Thomas Nagel returns to defend his doubt concerning the completeness—if not the efficacy—of materialism in the explanation of mental phenomena in the New York Times. He quickly lays out the possibilities:
- Consciousness is an easy product of neurophysiological processes
- Consciousness is an illusion
- Consciousness is a fluke side-effect of other processes
- Consciousness is a divine property supervened on the physical world
Nagel arrives at a conclusion that all four are incorrect and that a naturalistic explanation is possible that isn’t “merely” (1), but that is at least (1), yet something more. I previously commented on the argument, here, but the refinement of the specifications requires a more targeted response.
Let’s call Nagel’s new perspective Theory 1+ for simplicity. What form might 1+ take on? For Nagel, the notion seems to be a combination of Chalmers-style qualia combined with a deep appreciation for the contingencies that factor into the personal evolution of individual consciousness. The latter is certainly redundant in that individuality must be absolutely tied to personal experiences and narratives.
We might be able to get some traction on this concept by looking to biological evolution, though “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” is about as close as we can get to the topic because any kind of evolutionary psychology must be looking for patterns that reinforce the interpretation of basic aspects of cognitive evolution (sex, reproduction, etc.) rather than explore the more numinous aspects of conscious development. So we might instead look for parallel theories that focus on the uniqueness of outcomes, that reify the temporal evolution without reference to controlling biology, and we get to ideas like uncomputability as a backstop. More specifically, we can explore ideas like computational irreducibility to support the development of Nagel’s new theory; insofar as the environment lapses towards weak predictability, a consciousness that self-observes, regulates, and builds many complex models and metamodels is superior to those that do not.
I think we already knew that, though. Perhaps Nagel has been too much a philosopher and too little involved in the sciences that surround and enervate modern theories of learning and adaption to see the movement towards the exits?
Thomas Nagel proposes a radical form of skepticism in his new book, Minds and Cosmos, continuing his trajectory through subjective experience and moral realism first began with bats zigging and zagging among the homunculi of dualism reimagined in the form of qualia. The skepticism involves disputing materialistic explanations and proposing, instead, that teleological ones of an unspecified form will likely apply, for how else could his subtitle that paints the “Neo-Darwinian Concept of Nature” as likely false hold true?
Nagel is searching for a non-religious explanation, of course, because just enervating nature through fiat is hardly an explanation at all; any sort of powerful, non-human entelechy could be gaming us and the universe in a non-coherent fashion. But what parameters might support his argument? Since he apparently requires a “significant likelihood” argument to hold sway in support of the origins of life, for instance, we might imagine what kind of thinking could result in highly likely outcomes that begin with inanimate matter and lead to goal-directed behavior while supporting a significant likelihood of that outcome. The parameters might involve the conscious coordination of the events leading towards the emergence of goal-directed life, thus presupposing a consciousness that is not our own. We are back then to our non-human entelechy looming like an alien or like a strange creator deity (which is not desirable to Nagel). We might also consider the possibility that there are properties to the universe itself that result in self-organization and that either we don’t yet know or that we are only beginning to understand. Elliot Sober’s critique suggests that the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics results in what I might call “patterned” behavior while not becoming “goal-directed” per se. Yet it is precisely the capacity for self-organization that begins at the borderline of energy harvesting mediated by the 2nd Law that results in some of the clearest examples of physical structures emerging from simpler forms, and in an inevitable way. That is, with a “significant likelihood” of occurrence. Can we, in fact, say that there is a meaningful distinction that can be drawn between an inevitable self-organizing crystal process and an evolutionary one that involves large populations of entities interacting together? It seems to me that if we can conceive of the first, we can attribute an equal or better weight of probability to the second.
Are there other options? Could the form of this “new teleology” that is non-materialistic in nature achieve other insights that are significantly likely? One possibility would be if a physical property or process showed a unique affinity for goal-directed behavior that could not be explained by bridging rules that straddled known neuropsychological and evolutionary models. Such a phenomena would be recognized for its resilience to explanation, I think: there are no effective explanations for creativity; it is a uniquely human quality. Yet we just don’t have any compelling examples. Creativity does not appear to be completely resilient to explanation, nor does any human mental process.
Our bats, our belfries, remain uniquely our own.