Consciousness and the Brain

Last month a commenter suggested that “I would be interested to see you research and post on ‘How science addresses the subjective, in relation to consciousness and freewill'”, to which I responded that I might write up a summary of the ways this is addressed in the book I was reading, Stanislas Dehaene’s “Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts”. Furthermore, the comment offered a particular direction to consider, namely that science can “collate and analyse subjective reports and hope something comes out of this – e.g. by correlating objective measurement with the subjective reports. … The problem with this is that these results are generally not accorded the same scientific status.” Dehaene actually spills a considerable amount of ink in the opening chapters addressing this concern. For example:

Consciousness and the Brain“This research strategy was simple enough, yet it relied on a controversial step, one that I personally view as the third key ingredient to the new science of consciousness: taking subjective reports seriously. … The participant’s introspection was crucial: it defined the very phenomenon that we aimed to study.” (pg 11)

“The correct perspective is to think of subjective reports as raw data. A person who claims to have had an out-of-body experience genuinely feels dragged to the ceiling, and we will have no science of consciousness unless we seriously address why such feelings occur. In fact, the new science of consciousness makes an enormous use of purely subjective phenomena, such as visual illusions, misperceived pictures, psychiatric delusions, and other figments of the imagination. Only these events allow us to distinguish objective physical stimulation from subjective perception, and therefore to search for brain correlates of the latter rather than the former.” (pg 12)

“All this evidence points to an important conclusion, the third key ingredient in our budding science of consciousness: subjective reports can and should be trusted. … introspection is a respectable source of information. Not only does it provide valuable data, which can often be confirmed objectively, by behavioral or brain-imaging measures, it also defines the very essence of what a science of consciousness is about.” (pg 42)

The Recipe

Those quotes refer to three key ingredients which go beyond the objective data about brain activity that we can gather through fMRI, EEG and the like. Dehaene identifies these ingredients as conscious access, manipulation of conscious perception and, as noted, careful recording of introspective reports. He then goes on to further define each of these.

Conscious access is defined as the awareness of specific information – it’s the foundational definition of consciousness that underpins more elaborate attributions, like self-awareness. As is elucidated in the book, our brains actually consume massive amounts of perceptual data. Much of what is received by our senses and processed in our brain eludes our conscious awareness. Conscious access is that sliver of data which enters our stream of thought from amongst the mountain of perceptions which bombard us from without and arise from within.

Our conscious access is reportable. As I type this, you are receiving a report of my conscious access. We cannot report on that which we are unaware of, so it is by definition that reports are only informative with regard to the content of our conscious access. Experiments can build upon this by asking participants to focus on a particular element of their perceptual space that has been carefully crafted by the experimenters. This manipulation of conscious perception is the experimental variable that allows the researchers to segregate the data into that which correlates with consciousness and that which does not. Dehaene outlines several primary manipulations – binocular rivalry, attentional blink, subliminal stimuli – and references several others throughout the course of the book. Each of these present an opportunity to separate conscious processing from unconscious processing and so look for the signatures of consciousness.

Dehaene then goes on to highlight the massive amount of work that our brains are doing subconsciously and how this surreptitiously influences our conscious access. Research in this domain paints a picture of the inverse side of consciousness and offered a baseline against which consciousness can be compared. After taking a side trip into discussions about the viability of the evolutionary origins of consciousness as a tool for organizing and prioritizing the competing interests in our subconscious processes, we are introduced to the findings that this recipe has thus far wrought.

Finding Consciousness

The toolkit described above has been extensively deployed in the lab and the cumulative results led Dehaene to identify four reliable signatures of consciousness. They are:

dehaene_fig16

[1] “Although a subliminal stimulus can propagate deeply into the cortex, this brain activity is strongly amplified when the threshold for awareness is crossed. It then invades many additional regions, leading to a sudden ignition of parietal and prefrontal circuits” (Fig 16, pg 119)

(2) "In the EEG, conscious access appears as a late slow wave called the P3 wave. This event emerges as late as one-third of a second after the stimulus: our consciousness lags behind the external world."

[2] “In the EEG, conscious access appears as a late slow wave called the P3 wave. … For conscious words only, the wave of activity is amplified and flows into the prefrontal cortex and many other associative regions, then back to visual areas. This global ignition causes a large positive voltage on the top of the head – the P3 wave.” (Fig 18, pg 123)

dehaene_fig20

[3] “A long burst of high-frequency activity accompanies the conscious perception of a flashed picture … When viewers failed to see the picture, only a brief burst of high-frequency activity traversed the ventral visual cortex. … Conscious perception was characterized by a lasting burst of high-frequency electrical activity, which indicates a strong activation of local neuronal circuits.” (Fig 20, pg 136)

dehaene_fig21

[4] “The synchronization of many distant brain regions [form] a global web … during conscious word perception, causal relations show a massive bidirectional increase between distant cortical regions, particularly with the frontal lobe. Only a modest and local synchronization occurs when the participants fail to perceive the face or word.” (Fig 21, pg 138)

The common attribute which ties these signatures together is that they all represent prolific activity across large areas of the brain. In contrast to Descartes’ pineal soul-suite, the evidence points to consciousness as a phenomenon that is spread throughout the brain when a massive avalanche of distributed activity is launched. This excitation is what Dehaene calls “global ignition”. After having presented all of the correlative data Dehaene anticipates a common objection – correlation does not equal causation – and so he offers evidences to support the proposal that brain activity is more than just a side-effect of the ghost in the machine and that there are reasons to believe we are glimpsing consciousness itself.

“Let us play devil’s advocate again … Might [global ignition] bear no specific relation to the details of our conscious thoughts? Might it just be a surge of global excitation, unrelated to the actual contents of subjective experience? … Calling such a brain event the medium of consciousness would be like confusing the thump of the Sunday newspaper on our doorstep with the actual text that conveys the news.” (pg 142-143)

The first stop for the counter against this objection comes at the Centre for Systems Neuroscience at the University of Leicester in the UK, where Rodrigo Quian Quiroga enjoys probing individual neurons and finding ways to incorporate pop culture icons into his experiments. He has spent the last decade examining the relationship between conscious access and discrete patterns of neural firing at the level of individual neurons. The short story is that through a novel technique pioneered by Itzhak Fried, we have been able to take advantage of the surgeries performed on epilepsy patients to implant fine electrodes that record from individual neurons. When these are monitored during experiments there are very specific relationships found between perceptual and recollected concepts and individual neurons. Those experiments have not only identified a link between concepts and individual neurons, but the same tools used to investigate consciousness have been utilized to show that some neurons are only linked to conscious perception of stimulus – in effect, the neuron can be said to be a part of a conscious thought. These findings have been documented across many publications, but a few of the key overview papers are “Concept cells: The building blocks of declarative memory functions” and “Brain Cells for Grandmother“. Furthermore, similar findings led to the awarding of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of place cells; individual neurons which correlate with our location in space. These were first discovered in rats and then subsequently also identified in humans. The extrapolations we can draw from the discovery of an association between individual cells and conscious perception are potentially monumental. In particular, it does not seem inconceivable that perhaps some day we may be able to translate the philosopher’s qualia as a pattern in the brain.

tms_1911

Transcranial magnetic stimulation in 1911 (C.E. Magnusson and H.C. Stevens)

While fascinating, the added specificity of the single neuron experiments has not yet established causation. It could be that those individual neurons are simply assigned dedicated roles as the bridge between body and particular concepts of the mind. Perhaps in those experimental observations we are simply bystanders watching as the train of thought passes by. That is not impossible, but there’s more to examine. The next stop starts with a bit of time travel back to the early 20th century, when several parties began toying with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and reporting various sensory anomalies in conjunction with the activation of the coils. Vast improvements in the equipment have allowed these experiments to continue today with sharp precision that enables experimenters to focus the stimulus to specific regions of the brain. In doing so, they have been able to trigger domain specific sensory illusion – light when there is none to be found, motion while sitting still and color in a monochrome scene.

Perhaps more significant, however, is not the creation of sensory perception through TMS, but rather the disruption of consciousness itself through the same mechanism. Magnetic pulses targeted toward the long-distance networks that facilitate global ignition have been shown to eradicate a conscious perception that would have otherwise obtained. Even more relevant to the question of the interplay between the subjective and the objective is a study in which the prefrontal lobes were overwhelmed with pulses, leaving an effect which lasted up to 20 minutes. During this time, the subjects were asked to perform simple tasks of judging shapes that were presented to them. Objectively, their accuracy was effectively equivalent to their performance prior to the stimulation. Subjectively, however, they reported significant doubt in their answers. Objectively they were just as capable but their conscious awareness of their judgement had been impaired.

Before closing this section I must acknowledge that for the resolute dualist, we still haven’t fully addressed the objection. Maybe the TMS is acting in the place of our sensory input, stimulating or disrupting those neural mind-bridges in such a way that the mind thinks it is receiving or missing sensory data. OK, then let’s go beyond the content of the book and take a look at some additional research. If we say that the mind is distinct from matter then theoretically our memories are also made of mind stuff. However, starting about 70 years ago with Wilder Penfield experiments have been shown to trigger memory recall through direct electrode stimulation of specific brain regions. Whereas the dualist could argue that this stimulation is no different than the recall we experience when a familiar sight or sound is encountered through sensory input, the distinction becomes apparent when stimulation is used to disrupt conscious memory recall. For example, by acting directly on brain regions associated with verbal memory, electrical stimulation can directly impair recall of names for familiar objects and this phenomenon is often used to locate brain function through the process of cortical stimulation mapping. It is not that the person’s sensory perception of the object is disrupted but rather that their recall of the memory content which associates words with the object has been impaired. I find it difficult to understand how this result fits into a dualist framework.

In total, there is a large body of evidence that the content of our thought-life is causally connected to our neurology. We have opened an objective window onto the world of the subjective and on to consciousness itself. Massive projects are underway and, though we are still far from grasping the means of translation between the subjective and the objective, the future appears to be one in which mind and matter are proven to be one and the same.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Dehaene outlines his theory of consciousness in the fifth chapter but it’s really just a review of the ideas that he has already outlined in the previous chapters. His theory, in short, is that consciousness is roughly equivalent to the concept of “global ignition” introduced above, with the added dimension of feedback loops containing the information which persists to define our subjective experience. This is what he calls the “global neuronal workspace” theory. Information is shared throughout the brain as an evolutionary adaptation which allows us to utilize it in various ways and prioritize our attention. Within this discussion several neural computer simulations are presented which demonstrate a similar type of threshold ignition and feedback, which is central to the theory, even though that particular behavior was not deliberately designed into the model. Then, having built his theory of consciousness upon the key signatures identified above, Dehaene sets out to find a way to test it. It is one thing to find correlates of consciousness, it is quite another to use that information to build a reliable “consciousness-o-meter”.

Jean-Dominique-Bauby

Jean Dominique Bauby and his secretary

The proving ground for this theory is found in one of the most difficult medical scenarios; that of the vegetative patient. We are introduced to the spectrum of states which manifest in response to a severe insult to the brain: from brain death, to a vegetative state, to minimal consciousness and locked-in syndrome. That last of these occurs when a fully conscious brain is “locked in” to an unresponsive body, as was the case for Jean-Dominique Bauby when he authored The Diving Bell and the Butterfly with just one blinking eye. The difficulty in these cases is that with only the subject’s external, objective behavior available to the clinician, the ability to determine whether there still any internal conscious life and hope for recovery is radically impaired. What’s worse, the manipulative tools which were used to detect the signatures of consciousness in the lab are also taken out of contention due to the inability to rely upon the subject’s ability to focus their sensory perception and report on their conscious access. An alternative technique relies on the observation that we are wired to detect novelty, such that changes in our surroundings trigger a response in the brain. This trigger, however, fires even if the novelty never enters our conscious awareness. That, in turn, means that the novelty itself is not sufficient for establishing the baseline that discriminates between the unconscious response and conscious detection of the change. To get around this the research team devised a clever tool called “global auditory novelty”. Relying upon the fact that the sense of hearing is rarely lost in these brain injuries, the subjects were presented with a pattern of four “beeps” following by a “boop”. The “boop” represents the local novelty which triggers the subconscious alert that something has changed, which may or may not enter our consciousness. Our long-term, or “global” conscious perception, however, is a bit more sophisticated. Once this pattern is repeated enough times the “boop” becomes part of the expected sequence even though it triggers the alert in the brain. This causes the “boop” to eventually slip out of our conscious awareness. So, by repeating the pattern several times and then replacing the local deviant “boop” with a global deviant “beep”, the team was able to induce a situation in which the subconscious alert was silent while the conscious detection of a global novelty was ignited.

What was the result? In the initial trial with eight patients, all three of the minimally conscious patients whose EEG’s lit up with the P3 wave in response to the global novelty later regained consciousness. In a subsequent study with 22 vegetative subjects only two yielded a P3 wave and they both became minimally conscious in the following days. While these initial tests were perfect in that they never yielded a false positive, there were still several false negatives. To address this the group compiled their data and ran a statistical analysis to refine the prediction from the EEG waveforms. This refined calculation, which incorporated the full suite of EEG data and the other signatures beyond just the P3 wave, led to an exciting result. Using a data set of over 200 patient they found that in 33% of the cases where the clinical diagnosis was “vegetative state”, the refined analysis yielded an alternative diagnosis of “minimally conscious”. Of these, a full 50% recovered to a clinically obvious conscious state in the next few months, whereas this false negative rate was otherwise only at 20%. Adding these up, we see that the clinical diagnosis was overly pessimistic for 30% of the patients while the EEG signature diagnosis was overly pessimistic for only 13% of the patients. For families struggling with questions about how to manage the care of their loved one as they cling to life, this objective detection of consciousness through physical measurement of brain activity may be the key to maximizing the realization of their hopes.

The Future

Dehaene spends the last chapter of the book examining the ways in which the science of consciousness will continue its assault on the mystery of the subjective experience. Here we are presented with data to show that the global workspace theory of consciousness tells us that infants are conscious at birth and that several other animals exhibit the signatures of consciousness. He then turns his attention to the philosophical problems of qualia:

“My opinion is that Chalmers swapped the labels: it is the ‘easy’ problem that is hard, while the hard problem just seems hard because it engages ill-defined intuitions. Once our intuition is educated by cognitive neuroscience and computer simulations, Chalmers’s hard problem will evaporate. The hypothetical concept of qualia, pure mental experience detached from any information-processing role, will be viewed as a peculiar idea of the prescientific era, much like vitalism” (pg 262)

and free will:

“Our brain states are clearly not uncaused and do not escape the laws of physics – nothing does. But our decisions are genuinely free whenever they are based on a conscious deliberation that proceeds autonomously … When this occurs we are correctly speaking of a voluntary decision – even if it is, of course, ultimately caused by our genes, our life history, and the value functions they have inscribed in our neuronal circuits.” (pg 264-265)

While I am not yet willing to express a level of confidence on par with Dehaene regarding his conclusions, I am obliged to say that I agree (and I posted similar thoughts on free will in the post which inspired those introductory comments last month). Even so, neuroscience may never be able to deal an incontrovertible death blow to the dualist paradigm. Like Sagan’s infamous garage dwelling dragon, the mind can always be excused from questioning and made into an extra immaterial layer that mirrors the brain even at the level of individual neurons and synapses. At some point, however, it becomes clear that we are just playing games. When that time comes, if it hasn’t already, we need to acknowledge the data for what it is and the implicit conclusion that we are nothing more than our physical body; that our identity – our conscious self – is found in our brain.

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38 thoughts on “Consciousness and the Brain

  1. Travis,
    Well written and formatted post here. I know you are primarily reviewing Dehaene’s book here, but you seem to be on board with his conclusions. I thought I would push back a bit.

    I have many technical qualms with the neuroscience presented here, but overall I do agree that it does work towards closing the gap between the subject and object to some extent, but not in a way that is anti-dualist (I’ll come back to this). While reading I was reflexively nodding in agreement until I got to end where Dehaene utterly fails to comprehend Chalmer’s hard problem. Not in a “agree to disagree” sort of way, but in a dismissive he-can’t-possibly-comprehend-the-problem sort of way.

    He gets one thing right: Chalmer’s easy problem is insanely difficult. Our current scientific piddling is laughable compared to what it will take to have a solution for the easy problem. So far we have highly controlled experiments with many technical problems that must be extrapolated to real life and often with interpretative spins that make FoxNews look unbiased. And, we sit here in all our post-scientific hubris thinking we know something the ancients did not. Think about it. An ancient man goes to battle and their eye it put out by a sword blow. How do they interpret this? As their soul losing its eye? Of course not! Dualists have always known that there are the body has functions that the soul does not! Just because we are discovering that the brain has functions that might have once attributed to the soul does not mean the soul does not exist or have other functions. Actually, I’m not even sure of a single dualist who would be thrown aback by these experiments. No dualist is writhing uncomfortably in their chairs because of this piddling.

    Why does Dehaene not understand Chalmer’s hard problem? My thought is that it’s just so easy to take for granted. It’s like David Foster Wallace’s “this is water”. Our own consciousness is the water that we take for granted. Does Dehaene really think his own consciousness will be brought into the objective public realm with the brute force of science? That’s absurd which is why it is distinguished from the easy problem. Even if we took Dehaene’s brain and perfectly mapped it, then recreated it, and the doppelganger claimed to be Dehaene, would it be? Even in this speculative scenario, I am unconvinced. This is because I am not Dehaene. My consciousness is mine, not his. I am me and other people are them. And, even if we had a Brandon brain map, it would not be me. I am me.

    I am more sympathetic to dualists when I see them being represented as a primitive view that is backed into a corner because of modern neuroscience. I have not seen any neuroscience that deals with sophisticated dualist views, not even close. In the last quote, Dehaene just asserts that values are basically encoded by genes, and my head falls to the ground. . . it’s not even disappointing anymore. It’s just sad. It’s sad that he probably cannot identify his own physicalist assumption that was he is probably coerced into by academic dogma. OK, that’s enough for now. 🙂

    Merry Christmas, Travis

    • Brandon,
      It’s possible that I did not do Dehaene justice but I really don’t think that the label of “piddling” is apt. This appears to have struck a nerve and I fear you may have attributed to him an oversimplified perspective on dualism (per your eye example) and other matters (e.g., we are only our genes). My understanding of a modern dualist perspective, and I suspect Dehaene’s as well, is that the brain serves as a conduit to the mindsoul (and also as the mechanism for involuntary and reflexive control functions) but the immaterial mind remains as the causative agent who is in control. In such a view, the brain can be damaged or impaired and thus disrupt the mind’s access to the body and the external world but the mind remains unharmed; it is simply unable to manifest physically. In the science of consciousness, however, the goal is to go beyond the phenomenal and look for the neural correlates of the internal, subjective experience itself. Do you think that he has failed in this attempt and that all this is still superficial?

      I have not seen any neuroscience that deals with sophisticated dualist views, not even close.

      Can you point me to some reading on these sophisticated dualist views?

      Lastly, I would be interested in your thoughts on one of my closing comments, that “Like Sagan’s infamous garage dwelling dragon, the mind can always be excused from questioning and made into an extra immaterial layer that mirrors the brain even at the level of individual neurons and synapses. At some point, however, it becomes clear that we are just playing games.” What evidence would demonstrate that the brain is responsible for that which is attributed to the mind?

      • Hey Travis,
        What I said at the end did imply that Dehaene had not considered what I referred to as “sophisticated” dualist views. I’m not really warranted to say this, it came from me stretching my polemical tone too far, so I apologize. Sorry about that. Really what vexes me with Dehaene’s view (as I understand it) is that he does not understand Chalmer’s hard problem. All my other criticism was just me complaining about the framework of the debate. 🙂

        Let me start by saying I think your description of dualism highlights potential problems and confusions with dualism. When I think of dualism, I think of something very general – humans being composed of two different basic substances. That’s about it. Whether it fits with a materialist vs. immaterialist paradigm, regards afterlife belief, relates to the “mind”, or has anything to do with freewill, or even fits a flesh vs. spirit paradigm are secondary issues. I think one could be a dualist and still go along with Sean Carroll’s slogan, “The mind is what the brain does”. One could be a dualist and reject freewill as a fatalist as many ancient Greeks did. The permutations with a general definition are extensive.

        Some dualist views include:
        Substance dualism – more or less traditional Christian belief, defended by Richard Swinburne and (I think) William Lane Craig
        Emergent dualism – idea that soul is an emergent phenomenon (i.e., anti-reductionism), fits better with biological evolution, defended by William Hasker

        An example of theistic monism is the “emergent individual view” which also incorporates emergentism, but makes “soul” a metaphor for the physical individual, i.e., our unique brain microstructure and function makes us individuals. This is defended by Tim O’Conner.

        In the science of consciousness. . . the goal is to go beyond the phenomenal and look for the neural correlates of the internal, subjective experience itself. Do you think that he has failed in his attempt and that all this is still superficial?

        I just realized after typing several different answers to this question among other things just how confusing this discussion really is and partly because of the historical and cultural framework of it. I think the central problem is what is the science telling us? When we get down to the raw data, assuming experiments which are well-designed and performed with integrity, no one would argue against the raw data. Rather it is what should be concluded from this data. I just don’t think science is a the point where it can say, “This is consciousness, and this is how it relates to the brain.” That’s what we want it to say, but it just can’t go that far. Not yet. And, to claim that it has as some neuroscientists like Sam Harris have, is an abuse of science.

        Can you point me to some reading on these sophisticated dualist views?

        To be honest, I have not done much in depth reading on this, but I have picked up bits and pieces mostly by listening to lectures and conferences on YouTube.

        What evidence would demonstrate that the brain is responsible for that which is attributed to the mind?

        Since I think the brain is responsible for perhaps most functions we think of as “mind”, I cannot say for sure what kind of evidence would convince me of the 100% physicalist position. For now I think we are forced to accept this as mystery. Dualism may be an invisible dragon to the naturalist, but the self-existence of the universe is an invisible dragon to the theist. I think it’s just another view held, not on the basis of totally objective evidence, rather just an interpretation of features of the human condition and the universe, and often that flows top-down from a theist perspective rather than a bottom-up non-theistic philosophy, even though some dualists will try to jam down our throats the latter.

      • Hi Brandon,
        Thanks for the clarification. While I think I understand your definition of a “general dualism”, I’m not sure what evidence there is which could compel somebody toward a mindless dualism. With the mind we at least have the subjective experience of the mental world that can be identified as being part of this other substance. As far as I can tell, the mind is a pre-requisite to any notions of dualistic free-will, soul, spirit, after-life, etc.. It is the self upon which all the other aspects of a dualistic view are grounded. Anything else seems completely arbitrary.

        I just don’t think science is at the point where it can say, “This is consciousness, and this is how it relates to the brain.”

        I agree, but that’s just how science works. It collects a bunch of data and spits out a hypothesis and then sees if it holds up. I don’t get the sense that anybody is suggesting anything other than this. That said, I would also contend that the scientific theories which have been postulated are better evidenced than dualist theories.

        Dualism may be an invisible dragon to the naturalist, but the self-existence of the universe is an invisible dragon to the theist.

        I would suggest a key difference here in the quality and scope of the evidence; namely that there is significantly more data available regarding the mind than there is regarding the origin (or non-origin) of the universe. Additionally, I gather that many non-theists are open to origin explanations of the deistic or “we are living in the matrix” type and view them as not substantially less probable than an infinite, self-existent universe. Finally, there’s the issue that it isn’t clear why a self-existent theistic god is less problematic than a self-existent universe.

  2. Great discussion and I might come by and comment more but I wonder if either of you have read anything by Terrence Deacon.

    I am still trying to absorb Incomplete Nature but it seems to point to way out of the dualistic dilemma.

    The gist of it (and I hope I do not misrepresent it too badly) is that signals begin to play the critical role in emergence of life and particularly mind and consciousness from inanimate matter.

    For example, the sentence I just wrote does not derive its meaning from the electrons used to store and present it on this website or the neuronal activity as you read it even though both of those things are intimately involved with that sentence.

    The qualia (so-called “hard” problem) is primarily neuronal signalling moving through cognitive apparatus. Consciousness and mind are another layer of signalling superimposed over the lower layers but not independent of them.Mind may seem disconnected from the lower layers because it is able to operate with such abstract signals ( for example, mathematics and philosophy) or even fantastical signals (dreams and fantasies) that the connection to the physical world seems to be broken.

    • Hi James,
      I hadn’t encountered Deacon before but I’ve now added Incomplete Nature to my reading list. Looks interesting and, at a glance, seems to bear some similarities to concepts I was recently exposed to in Addy Pross’ “What is Life”. Whereas Pross identifies “dynamic kinetic stability” as the “force” behind the rise of biological complexity from simple chemistry, it looks like Deacon is positing something similar and proposing it as the glue behind consciousness, meaning, etc…

      I personally am leaning toward seeing the difficulty of grounding the mental in the material as one of coming to terms with self-reference; something akin to Hofstadter’s strange loops. I outlined this a bit in a post where I attempted to sort out my ontology.

      Anyway, I appreciate the recommendation. Thanks for contributing to the discussion.

      • Thanks for the recommendation on the Pross book. I got the Kindle version and am looking at it.

        I think Deacon is quite a bit different. Much more philosophical.

        You might also want to take a look at Stuart Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe where he discusses how order emerges spontaneously in certain networking scenarios and that life seems to thrive at the edge of chaos.

      • Spent most of the day going through the Pross. Skipped a little bit but I am really impressed with it and mostly in agreement with it.

        I appreciate the fact that Pross touches on consciousness at the end. I have argued that consciousness is a phenomena continuous with life, that it ramps up information storage to real time whereas information storage via evolution requires generations. Consciousness is like life an example of dynamic kinetic stability.

        I am not sure how extensively you have looked around my blog, but you might particularly be interested in these:

        http://broadspeculations.com/2013/09/28/mind-life-and-tensegrity/

        http://broadspeculations.com/2013/07/28/life-gets-complicated/

      • Hi James,
        Thanks for the links, those are interesting reads. While there appears to be hints of an endorsement of a type of panpsychism in your posts, I think – if I’m reading you correctly – that you’re actually more in line with Pross’ suggestion that teleology is really just stability and that consciousness is a product of the principle of stability which pervades the physics of the universe. This translation between teleology and stability was a key takeaway from my reading of Pross and he explains it in such a simple way that it makes me wonder how I never saw it before. That said, I’m not yet sure how to incorporate it into my understanding of reality. Is stability primary to physical laws such that it dictates their nature, or is it a secondary product of physical laws which arises from their nature, or is it something altogether separate that interacts with the physical laws (essentially making the 2nd law of thermodynamics a 5th fundamental force). What do you think?

      • You’re right I have dabbled a little in panpsychism but I am not sure that would express my current views well.

        In my Intelligent Universe post http://broadspeculations.com/2013/05/29/the-intelligent-universe/, I discuss a paper by A. D. Wissner-Gross and C. E. Freer.

        “The paper attempts to derive a general theory of intelligence from basic physical processes and ‘describes intelligent behavior as a way to maximize the capture of possible future histories of a particular system.'”

        Here is a quote from their paper:

        “Adaptive behavior might emerge more generally in open thermodynamic systems as a result of physical agents acting with some or all of the systems’ degrees of freedom so as to maximize the overall diversity of accessible future paths of their worlds.”

        I am probably going well beyond what they intend but this actually seems to be what life is and is another way of saying what Pross is saying. And it explains how life seems to maximize its possibilities. In other words, life itself is a manifestation of intelligence in the universe. This is a sort of odd reversal on Intelligent Design. In ID, an intelligent designer creates the universe and is responsible for life. In this, life is itself its own intelligent designer and intelligence emerges from the inanimate by itself through physical processes.

        Now normally we think of intelligence and consciousness as being closely related and we do not usually think of intelligence being possible without consciousness. But my latest thinking is we have this reversed also.

        Intelligence may be the outcome of some physical thermodynamic process (and maybe law) and does not require consciousness. Consciousness would then be a creation of intelligence that has been put into place to assist in “maximizing the overall diversity of accessible future paths of their worlds.”

      • James,
        This is an interesting perspective, thanks for sharing. It really does connect a few dots. If I understand correctly, it seems that you could also say that consciousness is the mechanism by which intelligence selects the best future path, as opposed to waiting on chance events external to the intelligence. In short, it is an acceleration of the optimization process. This fits with the observation that our consciousness is both deliberative and serially focused (only accessing one thing at at time), with Dehaene’s observation that it involves access to information widely distributed throughout the brain, and with the relatively rapid expansion of consciousness in the animal kingdom in more recent epochs. Your observation that this is a reversal of intelligent design is spot on; we would be hard pressed to call this thermodynamic law (or stability), a god – though it is quite similar to the god in Scott Adams’s “God’s Debris” novella. I’ll admit that my BS radar starts to go off when I contemplate panpsychism but something like this, which is less intentional and more driven by empirical observations on the nature of the universe, doesn’t register as strongly on that radar. Yes, it’s deeply speculative, but it also doesn’t seem to be straying too far from the evidence.

      • James,
        Thanks for confirming my understanding. It also occurred to me this morning that socialization fits nicely into this paradigm. The growth of our social instincts would seem to go hand in hand with the growth of our intelligence and consciousness. As we see with game theory, it is often the socially cooperative future path which is the best option. The expansion of intelligence and consciousness in recognizing, or intuiting, the benefit of socially cooperative future paths would accelerate the selection of social instincts which guide our consciousness toward those paths. This, in turn, would aid in the selection of increased intelligence, which then accelerates the selection of social instincts, ad infinitum. This presents a symbiotic relationship between the selection of both intelligence and socially beneficial instincts. None of this is really all that new and I know that I’m largely restating what evolutionary psychologists have been saying for years, but when I reframe it in the broader context of the principle of stabilization it is interesting to see how well it fits.

        So that brings me back to the larger question regarding the foundations of this principle of stability. Is stability primary to physical laws, such that it dictates their nature, or is it a secondary product of physical laws which arises from their nature, or is it something altogether separate that interacts with the physical laws (essentially making the 2nd law of thermodynamics a 5th fundamental force). Have you read or written anything on the relationship between this principle and other physical laws?

  3. Hi Travis, I obviously have an interest in this, but I am busy on something else at the moment, plus the normal things of life, plus the holiday season (I have treats, but sadly no Lego!). I will get back to a comment (I know you can hardly wait! 🙂 )

  4. Hello again Travis, I’ve had time to read this through and consider, but I don’t really have much to say. To be honest, I didn’t understand a lot of it, or at least I didn’t understand its relevance to my questions. I’m sorry, I don’t think that’s a reflection on your explanation but on the original material you are reporting on, or (dare I say it?) my ability to understand.

    So I’m responding out of profound ignorance when I say that I don’t think this addresses the questions I was asking. Sure, Dehaene includes personal experience as some of his data, but it’s only included (it seems to me) as some date to be explained by the “real” truth – what he finds from his neuroscience. So he assumes naturalism and the truth of neuroscience and uses those assumptions to explain (or explain away) personal experience.

    To really do what I suggested, he’d have to take both sets of data and ask the question: why should I assume one of these is the “true” understanding which explains the other, and how would i know which one is which?

    Secondly, I don’t think anyone doubts that if we disrupt the brain we disrupt the mind and consciousness, that is simply not the question.

    I think (as much as I understand it all) this research shows how consciousness appears in the brain, but doesn’t address the question of whether there is anything more to it than that. Our experience suggests there is more to it, but science doesn’t seem to be able to deal with it, nor are most scientists willing to.

    It is probably fair to say that dualists like me are impossible nuts to crack – like YECers, we will always have a way to get out of the scientific evidence. I believe that is because the scientific evidence is biased in a certain direction, but you and others may always believe it is because we are blindly obstinate. I can see the problem, but feel I have to stick to what I think is true even though it makes for frustrating discussion, and in the end probably means you and I can’t really come to grips with each other’s views. I’m sorry, but I can’t at present see a way around this.

    I will be doing some more reading on this, so I may be able to come back with something more helpful, but until then I will just have to agree to differ. Thanks.

    • Hey Eric,
      I’m not surprised by this response. I knew the data wasn’t anything revolutionary but was rather just a deeper expansion of how intricately the brain is linked with consciousness. So I guess my questions to you are the same as I asked Brandon. Do you have any references which decribe how the mind is separate from, yet entangled with, the brain? Can you imagine any evidence which would convince you that it’s all brain?

      • Those are valid questions, and what I would ask were I in your position. I just don’t know enough, hence my comment about dualists being tough nuts to crack. Let me just rave for a moment …..

        I think there is a package of issues that need to be considered together – consciousness, qualia, free will, ethics, rationality. It seems to me to be crystal clear that if naturalism is true, if it is all brain, then all of these things are illusory or inexplicable. We have discussed this before, so I won’t labour the point, but choice is a tricky thing to understand even for a dualist, and (IMO) impossible for a physicalist to explain. I think that means ethics is impossible too, because you can’t blame someone for an action they had no control over. (I know compatibilists will argue there is control, but since there was no alternative choice, I think that is just semantics.)

        It is the same with rationality which I don’t think we’ve discussed. Let’s say you have changed your mind on something here. What led to that change of mind? Was it your choice or was it determined? If determined, what did truth have to do with it? We could say that even if our thinking processes are determined, it is not just brain chemistry that determines it, but also inputs. So we could say that our cognitive faculties have evolved so that a truthful input will generally lead to a response to accept that truth, and thus preserve both physicalism and rationality. But human beings have evolved so that the majority believe in God, so if that argument was true, then theism must also be a true belief.

        These are just examples, but I conclude that it seems like we have free will, that some ethical statements are objectively true and we have the ability to reason reliably and that we are conscious beings, and it is almost impossible for us to think or act otherwise. So either physicalism is wrong or all these conclusions are illusory. But if they are illusory, then I don’t think I can know that they are illusory because my cognitive faculties can’t be trusted.

        Finally, I don’t think any experiment proves physicalism, they all assume it. So I am faced with a bunch of inexplicable incompatible pieces of evidence, and I think the most coherent belief system (I am probably more of a coherentist than a foundationalist) is to believe all those things are real and science is truncated, rather than to believe they are all illusory and science is right. I can understand that is unsatisfactory to a neuroscientist, and to you, but I think the alternative is more unsatisfactory.

        So back again to your questions …..

        References? I don’t think I have much. Wilder Penfield did experiments that showed that people can distinguish between voluntary (chosen) and involuntary actions, which might suggest that there is a difference. Philosophers Chalmers & Moreland have examined (quite separately) consciousness and choice and seem to think they are real and I now have some of Moreland’s work to read (which I also find requires a lot of concentration and some knowledge of philosophical jargon). And I have a raft of neuroscientists saying that consciousness remains a mystery. But perhaps the best reference I have is Mario Beauregard’s Brain Wars which I have read and The Spiritual Brain which I haven’t read – he is a neuroscience researcher who argues from the evidence that our minds are more than physical. I should go back and check it out further.

        Contrary evidence? I cannot think how physicalism could be proved, only assumed. Can you suggest proof to me?

        Thanks for letting me rave, I’m sorry to clutter up your blog with ignorance, but these are extraordinarily interesting and important matters, even though I am unable to do them justice.

      • Hey Eric,
        I’ll try to avoid well-trodden ground but I do have a few thoughts and questions in response.

        It seems to me to be crystal clear that if naturalism is true, if it is all brain, then all of these things are illusory or inexplicable.

        Why is it crystal clear that illusion and mystery are the only options? What makes you so confident that the objective/subjective divide will forever defy explanation?

        But human beings have evolved so that the majority believe in God, so if that argument was true, then theism must also be a true belief.

        This is clearly a non sequitur. Nobody is arguing that a naturalistic origin of rationality requires that the majority opinion is also always necessarily true. If the world was predominantly atheistic 50 years from now would we then have to concede that the truth had changed? I will grant you, however, that the prevalence of God belief should count for something and the naturalistic worldview needs to explain it – and I’m sure you’re already aware of the various explanations out there.

        it seems like we have free will, that some ethical statements are objectively true and we have the ability to reason reliably and that we are conscious beings…So either physicalism is wrong or all these conclusions are illusory.

        Again, I don’t see why there is necessarily this dichotomy. So I guess this is the same question as before – why are the only options illusion and mystery? Isn’t this a “dualism of the gaps” argument?

        I don’t think any experiment proves physicalism, they all assume it. … I cannot think how physicalism could be proved, only assumed. Can you suggest proof to me?

        Proving physicalism is tantamount to proving the negative that there is no “spirit” underlying all the physical evidence and, as you and I have both acknowledged, that is impossible because you can always say that there’s another layer beyond the physical layer we observe. It’s very much like the invisible dragon in the garage. It should be fairly easy, however, to disprove physicalism with experiments which clearly show the mind operating separate from the body. In my experience, this kind of evidence is in short supply and spurious. I’ve run across some of Beauregard’s work and those books look worth adding to my reading list. Conversely, everything I’ve seen from Moreland leaves me deeply unsatisfied, especially when he puts on the cynical “it’s sooooo obvious” attitude like you get with his appearance on Stand to Reason.

        Thanks for sharing. You’re always welcome to clutter my blog with your thoughts.

  5. Hi Travis, I’m not sure if I’ll avoid well-trodeen paths, but here’s my answers to your questions:

    “Why is it crystal clear that illusion and mystery are the only options? What makes you so confident that the objective/subjective divide will forever defy explanation?”

    I was not commenting directly on the subjective/objective divide, but on naturalism, or I suppose physicalism. I’m sure I’ve said it before, but it seems to me that just about the most certain truth in all this is that if everything is physical, then we cannot initiate actions except what was inevitable in the chain of cause and effect. The physical world is a closed system (there is nothing else) so there is nothing from outside to change or initiate anything, and no way that an action within the physical system can be initiated except through the normal physical causes, which are all predictable. Therefore no real choice.

    That, plus the fact that there is nothing transcendent to give meaning, leads to the conclusion that ethics are subjective and rationality is problematic, and consciousness is just an accidental by-product of evolution. Humans may feel we have meaning and purpose, but most of our feelings are mistaken, Crick was right: “You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.

    So it doesn’t really matter if the subjective/objective divide is explained, Crick will still be right if naturalism is true. And since I don’t believe Crick is right – everything I experience, the literature I read, the music I listen to, the people I meet, all say otherwise – then I conclude naturalism probably isn’t true and all these neuroscience experiments that assume naturalism are all probably mistaken at some points, though valuable at others.

    “This is clearly a non sequitur. Nobody is arguing that a naturalistic origin of rationality requires that the majority opinion is also always necessarily true …. and I’m sure you’re already aware of the various explanations out there.”

    I disagree, I think it is very relevant. I was discussing whether a natural selection process based on survival could result in rationality and truth being reliably determined by human beings (the Plantinga argument). The naturalist answer I’ve seen is that rationality is advantageous to survival, and so our cognitive faculties are reliable after all. But what does “reliable” mean, especially in a natural selection context? Surely it means that it generally gets the right answer? But if so, then every common result of human thinking should be at least probably reliable – and that includes God belief. if we say that isn’t the case, then we undermine the argument that our cognitive faculties are reliable, which undermines everything.

    “It should be fairly easy, however, to disprove physicalism with experiments which clearly show the mind operating separate from the body”

    I would say Beauregard is arguing that these experiments exist, especially studies of out-of-body experiences and NDEs. His book Brain Wars gives many supposed examples, and he concludes by arguing that we are going to go through an anti-materialist revolution to rival the radical change in physics with the discovery of quantum physics. The numerous (300 million plus) apparent examples of supernatural healing are another example of evidence – of course naturalistic explanations are possible, but if “natural explanations” account for all these, it would be amazing. I think a Bayesian analysis of these could be done, and had a bit of a go at it myself, albeit without all the necessary data.

    Thanks again.

    • Hey Eric,
      It didn’t occur to me until this morning I hadn’t replied to your response. Sorry.

      just about the most certain truth in all this is that if everything is physical, then we cannot initiate actions except what was inevitable in the chain of cause and effect

      As you are aware, I think that this perspective is question begging. I bolded your use of “we” because I think that is the key. This view presuppposes that our identity is inherently separate from the chain of cause and effect. I assumes that our self, our perspective and our sense of choice cannot reside within that framework. This language paints a picture of an otherwise free individual who is being unduly forced into a causal world against their wishes. Yes, that is a distasteful world, but it is not the world that a naturalist paradigm entails. This is all well-trodden ground but I think it’s a critical point because I suspect that it underlies nearly everything else in the discussion.

      Consider how both you and Brandon have affirmed that much of neuroscience is grounded upon naturalistic assumptions and so, as a result, reaches naturalistic conclusions. I think, however, that this is a contortion of the default position – a position which assumes nothing – and what you’re actually observing is that neuroscience does not assume dualism. If the evidence pointed in support of dualism then I think it would be embraced. You’re welcome to suggest that I’m underestimating the bias, and there are certainly many parties who fiercely discount dualistic theories out of hand, but science as a whole has proven itself open to acceptance of difficult, counter-intuitive and unpopular conclusions when it is the best fit for the evidence. Naturalism itself was in that difficult minority position not so long ago. So I think this rejection of neuroscientific conclusions due to their naturalistic bias is often, though not always, more accurately positioned as a rejection of neuroscientific conclusions due to their absence of a dualistic bias.

      But if so, then every common result of human thinking should be at least probably reliable – and that includes God belief. if we say that isn’t the case, then we undermine the argument that our cognitive faculties are reliable, which undermines everything.

      I’m going to stick with the non sequitor claim, so I guess we will simply have to agree to disagree here.

      Lastly, regarding the evidence for dualistic theories, I will admit that I am only familiar with the data through articles and the like that I’ve uncovered on the internet. Even so, none of this has been persuasive. I recall reading several articles on the recent AWARE study and then most of the study paper itself. Despite headlines like “First hint of ‘life after death’ in biggest ever scientific study”, the supportive data was not only sparse but also was not inconsistent with naturalistic interpretations. That said, I think I should probably bump up Beauregard’s books on my reading list and take a closer look at the data.

      So this is what brings me back to the analogy with the invisible dragon. If we start with no assumptions and simply rely on our data gathering faculties then it isn’t clear to me why the data should get us to dualism. Conversely, if we start with dualistic assumptions then we’ve made our view invincible, forever excused from scrutiny, always peddling back and refining the ghost until it is little more than a mirror of the brain.

  6. Hi Travis, thanks for reply.

    I don’t wish to be argumentative, but I disagree – I don’t think I have been question-begging and I do think neuroscience has made assumptions, not me. Let me explain.

    ” I think that this perspective is question begging. I bolded your use of “we” because I think that is the key. This view presuppposes that our identity is inherently separate from the chain of cause and effect.”

    I don’t presuppose our identity is separate from the chain of cause and effect. I recognise that if naturalism is true then we must, inevitably and by definition, be part of that physical sequence. In fact, in discussing this matter, I often make the same point. And so I certainly don’t want to paint the picture you suggest.

    My point is in the other part of the statement – that once realise that is what must be under naturalism, we cannot initiate actions except what was inevitable in the chain of cause and effect. I formulate the statement this way to try to put compatibilism in its proper place. Dennett argues that we have “all the freedom we want” but I think that is misrepresenting the facts. We don’t have any freedom. All he can say is that decisions are made within our heads and not forced from outside – but since we couldn’t have made any other decision, it isn’t freedom at all, no matter how he dresses it up.

    So I agree, if naturalism is true, there is no “me” except what resides within the chain of physical cause and effect within my brain, and it must inevitably do whatever inputs and physical processes determine it will do. I’m still not sure if you accept that view, and I’d be interested to verify, but to me it is “crystal clear” that is what naturalism entails.

    “you and Brandon have affirmed that much of neuroscience is grounded upon naturalistic assumptions and so, as a result, reaches naturalistic conclusions. I think, however, that this is a contortion of the default position – a position which assumes nothing – and what you’re actually observing is that neuroscience does not assume dualism.”
    “If we start with no assumptions and simply rely on our data gathering faculties then it isn’t clear to me why the data should get us to dualism.”

    Again, I don’t think this is what I said. I don’t wish to assume dualism any more than I wish to assume naturalism. My last two comments tried to give an argument. The argument in summary went like this.

    1. Science as currently defined measures and observes the physical world and draws conclusions. It has no methods to address anything non-physical and most scientists don’t think there is anything non-physical.
    2. Therefore it is ill-equipped, arguably totally unable, to address any hypothesis that is not naturalistic. It is almost inevitable that it will assume naturalism.
    3. Our experience provides useful evidence and it suggests things that naturalist science doesn’t (freewill, consciousness, what it’s like to be a bat, etc). Neuroscience tends to think these things need to be explained in terms of physics – this is an assumption.
    4. Instead of making this assumption, we should consider how we can best determine whether both our experience and neuroscience give valid insights and on any issue which gives the truer insight.
    5. The effects of something “supernatural” or non-natural could feasibly be measured by their effects in the physical world and hence measured by physical science, but it is difficult to determine whether any effects have natural or supernatural/non-natural causes. If we make a naturalistic assumption, we’ll confirm it, but we may never actually understand the real cause.

    So that is the argument I am making. I am not asking for a free pass for dualism, I am just asking that (1) insider knowledge of experience be treated more seriously and (2) neuroscientists justify their assumption of naturalism.

    I hope I haven’t sounded too rude or pushy here, but I’m just trying to make sure I have expressed myself clearly. Thanks.

    • Hey Eric,
      The first part of this discussion is looking a lot like our dialog on my free will post, and I’m tempted to suggest that it isn’t worth taking much further but I think there are maybe some thoughts on how the language we use in these discussions can lead to misunderstandings on each side. You say that “I’m still not sure if you accept that view, and I’d be interested to verify”. Yes, I am disinclined to accept libertarian free will and inclined to agree with the compatibilist position. This means I disagree with your assertion that “it isn’t freedom at all, no matter how he dresses it up”. But then it occurred to me that perhaps the disagreement on these definitions is one of perspective. I think that since we only view our decisions through our own subjective lens then it is proper to define the terms related to that process subjectively and so, from a subjective perspective, we have a freedom of choice. I suspect that this is also at the root of my disagreement with language you use which puts the subjective designations of “I” and “we” into the context of an objective perspective, as in “we don’t have any freedom”. You say that compatibilist language is misleading and you deploy your language to put compatibilism in its proper place, but a compatibilist would say that your language is deploying an inappropriate mixing of perspectives, treating the subjective experience as if it were objective. Does this make any sense?

      1. Science as currently defined measures and observes the physical world and draws conclusions. It has no methods to address anything non-physical and most scientists don’t think there is anything non-physical.

      Even if we set aside science as a methodology, why should we think that anybody, using any method, can address anything non-physical? Our five senses are all physically grounded. How could we ever escape physical conclusions? This would only be possible if the non-physical manifest itself in a way that was physically observable. The root of that claim always comes back to the mental. Why start with the assumption that the mental is non-physical when everything else is physical?

      2. Therefore it is ill-equipped, arguably totally unable, to address any hypothesis that is not naturalistic. It is almost inevitable that it will assume naturalism.

      What is the alternative, given that all of our data acquisition faculties are physical? Isn’t the possibility of an alternative require an assumption that the mental is non-physical and can access the non-physical information?

      3. Our experience provides useful evidence and it suggests things that naturalist science doesn’t (freewill, consciousness, what it’s like to be a bat, etc). Neuroscience tends to think these things need to be explained in terms of physics – this is an assumption.

      I don’t understand how our experience suggests that these are non-physical.

      4. Instead of making this assumption, we should consider how we can best determine whether both our experience and neuroscience give valid insights and on any issue which gives the truer insight.

      As with #3, I don’t understand why we should think that these are in competition.

      5. The effects of something “supernatural” or non-natural could feasibly be measured by their effects in the physical world and hence measured by physical science, but it is difficult to determine whether any effects have natural or supernatural/non-natural causes. If we make a naturalistic assumption, we’ll confirm it, but we may never actually understand the real cause.

      Naturalistic assumptions are easily defeated if the data demonstrates violations of naturalistic axioms. If those naturalistic axioms are never violated, what is the reason for postulating something non-natural as the root cause?

  7. Hi Travis, thanks for being willing to try a little longer. I agree with you about one thing at least – disagreement about definitions is probably an important part of our disagreement. Let’s try “freedom”.

    The Oxford Dictionaries define freedom as “The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants.”, then further refine this as including “The power of self-determination attributed to the will; the quality of being independent of fate or necessity.” That is how I define freedom. And if naturalism is true, then I don’t believe we have that power to avoid necessity. Necessity is exactly what we have (IMO).

    I honestly don’t see the subjective/objective distinction as being relevant. I am discussing the fact that it feels like we can actually (in some cases at least) choose between alternatives (i.e. one of the alternatives wasn’t determined), we seem unable to think and act differently with any consistency, our laws depend on there being real choice among real alternatives (if our brain states are such as to make us do something, we can plead insanity or diminished responsibility). It is not just me subjectively thinking this, I can observe all that in our culture.

    So I still think it is fundamental that what we experience and how I society is structured is at odds with what naturalistic neuroscience says.

    “Even if we set aside science as a methodology, why should we think that anybody, using any method, can address anything non-physical? “

    It is logically valid and used in science, criminology, etc, that if we define all the possibilities and show all but one are impossible, then we have established a good case for the remaining one. That is the case here. I say we experience freedom. Neuroscience seems to be saying this isn’t so. If we assume naturalism, these two facts are at odds, but if we allow dualism as a hypothesis, all can be explained. Therefore it should be on the table, even if science can’t (yet) address it.

    But perhaps the non-physical can be addressed in other ways – via intuition, personal experience, etc. All I am suggesting is that it is circular to assume naturalism and then draw conclusions that are naturalistic.

    “What is the alternative, given that all of our data acquisition faculties are physical?”

    Are they? How do you know that?

    I think alternatives are (1) at the very least to stop drawing naturalistic conclusions from naturalistic assumptions, and just report data, (2) to recognise that there is a hypothesis that we cannot currently properly address, (3) gather good quality data of apparent anomalies, and (4) consider how we might take the dualistic option seriously, since it is what most people believe, even neuroscientists in everyday life i would guess!

    Beauregard tells of a story of an NDE where someone “saw” something out of body that they could have seen any other way. NDE research apparently began with collection of data, against the scientific opinion. Phillip Wiebe (Vision of Jesus) argues there is enough prima facie evidence for these visions, and no satisfactory psychological or neurophysiological evidence that can cover them all, and that we should start collecting case studies and investigating further. This is of course a different phenomenon, but the same can apply to all apparently non-naturalistic phenomena.

    “I don’t understand how our experience suggests that these are non-physical.”

    I didn’t say it did. What I said was that experience suggests freewill and consciousness are real, but naturalism can only reduce them to the Crick statement. The obvious alternative is non-physical, but it may not be the only one, as Nagel argues.

    “As with #3, I don’t understand why we should think that these are in competition.”

    I guess this is where I come to the conclusion that we are not connecting. It is clear that naturalism cannot lead to freedom in the sense I defined it, but only in the limited sense that compatibilists are happy with. I could quote you a raft of neuroscientists saying we cannot explain consciousness and qualia from an evolutionary (naturalist) viewpoint. Prof William Provine adds his voice to Crick: “Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly. 1) ….. 5) human free will is nonexistent.”

    Yet we live as if these things are real. John Polkinghorne says: “There is an implausibility in those who seek to reduce parts of [our] experience to the status of epiphenomenal, an implausibility repeatedly exemplified by our inability outside our studies to live other than as people endowed with free agency and reason.”

    Now I haven’t seen you show that they are compatible, in opposition to Crick, Provine and Polkinghorne, and I guess I can’t imagine how you could think so and hence ask this question. But it seems you do think they could be compatible, perhaps just as compatibilists think, but seemingly more than that.

    “Naturalistic assumptions are easily defeated if the data demonstrates violations of naturalistic axioms. If those naturalistic axioms are never violated, what is the reason for postulating something non-natural as the root cause?”

    I am saying the life experience of 7 billion people living today contradicts naturalistic axioms, as does all our legal and moral codes, as does all the love stories and all the philosophy and even all the science (like Plantinga, I think science is inconsistent with naturalism). Of course I’m not expecting you to simply accept that, but I’m trying to make it clear how big I think the inconsistencies are.

    Travis, writing this has brought me to a point I guess. You are a really admirable guy and very tolerant of me, but I think I am fast becoming a long-winded pain. I think the difference between is almost as big as black vs white and I’m doubtful anything either of us say will bridge that gap. Perhaps it is best if I drop out at this stage? I’ll continue to read your blog and comment occasionally perhaps, but I think you are right, we are on very different train tracks.

    Thanks, Eric

    • Eric,
      First, let me address your closing comments. You are not a long-winded pain. I did not create this blog to find people who would only validate my thoughts. Truth is not found in echo chambers. I’ll always prefer genuine and civil dissenting views over complimentary fluff, and you have been valuable in that regard. I hope I have not given you the impression that I find you aggravating or antagonizing. It is surely true that we are sometimes frustrated in our attempts to communicate our thoughts in such a way that they are received according to their intent, and sometimes we just need to stop beating dead horses, but I do not intend to stifle discourse. Sometimes the challenge of communication can yield novel ways to express an idea.

      I think that it was a helpful step to go back and define freedom. I would suggest that the compatibilist position embraces free will under the definition of “The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants” and “The power of self-determination attributed to the will”, with a holistic understanding of the self, but rejects that free will necessarily equates with “the quality of being independent of fate or necessity”. This is why the qualifier of “libertarian” is commonly added for that latter type of free will. But this is just a semantic question and so arguments boil down to the question of who is employing a proper use of words.

      I honestly don’t see the subjective/objective distinction as being relevant.

      I think it’s actually really important and I thought of an example this morning that may help clarify my point. As an engineer I’m sure you’re familiar with the physics concepts of frame of reference and relative motion. A common thought experiment is to have three people floating out in empty space, none of them accelerating. Alice sees Bob travelling toward her at velocity 2X and Carl travelling toward her at velocity X. Bob sees Alice travelling toward him at 2X and Carl travelling toward him at X. Carl sees Alice travelling toward him at X and Bob travelling toward him from the other direction at -X. Each of them report that they are sitting still and everybody else is moving. If you ask for their reports of the situation, you will get three seemingly contradictory statements but their reports are actually all true and accurate, and only seem contradictory because they are each given from a different frame of reference.

      I think something similar is happening when we talk about free will, consciousness, etc… My contention is that the internal (subjective) and the external (objective) are analogous to there being two different frames of reference in physics. There’s just one reality being described from two different perspectives, in ways that are sometimes seemingly contradictory, and this difference can be really confusing when we mix perspectives in our discussion. I interpret you as effectively saying that a naturalist can only be consistent if they adopt the external perspective in all of their discussion. But I’m not sure why that is correct. In hope of clarifying what I mean, let’s revisit those definitions and see how they apply here.

      • When we define freedom as “The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants” we are presenting a first-person perspective – the process of a self exhibiting control over their thoughts and actions. In that case, it makes sense to adopt the subjective frame of reference.
      • When we define freedom as “The power of self-determination attributed to the will” we are referring only to the self, so it again makes sense to adopt the subjective frame of reference.
      • When we define freedom as “the quality of being independent of fate or necessity” we appear to have stepped outside the self and are looking at the influence of external factors on an entity. In this case the objective frame of reference makes sense and so the compatibilist agrees that this type of freedom does not exist.

      I hope that this analogy regarding frames of reference goes beyond clarifying the use of language, but also helps to bridge the gap in understanding why I don’t see a conflict between the objective findings of “naturalist” neuroscience and the subjective experience of free will, consciousness, etc… It’s not that I’m ignoring the differences between the internal and external data, it’s that I think it quite probable that those differences are simply a matter of perspective. As with the different reports from Alice, Bob and Carl, the data does not actually indicate that there are different realities – they’re just different ways of looking at the same thing.

      I say we experience freedom. Neuroscience seems to be saying this isn’t so. If we assume naturalism, these two facts are at odds…experience suggests freewill and consciousness are real, but naturalism can only reduce them to the Crick statement…It is clear that naturalism cannot lead to freedom in the sense I defined it…I am saying the life experience of 7 billion people living today contradicts naturalistic axioms

      I hope the text above helps explain why I don’t think this is necessarily the case. Let me know if it could use more clarification.

      “What is the alternative, given that all of our data acquisition faculties are physical?”
      Are they? How do you know that?

      I am working from the assumption that physical = empirical. If we see, hear, touch, taste or smell it, then it is physical. The methods of interactions for these senses are all defined as physical mediums. Sure, some claim personal revelation or ESP, but I have not seen any good evidence that those are reliable sources of information and they seem best explained as having been internally generated.

      Beauregard tells of a story of an NDE where someone “saw” something out of body…

      I’ll admit that I need to get a better handle on the details and frequency of these kinds of reports. If these occur far more frequently than we would expect under a naturalistic paradigm (due to coincidence, sub-conscious perception, vivid recall, etc…) then that is definitely valuable evidence. I simply haven’t seen any good analyses which show this to be the case. Do you know of anything that you would consider to be a primary reference for that data?

      I’m hopeful that the frame of reference analogy is helpful in communicating why I don’t see a conflict. Please let me know if you think it needs clarification or if you don’t find it helpful at all.

  8. Travis,
    I should say something. I was a physicalist for a long time, even after I reconverted back to Christianity for more than a year or two. A few things pushed me over towards being completely uncertain and then finally towards favoring some sort of dualism. First, this is going to seem like a total copout, but I began seeing some passages in scripture that were difficult to make physicalist (monist). I’m perfectly willing to let science (aka General Revelation in theological terms) bear on scripture. This is why I reject literalist interpretations of the creation myth and this is why I think what the ancients considered demons are simply organic neuropsychiatric illnesses. But, despite my willingness, I felt some scripture was very difficult to explain otherwise. The other factors were of philosophy and the philosophy of science. . . First, why am I here? “Why” does not have to imply teleology. I mean what is it about the atoms in my brain cause my consciousness to be born on this earth inside this here particular body and not Brad Pitt’s? To me, this is equally as mysterious as why is there something rather than nothing. And, it equally resides within reality’s interpretive space to conclude that the answer is teleological, ending on God’s will. (Side note: I think the problem with framing the question of who created the creator deity is that both creational theism and naturalism require an Unmoved Mover. It’s just a matter of whether the Unmoved Mover is intentional or chaotic or robotic or an eternally self-existing physical matrix that seeds universes. It’s a matter of where to assign the mystery and how to make the judgment, not a matter of who has the rationally superior worldview, because there is no such thing as this unless one of these mysteries is revealed inside one somehow but then one has no public evidence and may look mad going on and on with an indulgent string of words as such). My own consciousness is radically different from anything I know. I infer that other humans have the same thing I do. They look sort of like me, having hair, smelling like me except worse. When someone sleeps, I can not infer that their consciousness is gone since they may be dreaming. When loved ones die, I can infer that their organic brain is dead, but what does that have to do with their consciousness? I do not know because I have never been dead. How am I supposed to know that death will be anything like “before birth” which to me is totally meaningless? I mean epistemologically, scientifically I do not know. Scientifically, I know that my consciousness is connected by my nervous system, but does that really warrant concluding that it actually is my nervous system? If my consciousness is in my nervous system why is it not in my skeletal muscle and finger tips and the keys I am pressing to type this sentence? Why just draw the like at some proximal point? Or. Does it warrant that it is such a pattern of activity of my nervous system? Short of suicide how can I even test these hypotheses? Now, maybe I can make inferences using awake-brain-surgery and fMRI studies and the like. But, not all inferences are equal in the philosophy of science. There is pseudoscience, hypotheses, theories, and laws. Physicalism is definitely not a theory or a law, so is it pseudoscience or a hypothesis? Let’s just say, for now I will grant it as a hypothesis. Surely, it matters whether or not I am a theist or a naturalist (or something else). Suppose God is also a hypothesis, would not this bear on the hypothesis of physicalism and augment the likelihood of it being true? And, like I mentioned, if my Christian theism is ultimately subjective or at least effectively subjective, then how I judge physicalism will also be subjective. Therefore, it cannot be “better evidenced” in any meaningful sense. That would require naturalism being rationally superior, affixed to a knowable objective reality, or be something that is forced upon me, i.e. by academic strong-arming.

    The truth is, even though I have gone this particular route, there are Christian theists who are physicalists.

    And, that, my friend, is what is called a “stream of consciousness”.

  9. Hi Travis, thanks for your kind and welcoming words. To clarify, no nothing you said cased me to feel frustrated ·I’m sorry if it might have seemed that way) – my frustration is with myself really. I feel frustrated that you are a very reasonable, friendly and well-read person, yet on some of the most basic matters we can’t even agree if there is a problem. I feel I am just going over the same old ground, and I probably aren’t well-read enough to express my thoughts better. So I will probably ease off a little unless I feel we can make progress in at least understanding each other.

    I had one explanatory thought this morning. I think I have not been clear enough about the differences between naturalism, physicalism, monism, etc, so I thought I’d at least define four different positions on how we understand freewill and consciousness.

    (1) There is no problem, everything reduces to the physical, and Crick and Provine are right – (libertarian) freewill and consciousness are illusions.
    (2) These things are real (at least sort of) and there is a physical explanation of them that we haven’t fully discovered yet.
    (3) These things are real and natural, but not physical. Some apparently non-physical things like ESP are real.
    (4) Ditto, but there is a non-natural or supernatural explanation for them.

    We could see these as being (1) reductionist physicalism, (2) physicalism, (3) non-physicalist but naturalist and (4) non-naturalist.

    We could argue about definitions and boundaries (e.g. is compatibilism in #1 or #2?) but if the broad lines are understood, I think that #1 & #2 cannot properly explain consciousness, libertarian freewill and other phenomena which our experience suggests are real. Whether #3 or #4 are the best explanation is arguable. You probably are around #2 I guess? But the important thing is that non-physicalist doesn’t necessarily mean supernaturalist. My main arguments are with physicalism.

    I agree now with how we each see freedom and how our views fit in with the Oxford definition. I further think that when most people and the law talk about freedom, they mean libertarian freewill. I will try to add the word “libertarian” to anything more I write.

    I’m sorry but I still don’t see the objective/subjective distinction as useful, in fact I think it allows a few things to be “smuggled” in that shouldn’t be there. Your example of moving observers is telling, because we can understand it perfectly from all four viewpoints, and explain each one in terms of the other. If we explained it to Alice, she could understand perfectly why things seem different to her than to others. There is no real conflict. But with libertarian freewill, there is no such agreement. A compatibilist can explain that we don’t actually have it even thought we feel from introspection that we do. But it’s not just that I am seeing things subjectively, but I fundamentally disagree. I think it seems like we have it except when a neuroscientists is in the lab, and it is their experiments that are incomplete and ultimately illusory. But I agree that your explanation helps me understand the difference between us, so that is good. Thanks.

    Two more things to report. (1) I went back and read some Beauregard again. He believes there are sufficient well-conducted peer-reviewed, published scientific experiments to show that psi phenomena (telepathy, clairvoyance, telekinesis, precognition) are real, and that some NDEs really do show that the mind was active when medical science and medical equipment knows that the brain was inactive. Brain Wars is a popular level book, but gives quite a few references and names to follow up. He presents these results as examples of #3, but some may lead to #4, who knows?

    (2) A blog I follow coincidentally published a post on this very matter and I thought you might like to read it because it presents its case better than I do. It is by a christian who is a researcher in cosmology, but though not an expert in this stuff, he is interesting.

    Thanks again.

  10. Hi Travis, thanks for the links. I was interested to see names like Beauregard and Sheldrake among the authors/participants. They certainly are a group of alternative people to the usual scientific consensus! Regardless of how all this turns out, it seems clear to me that the naturalistic science consensus is now an orthodoxy that will exert pressure on anyone not following the party line. Thomas Nagel is someone who sometimes falls foul of this.

    As I’ve said before, I think all “this” is an insufficient explanation because it doesn’t reflect what we experience. It may be that our experience is deceptive, but equally it may be that naturalistic science is truncated. Until I know otherwise, I’ll accept what each tells us, but not what naturalistic science cannot truly tell us but pretends to out of dogma.

    • Beware the knife that cuts both ways. As soon as we label a perspective as oppressive, pretending to know things they don’t, and dogmatic, we have closed ourselves off to anything that perspective may offer regardless of whether it is true or not. Those are familiar labels, are they not?

      • Yeah, I agree. My view is a little more nuanced than that brief statement. I am certainly not closed off from neuroscience, but very interested in it, and accept what it says about science. I just don’t accept what neuroscientists assume about what is, at present at least, as far as I can tell, outside their science.

        For example, (this article gives a somewhat jaundiced view of how Thomas Nagel is viewed by naturalists, which illustrates what I have in mind. I think too of the scientific orthodoxy that says God couldn’t have created the world via evolution because evolution is non-directed, non-teleological, as if they’ve ever done experiments to prove that God isn’t clever enough to set it up the way it is!

        So (IMO) we should give science it’s due (and I do, I love cosmology and neuroscience, and I worked much of my life with environmental scientists), but don’t let scientists claim more than their method can demonstrate.

  11. This article and the comments have been incredibly fascinating. I would add something to it, but my brain is fried after reading the entire thread. haha. In short, I agree with pretty much everything you wrote Travis, but I also found the discussions in the comments to be fascinating as well.

    • Thanks (Zach?). It’s an exciting era in the world of neuroscience, with both the EU and US throwing major funding at projects that are working toward understanding the brain. It will be very interesting to see where all of this leads. I think that the relation between brain and mind is an influential component in our conception of reality, and so plays a significant role in the God debate as well.

      • Yes agree totally. I find neuroscience and psychology to be infinitely fascinating subjects; especially when coupled with philosophy.

        And yes, it’s Zach.

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