Mind and Cosmos

mind_and_cosmosThomas Nagel’s “Mind & Cosmos”, published in 2012, is almost certainly the book that has garnered the most attention over the last couple years in the God debate; and it has thus become required reading for those of us who are immersed in that milieu. My encounters with the book have primarily come through the off-handed endorsements of Christian apologists. It has become a weapon of choice for defense of the theistic worldview. Conversely, the naturalists were quick to call foul. Most famously, Steven Pinker called it “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.” Deeply critical negative reviews abounded and those who rushed to Nagel’s defense were quick to suggest that he was, in an ironic twist, being treated like a heretic by the clergy of the church of science. With all of this in mind, my goal was to approach this book via the middle road, as someone seeking truth wherever it may be found. There’s no doubt that I am flawed and biased, but I honestly hope that I came to the text with an open mind.

So what is all the fuss about? Perhaps the subtitle of the book says enough: “Why the materialist neo-darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false.” That’s a pretty bold statement which, when viewed through the lens of the God debate, clearly lands in the theist’s camp. Furthermore, students of apologetics will quickly recognize that the content bears a striking resemblance to some of the key objections to naturalism that have been levied by the likes of C.S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga and J.P. Moreland. The primary difference here is that Nagel’s work does not go on to endorse a theistic solution.

Silver bullets…?

Nagel spends the first two chapters of the book – about 30 pages – outlining the high-level view of his concerns with naturalism. It is here that he introduces us to the “failure of psychophysical reductionism” and identifies three ways in which this failure is realized: in theories of consciousness, cognition, and value – each of which serve as the titles for the substance of the argument in the next three chapters. By this point the territory had grown familiar and I couldn’t help but wonder whether Nagel was fully aware that his thesis mirrors three of the most philosophically prominent arguments for the existence of God. He cites contemporary secular philosophers, such as Sharon Street, as his primary interlocutors yet on the theistic side we get little more than a single footnote reference to Plantinga’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies”. Whereas the apologetic versions of these arguments essentially all boil down to “Nature cannot produce (or access) X, thus God.”, Nagel is affirming everything before the comma and leaving everything after as an open question; though he does prod us toward accepting the possibility of an impersonal teleological force. Nevertheless, allow me to summarize his points and show how they couple into the case for theism.

Consciousness

What it's like to be a batHere we find Nagel reaffirming ‘the hard problem of consciousness’, as he has done in the past. In his 1974 essay “What is it like to be a bat?” he closed with the statement that “it seems unlikely that any physical theory of mind can be contemplated until more thought has been given to the general problem of subjective and objective.” 38 years later, this chapter takes it a step farther and suggests that the subjective cannot be reduced to the physical:

“if Ψ [a mental event] really is Φ [a physical event] in this sense, and nothing else, then Φ [a physical event] by itself, once its physical properties are understood, should likewise be sufficient for the taste of sugar, the feeling of pain, or whatever it is supposed to be identical with. But it doesn’t seem to be. It seems conceivable, for any Φ [physical event], that there should be Φ [a physical event] without any experience at all” (pg 41).

In the next section this conclusion is then applied to the evolutionary story:

“Since a purely materialist explanation cannot do this [explain the appearance of conscious organisms], the materialist version of evolutionary theory cannot be the whole truth” (pg 45).

To put it briefly, the ‘hard problem’ amounts to the difficulty we have in translating the experiential (qualia) to the descriptive, and it seems clear that any physical explanation is inherently descriptive. To this the theist agrees and then asks, “What now?” The God answer has most notably been advanced by Richard Swinburne (see The Existence of God) and J.P. Moreland (see Consciousness and the Existence of God).

Disclaimer: These two books are on my list but I have not yet read them and am working from the content available online. Reader beware (even though I may have stumbled into full versions of the texts).

These heavyweights of Christian philosophy propose that consciousness is not only incompatible with a purely physical cause but that its very nature begs for a personal cause that is itself conscious. Why? To quote Moreland,

“on a theistic metaphysic, one already has an instance of consciousness and other mental entities, e.g. an unembodied mind, in God. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that finite consciousness or other mental entities should exist in the world. However, on a naturalist view, mental entities are so strange and out of place that their existence (or regular correlation with physical entities) defies adequate explanation. There appear to be two realms operating in causal harmony and theism provides the best explanation of this fact.”

Swinburne starts with the same assumption and then makes this being personal and gives him motivation for creating us by appealing to the moral capacity of conscious beings, wherein beings which can choose to do good are a valuable addition to the universe. Good activities include relationship and love and so the origin of consciousness should have these qualities as well.

If we grant that consciousness cannot arise from the physical then I honestly think I would favor the apologist’s proposition. If consciousness truly is something fundamentally significant and distinct from physical reality then explaining its origin in terms of an advanced, transcendent consciousness seems more sensible than positing a disinterested or unintentional source. This may not get us to a particular formulation of what that transcendent consciousness is, but it leads the way to further discussion. Regardless, the obstacle lies in that first clause – in establishing the failure of the naturalist account.

Cognition

“We take ourselves to have the capacity to form true beliefs … We don’t take these capacities to be infallible, but we think they are often reliable, in an objective sense, … human life assumes that there is a real world … and that there are norms of thought which, if we follow them, will tend to lead us toward the correct answers. It assumes that to follow those norms is to respond correctly … It is difficult to make sense of all this in traditional naturalistic terms.” (pg 72)

Nagel goes on to grant that it does make sense from an evolutionary perspective for our faculties to accurately represent the world. Even more, he cogently describes the standard evolutionary explanation for cognition through the adaptive benefits of the mental faculties that enable us to generalize and symbolize and, at the end, acknowledges that the story as a whole is not impossible. Section 3 then commences with the deconstruction.

The first criticism raised is the circularity of reliance on our reasoning. He points out – and correctly so, in my opinion – that when we evaluate the evolutionary story and find it to be an adequate explanation of our capacity for reason, we are in fact relying on that very explanation in the process. The second shot is aimed at our ability to discern truth. Whereas consciousness may render a generally accurate picture of our immediate environment, reason allows us to step out of our subjectivity and compare and contrast data from an objective standpoint to locate truth. The reasons why we might see this as an obstacle to physical explanation are less clear and largely intuitive: “it does seem to be something that cannot be given a purely physical analysis and therefore, … cannot be given a purely physical explanation.”

CS-LewisNot long ago I read C.S. Lewis’ Miracles. The first half of the book says very little about miracles and purposes instead to set the stage for the allowance of the supernatural. His central argument for the existence of something which transcends the material was an examination of Reason and our ability to utilize it. This has come to be known as the argument from reason (which is actively defended by Victor Reppert at dangerousidea.blogspot.com). The argument can be summarized as “How can the rational come from the irrational?” It builds upon our intuition, crafted by our experience, that the unconscious world is generally not oriented toward truth. Nothing in random natural processes seems to work toward discerning correctness. Why should evolution have ended up with something that did?

Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism argues the same position with a bit more philosophical depth and with the addition of the circularity observation that Nagel poses. I already discussed this argument a bit in a review of “Where the Conflict Really Lies”, so I won’t rehash that here. Regardless, both Lewis and Plantinga go on to suggest that if reason cannot be explained by the physical realm then the most sensible conclusion is that its presence in our world has its origin with something that is itself capable of reason, and which values rationality, and thus bestows that value upon us. Again, I find that this is a reasonable option if we agree that rationality necessarily transcends the physical. As before, it may not be the only conclusion but it is a strong and viable candidate.

Value

Nagel’s final concern with the physicalist paradigm rests on value realism. His opening section again acknowledges that the target, this time the subjectivist account of value, is “not flagrantly implausible.” The subsequent section continues to discuss the distinction between subjectivism and value realism and then interestingly closes with a concession about the case for value realism:

“There is no crucial experiment that will establish or refute realism about value… Positive support for realism can come only from the fruitfulness of evaluative and moral thought in producing results, including corrections of beliefs formerly widely held and the development of new and improved methods and arguments over time. The realist interpretation of what we are doing in thinking about these things can carry conviction only if it is a better account than the subjectivist or social-constructivist alternative, and that is always going to be a comparative question and a matter of judgment.” (pg 104-105)

This seems to indicate that he thinks that our recognition of progress is the best indicator of value realism; but he also recognizes that the identification of progress is itself subjective. Ultimately Nagel grants that his grounding for the objectivity of value is purely an intuitive feeling and, as such, very little time is spent defending that conclusion. Instead, Nagel spends the next couple chapters outlining his agreement with Sharon Street in her proposal that a purely Darwinian account of evolution is incompatible with value realism (see A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value).

It’s probably painfully obvious how this relates to the theistic worldview. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb if I propose that the moral argument is among the two or three most important and widespread arguments for God’s existence. It was a favorite of C.S. Lewis, and nearly every apologist thereafter. Francis Collins indicated that it was the key factor in his conversion. Briefly, the moral argument says that moral value exists independent of our opinion. Some things, like the oft cited “torturing babies for fun”, are truly wrong regardless of what we think. The theists then take the next step and ask where these moral truths come from. They do not appear to be a material part of the world and yet regularly guide our actions and serve as the explanatory foundation of our reasoning – which is the key to the theists proposition. When we keep asking why, we will usually eventually hit a wall made entirely of value judgments. If the answers to the “why” questions are not found in the answers to the “how” questions, and we are the only part of the physical realm which seems to care about the “why”, then the origin of those values is reasonably accounted for in something capable of valuing – something intentional and teleologically motivated.

For the sake of argument, lets grant the assumption of moral realism. When I take this stance, I am compelled to agree with the problems it poses for a undirected evolutionary account of our moral disposition. As I thus proceed to examine the alternative explanations for its existence, here again I find myself appreciating the theistic answer. Why? Because value seems to be intrinsically tied to intention, and intention infers purpose and an agent pursuing that purpose. If value is independent of humanity then it makes sense that it be grounded in something that retains intention and purpose. Without this, it would seem, value loses its value.

…or misfires?

But, in the end, I am unpersuaded. As indicated by the quotes from the book, the rejection of the naturalist explanation appears to be intuitively driven speculation on what is possible within the framework. Yes, the naturalist position on these topics is also speculative, but it is utilizing the world as we know it and trying to minimize additional assumptions. Accordingly, there are several points of momentum carrying the naturalist explanation, and I contend that the current is strong:

  1. There is a continuum of mental faculties in the animal kingdom. It seems that we can incrementally walk down the chain of neural complexity until the brain essentially becomes a scrutable set of chemical reactions. There is no obvious reason why we should draw a line somewhere and start assigning significance.
  2. Neuroscience has made it abundantly clear that the mental is, at the very least, co-dependent on physical aspects of the brain. If this much is indisputable then it seems extraneous to postulate something more when there is a readily identifiable explanation for our lack of complete understanding; namely the complexity and inaccessibility of the living brain. The insistence that qualia cannot be reduced to the physical seems to be begging the question. See my brief comment on the ontology of qualia for more on the relation between the physical and the mental.
  3. The naturalist program hinges on regularity. So far, in the course of history, we have identified regularities in the underlying explanation of nearly everything and the only exceptions bear the distinction of unresolved complexity – we see the regularity of the underlying parts, but have not unraveled their cumulative behavior. We have not yet, to my knowledge, identified anything which is simple yet unpredictably irregular. Is it not reasonable to suspect that this trend will continue? If there truly is a teleology shaping the world then it is an odd coincidence that it only manifests within instances of unresolved complexity.
  4. Aside from the possibility that the physical parameters of the universe were fine-tuned at its birth, the universe as a whole does not obviously have the appearance of one in which a powerful, directive force or being is actively working toward the goal of consciousness, cognition and value. Conversely, the universe is overwhelmingly void of these things and seems indifferent to their permanence. It is conceivable that there are universes in which the life that sustains consciousness, cognition and value is less fragile, or in which the environment better supports that life. If Nagel’s teleologic force is constrained in its capabilities, or if I have misapprehended the possible set of life valuing universes, then this objection would disappear.

Accordingly, I simply do not see how a non-teleological evolutionary theory fails to enable consciousness, cognition and value. Physical reproduction is inherently dependent on the acquisition and manipulation of material that is external to the replicating being. A reproductive process which never replenished or adopted outside material would quickly come to an end. This means that accurate interaction with the outside world is imperative to reproductive success. Any system which does this better than its ancestor is more likely to flourish. Accordingly, what may have started as the most simple of interactive functions would be expected to improve as change creeps in. Eventually, the combination of consciousness and cognition yields the coordination of multiple external stimuli, an increased sample size by incorporating past experience, the projection of the past to the future to guide anticipatory motor control, and a generally accurate inference of the external world beyond our immediate perception. The associative machinery in our brain builds links based on real world input and so, when those links strengthen one interpretation over another, we favor it as truth. As more experience and information is added to those links the probabilities of aligning with truth increases and we gain an advantage in navigating the world. Finally, add the development of an innate bias toward that which is most beneficial to our survival and reproduction and out pops “value”. To top it all off, if those values are rooted in a common ancestry then they will be perceptually objective to the descendents.

The most inescapable criticism of this “just-so story” lies within the circularity of the naturalistic origins of our capacity to reason. I contend, however, that this is not limited to the naturalist. Everybody, it would seem, is trapped in this vicious circle. We necessarily start from a position of pragmatic reliance on our rational capacities and form our theory of its origin thereafter. Where the naturalist says “it’s reliable because it benefits survival”, the theist says “it’s reliable because God would not deceive”. Both parties have assumed the reliability of their cognition as a prerequisite to determining why it is reliable.

There is also definitely an intuitive appeal to the doubt that rationality can in some way arise from the irrational. Furthermore, this isn’t a concern that the naturalist can expunge with new evidence and further discovery. If the naturalistic explanation is true then this objection is here to stay and will only be reinforced as we learn more. I do not see, however, why it necessarily renders the story invalid. If all the evidence falls in line then we just have to accept where it points. Diverging from the evidence is a far less attractive option.

I commend Nagel for his continued willingness to think outside the box, go against the grain and challenge our assumptions. We all need to do this on a regular basis and society will never progress without those select few who break from the status quo. Even so, those ventures are only successful if they correspond with the reality of our world. It’s possible that I am among the masses who have been caught up in a false current and I am simply unable to see that I have been blinded to the faults of the “materialist neo-darwinian conception of nature” but, if that is so, then Mind & Cosmos has done nothing to snatch me from the rapids.

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A few comments on Plantinga’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies”

I don’t plan on commenting on every book I read but I was compelled to address what appeared to me to be some glaring omissions and one audacious claim in the argumentation found in Alvin Plantinga’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, & Naturalism”. There were three particular assertions that caught my attention: (1) that evolutionary theory says nothing about whether it is unguided, (2) a logical proof that determinism is false, and (3) that unguided evolution cannot yield reliable beliefs (aka “the evolutionary argument against naturalism”, or EAAN).

There is no reason to believe that evolution is unguided?

WhereTheConflict

Ignoring the theological implications and biblical creation accounts, Plantinga says that “The scientific theory of evolution as such is not incompatible with Christian belief; what is incompatible with it is the idea that evolution, natural selection, is unguided.” I agree that it is not necessary to assert that evolution is unguided. There is no way that we can show that some supernatural agent is not overseeing the genetic changes which drive evolution. Fair enough. However, Plantinga goes on to say that “But that [the idea that evolution is unguided] isn’t part of evolutionary theory as such; it’s instead a metaphysical or theological addition.” What struck me is that Plantinga seemingly makes this claim without engaging with the foundational reasons why evolution is generally defined to be unguided. Instead, he chooses to review the arguments which show how complexity could arise by an unguided process. Yes, those arguments don’t prove that the process is unguided but that is beside the point. The task at hand is to find the best explanation for our observations. Is the best explanation that evolution is guided, or is the best explanation that evolution is unguided? When I survey the data, I see compelling reasons for inferring an unguided process. For example:

  1. The vast majority of species that have ever existed are now extinct. Natural selection occurs by killing off creatures with the less favorable property. Competition and death are fundamental components of the evolutionary process.
  2. It is far more likely that a mutation is neutral or deleterious than beneficial.
  3. What were once beneficial adaptations can become deleterious in the face of a changing environment.
  4. Artificial selection (for example, in dogs) has produced in hundreds of generations a degree of variation that is only comparatively realized in nature over thousands of generations.

Among others, these are all characteristics of evolution which, to me, infer an unguided process. The first observation demonstrates how wasteful, vicious and “immoral” the process is. If you want to argue that we have no reason to believe that God wouldn’t create through such mechanisms then that’s fine, but at least admit that it is not how we expect an all-loving, all-powerful, super-intelligent being to act and is among the least attractive of the possible methods (e.g., special creation). The second observation highlights how the process seems to be driven by a small fraction of changes in a probabilistic paradigm, which is almost by definition the opposite of a guided process. The third observation demonstrates that the result of selection does not always lead to a long-term benefit. Again, this seems to contradict an intelligence behind the outcomes. Lastly, the final observation reveals how inefficiently slow the changes are accumulated in nature, whereas a known intelligent agent (humans) has succeeded in utilizing the exact same underlying mechanisms to realize dramatic changes in a short period of time.

On the flip side, one could argue that the amazing outcomes of evolution – the eye, flight, the brain – are all pointers toward a guiding intelligence. I understand this view; it is truly amazing what has been wrought. I feel the draw of the design explanation when I consider the remarkable intricacies of life, but I also recognize that this pull arises because the design hypothesis is easier to relate to our experience (i.e., our intuitions are biased toward that model). This is not the place to rely on intuitions, however, so we must turn to the evidence. In a twist of irony, Plantinga has already included arguments which explain how these wonders may result from an unguided process. So the counter to the argument for guided evolution has been presented and acknowledged. As I see it, this means that the reasons for thinking that evolution is unguided weren’t addressed at all and the reasons for thinking that evolution is guided were found to also fit the unguided paradigm. I cannot agree that this conflict is merely superficial.

Determinism is logically impossible?

Though it is a minor side-note in the book, it immediately caught my attention. What an audacious claim – a logical proof that determinism is false! This warranted a closer look. The argument is as follows:

  1. A natural law is of the form “If the universe (U) is causally closed, then P.”
  2. Also take the conjunction of all natural laws to be “If U is causally closed, then P.”
  3. If determinism is true then the conjunction of all natural laws (If U is causally closed, then P) and a specific past state of the universe (PAST) necessarily entails the future (F).
  4. Using N to mean Necessarily, the above statement is equivalent to: N [if (if U is causally closed then P) and PAST, then F].
  5. Becomes:  N [if (either U is not causally closed or P) and PAST, then F]
  6. Becomes:  N [if [(PAST and P) or (PAST and U is not causally closed)], then F].
  7. This takes the form N if (p or q) then r, which means that both p and q entail r, hence
  8. N [if (Past and P) then F] and N [if (PAST and U is not causally closed) then F].
  9. The right hand side of #8 is obviously false because there is clearly a possible world that (i) shares its past with the actual world, (ii) is not causally closed (because perhaps God acted) and (iii) does not share its future with the actual world. Therefore, determinism is false.

I will admit that it took me several reads to follow this argument. In the end, however, I think I see the slight of hand (whether or not this was intentional, I do not know). It was my attempt to translate this into software code that clearly revealed the problem for me. Here’s the code:

function CreateFuture(Universe, Past) {
  if(Universe.CausallyClosed) {
    P = Universe.NaturalLaws;
  }
  return DoPhysics(P, Past);
}

My fellow software engineers will immediately recognize the bug in this function: if the universe is not causally closed then P is undefined and an attempt to use it to generate the future yields unpredictable results. This is the key to the problem with the proof. In step 5, Plantinga expands the proof to cover both branches of the conditional and infers that both branches are still bound within the definition of determinism. This then, of course, leads to the obvious result where the future created with defined natural laws may be different than the future created with undefined natural laws. Plantinga groups these outcomes together under the definition of determinism and declares that the internal inconsistency shows that determinism is false. This is completely invalid, however, because determinism is only defined to be the branch where the universe is causally closed. All other branches (or possible worlds) are something other than determinism. I am honestly a bit baffled that Plantinga chose to include this in the book.

Despite my rejection of this proof, I should note that I am not a strict determinist. I would consider myself something of a quasi-determinist. Quantum indeterminacy has shown us that we can’t (yet) predict all possible states, but the quantum effects adhere to a predictable distribution such that the macro-world, and even the molecular world, behaves according to the physical laws to the extent that we have accurately described them. In the absence of supernatural intervention the natural world is, for all practical purposes, deterministic.

Naturalism cannot yield reliable beliefs?

The central thesis of the evolutionary argument against naturalism (EAAN) is that, without a guiding force, there is no reason to believe that the evolutionary process would result in a belief forming system that yields true beliefs. As I read through the EAAN, I was eagerly anticipating Plantinga’s response to the following objection: evolutionary theory claims that well before any creature was conscious there were sensory systems that triggered responses which selected the population. Selection is dependent on beneficial interactions with the external world. If those interactions do not consistently and properly map to the outside world then they are less likely to be beneficial. Consciousness and belief formation are extensions of this rudimentary system. As such, the evolutionary processes which led to sensory response systems, and therefore also to consciousness and belief formation, are likely to produce reliable reflections of the outside world.

Finally, in chapter 10, part 5, section C he gets there. He introduces the objection with “Isn’t it just obvious that true beliefs will facilitate adaptive action?” and eventually follows-up with “Yes, certainly. This is indeed true. But it is also irrelevant.” Then comes the explanation: “We ordinarily think true belief leads to successful action because we also think that the beliefs cause actions, and do so by virtue of their content… But now suppose materialism were true: then, as we’ve seen, my belief will be a neural structure that has both NP [neuro-physiological] properties and also a propositional content. It is by virtue of the NP properties, however, not the content, that the belief causes what it does cause.” After providing several examples of how the content of beliefs result in action, he finishes with “Going back to materialism…If the belief had had the same NP properties but different content, it would have had the same effect on behavior.”

Plantinga immediately recognizes that materialism would deny that it is possible for two beliefs to have the same NP properties but different content. Then things get messy. He digresses into a brief discussion of how this isn’t the place to address how counterfactuals and counterpossibles should be used in argumentation. Then he closes the response with “..it doesn’t matter to the adaptiveness of the behavior (or of the neurology that causes that behavior) whether the content determined by that neurology is true.” Wait a second – isn’t that where we were before this whole objection was raised?

Is it just me, or did he completely misrepresent the naturalistic ontology of belief and then dismiss the objection to that misrepresentation without offering an explanation? It seems as if he has superimposed dualism onto naturalism and then argued against this bastard child. What really confuses me is that in the pages leading up to this he clearly defined the materialistic view as one in which belief content can be reduced to NP properties. Somehow, when it came time to address the big objection, this reduction no longer applied and content was now something completely separate from the physical. How did this happen? I re-read those pages several times and I just don’t get it. Am I in over my head? Did I miss something? I can’t help but feel like I did; but, then again, I’m far from being the only one who has seen problems with this argument. This turn of events left me bewildered and I can’t give any regard to the EAAN until this is resolved.

Closing Thoughts

This was my first encounter with any of Plantinga’s books, though I was familiar with his work and was well aware of his reputation as one of Christianity’s greatest thinkers. The writing generally lived up to the standard; the text was lucid and, in most cases, the arguments were easy to follow. It was a worthwhile read. In the end, however, I was severely disappointed that his key claims – the “apparent conflict” between theism and evolution and the “deep conflict” between naturalism and science – ultimately omit or dismiss the most relevant objections to those claims. Perhaps even more alarming was that he chose to publish a clearly flawed proof that determinism is false. Collectively these observations have done nothing but tarnish his reputation in my eyes. I had hoped for something more.

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