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A Defense of Nagel, Part IV

The Problem of Consciousness for the Corpuscular Cosmos

The biologist Kenneth Miller gives a charitable response to Nagel by interpreting him to say there are fundamental issues, like consciousness, which makes the materialist program in biology face obstacles it will not overcome in the near future. Nagel’s book today, Miller says, parallels Erwin Schrödinger’s book, What is Life? in 1956. According to Miller, Schrodinger said “that our then-current understanding of physics was incapable of explaining the chemical nature of the gene” and needed “to accommodate the challenge of heredity by discovering ‘other laws of physics, hitherto unknown’…Schrödinger’s challenge to biology was met by new discoveries that, far from rejecting materialist science, actually validated its power and extended its reach.” So Miller concludes, “The same will be true, I predict, with respect to the problem of consciousness.”1

That, however, misses Nagel’s point: the current principles of methodological naturalism make science by principle impotent to fully explaining the life of the mind. Nagel shares Miller’s sentiment that we, “as physical organisms, are part of that universe, composed of the same basic elements as everything else,” and “since our mental lives evidently depend on our existence as physical organisms, especially on the functioning of our central nervous systems, it seems natural to think that the physical sciences can in principle provide the basis for an explanation of the mental aspects of reality as well.” Yet this possibility is ruled out by the “the conditions that have defined the physical sciences from the beginning,”2 as outlined above. Even Miller concedes a probably stronger version of Nagel’s claim that the “materialist program in biology” holds that all biology is ontologically reducible to chemistry, which is reducible to physics, which deals with nothing more than matter and energy: “As an experimental biologist, I have to admit that’s a pretty fair description of how the science has operated for the past hundred years or so. And I’d say it seems to be working pretty well, at least so far.”3 Hence if I pose the question of “how to understand the mind in its full sense as a product of nature—or rather, how to understand nature as a system capable of generating mind,”4 a view of nature is required that distances itself from the corpuscular cosmos that still exhibits in the current scientific paradigm.

As noted above, Nagel differentiates between reductionist and reductive accounts, the former being a subset of the latter. Yet I find neither kind is sufficient. David Bentley Hart identifies5 six features of conscious life discussed in the current philosophical literature by some6 as reasons to think that physicalist conditions are insufficient to explain the existence of consciousness: The qualitative dimension of experience, Abstract concepts, Reason, The transcendental conditions of experience, Intentionality, and The unity of consciousness.7

I focus on the fifth, intentionality. John Searle has three different categories of it:

  • Intrinsic intentionality: “the fundamental power of the mind to direct itself toward something. Intentionality is the mind’s capacity for “aboutness,” by which it thinks, desires, believes, means, represents, wills, imagines, or otherwise orients itself toward a specific object, purpose, or end.”8
  • Derived intentionality: “examples of material entities that exhibit intentionality – words, sentences, pictures – we see that they do not have their intentional content inherently, but only relative to human interests; in itself, a word, sentence or picture is just a meaningless set of ink markings and has whatever meaning it has only because we use it to convey a meaning.”9
  • As-if intentionality: “something exhibits [this category] when it behaves as if it had intentionality though it really doesn’t, for example, the way water in a river moves as if it wanted to get to the ocean, when in reality it doesn’t “want” anything at all.”10

“Intentionality” was introduced as a modern philosophical term by Franz Brentano (1838-1917), for whom “intentionality is the very ‘mark of the mental,’ and is of its nature something entirely absent from the merely material physical order.”11 A reductionist account cannot work on principle alone: the very act of saying an intrinsic intentionality is the same as neuronal activity is to say it is similar to derived or even as-if intentionality. Such a judgment is just a way to negate it as “intrinsic intentionality” completely. One individual who sees this problem is Alex Rosenberg, saying given his naturalism “the notion that thoughts are about stuff is illusory.”12

This honest reductionist view contrasts to the teleological view, from Aristotle to the medievals, which held that the human mind knows in its aboutness an external object because the final cause of the intellect is to actively grasp knowledge external to itself, and thus the intellect reaches for that object. Now “the intellect and that object both, according to their distinct modes of activity, participate in a single shared rational form.” So if I were a botanist who perceives the form “embodied and made in particular in a certain pale yellow rose languidly nodding over the rim of its porcelain vase, but that is also present in my thoughts as something at once conceptually understood and sensually intuited in the moment in which I encounter that rose.”13

Yet if a reductive account is to work, say that of John Searle (specifically when he says that while “consciousness thus differs from other biological phenomena in that it has a subjective or first-person ontology, but this subjective ontology does not prevent us from having an epistemically objective science of consciousness”),14 it would require changing the very nature of science. I am skeptical that scientists will change their paradigm any time soon. Deriving mathematical predictability from subjectivity is still on principle a hard problem for a scientific paradigm conceived methodologically from the mechanical cosmos.15 But even if it could, it seems to seep into a kind of neo-Cartesian dualism, since it says that these two disparate natural states of affairs or substances (i.e. mental states and brain states) are not equivalent. A naturalistic dualism seems to change the entire meaning of mechanistic naturalism as a philosophical project. So I conclude that the emergence of consciousness into the universe is far more than suggestive as a hard principled problem for the corpuscular physicalism that currently reigns today.16

Postscript: Implications for Theism

I began this essay with a discussion on Nagel and his sympathy for the Intelligent Design Movement. Yet I also marked on the irony that this man, in the beginning of his book, confesses to “an ungrounded assumption of my own, in not finding it possible to regard the design alternative as a real option. I lack the sensus divinatatis that enables—indeed compels—so many people to see in the world the expression of divine purpose as naturally as they see in a smiling face the expression of human feeling.” He then goes on to say that “my speculations about an alternative to physics as a theory of everything do not invoke a transcendent being but tend toward complications to the immanent character of the natural order.”17 Nagel sees a teleological theory of nature, whether philosophical or also scientific, as a live alternative to theism.

“Mind”, for Nagel, “is not an inexplicable accident or a divine and anomalous gift but a basic aspect of nature.” Yet he does not think this view is in conflict with theism: he writes at the end of a summary of his book that “even some theists might find this [alternative] acceptable; since they could maintain that God is ultimately responsible for such an expanded natural order, as they believe he is for the laws of physics.”18 Given theism, God is the creator of the universe, so God would be responsible for a teleological universe if that is one in which we live. Yet I wonder whether this alternative is actually at the end of the day an alternative to theism. By that, I mean an immanently teleological view of the universe is more hospitable to theism than the mechanical worldview is. Hart notes the chasm between the worldviews of Aquinas and Paley:

To see the cosmos as wholly pervaded, unified, and sustained by a divine intellectual power, at once transcendent and immanent…reaching down to the barest possibilities of things and rising up to the highest actuality, is not at all to see the cosmos merely as an artifact, constructed from disparate parts by some kind of resourceful mind but itself mindless and mechanical…In the former sense, one sees creation as a reflection of God’s nature, open to transcendence from within; in the latter case…there is no proper communion between mind and matter at all.19

The former, illustrated by Aquinas’ fifth way, is a world in which rationality is intrinsic to physical being: the mind is formed and informed by the intelligible formal causes it perceives. In the more classical worldview, though one need not refer to God to know some specific fact about an external thing, God is the cause of that thing’s intelligibility. He is what makes its existence knowable to the human intellect. As William Carroll writes, “natural things disclose an intrinsic intelligibility and directedness in their behavior, which require that God be the source.”20 The latter worldview instead exhibits mere extrinsic teleology, analogous to the Intelligent Design movement: god as creator is mere watchmaker of physical laws and biological artifacts.

A helpful distinction is what Brian Davies calls “Classical Theism” and “Theistic Personalism.”21 Classical theism (associated with Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Anselm, Maimonides, and Thomas Aquinas among others) holds that God is not on the same ontological level with any created thing. As the creator of all beings and the explanation for why there can be the possibility of any one existing thing, God is neither a being nor a thing: there can be no possible thing without God’s necessary existence. Anselm said that God is id quo maius cogitari nequit, or “that than which it is impossible to conceive anything greater.” I mention his definition to illuminate what one should mean by “God,” which works “as a demonstration that God has necessary being precisely because he is not some discrete particular being that can be numbered as one among other beings.”22 God is the absolute, transcendent Mind (as Aquinas said, God is ipsum esse subsistum: “the sheer act of being”) from which all entities derive their existence. One begins with God as Being and then ultimately ends with God as personal. The latter view (embodied today in Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne, among others) says God is a person who instantiates such properties like being all-powerful, etc. They begin with personhood but never get back to God as Being. I understand someone not wanting Plato’s demiurge ruling over her life, in contrast to the Form of the Good from whom all contingent reality emanates.

I think Hart is correct in observing that with Nagel, one encounters “an intellectually honest atheist who recognizes the logical deficiencies of the mechanistic materialist account of (in particular) consciousness, and who finds himself irresistibly drawn toward a picture of nature to which teleology (the final causality that the mechanical philosophy exorcised from the physical realm) has been restored.” Hart continues that it is not difficult to feel that Nagel is able to maintain his own atheism consistently only because the picture of God with which he is familiar is that of a deistic demiurge who constructs the picture a cosmos out of otherwise mindless elements external to himself; thus he sees cosmic teleology as somehow an alternative to the idea of divine creation rather than (as it is) an essential feature of any classical picture of God’s relation to the world.23

Nagel, who desires a universe where there is not “a God,” has tried to reconstruct the very teleological cosmos central to the classical picture of God and his creation. G.K. Chesterton quipped, “Materialists and madmen never have doubts.”24 Some have called Nagel something near a madman, but I think him quite the opposite given how he doubts materialism. But on theism, I hope I’m not entirely mad for doubting he is sufficiently familiar with its classical kind.

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Ryan Shinkel

Ryan Shinkel

Ryan Shinkel is a current undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, studying philosophy, creative writing, and literature. He aspires to be a philosopher and a writer. Ryan is a Christian believer. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, 'I am a Roman Catholic in religion, a classicist in literature, and a Burkean in politics.'

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