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Post-Modern Science: The Illusion of Consciousness Sees Through Itself   


We have always struggled with the limits to how human language can express our thoughts about reality. But post-modern science dismisses the struggle as futile: We did not evolve to perceive reality. That conviction is changing cosmology dramatically.

We know almost nothing about the human consciousness but naturalism must treat it as evolved from unconscious elements. Much confusion is avoided by recognizing that that is a core assumption, not a discovery.

Naturalist theories of consciousness currently proliferate with abandon because there is no basis for deciding among them. They are tossed, like hats, into a ring. For example, neuroscientist Steven Novella explains:

Essentially you have a positive feedback loop with language, culture, social interaction, and intellectual sophistication. The result was that our proto-human ancestors dramatically increased the size of their brains in a few million years. The evolutionary pressures for greater intelligence were apparently massive, once those factors all came into play.

Novella’s assertions do not offer any demonstrable cause. But then they don’t need to, either. They add to knowledge by affirming the core assumption.

Neuroscientist Michael Graziano similarly claims that “A New Theory Explains How Consciousness Evolved” (Atlantic, 2016):

The brain evolved increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for deeply processing a few select signals at the expense of others, and in the AST [Attention Schema Theory], consciousness is the ultimate result of that evolutionary sequence. If the theory is right — and that has yet to be determined — then consciousness evolved gradually over the past half billion years and is present in a range of vertebrate species.

Notice, his theory’s correctness has yet to be determined, yet it “explains” how consciousness evolved. Yes, because to “explain” in this instance is to conform to naturalism, not to provide a correct account.

Going one better, cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman deftly turns a plausible claim into a proved theorem:

The mathematical physicist Chetan Prakash proved a theorem that I devised that says: According to evolution by natural selection, an organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but is just tuned to fitness. Never.

Similarly, the influential MIND group of philosophers argues that we are “simulacrums of reality,” always hallucinating. Then why isn’t naturalist evolution itself just another illusion? Because it is the core assumption. It renders all other assumptions illusions.

A review of naturalist philosopher Daniel Dennett’s newest book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back, in The New Yorker captures the mood nicely: “In the course of forty years, and more than a dozen books, Dennett has endeavored to explain how a soulless world could have given rise to a soulful one.” Decades of failure are not and cannot be an argument for reevaluating his thesis that consciousness is an outcome of Darwinian evolution. There can be no such arguments.

Evolutionary cognitive science makes short work of traditional notions of ethics as well. As summarized by Steven Pinker: “Our brains were shaped for fitness, not for truth. Sometimes truth is adaptive, but sometimes it is not.” Our consciousness is a user illusion evolved to pass on our genes. Artificial intelligence expert Eric Baum goes further, citing self-deception as a real advantage:

… we have been evolved to consciously believe as fact things that are not only untrue but which are known to be untrue at some level of mind, simply for the purpose of better lying to others. It is quite plausible that we have likewise evolved other counterfactual beliefs: there is some evidence for an evolved module for religious faith, which might well exist whether or not there is in actuality an anthropomorphic god. Evolution has, in many ways, selected precisely for nonobjectivity: our beliefs reflect what is good for us or our kin, not necessarily objective truth…. (What is Thought?, 2004, pp. 226-27.)

Once again, “it’s quite plausible”  is treated as equivalent to evidence, eliding the question of how exactly we come to “consciously believe” anything.

The hero of such tales is the mythic not-quite-conscious hunter-gatherer. Ajit Varki and Danny Brower, authors of Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind (2013), offer a new theory of mind:

The authors argue that as humans contemplated the intentions of those around them, they began reflecting more deeply on the meaning of life itself, and this examination led to the frightening awareness of their mortality. To assuage such fears, humans evolved the unique ability to deny reality. The authors reason that religion and philosophy represent some of our best efforts to do so. (Scientific American, 2013)

Why no other life form experienced this flash of insight is not on the discussion list, nor is the fact that, in general, denying reality is a well-known route to personal extinction. The Scientific American reviewer notes, “The authors acknowledge that much of their proposal is untestable, and readers seeking conclusive answers will be disappointed. ” But, as the reviewer doubtless realizes, if the authors are correct, there cannot be conclusive answers, only more and possibly better deceptions, possibly theirs. Naturalist philosopher Patricia Churchland puts the proposition most starkly: Evolution selects for survival and “Truth, whatever that is, definitely takes the hindmost.”

“Truth, whatever that is”? One sees into the soul of post-modern science here. And facts are so last-century (Scientific American).

The post-modern approach to the human mind sheds considerable light on current cosmology’s discomfort with the traditional science decision-making tools that provide no support for the longed-for multiverse. Happily, those decision-making tools, it turns out, are not all they’re cracked up to be anyway. As double helix discoverer Francis Crick (1916–2004) famously announced in The Astonishing Hypothesis, (1995, p. 262), “Our highly developed brains, after all, were not evolved under the pressure of discovering scientific truths but only to enable us to be clever enough to survive.” It sounds so cool, so right.

In an interview with John Horgan at Scientific AmericanRichard Dawkins offers an unexpectedly pessimistic view of the pursuit of the origins of consciousness along these lines, suggesting that maybe the “hard problem” of consciousness is forever beyond us, just as calculus is forever beyond the mentality of a chimpanzee.

Seen from the outside, the theory of mind field doesn’t look promising. The study of the not-yet-human being is a discipline without a subject. Neuroscientist Hendrik Jörntell tells us at The Conversation that “a radical rethink” is needed. But he certainly doesn’t include challenging core assumptions. He opts for Big Data on networks of neurons.  But why should we consider the outcome to be more than another current illusion created by the neurons? Have we somehow escaped evolution at last? Similarly, when molecular cancer biologist Ahmed Alkhateeb tells us at Aeon that science has outgrown human consciousness and we must turn to artificial intelligence, how will the user illusion know that Big Data is not just another illusion?

Now and then, we hear a sharp remonstrance, as from Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry at The Week:

To someone schooled in the great historical philosophical traditions — which have been largely dismissed following the adoption of post-modernism in the academy — this debate is immensely frustrating. In fact, much of the ongoing conversation about consciousness is self-evidently absurd.

Gobry seems not to grasp that absurdity is no longer an issue. We are animals and animals are never absurd; they live and then they die.

Similarly, literary critic Leon Wieseltier writes, “If reason is a product of natural selection, then how much confidence can we have in a rational argument for natural selection? … Evolutionary biology cannot invoke the power of reason even as it destroys it.” Yes, it can. The power invoked is not reason but the rhetoric of reason, a weapon for those who do not believe in the concept against those who do.

Reason, like all measures, must lie outside what it measures, but naturalists deny that there is any outside. They confuse traditional thinkers when they use terms derived from the older view as if they still had meaning. For example, in The Big Picture (2016), astrophysicist Sean Carroll opines, “Illusions can be pleasant, but the rewards of truth are enormously better,” as if truth were even possible when “As we understand the world better, the idea that it has a transcendent purpose seems increasingly untenable.”

One thing that remains very tenable is power, and naturalists are well aware of the need to hang onto it. Not for nothing do we read in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that “For better or worse, ‘naturalism’ is widely viewed as a positive term in philosophical circles — few active philosophers nowadays are happy to announce themselves as ‘non-naturalists,’” even though there are powerful arguments for non-naturalism.

But whether he wins or loses control of the academy, the naturalist lacks not-quite-humans to study. One response is to forget human evolution for now and go back into deep time, into what made human evolution possible. Two possibilities arise there: Consciousness is physical and/or everything is conscious.

Consciousness is physical (physicalism). Hunting for consciousness has become fashionable among physicists. What if consciousness were a fourth state of matter, as cosmologist Max Tegmark, who coined the term perceptronium, argues? It could be made of atoms (Nautilus). Or it could be the product of “carefully balanced chaos” (Science). Consciousness is tied to entropy, we are told (PhysicsWorld), but then what isn’t? We were also told in 2016 that Harvard researchers believe that they have discovered a physical seat of human awareness, though nothing has been heard of the matter since.

Borrowing from information theory, Joel Frohlich tells us, citing neuroscientist Giulio Tonioni, that consciousness provides “a reduction in uncertainty” (Psychology Today). Frohlich is confident of the theory: “IIT [Integrated Information Theory] seems to explain how the brain generates consciousness, though some might object that it does not explain why this mysterious phenomenon happens. But do we ever really know why? Why does mass have inertia? Why do opposite charges attract?” Frohlich seems to think that his analogy to information theory ranks with fundamental facts of nature. Say what you want about physicalists, they have confidence in their illusions.

Yes, physicalism has come to this. But it is all the more powerful within the post-modern academy precisely because it thrives without any serious reckoning with evidence. It shades imperceptibly into another evidence-free stream of thought, that all matter is conscious.

Everything is conscious (panpsychism). AI philosopher John Searle asks (58:25), “How do you know that you don’t have chemical processes that will turn this [holding up comb] into a conscious comb?” How, indeed? A surprisingly popular solution among naturalists today is that chemistry research is needless.

“Is the universe itself alive?” asks physicist Ethan Siegel at Forbes.‘Panpsychism’ Takes Hold in Science,” Live Science tells us. Some change is surely afoot when mainstream science writers are seriously discussing these notions.

The change started in the academy. For example, a new volume of papers from Oxford University Press (2016) revives primeval panpsychism, the idea that everything is conscious:

The virtue of panpsychism, compared to physicalism — the view that consciousness is ultimately explainable in terms of, or constituted by, physical properties — is that it takes consciousness, or at least some forms of it, to be a primitive that cannot be fully explained in terms of even more primitive elements. Consciousness may be a force akin to electromagnetism or gravity that exists in some form on the fundamental level of reality.

Actually, it’s hard to distinguish this form of panpsychism from Tegmark and perceptronium (physicalism) but that will hardly be seen as a weakness.

Norwegian philosopher Hedda Hassel Mørch offers a workaround:

To critics, it’s just too implausible that fundamental particles are conscious. And indeed this idea takes some getting used to. But consider the alternatives. Dualism looks implausible on scientific grounds. Physicalism takes the objective, scientifically accessible aspect of reality to be the only reality, which arguably implies that the subjective aspect of consciousness is an illusion. Maybe so — but shouldn’t we be more confident that we are conscious, in the full subjective sense, than that particles are not?

But why isn’t our confidence a user illusion? That’s the core assumption of the naturalism Mørch seeks to protect.

Possibly at the other end of the spectrum (but it’s not clear), Roger Penrose muses that “Somehow, our consciousness is the reason the universe is here.” As naturalism transitions to its post-modern phase, perhaps there is room for that too, as long as no special status for humans is implied.

All these assertions intertwine seamlessly with each other, but none of them can offer evidence or reason to rally the troops. Possibly that is one reason why so many scientists today rally around consensus instead, even though great science thinkers were not noted for consensus-building.

Quite apart from the fact that naturalist interpretations of consciousness are proposed with little or no evidence, a moment’s thought shows that none of them can be right. We don’t know how consciousness comes to exist at all, so Occam’s razor trims the elaboration that it somehow evolved from mud via natural selection in order to deceive us. And whatever consciousness is, it is not physical, like matter or energy, but immaterial, like information. As Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics (2017) asks, what does the information on a full CD weigh, compared with an empty one?

The third proposal, that everything is conscious, is the subtlest: If everything is conscious, nothing is. If rocks have minds, humans, for all practical purposes, do not. We are back to the first proposal, that consciousness is an evolved illusion, having learned nothing. There is an irony here: Naturalists have learned nothing for tens of millennia. Stone Age naturalists definitely held that inanimate objects are or can be conscious. That belief was the core assumption underlying many superstitions.

Like cosmology, consciousness studies treats evidence as a problem, not a solution. Yet we keep hearing odd stories from the literature,  such as that of the patient whose brain persisted in firing off delta signals ten minutes after heart stoppage or patients who function with substantial portions of the brain missing. Those not committed to the core assumption of naturalism will want to revisit the idea of evidence.

Photo credit: Nasalune, via Pixabay.