Category Archives: Psychology

Quote for the Day – Michael Graziano Thinks Puppets Can Be Conscious

“It seems crazy to insist that the puppet’s consciousness is real. And yet, I argue that it is. The puppet’s consciousness is a real informational model that is constructed inside the neural machinery of the audience members and the performer. It is assigned a spatial location inside the puppet. The impulse to dismiss the puppet’s consciousness derives, I think, from the implicit belief that real consciousness is an utterly different quantity, perhaps a ghostly substance, or an emergent state, or an oscillation, or an experience, present inside of a person’s head. Given the contrast between a real if ethereal phenomenon inside of a person’s head and a mere computed model that somebody has attributed to a puppet, then obviously the puppet isn’t really conscious. But in the present theory, all consciousness is a “mere” computed model attributed to an object. That is what consciousness is made out of. One’s brain can attribute it to oneself or to something else. Consciousness is an attribution…

“In some ways, to say, ‘this puppet is conscious’ is like saying, ‘This puppet is orange.’ We think of color as a property of an object, but technically, this is not so. Orange is not an intrinsic property of my orangutan puppet’s fabric. Some set of wavelengths reflets from the cloth, enters your eye, and is processed in your brain. Orange is a construct of the brain. The same set of wavelengths might be perceived as reddish greenish or bluish, depending on circumstances…To say the puppet is orange is shorthand for saying, ‘A brain attributed orange to it.’ Similarly, according to the present theory, to say that the puppet is conscious is to say, ‘A brain has constructed the informational model of awareness and attributed it to that tree.” To say that I myself am conscious is to say, ‘My own brain has constructed an informational model of awareness and attributed it to my body.’ These are all similar Acts. They all involve a brain attributing awareness to an object.”
~ Michael Graziano (2013), Consciousness and the Social Brain, p. 208

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Quote for the Day – The Attention Schema Theory of Consciousness

One way to approach the theory is through social perception. If you notice Harry paying attention to the coffee stain on this shirt, when you see the direction of Harry’s gaze, the expression on his face, and his gestures as he touches the stain, and when you put all those clues into context your brain does something quite specific: it attributes awareness to Harry. Harry is aware of the stain on his shirt. Machinery in your brain, in the circuitry that participates in social perception, is expert at this task of attributing awareness to other people. It sees another brain-controlled creature focusing its computing resources on an item and generates the construct that person Y is aware of thing X. In the theory proposed in this book, the same machinery is engaged in attributing awareness to yourself-computing that you are aware of thing X.

~Michael Graziano, Consciousness and the Social Brain

I’m planning on doing a write up on this book soon. I could not put the book down and read it in a few days. Compared to most books on consciousness, Graziano’s central thesis is clearly stated, suitably modest in ambition, neurologically plausible, and theoretically compelling.  I was impressed that Graziano applied his theory to explain “weird” aspects of human experience like out-of-body experiences, Mesmerism, religion, etc. I predict Graziano is going to be a big player in the consciousness debates from here on out. That I am really drawn to the theory is not surprising given its affinities with some things Julian Jaynes said e.g. “It is thus a possibility that before an individual man had an interior self, he unconsciously first posited it in others, particularly contradictory strangers, as the thing that caused their different and bewildering behavior…We may first unconsciously (sic) suppose other consciousnesses, and then infer our own by generalization” (Origin, p. 217) Jaynes also explicitly proposed that some features of consciousness are analogs (models) of sensory attention, which is at the heart of Graziano’s theory, albeit not as worked out rigorously.


Filed under Books, Consciousness, Psychology

Quote for the Day – The State of Consciousness Research Circa 1978

When the inevitable topic of consciousness is approached in the light of modern brain research, the experienced student has come to brace himself for the mellifluous intonations of someone’s personal experience and ideas on the matter, as opposed to data.

~Gazzaniga & LeDoux,  The Integrated Mind, p. 141, quoted in Tulving’s “Memory and Consciousness”

I daresay the statement holds true today as well.


Filed under Books, Consciousness, Psychology

A Quick and Dirty Argument for Behaviorism

1. All the evidence we have as scientific psychologists is publically observable behavioral evidence.

2. The safest epistemic strategy is to limit as much as possible going “beyond” the evidence, an inevitably risky gambit.

3. “Subjectivity”, “mental states”, “cognition”, “representations”, “feelings”, “consciousness”, “awareness”, “experience”, etc. are not publically observable i.e. if you open up someone else’s skull you will not see cognitions or mental states, you will see a pulsating hunk of flesh.

3. If we value epistemic safety above all, we should never leap beyond behavioral evidence to talk about unobservable mental states, unless such talk is self-consciously understood to be an abbreviated paraphrase of a long conjunction of behavior reports. Therefore,

4. The safest epistemological stance in psychology is behaviorism.

But wait! Don’t scientists in other fields go “beyond” raw data by talking about “unobservable” theoretical entities like atoms and black holes? If it’s epistemically warranted for physicists to appeal to “unobservable” theoretical entities like atoms in order to explain the experimental data, then it should also be okay for psychologists to appeal to “unobservable” theoretical entities like “episodic memory” or “engrams” in order to explain the behavioral data.

Two things can be said in defense of behaviorism.

First, it’s an open question in the philosophy of science whether physicists are in fact epistemically warranted to go “beyond” the data. According to physicist-philosopher-of-science Duhem, theories are only supposed to be tidy and convenient summaries or compressed descriptions of experimental findings, not statements literally describing an unobserved metaphysical reality. On this view, we do not use theoretical entities and equations to explain the data but rather use equations and theories to help us cope with the large and unwieldy collection of facts gathered by experimenters. Duhem argues that if humans didn’t have such finite memories, scientists would not find it necessary to tidily represent messy experimental findings in terms of neat equations and law-like statements.

Consider this: If a theory about domain X is true, then all possible experimental findings relevant to domain X deductively follow from the theory and thus have the same truth-value as a long conjunction of descriptive reports of real scientific experiments. But once you have all the experimental findings on your head, what’s the need for the theory? The need is purely practical, a result of human finitude and our desire for convenience, simplicity, and genuine understanding.

Second, even if we grant physical scientists an epistemic license to go “beyond” the data and talk about theoretical entities, this practice only works well when there are widespread conventions in place for operationalizing theoretical terms (i.e. translating theory into real experimental operations) as well as standards for conducting and verifying results of experimental procedures (measurement verification procedures). It’s not clear to me that cognitive science has reached any widespread consensus on any of these issues.

Compared to “mature” sciences like thermometry with widespread industry standards, there seems to be little if any widespread consensus in the “mind sciences” about theoretical terminology let alone operational criteria for testing theoretical claims or even nailing down what exactly it is we are supposed to be studying in the first place.

Thus, the true problem with psychology is not that it talks about “unobservable” entities or employs theoretical jargon but rather there is no widespread consensus on how to define our concepts and operationalize our methods for getting access to the unobservable phenomena.

The problem facing psychology is two-fold: (1) a lack of consensus on how to pick out the phenomena due to a lack of theoretical consensus in understanding the ostensive definition of a psychological concept and, (2) a lack of consensus on how to interpret the evidence once we have collected it.

 Case in point: recent developments in the “science” of consciousness. First, there is there little to no consensus on where to even look for consciousness to begin the process of measuring it and studying it as a natural phenomena. Can any theorist answer this simple question: should we look for consciousness in insects?

Some theorists think if we looked for it in insects, we will find it because on their definition “consciousness” is not that fancy of a phenomena (e.g. enactivists and neo-panpsychists would both predict a consciousness-meter would register a small amount of consciousness in insects). According to other theorists, if you looked for consciousness in insects you will not find it because on their preferred definition “consciousness” is fancy and thus probably found only in “higher” animals like mammals. Who is right? No appeal to empirical facts will help in this debate because the problem is fundamentally about how to interpret the evidence given all we can go on as psychologists is behavior, which is of course neutral between rival theories of consciousness.

Some might object that I have picked an easy target and that the science of consciousness is a bad example of how psychology in general is done because it is the newest and most immature of the psychological sciences. But in my humble opinion, the science of consciousness is on no worse footing than most other subfields and niches of psychology, which are continually making progress “towards” various grand theories. However, insofar as another subfield of psychology is on firmer ground than consciousness studies, it will be because they have imitated the physical sciences by operationalizing their theoretical concepts in terms that can be directly measured by physical instruments. That is, a subfield of psychology is on firmer epistemic ground insofar as it sticks closer to physical, behavioral evidence, which is all any psychologist has to go on in the end. This is close enough to behaviorism for me.

I have much more to say on this topic, but I promised to be quick and dirty. Remaining questions include: how should we define the observable vs unobservable distinction?


Filed under Philosophy, Philosophy of science, Psychology

Quote for the Day – We Are Our Habits, Especially the Bad Ones

It is a significant fact that in order to appreciate the peculiar place of habit in activity we have to betake ourselves to bad habits, foolish idling, gambling, addiction to liquor and drugs. When we think of such habits, the union of habit with desire and with propulsive power is forced upon us. When we think of habits in terms of walking, playing a musical instrument, typewriting, we are much given to thinking of habits as technical abilities existing apart from our likings and as lacking in urgent impulsion. We think of them as passive tools waiting to be called into action from without. A bad habit suggests an inherent tendency to action and also a hold, command over us. It makes us do things we are ashamed of, things which we tell ourselves we prefer not to do. It overrides our formal resolutions, our conscious decisions. When we are honest with ourselves we acknowledge that a habit has this power because it is so intimately a part of ourselves. It has a hold upon us because we are the habit.

~John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct

For what it’s worth, this quote is relevant to recent debates over Jason Stanley’s defense of intellectualism. Dewey would say Stanley’s arguments apply only to “technical” aspects of skill; the “propulsive power” at the heart of habits is surely not “intellectual” at its core.

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The Privacy of Science and Why We Can Never Get Away From Ourselves

The physicist P.W. Bridgman wrote extensively on the philosophy of science and is best known for his wide-ranging defense of the “operational method” as a means of getting clear on what we mean by our use of scientific concepts. He is also well-known for the controversial claim that science is essentially a private affair.

Such a claim strikes most of us as odd, but Bridgman claims this is a result of socialization, not reality. We are brought up to think that science is ultimately a public affair, a matter of bringing all knowledge into the public domain, making our research transparent and replicable, our methods visible to all, our facts public, etc. Moreover, in the age of “Big Science” where collaboration between huge teams of people is the new norm in science, the individual component of science is downplayed in favor of consensus, team-building, and the public nature of knowledge.

Bridgman disagreed fundamentally with this view. Instead, Bridgman thought of science as an essentially private affair of individual human scientists struggling to understand the world around them. Why? Bridgman placed a lot of emphasis on the importance of operations in science such as the operation of measuring or double-checking a measurement. Moreover, Bridgman thought that operations are private in the sense that operations are carried out by individual scientists.

Anticipating recent developments in the philosophy of peer disagreement, Bridgman asks us to imagine that you have calculated a mathematical problem and arrived at the answer of 173. Suppose your neighbor says, “Oh, you’ve got that all wrong, the actual answer is 170.” Bridgman asks, would we just take this on testimony? Hardly! If we blindly accepted our neighbor’s answer we would be poor scientists. Rather, what a good scientist would do is double-check the methods used by the neighbor and investigate whether they are performing the same mathematical operations in the same way as we are. Any divergence in the answer must be due to a divergence in operational methods and resolution of the issue will only occur if we cross-check our methods. Not until we have verified the operations ourselves and arrived at the correct answer can we say we have really “understood” the problem. And this is the crux of the issue: understanding.

Bridgman uses peer disagreement as an analogy for all of science. The goal of all scientists should not be consensus without personal understanding, but personal understanding of the consensus. Thus, Bridgman thought that there are as many sciences as there are scientists, with the goal of every scientist being the goal of understanding the world around them. As Sam Harris puts it, “The core of science is not controlled experiment or mathematical modeling; it is intellectual honesty.” Or, as Bridgman famously said, “The scientific method, insofar as it is a method, is doing one’s damndest with one’s mind, no holds barred.”

Why did Bridgman care about the privacy of science so much? It’s because he thought that his peers had not sufficiently appreciated the distinction between the “private level of meanings” and the “public level of meanings”. For example, take the imperative “Verify whether X is 10 meters long.” This imperative can be fulfilled by any scientist so long as they use the conventional operational methods e.g. a meter-stick. Nothing private about that. Now, in contrast, take the imperative “Verify whether X has a toothache.” Crucially, the methods used to carry out this imperative vary drastically depending on who the X is. If the X refers to myself, I can hardly communicate how it is that I “know” I have a toothache. I just introspect it “directly”. In contrast, if the X refers to my neighbor, the method of verification is going to be extremely indirect. It becomes even more difficult when the X refers to a non-verbal animal, like cat or rat.

Bridgman took this all as incontrovertible evidence that psychologistic terms have a “dual meaning”. The concept of a “toothache” has both a private and a public meaning according to the method of operationalism. The private level is due to the fact that the method I use to verify my own toothache is very different from how I verify if anyone else has a toothache. But the public level comes from the fact that everyone understands what I mean when I say “My toothache”. They are understanding the public level. On the public level we are allowed to say “My neighbor’s toothache” even though the methods of verification are radically different. But when you examine the issue carefully, there are really two concepts at work: “Toothaches-for-me” and “Toothaches-for-you”.

Bridgman thought this duality of meaning is rampant but not well-appreciated. Once we realize that there are some operations that are essentially private, we come to the realization that, as Bridgman says, “We can never get away from ourselves.” Even science, the most “public” of all activities, is going to have some concepts that have the private/public duality. This is particularly true for psychological sciences, where the problem of operationalism is most striking. When a psychologist studies “consciousness”, the methods of study will look drastically different depending on whether they are studying themselves, other humans, or non-human animals. “Introspectional” words like “consciousness” or “pain” have a private nature, but scientists must study them in other creatures using only the public-level of meaning.

The mistake though is to completely ignore the private level and act like everything has been accounted for if we have the complete account in behavioral terms. However, this is not to say that Bridgman endorses dualism, or that a recognition of the private level of meaning is due to the fact that physicalism is false. As Bridgman notes, the privacy of meanings can be explained by the fact that my brain is in my skull and your brain is in your skull. If we were born with fused brains, or a clever neuroscientists managed to splice us together, the “essential” privacy of introspectional terms would lose some of essentialness. Thus, privacy is a contingent fact about organisms, not a fundamental fact of how the universe works.

But nevertheless, privacy of introspectional terminology is a fact of life that everyone must eventually come to grips with. One worry is that the emphasis of privacy leads to a kind of solipsism where we are alone in the universe of our own minds. But so what? Maybe this is true. So long as solipsism is not taken to be the view that only my mind exists, the thesis of solipsism has an element of truth if it is stated only in terms of privacy, not existence.

I can be perfectly happy claiming that other minds exist, but I must resolve myself to the fact that the method of verifying other minds feel pain in the way I do is essentially different from the way I verify my own feelings of pain. And the  same applies to every other kind of mental phenomena, including perceptions, feelings, meanings, etc. The method I use to determine if you perceive the same thing as I do is different from the method I use to determine what I perceive. The method I use to know what I mean by a certain word is essentially different from the method I use to know what anyone else means by the term, and I can never be sure we mean exactly the same thing unless there is agreement about operational methods. But as we have seen, some operations are essentially private and we must learn to live with that.


Filed under Philosophy, Philosophy of science, Psychology

Quote for the Day – Is Evolutionary Biology Inherently Sexist? No, says Sarah Hrdy

Evolutionary biology, and its offspring, sociobiology, are not inherently sexist. The proportion of “sexists” among their proponents is probably no greater than the proportion among scientists generally. To be sure, contemporary analyses of mammalian breeding systems can cause even a committed Darwinian like myself to contemplate her gender with foreboding. Yet, it is all too easy to forget, while quaking, that sociobiology, if read as a prescription for life rather than a description of the way some creatures behave, makes it seem bad luck to be born either sex.

~Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, The Woman That Never Evolved, p. 14

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Quote for the Day – Evolutionary Biology, Social Darwinism, and Feminism

Social Darwinism has, almost indelibly, tainted most people’s understanding of evolutionary theory-certainly as it applies to human beings. Yet social Darwinism differs from Darwinism-without-adjectives in one all-important way, and ignoring this distinction has been one of the most unfortunate and long-lived mistakes of science journalism. Darwinism proper is devoted to analyzing all the diverse forms of life according to the theory of natural selection. Darwinists describe competition between unequal individuals, but they place no value judgment on either the competition or its outcome. Natural-selection theory provides a powerful way to understand the subordination of one individual, or group of individuals, by another, but it in no way attempts to condone (or condemn) subordination.

By contrast, social Darwinists attempt to justify social inequality. Social Darwinism explicitly assumes that competition leads to “improvement” of the species; the mechanism of improvement is the unequal survival of individuals and their offspring. Applying this theory to the human condition, social Darwinists hold that those individuals who win the competition, who survive and thrive, must necessarily be the “best.” Social inequalities between the sexes, or between classes or races, represent the operation of natural selection and therefore should not be tampered with, since such tampering would impede the progress of the species. It is this latter brand of Darwinism that became popularly associated with evolutionary biology. The association is incorrect, but it helps to explain why feminists have steadfastly resisted biological perspectives.

~Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, The Woman That Never Evolved, p. 12-13

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A Critical Review of Thomas Nagel’s latest book Mind and Cosmos

MindandCosmoscoverThomas Nagel’s book Mind and Cosmos has garnered a lot of attention since its publication, with the reaction being intense, heated, and of largely mixed opinion (For a nice overview and response to negative views, see here). Not surprisingly, those sympathetic to naturalism have been harsh in their assessment, and those not so sympathetic have been full of praise. My assessment is ultimately negative, but I think both the defenders and critics of Nagel’s book have relied on a set of shared assumptions that are deeply problematic and masked by ambiguity. By exposing the hidden assumptions framing the debate between “reductionism” and “non-reductionism”, I show that Nagel’s criticism of “reductionism” is sound, but this is no reason to reject physicalism, only an outdated and confused version of physicalism.

1. The Problem of Hierarchy: Two Views of Reduction

The controversial subtitle of Mind and Cosmos is “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False”. Quite the claim! But what exactly is “Materialist Neo-Darwinism” and who really holds this view? More precisely, Nagel’s target for criticism is what he calls:

“A particular naturalistic Weltanshauung that postulates a hierarchical relation among the subjects of those sciences.”

I have a lot to say about this notion of a “hiearchical relation”, so bear with me! I propose Nagel’s invocation of a “hierarchy” is ambiguous between two senses of the term. First, there is a hierarchy of scale that is compositional e.g. Society is composed of individuals, which are composed of cells, which are composed of molecules, which are composed of atoms, etc. I take compositional hierarchy to be non-controversial.

The second sense of “hierarchy” is what John Heil calls a “hierarchy of being” or “hierarchy of reality”. On this view, you have lower-level “realizer bases” out of which higher-order properties “emerge”, in the sense of “strong” emergence where the whole is non-compositionally greater than the sum of the parts (whatever that means). For example, on the hierarchical view of reality, the mind “emerges”, “arises”, or is “generated” as a higher-order property “out of” the lower realizer bases, and is said to “supervene” on that lower base. Nagel is perfectly right to think this is a mysterious process, but that’s a good reason for physicalists to reject the entire hierarchical view of reality, not give up on physicalism.

The alternative picture is that reality is flat. There is one level of reality: it’s called reality! Within that level we can find hierarchies of scale and composition, but ultimately there are not two different levels or types of “being”, one physical and the other mental, with the latter “emerging” or “arising” out of the former. Nagel seems to think that physicalism is committed to this view, but ironically the problems he locates with reductionist physicalism stem from his own dualist intuitions about the existence of “higher” levels of reality. However, an ontologically serious physicalism has no room for different “levels” of reality, and thus it is not a “problem” to try and reduce the mental “level” to the physical “level” because that view of reduction relies on the problematic notion of there being a hierarchy of reality in the first place. In his book From an Ontological Point of View, John Heil recommends that

 …[W]e abandon the notion that reality is hierarchical. We can accept levels of organization, levels of complexity, levels of description, and levels of explanation, without commitment to levels of reality in the sense embraced by many self-proclaimed anti-reductionist philosophers today.The upshot is a conception of the world and our representations of it that is ontologically,but not analytically,reductive.

Agreed! This result generalizes to the entirety of Nagel’s critique of physicalist reductionism. While Nagel is right to argue that reductionism is problematic, the entire problematic of reducing higher levels of reality to lower levels of reality is a product of the dualist worldview, not the physicalist one. It bears repeating that on the physicalist view, there is no problem of “reducing” the mental to the physical because setting the problem up like that buys into the traditional dualist framework of reality as hierarchically layered. In a nutshell, Nagel is criticizing a dualistic view of physicalism, and thus his critique of physicalism says more about how Nagel views the world than it does about how physicalists do.

To be fair, many physicalists have unwittingly bought into the same “levels of being” view that is problematic, but insist that the “reduction” of the highest levels to the lowest is tractable. I agree entirely with Nagel that this project of reduction is doomed to failure, but not for the same reason Nagel does. My problem with the project of reduction is that it sets up the problem wrong, whereas Nagel think it reveals the truth of dualism (or at least the falsity of physicalism).

Nagel claims that his book is

“…[N]ot just about acknowledging the limits of what is actually understood but of trying to recognize what can and cannot in principle be understood by certain existing methods.”

Having cleared up the ambiguity of hierarchies, we can now analyze Nagel’s conclusions about what can and cannot be understood by the physical sciences. If the project is to say it is impossible for the physical sciences to “reduce” the “mental level” to the “physical level” then I agree entirely. But not because I doubt the truth of physicalism. The mental level cannot be reduced to the physical level because the whole idea of there being different levels is a product of the traditional dualist worldview where reality is divided into base terrestrial materials and higher spiritual realms.

Thus, when Nagel criticizes the project of “materialist reductionism,” he kind of has a point, but it’s impossible to see this unless we clear up ambiguities about how physicalists can think about reductionism. I propose there are essentially two types of materialist reductionism: call them Reductionism and Eliminativism. Reductionism is the confused view we have been discussing, where it’s acknowledged at the start there are two levels of being, and the problem is to reduce the mental level to the physical level or provide psycho-physical “bridge laws” between the two levels. In contrast, Eliminativism says all that exists is the physical level. Rather than starting with two levels, Eliminativism starts with one level and all phenomena as well as explanations of phenomena are framed in terms of this level of reality.

As I see it, Nagel is right to criticize Reductionism, but his arguments don’t apply to Eliminativism. Unfortunately, Nagel doesn’t make this distinction clear and doesn’t engage with the alternative one-level view of reality, which is the true competitor to the traditional dualist worldview. I can imagine what Nagel would say if he heard about this distinction. He might say it’s completely counter-intuitive because it denies the reality of “first person subjective experience”. But again, this talk of “denying reality” is ambiguous between denying that psychological phenomena “live” in the higher-realm of a two-level reality or denying that it exists at all. Physicalists don’t have to deny that psychological phenomena exist; they will just say that, whatever they are, they “are” just like everything else: existing in the complex, flat ontology that is our physical universe. Thus, physicalists only deny the reality of mental phenomena if it is assumed that mental phenomena “live” in a higher plane of existence in the two-level picture of reality.

Of course, given the complexity of the universe, physicalists have no expectation that humans will be cognitively comfortable (or even capable) of accounting for everything they want to explain in terms of the lowest compositional scales (atoms, quarks, etc). Rather, we abstract to higher compositional scales to deal with complex phenomena like human civilization. But all this abstraction is abstracted within a single level of reality. The psychological necessity of parsing the world into higher and lower scales is not a metaphysical proof of separate planes of reality. In fact, a physicalist understanding of human cognition would predict that humans would not be capable of handling reams of data without compressing it with language, graphs, equations, simulations, models, etc.

Thus, the following statement by Nagel is actually a prediction of the naturalistic concept of human cognition:

“For a long time I have found the materialist account of how we and our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe.”

Of course such a massively complicated proposition is “hard to believe”. A lot of things are hard to believe because we are forced to use our puny primate brains to understand a large, scarily complex physical universe with weird things like black holes, quarks, and gravity. Why would we expect it to be easy to imagine abiogenesis? Essentially, Nagel’s argument that not-P is: “I don’t understand P, therefore not-P.” But if P is physicalism, and physicalism predicts that humans will have a hard time understanding complicated things, our lack of understanding (especially of nonscientists) is surely not a refutation of physicalism, merely a recognition of its cognitive complexity.

2. Flubbing the Facts

Ontology aside, I do think Nagel makes some empirical gaffes exposing his ignorance of mainstream biological science, especially when discussing the state-of-the-art materialist conception of abiogenesis. He says, incredibly:

“The more details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard historical account becomes”

If history has taught us anything, believability by non-scientists is not a good metric for the truth of scientific claims. For many non-scientists, Einsten’s theory of relativity is unbelievable, but that obviously has no bearing on its truth. Nagel continues:

“[Abiogenesis] flies in the face of common sense…

“….It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection

“…When we go back far enough, to the origin of life – of self-replicating systems capable of supporting evolution by natural selection- those actually engaged in research in the subject recognize that they are very far from even formulating a viable explanatory hypothesis of the traditional materialist kind”

It would behoove Nagel to google the phrase “hydrothermal origins of life” to find proposed models of abiogenesis that start from recent discoveries of deep-sea heat vents. A quick search on Wikipedia and you can find the “iron-sulfur world theory” of abiogenesis. There are probably other rival hydrothermal theories, and I have no idea whether any of them are true, but the point is that they seem, to me, like a “viable explanatory hypothesis of the traditional materialist kind”.

Perhaps there is an ambiguity in Nagel’s use of “formulation”. Maybe he means “nobody has formulated a complete explanation established to be almost certainly true”. This would be true, but that’s simply an argument from ignorance. You can’t infer from the fact that we haven’t yet formulated a “complete” explanation that there isn’t a complete explanation.

However, if Nagel means “nobody has even formulated a viable educated guess” about the origins of life, this is almost certainly false, unless he can show why hydrothermal models aren’t “viable” as possible explanations.

3. Good Darwinians vs Bad Darwinians

Another thing that confused me is who Nagel considers to be a “bad Darwinian materialist” and who is a “good” materialist. Right after harshly criticizing Richard Dawkins for explaining the evolution of the eye “merely as a result of chemical accident, without the operation of some other factors determining and restricting the forms of genetic variation”, Nagel gives an example in a footnote of presumably “good”, non-reductionist Darwinians, “who insist that the evidence calls for a more restricted account of the sources of variation in the genetic material.” Surprisingly, Nagel cites Stuart Kauffman has a “good” non-reductionist, saying in that same footnote “Stuart Kauffman suggests in several books that variation is not due to chance, and that principles of spontaneous self-organization play a more important role than natural selection in evolutionary history.”

This is confusing on multiple levels. Is Nagel implying that Kauffman is “on his side” merely because he denies that all variation is due to chance alone and not chance in addition to other factors like the material property of spontaneous self-organization? If big, bad “Darwinian materialism” is supposed to be the claim that chance alone is the full story, then Nagel is making a stink about a view that few biologists actually hold. It might be convenient to treat chance has the primary operator, but this is because dealing with the entire material evolution of cellular matter is absurdly complicated, and would require a ridiculous amount of computing power to simulate.

I can’t speak for Kauffman’s own ontological views, but Kauffman-esque “non-reductionism” is ambiguous between materialist Reductionism and materialist Eliminativism. It’s conceptually possible that all the “spontaneous” self-organization of matter is a property of the single level of reality that is the physical universe. This might be wildly complex, but why shouldn’t it be? It’s the universe itself we’re talking about here, not a toy model of it. But nothing about wild and strange self-organizing properties of matter is inconsistent with materialist Eliminativism. Thus, Nagel’s appeal to Kauffman has a counter-example to reductionism is ineffective as a genuine criticism of the physicalist worldview.


As a card-carrying “Darwinian materialist” who wears his naturalistic credentials proudly, I am sympathetic to the received criticisms of Nagel’s book. However, unlike other naturalists who have criticized Nagel’s book, I think Nagel’s criticism of Reductionism is sound: it is impossible to reduce the mental level to the physical level. Nagel’s critics have mistakenly limited their options to either joining Nagel in attacking Reductionism or accepting Reductionism as formulated by Nagel.

I reject both options in favor of Eliminativism. The reason why it’s impossible to reduce the mental level to the physical level is that this very way of setting up the problem belies the traditional view of reality as composed of “levels of being”, with the mental level “emerging out of” or “arising from” the physical level. For eliminativists, there is a single level: physical reality, and humans exist only on this level. But we certainly don’t talk or write this way. For good reason: we have puny primate brains with finite memory and processing power. It’d be futile to try to understand WWII in terms of Schroedinger’s equation, but this cognitive inability does not entail the falsity of quantum mechanics. Likewise with psychology.


Filed under Books, Consciousness, Philosophy, Psychology

Quote for the Day – Sarah Blaffer Hrdy: We Are Composites

I was driven to understand my past. For we are not ready-made out of somebody’s rib. We are composites of many different legacies, put together from leftovers in an evolutionary process that has been going on for billions of years. Even the endorphins that made my labor pains tolerable came from molecules that humans still share with earthworms.

~Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection

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Filed under Books, Psychology