Friday, August 29, 2014

2. What Would A Predecessor of Consciousness Be and How Would It Be Subject To Natural Selection?

It is tempting to go into E. O. Wilson's very brief promotion of the work of the two "neurophilosophers"  Patricia Churchland and Daniel Dennett,  making greatly exaggerated claims for their work while not saying anything about it, other than that they all agree on the value of contemporary neuroscience and the ability to draw conclusions about consciousness from that.  Like all of the people I know of who have made a name in this effort, they are dogmatic materialists who have only contempt for anyone who questions their basic materialist fundamentalism and the stories they make up on that basis.  Also typical, he summarily brushes aside their opponents with derisive terms that don't address their objections ("mysterians"). His claim that Churchland and Dennett, "have helped to demonstrate, for example the ancillary nature of morality and rational thought*," really means that they are often claimed, by their fellow materialists, to have succeeded in squeezing those into an adaptationist scenario under natural selection.  Being more familiar with Dennett than Churchland, I would say that what he does is reduce and invent novel definitions of things which are not explainable through his extreme adaptationist interpretation of natural selection in order to fit his coinages into natural selection, where the actual concepts and experiences of those things have been known to not fit into natural selection from the start.

Indeed, Wilson kind of notes that problem while both skimming over it to pretend that the problems don't matter and not really noting that his oracle, Charles Darwin, was well aware of the problem his theory faced in dealing with thought.

Neuroscientists, to their credit, have no illusions about the difficulty of the task. They agree with Darwin that the mind is a citadel that cannot be taken by frontal assault.  They have set out instead to break through to its inner recesses with multiple probes along the ramparts, opening breaches here and there;  by technical ingenuity and force they hope to enter and explore wherever they find space to maneuver.

I will refer to my recent post of a letter by Darwin in which he goes much farther than Wilson would want to take seriously in the implications of the idea that our thinking is the mere ancillary result of natural selection.  It would empty our ideas, even our science of any possible value of truth or objective significance.

Materialism removes any possibility of significance being a real quality of anything. What the materialist view of life boils down to is the devaluing of all aspects of it, us included, making us no different from any other locus of chemical reactants reacting.  Thoughts would have no more truth value than the digestion of lactose or metals oxidizing in the atmosphere.   The theory of Natural Selection, never mind its mere ancillaries such as Sociobiology and "neueophilosophy" would not escape that demotion and would have, in fact, the same lack of truth value as the most retrograde aspects of the "postmodernism," "mysterianism" that Wilson scoffs at or, for that matter, statements issued by ISIS or contained in this weeks National Enquirer.   Wilson's school of thought removes any legitimate claims that it or any academic topic has to the attention of a public entertained or enthralled by other ideas.

How the quest for reproduction by molecules and their hosts, living organisms, even conscious animals, can be real or ever have arisen in such a universe is a puzzle that came to me as I read Wilson's article.  How do you explain why molecules before life would have ever had an urge to reproduce if nothing matters?[See update]  Why our earliest ancestor would have reproduced, perhaps at great risk to its continued existence in the earliest acts of reproduction,  promises to be a fun thing to think about.  It feels like an idea which could confound the likes of Dennett and Wilson, especially if you brushed aside their mild derision and airy dismissal and pressed the issue.

Furthermore, the entire description of the mind as a "citadel" to be taken by fMRI and other imaging is diverting as a narrative metaphor but it is absurd considering that any such attempt will have to begin from within that very "citadel" using whatever "defenses" it has hidden within those very recesses which the minds of neuroscientists and others will strive to take it from.   The absurdly inadequate as well as opportunistic metaphor of taking a castle will, as is typical of the psychological use of metaphor, become the frame of the intellectual attempt while forgetting that it is an shoddy, rude and inadequate metaphor.  The metaphor will become the message which was predetermined by the intentions of those waging the campaign.  Does anyone have any doubt that Wilson, Churchland, or Dennett and their fellow materialists will never produce any findings that contradict their a priori  intent of "finding" a material explanation of the mind?   I think that's about as likely as the Cato Institute issuing a paper in favor of government redistribution of wealth to produce economic progress for the poor and destitute.


Perhaps even more problematic for the attempt to explain consciousness as a product of molecular action as worked on by natural selection is that it requires there to be some sort of pre-consciousness that developed such as the eye is believed to have developed from some kind of light sensitive nerves at the skin. What that precursor could have been is far harder to imagine and define than a physical nerve that is sensitive to light.

Consciousness isn't a divisible or reducible phenomenon, it is a direct experience of itself, the means through which we experience anything or think or speak about it.  We talk about "semi-consciousness" to refer to our occasional muddied thinking but any conscious experience is consciousness.  You are either conscious or you are not, you aren't half-conscious because any consciousness is an experience of consciousness.  There is no getting around the fact that consciousness would have had to come about full blown.  A light sensitive bacterium that can be seen to react to light can justly be considered to be conscious of the light. How could you explain its clearly intentional action on any other basis?  Of course that requires us to imagine, with our human minds, what it's like to be a bacterium which, I submit, is unlikely to be accurate because we are not bacteria, living the lives of bacteria in their habitat.  But the fact that they can react to external stimuli, taking action that is, clearly, good according to them in response to it, justifies considering them to be conscious.  Any attempt to define that bacterial consciousness will inevitably not really address it, it will merely be an attempt for us to match it to a human narrative based on human experiences with no possible verification from the bacteria that we got it right.  And that would be easy compared to coming up with a comprehensible precursor to consciousness that had real effects in the world and lives of creatures we must imagine in their entirety because we have no specimens of pre-conscious, behaving organisms.  We couldn't even identify any alive today.

Yet the effort to turn consciousness into a mere product of molecular action, favoring their reproductive success, the development of the quest for reproductive success, requires us to go much, much farther and imagine some kind of unimaginable predecessor experience that was not experienced but which, through natural selection, became consciousness.  If Wilson would like to describe such a state of being I'd be curious to see what he comes up with, though I doubt it would be even as relevant to our experience of consciousness than direct democracy in a town meeting is to life in an ant colony. Any such explanation of this "pre-conscious" "pre-experience" will be a merely imaginary construct motivated by materialist fundamentalism and professional opportunism.   How this "pre-consciousness" removed from experience of an organism would work in a scheme of reproductive success in natural selection would have to wait for an explaination of what it would be, though I suspect the cart would come before the eohippus in whatever is written.

And if you think that last sentence was extreme, it is less extreme than the effort to chop away at the experience and phenomenon of consciousness because you insist that everyone must begin with natural selection and work backward to force all of life into that, already, artificial construct.  Which is what Wilson, Dennett and Churchland do.  In that they ignore the fact that it is consciousness that precedes all intellectual activity, it precedes the invention of natural selection, something which does not have an independent existence that comes before Darwin's idea, which is the product of consciousness.

*  Consider what that sentence could mean, and it is hardly a well thought out concept or statement.   What would it mean for any intellectual, indeed scientific or philosophical exposition, if rational thought were merely "ancillary" to some unspecified something.   Despite the attitude we are supposed to take in respect to such intellectual products, that would make any academic enterprise dependent on reason to be even lower down on the imagined hierarchy.  Only materialists never seem to take that into consideration.

Update:  I don't believe there is intentionality in molecules, I don't even believe molecules within living organisms have intentions, that's a claim derived from Wilson's Sociobiology, though it's been implied by natural selection in its atheist, materialist fundamentalist interpretation from the start.  I am merely pointing out the consequences of believing what Wilson et al are claiming.


  1. This is recognized among linguists (or perhaps argued about; I'm no expert): that there are no simple languages, no "primitive" languages. All languages are equally complex and, again AFAIK, there are no "proto-languages".

    So where did language come from? Did it originate like life, from simple organisms to complex? Or did it spring full blown from the brows of Zeus?

    Best we can tell, gotta credit Zeus.

    Was consciousness once simple, and then became complex? Seems like saying once someone was just 'a little bit pregnant,' doesn't it?

  2. The vital feature of being conscious is being conscious. Saying that it was the product of natural selection means it had to come from somewhere. Apparently these guys believe it developed like a sense organ but the problem is that you can explain how a nerve could, through selection, develop into an eye or an ear (though I've got my doubts that they'll ever come up with an adequate explanation of how it developed based on actual evidnece from organisms) but consciousness couldn't have developed that way. Consciousness isn't an adaptation of any 'trait" of non-conscious states that I've ever seen described. If they came up with one I'd ask 1. where they could show that in the present day taxonomy and 2. how they could relate what they came up with to actual consciousness. If coming up with behaviors in the lost and unrecoverable past is a problem, and it certainly should be, coming up with something even less observable or definable in a non-conscious organism that is supposed to turn into consciousness won't be easier.

    The more I read these atheists the more convinced I am that a designer is the most parsimonious explanation of such things, just not one that can be dealt with by science. I'm entirely unimpressed by that effort.

  3. Not sure how well consciousness can be defined, either.

    A meter can be defined with frightening exactitude. But a mental state? That's the usual rap against psychiatry: it isn't specific enough.

    So what is a specific definition of "consciousness"? And that runs into issues all the way from "Do non-human animals have 'consciousness'?" to people in comas or brain dead (the extreme example being the woman (whose name now escapes me) whose case became a cause celebrate, when she had nothing left but a brain stem) to AI.

    And yet Wilson says it's a matter of evolution and comparison to an ant colony?

    I know that's a less than subtle refutation of his argument, but it's hard not to put it in crude terms and point and laugh; because the subtlety of his presentation seems to rest solely on his reputation.