Why Are We Confused About Words?
Selena Gomez, bless her heart, slipped down a chain reaction. Then, after a series of reactions—“here I go, here I go, here I go”—she became somebody’s in fractions. And there was a storm and a bunch of lies and people bleeding light. That’s all according to her song “I Want You to Know,” which reached number one on the charts in 24 countries. Here are the first lines:
I want you to know that it’s our time You and me bleed the same light I want you to know that I’m all yours You and me run the same course I’m slippin’ down a chain reaction And here I go here I go here I go go And once again I’m yours in fractions It takes me down pulls me down pulls me down low Honey it’s raining tonight But storms always have an eye have an eye Tell me you’re covered tonight Or tell me lies tell me lies lies
Now Gomez has an amazing voice and she sings to excellent music. Nevertheless, it’s pretty hard to guess what in the world she’s actually singing about. “How do you slip down a chain reaction?” asks Buzzfeed’s Kelly Dunlap. “Does that cause you to be fractioned? Selena Gomez sounds so confident singing all of this that I want to believe that it adds up to something coherent, but it doesn’t.”[i]
As it turns out, the writers of the song might actually agree with Dunlap. American musician Ryan Tedder and Russian-German musician Anton Zaslavski (better known by his stage name, Zedd) wrote it with only one clear line in mind—I want you to know. “Ryan Tedder was on a plane when he had an idea,” said Zedd. “He sent me a little demo—‘I want you to know’ was the only lyric. The rest was mumbling, there was no real song around it.” But Tedder urged Zedd to finish the song. “You can do it. You have to do this,” he told him. Zedd recalls that he wasn’t really in love with the idea. “But that line—‘I want you to know’—stuck in my head, nothing else. So I started making a song for it.”[ii] Sure enough, with Gomez singing, their work was certified Platinum in the U.S., selling over a million copies.
But the world is still left wondering what they all so badly wanted us to know.
Now incoherent songs are certainly not unique to this generation. We’ve always loved nonsensical lyrics even when the nonsense was deliberate, such as with the Beatles’ songs “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “I Am the Walrus”. Regardless of the occasions for these songs, they were just excuses for celebrating the psychedelic drug LSD.
Other times the song writer might think his lyrics are clear, yet listeners completely misunderstand them. In 1987 a band called R.E.M. produced “The One I Love”, which reached number 9 on the US Billboard Hot 100. It consisted four lines and a chorus:
This one goes out to the one I love This one goes out to the one I’ve left behind A simple prop to occupy my time This one goes out to the one I love Fire (she’s comin’ down on her own, now) Fire (she’s comin’ down on her own, now)
What exactly is this song communicating? The lyrics would seem to translate to something like, “I was extremely bored, so I wrote you a poem even though I broke up with you. And this itself is the poem. Fire. She’s coming down on her own, now.” That’s not very nice, is it? And the more you magnify it with artistry, the meaner it becomes. The writer, Michael Stipe, said that the song was “incredibly violent”. “It’s very clear that it’s about using people over and over again.”[iii]
Ironically, however, that message was not even remotely clear for the radio audience. Quite to the contrary, everyone completely mistook it for a love song. People kept calling radio stations (this was before the internet) and asking them to play it in dedication to a boyfriend or girlfriend—over and over again. Radio listeners heard the song a dozen times a day. Nevertheless, as Stipe told Rolling Stone magazine, he himself would never dedicate it to anyone:
It’s a brutal kind of song, and I don’t know if a lot of people pick up on that. But I’ve always left myself pretty open to interpretation. It’s probably better that they just think it’s a love song at this point. I don’t know. That song just came up from somewhere, and I recognized it as being real violent and awful. But it wasn’t directed at any one person. I would never, ever write a song like that. Even if there was one person in the world thinking, ‘This song is about me,’ I could never sing it or put it out.[iv]
How does such confusion happen? Perhaps, just as Zedd liked the one line “I want you to know” and ran with it, so also listeners would hear the first line of Stipe’s song, “This one goes out to the one I love,” and then get swept away with such sweet, passionate thoughts of their beloved that nothing else mattered. They could ascribe all kinds of deep, emotional meaning to the rest of the song because they were no longer paying any attention to the lyrics. They just assumed that the words must surely be romantic.
And we don’t just do this with pop songs. How many people have enjoyed listening to an Italian opera or a German choir even if they don’t speak those languages? An audience may truly feel inspired and emotionally moved by a production even if they have no idea what it’s about. If we have world-class voices singing to powerful music, then we can ascribe all kinds of vague meaning to the lyrics and get completely swept away by the majestically beautiful babble. That’s what happens in the movie, The Shawshank Redemption, when all the inmates in a prison hear an Italian opera played over the speakers. Red (played by Morgan Freeman) narrates:
I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and it makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a great place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.[v]
As it turns out, the two Italian ladies were not in fact singing about freedom or anything particularly beautiful. One of them had a philandering husband, so they were singing about a plan to trap him in his infidelity.[vi] So perhaps Red’s intuitions were right that it was better not to know. For when our emotions and aspirations take over our minds, it’s easy sometimes not to care at all about what’s actually being said.
Well you have probably guessed where I’m going with all this: see also much of modern science. If we have world-class minds working with nuclear-powered computers hooked up to multi-million dollar microscopes and multibillion-dollar superconducting supercolliders, then it’s easy to get swept away with profound thoughts and feelings about humanity, morality, the meaning of life, and the mysteries of the universe. Although many times we cannot understand a lot of what the scientists are saying, they say it with such confidence that we really want to believe that they must surely be saying something coherent.
They aren’t—at least not when it comes to explaining consciousness and our ability to creatively use math and language. When it comes to answering the simple questions “What are words?” and “How do our brains perceive the meaning behind the medium?” the scientific explanations are mostly nonsensical. I’m not just saying that the answers offered by these brilliant scientists are wrong. I’m saying they are totally and completely incoherent.
Majestically Beautiful Babble
Again, the guiding questions are “What are words?” and “How do we perceive words?” In answering these questions, the only thing a good Naturalist can do is produce fog and nonsense. I mean it’s really bad. On the one hand, I don’t want to be impolite and bludgeon these scientists with questions for which they can only give incoherent answers. On the other hand, these are really good questions. But no matter how fairly or objectively I present their arguments, they are still completely incoherent. You probably will not believe it (I wouldn’t have believed it) until you hear it for yourself when these otherwise brilliant scientists keep speaking gibberish. If ever there was a case of the emperor wearing no clothes, this is it.
For example, listen to Harvard Professor Stephen Pinker’s solution. Previously, when we asked “Who perceives words?” we listened to him explain how language is, at the end of the day, instinctive. I said that explanation made about as much sense as saying that you could think without thinking and that you could, for example, instinctively comprehend these sentences you’re reading. Well, if you weren’t convinced that Pinker was speaking nonsense then, listen to him explain how we perceive numbers. (Just keep an open mind and read this carefully.)
Humans, like many animals, appear to have an innate sense of number, which can be explained by the advantages of reasoning about numerosity during our evolutionary history. (For example, if three bears go into a cave and two come out, is it safe to enter?) But the mere fact that a number faculty evolved does not mean that numbers are hallucinations. According to the Platonist conception of number favored by many mathematicians and philosophers, entities such as numbers and shapes have an existence independent of minds. The number three is not invented out of whole cloth; it has real properties that can be discovered and explored. No rational creature equipped with circuitry to understand the concept “two” and the concept of addition could discover that two plus one equals anything other than three.[vii]
What?!?! What in the world does any of that mean? What could possibly be the “real properties” of the number three?! Does 3 have size or texture or smell or current or force or…?! Of course not! That would be as absurd as saying that table salt has a sense of humor, or as nonsensical as saying that Lucy is in the Sky with Diamonds. Nevertheless, naturalists have no other choice but to say such incoherent things and then to treat them as bland, trivial, obvious facts worthy of no special attention.
Now if Pinker’s words aren’t confusing enough, we need to recognize that even though he is a zealous materialist, when he explains things by using Platonist philosophy (after the Greek philosopher Plato), he is actually doing a 180-degree turnabout. For Platonism is definitely understood to be the opposite of materialism. Plato taught his followers that the physical world was just a shadowy image of the more perfect nonphysical world of ideas—phenomena which philosophers call “Platonic Forms.” So how can a devout materialist like Pinker get away with using Platonism? Is he really trying to just have his immaterial cake and eat it, too? Yes. Because it’s perfectly fine to talk about Plato and philosophy, regardless of how incoherent your conclusions (could the number three be soft and squishy?), but it’s still definitely not okay to talk about God and spirituality.
Now Pinker is no neuroscientist—he’s a cognitive psychologist specializing in psycholinguistics—so perhaps he would admit that his briefly worded assumption was a careless thing to write. So let’s listen to one of the world’s leading cognitive neuroscientists.
Stanislas Dehaene, a professor at the Collège de France, agrees with Pinker that we are our living, active brains—the position of monism. However, Dehaene disagrees with the position Pinker took about mathematics—that numbers are “Platonic forms” existing independently of minds. Why does he disagree? Because he is acutely aware of the dilemma. If numbers really exist outside of our skulls, then there would be no way to explain how the brain perceives them. “If these objects are real but immaterial,” Dehaene asks, “in what extrasensory ways does a mathematician perceive them?”[viii]
So what’s his solution for maintaining materialism? How does he get past this seeming impasse? By arguing that mathematics only exists inside our skulls—that our brains actually create it. “Numbers, like other mathematical objects, are mental constructions whose roots are to be found in the adaptation of the human brain to the regularities of the universe.”[ix] At first you might think that “the regularities of the universe” is just another way of referring to the objective patterns in nature. But no, Dehaene is emphatic in arguing that mathematics only exists in our heads. In fact, that’s the subtitle of his book, The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics. (Pinker wrote a book with a similar theme, titled, The Language instinct: How the Mind Creates Language.)
Dehaene explains that this is a philosophical stance called intuitionism or constructivism. Intuitionism holds says that our brains constructed these things in ages past, so they simply feel natural and intuitive for us. He cites the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who said that not only logic and mathematics but also ethics are intuitive for us. He also cites the French mathematicians Henri Poincaré (1854-1912), who further developed this philosophy. Following in their stead, Dehaene says all our mathematical reasoning is inexplicably innate:
The discoveries of the last few years in the psychology of arithmetic have brought new arguments to support the intuitionist view that neither Kant nor Poincaré could have known. These empirical results tend to confirm Poincaré’s postulate that number belongs to the “natural objects of thought,” the innate categories according to which we apprehend the world…Intuition about numbers is thus anchored deep in our brain. Number appears as one of the fundamental dimensions according to which our nervous system parses the external world.[x]
That sounds very elegant and deep, doesn’t it? Again, you really want to believe that this brilliant scientist is saying something coherent. Number appears as one of the fundamental dimensions according to which our nervous system parses the external world. However, there are a couple of foggy ideas here which, if you blow the fog away, turn out to be completely incoherent.
One problem is that, as we concluded when we asked “Where do numbers occur?”, all of science depends upon the objectivity of mathematical measurements. For example, whether we calculate it or not, scientists know that Mars has a measurable mass and size and velocity, as well as a measurable percentage of iron in its soil, etc. We sent robots there to collect some of this objective mathematical data, for it is simply sitting there, like a library book sitting on a shelf, waiting to be read. Therefore, it is completely futile and self-defeating for any scientist to try to argue that math only exists inside our skulls. Yet when Dehaene denies this objective measurability of nature, he completely eviscerates all of science. He makes us the creators of not just mathematics but of all physical laws and all scientific truth—thus joining biolgosit Richard Dawkins in authoring the Author and revealing unto the world the Cosmic Blind Watchmaker.
But of course in his book Dehaene avoids this issue like the plagues of Egypt. And when, in the above quote, he refers to “the regularities of the universe” he is basically trying to have his mathematical cake and eat it, too.
If you’re not convinced, then consider another, even bigger problem with Dehaene’s explanation. When he says that the brain creates mathematics, does he mean to imply that numbers are actually composed of organic gray matter? For example, is the number 7 literally composed of neurons? Surely not. That would be about as coherent as saying that they’re squishy and red and that, as Pinker said, they have “real properties that can be discovered and explored”. We might as well be talking about Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, right? But seriously, if numbers only exist inside our skulls, what exactly are they?
Don’t ask that question! No, seriously, Dehaene insists (“If I insist so strongly on this…”) that we not ask what numbers are. It’s much better to leave it unwritten and unspoken. “Providing a univocal formal definition of what we call numbers is essentially impossible: The concept of number is primitive and undefinable.”[xi] He is acutely aware of the impasse, so he insists upon ignoring it altogether and just pretending that it is not there. Isn’t that rather astonishing? He’s written an entire book about how the mind creates and perceives numbers, but then he insists that we not even ask what numbers are.
He has no choice. Otherwise, all at once, materialism and monism—not to mention Darwinism—would completely, instantly evaporate.
Now don’t get me wrong, Dehaene is a brilliant scientist and has done fascinating research on the brain. Just as a computer scientist could write a book explaining how your laptop processes mathematical data, so also Dehaene’s book explains the latest scientific understanding on how the brain processes mathematical data. It’s truly dazzling science. But at the end of the book, in a final chapter titled “What is a Number?”, he insists that we not ask that question. Because when it comes to explaining how we actually perceive math—something which no abacus or clock or textbook or calculator or laptop or supercomputer can do—he says we must simply take it all for granted as intuitive.
Now what reason does Dehaene give for insisting that we this profoundly mysterious ability for granted? (Is it because otherwise evolutionary theory would die a violent and fiery death? Is it because we cannot, under any circumstances, allow for spirituality?) He says the reason is that if we try to articulate an answer then we will be torturing students and practicing very poor pedagogy.
Ironically, any 5-year-old has an intimate understanding of those very numbers that the brightest logicians struggle to define. No need for a formal definition: We know intuitively what integers are…If I insist so strongly on this point, it is because of its important implications for education in mathematics. If educational psychologists had paid enough attention to the primacy of intuition over formal axioms in the human mind, a breakdown without precedent in the history of mathematics might have been avoided. I am referring to the infamous episode of “modern mathematics,” which has left scars in the minds of many schoolchildren in France, as well as in many other countries.[xii]
Note that even though he isn’t writing a textbook—so there’s no danger of torturing students—he still doesn’t want to talk about it. He simply concludes in the end that it’s impossible to explain how we know what numbers are…because the answer is intuitive. Evolution anchored it so deeply in our brains that we must simply take our ability to understand math for granted. “The human baby is born with innate mechanisms for individuating objects and for extracting the numerosity of small sets.”[xiii]
Let me just repeat here a quote written by two world-class mathematicians in 1981.
Most writers on the subject seem to agree that the typical working mathematician is a Platonist on weekdays and a formalist on Sundays. That is, when he is doing mathematics, he is convinced that he is dealing with an objective reality whose properties he is attempting to determine. But then, when challenged to give a philosophical account of this reality, he finds it easiest to pretend that he does not believe in it after all.[xiv]
Here are two prime examples of this strategy: according to both the cognitive psychologist Pinker—who, by the way, defined words variously as “linguistic objects”, “syntactic atoms”, and “units of language”[xiv.5]—and the neuroscientist Dehaene, we should simply take our linguistic and mathematical abilities for granted as instinctive and innate. Is that any different, in principle, from taking the soul for granted?
Yes, according to both, there’s a huge difference. Pinker wrote in 2007 that we “have exorcised the ghost from the machine.”[xv] And Dehaene, at a book signing at The Boston Book Festival in 2015, for his latest book, Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts, when asked by the moderator what his team’s research implied about spirituality, replied, “I don’t think this leaves a lot of room for a separate concept of the soul, basically.”[xvi]
That’s a bold statement. How does he back it up? Well in this more recent book he said that information itself actually becomes conscious. “Once information is conscious, it can enter into a long series of arbitrary operations—it is no longer processed in a reflexive manner but can be pondered and reoriented at will. And thanks to a connection to language areas, we can report it to others.”[xvii] He calls consciousness “brain-wide information sharing” and “information broadcasting,” which all takes place on what he and his colleagues call a “global neuronal workspace”:
Global neuronal workspace theory proposes that what we experience as consciousness is the global sharing of information. The brain contains dozens of local processors, each specialized for one type of operation. A specific communication system, the “global workspace,” allows them to flexibly share information. At any given moment, the workspace selects a subset of processors, establishes a coherent representation of the information they encode, holds it in mind for an arbitrary duration, and disseminates it back to virtually any of the other processors. Whenever a piece of information accesses the workspace, it becomes conscious.[xviii]
At first glance we might think that we cannot really understand, much less evaluate, this explanation. We might just want to assume that it is all fascinating stuff—and surely its coherent. I mean I’m quite sure these guys know the brain ten thousand times better than I ever will, and they speak with such confidence. And yet we can still stop and get hung up and bogged down with that enormously profound assertion that (immaterial) information becomes conscious. What?!?! Notice that Dehaene again simply takes the perception of information for granted. In his previous book, The Number Sense, he insisted that we not ask what numbers are—which also means that you can’t ask what digital information is, or any other information for that matter. So what in the world could it possibly mean to say that information “becomes conscious”? He might as well say that we bleed light, and that when information arrives at the “global neuronal workspace”, a chain reaction suddenly causes us to be fractioned.
In fact, let’s go ahead and get bogged down for a moment. What could it possibly mean for information to become conscious? Could the information in a trigonometry textbook become conscious? What about the number 42, could that become conscious? What about Tuesday? What about the information in my shoe? Its chemical engineering alone would fill a book. How about the information in Euler’s Identity (eπi + 1 = 0)? And what is this conscious author of information? Is information the author of information? Is information what “perceives” the meaning of the word “red” or the word “three” or the word “colonoscopy”? Information becomes conscious?! That’s like saying that Tuesday could a sense of humor but Thursday is stoic. It’s like saying that Lucy is in the Sky with Diamonds and that rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies.
Let’s leave that quagmire behind.
Dehaene did his book signing together with one of America’s leading atheistic philosophers, Daniel Dennett, who has written books with such titles as Consciousness Explained and Freedom Evolves. Dennett, for his part, wrote his own explanation for how we perceive patterns in a book titled Brainchildren: Essays On Designing Minds. Like Dehaene, he is acutely aware of the dilemma, but instead of saying “Don’t ask!” he tries to offer a middle ground between believing that our ability to perceive patterns is intuitive (Dehaene’s position) and believing that patterns exist in nature and have “real properties” (Pinker’s position). You ask how one could possibly find middle ground between those two? By saying that Pinker’s beliefs only “quasi-exist”. Here is the beginning of a chapter titled “Real Patterns”:
Are there really beliefs? Or are we learning (from neuroscience and psychology, presumably) that, strictly speaking, beliefs are figments of our imagination, items in a superseded ontology? Philosophers generally regard such ontological questions as admitting just two possible answers: either beliefs exist or they don’t. There is no such state as quasi-existence; there are no stable doctrines of semi-realism. Beliefs must either be vindicated along with the viruses or banished along with the banshees. A bracing conviction prevails, then, to the effect that when it comes to beliefs (and other mental items) one must be either a realist or an eliminative materialist. This conviction prevails in spite of my best efforts over the years to undermine it.[xix]
What in the world, you ask, did this philosopher just say? We are a superseded ontologies living a quasi-existence and following stable doctrines of semi-realism…?! And that is where patterns “and other mental items” …are? Talk about torturing students, how in the world can anyone respond to that? (i.e. without cussing and drop-kicking the book) What words could someone use to disagree with Dennett here? I mean arguing with him as to whether you are a superseded ontology would be like trying to argue with the Beatles as to whether John Lennon was, in fact, The Walrus. (Most agree that he was but disagree as to what exactly that meant.)
This is what it sounds like, to quote Harvard Biology Professor Dr. Lewontin again, “to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated.” The naturalists have no other choice. They are forced into it by their “a priori adherence to material causes” and by their zeal to not “allow a Divine Foot out of the door”—forced to construct a very tall, complex, sophisticated “apparatus”. But it remains nothing more than a tower of babble.
Dennett elaborated on his view in a more recent book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds. Much to his credit, at one point in he directly addresses the dilemma that he and all other materialists face:
Do words even exist? Are they part of your ontology? Should they be? This talk of words being “made of information” is pretty dicey, isn’t it? Just a lot of hand-waving? Some philosophers will bite the bullet at this point and insist that words don’t exist, strictly speaking. They have no mass, no energy, no chemical composition; they are not part of the scientific image, which they say should be considered the ultimate arbiter of ontology. But words are very prominent denizens of our manifest image, and even if science doesn’t have to refer to them or mention them, you couldn’t do science without using them, so they should perhaps be included in our ontology. They loom large for us, readily occupying our attention.[xx]
As Dennett explains, some materialistic philosophers will actually “bite the bullet” and insist that words do not in fact exist. Immediately one can’t help but wonder how they would actually say that. (Actually, I really don’t want to know.) But Dennett himself doesn’t do that. So what does he do? How does cling to materialism but still manage to explain why words can be “included in our ontology”? How does he answer the question that Dehaene refused to ask?
Well he starts in his book by calling words evolutionary memes. “Words, I will argue, are the best example of memes, culturally transmitted items that evolve by differential replication—that is, by natural selection.”[xxi] Now the term meme was coined by famed atheist biologist Richard Dawkins to describe “the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.”[xxii] So would Dennett (or Dawkins) acknowledge that memes, these units of imitation, are immaterial? Would they admit that memes, as words, have “no mass, no energy, no chemical composition”? No, they can’t do that. So instead, Dennett explains that words are the kind of memes that form sound waves: “Which kind of meme are words? The kind that can be pronounced.”[xxiii] Later he tries to clarify:
What are memes a kind of? They are a kind of way of behaving (roughly) that can be copied, transmitted, remembered, taught, shunned, denounced, brandished, ridiculed, parodied, censored, hallowed. There is no term readily available in the technical language of the scientific image that aptly encapsulates what kind of a thing a meme is. Leaning on the ordinary language of the manifest image, we might say that memes are ways: ways of doing something, or making something, but not instincts (which are a different kind of ways of doing something or making something). The difference is that memes are transmitted perceptually, not genetically. They are semantic information, design worth stealing or copying, except when they are misinformation, which, like counterfeit money, is something that is transmitted or saved under the mistaken presumption that it is valuable, useful.[xxiv]
So memes are “…semantic information”? Yes, Dennett later clarifies, saying that “memes are informational things.” What does all that mean? It means we’ve come full circle on this rabbit trail: words have no mass or energy or chemical properties, but they are memes—the kind of meme that can be pronounced. Memes, meanwhile are units of cultural transmission, semantic information, informational things. Words are memes and memes are words! In other words, Dennett has looked directly the heard of Argentinosauruses in the room—those gentle giants that eat Darwinism for breakfast—and has decided to just completely ignore them and quietly hope that they are not hungry. They have to be “included in our ontology”, so perhaps we can just take them for granted—just like Dehaene said we need to take our mathematical ability for granted as innate, just like Pinker said we need to take language for granted as instinctive.
Let’s just stop again and recognize the enormity of what these scientists and philosophers want to take for granted. I will just repeat something we observed in the introduction: without words we would have no governments, for unlike ants and bees we are not pre-programmed to live in colonies but instead we have to verbalize pacts and alliances and constitutions. Nor would we have any technology, for all technology is preceded by verbal plans. Nor would we have any science, which is the study of patterns and laws in nature and society. Nor would we have any sports or games, all of which depend entirely upon the enforcement of verbalized rules. Nor would we have any fajita recipes. It is a very, very, very big deal to take words and sentences, numbers and equations—and our perception and use of them all—for granted.
Yet pick up any book on the subject and you’ll find that is exactly what the scientific establishment does. Michael S. A. Graziano, professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Princeton University, wrote a book titled Rethinking Consciousness: A Scientific Theory of Subjective Experience, in which he gives a very complex elaborate argument for why consciousness is nothing but matter-in-motion—i.e. that we are our brains. So what does he say about the nature of information or about our ability to perceive meaning? Nothing at all. Like the others, he simply takes that for granted:
My point is that the mind is information. I like to say that the human mind is a trillion-stranded sculpture made of data, constantly changing, beautifully complicated. If a mind lacks information about consciousness, it cannot know what that property is or attribute it to itself or to others. We humans make a big deal about consciousness only because we have a subsystem in our brains that constructs information about it.[xxv]
Okay, just to clarify: we make a big deal about consciousness because it is a very, very, very big deal. Anyway, perhaps you’re wondering: once you take the very infrastructure of rationality, intelligence, and creativity for granted, will it be that difficult to throw free will in with the mix?
Why not?! When Dehaene and Dennett did their book-signing together, and when they talked about how their conclusions left no room for a soul, the issue of free will certainly came up. Are they really going to (choose to) declare that we have no free will? No, of course not. Dehaene gave the answer:
Dan, I think you and I share this idea that autonomy and free will are genuine, right, in the brain? They are not going to go away with more reductionist neuroscience. I think personally that free will is just a property of the network that I was just describing, that it generates this autonomous state of matter that is self-organized or filtered according to the Darwinian principle that you described, such that it’s okay to describe this machine as having free will. It’s not just what we think usually about free will as something non-determined. It is determined by the structure of the machine, but it is genuinely autonomous. We carry it autonomously in our brains. You agree with that?[xxvi]
Yes, Dennett agreed that free will is “just a property of the network”, an “autonomous state of matter that is self-organized or filtered according to [a] Darwinian principle.” You are not an immaterial soul. Instead you are a property or a state. No one dared to ask them with such properties have, as Pinker suggested, “real properties that can be discovered and explored”?
Am I being unfair? Listen, did you notice how the philosopher Dennett said we’re learning the truth from neuroscience and psychology, and the neuroscientist Dehaene said we’re learning the truth from philosophy and psychology, and the psychologist Pinker said we’re learning the truth from the mathematicians and philosophers? Everyone keeps saying that someone else—another scientific discipline—can give a final explanation of the mystery. It almost sounds like they’re playing a game of keep-away. They want to keep the ball (the mystery of the immaterial) away from students, so they keep tossing it back and forth.
Or, to use another analogy, it sure looks like they’re running a shell game.
A Shell Game
It may seem overly harsh to run these Naturalists’ arguments into the ground like this. If the issues weren’t so consequential then we might overlook some of their rhetorical shenanigans. But they simply could not be more consequential. These conclusions have everything to do with what we’re teaching students not just about nature but also about the very meaning of life. The stakes are in the cosmological horizon.
A shell game is where a magician hides a coin under one of several shells and then moves them around quickly. The magician will lift the shells up one at a time to try to persuade you that the coin has disappeared. But of course the coin is still there, which is why he can’t uncover all the shells at once. Instead he uncovers them one at a time, and as he does he whips the coin from one shell to another so quickly that you don’t see it.
In this case the coin is the mystery of an immaterial reality, and the shells are the different scientific disciplines. The materialists are trying to persuade us that the mystery has disappeared, so they keep saying that another scientific discipline can clarify things. But I’m telling you that the mystery is still there, fully intact, more profound and beautiful than ever. Furthermore, the mystery is not a matter of what we don’t know—as in saying that we don’t know what words and sentences and paragraphs are. Instead, the mystery is what we do know: we know with absolute, mathematical certainty what words and sentences are not. They are not physical. They are immaterial. And the authors of them are likewise immaterial.
Again, here is our question: how is it that we are aware that we perceive the meaning of information from the world around us? What exactly is consciousness? How is it possible for us to not just process data, but also comprehend the meaning of data? (Remember that Einstein said such comprehension is “the eternal mystery of the world.”) We can either state the answer to this question clearly, or we can try to deny it and hide it under esoteric fog and incoherent babble.
Let’s do a very brief survey in an attempt to turn over all the shells at once. We’ll find that none of them is remotely capable of making the mystery disappear. We’ll start with physics.
In His book, Programming the Universe, Seth Lloyd, professor of mechanical engineering and physics at MIT, tells how he begins his graduate course on information by teasing his twenty-odd students with the question, “What is information?” None of them say a word. Although they can talk all day about how to use information and what a bit of information means, none of them even tries to offer a guess as to what a bit of information is.[xxvii] Nor, for that matter, does Lloyd in his book. Nor does Dr. Hans Christian von Baeyer, a professor of physics at the College of William and Mary, in his 2003 book titled Information: The New Language of Science. Nor do the authors of a 423-page textbook titled Information Science published in 2006 by Princeton University. Nor does Michio Kaku, a theoretical physics professor at the City College and City University of New York, in his book The Future of the Mind, in which he says that someday our minds could be downloaded (i.e. as information) and sent on an electromagnetic joyride across the heavens. The list goes on and on of scientists who avoid the question altogether, and this all makes for a truly deafening silence—not due to a casual disregard for an odd question, but rather due to a deliberate, vigorous evasion of a cosmically profound mystery—as Einstein put it, “the eternal mystery of the universe.”.
So if they skip the question “What is information?”, what happens when they ask the question “What is consciousness?” Kaku writes, “Consciousness is the process of creating a model of the world using multiple feedback loops in various parameters (e.g., in temperature, space, time, and in relation to others), in order to accomplish a goal (e.g., find mates, food, shelter).”[xxviii] Furthermore, Kaku says that some gadgets—such as a car or even a thermostat—can be said to have a degree of consciousness, so long as they process information in some kind of feedback loop.[xxix]
You’re not a soul. You’re a process.
Max Tegmark, a physics professor at The Massachusetts Institute for Technology, starts by saying, like Dehaene and Kaku, that we ourselves are information. “You’re a pattern in spacetime. A mathematical pattern. Specifically, you’re a braid in spacetime—indeed one of the most elaborate braids known.”[xxx] Now when he says that we are braids, he is actually talking not only about our minds but also about our physical bodies as mathematical objects. Indeed, he says the entire universe is literally made of math—a theory known as the mathematical universe hypothesis. The Greek mathematician Pythagoras—who had a big influence on Plato—taught the same thing 2,500 years ago with the creed “All things are number.” It’s all very interesting stuff and probably resonates deeply with some of the questions that we have explored. After all, these arguments would have worked just as well 3,000 years ago. But I’m just going to skip straight to where Tegmark speculates about consciousness because, like Pinker, he will do a 180 and, as Hersh and Davis said, when Sunday comes along he will pretend like he has no idea what we’re talking about. He will start by suggesting that consciousness is the way information feels:
I think consciousness is the way information feels when being processed in certain complex ways. Since the different parts of your brain interact with each other, different parts of your reality model can interact with each other, so the model of you can interact with your model of the outside world, giving rise to the subjective sensation of the former perceiving the latter.[xxxi]
We might first think that Tegmark is speaking figuratively here when he calls consciousness a feeling. We might also think that he would not necessarily call himself a materialist, considering his extravagant view of mathematics as the basis of a Platonic reality. However, both hunches would be wrong. (Like Dehaene and Pinker, he’s trying to have his platonic cake and eat it, too.) He is most assuredly a materialist, but he tries to completely redefine the meaning of the word matter. For in addition to being “the way information feels when being processed in certain complex ways”, he also suggests that consciousness is a “phase of matter.”
My guess is that we’ll one day understand consciousness as yet another phase of matter. I’d expect there to be many types of consciousness just as there are many types of liquids, but in both cases, they share certain characteristic traits that we can aim to understand.[xxxii]
Remember from middle school science class that matter has four phases—solid, liquid, gas, and plasma. Now Tegmark posits that consciousness could be a fifth phase of matter. This phase could come in many varieties that feel different from one another, just as there are many varieties of liquids—such as oil and water—which feel different. So it turns out he wasn’t speaking figuratively at all when he suggested that consciousness is a feeling. “I believe that consciousness is the way information feels when being processed. Since matter can be arranged to process information in numerous ways of vastly varying complexity, this implies a rich variety of levels and types of consciousness.”[xxxiii]
So when you and I perceive information—say the information in this sentence—our brains are, literally, feeling it? And even though the exact same information can be translated through solid, liquid, or gas media, the information is itself a 5th phase of matter? So if the information inside our skulls feels a certain way, what about the information in a library book? Or the information in a pine tree? Does the number three (presumably with “properties that can be discovered and explored”) feel different from Tuesday? Or perhaps it feels like bleeding light or like slipping down a chain reaction?
What could any of this possibly mean? It means that Tegmark has still managed, more or less, to skip the question “What is information?” and instead gone straight to describing how our brains might “feel” it. It means that because he cannot abandon the presuppositions of materialism he is prepared to fabricate a whole new type of material. Although he has done absolutely brilliant work and written a fascinating book about physics—especially in the study of light—when it comes to consciousness he starts babbling. Three years after writing the above explanation he wrote another book in which he said that consciousness “is simply food, rearranged.” (I quoted him on that when I asked “Who perceives the meaning behind the medium?”) He might as well, along with the Beatles, climb in the back of a newspaper taxi and, with his head in the clouds, start singing about LSD.
Okay, well let’s listen to another physicist. Here is Sean Carroll, theoretical physics professor at The California Institute of Technology, who says that consciousness is “a complex interplay of many processes acting on multiple levels.”[xxxiv] He says that these processes are all governed by a massive physics equation called The Core Theory. (It’s on the chart on the page where I asked, “Where do words occur?”)
If the particles and forces of the Core Theory are what constitute each living being, without any immaterial soul, then the information that makes up “you” is contained in the arrangement of atoms that makes up your body, including your brain. There is no place for that information to go, or any way for it to be preserved, outside your body. There are no particles or fields that could store it and take it away.[xxxv]
Now even though he talks here about our physical bodies as being mediums for “information…contained in the arrangement of atoms”, he still takes that information completely for granted. He doesn’t talk about the nature of information anywhere in his 480-page book—an extremely loud omission for a theoretical physicist. It would be like an astronomer writing a book about astronomy but not bothering to explain what stars are, or a neuroscientist writing a book about how the mind creates mathematics but not bothering to explain what numbers are. Carroll’s omission is all the more glaring considering the title of his book, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself.
Meaning? What in the world is meaning? And how do our conscious minds comprehend it? Carroll doesn’t answer that question directly. Instead, he launches into philosophically poetic speculations (he calls his worldview Poetic Naturalism) about reality, such as what is really happening when we “experience the redness of red”. What do we comprehend about redness than a camera or a book or a laptop doesn’t comprehend?
“Consciousness” is a particular way of talking about the behavior of certain physical systems. The phrase “experiencing the redness of red” is part of a higher-level vocabulary we use to talk about the emergent behavior of the underlying physical system, not something separate from the physical system. That doesn’t mean it’s not real; my experience of redness is perfectly real, as is yours. It’s real in exactly the same way as fluids and chairs and universities and legal codes are real—in the sense that they play an essential role in a successful description of a certain part of the natural world, within a certain domain of applicability.[xxxvi]
Consciousness is “a way of talking about the behavior” of certain systems? “Experiencing the redness of red” explains how “the emergent behavior” of a physical system is not something separate from the system, but it is still “perfectly real”? What on earth does that even mean?!
It means that Carroll is acutely aware of the dilemma that materialists face. He knows that a high resolution video camera cannot perceive the meaning of redness any more than a hardback English dictionary perceives the definition of the word red, or any more than an abacus perceives arithmetic? Furthermore, he is aware that for the same reason that a camera or a book can’t comprehend the meaning of redness, for those same reasons the brain must not comprehend it either. That’s why Carroll is talking about what it means to “experience the redness of red”. As a monist, he cannot, under any circumstances, admit that the brain can’t perceive the meaning behind the medium. So his only recourse is to start waxing philosophical and avoiding the issue. “A poetic naturalist has no trouble saying that conscious experiences exist. They are not part of the fundamental architecture of reality, but they serve as essential pieces of an emergent effective theory.”[xxxvii]
What?!?! There’s a whole lot of rhetorical smoke and mirrors going on here. How does something “exist” and yet not be part of the “architecture of reality”? Is the (nonphysical) meaning of the abstract word real part of the fundamental architecture of “reality”? Carroll’s explanation might be similar to how Pinker uses Platonic philosophy (about the immaterial) to explain the “real qualities” of the number 3. We really can’t be sure.
Carroll does try to articulate a summary conclusion, and it is one that is entirely predictable: we just have to take consciousness for granted as “intrinsic” because some complex things “just come into being”:
Consciousness seems to be an intrinsically collective phenomenon, a way of talking about the behavior of complex systems with the capacity for representing themselves and the world within their inner states. Just because it is here full-blown in our contemporary universe doesn’t mean that there was always some trace of it from the very start. Some things just come into being as the universe evolves and entropy and complexity grow: galaxies, planets, organisms, consciousness.”[xxxviii]
Just follow the grammar and try to simplify that sentence: consciousness seems to be a way of talking about the behavior of systems with inner states. What in the world is an inner state? Carroll doesn’t say. (Remember that Dehaene said that our free wills, which are “a property of the network”, generate an “autonomous state of matter”.) He just says that instead of having a soul you have an inner state, and that “things” like consciousness “just come into being as the universe evolves.” And in the end, he offers no suggestion as to what consciousness actually is other than “an intrinsically collective phenomenon” with “inner states”.
Let’s listen to what the neuroscientists have to say.
Dr. Christof Koch taught for 27 years at California Institute for Technology and now serves as President and Chief Scientific Officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. He rejects the emergence explanation—the idea that things like consciousness “just come into being”—because it suggests that something can come from nothing. “If there is nothing there in the first place, adding a little bit more won’t make a difference.”[xxxix] If individual neurons lack consciousness, why would a bunch of them suddenly have it? He also rejects pure materialism and calls himself a “covert Platonist”.
Koch says the clear alternative to emergence is to acknowledge that there must be something else—“something fundamentally different from the material thing causing it and that it can never be fully reduced to physical properties of the brain.” He postulates that such a “something” could be analogous to an electric charge.
Charge is not an emergent property of living things, as originally thought when electricity was discovered in the twitching muscles of frogs. There are no uncharged particles that in the aggregate produce an electrical charge. An electron has one negative charge, and a proton—a hydrogen ion—has one positive charge. The total charge associated with a molecule or ion is simply the sum of all the charges of the individual electrons and protons, no matter what their relationship to each other. As far as chemistry and biology are concerned, charge is an intrinsic property of these particles. Electrical charge does not emerge from matter. And so it is with consciousness. Consciousness comes with organized chunks of matter. It is immanent in the organization of the system. It is a property of complex entities and cannot be further reduced to the action of more elementary properties. We’ve arrived at the ground floor of reductionism (that is why the reductionist of the subtitle of this book is tempered by the romantic).[xl]
This view, which Koch freely acknowledges to be panpsychism, certainly sounds spiritual. But it is quite different from classical dualism—the belief in a soul as a separate entity from the body. Instead, it holds that everything material has an element of individual consciousness to it. Koch says panpsychism has “an ancient and storied pedigree, not only within Buddhism, but also within Western philosophy: from Thales of Milet, a pre-Socratic thinker, to Plato and Epicurus in the Hellenic period, Spinoza and Leibniz in the Enlightenment, Schopenhauer and Goethe in the Romantic era, and on into the twentieth century.”[xli] But Koch still sides firmly with naturalism and with evolutionary theory, so in the end his stance is just plain foggy—hence the term “closet Platonist”.
Now, just to be clear, panpsychism, regardless of its storied pedigree, is about a scientific as is Platonism. As Sabine Hossenfelder, a research fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies, put it:
Now, if you want a particle to be conscious, your minimum expectation should be that the particle can change. It’s hard to have an inner life with only one thought. But if electrons could have thoughts, we’d long have seen this in particle collisions because it would change the number of particles produced in collisions.[xlii]
In other words, electrons are not conscious, and neither are any other particles. Such a conclusion is completely incompatible with the data.
Now back to Koch: for a decade he worked closely with Francis Crick to develop a physiological theory for consciousness, which he spelled out in a book titled The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach. Since then he has embraced panpsychism and now he teaches what’s called Integrated Information Theory, which is one of the two leading neuroscientific explanations of how the mind works—the other one being Dehaene’s Global Neuronal Workspace theory of consciousness. This second one, Integrated Information Theory, espouses what Koch calls “property dualism”. (Just keep an open mind and read this carefully.)
The theory of integrated information postulates that conscious, phenomenal experience is distinct from its underlying physical carrier. Informationally speaking, the experience of being sad is a crystal, a fantastically complex shape in a space of a trillion dimensions that is qualitatively different from the brain state that gives rise to sadness. The conscious sensation arises from integrated information; the causality flows from the underlying physics of the brain, but not in any easy-to-understand manner. That is because consciousness depends on the system being more than the sum of its parts. Think of this crystal as the twenty-first-century version of the soul.[xliii]
The conscious experience of sadness is “a crystal, a fantastically complex shape in a space of a trillion dimensions”? This is already making about as much sense as bleeding light. How does Koch say the brain lead to consciousness? In answer to that he praises the work of another neuroscientist, Giulio Tononi, who first proposed Integrated Information Theory in 2004.
To be conscious, then, you need to be a single, integrated entity with a large repertoire of highly differentiated states. Although the 60-gigabyte hard disk on my MacBook exceeds in capacity my lifetime of memories, that information is not integrated. For example, the family photographs on my Macintosh are not linked to one another. The computer does not know that the girl in those pictures is my daughter as she matures from a toddler to a lanky teenager and then a graceful adult. To my Mac, all information is equally meaningless, just a vast, random tapestry of zeros and ones. Yet I derive meaning from these images because my memories are heavily cross-linked. And the more interconnected, the more meaningful they become. Indeed, Tononi’s IIT postulates that the amount of integrated information that an entity possesses corresponds to its level of consciousness.[xliv]
Did you notice that word “state” again in both of the previous two quotes? You remember physicist Sean Carroll said consciousness was “a way of talking about the behavior of complex systems with…inner states.” And before that the neuroscientist Dehaene explained that free will is “an autonomous state of matter that is self-organized or filtered according to [a] Darwinian principle.” And before that the philosopher Daniel Dennett lamented that, despite his best efforts to the contrary, “there is no such state as quasi-existence” in the arsenal of concepts that scientists use to explain consciousness.
It won’t help to look up the word state in a dictionary. Philip Ball, an editor for the journal Nature and a columnist for Chemistry World, says scientists retreat to this word when they don’t know what else to call something. “Yet what a horrible word ‘state’ is anyway: cold and formal while at the same time vague and deceptively pedestrian,” he writes. “We seem compelled to use it without quite knowing what we’re talking about.”[xlv] And here is a prime example: according to Koch and Giulio’s Integrated Information Theory (IIT), instead of being a soul you are “a single, integrated entity with a large repertoire of highly differentiated states”.
IIT is an attempt at reverse engineering. Rather than starting from observations and moving toward postulates and conclusions—the usual process scientists use—Giulio Tononi and his colleagues start with an understanding of consciousness and then try figure out what physical systems would be required to make it happen. They propose five essential properties, or axioms, of consciousness—(1) intrinsic existence, (2) composition, (3) information, (4) integration, and (5) exclusion—and then propose five parallel physical requirements, or postulates, to account for them. (With these ten distinct angles on consciousness, these guys can run their own shell game, especially when they use terms like entity and differentiated state.)
Koch and Tononi authored a paper together, “Consciousness: here, there and everywhere?” (i.e. everywhere as in panpsychism.) Here is how they define consciousness according to Integrated Information Theory:
The axioms and postulates of IIT say that consciousness is a fundamental, observer-independent property that can be accounted for by the intrinsic cause–effect power of certain mechanisms in a state—how they give form to the space of possibilities in their past and their future. An analogy is mass, which can be defined by how it curves space–time around it—except that in the case of experience the entities having the property are not elementary particles but complexes of elements, and experience comes not in two but in a trillion varieties. In this general sense, at least, IIT is not at odds with panpsychism.[xlvi]
Again, just follow the grammar and then simplify that explanation: “Consciousness is a property that can be accounted for by the power of mechanisms in a state…The entities are complexes of elements, and experience comes in a trillion varieties.” By combining broad, abstract ideas with weak verbs they’re making room for all kinds of vague implications and baseless assumptions. And then when they compare consciousness to gravity—when “mass curves space-time around it”—that sounds similar to when physicist Tegmark says consciousness is a fifth phase of matter and that information is a feeling. But the main thing I want to draw your attention to is their use of “intrinsic cause-effect power”, a phrase they repeat many times as they weave together their five axioms and five postulates. Consciousness is a property that can be accounted for by the intrinsic cause–effect power of mechanisms in a state.
Neuroscientists ultimately want to know how the conscious mind causes the physical body to exert power—the mind-over-matter mystery—in actions as simple as turning the head or as complex as launching a rocket ship. Now you would probably need to get a PhD before you understood IIT well. Nevertheless, in Koch and Tononi’s explanation one thing stands out loud and clear: they call this cause-effect ability an intrinsic power—just as the cognitive psychologist Pinker said we have to take our linguistic ability for granted as instinctive, just as the cognitive neuroscientist Dehaene said we have to take our mathematical ability for granted as intuitive, just as the philosopher Dennett said we have to take words themselves for granted “as part of your ontology,” just as physicist Carroll said we have to take consciousness for granted because “some things just come into being.” All the best scientists keep coming to the same conclusion.
Now Tononi and Koch try their best to do exhaustive, thorough, methodic science, so they do something none of the others have yet tried: they offer a definition of information.
Note that the notion of information in IIT differs substantially from that in communication theory or in common language, but it is faithful to its etymology: information refers to how a system of mechanisms in a state, through its cause-effect power, specifies a form (‘informs’ a conceptual structure) in the space of possibilities.[xlvii]
Information refers to how a system in a state specifies a form? That’s pure abstraction after abstraction after abstraction. How does a system in a state specify a form? “Through its cause-effect power.” Given such lofty, esoteric ideas, it’s no surprise that they talk at times of a mysterious panpsychic “something” that fills the universe—the something which Koch compared to an electric charge. “It is in the air we breathe, the soil we tread on, the bacteria that colonize our intestines , and the brain that enables us to think.”[xlviii] Recently he clarified:
Intrinsic causal power is not some airy-fairy ethereal notion but can be precisely evaluated for any system. The more its current state specifies its cause (its input) and its effect (its output), the more causal power it possesses. IIT stipulates that any mechanism with intrinsic power, whose state is laden with its past and pregnant with its future, is conscious.[xlix]
Well before we move on from neuroscience, there is one more way that scientists—and, more often, philosophers—will occasionally talk about consciousness. And that is to call it an illusion or a hallucination. Here is how Anil K Seth, professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex in England and co-director of the university’s Sackler Center for Consciousness Science, explains it:
If hallucination is a kind of uncontrolled perception, then perception right here and right now is also a kind of hallucination, but a controlled hallucination in which the brain’s predictions are being reined in by sensory information from the world. In fact, we’re all hallucinating all the time, including right now. It’s just that when we agree about our hallucinations, we call that reality.[l]
For about five seconds that’s an interesting comparison. Yet it doesn’t even try to offer an explanation of the perception of information. And it doesn’t take long to hear Seth taking that perception of meaning completely for granted: “How does consciousness happen? Somehow, within each of our brains, the combined activity of many billions of neurons, each one a tiny biological machine, is generating a conscious experience.”[li]
What does it mean to say that consciousness is a hallucination? Seth says that it means that things like the color red are illusions:
Take, for example, the experience of color—say, the bright red of the coffee mug on my desk. The mug really does seem to be red: its redness seems as real as its roundness and its solidity. These features of my experience seem to be truly existent properties of the world, detected by our senses and revealed to our mind through the complex mechanisms of perception.
Yet we have known since Isaac Newton that colors do not exist out there in the world. Instead they are cooked up by the brain from mixtures of different wavelengths of colorless electromagnetic radiation. Colors are a clever trick that evolution has hit on to help the brain keep track of surfaces under changing lighting conditions.[lii]
Again, notice how he uses the meaning of the abstract word real as if it is somehow more “real” that the meaning of the word red. And as far as his argument for colors being an illusion, it’s like calling the sunrise an illusion since, technically speaking, it’s the earth that is rotating. (Regardless of your perspective, the appearance of the sun every morning is still very “real”.) He’s just playing with semantics—as also with doubting whether his coffee mug is really red. It was the British atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) who first taught his students to doubt whether the colors they saw were “real”.[liii] Is that really possible? I’m just going to go out on a limb here and say no: although philosophers can pretend to doubt such things, they cannot truly doubt them. After all, the word doubt is only coherent in the broad context of things we do not doubt. “I know that the grass is green and that the sky is blue and that the sun will rise tomorrow, but I doubt she’ll go out with me.” If we doubt absolutely everything, if we truly doubted that the sky is blue and that sun will rise tomorrow, then the word doubt becomes meaningless. “I doubt that you’re reading this sentence: goo-goo g’joob.” If a person truly doubts everything—as opposed to just having a philosophical game of play-pretend and singing a silly song—then they might need to be committed to a psychiatric hospital. Similarly, if everything is a hallucination then that word loses all meaning and leaves us singing meaningless songs about a girl (Lucy) with kaleidoscope eyes.
Or perhaps I’m getting pulled into a philosophical debate here. Let’s hear what the philosophers have to say.
In 1995 David Chalmers, professor of philosophy and director of the Centre for Consciousness at Australian National University, famously identified what he called “the hard problem of consciousness.” He said the easy problem was to explain how our brains process information in myriad complex ways. Although this requires massive amounts of research from teams of brilliant scientists, the work is relatively easy compared to the hard problem, which is to explain why we have subjective self-awareness—why we know what it means, as physicist Carroll put it, “to experience the redness of red”. Soon after Chalmers proposed “the hard problem” all philosophers and scientists were using that phrase. If you Google it, you’ll find it everywhere. It’s even the topic and title of a Broadway play.
In 2014, nineteen years after articulating the hard problem, Chalmers discussed the progress that has been made on it at a TED talk:
Perhaps the most simple and powerful way to find fundamental laws connecting consciousness to physical processing is to link consciousness to information. Wherever there’s information processing, there’s consciousness. Complex information processing, like in a human, complex consciousness. Simple information processing, simple consciousness.[liv]
To attempt to solve the dilemma here, Chalmers equates medium with meaning, and it reveals that although he and his colleagues may have made progress in articulating the problem (or not?), they have made zero progress in solving it. In fact, the dilemma has only gotten more acute.
Why is it such a hard problem? “I’m a scientific materialist at heart,” Chalmers said during the talk, giving homage to their non-negotiable, gold-plated, diamond-encrusted presupposition. Indeed, when a materialist confronts an immaterial phenomenon like information, he is not just facing a hard problem, but a total and complete impasse. If he were to simply acknowledged the scientific fact the any and all information is immaterial, then he would quickly conclude that the hard problem is not hard at all. It’s actually quite easy. In fact, it’s a no-brainer.
Alas, Chalmers is trapped. Of all the explanations we’ve reviewed above, he prefers Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory because it holds that consciousness is fundamental a part of the universe—like matter and energy. “If you can’t explain consciousness in terms of the existing fundamentals—space, time, mass, charge—then as a matter of logic, you need to expand the list,” he says. “The natural thing to do is to postulate consciousness itself as something fundamental, a fundamental building block of nature.”
Do you realize what he is saying? Although he is incapable of questioning materialism he can, like Tegmark with a fifth phase of matter and like Koch and Tononi with their pan-psychic charge, postulate entirely new, fundamental material.
Consciousness might be universal. Every system might have some degree of consciousness…The idea is not that photons are intelligent or thinking. It’s not that a photon is wracked with angst because it’s thinking, “Aww, I’m always buzzing around near the speed of light. I never get to slow down and smell the roses.” No, not like that. But the thought is maybe photons might have some element of raw, subjective feeling, some primitive precursor to consciousness.[lv]
We’re bleeding light again.
Other philosophers, such as John Searle, professor of Philosophy of Mind and Language and Professor of the Graduate School at the University of California, Berkeley, are not so optimistic about ITT. Much to his credit, he acknowledges the incoherence of explanations such as the one given above by Chalmers. (Photons might have some element of raw, subjective feeling?! What in the world…?)
Similarly, in a review of Koch’s book on consciousness for The New York Review of Books, Searle said that IIT actually rests on a misunderstanding of the concept of information:
[Koch] is not saying that information causes consciousness; he is saying that certain information just is consciousness, and because information is everywhere, consciousness is everywhere. I think that if you analyze this carefully, you will see that the view is incoherent. Consciousness is independent of an observer. I am conscious no matter what anybody thinks. But information is typically relative to observers. These sentences, for example, make sense only relative to our capacity to interpret them. So you can’t explain consciousness by saying it consists of information, because information exists only relative to consciousness.[lvi]
It is always refreshing to hear these brilliant minds spar with each other.
So if Searle is aware of the incoherence of the materialistic explanations of information, what is his solution? After all, a proper Naturalist, he has to take consciousness for granted as physiological. So what does he do? He likes the emergent explanation, which he says is actually not that difficult. “Consciousness is a biological phenomenon like photosynthesis, digestion, mitosis—you know all the biological phenomena—and once you accept that, most, though not all, of the hard problems about consciousness simply evaporate.”[lvii]
Seriously? Imagine students using that answer on a test. How do plants produce glucose? How do clouds form? What were the causes of the Taiping Rebellion in 19th century China? “It just emerged, like when ants form into a colony.” One could use Searle’s verbiage to explain music or mathematics or even philosophy by saying, “It’s a biological phenomenon like eating or running.” Again, at its best, the “emergence” explanation completely avoids the discussion altogether, ignores the herd of Argentinosauruses in the room, and doesn’t actually say anything at all. But at its worst, emergence blatantly conflates medium with meaning—requiring, for example, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony to literally be nothing more than a stack of paper with black symbols on it.
Okay, let’s look at one more scientific discipline, that of psychology. This is going to be at least as tedious as the review of neuroscience.
Michael S. Gazzaniga serves as professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he heads the new SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind. For decades he has lead pioneering studies in how the two halves of the brain interact. His work with split-brain patients is absolutely fascinating. He can give the layperson a basic understanding of the brain’s breathtaking complexity.
Gazzaniga says—much to his credibility and to our keen interest—that the biggest problem to solve is the translation of information. Therefore, he explores the gap that exists between the coding of information (such the instructions in a DNA code) and the resulting physical structure of that information (such as the actual organism which the DNA is a “blueprint” of). In discussing this gap he brings us closer to the immaterial nature of information than any other scientist we’ve seen yet. Nevertheless, because he is a naturalist he cannot embrace that conclusion in the end.
In fact, he is quick to say that this gap is not a metaphysical one (i.e. not a gap between the physical and nonphysical) but rather an epistemological gap (i.e. a gap in our understanding). This is already a foggy distinction, since “our understanding” actually represents something intangible. So it should come as no surprise that Gazzaniga, like so many others, confuses medium with meaning. He himself will almost acknowledge this discrepancy, and he’ll try to explain it later. But the failure of his hopes is inevitable. So let us just follow his line of reasoning:
What is the relationship between a blueprint, a house, and the intervening pouring of concrete and pounding of nails? The hereditary records contain not only information that specifies what to build but also information that specifies how to build it. Somehow, the information about what and how has been “recorded” in some type of symbolic form. There is a gap between the subjectively recorded symbol (genotype) and the phenotypic construction process and the phenotype. The symbols have to be translated into their meaning for construction to begin…In the case of DNA, the bridge between the genotype and phenotype is the genetic code. In the case of the blueprint, the bridge is the building contractor translating the blueprint for the construction workers.[lviii]
Okay, if you follow his analogy you find that it’s mismatched: he says that just as a building contractor translates a blueprint of a house into the actual house itself, so also the genetic code (the actual information carried by the DNA molecule) is what translates the DNA molecule into an organism. Thus, for example, if we compared the construction of a house to the construction of a chipmunk:
How does Gazzaniga explain this mismatch in his analogy? How can DNA be two things at once—both the instructions for an organism and also the bridge between the instructions and the resulting organism? He does not quite see it as mistaking medium for meaning (though that’s exactly what’s happening). Instead, he calls it “the symbol-matter loop” and he compares it to the wave-particle duality of quantum physics. “Complementarity emerges in a system when an attempt to measure one of the paired properties is made. The single system has two simultaneous modes of description, one not reducible to the other.”[lx]
This might sound very intriguing and profound, and it would be easy to decide that we can’t really understand what Gazzaniga is saying because it’s all just too complicated. I mean when he suddenly starts talking about wave-particle duality and quantum mechanics, and we just want to believe that surely he is saying something coherent. However, this explanation makes about as much sense as when the physicist Tegmark said that information is a 5th phase of matter and that perceiving it is the same as feeling it, or when the neuroscientist Koch said that sadness is a crystal. Just consider what Gazzaniga is calling a “symbol-matter loop”: symbols (like the ones you’re staring at right now) are one of many types of physical media, so any talk of a “symbol-matter loop” could easily be called a “matter-matter loop”.
But if you miss that simple mash-up of words, you’ll never regain your footing, because it’s going to get even foggier and boggier. Gazzaniga goes on to suggest that we can get a proper understanding of this mysterious complementarity of the “symbol-matter” loop not only from quantum physicists’ study of wave-particle duality, but also from their study of subject-object relationships. “Physicists refer to the inescapable separation of a subject (the measurer) from an object (the measured) as die Schnitt.”[lxi] (Remember the shell game. When a psychologist starts talking about quantum mechanics and using German names for stuff, you know there’s a good chance that someone somewhere is hiding something incoherent.) He says this same gap explains the mystery of information in our DNA code:
Whatever complex physical processes close the symbol-matter loop, they are the bridge that spans the physicist’s Schnitt, the explanatory gap, the chasm between the subject and object. They are the protocol between the quantum layer and the Newtonian layer. The processes that close the symbol-matter loop unite the two modes of description, spanning the gap that originated at the origin of life. The implication is that the gap between subjective conscious experience and the objective neural firings of our physical brains, those two modes of description, may be bridged by a similar set of processes, and it could even be possible that they are occurring inside cells.[lxii]
Okay, if you read those first three sentences a dozen times or so you’ll realize that you’re in a loop of analogies—like when the philosopher Dennett said that words are memes and that memes are “semantic information”. (We looked at that in the section titled “Who perceives words?”.) Gazzaniga says that whatever bridges the gap between medium and meaning is the bridge that closes the gap between medium and meaning—a gap which began at the origin of life. Then if we follow the grammar and paraphrase that last sentence, what does it say? It says that the closing of this gap may happen inside cells—meaning everywhere! That might be similar to the panpsychism that the neuroscientists Koch and Tononi embraced. In fact, Gazzaniga goes on to explain that the circuitry of the brain has a double life: “Neural circuits are structures with a double life: they carry symbolic information, which is subject to arbitrary rules, yet they possess a material structure that is subject to the laws of physics.”[lxiii]
To sum up, he draws correlations among these mysteries:
- What he calls the symbol-matter loop (which seems to be about the relationship between medium and meaning)
- Wave-particle duality
- Die Schnitt (the chasm between a subject and object)
- Mind-brain duality; the “double life” of neural circuits
Weaving these ideas together does sound kind of poetic, like when Selena Gomez sings “You and me bleed the same light.” It inspires a bit of intriguing mystery in our minds, like when Tony Stark used the Möbius Strip to unlock the secret to time travel. I suppose that one might be able to make some of these analogies work if we acknowledged the nonphysical nature of information. However, for a materialist make these correlations in order to point to an explanation for consciousness is just as nonsensical as arguing that we can build a time machine and go make some Argentinosaurus burgers. In the end, Gazzaniga cannot let go of materialism and so he concludes, like the philosopher Chalmers, that it’s all a very hard problem that we haven’t solved yet. So once again it should come as no surprise that in drawing a conclusion, after all his complex analogies, he doesn’t actually try to offer any explanation for consciousness at all. Instead, he says it is just an instinct that happens for free. He admits (again, much to his credibility) that this is not a scientific explanation and that he is still wrestling with the mystery of why we are able to use our instincts (i.e. use our minds).
An instinct calls upon a physical structure to function. Yet using the structure calls upon an “aptitude,” which apparently comes along for free. Finding the physical correlates of an instinct’s physical apparatus is doable, but how do we learn how it comes to be used? Does it just happen? Not a very scientific answer.[lxiv]
So, like all the others, once Gazzaniga accepts that such aptitude “comes along for free”, then other profoundly significant abilities, such as free will, can also be taken for granted. For along with consciousness comes our linguistic ability and our sociality—all as instincts! With the last sentence of his book he concludes that consciousness is simply included with evolution the way grits are included with any proper southern meal. “Grits come with the order, and so does what we call consciousness.”[lxv]
An Inexplicably Innate Ability
Well that’s probably enough parsing of the naturalists’ explanations. They might respond to this analysis with a barrage of objections, saying “Wait, that’s not what I meant” and “But you need to consider this” and “But the alternative is such and such”. But all these disagreements and misunderstandings can be brought back into focus with a few simple questions. What are words? How do we perceive words? How are we aware of what the meaning of the word three is in the way that a math textbook isn’t aware or in the way that an abacus or a calculator is not aware? How is it that we are aware of the meaning of the word blue in a way that a camera is not aware or that a DVD player is unaware? In answer to such questions, naturalists tend to focus either on the nature of information or the nature of consciousness. When they focus on the former, they say nonsensical things such as information being a fifth phase of matter, numbers having real properties, sadness being a crystal, photons being conscious, our minds being transformed into laser beams, or our minds being organic prisms, etc. If we’re not careful, pretty soon everyone is going to start dancing and singing “tell me lies tell me lies lies.”
When, on the other hand, they focus on trying to explain our rational abilities—our abilities to comprehend and use information—the best answer that all the most advanced, most sophisticated science gives us is that we simply have to take such abilities for granted as innate and intrinsic and instinctive. So although scientists can give us amazing explanations of how our brains process information—just as they can give us amazing explanations of how DNA replicates information or how the nucleus of a cell uses information—they nevertheless cannot articulate a single theory as to how we understand the meaning behind the media. DNA molecules and bags of mud and textbooks and supercomputers don’t comprehend the meaning of the vast amounts of supremely complex information they carry—not to mention the meaning of simple words, like the word 3. So why are we able to comprehend it? We just have to take it for granted.
We can certainly all agree on that. But of course they don’t mean it the way I mean it. They say, sometimes very poetically, that we simply don’t understand it yet because it is such a fundamental part of the material universe. But I am saying that we know for certain that we cannot explain it because it resides in the realm of nonphysical/immaterial minds.
Regardless of how clear and overwhelming the evidence for this is, they insist on denying the presence of the immaterial. They have done some amazing science, but when it comes to the mind that is using our brains they refuse to acknowledge the facts. They are like the Black Knight in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. King Arthur cuts the Black Knight’s left arm off and he responds, “’Tis but a scratch.” Then, when he loses his left arm he says, “Just a flesh wound.” And after the king cuts both his legs off the Black Knight says, “Come back here and take what’s coming to you. I’ll bite your legs off!”[lxvi] Of course, all of that is for the sake of laughs. A more realistic comparison might be found in the book of Exodus, when the Pharaoh of Egypt refuses to the Israelites to hold a three-day worship festival outside of Egypt.
Truth wins out in the end. And that which we call a soul will by any other name remain a mystery. For even if we give it another name we still cannot give it any tangible qualities—nothing to touch or see. So whether philosophers call it “a superseded ontology,” or biologists call it “a network of memes,” or neuroscientists call it “a repertoire of states,” or physicists call it “an emergent entity,” etc., all their abundantly abstract, relentlessly esoteric words are still referring to the same thing: that invisible, untouchable, silent phenomenon summed up in the word you.
“Me?” Yes, you. What are you? Are you nothing more than a bag of bones, or does someone live inside that body? Is the mind that uses your brain in fact the same thing as your brain and nothing more? That would be, on the face of it and at the root of it, a nonsensical statement—on par with the man who declares that he is a poached egg. But if we are not our brains, then what are we? I think; I use my brain to translate and store information; I perceive and potentially even author the meaning in music and movies and chili recipes; therefore, I am…what?! That remains a part of “the eternal mystery of the world.”
[v] Frank Darabont and Stephen King (screenplay), The Shawshank Redemption (Castle Rock Entertainment, 1994).
[vii] Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate (New York: Viking, 2002), 192.
[viii] Stanislas Dehaene, The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics, Revised and Updated Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 225.
[ix] IBID 233.
[x] IBID 226-227.
[xi] IBID 222.
[xii] IBID 223.
[xiii] IBID 227.
[xiv] Philip J. Davis and Reuben Hersh, The Mathematical Experience (Boston: Birkhäuser, 1981), 362.
[xv] “The Mystery of Consciousness.” Steven Pinker. Time magazine Vol 169 No 5. January 19, 2007.
[xiv.5] Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct: How The Mind Creates Language (HarperCollins, Kindle Edition) 141-142.
[xvii] Stanislas Dehaene, Consciousness and the Brain (New York: Viking, 2014), 14.
[xviii] IBID 164-165.
[xix] Daniel C. Dennett, Brainchildren (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), 95.
[xx] Daniel C. Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018), Kindle Locations 3339-3345.
[xxi] IBID, 2930-2931.
[xxii] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), Kindle Location 3765.
[xxiii] Daniel C. Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018), Kindle Location 3414).
[xxiv] IBID, 3420-3427.
[xxv] Michael S. A. Graziano, Rethinking Consciousness: A Scientific Theory of Subjective Experience (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2019), 85.
[xxvii] Seth Lloyd, Programming the Universe (New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2006), 17.
[xxviii] Michio Kaku, The Future of the Mind (New York: Doubleday, 2014), Kindle Locations 853-859.
[xxix] IBID 861-862.
[xxx] Max Tegmark, Our Mathematical Universe (New York: Vintage Books, 2014), 283.
[xxxi] IBID 290.
[xxxii] IBID 295.
[xxxiii] IBID 382.
[xxxiv] Sean Carroll, The Big Picture (New York: Dutton, 2016), 310-311.
[xxxv] IBID 210.
[xxxvi] IBID 350.
[xxxvii] IBID 353.
[xxxviii] IBID 357-358.
[xxxix] Christof Koch, Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012), 118-119.
[xl] IBID 132.
[xli] IBID 132.
[xliii] IBID 152.
[xliv] Christof Koch, “A Complex Theory,” in Scientific American: The Secrets of Consciousness, November 18, 2013, (Kindle Locations 1310-1316).
[xlv] Philip Ball, Beyond Weird: Why Everything You Knew About Quantum Physics Is Different, (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2018), 60.
[xlvi] Giulio Tononi and Christof Koch, “Consciousness: here, there and everywhere?”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences. (The Royal Society Publishing, 2015), 370: 20140167, http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/370/1668/20140167.
[xlviii] Christof Koch, Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012), 132.
[xlix] Christof Koch, “Proust among the Machines,” Scientific American (December, 2019: Vol. 321 No 6), 49.
[l] Anil Seth, “Your brain hallucinates your conscious reality”, TED2017. (https://www.ted.com/talks/anil_seth_how_your_brain_hallucinates_your_conscious_reality)
[lii] Anil K. Seth, “Our Inner Universe”, Scientific American, September 2019. Volume 321, Number 3. (pp. 40-47)
[liii] Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (Project Gutenberg, 1912) Kindle Locations 164-170.
[liv] David Chalmers, “How do you explain consciousness?”, TED2014. (https://www.ted.com/talks/david_chalmers_how_do_you_explain_consciousness/transcript)
[lvi] John Searle, “Can Information Theory Explain Consciousness?,” a review of Consciousness by Christof Koch, The New York Review of Books, January 10, 2013. (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2013/01/10/can-information-theory-explain-consciousness/)
[lvii] John Searle, “Our shared condition—consciousness”, TEDxCERN2013. (https://www.ted.com/talks/john_searle_our_shared_condition_consciousness/transcript)
[lviii] Michael S. Gazzaniga, The Consciousness Instinct (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), 184.
[lix] IBID 159
[lx] IBID 172.
[lxi] IBID 179.
[lxii] IBID 194.
[lxiii] IBID 202.
[lxiv] IBID 232.
[lxv] IBID 238.