Thursday, 29 January 2015

Science, the Afterlife, and the Intelligentsia

1.      Introduction

I read this article a couple of weeks ago by a professor of philosophy called John G Messerly.

He says:

There has been a dramatic change in the last few centuries in the proportion of believers among the highly educated in the Western world. In the European Middle Ages belief in a God was ubiquitous, while today it is rare among the intelligentsia. This change occurred primarily because of the rise of modern science and a consensus among philosophers that arguments for the existence of gods, souls, afterlife and the like were unconvincing. Still, despite the view of professional philosophers and world-class scientists, religious beliefs have a universal appeal. What explains this?

He advances the view that a combination of modern science and reason very strongly suggests that there is neither a God nor an afterlife. The intelligentsia understand this, but most of us have failed to take on board this knowledge. The author speculates that we resist these conclusions due to various genetic and environment factors.  He places a special emphasis on wishful thinking.

I want in this essay to concentrate on the notion of an afterlife and why so many of the “intelligentsia” consider it so unlikely in the light of modern science.  What knowledge and understanding do they possess that even the most intelligent people in the middle ages lacked?  Are they justified in their stance?  The short answer to that question is an emphatic no.  It will be my task in this essay to explain why the answer to that question is “no”. 

To accomplish this task we first need to understand the origins of modern science.  This will involve taking a brief look at the intellectual edifice -- namely the mechanistic philosophy -- which allowed the birth of modern science.  As we shall see, it is the mechanistic philosophy rather than modern science per se, which provided the groundwork for this profound shift in views.

2.     The Mechanistic Philosophy

Prior to the 17th Century there was a tendency to view the world as being ultimately mysterious. Lingering on from medieval times was the belief that the world was full of meaning - teeming with supernatural causes where angels and demons, spirits, occult powers and mystical principles played a prominent role. In particular God and an afterlife were a given. The scientific revolution inaugurated in the 17th Century, as well as being instrumental in creating our modern world together with its technological ubiquity, was also pivotal in eroding all these beliefs, and in particular fostered the notion of man as simply being a biological machine.

So what kicked off this scientific revolution? Essentially it was to start conceiving of reality in a particular way, namely the way encapsulated by what is referred to as the mechanistic philosophy. In the 16th and 17 centuries it was increasingly being noted that carefully conducted experiments tended to always produce the same results. This fostered the notion that reality behaved in a predictable manner. In addition, at that time, there was an idea percolating around that if an omnipotent God had created the Cosmos, and we were the reason for its creation, would God not make the Cosmos amenable to human intellect? In particular, would he not make the cosmos operate according to well-defined laws that we might discern?

Largely as a consequence of these factors the mechanistic philosophy was born. It can be expressed succinctly in 5 points:

1.    All action is by contact: no action at a distance.
2.    All objects in the Universe are composed of microscopic ultimately small parts (indivisible 'atoms').
3.    All change in nature and natural phenomena results from alterations in the configurations of matter.
4.    All change in the world is explicable in terms of unbroken chains of physical causes and effects.
5.    No teleology - that is events and processes are not governed by any purpose but simply are a result of mindless interactions with matter.

This mechanistic philosophy implied that any phenomena whatsoever can be wholly explained by the interactions of all its parts. This encapsulates the essence of what is called reductionism. The basic idea of reductionism is very simple. It is the belief that all phenomena, no matter how complex, can be understood by considering their most elementary parts. It is the motions of these parts and how they interact together which completely explain the phenomenon concerned. For example, consider a clockwork clock. By looking at the components of that clock - namely the cogs, the springs, and the wheels - and how they all interrelate together, we can actually understand how the minute and hour clock hands move.

If, as reductionism implies, all change in nature and natural phenomena results from alterations in the ultimately smallest particles of matter, then it follows that we human beings constitute no exception. This was understood as far back as the birth of the mechanical philosophy. At that time it was widely debated whether animals could be understood as being, in essence, mere biological machines. More radical thinkers took this to its logical conclusion and advocated that human beings too might simply be elaborate machines. Thus the entirely of our behaviour could in principle be understood through all the physical processes occurring in our bodies in addition to the input from the environment through our five senses. So if we are merely elaborate biological machines then this implies that no afterlife awaits us any more than an afterlife awaits a computer once it is irreparably damaged, or indeed awaits a clock.

The mechanistic philosophy fosters the view that although a complete explanation for what human beings are, why we are conscious, and so on, has yet to be determined, this merely reflects the complexity of the brain.  It is possibly the most complex thing in the Universe.  However we can be in no doubt that such an explanation will be forthcoming -- or so people claim.  After all look at the phenomenal progress of science over the past 300 years.  We can send men to the moon, create small devices which can virtually instantaneously connect us to anyone in the world with a similar device, create chess computers which can beat the best chess players on the planet.  Why do we imagine the human brain is something special?  That it won’t eventually be understood like everything else?  Hence many people maintain that it will surely succumb to a full explanation eventually – it’s just a question of time.

3. The elimination of the Qualitative/Subjective 

There is though a crucial distinction between us human beings and other animals on the one hand, and machines such as computers, clocks and the like on the other. It is that the former are conscious and the latter are generally held not to be (although it is held by many that computers will become conscious in the future). Given that we are mere biological machines, then it is true that the mechanical philosophy, and hence physics might, at least in principle, wholly explain our behaviour.  But to explain our behaviour is one thing, to explain our consciousness is another thing entirely.  But why should consciousness be a special problem?

Thomas Nagel is an American philosopher, currently University Professor of Philosophy and Law at
New York University.  In his recent book Mind and Cosmos he says:

The modern mind-body problem arose out of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, as a direct result of the concept of objective physical reality that drove that revolution. Galileo and Descartes made the crucial conceptual division by proposing that physical science should provide a mathematically precise quantitative description of an external reality extended in space and time, a description limited to spatiotemporal primary qualities such as shape, size, and motion, and to laws governing the relations among them. Subjective appearances, on the other hand -- how this physical world appears to human perception -- were assigned to the mind, and the secondary qualities like color, sound, and smell were to be analyzed relationally, in terms of the power of physical things, acting on the senses, to produce those appearances in the minds of observers. It was essential to leave out or subtract subjective appearances and the human mind -- as well as human intentions and purposes -- from the physical world in order to permit this powerful but austere spatiotemporal conception of objective physical reality to develop. (pp. 35-36)

Here in a nutshell is why science, at least as currently conceived, cannot in principle account for the existence of consciousness.  In order to make this clear let's flesh out what Nagel is saying here.  

The mechanistic philosophy stipulated that physical reality is wholly quantitative. That is to say that the external world that our five senses reveal is wholly composed of things and processes that can in principle be detected by our measuring instruments and thus can be measured. All change in this external world can be accounted for in terms of chains of physical causes and effects which are exclusively cashed out in quantitative terms.  So we have each physical event or thing comprising a link in the chain causing another physical event, and each link is comprised of something that can be measured -- for example mass, velocity, shape and so on.

But what of the qualitative features of reality?   We think of the external world as being filled with colours, sounds and smells.  Due to the fact that these features of reality are not detectable by our measuring instruments and hence are not measurable, it was assumed that they simply weren't part of the furniture of reality at all.  Instead colours, sounds and smells were redefined to stand for those measurable aspects of reality which were deemed to cause these qualitative experiences.  Thus a colour was redefined to refer to a certain wavelength of light that objects reflect. Sounds redefined to refer to rarefactions and compressions of the air. Smells redefined to refer to various molecules in motion.

So the qualitative aspects of reality were subtracted from the external world and placed into the mind.  And as Thomas Nagel mentioned human intentions and purposes were subtracted too.  Hence the world out there is wholly quantitative and devoid of anything qualitative. And hence unimaginable. The greenness you experience when looking at a green object is entirely a creation of your mind. The perceived object is not actually green at all in the commonsensical use of the word green.

4. Consciousness cannot in principle be accommodated by Science

Thus a consequence of the mechanistic philosophy is that it stipulated -- again I stress that this was not a discovery -- a very much emaciated conception of the physical external world. A bare skeletal outline denuded of the flesh of the qualitative.  But that brings with it a huge problem. If only the quantitative, or that which is detectable, constitutes the external world, how can we suppose that minds or consciousness are part of that reality?  Hence the mind-body problem.

Since almost everyone, including the "intelligentsia", has so much difficulty in understanding this, it might be a good idea to try and hammer this point home.

Let's return to the example of a clockwork clock brought up in section 2.  As mentioned previously, by looking at the components of that clock - namely the cogs, the springs, and the wheels - and how they all interrelate together, we can actually understand how the hour, and the minute hands move.  Each cause and each effect in the causal chain(s) leading to the movement of the hands are wholly quantitative, something which can be measured.  

The same pertains whenever we reach an understanding of some phenomenon.  Consider tornadoes for example.  They seem to be entities in their own right; they seem to act as organised wholes.  But this cannot be an analogy for consciousness since it remains the case that tornadoes are nothing more than the movement and interactions of all the air and water molecules which constitute them.  The number of parts constituting a tornado, and hence its complexity, doesn't allow it the possibility of producing anything beyond what a colossal number of particles are capable of producing, particularly not conscious experiences. So, similar to the clock, the tornado is the result of wholly quantitative processes and can be reductively explained.

But when we come to the brain and consciousness we have something very different.  If the brain does indeed produce consciousness, then we have chains of quantitative causes and effects which at the end of these chains produce purely qualitative phenomena; namely conscious experiences. But then this contradicts the mechanistic philosophy since it stipulates that reality is wholly quantitative.  And hence consciousness also eludes any possible physical theory since physics deals exclusively with the quantitative or that which can be measured.

To try and explicate this fact yet further what we have is a chain of physical causes and effects following physical laws, and at the end a conscious experience such as the experience of pain.  Unlike our clock or tornado, where we can always understand, at least in principle, how an effect is brought about by a thorough understanding of the arrangements and properties of their parts, we cannot have a similar understanding with consciousness.  All we can note is that when certain physical events occur in the brain, this might be correlated with a certain characteristic experience -- an experience moreover which can only be known by the subject. Consciousness is not objectively detectable.

5. Consciousness is what the brain does

One way of putting consciousness back into the world is to claim that it is literally one and the very same thing as some physical thing or process (not merely caused by a physical process). I think this is an act of desperation.  

We think of the world as being populated with objects.   Sometimes what we think of 2 different objects are in fact one and the same object e.g. the morning star and evening star.  However we can trace their paths through space-time and see that they coincide.  However we cannot do this with brain processes and conscious experiences. We can trace the formers path in space-time, but not the latter.

Also if 2 objects are in fact the very same object, they should share very similar properties.  It's true that one and the same object can change its properties over time e.g. a spanking brand new table will not look quite the same 20 years down the line, although they'll look broadly similar.

But physical states and the correlated conscious experiences exist at the same time.  However they are utterly different in their properties.  The former is characterised by the quantitative and is observable from a third person perspective.  The latter is characterised by the qualitative and is not observable from the third person perspective -- it is only known through the experiencing subject.  Since conscious experiences share no commonality with any physical states or processes whatsoever, it is gratuitous and vacuous to declare they're one and the very same thing.

6. But does the brain produce consciousness anyway?

Even though, being qualitative through and through, consciousness is non-physical, the foregoing should not be understood as suggesting that the brain cannot produce consciousness.  It's just that if it does, then that's simply a brute fact about reality.  It must remain forevermore a mysterious fact that brains somehow produce consciousness. 

In fact we have good reasons to suppose that the brain produces consciousness and these reasons come in the form of mind-brain correlations.  Just to mention a few examples; our capacity to understand written and spoken words, or the capacity to speak, are impaired or even eliminated with injuries to certain regions of the brain. Damage to the hippocampal and thalamic areas of the brain can destroy one's ability to store new long-term memories. In addition radical personality change may be brought about by injury to the brain. The most famous example here is undoubtedly
Phineas Gage. We can also point to the effects of drugs that have a propensity to affect our emotions, attitudes and dispositions. Indeed even alcohol and caffeine do this.  Most importantly we enter deep sleep every night where we do not seem to be conscious at all.

To return yet again to our clock analogy.  Let's suppose we have a thorough understanding of the properties and arrangement of its parts.  There's nothing about the arrangements of these parts which could account for the fact it sounds an hourly alarm.  In addition let's suppose that removing a particular component of the clock results in it not sounding the alarm.  And replacing that component but removing another component also results in it not sounding the alarm. But removing other components one at a time has no effect. So even though the reason why it sounds an alarm might be wholly mysterious, we have, so it seems, specified critical components whose presence are essential to causing the alarm.  We might therefore feel justified in supposing that such critical components jointly produce the hourly alarm.

It might well be that something similar is happening with brains and consciousness.  Science can never in principle explain why brains produce consciousness, but this needn't prevent us, in the absence of any other reasons, from supposing that it is specific parts of the brain which are somehow producing this phenomenon. It seems to me that this is especially compelling when we consider the comatose state, or even the deep sleep state we enter every night where we do not recollect any conscious experiences.  This at least suggests that the brain is playing a crucial role in whether we are conscious or not.  The most straightforward explanation for this is that the brain produces consciousness.

7. The implausibility of the brain producing consciousness thesis.


As a preliminary I should point out that the case for the brain producing consciousness outlined in the previous section would not curry much favour amongst the “intelligentsia”.  It is deeply unsatisfactory since consciousness spontaneously appearing without explanation when certain physical processes occur seems essentially magical.  Hence, the tendency to conflate conscious experiences with some physical process, thing or function.  A strategy I have already argued in part 5 as being gratuitous and vacuous.  Nevertheless we may feel that the arguments of the previous section make it extremely likely that brains do somehow produce consciousness.  So let's explore this further.

In the previous section I mentioned removing components of a clock and noting that should the alarm cease then these components might justifiably be supposed to be jointly producing the alarm.  Let's replace our clock with a Television set.  Removing certain components of the TV set will result in the picture disappearing, and generally tinkering with the internal components will affect the quality of the picture displayed.  So we might suppose that at least some of the components produce the picture. 

But it’s not quite as simply as this since there is a distinction between the TV set’s ability to display a sequence of pictures, and the form those pictures take.  On a standard TV set it would be scientifically inexplicable why it should display a sequence of pictures constituting a TV programme without reference to TV signals.

Likewise, since it is scientifically inexplicable, indeed in principle, that the processes of the brain produce consciousness our preference ought to be that something external is involved. But, unlike the case of the TV set which explains the sequence of pictures shown by virtue of TV signals, this external influence accounting for consciousness couldn't be anything physical since we simply get the same intractable scientific problem of the quantitative creating the qualitative. It would need to be some non-physical influence -- perhaps a self or "soul" which has, as an essential property, conscious states. 

In short, in a comparable way in which the internal components of a standard TV set is insufficient to explain the sequence of pictures being shown, it seems to me that the brain itself is insufficient to produce consciousness.  In both cases something external is required.  The fact that altering brain function changes our conscious states and abilities, or indeed even suppresses any consciousness completely, doesn't entail that the self which undergoes and underlies and unites these various conscious states is itself affected.  Compare this with the fact that fiddling with the internal components of a TV set might affect the picture, but which in no shape or form alters the TV programme being screened (See my essay Is a "life after death" conceivable? for an explication of what I mean by these ideas).

8. Conclusion

I have pointed out that consciousness must forevermore remain scientifically inexplicable, at least as science is currently conceived.  However the mind-brain correlations and the apparent complete dependency of mind states on brain states might dispose one to feel the brain produces consciousness anyway.  Nevertheless this still remains deeply unsatisfactory and it seems to me a new way of conceiving consciousness and its relationship to the world is required.  Since something extra over and above the brain seems to be required, this suggests that we might well survive our deaths.

Note that in reaching this conclusion I have made no mention whatsoever of any of the evidence which suggests an afterlife (NDEs, apparitions, memories of previous lives etc).  The possibility that consciousness might well survive the deaths of our bodies has been established purely by philosophical argumentation.  Once we take such evidence into consideration the case for a "life after death" becomes that much stronger.

9. So why do the "Intelligentsia" believe otherwise?

But then what are we to make of the comment by John G Messerly at the beginning of this essay?  With just a few exceptions professional philosophers, professional scientists, and more generally the "intelligentsia", are all united in thinking that modern science has shown there is no afterlife and it is only foolish and ignorant people who suppose otherwise.

But, as I have argued, this is wholly contrary to what is actually the case!  Are the "intelligentsia" all unaware of the history and philosophy of science and the mind-body problem?  Are they all unable to think through the issues? 

I think the problem here is that science has been so incredibly successful in describing the world that the "intelligentsia" conclude that it is reasonable to infer that the methods of science are susceptible to explaining all aspects of reality, including consciousness -- a position sometimes referred to as scientism. Couple this with the fact that scientists tend to be quite poor at philosophy, but yet at the same time enjoy a high level of prestige, and we have at least part of an answer.  For their opinions carry weight.  Hence when they continually extol the outstanding successes of science, but at the same time depreciate the value of philosophical thought claiming it doesn't deliver the goods, we have fertile grounds for reaching fatuous conclusions.  Fatuous conclusions, moreover, not just about how consciousness fits into the physical world, but on more general questions pertaining to the nature of reality which rightfully belongs to the province of philosophy.

Professional philosophers operate in this environment that scientists have created.  Those that offer dissenting views are ferociously attacked.  The most notable recent example is
Thomas Nagel's recent book Mind and Cosmos, which I mentioned and quoted in section 3.  For example Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson in this article says:

As often happens when a philosopher deviates from scientific orthodoxy, Nagel’s book has been thoroughly denounced. Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg, in their highly critical review for The Nation, led the charge, asking, “Are we really supposed to abandon a massively successful scientific research program because Nagel finds some scientific claims hard to square with what he thinks is obvious?” Elliott Sober, in the Boston Review, wrote “[Nagel] argues that evolutionary biology is fundamentally flawed and that physics also needs to be rethought—that we need a new way to do science.” Nonetheless, says Sober, “Nagel acknowledges that he has no teleological theory of his own to offer. His job, as he sees it, is to point to a need; creative scientists, he hopes, will do the heavy lifting.”

A defence of Nagel's book from his varied detractors by
Edward Feser,  an American associate professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College, may be found here (the link is merely part 1 of 10 parts!).

Thus there are pressures -- subtle and not so subtle -- for philosophers to conform to mainstream thinking.  Those who rise to the top in the academic community are liable to express views consonant with the prevailing orthodoxy -- for if they do not then they will be less likely to have risen to such a position in the first place.  So certain beliefs about the world tend to be perpetuated, not necessarily because of their underlying merits, but because there are influences actively discouraging the expression of views which are at variance with generally accepted beliefs.

On a final note, I recommend people read my related essays:

Science and the Afterlife