Monday, March 18, 2013

Of tea and teapots

My friend Greg Shaw, the theologian, sent me this link to an article by Leon Wieseltier on the New Republic's website regarding Thomas Nagel's new book Mind and Cosmos. I haven't yet read the book (I grew up on the philosophy of a different Nagel), so let me confine my comments to Wieseltier's spirited defense, which to my mind is as feisty as the anti-Nagel "mob" he goes after.

This is just one skirmish in a war of words that has been raging in the New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, and other such places concerning books by Thomas Nagel, Alvin Plantinga, Ray Kurzweil, and others, on the nature of consciousness. At issue: Whether consciousness can be reduced to a material substrate. That is: Is consciousness ultimately reducible to electrochemical reactions of the physical brain?

I'm neither a philosopher nor a neurologist, just an ordinary spectator of these lively debates. To my mind, it's all a tempest in a teapot. Or at the very least, a premature tempest in a teapot. We're talking very tepid tea.

For all of the noise, no one yet has a serious clue what consciousness is or how it arises. The appropriate response is to say "I don't know, let's wait and see."

The absence of an explanation is not an explanation. Which it seems to me is what Nagel (a non-theist) and Plantinga (a theist) are proposing: Since the physical reductionists have so far failed to explain consciousness, it must be something else.

For the time being I will stick with the materialists for the following reasons:

1) The non-dualistic, reductionist paradigm has been stunningly successful. Countless phenomena that were once thought to be of supernatural or non-material origin -– comets, diseases, mystical visions, etc.— have been shown to have natural causes.

2) Other supposed irreducible phenomena –- ESP, astrology, petitionary prayer, etc. -– when subjected to close empirical scrutiny, have failed the test of reproducible objectivity.

3) I see apparent evidence of the evolution of consciousness all around me. The most conscious creatures seem invariably to be those with the most complex neural networks. Which powerfully suggests emergence.

4) Ockham's Razor: Do not multiple hypotheses until there is an necessary reason to do so.

The debate about consciousness could be resolved to my satisfaction in one of two ways:

1) The reductionists could create a conscious machine. (Good luck, Ray.)

2) The non-reductionists could come up with a theoretical paradigm that has real, reproducible explanatory power, something as empirically persuasive as atomism, the germ theory of disease, or natural selection.

In the meantime, I will keep reading the NYRB, TLS, and even occasionally the National Review, with a mind that is ajar, and sipping my tepid tea.