About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Monday, August 26, 2013
What Is It Like to Be a Nagel?
Much to my parents’ chagrin, I was a teenage somnambulist. Like my father and brother before me, I would periodically wander the tiny halls and stairs of our small house in the middle of the night, seemingly coherent but unconscious of what I was doing. I’m told I could carry on quite a reasonable conversation. Most of the time, a simple word from my mother would send me back to bed, none the wiser. Occasionally, though, I would wake up in the middle of one of these nocturnal excursions, baffled and a little bit embarrassed. One time I even punched out my bedroom window because I was apparently dreaming that I was trapped. That sure woke me up! Fortunately, I wasn’t hurt.
We’re all familiar with the experience of dreaming, but usually only after we wake up in the morning and recall the dream. We wake with a memory of the experience that happened we-don’t-know-when. There are some who experience what’s called lucid dreaming, where you become aware that you’re dreaming while you’re still in the dream. Currently no one knows why some people randomly “wake up” within a dream — it just seems to happen, and suddenly you’re like “Holy crap! I’m dreaming!” I’ve only ever experienced this one time: I was dreaming that I was walking along a tree-lined avenue with my doppelgänger when I suddenly realized I was in a dream; and so I started asking the other me questions about myself. Very bizarre!
Consciousness is at the same time the most familiar and most inscrutable phenomenon human beings can contemplate. I think it’s also the most contentious, because it is the most treasured aspect of what it is to be human. We can come to terms with the fact that the sun doesn’t revolve around the Earth, or that seemingly “solid” matter is mostly empty space, or even that we evolved from “lower” life forms. But when someone tells us that consciousness is an illusion, we reflexively say “Bollocks!” Unless you’re an astrologer, the relative positions of celestial bodies like the sun and our Earth don’t mean a thing. Likewise, whether we evolved over millions of years or were created ex nihilo yesterday, what really matters is that we’re here, now. What matters is the quality of our relationships, the progress of our personal projects, the innigkeit of a piece of music or the bouquet of a glass of Bordeaux.
Back in 1974, philosopher Thomas Nagel argued that the point about conscious experience is the “what it feels like” aspect of it. You have no access to my experience of the hauntingly beautiful Prelude in C-Sharp Minor by Rachmaninov, for instance, or the ripe dark fruits and velvety tannins washing over my palate from my glass of red wine. Neuroscientists may be able to give you detailed descriptions and scans of what my brain cells are doing when I experience these things, but you still can’t experience what they’re like from my perspective. Nagel asked if we could be able to know what it’s like to be a bat, from inside the bat’s experience of the world. He chose the bat as an example because it possesses a sense we humans don’t, echolocation, in order to make the point that we can’t really know what’s going on inside the head of another entity. Presumably, echolocation is to the bat what vision is to us: it’s the primary means of navigating the world. I personally can’t imagine what it’s like to be a bat. I can’t even really imagine what it’s like to be one of the dogs I train for a living.
Nagel ignited a firestorm of critical backlash last year with his book, Mind and Cosmos. I haven’t read the entire book; I’ve read excerpts and reviews, both favorable and critical. But last weekend he published a nice summary of his views in The New York Times. His basic claim is that “the theory of evolution ... must become more than just a physical theory” if it is to account for consciousness. He received many biting reprimands from scientists and philosophers of science. Nagel believes that the popularity of the materialist approach to consciousness that is born of the naturalism of the sciences is due to a consensus feeling that it is the best refutation of the dominant theistic worldview of society.
I have sympathy for both sides of this issue. On the one hand, I do believe that a thorough-going naturalism is in fact the best remedy for the supernaturalism of religion and other paranormal beliefs (e.g., Ouija boards, dowsing, etc.). It would be nice to be able to bottle and market a version of Dennett’s infamous “universal acid” in that regard. On the other hand, I experience the problem of consciousness as a significant problem. Once I emerged from my own born-again Christian background over a decade ago, I was able to jettison the belief in a core, immutable and immaterial soul without much anguish. However, I still clung rather fervently to the idea of a truly free will, in the Libertarian sense. Intellectually, I understood and accepted the arguments against such a will, but emotionally it was a struggle. Through the practice of meditation and working intimately with dogs I was able to gain a decisive experiential component that finally changed my attitude toward it.
Like Nagel, I am an atheist with a naturalistic worldview (and an atheist primarily because of this worldview). And I have no problem with attributing many of the heretofore “uniquely human” features to the purportedly adaptive qualities they provided to our ancestors. In fact, I have no problem believing that we have consciousness itself because it was adaptive. In my opinion, it’s easy to see why being able to simplify, organize, reflect on and prioritize the vast amounts of sensory information coming in would be useful to an organism such as ourselves. And, based on my reading, I’m of the belief that the self, the “entity” to which consciousness is generally attributed, is the brain’s internal model of all the internal-external stimuli (or of internal and external “reality,” let’s say) that is simply impossible for us to recognize as a model while it’s there. Where “there” is must remain an issue about which I’m agnostic, at least for the time being.
I agree with Nagel that science has made great strides in understanding such neurological functions as vision, learning, memory, emotions, etc. And, like I said above, one day neuroscientists may be able to show me exactly what my brain is doing when I am enjoying a glass of Amarone della Valpolicella; but it’s this aspect of enjoyment that can’t be described objectively by the neuroscientist. There won’t be any description or even any mention of the qualia of my experience. There won’t be any talk of how the wine appears ruby-red in my glass, or the warm spiciness of the bouquet as I lift it to my mouth, or the velvety feeling on my tongue, or the hint of raisined fruit I taste before I swallow.
This is a huge problem for Nagel. It’s a problem for me, too, but not a huge one. He believes that it’s not possible in principle for our current scientific paradigm to even touch upon the problem of consciousness. But he claims to be a non-materialist naturalist, and it’s difficult to determine what that means — or even if that’s possible. On the face of it, it sounds like an oxymoron. On the one hand, he’s saying that consciousness isn’t a divine gift; but on the other hand, he’s saying that it’s not an accident of mindless nature, either. But if he’s dabbling in teleology, wanting to have his cake and eat it, too, then he’s got to come up with a heuristic for scientific researchers to discover the naturalistic process by which the result of consciousness is achieved in the mammalian brain — because they’re not going to do it themselves.
I’m not sure how close Nagel’s views are to that of David Chalmers, who advocates the view that consciousness be considered a fundamental feature of the universe (though not necessarily in a panpsychic way), such as the mass and charge of subatomic particles. Both he and Nagel express the need for contemporary scientific orthodoxy to change in a significant way, in order to accommodate subjective experience. But it seems like no one has any idea about how to even begin investigating it — at least without simply declaring it doesn’t exist and moving on to other things. Current research is primarily focussed on the neural correlates of consciousness, or on what survival advantage it conferred upon our ancestors, or on how a “self” is created in the brain — on how awareness is really just a model of attention that enables the human organism to navigate the world. But none of it (so far as I know) is really serious about tackling our mental lives. The working presumption is that consciousness isn’t a non-physical feeling that emerges from the activity of billions of neurons, but is merely the verbal expression of complexly computed information. Not to sound too Nagelian, but I hope we can do better than that.
So I know what it feels like to be a Nagel, at least in certain respects. Though I don’t share his conviction that the mental life of animal organisms “cannot be fully understood through the physical sciences alone,” I do believe that they are leaving out something important if they can’t explain the subjective nature of experience. My naturalistic worldview inclines me to conclude that consciousness is a fully natural (and eventually a fully tractable) phenomenon. And the history of science is chock full of phenomena that once seemed to us contrary to common sense but which turned out to be something entirely unexpected — or literally unimaginable.
And regardless of where we currently stand with an explanation of consciousness, materialist or not, Nagel’s value doesn’t consist in a détente between theism and atheism by virtue of throwing a bone to creationists and Intelligent Design proponents. So what if they get distracted by the smell of blood in the water? They’re in the minority — and when they’re done devouring their bit of chum there won’t be anything left for them anyway. I have confidence that intelligent and open-minded believers will evaluate the debate conscientiously. Nagel’s value lies in the fact that his (erstwhile) “celebrity” among public intellectuals forces a conversation about an important point on an important topic. In this case, the fact that a true science of consciousness must be able to account for qualia, or subjective experience, or whatever you want to call it. You know what I’m talking about. I value renegades, and I can tolerate a considerable amount of risk if I think it will ultimately work out for good.
The final account may tell us that consciousness is indeed something such as light that is made up of electromagnetic waves, where the electromagnetic waves don’t cause light but simply are light; or it may very well tell us that it is a heretofore unknown fundamental feature of reality, like those elusive vibrating strings. It’s likely the final account will be the most counter-intuitive explanation human beings have had to accept. It will have to completely dismantle the Cartesian Theater, to put it in Dennett’s terms. This theater has been built of some of the strongest materials on Earth, and human beings have turned it into a sacrosanct temple, ornamented with all the ostentatiously shimmering desiderata of millennia.
I don’t know that I fully agree with Chalmers that consciousness should be considered a fundamental feature of the world; the equations of physics sure seem to be able to account for all the forces that exist in nature, at least on the human scale. But if the brain’s main function is executive control of the organism, charged with planning and decision-making and the like, why couldn’t it have evolved without consciousness? And even if scientists were able to definitively establish that consciousness is in fact a fundamental feature, or that the brain serves as “both the transmitter and the receiver of its own electromagnetic signals in a feedback loop” generating a special electromagnetic field that is the very seat of consciousness, that still wouldn’t account for the subjective flavor of our experience. Or would it?
I was able to mourn the death of the soul and lament the loss of free will, and still remain a happy inhabitant of the Earth. Can I mourn the death of my self?