According to the Steven Novella’s Neurologica blog, the Intelligent Design people (specifically the Discovery Institute) are getting interested in neuroscience (see also part 2), attacking the idea that consciousness has a physical basis and advocating Cartesian dualism.

This seems to have been rumbling away for a while, but people are writing about it at the moment because New Scientist noticed.

You can write a long article on what people have thought about consciousness, so what’s the problem with the IDists joining in? First, neuroscientists are objecting to IDists’ claims that scientific experiments prove things that those experiments don’t actually prove. As Amanda Geffer of New Scientist points out, experiments that show therapy can alter brain function don’t prove that the immaterial soul is acting on the brain, merely that the brain isn’t indivisible, so parts can act on other parts. The therapy described reminded me of mindfulness therapies, and of Yudkowsky’s recent reflections on Which Parts Are “Me”? (Everything I am, is surely my brain; but I don’t accept everything my brain does, as “me”).

Novella also objects to IDists quote-mining (I’m shocked, shocked I tell you) from philosophers like David Chalmers in order to bolster their claims. Novella says that Chalmers does not argue for an immaterial spirit, so it is a mistake for those who do to claim him for their side. IDists could quote Chalmers if they wanted to argue that there is a hard problem of consciousness, but it would be dishonest to quote him in support of their proposed solution, or indeed to say that the hard problem Chalmers speaks of has anything to do with evolution.

Edited to add: Chalmers discusses the New Scientist article on his blog, and doesn’t sound very impressed with the theists’ efforts to recruit him for their cause. The Chalmers link came from Chris Hallquist, whose blog I recommend.

Is this IDists’ new strategy after they got planed in the Dover judgement? A while back, I mentioned that they might need a new way around the establishment clause in the US Constitution. I’m not sure this can be it, as consciousness isn’t on the curriculum in most schools, but it does fit in with the wider strategy of looking for ways to undermine physicalism.

6 Comments on "Braaains"

  1. it does fit in with the wider strategy of looking for ways to undermine physicalism.

    It seems that Chalmers does indeed think that the problem of consciousness undermines physicalism, according to his blog posted to which you’ve linked.


    1. My understanding is that Chalmers thinks that there may be laws which produce consciousness which are independent of physical laws (i.e. laws which pertain to physical things). This is rather different from Cartesian dualism. For example, in worlds which have such laws, gradually replacing all your neurons with silicon would not prevent you from being conscious at any point (section 3, “Fading Qualia”). Presumably he’d allow that building machines with the appropriate configuration for these laws to apply would produce conscious machines.

      This position differs from physicalism in that consciousness is a product of these bridging laws (that is, the laws specifically pertaining to consciousness) rather than an outworking of physical laws. The zombie world is a possible world (in some sense of the world “possible”, the exact meaning of which is the subject of many philosophy papers) just like our own except it lacks the bridging laws. Because, like the parallel postulate, you can’t get the bridging laws from the existing laws and because the physical laws do not give rise to consciousness, in the zombie world, people aren’t really conscious, they just look as if they are to every conceivable physical test.

      I’m not the first person (see the comments to the the post) to point out that in a world which includes laws of consciousness we could expect a complete “physical” description of the world to include those laws. The problem seems to be whether it’d be possible for you to know what the laws were, since in some formulations of Chalmer’s argument, consciousness doesn’t causally affect the material world at all, so you can’t just cut bits out of your brain and see what happens: a zombie having bits cut out of its brain would report the same thing. At least, I think that’s what he’d argue. At this point, I’d need to read more of his stuff to work that out, and I can’t really be bothered.

      All of this seems quite different from Cartesian dualism or idealism. I’ve not seen Chalmers argue that there can be consciousness without physical stuff, merely that physical laws are not sufficient to produce it. Because of this, I think he’s not arguing for supernatural stuff, in Carrier’s useful definition of that word. It is a bit odd for Christians to adopt him as some sort of mascot.


      1. a world which includes laws of consciousness we could expect a complete “physical” description of the world to include those laws

        You could come up with a physical configuration that produced conscious behaviour and yet didn’t cause it, if the consciousness ‘lived’ somewhere else.

        For example, a phone, mobile, internet-linked computer or remote-control robot could all act as if conscious, but only because they are controlled by a human at a distance. So I suppose you could come up with a theory that a particular combination of neurons acted as a receiver for consciousness, but the conscious bit was in another universe with different physical laws. And you’d have to come up with a way of communicating between the universes… But the new physical laws would be of inter-universe communication, not consciousness.

        Oh no, shouldn’t give them ideas 🙂


      2. I think at least one “mainstream academi[c]” quoted in the New Scientist article won’t agree with with Carrier’s definition, given that he says “we might have to posit sentience as a fundamental force of nature […] But what we do discover will be natural, not supernatural”. As I understand Carrier’s view, if “sentience” is “fundamental”, that would be supernatural, not natural.

        It is a bit odd for Christians to adopt [Chalmers] as some sort of mascot

        It’s not clear to me that this has happened. If you read the Michael Egnor article that Novella references, you’ll see that he only cites Chalmers as part of an argument against materialism, and explicitly states that Chalmers is “best described as a property dualist” (which seems fair). Apparently this isn’t enough for Novella, who demands that Egnor also provide a definition of property dualism and contrast it with Cartesian dualism, despite the fact that Egnor hasn’t mentioned Cartesian dualism in his article, or even positively stated his own view at all. I take it not all accusations of “quote mining” are as spurious as this one?

        Chalmers says in his blog post:

        traditional theism requires that materialism be false, but the falsity of materialism does little to positively suggest that theism is true

        I think that’s right (although we might disagree over just how “little”). However, it’s possible to argue that once one has adopted something like Chalmers’ position, one ought to move on to substance dualism proper, as William Hasker does in this excellent article: (yes, it’s the same ISCID)


  2. It’s just a case of finding a gap in our knowledge and putting a god in it. Pretty much everyone these days laughs at intelligent falling, intelligent atoms, and so on. There are not many remaining problems that are both comprehensible to the masses and unsolved by science. So I predict intelligent dark matter, intelligent memory, intelligent arrow of time, etc.


  3. There used to be a scientific question of what made living things live. One proposal was that living things were alive by virtue of their possession of a vital force.

    This question has long since been solved in other ways, but this traditional and elegant solution rather reminds me of Chalmers’ dualist physics.


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