Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Conspiracy Theories and the Faith of Martin Luther King

I've always found conspiracy theories--and the motivations behind them--both interesting and disturbing. They strike me as offering stark support for G. K. Chesterton's assessment of insanity: "The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason." There is a sinister consistency to conspiracy theories. But there is no whiff of common sense.

My interest in conspiracy theories is heightened by the fact that what I find wrong with them--my assessment, if you will, of why they are insane--bears a striking resemblance to what many atheist critics of religion find wrong with religious faith. Of course one can't deny that some religious belief-systems have the character of conspiracy theories (I think of Pat Robertson's troubling accounts of such things as why Haiti was struck by such a terrible earthquake a few years back). When religious beliefs take on the characte of cosmic conspiracy theories, I think it fitting to call them insane.

But I think the faith of Martin Luther King, Jr.--whose life and work we celebrated yesterday--exposes the error of the sweeping generalization. I think there were few people of the 20th Century more sane than Martin Luther King, Jr. And I think that his faith in a God of love and justice was one of the things that helped to keep him sane as he struggled to change an insane system.

I started thinking about conspiracy theories last week, when a YouTube video purportedly exposing evidence of a Sandy Hook conspiracy went viral. Those who reposted it on social media often accompanied the post with comments like, “I’m not sure what to think of this, but it’s important to think about” (to which the proper answer is “No, it’s not”).

The viral video is one popular example of an emerging Sandy-Hook-conspiracy genre. These conspiracy theories are, of course, insulting to the victims of the tragedy, to the officials who have attempted to respond, and to the American people. They are also entirely predictable and completely standard conspiracy-theory fare. In the face of national tragedies, conspiracy theorists use vague and scattered bits of data to plant the idea that the tragedy (in this case the Sandy Hook shootings) is really a government-orchestrated plot aimed at facilitating a government agenda (in this case gun control legislation). A few years back we saw a similar conspiracy theory grow up around the 9-11 attacks. In that case, it was a supposed neo-con conspiracy aimed at gaining public support for aggressive military engagement in the Middle East.

These conspiracy theories portray the government as not only secretive and manipulative, but as morally depraved: the killing of innocent school children, or of thousands of people in the Twin Towers and Pentagon, is suggestively blamed on the highest officials of government, presumably for the sake of consolidating power.

Conspiracy theorists connect the dots like ancient star-gazers constructing celestial representations of their gods. To see Orion in the sky, you don’t just have to connect the stars in a very particular way (rather than in any of a countless range of alternative ways), but you then need to fill in the empty spaces with details that aren’t there to be seen. Or, to shift metaphors, you turn isolated facts, easily explained on their own terms, into the proverbial tip of a purported iceberg.

Again, Chesterton's analysis of lunatics is instructive. The madman "sees too much cause in everything," so that a passerby's casual act of slashing at the grass with a stick becomes "an attack on private property." Kicking of the heels becomes "a signal to an accomplice." Nothing is random but is instead swept up into a singular narrative:
Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. 
It's probably best not to treat Chesterton's comments here as an attempt to get at the essence of all mental illness--I'm sure a psychologist could pick out numerous disorders in the DSM that don't fit Chesterton's paradigm. But as an analysis of one common sort of madness, it seems quite apt. And it's an especially good fit with what is going on in conspiracy theories.

The point is this: the conspiracy theorist invests a smattering of apparently random facts and stray coincidences with portentous meaning, a meaning given those facts by their connection to an underlying story of what is going on for which no substantive evidence is available. The conspiracy narrative also builds in resources for explaining why the evidence is so scant and ambiguous, and for answering the range of objections that are likely to arise. A good conspiracy theory, in the manner of a satisfying mystery novel, weaves together seemingly disconnected facts to reveal a hidden "truth" that is both surprising and coherent. But to be received as more than just a pleasing fiction, it also needs to play into the presuppositions, ideologies, and fears of the target audience.

And when a conspiracy theory succeeds in doing this, the result can often be a rather hermetically sealed account, essentially immune to falsification. Those of us who shake our heads might raise objections or point out contrary evidence all day long (such as what this comprehensive Salon article tries to do in response to the Sandy Hook conspiracies), but with little effect on the true believer.
Of course, many consipracy theories do rely on purported facts that are demonstrably false. But the best conspiracy theories avoid blatant falsehoods rather effectively. They also, however, avoid such things as Ockham’s Razor. They pay no attention to elegance and simplicity of explanation.

Standard conspiracy theories like those proliferating around the Sandy Hook tragedy are weighted down with unsubstantiated assertions that only seem plausible from within the conspiracy narrative (in other words, it’s only once you buy the whole picture that any of the individual claims becomes remotely credible). And the facts to be accounted for by this clunky mess of unsubstantiated claims could easily be explained in other ways, ways that don’t require such runaway and presumptively unlikely speculation (as the Salon article so nicely shows).
To accept such conspiracy theories, we may not have to defy the laws of reason. But we do have to lose touch with something a little bit harder to characterize in a logic textbook--something that Chesterton calls our "good judgment."

But precisely because "good judgment" is a concept harder to characterize than the laws of logic, the charge that one has lost touch with it is easier to level. And it's harder to refute.

In fact, everything I have just said about conspiracy theories has been said, more than once, by atheists critics of religious belief in general. If we set aside the hyperbole and ridicule and philosophical blundering that characterizes so much of the New Atheist’s writings, it might well be that what remains is a criticism of religious belief along these lines:

Religion offers a compelling narrative that plays into our emotions and weaves together a scattering of disparate facts, attaching to them a significance they would not otherwise have—a significance given to them by the unsubstantiated claims about a supernatural realm whose existence is a matter of mere speculation. In this respect, religious belief is exactly like a conspiracy theory—and just as no sensible person should take the Sandy Hook conspiracy theories seriously, neither should they take seriously religious doctrines.

Is there a way to answer this objection--without lending carte blanche legitimacy to conspiracy theories?

I think so. The charge gets its traction from the fact that there is something that religious beliefs and conspiracy theories have in common. They both go beyond the available evidence to affirm a narrative picture that affords one with a distinctive way of seeing the accessible facts--a way that is different from how one might otherwise see them. But just because dogs and cats are both mammals, it doesn't follow that all cats are dogs. And it certainly doesn't follow that you should refuse to own a cat because dogs often bark too much for your taste.

One way to understand what conspiracy theories have in common with religious beliefs is to see them both as "bliks"--a term coined by R. M Hare in his response to Anthony Flew's famous argument in "Theology and Falsification." Flew worries that many religious beliefs have been qualified into meaninglessness in the effort to render them compatible with the empirical facts we know. The belief that there is a God is made so abstract that it no longer has any implications for how the world might look. And this means, according to Flew, that the belief no longer says anything about the world. It no longer says, "Things stand thus and not otherwise." Thus stripped of any descriptive content, the religious "belief" becomes meaningless. There is no longer anything that you are believing to be true.

Hare responds by attempting to show how something can be meaningful even if it is unfalsifiable, even if it can be rendered consistent with any conceivable observation. His strategy is to identify a distinctive species of belief that isn't so much a belief about what is available to be observed but, instead, is a way of seeing what is observed. He calls such a thing a "blik." And his primary example of a blik is the outlook of a madman who thinks that all English dons are out to get him, and who explains away their apparently benign behavior as a sign of their cleverness. In other words, Hare's main example of a blik is nothing other than a conspiracy theory.

But even if every conspiracy theory is a blik, it doesn't follow that every blik is a conspiracy theory. In fact, it becomes clear from Hare's analysis that he does not want to say the latter.

Hare's aim is to show how a perspective can be meaningful even if it isn't falsifiable. He uses the madman's conspiracy theory about dons to do just this. Even if the madman's perspective can be rendered compatible with any conceivable observation, it remains a distinctive perspective rather unlike the one that most people have towards English dons. The difference is made manifest by the fact that the madman behaves very differently towards--and has very different emotional responses to--the English dons around him. This alone goes to show that "All English dons are out to get me" means something different from "Most English dons don't know that I exist and those that do don't spend much time thinking about me," even if they map onto the very same set of observable facts. They have very different pragmatic implications.

But notice: if these two perspectives map onto the very same set of observable facts, then the observable facts don't specify one or the other. Instead, both are bliks--competing ways of seeing those facts. And only one of them is a lunatic's conspiracy theory. In other words, for every conspiracy-theory blik, there's a sensible alternative.

In short, all of us have bliks. For Hare, the important question is whether your blik is sane or not. Unfortunately, while Hare thinks bliks can be classified as sane or insane, he doesn't offer a mechanism for deciding the matter. Presumably, he took that task to exceed the scope of what could be done in a symposium paper.

Likewise, I suspect it is beyond the scope of what can be done in a blog post. What I can do, however, is offer an example of a religious way of seeing that, it seems to me, is rather obviously different from a typical conspiracy-theory blik: the religious vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. I have some thoughts about what makes it different--and what makes it a sane way of seeing things as opposed to an insane one. But instead of making this blog post into a book, I will do that teacher's trick and ask my readers their thoughts: How is King's religious vision relevantly different from a conspiracy theory?
What I will do, to help you address this question, is offer an overview of King's religious vision--a distinctive understanding of the Christian faith powerfully shaped by his exposure, as a young theology student, to the Boston "personalists."

In contrast to contemporary materialists, who take inanimate matter and energy to be the basic mataphysical reality, King (following the personalists) took "personality" to be the basic metaphysical reality--and he defined personality as "self-consciousness and self-direction." In other words, mind and  agency, subjectivity and will.

Put another way, instead of explaining minds by reference to matter (a view he once described as "sheer magic"), King was inclined to explain matter by reference to mind. Instead of explaining away the actions of persons as the by-product of blind mechanism, he was inclined to explain mechanistic processes as having their ultimate root in a divine will. Thus, King was led to favorably quote the physicist Sir James Jeans, who said that "the universe seems to be nearer to a great thought than to a great machine."

More significantly, in seeing the physical world as arising out of a fundamental reality that has more in common with persons than with electrons, King saw the persons in the world as having "cosmic companionship" in their journeys through life. He believed that the "the universe bends towards justice" because the personality at the root of creation--the being King understood in light of the Christian conception of God--is characterized most essentially by love.

King stressed that to call God "personal" as King did "is not to make him an object among other objects or attribute to him the finiteness and limitations of human personality." King apparently saw God as that in which objects in the universe have their being, as opposed to seeing God as another being one might encounter in the universe. And he saw God's personality as the perfect and unlimited expression of "what is finest and noblest in our consciousness."

This personalism makes human beings the clearest reflection of the most fundamental reality, and hence possessed of a dignity and worth beyond measure. King thus routinely invoked his theistic personalism as a basis for the moral condemnation of policies and institutions that diminished any person. And a person was diminished if either of the two defining features of personality are undervalued or ignored or repressed. If your experience doesn't count or doesn't matter; if your freedom to act in self-directed ways is arbitrarily restricted; then a blow has been struct against that which is most fundamental in the universe.

Just as importantly, the immeasurable worth of persons was a chief philosophical basis for his commitment to nonviolence as a method of social change. No person was without value, no matter how horrific their behavior. Thus, it was policies and practices that must be opposed--because they diminished persons--not the persons who advanced those policies and practices. Nonviolence was the clearest way to make this distinction, to challenge the evil done while continuing to lift up and affirm the worth of the evil-doer as a person. For King, the nonviolent ethic of agape he endorsed showed respect for that of God in all persons, while expressing that of God within ourselves--namely what is finest and noblest in our own consciousness: our capacity for love.

There were times in his life when he almost abandoned his leadership role in the civil rights movement--but persevered because of the subjectively felt presence of this God of love, this "benign power" at the root of creation Who, in moments of prayer, became "profoundly real" to him, washing away fear with "an inner voice saying, 'Lo, I will be with you.'"

There is more that can be said about King's religious worldview, but this should be sufficient to see that it had profound practical implications for how he lived his life, how he assessed segregation, and how he responded to it. It was a way of seeing the world in direct contrast with certain other ways of seeing--such as the materialistic one he most explicitly defined himself against.

If a life is a measure of a man's sanity, I would say King was eminently sane. And given how integral his worldview was to that life, it would be incredible to suggest that this worldview amounted to an insane blik unless we want to call King a madman. But anyone who's life is as defined by a conspiracy theory as King's life was defined by his Christian faith surely would be judged mad.

So what, if anything, is it about King's faith that keeps it from being lumped with the class of insane bliks to which conspiracy theories belong?


  1. Hi Eric

    Chesterton's aphorism strikes me as wide of the mark. There's a difference between rationalising, and being rational. Consider the stroke victim who has lost use of a limb but manages to construct an elaborate web of denials. These are no rational in the sense that they are consistent, typically they are full of holes and contradictions, but the commitment to them can nevertheless be tenacious.

    To co-opt a shallow notion of mental illness in the name of constructing an argument strikes me as unhelpful.

    Much more interesting is whether King's notion of consciousness having primacy over matter can be made sense of. If we think of the stroke victim, it is very clear that whatever the relationship between consciousness and matter, an alteration to the matter profoundly disturbs the conscious experience. I can't think of examples where alterations to conscious states similarly affect matter, and this strikes me as an important factor to be explained by the rational mind.


    1. I'd be inclined to agree that "rationalization" is better label for the phenomenon Chesterton is describing than is "rationality." But in defense of Chesterton (and my invocation of him), he was not a philosopher devoted to precise use of language but an essayist devoted for finding thought-provoking ways of expressing ideas that can help us notice things we might not otherwise have noticed. And at least for me, Chesterton's aphorism helped me to zero in on what strikes me as the chief problem with the conspiracy theorist's way of thinking. It's not a lack of ability to make logical connections--since it can take a lot of logical deftness to identify the one condition under which the facts at hand could be rendered consistent. Of course, someone could be a poor conspiracy theorist BECAUSE they are a poor reasoner and so have trouble constructing the convoluted narrative that does the needed logical trick. And some sets of facts can defy the conspiracy theorist's efforts because there just IS no way to build a story around them such that they are compatible with one another. But that some facts ARE so amenable to a sufficiently deft mind doesn't change the fact that the resultant story is unreasonable in the more conventional sense of the term.

      As an example, consider a particular apologetic defense of a rather appalling version of limited salvation. There's a Christian apologist (who will go unnamed) who wants to defend the idea that only those who have explicitly accepted Jesus as their lord and savior before death will be saved, while all others are damned. But what of those great swaths of humanity who have never had any real opportunity to accept Jesus, having never heard of Him? The apologist wants to reconcile this fact with the view of limited salvation AND with the inherent justice of God AND with the idea that it would be unjust to condemn someone for failing to do something that they might have done had they only had the opportunity. So, the apologist gamely proposes that the great swaths of humanity that died never having the opportunity to accept Jesus are ALL such that HAD they had the opportunity, they would have rejected Jesus. And he proposes that God foreknew this and as such did not need to afford them the opportunity to ACTUALLY reject Jesus.

      It isn't a defect of logical facility that is on display here, since it takes some considerable facility for logic to identify the story under which the claims at issue can be logically reconciled. But there still is something deeply unreasonable about the apologetic construct.

      Anyway, Chesterton struck me as especially helpful in getting clearer on what is NOT the problem in such cases--although not everyone may find his aphorism as helpful.

      As to King's view on consciousness, I'll have to explore that more another time, since I now see the time and have to hurry home...

    2. In the above, I should have said that it can take a lot of logical deftness to find the one condition under which the facts can be rendered consistent WITH the core premise of the conspiracy theory.

  2. Hi Bernard,

    If we think of the stroke victim, it is very clear that whatever the relationship between consciousness and matter, an alteration to the matter profoundly disturbs the conscious experience.

    An alteration to physical things may certainly affect conscious experience. For example if you wrap a towel around your head you stop seeing. Injuries to the brain are remarkable only in that they cannot be undone as easily as unwrapping the towel from around your head.

    I can't think of examples where alterations to conscious states similarly affect matter

    Just raising your hand is an example.

    Much more interesting is whether King's notion of consciousness having primacy over matter can be made sense of.

    Idealism, which is an old and respectable philosophical idea, makes perfect sense of consciousness having primacy over matter, since on idealism matter does not even exist. Only physical things exist, and are stable patterns present in our conscious observation of our surroundings. Amazingly enough that age-old view fits extremely well with the best scientific theory of matter we now have, namely quantum mechanics, since QM is not really a theory of matter but a theory of observations. QM tells us nothing about physical objects beyond what we shall observe about them, and thus on its simplest interpretation tells us that physical objects are nothing more than what we observe. (Incidentally, idealism is the simplest view where consciousness has primacy over matter, but there are others where matter exists.)

    Conversely, since the idea of matter producing consciousness does sound like magic (hence the “hard problem of consciousness”), some materialists (notably Daniel Dennett) were moved to subscribe to so-called eliminative materialism. This view makes away with the existence of consciousness, and thus renders all questions about how matter produces consciousness meaningless. The idea is that consciousness (or rather conscious experience) is nothing more than the movement of material objects when arranged in particularly complex ways. It would seem that one thing we can’t possibly doubt is the existence of consciousness, since one must be conscious in order to doubt. Nevertheless some people manage to make sense of eliminative materialism.

  3. Hi Dianelos

    As ever, our reading of quantum physics is very different. It's an area of interest to me, but I'm not by aay stretch an expert. I can't envisage a conversation in this format where we're likely to get to the bottom of our difference, but I think the general rule that we should be immediately suspicious of non-professionals who use quantum physics to support their arguments (and the incompleteness theorem, I think, is usually offered as the other half of this rule) is an extremely good one.

    Simpler to get at, perhaps, is this business of raising one's hans. Are you claiming that the conscious desire to raise one's hand precedes the associated neuronal firing? That's a new claim to me. Do you have a source for it?


  4. Thanks Eric

    I think conspiracy theories are much harder to sustain than you make out, insomuch as very often they require us to deny pertinent evidence, rather than accommodate it. I find, for example, that young people enamoured with moon landing hoax conspiracies very quickly change sides when their questions are answered.

    If we must discuss insanity, then the first thing to acknowledge is that at one level it's a social construct. We see difference, and in some cases judge that difference insane. Compassionate societies, I think, find illness only where they sense harm. It is the misery of the mentaly ill, and of those around them, that prompts us to us treat them not just as different, but as needing help with that difference. Quirkiness and insanity are properly seen as quite different things.

    And, by this definition, there's no sign Martin Luther King was insane. And neither are the vast majority of people who enjoy a good conspiracy. If maintaining the conspiracy requires a denial of facts, we're in different territory, because such denial (I can fly) has the potential to be tremendously harmful. But this is in direct contrast to Chesterton, as it is the irrational denial of fact that defines the madman.

    The apologist's example you offer, to my mind, is no more or less sane than any number of other meta-narratives. It's one I don't have any taste for, it strikes me as a fairly cruel worldview and I suspect adopting it would diminish me, but I'm not sure on what grounds one gets to call it more unreasonable.



    1. "I think conspiracy theories are much harder to sustain than you make out, insomuch as very often they require us to deny pertinent evidence, rather than accommodate it. I find, for example, that young people enamoured with moon landing hoax conspiracies very quickly change sides when their questions are answered."

      I agree that, for most, it is hard to continue to find a conspiracy theory plausible once relevant facts are brought to light. This is what distinguishes ordinary folks from the kind of conspiracy theorist we'd be inclined to call insane.

      I think there are three main reasons why ordinary folk can't hold onto conspiracy theories for long. To understand these reasons, it will help to introduce a quasi-technical terms: a "reconciling thesis." Suppose two propositions are seemingly incompatible. Often, this is so not because the propositions alone imply a contradiction, but because the propositions in conjunction with our unstated and often intuitive background assumptions do. If one runs through a host of plausible background assumptions and the two propositions imply a contradiction given all of the ones one can think of, it is common to treat the propositions as incompatible. However, someone may uncover a set of background assumptions under which the two do not imply a contradiction. This would be a "reconciling thesis."

      So, with this in mind, there are three reasons why most of us are inclined to dismiss conspiracy theories once presented with relevant facts: (a) In some cases (but, I would propose, fewer than one might think) conspiracy theories confront facts for which no reconciling thesis exists; (b) In other cases, while a reconciling thesis might well exist, most of us lack either the deftness of mind or(more commonly) the commitment to the search that will lead to its discovery; (c) In still other cases, the reconciling thesis is so intuitively implausible and the commitment to the conspiracy premise so weak, that it seems more sensible for most people to abandon the conspiracy premise than to accept the reconciling thesis and the revisions to their ordinary background assumptions that go with it.

      Now for most people, even those who are drawn initially to a conspiracy theory, the uncovery of facts that don't fit the theory given common background assumptions inclines them to abandon the theory rather than embrace the revision of the background assumptions required to maintain it--especially if lots of revision is required. The "true" conspiracy theorist--the person Chesterton calls a madman--is precisely the person who holds fast to the the theory in the light of such facts and makes whatever adjustments to the background assumptions are required in order to accomodate these facts. And this true conspiracy theorist is often quite adept at discerning how the background assumptions need to be revised in order to make the accomodation--and gamely embraces each new reconciling thesis, no matter what it is.

      What I draw out of Chesterton is the point that what distinguishes this conspiracy theorist from the ordinary person is not a difference in their facility for discerning logical connections--in fact, the true conspiracy theorist may need to cultivate an unusual level of deftness in this regard in order to make the maneuvers required to hold onto the foundational belief in the light of the facts raised in objection.


    2. On this view of things, then, what distinguishes the true conspiracy theorist from more ordinary blokes is NOT a comparative deficiency of logical reasoning ability. Rather, it is the relative willingness to give up on "sensible" background assumptions in favor of reconciling theses that aren't "sensible"--a willingness linked to a fixated commitment to holding onto the conspiracy premise no matter what. What makes that fixated commitment possible is that whenever the conspiracy premise collides with "common sense" assumptions, it is the latter that go. It may also be true that when the premise collides with empirical facts that CAN'T be logically reconciled, these are jettisoned as well in favor of the conspiracy theory. But that move is, I think, less often necessary than we might think--and the conspiracy theorist is often powerfully committed to preserving logical consistency, often for the sake of underwriting the "reasonableness" of their view.

      For example, Deny the principle of induction, and factual accounts of prior constant conjunctions can be rendered logically compatible with a current failure to discern that conjunction. If the denial is done for the sake of maintaining a conspiracy premise, this would (in my view) display a failure of good judgment or common sense--but not a failure of one's ability to discern logical relationships.

    3. I should add that I think your insight about our societal judgments about madness or insanity are on track. What I would adjust is the view that only a denial of facts can render a person a threat to the welfare of themselves and/or others. There are some reconciling theses that, while logically consistent with the available facts, are ones that we can predict to have very disruptive pragmatic implications. Some of these--perhaps the most dangerous--are reconciling theses about values and obligations. If there is something that disturbs me deeply about the conspiracy-theory-like devotion to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, it is the kinds of moral conclusions that sometimes have to be embraced in order to reconcile the literal truth of certain biblical texts with one another or with the empirical evidence, etc.

  5. Hi Bernard,

    As ever, our reading of quantum physics is very different. It's an area of interest to me, but I'm not by aay stretch an expert.

    My argument does not hang on QM. Rather, I tried to show that it is much easier to conceive of a worldview where consciousness is primary than one where matter is primary.

    Still, I stand on my claims about QM since they are basic facts. The mathematical apparatus of QM does *not* model physical reality, but only tells us what we will observe if we set up a particular experiment. This feature of QM does not in a way diminish its usefulness but produces the so called “observation problem” for all who, naturally enough, want to use physics in order to understand how physical reality is. QM tells us with great precision what we will observe in all conceivable states of affairs that do not entail strong gravity – so what does this tell us about physical reality? This is the question that people who designed the so-called interpretations of quantum mechanics tried to answer, and famously came up with very strange and mutually contradictory ideas. Again, one need not be an expert to know this. QM is arguably the greatest scientific discovery of the last 100 years and, like the theory of evolution, I think the basic facts about it should be taught at the secondary level. For us adults there are several good introductory books, such as Nick Herbert’s “Quantum Reality”, or Rosenblum’s and Kuttner’s “Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness” which is closer to our current discussion. Check out the bios of these authors. These are serious people.

    Are you claiming that the conscious desire to raise one's hand precedes the associated neuronal firing? That's a new claim to me. Do you have a source for it?

    Actually, for A to cause B it is not necessary that A precede B in time. They may well obtain at the same time (and as one interpretation of QM has it, B may even precede A). Still the fact that our desire to raise a hand precedes the actual movement of our hand is common knowledge.

    But you ask whether desire precedes the relevant neuronal firings. Since conscious states are not observable by scientific instrument there is no way to use science to find out for sure. On the other hand there is already a huge body of indirect scientific evidence for the belief that mental states perfectly correlate with physical states in the brain. Indeed I thought this is a generally accepted belief, especially among materialists. Therefore, unless somebody comes out with some evidence that this correlation does not hold, I have to believe that conscious desire happens at the same time that the respective neural firings happen. Which, as we know, precede the movement of my hand for a few tenths of a second.

  6. Hi Dianelos

    I've read a lot on QM, and we're unlikely to disagree on the basics. it's just that you play a little fast and loose with the definitions, which is something one can perhaps do with those who haven't done such reading, and reads as a little bit of a cheat.

    Yes, until such time as we do discover conscious states preceding physical ones in the brain, then we have an asymmetry which I find suggestive. Not surprisingly, you don't. Fair enough.


    1. Just a point of fact: Max Planck, who knew a fair bit about quantum theory, had a number of interesting observations regarding consciousness.

    2. Hi Bernard,

      you play a little fast and loose with the definitions

      It’s true that when two people use different definitions it’s easy for them to speak past each other. On the other hand reading back I find I am only using simple concepts (QM, model of physical reality, observation, interpretation) and their generally accepted meaning. It would help if you pointed out which words you think I am using as if they meant something else than their generally accepted definition.

      until such time as we do discover conscious states preceding physical ones in the brain

      My claim is that it is easy to conceive of conscious states causing physical states, which does not hang on whether conscious states precede in time physical states. It is quite common that A causes B without A preceding B. For example, Earth’s gravity and the hardness of my desk cause the book in front of me to stay put on the desk – but neither the gravity nor the hardness precede my book’s staying put. In general all causes based on physical laws are instantaneous – there is no delay between physical cause and its effect. (Actually, if you think about it you’ll see that this is necessarily true: When an effect has a cause, that cause must be simultaneous to the effect, for if it weren’t then the effect would obtain without a cause. Indeed, in all cases where we say “A after a while causes B” it is shorthand for saying “A causes a chain of events the last of which causes B”.)

      On the other hand the scientifically informed belief that mental states and physical states of our brain exactly correlate (and thus are simultaneous) is entirely consistent with my claim that the former cause the latter. Thus there is no scientific reason against my claim, but, as I would argue, plenty of philosophical reason for it. Not least that it is prima-facie true. Our entire experience of life is that of efficacious will: it seems that unless constrained our mental choices cause physical change.

    3. Hi Ron,

      Thanks for that. Here is a quote by Max Planck I did not know: “ I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.

      Still, please observe that Planck’s argument above does not rest on quantum mechanics but is of a philosophical nature. On the other hand many eminent quantum physicists thought that the structure of the theory implies that consciousness is primary. Albert Einstein complained that QM appears to say that the moon is not there when nobody is looking. A comment attributed to Niehls Bohr is as follows: "There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is.". Werner Heisenberg wrote: "One cannot go back to the idea of an objective real [material] world whose smallest parts exist objectively." Pascual Jordan wrote: "Observations not only disturb what has to be measured, they produce it. [...] We ourselves produce the results of measurement." Eugene Wigner wrote: "It is not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness [...] It will remain remarkable in whatever way our future concepts may develop, that the very study of the external world led to the conclusion that the content of consciousness is an ultimate reality." John Wheeler wrote: "No elementary phenomenon is a real phenomenon until it is an observed phenomenon." And "Useful as it is under everyday circumstances o say that the world exists 'out there' independent of us, that view can no longer be upheld. There is strange sense in which this is a 'participatory universe’". Arthur Eddington: "To put the conclusion crudely - the stuff of the world is 'mind stuff". Bernard d'Espagnat: "The doctrine that the world is made up of objects whose existence is independent of human consciousness turns out to be in conflict with quantum mechanics and with facts established by experiment." David Mermin commenting on Einstein's question: "We now know that the moon is demonstrably not there when nobody looks." Sir James Jeans: "The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine." Martin Rees: "The universe exists because we are aware of it." Euan Squires: "Every interpretation of quantum mechanics involves consciousness."

  7. Thanks Eric

    The question you pose, then, is whether King's take on the primacy of consciousness requires the type of mental contortions you outline, to sustain it in the face of evidence. Without knowing how King explained the apparent asymmetry of conscious/physical interactions (a bus collides with a conscious being, very often this alters the state of conscious experience, but never does the conscious experience of the collision alter the physical reality of the bus... why, if consciousness is primary, does it always coincide with a particular physical arrangement, why do we never experience consciousness independent of physical state etc etc) then it's difficult to assess the extent of his contortions. This, however, is the charge atheists often lay. I personally find the conclusion that consciousness is prior to be very puzzling, and don't have any idea of the model of the physical/mental interaction theists offer to support it, so I'm naturally suspicious.

    How do you think it works?


    1. If we're asking about King's actual theoretical maneuvering, we face the problem that King's personalism was not among the things he was called upon to defend publicly. He SHARED his personalist worldview and occasionally said some things in its defense--but it was in relation to his advocacy of nonviolent activism that he confronted ongoing public challenges.

      But the more interesting question is not what King actually did to sustain his personalist worldview but whether sustaining a personalist worldview in light of the facts requires the kind of ongoing manipulation of common background assumptions that we characteristically see in conspiracy theories.

      Rather than answer this in this comment, I want to flesh out a bit more the broader perspective from which I'd address it. As suggested in earlier comments, I think that the conspiracy theorist is prepared to radically change countless ordinary ways of seeing the facts in order to be able to see the facts in terms of the conspiracy theory. Bunches of fairly standard background assumptions, shaping HOW we see the facts, are jettisoned to make it possible to see the facts AS evincing a conspiracy. Meanwhile, there's a way of seeing the facts that better conserves these standard background assumptions, requiring that little else about HOW we see the facts be altered.

      But sometimes you can map alternative "ways of seeing" onto the same facts with little disruption in standard background assumptions--that is, without requiring that we substantively change how we see things in various OTHER ways. Or these alternatives might both call for comparable adjusting of background assumptions. In that case, if the adjustments are minor in both cases, we might say both are equally sane alternatives. If they are substantial, we might look for a third alternative that requires less upheaval. If there IS no third alternative, we might conclude that the standard palette of background assumptions has been shown to be seriously flawed and in need of upheaval--with the question then being what sort of upheaval we should pursue (in which case the matter of which "blik" is more sane becomes hard to answer or maybe even becomes irrelevant).

      As I look over the philosophical debate between those who favor King's view and those who favor materialism, both sides can be seen as leveling the same kind of charge against the other: "Look at all the strange claims you need to accept (or common sense assumptions you need to reject) in order for your way of seeing to be reconciled with the facts" (plus: "Look at all the holse or gaps in your account that nobody knows how to fill"). Progress in such a standoff requires a sort of comparative assessment of each, an assessment of the scope of the problems with each, and an active effort to consider third alternatives. In assessing the scope of the problems, one also needs to consider whether what each side treats as a problem for the other is a problem only from THEIR way of seeing--that is, the clash is with part of their distinctive holistic outlook as opposed to being part of the shared set of background suppositions.

    2. Hi Eric,

      I don't think the situation is as symmetrical as you describe (in your answer to Bernard above).

      The thing is, for some time now, we have been able to study consciousness scientifically. Perhaps we don't realize how new this is – as an indication, consider that Francis Crick titled his 1994 book on consciousness “The Astonishing Hypothesis” to emphasize the novelty of the idea that it could be done (or something to this effect).

      The way I see this, then, is not as a dispute between materialists and others but as an open ended research program that could, potentially, lead to an understanding of consciousness. It's not that there is a materialist research program and a non-materialist one (as far as I know). There is this one ongoing research and we all should take notice of what these dedicated scientists find out. They are not trying to prove a thesis, but to find out how consciousness works, whatever the answer is.

      Now, the way I read what's going on, the hypothesis that consciousness is, somehow, the result of brain activity looks more and more plausible – hence my mention of the evidence in a previous comment. At least, I know of no discovery that points the other way. Is there any?

  8. You know, I wonder how much of King's theory of consciousness is metaphorical and how much must be taken literally. The words speak “literal” but, then, I can't make sense of it.

    As metaphors, as stories/myths about humankind, I can see some of it can work very well. But, when it comes to a more literal reading, to understand what the theory actually says, I think it becomes very problematic. In fact, it's very difficult to figure out what it means.

    Where are the details? Where are the explanations? How do we reconcile this approach with the empirical evidence that stubbornly keeps going the other way? It's one thing to say it “explains matter by reference to mind”, quite another to put some substance on this – how does that work? It may be very satisfying to see us, human beings, as “the clearest reflection of the most fundamental reality”, but that does not make it so.

    My point is, I guess, figuring out consciousness is hard work. Serious research has been going on only for a few decades, significant progress has been made but, despite the large amount of work, we're still very far from a definitive answer.

    That one can, just by thinking about it and with none of the hard work, arrive at conclusions that seem totally unsupported (and even contradicted) by the evidence is, to say the very least, puzzling.

  9. Hi Dianelos

    With regard to Quantum Physics, my point is only that there are a great number of interpretations possible, and while some involve a role for the conscious observer, many don't. Hence, to conclude the theory has something to say about consciousness without first resolving this conflict strikes me as, well, conspiratorial.

    Your notion of cause is interesting. So, for example, a man pulls a trigger, the gun fires, a bullet speeds through the air, striking and killing a deer. Because the pulling of the trigger is not instantaneous with the death of the deer, the hunter did not cause the deer to die? Do you mean this?

    I am not arguing that consciousness must ultimately reduce to a physical phenomenon, only that this is an open possibility. And like JP, I figure the best way to find out (and it may ultimately be beyond us) is to keep digging into the mechanisms involved. To conclude otherwise in advance (as King, by Eric's description, may have done) apparently involves the sort of imaginative leap being discussed in this post.

    I remain very puzzled as to why, by your model, consciousness only appears under certain physical configurations. What is it about this non-physical consciousness that requires this?


    1. Concerning the interpretations of QM, physicist Sean Carroll had a post a few days ago about what he calls the “embarrassing” lack of consensus between physicists. See here. He also posted a video on the same topic in another post a few days later.

      All very interesting.

    2. Hi Bernard,

      Hence, to conclude the theory has something to say about consciousness without first resolving this conflict strikes me as, well, conspiratorial.

      QM itself strongly suggests that consciousness is primary, and the few interpretations that appear to avoid this fatal problem for materialism multiply entities beyond imagination. So, my impression is the opposite than yours, namely that materialists imagine a conspirational-like state of affairs, a vast interplay of physical factors which are just so as to makes it seem that consciousness is primary, when in fact it’s not.

      Because the pulling of the trigger is not instantaneous with the death of the deer, the hunter did not cause the deer to die? Do you mean this?

      No, of course not. Rather, to say “the hunter caused the deer to die” is shorthand for “the hunter caused a chain of events the last of which causes the deer to die”. Moreover, strictly speaking what the hunter really caused is the decision to kill the deer, for had he suffered a stroke before sending the respective neural signals to his hand holding the gun, or had the gun malfunctioned, or had any other number of causes interfered, the deer would not be caused to die.

      I’d like to insist that it’s necessarily true that, on the fundamental or ultimate level, causes and effects are always simultaneous. Imagine a case where cause C1 at time t1 is supposed to cause effect E3 at some later time t3, and consider the states of the system throughout this time span, and particular the state S1 at t1, S3 at t3, and also S2 at some time in between. Now since S3 produced E3 whereas S2 didn’t, it follows that S2 is not identical to S3. But since no cause affected S2, nothing could possibly have changed S2 into a different S3.

      I am not arguing that consciousness must ultimately reduce to a physical phenomenon, only that this is an open possibility.

      I agree it’s an open possibility.

      I figure the best way to find out (and it may ultimately be beyond us) is to keep digging into the mechanisms involved.

      I haven’t ever heard of some idea about how this might conceivably work.

      I remain very puzzled as to why, by your model, consciousness only appears under certain physical configurations.

      I thought it was your model which says that. By my model consciousness is an intrinsic property of persons, and exists independently of any physical configurations. What in our current human condition appears to hold is that, given consciousness, what we are conscious of depends on properties of the physical world. Thus we need there to be light in order to see the physical objects around us. Conversely we cannot see well with our eyes covered, we cannot think well if we are tired or drunk or have suffered a stroke, and so on.

      What is it about this non-physical consciousness that requires this?

      If you are asking why on my view God chose to create the world in such a way that this dependence on physical properties holds, then any discussion moves us far away from the current thread and into theodicy.

  10. Hi Eric

    Perhaps this exposes the limits of the conspiracy theory analogy. The amount of work being done to accommodate seems to measure differently from inside the theory than oorm without, and as one can never know which applies there must be a danger of the analysis degenerating to that of attributing madness to those views we don't much like.

    From where I stand, the asymmetry with regard to explanations of consciousness are clear, but to be fair, I don't even understand how those who give primacy to consciousness do explain things like the twinning with physical characteristics, the asymmetry of causation, the nature of interaction, the process by which human consciousness evolved, etc. To be sure the materialist explanation still has its holes, and perhaps this is argument enough to hold off judging at all, while the exploration continues. What though is the argument for thinking consciousness is somehow prior or fundamental?

    Is there somebody who writes well on the relationship between brain and mind from this perspective? Is there a tradition of research in the area?


  11. Hi Bernard,

    I don't think the analogy with conspiracy theorists works very well here. With conspiracy theorists, new data is acknowledged and readily assimilated into an ever more intricate web of ad hoc arguments. In the consciousness case, there seems to be instead not so much a dismissal of the new facts than a lack of interest in explaining them at all, as if they were somehow irrelevant.

    Which I take to mean that claims like the primacy of consciousness or human beings may not be about understanding reality at all but about something radically different. Myth building perhaps?

  12. JP & Bernard,

    What would you both say is the most damning evidence against non-materialistic theories of the mind? Would it be, in general, the items you list above, Bernard? Or would it be more an appeal to parsimony?

  13. Hi Dianelos

    Yes, we read QM very differently. One summary on Wikipedia has a causal role for the observer in 2 of the 14 interpretations it canvasses. We are a long way form being able to say QM has anything to say about consciousness. one day we may get there, and that would be very exciting. And already I have broken the don't mention QM if you don't fully understand it rule, so I shall leave it there.

    I'm confused regarding causation. You appear to say yes, the hunter causes the deer to die, while also saying cause and effect must be simultaneous. Perhaps you can explain?

    My question regarding the correlation between mind and brain states is simply this: why, under your model, is it that we always see a particular conscious experience associated directly with a particular mental state?

    Now, if we are to say that conscious states and physical states coincide, we can not unambiguously declare that the conscious state is causal. We can not say the decision to raise the hand causes the hand to raise, as it may be that physical state of the brain associated with this intention was the causal mechanism.

    If we reverse the question, and ask can matter affect consciousness, the answer is unambiguous. Brian injury following a car accident absolutely can cause conscious experience to change. If consciousness is in some sense the prior reality, I find this asymmetry very curious. How does your model explain it?


  14. Hi Clerk

    I'm not sure I see it as a case of there being damning evidence against non-materialistic theories of the mind. It's more that I don't quite see what these theories are (beyond a statement that consciousness is a primary reality). So, while the problems are reasonably clear (why then the physical arrangement we see associated with consciousness, why can matter affect consciousness, while the reverse is unclear, how come physical approaches to the mind are helping us understand conscious experience while there is no similar research progress being made under the alternative banners, how do mind and matter interact under this model...)

    I don't believe we're at the stage where we can say how the brain produces consciousness, and perhaps we'll never get the whole way there (after all when do we ever have a full explanation of anything?) But, I don't see the way in which the consciousness-first hypothesis even intends to address its problems. This may well be because I don't understand them well enough, so I'm open to explanations.


  15. Dianelos,

    One of my problems with a 'consciousness first' approach to understanding the mind is that it seems there are many times where consciousness is either lagging behind the brain, hindering the unconscious processess, or altogether absent.

    This isn't in reference to Libet's experiment, but other results where the brain seems to detect an error or danger before the person is consiously aware what is going on. Furthermore, there are many activities (sports, handwriting) that are done without consciously controlling our motions, even if we are consciously aware we are performing some action. In many of these, however, conscious intervention only slows down the process. It seems that if consciousness was 'fundamental,' it would be more helpful in menial tasks, as opposed to a hinderance.

  16. Bernard,

    From what I understand of them, the jist is that the brain acts as a 'reducing valve' or 'transmitter' or 'modulator' for consciousness. Whether consciousness is sort of just 'out there' or hovering around our bodies, or around our brains, I'm not really sure.

    Perhaps JP can spread some light on this question, since he seems to find more special pleading involved in non-materialistic theories. From what I know of the brain, I haven't seen anything that yet makes the idea entirely fantastic, but perhaps I'm missing something.

    From what I've seen, most of these people will cite phenonemon such as NDE's, OBE's, shared death experiences, death-bed visions, PSI, extreme cases of hydrocephalus, acquired savant syndrome, Erotic asphyxiation, the choking game, etc, to illustrate why either the brain is reducing something more 'powerful' in consciousness, or may not be as necessary as people think. I'm not sure exactly how persuasive the case is, or how I could even begin to assign a probablility to it, but those are some of the topics I've heard.

    Oh, and I believe what Dianelos is saying with cause and effect is that it's not necessary for consciousness to proceed brain function for it to be seperate. It might be that consciousness acts at the same time as the corresponding brain activity. Or least I believe this is what he's saying. Dianelos?

  17. Hi Clerk,

    To your question above, no, I don't appeal to parsimony at all. And, with Bernard, I am not sure it's so much a question of damning evidence against non-materialist theories of the mind as something else. What I would say is that there is a lot of (overwhelming?) evidence that, roughly speaking, consciousness arises from brain activity. No brain, no appearance of consciousness; push some molecule in the brain, consciousness is turned off; damage corresponding parts of the brain, consciousness is affected accordingly – and so on.

    To claim meaningfully that, nevertheless, consciousness is primary requires more than a few nice sounding phrases. First, it needs to be defined: this “primacy” is so maddeningly vague it's almost meaningless. Second, simple questions (like the ones Bernard suggested) must be answered – or, at the very least, one must show that there is a reasonable way to address them.

    Is this non-material consciousness like a field, permeating space and, somehow, connected with the brain? Is it more like some independent “mind-stuff”, existing independently of matter but, somehow, ale to control it? Or what?

    There is no shortage of questions. You mention NDE and other alleged phenomena. Here's one question about NDE: in these experiences, the “soul” is said to float around the body and “see” things... Now, how can that work? It seems to imply that this soul has a position in space, that it can intercept electromagnetic radiation and process it (remember that vision processing in the brain is of mind boggling complexity). It must also intercept sound waves and construct words out of them. It must also be able to store the gathered information in the brain in the form of physical memories. And so on.

  18. JP,

    Right - I think a lot of your concerns are extremely valid, especially when it comes to calling consciousness 'primary.' I'm also not quite sure what it means, perhaps Dianelos can help. My main point is just that I don't see anything that rules it out (and in my head at least, there are things that would rule it out), and I don't even see it being that ridiculous given what we know.

    All the concerns you raise in your first paragraph don't seem to do much to sway me. Anyone I've ever seen who endorses some non-material theory wouldn't deny there is a strong correlation between mental and brain states, only that the relationship is one of causation as well.

    As far as your last paragraph, these theories are generally based on a first-person ontology as opposed to third-person. In other words, sound, vision, all these experiences, are experiences that, in the end, occur in our mind. Yes, they can be analyzed by looking at our brain, but only in so far as there is a corresponding brain state to having vision.

    All this said, I don't myself ascribe to this theory, for what it's worth.

  19. Hi, all...

    JP says: What I would say is that there is a lot of (overwhelming?) evidence that, roughly speaking, consciousness arises from brain activity.

    Do we know this, really? That consciousness and brain activity are related I think has been established pretty well. But does that mean consciousness is a function of brain activity, or is the brain activity a function of consciousness? How can you know?

    I was googling around on free will a while back and ran across this interesting quotation by Matthew Lieberman, Director of the UCLA Social Cognitive Neuroscience lab:
    I am a neuroscientist and so 99% of the time I behave like a materialist, acknowledging that the mind is real but fully dependent on the brain. But we don’t actually know this. We really don’t. We assume our sense of will is a causal result of the neurochemical processes in our brain, but this is a leap of faith. Perhaps the brain is something like a complex radio receiver that integrates consciousness signals that float around in some form. Perhaps one part of visual cortex is important for decoding the bandwidth that contains motion consciousness and another part of the brain is critical to decoding the bandwith that contains our will. So damage to brain regions may alter our ability to express certain kinds of conscious experience rather than being the causal source of consciousness itself. I don’t actually believe the radio metaphor of the brain, but I think something like it could account for all of our findings. Its unfalsifiable which is a big no-no in science. But so is the materialist view—its also unfalsifiable. We simply don’t know how to reverse engineer consciousness.

    It's not hard to find similar sentiments expressed by other scientists. Likewise, the notion of the primacy of consciousness over matter (or, more precisely, energy) is not at all unknown among respected quantum physicists, as demonstrated by the quotes from Planck and others in Dianelos' post above. So perhaps we could dispense with the idea that the evidence is pretty much in on the relationship between consciousness and the brain?

  20. As for Chesterton... I don't think he was so much talking about madness per se, as he was the way in which reason was being employed by the materialists of his day (and perhaps still in ours). When a single idea is latched onto and employed as an explanation for everything through an over-use of reason, you end up with an "insanity" akin to conspiracy theory:
    The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable... If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours... Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed. Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large. A bullet is quite as round as the world, but it is not the world... The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way. I mean that if you or I were dealing with a mind that was growing morbid, we should be chiefly concerned not so much to give it arguments as to give it air, to convince it that there was something cleaner and cooler outside the suffocation of a single argument...

    It's one of my favorite chapters in all of Chesterton. And in it Chesterton eventually gets to how we can judge between sanity and insanity, as he delineates them. King's vision explicity "breaks out" of the cramped reason of the sort Chesterton criticizes. And, thus, jolly old GKC would no doubt have pronounced him "sane"...

  21. Hi Ron

    One way to think about this whole business of conspiracy may be in terms of corroboration. If a person thinks everybody is out to get them, then perhaps it's because they are, or perhaps it's because they suffer from some sort of paranoia. Which is more likely? We could ask other people, who know them well. If they all say 'yep, nobody likes him, and many people wish him dead' then perhaps it's not paranoia. If, however, they report no sign of such animosity, the scale shifts in favour of paranoia.

    We do not judge the conspiracy theory mad simply because it's a conspiracy. We judge it mad because it is a conspiracy that runs counter to corroboration. This tendency to put one's own interpretation of the world ahead of all others might then be the characteristic of madness Chesterton is identifying, and it is the very lack of rationality, the inability to attend to pertinent evidence, that is causing the trouble.

    My problem with the consciousness being in some sense primary theory, is that I do struggle for a notion of what people mean by it, and you may be able to help.

    If you have something akin to a radio to transmission relationship going on, then one thing reverse engineering the radio will do is let you see which aspects of the sound the radio is responsible for, and which remain unaccounted for (so, no matter how you tweak the radio, you can not alter the mood of the DJ, for example). If it turns out there is no aspect of the final performance that can not be altered by the radio, we are left concluding, perhaps, that the radio is primary. (This reminds me of the modern fashion to 'engineer' the sound of a singer's voice. At what point are we no longer listening to the singer?)

    So, I'd hesitate to call it unfalsifiable, as your quote offers. There, at least on this analogy, is a research programme available, and roughly speaking, it's how neuroscience progresses. One thing we might say is not that the materialist view explains consciousness, but that it gives us an ever clearer picture of what we might legitimately mean when we use the term.

    Given what is left to be explained, my aversion is, as ever, to jumping conclusions before the data is in. But that's just me.


  22. Hi Bernard,

    Even though brain states and mental states appear to exactly correlate, since the brain and the mind are such different things is not difficult to point out asymmetries. If I understand you correctly the asymmetry you point out is the following: Unambiguously changes (not just injuries) in the brain cause changes in the mind. In the opposite direction though it is not as unambiguous that changes in the mind cause changes in the brain. Indeed it may be the case that the feeling that we make choices is only an illusion. The argument then is that this asymmetry points towards the brain being primary over the mind.

    OK, granted, even though that’s a very weak argument. After all the theist who holds that the mind is primary can easily give a plausible explanation of why God would want to create the world in such a way that the human mind is kind of imprisoned in matter, which entails the asymmetry who describe.

    Moreover asymmetries cut both ways. Consider the following argument: In most cases (indeed perhaps in all cases) where A is primary to B, B is easier to observe than A. Secondary effects are plainly visible, primary causes are hidden. Thus we plainly observe the movement of the moon or the falling of apples, but we don’t as easily observe or detect the presence of gravitational force fields, let alone of spacetime warping. We plainly see the functional complexity of biological organisms, but we don’t as plainly see natural evolution. Coming back to the case at hand, we plainly see the brain or even the physical processes playing out in the brain – but we don’t see the mind. Indeed the mind and all that pertains to it are fundamentally unobservable. (That’s why, for example, nobody can detect whether cockroaches have consciousness or not.) That asymmetry then points towards the mind being primary over the brain.

  23. Hi Clerk,

    This isn't in reference to Libet's experiment, but other results where the brain seems to detect an error or danger before the person is consiously aware what is going on.

    Right. And there are cases where our brain detects and reacts to dangers without us noticing a thing. Moreover the brain regulates the heart beat or, say, digestion, without any conscious effort on our part. But I don’t see how exactly this pertains to our discussion. I mean rain falls without us consciously participating in this physical event either.

    From the point of view of the theist, the brain, like the rest of the physical realm, is a tool – a tool meant by God to be used by us for a good purpose. And, naturally enough, that tool often runs on autopilot, at least as far as we are concerned.

    Perhaps a source of the confusion which makes communication difficult is that the materialist is apt to create a logical border between the brain (or some parts deep in the brain) and the rest of the universe. This is kind of arbitrary – as some atheists themselves recognize and feel therefore attracted to panpsychism. In any case the theist does not build any such border. From the point of view of the theist all of physical creation is a continuum.

    From what I've seen, most of these people will cite phenonemon such as NDE's, OBE's, shared death experiences, death-bed visions, PSI [etc snip]

    It’s unlikely that a serious philosopher will use such purported phenomena as evidence to support the claim that the mind being primary. (In fact even though I am fairly well-read in this field I had to look up what OBE means, and it’s the first time I hear about “shared death experiences”.) The belief that the mind is primary is entailed in theism, and the arguments for theism or against materialism are based on much stronger and widely available evidence, such as the very existence and nature of consciousness, the great beauty of the human condition, the quality of our perception of ethical values, the fundamental place of our experience of free will, common spiritual experiences, even our sense of empathy. And, as it turns out, on the deep structure of physical phenomena which modern science has uncovered. (And anyway, the strongest reason that moves people towards religion is a pragmatic one and not one based on arguments.)

    It might be that consciousness acts at the same time as the corresponding brain activity.

    Right, that’s what I meant. There is general agreement that cause and effect can be simultaneous, and thus the fact that we don’t have evidence for mental states preceding brain states is irrelevant.

    Moreover, I have been arguing with Bernard the claim that causes and effects can *only* be simultaneous, i.e. that when one thinks carefully one sees that it can’t be the case that causes precede effects. Which fits very well with what QM found when it carefully looked at what physical systems at their most basic do: A cause instantaneously changes the state of a particle and thus its wavefunction, which wavefunction probabilistically (i.e. without any specific cause) at some future time (sometimes billionths of a second away, sometimes years away) “collapses” into a new effect. For example an electron within an atom absorbs a photon and assumes a higher energy level. At some later time and without any physical cause it falls back to the previous energy level emitting a new photon.

  24. Hi RonH,

    Yes, it's fascinating to see researchers speculating out loud, so to speak. There is certainly no lack of ideas out there! And this is the way it should be – the question of consciousness is so tremendously complex I have no doubt we should expect major surprises down the road. But, and this is one point I've been making, the road must be travelled before we can claim to know.

    One thing you could perhaps help me understand is this: if there exists somehow consciousness roughly independent of the brain, what is left for it to do? Memories seem very much physically stored in the brain; feelings also seem very much anchored in the physical brain; perception is no doubt dependent on our sensory apparatus; and so on. Are we talking then of “mind-stuff” without memory, feelings or perception?

  25. Hi again Clerk,

    I missed this bit: “ In many of these, however, conscious intervention only slows down the process.

    Right. As is commonly the case when a machine is capable to perform something automatically one is apt to mess things up when consciously interfering. Please observe that both the materialist and the theist hold that the brain is a machine. Their disagreement is about the nature of the mind and how it relates to the brain’s machinery.

  26. Hi JP,

    push some molecule in the brain, consciousness is turned off

    According to theism only a person’s conscious interaction with the universe can be affected, but the person’s consciousness cannot possibly be “turned off” (because consciousness is a necessary property of what it means to be a person). Let us not confuse consciousness which experience. If it is the case that under general anaesthesia we experience nothing it does not mean that we have stopped being conscious beings. Further, for all we know even under general anaesthesia we may have some rudimentary experiences, albeit not have any recollections of them when we wake up.

    What I would say is that there is a lot of (overwhelming?) evidence that, roughly speaking, consciousness arises from brain activity.

    Some relevant quotes about this issue:

    The idea that brains produce consciousness is little more than an article of faith among scientists at present, and there are many reasons to believe that the methods of science will be insufficient to either prove or disprove it”. Sam Harris, philosopher, neuroscientist, and original new atheist author.

    Nobody has the slightest idea how anything material could be
    conscious. Nobody even knows what it would be like to have the
    slightest idea about how anything material could be conscious.
    ” J. A. Fodor, eminent atheist philosopher.

    Now it is of course the case that materialism entails that brains produce consciousness, and therefore those who believe in the former must also believe in the latter. And it is indeed true that all the scientific evidence fits with the belief that brains produce consciousness. But to think that if the evidence fits a belief it follows that the evidence supports that belief is to commit the so-called fallacy of affirming the consequent. In fact, a piece of evidence supports a belief only when it does *not fit* with the *negation* of that belief. Thus, for example, the footprint in the mud is evidence which supports the belief that the butler is the murderer only when it does not fit the belief that somebody other than the butler is the murderer. Back to our case, a piece of scientific evidence that would support the belief that brains produce consciousness should be such that it doesn’t fit the belief that brains do not produce consciousness. But I claim there is no such scientific evidence. Not a shred, not a scrap, not a shadow. Not even some evidence, scientific or not, one can imagine might conceivably exist. If you like try suggesting some such actual evidence, or even some imaginary evidence. I think you’ll find it very difficult to do.

  27. Hi Clerk,

    I'm also not quite sure what [calling consciousness ‘primary’] means, perhaps Dianelos can help.

    Probably the best way to explain what the primacy of consciousness means is to describe how people arrive to form and express this belief. There are many paths that move people towards it, but let me here try to describe what moved many extremely smart, coolheaded, and non-religious quantum physicists to the idea that consciousness is primary and the physical realm is secondary. Let me start by stealing an idea from Rosenblum and Kuttner’s book:

    Imagine that a string of couples is approaching a room with two doors. You are inside the room and at the precise moment a couple arrives you decide to open one, the other, or both doors. Imagine now that you observe the following. Every time you open just one door you either see the couple waiting there, or else see nobody waiting at this door implying that the couple is waiting at the other door. So far so good. But every time you decide to open both doors you always see the man waiting at one door and the woman waiting at the other. How can that be? It’s like your decisions “forces” the couple to behave in different ways, namely either to stay together and pass through one door, or else split and pass through both doors. Your decision is thus “primary” to what the couple will do.

    That’s exactly what happens at the famous double slit experiment in quantum physics. How you decide to observe the material particle appears to affect what the material particle does, namely whether to pass through the left slit, or through the right slit, or through both at the same time. As clearly a mind over matter situation as one may find oneself in. But it gets weirder. One can set up a cosmic double split experiment using a quasar as the source of photons, and the gravitational lens produced by a galaxy as the splitter. According to what QM on its face says, one’s decision about how to observe that photon affects what the photon did billions of years ago billions of light-years away. (See Wheeler’s delayed choice experiment, for example here: www.dhushara.com/book/quantcos/qphil/qphil.htm )

    Of course the idea that consciousness is primary and that matter is secondary is anathema to materialists. So they had to sit down and think about how reality could be in a way that would produce the same quantum phenomena without entailing the primacy of consciousness. (This, incidentally, is a paradigmatic case of ad-hoc and thus conspiratorial kind of thinking.) Anyway, they did come up with some descriptions of reality (so-called interpretations of QM) which arguably succeed in denying the primacy of consciousness. Perhaps the most popular idea is Everett’s “many worlds” solution. Consider again the room with the two doors and you being about to decide whether to open one, or the other, or both. According to Everett you don’t actually decide anything, but rather at this instance the entire universe splits into many different copies (with a copy of yourself inside each one of them) corresponding to all possible cases. So, in some of the newly minted universes a copy of yourself will open the left door (feeling that this was what it had decided) and see the couple waiting there, in some others a copy of yourself will open the left door and see nobody, and in some others a copy of yourself will open both doors and see one member waiting at each door, and so on. The delayed choice cases force one to assume that these amazing universe splittings take place not only when a decision is eminent but in all cases where a future decision is possible. Thus, when the quasar emits the photon the universe again splits into many copies, in some of which after billions of years a physicist will measure the photon as coming from a particular direction.

    [continuous bellow]

  28. Now it happens that the same materialists who in order to maintain the viability of their beliefs earnestly defend the above highly implausibly worldview, also make fun of religious dogmas such as the virgin birth. The virgin birth they say is a laughable idea, but the idea that the universe is invisibly and continuously splitting into an infinite number of copies is a serious one (apparently because it’s scientists who believe in it). And the implication that in some of these universes each one of us will live for ever must also a serious belief (see “quantum suicide”). And the belief that in some of these universes the Statue of Liberty now and then goes swimming around Manhattan also deserves to be taken seriously.

    In conclusion though, I’d like to say the following. I think it is factually true that the discoveries of modern science are making it difficult for materialists to describe how reality is, and thus for materialism to remain a viable understanding of reality. On several levels the discoveries of modern science fail to fit well with assumptions previously widely shared by materialists (e.g. the infinity of time, determinism, locality, the primacy of matter over mind). Science has also revealed features of the universe which go against the grain of materialism, such as the deep mathematical nature of physical reality (an unexpected strong and deep feature which has moved some scientists to ponder about the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences). In response materialists have found it expedient to suggest increasingly ad-hoc and complicated worldviews. So the thrust of our recent intellectually history makes trouble for materialism.

    But. Even though modern science has not produced similar trouble for theism, one might argue that theism is by nature a smaller target. Further, there is still the possibility that a materialist will discover a plausible principle which explains why a materialistic reality in which intelligence evolves is likely be such that it will look non-materialistic to that intelligence. In epistemological terms, even though modern science is providing a defeater for materialism, there is still some hope for a defeater-defeater. So the case that the natural sciences support theism over materialism may not be as strong as I tend to think, or as one may think after reading Plantinga’s latest book (or even Nagel’s). Perhaps we are living through a time where the intellectual pendulum, after favoring materialism for a couple of centuries, is moving back towards theism, but it is not as yet clear where if will come to a rest.

    P.S. The “splitting” in the many-worlds interpretation is usually conceived as the disappearance of the actual universe and the creation in its place of a large number of new universes actualizing different quantum possibilities. Some many-worlds believing physicists (e.g. Sean Carroll in the video linked by JP above) describe a different reality, perhaps because they feel it’s more plausible, namely that right now we don’t live in one universe but in a large number of identical universes in superposition. So it’s not like one universe splits into copies, but rather that already existing identical universes start diverging. Since the beginning of time then an infinite number of physical universes exist, each representing an evolution of history which according to QM is possible.

  29. Here's another take on the many-worlds interpretation (on "askamathematician.com"). I highly recommend this site.

  30. Hi, Bernard...

    I think Chesterton's right that it's not quite so easy to counter the conspiracy theorist by simply introducing more evidence or reason. He's saying precisely that it's not a dearth of reason/evidence that is causing the problem here... Rather, the "madman" has a single idea through which he interprets every piece of evidence that comes in. It's not that he's disregarding your new evidence... He's not. It's not that his reason is flawed... It's not.

    Young-earth creationism fits precisely this profile. Creationist scientists aren't irrational... On the contrary, it can take some pretty clever and convoluted rationalization to maintain it in the face of scientific evidence. And introducing more evidence isn't going to help, because I'm not sure what more evidence you could possibly need for evolution, and the evidence we already have is "accounted for" in their system anyhow. The idea that we're just dealing with a lack of evidence or reason is naive, and suggests that the one making the claim hasn't spent enough time around serious, thoughtful creationists.

    As Chesterton says, a mind like that doesn't need more arguments: it needs more air. It needs to adjust its starting point... change its perspective. It needs someone else to come along and show it that the world would actually be more wonderful if it were wrong. Chesterton is right, and I know this first-hand.

    If you haven't read that whole chapter, you really should. I understand that Chesterton's not for everyone; but even if you flat-out disagree with him, he's still a fun read.

    As for consciousness... I think it's amusing that people seem to find the notion that consciousness is primary a difficult one to grasp. After all, all we know about the world we know through our own conscious experience. That consciousness is primary appears to be the default position of humans. I'm hardly qualified to mount a serious defense of the idea... But it seems to me we're a long way from knowing how consciousness works, and proving it one way or the other might well be impossible (many neuroscientists seem to think so, including the one I quoted (and, apparently, Sam Harris, c.f. Dianelos above) -- if you disagree, I'd be curious to know what your reasoning is...). I'm about four chapters in to John Searle's book Mind (2004) right now, and so far he's just been explaining how everyone else in his field is wrong. By all means, we should continue to research the brain as thoroughly as possible. Neuroscience is wickedly brilliant stuff, and I wish I'd gone into the field. But to say that a materialistic explanation of consciousness isn't a leap of faith at this point is to say more than what many of the experts are willing to say, and is just so much wishful thinking.

  31. Hi, JP...

    Since my conscious experience is mediated entirely through my brain, I don't know what "brainless" consciousness might be like. But just because consciousness can be implemented on "wetware", I don't see how it follows that therefore that is the only way it can exist. Most people who run software on their computer have no idea that they're working with a final form of something wholly different from what the developer of that program was working with (i.e. source code, libraries, etc.). In fact, if the simulation hypothesis is correct, you're not even a brain.

    My inability to explain something is only proof of... er... my inability. ;-)

    I'm not suggesting that any of this consciousness talk is evidence for God. But what I am suggesting is that when you look at the state-of-the-art studies of both the external world (QM) and the internal one (consciousness), materialism isn't on nearly as solid ground as its adherents might wish. I think much more humility is called for here.

  32. Oh, something else, JP:

    Are memories really "stored" in the brain? How do we know? While damaging parts of the brain may cause people to lose access to their history, have we ever been able to extract memory information from a person's brain without going through their consciousness?

  33. Dianelos

    As I understand it, many physicists would now suggest it is not the observer, but rather the interaction with the measuring device, that causes the collapse. Others note that it is not the case that observation would cause the photon to come into existence, but rather simply to take on a certain position in space time. Is it not the case that even under the most consciousness friendly interpretations, the energy of the proton can be thought of as always being in play. Hence, to say consciousnes sis prior to matter in this case would be an overstatement?

    The key point is, the issue remains unresolved. And so, exactly as you say, some are a little prone to choosing their favoured interpretation and then suggesting the existence of the possibility is evidence in favour of their prior conclusion. Which is exactly the mindset I am wary of.

    Materialism is hardly the only alternative here. One could also be content just to accept that, as of yet, we don't have a coherent intuitive explanation for QM, but we do have some superbly effective equations. The mindset that says 'we don't understand QM, and we don't understand consciousness, thus the two must be connected' leaves me a little cold.


  34. Hi Ron

    When I say I don't understand what people mean when they say consciousness is primary, or some such thing, it's that I can't get much beyond the statement 'we don't much understand consciousness' which I fully endorse. But if we want to say, not just that we don't know how consciousness is produced, or what it is, to saying consciousness is prior, we need more than this mystery, which itself appears non-prescriptive.

    So, what do you have in mind? That matter can not exist, or act, without consciousness? I believe, for example, that if a rock falls into a pond, it may cause a ripple. But perhaps you would argue that there is no interaction unless a conscious being observes it? Which creates some difficultly for most of history, with no minds on our planet. Perhaps you mean, it only happens if some super conscious being observes it? So the world exists because God is watching? Under this scenario, the mater of the brain could still cause human consciousness, even though consciousness is prior, in that God's conscious observation could cause the matter to behave in the ways that cause the consciousness. So I guess you don't mean that.

    Perhaps you mean the world is literally made up of this stuff called consciousness, in which case the relationship between conscious brains and other forms of matter (conscious rocks?) becomes unclear to me.

    Perhaps the intention is only to suggest that no arrangement of matter alone is sufficient to achieve consciousness, and there is an interaction between a specific arrangement of matter and some other, conscious realm, that is required before consciousness is experienced. But how should we think of this interaction? If the mechanism is required before consciousness is to be experienced, then is fundamental consciousness itself an unexperienced thing? Unexperienced consciousness - you see my confusion.

    Perhaps the model people have in mind is the folksy one, of the ghost in the machine, interpreting the signals, but the problems with this are well known (if we need the superstructure in order for the ghost to realise consciousness, and the ghost is itself conscious, then doesn't it also need its own superstructure? If the ghost is unable to experience consciousness without the machine, then again, consciousness is not prior.)

    Or maybe the radio analogy is intended, but here, the confusion becomes even greater for me. If the experience of consciousness is listening to the radio, then in what sense can we speak of the radio waves being prior or primary? And as I say, as we reverse engineer, we can discover the difference between say, an ipod, and a live broadcast. Which bits of the experiencing consciousness package are you thinking gets parceled to the transmission, and which to the receiver, and in what sense is the transmission then conscious?

    And all of this before we even get on to what of the very many variants of conscious experience we are thinking of when we use the term consciousness.

    I don't know if that helps you at all see why some of us get rather confused when we hear people speaking of consciousness being prior. It seems to encompass so many different, and often contradictory, possibilities. What do you mean by it?


  35. Hi Ron,

    You don't want to speculate on brainless consciousness. Fair enough. But the questions I raised above, and many others, are quite simple and obvious questions that need to be addressed by dualists. For one thing, seeing how this is done might help the rest of us understand what the consciousness-first (CF) team is talking about. However, by and large, dualists seem strangely reluctant to address these issues.

    Bernard has explained quite well above what some of the difficulties are in understanding the CF position. I would add that, for me, part of this understanding is see how the simple questions I raised are addressed., at least in general terms. They form part of the picture and without some answers, CF remains much too vague to mean much.

  36. Hi, Bernard & JP...

    I find myself in the curious position of having to defend my agnosticism against the agnostics! On the subject of consciousness, I believe I've only made two claims: 1) that materialism is not at all an established fact, and that it is not difficult to find respected scientists who indeed admit it is an article of faith (or even, in the case of physicists, reject it altogether on evidence); 2) that the primacy of consciousness shouldn't seem that strange an idea, given that our intuitions already lean in that direction by default and that conscious experience is all we really know. I've provided reasons for both of those claims.

    I'm not taking a firm position on the relationship between consciousness and the brain, because I hardly know enough about the discussion to date. Bernard, if you wish to know what it means for consciousness to be primary, you'd best hunt down some of the physicists who claim that and see if they can explain themselves. If they do, please let me know. It does indeed sound strange... but I'm always a little uncomfortable with using "even smart people can think crazy things" as an excuse to dismiss a position I don't understand which is being advanced by someone I'd otherwise respect.

    JP, you seem to have concluded that I'm a dualist... But I've read some of the objections to dualism and find them persuasive. So I don't think of myself as a dualist. It seems to me that there are more options than just dualism or materialism. For example: Searle, in the book I'm reading now, rejects both of them (to an extent) on the grounds that they start out with some mistaken assumptions. Another example would be the simulation hypothesis, which suggests that it is matter which is illusory, and only consciousness exists. You say that without answers to your questions, consciousness-primacy is too vague to mean much. But Eric has just advanced the idea that this view underlay Dr. King's entire project. Without this view, would Dr. King have done what he did? Was King irrational? Insane, even? Vague or not, the view that consciousness is primary is anything but meaningless.

    Obviously, as a Christian I have a religious bias towards the consciousness-prime view, though I don't go seeking evidence for my religious view in science and have to follow truth wherever the truth goes. However, much like Chesterton, my assumptions have left me free not only to doubt my gods, but also to believe in them. I have no metaphysical need for materialism to be true, and thus am not threatened by evidence suggesting that it might not be.

    The only view on consciousness that I find remotely threatening is the one that suggests consciousness doesn't really exist. But I refute it thus... (presses "Publish")

  37. Hi Ron

    With regard to the physics, it does seem that when you dig down the view that consciousness is primary is not much related to the type of view I understand King had. Rather they are claiming (and here we are apparently talking a very small minority of current physicists)that the differences that we see, depending upon how we observe (see double slit experiment) come down to matter in some sense responding to conscious observation. The more common view is rather that the effect is one of measurement rather than observation, and if anything is primary in this sense it is information. None appear to clam that ocnsciousness makes matter come into being, as matter is thought to possess some qualities independent of measurement.

    So, even if we ignored the very many other possibilities offered by QM intepretations, we'd still be only creeping a small way towards the statement that consciousness can affect some aspects of matter. Given we can observe the very many ways matter can affect ocnsciousness, this doesn't seem to give consciousness primacy in the sort of sense that supports some related religious contentions.

    So, whilst I share your agnosticism, mine is tempered somewhat by a lack of understanding of what the non-materialist alternative means, especially in the sense Eric suggests King thought of it.

    Without this understanding, it seems to me impossible to judge whether King's framework involved the sort of ocnspiratorial thinking in question. (And would reject the link between holding such ideas, and sanity, because really which of us would be sane under such stringent measures?)


  38. Hi Ron,

    I’ve been reading an interview with John Searle in the subway this morning. From what you write, he may not endorse materialism as such but, in the interview, he’s very clear that he believes the brain causes consciousness and that the latter evolved naturally. Perhaps a better description would be that he takes a naturalistic approach. Not to say that new physics won’t be necessary to solve the issue – how could we know?

    In any case, materialism may be a bit of a misnomer. Physicists (Sean Carroll for one) tell us that matter does not really exist – it’s all fields out there (matter being fields acting up). Should it be field-ism then?

  39. Hi, JP...

    Yes, Searle is quite clear that human consciousness is a result of brain states. He's much, much closer to materialists than dualists, although he still thinks materialists are making unwarranted assumptions. As a non-philosopher, I don't think I'm fully appreciating the distinction between his position and materialism --- but he sure does.

    I'm not bothered by the idea that human brains evolved to create human consciousness. There's a lot there we don't understand, but if it turns out to be true -- well, there it is. Indeed, Simon Conway Morris suggests that the evolution of consciousness might well be inevitable in some sense, like the evolution of eyes in an environment with light. But is human consciousness the only kind of consciousness there can be? And are brains the only things that can possibly sustain consciousness? What if Penrose's Orch-OR is right, and consciousness is some kind of quantum phenomenon in a universe made of quantum phenomena? The universe may indeed be stranger than we can imagine.

    Don't get me wrong: I'm not a "god-gapper", looking for any nook and cranny science leaves me in which I can spackle deity. St. Paul's assertion that in God "we live and move and have our being" isn't a scientifically meaningful statement. But I reject the notion that it therefore can have no meaning at all.

  40. Hi Bernard,

    As I understand it, many physicists would now suggest it is not the observer, but rather the interaction with the measuring device, that causes the collapse.

    I think that’s factually wrong. Since the measuring device is a physical system and is therefore itself governed by QM, and since there is no mechanism for collapse in QM, it follows that the measuring device itself exists in a superposed state. (For the same reason no physical system can cause the collapse the wavefunction.) But we know that in our experience of the world the measuring device is only seen in one state, suggesting that our consciousness must be something non-physical with the power of collapsing the wavefuncion. This in a nutshell is the measurement problem (also called the observation problem).

    Some people have the impression that decoherence solves the problem. This theory of which was developed in the 70s describes how through its interaction with the environment the wavefunction tends to lose coherence (the state where the really interesting stuff happens). But decoherence does not collapse the wavefunction, and it is generally agreed that it does not in any way solve the measurement problem.

    The measurement problem has definitely not been solved in a satisfactory way, i.e. in a way which avoids the primacy of consciousness and also avoids the various absurdities entailed in the various naturalistic interpretations. This is evidenced by the fact that there is ongoing work (despite it lacking practical application) towards solving it. Here I’d like to present to relatively new developments, much newer than the docoherence theory.

    The GRW theory was first proposed in 1985. This is not an interpretation, but a theory which solves the measurement problem by making any large measuring device (and not a conscious observer) collapse the wavefunction. But then GRW modifies QM, since the measuring device does not anymore obay the original QM but GRW’s variant of it. Since these are different theories it should in principle be possible to falsify one of them by experiment. Unfortunately (or perhaps by design, and I don’t mean this negatively) it is difficult to perform such an experiment, but my guess is most physicists would bet against some experiment proving GRW right and thus falsifying QM.

    There is an intriguing new interpretation (1988,1995) called the Many Minds interpretation. It’s a variant of the Many Worlds interpretation, but looks superior to it. The idea, as I understand it, goes as follows:

    According to scientific realism, which was almost universally accepted up to and including general relativity, the fact that the physical model which reflects the mathematical structure of a theory produces correct experimental results strongly suggests that that model describes the actual reality which produces said results. So, for example, it’s not just that gravitational phenomena can be computed as if matter bends spacetime, but rather in reality matter does bend spacetime, and that’s why the respective phenomena are correctly computed if one assumes that it does. The problem with QM was that for the first time the theory was not based on nor did it naturally suggest some physical model of reality. Moreover, as it turned out, it was not easy to design such a model, all models are mutually incompatible (even though they all conform with the mathematical structure of QM itself), all are rather implausible, and the first most natural ones appeared to contradict materialism.


  41. Now what QM itself says is that matter *is* a wavefunction of a superposition of many physical states, and that wave deterministically evolves through time. But when we actually look we only see one concrete and classical physical state, as if all others had disappeared in some kind of collapse. Further we also observe patently indeterministic quantum phenomena, belying the deterministic nature of QM. But what if all superposed physical states are always real, and each of the corresponding states of the brains produces the respective classical conscious experience? This would satisfy both QM’s intrinsic model and the facts of our experience of the physical world.

    To go back to the standard double slit experiment experiment: When a conscious observer in a room looks at the display of the measuring device which detects whether the particle has passed through the left or the right slit, the wavefunction of the entire room is basically the superposition of two physical states: One, a state where the particle has passed through the left slit and the material particles in the measuring device and in the observer’s brain represent this fact (e.g. the observer’s brain has all the neural firings which correspond to seeing the measuring device display a bright “LEFT”); and two, a state where the particle has passed through the right slit with the corresponding implications for the physical state of the rest of the room. And according to this interpretation that’s exactly how things stand in reality. And now the main idea: Human consciousness is produced by each physical state in the superposed wavefunction. So in the room there are now two minds since there are two superposed brain states - one experiencing the device displaying “LEFT” (and perhaps seeing a live cat), and one experiencing the device displaying “RIGHT” (and perhaps seeing a dead cat). The universe has *not* split in two, nor strictly speaking has the mind of anybody split in two. Rather for each brain-state in the wavefunction there is also one consciousness.

    In short: According the many minds interpretation QM is literally true and matter is a wave of superposed physical states (without any collapsing of the wave, or any splitting of universes, or any invisible guiding waves). In those physical states in the superposition where a consciousness producing brain is present the respective conscious experience exists. Our own memory of the past represents one particular physical state of the brain within the superposition, and our memory of having experience indeterministic results in quantum experiments is an expected property of almost all brain states that have in the past observed such experiments.

    The mindset that says 'we don't understand QM, and we don't understand consciousness, thus the two must be connected' leaves me a little cold.

    That’s not the mindset of the many physicists who for 80 years now try to solve the measurement problem. On the other hand it is the mindset of eminent mathematical physicist Roger Penrose. Penrose believes that some quantum effect deep in the human brain must be producing our consciousness.

  42. Hi Dianelos

    There is no doubt that QM has, as yet, not produced a satisfactory explanation. I don't intend to suggest that thinking in terms of measuring devices is better than thinking in terms of consciousness, it's just generally agreed that for now they're all somewhat speculative.

    What some people tend to do, and I think you do it, is seize this gap in our understanding as an opportunity to suggest the particular interpretation that best suits your own broader view of the world is in some way better. This is what I objected to initially, the tendency to say 'the simplest explanation...' or, in the above 'looks superior to it.' Looks superior to it to you, perhaps, but to extend beyond this is intellectually dishonest, given you know full well how undecided this matter is.

    There may be very good reasons for thinking of consciousness from existing separate of matter, but until we settle on a best explanation for QM, you can't go looking for it here. Attempting to score a debating point by hoping people aren't aware of any of the alternatives is not the way to further our understanding.