Review: The Consciousness Instinct by Michael Gazzaniga

This book (Amazon review and link below) is another attempt to find a solution to both the necessity and sufficiency of brains to minds. Gazzaniga is a materialist, and so by his supposition, there must be, in the brain itself, the secret to mind’s manifestation. He has written a very cogent examination of the brain’s layering and the complementarity of a rule-law combination that animates life and (he thinks) is the secret to the otherwise mysterious properties of consciousness. This theme is reflected in “Incomplete Nature” (Deacon 2011), while his connection between life, consciousness, and quantum mechanics brings Henry Stapp (“Quantum Theory and Free Will” 2017) and others to mind. 

Gazzaniga is not a physicist but a neuroscientist, and his specialty is the connection between brain lesions, surgery, and consciousness. What he notes, profoundly enough, is that consciousness is not something that must be generated by a whole, healthy brain, nor does it arise from a specific part or even anatomical layer, but emerges from any parts of the brain that still work! When only parts of the brain are working, the affected individual reports (sometimes in very indirect ways depending on what damage there is) that they are conscious and feel mostly normal, despite considerable gaps in accounts of that experience’s content. For example, a patient may report feeling perfectly normal even though her awareness includes nothing whatsoever to her left.

In this book, we have a well-written account of the various ways in which the brain, a marvelously complex and mysterious thing, generating some “what is it like to be” inner world the individual reports as her subjectively-recognizable self, even when damaged! But even if the principles and mechanisms of this process are something like what Gazzaniga suggests to us, they are empirical evidence only of their necessity, not their sufficiency, to bring about the emergence of subjective experience. 

Nor, it has to be said, are the limits of what we know about the brain evidence that it is not sufficient to bring about mind’s emergence. The problem here is metaphysical. In all other emergent phenomena identified by science, even the case of life, the point of emergence is identifiable, as are the properties of what emerges. There is always a physical connection between prior and post-emergent physics. Both are always physical. The one can be fully traced, with mathematical rigor, through to the other. The brain-mind connection is different. No one has identified where, in the chain of neurological causes, a subject appears, nor precisely what the subject is. The brain’s physics plays its essential role, but what emerges isn’t physical in any sense that physics understands that term.

Yet there is also no evidence (evidence taken to involve physical observation) that there is anything in the universe (besides brains) that contributes some other “necessary ingredient”, that together with the brain, becomes sufficient for the emergence of the individual mind. The hypothesis that such a phenomenon exists is speculative and grounded on physics’s inability to do the job thanks to causal closure, the principle that physics produces only physics.

Gazzaniga suggests the emergence, in living matter, of translated information (in our case, DNA to RNA to proteins), what he calls a rules-based ordering, allows physics to violate the causal closure principle. Gazzaniga is saying, essentially, that the rules-based operation and interaction between layers and sub-sections of the brain can and does produce a non-physical emergent reality, mind! But there is no evidence that rules-based violation of causal closure is possible. None of the other emergent phenomena in the universe, including life (the other “rules-based” phenomenon), violate causal closure. No one has suggested how information ordering as such would or could produce a violation. Physics has nothing here. “Mind exists, therefore physics must be sufficient to produce it” is the sum and substance of the claim. 

There have been attempts to side-step this problem. Russellian Monism suggests that every object in the universe, from protons to galaxies, has “mental properties” (sometimes called “proto-mental properties”) that “add up” to mind of the sort familiar to us when brain-objects appear on the scene. None of these theories includes any suggestion as to the nature of these “mental properties”. David Chalmers (“The Conscious Mind” 1997 and others) suggests “mental laws” built into physics (a view that collapses into Russellian Monism), or a set of laws parallel to physics and present with them from the moment of the big bang (collapsing into what Philip Goff [“Galileo’s Error” 2019] calls “cosmological panpsychism”). Like mental properties, the form such laws might take, or how we might go about detecting their specific influences, is left unspecified. 

Each of these suggestions has numerous problems besides leaving key requirements unspecified. I’ve addressed these in other papers (see “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”, and “For Every Theist there are One Hundred Materialists”). All of these ideas amount to a quasi-dualism (what Chalmers calls “property dualism”), and in every case, causal closure is violated. Materialism (if some of these ideas can be called materialistic at all) in the philosophy of mind comes down to a two-horned dilemma. Either mind is real and non-physical in which case we must account for its apparent violation of causal closure, or mind isn’t real at all, leaving us nothing for which to account.  

A few philosophers have made a go at the second horn, but it strikes most as prima facie absurd. If you accept the first horn (as does Gazzaniga, Chalmers, Goff, and many others), you are already a dualist no matter what your materialistic credentials. Substance-dualism is another alternative. There are more nuanced versions than the simple Cartesian “mind imposed on brains”.  For example, a detection, by brains, of some field with which brains, and only brains, interact. Individual minds are analogous to the sound (compression waves) issuing from radios whose antennae are sensitive to some electromagnetic radiation; the field is the radiation, the brain is the radio and antenna, mind is the music (see “From What Comes Mind”). 

The problem with substance dualism is that whatever the field is, it isn’t physical. Its source must be something other than physics. Critics argue that this demands both a plausible source (for example God. See “Metaphysical Stability in the Philosophy of Mind”) and an accounting of the field-brain interaction. But as noted in papers linked above, the unspecifiable “proto-mental properties” of Russellian Monism, panpsychism, or the “psychic laws” of Chalmers’ property dualism, demand the same dual accounting (asserting that these qualities “just belong to physics” is not an account of their origin) while violating causal closure (they are purportedly physical after all). Substance dualism preserves causal closure. Physics is not required to be both necessary and sufficient for consciousness. 

Yet even granting that such a model is correct, how the brain works to detect the field remains an open empirical issue. Gazzaniga and Deacon (see link above to “Incomplete Nature”) both have more nuanced views here than philosophers like Chalmers, Nagel, Russell, Goff, and many others; all moderns trying to make that first horn work. 

The Consciousness Instinct by Michael Gazzaniga

This is a book about consciousness and specifically, an attempt to find a solution to the qualitative difference between “minds” and brains from within physics. This is a consequence of the “materialist paradigm” (it can only be physics). Dr. Gazzaniga is a true believer. But his is the case for ninety-percent of the philosophy of mind I read and review anyway. What distinguishes this one?

Gazzaniga reviews some history for us and brings forward insights from psychology, biology, medicine (in particular observations of damaged or surgically altered brains), and physics, in particular, the notion (from quantum mechanics) of complementarity. Phenomena can have two aspects, they can exist as two sides of the same coin but at the same time, one cannot always say how each becomes the other. The two sides are not mutually reducible.

Gazzaniga, along with many others in the field, believes that quantum phenomena have some connection to consciousness (many others have speculated about this), but he also believes that this connection began way back at the origin of life. Life, like consciousness, rests in part on quantum behavior! I’ve been calling attention to this very reasonable idea for years, so it’s nice to see the idea expressed by someone with more credibility than I seem to have.

This is an important aspect of Gazzaniga’s theory because it allows him to trace the root of “the subjective” not merely to brains, but all the way back to the origin of life. Here he brings in the distinction between “rules” and “laws”. The mechanisms that characterize living things, all living things, are “rule-governed”, not “law-governed” The distinction is important because a rule (in our case how DNA sequences become specific protein sequences) adds an extra layer, an abstraction, on top of laws. Laws are fixed, rules can be changed. That is the secret of both life and consciousness. He is NOT claiming that early life was conscious. Instead, what makes life alive, its complementary double-sided nature (lawful rules), is the same principle operating in the emergence of consciousness from brains. 

From medical brain research, he notes that damaged brains are still conscious. Aspects of the former consciousness will be missing, but the person (whose damaged brain it is) doesn’t notice what’s missing. From this, he concludes that consciousness is not produced by a particular part of the brain but rather is a product of every part of it operating to produce its own small part of the whole subjective experience.

Also incorporated is the idea of modularity and layers of neural activity. Consciousness bubbles up through the layers becoming progressively richer in richer brains, but existing in some sense from the times of the earliest true nerve ganglia. The book is crafted to carry us through the development of these ideas from both medicine and philosophy. Gazzaniga’s “instinct idea” is the last aspect introduced. He notes that, like consciousness, brain research points to instincts being distributed phenomena, hence, consciousness is an instinct! Logically this is a stretch and is not as important to the theory as his rules-laws distinction and synthesis of complementarity and modularity.

In the end, like other speculations referenced in the book, he fails to nail down the “how” or the “what” of consciousness. Gazzaniga’s approach might prove to be a useful addition in the quest to answer these questions, but all of them, including this one, are perfectly consistent with a dualism holding that brains are necessary but not sufficient to explain the appearance of the subjective from the objective. Every one of his ideas can be true, while still not giving him what he needs. Every other complementarity known to our physics can be physically measured on both “sides of the coin”. Not simultaneously, but that is beside the point. It remains precisely the problem with mind that physical measurement of the “other side”, the subjective side, is impossible! That makes mind different. That makes brains insufficient, or at least leaves open that possibility.

Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind


Physics rests on the “causal closure principle” (CCP). The CCP has three legs:

CCP(1): Physics comes only from physics.
CCP(2): Physics produces only physics.

Together these say the physical effects we observe come only from prior physics, and physical causes (using cause in its common language sense) produce only physical effects.

CCP(3): There is no teleology in physical mechanism, no goal-directedness. CCP(3) is something of a corrollary of the first two legs. Physical relations and interactions are either determinate or indeterminate, but either way they are not “before the fact” directed at particular outcomes.

If God does not exist, the only philosophy of mind (PoM) consistent with all three legs of the CCP is eliminative materialism. Every other nontheistic PoM that rejects eliminative materialism and accepts that mind cannot be logically reduced to physics, violates the CCP in one or more ways.

PoM theories that claim mind exists in some sense of that word, that mind is real and emerges from ordinary physics without anything “in principle undetectable” (QM aside) added to physics to make it happen violate CCP(2) but not CCP(3).  They assert, plainly enough, that physics results in something that is in some sense non-physical, but mind’s emergence is just as accidental (contingent) as all other [physical] emergent phenomena (from stars to liquid water to life).

PoMs claiming that physics is incomplete, that something else must be added to ordinary (measurable) physics to make mind emerge (dual-aspect monism and panpsychism of various sorts) violate both CCP(2) and CCP(3).

Only theism can both accept all the CCP while accommodating mind’s reality (and for that matter libertarian free will). Theism also grounds our conviction of agency which nontheistic theories universally deride. I write about theism extensively but my purpose in this essay is to show that the [supposed] problems with theism for physics and PoM are no worse than those of nontheistic PoMs. This is to say both suffer from equally serious metaphysical and epistemological problems.

Being inaccessible to empirical (or for that matter logical) demonstration (or falsification), a “God hypothesis” is a speculative solution, a curve drawn arbitrarily to fit points (mechanistic nature of the universe joined with free will for example). Other speculative solutions, so it is claimed, are equally possible and equally impossible to confirm or deny. In fact however it is more difficult than it seems to come up with these alternative solutions. Speculative solutions that fit all the points (the mind-independent world and everything in experience) and remain logically coherent are difficult to invent. Many have tried. Like theism, atheistic attempts at solving the mind problem are also data-free speculative solutions because the data, mind emerging from brains, cannot be observed!

Physicists are often eliminative materialists (nothing emerges strictly speaking) or reductive-materialists (only an epiphenomenon emerges).  Only eliminative materialism is fully compliant with the CCP and logically coherent, but it is also the solution that is most prima fascia absurd from the subjective viewpoint it denies exists! Reductive-materialism either violates CCP(2) if epiphenomenal-mind is taken to be something real or it is logically incoherent! Physics causes the external conditions of a mirage, but the illusion that is the mirage happens only in a mind. An illusion presumes a subjective experience in which the illusion occurs.

The view that a non-material mind emerges from ordinary physics violates CCP(2)! The idea is coherent because mind is not taken to be an illusion. The problem is that no physicist has ever seen a physical phenomenon emerging into (or as) a nonphysical one. We see physics emerging from physics all over the universe from galaxies and stars to liquid water to life, but all of what comes of these events (causes and effects) is physical! The retort from physics is that we do not see any other non-physical emergence because the one such thing that has happened in the universe is the very mind we are trying to explain. Mind is the evidence that physics can produce mind. Surely this argument is circular? It plainly begs the question to say that the evidence physics alone can explain the appearance of mind is mind!

There are a few philosophers who follow the physicists here (John Searle, Bob Dole among others), but many philosophers see problems in this approach. First there is the circularity already mentioned, but in addition, this solution (whether it includes a role for quantum mechanics commonly cited by both physicists and philosophers) entails that mind’s appearance is contingent. Not only might it not have appeared in the universe, something every materialist accepts, but its appearance is mysterious. The mystery applies to mind in general, and individual minds in particular. Why is consciousness ubiquitous in animals with complex nervous systems?

Troubled by these problems, materialist philosophers seek solutions that remain [purportedly] physical while, at the same time, channeling universe evolution towards consciousness and by doing so taking its mystery away. But every one of these solutions violates CCP(2) and CCP(3)! The idea that universe evolution is directed is plainly teleological! This is what prompts philosophers (and some physicists) to grasp the straw of quantum mechanics,  but this (I will argue) doesn’t help them.

To explain genuine mind in a Godless universe there are dual-aspect monisms (Henry Stapp, Donald Davidson, Thomas Nagel) and panpsychisms (David Chalmers, Philip Goff, John Leslie). Under normal circumstances both of these theories would count as metaphysical, that is not physical theories at all! They are physical not logically, but merely by ancestry. Purportedly they remain physical (or physics grounded) because their novel (never specified) qualities can only have originated in the big bang!

Dual-aspect monisms make the claim that physics is incomplete in the sense that there are additional fundamental properties in micro-physics not yet (and perhaps never to be) discovered. The physical in this view includes the mental in a proto-property form. This undiscovered addition is not conscious; atoms are not aware. Nevertheless the qualities of this extra-physics direct event unfolding towards that which yields consciousness. Working backwards from consciousness, this channeling must also encompass the preconscious stages of life’s evolution and the origin life throughout the universe. To our empirical experience, only life, some life, becomes conscious, and that only as it gains the right sort of complexity following millions of years of evolution.

If dual-aspect monism of any sort was true however, we would expect its effect to show up in the equations describing the regularity of physical evolution. There is no such term in the equations of macro physics so to say that this extra aspect of the physical is a part of physics surely begs the question.

This is why I think so many philosophers grasp at quantum dynamics to locate proto-mental qualities. We cannot directly measure quantum phenomena until they interact with the macro physical world, and quantum phenomena, technically, are not random but indetermined. Perhaps (so they speculate) we can locate the proto-mental in the difference between ‘random’ and ‘indeterminate’, in effect shielding teleology from possible detection? But surely a proto-mental is not the only possibility accounting for the restriction from random to indeterminate (see note on this distinction at end of essay).

Furthermore no one (physicist or philosopher) has been able to say what properties the proto-mental has, how they restrict random to indeterminate, or how the indeterminateness of the quantum phenomena we know push the macro universe towards consciousness. Even Henry Stapp’s “Quantum Zeno Effect” addresses only the narrow interface between brain and the human type of consciousness. Even if this speculative connection turns out to be a measurable phenomenon, no one has suggested how the physical world accommodates it. They all seem to agree that the proto-mental cannot be conscious in the sense that we experience it, but that tells us nothing of what properties it does, or even might, have and how they work!

What all of these theories entail however is that the mental (the proto-mental at least) must be antecedent to the physical! If it has a downward influence on the physical, which these views entail, it has to be ontologically real! Where does it come from? If the foundation of the universe is physical, what is it in or of the physical that grounds the proto-mental? The idea of a proto-mental here is not incoherent by any means. But it’s coherence largely depends on there being something about the fundamental ontology of the universe that isn’t physical! Moreover something that directs with intention!  Teleology is here introduced something the more honest of the philosophers admit they cannot seem to avoid.

For these reasons, dual-aspect monisms violate CCP(2) but they also violate CCP(3) because whatever else the extra might be it is clearly teleological. Instead of the universe ending in one state or another driven only by contingent process, the extra-physics channels evolution toward a specific outcome! It is therefore purposeful in the sense of being goal-directed.

Panpsychism is the converse of dual-aspect monism. It isn’t that mind builds up particle by particle thanks to some undiscovered property of particle physics, but rather it is the universe taken as a whole that comes to embody the extra physical qualities. Philip Goff (in a paper) neatly distinguishes two forms of panpsychism, micro and cosmo versions. Micropanpsychism is much like dual-aspect monism. The mental is attached to physics at the particle level but it isn’t effective except as contributor to a totalizing affect of the cosmos. Micropanpsychism has dual-aspect monism as a foundation but asserts that its impact is felt only in relation to the whole universe. You might think of this like neurons and brains. Every neuron in your brain is a foundation of brain functionality. But mind doesn’t show itself other than at the level of the whole brain, or at least large parts of it. In Micropanpsychism, the properties of the whole emerge from properties of the parts.

Cosmopanpychism abandons the dual-aspect foundation and asserts it is only the universe as a whole that reveals proto-mental properties. This view needs no micro-alteration to physics. Mind emerges from brains the way stars emerge from gas clouds because special properties of the totality, properties described by laws parallel to those of physics, are able to invoke it. Somehow, the entire universe acquires properties (usually not taken to be conscious as such) that come to direct physical evolution, and then biological evolution, towards consciousness.

This idea clearly violates CCP(3) (it is teleological) but is precisely an attempt to avoid violating CCP(2).  It is unsuccessful because the panpsychist claim is essentially that from the total state of the universe there emerges a parallel collection of qualities (properties and laws) that evoke mind from brains!  At one level or another, physics results in non-physics and so violates CCP(2). Besides Goff, David Chalmers is a proponent of this view.

For the cosmopanpsychists the “mental qualities” do not (typically) amount to the emergence of a literal Cosmic Mind, a “thinking universe”. Such a view would amount to substance dualism at the level of biological mind! But the philosophers who assert this do not, with one exception that I know of, specify what any of these properties are. As is the case with all the other theories, none of the qualities that supposedly effect the transformation nor any part of the mechanics of their interaction with the other-than-mental are anywhere given.

The exception here is John Leslie who asserts the property or quality characterizing this emergence is goodness. We normally think of goodness as a quality of the character of persons and so, by extension, of their minds. Emerging with the big bang is not only purposeless physical mechanism, but a parallel quality of goodness. A universe pushed in that direction is so pushed because goodness is a quality of it from the beginning, and mind is good!

To get the job done, any of these extras must, necessarily, be effective. It does no good to say that something besides the physics we know, something that is nevertheless physical (or quasi-physical), might or might not push cosmological evolution towards life and life towards consciousness. If the operation of these extras is itself contingent then what would be their point? To do the job they must not only have the necessary power, but that power must result in their goal-directed effect. The extra-in-physics, its goal-directedness, must be logically antecedent to the physics we measure that does not, in any aspect, appear goal-directed.

Where does antecedence come from? Since all of these philosophers are materialists, it must originate, with everything else, in the big bang. But there is nothing in the physics of the big bang that contains anything of the mental, anything of this extra there, and certainly nothing to which we can point that bears value; goodness. The big bang is a quintessentially physical event. What is  the proto-mental property in physics? How does it arise from within an other-than-mental physics and yet be logically antecedent to physics?

The extra-in-physics, under any of these approaches, hangs, metaphysically, on literally nothing! In John Leslie’s view, not only is universal mechanism goal directed, it is also moral! For him, morality happens to pop into the universe with the big bang and it is this quality that underlies drift towards the mental. How, presumably in the absence of any mind, has this direction become good? Even if it is, how does goodness effect the direction of physical contingency?

Does physics itself have an analogous problem with this last point? Where does the physical universe come from? Why is there any physics at all? Physicists have an out. They have the quantum vacuum which, while purportedly physical, cannot in principle be directly probed. This boundary layer between physics and nothing insulates physics. As concerns physics itself, and anything it gleans of quantum phenomena, the CCP is not violated. It is for this reason, I think, that so many philosophers reach for the quantum straw. We have already seen that this move is ad hoc. Moreover it goes against that which we have discovered about quantum behavior. No “mental term” is needed in the equations of quantum mechanics any more than in macrophysical equations, and goal-directedness is not implied by any of our multiple quantum interpretations.

To be fair, many of the philosophers who propose the solutions outlined above recognize that these suggestions violate the CCP. All claim (often citing Occam’s Razor) that violating the CCP is less onerous than supposing there is, for example, a God who knows the trick of making all of this work out the way it has. Working out a way, that is, for purposeless physical mechanism, mind, and even libertarian free will, to coexist in the universe. What troubles me about these philosophers is their refusal to admit that these problems (what brings about cosmological mental properties. How precisely do they interact with physics) are in some respects more mysterious than God! At least God can be supposed to “know the trick”.

Perhaps in the greatest twist of irony,  many of these minds have thrown up their hands and returned to idealism, abandoning the CCP entirely! Not only is the mental logically antecedent to physics, it is ontologically prior! The above mysteries are resolved because mind causes physics and not the other way around! The irony is that, in essence, this is what theism has claimed all along! I should not need to point out that in God’s absence, the metaphysical ground, prior to physics, of the mental is unfathomably mysterious!

How does a “God hypothesis” avoid violating CCP(1) with particular regard to free will? Doesn’t a genuinely (libertarian) free will entail (as Sean Carroll has put it in “The Big Picture”) that “mind causes physics”? In a narrow sense yes, theism violates CCP(1) but theism has an out. Mind is presupposed after all and constitutes the one exception to CCP(1) in the universe! The Theist is free to change CCP(1) to read: “physics comes only from physics and mind”. This move doesn’t help the physicalist because for her, the issue is the emergence of mind from physics without presupposing mind. They can, of course, say that mind is the only exception to CCP(1), but that surely begs the question, there not being any other evidence that physics can do this.

The change to CCP(1) is not circular in Theism. Yes mind is an exception. It is in truth a cause of physics. But here mind is presupposed. CCP(1) is not violated because mind doesn’t emerge only from physics. The exception, that part that evokes subjective experience from brain activity, comes not from physics but by some indirect route from God. It must be indirect (I do not believe God personally manages emerging individual minds) because God is changeless while mind, individual mind, changes with time. Mind’s direct source (besides brains) must be inside time.

Theism does not violate CCP(2) because physical mechanism still produces only physics. The result of mind-producing-physics, say the movement of my arm, remains physical. Theism does not violate CCP(3) because physical mechanism remains perfectly purposeless. Purpose as such remains entirely in mind. Notice that CCP(3) does not say that the physical universe has no purpose, only that the local operation of its mechanism (macro and micro)  is purposeless.

The goal of this essay has been to argue that nontheistic notions of mind’s emergence (or lack of existence) have problems equal to or exceeding the problematic aspects of theism. Let’s review.

God is a fantastical being. Positing his existence demands at the least an addition to what physicists take to be the only ontology of the universe; the physical. A God hypothesis demands that this entity has the power and knows the trick to producing the physical as well as causing minds to arise from the physical work of brains and interact downward with the material world. This mystery cries out for a physical explanation; at least a suggestion of what it is about the physical that makes that connection. Theism does not supply this physical answer, but nor does physicalism or any of the extra-physical theories covered above.

On first blush, the extra-physical ideas demand less addition to our fundamental ontology. The physicalist theories demand, if not technically an addition to ontology, at least that the physical can do that which no observation, no experiment, has seen it do; bring about something nonphysical. The extra-physical theories do demand a new, non-material addition to ontology. It isn’t God, but yet it must have the power to bring life and then mind about. Not only must it have this power, it must surely succeed. If the emergence of consciousness remained contingent and might not have happened the extra-physical qualities of the universe would be redundant. Further, any direction, anything other than absolute contingency, implies a teleology that has to be antecedent to the physics it influences!

The atheist philosophers who hold such theories recognize that they do move partway towards God (at least a Deistic version of him). In effect they are a “functional God”. But if there is no real God, then in what, metaphysically speaking, do any of these properties cohere? If you add to this stand-in the property of “having purpose”, and to backstop an infinite chain of prior cause, being first (and so uncaused) cause, you pretty much have gone all the way to God. In the end, the purely physicalist theories are nonsensical because mind is both prima facia obvious and non-physical. The extra-physical theories, if they do not need all the qualities of an “Abrahamic God”, require enough of these properties (non-materiality, purpose, antecedent cause) to be equally fantastical! When, in addition, you accommodate the problem of these mysterious properties emerging, literally from nothing, you end at a full-blown God concept that is at least deistic if not fully theistic.

Updated Dec. 2018

Note on the distinction between ‘random’ and ‘indeterminate’

The distinction is important in quantum mechanics (I believe) because quantum phenomena come out in a well known and repeatable probability distribution even though there is no reason, no cause that we know of, why they should not be actually random. An electron could, theoretically be anywhere in the universe but there is a 99.9% probability that it will be found in bounded range of locations.

Here is a mundane macrophysical example I hope captures the idea. Imagine a fair six-sided die. Any face from 1 to 6 can come up with equal probability. The die is random within the confines of possibility (even an electron cannot be outside the universe). Now suppose you have a heavily-loaded die in which two sides, 1 or 6 are likely (and repeatedly) to come up on 90% of the throws, but within that 90% a 1 or a 6 are equally likely. That die is no longer random, but it is indeterminate.


The Understandable Inconclusiveness of Metaphysics Part I


“…metaphysics can indeed be about reality, and can avoid collapse into empirical scientific theory, provided we can learn to be content with the fact that, as far as actuality is concerned, metaphysics cannot provide us with certainties” E.J. Lowe The Possibility of Metaphysics (1998)

The central question of metaphysics might well be “what must be true to make the universe we experience possible?” As E.J. Lowe puts it in the aforementioned book “… metaphysics has been thought of as the systematic study of the most fundamental structure of reality…” The experience to which I refer includes all that we take to be an external world impinging on our sensory systems, but also the fact of experience itself, that all that impinging has a subjective result, a “something it is to be like ourselves”. In its turn, a part of that subjective experience seems to include a power, an ability on the part of the subject, to effect events in the external world without such actions being either chance occurences or ridgedly determined by antecedent events. It is not controversial that such impact is effected through the movement of a body, but from the subjective viewpoint, such movement is but the terminus of a process initiated by what appears, literally to our selves as a self, that again subjectively, appears not to be merely identified with a body, but a controler of it.

It is the present fashion in both the sciences and philosophy to claim that what appears to be a free and extra-material controller of a material body is but an illusion. Similarly, the subjective arena in and with which the controller seems to function is also declared to be illusory. There is somewhat more sensitivity in the latter claim to the matter of how it is that an illusion can appear to be something to itself? Mostly these viewpoints amount to a modern version of nihilism, but their proponents claim to be doing nothing more than following out the logical consequences of physics, that is the discoveries about the external world (the one that impinges on our senses and of course including the senses themselves) that physics has revealed. This is a disengenuous claim. Proponents are assuming that the only explanation that can be provided, and by this I mean as concerns both the objective and the subjective, is the one that physics is able (if not now than ultimately) to provide. No other explanation can count for anything other than fantasy if it is not expressible in physical terms.

This “naturalistic error” becomes quickly associated with a “physicalist error”. Because the technological results of scientific methodology at least do strongly suggest the validity of our conclusions concerning the physical world (with a few controversial “edge cases”) and coupled with the observation that a methodology employing physical instruments can only detect physical phenomena, one reaches for the conclusion that the physical must be all there is.

Physicists and philosophers who are worth their Ph.D’s all admit that this reach is an assumption. They know that there is no logical proof of the being, or not being, of anything real in the universe that is other than physical. So why this insistence of a declaration of naturalism (no explanation other than science) and physicalism (nothing but the physical exists) on the part of so many otherwise well educated people? The reasons are mostly negative. Beginning with the assumption that “there is more than the physical” that is real, philosophers have for centuries offered answers to the fundamental question (what must be true for all of this to exist) that, while they might answer the question, simply cannot be confirmed as the true or best such answer. Put in technical terms, experiential evidence (including that of physics), underdetermines metaphysical theory. In non technical terms this means that more than one such complete explanation can work and there is no objective methodology that can be used to pick out the right one.

Physics as such has reduced the ultimate question to “what must be true to make our physical world, implied by the macroscopic (and deterministic) reality we experience through our senses, the way it is?” This is a perfectly legitimate question and physics has discovered much of what lies beyond our natural (that is biological) senses forming parts of the answer to that question. That these explanations are real answers and that they are complete answers is demonstrated, again via our senses, by the fact that technology grounded in the consequences (philosophically speaking “necessary corollaries”) of those explanations actually works! Not only does it work, but we can predict to an extraordinary degree of precision how alterations in material inputs will affect (that is alter) their outputs! This means that any further explanation, any explanation that entails anything beyond or besides physical inputs, is redundant.

There do remain a few edge cases, places where our physical explanations have, at least for the moment, run up against a wall. An interpretation of quantum mechanics is perhaps the most famous of these, but the completion of the standard model, in particular the basis of gravity and its capacity to warp space is another as is the origin of life, and the genesis of the big bang. What these questions have in common is the shared, universal assumption on the part of physics, that the answers to them will form a self consistent set and that they will prove to be strictly physical making non-physical additions redundant. Interestingly though, it is with physics here at these limits exactly the same as with metaphysics in that our evidence, the evidence with which we seek to discover the answer to what must be true, underdetermines theory. As with metaphysics there are multiple possible explanations that account for the physical evidence and at the moment we have no definitive way of choosing between them.

Then there is the matter of consciousness, the observers at the end of the chain seeking the answers to all such questions. On this planet at least only humans appear to be observers of this kind. There is a general acceptance of higher animals (at least) being conscious in the sense of having a “something it is like to be” experience. But none of them (and indeed not all humans) appear to ask or care to look into the fundamentals of that experience. Still, only humans ask these questions, and only humans direct behavior towards answering them.

As an edge case for physics the matter of consciousness poses a special problem. No one denies that consciousness in some sense exists in the physical universe. But it is not, like the other edge cases, so obvious that the answer to the “what must be true” question would or could be purely physical, leaving no room for a non-redundant, non-physical component of the answer. Most physicists and philosophers today simply assume that, like everything else that physics has discovered, this limit too will ultimately prove to have a purely physical explanation. But this reasoning ignores the fact that physics can detect only the physical whether there is anything else in the universe or not; we are returned to the physicalist assumption.

Even if physics happens to be wrong concerning physicalism, metaphysics, some explanation for both the physical and the non-physical cohabiting the universe, will be unhelpful unless there is some means by which we can narrow metaphysical possibility. Underdetermination is a problem whenever the observers reach, temporarily or otherwise, some explanatory limit. Physics has a methodology (observational, mathematical, and experimental) it applies to limit the range of possible explanations though as I will show in part II the edge cases, even apart from consciousness, are often, even in principle, beyond such treatment. Even where applicable, math, experiment, and observation might not serve to pick a single explanation, but they do limit the reasonable candidates. Not all theories qualify. For metaphysics to be reasonable the same consideration must apply. There may be no method by which a single metaphysical theory can be identified as “the true answer”, but there should be some means to narrow the candidate field. Science is about what happens, while metaphysics is about what is possible.

Metaphysics has one tool analogous to mathematics, that being logic. But the validity (in the sense of being true of the actual universe) of both logical deduction and induction rests on the truth of assumptions and those assumptions (and this is just as true of physics) are made only by observers having subjective experience, the very experience whose inclusion in the universe for which we are trying to account! In turn this means that besides logical consistency, the only limiting methodology available to metaphysics is experience itself; that is a correct apprehension of it. Metaphysics must account both for physics and subjective observer experience as concerns both the fact of the latter in the universe and its content. Metaphysical answers must not be inconsistent with physics and at the same time, they must account for both the appearance of the non-physicalness of consciousness and that of free will. They must also account for all that manifests in the consciousness of observers; not merely qualia but also ideas, intension, meaning, and value.

This sets up something of a built-in circularity to metaphysics. What must limit its speculation is the very experience we are trying (among other things) to explain. The facticity of these phenomena and their purported non-material nature is the very quality open to question. To avoid a patent circularity, metaphysics must, like science, modify the central question. Not what must be true for the world to be as it is, but what must be true of the world for it to appear to us as it does. That would include the appearance of subjectivity and especially free will without presupposing their facticity.

Metaphysics has from this requirement generally suggested two broad sorts of answers to the “what must be true” question; either monism, or dualism. The physicalism already sketched is one form of monism. It argues that there is only one kind of thing in the universe that is real, the physical, including everything from the microphysical quantum universe to spacetime curved by gravity. Anything that appears to have some non-redundant non-physical aspect is only an illusion. But an illusion is a subjective phenomenon. An antecedent subject is presupposed and that cannot be an illusion because some subject is experiencing it. Physicalists have argued that the subject itself is the illusion but then who or what is it that makes this claim? Non-subjects (like rocks or statues) do not have illusions, and it is for this reason that physicalism gets around eventually to a nonsensical nihilism in which the subject making the claim denies not only his own experience, but by that the meaningfulness of the claim of illusion. As with illusions, only an antecedently existing subject can experience meaning.

But physicalism is not the only direction monism has taken. At the other extreme there is idealism, the contention that there is indeed only one real thing and that it is not the physical universe measured by physics strictly speaking, but the experiential subject-consciousness doing the measuring. This subjectivity, the “mental realm” in general is shared in the sense that we all participate, that is have our individual subjectivity, within this realm and so it is not surprising that we can compare notes as it were and recognize that some components of “the mental” are experienced by all of us accounting for the appearance of the objective world. But idealism does not satisfactorily account for our technology. It is one thing to share a mental realm and agree that a tree is a tree and a rock a rock, but it is quite another to expect to use that contingent agreement to make an airplane that flies or build a functioning quantum computer.

Just as nihilism is a nonsensical corollary of physicalism, the notion that airplanes only appear to fly because we all agree that they do is nonsensical. Airplanes do not merely appear to fly they actually fly. That means the physics underlying their flight is not merely a matter of inter-subjective agreement but a necessarily true antecedent to that agreement. Physical reality must in fact be real prior to and apart from the mental. Because monism, taken seriously, permits only a single category, there is not much room between physicalism and idealism for any other strict monism. But a less strict version appears as a component of “property dualism”.

Like monism, dualisms come in various flavors. What they have in common is an acceptance of the subjective experience, and in particular free will, at face value. The physical realm is real, the mental realm is real, and beyond this, physics alone cannot account for the mental realm unless there is more to physics than has yet been observed. What this more consists in is mostly where the property dualism debate lies. On one extreme there is no more strictly speaking, but it is nevertheless asserted that a causally closed physics, a physics that comes only from physical causes and has only physical effects, can nevertheless cause a non-physical phenomenon to emerge, and is subsequently responsive, causally, to this entity. Of course this amounts to a contradiction, a physics that has only physical effects has (or causes), at least one, non-physical effect (or emergence) that being consciousness. It does however at least underpin our intuition that the mental does have reciprocal impact on the physical; our experience of free will.

Physics is the source of the mental and therefore the mental can interact with and affect physics. This all comes out very neat and tidy until one realizes that no physicist anywhere has ever detected (measured) or observed the physical eventuating the non-physical. Causal closure does not, to 300+ years of experimentation and observation, ever appear to result in anything non-physical. One is tempted to exclaim that consciousness is indeed the only such example there is, but surely this then begs the question.

To avoid such question begging, some philosophers (but understandably no physicists) have suggested that there is something hidden in physics, that is hidden in causal closure, that remains undiscovered and is specifically directed at producing subjective consciousness. One problem with this is that like subjective experience itself, these hidden properties are not measureable with physical instruments. They are merely presumed to be present because, after all, consciousness exists and there is nothing in the measureable properties of the physical that appears able to explain it. This really is more “begging the question” based on a non-negotiable faith in physicalism, but faith is indeed the right word to use here.

Philosophers have suggested several variations on these “hidden properties”. Anomalous monism (Davidson and Nagel) lies at one extreme; un-measurable properties truly hidden either in physical law (process) or the properties of objects as we otherwise know them. Their redundancy as concerns physics strictly speaking should be enough to dismiss their presence. On the other side we have those like David Chalmers who suggest instead a set of parallel laws, not strictly in physics but present (pervading the universe) along side it. This approach avoids the issue of redundancy because these parallel laws become noticible only after the emergence of observers who notice them indirectly by having a subjective experience. That is, the measure of their presence is their detection by the phenomenon of subjective experience. This idea leads directly to some form of panpsychism whose effect, prior to the emergence of consciousness, must have driven otherwise contingent physical outcomes towards life and ultimately consciousness.

This is not an entirely unreasonable hypothesis, but its problem is again the nature of the physical. There is nothing we are aware of in the phenomenon of the big bang or anywhere in physics that would serve to support either the reality or the efficacy of a parallel set of psychotropic laws. We may not know why the big bang occured, but at least there is the manifestly unstable quantum vacuum. The quantum vacuum can be manipulated (mathematically modeled) to generate all of our physics, but not anything of panpsychism.

It is exactly the fact that there appears to be nothing in physics that supports panpsychism that leads away from property dualism where the dual-reality must have its ground in physics to substance dualism in which the ground of the mental purportedly originates, reasonably enough, outside of physics. The “psychotropic laws”, after all, stand in exactly the same relation to consciousness no matter where they originate. If they cannot come from physics perhaps they originate in something else? But what? An external origin relieves physics of incompleteness at the cost of suggesting some other quality of the universe that is not only non-material (and as such capable of grounding psychotropic laws) but must have the power to interact with physics to produce all of what the mental, to common experience, appears to produce; including free will.

It is for this reason that substance dualism is so often associated with theism or deism. Although these solutions do not explain the mechanism of the interaction, they posit an entity, a God, who knows the trick. We further ascribe self-cause to that entity to block an otherwise infinite recursion of metaphysical antecedents. Personally I do not find a theistic solution to the ultimate question unreasonable. It is certainly coherent, and as concerns an “inference to a best explanation”, a legitimate limiting test recognized as generally valid where more rigorous inductive or even deductive proofs are not applicable, theism is complete. That is to say that beginning with a few assumptions as concerns the nature God must have to be an explanation or an answer to the ultimate “what must be true” question, one can show that the corollaries of these assumptions are both consistent with physics, and all of experience including qualia, intensionality, intellection in its broadest sense, and free will.

In particular theism can account, in the sense of providing explanations, for the juxtaposition in the universe of purposeless mechanism (what physics probes) and purposeful free will (the choice of the physicist to probe it), something that materialism has been singularly unable to do. I have written three books exploring the theistic inference to best explanation of human experience and more recently “Prolegomena to a Future Theology” laying out a minimal and consistent set of axioms from which the rest can be derived. I will not further explore this subject here. In part II I will explore what philosophers, and physicists being philosophers, have proposed as explanation for why the physical universe is the way it is even leaving consciousness aside. All of these suggestions are made assuming that theism is not true, that no God exists. Yet while remaining anchored ostensibly in the physical all of these hypotheses suffer from the same problems as metaphysics in general and theism in particular as concerns physics; among them underdetermination and redundancy.