Pilgrim’s Progress

As I get older (I will be sixty-three in a week or so) it becomes harder and harder for me to accept the Universe as a “brute fact”: a thing that just is, and that cannot, even in principle, be accounted for. It’s difficult for everyone, of course, not just me, and so people who are strongly committed to atheism and philosophical materialism have worked hard to provide some sort of explanation to set against a belief in God. I used to share that commitment myself — quite militantly so, well into my middle years — and even now I have only gotten as far as a restless and unsatisfied agnosticism.

I should note that the matter of personal belief is a different question from the place of religion in societies and civilizations. I’ve been keenly interested in the history and mechanisms of human flourishing for more than twenty years now, and the more I’ve learned the more I’ve come to understand the central importance of religion. It cannot be cast away; it can only be repressed and masked and perverted, as we see all around us today. (Ten years ago I wrote this post arguing that secularism is, in a Darwinian sense, maladaptive.)

The model that the materialists have devised to answer mankind’s stubborn questions hangs together well enough to dominate most (though hardly all) of the educated West. In brief, it’s this:

1) Where do people come from? How did we get here?

At some point after the Earth cooled, a few billion years ago, self-replicating molecules appeared. (Whether they formed here or arrived after having first formed somewhere else, we don’t know.) Once this process of self-replication began, the mechanism illuminated by Darwin’s great insight began to operate, and the great filter of natural selection began to favor replicators in which accidents of mutation had made them less likely to die, and more likely to make successful copies of themselves. Little by little these replicators became more complex, and differentiated forms found niches of various kinds — and sooner or later began to behave as if they had “interests” of their own. All of this took a very long time, but this gradual, iterative operation eventually resulted in the world we live in. It resulted in us. If it seems impossible to imagine that such a mindless process could ever produce the mind-boggling complexity of life, that’s just because our lives are so short that we simply cannot conceive of the vastness of time it’s taken.

2) We know that there are physical laws and constants that appear to be fine-tuned to support the existence of the world around us. If any one of them were different by even the slightest amount, our Universe would be completely uninhabitable. How can we explain this?

To understand this it’s important to keep in mind what’s called the “Anthropic Principle”. This is the common-sense idea that, since uninhabitable Universes would have no inhabitants, and therefore no observers, we should not be surprised that the Universe we see around us has whatever it takes for us to be able to live in it.

But the question still wants answering, and cosmologists have come up with two related possibilities. The first is that, rather than there being a single Universe, there is in fact an infinite collection of them — a Multiverse — in which every possible assortment of laws and constants is represented, at random, in some universe or other. The Anthropic Principle tells us that we could only be alive to ask these questions in a Universe that has things set up “just so”.

The other idea (which is really just a variation of the first, but differs from it in abstruse cosmological details) assumes a single, infinitely vast Universe, in which all the possible laws and constants are instantiated in different regions. The Anthropic Principle, as above, does the rest.

3) Why is there something rather than nothing?

The reason is that what you call “Nothing” is, according to quantum mechanics, not really empty at all — it is in fact a seething froth of “virtual particles” popping in and out of existence. If you wait long enough, random chance will produce an exceedingly unlikely event of sufficient energy to “bootstrap” a Big Bang, and so a Universe, into existence.

4) What is consciousness? How can it possibly be produced by the human brain, which is, after all, just a blob of ordinary matter?

We’re working on that! We hope to have some answers shortly. We assume, naturally, that the brain must be doing the trick somehow, so it’s just a matter of figuring it out.

How good are these answers? Well, as noted above, they seem satisfactory to a great many people — just as they were good enough for me, for much of my life. (I’ve thought about them a lot, ever since I was a child.) But they get weaker as you go down the list. Here’s how they seem to me now, a third of the way through my seventh decade:

‣   Answer #1 is the strongest of the lot. The continuity and unity of Earthly life seems clearer and clearer the more we learn, and perhaps the strongest argument for the evolutionary connectedness of the great biological tree is the weaknesses of many living forms, the little hack-jobs and jury-rigs made by repurposing existing parts. Nobody with bad knees, back problems, or appendicitis is going to confront without considerable skepticism the notion of an omnipotent Intelligence who designed every animal from scratch.

That said, it’s hard to look at the astonishing machinery of life — especially the micromachinery, such as the transport protein linked above — and not have the feeling that there has to be something more at work here than the purposeless agitations of atoms and the void. I understand that I cannot begin to grasp what billions of years actually means; in practical terms, for me to try to map my experience of time onto the history of life on Earth it is to confuse the finite with the infinite. Still, though, it’s hard to look at the detail of it all — the incomparable engineering of it all — and not see it as being, somehow, miraculous. This wasn’t a problem for me when I was twelve, or twenty-five, or even forty, but it is, I must confess, becoming rather a problem for me now.

‣   Answer #2 is plausible, but terribly convenient. It posits, on no evidence, that there are unseeable regions of reality in which the laws and constants of Nature are different — but even that isn’t enough: in order to get the statistical part of the argument to work, we must also assume that all possible configurations of the laws and constants are instantiated somewhere in the Multiverse (in order to give the Anthropic Principle the scope it requires). It doesn’t appear, though, that the laws and constants of Nature vary over time; this is, after all, why we call them laws and constants. Why should we believe they vary over space, or between Universes? Indeed, why should we believe in other Universes at all, except as a gimmick to account for the unlikeliness of the world we find ourselves in?

It seems impossible to explain the fine-tuning of the physics of the Universe without having it either being done “by hand”, or by imagining this infinite (and infinitely variegated) Multiverse that we cannot see or touch. Which is the cleaner assumption? In the absence of a third suggestion — and I’ve never heard one — it seems one or the other must be true. But both of these models must be taken on faith. How to choose?

‣   Answer #3 is all the rage these days, and it’s nicely in line with what we’ve learned over the past hundred years or so about the laws of physics. But where do they come from? Isn’t it possible, at least in principle, to imagine a Nothing that is not governed by the rules of quantum mechanics? If it’s possible in principle, why was it inevitable that a Something embodying those rules, which gave rise to Everything Else, should have been the case? Mightn’t nothing, not even the laws of physics, ever have come into being at all?

I have listened, for example, to the physicist Lawrence Krauss trying to convince me that he has an answer to this question of ultimate origins; he’s written a book about it, after all. I have never, though, seen him give a satisfactory answer to the question of where the laws of physics themselves come from. The best he can do, as far as I can see, is to say it might all just be an accident — in other words, a “brute fact” — or to do some more hand-waving about the invisible Metaverse. That’s all fine, I guess, but if that’s all you’ve got, you haven’t really explained as much as you think you have, and you’ve left the biggest question unanswered. It certainly shouldn’t be enough to make you think anyone ought to believe you when you go around saying you’ve refuted the idea of God.

‣   Answer #4 is no answer at all. Consciousness is a mystery, and if someone tells you it isn’t, they’re wrong, or they’re lying, either to themselves or to you. The idea that consciousness is supervenient on the brain does seem reasonable, sort of — after all, we can delete and restore it with anesthesia, and alter its contents with drugs and electrical stimuli — but we don’t have the slightest inkling, in physical terms, of how the trick is done. Simply put, we still have no idea what consciousness is.

The Standard Model, then, leaves a lot to be desired. Nevertheless, skepticism goes both ways. To give just one example (I could give many more):

Finding myself “between two chairs”, and more open to the idea of religious belief (in the personal sense) than I have ever been before, I took up C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity the other day, and am about halfway through it. I’ve always liked Lewis’s style — so clean and simple and English — and I looked forward to reading him without the adversarial stance that I had formerly brought to his discussions of, say, our faculty of reason.

But right away there was trouble. Mere Christianity takes as the foundation of its argument our moral sense: Lewis wishes to argue that this Moral Law transcends our instincts, and therefore cannot be of the natural world. Our animal instincts, he notes, point us toward our own gratification: food, sex, sloth, self-preservation, etc. But the Moral Law often acts against these instincts, so it cannot itself be one of them:

Another way of seeing that the Moral Law is not simply one of our instincts is this. If two instincts are in conflict, and there is nothing in a creature’s mind except those two instincts, obviously the stronger of the two must win. But at those moments when we are most conscious of the Moral Law, it usually seems to be telling us to side with the weaker of the two impulses. You probably want to be safe much more than you want to help the man who is drowning: but the Moral Law tells you to help him all the same.

The obvious objection to this argument is that if the Moral Law is itself an instinct — an evolutionary adaptation to regulate the behavior of social animals — then Lewis’s example collapses to this:

If two instincts are in conflict, and there is nothing in a creature’s mind except those two instincts, obviously the stronger of the two must win… You probably want to be safe much more than you want to help the man who is drowning: but the social instinct is stronger, and tells you to help him all the same.

Lewis’s book is wise and insightful, but for a “seeker” whose commitment to non-theistic scientific materialism is falling away, his choosing such a weak argument to be the foundation of a Christian manifesto rather spoils the rest of the book.

Where, then, does all of this leave me? It seems there is no process of pure reason that will settle these ultimate questions, and so I must either believe nothing, or rely on faith. To believe nothing, though, is a good deal harder than it sounds: it’s easy, perhaps, when one is young and can defer the question while focusing on practical matters, but as one’s shadow lengthens, and the distractions of youth and middle age fall away, the great mysteries come increasingly to the fore. I would like very much, in the time I have left, to be able to believe something. But if pure Reason cannot tell me what to believe (and it is Reason itself that has convinced me it can’t), and so belief must be built upon Faith, then where should Faith be placed? Such are my stubborn habits of mind that I am still, in some way, hoping that Reason will help me adjudicate between the competing prospects. But I’m starting to see that this isn’t really how it works — the harder I try, the more I see the limits of Reason.

What am I to do?

Related Posts:
  1. Pilgrim’s Progress
  2. The Suffering Of The Innocent
  3. All Sail, No Ballast


  1. My hypothesis is the uncertainties are the necessary condition for theosis. God wants other gods with whom to commune, hence the Universe.


    Posted April 5, 2019 at 3:10 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says



    The problem I’ve always had with the computer-simulation argument (see this post from 2007) is that it assumes that software can create consciousness.

    God could do it, of course — but why would God be lonely? (Because it’s just human nature?)

    Posted April 5, 2019 at 4:04 pm | Permalink
  3. The Anti-Gnostic says

    If God is good, and if communion is good, then I suppose a rational response would be that God wills communion.

    I’m struggling with the problem from the opposite direction. I find myself questioning my faith as we appear to be moving into post-scarcity. Once the AI-managed fusion reactors come on line, what then? We’ll have Heaven on Earth so what’s the need for religious praxis?

    Posted April 5, 2019 at 5:22 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Communion is good for us, certainly. But for God? Was there room for improvement?

    We’ll have Heaven on Earth…

    Will we? Is that what Heaven consists of?

    Posted April 5, 2019 at 6:29 pm | Permalink
  5. Whitewall says

    Have any participants here comes across the term “Red Pill Religion”?

    Posted April 5, 2019 at 7:55 pm | Permalink
  6. Jimmy Stewart says

    Excellent post. Difficult to get so much in such a concise format, really very impressive.

    I empathise. The only solution really offered to the problem of nihilism (captured beautifully here, especially from 3:55) which I see as the only alternative to God or some other guarantor of objective truth is Kierkegaard’s (Camus’ proposal seems almost intellectually humiliating to me).

    I need to read fear and trembling, either/or sometime, definitely on my bucket list and would recommend to you, Malcolm, if you aren’t familiar already.

    Posted April 5, 2019 at 8:14 pm | Permalink
  7. Jason says

    I would just try praying Malcolm, in your basement, at St. Pats, on the Massachusetts coast, or wherever. That seems to me a logical next step. Please note I’m not trying to proselytize or anything, being an agnostic myself and well aware of the delicacy of your query.

    Posted April 5, 2019 at 8:34 pm | Permalink
  8. Thersites says

    I second Jason’s proposal. I started talking to God whilst I was still quite skeptical of His existence. After a while, I couldn’t quite shake the impression that Someone was answering back. Aquinas’ quinque viae are also useful, but the passages in the Summa are not meant to be comprehensive- they’re the Cliff’s Notes summary, loaded with specialized philosophical jargon, and intended as a shorthand reference for medieval theology students. Edward Feser has lots of commentary translating them into plain English. (Feser’s discussion of teleology also clears up some of the muddy waters of design vs. evolution, as much or more a problem of metaphysics than of empirical science).

    If nothing else, belief in the preternatural and supernatural has made it easier to trust that a lot of my friends and acquaintances aren’t crazy or delusional- listen to people long and patiently enough (a few drinks can help), and you’d be quite surprised how many have had uncanny spiritual encounters (alas, not all of them benevolent). I can put on my old atheist hat and arrogantly explain them all away on purely materialist grounds, of course, but I find it simpler just to trust the testimony of those who prove otherwise sane and reliable.

    Posted April 5, 2019 at 11:52 pm | Permalink
  9. Jimmy Stewart says

    I wonder if one can think themselves into faith? Curious as to comments, because I think it goes to the authors point.

    Posted April 6, 2019 at 2:15 am | Permalink
  10. Bones says

    Glad to see a plug for Edward Feser’s work as that was my first thought too… I’ve been following your blog for a couple of years now Malcolm, and every time the topic of religion/God comes up I find myself wondering if you’ve ever read anything by Feser. I might be wrong, but I think you would find him a good deal more interesting than Lewis. (Not a knock against Lewis, but Feser’s philosophical background is much richer and he is a prime example of a man who sort of “thought himself into faith.”)

    Posted April 6, 2019 at 8:02 am | Permalink
  11. Whitewall says

    Sometimes Reason and Intellect have little to do with faith. The concept of ‘revelation’ can play a strong role in one’s journey. Revelation can come in a moment where a person is at the cusp of a near fatal event ie. gunfire or a day out on the ocean where the weather turns deadly.

    Then there are times where one can be standing still at the water’s edge, fishing rod in hand. Revelation works slowly at times or all at once at other times.

    Posted April 6, 2019 at 9:13 am | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    Thanks very much for your comments, all.

    I have read articles by Edward Feser, but never any of his books. You’re right that he would be a good resource. My conversations with Bill Vallicella over the past fifteen years or so have been very helpful as well.

    Pascal, of course, advises us to “fake it till we make it”. A lot of things work that way.

    My own question is a little upstream from that, though: it isn’t “How do I make myself believe?”, but rather “What ought I to believe?”

    Posted April 6, 2019 at 12:25 pm | Permalink
  13. The Anti-Gnostic says

    Jimmy – “fake it ’til you make it” is, in my opinion, a perfectly valid justification for religious praxis.

    Rod Dreher has commented that religious fath should not have an “operational” justification. I disagree. If your faith is pure ideation, i.e., gnostic, then what the hell good is it?

    Buy a prayer rope and recite the Jesus Prayer whenever you feel like it. Buy Rublev’s icon of the Trinity, hang it on an eastern wall, and say the Lord’s Prayer in front of it. Match it with an icon of the Theotokos and start reciting the Angelic Salutation. Icons are windows to the Divine.

    Or follow Shinto Buddhist praxis if that is your inclination. How things may yet shake out on the day of Judgment is beyond my and everyone else’s pay grade.

    I can’t presume to tell anyone how to establish that metaphysical link. But I do know that without that link secular humanity and its hollow rituals are weak tea.

    Posted April 6, 2019 at 1:22 pm | Permalink
  14. West says

    Much recommended (if you haven’t read it yet): The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart.

    Intriguing, well-written and illuminating, it questions how we can argue about whether “God” exists before we even have an agreed-upon definition of what “God” is…

    Blessings to you on your journey.

    Posted April 6, 2019 at 1:23 pm | Permalink
  15. Malcolm says


    …secular humanity and its hollow rituals are weak tea.

    Yes, they are — as the present condition of Western civilization amply demonstrates.

    Posted April 6, 2019 at 1:29 pm | Permalink
  16. Malcolm says


    Thank you.

    Posted April 6, 2019 at 1:32 pm | Permalink
  17. senexada says

    What a beautifully honest reflection. Thank you for posting.

    Blaise Pascal’s relections say, similarly:

    I know not who put me into the world, nor what the world is, nor what I myself am. I am in terrible ignorance of everything. I know not what my body is, nor my sense, nor my soul, nor even that part of me which thinks what I say, which reflects on all and on itself, and knows itself no more than the rest. I see nothing but infinities on all sides, which surround me as an atom, and as a shadow which endures only for an instant and returns no more. All I know it that I must soon die, but what I know least is this very death which I cannot escape.

    This is what I see and what troubles me. I look on all sides, and I see only darkness everywhere. Nature presents to me nothing which is not matter of doubt and concern. If I saw nothing there which revealed a Divinity, I would come to a negative conclusion; if I saw everywhere the signs of a Creator, I would remain peacefully in faith. But, seeing too much to deny and too little to be sure, I am in a state to be pitied. My heart inclines wholly to know where is the true good, in order to follow it; nothing would be too dear to me for eternity.

    It is incomprehensible that God should exist; and it is incomprehensible that He should not exist; that the soul should be joined to the body, and that we should have no soul; that the world should be created, and that it should not be created, etc; that original sin should be, and that it should not be.

    Let us then examine this point, and say, “God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here.

    (from his Pensees, excerpted from #194, 229, 230, 233)

    Posted April 6, 2019 at 3:21 pm | Permalink
  18. Malcolm says


    Thanks. That passage sums it up.

    It’s been years since I last read Pensees; I should take it down from the shelf.

    Posted April 6, 2019 at 8:35 pm | Permalink
  19. AbsentGod says

    The heart wants what the heart wants but the head is shaking.

    This is not a case of Reason V Faith but facts and logic v emotion.

    Like you, I have thought about these questions for many years and like you I am a materialist or naturalist. Furthermore, I also feel or experience an inner emptiness at times.

    As Ventakesh Rao described, people like myself are children of an “absent God”. God does not speak to us; God does not answer our questions. To speak plainly, people like me do not feel any of the seductive sway of religious beliefs, values or practices.

    Emotions and personality aside, religion (God in this particular case) when judged upon the bar of facts and logic is found wanting.

    There is probably no need to repeat the standard arguments here for you are surely aware of them. Your objections and “mysteries” are the same ones that any typical believer brings up and have been answered many times.

    But so what? The heart wants what the heart wants.

    I suppose this all sounds harsh and condescending?? I think it is nearly impossible for atheist to not seem so when this issue is discussed. It is like pointing out the physical and moral flaws of a man’s wife and children….

    And yet naturalism – which wipes the floor with religion on rational grounds – leaves and will leave the vast majority of humanity bereft of hope, comfort and warmth. It has no rituals, no stories and really no heroes and its ultimate conclusion is nothingness itself: the end of universe and everything else (“atoms to atoms, dust to dust.”)

    Anyway, to tidy up this rambling I will recommend one book. It is a recent one by a Dutch philosopher who has studied the works of and closely communicated with both Richard Swinburne and Alvin Plantinga. It is called God in the Age of Science. I think it is scrupulously fair but relentless. It covers the whole of natural and revealed theology, all the arguments and incorporates Bayesian reasoning into its critique. A classic.

    All the best, enjoy your blog very much.

    Posted April 6, 2019 at 8:40 pm | Permalink
  20. Thersites says

    My own question is a little upstream from that, though: it isn’t “How do I make myself believe?”, but rather “What ought I to believe?

    Try asking the Creator directly. See if He says anything specific. Failing any obvious response, a man could do worse than starting out with what his parents believed (or grandparents, if his parents didn’t believe anything), and moving on from there as things develop. Or he could ask the advice and counsel of other men who have made a journey to belief from a similar place of unbelief. Even walking over to the nearest church down the street, as a strictly temporary measure until matters become clearer, might be better than nothing- Buridan’s ass is better served by choosing one pile of hay at random than by starving to death between them.

    Posted April 6, 2019 at 9:10 pm | Permalink
  21. Ed says

    God is closing in. Bless you. Such honesty!

    Posted April 6, 2019 at 10:14 pm | Permalink
  22. Malcolm says


    I suppose this all sounds harsh and condescending??

    I don’t care about harsh. It does sound condescending.

    As I said, I about to be sixty-three years old. I am the son of two scientists. (My parents joked that they had me baptized and “kept my younger brother as a control.”) I have been marinated in the naturalistic worldview all my life, and not only am I intimately familiar with the various ways that naturalists imagine that they “wipe the floor with religion”, I actually used to make sport of it. As a young man, in my darker moments, I took pleasure — which I now look back on with shame and remorse — in tossing and goring the religious belief of others who lacked my command of the arguments (and who lacked my taste for blood). I offered them nothing in its place except, as you say, atoms and dust. But what did I care? I was so full of pride in being wiser, smarter, tougher than they were — of seeing, and being able to bear, the grim Truth that they were too childish or timid to face. C.S. Lewis calls that sort of Pride the greatest of all the sins — and I reveled in it, wallowed in it.

    So yes, I know the position you are taking here very well indeed.

    Yet here I am. I no longer think that naturalism “wipes any floors”. It does what it does, and does it well. But it cannot rule on what is beyond its scope, any more than a man can jump over his own knees.

    Thank you for your kind words about my blog. But you sound to me as if you stand where I was twenty years ago.

    Posted April 6, 2019 at 10:40 pm | Permalink
  23. Malcolm says


    Or he could ask the advice and counsel of other men who have made a journey to belief from a similar place of unbelief.

    Yes, of course. (I have already missed some irreplaceable opportunities.)

    Posted April 6, 2019 at 10:52 pm | Permalink
  24. JK says

    Perhaps my Friend, you could just take off from where we all do. Even AbsentGod, if he’s considered it.


    Posted April 7, 2019 at 1:09 am | Permalink
  25. easterngray says

    “What am I to do?”
    My suggestion would be to at least consider that what you posit as a dilemma is in fact an act of rebellion. That indeed, you do believe in God, or more accurately put, you know there is a God but suppress that knowledge. Worth thinking about and it certainly can’t harm. If this is in any way productive, if it offers anything that both your reason and your heart recognize as truth, you might then consider the origin of that claim and it’s intended purpose. This would be a the proper place to place ones faith.

    Posted April 7, 2019 at 9:28 am | Permalink
  26. AbsentGod says

    “So yes, I know the position you are taking here very well indeed.”

    Exactly. This is why conversation on this topic is so barbed between hard-headed naturalists and those of faith and, indeed, those who are naturalists but who (according to the hard-heads) are obfuscating… It amounts to an assertion of bad faith and intellectual dishonesty…. And so the whole things becomes an attack on people’s character.

    “I actually used to make sport of it. As a young man, in my darker moments, I took pleasure — which I now look back on with shame and remorse — in tossing and goring the religious belief of others who lacked my command of the arguments (and who lacked my taste for blood). I offered them nothing in its place except, as you say, atoms and dust. But what did I care? I was so full of pride in being wiser, smarter, tougher than they were — of seeing, and being able to bear, the grim Truth that they were too childish or timid to face. C.S. Lewis calls that sort of Pride the greatest of all the sins — and I reveled in it, wallowed in it.”

    Yes, you are quite right. There is an element to that. However, in place of “pride” I think there is the alternative possibility that naturalists have intellectual integrity on this issue. And I suppose you could say that they (we) take take pride in that (self-righteous?). It is similar to the way HBDers point out highly unwelcome facts to Progressives.

    However, I do want to push back on your comments about consciousness. I know (for I have read your back catalogue) that you know that your claim that “we” have no “inkling” at all what consciousness “is” is manifestly false. As you even state correctly in your paragraph, we know that consciousness and its contents can be causally affected in regular, predictable and scientifically understandable ways. However, our understanding of consciousness goes far beyond the ability to causally intervene and bring about experiences in subjects by stimulating certain brain regions such as:


    See also http://orion.bme.columbia.edu/jacobs/pubs/JacoEtal12.pdf

    But we are now cutting, in more and more precise ways, into the joints of the nature of consciousness itself:


    As for the “hard problem” here is a paper which undermines the enabling assumption that has resulted in so much bad philosophy:


    And another useful essay that undermines the philosophical cogency of the “hard problem”


    The most prudent thing to say of consciousness studies so far is that the naturalist paradigm is the only working paradigm scientifically and philosophically. Super-naturalism (immaterialism) is dead and the mysterians are philosophically confused and offer no avenues of research anyway. However, there is no settled naturalistic theory yet – there are puzzles but there are no mysteries.

    The “how” of the hard problem (how is consciousness possible?) is to be answered with respect to cognitive neuroscience.

    The “why” of the hard problem (why do we have consciousness at all?) is to be answered with respect to evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology.

    But again, you are well aware of all this, this is all just beating a dead horse so to address the real issue:

    Modern Life is Rubbish.

    Christianity is dying or has morphed into Progressivism. If you don’t belong to either a Church or a Progressive social network, then you are probably gonna feel pretty alienated (not everyone mind).

    We are living through an age of social and political upheaval and it will only accelerate. The old paradigm is giving way to the new. That new paradigm still looks like it is going to be Progressivism 3.0 (or 5.0 or whatever):


    In any case, I will end by pointing out that the civilisation that is probably the closest approximation to both a reactionary state and naturalistic one is China.

    All the best.

    Posted April 7, 2019 at 10:11 am | Permalink
  27. Malcolm says


    As you have seen, if you have looked at my archives, I am familiar with all of this material. (I beat the anti-zombie paper to the punch by five years.)

    I stand by my claim that we still have no idea what consciousness is, or in virtue of what a physical system can give rise to it.

    We have circled it, poked at it, thrown things at it, observed its behavior, and tried to hem it in. We have told ourselves stories about what it can and cannot do. Some of us have even managed to convince ourselves that it is an illusion, a conjuring trick.

    But despite all our efforts to reduce, disperse, and dissipate it, consciousness remains by far humanity’s essential feature. It is the necessary condition for our lives to have any meaning at all, and it is the foundation of all morality.

    And although we have done a good job of showing that consciousness seems somehow to be supervenient upon our brains, and of making correlations between brain activity and conscious states, we still have no idea at all why the brain couldn’t do everything it does without this magical extra “something” that is all that makes life mean anything.

    As for answering that question, all we have is promissory notes. As the Victorian scientists said about the luminiferous ether, “we still have a few details to work out, but as far as the model itself is concerned, the science is settled.”

    You won’t find many better-educated laymen than me when it comes to the scientific and philosophical questions of consciousness. I have also been a hard naturalist all of my life, and have fought in the trenches on the side you’re defending.

    Given that, I think you might take a moment of reflection here, and consider that a person such as me having come to this pass should, perhaps, strike you as remarkable, and should give you a moment’s pause. You seem cocksure (as I once would have been) that I am turning my back on Truth. But all I’m trying to do, in the autumn of my years, is to understand how to turn my face toward it.

    Posted April 7, 2019 at 1:13 pm | Permalink
  28. AbsentGod says

    “we still have no idea at all why the brain couldn’t do everything it does without this magical extra “something” that is all that makes life mean anything.”

    Because if we were not conscious we would not be able to survive and reproduce.

    The key explanatory plank is that human consciousness is evolutionary adaption.

    There is direct empirical support for this claim with respect to the phenomena of blindsight. The information can still be utilised, though the subject’s performance is obviously less effective compared to a non-brain damaged peers. Effective at surviving and reproducing, all things being equal.

    For instance, we could claim the same thing for vision as for consciousness. Why can we not act the same but without the magic of sight?

    I have two meta-points about the philosophy and science of consciousness. The first is that there is not going to be some major, earth shattering scientific discovery that is going to be IT. It is not going to be like Einstein’s predictions with eclipses. The better analogy is with Darwin’s theory of evolution. The theory, like evolution itself (funnily enough), works by gradual accumulation. The theory was around for decades, it had its critics and it had its problems and it had its open questions. It was not until the modern synthesis (note the term “synthesis”) that it was put beyond any reasonable doubt. It is the same with consciousness. The task is one of synthesising different disciplines, theories, insights into a systematic explanation.

    Like with the idea of the “Prime Mammal” there will be no either or moment when consciousness is solved.

    Light dawns slowly over the whole.

    Secondly, as with Dems and Rebs, I think the philosophers and scientists like to talk up the mysteries and disagreements as a way of keeping the game going (nice work if you can get it and all).

    Posted April 7, 2019 at 3:51 pm | Permalink
  29. Malcolm says


    You really are being a tad condescending here, sir.

    Because if we were not conscious we would [not] be able to survive and reproduce.

    My response to this: prove it. (Your claim is what’s called “Whig history“.) As an “explanatory plank”, it explains nothing; it is a retrofit put in by hand to make a mystery go away – buttressed by a naturalistic intuition about living things that what is must be adaptive.

    After decades of exploring both consciousness and evolutionary theory, including many years of study in an esoteric system focusing on how little we actually do consciously and how much of our life is a kind of waking sleep, I find the claim that consciousness is somehow necessary for our survival and reproduction utterly unpersuasive.

    I’ve thought for a very long time now that the onus probandi lies upon those who insist that we couldn’t, as mere animals, survive and reproduce — as, presumably, all living things did until we came along — without the radical subjectivity of human consciousness.

    [I assume the ‘not’ in brackets above was meant to be in your original comment; I’ve corrected it.]

    Posted April 7, 2019 at 4:23 pm | Permalink
  30. Malcolm says

    I’ll add: much of the literature on your side of this argument has sought to reduce and marginalize consciousness. Dennett, for example, has called it a “user illusion”, while the Libet experiments seem to show that action precedes conscious awareness. Meanwhile, hard naturalism appears to deny even the possibility of free will.

    And yet you say that without this illusion, this vanishing will-o’-the-wisp, we would be unable even to survive or reproduce?

    Posted April 7, 2019 at 4:57 pm | Permalink
  31. David Pauley says

    Your commenter Jimmy Stewart is right to be impressed with this piece. Such a clear, compact, and thorough explanation of the dilemma.
    Sue and I are traveling in Portugal now, we were in Spain last week. The cathedrals and basilicas in European cities express an overconfidence of faith that is hard to fathom for a guy like me.
    My spiritual pursuits always return to the same old place. “Nobody knows, and you can’t find out” (Brockman?). Maybe that’s a religion with a liturgical hymnal that includes Insane Clown Posse’s “Miracles”.

    Posted April 7, 2019 at 5:10 pm | Permalink
  32. easterngray says

    “The chief difficulty today in presenting the proof of the faith is that appeals to mathematical science or to experimental physical science are almost the only kinds to which men are directed by their education. Lack of use has atrophied what should be the common powers of mankind in other fields, powers taken for granted in a better past.
    Those powers, in presenting the faith to the intelligent skeptic, we must seek to revive. For the intellectual basis of the faith is not that of positive proof, using the word positive in the scientific or mathematical sense, but an appeal to proof within one category: that applicable to holiness. If there be holiness on earth, what institution is holy? One only: the faith. The faith is witness to itself. It is a proof by taste. If the quality be perceived, it is unmistakable; conviction follows. If it be not perceived, there is no other avenue, for the sense is of grace, the acceptation an act of the will.
    The faith, I say, is witness to itself. The faith convinces of its truth by its holiness, is its own witness to its own holiness, whereby also it is known. There is much more. There is its consonance with external and historical reality upon every side. There is personal experience, gained by living it, of its consonance with reality in daily detail, of its wisdom in judgment, of its harmonies where human character and the effect of action are concerned, of its perfect proportions which are such that all within that system is in tune with all and each part with the whole.
    And there is this: that the faith is unique—it is not one among many kinds of similar things. It is not a religion among many religions. It is like the I AM of Holy Writ, from which it also proceeds.”
    Hilaire Belloc

    Posted April 7, 2019 at 8:40 pm | Permalink
  33. zaporozhe says

    I believe in winter sunsets and watching my grandkids grow.

    One the indignities of age is having hallmark card platitudes ossify into trvth.

    Posted April 8, 2019 at 2:26 am | Permalink
  34. AbsentGod says

    You really are being a tad condescending here, sir.

    I”m trying not to be. I was trying to be concise.

    “My response to this: prove it. (Your claim is what’s called “Whig history“.) As an “explanatory plank”, it explains nothing; it is a retrofit put in by hand to make a mystery go away – buttressed by a naturalistic intuition about living things that what is must be adaptive.”

    Progress in science and progress in politics and society (“Whig history”) are two different things altogether.

    Regarding the “explanatory plank”…. Keep in mind the credo of Wilfred Sellars: “to understand, in the broadest possible sense, things in the broadest possible sense.”

    Right from Darwin’s time, as Darwin himself insisted, there must be a Darwinian account; if not then consciousness is nothing more than a lucky (or unlucky as some suggest) accident. However, given the fact that consciousness depends upon brains and brains are costly (in evolutionary terms) the plausible presumption is that it must be for something (Dennett’s “how come?” and “what for?” questions.

    Furthermore, a good scientific theory should be fecund; it should enable scientists to explain more and more phenomena. And indeed, with respect to Darwinian theory, this is exactly what has taken place. Evolutionary explanations of emotions, sexual behaviour, violence, economics, politics, art and so on.

    This is the big picture level upon which naturalists work. Now, with respect to the evolutionary explanation of the nature and function of consciousness, the chief task is to start from the plausible presumption (or prior if you will) that consciousness plays a functional role and then test for it and get empirical evidence.

    For a good read I would recommend Owen Flanagan’s Consciousness Reconsidered, Chapter 7: Conscious Inessentialism and the Epiphenomenalist Suspicion.

    In particular, see pages 132-136 “Some Arguments from Design” for some basic experimental evidence and interpretations. Also see 139-145 “Teleological Functionalism, Epiphenomenalism, and Defects of Consciousness”.

    Note this book was written nearly 30 years ago! So there has been a wealth of experimental data since then.

    For a discussion on a Darwinian explanation on consciousness see pages 40-49.

    Edelman’s Neural Darwinism is discussed here:


    Here is the Stanford entry on the “why” of consciousness:


    There are six main pieces of evidence:

    “If the epiphenomenalists are wrong and consciousness, in its various forms, is indeed causal, what sorts of effects does it have and what differences does it make? How do mental processes that involve the relevant sort of consciousness differ form those that lack it? What function(s) might consciousness play? The following six sections (6.2–6.7) discuss some of the more commonly given answers. Though the various functions overlap to some degree, each is distinct, and they differ as well in the sorts of consciousness with which each is most aptly linked.”

    1: Flexible Control:

    “Increased flexibility and sophistication of control. Conscious mental processes appear to provide highly flexible and adaptive forms of control. Though unconscious automatic processes can be extremely efficient and rapid, they typically operate in ways that are more fixed and predetermined than those which involve conscious self-awareness (Anderson 1983). Conscious awareness is thus of most importance when one is dealing with novel situations and previously unencountered problems or demands (Penfield 1975, Armstrong 1981).”

    2: Social Coordination:

    “Enhanced capacity for social coordination. Consciousness of the meta-mental sort may well involve not only an increase in self-awareness but also an enhanced understanding of the mental states of other minded creatures, especially those of other members of one’s social group (Humphreys 1982). Creatures that are conscious in the relevant meta-mental sense not only have beliefs, motives, perceptions and intentions but understand what it is to have such states and are aware of both themselves and others as having them.”

    3: Integrated Representation:

    “More unified and densely integrated representation of reality. Conscious experience presents us with a world of objects independently existing in space and time. Those objects are typically present to us in a multi-modal fashion that involves the integration of information from various sensory channels as well as from background knowledge and memory. Conscious experience presents us not with isolated properties or features but with objects and events situated in an ongoing independent world, and it does so by embodying in its experiential organization and dynamics the dense network of relations and interconnections that collectively constitute the meaningful structure of a world of objects (Kant 1787, Husserl 1913, Campbell 1997).”

    4: Informational Access:

    “More global informational access. The information carried in conscious mental states is typically available for use by a diversity of mental subsystems and for application to a wide range of potential situations and actions (Baars 1988). Nonconscious information is more likely to be encapsulated within particular mental modules and available for use only with respect to the applications directly connected to that subsystem’s operation (Fodor 1983). Making information conscious typically widens the sphere of its influence and the range of ways it which it can be used to adaptively guide or shape both inner and outer behavior. A state’s being conscious may be in part a matter of what Dennett calls “cerebral celebrity”, i.e., of its ability to have a content-appropriate impact on other mental states.”

    5: Free Will

    “Increased freedom of choice or free will. The issue of free will remains a perennial philosophical problem, not only with regard to whether or not it exists but even as to what it might or should consist in (Dennett 1984, van Inwagen 1983, Hasker 1999, Wegner 2002). (See the entry on free will.) The notion of free will may itself remain too murky and contentious to shed any clear light on the role of consciousness, but there is a traditional intuition that the two are deeply linked.”

    6: Intrinsic Motivation:

    “Intrinsically motivating states. At least some conscious states appear to have the motive force they do intrinsically. In particular, the functional and motivational roles of conscious affective states, such as pleasures and pains, seem intrinsic to their experiential character and inseparable from their qualitative and phenomenal properties, though the view has been challenged (Nelkin 1989, Rosenthal 1991). The attractive positive motivational aspect of a pleasure seems a part of its directly experienced phenomenal feel, as does the negative affective character of a pain, at least in the case of normal non-pathological experience.”

    So there is six big ticket items. I haven’t read the following book but here is a good review of it:


    The key point in bringing that review of that book up is it shows and then explains the work that consciousness does.

    Consciousness is not a “mystery”. A mystery, as assumed by Chomsky, McGinn etc, is when we have no idea, no paradigm, no research program, no facts (beyond the enabling fact) upon which to theorise and then to test those theories.

    Does this describe the last thirty or so years of research on this area? With the exception of McGinn and a few others the answer is no.

    Finally, to return to a premise which we agree on: you are surely all aware of this.

    So we are just talking past each other with this.

    The issue is personal, it is psychological (or better: spiritual).

    I should probably just stop but I want to ask a personal question, you need not answer if you want.

    Do you ever think about your own funeral ceremony? Do you have any plans? How will it be conducted? What will happen?

    I’ll share with you my own personal thoughts. I do think about this from time to time ( I’m 31) and since I have no Church, I have no ritual, no ceremony. I do not even know where to begin. And while there are humanist ceremonies I could go in for, I do not go beyond the thought that there is a question mark there – one that will only grow with time.

    Furthermore, it gnaws at me that I have no arrangements and should I die it would fall to my family to arrange the funeral and they would probably simply select a Christian burial. Yet the idea of a minister conducting the ceremony is ridiculous, pathetic and hypocritical (for me!).

    But what to do!

    The benefit of having a religion is that one need not worry about these things.

    So if any of this resonates with you, then I can relate.

    This is a cultural problem and a deeply personal one. It is an epistemological problem.

    Anyway, all the best.

    Posted April 8, 2019 at 11:26 am | Permalink
  35. colinhuttton says

    Hi Malcolm

    I’ve stayed out of the somewhat tetchy clash between you and AG on the god question. (A while since I’ve commented; but you’ll know my position on that – which causes me no angst btw, notwithstanding that I’m statistically 10 years closer than you are to discovering, metaphorically speaking, the definitive answer)

    However, on consciousness, where you are equally at loggerheads, I’ll risk sticking my oar in. Why not panpsychism, which I favour and which obviates both yours and his objections?

    Posted April 8, 2019 at 11:37 am | Permalink
  36. JK says


    Furthermore, it gnaws at me that I have no arrangements and should I die it would fall to my family to arrange the funeral and they would probably simply select a Christian burial. Yet the idea of a minister conducting the ceremony is ridiculous, pathetic and hypocritical (for me!).


    Posted April 8, 2019 at 12:26 pm | Permalink
  37. colinhutton says


    Interesting that you have thought of the funeral question – at your age.

    I raised the problem with a fellow-atheist friend a few years ago and I thought his response was a good one. He took the view that whatever ceremony was observed could be of no relevance to him and was, therefore, solely for the comfort/benefit of those who were still living. I pointed out that given his wife was an observant catholic this sorted out his problem; but wasn’t much help to me, given all our family are atheists. (He unexpectedly dropped dead a couple of years later and so there we all were in church etc. Didn’t feel too odd and I’m sure he didn’t notice!
    (As to our family agreement – dispose of body at lowest cost that complies with the law, hire a function room at nearby pub for a drinks-eats-reminiscences wake).

    Don’t know if any of that helps

    Posted April 8, 2019 at 1:23 pm | Permalink
  38. Malcolm says


    I’m 31…

    I had a feeling. Life tends to season us with doubt and humility; I look back rather wistfully sometimes on how much I knew when I was your age (which includes pretty much everything you’re informing me of in this thread).

    I’m sorry if that sounds a tad condescending.

    So we are just talking past each other with this.

    No, I don’t think so, or at least you aren’t talking past me. I am familiar with all of these sources and arguments — for the most part they are among the sources I used to refer to myself, and the arguments I used to make. I am no longer persuaded by them.

    The ‘whys’ above don’t really explain anything. They talk about things that appear to be correlated with consciousness, but say nothing at all about why consciousness should be what makes these things possible, or how.

    We see, for example:

    The information carried in conscious mental states is typically available for use by a diversity of mental subsystems and for application to a wide range of potential situations and actions (Baars 1988).

    This is nice to know, but it solves no mysteries. I can make information available across subsystems in my computer by using kernel objects, and can also see that this information is being shared at runtime by different processes. I am confident that I can do all of this without my computer becoming subjectively self-aware. Why couldn’t the brain?

    Likewise for motivation, integration, etc.: there is no reason for us to insist that all of this couldn’t happen completely unconsciously. (Nor is any explanation on offer here, other than to say “well, we’re conscious, and this is what’s happening when we look at the brain.”) Moreover, it seems that we do have unconscious motivations, intentions, beliefs, etc.; indeed I have been through a kind of training whose object was to rub our faces — quite painfully so — in how little of what we do we do consciously, and how much we do in what can only be called a kind of sleep.

    Nothing in any of what you’ve posted above explains why or how a lump of ordinary matter can, let alone must, make the leap to subjective self-awareness. Neural correlates explain nothing until we know why they couldn’t proceed entirely without consciousness.

    I haven’t really thought about what sort of funeral I’d like. (I do have some ideas, perhaps, about music to be played.) My wishes may change as time goes by.

    Posted April 8, 2019 at 2:37 pm | Permalink
  39. Malcolm says


    Thanks. Panpsychism may indeed be the way things are, but it doesn’t really make consciousness any less of a mystery, as far as a naturalistic or reductionist explanation is concerned. It just sort of leaves it as a “brute fact”.

    Posted April 8, 2019 at 2:40 pm | Permalink
  40. Malcolm says


    Forgot to add this:

    Progress in science and progress in politics and society (“Whig history”) are two different things altogether.

    What I was referring to as “Whig history” was not “progress in science”, but rather an attempt by “science” to write the history of consciousness.

    Where evolutionary just-so stories are concerned, things can get very Whiggish indeed.

    Posted April 8, 2019 at 6:09 pm | Permalink
  41. AbsentGod says

    Sounds to me like you now accept something like Chalmer”s enabling intuition that it is metaphysically possible that we could be zombies. Do you accept zombies then? If not, why?

    The most uninformative thing a philosopher can say is to claim that something is logically or metaphysically possible. I mean it is logically possible that there is a global conspiracy involving space lizards running the planet in the guise of humans ala David Icke.

    Quine’s dictum that “any belief can be held come what may if you make enough changes elsewhere in your system.”

    You use terms like “must” “could’t” happen. Again, you would need to distinguish between logical and physical possibility. I’m not sure that the concept of “metaphysical possibility” is a coherent category but maybe you mean this. Naturalists and scientists are looking for explanations that are 1: not logically impossible and 2: explain what needs to be explained; 3 consistent with the rest of our knowledge. The examples given above meet that criteria.

    If it is not Chalmer’s intuition then it must be Nagellian doubts: the feeling that something is missing. The distinction between satasfactory explanation (for scientific and philosophical purposes) and satisfying explanations (that please or comfort us) is paramount.

    Now I like Nagel. I value his book Mind and Cosmos for it provided me with a clear alternative that I had been thinking about for years. Nagel wants things to make sense on a very deep, necessary level. That is that there is some fundamental principle – a metaphysical principle – that makes the eventual existence of conscious creatures an inevitable or necessary development of the cosmos. My own phrasing is ” cosmos creates consciousness so that consciousness can contemplate the cosmos.” As Nagel rather beautifully puts it “we are part of the universe gradually waking up.”

    Still much as I like Nagel I don’t think it is true. Human self-consciousness is a contingent fact of human biological and cultural evolution.

    One final specific point. To me the examples are explanatory because we know that certain kinds of brain damage result in a loss of awareness or recognition but the information is still getting to regions of the brain that allow the subject to make better than average decisions when tested. The straightforward conclusion from this is that being self-aware or consciously recognising the stimulus allows us to make better decisions. Therefore, human self-consciousness, as opposed to zombiehood, is the path that evolution set us on. Why? Because zombies would not have been able to survive and reproduce. Why? Because they would not have been able to integrate information under time sensitive situations needed for life and death situations.

    One of the leading theories is the Global Workspace. A different term (though not perfect) is Command and Control Centre. This is where information (intelligence) comes and enables the command staff to analyse, synthesise, categorise and then issue orders. Or information comes into the “situation room” from one “department” and is then disseminated down to different departments.

    Can Zombies do OODA loops? (Well maybe in the logically possible sense lol.)

    I suspect that there actually is no evidence or explanation that would change your mind. Am I mistaken?

    Posted April 9, 2019 at 4:52 am | Permalink
  42. JK says


    Sounds to me like you

    Are the atheist equivalent of Jimmy Swaggert.

    The hardiest Bible-beating revivalist proselytizer doesn’t hold a candle on you.

    Posted April 9, 2019 at 12:26 pm | Permalink
  43. Malcolm says


    I’m a patient man, but the obstinacy and unsubtlety with which you insist on missing my point is, frankly, fatiguing. I’ll try one last time, but then I think I am done.

    Above I linked to a post I wrote in 2007. In it I addressed Chalmers’s zombie hypothesis as possibly being akin to the “floating iron bar” proposed by George Seddon. As it relates to our discussion, the point is that it may very well be that consciousness is indeed produced by, or supervenient upon, the workings of the biological brain, and that a zombie of the sort that Chalmers describes — a human that appears normal in every way, but has no subjective consciousness whatsoever — is, in fact, an impossibility. Chalmers proposed that since we can imagine it, it must be possible. I said that that I thought his conclusion was not justified: I argued that, for all we know, you simply cannot make a human brain that looks and behaves like a human brain but is never conscious at all.

    Maybe you can. Maybe you can’t. But I thought that Chalmers’s argument overreached. I still think so.

    I am perfectly willing to accept the possibility that the naturalistic belief — that consciousness somehow arises from the working of the brain — is in fact correct. I have favored that explanation myself, all my life, and I have carefully studied the scientific and philosophical literature of human consciousness for more than forty years now. I have also approached the question from other angles, including Eastern and esoteric traditions. Indeed, I have puzzled and worried over the mystery of consciousness since long before you were born — and I am neither an imbecile nor a philosophical or scientific naif.

    Again, though: your “examples” show, at best, correlation: that subjective consciousness appears to be present when other, more objective phenomena occur, such as integration of information. They say absolutely nothing, though, about how it is that these physical states give rise to the extraordinary subjective experience of self-awareness, or why, if you get a blob of meat together in just the right way, that blob of meat suddenly is able to become, not just a machine for processing information, but an awakened locus of subjective self-awareness. In virtue of what, exactly, does a brain processing information become subjectively self-aware, when a computer does not? What is it about the peculiar physics of the human brain that makes it, unlike any other physical system in the Universe, able to say “I AM” — and to know it, subjectively, as an incontrovertible fact?

    I see no reason why any of the things you have listed as “examples” — social coordination, integration, information access, etc. — couldn’t be done by a sophisticated AI, and I imagine all of them soon will. Will you assume that such computers will therefore be conscious? Suppose I insist they they are not. How will you prove to me that they are? By saying “But look: they are integrating information, just like we do”? I hope you can see that that will prove nothing.

    If consciousness is so well-explained and understood, then answer this: Let’s say you wanted to build, from scratch, a machine that you could be sure would be conscious. What would you have to put into such a machine? What could you leave out? Why?

    I’m done arguing with you. Come back when you can explain to me exactly in virtue of what physical property of the biological brain consciousness arises, and why — without simply saying “Well, we are conscious, and we see that the brain is in this or that state, so… presto! Mystery solved!”

    PS: And yes, I see no reason why a wholly unconscious AI couldn’t do OODA loops. They probably already do.

    Posted April 9, 2019 at 2:03 pm | Permalink
  44. Deadedith says

    I find it strange that, humans having invented computers (and soon ‘AI’ of some sort) that now some humans point to computers as a model and say – that’s how our brain works.
    Arguments based on reduction – mind reduced to meat – are notoriously difficult to refute. The proof seems to depend on an adequatio in the mind of the seeker.

    Posted April 9, 2019 at 2:19 pm | Permalink
  45. Malcolm says

    Posted April 9, 2019 at 2:21 pm | Permalink
  46. JK says


    You’ll not have comprehended my choice of TV preachers as I made above at 12:26 pm but, that “fellow’s ordeal” coincided with the year, AG, of your birth.

    Before your birthdate apparently.

    Likewise AG, at 31 you haven’t a clue.

    Or, if you do AG it’s difficult for those of us enjoying Grandchildren at about the same time you’re enjoying your, at most, eight-year-olds faced down praying to their I-Phones.

    But that’s the fundamental difference we think, or at least I, understand.

    On the other hand we understand that “need to impress” which we, too, likewise understand because we probably, some sort of likewise, did the same.

    Life repeats and that’s no shit AG; and as I put more than just the ‘little middling effort’ into choosing just this one (because its got the lyric[s] if AG, you do your bit)

    So much Preacher Swaggart

    So much AG

    Posted April 9, 2019 at 11:09 pm | Permalink
  47. AbsentGod says

    The reason why I brought up zombies is that if you don’t’ think that physical or natural facts explain all the facts then you cannot rule out the possibility of zombies, even if you think it is only a metaphysical possibility. However, if you think that physical facts explain all the facts (whatever the right set of facts are) then zombies are physically and or biologically impossible.

    So there may well be a subtle self-contradiction in your rejection of zombies and your rejection (or is it still doubts?) about scientific explanations.

    Basically there three options if you reject the scientific approach:

    1: Zombies could be real (metaphysically real?)

    2: Spirt/soul immaterialism.

    3: It’s a mystery which is cognitively closed to us.

    My view is that zombie humans are biologically impossible and philosophically incoherent.

    ” If consciousness is so well-explained and understood, then answer this: Let’s say you wanted to build, from scratch, a machine that you could be sure would be conscious. What would you have to put into such a machine? What could you leave out? Why?”

    At the very least, those six things I previously mentioned. Also, I would develop them in a West World type environment with the only difference being that I would not wipe their memories. Furthermore, I would put the “hosts” into a permanent uber Hobbesian situation – one of permanent war, fear, violence and tension. Mistakes result in horrible pain, suffering and death (until reboot).

    One of the big challenges in starting out on a project such as this would be how to figure out how to make the hosts feel pain/pleasure and fear/anger.

    Evolutionary development program:

    Stage 1: Darwinian Creatures.

    Stage 2: Skinnerian creatures.

    Stage 3: Popperian Creatures.

    Stage 4: Gregorian creatures.

    Stage 5: Scientific creatures.

    “Come back when you can explain to me exactly in virtue of what physical property of the biological brain consciousness arises, and why — without simply saying “Well, we are conscious, and we see that the brain is in this or that state, so… presto! Mystery solved!”

    NCC for starts:


    I understand you don’t want to continue on, neither do I. I’m sorry for upsetting you. I hope you get better.

    Posted April 10, 2019 at 6:38 am | Permalink
  48. SF says

    I’ve also grappled with these same questions for years. Why is there something instead of nothing? You might find the television series Closer to Truth to be of interest. It is hosted by a scientist named Robert Lawrence Kuhn who struggles with these great questions and interviews numerous physicists and philosophers. It is shown on WLIW World DT3 New York, NY.

    There is an ultimate mystery that we cannot penetrate into. In the Bible it is said that man may not see the face of God and live. The Taoists say that the Tao that can be spoken of is not the Tao. I think that the closest the logical mind can come to approaching these mysteries is contained in the writings of Gurdjieff, Ouspensky and some of their students.

    Posted April 15, 2019 at 1:22 pm | Permalink
  49. Malcolm says


    Thank you for your comment. I’ll look into the Kuhn series (is he related to Thomas Kuhn?).

    I’ve been interested in Gurdjieff’s ideas for a long time now; my father actually knew him. See this post of mine, from 2006.

    Posted April 15, 2019 at 1:28 pm | Permalink
  50. SF says

    I don’t believe he is related. BTW we spoke a few times at a certain ‘right wing’ dinner group that used to meet in midtown Manhattan a few years ago. Hope all is well.

    Posted April 15, 2019 at 4:05 pm | Permalink
  51. Malcolm says


    Ah yes, I remember those monthly gatherings fondly. I wish that dinner-club hadn’t come to an end.

    Posted April 15, 2019 at 6:56 pm | Permalink
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