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Self-Referential Absurdity in a Theory of Consciousness

Image: Leonhard Euler, by Emanuel Handmann, via Wikimedia Commons.

Would you have a rational discussion with a zombie? Materialists are forced into the position of discussing philosophy and science with the walking dead, since under their terms we are all that. Unless rationality is a mindful concept — unless we are more than atoms in motion — that’s the logical result of denying mind and intelligence.

To deny that we are mindful creatures, the materialist also has to deny the existence of any realm of abstract concepts that a mind can access. Yet materialism itself is an abstract concept.

This seems intuitively obvious, but it’s amazing how often materialists ignore the self-refuting nature of their assumptions. Nancy Pearcey wrote about this, noting ways in which materialist claims commit the self-referential absurdity: “Applied to itself, the theory commits suicide.” 

An example is a theory of consciousness from Ezequiel Morsella, a psychology professor at San Francisco State University. Morsella relegates consciousness to a minor, passive role as an interpreter of sensory data rather than a free agent of choice and deliberate thought.

“The interpreter presents the information but is not the one making any arguments or acting upon the knowledge that is shared,” Morsella said. “Similarly, the information we perceive in our consciousness is not created by conscious processes, nor is it reacted to by conscious processes. Consciousness is the middle-man, and it doesn’t do as much work as you think.” [Emphasis added.]

So Did Morsella Think About This?

Here’s how you uncover a self-referential fallacy: you apply the claim to itself to see if it short circuits. Morsella made an argument, but said consciousness doesn’t make arguments. He said consciousness can’t create information, but he attempted to create information from his own theory. He said we don’t really think, but told his readers “you think.” 

Consciousness, per Morsella’s theory, is more reflexive and less purposeful than conventional wisdom would dictate. Because the human mind experiences its own consciousness as sifting through urges, thoughts, feelings and physical actions, people understand their consciousness to be in control of these myriad impulses. But in reality, Morsella argues, consciousness does the same simple task over and over, giving the impression that it is doing more than it actually is.

“We have long thought consciousness solved problems and had many moving parts, but it’s much more basic and static,” Morsella said. “This theory is very counterintuitive. It goes against our everyday way of thinking.”

Some ideas are counterintuitive because they are wrong. Self-referential fallacies permeate these comments like white on rice. If “conventional wisdom” is not mindful, it is not wise — nor is Morsella’s alternative. If the human mind experiences its own consciousness but has no control, did Morsella have control when he chose to write this statement? If consciousness can’t think, why does he keep referring to thinking? And what is “reality” if our minds are incapable of apprehending such a concept?

The theory, which took Morsella and his team more than 10 years to develop, can be difficult to accept at first, he said.

So did he think about his theory for all those years? Did he choose to “develop” it? Does he want our minds to “accept” it? We’re watching a poor professor’s theory implode. To take him seriously, we would have to treat him as a zombie going through motions and mouthing syllables. Nobody’s home.

Here Comes Evolution

We see next that he builds his ideas on the theory of evolution. 

The study of consciousness is complicated, Morsella added, because of the inherent difficulty of applying the conscious mind to study itself.

“For the vast majority of human history, we were hunting and gathering and had more pressing concerns that required rapidly executed voluntary actions,” Morsella said. “Consciousness seems to have evolved for these types of actions rather than to understand itself.”

In other words, Morsella’s theory is just a new way of hunting and gathering to pass on his genes. It has no more significance than that. It’s not about making rational arguments in abstract realms of logic and understanding. Pearcey showed the suicidal inevitability of so-called “evolutionary epistemology.”

By contrast, intelligent design is not self-refuting. If we truly are rational creatures with consciousness and free will, then we can talk about those concepts in a meaningful way. Our own awareness of our rationality and choice makes it reasonable to assume that our fellow humans experience consciousness like we do. When we bounce ideas off them, and analyze arguments, we can judge which are true or false by weighing their logical coherence or comparing their correspondence with reality.

Animals have ways of “making sense” of the world through their inputs and brains, as researchers at the University of Buffalo describe. But this does not mean that humans are just “more of the same” in terms of information processing. Four times the news item uses the word “understand” or “understanding” how animals do it. Understanding is superfluous to survival. For a bird, it is sufficient to know that a sound signifies a mate or a threat. Humans share that ability, but are exceptional in caring how or why sounds represent things. 

Recalling Euler’s Identity

Consider this on Live Science about Euler’s Identity, named for Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler (pictured above) and called “The most beautiful equation in mathematics.” The simplicity of this relationship, e + 1 = 0, is indeed profound and beautiful. It brings together five mathematical entities in a purely abstract way, one of them being the “imaginary” number i. It is purely conceptual, the result of a long process of logical reasoning, using theorems of calculus. Yet its truth can be checked out against the real world by seeing how it works in applications as diverse as wave mechanics, half-lives, and compound interest. 

One must also presuppose consciousness and free will to determine if a statement commits the self-referential fallacy. To prove this, I leave you with a choice to work the following logical exercise. You can quit now, or proceed. (Is that choice yours, or is your hunter-gatherer instinct controlling you?) If you choose to continue, look at any or all of the following statements and decide if they are self-refuting by posing a question referring back to the claim. We’ll do the first three as examples. Have fun!

  • Everything is relative. (Is that absolutely true?)
  • Question everything. (Should we question the advice to question everything?) 
  • Only particles and forces exist. (Is that statement made of particles and forces?)
  • All is illusion. 
  • Name-callers are idiots. 
  • People are really zombies.
  • It’s impossible to know anything.
  • Only statements derived empirically are valid. 
  • Everything evolves.
  • Morality is just an evolutionary strategy.
  • Tolerate everyone.
  • Co-exist.
  • “They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.” (Richard Dawkins)
  • “Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly… [including the idea that] human free will is nonexistent… Free will is a disastrous and mean social myth.” (William Provine).
  • Darwinism is like “a universal acid; it eats through just about every traditional concept and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view.” (Daniel Dennett)
  • “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” (Theodosius Dobzhansky)
  • “But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?” (Charles Darwin)
  • We must take control of our own evolution.

By the way, Leonhard Euler was known to work out complex derivations in his head while blind. Of what possible use was this ability for survival?

This article was originally published in 2015.