Somerset, NJ. Thomas Nagel’s article “What is it Like to Be a Bat?”1 is undoubtedly one of the most important pieces of philosophical work completed in the last fifty years.  Taking issue with what he calls a “recent wave of reductionist euphoria,” Nagel insists that the phenomenon of conscious experience presents a far graver conceptual dilemma than such reductionist explanations account for.  Famously defining consciousness, or subjective experience, as “what it is like to be” an organism, he reminds us that nothing about this experiential realm is revealed to us in the physical operations of the organism; one could possess perfect knowledge concerning the neurophysiology of a bat, and yet still have no idea what it is like to be a bat. This renders all reductionist physical accounts of consciousness fatally incomplete, as they are bound to omit the very thing they are purporting to explain:

We appear to be faced with a general difficulty about psychophysical reduction.  In other areas the process of reduction is a move in the direction of greater objectivity, toward a more accurate view of the real nature of things.  This is accomplished by reducing our dependence on individual or species-specific points of view toward the object of investigation….Experience itself, however, does not seem to fit the pattern….If the subjective character of experience is fully comprehensible only from one point of view, then any shift to greater objectivity – that is, less attachment to a specific viewpoint – does not take us nearer to the real nature of the phenomenon: it takes us farther away from it.

The impossibility of deriving a sufficient account of conscious experience from the application of scientific methodology – which is to the modern mind the instrument, par excellance, for understanding the nature of objective reality – is a conceptual impossibility.  We are not waiting for further research to provide us with the empirical data we lack in order to extricate ourselves from these perplexities.  No such data could remedy the impossibility of understanding the subjective in terms of the objective.

What is remarkable, then, is that Nagel ends his article by defending physicalism, even though “we do not have the beginnings of a conception of how it might be true,” and advocating a new sort of objective approach to conscious experience, an approach that seeks “a more objective understanding of the mental in its own right.”  To arrive at this conclusion, Nagel must stretch the resources of the language to an intolerable extent – suggesting the possibility of an “objective phenomenology” – and skirt dangerously near the absurd: “one might try, for example, to develop concepts that could be used to explain to a person blind from birth what it was like to see.”  And there remains an ambiguity in this conclusion as to whether or not Nagel believes that science could conceivably render an adequate account of conscious experience; his defense of physicalism would seem to suggest the affirmative, but not so his appeal to understanding the subjective in subjective terms (“understanding the mental in its own right”).

There is little ambiguity, however, among Nagel’s colleagues in academic philosophy about this matter.  A conviction in physicalism, and the possibility of science fully explaining conscious experience in the future, is extraordinarily widespread among contemporary philosophers, almost to the point of constituting a professional creed (though there are some notable exceptions).  Implicit in this position is the deeper conviction that for conscious experience to be truly understood – for anything to be truly understood – it must be understood scientifically, that to understand a thing in an essential way is to understand it scientifically.  Such an attitude is bound up with that common belief among modern philosophers, traceable to the logical positivists, that their discipline is merely an auxiliary to the more fundamental work of the sciences, a belief adequately summarized by Jerry Fodor as “the world picture that the natural sciences have a sort of priority…to which other discourse is required to defer insofar as it purports to speak literal truth.”2

Of course, such a “world picture” inevitably assigns to science the status of full and final truth.  If “physics is complete,” then the physical sciences must be – or at least, must be capable of becoming – the repository of our complete knowledge.  The frequent assertions offered by evolutionary biology and its partisans, that Darwin’s theory finally provides us with a full and satisfactory account of our origins could only be right if science itself could be capable of providing us with a full and satisfactory account of our origins, which is to say, if an explanation of the entirely mechanical features of nature exhausted everything there is to say about nature.  And that such an explanation does exhaust everything there is to say about nature is a matter of unshakeable conviction to a majority of academic philosophers.

If science offers a complete account of nature, then it must be able to offer a complete account of human conscious experience, since human conscious experience is a feature of nature.  It must be able to say something about what it is like to be a man.  Accordingly, for several decades, a relentless effort has been undertaken by those in the disciplines of cognitive science and philosophy of mind to conceptualize such an account – an explanation of the mental in terms of the purely physical.  The results of this endeavor are unambiguous – it has been a complete disaster.  One would be hard pressed to identify, in all of intellectual history, a philosophical detour more obstinately barren, more improgressive, more tangled up in empty verbiage, more devoid of genuine insight, more irrelevant to life as it is actually lived, than is to be discovered in contemporary philosophy of mind.  John Searle described the futile history of this materialist project as follows:

One sees this pattern over and over.  A materialist thesis is advanced.  But the thesis encounters difficulties; the difficulties take different forms, but they are always manifestations of an underlying deeper difficulty, namely, the thesis in question denies obvious facts that we all know about our own minds.  And this leads to ever more frenzied efforts to stick with the materialist thesis and try to defeat the arguments put forward by those who insist on preserving the facts.  After some years of desperate maneuvers to account for the difficulties, some new development is put forward that allegedly solves the difficulties, but then we find that it encounters new difficulties, only the new difficulties are not so new – they are really the same old difficulties.3

From token and type identity theories, to functionalism, to the intentional stance, to higher order theories, the materialists stumble from one version of sterile academese to another.4 When anyone attempts to point out to them the futility of their entire project, they simply toss off a few disdainful accusations of “mysterion” and “dualist,” and go on about their mission.  They repeatedly claim that even though no one can conceive of what a physicalist account of the mental would be like, yet still it must lie out there somewhere beyond the horizon of future research, a claim that reeks of charlatanism, and which inevitably calls to mind Wittgenstein’s famous dictum, “a nothing will do just as well as a something about which we cannot speak.”  And nowhere, not in so much as a page of this literature, does one discover even the beginnings of an answer to the question, “what is it like to be a man?”  Such must be the consequences of stubbornly persisting in the attempt to square the circle, to explain the subjective wholly in terms of the objective.

It is as difficult to say what matter essentially is, as it is to say what mind essentially is.  It is as difficult to conceive of matter causing mental phenomena as it is to conceive of mental states causing physical behavior.  The reason why modern philosophers are stuck on the latter mysteries, and not the former, is not because these are intrinsically more perplexing, but because they constitute an impediment to the construction of the mechanical, scientistic account of nature which they so desperately want to construct.  Their primary interest in consciousness is not to understand it, but to reduce it, to demonstrate how purely objective explanations cover everything of genuine importance about human mental life.  This is why so little of the contemporary literature on consciousness has anything to say about what consciousness is – that is, what are the contents, the experience, of consciousness.  Their obsession with the mind-body problem is less about understanding the relationship between these two apparently irreconcilable domains, than it is about advancing their materialist dogmas by representing the mind as merely one more biological phenomenon.  The more one describes the subjective realm, the more specific one is about just what things – beliefs, desires, memories – are allegedly being reduced to physical causation, the more one realizes how outlandish such an enterprise must be.

No one should expect a final resolution of the metaphysical problem of universals, though there are some solutions that are more rationally defensible than others.  No one should expect a final resolution of the ethical problem of the justification of morality, though there are some solutions that are more rationally defensible than others.  Similarly, no one should expect a final resolution of the ontological problem of the mind-body relationship, though there are some solutions that are more rationally defensible than others (materialism falling distinctly among the others).  Watching professional philosophers of mind argue pompously for this or that picayune terminological distinction is a perfect object lesson in futility.  For the rest of us, the abiding and urgent question is the epistemological question – granted (as all sane persons do grant) that there is such a thing as human subjectivity, how is it that we understand this phenomena?  Putting aside all fruitless attempts to reduce the mental to the physical, how do we fathom the true nature of the mental, in and of itself?  How do we gain the knowledge necessary to satisfactorily answer the question, what is it like to be a man?

Let us try to take Nagel’s argument perhaps somewhat more seriously than he himself does seem to take it.  Let us abjure for all time the attempt to describe “the subjective character of experiences in a form comprehensible to beings incapable of having those experiences.”  Let us see such projects for the fantasies which they are.  Let us admit the conceptual impossibility of such a notion.  And let us attempt to understand consciousness in its own terms – to think about the subjective in terms of the subjective – and not consciousness as allegedly understood in objective terms, as reduced to matter, or as identified with physical processes.  Such an understanding begins with a recognition of the basic modes of conscious life – beliefs, and desires, and experiences, and memories, and reflections, and emotions, with all of their limitless and intense specificity.

No sooner do we recognize the contents of subjectivity than we recognize that our only access to that content, our only means for describing that content, and for asserting things about that content which can be weighed for truth or falsity, is through verbal assertions.  As Galileo claimed that nature spoke mathematically, we can say that the mental only speaks linguistically.  There are no mathematically-stated laws that are apposite to a memory or a desire.  Accordingly, any genuine form of insight regarding human subjective life will take the form of some verbal proposition; any discipline committed to pursuing such insights will take the form of a critical analysis of such propositions.  Any answer to the question, “what is it like to be a man?” will take the form of a linguistic description of memories, beliefs, etc., as they are really experienced, which is to say, with all of their individual specifications.

As soon as we delineate the necessary form which knowledge of man’s subjective life must take, the next question immediately presents itself to us: does such a form of knowledge exist?  And the answer rushes upon us just as quickly – of course it does:

How then too soon can hastiest death supplant

My fate-cursed life?  Her instrument, to my indignity,

Being that black fiend Contention, whom would to God might die

To gods and men, and Anger too, that kindles tyranny

In men most wise, being much more sweet than liquid honey is

To men of power to satiate their watchful enmities.

And like a pliant fume it spreads through all their breasts, as late

It stole stern passage thorough mine, which he did instigate

That is our general.5

Or:

I open myself to my family as much as I can, and very readily signify to them the state of my will and my judgment toward them, as toward everyone.  I hasten to bring myself out and put myself forth: I do not want people to be mistaken about me, whether for better or for worse..6

Or:

In the midst of the conflict, the Doge, a venerable and conspicuous form, stood aloft in complete armor on the prow of his galley.  The great standard of St. Mark was displayed before him; his threats, promises, and exhortations, urged the diligence of the rowers; his vessel was the first that struck, and Dandolo was the first warrior on the shore.  The nations admired the magnanimity of the blind old man, without reflecting that his age and infirmities diminished the price of life, and enhanced the value of immortal glory.7

Whatever else one wishes to say about these passages, they do each and every one constitute a true assertion about human mental life; they do each and every one satisfactorily answer the question, “what is it like to be a man?”  Therefore, the disciplines represented by each passage constitute real knowledge about human consciousness, not understood as a philosophical abstraction, but as it exists, full of content, with each and every one of us.  For as Daniel Robinson wrote,

The distinctive task pertains to what is distinctive about human life, which is not merely or primarily “subjective experience.”  What is distinctive about it is its amenability to rhetorical sources of motivation, to desires grounded in moral precepts, to forms of art and play, belief and conviction, and hopes and intuitions, by which “behavior” rises to the level of personal responsibility.8

Accordingly, the proper study of human subjectivity will be undertaken in the disciplines of rhetoric, ethics, aesthetics, literature, and history, which is just to say, in the humanities.  Because what defines a humanistic discipline is that it matches the form which knowledge of human subjectivity must take, consisting of irreducibly verbal descriptions of human beliefs, desires, memories, emotions, and their effects upon the world.  And since a human life is so essentially a history of conscious experience, it is to the humanities that we must turn for wisdom about ourselves; the sciences will have little to contribute to such an understanding.

Contemporary academic philosophy displays astonishingly little awareness of the tradition of western humanistic learning.  Read any contemporary philosopher purportedly dealing with the issue of human consciousness, and you will find a great many details about recent neurological research, genetic theory, or various psychological experiments.  You will find nary a reference to Sophocles or Samuel Johnson, and one cannot help concluding that the overwhelming majority of contemporary philosophers are as little acquainted with these authors as the typical high school drop out.  One cannot help concluding that the overwhelming majority of contemporary philosophers possess absolutely no comprehension of what sort of insight into human subjectivity is to be gained from a serious and prolonged program of humanistic study.  Consequently, they go on pursuing a knowledge of consciousness, quite as though such a thing has never existed before in the world.  It is as if a gang of academics pompously announced the advent of “philosophy of agriculture,” which would at last discover the true method of producing foodstuffs through the cultivation of seed and soil.

To be sure, the present condition of the humanities does little to justify the sort of claims I have made for it.  It is impossible to discern in the mess which is deconstruction and multiculturism any kind of understanding, let alone the profound and fundamental understanding I am attributing to the humanities generally.  There are a variety of causes for this catastrophic state of affairs, which it would be impossible to explain satisfactorily here, although I will state that one of the prime causes has been the long subjection of humanistic learning to several pseudo-scientific dogmas (namely, Marxism and Freudianism), with the attendant pretense – the same pretense maintained by today’s philosopher of mind – of understanding human mentality in objective terms.  It will suffice to say that at the root of the malaise in contemporary humanistic disciplines is an antagonism and revulsion to the tradition of western humanism, which has finally resulted in a broad ignorance of that tradition.  That just is to say that the cause of the incoherence in the humanities generally is the same cause of the incoherence in the specific field of philosophy of mind – an ignorance of the tradition of western humanism.  And the remedy for both is the same: a sincere return to that tradition.

At any rate, it is a matter of pure modern prejudice to regard the work of a Gibbon or a Montaigne as somehow “less true” than other forms of knowledge, simply because it is not subject to scientific verification. After all, the wisdom concerning human life that is to be found in, say, a canto of Dante or a chapter of Tolstoy exceeds the collective insight of all the modern philosophers of mind, by a factor of about six or seven trillion.  It is to the old classics we must turn if we wish to possess a genuine comprehension of human subjective life, which is human life itself.

It is Shakespeare and Plato, and not Dennett and Pinker, who will teach us the essential facts about our human estate.  We must finally confess that the sort of knowledge we have been pretending to pursue was once abundant in the western world; we have squandered that inheritance for too long, and so now we ignorantly go about searching for a wisdom that our forbears once held as a common possession.  We must now make the one admission that the modern mind finds so impossible to make: we must admit that our predecessors knew vastly more than we do.

Mark Anthony Signorelli is a poet, playwright, and essayist.  He currently serves as Contributing Editor for The New English Review.

Endnotes

[1] Nagel, Thomas  “What is it Like to Be a Bat?” in The Philosophical Review LXXXIII, 4 (October 1974): 435-50.

[2] Fodor, Jerry In Critical Condition (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), 3.

[3] Searle, John.  The Rediscovery of the Mind (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994), 30.

[4] A critical examination of this sordid history can be found in Daniel N. Robinson’s Consciousness and Mental Life (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2008).

[5] Homer, The Iliad (Chapman Translation), Book 18, lines 97-106.

[6] Montaigne, Michel de, “Of the Affection of Fathers for their Children” in The Complete Essays of Montaigne (Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press, 1958), 288.

[7] Gibbon, Edward The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol VI. (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), 682.

[8] Robinson, 207-108.

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Mark Anthony Signorelli is an essayist, playwright, and poet, who is committed to reviving the old ways of writing essays, plays, and poems.  He has spent a very large portion of his life producing work in such highly unfashionable genres as the traditional "fourteener" ballad and blank-verse tragedy (which may, in part, explain why you have never heard of him).  He currently serves as a Contributing Editor for the New English Review, a web journal, where he has written on the poverty and absurdity of contemporary philosophical materialism and on the need to return to the broad tradition of humanist, literary learning.  He lived for five years in the seaside town of Ocean Grove, NJ, one of the most charming and distinctive locales on the east coast, where he frequently sat on his very non-figurative front porch, and conversed with his neighbors sitting on their adjacent and equally non-figurative front porch (this is probably his only real qualification to write for FPR).  He now resides elsewhere in central Jersey with his wife - like Penelope, a woman of great arete. Visit Mark's website to see more of his writings!

15 COMMENTS

  1. I love this article, though in my case it is sort of preaching to the choir. However I would really like the footnotes.

  2. The argument is strong, interesting, and convincing with the shift to the point about language. Compelling examples. I second others who would enjoy the footnotes.

  3. Alfred North Whitehead named this the fallacy of the misplaced concrete:

    “The enormous success of [the enlightenment’s] scientific abstractions, yielding on the one hand matter with its simple location in space and time, on the other hand mind, perceiving, suffering, reasoning, but not interfering, has foisted onto philosophy the task of accepting them as the most concrete rendering of fact. Thereby, modern philosophy has been ruined. It has oscillated in a complex manner between three extremes. There are the dualists, who accept matter and mind as on an equal basis, and the two varieties of monists, those who put mind inside matter, and those who put matter inside mind. But this juggling with abstractions can never overcome the inherent confusion introduced by the [wrongful] ascription of misplaced concreteness to the scientific scheme of the seventeenth century.”

    Following Whitehead, our greatest mystic philosopher of the 20th Century, Eric Voegelin, noted that the fallacy of the misplaced concrete “becomes the vehicle of the trend toward materialism in the sense of a worldview wherein all realms of being are reduced to the one and true reality of matter” which in turn leads to “the belief that human existence can be oriented in an absolute sense through the truth of science.” The social “preoccupation with science and the possession of scientific knowledge has come to legitimate ignorance with regard to all problems that lie beyond a science of phenomena.” Growth in scientific knowledge is “paralleled by an unspeakable advancement of mass ignorance with regard to the problems that are existentially the important ones.”

    Voegelin explained the fallacy with this illustration:

    “A plant is a plant. You see it. You don’t see its physical-chemical processes, and nothing about the plant changes if you know that physical-chemical processes are going on inside. How these processes will result in what you experience immediately as a plant (a rose or an oak tree), you don’t know anyway. So if you know these substructures in the lower levels of the ontic hierarchy and go into the physical, chemical, molecular and atomic structures, even farther down, the greater becomes the miracle how all that thing is a plant. Nothing is explained.”

    If one seeks to construct an explanation of a plant—or a soul, or a text, or a bat—from the material knowledge gained through science he commits the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. “If you deform your experience by trying to explain what you experience by the things which you don’t experience by which you know only by science, you get a perverted imagination of reality—if you see a rose as a physical or atomic process.”

    This “scientistic ignorance becomes a civilizational disaster because the substantial ordering of existence cannot be achieved through the acquisition of knowledge in the phenomenal sense.” The problem proceeds beyond mere ignorance (which can be remedied, though not easily) when the “belief in the self-sufficient ordering of existence through science is socially entrenched. … The spiritual desire, in the Platonic sense, must be very strong in a young man of our time in order to overcome the obstacles that social pressure puts in the way of its cultivation.” This creates social stratification through the mechanisms of prestige and various economic incentives. It also gives rise to what Voegelin calls “aggressive dilettantism” in matters outside the narrow purview of the expertise possessed by the scientist and imposed as a standard on all others. “What the scientistic dilettante cannot understand must not be proposed in discussions of a problem.”

  4. The great irony in attempting to reduce everything to empirical data is that the thing about which we have the most data is consciousness. To study the atomic particle we need elaborate equipment; to study the from we need extensive fieldwork; but to study consciousness we merely need to be conscious. Further, we have extensive data on the physicalist basis of this consciousness. We know how a cup of coffee in the morning affects our outlook, how the changing weather changes our mood, and how certain chemicals, look alcohol, affect our disposition. Yet all this data, empirical though it may be, remains proper knowledge, knowledge proper to a particular person, and communicable only in words or mannerisms. We are truly words made flesh, yet it remains an art to communicate our own moods in words.

  5. I do not know if it was recommended here, or elsewhere, but I recently purchased and read Owen Barfield’s, “Saving the Appearances”. While there should be an account of the flaws in the book (I don’t go in for any sort of “arc” or “narrative” of history) I can give it the highest praise I think that can be offered a book. Everywhere I turn over the last few weeks I see the truth of his thinking. It’s the sort of book that leaves a mark on your mind, forcing you for a time to look through the lens he presents you with.

    Now, this is precisely the issue Barfield wrestles with. That we have detached ourselves from our experiences (I will not use his more precise, but potentially confusing terminology here). That the fundamental flaw in all this mind/body, radical empiricism/physicalism stuff lies in our detachment; we have modeled a fabricated world, a dead idol (But their idols are silver and gold, made by human hands. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see).

    In fact, to reference Caleb referencing Voegelin, we are living in a world of imaginary dead molecular biology instead of live plants.

  6. Among professional philosophers in the Anglophone world, physicalism about the mind is less widespread than it may appear. A majority yes, but not to the levels that constitute a “professional creed.” According to perhaps the largest survey of the profession, physicalists (those who accept physicalism or lean towards physicalism) ran to about 54% (see the PhilPapers survey at http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl).

    More substantively: I wonder if the project of (some) contemporary philosophers of mind and the project outlined by Signorelli are just different projects. That is, I’m not sure why one couldn’t wonder about the metaphysics of mental stuff and also accept that there is a wisdom in the ancients to be learned about the nature of lived experience, the categories by which our subjectivity has unfolded, been structured, and so on.

  7. I’ll start by saying that I am a strict materialist — and that I agree, for the most part, with this article.

    Let me throw another way of thinking about consciousness out there, and you can see what you think. My (professional) background is in software engineering, including world simulation and artificial intelligence. When I create a virtual world, it runs inside of a physical device. Changes in the virtual world are created by physical changes in the hardware, through the application of energy. Those physical changes, however, are not the sum of the “actual” changes made to the system–they are merely the method.

    That’s because that hardware creates a sort of “second world”, contained and defined by the matter and energy of this one. It’s parameters and constraints are likewise defined by the physical structure of the computer running it, and yet, to understand the world, you actually have to run the simulation, and then enter it. Once you’ve entered it, you’re operating according to the rules of the simulation. If I make, say, a virtual “house,” that structure doesn’t “exist” in the real world, but it does exist within the context of the simulation.

    Now imagine that the human mind is a similar informational system, a simulation, a world-within-a-world, that exists in the physical operation of the brain. Even if that’s “all it is,” questions about the nature of experience inside the system cannot be answered by any discipline designed to look at the nature of the universe that contains the system. Science, as a method of determining objective (ie, big-universe) understanding, can inform us about the constraints and methods used by the simulator, and does. What it can’t do, though, is answer the question that is the title of this article, because “What is it like to be a man” is a subjective (little-world) question, as you pointed out.

    So neuroscience, genetics, et al, can tell us about the hardware running our information-system-minds, and can do a very good job at that. For truth regarding the experience of living inside that system, though, we need to look elsewhere–to the great works of subjective experience. That’s why science can tell you “how” a human works, but to find out what it means to be Human, you have to look to Homer, Shakespeare, Steinbeck.

    I hope that makes sense. Thoughts?

    • I’m not sure I understand you here: “Changes in the virtual world are created by physical changes in the hardware, through the application of energy. Those physical changes, however, are not the sum of the ‘actual’ changes made to the system–they are merely the method.” I think you are suggesting that the physical changes in the configuration of matter making up the hardware are not equivalent to the experience of, say, a city being built in the virtual world. I wonder though if that is only true, however, if a human external to the hardware system is there to actually have that experience. Apart from a not fully material human having that experience, why wouldn’t the physical changes (i. e. the sum of the physical changes) be the sum of the “actual” changes made to the system? In other words, for a hardware system by itself apart from a human mind to have an intelligible experience of the “second world” as a “second world,” wouldn’t the “second world” merely be reducible to the sum of physical changes to the configuration of matter?

      • Well, yes–the second world would be “reducible” the sum of the physical components that contain it, but the second world wouldn’t essentially “be” those components. It’s a bit like the old saying about how you can’t cut a frog open to see how it works, because when you do, it stops working–the actual “system,” the second world, is a product of the interaction of its components, and of the energy passing through them. In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

        Hydra, for instance, the chess supercomputer, isn’t just “more parts” than, say, the laptop I’m writing this on. It’s structure is different, too–and the pattern it creates when it runs has succeeded so well against human grand masters that one match arbiter said that the age of humans beating machines at chess was over. Hydra’s success can’t be explained by counting pieces (classification; pure reductionism), but it can be explained by examining the patterns those pieces make (in this case, by using the tool of software code). To understand “what it’s like” to be a supercomputer, though, is a subjective question and as impossible to answer via science — more impossible — than it would be to understand “what it’s like” to be your neighbor.

        So, with the human brain, you can say that the mind is “nothing more” than the functioning of the brain, and be right–but you still fail to understand the mind in terms of the mind (the system) and not merely in terms of the brain (the hardware).

  8. As a youngish philosophy student a turtle necked catholic apostate with Marxist wife and infant first child, was the lecturer of mine in a philosophy of the social sciences class. (in an atheistic department)

    Among other things he declaimed his love of his wife and child was merely the effects of endogenous phenylethyl amine analogues working at various catecholamine sensitive neurons in his brain; scolded me for believing in God and by way of justification gave the long ago discredited logical argument from evil as his knockdown refutation – “no” he said, he had never read any Christian apologetics. His lone theist Philosophy of Religion colleague was, by definition, “intellectually dishonest”

    His interest was the philosophy of psychiatry – I attempted to read one of his papers – verbose, vague, impenetrable – my BS meter went of the scale. In a discussion about philosophy of mind he mentioned the scale of neurological research following the ‘leads’ of physicalism easily went past the billions – I was incredulous and made it known. He wasn’t impressed. Only now I know those first impressions are the limpid ones, and that they’ve been thoroughly wiped from the souls of countless careerist philosophers and medical scientists and business professionals.

    When beautiful essays like Mr. Signorelli’s make me reflect again on the institutionalised depravity in our universities it gives me a feeling of vertigo – the systematic intellectual malignancy is so vast it – to invoke Pascal – requires a preternatural explanation.

  9. That was a terrific read, and I agree with most of the points made. As regards the comment noting a connection with Owen Barfield, I might add that he also argued on many occasions that the humanities should learn to ‘stand on their own,’ as a legitimate science of the inner life of man, and that such a science is the prerequisite for real advances in physical science itself. He also pointed out that the study of language and literature is the only real way to learn about human consciousness, both now and in past ages.

  10. I agree with the comments above about philosophers and scientists, but not with the humanist reaction. All three are failing to realise that scientific method varies with the science, and ignoring the methodological inventions which have given rise to communication or information science: the modulation of information onto physical broadcasts and the logical representation of bits of information by both the presence or absence of carrier signals and the channels which carry them. The latter leads to a fourfold combination of input data and its representation, memory structures and the processing structures needed to interpret, process and regenerate them: four levels of reference or abstraction, in one direction from the input data and in the other from the processing capabilities.

    Thus John Medaille is right in this sense: the data about what it is to be a man are DIRECTLY available only in our own consciousness – though probably we become aware of our own consciousness by recognising our similarity to other people. Tim Ravelling is right at the other extreme, in the sense that science can work out the TYPE of processes our hardware activites are capable of, though neither he nor Whitehead seem aware of concretisation or modulation (variations in information through time or space). Given we have ALREADY HAD experiences of the type portrayed in the great literature, we can recognise and imagine them in our own experience.

    None of this answers the real questions. What type of phenomenon IS consciousness and what TYPE of processing system is needed to enable us to form and regenerate it? As to the first, I point to our unawareness of dust in the atmosphere until we see it dancing in a sunbeam. Consciousness of it happens when a carrier (sunlight) is modulated by objects (dust) and this unexpectedly impinges on our retina (the window into our mind). The modulation doesn’t occur unless the light is reflected from the objects, and modulation of our consciousness does not occur unless modulated light hits our retina. I think it is fair to say we are objectively conscious of the EXISTENCE and relative MOTION of such external objects even if the accuracy of their REPRESENTATION in our mind’s eye depends on that of the signal and our expectations given other activity being modulated in our brain. More generally (taking account of memory), consciousness is what happens more or less immediately when modulated energy modulates the whole system of on-going activity in the brain.

    So what TYPE of process is required to make such consciousness possible? I argue that in a primitive sense the automatic focus on a digital camera is conscious of the sharpness of changes in the unspecified image within its field of view. Were it not, it could not adjust itself to the best available focus. What it is NOT is self-conscious.

    The brain works on a similar if more complex principle. The brain instinctively powers attention to sudden changes; the head turns, eyes focus or ears listen automatically, memory of similar visual adjustments is chemically turned on to activate meaning coded as sensory adjustment and associations cross-indexed in linguistic aural memory. Asleep or day-dreaming, noise energy in the brain’s on-going activity is likely to trigger spontaneously such “tuning in” to memories of adjustment, the small component of noise energy of appropriate frequency activating the effect of consciousness at lower power – bar drug or emotional (chemical) enhancement. Direct evidence for these functions comes largely from the effects of brain damage, but the four-part physical architecture is evident and Gerald Edelman, in ”Bright fire, Brilliant Water’, seems to have traced the path from input to output. It follows anyway from established electrical communication practices that philosophers and academic scientists have not deigned to consider scientific, and our personality differences (including blind spots and immaturity) follow from them.

    What is it like to be a man? We can say little more than that it is like being a self-conscious radio which can tune itself in to a wide range of broadcasts. The content of ever- differing programs is irrelevant to that, but knowledge of channel bandwidths and program types will enable us to simulate what we will experience.

  11. You’re trapped in an unexamined ideology. Look around. Now, point to something – anything – that constitutes, by your own definition, social progress. The author(s) of that progress were pragmatists: they dealt with what those who shared their purpose could apprehend through their senses. The brick layers building the great cathedrals got no help from angels. Those brick layers who thought otherwise, may have lain a few bricks, but the ‘heavy lifting’ was done by those who knew the actual weight of things. Your obfuscating ideology only distracts us from social progress. Stay focussed on our civil society’s shared purposes. Negotiate what works to accomplish them. You will soon learn to live without your version of Santa Claus. It’ll just take a little time.

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