How can physics and chemistry account for consciousness?

imageThis past Sunday, Andrew Sullivan neatly summarized what is going on in one corner of the consciousness debate – Alvin Plantinga, Thomas Nagel, Jerry Coyne and Sean Carrol. Writes Nagel:

I say this as someone who cannot imagine believing what he believes. But even those who cannot accept the theist alternative should admit that Plantinga’s criticisms of naturalism are directed at the deepest problem with that view—how it can account for the appearance, through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry, of conscious beings like ourselves, capable of discovering those laws and understanding the universe that they govern. Defenders of naturalism have not ignored this problem, but I believe that so far, even with the aid of evolutionary theory, they have not proposed a credible solution. Perhaps theism and materialist naturalism are not the only alternatives.

3 thoughts on “How can physics and chemistry account for consciousness?”

  1. I just finished the new book by Thomas Nagel “Mind & Cosmos. Why the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false” Oxford UP. Nagel has three good chapters on consciousness, cognition, and value, respectively.
    For the happy few who are able to read Dutch, there is also this one:

    Click to access HVV-web.pdf

  2. Penrose is one of most brilliant mathematical minds of our present age. He would know that Godel’s theorems of incompleteness are intended to apply to rigorous logical systems of mathematics, such as those attempted by Russell & Whitehead. They resolved a puzzle in Cantor’s transfinite numbers as to whether there was a transfinite number between aleph(0) and aleph(1), or whether there was a continuum of such numbers. In fact it was shown by Godel’s theorems, that the answer is undecidable. Whether there is in fact a chemistry or physics equivalent to Godel’s theorems I think can only be seen in analogy. There might be such an answer in the indeterminate questions of quantum mechanics, Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty, and the quantum pairings of remote particles notwihstanding the limits imposed by speed of light.

    I think I prefer Teilhard de Chardin’s approach to the evolution of consciouness. Teilhard worked on his theories during the 1920s-30s, but because of the constraints imposed by his Jesuit order they only became available after his death in 1955 with the publication of such works as his ‘Phenomenon of Man’ and ‘The Divine Milieu’. It is remarkable that fundamentally he foresaw the development of the Internet. A paleontologist and mystic, rather than a rigorous philosopher, Teilhard’s ideas are too speculative for some tastes, but nevertheless his ideas seem to have a wonderful cohesion. He sees the breakthrough in consciousness with the development of encephalisation, and nervous tissue, but I suspect his ideas go further back to even the intrinsic nature of matter.

    “Teilhard’s attempts to combine Christian thought with modern science and traditional philosophy aroused widespread interest and controversy when his writings were published in the 1950s. Teilhard aimed at a metaphysic of evolution, holding that it was a process converging toward a final unity that he called the Omega point. He attempted to show that what is of permanent value in traditional philosophical thought can be maintained and even integrated with a modern scientific outlook if one accepts that the tendencies of material things are directed, either wholly or in part, beyond the things themselves toward the production of higher, more complex, more perfectly unified beings.” Socialisation was another important breakthrough.

    “While some evolutionists regard man simply as a prolongation of the Pliocene fauna—an animal more successful than the rat or the elephant—Teilhard argued that the appearance of man brought an added dimension into the world. This he defines as the birth of reflection: animals know, but man knows that he knows; he has “knowledge to the square.” ” [Quotations from Encyclopedia Britannica]

    I see Teilhard’s work as the one worthwhile attampt to synthesise the ideas of science, philosophy and religion. Unfortunately like most insightful geniuses who attempt to synthesise across disparate disciplines, he was rejected by them for either being insufficiently scientific or insufficiently theological. A scientist with strong religious views could do worse than to be familiar with his work.

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