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Qualia and Creationism
If you asked creationists whether or not they accepted physicalism in the philosophy of mind, I think the answer would be a resounding "no."  But what would happen if you asked philosophers who believe in qualia whether or not they accept evolutionary theory as a legitimate account of humanity?  Can we make any predictions here?

If you reject physicalism in the philosophy of mind, as supporters of qualia do, you should suppose that no scientific approach could account for human experience, and that humanity itself cannot be the product of purely physical causes. Shouldn't you then suppose that evolutionary biology cannot account for human experience?  That would mean you should be sympathetic to some form of creationism, wouldn't it?

So why should we be surprised that Thomas Nagel, notorious for his subjectivism in the philosophy of mind, has come out in favor of creationism?

(Or should we only be surprised by the ignorance Nagel has displayed in the way he has supported this particular book?)

David Chalmers has observed the appropriation of his own anti-materialist views by the ID camp.  Yet, he argues that anti-materialism in the philosophy of mind has no serious consequences for a Darwinian theory of human evolution.  His argument relies on the possibility of consciousness and physical systems being "reliably associated," and that there must be "laws of nature" which connect physical and non-physical processes/entities.  I do not find this argument convincing, and I am not even sure it is coherent.  One problem would be how we differentiated physical and non-physical systems, and how we could account for laws which associated them. 

Is it possible to have an evolutionary account of humanity which did not also take into account whatever laws of nature reliably associated phenotypic behavior with consciousness?  Would we then have to conceive of biology as involving both physical and non-physical entities/systems?

It seems to me that anti-physicalism in the philosophy of mind cannot be friends with a naturalistic account of human descent.  I'd like to know what others think.

As a side note, it might be worth considering similarities in the way various arguments are made for qualia and various arguments are made for theism, of which creationism is an offshoot.  I posted this here some time ago in a discussion of Stevan Harnad's argument for epiphenomenal qualia, which he frames in terms of a feeling/functing dichotomy:

While the theistic arguments I’m talking about are varied, they all proceed roughly as follows:  God’s existence is self-evident by the very fact of knowledge.  Therefore, a person who claims that God does not exist is begging the question against theism and is denying their own knowledge.  (You can produce variations on this argument by substituting “truth,” “value,” “morality,” or “meaning” for “knowledge.”)

This argument is meant to show that theism is not only valid, but a necessary presupposition of any system of values or knowledge.  Do you find the argument compelling?

I don’t, because it presupposes that the term “God” has a well-defined meaning, and that the theistic presupposition is coherent. 

Your argument for a functing/feeling dichotomy is similar.  You claim that the unique status of feelings (be it epistemic or ontological or both) is self-evident, and that it is self-evident by the very fact of feeling.  You defend this notion by accusing those who reject it of begging the question and denying their knowledge of feelings.

Is it possible that arguments for creationism and arguments for qualia are closer in spirit than might have so far been supposed?


Dec. 3, 2009

Qualia and Creationism
"Public Education and Intelligent Design," in Philosophy&Public Affairs, Vol. 36.

People wishing to read Thomas Nagel’s views, who have online access to journals or can get to them in the library, might wish to consider what he himself says, rather than try to discern it through a fog of ad hominems. Anyone who knows anything about the history of ideas is likely to agree with me that this is precisely the occasion where one reads the primary sources.

We sometimes distinguish local from global physicalism. The latter is the view that every fact in the universe is entirely a physical fact, which can be expressed in principle entirely in non-mentalistic terms. No one who believes in God, as traditionally conceived by Jews, Christians and Muslims, can be a global physicalist. Local physicalism is the view that every fact in some  domain of facts short of the entirety, is an entirely physical fact. For example, one might believe, as some Christians and Jews do, that the natural world is entirely physical, including human mentality. In nature, mentality is reducible to physicality, they maintain. God’s creation is entirely physical. Consequently creationists can readily accept physicalism in the philosophy of mind– for the standard reasons philosophers do.

Plenty of supporters of qualia, that is, philosophers and psychologists who claim that there are phenomenal and qualitative properties to experience, that there is something it is like to feel pain or taste sugar, are physicalists. They maintain that qualia are entirely explainable in terms of the physics of the brain, or physical relations between the brain and the environment, even if we don’t yet have the explanation in hand, and that none of the arguments against physicalism concerning qualia are any good.

So nothing prevents someone who believes that God created living things ( at least in a primitive,
 form) from maintaining that evolution explains human mentality.

I believe that people who reject physicalism about the mental, especially concerning qualia and perhaps intentionality, have difficulty with evolution as an account of human minds IF they also maintain that these mental properties are epiphenomenal. That is, evolution can select only for what makes a difference to behavior. As we know, evolution can produce all sorts of properties that it doesn’t select for, which are consequences of properties it does select for, e.g. the weight of the Polar bear’s coat wasn’t selected for, as it’s a disadvantage, but it is an inevitable consequence of the coat’s warmth, an advantage that was selected for. So it’s conceivable that the mind is merely a side effect of evolution, not selected for, but it’s awfully hard to believe.

Anti-physicalists about the mind who are fans of evolution have a powerful reason to maintain that extra physical states are causally efficacious, therefore, and make a difference to behavior. If they do they must give up what’s known as the ‘causal closure of the physical.’ That is, they must deny that the physics of the brain explains everything the brain does. Not inviting. Anti-physicalists unwilling to do this DO have a problem, IMO, unless they maintain that God simply arranged that the physical and neurological states that evolution DID select for carried along with them as a side effect fine-grained, regular, coherent, truth evaluable mentality. Or perhaps that God eliminated individuals that were developing ‘crazy’ mentality. But this is to deny natural selection.

The bottom line, in my opinion, is that epiphenomenalism about the mental is way too costly and also pretty incredible. It’s obvious that qualia affect what I do; they are hardly black holes in causal space. So either one must maintain that extra-physical mental states are causally efficacious or one must maintain physicalism is true of the mental. A creationist can do both. So can an anti-creationist.

Qualia and Creationism
Reply to Jim Stone
Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Jim.

Thankfully for those like me who lack access to suitable libraries or online journals, that Nagel piece is available online:  "Public Education and Intelligent Design."

I agree that anyone interested in criticizing (or simply interpreting) Nagel should read what he actually says.  Though I am not clear on why you think he has been obscured by "a fog of ad hominems."  What unfair treatment are you talking about?

The Nagel issue is interesting, and we can only speculate as to the full extent of his sympathies and motives.  What is clear, however, is that Nagel has interpreted the work of ID supporters in self-admitted ignorance of the scientific merits (or lack thereof) of their arguments.  He simultaneously claims that, on the one hand, these IDers have legitimate criticisms of the science of evolutionary theory, and, on the other, that he is not competent to make such judgments.  Since Nagel is challenging the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community, he has opened himself up to rather harsh criticism, even more so considering the political nature of the debate.

If you think his views and/or actions have been unfairly represented, I hope you will take a moment to explain why.

In any case, thank you for correcting my oversimplifications about physicalism and creationism.

Indeed, the term "qualia" is not always interpreted within an anti-physicalist framework.  I was obviously only talking about non-materialist/physicalist notions of qualia.  (It might be noted that discussions often seem to presume that the notion of qualia poses a challenge to physicalism, that our intuitions tell us qualia are not physical phenomena, and that the burden is on physicalists to account for this problem.  It thus seems at least somewhat accurate to associate the notion of qualia with anti-physicalist agendas.  But, again, you are certainly right to point out that the notion of qualia is often discussed within purely physicalistic frameworks.  Even neuroscientists such as Ramachandran adopt the term in their discussions of the brain.)

And I accept your point that creationism does not imply anti-physicalism in the philosophy of mind.  I wonder how many creationists actually do accept physicalism in the philosophy of mind.  I suspect it is a small minority.  My thinking is that creationists seem to be attracted to a notion of divine revelation, or some such notion according to which the supernatural is apprehended in the mind.  Such would presumably be construed as a mental state, and yet could not be the result of a physical occurrence, according to theists.  (This is, of course, just a reformulation of the problem of mind/body interaction in terms of mind/God interaction.)


Dec. 5, 2009

Qualia and Creationism

‘So why should we be surprised that Thomas Nagel, notorious for his subjectivism in the philosophy of mind, has come out in favor of creationism?’

You give no argument from this claim, which is false, in fact.  Nagel is an atheist who rejects creationism. says so explicitly in his article and also signals it at the end of his brief synopsis of the Meyer book, which certainly seems worth reading. One does not come out in favor of a position in which one explicitly disbelieves. 'I do not regard divine intervention as a possibility, even though I have no other candidates' (202).

The blog to which you link says that Nagel is no longer reputable, that Nagel has made a fool of himself. And this is only the latest embarrassment. In addition, the article from Philosophy and Public Affairs is comically bad. The blog continues with the manifest falsehood that the article is almost entirely footnote  free, and adds that its publication is a symptom of the corruption of the journal editorial staff and that the article could never have been published in a reputable scholarly journal. As the article is first rate, in fact, this is just slander.

This is the ‘fog of ad hominems’ I had in mind. The strategy, not yours but the blogs, is to trash anyone who suggests intelligent design literature is worth reading and considering on its merits. Including people who disbelieve it, like Nagel. Such people are beyond the pale, and we should be beyond the pale ourselves if we read and considered this stuff. In short, there is something they don’t want us to read and the hope is that by bashing Nagel, they can discourage us from reading it. Best not to fall for this sort of thing. A traditional role of philosophy has been to defend unpopular views against bad arguments. I applaud Nagel’s courage and intelligence. He is quite straightforward as to where he stands personally, by the way. He is skeptical that the neo-Darwinain account is sufficient to explain the whole story of life on this planet, but he rejects any supernatural intervention. He suggests that there may be an alternative
naturalistic account.

As to the article to which you kindly provided the link, I think it’s superb but I disagree with it in a particular place. Nagel in effect identifies Intelligent Design with creationism. I think the relation between the two views is more complex. Intelligent design is the view that something purposive or teleological was at work, either in the evolutionary process or in the creation of life itself. The claim is that the sort of naturalistic account Darwinian theory offers doesn’t plausibly account for the emergence of life and its evolution. Now the ID theorists, chiefly professional biologists, mathematicians, and philosophers, maintain that ID, if it’s true, supports creationism. And indeed, as Christians, they are creationists. But they also point out that the intelligent design may have flowed from some source other than God. In the books and articles I have read by these people, the work is highly intelligent, scientifically informed, apparently sincere, and alive to criticisms. And I’ve talked to some of them personally. So I think they mean it. In short, if aliens show up one day and explain how they created life on earth and guided its evolution, it would prove intelligent design but disprove creationism. Therefore Intelligent Design isn’t creationism and it’s possible for atheists to consistently embrace Intelligent Design.

On the subject, I sent this letter to the New York Review of Books, which didn’t publish it.

    ‘Richard Lewontin (20 Oct 2005, 'The Wars Over Evolution', NYRB) characterizes Intelligent Design as the claim that 'an objective examination of the facts of life make it clear that organisms are too complex to have arisen by a process of the accumulation of naturally selected chance mutations and so must have been purposely created by an unspecified intelligent designer.' (p. 52)  He notes that God, the Bible and religion are unmentioned.  Nonetheless Lewontin dismisses ID as a 'transparent subterfuge.'  He argues:

    The problem is that if the living world is too complex to have arisen without an intelligent designer, then where did the intelligent designer come from? After all, she must have been as complex as the things she designed. If not, then we have evolution! Otherwise we must postulate an intelligent designer who designed the intelligent designer who..., back to the original one who must have been around forever. And who might that be? (p. 52)

    This objection is weak. Why must a designer be as complex as what she designs?  Human intelligence is stacked on top of an astonishingly complex biological system, but what actually realizes our intelligence may be much less complex. (For instance, some psychologists  maintain the work is done by a connectionist system, which could be realized in principle by sets of ping pong balls; others say the mind is software that could be run in principle on a 'computer' made of rolls of toilet paper and rubber bands.) As nature may be able to realize intelligence in multiple ways and in various stuff, we can't  preclude the possibility that the universe contains non-biological physical systems more intelligent than humans but simpler than biological life-forms.    

    Lewontin seems to think that a physical thing's designing a more complex physical thing conflicts with ID: this would be 'evolution'!  But evolution ( that is, increasing complexity) by design is consistent with ID. If we one day designed organisms more complex than ourselves, this wouldn't refute ID. Nothing in it precludes a designer's being simpler physically than what she designs.

    How might such systems arise? Supposing that natural selection and intelligent design are the two most plausible contenders to explain the complexity of life-forms on Earth, it hardly follows that they exhaust the options for intelligent physical systems in the entire universe. As we don't know what these systems would even be made of (they might be star clusters, for all we know), we can barely speculate about natural processes that might produce them. Intelligence might arise as an artifact of the organizational complexity of a non-living thing.  The designers might even evolve by a process like natural selection, but operating over a  far longer time than the span available here and producing markedly simpler systems. That we lack an account of how smart things very different from us can arise naturally is no reason to conclude it couldn't happen.     

    ID is most plausible when it's construed as a 'local' thesis about how animals like us arose here on Earth. As such, it is entitled to be agnostic about how the designers were made. ID entails a supernatural designer only if we take it as a grand metaphysical claim, e.g. 'Intelligence  can arise only by design.' So construing ID, despite its advocates' protests, already casts it as a subterfuge--what Lewontin's argument was supposed to show. There's no substitute for taking a theory at its best.’

Qualia and Creationism
Reply to Jim Stone

"You give no argument from this claim, which is false, in fact.  Nagel is an atheist who rejects creationism."

I did not say Nagel was a creationist or a theist.  I said he came out in favor of creationism.  The intended meaning was that he favors presenting creationism as a legitimate alternative to Darwinian evolutionary theory in the science classroom.  He claims that, for people who believe in God, the rejection of Darwinian theory in favor of creationism is an intellectually sound, scientifically viable move.  This, to me, is being in favor of creationism.  Sorry if that wasn't clear.

As for the "fog of ad hominems" . . . I don't think referring to Nagel as "once reputable," or to the fact that he has made a fool of himself, is necessarily an ad hominem argument.  It's just commentary.  As for the claim that the article could never have appeared in a scholarly journal--true or false, I don't see how that could be construed as ad hominem.  It's attacking the article, not the person who wrote it.

"In short, there is something they don’t want us to read and the hope is that by bashing Nagel, they can discourage us from reading it."

I don't think that is a fair characterization.  I don't think the goal is to prevent the stuff from being read.  Rather, it is to make sure it is not read in ignorance.


Dec. 7, 2009

Qualia and Creationism
Bye bye.