Friday, 30 January 2015

Science, the Afterlife, and the Intelligentsia




1.      Introduction

I read this article a couple of weeks ago by a professor of philosophy called John G Messerly.

He says:

There has been a dramatic change in the last few centuries in the proportion of believers among the highly educated in the Western world. In the European Middle Ages belief in a God was ubiquitous, while today it is rare among the intelligentsia. This change occurred primarily because of the rise of modern science and a consensus among philosophers that arguments for the existence of gods, souls, afterlife and the like were unconvincing. Still, despite the view of professional philosophers and world-class scientists, religious beliefs have a universal appeal. What explains this?


He advances the view that a combination of modern science and reason very strongly suggests that there is neither a God nor an afterlife. The intelligentsia understand this, but most of us have failed to take on board this knowledge. The author speculates that we resist these conclusions due to various genetic and environment factors.  He places a special emphasis on wishful thinking.


I want in this essay to concentrate on the notion of an afterlife and why so many of the “intelligentsia” consider it so unlikely in the light of modern science.  What knowledge and understanding do they possess that even the most intelligent people in the middle ages lacked?  Are they justified in their stance?  The short answer to that question is an emphatic no.  It will be my task in this essay to explain why the answer to that question is “no”. 

  
To accomplish this task we first need to understand the origins of modern science.  This will involve taking a brief look at the intellectual edifice -- namely the mechanistic philosophy -- which allowed the birth of modern science.  As we shall see, it is the mechanistic philosophy rather than modern science per se, which provided the groundwork for this profound shift in views.
 



2.     The Mechanistic Philosophy



Prior to the 17th Century there was a tendency to view the world as being ultimately mysterious. Lingering on from medieval times was the belief that the world was full of meaning - teeming with supernatural causes where angels and demons, spirits, occult powers and mystical principles played a prominent role. In particular God and an afterlife were a given. The scientific revolution inaugurated in the 17th Century, as well as being instrumental in creating our modern world together with its technological ubiquity, was also pivotal in eroding all these beliefs, and in particular fostered the notion of man as simply being a biological machine.


So what kicked off this scientific revolution? Essentially it was to start conceiving of reality in a particular way, namely the way encapsulated by what is referred to as the mechanistic philosophy. In the 16th and 17 centuries it was increasingly being noted that carefully conducted experiments tended to always produce the same results. This fostered the notion that reality behaved in a predictable manner. In addition, at that time, there was an idea percolating around that if an omnipotent God had created the Cosmos, and we were the reason for its creation, would God not make the Cosmos amenable to human intellect? In particular, would he not make the cosmos operate according to well-defined laws that we might discern?


Largely as a consequence of these factors the mechanistic philosophy was born. It can be expressed succinctly in 5 points:



1.    All action is by contact: no action at a distance.
2.    All objects in the Universe are composed of microscopic ultimately small parts (indivisible 'atoms').
3.    All change in nature and natural phenomena results from alterations in the configurations of matter.
4.    All change in the world is explicable in terms of unbroken chains of physical causes and effects.
5.    No teleology - that is events and processes are not governed by any purpose but simply are a result of mindless interactions with matter.



This mechanistic philosophy implied that any phenomena whatsoever can be wholly explained by the interactions of all its parts. This encapsulates the essence of what is called reductionism. The basic idea of reductionism is very simple. It is the belief that all phenomena, no matter how complex, can be understood by considering their most elementary parts. It is the motions of these parts and how they interact together which completely explain the phenomenon concerned. For example, consider a clockwork clock. By looking at the components of that clock - namely the cogs, the springs, and the wheels - and how they all interrelate together, we can actually understand how the minute and hour clock hands move.



If, as reductionism implies, all change in nature and natural phenomena results from alterations in the ultimately smallest particles of matter, then it follows that we human beings constitute no exception. This was understood as far back as the birth of the mechanical philosophy. At that time it was widely debated whether animals could be understood as being, in essence, mere biological machines. More radical thinkers took this to its logical conclusion and advocated that human beings too might simply be elaborate machines. Thus the entirely of our behaviour could in principle be understood through all the physical processes occurring in our bodies in addition to the input from the environment through our five senses. So if we are merely elaborate biological machines then this implies that no afterlife awaits us any more than an afterlife awaits a computer once it is irreparably damaged, or indeed awaits a clock.



The mechanistic philosophy fosters the view that although a complete explanation for what human beings are, why we are conscious, and so on, has yet to be determined, this merely reflects the complexity of the brain.  It is possibly the most complex thing in the Universe.  However we can be in no doubt that such an explanation will be forthcoming -- or so people claim.  After all look at the phenomenal progress of science over the past 300 years.  We can send men to the moon, create small devices which can virtually instantaneously connect us to anyone in the world with a similar device, create chess computers which can beat the best chess players on the planet.  Why do we imagine the human brain is something special?  That it won’t eventually be understood like everything else?  Hence many people maintain that it will surely succumb to a full explanation eventually – it’s just a question of time.



3. The elimination of the Qualitative/Subjective 



There is though a crucial distinction between us human beings and other animals on the one hand, and machines such as computers, clocks and the like on the other. It is that the former are conscious and the latter are generally held not to be (although it is held by many that computers will become conscious in the future). Given that we are mere biological machines, then it is true that the mechanical philosophy, and hence physics might, at least in principle, wholly explain our behaviour.  But to explain our behaviour is one thing, to explain our consciousness is another thing entirely.  But why should consciousness be a special problem?


Thomas Nagel is an American philosopher, currently University Professor of Philosophy and Law at
New York University.  In his recent book Mind and Cosmos he says:


The modern mind-body problem arose out of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, as a direct result of the concept of objective physical reality that drove that revolution. Galileo and Descartes made the crucial conceptual division by proposing that physical science should provide a mathematically precise quantitative description of an external reality extended in space and time, a description limited to spatiotemporal primary qualities such as shape, size, and motion, and to laws governing the relations among them. Subjective appearances, on the other hand -- how this physical world appears to human perception -- were assigned to the mind, and the secondary qualities like color, sound, and smell were to be analyzed relationally, in terms of the power of physical things, acting on the senses, to produce those appearances in the minds of observers. It was essential to leave out or subtract subjective appearances and the human mind -- as well as human intentions and purposes -- from the physical world in order to permit this powerful but austere spatiotemporal conception of objective physical reality to develop. (pp. 35-36)


Here in a nutshell is why science, at least as currently conceived, cannot in principle account for the existence of consciousness.  In order to make this clear let's flesh out what Nagel is saying here.  


The mechanistic philosophy stipulated that physical reality is wholly quantitative. That is to say that the external world that our five senses reveal is wholly composed of things and processes that can in principle be detected by our measuring instruments and thus can be measured. All change in this external world can be accounted for in terms of chains of physical causes and effects which are exclusively cashed out in quantitative terms.  So we have each physical event or thing comprising a link in the chain causing another physical event, and each link is comprised of something that can be measured -- for example mass, velocity, shape and so on.

But what of the qualitative features of reality?   We think of the external world as being filled with colours, sounds and smells.  Due to the fact that these features of reality are not detectable by our measuring instruments and hence are not measurable, it was assumed that they simply weren't part of the furniture of reality at all.  Instead colours, sounds and smells were redefined to stand for those measurable aspects of reality which were deemed to cause these qualitative experiences.  Thus a colour was redefined to refer to a certain wavelength of light that objects reflect. Sounds redefined to refer to rarefactions and compressions of the air. Smells redefined to refer to various molecules in motion.


So the qualitative aspects of reality were subtracted from the external world and placed into the mind.  And as Thomas Nagel mentioned human intentions and purposes were subtracted too.  Hence the world out there is wholly quantitative and devoid of anything qualitative. And hence unimaginable. The greenness you experience when looking at a green object is entirely a creation of your mind. The perceived object is not actually green at all in the commonsensical use of the word green.



4. Consciousness cannot in principle be accommodated by Science


Thus a consequence of the mechanistic philosophy is that it stipulated -- again I stress that this was not a discovery -- a very much emaciated conception of the physical external world. A bare skeletal outline denuded of the flesh of the qualitative.  But that brings with it a huge problem. If only the quantitative, or that which is detectable, constitutes the external world, how can we suppose that minds or consciousness are part of that reality?  Hence the mind-body problem.


Since almost everyone, including the "intelligentsia", has so much difficulty in understanding this, it might be a good idea to try and hammer this point home.


Let's return to the example of a clockwork clock brought up in section 2.  As mentioned previously, by looking at the components of that 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. Consciousness is what the brain does


One way of putting consciousness back into the world is to claim that it is literally one and the very same thing as some physical thing or process (not merely caused by a physical process). I think this is an act of desperation.  


We think of the world as being populated with objects.   Sometimes what we think of 2 different objects are in fact one and the same object e.g. the morning star and evening star.  However we can trace their paths through space-time and see that they coincide.  However we cannot do this with brain processes and conscious experiences. We can trace the formers path in space-time, but not the latter.

Also if 2 objects are in fact the very same object, they should share very similar properties.  It's true that one and the same object can change its properties over time e.g. a spanking brand new table will not look quite the same 20 years down the line, although they'll look broadly similar.

But physical states and the correlated conscious experiences exist at the same time.  However they are utterly different in their properties.  The former is characterised by the quantitative and is observable from a third person perspective.  The latter is characterised by the qualitative and is not observable from the third person perspective -- it is only known through the experiencing subject.  Since conscious experiences share no commonality with any physical states or processes whatsoever, it is gratuitous and vacuous to declare they're one and the very same thing.



6. But does the brain produce consciousness anyway?


Even though, being qualitative through and through, consciousness is non-physical, the foregoing should not be understood as suggesting that the brain cannot produce consciousness.  It's just that if it does, then that's simply a brute fact about reality.  It must remain forevermore a mysterious fact that brains somehow produce consciousness. 


In fact we have good reasons to suppose that the brain produces consciousness and these reasons come in the form of mind-brain correlations.  Just to mention a few examples; our capacity to understand written and spoken words, or the capacity to speak, are impaired or even eliminated with injuries to certain regions of the brain. Damage to the hippocampal and thalamic areas of the brain can destroy one's ability to store new long-term memories. In addition radical personality change may be brought about by injury to the brain. The most famous example here is undoubtedly
Phineas Gage. We can also point to the effects of drugs that have a propensity to affect our emotions, attitudes and dispositions. Indeed even alcohol and caffeine do this.  Most importantly we enter deep sleep every night where we do not seem to be conscious at all.



To return yet again to our clock analogy.  Let's suppose we have a thorough understanding of the properties and arrangement of its parts.  There's nothing about the arrangements of these parts which could account for the fact it sounds an hourly alarm.  In addition let's suppose that removing a particular component of the clock results in it not sounding the alarm.  And replacing that component but removing another component also results in it not sounding the alarm. But removing other components one at a time has no effect. So even though the reason why it sounds an alarm might be wholly mysterious, we have, so it seems, specified critical components whose presence are essential to causing the alarm.  We might therefore feel justified in supposing that such critical components jointly produce the hourly alarm.


It might well be that something similar is happening with brains and consciousness.  Science can never in principle explain why brains produce consciousness, but this needn't prevent us, in the absence of any other reasons, from supposing that it is specific parts of the brain which are somehow producing this phenomenon. It seems to me that this is especially compelling when we consider the comatose state, or even the deep sleep state we enter every night where we do not recollect any conscious experiences.  This at least suggests that the brain is playing a crucial role in whether we are conscious or not.  The most straightforward explanation for this is that the brain produces consciousness.



7. The implausibility of the brain producing consciousness thesis.

 

As a preliminary I should point out that the case for the brain producing consciousness outlined in the previous section would not curry much favour amongst the “intelligentsia”.  It is deeply unsatisfactory since consciousness spontaneously appearing without explanation when certain physical processes occur seems essentially magical.  Hence, the tendency to conflate conscious experiences with some physical process, thing or function.  A strategy I have already argued in part 5 as being gratuitous and vacuous.  Nevertheless we may feel that the arguments of the previous section make it extremely likely that brains do somehow produce consciousness.  So let's explore this further.


In the previous section I mentioned removing components of a clock and noting that should the alarm cease then these components might justifiably be supposed to be jointly producing the alarm.  Let's replace our clock with a Television set.  Removing certain components of the TV set will result in the picture disappearing, and generally tinkering with the internal components will affect the quality of the picture displayed.  So we might suppose that at least some of the components produce the picture. 

But it’s not quite as simply as this since there is a distinction between the TV set’s ability to display a sequence of pictures, and the form those pictures take.  On a standard TV set it would be scientifically inexplicable why it should display a sequence of pictures constituting a TV programme without reference to TV signals.



Likewise, since it is scientifically inexplicable, indeed in principle, that the processes of the brain produce consciousness our preference ought to be that something external is involved. But, unlike the case of the TV set which explains the sequence of pictures shown by virtue of TV signals, this external influence accounting for consciousness couldn't be anything physical since we simply get the same intractable scientific problem of the quantitative creating the qualitative. It would need to be some non-physical influence -- perhaps a self or "soul" which has, as an essential property, conscious states. 



In short, in a comparable way in which the internal components of a standard TV set is insufficient to explain the sequence of pictures being shown, it seems to me that the brain itself is insufficient to produce consciousness.  In both cases something external is required.  The fact that altering brain function changes our conscious states and abilities, or indeed even suppresses any consciousness completely, doesn't entail that the self which undergoes and underlies and unites these various conscious states is itself affected.  Compare this with the fact that fiddling with the internal components of a TV set might affect the picture, but which in no shape or form alters the TV programme being screened (See my essay Is a "life after death" conceivable? for an explication of what I mean by these ideas).



8. Conclusion



I have pointed out that consciousness must forevermore remain scientifically inexplicable, at least as science is currently conceived.  However the mind-brain correlations and the apparent complete dependency of mind states on brain states might dispose one to feel the brain produces consciousness anyway.  Nevertheless this still remains deeply unsatisfactory and it seems to me a new way of conceiving consciousness and its relationship to the world is required.  Since something extra over and above the brain seems to be required, this suggests that we might well survive our deaths.

Note that in reaching this conclusion I have made no mention whatsoever of any of the evidence which suggests an afterlife (NDEs, apparitions, memories of previous lives etc).  The possibility that consciousness might well survive the deaths of our bodies has been established purely by philosophical argumentation.  Once we take such evidence into consideration the case for a "life after death" becomes that much stronger.



9. So why do the "Intelligentsia" believe otherwise?


But then what are we to make of the comment by John G Messerly at the beginning of this essay?  With just a few exceptions professional philosophers, professional scientists, and more generally the "intelligentsia", are all united in thinking that modern science has shown there is no afterlife and it is only foolish and ignorant people who suppose otherwise.

But, as I have argued, this is wholly contrary to what is actually the case!  Are the "intelligentsia" all unaware of the history and philosophy of science and the mind-body problem?  Are they all unable to think through the issues? 


I think the problem here is that science has been so incredibly successful in describing the world that the "intelligentsia" conclude that it is reasonable to infer that the methods of science are susceptible to explaining all aspects of reality, including consciousness -- a position sometimes referred to as scientism. Couple this with the fact that scientists tend to be quite poor at philosophy, but yet at the same time enjoy a high level of prestige, and we have at least part of an answer.  For their opinions carry weight.  Hence when they continually extol the outstanding successes of science, but at the same time depreciate the value of philosophical thought claiming it doesn't deliver the goods, we have fertile grounds for reaching fatuous conclusions.  Fatuous conclusions, moreover, not just about how consciousness fits into the physical world, but on more general questions pertaining to the nature of reality which rightfully belongs to the province of philosophy.

Professional philosophers operate in this environment that scientists have created.  Those that offer dissenting views are ferociously attacked.  The most notable recent example is
Thomas Nagel's recent book Mind and Cosmos, which I mentioned and quoted in section 3.  For example
Andrew Ferguson who is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard has written:

The Guardian awarded Mind and Cosmos its prize for the Most Despised Science Book of 2012. The reviews were numerous and overwhelmingly negative; one of the kindest, in the British magazine Prospect, carried the defensive headline “Thomas Nagel is not crazy.” (Really, he’s not!) Most other reviewers weren’t so sure about that.
          . . .
“Evolutionists,” one reviewer huffily wrote, “will feel they’ve been ravaged by a sheep.” Many reviewers attacked the book on cultural as well as philosophical or scientific grounds, wondering aloud how a distinguished house like Oxford University Press could allow such a book to be published. The Philosophers’ Magazine described it with the curious word “irresponsible.” How so? In Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, the British philosopher John Dupré explained. Mind and Cosmos, he wrote, “will certainly lend comfort (and sell a lot of copies) to the religious enemies of Darwinism.” Simon Blackburn of Cambridge University made the same point: “I regret the appearance of this book. It will only bring comfort to creationists and fans of ‘intelligent design.’ ” (From here.)


This despite the fact that Nagel is both an atheist and rejects the existence of a soul or any possibility of a "life after death".  The very fact he thinks materialism simply cannot withstand scrutiny is sufficient to earn their opprobrium. But he also has a few defenders.  Edward Feser,  an American associate professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College, has mounted a defence of Nagel's book from his varied detractors which may be found here (the link is merely part 1 of 10 parts!  In my opinion Feser comprehensively dismantles the negative reviews of Nagel's book showing they frequently rest upon a misunderstanding of Nagel's arguments).

Thus there are pressures -- subtle and not so subtle -- for philosophers to conform to mainstream thinking.  Those who rise to the top in the academic community are liable to express views consonant with the prevailing orthodoxy -- for if they do not then they will be less likely to have risen to such a position in the first place.  So certain beliefs about the world tend to be perpetuated, not necessarily because of their underlying merits, but because there are influences actively discouraging the expression of views which are at variance with generally accepted beliefs.



On a final note, I recommend people read my related essays:

Neither Modern Materialism nor Science as currently conceived can explain Consciousness




21 comments:

  1. > I think the problem here is that science has been so incredibly successful in describing the world that the "intelligentsia" conclude that it is reasonable to infer that the methods of science are susceptible to explaining all aspects of reality, including consciousness -- a position sometimes referred to as scientism.

    Since the Enlightenment, this tendency has apparently been a common human behavior. Around Newton's time, it was thought that geometry would render the world supremely intelligible, since it was having so much success at the time. One can see extreme faith in 'geometrization' of just about everything in the French Revolution. Isn't a ten-day week more mathematical than a seven-day week?

    Stephen Toulmin argues in Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity that this faith in mathematics was probably due to the desire for something of which to be absolutely certain, to counter the certainty that seemed to keep the Thirty Years' War going, with the tremendous amount of blood that was shed. What can we possibly do to avoid this from ever happening again? He sees positivism, well-exemplified by the Vienna Circle, as a recapitulation of this "quest for certainty". Note the date: 1922, four years after the end of the Great War.

    Toulmin argues that prior to the Thirty Years' War, prior to Descartes' Cartesian Doubt, Renaissance humanism held to Aristotle's directions: cater your method of study to the subject matter. A new subject matter might require new methods to be developed. However, this method suffers 'defects': it is time-sensitive, culture-sensitive, knowledge-sensitive, and thus not pristine. Isn't it much better to have one Method to rule them all?

    Where would this idea of a single mechanical Method break down first? Where it is the most terrible model: matters involving humans and their beliefs. I've recently read two books which catalog such failings: Richard J. Bernstein's Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis and Interpretive Social Science: A Second Look.

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  2. I believe your post was well-intended and clearly written. But you dance around the key point: if science and the naturalistic philosophy cannot explain all because of their difficulty with the nature of "consciousness" and subjective reality, then what PRECISELY are those things? Show me a reason to believe those are more than merely words invented and enshrined in order to keep philosophers employed. The fact that "everybody knows" what they are is meaningless; until relative modernity, "everybody knew" that the sun revolved around the Earth... In order to use these concepts as the fundamental Achilles' Heel of naturalism, there must be some kind of shared agreement as to precisely what they are -- and there is little to none.

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  3. Ian, great post. I largely agree in spirit but have a few quibbles:

    1. I have read that belief/atheism varies widely by field, with psychologists having the highest percentage of atheists. And I think I read that quite a few physicists are not reductionists. Not sure if you've run into any recent stats on that.

    2. I don't know how many non-believers in the Intelligentsia really non-believe, so to speak. I think often a certain facade or attitude is adopted out of peer pressure. Obviously, guys like Dawkins are pretty explicit and sincere in their materialism, but I think for a lot of people, it's along the lines of, "Hmm, I don't really want to think about it, but I guess the cool kids check 'atheist' on the form." I think there are a lot of "soft atheists" out there who haven't really thought through the implications of their ostensible belief system.

    3. I'm not sure there is no quantitative element in consciousness. We deal with number, after all, and we can roughly quantify experiential things such as brightness, pain levels, etc. I don't see why, theoretically, quantifiable nerve impulses can't be matched up with quantitative-like qualia. Further, theoretically, patterns of neurons firing could be matched up qualia, memories, etc. Finally, although I think science's understanding consciousness is incredibly weak (pace Dennet), I think we at least know *some* things via ostensibly scientific methods. Thus, I don't quite understand your statement that science as currently conceived cannot understand consciousness. (To me, that is a bit like saying that psychology cannot understand the mind or anthropology cannot understand ancient societies, etc.).

    4. I think that the transmission model of consciousness is quite weak. Proponents end up making it seem as though we are downloading a generic "mind," yet it is clear that our mental content is developed through growing up from infancy in human bodies and societies and with human genetic heritage and the benefits and problems that brings. That said, I've come to the conclusion that memory is stored outside the brain, and we share a Universal Consciousness (the universal mind of Averroes, the I-thought of Ramana Maharshi). So mine would be somewhat of a hybrid model.

    5. In any case, I think phenomena and not philosophy are primary in understanding whether there is an Afterlife or not (and I think there is). I've experienced phenomena, and I've talked to lots of people who have as well. Moreover, the cases are well-documented and credible. If all of this were absent and all we had were philosophical arguments about consciousness, then I think skeptics' talk of wishful thinking would ring quite true. Skeptics are conveniently incurious about why, if we grant that the vast body of evidence for the phenomena (NDEs, ghosts, crisis apparitions, mediumistic communications, psi, etc.) is 100% spurious, people have had such a consistent set of experiences and developed such a coherent narrative to tie them together. Yet apparently "peeps is deluded" satisfies that unquenchable thirst for truth that they ascribe to themselves.

    Thanks, and I look forward to any replies you might have to offer!

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    1. Just to address the part about science having explained consciousness, this is what I've said elsewhere:

      Science completely leaves out consciousness in its description of reality. Indeed, so far as science is concerned, we might as well all be what has been termed philosophical zombies -- that is to say we might as well all be entirely devoid of any conscious experiences whatsoever, even though we externally look and behave exactly like real people.

      This is because it is held that we are merely very sophisticated biological machines. Thus it is the physical events in our brains, together with the input from our 5 senses, which wholly explains everything we ever do, say, and think. In and of itself consciousness is not regarded as having any causal efficacy. Hence I am typing this out, not because of an intent on my part to express certain ideas, but due to physical laws playing out.


      Science and the Afterlife

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    2. 1. Going by what I've read in the past, most physicists are reductive materialists, but most philosophers are non-reductive materialists. Philosophers perhaps recognise that reductive materialism and the existence of consciousness are simply not compatible. Non-reductivist materialism seems to give up on materialism proper. Also it would seem to deny that consciousness is causally efficacious and thus seems to entail epiphenomenalism which I submit is incoherent.

      2. Well, I was basically addressing John G Messerly's contention. I agree with what you say here.

      3. Well yes, I can experience mild pains or more severe pains etc. But their essence is wholly qualitative. Qualitative as from qualia.

      And of course quantifiable nerve impulses might be matched up with the magnitude of ones experience, and patterns of neurons firing could be matched up qualia, memories etc. This is basically what I'm talking about in part 6 (But does the brain produce consciousness anyway?), third paragraph. This all provides evidence that brains produce consciousness.


      "I think science's understanding consciousness is incredibly weak"


      It's not incredibly weak, it's *non-existent*. But more importantly science -- at least as currently conceived -- could not *IN PRINCIPLE* explain consciousness. My whole essay is essentially an endeavour to hammer home this point. Current science holds that which is quantifiable explains all things. Hence everything occurring in our brains explains every we ever do, say, and think.

      So what distinguishes our world from a world of philosophical zombies (everyone's entirely devoid of any conscious experiences whatsoever, even though we externally look and behave exactly like real people)? How do we scientifically distinguish between those 2 worlds? By definition you *CANNOT*. But in that case by definition science hasn't explained anything about consciousness. (but I think this approach is even more difficult than my original explanation).



      4. I wasn't advocating a "transmission" model. I'm saying that in order to have an explanation of the self and consciousness, something external to the brain must be introduced and that this is necessarily non-physical. If the brain is sufficient then there can be no soul dwelling in some afterlife realm.


      5. Wishful thinking is when you believe something to be true because you want it to be true. So it's absolutely the opposite of carefully thinking through the issues.

      The reason why the intelligentsia think the evidence for an afterlife is weak is not due to its weakness, but rather due to their underlying philosophical assumptions about the world. So it's best to address those assumptions prior to considering the evidence.

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    3. Just to add a bit more about the television set comparison.

      Either the brain is in a suitable sense like a clock or it's like a TV set.

      Or in other words it's either the case that our consciousness and everything about us can be explained wholly by the inner processes in the brain, *or* those processes PLUS some extra ingredient(s).

      So people who subscribe to the survival hypothesis (believe in life after death) would no more say that The brain and soul relationship is like a TV set + TV signals than materialists would say it's like a clock.

      I could equally as well have used the example of a prism instead. We can see all the colours of the rainbow. But they are not *produced* (by which I mean created ex nihilo) by the prism. The ultimate source of the colours is from normal unrefracted light. But we see the colours due to the action of the prism splitting normal light.

      Likewise, if there is a "life after death", the brain (or the processes within it) are certainly having an influence on our selves resulting in particular mind states. But those mind states are not created wholly from those brain processes.

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  4. Very nice stuff. I just did a 3 part post on the yogic view of consciousness:

    https://dondeg.wordpress.com/2015/01/29/the-yogic-view-of-consciousness-part-1/

    Would be delighted to have you come by and apply your formidable knowledge base to showing me where I am wrong.

    Anyway, thank you for posting. This was an informative article.

    Best wishes,

    Don

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  5. You asked for a critique of your blog. Let's hope you show more courage here than on social media and leave this comment on
    your blog.

    Criticisms of "Science, the Afterlife, and the Intelligentsia"

    Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 state that science can only deal with the objective and not the subjective. The argument raised is that conscious thought is a subjective not objective phenomenon. And that it follows that science will be unable to explain it. The assumption here is that thought is fundamentally subjective and not an extremely complex objective phenomenon with only the appearance of being subjective. That point of view is currently unproven and has to be considered clearly as an assumption.

    Chapter 5 states incredulity that something physical such as the brain can create something as ephemeral as conscious
    thought. That the two things seem to be very different. This can be explained rather easily. A computer does not resemble the software that is running on it. A tape recorder does not resemble the music that is playing on it. But in both cases - despite appearances - the computer and the tape recorder are responsible for the running of the software and the playing of the music. And in both cases, are ultimately objective once understood.

    Chapter 6 alludes to a clock that we are supposed to have a thorough understanding of. It says there's nothing in the construction of the clock that would indicate that it should sound an hourly chime and yet it does. I would argue that we cannot have a complete, or indeed a thorough, understanding of the clock if we are unable to determine why it chimes on the hour. The author may be suggesting that it is a magic or supernatural clock. All we can deduce from the limited information we have is that the clock is currently inexplicable.

    I would also argue that there is no such clock in existence, nor will there ever likely be. There are - however - things in existence that we don't fully understand yet, or may never understand, and whose functions we can observe but not fully explain. The brain and consciousness are things that would fall under this category, but that should not suggest that they are subjective, only that they are not fully understood.

    Chapter 7 alludes to the brain being a receiver for the soul in a similar manner to a television being the receiver of a broadcast signal. There is no credible evidence that the brain is a receiver for anything other than the nerve impulses it receives from our senses. There is no credible evidence that there is anything being broadcast externally to our brains, and no such thing has ever been detected. The chapter also continues with the assumption that consciousness is entirely subjective, and puts this forward as a proven truth, although it is clearly just an assumption.

    Chapter 8

    Again puts forward the assumption that consciousness must remain forever scientifically inexplicable as a proven fact, although this far from proven. And even if the brain remains forever inexplicable it does not follow that any of the author's conjecture based on that assumption has any truth or substance whatsoever.

    The author cannot prove that consciousness really is a subjective phenomenon rather than an extremely complexed objective phenomenon currently beyond our understanding. We do not know enough about how the brain works to be able to prove that it is an objective phenomenon, nor will we be able to prove that it is not an objective phenomenon by objective means. We would only be able to say that the brain is beyond our understanding, and that is quite a different to a claim that it is subjective.

    The author has raised some interesting points and argues with intelligence and obvious knowledge of philosophy and a degree of understanding of the history of science; but the author needs to address the weaknesses of their argument, and to clearly separate what they can prove and what they are assuming.

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    1. John Driver,

      I write a blog to express my ideas. If people can see any flaws or issues, or have any suggestions, I very much welcome hearing them. If what I say contains errors or is somehow flawed, then I want to know! However what I am averse to is when people make objections which demonstrate a failure to understand what I've written. So essentially I like to try and avoid reiterating in comments the very same issues I've addressed in the main article. If people don't understand what I've said in the main article then there seems to me to be little prospect in them understanding any follow up comments which are inevitably going to be shorter and more hurried. It's especially irksome when I respond anyway, and the person asks the very same questions or questions, so I respond again and again . . . This is not courageous, it's silly (to put it very mildly) and eats up my time and the questioner's (I felt this was happening on facebook with John so I was eventually forced to hide the relevant threads from him).

      OK having said that I think some useful things can be said here to the issues you raise.

      You say:

      "Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 state that science can only deal with the objective and not the subjective. The argument raised is that conscious thought is a subjective not objective phenomenon. And that it follows that science will be unable to explain it. The assumption here is that thought is fundamentally subjective and not an extremely complex objective phenomenon with only the appearance of being subjective. That point of view is currently unproven and has to be considered clearly as an assumption".

      No I did not state that science can only deal with the objective. Back at the birth of modern science it was **stipulated** (not discovered) that physical reality is wholly quantitative. And this approach generated a great deal of success resulting in our modern day technological ubiquity.

      Consciousness is qualitative, and yes subjective too. People have various experiences. The experiences of the taste of coffee, the experience of greenness, the experience of a sunset, and of course all emotions and thoughts too. Subjective means accessible only from the “first-person” point of view. So we only know about other peoples' experiences through what they report and from observing their bodies. Objective and the quantitative, on the other hand, refers to that which is public. That is to say accessible to every observer -- at least in principle. So everything we can observe through our 5 main senses.

      Now what happened is that the mechanistic philosophy banned the qualitative and subjective, and that left us with the mind/body problem. The only way to get rid of the mind body problem whilst still adhering to the mechanistic philosophy was to suggest that either consciousness doesn't exist eg like Dennett, or to say consciousness isn't what it seems to be, and to submit that in reality it is a quantifiable physical thing/process.

      Note that when it comes to the external physical world there is a distinction between how things really are and how we perceive them. I think this has led people to imagine the same can apply to consciousness. However it is simply an error to suppose that there could be such a distinction with conscious experiences. Consciousness is defined by *how it seems to that
      person*. So it is nonsensical to suggest that it is either an illusion, or that it is something other than what it seems to be.

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    2. You say:

      "Chapter 5 states incredulity that something physical such as the brain can create something as ephemeral as conscious thought. That the two things seem to be very different. This can be explained rather easily. A computer does not resemble the software that is running on it. A tape recorder does not resemble the music that is playing on it. But in both cases - despite appearances - the computer and the tape recorder are responsible for the running of the software and the playing of the music. And in both cases, are ultimately objective once understood.

      Chapter 6 alludes to a clock that we are supposed to have a thorough understanding of. It says there's nothing in the construction of the clock that would indicate that it should sound an hourly chime and yet it does. I would argue that we cannot have a complete, or indeed a thorough, understanding of the clock if we are unable to determine why it chimes on the hour. The author may be suggesting that it is a magic or supernatural clock. All we can deduce from the limited information we have is that the clock is currently inexplicable. I would also argue that there is no such clock in existence, nor will there ever likely be. There are - however - things in existence that we don't fully understand yet, or may never understand, and whose functions we can observe but not fully explain. The brain and consciousness are things that would fall under this category, but that should not suggest that they are subjective, only that they are not fully understood".

      If such a clock is magical or supernaturally, then so are brains if they produce consciousness.

      In both cases they produce phenomena -- an hourly chime in the case of a clock, consciousness in the case of the brain -- which cannot be understood by a through understanding of all the parts.

      I'm not saying this is impossible. But it's something we do not encounter elsewhere. So it's not a possibility we should be enthusiastic about if there are any alternatives.

      Computers and software, tapes and music etc, are examples of *reducible* phenomena similar to tornadoes, and (non-supernatural) clocks and everything else *apart from consciousness*. (To be clear I'm not talking about music as *experienced* but rather the scientific description of music, since the former would merely reintroduce the mind/body dichotomy). It all deals with the measurable or quantifiable, unlike consciousness.

      As I explained consciousness cannot be rendered explicable in the way science is currently conceived. I took great pains to reiterate this point in the main article.


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    3. You say:

      "Chapter 7 alludes to the brain being a receiver for the soul in a similar manner to a television being the receiver of a broadcast signal. There is no credible evidence that the brain is a receiver for anything other than the nerve impulses it receives from our senses. There is no credible evidence that there is anything being broadcast externally to our brains, and no such thing has ever been detected. The chapter also continues with the assumption that consciousness is entirely subjective, and puts this forward as a proven truth, although it is clearly just an assumption".

      As is common you are taking the analogy too far. Would you also say that the Universe is nothing like a blown up balloon since the Universe won't pop after getting to a certain size? (this is a genuine objection somebody said to me once).

      Either consciousness is produced by the brain or it isn't. In saying that a clock which sounds an hourly alarm -- but without the appropriate mechanism,-- is magical or supernaturally, then the same must equal apply to the brain if it is to produce consciousness.

      So the only other alternative is to suppose that the brain doesn't produce consciousness though clearly it affects it.


      "Chapter 8

      Again puts forward the assumption that consciousness must remain forever scientifically inexplicable as a proven fact, although this far from proven. And even if the brain remains forever inexplicable it does not follow that any of the author's conjecture based on that assumption has any truth or substance whatsoever.

      The author cannot prove that consciousness really is a subjective phenomenon rather than an extremely complexed objective phenomenon currently beyond our understanding. We do not know enough about how the brain works to be able to prove that it is an objective phenomenon, nor will we be able to prove that it is not an objective phenomenon by objective means. We would only be able to say that the brain is beyond our understanding, and that is quite a different to a claim that it is subjective.

      The author has raised some interesting points and argues with intelligence and obvious knowledge of philosophy and a degree of understanding of the history of science; but the author needs to address the weaknesses of their argument, and to clearly separate what they can prove and what they are assuming".


      As I have exhaustively explained, consciousness must forevermore remain scientifically inexplicable given the current conception of science that only deals with the quantitative.

      There's no getting around this and you certainly haven't provided any reason to doubt this. Nor could you (or anyone else) since it simply is not possible to dispute unless we suppose that either consciousness doesn't exist, or it really is a quantitative thing despite appearances. But neither of these are viable alternatives.


      Right, my response here was an exception. In future I'll only allow comments from people who have understood my original article since I don't want to be spending my time reiterating essentially the same message as I put in the original article.

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    4. @John Driver:

      > The assumption here is that thought is fundamentally subjective and not an extremely complex objective phenomenon with only the appearance of being subjective. That point of view is currently unproven and has to be considered clearly as an assumption.

      I suggest a read of Colin McGinn's The Subjective View: Secondary Qualities and Indexical Thoughts. There, he attacks the precise issue you're talking about: the split between 'subjective' and 'objective'. He argues that if science works exclusively in terms of [objective] 'primary qualities'—those things which do not depend on perspective—then there is a big problem. What is that problem? Humans perceive primary and secondary qualities together, in a way which cannot be perfectly deconvolved. Indeed, the deconvolution process is fraught with difficulties which cast doubt on whether it can actually be done in the way that empiricists require.

      N.B. Your use of "currently unproven" is a red flag; it hints that you are caught up in the modernist "Quest for Certainty", a quest inaugurated by Descartes and called the "Cartesian anxiety" because it can almost never be satisfied. Perhaps this was not your intent, but do note that we frequently must move forward with the best we've got, where "the best we've got" is "currently unproven".

      > A computer does not resemble the software that is running on it.

      Neither does anything in software inherently refer to something outside of itself. That is, software lacks intentionality. Remove this, and you can have your 'objective', but it is a Pyhrric victory. Edward Feser deals with this matter more fully in his The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism. You are welcome to disregard his digs at secularism and flip to chapter 6, section "The lump under the rug", where he criticizes the computer model of the mind (which is based on a correspondence theory of truth, which has problems aplenty).

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  6. Hi Ian,

    I posted somewhere else and you recommended that I check this post out.

    I think you're mischaracterizing "quality" and "quantity" as somehow being opposites.

    Quality and quantity are not opposites. In a way, quantities are just qualities of things. In another way, qualities are just quantities of things. Quality is the value of a thing relative to another thing. Quantities pertain specifically to the amounts of things relative to other things. Qualities usually pertain to less specific, more statistical properties of things. A quantity is a kind of arithmetic relation between two or more things and a quality is a more general kind of relation between two or more things.

    Here's why the "hard problem of consciousness" is just a word game: Even if you actually had a robot with human level intelligence, you would _still_ have the same paradox. The robot's experience would still be subjective. The robot could use objective analysis tools to measure the finite properties of the world, but the robot's experience of the world and the robot's external measurements of the world will always be two separate things. The robot will never be able to both experience _and_ measure that experience and have that measurement and that experience be both things at the same time... unless that act of measurement actually _is_ the experience in question.

    The paradox is a property of consciousnesses, not humans. And the paradox will continue to exist after robots have consciousness. But it is important not to let this paradox fool us into thinking that consciousness and qualia cannot be measured. It simply means that the verb "observing" and the noun "observation" are two different descriptions of the same thing and, paradoxically, they will always have two different descriptions, even though you're talking about the same thing.

    There's also a more general problem with any argument that submits that, "Certain things can never be explained," which John Driver also mentioned. It is impossible to explain how a thing is unexplainable using only the explanatory powers of explanation. How's that for word game foo? ;)

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    1. Hello John,

      You said:

      "Quality and quantity are not opposites. In a way, quantities are just qualities of things. In another way, qualities are just quantities of things. Quality is the value of a thing relative to another thing. Quantities pertain specifically to the amounts of things relative to other things. Qualities usually pertain to less specific, more statistical properties of things. A quantity is a kind of arithmetic relation between two or more things and a quality is a more general kind of relation between two or more things".


      I'm afraid that each sentence in the above paragraph is either transparently false or meaningless. For example quality is not a value, nor is it a thing relative to another thing e.g. the qualitative experience of green is not a value, nor is it relative to anything else. It's just a given raw experience.

      In the following 2 paragraphs after that I don't know what paradox you're referring to. The hard problem doesn't constitute a paradox. Science only deals with the quantitative and hence cannot in principle explain consciousness. There is no paradox here.

      Yes if a robot could be conscious, its conscious experiences and its measurements of the world will be 2 different things. I do not see any relevance here to my essay.

      The physical world as described by science is wholly quantitative. It's reality is exhausted by all possible measurements. This is not the case for conscious experiences. Hence it resides outside of science as it is currently conceived.

      You say:

      "There's also a more general problem with any argument that submits that, "Certain things can never be explained," which John Driver also mentioned. It is impossible to explain how a thing is unexplainable using only the explanatory powers of explanation. How's that for word game foo? ;)".

      I explained that science as currently conceived cannot in principle explain consciousness. That is to say consciousness resides outside the purview or scope of science. Hence it is clearly not impossible.

      OK, could I just say that I'm happy to publish comments from people who take issue with some of the things I say. But I do require that people say something which makes sense and which is not transparently false. And I specifically do not wish to simply repeat points I make in my main essay.

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    2. "But I do require that people say something which makes sense and which is not transparently false."

      I do apologize if I am failing to adequately articulate myself! No harm meant. I'm just trying to get a conversation going about the idea you're presenting. Right or wrong, I think it is an argument that needs to be addressed and I appreciate you bringing it to our attention.

      "qualitative experience of green is not a value, nor is it relative to anything else. It's just a given raw experience."

      I would disagree with you there, Ian. I would argue that green is a value. It is the value of a wavelength of light relative to a human. A green thing can also be a wavelength of light relative to a robot that checks for fresh produce. The green that the robot "experiences" in its model of the world is not the same as the numerical wavelength of the green light - just as a human does not experience the numerical wavelength. The robot and the human are in the same boat. They both are trapped in a subjective experience - they both will never know if anyone else is actually experiencing the same green that they are experiencing.

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  7. "I would disagree with you there, Ian. I would argue that green is a value. It is the value of a wavelength of light relative to a human. A green thing can also be a wavelength of light relative to a robot that checks for fresh produce".

    But you're conflating 2 distinct meanings of the word "green"; namely the commonsensical original definition, which is that it is a certain qualitative experience, and the redefining of the word "green" by scientists to refer to a certain wavelength of light. These are utterly and completely different. This is so even if one concedes that the wavelength of light somehow causes our experience of green.

    If X and Y are completely different things or processes, the fact that X causes or precipitates Y, doesn't make X and Y one and the very same thing.

    "The green that the robot "experiences" in its model of the world is not the same as the numerical wavelength of the green light - just as a human does not experience the numerical wavelength".

    Now here you concede they are different.

    I don't think this conversation appears to be going anywhere so I'll end it there.

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  8. "What knowledge and understanding do they possess that even the most intelligent people in the middle ages lacked? Are they justified in their stance?"

    I do not think you have managed to find out why this stance is not justified. That stance is not justified not because they do not consider that the brain is not enough to produce consciousness, but because the cases of psychical research is not taken seriously.

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  9. Juan, the whole essay explains why it's not justified. I think I've already gone into sufficient detail.

    Even *if* no one had ever had an NDE, or experienced an apparition, or supposedly remembered a past life, or been in apparent communication with deceased people, this still wouldn't justify the notion there is no afterlife. This is because science -- at least as currently conceived -- cannot *in principle* explain consciousness. This being so, and since consciousness is invisible (we do not see other peoples' consciousness, we only infer it from their bodily behaviour), then how could we *know* that consciousness ceases to exist when our bodies cease functioning?

    Admittedly if there were no evidence for an afterlife whatsoever, I would strongly *feel* there's no afterlife. But this still doesn't alter the fact that the brain producing consciousness is kind of "magical".

    I think I might write another blog entry to try and hammer home why it would in fact be, in effect, "magical".

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  10. "Even *if* no one had ever had an NDE, or experienced an apparition, or supposedly remembered a past life, or been in apparent communication with deceased people, this still wouldn't justify the notion there is no afterlife. This is because science -- at least as currently conceived -- cannot *in principle* explain consciousness. This being so, and since consciousness is invisible (we do not see other peoples' consciousness, we only infer it from their bodily behaviour), then how could we *know* that consciousness ceases to exist when our bodies cease functioning?"

    But if that were the case I would have no reason to believe that there is an afterlife, so it would be justified to not believe in the existence of an afterlife. It is true that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but that does serve to justify an opinion.

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  11. Well the reason to believe in an afterlife would be arguably analogical to believing that a TV programme exists independently of a TV set.

    I talk a little of this analogy in this essay and in "Is a life after death conceivable", but might make another blog entry in the future to elaborate more.

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