I was listening to a Reasonable Doubts podcast from a few years ago, and it was, as ever, cracking. This one was about consciousness, its hard problem, dualism, and how it, and neuroscience, are being co-opted as a philosophical area to argue for the “God of the Gaps” style argument in the same vein as evolution in the creationist and intelligent design movements.
I am transcribing the interview, which can be listened to here. This is part 1, which should throw up some interesting discussion. Steve Novella (who writes for the NeuroLogica blog and how co-hosts the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast) was interviewed by Jeremy Beahan. This should set the scene for a really good point which is made in the second part which I want to talk about (the predictive power of physicalism).
SN: I think you’re right, this is the new Creationism. The fact that the Discovery Institute is all over this issue I think is evidence for that. And their approach is pretty much the same as their approach to evolution. They take very much a “God of the Gaps” approach. For evolution they say there is an irreducible complexity, we can’t explain every step of the way in which some complex biochemical system or structure evolved and therefore once you get even a little bit past our current knowledge, even though that’s a moving target, that’s the thing that God had to do (or the intelligent designer if they’re being coy). With neuroscience now they’re playing the exact same game, so “sure we understand a lot of how the brain works, sure brain activity correlates with mental activity, but it’s not perfect, and once you get a little bit beyond our current knowledge about how exactly the brain produces everything we understand as mental phenomenon, that’s where there’s magic, right, that’s the ghost in the machine, that’s the dualism, the spirit, whatever.” It’s not perfectly materialistic, it’s totally a God of the Gaps argument.
JB: Of course, they have to positively argue for their claims, they have to assert some sort of evidence that this non-material causation can happen, but it seems that they have been completely unable to do this. Have you seen any of these Creationists attempt to explain how this could happen?
SN: Nope, they’re got nothing. No, they’ve absolutely nothing. There’s no positive program, right? There’s no positive claim. They don’t have any which in which they can say or even hypothesise or even speculate that there is some phenomenon which is causing mental phenomenon, right? So there’s no alternate hypothesis. In fact, they think it’s “supernatural” which puts them outside the realm of science. And I think in this case, maybe one thing that’s a little bit different than with Creationism is, you know with Creationism they are desperately trying to portray it as a science, right; you know, going all the way back to Creation Science, right, and now Intelligent Design. And these are all overt attempts to recast faith and Creationism as if it were a science. With dualism, they’re taking more of a philosophical approach. They’re still doing the God of the Gaps thing around neuroscience – whatever we haven’t currently explained, that’s the dualism – but, in terms of arguing for dualism itself, it’s purely a philosophical approach as far as I’ve seen. And I think it’s because I don’t think they can even imagine what a scientific argument would even be like.
JB: Yeah, what are they going to be studying? There’s nothing measurable or quantifiable or even observable in what they’re talking about. But, turning to philosophy might be a pretty wise move for them because there are philosophers, even naturalistic philosophers who believe there is some sort of problem with consciousness, explaining consciousness with some deep misunderstanding or lack of understanding at this moment… Can you explain, for my listeners, what the hard problem of consciousness is?
SN: Yeah, I think you’re tight, I think philosophy is a good strategy for them because it’s very complicated, it’s hard to understand, and even philosophers disagree. You have people like David Chalmers who is a philosopher, although he says very explicitly that he is completely naturalistic; he is a dualist, he thinks that there is something about the mind, about consciousness, that the brain cannot explain, although he thinks it is some property of nature that we haven’t thought about yet. It’s really a matter of do you think that mental processes, specifically consciousness (our own experience of our existence, can result from a reductionist approach to brain function. Is it just what happens when neurons fire? Or is there something else going on? That’s the hard problem.
The easy problem, as Chalmers and others say, is figuring out how, you know the brain controls muscle functions; you know, how it represents the universe visually. The hard problem is why we experience those things, and Chalmers and others have used the analogy that you could design in a system that does all the things that we do, that a living system does, in terms of sensing its environment and responding to that environment (even processing information) without having to experience its own existence, and it would be like a zombie. So the hard problem is, why aren’t we all like zombies, reacting to our environment to pass on our genes? Why are we experiencing our existence? And the second aspect of that hard problem is, how is it exactly that the materialist functioning of the brain produce something so nebulous that we don’t even have the language to really express what it is, of consciousness and mental function? That’s the hard problem.
JB: Now Chalmers is a dualist, but he’s a property dualist. He’s not the same type of dualist as the folks at the Discovery Institute.
SN: That’s right. In fact I had a good chuckle over what When Michael Egnor and others were quoting Chalmers as if he was supporting their form of dualism and not reading deep enough into the very articles that they were citing where Chalmers said that he explicitly rejects Mike Egnor’s position on this, the position of the Discovery Institute. So they are just completely floppy when it comes to scholarship and intellectualism because they ultimately don’t really care. When you start with the conclusion and cherry pick for factoids that fit your conclusion – that’s the kind of stuff you lead to. They didn’t read it trying to figure out what he [Chalmers] is really saying because they’re not after the truth, they’re after supporting their pre-existing ideology.
JB: Yeah, what Chalmers is looking for is still something naturalistic. It would be in addition to just the brain; it might be something like a fundamental force of nature.
JB: I don’t really know how I feel about that, but it’s important to point out that he’s not looking for a ghost in the machine, he’s looking for something that obeys law-like relationships, that could be studied.
SN: And it’s not that he’s just not looking for it, he expressly rejects it on philosophical grounds. So, if you’re going to cite Chalmers as a reference, you know, it’s hard to cite that part of his philosophy that is dualistic, but just ignore, they didn’t even reject it, they ignored that part of his philosophy. By those same exact arguments he concludes, you also have to reject the kind of dualism that Egnor and the Discovery Institute is promoting, so it is very dishonest, selective type of citation.
JB: It reminds me a lot of what they’ve been doing with natural selection all this time: they look at debates about to what degree does natural selection, is that involved in the evolution of species, versus, perhaps, other factors, perhaps ideas like punctuated equilibrium… and they Take some genuine disputes and disagreements to mean that the entire notion of natural selection is bogus.
SN: Yeah, they make hierarchical types of errors where they are looking at disagreements over the detail as if it calls into question the higher order conclusions about what’s happening. So, bickering about to what extent natural selection versus other mechanisms are important in various aspects of evolution doesn’t really bear on the bigger question of “did evolution happen?” You know, “did life result from some process of organic evolution?” But they make that confusion all the time. Again, they don’t have any science on their side, they really have no legitimate argument. They have nothing. So if you have nothing, but you want to defend your ideology, you have to make up bogus arguments. So that’s what they do, they really have no choice.
JB: Now back to the hard problem, you’ve argued that even if there is still difficulty getting a complete causal account of how consciousness emerges from the brain, the fact that we cannot explain totally how it happens is not the same thing as saying we can’t say that it happens.
SN: It’s the same exact hierarchical confusion that I was talking about with evolution. We could have concluded that evolution had occurred, in fact Darwin did, that evolution occurred… long before we knew about the mechanisms of evolution, Darwin came to his conclusion before we knew there were genes. There wasn’t even a mechanism for inheritance that was even amenable to evolution before Darwin proposed evolution through natural selection.
The same thing is true, I think, with the whole dualist notion, that when we ask the question, “Is the mind caused by the brain?” – sure, we like there to be a plausible mechanism of action and I think the brain is an absolutely plausible mechanism of action, but also, and what you’re really asking is “Is there a tight correlation between the two things?” And you say, “What would we predict to observe from the hypothesis that the mind is caused entirely by the brain?” and these common sense predictions that you would make – well, you would expect brain activity to correlate with mental activity; that there shouldn’t be any mental activity without brain activity; that if I turn off someone’s brain, let’s say with a powerful sedative, I also turn off their consciousness, their memory, their experiences, everything. If I alter brain activity biochemically, either pharmaceutically, electrically, or whatever, I will also at the same time alter mental function in a sort of predictive way. And it turns out that all those predictions are observed to be true within the limits of our technology to detect it which is another thing that Egnor and others have exploited. They talk about the fact that the correlation between brain function and mental function is not perfect, but actually it holds up within the limits of our resolution. You know, if we’re using fairly crude technology to look at brain function and the brain is operating at orders of magnitude greater detail than the methods we’re using to look at that function, well of course there’s going to be some fuzziness around the edges, right? Like looking at Mars with a small telescope and trying to make definitive conclusions about the fine grain details on the surface of Mars, where you just can’t beyond the resolution of the telescope that you are using.
JB: Right, but as your telescopes get better you can often explain… you can see with better resolution… and isn’t that the same thing with brain imaging techniques?