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Countering a primitivist attack on the soul
May 1, 2013, 11:51a - Consciousness

I probably spend more time thinking about consciousness than any other topic or person (shh, don't tell Becca or my worms :). Previously, I described a simple argument for the existence of the soul, which formed the rational basis for my belief in the soul. My argument was that the existence of consciousness requires a non-physical explanation, so I posited that a non-physical entity must exist, which I called "soul". To be clear, I'm using the word "soul" merely to refer to something non-physical, not something that goes to heaven/hell, is reborn or necessarily persists after the body has died.

After watching an interesting lecture series by the philosopher Shelly Kagan, I'm inspired to write down my most recent thoughts on consciousness and the soul.

Specifically, I want to address a counter-argument that's been bugging me. It goes something like this: Maybe consciousness is just a primitive property of the world, akin to other primitive properties like mass and charge? By "primitive" I don't mean old, I mean something that is the most basic and must simply be accepted. Nothing underlies a "primitive"'s existence, they just exist as axioms. In a way, explanation "bottoms out" at the level of primitives. As an example from math, consider the operations + (plus) and x (multiply). + is a more primitive operation than x, as any multiplication can be reduced to a series of additions. I consider the properties of mass and charge as primitive properties. Though this may be wrong as I'm not a particle physicist and know little about quarks, the idea persists: there are some primitive properties in the world that we just have to accept, and perhaps consciousness is one of these properties.

My previous argument for the soul can be summarized like this:

(1) Consciousness exists.
(2) No theory exists for how consciousness can arise from the physical.
--> (3) Therefore, there must be more to the world than the physical.

And so it seems plausible that
(4) A non-physical object (e.g. soul) might imbue certain materials (e.g. brains) with consciousness.

The primitivist counter-argument goes something like this:

(1) Consciousness exists.
(2) Consciousness is a primitive property of the world, like mass or charge.
(3) Primitive properties of the world require no additional non-physical explanation and are axiomatic in our understanding of the world.
--> (4) Therefore, consciousness does not require additional non-physical explanation.

And so
(5) No appeal to a non-physical soul is necessary to explain consciousness.

I hope both arguments are clear.

The primitivist argument has been occupying a lot of mind time over the past 2 years, so it feels good to finally write it down.

My counter-attack to the primitivist argument will focus on premise (2): "Consciousness is a primitive property of the world". I think primitive properties are different from consciousness, and here's why. Each primitive property is associated with the most simple pieces of matter. So the smallest bit of mass is in the quark (or some sub-quark particle). Our explanation for magnetism, a proton/electron-level phenomenon, relies on the fractional charges of quarks, a sub-protonic particle. However, consciousness, as far as we know, is a much more macroscopic phenomenon. How can it be considered primitive or fundamental when all that we know is that it's a property of large objects such as brains? It seems that if you assume consciousness is a primitive property, than all matter, down to the quark, must have a small bit of consciousness to assemble into the whole seen in brains (akin to mass or charge).

So the path forks at this point. Either you can go down the path believing that:

(A) Consciousness is a primitive property and so every particle has some minimal quantum of consciousness. The consciousness we experience is some special configuration of these quantal consciousnesses arranged in our brain.


(B) Consciousness is not a primitive property but is some irreducible "emergent" property. Since no other true emergent property exists (see note below), consciousness is either innately special or relies on some immaterial source (i.e. soul) for its specialness.

My friend Josh holds view A, but it seems intuitively absurd to me at the moment. So I'm back with view B. Consciousness again seems like a very special property, and not simply because of its special subjective character, in contrast to all other phenomena which seem to lack subjective experience. Rather, it's specialness is now coming from the fact that it seems to be an irreducible macroscopic phenomenon, unlike all other phenomenon which are reducible to particle-scale components.

Sure, view B doesn't necessitate an immaterial soul. But if my options are believing that there is no theory for its specialness vs. believing that there is some theory, albeit shallow, I'll take the shallow theory. So somehow, as much as I try to shake it, I'm still standing here believing in a soul.

(Note: The term "emergence" is a funny thing that warrants further discussion. Suffice it to say that I don't believe in emergence in general, whereas it seems that there are many so-called "scientists" who are advocating this view. Emergence as a philosophical position seems implausible to me given the ridiculous explanatory success of reductionism. Consciousness is the one exception I give to emergence.)

Read comments (11) - Comment

C. Elegans XIV - May 1, 2013, 11:34a
I implore you, stop the genocide against my kind! In your quest to unravel consciousness, your methods have been crude and, ironically, quite primitive in nature. These supposed "experiments" have led to a widespread belief among my brethren: that sacrificial offerings to the Blue Eyed Sky God will end the peroxide plague. We both know this is untrue. This is your final warning.

rosa - May 1, 2013, 12:29p

Josh - May 3, 2013, 8:03a
I assume I am not the "Josh" referenced in this post, because I do not hold those views. Instead, I like your previous argument, but only steps 1 and 2. Step 3 seems to ignore the possibility that a Theory can exist for "how consciousness can arise from the physical" but we are currently too stupid to conceive it. Thoughts?

nikhil - May 3, 2013, 9:07a
Give me your last name or initial and I'll tell you if you're the Josh I'm thinking of :)

Right, we may be too stupid, and we may wise up some day and come up with a plausible physical theory for consciousness. Of all the counter-arguments to my original argument for the soul, that is what I would hold out for. But I'm not betting on it. My disinclination with this counter is that unlike other kinds of theories, there are basically no potential consciousness-arising-from-the-physical theories that people have come up with. It's not like we've had a bunch of theories, ruled them out one by one, and are waiting for more (which is the case for most conventional science - think of advances in our understanding of the causes of disease). Instead, we have exactly 0 theories, and so have nothing to test. This distinguishes the consciousness problem from other scientific problems.

The current common philosophical position with regard to nature is that all of nature could be understand as a very complicated series of physical events, none of which call for either the existence of consciousness or some functional consequence of consciousness. So the idea is that all of nature can be explained purely on the basis of observable causes and effects. Why aren't we all robots/zombies without consciousness? Yet we know we have consciousness (in fact it's the one most basic truth that we know, and all other knowledge resides on top), so clearly the standard objective science view is missing out on a natural phenomenon, something not objectively observable. So science is not as comprehensive as we might think/hope. Maybe what's wrong is that it can't even observe a non-physical natural object, consciousness.

CAN - May 7, 2013, 9:09a
a (flawed) theory that leaves us waiting for more:

Jason - May 10, 2013, 1:47p
This is some fascinating stuff. I think about these things a lot as well. If you have not yet had a chance, check out the book "Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife." On the whole, it's not the greatest book in the world but the meat of it is stellar. It provides some great questions and dots to connect.

Jason - May 10, 2013, 3:17p
Also, as examples of primitive properties in your argument, I would use the forces (electromagnetic, strong and weak nuclear forces, and gravity) since they truly are fundamental while particles can seemingly always be broken down - far beyond quarks to our current understanding. Despite this discrepancy, your point is clearly stated and understood.

rosa - May 13, 2013, 1:13p
- I think some people use the word "fundamental" where you use primitive.

- On your argument for the soul: This is the argument that i thought was Chalmers-y: the transition from an epistemological claim about what we know right now (2) to an ontological claim about what the world is like (3). It's shady when he does it and it's shady when you do it! shady for reasons that josh mentioned in the comment - the absence of a current theory might be because we don't know enough or we're too stupid - it's not obvious that it means that there IS no such theory possible.

- On your primitivist counter-argument (PCA): this one goes the other way - from an ontological claim (2) - consciousness is a primitive property of the world to (3,4,5) which are basically about our explanatory practices. you could interpret this as basically throwing our hands up - fundamental facts don't admit of explanation because explanation bottoms out - but that's not very satisfying.

- I don't think your argument and this so-called counter-argument are opposed to each other. PCA (2) basically assumes your conclusion (3 in the original argument). (2), by saying consciousness is a primitive "like mass or charge" already assumes that consciousness is a distinct (non-physical) property.

- I don't find PCA (5) useful... what's the difference between appealing to an (unexplained, unexplainable) non-physical soul, and appealing to consciousness as its own primitive property? Appealing to the soul just pushes the mystery back a step, whereas primitivism embraces it. I don't see a meaningful difference between these two strategies... difference seems verbal - call it a soul or call it consciousness - who cares?

- "Each primitive property is associated with the most simple pieces of matter" - yeah... not sure the physicists would agree with you on this one... or the philosophers. there are lots of primitive properties that we can't really reduce to other properties. not all of them are small. some people think that the property of "being true" is primitive. what about the property of "being big"?

- "if you assume consciousness is a primitive property, than all matter, down to the quark, must have a small bit of consciousness to assemble into the whole seen in brains (akin to mass or charge)" - i don't see why we have to say this. consciousness is primitive, it is associated with something big instead of something small. something can be big without all of its constituents having some property of "bigness" that then adds up...

- On conclusion (A) - again, chalmers basically thinks this (he calls it pan-proto-psychism) BECAUSE of an argument very similar to your original argument. so i don't think these are opposed to each other. Although pan-proto-psychism can be interpreted as a form of physicalism/materialism, if we just suppose that proto-psychism is just another physical property ... and when it's put together with other things with physical properties in the right way, we get people and animals and consciousness.

- "... all other phenomenon which are reducible to particle-scale components." wtf really? this is like .. cowboy reductionism at its worst! i'm not convinced anyone really believes this. want to ask you to read Dennett's "real patterns".

- "Emergence as a philosophical position seems implausible to me given the ridiculous explanatory success of reductionism." - yeah, I don't buy this. interpreted weakly, emergence and reductionism are not incompatible, and lots of things are emergent - complex biological properties, wetness, chemical properties.

- Response to your comment: wow - this part sounds kind of like Nagel's newest - mind and cosmos. science is dramatically inadequate, etc. not just for explaining consciousness but to explaining LIFE (living things in nature, conscious or otherwise). i think i've said this before, but i think that if you're not bothered by our inability to reduce LIFE to physics, then you shouldn't be bothered about consciousness either - they are fundamentally the same kind of problem. The people who think that there must be some non-physical basis to consciousness are just like the vitalists from the turn of the century who thought that there had to be some non-physical basis for life:

[this comment was copied from an email between Rosa and Nikhil]

nikhil - May 13, 2013, 1:16p
Cool. Thanks for the detailed response.

I think I've heard several of your comments before, and I think I have reasonable counters. Let's see how convincing you find them:

* I use the word "primitive"because this is the word a computer scientist would use. In computer languages, there are things called "primitives", which are objects that are irreducible. For example, integers and characters are considered primitives in C, whereas a word (string of characters) is not, because it is simply built from the character primitive.

* I agree that the transition from what we don't understand to making a claim about the world is very, very shady. It's the same as "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." But I think consciousness is special here. It's special because no theory has ever been able to really explain it. Usually in science we have lots of plausible theories that we rule out until we find the best (most true) one. The earth being the center of the universe was reasonable: when we looked up it looked like the stars rotated around us. But then we got new evidence (or looked at existing evidence with greater analytical skill) and we generated a new theory for our planet's place in the universe, where we rotate around the sun. Both explanations are plausible, even if only one is true (or more true). The problem with physical theories of consciousness is that none of them really explain why consciousness exists. Tonini's phi theory is a current example: interesting analysis, but nothing he suggests necessitates the existence of consciousness from pure objective stuff. And no theory ever has, as far as I know. So I'm inclined to be a bit shady, because our situation with consciousness is different than any situation we've had with explaining other objective phenomena, including life (more on that below).

* I agree that having consciousness be a fundamental property is very unsatisfying. I'm open to better ideas.

* I'm confused when you write "PCA (2) basically assumes your conclusion (3 in the original argument). (2), by saying that consciousness is a primitive "like mass or charge", already assumes that consciousness is a distinct (non-physical) property." I guess I don't think of mass or charge as non-physical properties, do you? I think of them as fundamental physical properties that must be accepted (though I'm not up-to-date on my particle physics). So I guess I'm not understanding what you're trying to say here.

My difficulty with accepting consciousness as a fundamental property is that it seems to happen on a more macroscopic scale than other fundamental properties. So consciousness is somehow different.

* On "call it soul or call it consciousness - who cares?" I think this is a good point - what do we get by saying that there's something non-physical underlying consciousness? Since this is so mysterious as well, does it buy us anything by pushing the mystery of consciousness to a new, mysterious domain? I'm not sure, but I feel that it somehow does. Let me try an analogy: Let's say you're trying to build a treehouse, but all you have are sugarcubes of all imaginable shapes and sizes. So you build it, and it rains and dissappears. So then you think, I just need a roof to keep my treehouse from dissolving. So you build a roof of sugarcubes, but then it rains, and though it takes a little longer to dissolve, it all dissapears anyway. You really need to build your treehouse/theory out of some different material, even if you know nothing about that material. Lumber shows up one day on your front porch, and you use it, and now your treehouse survives the storm. You've never seen lumber before, have no idea what it's made of or how it works.

This is a bit of an overly creative analogy. But I guess my point is this: if your current system of thinking is unsatisfactory, it's worthwhile to devise a new plan that relies on something outside the current system. I'm not sure what this buys us, except for one small step in (perhaps) the right direction.

I think this might be the weakest part of my argument.

* I think all physical properties can be reduced and explained in terms of smaller properties, until you get to the fundamental properties. This is super-reductionism. I struggle to think of an example (outside of consciousness) where this is not true. "Being true" is a conceptual property that is a purely the product of the mind which can think untrue things - it's not a fundamental property like mass or charge. "Being big" is again a conceptual property, solely the product of the mind and without existence in its absence.

* Again, "bigness" is a conceptual property - it's not a property of the physical world in the absence of a mind. At the very core, I believe all matter interacts first at the lowest level, and that bubbles up to higher levels of analysis that our minds have greater ease thinking about or observing.

* I've alway had some affinity to Chalmers and Nagel, though I have difficulty with this pan-psychism position, which to me just seems intuitively absurd.

* I guess I'm a "cowboy reductionist". I always wanted to be a cowboy :) I do believe this. I will look at Dennett's paper you cite, which I haven't seen before.

* I agree that if you take a weak interpretation of emergence, it is compatible with reductionism. But that's not the interesting interpretation, as emergence doesn't really buy us anything except for some psychological ease (of not trying to think of all the many lower-level interactions that are occurring). It buys us abstraction, but especially in the world of biology abstraction can be very misleading, so I prefer to avoid it when I think it's going to impede truth-finding. With the examples of emergent properties you cite (complex biological properties, wetnness, chemical properties), are you taking the strong anti-reductionist view of emergence, or the weak one?

If you can tell me one truly emergent phenomena that is anti-reductionist, I'm all ears. If not, either consciousness is special in this regard, or you have to believe that it's a fundamental microscopic property, or that it can be generated from other fundamental properties like mass and charge. Maybe I just have to accept that the latter is the truth and forget about the immaterial "soul". But even that remains mysterious.

* I didn't know about Nagel's new book - I'll check it out. Does he really argue that science has not explained life? That's ridiculous if he does. If he does, I wonder how he defines life, as I guess you could make an argument against science's success if you confused life with consciousness.

The argument you make is very common, but I disagree. Life can be defined in a functionalist way: a thing that grows, metabolizes and reproduces is considered alive. There are some edge cases that are confusing (e.g. viruses), but we'll ignore that. With this objective measure of life, it became clear with advances in reductionism techniques (molecular biology and biochemistry) that all of these functions could be implemented by proteins, lipids, sugars and nucleic acids. So life has been solved. I'm very familiar with vitalism and I agree it's hogwash. But I disagree in saying that the problem of consciousness and the problem of life are the same. Life can be objectively defined, but what makes consciousness special is that it seems to elude objective definition because it is fundamentally about internal experience. Life is just like any other objective phenomenon that science has tackled or will tackle. Consciousness is special because it isn't obviously an objective phenomenon, so parallels are not easily drawn from past successes.

I'm hopeful that we will we find the properties of neural circuits that underly consciousness. But the hard problem of explaining why they produce this whole new domain of phenomenon at all will remain.

Alright, I feel like I've addressed all you wrote. If you have it in you I'd enjoy reading a response.

rosa - Jun 15, 2013, 3:23p
on life - i think once you accept the functionalist understanding of what life is, you've moved away from the original vitalist question (which still can't be answered) and declared yourself satisfied with the answer to a *different* question, which it now seems the right one to ask. (i.e. the original question no longer seems interesting). I think accepting a physicalist/functionalist theory of consciousness is similar, except that you are unwilling to discard the original question in the mind case.

on "consciousness is a primitive like mass or charge" - i took that to mean that consciousness is PRIMITIVE in the way that mass and charge are, but not PHYSICAL in the way that mass and charge are (and so in that way UNlike). that is, it is a primitive alongside physical primitives, but not itself a physical primitive.

wolf - Aug 6, 2013, 4:17p
Your idea that (A) Consciousness is a primitive property and so every particle has some minimal quantum of consciousness. The consciousness we experience is some special configuration of these quantal consciousnesses arranged in our brain.

Is called Panpsychism and is being worked on an increasing number of people. The key is the recognition that what you see in front of your nose is an internaly generated phenomena. The pendulum is swinging back to this view although I hope we will not throw out the baby with the bathwater in rejecting materialistic science as a world view

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