Intelligent Design

Strawson Attacks the Great Silliness

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BA77 points us to Galen Strawson’s brilliant The Consciousness Deniers in the New York Review of Books.  Strawson takes to task his fellow materialists, especially Daniel Dennett, for espousing what he calls the Great Silliness.  The Great Silliness is, of course, denying what I have called “the primordial datum” — each person’s subjective experience of  his own consciousness.

Strawson notes that toward the middle of the twentieth century materialist philosophers began to argue that naturalistic materialism compels the conclusion that consciousness does not exist.  He continues:

They reach this conclusion in spite of the fact that conscious experience is a wholly natural phenomenon, whose existence is more certain than any other natural phenomenon, and with which we’re directly acquainted, at least in certain fundamental respects.

Why do many materialists deny the primordial datum?  Because they assume that the experience of consciousness cannot be reduced to physical causes, and since, by definition physical causes are the only kind of causes there are, it follows that consciousness does not exist, and what we perceive as consciousness must be an illusion.

Of course, this is idiotic, and Strawson heaps much deserved scorn on a view that absolutely demands that we deny as false that which we know to be true more than any other truth.  How can prominent materialists like Daniel Dennett espouse a view that is so gobsmackingly stupid?  Strawson answers with this sparkling gem:

The explanation is as ancient as it is simple. As Cicero says, there is “no statement so absurd that no philosopher will make it.” Descartes agrees, in 1637: “Nothing can be imagined which is too strange or incredible to have been said by some philosopher.” Thomas Reid concurs in 1785: “There is nothing so absurd which some philosophers have not maintained.” Louise Antony puts it like this in 2007: “There is… no banality so banal that no philosopher will deny it.”

Strawson is full of derision for his fellow materialists who assert that consciousness must be an illusion.  But he remains a fully committed materialist, which leads to the question of how he proposes to explain consciousness on materialist premises.  Here he disappoints.  He says he has no idea how consciousness can be reduced to the physical properties of the brain and employs a tried and true materialist tactic.  He issues a materialist promissory note.  We have no idea now, but eventually we will.  He takes essentially the same position that Thomas Nagel took in Mind & Cosmos – current materialist pronouncements on consciousness are uniformly bunkum, but that is no reason to give up on materialism.  We must await developments.

Strawson says there is no reason to believe that materialism is incompatible with consciousness being a real phenomenon.  He is wrong about that.  A bag of chemicals otherwise identical to the bag of chemicals that is the human body is not conscious and never will be.  Strawson’s belief that if the chemicals in the bag are configured just so, they will magically become subjectively self-aware is materialist superstition of the grossest sort.

At the end of the day Strawson’s and Nagel’s faith commitments to philosophical materialism allow them to follow the evidence only so far and no further.  That’s OK.  Nagel’s book and Strawson’s essay are still brilliant.  C.S. Lewis said that when a group has taken a wrong turn, the most progressive one is not the one who doggedly keeps on going the wrong direction, but the one who turns around and starts back the other way.  Philosophy took a serious wrong turn when the Daniel Dennetts and Sam Harris’s of the world started spouting their “consciousness is an illusion” drivel.  Strawson and Nagel are the most progressive materialists, because they have performed a crisp about face and headed back toward sanity.  Sure, they have not arrived at the destination yet.  But at least they are heading in the right direction.

20 Replies to “Strawson Attacks the Great Silliness

  1. 1
    Origenes says:

    “consciousness does not exist.”

    1. In order for A to do something A must exist.
    2. I do something
    3. I exist.

  2. 2
    john_a_designer says:

    The real absurdity is that apparently sane, rational and educated people try to find meaning in meaninglessness. So much so that they have to argue and pontificate about it.

    For some reason evolution has hardwired mankind to seek a higher meaning and purpose. Of course, if evolution is a mindless, purposeless process it’s just about brute survival– nothing more. Seeking a higher meaning and purpose then is pointless and absurd. The only thing more absurd is trying to find meaning in absurdity and convince other people that you’re right. If life is really absurd, who cares?

  3. 3
    Trumper says:

    what a mess materialism produces when one tries to inject some sort of rational or logic. Randomness (assumed of course) compared to assumed design…with evidence.

  4. 4
    Seversky says:

    The personal experience of consciousness is undeniable. To call it an illusion implies that it is false, that the objective reality we believe it to represent does not exist. I believe it is more accurate to think of it as a model of what is out there built from information gathered by our physical senses. It is incomplete because of the limited range of our senses but incomplete is not the same as false and a model is not the same as an illusion. Although it is far from perfect as a model of what is out there it is adequate for the purpose of navigating our way through it rather like a map is not a complete description of the landscape to which it refers but is adequate for the purpose of navigating across it.

    There is no adequate materialist account of how consciousness emerges from the physical processes of the brain as yet but the two are clearly closely correlated and I believe it is only a matter of time before we have such an explanation.

  5. 5
    Barry Arrington says:

    Sev @ 4

    I believe it is more accurate to think of it as a model

    Nope. When we are experiencing a thing, the experience IS the reality. It is not a model of reality.

    Your materialist fellow traveler Strawson agrees with me. From the linked article:

    When it comes to conscious experience, there’s a rock-bottom sense in which we’re fully acquainted with it just in having it. The having is the knowing. So when people say that consciousness is a mystery, they’re wrong—because we know what it is. It’s the most familiar thing there is—however hard it is to put into words.

    You are right about one thing. There is no adequate materialist account of how consciousness emerges from the physical processes of the brain. You get marked up for not falling for the “emergence explains everything” lunacy. But you lose points when you co-sign Stawson’s materialist promissory note. That just won’t do. There can never, in principle, be a physical explanation for the mental. Everyone knows, whether they admit it or not, there is a vast ontological gulf between the mental and the physical. The former will never be reduced to the latter.

  6. 6
    bornagain77 says:

    Either Mind is primary and Mind generates material, or else material is primary and material generates mind.

    “No, 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.”
    Max Planck (1858–1947), the main founder of quantum theory, The Observer, London, January 25, 1931

    “Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else.”
    Schroedinger, Erwin. 1984. “General Scientific and Popular Papers,” in Collected Papers, Vol. 4. Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences. Friedr. Vieweg & Sohn, Braunschweig/Wiesbaden. p. 334.

    Whereas the materialist has no clue how material can possibly generate mind, (much less does he have any experimental support),,

    “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. So much for the philosophy of consciousness.”
    – Jerry Fodor – Rutgers University philosopher
    [2] Fodor, J. A., Can there be a science of mind? Times Literary Supplement. July 3, 1992, pp5-7.

    “Those centermost processes of the brain with which consciousness is presumably associated are simply not understood. They are so far beyond our comprehension at present that no one I know of has been able even to imagine their nature.”
    Roger Wolcott Sperry – Nobel neurophysiologist
    As quoted in Genius Talk : Conversations with Nobel Scientists and Other Luminaries (1995) by Denis Brian

    “Science’s biggest mystery is the nature of consciousness. It is not that we possess bad or imperfect theories of human awareness; we simply have no such theories at all. About all we know about consciousness is that it has something to do with the head, rather than the foot.”
    Nick Herbert – Contemporary physicist

    “No experiment has ever demonstrated the genesis of consciousness from matter. One might as well believe that rabbits emerge from magicians’ hats. Yet this vaporous possibility, this neuro-mythology, has enchanted generations of gullible scientists, in spite of the fact that there is not a shred of direct evidence to support it.”
    – Larry Dossey – Physician and author

    ‘But the hard problem of consciousness is so hard that I can’t even imagine what kind of empirical findings would satisfactorily solve it. In fact, I don’t even know what kind of discovery would get us to first base, not to mention a home run.’
    David Barash – Materialist/Atheist – evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the ­University of Washington

    “I think the idea of (materialists) saying that consciousness is an illusion doesn’t really work because the very notion of an illusion presupposes consciousness. There are no illusions unless there is a conscious experience or (a conscious person) for whom there is an illusion.”
    Evan Thompson, Philosopher – author of Waking, Dreaming, Being

    This sheer inability of materialists to be able explain how something material can possibly become conscious is referred to as the “Hard Problem” of consciousness. In the following video, David Chalmers is excellent in clearly explaining the “Hard Problem” of consciousness:

    Hard Problem of Consciousness — David Chalmers
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5DfnIjZPGw

    ,,, The Theist, on the other hand, can appeal to directly to quantum mechanics to support his belief that Mind is primary and that Mind generates material.

    Albert Einstein vs. Quantum Mechanics and His Own Mind – video
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vxFFtZ301j4

    Of related interest, Einstein denied that the mental attribute of ‘the experience of the now’ would ever be a part of experimental physics, and he also denied the reality of his own free will. Advances in quantum mechanics have now proven him wrong on both counts:

    New Mind-blowing Experiment Confirms That Reality Doesn’t Exist If You Are Not Looking at It – June 3, 2015
    Excerpt: The results of the Australian scientists’ experiment, which were published in the journal Nature Physics, show that this choice is determined by the way the object is measured, which is in accordance with what quantum theory predicts.
    “It proves that measurement is everything. At the quantum level, reality does not exist if you are not looking at it,” said lead researcher Dr. Andrew Truscott in a press release.,,,
    “The atoms did not travel from A to B. It was only when they were measured at the end of the journey that their wave-like or particle-like behavior was brought into existence,” he said.
    Thus, this experiment adds to the validity of the quantum theory and provides new evidence to the idea that reality doesn’t exist without an observer.
    http://themindunleashed.org/20.....at-it.html

    “The Kochen-Speckter Theorem talks about properties of one system only. So we know that we cannot assume – to put it precisely, we know that it is wrong to assume that the features of a system, which we observe in a measurement exist prior to measurement. Not always. I mean in a certain cases. So in a sense, what we perceive as reality now depends on our earlier decision what to measure. Which is a very, very, deep message about the nature of reality and our part in the whole universe. We are not just passive observers.”
    – Anton Zeilinger –
    Quantum Physics Debunks Materialism – video (7:57 minute mark)
    https://youtu.be/4C5pq7W5yRM?t=500

  7. 7
    News says:

    People often overlook the political significance of the belief that consciousness is an illusion; It also means that all the great documents on behalf of representative government are an illusion too…

  8. 8
    ET says:

    Seversky:

    There is no adequate materialist account of how consciousness emerges from the physical processes of the brain as yet but the two are clearly closely correlated and I believe it is only a matter of time before we have such an explanation.

    Of course you do. Your faith is very, very strong but unfortunately wrong.

  9. 9

    Sev @ 4: “I believe it is only a matter of time before we have such an explanation.”

    You exhibit great faith. I agree that “such an explanation” is forthcoming, but will it be empirical or just another philosophical idea?

  10. 10

    News @ 7: It also means that everything we cherish is an illusion. Even the act of cherishing is an illusion. It borders on lunacy, if not already beyond the demarcation line.

  11. 11
    Mung says:

    Seversky:

    I believe it is more accurate to think of it as a model of what is out there built from information gathered by our physical senses. It is incomplete because of the limited range of our senses but incomplete is not the same as false and a model is not the same as an illusion.

    What is it, exactly, that is in need of such a model?

  12. 12
    LoneCycler says:

    “Although it is far from perfect as a model of what is out there it is adequate for the purpose of navigating our way through it rather like a map is not a complete description of the landscape to which it refers but is adequate for the purpose of navigating across it.”

    Consciousness is related to reality like a map is related to the landscape is what I think you’re getting at with that.

    I know a guy tried this line of reasoning when he was stopped by the police on his way home from a bar. He told the officer that while he may have hit a stop sign he still knew the way home; that he still had an “adequate” ability to drive. Guess how that worked out for him?

  13. 13
    Bob O'H says:

    Nope. When we are experiencing a thing, the experience IS the reality.

    Barry, that’s remarkably post-modern of you. 🙂

    Except…

    Everyone knows, whether they admit it or not, there is a vast ontological gulf between the mental and the physical.

    But you’ve just said that the physical is the mental.

    I’m not sure how to square this circle. Is it that you saying that the experience is the physical, rather than the mental (which is the way I, at least, understood Seversky’s comment)? Otherwise, can you explain what you mean?

  14. 14
    Barry Arrington says:

    Bob:

    But you’ve just said that the physical is the mental.

    No I did not Bob. I said the experience is the reality. Your perspective is so tied into materialism that you cannot seem to grasp the obvious — that not all reality is physical.

    I take it that Sev was suggesting that consciousness is a model of something else. That is a standard materialist line. Unfortunately, as even some materialists recognize (such as Strawson), it does not work. The subjective perception is not a model of reality. It is reality. When I experience the qualia “tangy” when I bite into a pickle, I am not modeling a “tangy” that is out there. My subjective experience “tangy” is a separate and distinct reality over and above all physical properties of the pickle.

    There are three ways to deal with this. 1. The Sam Harris approach of denying the obvious reality. Say it is an illusion. 2. Accept the obvious reality, but insist that even though we don’t have the slightest clue how the subjective experience can be reduced to the properties of the brain, there must be solution some day, because our commitment to materialism trumps everything (Strawson’s approach). 3. Accept the obvious reality of the experience and the obvious non-physical nature of the reality, i.e., the ID approach.

    Approaches 1 and 2 have the virtue of elevating faith in materialist metaphysics above all other considerations, including logic and undeniable experience. Approach 3 has the virtue of being self evidently true. Take you pick Bob.

  15. 15
    Bob O'H says:

    My subjective experience “tangy” is a separate and distinct reality over and above all physical properties of the pickle.

    So are you saying that we each have our own reality? In other words, if I don’t experience a pickle as being “tangy”, that’s because I have a different reality, rather than a different experience of the same reality?

  16. 16
    Barry Arrington says:

    Bob,

    So are you saying that we each have our own reality?

    No. I can’t imagine how you got that from what I said.

    if I don’t experience a pickle as being “tangy”, that’s because I have a different reality

    I am not sure what you mean by “different reality.” If you mean PoMo drivel like “your truth is different from my truth,” you will not be surprised to learn that is not what I am saying at all. Your subjective experience is real. My subjective experience is real. They are different subjective experiences. They are not “different realities.”

    rather than a different experience of the same reality?

    It is not the “same reality.” Your subjective experience is not the same as my subjective experience.

  17. 17
    Bob O'H says:

    Barry, I’m just trying to understand what you a saying. You wrote “My subjective experience “tangy” is a separate and distinct reality over and above all physical properties of the pickle.”, so you seem to be saying that there is a subjective reality you experience, and this is not the same as an “objective” reality (i.e. a pickle with a certain chemical composition).

    But then what reality do I experience? It can’t be your reality. I’m not you, and I’ll experience things differently.

  18. 18
    Barry Arrington says:

    Bob, now you are just being intentionally obtuse, as you are wont to do. Move along.

  19. 19
    EricMH says:

    The interesting thing is that mind can never be explained by materialism. However, matter could be a mind pretending to be matter. So, per Occam’s razor, materialistic explanations are redundant.

  20. 20
    Bob O'H says:

    Oh, apologies for not respoding before – I thought I had put up a reply yesterday, but I think it got lost in a Firefox crash.

    Any Barry, I have no intention of being obtuse, I’m simply trying to understand what you are saying.

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