, but that’s a different issue. (To wit: my shadow is evidence for my body, but it would be odd to say my shadow explains my body in some way. If someone were to try to explain my body by describing my shadow it would just be a bad joke, right?) I think we are pretty close on the issues in general, and am finding your remarks helpful.

              • Posted September 18, 2012 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

                I must admit — this is the first time I’ve heard somebody suggest that a measurement is less useful because it’s a better model. Sounds rather like religious arguments for the virtue of faith.

                But, regardless. You seem to agree that consciousness is a physical phenomenon of the brain, no?

                So…what, then? It’s some other manifestation of electrochemical cerebral activity?

                There’s really not any room for it to be anything but electrochemical cerebral activity — keeping in mind, of course, that what computers do can similarly be described as electronic signal processing. Yes, to fully understand a computer you need to know both the software and the data inputs — but that’s exactly what Professor Gallant’s experiment did.

                Really, the parallels can’t be over emphasized. You could give a computer to a competent and sufficiently-qualified electrical engineer at one of the major corporations, and she’ll take it apart, attach all sorts of analytic equipment to it, and eventually give you the machine code that the computer is processing. Given enough resources, she’ll even built a high-level compiler that targets this mystery processor.

                Professor Gallant has reverse-engineered the encoding and signal processing of the visual cortex. If that doesn’t qualify as true understanding of (this aspect of) human cognition, then I can’t imagine what possibly could.

                Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that his analysis squarely trumps any and all other theories of mind that there may be out there. He’s gone and done the experiment and gotten the results. Anything theories that aren’t consistent with his results need to be tossed out the window, no matter how persuasive they may otherwise seem.

                Including a theory that indicates that consciousness is something other than exactly the inside perspective of this phenomenon that Professor Gallant just directly observed from the outside.

                b&

              • couchloc
                Posted September 18, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

                “But, regardless. You seem to agree that consciousness is a physical phenomenon of the brain, no?

                So…what, then? It’s some other manifestation of electrochemical cerebral activity?”

                Well, I don’t want to say really that it’s a “physical” phenomenon because I don’t know what candidate physical phenomenon it could be. It’s not that I think it’s a nonphysical, spiritual phenomenon or something spooky. It’s just that every physical entity proposed to explain consciousness over the years doesn’t seem to explain it, so much as be correlated with it. So to be honest with you, I think the only thing we’re rationally entitled to say is that “consciousness exists” and it is not any neurological or physical phenomena discussed anywhere. So I’m agnostic on the issue. Some people have suggested that “consciousness” is itself an irreducible, nonphysical property in the world in addition to all the other physical phenomena which exist. This view sounds strange to me, but I admit it as a possibility consistent with the evidence.

                Your reverse-engineering of the computer analogy is right in one respect. Yes I agree we can reverse engineer the various processes going on in the computer and as such understand how it works from the outside. But the difference for me is that there is no “conscious awareness” in the computer. I mean, what’s the analogue of your “image in the mind’s eye” in the computer case? There is no “image in the computer’s eye” as far as I can see. All there is is just blind, symbolic processing going on inside it. But in the human case there seems to be something very different going on at least in one respect: the human is consciously aware of its environment. I don’t see how this specific phenomenon can be reverse engineered. Maybe you can reverse engineer some of the subcognitive processing going on in the human brain, but not the “awareness states,” from what I can tell. Your case from the Professor is pretty neat I admit, but I worry it hasn’t answered this particular question.

              • Bebop
                Posted September 18, 2012 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

                That the blue parrot could backward become a red parrot after an alteration in the encoding of the brain isn’t a proof about the absolute materiality of consciousness.
                There is no doubt the physical world influences consciousness, that point is clear, even from a spiritualist(?) perspective. I don’t get why it is important that an immaterial phenomenon can’t be altered or limited by the matter it interacts even, even backwards.

                But in the example you are providing, if the parrot is now red, well it is now red. That it used to be blue is not important since the condition that made it blue are no longer there.

                If at its basis consciousness is immaterial, it is not subjected to time and space. But there is a difference between the egotic consciousness and the uncreated source of consciousness. The first one borrows from the second one and its mode of perception is influenced by time and space even if the source it constantly borrows from isn’t.
                Perception can only happen in the present because consciousness at its source can only be in a constant now, beyond time. We measure time but you know like me that time isn’t separated for real by seconds. It is because of matter that we have time otherwise it wouldn’t exist.

                That is why I said I liked Dennett’s theory from what I could understand. I think it explains well the egotic consciousness, how a subject takes form, and even buddhists could agree with it. But there would be a difference to make between qualia and concepts. Meaning and morality don’t have a material source while colours have one.

              • Posted September 18, 2012 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

                Some people have suggested that “consciousness” is itself an irreducible, nonphysical property in the world in addition to all the other physical phenomena which exist.

                Then, at this point, I’m going to have to invoke thermodynamics and Claude Shannon.

                There is no evidence of any such phenomenon, and it could only interact with our physical brains through energy transfers — Shannon’s work clearly establishes as much. No such energy imbalances have ever been recorded on the scale necessary for the amount of communication required, so either such an unobserved phenomenon doesn’t exist or it constitutes a violation of the conservation of energy.

                And, I have to note, that this is indistinguishable from spiritual woo, except that you’ve added “but this woo isn’t supernatural even though it might seem to violate our understanding of physics” — which is, itself, a very common claim of woo-ists.

                As best I can tell, the only stumbling block you have is an inability to accept that our brains are sufficiently complex and / or sophisticated to account for our subjective experiences. All the evidence — and I do mean all the evidence — indicates that there’s plenty of capacity and sophistication for the job.

                b&

              • Posted September 18, 2012 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

                If at its basis consciousness is immaterial, it is not subjected to time and space.

                Anything not subject to time and space is nonexistent. Period, full stop, end of story.

                Which you would know if you would do as I’ve repeatedly pled with you to do and take some remedial science education courses (or, at least, read the relevant textbooks).

                b&

              • Bebop
                Posted September 18, 2012 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

                “Anything not subject to time and space is nonexistent. Period, full stop, end of story.”

                You sound like a mullah here.
                I think there is a distinction to make between our capacity to conceive what is beyond time and space, our incapacity to build anything that could measure such a “no-thing” and the impossibility of such a “no-thing”.

                But it is not due to hazard if such a “no-thing” would escape the inquiry of any material device build by a human non-absolute mind.
                No instrument would be able to detect what is beyond time and space for the same reason that a bi-dimensional being wouldn’t be able to see what volume is. We are limited beings. We don’t have an absolute perspective. Our senses give us a certain picture, not the whole because evolution shaped for us a certain mode of perception, the most useful one, with its weakness and strength.

                So there won’t be a book that could learn you or me about what is or not beyond time and space. But one thing I know for sure is that my perceptions can’t escape the present.

                I have subscribed to Science et vie, a french scientifique revue by the way…

              • couchloc
                Posted September 18, 2012 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

                I’m going to end here. This has been useful, though I still can’t bring myself to agree with your account.

                The evidence for consciousness is first-personal evidence we all have. It is not that there’s no evidence, it’s that there’s no independent, observable evidence of conscious states as such. This much seems pretty clear to me, even while I grant to you that I don’t have a good explanation for what consciousness IS as a substance. I do think I know what consciousness is NOT (it is not brain activity or symbolic coding of any sort described). But I want to say that the mere fact that it’s difficult to identify the substance of consciousness does not lend any support to the view offered that consciousness is best explained by neuroscience. The proper conclusion to draw is the modest one that science has not provided a good explanation of this phenomenon and it’s unclear it really can. To say, as you do, that we should accept that “our brains are sufficiently complex and/or sophisticated to account for our subjective experiences” just restates the problem for me. “To account for” just means “to explain” and pointing out correlations between brain activity and subjective experiences is no more a good explanation than pointing out correlations between shadows and human bodies. I think there’s a reason why David Barash agrees with philosophers the hard problem of consciousness is a real problem.

                Thanks.

              • Posted September 18, 2012 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

                I think there is a distinction to make between our capacity to conceive what is beyond time and space, our incapacity to build anything that could measure such a “no-thing” and the impossibility of such a “no-thing”.

                Anything beyond time and space that still interacts, however indirectly, with time and space, would constitute a violation of conservation and thus could be used to construct a perpetual motion machine.

                Once your theories reduce to perpetual motion machines, you can stop right there. And if you don’t stop, you’re either no better than those zero point energy conmen or you’re no smarter than the people who fall victim to their scams.

                b&

              • Bebop
                Posted September 18, 2012 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

                “Anything beyond time and space that still interacts, however indirectly, with time and space, would constitute a violation of conservation and thus could be used to construct a perpetual motion machine.”

                Not if that “no-thing” is consciousness. How could something immaterial such as self-awareness could violate conservation since it is not material and not made of energy.
                Of course, if it is beyond time and space, it means that it is perpetual. But it is perpetual not because it began a long long time ago and it never will stop. It is perpetual in the sense of eternal, uncreated, which means it never started so it can never end.

                But since all our experience always begin and end, such a concept doesn’t make sense, our senses, our observations and our experience are always beginning and ending.

                That is what I mean by our dual default state of perception which consists in grasping through opposite and which isn’t absolute. It looks like it is because discontinuity is the only constant phenomenon that we experience, that is why it is beyond our imagination to conceive something with no discontinuity.

                And discontinuity is exactly what fuels the egotic perceptions, the belief that we are separated subjects, in opposition to an uncreated “primal” consciousness, that would be eternal, beyond time, which means beyond opposites and which would allow time, space, energy, motion, life, evolution and self-awareness to come in action.
                But no, I didn’t learn that in a book. Consciousness is a pretty accessible thing. It is always there.

                Of course, you won’t give a shit about this but it looks, at least on paper, coherent with the laws of nature…

          • Bebop
            Posted September 18, 2012 at 11:18 am | Permalink

            I’d like to but my wife really deserves it…
            You know , I think Dennett’s theory about consciousness is clever. It really is brilliant. From what I can understand about it really seems to work.
            But I also read about other people who seem to know very well their subject too and who raise good points about the problems this theory brings.
            But anyway, the major problem is still qualia. Dennett seems to say it just doesn’t exist, that it would be a projection of the mind! Just that. That is convenient, it closes the debate right away…

            • Posted September 18, 2012 at 11:31 am | Permalink

              Up above I posted a research study where you can witness qualia in action.

              http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/09/17/nagel-reviews-plantinga-in-the-nyrb/#comment-285517

              Right there, encoded in the brain in a way that modern medicine can decipher, is the visual representation of the scenes that are image upon the retina.

              What more, really, could anybody possibly ask for? Right there is your smoking gun, DNA samples, confession, multiple eyewitnesses, and police dashboard camera with valid security encoding.

              But maybe it’s still the butler — the invisible one who nobody’s ever met and who’s never done so much as picked up a dirty sock?

              b&

              • Bebop
                Posted September 18, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

                I don’t get how the reconstruction of the movie is suppose to prove anything about qualia..?
                As said, even if consciousness is uncreated, it is expected that that you can follow the interaction that it produces within the brain, I won,t deny this. But people like Searle and Nagel, who aren’t woo-meister and are atheist as far as I’m concerned are arguing that science is just not able to talk about subjectivity or why that image or spot in the brain is translated subjectively by the subject, in other word, why it becomes qualia, or morality, or meaning?

    • Myron
      Posted September 17, 2012 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

      A panpsychistic physicalism is conceivable: Consciousness is a physical state, and it is a basic physical state of all physical objects, including all molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles.

      • Myron
        Posted September 17, 2012 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

        Actually, as eliminative materialism, which denies the existence of consciousness/experience is crazy and not a serious option, the only alternative (apart from neutralism) is emergentist materialism vs. panpsychistic materialism.

  37. alttaawiil
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    #32 already pointed out that the plural of sensus is sensus (with a long u); divinitatis, being a genitive (meaning ‘of divinity’) would not pluralize, so the correct plural form is sensus divinitatis. compare the phrase casus belli, whose plural is casus belli (long u).

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted September 18, 2012 at 3:20 am | Permalink

      I suppose you’re right in the sense that it would be rather unusual to use divinitas to refer to individual gods, which would then be pluralized accordingly. But then it was specifically Jerry’s point to undermine Plantinga’s idea (who uses a term originally introduced by John Calvin) that we all have a sense of the same godhood, i.e. Jerry’s point was that in fact all the ideas not just of individual gods but even of godhood are radically different in different religions. And in order to convey that sense, I would still maintain that sensūs divinitatum would be the more helpful construction. :)

      And, in fact, even the phrase casus belli has a legitimate plural form of casūs bellorum (then meaning ‘the causes of wars’, or something to that effect), as witnessed by Tacitus using that phrase in his Annals.

  38. Skeptic Griggsy
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    Gogle skeptic griggsy and Lamberth’s naturalist arguments about God to see my take on that fool,Plantinga! He prattles that omn-God can make flourishes-imperfections whilst limited God has to make perfections in effect! He makes the argument from ignorance with the greater good defense and the unknown reason defense. He is no better than Ayn Rand as being helpful in philosophy.

    • Skeptic Griggsy
      Posted September 19, 2012 at 3:42 am | Permalink

      Sorry for the typos. I’ll proof read better!

  39. g2-d34147f3f4e571d41cd1577a51e70a35
    Posted September 18, 2012 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    Wise sage say: “When man hold out his sensus divinitatis to you, do not smell finger.”

  40. Posted September 18, 2012 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    re: how did consciousness arise?

    I am not offering this as a proof, just a poetic conjecture: What is the primary driver of evolution? Life. How “passionate” is evolution about that subject? Fanatical. REALLY fanatical. The motto is “There is no alternative to life.” Talk about single-minded purpose! (note: remember I am being poetic.)

    Over the 500 million years of larger organisms, and the ?5 million years of hominid evolution, would there not be an occasion where a very small and simple neurological feedback loop gained purchase in our species, one which favored survival (more life) and was selected into the brain structure and DNA coding? The impelling pressure to seize on this advantage for the purpose of geometrically-advantaged survival and thriving would be tremendous.

    If some tiny trait like light sensitivity in a cell can evolve to the fantastically sensitive and complex optic system, why do we need any more “smoking gun” than natural selection to believe that a simple feedback loop evolved into consciousness?

    If you want to investigate conjecture on how that self-referencing brain burst into individuated self-awareness? Well, I favor Julian Jaynes’ idea. I’ll take the incoming heat if he is out of favor here.

  41. Leigh Jackson
    Posted September 18, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    Do I have this right? Science shows us to have God-like powers of understanding. So it’s clearly only a matter of time before science can explain the processes which give rise to our understanding. Presumably God knows how he understands how to give rise to beings with intellectual powers like Him/Her Self. So why can’t science understand how we understand, if science shows we are like God in our intellectual abilities?

    There, that matches Plantinga perfectly.

    • sunyavadi
      Posted September 18, 2012 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

      There is a recursion problem here, however. Science can use reason to understand many things, but the nature of reason itself is not a scientific question. Same goes for language and math, now I think of it. All of these faculties we have, and can use to great effect. But we don’t know, and don’t have to know, how they ‘work’, in the same way that we can analyse (let’s see) enzymes, or something like that. This is because they belong to a different level of the epistemic stack (which is something like the TCP/IP stack, in this context0>

      • Posted September 18, 2012 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

        sunyavadi

        You make outright claims that the nature of reason, language and math is not a scientific question.

        1) what do you mean by “scientific question?”

        2) if reason is “not scientific” what is the basis for any claims you might make for truth? revelation? spontaneous automatic writing? Specifically: how do you KNOW (KNOW!) that reason is not scientific without recourse to reason?

        • sunyavadi
          Posted September 19, 2012 at 1:25 am | Permalink

          It is not that reason is ‘not scientific’, but that science, or at least scientists, assumes the validity of reason. It is a safe bet, I am not saying ‘there is no reason’. But reason, somewhere along the line, proceeeds purely on the basis of intuitively known truths. Furthermore by the exercise of reason, we can discover things that would remain unknown on a simply empirical basis. How does reason do this? Well, that is a question about ‘the nature of reason’. It is not a question that any amount of empirical research can necessarily answer.

          The general drift is simply that reason, math, language, and so on, are not themselves of the same order, that the kinds of things that can be investigated by the empirical sciences are. Whatever else ‘number’ is, for example, it is a n intellectual object. It is only perceptible to an intelligence that is capable of counting. But this does not mean that it isn’t real.

          So I am objecting to the statement of Leigh Jackson’s that ‘it is only a matter of time until science can explain the processes of our understanding’. I don’t think that is true at all. We are not really ever in a position to ‘understand understanding’ or ‘explain explanation’. This is why I said there is a problem of recursion here.

          This is one of the things Nagel has explored, although he goes about it a different way. But his discussion of the idea of ‘explaining reason’ in the light of evolutionary biology in his book ‘The Last Word’ is well worth reading.

          • Posted September 19, 2012 at 5:13 am | Permalink

            Resisting the urge to simply throw that plate of spaghetti in the dumpster, and already regretting that I am about to attempt once more . . .

            Please respond to THIS SPECIFIC SENTENCE:

            sunyavadi: “I don’t think that is true at all.”

            What faculty of your brain, you being a human being with a brain, did you engage to reach that absolute conclusion?

            • sunyavadi
              Posted September 19, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

              Frontal lobes – and so what? You think you can learn about logic by looking at MRI scans?

              To recap, I don’t think it is true that science will understand the processes of our understanding. This requires ‘meta-cognitive analysis’ – understanding of the nature of understanding. It is a different order of understanding, to that employed in empirical investigation of phenomena.

              So, try eating it, rather than throwing it in the dumpster. It’s nutritious.

              • Posted September 19, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

                sunyavadi: “I don’t think that is true at all.”

                What cognitive mental process did you use to reach the absolute conclusion that that statement is true?

              • sunyavadi
                Posted September 19, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

                It doesn’t matter. One does not need to understand the ‘cognitive mental processes’ involved. When they do their job they’re invisible, as it is a question of judgement. If you try and objectify ‘the organ of judgement’, you will need to employ judgement in order to make decisions about it. And those decisions are always internal to the workings of the mind. They can’t be objectified.

                What I am saying is the reason (and all that it entails) is epistemically prior to the operations of empirical sciences. This is the philosophical critique of physicalism – much nearer to Nagel than Plantinga (I am not a Christian apologist).

                Nice soundbyte from Descartes on the topic, though:

                ‘Although machines can perform certain things as well as or perhaps better than any of us can do, they infallibly fall short in others, by which means we may discover that they did not act from knowledge, but only from the disposition of their organs. For while reason is a universal instrument which can serve for all contingencies, these organs have need of some special adaptation for every particular action. From this it follows that it is morally impossible that there should be sufficient diversity in any machine to allow it to act in all the events of life in the same way as our reason causes us to act.’

            • Posted September 19, 2012 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

              I am switching to fettuccine Alfredo.

          • Leigh Jackson
            Posted September 19, 2012 at 7:29 am | Permalink

            Nagel asks for a non-Godidit explantion to match Plantinga’s Godidit. Here’s my short response:

            1. There’s nothing there worth matching. To say these abilities are given by God doesn’t explain anything at all. It is a very ancient form of ignorance masquerading as an answer.
            2. Scientists are working on what is a very difficult problem to solve. That’s what scientists do.
            3. Neither Plantinga or Nagel are contributing a bean towards a potential solution.

            Predicting and finding the Higgs boson was a piece of cake by comparison.

            The statement which you quote, is logically implied by Plantinga’s argument. I happen to believe it is true, but that is not the point.

            If our powers of understanding derive from God and are in fact like God’s own powers of understanding, then it follows that we should be able to understand how we understand. After all, God must understand how it is that he understands if he is to impart to us his powers of understanding. We can get computers to do “clever” stuff but do they understand what they are doing? We don’t know because right now we don’t understand exactly what causes consciousness. If we did we might well be able to create conscious machines. Maybe we already have. We don’t know. But if science shows that we have God-like minds then we should, in principle, be capable of discovering how we come to be conscious. If God doesn’t exist then the jump to teleology which Nagel makes is no better than Godidit.

            Unless he explains how teleology might work. First off, in particular, he must show that teleology conforms with the 2nd law of thermodynamics. On the face of it, teleology fails straight off. Divorce human consciousness from the brain and you surely divorce it from physics. The brain consumes a huge amount of energy and dissipates large amounts of heat. What is the connection with these physical processes and mind, if any? If there is no connection what is the pay off for the organism in return for the massive energy drain, and entropy cost for the environment; and then how exactly does teleology work? The mere word “teleology” is meaningless as an explanation for how mind arises. The meaning of the word must consist of an explantion of how the process works. What kind of process is it and how might it work? Fundamental questions which need to be answered before the word gets off the ground. If my thoughts as I type these words are not the result of my functioning brain doing what it does in accordance with the laws of physics, what exactly are they? And where are they?

            • Skeptic Griggsy
              Posted September 19, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

              Yes, ever that certain argument, WEIT!

  42. Posted September 18, 2012 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    “Unpacks” may be odious jargon, but it is not postmodern. It is odious analytic-philosophy jargon, as far as I know.

    • Posted September 19, 2012 at 8:50 am | Permalink

      Delightful!

      Added: when are they both going to pack up and leave town?

  43. Skeptic Griggsy
    Posted September 19, 2012 at 4:01 am | Permalink

    Plantinga is just trying to justify reduced animism, which is just as superstitious as full animism or polytheism: it finds divine intent, which a certain argument very much used here refutes! People, per the argument from pareidolia, see the pareidolias of divine intent and design when only mechanism and patters exist.
    This is why I’m a gnu atheist: I find all arguments for God not only superfluous but nonsensical1
    Let’s follow Aquinas’ superfluity argument to which Percy Bysshe Shelley implicitly notes:”To suppose that some existence beyond, or above them [ the descriptions -laws- of Nature,S.K.] is to invent a second and superfluous hypothesis for what already is accounted for>”
    That very superfluity- superstition- is responsible for so much horror!People die due to hat useless redundancy,despite advanced theologian Alister Earl McGrath’s prattling otherwise!

    • Skeptic Griggsy
      Posted September 19, 2012 at 4:02 am | Permalink

      patterns Spell check can’t do everything!

  44. Posted September 19, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    I have decided that this thread has been loaned out as a beta test site for some new variant of:

    http://www.elsewhere.org/pomo/

    …and our host is waiting until there is a near fatal accident to call it off.

  45. Apogee
    Posted September 23, 2012 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    Nagel built his career making arguments about the inadequacy of the natural sciences in the face of consciousness, so this turn isn’t exactly surprising.

  46. Posted September 26, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    Nicely put article . Thank you !

  47. Posted September 27, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    Something perplexes me about this proposed “sensus divinitatus”. Surely all our other senses equip us to determine changes in our environment (for instance we may see a predator, smell the aroma of food, feel when we are pricked by a thorn etc.) and react to them.

    Presupposing that there is a God to sense, then is this “sensus divinitatus” always switched to the “on” position, in which case how can it be distinguished from the background since we never have anything to compare it to? Or does it rise and fall in intensity depending on how hard we pray or how much we think about “Goddy” things? In which case, how does it differ from a button which, when pressed, releases a dose of heroin which makes you feel good, since the actual presence of God then becomes purely superfluous?

  48. Posted October 12, 2012 at 5:39 am | Permalink

    “Do more work to find out how the structure of the mind produces consciousness, and how natural selection might have acted to promote that feature. Does Nagel think that science has used all its resources on this problem, and failed? Does he not know how relatively primitive neurobiology is right now?”

    I’ve just started drinking this bottle of whisky, and I’m confident that I’m going to crack the problem of consciousness before the night is out. Does Coyne think that I’ve used all of my resources on this problem, and failed? Does he not know how I’ve got cases and cases more whisky?

  49. Posted November 14, 2012 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    I won’t reprise his argument except to say that involves the specious claim that natural selection could not have given us senses that enable us to reliably detect the truth, so that ability must have been conferred by God

    Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism is not that Pr(reliable cognitive faculties|naturalism) = 0. His contention is that Pr(reliable cognitive faculties|naturalism) is low (or perhaps inscrutable).

  50. Posted January 30, 2013 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    “Is playing the piano proof of God?”

    What has that to do with it? Playing the piano is certainly not proof of ontological materialism. That’s the essential point of people like Plantinga, or Nagel for that matter.

    Plantinga’s Christian faith has essentially nothing to do with it. It may be unfortunate that this isn’t always clear from his writings but Plantinga’s being a Christian is a cultural thing, or a modus of being, never an argument, as far as I’ve read Plantinga. His logical argumentation usually demands the honesty of the average atheist or materialist not to consider his own materialism the only possible way to understand reality.


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