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.


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.


“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.


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.


18 thoughts on “Mind and Cosmos

    • Glad I could assist, though I’ll note for everyone’s benefit that the book is quite short at 130 pages; and they’re relatively short pages at that.

  1. Hi Travis, my compliments on a very thorough (for a blog) and fair-minded assessment of Nagel’s arguments. I haven’t read the book either, though I still may, but I have read quite a bit about it and a few of Nagel’s web-based writings.

    Of course I agree with you that these arguments are interesting and have both convincing points and uncertainties. You will be glad to know I won’t be taking any of them up to argue with you! 🙂 But I have a few comments.

    1. It seems to me that your assessment shows that even if the arguments are rejected in the end, there is indeed a theistic case to be answered. Many atheists deny this, but I don’t think they have approached the arguments as carefully as you have.
    2. The arguments (and others too) are cumulative. From my perspective, atheism requires all of them to fail, but theism requires only one to be successful, or all to be partially successful. I think they succeed at least that much.

    3. One of the other problems with the naturalist response to these arguments is that it tends to lead to reductionism and scepticism. You think that naturalism may be able to explain rationality, consciousness and value, but there is sufficient doubt, especially among neuroscientists, that many deny all three plus freewill are real – thus of course cutting the arguments off at the knees! Some think this new understanding should form the basis of psychology and criminology, but others think the general public couldn’t accept this (I have seen debates on this). I think this could be an enormous, and enormously destructive, social experiment. But I also think it brings naturalism into conflict with our common human experience, which must throw some more doubt on it.

    4. You may be interested in Alvin Plantinga’s review of Nagel’s book and Nagel’s review of Plantinga’s book if you haven’t seen them before.

    Thanks again for a most interesting and honest review.

    • Hi Eric,
      Thanks for the compliments. As to your comments, here’s my take:

      1. While it is certainly possible to examine the implications for theism if the consciousness, cognition and value arguments were to hold true, I can understand why someone who rejects the initial premises doesn’t see any need to contemplate it further.
      2. I wouldn’t say that atheism requires all of them to fail, but the materialist certainly does. Assuming that theism requires a personal source, it’s not unreasonable for someone to think that these things are immaterial yet have an impersonal source; and Nagel is an example of an atheist philosopher who does just that.
      3. This is a loaded comment, but I’ll try to be brief. Reductionism is often characterized as denying certain realities in a way that defies common sense but this often seems to boil down to philosophical word games. This was part of the motivation behind my recent ontology posts. With respect to the implications of our perspective on free will, I actually have an unkleE inspired post waiting in the wings. I think that will probably be published next.
      4. Thanks for the links. I actually read both of those in the course of writing this, but they’re a good reference to have listed here, so I appreciate your addition.
  2. Very insightful review of Nagel’s book, Travis. It was a pleasure to read.

    I don’t have any criticism of what you put forth that adds anything new to the dialogue. But, I thought I would mention something that might be of interest (which you may have encountered a few times). Even if the consciousness cannot be shown to be an evolutionary adaption, that’s not the end of naturalism. Naturalism has more firepower. There is the ideas of an ’emergent property’ and the biological ‘spandrel’ which can help account for consciousness, our moralist tendencies, the invention of religions, etc. These are the ultimate trump cards of naturalism, the direct opposite of trump cards of theism like miracles.

    Applying the idea of emergent property or spandrel (which are not mutually exclusive) to something like consciousness is not inconsequential though. It may suggest that there is no way to directly evolve consciousness! It seems to increase the fine-tuning problem. It would say, it’s not enough to have abiogenesis and billions of years of neurological evolution, but there also needs to be one or more totally random accidents to produce something as wonderful as the consciousness. So, the naturalist has to pick their poison: either Plantinga’s argument and Sharon Street’s argument or making the fine-tuning problem much worse.

    I’m skeptical that we will make much headway on the production of consciousness. And my reasoning is that I think too much evidence has been lost to time. We are limited to make extrapolations and inferences in our scientific theories. So, unless we commit to an argument by making a subjective judgment, I think we are stuck in agnosticism or possibilianism. This is me opining. 🙂

    • Hi Brandon,
      This is a great addition to the discussion. I’ve assumed that naturalism encompasses “weak emergence” and I suppose that you are referring to the strong variety as the trump card. Wikipedia has a good summary of the distinction, which defines strong emergence as that which cannot be generated through a computational model that simulates the known properties of the sub-components (assuming the properties of the sub-components are sufficiently well known). I get the feeling that many naturalists are skeptical of strong emergence and might not be willing to let it in (as hinted by Sean Carroll).

      I first encountered emergence early in my journey and recall being both interested and confused. I wasn’t ready to spend much time thinking about it then. I later came to know of emergence via Massimo Pigliucci, who is very sympathetic with the concept. He has four great articles on it on his old Rationally Speaking site (see one, two, three, four).

      With your comment having spurred me to review the topic again, I think I’m in agreement that if consciousness is a strongly emergent phenomenon then this tips the scales toward theism in a fine-tuning sort of way. There are still so many unknowns, however, and it’s all highly speculative. It seems likely that if we ever were to reach a point of accepting the truth of strong emergence then it would probably be tied into the discoveries of quantum mechanics (i.e., entanglement and wavefunctions for composite objects) and would operate in a regular, law-like manner; which doesn’t seem to veer much off the course of the scientific description we currently hold. It would be a byproduct of recognizing the interconnectedness of matter-energy and a search for discovery of how that interconnectedness works at larger scales. It’s not inconceivable that something like this could be tied into consciousness, but the regularity doesn’t get us any closer to the libertarian free-will that is commonly associated with theism. And it also doesn’t help that there are some pretty nutty people and a lot of completely unfounded claims on that quantum-consciousness train.

      Regarding your opining:

      I’m skeptical that we will make much headway on the production of consciousness

      So do you think the attempts to model brains in computers will fail? What would it mean to you if this modeling resulted in something that had all the appearances of being conscious?

      And my reasoning is that I think too much evidence has been lost to time

      It seems to me that other animals give us a fuzzy window into the past. Any thoughts on my point #1 in the closing section of the post?

      • Travis,

        I’ve assumed that naturalism encompasses ‘weak emergence’ and I suppose that you are referring to the strong variety as the trump card.

        Thanks for those references. Sean Carroll’s blog was really helpful, and I didn’t get to reading Rationally Speaking yet (hopefully soon, it looked like good content). . . honestly, I haven’t given this much thought, but it seems like the distinction between weak and strong is not constructed from any deeper rational principle which makes it artificial. For example, Carroll’s exclusion argument, the best I can tell, is really just a defense of reductionism. It’s not arguing against strong emergentism, but arguing against all emergentism. The distinction between weak and strong emergentism seems to be a qualifier thrown in to prevent emergentism from being used by freewill proponents. I could be wrong though.

        It seems likely that if we ever were to reach a point of accepting the truth of strong emergence then it would probably be tied into the discovery of quantum mechanics


        do you think the attempts to model brains in computers will fail? What would it mean to you if this modeling resulted in something that had all appearances of being conscious?

        Well, to give you a little background, I took neuroanatomy in medical school and know introductory level neuroscience (also neurology and neuropathology). We do understand large scale neural circuitry and have rudimentary understanding of neurons. It’s what we don’t understand about the brain that holds us back from accurately modelling it. For instance, each neuron has 1000s of inputs and dozens (maybe more) of neurotransmitters that, at any given time, variably operate on the neuron to determine if and when an action potential is generated. It’s not just the complexity of the networks, it’s the complexity of the biochemical milieu. So, we have lots of structural knowledge about the nervous system, but how it actually works in vivo as opposed to in vitro reductionist systems is still a working progress. I think a good analogy is, we understand the hardware components and some large structures pretty well, but the software is still unknown.

        That said, we just have no idea how to model the human brain yet. Some singularitarians think we could artificially evolve consciousness (or intelligence)! Well. . . that will depend on 1) consciousness is an adaptation rather than a spandrel, 2) the ability to cram 4 billion years of evolution into some short timeframe, and 3) it not requiring something unique about organic matter as opposed to metal circuits. Actually, 2) may require astronomically high computational power. Think about the amount of information stored in the environments that drove evolution to humans, 4 billion years of complex and dynamic selective pressures that happened to be just right. Both 1) and 3) are known unknowns. Honestly, I’m not holding my breath for singularity-like AI. Too many unknowns at this point.

        If we could make AI, I would be thrilled! There would be huge ethical and theological questions, but I don’t see these being insurmountable at first glance. There are already “soulless” theologies out there. The eschatological questions would also be huge. In standard Christian theology everything seems to take place on earth which suggests we will never achieve interstellar travel or significant space colonies, but AI has a better chance of going interstellar because it can survive the radiation and requires no organic food. These are really uncharted territories for this naïve thinker. What do you think about these?

        It seems to me that other animals give us a fuzzy window into the past. Any thoughts on my point #1 in the closing section of the post?

        I think your point #1 is a great point to consider. I agree with you that it favors naturalistic views of human consciousness.

    • Brandon,

      The distinction between weak and strong emergentism seems to be a qualifier thrown in to prevent emergentism from being used by freewill proponents.

      I get the impression that it’s more a semantic clarification. In reading your comments I gather that you’re equating emergentism as a whole with the definition of strong emergence given in the Wikipedia article, and I don’t necessarily disagree. Weak emergence really is reductionist but the term “emergent” has been used ambiguously and so these qualifiers were added to distinguish between the two. The IEP article does a good job of explaining this. I highly recommend the Rationally Speaking articles though, including the comments. Some well informed folks weigh in, including Carroll himself. These comments give further insight into the clash between naturalism and emergence.

      I agree that the singularity visions are a little too optimistic on the timing, but there’s no doubt that there has been significant progress in a short time and we are throwing a ton of resources at it. It is not difficult to imagine a collision between neuroscience and machine learning on the horizon.

      On that note, I see a link between consciousness, the attempts to model neural activity and the theory of common descent. While a simulation of the human brain seems impractically daunting, it looks to be entirely feasible that a simulation of the neurology of far simpler animals is within reach, particularly with the growth of distributed processing (which is itself somewhat brain like). If we attain simple animal behaviour from the low-level simulation of the constituent parts then I think that this is a good indicator that consciousness is reductive and will lay the groundwork for subsequent escalation to more complex and advanced brains. For an example of an active project at the smallest scale take a look at http://www.openworm.org/.

      All this to say that a reductive account of consciousness is one less chink in the armor of naturalism. I’m sure theology would adapt, and as you’ve noted some theologians have already gone in that direction, but at some point you have to ask yourself whether you’ve shredded the original concept so far beyond recognition that it no longer makes sense to cling to the vestiges which remain.

      • Hey Travis,
        I read the Rationally Speaking articles and comments, and boy, you were right. There are some wicked smart folks out there. And, it really gives an insight into the “clash” as you said. Massimo (himself an atheist naturalist) was actually pretty critical towards Carroll in the comments, and Massimo ultimately seemed sympathetic to emergentism. That’s how I had imagined naturalists would receive the idea because it could help explain things like consciousness, freedom, language, conscience, etc. in naturalistic terms given that these have generally been explained in metaphysical terms.

        If we attain simple animal behaviour from the low-level simulation of the constituent parts then I think that this is a good indicator that consciousness is reductive and will lay the groundwork for subsequent escalation to more complex and advanced brains.

        I agree with you. At least if it were more complex animal behaviour like dogs and it did not take any shortcuts like these emotional robots we see these days.

        . . . at some point you have to ask yourself whether you’ve shredded the original concept so far beyond recognition that it no longer makes sense to cling to the vestiges which remain.


    • I agree with you. At least if it were more complex animal behaviour like dogs…

      That would be more definitive, but if we get results with C-Elegans, and then subsequent success as we scale up to more complex creatures then I think the handwriting is on the wall, so to speak.

  3. Travis,

    As usual a very well thought post with your usual open and fair minded approach that I respect so much.

    I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of different material on this topic recently, and still feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface yet. One thing that does seem to stand out is that while there may be a consensus in the relevant fields that consciousness is derived from our brains/bodies, there is also the concession that “qualia” or the experience of “me-ness” hasn’t been explained.

    Certainly there are other gaps in scientific knowledge. For example, “are there multiverses?”, or more generally “what is the explanation for the big bang?”. But those gaps aren’t too surprising because they are so far off in both time as well as space it seems, so one would expect us to have hit some barriers in getting explanations. What is most interesting about consciousness is that it is right in front of us! Of course there are reasons for barriers here too, one of which is reasonable practical concerns (e.g. would you be one to raise your hand if a scientist asked for volunteers to cut open your head and do more investigations? 😉 ) Also, as you mentioned, complexity is a big part of the problem.

    I thought your last paragraph was a great summary. I am very open minded as well to any solution to the problem, and I applaud Nagel for having the guts to come out with a new way of thinking about the whole question. New ideas always help. I lean with you though in recognizing where the whitewater current (loved the picture) seems to be leading us.

    • Thanks Howie. In my second ontology post I finished the section on qualia with an explanation under the conceptualist paradigm for the problem – namely that experience of something is a different neural pattern than the pattern which comes from knowledge about the neural correlates of that thing. So it seems that no amount of discovery can explain the subjective unless we reach a point of direct manipulation of our neurology, which seems very far off. This also means, of course, that this hypothesis will be very hard to prove because we can’t point to a pattern and say “Look, there’s the experience of red” because people will just look at the pattern and say “No, that’s not red”.

    • Hi Howie, I have been over this topic with Vic Reppert for years, my conclusion is that the existence of logic and math do not constitute cardinal difficulties against naturalism. Philosophers who believe they constitute difficulties are confusing the word with the thing, the map with the territory, and the model with reality. They are treating consciousness and reason like inert entities, things in themselves, rather than processes. See http://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2011/01/prior-prejudices-and-argument-from.html I also have plenty of posts on the fine-tuning argument.

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  5. Hi Travis,

    I have used this post as a springboard for some further discussion of these matters on my own blog. As I said before, I think this is an excellent discussion. My post isn’t as deep, and so I recommend to readers that they check your post out. It isn’t my intention to stir up argument.

    I debated with myself whether I’d post this, but decided to because I thought it was only fair. But I see that you have a pingback anyway.

    Best wishes. Eric.

    • This is great Eric. I’ll take all the different perspectives I can get. I’ll check out your post and add any contributions I might have.

    • Hi unkleE, I have been over this topic with Vic Reppert for years, my conclusion is that the existence of logic and math do not constitute cardinal difficulties against naturalism. Philosophers who believe they constitute difficulties are confusing the word with the thing, the map with the territory, and the model with reality. They are treating consciousness and reason like inert entities, things in themselves, rather than processes. See http://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2011/01/prior-prejudices-and-argument-from.html I also have plenty of posts on the fine-tuning argument.

  6. Reblogged this on Κέλσος and commented:

    Another book review that I want to share, as we close out the year 2015, is one by fellow blogger Travis R., who writes on the blog A Measure of Faith. Travis has written a good book review of philosopher Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. This was another book that Christian apologist Don Johnson brought up during our radio debate a couple years ago. I checked out a copy of Nagel’s book from my university library last year, but haven’t had time to write a review. Nonetheless, Travis R. seems to have done that work for me, and so I have decided share his excellent review.

    I am also planning to write more about teleology and abstract objects as part of my metaphysics series on the sister-blog to this site, Civitas Humana. On the other blog, I have already written a lengthy essay critiquing the medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas’ teleological argument for God. I also plan to write more about Aquinas during the next year.

    So much to write! It will take me a very long time to get through all of the projects that I have planned for Κέλσος and Civitas Humana, but fortunately I have several years of my Ph.D. program ahead to do so.

    For these next couple months, however, I am going to be focusing on work towards my Ph.D. dissertation. I also am attending the Society for Classical Studies and American Archaeological Association’s annual meeting next month, which is taking place in San Francisco from January 6-9. I’ll give updates on what I’m up to, when I find the time and energy.

    Till then,
    Matthew Ferguson

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