Why Arguments About Consciousness Premised On Intuition Are Almost Certainly False

20 Mar

By now you should know that I think that relying on intuition to solve complex problems that don’t have to do with immediate death or quickly assessing social settings is a fool’s errand. Apparently a philosopher named Thomas Nagel critiqued the reductionist view of consciousness in a recent-ish tome Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. A few other scientists have written rebuttals of his argument.

What is the gist of Nagel’s argument? Andrew Ferguson sums it up:

Among these remarkable, nonaccidental things are many of the features of the manifest image. Consciousness itself, for example: You can’t explain consciousness in evolutionary terms, Nagel says, without undermining the explanation itself. Evolution easily accounts for rudimentary kinds of awareness. Hundreds of thousands of years ago on the African savannah, where the earliest humans evolved the unique characteristics of our species, the ability to sense danger or to read signals from a potential mate would clearly help an organism survive.

So far, so good. But the human brain can do much more than this. It can perform calculus, hypothesize metaphysics, compose music—even develop a theory of evolution. None of these higher capacities has any evident survival value, certainly not hundreds of thousands of years ago when the chief aim of mental life was to avoid getting eaten. Could our brain have developed and sustained such nonadaptive abilities by the trial and error of natural selection, as neo-Darwinism insists? It’s possible, but the odds, Nagel says, are “vanishingly small.” If Nagel is right, the materialist is in a pickle. The conscious brain that is able to come up with neo-Darwinism as a universal explanation simultaneously makes neo-Darwinism, as a universal explanation, exceedingly unlikely.

Of course, he presents no data nor any other empirical inference about his conclusion so we can only guess that he’s premised his argument on some sort of intuitive grasp on consciousness (not only that, but he apparently has missed out completely on some recent research on why we, say, compose music). This is only further evidence that philosophers should be trained on Pearl and Kahneman, not Plato and Kant. The fallacy behind this reasoning is summed up in this quote from Blindsight, by Peter Watts:

“Forget about minds,” he told her. “Say you’ve got a device designed to monitor—oh, cosmic rays, say. What happens when you turn its sensor around so it’s not pointing at the sky anymore, but at its own guts?”

He answered himself before she could: “It does what it’s built to. It measures cosmic rays, even though it’s not looking at them any more. It parses its own circuitry in terms of cosmic-ray metaphors, because those feel right, because they feel natural, because it can’t look at things any other way. But it’s the wrong metaphor. So the system misunderstands everything about itself. Maybe that’s not a grand and glorious evolutionary leap after all. Maybe it’s just a design flaw.”

Using consciousness to explain consciousness without taking care not to use consciousness’ basic algorithm of intuition (e.g. “promiscuous teleology“) is only going to lead to confusion. It’s just like how you can’t use intuition to describe quantum physics.

An easy way to spot a premise that is based on intuition? “It just feels right“.

1 Comment

Posted by on March 20, 2013 in cognitive science


One response to “Why Arguments About Consciousness Premised On Intuition Are Almost Certainly False

  1. 7788bes

    May 12, 2013 at 5:56 pm


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