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John Maguire: on 6/14/13 at 4:32am UTC, wrote Lev, You may be right on that. But I think Bohm has left us a foundation...

Lev Goldfarb: on 6/11/13 at 3:27am UTC, wrote John, I should mention that although, generally, I also agree with Nagel,...

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Eckard Blumschein: on 5/8/13 at 13:51pm UTC, wrote Rob and Tom, While we perhaps agree in this respect, we should be aware of...

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Blogger William Orem wrote on Apr. 24, 2013 @ 02:30 GMT


Diving into Thomas Nagel's "Mind and Cosmos" (subtitle: "Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False"), I experienced a vague but mounting sense of apprehension--the type one gets during the wine and cheese at a scientific conference when the person you’re speaking to puts finger quotes around the word "evolution." To be perfectly blunt, I thought I had accidentally bought an anti-science polemic by a creationist.

"I would like to defend the untutored reaction of incredulity to the reductionist Neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life," Nagel tells us near the outset. "It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection."

Is it? An evolutionary biologist, at this moment, would interject a salient distinction between terms like "physical accident," as they are commonly misapplied when critiquing natural selection, and the ability of imperfect replicators to conserve those random variations across time that yield selective advantage. I don't share Nagel's view that the latter state of affairs is highly implausible; I find it both illuminating and rather wonderful. But so what? Of what concern are our respective personal intuitions about nature? It is highly implausible that the same yardstick becomes shorter when I throw it than when I hold it in my hand: but there it is.

Aware of the raised eyebrows among his target audience, Nagel adds some caveats. His is just "the opinion of a layman"--here he is too modest: he is an accomplished professor of philosophy at New York University--and his "skepticism is not based on religious belief, or belief in any definite alternative."

Well and good. Those cards played, though, he makes a full frontal assault on "psychophysical reductionism," and the reductionist-materialist worldview in general, which he sees as having become a shibboleth among the sciences; one that clearly is going fail. His critique is nothing if not sweeping: "The aim of this book is to argue that the mind-body problem is not just a local problem, having to do with the relation between mind, brain, and behavior in living animal organisms, but that it invades our understanding of the entire cosmos and its history."



I myself see nothing of value in the “intelligent design” crowd, and a good deal at which to be alarmed (to say nothing of what branch of science may be targeted next). Nagel is more tempered: while not buying I.D., he gives the movement credit for opening the way to a large-scale critique of natural selection, and from there to our current schema for understanding nature as a whole. Consciousness, cognition, value are simply not explicable--I am speaking now from Nagel's perspective--by psychophysical reductionism, and likely never will be; therefore even physical phenomena cannot ultimately be explained so long as such explanations are based on materialist, reductionist principles. No, the Cosmos as a whole shows far more evidence of something else going on . . . Tielhard De Chardin seems to be in the offing here . . . something as yet unknown . . . but something that is headed *somewhere*, as "principles of the growth of order" in nature are, "in [their] logical form, teleological rather than mechanistic."

You heard right: Biology is teleological, indeed nature is teleological, clearly assembling itself toward some grand purpose (setting aside that whole "second law of thermodynamics" thing). This is probably the moment that earned Steven Pinker's description of "Mind and Cosmos" as "the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker."

Religious folks of a certain bent, by contrast, may cheer--but prematurely. Nagel, an atheist, is adamant that a God-style answer won’t fit the bill either: "So my speculations about an alternative to physics as a theory of everything do not invoke a transcendent being but tend toward complications to the immanent character of the natural order." (In any event, such a God would be quite unlike the Judeo-Christian version. If anything, Nagel's intuition sounds more like what Gene Rodenberry suspected: that the universe as a whole is gradually growing into a self-consciousness that will, in time, bring itself retroactively into existence.) Rather, Nagel is only intending to lay the groundwork for how a non-materialist future science might be called for in order fully to explain the presence of mind in the order of nature.

Or, if you like, the presence of nature in the order of mind.



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John Merryman wrote on Apr. 24, 2013 @ 03:45 GMT
I think, that even in terms of physics, he is trying to say something. Consider George Ellis' last contest entry on top down causality and how any form of bottom up process will create an equal top down (re)action.

I guess I'm responding to this after searching for a useful term for the dual hemispheres of the brain and considered Julian Jaynes' concept of the bicameral mind, so I googled...

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T H Ray replied on Apr. 24, 2013 @ 12:36 GMT
"So the ancients deified every rock, river and mountain when they had no concept of consciousness!!!!!!! ERK."

That *was* their concept of consciousness, John. You only think it's hooey because your view is anthropocentric. Theirs was not.

Tom

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John Merryman replied on Apr. 24, 2013 @ 16:59 GMT
Tom,

It was Julian Jaynes' contention they lacked a concept of consciousness, that I was ridiculing.

I should have posted more of the article and my point might have been clearer.

I realize it was off the particular topic of William's post, but as an observation, the post was very broad in its implications and so I was trying to tie it into the broader topic of consciousness and its relation to physics. The point being that teleological phenomena do not have to be mysterious, but may be expressions of larger patterns.

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T H Ray replied on Apr. 24, 2013 @ 17:18 GMT
John, thanks for the clarification. Indeed, I think anyone who wishes to have a physical theory of consciousness without allowing a continuum of consciousness at creation is bound to fail. *Any* point of emergence denies the fundamental property of consciousness: the capacity to choose. Even the most elementary particle has it.

Tom

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T H Ray wrote on Apr. 24, 2013 @ 12:31 GMT
You're absolutely fearless, William.

You make me want to re-read FQXi member Gregory Chaitin's newst book (it's short) *Proving Darwin: Making Biology Mathematical.* Chaitin -- effectively, in my opinion -- argues that evolving programs on a silicon substrate are no different in principle than the DNA programs that make up the software of our organic substrate. Indeed, where computing for its own sake is the issue, substrate is irrelevant.

So the "intelligent design" advocates who use mathematics to make their case for an ultimate designer, neglect that what they are *really* arguing, is that we humans are an artificial intelligence.

I favor Darwin, Leibniz and Chaitin. The same things that make us special are exactly the things that make the rest of the universe special -- the principles of self organization.

Or as the followers of the prophet Bokonon* sing:

"Nice, nice, very nice,

Nice, nice, very nice,

Nice, nice, very nice,

So many different people

In the same device!"

Tom

*Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. *Cat's Cradle*

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Blogger William Orem replied on Jun. 1, 2013 @ 15:31 GMT
Thanks, Tom. I always enjoy your thoughts. Wm

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Robert H McEachern wrote on Apr. 24, 2013 @ 13:02 GMT
A friend of mine recently induced me to consider the arguments Nagel presents in the first chapter of his book.

Here is a copy of my response:

Although I agree with several of his points, I did not find his overall claim or his analysis to be very convincing. For example, his statement on p. 6 that "It is prima facie highly implausible that life..." How has he deduced that it is...

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T H Ray replied on Apr. 24, 2013 @ 13:19 GMT
Rob,

Nice response. Great point about bacterial (and viral) evolution, whjich I think is a dagger right to the heart of creationism and intelligent design. It is also casts doubt on the existence of any barrier between inorganic and organic life -- chemical self organization is sufficient.

Tom

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Eckard Blumschein replied on May. 8, 2013 @ 13:51 GMT
Rob and Tom,

While we perhaps agree in this respect, we should be aware of those who are ruling fqxi and are applauding to an essay by the founder of viXra.

Eckard

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Domenico Oricchio wrote on Apr. 24, 2013 @ 15:05 GMT
I also feel apprehension in listening to arguments of creationists (this is not the case): it is as if it were necessary, in the modern world, a scientific explanation of the universe, as if it were a theological explanation necessary to justify our supremacy over nature: we were created by God, therefore everything is permitted.

It would be nice, in this era, the discovery of other civilizations (perhaps more evolved than us): if life (and evolution, and consciousness) is not unique in the universe (a normal thing) then we are not an exception, we would not be alone: it is the only experimental demonstration sufficient to refute intelligent design.

It would seem wasteful, in a universe so vast, only one form of life.

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Domenico Oricchio replied on Apr. 26, 2013 @ 12:22 GMT
I read today an interesting blog on Backreaction (too complex comment in her blog, here is direct).

This contain the comment on an article: it is possible the separation of chiral particles using turbulence.

If the life is chiral, and the experiment give chiral separation, then it is possible that the life born in turbolence (like hydrothermal vent).

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John Merryman wrote on Apr. 24, 2013 @ 17:31 GMT
What bothers me is that scientists tend to offer up such wishy washy and complex rebuttals to theologians, because it would be unprofessional to verse their points in simple, basic arguments. Monotheism posits the spiritual absolute as a moral and intellectual ideal, yet logically a spiritual absolute would be the most raw essence of being from which consciousness rises, not some particular ideal from which it fell. Yes, it does assume some unknown source of consciousness, but why leave that ground to a bunch of zealots? If you get all self-righteously clueless about the very sense of being flowing through every sentient member of your audience, while the opposition at least acknowledges it, even if to control it for extreme political ends, you lose the fight before you even start.

Lots of other points can be made as well, such as that it was the polytheists who first formalized democracy, since a religion where the gods argue gets reflected in how people govern themselves.

Good and bad are not some metaphysical war between the forces of Go(o)d and the devil, but are the most basic biological binary code of attraction to the beneficial and repulsion of the detrimental. If we could ever get people thinking that point through, then maybe we could develop a society able to accept political responsibility for hard choices.

Also monotheism is inherently patriarchal, while a bottom up spirituality is inherently egalitarian.

The political consequence of a top down theology is that it validates top down rule and so enables monarchies, otherwise known as the divine right of kings. Eventually though, as one matures, the father figure goes from being the model one follows, to being the foundation from which one rises. Time we grow up.

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Clev Wald wrote on Apr. 25, 2013 @ 00:55 GMT
Smolin's new book is finally out. Should spark interesting discussion.

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John Merryman replied on Apr. 25, 2013 @ 03:09 GMT
The current understanding of time is the problem and more complex math is not the solution.

I can certainly agree with that.

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T H Ray replied on Apr. 25, 2013 @ 10:01 GMT
"Smolin's new book is finally out. Should spark interesting discussion."

It has already, on Motl's and Woit's blogs.

Tom

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John Merryman replied on Apr. 25, 2013 @ 17:11 GMT
Tom,

I have to say Motl tends toward the politicized, which involves far too many logical parameters and resulting emotions, while Woit seriously limits who is allowed to comment, which is to say I fall far outside his line. Did see your comments there though.

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James Putnam wrote on May. 17, 2013 @ 21:20 GMT
"Nagel tells us near the outset. "It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection.""

"Is it? An evolutionary biologist, at this moment, would interject a salient distinction between terms like "physical accident," as they are commonly misapplied when critiquing natural selection,...

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John C Maguire wrote on Jun. 11, 2013 @ 03:06 GMT
I really enjoyed the book; kudos to you for providing a balanced/respectful reply to a body of ideas you don't necessarily agree with.

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Lev Goldfarb replied on Jun. 11, 2013 @ 03:27 GMT
John,

I should mention that although, generally, I also agree with Nagel, he still somewhat underestimates, less so than most others, what it would take to integrate the 'mental' into a scientific view. Of course, he does understands the critical importance of such integration.

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John C Maguire replied on Jun. 14, 2013 @ 04:32 GMT
Lev,

You may be right on that. But I think Bohm has left us a foundation to build off of. If you wouldn't mind me stealing a passage from my essay:

"That means we have quite a different principle of explanation because this wave function which operates through form is closer to life and mind. The basic quality of mind is that it responds to form not to substance. Therefore the electron has a mind-like quality, though it may not be consciousness as we know it. Consciousness [as we know it] may depend on a much higher organization of this mind-like quality."

Bohm's work may not be the penultimate solution, but it imbues me with a certain amount of optimism moving forward in solving this dilemma.

Regards,

John

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