Sunday, 2 April 2017

Who am I?

Worth watching for those who know nothing about philosophy.

What is it that makes me me throughout my life? We might say the self, but what is the self? My body changes throughout my life. My interests, intelligence, pre-occupations and so on change throughout my life.  So shouldn't my self too literally change throughout my life?

In order for the self not to literally change and avoid the conclusion I am literally a different person at time A than at time B, then the self has to be something distinct from all these things. I suggest the self is the author, or the experiencer, of one's thoughts, interests, and more generally of one's experiences. That is to say that in addition to experiences, there is an experiencer that has them.  Experiences don't just exist without an experiencer, or self, to experience them. It is this author/experiencer/self that we can hypothesize remains unchanged.

Note that materialists can not believe in such an
author/experiencer/self.  This is because the materialist would have to identify any such self with some physical thing or processes.  But physical things and processes are in a constant state of change, and certainly our bodies are.  Hence, there is nothing unchanging which they can call a self.

They can of course believe in a sense of self.  But the sense of a self differs from the actual self in a similar way to which a sense of a table differs from the actual table.

See the following blog entries by me:

Is a "life after death" conceivable?   Part 3: What is the Self

Does the self as opposed to a mere "sense of self" exist?
The self and its experiences

Monday, 27 March 2017

What philosophical questions does science answer?

Just reading the following recently published article:

Mind, Matter And Materialism

Near the beginning the author says:

"Questions that once lay firmly in philosophy's domain have now fully entered the realm of science".

This is something I hear from people frequently.   Unfortunately they never seem to specify what philosophical questions science has answered or shed light upon.  I'm not necessarily saying that science doesn't, it depends what they have in mind.

But at first blush it seems to me the domains of science and philosophy are distinct. First of all we need to understand that science doesn't provide explanations as such, but mere descriptions. Consider playing a computer game. You need to know how the computer game environment will react when your character performs certain actions. You could be really excellent at the game and have a comprehensive knowledge of exactly how the game environment changes with specific actions. However, that furnishes you with no understanding of how the game is possible and why the game has the rules it does, or even why the game exists at all. The player might know nothing about the underling computer architecture or software in other words.

How the game environment reacts seems to me to be analogically akin to what science is attempting with its description of our physical reality. How the game is possible, why the game exists, why the game has the rules it has,
seems to me to be analogically akin to asking how and why the world exists and why it has the attributes it does. Questions that belong exclusively to the domain of philosophy.

How can knowing how the game environment changes, or physical reality changes, with particular actions, help with any philosophical questions?

Monday, 13 February 2017

Is suffering incompatible with a higher purpose?

If it's considered that suffering is incompatible with some higher purpose to our existence, then what would the world have to be like so that it is compatible with some higher purpose? Perhaps if no one ever experienced any pain; not just physical but mental pain too? And no one ever experienced misery, least of all depression? Indeed, that our lives are in a constant state of maximum happiness?

And what would such happiness consist in? Pleasures? Or the feeling like you had as a child when you woke up on a Christmas day morning? Or if you were in a permanent state of a certain type of intellectual satisfaction?

Obviously that's silly. But perhaps people mean there's too much suffering -- not that we shouldn't have any suffering at all. But how do we work out how much suffering would be compatible with some higher purpose?

I think arguably suffering, pain, anguish, despair, loss of a loved one etc, could conceivably be held to be compatible with some higher purpose. For much of history, mankind lived a life full of dangers with the constant threat of death, and suffering, and loss. Close brushes with death from predators with the consequent comradeship and camaraderie when others save your life, and you theirs. The collective outpouring of emotions, the bitter and sweet taste of life in the raw.

In the modern west we are cosseted from all the harsh elements of life. I'll probably die an old man rather than get eaten by a predator. But perhaps, safe and rich as we are, the modern western way of life loses something. It loses the sheer rapture of being alive. If we never experience any dangers, then the sheer thrill of having overcome dangers is also lacking.

So it's not clear to me that suffering is necessarily incompatible with some higher purpose. The problem here is we don't know what the purpose of life is! Hence I think it's impossible to answer such a question.

Maybe it is, but until we know what the purpose of life is, why we are here, how can we say what the nature of our lives should be like?

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Feel the rapture of being alive!

Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth said:

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

Our modern world is not ideal for experiencing the rapture of being alive -- indeed the precise opposite. I reckon that's why so many people get depressed. Instead, life has to be an adventure. Like it might well have been in the stone age. A journey with ongoing meaningful experiences. Close brushes with death with the consequent comradeship and camaraderie when others save your life, and you theirs. The collective outpouring of emotions, the bitter and sweet taste of life in the raw.  All this with the implicit feeling that death is just another journey and all will come right in the end.

Of course what
Joseph Campbell articulating here is how we get satisfaction and fulfilment in life. Which is a different question to what the meaning of life is, as in the sense of what is the purpose or ultimate goal of existence is.  See a blog entry by me here.  Having said that, I do agree that perhaps most people, when lamenting about what the meaning of life might be, are motivated by a dissatisfaction with their own lives that they undoubtedly would not express if they felt the rapture of being alive.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

A creator or a multiverse?

Let's imagine there only existed one planet in the entire Universe, and it is Earth. Now I would suggest that it would be utterly extraordinary if it just happened to be ideally suited for life. It would be far far more likely that it would be a planet wholly devoid of any life.

But, of course, there are at least trillions of planets in the Universe. The overwhelming majority are likely to be hostile to life. So why do we happen to live on one suitable for life? Well, obviously because we couldn't have evolved on any of the planets hostile to life!

Now, the Earth is ideally suited for life. Hence, even if we knew of the existence of no other planets, it would be overwhelmingly likely that zillions of other planets must exist.

This is the precise same argument whereby we infer there must exist zillions of other Universes, all with different physical properties. In the overwhelming majority of such Universes life simply could not arise. The reason why we live in an incredibly unusual Universe that happens to permit life is precisely the same reason why we happen to live on a planet which is ideally suited to life.

The other alternative is to suppose there is only one Universe. The reason why the physical constants and properties permit life must be because some outside influence -- a creator of some description -- constrains the Universe to be that way.

Obviously scientists prefer the multiverse hypothesis.

Monday, 19 September 2016

An extremely short refutation of materialism

Think of Lego. You can stick the bricks together and make lots of interesting things. But if sticking together a load of lego bricks -- even if the bricks could move in relation to each other -- somehow produced pain or greenness or hope or despair or intentionality, then that would be kind of magical.

Exactly the same applies to the ultimate constituents of matter.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Keith Augustine in "The Myth of an Afterlife"

1. Does the thesis that the brain produces the mind cohere well with our overall background knowledge?

In the book The Myth of an Afterlife two of the authors Keith Augustine and Yonatan I. Fishman pen the following:

Of course, compared with a hypothesis that coheres well with our overall background knowledge, an “extraordinary” hypothesis at odds with our knowledge about how the world operates would generally be assigned a low prior probability. Accordingly, insofar as the independence thesis entails that a separable soul can perceive, think, feel, and deliberate apart from any biological basis at all (sometimes suggesting a stark break in our evolutionary connection to all other forms of life on earth), and apparently requires either that a nonphysical soul violates well-established physical laws by interacting with the brain, or else that the soul is itself a physical thing completely unknown to science, it is a highly extraordinary hypothesis that should be assigned a low prior probability. For the independence thesis to be more plausible than its antithesis on Bayesian grounds, we would need a considerable amount of compelling evidence in its favor—and at the expense of the dependence thesis—to outweigh its initially low prior probability. (page 260).

The independence thesis here refers to the notion that we survive our deaths in some form.  Contrariwise, the dependence thesis refers to the notion that the mind and consciousness depend on the brain, hence they cannot exist without the brain.
Here and elsewhere in the book (this is a huge book of 700+ pages with a total of 29 contributors all sporting impressive academic credentials), it is repeatedly hammered home ad nauseam -- and especially by Keith Augustine -- that the dependence thesis is consistent with the rest of our scientific knowledge of the world.   And, conversely, the independence thesis is emphatically not.

Now, in order to claim this, consciousness must at least be potentially scientifically explicable.  It is not sufficient to hold that consciousness simply appears as a brute fact once there is a certain level of physical complexity.  We require a scientific explanation for how the brain produces consciousness, or we at least need to be confident that one will be eventually forthcoming. 
But I have previously argued that it is not possible to provide such a scientific explanation for consciousness, at least not based on our current conception of science.  I go into some detail as to why this is so in both my Science, the Afterlife, and theIntelligentsia (especially parts 4 and 5), and my Neither Modern Materialism nor Scienceas currently conceived can explain Consciousness (especially part 5). But, in a nutshell, I argue that because science limits itself to the quantifiable or that which can be measured, then it necessarily follows that it cannot in principle explain consciousness since the latter is essentially characterised by qualia (construed in its broadest sense) and intentionality (in its philosophical sense).

It is important to realise it is not only me that thinks there’s a problem here.  The precise nature of the relationship of consciousness, or mind, to one's body, and more specifically how the brain can give rise to the mind, has been labelled the mind-body problemThere have been a variety of proposed solutions to this problem, but for each and every proposed solution there are dissenting voices questioning its intelligibility.  And, to correct a possible misconception, although the overwhelming majority of scientists and philosophers adopt what they label as a materialist position, it’s not as if they’re all in agreement with each other – indeed far from it!  There are many varieties of materialism and there is much disagreement as to which of the available varieties, if any, might be the correct one. Indeed, there are a small but increasing number of vocal philosophers and scientists who hold that no proposed materialist position can be argued to be adequate.  If this is so, then how the mind relates to the brain is up in the air.  Indeed, in recognition of the apparent irreconcilable nature of this relationship, and the problem of why the mind or consciousness exists at all, the philosopher David Chalmers has coined the phrase the hard problem.

Astonishingly The Myth of an Afterlife has very little to say about the mind/body problem.  Where it is mentioned it is to attack dualism ( i.e the notion that the brain and mind are distinct, even if the former somehow gives rise to the latter).  One will search this massive volume in vain for any mention of the well known difficulties for both materialism and for providing a scientific explanation of how the brain produces consciousness.  Difficulties, as I make clear in my two essays, I regard as insurmountable; at least with our present conception of what comprises the material or physical.
It is of little avail to stress the fact that mental capacities inevitably vary according to the intricacy and condition of one’s brain, if the intended conclusion -- that the latter produce the former -- cannot, in principle, be rendered scientifically explicable. Of course, undoubtedly the authors would not agree with arguments suggesting that the difficulties for providing a scientific explanation are insurmountable, or indeed that there are any difficulties in principle at all here.  But such arguments should at least be addressed!   They had over 700 pages to do so.  Instead, much of this volume, and by differing authors, keeps repeating the same tired points over and over again -- namely the fact that mental states are altered by physical states of the brain.  All well and good, but if the process whereby brain activity produces consciousness is wholly mysterious, if not effectively magical, then clearly one ought to be more open to alternative hypotheses.


2. Is it possible we could perceive, think, feel, and deliberate without a brain?

But are there any alternative hypotheses? Even if materialism should be false, doesn't the fact that mental capacities vary according to the intricacy and condition of one’s brain show that consciousness, or the mind, could not exist without the brain?  Specifically, what about Augustine's and Fishman's claim that a disembodied soul or self would not be able to 'perceive, think, feel, and deliberate'?  Their reasoning here is that the brain is always implicated when these abilities are present, moreover our mental capacities are often compromised with dysfunctional brains, hence the brain must play some essential pivotal role.  This being so then it follows a disembodied soul or consciousness could not possibly perceive, think, feel, and deliberate.

In responding to this, we should first of all remind ourselves that we have no idea, even in principle, how the brain all by itself could explain consciousness, and hence we have no idea of how the brain could 'perceive, think, feel, and deliberate' either.  To that extent the possibility of there existing some sort of substantial self interacting with its brain, might provide that essential ingredient in some expanded physics.  (See part 6 -- "The Mind-Brain Correlations" of my Neither Modern Materialism nor Science as currently conceived can explain Consciousness.)  But perhaps even here such a self would require a brain? Does the fact that the brain is always implicated in our conscious experiences -- at least while we’re embodied -- entail that it plays a crucial role in the production of such experiences?  Or does it at least make it extraordinary likely that it plays a crucial role in the production of such experiences?

Here we need to ask ourselves what the alternative is.  Certainly, given the reality of the mind-brain correlations, then we should surely at a minimum acknowledge that the brain at least influences the abilities to
perceive, think, feel, and deliberate, even if it does not produce them. A possibility that presents itself here is that such abilities might be innate to the self or soul, but that the brain serves to either facilitate or inhibit them.   The brain, that is, might function in a roughly analogical manner to a type of reducing valve. So here our perceptions, thoughts, feelings and so on, could still be attributes of the soul, but while the soul operates through the brain, a dysfunctional brain could impair their manifestation where as a normal functioning brain allows their manifestation.  To use an analogy employed by J. M. E. McTaggart:

If a man is shut up in a house, the transparency of the windows is an essential condition of his seeing the sky. But it would not be prudent to infer that, if he walked out of the house, he could not see the sky because there was no longer any glass through which he might see it. (Some Dogmas of Religion p105).

This view of the relationship of the self to its brain is sometimes referred to as the filter hypothesis.  The authors do recognise this hypothesis but do not find it compelling.  They say:

If the mind is “not generated by the brain but instead focused, limited, and constrained by it” (Kelly et al., 2007, p. xxx), the filter theory entails that a brainless mind will be expanded, less limited, and unrestricted by brain function. [This implies] that the greater the disruption in brain function, the “freer” the mind will be from its neural confines, and hence the clearer one’s cognitive function will be. For example,we would expect the progressive destruction of more and more of the brain’s “filter” by Alzheimer’s disease to progressively “free” more and more of consciousness, and thus increase Alzheimer’s patients’ mental proficiency as the disease progresses. (p230)

But it's not clear to me why a dysfunctional brain would necessarily make the mind "freer".  In McTaggart's analogy, one could make the windows larger, or more transparent, but they could be also made smaller, or the view less clear by putting net curtains up.  Or consider a radio.  The internal components do not produce the voices and music from the radio, and in this sense might be comparable to the filter model of the soul/brain relationship.  Would damaging the internal components of the radio improve the quality of the sound?  Presumably not, so why would a damaged or dysfunctional brain necessarily result in an expanded mind?

It's also worth mentioning that in rare instances one's mind does appear to improve alongside a dysfunctional brain; or at least the mind improves in some respects.  The authors mention Alzheimer's disease.  Pertinent here is a phenomenon called
terminal lucidity that has been described by German biologist Michael Nahm as:

The (re-)emergence of normal or unusually enhanced mental abilities in dull, unconscious, or mentally ill patients shortly before death, including considerable elevation of mood and spiritual affectation, or the ability to speak in a previously unusual spiritualized and elated manner. (From here p89) 

There's also hyperthymesia, the ability to remember practically everything that's ever happened to you. Hence a person afflicted by this condition has the ability to precisely recall what they were doing on a specific day that happened many years ago. And then there's acquired savant syndrome. In the link the author Darold A. Treffer describes this condition as 'instances [where] dormant savant skills emerge, sometimes at a prodigious level, after a brain injury or disease in previously non-disabled (neurotypical) persons where few such skills were evident before such CNS injury or disease'.

We currently lack an understanding of how such a self interacts with its brain, but, in stark contrast to any materialist position, I see no reason why the filter hypothesis might not be true. It does, after all, seem to be consistent with the fact that our mental capacities are normally impaired with brain damage, but on rare occasions are enhanced.   On the other hand, reconciling any type of materialist position with these rare instances where mental capacity is enhanced, could be a challenge. Note that this is a challenge over and above the philosophical reasons for rejecting any type of materialist position I have articulated in my two essays.

It is to be conceded that this filter hypothesis does generate a whole host of questions.  For one, why on earth does the self or soul operate through a brain in the first place?  I do not profess to be able to give any answers as to why there should exist a physical reality at all, but given that one does, then it seems the self or soul operates through a brain to enable us to interact with this physical reality.  In addition, I would speculate that it might be the case that part of the brain’s purpose is to filter out the perception of other realities, and conscious states, which might prove distracting in our ability to function proficiently within this physical reality. Hence, when our brains are in their normal functioning state, they might serve to normally prohibit such experiences like mystical experiences, near-death experiences, savant syndrome, hyperthymesia, experiences induced by psychedelic drugs, and so on and so forth.   If this is correct, then such experiences are not a product of a disorganised, dysfunctional brain.  Rather they are realities which exist out there that we are allowed a partial glimpse of due to our impaired ability of the brain to act as an effective “filter”.

3. Does the soul or self violate physical laws?

Finally, the charge that a soul or self would 'violate well-established physical laws by interacting with the brain', is to make precisely the same mistake as Sean Carroll does in this article.  I explain why he is wrong here.   It is also to put the horse before the cart.  Physical laws are supposed to describe reality, not dictate to reality what can or cannot exist.  If we have a phenomenon that has been universally reported, we cannot assert it doesn't exist because it doesn't fit in with some pre-defined laws.  Rather, a more encompassing theory needs to be advanced.  A new theory, which while still explaining existing phenomena, is able to also accommodate this "anomalous" phenomenon.   In this context, I submit that we can be completely certain of the existence of at least one "anomalous" phenomenon, and that is our own consciousness.  Moreover, I maintain that consciousness is necessarily causally efficacious as I argue here, and cannot be reduced to any physical processes as I argue in part 4 of my Science, the Afterlife, and the Intelligentsia.   So a new more encompassing theory needs to be proposed.  No flavour of reductive materialism accommodates these facts, although possibly some other mind-body position, but one that still holds the brains elicits/causes the mind, might.  But what is certain is that current physical laws wholly leave out even our normal everyday embodied consciousness in their description of reality.  It follows they cannot, therefore, be invoked to rule out consciousness surviving the demise of our bodies.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Sean Carroll and the philosophy of mind and science

I recently read the following article by Sean Carroll who is a theoretical physicist.  In it he says:
If these mental properties affected the behavior of particles in the same way that physical properties like mass and electric charge do, then they would simply be another kind of physical property. You are free to postulate new properties that affect the behavior of electrons and photons, but you’re not simply adding new ideas to the Core Theory (the enormously successful model of the particles and forces that make up you, me, the sun, the moon, the stars, and everything you have ever seen, touched, or tasted in all your life). Instead, you are saying that it is wrong. If mental properties affect the evolution of quantum fields, there will be ways to measure that effect experimentally, at least in principle, not to mention all of the theoretical difficulties with regard to conservation of energy and so on that such a modification would entail. It’s reasonable to assign very low credence to such a complete overhaul of the very successful structure of known physics.
There are 2 points to be made here.

First of all, science as currently conceived cannot in principle explain consciousness (see my essay Neither Modern Materialism nor Science as currently conceived can explain Consciousness ). The "Core Theory", as he labels it, therefore we know is false. Or, as I would prefer to say, at least it cannot be a complete description of reality. Hence, to say that any modification has little credence simply fails to understand this point. Necessarily the "core theory", is incorrect, or at least it is not wholly correct.

Secondly, there's this persistent misunderstanding, and one that Carroll seems to share, that scientific theories describe reality in their totality. But that's not what we learn from the history of science. The history of science teaches us that our theories give approximations only, even if those approximations might be very close approximations. Generally, our old scientific theories are often perfectly adequate to describe a given domain, but break down when attempting to describe that which resides outside that domain. Thus, the science prior to relativity and quantum mechanics is "wrong", however, that does nothing to prevent the Newtonian mechanical description of reality being able to be used to get us to the moon and back.  In addition, the classical mechanics espoused before the advent of Quantum Mechanics is perfectly adequate to describe the macroscopic realm, even though it might be "wrong".  Quantum Mechanics is only needed when we describe the microscopic realm.

Now, consciousness has only existed for a vanishingly small part of the history of the Universe and is confined to planets which presumably will be very few and far between. I suggest the "core theory" describes non-conscious reality -- that is to say the overwhelming majority of the physical realm -- to a very close approximation, just as classical mechanics describes the macroscopic realm to a very close approximation. But that it breaks downs when it comes to consciousness, just as classical mechanics breaks down with the physics of the very small.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Neither Modern Materialism nor Science as currently conceived can explain Consciousness


I want to make it clear at the outset that when I refer to consciousness, I’m primarily thinking about qualia in its broadest sense, in addition to the philosophical term intentionality.  With this definition in mind, I’m personally convinced that neither science as currently conceived, nor modern materialism, can in principle explain consciousness. Although a few professional philosophers are of the same opinion as me about this, what is astounding is that the vast majority of professional philosophers and scientists, not only do not agree with this but, on the contrary, regard some type of materialism as being beyond any reasonable doubt. I intend in this essay to present their arguments as best as I am able to understand them.  I will then show that these arguments simply do not measure up.

I should also add that I specifically have in mind modern materialism and science as currently conceived; namely the materialism and concept of science that have prevailed in the west since the birth of modern science in the 17th Century.  However, to constantly append "modern" and "as currently conceived" would be unwieldy, so, for the sake of fluency, I shall simply use the words materialism and science in this essay. 


1.  First Argument for Materialism

William E Carroll tries to sum up the materialists position in the following quote:

[E]ither we explain the living in terms of material, mechanically operating constituents, or we explain it in terms of some mysterious spiritual substance, some vital force. There is no substitute to materialism but magic; for there is no philosophical position other than materialism that is compatible with modern science. This is true, so the argument goes, because this mysterious substance, this vital force, yields itself even in theory to no method of investigation; it must be cast aside, with the result that one is left with the inevitable conclusion that there is nothing more to living beings than their material parts. Either we have a dualist conception of nature—body separate from soul—or we have a materialist conception. Since science offers no evidence for the former, the latter must be true. (From here).

2.   This first argument is question begging.

In my experience, the above quote more or less expresses the sentiments of the vast majority of professional scientists and philosophers. Indeed, it also expresses pretty much universally the sentiments of the many materialists who frequent skeptic discussion boards, facebook groups, and the like.

But there is an unexamined assumption being made here.  Namely, that science is potentially able to describe reality in its entirety.  So, although we do not have at present a full knowledge of all physical laws, we can nevertheless be confident that, once obtained, there is nothing that such physical laws could fail to explain.

Now, science deals exclusively with that which can be measured, that is to say, it deals exclusively with the quantifiable aspects of reality. Materialism, at least in its modern form since the birth of the mechanistic philosophy in the 17th Century, holds that the material world is nothing but these measurable aspects of reality.   Thus, this assumption that science completely describes reality equates to assuming modern philosophical materialism.  But this then makes science coextensive with materialism.   Hence, the position that “there is no philosophical position other than materialism that is compatible with modern science” is true, not because it is some truth that has been discovered about the world, but rather it is rendered true purely by stipulation.  And since any type of dualist position stands in opposition to materialism, then any type of dualism is also rendered false, by stipulation. A more transparent case of question begging you would be very hard-pressed to encounter!

3.     Further arguments for Materialism
The above argument for materialism though can be strengthened in the following ways.  First of all it has been pointed out that, since the birth of modern science in the 17th Century, science has been stunningly successful in furnishing us in with knowledge about the world, and has been an extraordinarily fruitful one in terms of the subsequent prediction and manipulation of our environment and in the creation of our technology. This strongly suggests that modern science pretty much accurately describes reality.  It is silly, so materialists urge, to suppose there might be supernatural and spooky entities and influences -- such as souls, magic, spirits, demons and indeed even a non-physical consciousness -- which somehow escapes the steely gaze of science, and to achieve this by having no measurable influence on reality whatsoever! Why should we believe in the existence of the non-physical, which, by definition, our measuring instruments cannot detect?

Secondly, before science can even be able to get off the ground, certain essential suppositions have to be granted. One of these is that the very same physical laws apply throughout space and time. Surely another justifiable essential supposition is that science describes all of reality?  Indeed, given the astonishing success of science, then why on earth should we imagine it could not?

Thirdly, it is often pointed out that consciousness only constitutes an extremely small part of the world.  Science has explained almost everything else. Are we to suppose that this remaining, relatively minor phenomena, which has only existed for a vanishingly small part of the history of the Universe and is confined to planets which presumably will be very few and far between, is somehow immune to the relentlessness triumphant march of science?

4. Consciousness constitutes a unique problem

There is a glaring problem with these arguments for materialism.  Here a quote by the physicist Stephen M. Barr is in order:

According to physics, every physical system is completely characterized—indeed, defined—by a set of “variables,” which mathematically describe what its elementary constituents are doing and whose evolution though time is governed by a set of mathematical rules and equations..

[I]f one did know what all the variables were doing and the laws governing them, one could in principle derive everything there was to know about the system’s properties and behavior—if the system is just physical..

It is clear, however, that [such a reductive analysis] cannot be extended to consciousness. Even if one knew all the variables of a physical system, their values at one time or at all times, and the equations governing them, there would be no way to derive from that information anything about whether the system in question was conscious, was feeling anything, or was having subjective experiences of any sort (From here).

I've also said something very similar to Barr. Talking about reductionism I say in science, the afterlife, and the intelligentsia:

[B]y looking at the components of [a clockwork] clock - namely the cogs, the springs, and the wheels - and how they all interrelate together, we can actually understand how the hour and the minute hands move. Each cause and each effect in the causal chain(s) leading to the movement of the hands are wholly quantitative, something which can be measured.

The same pertains whenever we reach an understanding of some phenomenon. Consider tornadoes for example. They seem to be entities in their own right; they seem to act as organised wholes. But this cannot be an analogy for consciousness since it remains the case that tornadoes are nothing more than the movement and interactions of all the air and water molecules which constitute them. The number of parts constituting a tornado, and hence its complexity, doesn't allow it the possibility of producing anything beyond what a colossal number of particles are capable of producing, particularly not conscious experiences. So, similar to the clock, the tornado is the result of wholly quantitative processes and can be reductively explained.

But when we come to the brain and consciousness we have something very different. If the brain does indeed produce consciousness, then we have chains of quantitative causes and effects which at the end of these chains produce purely qualitative phenomena; namely conscious experiences. But then this contradicts the mechanistic philosophy since it stipulates that reality is wholly quantitative. And hence, consciousness also eludes any possible physical theory since physics deals exclusively with the quantitative or that which can be measured.

To try and explicate this fact yet further what we have is a chain of physical causes and effects following physical laws, and at the end a conscious experience such as the experience of pain. Unlike our clock or tornado, where we can always understand, at least in principle, how an effect is brought about by a thorough understanding of the arrangements and properties of their parts, we cannot have a similar understanding with consciousness. All we can note is that when certain physical events occur in the brain, this might be correlated with a certain characteristic experience -- an experience moreover which can only be known by the subject. Consciousness is not objectively detectable.

 5.   The Materialist's response and why this is unsatisfactory

The above arguments in part 4 seem quite definitive. However, the materialist does have an apparent solution.  It is to identify consciousness with either physical processes or, alternatively, the causal role carried out by such processes.  Assuming the latter pertains, all that which privately occurs in our heads -- that is all our thoughts, emotions, sensations and so on -- are regarded as being literally identical to what the brain does.  Since science, at least in principle, can explain all the processes occurring in our brains, and since our consciousness is proposed to be identical to such processes, then we can explain consciousness.  Problem solved.

But of course, the problem is not solved one iota. In fact, there can be no argument made here.  It is simply absurd. Indeed, I find it shocking that people -- and especially professional philosophers and scientists -- should voice support for such a transparent falsehood.  One might, with somewhat more cogency, assert that plastic or rubber is really metal at bottom.

Let's be clear about this. Conscious experiences both exist and have a certain characteristic feel. Any experience I might have is private; it is only known through introspection, and no-one else fully knows what I am actually experiencing. The physical processes occurring in my head, on the other hand, are objective, they can be measured and consist purely of biological and electrochemical processes. Now, one might well contend that the latter somehow creates or elicits the former. But it is clear that they are not one and the very same thing. Indeed, they are wholly unlike each other!

Moreover, even if one were to disagree with me on this point and, by some unfathomable deep magic, the conflating of consciousness with the physical somehow could be made intelligible, why on earth should we take it seriously for one second?  Of course, it’s the only option we have to make consciousness into a physical thing or process.  But why suppose consciousness is physical at all?  Why suppose that consciousness must be capable of being explained by science so that we are then forced to seriously propose that consciousness
doesn't exist in its own right, but must really be identical to something else?

As we saw above in part 3, the answer to this is that science has been stunningly successful and, given this, it is reasonable to suppose science can potentially explain everything.  Hence, anything which escapes detection by the methods of science --  such as a non-physical consciousness and other so-called "spooky stuff" -- can be assumed to be either illusory, so that in reality consciousness is something else apart from what it straightforwardly seems. Or, even more radically, to be assumed not to really exist at all. 

But this is absolutely no answer whatsoever.  To borrow an analogy used by Edward Feser.  It would be like someone concluding that because metal detectors are extraordinarily successful at detecting metal -- but never ever detect any objects made of plastic, or wood, or rubber, or indeed any other substance apart from metal -- then nothing but metal exists. Hence, anything which seems to be non-metallic is simply an illusion. You think you have a plastic object in your hand?  Sorry, but my metal detector doesn't register it. Therefore, either it only seems to be made of plastic, but, in reality, it is metal, or it doesn't exist at all!  And we might imagine them further saying “we cannot allow for the existence of spooky non-metal substances like plastic and rubber, otherwise how can we expect metal detectors to work at all?   And besides our metal detectors are detecting ever smaller and smaller pieces of metal, thus vindicating our position”.  

But, in a similar way in which metal detectors are only designed to detect metal objects, and have nothing whatsoever to say about the existence, or otherwise, of objects made of other substances, so too are the methods of current science limited to the quantitative aspects of reality, and cannot have anything to say about aspects of reality not amenable to this approach.  And it would be as silly to accuse people of being non-scientific when they point out that consciousness cannot in principle be explained by science, as it would be to accuse someone for being an anti-metallicist if they pointed out that metal detectors only detect metal and that other substances apart from metal exist. 

Finally, the argument that science has explained almost everything else, and so probably will eventually be able to explain consciousness too, doesn’t pass muster either. To understand why, we have to bear in mind that the qualitative attributes of the external world -- namely colours, sounds and smells as we experience them -- are judged by the materialists not to really exist.  Instead, they are identified with certain features of the physical world as described by physics.  So colours are redefined to refer to a certain wavelength of light that objects reflect. Sounds are redefined to refer to rarefactions and compressions of the air. Smells are redefined to refer to molecules in motion. Thus, modern materialists advance a very much emaciated conception of the physical external world denuded of the flesh of the qualitative.  A world devoid of colours, sounds, smells, as experienced. Moreover, this materialist conception of reality is not what they have discovered, rather it is one they have simply assumed in order to square the existence of the qualitative aspects of reality with what science can investigate (Just as it is likewise assumed that all that which privately occurs in our heads -- that is all our thoughts, emotions, sensations and so on -- are regarded as being literally identical to what the brain does). 

If we reject this assumption and take seriously what our senses are telling us, so that we accept the physical world really does have colours, sounds and smells as we experience them, then it follows that science is limited to only being able to describe this emaciated conception of the physical external world denuded of the flesh of the qualitative.  A far cry indeed from the claim that science has explained everything else apart from the mind.

6.  The Mind-Brain Correlations

But what about the mind-brain correlations?  How are they to be explained?  Do they not justify materialism and provide a scientific explanation for consciousness?

The correlations are data.  In order to make sense of that data, they need to be placed within the context of some scientific hypothesis which renders these correlations intelligible. There seems to me to be 4 possible hypotheses here. 

i) The brain produces consciousness in much the same way as the internal components of a clock produce the movements of the clock’s hands. But we saw in section 4 that this is not a viable possibility. 

ii)  Consciousness is identical to some physical process.  But, as I explain in section 5, this is not satisfactory either.

iii) We can still hold on to the view that the brain produces consciousness, but give up on the idea that consciousness can be reductively explained.  It might be that certain physical processes -- perhaps due to their complexity –  create conscious experiences as a simple brute fact that cannot be further analysed. 

It is debatable whether this would constitute a genuine scientific hypothesis though since it denies that the most fundamental particles and/or fields that exist can actually explain consciousness.  We have to be satisfied with additional non-reducible psychophysical laws linking specific brain states with specific mental states. 

But this is deeply unsatisfactory. For what we are saying here is that physical processes, which wholly lack any qualitative features or intentionality, nevertheless, as a brute fact about the world, are accompanied by qualitative features and intentionality.  This seems nothing short of miraculous.  And given that the consciousness so produced can neither be derived nor is definable in quantitative terms, then it seems a stretch to label consciousness as material or physical, even if produced by the material. 

And there are other problems. I’m sure we all have a very strong sense that we are literally the very same individuals throughout our lives.  But our bodies, including our brains, are in a constant state of change and hence our mental states too.  Indeed, compared to ourselves now, as children we had very different personality characteristics. So if the brain produces consciousness, how can we literally be the very same self throughout our lives?  Or indeed, how can someone be literally the same person sober as when he is drunk given that his personality might change so much when drunk? It seems that we have to conclude that quite literally we are different selves throughout our lives (see my  does the self as opposed to a mere "sense of self" exist? for more detail on this idea.)

Additionally, as I argue in my can consciousness be causally inefficacious?, our consciousness necessarily has at least some causal efficacy.  So (iii) would have to have consciousness in its turn affecting brain processes.  I’m not sure if this is a problem or not, but it would be interactive dualism even though the brain produces consciousness.  As such it wouldn’t curry much favour amongst the intelligentsia.

For all these reasons (iii) seems somewhat implausible, although, unlike (i) and (ii), it remains a possibility, albeit in my opinion an unlikely one.

iv) Which brings us to our final option.  Namely, that there is something else involved.  Consider a prism.  The mixture of coloured lights obtained is not wholly produced by the prism all by itself.  Something extra is involved; in this case, the white light which enters the prism.  Or consider a TV set.  The internal components do not produce the programmes.  Similar to the prism something else is involved, namely TV signals.  I submit that reason strongly suggests that this is the situation we have with the brain and consciousness.  Similarly to these 2 examples something else, apart from the brain, must be involved.  Some extra ingredient.

I would suggest that this extra ingredient is what we call the self or the experiencer.  It is that which has conscious experiences; it is not identical to them.  I (the self or experiencer) am not identical to either my thoughts, or my moods, or my interests, or all of them as a collective whole.  To use the prism as an analogy.  The mixture of coloured lights represents my current thoughts, moods, interests and more generally my present consciousness.  But the white light stands for my self.  And of course, necessarily it will be consistent with our intuitive conviction that we are literally the same self throughout our lives since this is the very entity we are stipulating must exist. Note too that, similarly to conscious experiences, this self is also not a physical thing or process.  It is an extra ingredient apart from all the physical processes.  Hence (iv) cannot be a materialist position – at least not materialism as currently conceived.

Nevertheless, despite not being a materialist position, I see no reason why science in some larger sense -- that is to say science that is not limited by our current conceptualisation of it -- could not in principle come up with a theory that explains this self and relates it to the physical world.  We often are compelled to hypothesise additional entities in order to explain some phenomenon.  Compare the way TV signals play a pivotal role in understanding where TV programmes come from. But since the self and its conscious states are non-material, it cannot be as science is currently conceived dealing as it currently does with merely the purely quantitative.  It has to be a radically new theory that introduces consciousness and the self into the world as realities in themselves rather than being derived phenomena.   Perhaps some interpretation of Quantum Mechanics might fulfil this role.  But, if not, then some deeper physical theory will be required. Potentially such a theory will resolve all problems.  It should, of course, explain how the self interacts with its brain and dispel any interaction problems such as causal closure. It will also be able to account for a causally efficacious self. 

7.  Conclusion
Any such theoretical interpretation would also tend to suggest that the self might well survive after the body dies.  Since the self is not something which is material, and since the self is defined in terms of that which exists prior to the changes brought about by the brain (the white light and the TV signal rather than the mixture of coloured lights or the TV picture displayed), then this undermines the usual reasons to suppose the self cannot survive.  A definitive answer to this survival question will presumably become obvious when such a satisfactory theory relating consciousness to the rest of reality is accomplished.

Of course, this self is in a very intimate association with the brain.  Hence, should there be an afterlife, we should not expect to be exactly like we were just prior to death (thankfully so should we have been suffering from dementia!).  Rather it is the self that survives (the white light in the case of the prism, and the TV signal in the case of the TV set).  It is that which I have in common with myself as a child, or when drunk, and so on, that would survive.

Note that (iv) is not a desperate attempt to rescue the concept of an afterlife against the undeniable fact that our minds are hugely influenced by what is physically happening in our brains.  Rather it is a position we are obliged to adopt since the only other viable alternative (iii) has some major detractions.  So purely thinking about the mind-body problem, and taking no note whatsoever of all the evidence suggesting an afterlife, it might still seem a reasonable hypothesis that we survive.

Readers are likely to also find my following blog entries relevant and of interest:

Science, the Afterlife, and the Intelligentsia
Is a "life after death" conceivable?
Science and the Afterlife
Does the self as opposed to a mere "sense of self" exist?
Can consciousness be causally inefficacious?
Materialism/Physicalism is incompatible with our ability to reason
The self and its experiences
Why Scientists and Philosophers reject the Soul