Sunday, November 04, 2012

Thoughts on Consciousness

Three Quarks Daily is a web site that presents numerous interesting comments and links to thoughtful and thought provoking writings.  Yesterday I came across a TQD link to a discussion of Thomas Nagel's new book, Mind and Cosmos.  The Amazon blurb summarizes: 

The modern materialist approach to life has conspicuously failed to explain such central mind-related features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, and value. This failure to account for something so integral to nature as mind, argues philosopher Thomas Nagel, is a major problem, threatening to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology.

There was a time in my life when I could not perceive a way out of reductive physicalism.    It says, in a nutshell, that our world is comprised of atoms and these atoms follow unyielding laws.   So, we are therefore  merely complicated robots.  Laplace perceived this and expressed this way back in 1814, (lifted from Wikipedia).

We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.
—Pierre Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities

But I also knew that the way out of this would have something to do with the nature of consciousness.  The material reductionists like Daniel Dennet and Richard Dawkins are wrong.  Science, according to Nagel, has not been able to explain conscious experience.  I agree.  And, he contends that it cannot.  I'm an agnostic on that one.  But, the important thing to me is that wrestling with the issue helps to point the way to meaning, purpose, God, and spirituality in general.  The long history of the cosmos has been a development toward consciousness.  It must be a property of the universe and a non material one at that.  Or another way of looking at it is that the universe "desired" to become conscious.

Why include the picture above?  Well, it is good to show pictures at least once in a while and this is one I took recently.   It is of my wife gazing at olives on a tree in the medieval town of San Gimignano in Tuscany.  I'm fascinated by trees and their meaning.  The image produces as we look at it certain feelings, a whole wealth of them.  How?  That is the big mystery. 


The Itinerant Mind said...

Philosophical materialism is one of the most successful ideologies in history, at least in terms of captivating that self-congratulating cream that rises to the top of any modern civilization. It helps me to remember that it is, after everything is said and done, a philosophy, and one that it is neither self-evident nor demonstrable by the methods of science. After all, how can a method which tests hypotheses on the basis of an assumption demonstrate by its method the assumption on which it is based?

Steve said...

It is not demonstrable by science. But still there is a narrative that seems reasonable to many. They and formerly I would say common sense realism, once enough evidence is considered, will lead to philosophical materialism or at least its plausibility and likelihood. My next post is an example of the historical background of why some ex-Church of Christers have sometimes found it easy to make the jump to that or at least non-miraculous liberal Christianity.

Jason said...

Have you read any of David Chalmers' work on the hard problem of consciousness?

Steve said...


Yes, I read "The Conscious Mind" about eight years ago. He clearly describes the hard problem and the difficulty in making progress on it. He introduced me to the concept of supervenience which is intertwined with emergence. These two things seem to me to be fundamental to making progress. I need to keep reading up on this. Thanks

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am from Australia.

Have you ever noticed that none of the usual Christian talking heads ever write or talk about Consciousness with a Capital C, or Light which is the Love-Bliss-Radiant Energy of Consciousness.

Please find some related references on Consciousness and the nature of Reality

On scientific materialism

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