1. 5
  1.  

  2. 4

    My objection to this argument (of what I’ve read so far) is that it relies on repeated claims of probabilities that are not obviously definable. How do you write a function to compute the probability of consciousness emerging? Even setting aside issues of computational power or feasibility, there remains the fundamental issue of what the definition should be. The same goes for all the other mentions of probability which I’ve seen in what I’ve read of this article.

    Secondly, the unsupported claim that there is no evolutionary use for consciousness, thought, belief, etc., is shaky ground. We certainly don’t have proof (and likely never can) of how these were evolutionary adaptive, but to claim there are no plausible theories is overreaching.

    1. 2

      How do you write a function to compute the probability of consciousness emerging?

      This is a good question. What I’d say is that the balance of consciousness is very, very fragile. Compared to the number of possible states where everything works is very small compared to the ones that don’t. That said, since we don’t understand how consciousness works, we can’t effectively write that function, you’re right.

      the unsupported claim that there is no evolutionary use for consciousness, thought, belief, etc., is shaky ground.

      Well, the thing is, natural selection can only act based on things that you do, not on things that you think. It may be that things that you think can influence what you do, but then it’s operating on them as a secondary characteristic at best. That said, I don’t find this particular line of argumentation very convincing, I agree with you.

      1. 1

        Looking at it from a deterministic point of view (materialism implies that, no?), how can what you believe not impact what you do? The two are nearly inextricable.

        I would say that the second order effects of belief are what matters. Belief pulls us together and drives us apart. It changes social dynamics, and from time to time makes people kill each other. While that is not a direct effect of an individual’s belief on their chance of survival, it reshapes the very fitness landscape in which evolution seeks peaks.

        Is it useful for me to believe in god or not? No, probably not useful either to or not to. However, it is quite useful to not do whatever my society will punish me for. That’s why belief matters.

        1. 2

          (materialism implies [determinism], no?)

          I’d say that all determinists are materialists, but not all materialists are determinists. I don’t see how accepting that there’s a material world implies that that world is deterministic.

          how can what you believe not impact what you do?

          I agree that it quite often, beliefs can impact what you do, but not always. For example: ethically, I am vegan. But I don’t act upon that belief at all, basically. It doesn’t really impact my actions at all. I still eat lots of things that aren’t vegan, and (after my housing situation changes next month) it doesn’t really play into my decision-making process whatsoever.

    2. 2

      I think that I don’t understand enough of philosophy to understand where his point on the mind being separate from the body comes from. It seems like we have decent scientific evidence that the brain and the mind are indeed connected, like when we stimulate sections of the brain and people think different things, or how we can know when people come to a conclusion based on signals from their brains.

      I also don’t understand his point about metaphysical thoughts not being useful for survival. It almost seems to me like he is deliberately misunderstanding darwinism, and that some things evolve as a byproduct, because some other adjacent feature was immediately useful, and that the other feature (in this case metaphysical thoughts) was just a natural result of the other feature.

      I also don’t understand this quote: “Given materialist naturalism, the probability that my cognitive faculties are reliable with respect to metaphysical beliefs would be low. So take any metaphysical belief I have: the probability that it is true, given materialist naturalism, cannot be much above .5. But of course materialist naturalism is itself a metaphysical belief. So the materialistic naturalist should think the probability of materialist naturalism is about .5. But that means that she cannot sensibly believe her own doctrine. If she believes it, she shouldn’t believe it. In this way materialist naturalism is self-defeating.”

      I can’t tell where I’m disagreeing with the author of this text and where I’m disagreeing with the author of the book. @steveklabnik, have you read this book? Can you help me out? Also, has anyone seen any other reviews of the book? I would be interested to hear what the side of the false idol says.

      1. 3

        I’m only replying to the bit about philosophy’s distinction between mind and brain, for now.

        It’s relatively abstract. The mind is what thinks, is conscious, and feels, at least in philosophical frameworks I’m familiar with. The brain may be responsible for creating those processes, but philosophers do not take that as understood (at least not yet).

        1. 3

          I have not read the book yet. I did read the entire article, though. Let’s see:

          I think that I don’t understand enough of philosophy to understand where his point on the mind being separate from the body comes from.

          There’s a great split in philosophy: the idealism/materialism split. Basically, if you’re an idealist, you think that the world is entirely constructed in our minds (hence, ideal). If you’re a materialist, then you believe that there is a real (ie, material) world separate from our minds.

          Now, if you’re a materialist, then you have to confront this separation: what makes the world separate from us? Traditionally, this has been the notion of essences. In other words, there is something that is essentially me, and there is something that is the world. We have separate identities based on our separate essences. Deleuze replaces these with processes, but I’m really getting off on a tangent now.

          TL;DR: you’re either on Team Kant (idealism) or Team Hume (materialism). ;)

          Okay, so anyway, mind-body problems: you say:

          It seems like we have decent scientific evidence that the brain and the mind are indeed connected,

          We do, but that doesn’t mean that ‘connectedness’ implies that consciousness (ie, ‘the mind’) is directly material: it could be something else. This is essentially ‘mind-body dualism’: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dualism_(philosophy_of_mind) If the world is dualist, then the mind could be non-physical (immaterial), while the body would be physical (material).

          I also don’t understand his point about metaphysical thoughts not being useful for survival.

          Imagine Darwin’s island in the Galapagos. Let’s take you and me, and put us on the island. I happen to have taken some time to give some thought to the notion of God, his possible existence or not, and have read a few books. Does that mean I am more or less likely to survive on the island? The author asserts that the answer is ‘none.’ If this is true, then understanding metaphysics is not a trait that evolution is able to select for. Hence ‘Natural selection is interested in behavior, not in the truth of belief, except as that latter is related to behavior’.

          I also don’t understand this quote:

          It’s sorta silly. “If you don’t think that evolution can make you understand metaphysics better, and you’re the product of evolution, then why would you be able to better understand metaphysics?” I think that’s a reasonable re-phrasing. I don’t find “LOGIC’D” comments like this to be very helpful, personally.

          1. 1

            That’s really funny that philosophy is split like that.

            Interesting read, but at the end there it almost seems like he’s asserting Darwinist naturalism, when he proposes an alternative to what he considers “materialist naturalism”. (That by which would be more appropriately named “empirical naturalism”, as it deals with the limited viewpoint of what humans can know in our small blip in the massive timeline of the universe). The idea of pan-psychism, that there is “mind” in all things, would explain a lot to me. It would explain why evolution works in the way it does (for example, coming from a completely simplistic viewpoint, how does a multicellular organism dictate the micro-mutations of its various components, giving way to further evolution or complete collapse of its species?), and why the “many branches/membranes, 1 nucleus” design pattern is seen so frequently throughout nature.

            Could it be that we are able to understand the most abstract concepts philosophy, physics and science because we are at the (as far as we can tell) highest level of mental evolution, self-consciousness and self-awareness?

        2. 1

          Here’s my response to the conclusion, or the positive thesis of Nagel’s.

          I don’t disagree that panpsychism and natural teleology are plausible, or even that they are true. I do see it as a false opposition to set them up against materialism, however. I think the fundamental insight of a certain kind of materialism is that, in a world appropriately structured, physical determinism can imply at least natural teleology, if not a certain sort of panpsychism. I consider myself, tentatively, an atheist materialist, but I also have held beliefs similar to what is described as panpsychism and natural teleology here for a while. (In fact, I’m glad to finally have words for those ideas.)

          Put differently, what is not materialist about a world with natural teleology and panpsychism? I may be confused about terms, but I currently see no fundamental opposition.

          1. 1

            I haven’t read his book, but I don’t see how panpsychism and idealism are different.

            I also agree that natural teleology is plausible, at least.

            Mind you, it didn’t say that he was against materialism in general, but just Darwin’s ‘materialist naturalism,’ which I have always previously heard as ‘physicalism.’ For example, I find Deleuze’s materialism to be pretty convincing at the moment, and probably the closest thing to something that I’d ‘ascribe to,’ though I’m sort of moving away from that kind of thinking in general.