Free Will

The comments to my post about the Hard Problem of Consciousness have spiralled into a long conversation about the Problem of Evil, Free Will, and whether God is in time, and whether God knows the future.  I won't try to recap that discussion here (you can go read it yourself if you like), but instead to answer some questions about which were raised, which I had been postponing answering due to being busy with work and job interviews.

St. Steve asks:

How likely or unlikely is that there is something like free will? I read that most contemporary philosophers argue libertarianism, I have also seen that there is a point of view Compatibilist. What do you think is the most plausible?

It seems that those who support the libertarian free will are all dualistic, while a point of view is Compatibilist is a non-reductive materialism of mind.

What is your opinion on these views of free will?

"Libertarian Free Will" is the position that human beings (and maybe other entities) have the ability to make genuine decisions, which could have been otherwise, and that the causal responsibility for that decision is rightly attributed to that person.  Causal responsibility must of course be distinguished from moral responsibility, which requires additional factors, such as the person being aware of the consequences of their decision.

"Determinism" is the contrary position that everything we do is determined by certain factors outside of our control, such as God or the laws of physics or our genetic predispositions or whatever.  As you can see, there are both theological and materialistic versions of this idea.

"Compatibilism" is the compromise belief that although determinism is true, we nevertheless should be regarded as morally responsible for our actions, because we have a lesser, non-libertarian form of "free will".  In other words, even if it was inevitable that we did what we did, because we wanted to do it, and nobody put a gun to our heads, we are (in this view) still morally responsible.  ("Morally responsible for what purpose?", one might ask.  A human justice system may reasonably disregard these metaphysical issues, but responsibility before God, who sees everything, plausibly does depend on such things.)

Well, it seems to me that compatibilism is a namby-pamby watered-down use of the word free will.  When I say Free Will, I mean the full-blown libertarian kind!  Now let's ask if it exists.

The first consideration is experiential, somewhat along the lines for my argument for morality.  A lot of the time, it feels like we have free will, the ability to make choices and do otherwise than we did.  (In other cases, like sneezing, we feel like we had little choice about the matter.)  I think this is substantial prima facie evidence for the existence of Free Will, but it is not conclusive.  It is not a logical contradiction to feel like you have Free Will when you don't, the way it IS a logical contradiction to feel like you are Conscious when you are not.

Susan Blackmore claims that she no longer feels like she has free will, but this seems like self-hypnosis to bring her experiences in line with her philosophical beliefs.  (By the way, I highly recommend her book Conversations in Consciousness, in which she interviews many leading thinkers about what consciousness is.)

The second consideration is Science.  Now the laws of Classical Physics were deterministic, meaning that if you know all the positions and momenta of all the particles at one moment of time, you can deduce what happens at any other moment of time in the future or the past.  Since most people think they have very limited control over what happened before they were born, this served as a powerful argument against Free Will, at least for Materialists.  (A Dualist or an Idealist could of course evade the conclusion by denying that the laws of Classical Physics give a complete description of the world.)

Nowadays we know that Classical Physics is false.  Quantum Mechanics appears (at least for all practical purposes, leaving aside Many Worlds and other bizarre interpretations) to be nondeterministic.  The outcome of a given experiment can only be predicted statistically, in terms of probabilities.  Oddly, this has not resulted in much resurgence in a belief in Free Will, perhaps because it was under attack during the 20th century for other reasons, perhaps because the spotlight has moved on to neurological and psychological considerations.

On a more philosophical note, some might say, if chance determines what I do, that isn't any better than if something beyond my control does it.  How is it me acting if my decisions are just a roll of the cosmic dice? 

But I think this is based on a confusion.  Chance is not an entity any more than fate is an entity.  Suppose the laws of physics absolutely required a certain big rubber ball to knock over a glass of wine.  It would still be the ball that did it, not fate.  Similarly, if your decisions can only be predicted probabilistically, it is still you that does it.  The probability is just a measure of how likely you are to do it.

Another possible objection is that the brain is made out of parts.  Well before you get to the level where quantum physics is relevant, the parts are small enough that they cannot meaningfully be said to be conscious.  A neuron probably does not have mental states (and even if it did, it wouldn't be the same thing as our mind).  Certainly atoms have nothing like a mind, that we know of.  So even if the atomic motions involve indeterminism, it can't be credited to us; the atoms still control what we do.

At one time this reductionistic argument bothered me quite a bit.  However, behind this argument is a strange double-standard.  We are to be sufficiently identified with our atoms that we have no identity above and beyond them.  And yet, not so identified with them that if the atoms act freely, we act freely.  A strict materialist would have to say: I am the atoms I am made out of, and therefore there can be no question of them controlling me as if they I were something else.  (On the other hand, if I am something else in addition, who is to say that this something else cannot act in the world?)

Again, the reductionistic argument basically supposes that parts are the only things that are really real, and wholes are just meaningless arrangements of parts which have no real identity or status.  But clearly my whole self does exist; what's more it has the rather surprising property of consciousness, which I would not have predicted from the parts alone.  If wholes are sufficiently real that they can be conscious, why can't they be real enough to act freely?

Indeed, if the reductionists are right that the whole is identical to its parts, it is equally true (since identity is a symmetric relation) that the parts are identical to the whole.  So their behavior is determined by what I do.  Thus even a Materialist could perhaps believe in Free Will.

Clearly this is a deep problem, and not one that can be easily resolved by a superficial appeal to Science or Logic.  My reflections here are intended to produce aporia, the type of confusion induced by listening to Socrates, who was the wisest of men because at least he knew he didn't know.  And, in the absence of knowledge, he fell back on myths about the gods, to explain the moral convictions that were the foundation of his entire project.  Those who have read Plato will know what I am talking about.

So at the end of the day, I fall back on my religion for deciding what to believe about Free Will.  The fact that God—who knows our inmost being—relates to us as if we were morally responsible creatures who can make real choices, is for me the most decisive indication that we really are.  (Of course, the Bible also talks about divine predestination.  I believe these passages also describe an important truth, one that is also important to my religious experience.  Even if we cannot easily reconcile all of these truths with our puny brains!)

St. Luke P writes:

I appreciate your affirmation of free will and it sounds like you think it is important. I think that it is essential for moral responsibility. Furthermore, free will must be more than a set of counterfactuals about what we would do.(I know this is not your view) Indeed, such a set of counterfactuals could describe a computer which has no free will at all. Rather, to have free will we must truly have "the ability to do otherwise" in these situations. I am blameworthy for giving into temptation in virtue of the fact that it was morally wrong to do so and I had the ability to do otherwise.

Now you say that foreknowledge is not at odds with free will but I think it must be with respect to this kind of free will. If I could genuinely choose X or Y then there must be no "fact of the matter", as you say, about which I will choose. Will implies must.

I understand that you affirm the B theory of time. This is where I think there is a real conflict with free will. The B theory implies that all time is equally real and that the future exists. If the future does exist, as described by the B theory, then all of the facts of the matter are fixed and unchangeable.

Thanks for your comment.  I like your phrasing that "The B theory implies all time is equally real and that the future exists", because it avoids the common pitfall of saying that all times exist "now", which true only if we use the word "now" metaphorically.  (To say that all places exist equally, is different from saying that all places exist here.  On the B theory, the word "now" functions similarly to the word "here".)

But I don't agree at all that free will requires there to be no fact of the matter about what we choose.  The only way there could be no fact of the matter, is if the choice isn't made at all, which is the opposite of free will!

There is a fact of the matter about whether I chose to marry my wife St. Nicole, and an observer can know that fact with certainty, but that does not make the decision retroactively unfree.  I cannot now change this decision, but my past self could have done otherwise.

When you say "fixed and unchangeable" this equivocates between two meanings of the word fixed.  The facts of existence are fixed in the sense that they are definitely real and have a precise nature.  In that sense, our choices are fixed.  But that is compatible with saying that there are other possible outcomes, which could have existed instead.

And of course, if our future decisions are real, then God can know them in advance.  (See here for a general solution to most supposed paradoxes involving Divine Omniscience.)

Added Later: Note that, in Quantum Mechanics, it is also true that "if you know all the positions and momenta of all the particles at one moment of time, you can deduce what happens at any other moment of time in the future or the past".  That's because the first part of the sentence is impossible, by Heisenberg's uncertainty principle!

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Fundamental Reality XI: What's Right is Right

Now how should we decide between these ethical views?  To my mind, the fact which is of primary importance is the one we started with, that we all have a deep-seated primary belief in the reality of Ethics.  Even people who say there's no such thing as ethical truth suddenly sound quite different when somebody treats them unfairly.  And cultural relativists look down on their ancestors who persecuted other cultures, and comment on how much moral progress there's been since then, showing that they actually believe in moral relativism for moral reasons.  Some ethical framework seems to be embedded as axioms in the human mind.

It's no good to argue that ethics must be subjective because different cultures disagree about it.  People disagree about all sorts of things, many of which are quite real.  And there are various ways people can be rationally persuaded to change their ethical views; that's how moral progress happens.

Nor is Darwinian Evolution fatal to the idea that we know ethical truths.  No sensible Darwinian says that our knowledge of e.g. Mathematics or Biology is necessarily unreliable just because our capacities were developed through Natural Selection, since that would refute the Theory of Evolution too!  We are not here concerned with the origin of our moral ideas, but with their truth.  The origin of human ethics (which is lost in the mists of prehistoric time) would be relevant only if it implied that the ideas are invalid.  But this would not follow, simply from the fact that our ethical views have an origin.  In general, Darwinian evolution gives us true beliefs, not false ones, since for the most part the ability to acquire knowledge about the world is adaptive.  In order to prove that our moral beliefs are unreliable, we would have to show that they originated in a way which was completely disconnected from their truth.  Any such argument would involve a whole raft of controversial philosophical assumptions, not to mention the speculation common to all Evolutionary Psychology arguments.  Morality leaves no fossil record.  Although it is certain that our ethical capacities have some historical origin, we are in a far better position to assess what it means to be a human being today, then to speculate about these origins.

But it may be felt that Ethical Nihilism follows automatically, from the fact that right and wrong are not mentioned anywhere in the Laws of Physics.  Naturalism, you see, is the attempt to reduce all realities down to those described by the Natural Sciences.  Anything which doesn't fit gets cut out or else stretched to fit, as on the bed of Procrustes.  In my view, this is not a benign use of Occam's razor.  Instead it is a zealous oversimplification which throws out nearly all the realities of experience, in order to save a theory that won't cover them.

We have already seen how very similar reductionistic arguments would rule out Consciousness, but in that case we know the conclusion is false.  If this type of reductionistic argument fails so spectacularly in the one case where we can really check it, why should we give it any credence when it is deployed as an argument against morality?  (Or the existence of aesthetics, free will, personal identity, or whatever is supposed to be eliminated next.)  You could even say that, since I believe in the existence of good and bad because they flavor my experiences, the mystery of Consciousness and the mystery of Ethics are intimately connected to each other.  Both are features of reality which I could never have derived from a purely literal intepretation of the physical facts.

Some Naturalists believe it is possible to derive ethical laws from the physical sciences, but this is a rather tall order.  It runs into the famous Is-Ought problem, articulated by David Hume, who highlighted the logical difficulty in deriving an ought statement from any number of purely factual, nonmoral statements.  (Hume himself believed that morality was just a fact about human sentiments towards certain actions, an example of a subjective view.)  Some rather problematic attempts to construct a purely Natural system of Ethics are reviewed here:

Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy article on Moral Naturalism

Of course, part of the problem is that the perfect division between is and ought is an artificial distinction in the first place.  In our actual experiences, the two are nearly always joined together.  We do not experience the world dispassionately.  The vision of a world of pure facts is obtained by abstraction.  It is obtained, not so much by eliminating half of our experiences, but eliminating half of each experience, the part of ourselves which cares about what we are seeing.  This abstract representation of reality may be very useful for certain scientific purposes, but the map is not the territory.  If we are unable to recover certain aspects of our experience from the map, it means that the map is incomplete, not that those experiences are invalid.

The brain is a very complicated organ which tells us a great many things about the world.  Some parts of it allow us to deduce scientific facts, while others deliver to us ethical truths.  To my mind, it is irrational and capricious to reject all those aspects of our thinking except that very limited set which we use when formulating physical laws (and even there, our sense of beauty plays a role).  Rather, the fundamental deliverances of our brain ought to be accepted by default unless we have good reason to reject them.  That is undivided looking: thinking with our whole mind.

Next: The Good, and the Not

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Fundamental Reality X: Theories of Ethics

Let's talk about Ethics now.  Most of us have, whether it comes from Instinct, Reason, or Culture, a strong belief that certain acts and behaviors are morally right and therefore obligatory or commendable, while others are morally wrong and therefore forbidden or reprehensible.  Until we are exposed to certain philosophical questions, we tend to assume that this is just part of how the world is: that there is right and wrong and that one can persuade other people of it.  “It's not fair!” say small children to their parents.  There is, admittedly, some disagreement about what morality says (just as there is disagreement about everything else), but there is also a fair amount of common ground.

Once people get exposed to Philosophy (even if only in the form of a shallow cultural relativism common among college Freshmen), it is natural to question whether this sense of ethics is grounded in the actual objective nature of reality.  Or is it is purely subjective?  In the latter case, one should probably bite the bullet and say that, other than as descriptions of our own psychology, moral facts don't really exist at all (Ethical Nihilism), and it is a mistake to think that there is somehow a fact of the matter about e.g. whether murder or adultery are really wrong.

It seems to me that the belief that e.g. “murder isn't really wrong” is morally abhorrent, and that anyone who really disbelieved in the truth of ethics (though perhaps it is not fully possible) would be leaving behind an important part of their human heritage.  Just as a person whose left and right brain hemispheres have been severed is a defective or damaged human specimen, so the person whose heart and mind have been severed by moral relativism fails to be fully humane.  At the very least, Ethical Nihilism hardly seems likely to inspire moral excellence.  Even the moral duty to believe what is true would in principle be undermined by it.  But this, however important it may be practically, is a moral argument in favor of morality, and those who do not accept this vision of humanity may accuse me of arguing in a circle.  Instead, let's ask what could ground ethical truths.

There are many views which have been held about Meta-Ethical theory.  For simplicity let's consider four main ones: which we might call, with some degree of over-simplification, the Protagorean view, the Kantian view, the Aristotelian view, and the Platonic view.  All but the first of these views attempt to ground morality in some sort of objective reality, but in different ways.

The Protagorean view is that Ethics is grounded in nothing more than one's own personal subjective opinion.  That opinion may be partly determined by cultural or biological factors, but there is nothing inherently good or bad in accepting or defying ones heritage: whatever you want to do is best.  If somebody sincerely believes a different sort of ethical system which permits say revenge and genocide, they aren't really any better or worse than anyone else, just different.  We judge them to be bad, but then again they judge us to be bad. Once you decide to pursue a particular goal, you can ask whether your means are well-chosen to suit your ends, but your ends are really up to you.  Thus, the wise man who wishes to live in a peaceful city might perpetuate myths which help other people to be virtuous, but he won't believe any of them himself.

The Kantian view is that Reason tells us that certain things are right and wrong; that the reasoning mind can know the truths of Ethics much as we know the truths of Mathematics, by deducing them from self-evident first principles.  Kant himself had an argument for something called the Categorical Imperative which was roughly like the Golden Rule, and he claimed that this was equivalent to treating other people as ends rather than means.  Nobody much accepts his specific arguments anymore, but newspaper ethics columnists still have a broadly Kantian mindset, perhaps because it takes them more or less where they want to go, given the current tendency among democracies to reformulate all ethical questions in terms of “Human Rights” vested in autonomous (self-governing) individuals.

The Aristotelian view is that Ethics is grounded in human nature.  That is, all living creatures have some sort of intrinsic goal, purpose or end (τελος) which is what it means for that plant or animal to flourish, fully developing its nature in the way that is good for it.  Evil would be a perversion or corruption of a thing's nature, not something which has an independent existence apart from the telos of a thing.  For us as humans, Ethics consists of identifying the requirements of human nature and cultivating habits which help to promote that flourishing.  Since we are sexual beings, part of our good is directed towards reproducing ourselves, and since we are “political animals”, another part of our nature consists in promoting benevolence towards others, but the highest and noblest aim (according to Aristotle) is to develop our rational nature, which flourishes when we pursue philosophy.  Each person has their own individual telos (what's good for you is not necessarily good for me)—which is however objective, since it is grounded in a more-or-less universal human nature.

(Some people might think that this Aristotelian view that biological organisms have purposes, i.e “final causes” is undermined by Darwinian evolution, but this is contestable.  Did Darwin eliminate purposes from the biological world, or did he explain their existence?  In any case, we are not here dealing with the Design question of how organisms like us came to exist, but with the quite distinct question of what our ethical significance is, now that we do exist.)

The Platonic view is that there is a transcendental principle called “the Good” or “goodness itself”, which acts as the standard or judge for all other things.  Thus, as in the Aristotelian view, goodness is based on the nature of things, but now it is a property of the fundamental nature of existence.  All things, to the extent that they exist, participate to a greater or lesser extent in goodness.  They are thus good only in a derivative sense, by participating in goodness.  The philosopher begins by appreciating the beauty or virtue in visible realities, but ascends from there to appreciating the primary goodness in that which is Beauty or Virtue itself.  Thus, in this view, the fundamental nature of reality requires us to be benevolent to others, although the precise set of actions to be performed are doubtless (as in the Aristotelian view) dependent on the precise details of human nature (it is kind to give a beggar bread rather than cyanide because of the nature of human biology, but what kindness is does not depend on that).

Of these four views, Platonism is particularly conducive to arguing for Ethical Monotheism, due to its ascribing all goodness to the fundamental nature of things.  On the Aristotelian view, one can still attempt to trace the teloi back to their ultimate goal, much as the Cosmological Argument traces causes back to their ultimate cause.  (By rights this ought to be called the Teleological Argument, but unfortunately that term is usually taken to be synonymous with the Argument from Design.)  If Ethics can be deduced rationally as in the Kantian system, then one can at least deduce that if the Universe originates from something like a mind, that mind should also be able to appreciate ethical truths.  But on the Protagorean view, the Argument from Ethics is dead in the water and can go nowhere.

Next: What's Right is Right

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Fundamental Reality IX: Stories and Atoms

You might say that, at any rate, it is very natural to suppose that an animal whose brain processes sensory stimuli, represents them as patterns, and then reacts to them should be conscious.  Granted, it is very natural for you to think this, since you are yourself a conscious being, and what's more you are evolved to attribute mental states to other things in order to help you survive and reproduce.

When we engage with fictional characters displayed in books or anime (leaving aside plays and movies, since in them the actors are real people), we are indulging our tendency to treat sets of letters or pixels which have no inherent meaning, as if they did have meaning, in fact as though they were people.  But none of us think that the characters in books have an independent mental existence, since apart from the actions of an external mind in making sense of them, they have no intrinsic meaning or significance.

Well, in some sense we are in the same boat as these fictional characters.  We have the advantage that our brains, lives, and actions are specified in considerably more detail, whereas in the case of fiction there are a lot of gaps to be filled in.  But from a sufficiently “objective” perspective, we are ourselves just a collection of material objects, a set of 1's and 0's in the cosmic computer with no inherent meaning.  Well, evidently this supposedly objective perspective is wrong.  Our Universe seems to be more hospitable than that.  Sometimes, when there is a collection of matter to which meaning might be ascribed, it is so ascribed.  Something is to us as we are to anime characters, interpreting the pattern as significant.

As Muriel Rukeyser writes in her poem "The Speed of Darkness" [erotic themes, not safe for work]:

Say it.        Say it.
The universe is made of stories,
not of atoms.

Well, all of this suggests that the fundamental nature of existence has to be more like a mind than like a set of equations, because no set of equations interprets itself.  And obviously we are not the most fundamental minds in existence, because human beings are contingent.  We are born and we die and we need not have existed.  The Universe existed long before we did.  Therefore, some other mind-like entity must be.  At best we participate in the operations of this mind.

Being the most fundamental entity in existence, there can be no distinction between its subjective thoughts and feelings and the objective “real world”, as we have seen previously.  Its thoughts are what is.

This is not the only way to try to incorporate mental qualities into the fundamental description of the world, but it has a certain appeal due to its simplicity.  In any case, these considerations turn the tables on claims that Naturalism is simpler because it can describe everything in a mathematically quantitative way, without any appeal to basic mental qualities.  You can't get mental qualities out of any model of the world, unless somehow you put them in from the beginning.

To recapitulate: a book is a material object containing a set of letters in a row.  The words in a book contain meaning because a human being, who is conscious, reads and understands them.  But why does the human brain contain any consciousness or meaning?  Because the ultimate nature of reality is like a mind, not like a set of equations, and it "reads" our brains and finds them to be meaningful.

Given that the series has to terminate in any case, why not just stop at our own minds rather than on God?  Because we know that we, as complicated, evolved, and contigent constructs, are not the most fundamental entities in existence, and therefore any reasonable worldview should explain everything about ourselves in terms of a more fundamental picture.

Or to put it another way, if there are any types of meaning in the world which cannot be deduced just from the laws of physics, then it follows that the most fundamental reality is more than just those laws of physics, and indeed it must be something capable of supporting this meaning.  This increases the probability that the fundamental reality is more analogous to a mind than a set of equations.

By itself, this Argument from Consciousness might well support a pantheistic conclusion, rather than a theistic one.  But for the reasons given before, I think the unity and clarity of Monotheism has a decided advantage, not least for making sense of a scientific approach to the world.

Next: Theories of Ethics

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Fundamental Reality VIII: The Hard Problem of Consciousness

To my mind, the true implications of Philosophy of Mind, far from being an argument against Theism, are actually an argument for Theism.  To see this, we must start, not with God's mind, but our own.

It is indisputable that Consciousness exists.  Or rather, it has been disputed, but it ought never to have been.  However many fallacies Descartes may have committed later in his arguments, I think therefore I am has always seemed perfectly sound to me.  It is in fact more certain than anything else.  To say that I am wrong that I am self-aware, just is to say that I am aware of some perceptions or arguments that make me think I have no awareness or thinking, but in fact I am wrong because I only think I think.  This is manifestly absurd and self-contradictory.

In the case of other people, or certain animals, we assume they have conscious self-awareness because of their similarity to us.  This is an argument by analogy which (even though it is very reasonable) could potentially be mistaken.  But in the case of our own conscious self-awareness, there can be no doubt.  This consciousness includes specific qualia or experiences such as blueness or sounds, as well as many other things.

Now this is a very interesting fact, primarily because, as far as I can see, there is no way you could possibly logically deduce it even if you knew all the Laws of Physics, and everything about Neurology which one could possibly learn from external observation alone.  It is quite inexplicable, if all you know are the physical Laws of Nature.  Physicists mostly don't think about this issue since it's not our specialty, but when asked most of us would probably admit that there's a deep mystery here.  This mystery is known in Philosophy circles as the “hard problem of consciousness” (a term coined by David Chalmers).

Please don't think I'm saying more than I am.  I'm not talking about the question of why our material brains are arranged in the complex pattern that they are, as one might in an Argument from Design.  Presumably Darwinian evolution is at least a large part of the answer to that question.  I am asking why, once they are arranged into these patterns, they experience self-awareness.

Nor does this argument imply that there has to exist a detachable “soul”, which is separate from our bodies, and survives death.  I'm not denying that the brain has a lot to do with our minds, or even that the brain and mind are in one-to-one correspondence (or more likely, many-to-one).  I am only saying that we could not possibly deduce this correspondence from the Laws of Physics plus Logic alone.  It might even be metaphysically necessary that living brains (and maybe artificial intelligences if we ever make them) have minds.  But if so, we've just learned something about Metaphysics!

That Consciousness tells a story against Naturalism can be seen by the great efforts which many Naturalists take to resist the unavoidable conclusion.  The first main counterattack is to try to deny the existence of the problem at all, through some type of “eliminative” or “reductionist” materialism.  Maybe Consciousness is just another name for certain kinds of information processing which happen to occur in the brain.  As in the Sondheim musical: “The woods are just trees, the trees are just wood!”

As much as I respect philosophers like Daniel Dennett for trying to make this idea precise, I just don't think it can work.  Self-awareness might well turn out to be related to certain types of causal events in the brain, but we knew that we were self-aware long before we knew anything about neuroscience.  So we cannot say that self-awareness is by definition a certain pattern of neurons.  If folks like Dennett are right that there's no hard problem to explain, then their position has to be true by logical necessity.  And it just isn't, because no matter what you tell me about the physics, I could assert without contradiction that nothing in it is self-aware.

The second main counterattack is to say: “We may not know the answer now, but Science will discover it one day!  Once upon a time, some people used to think that biological life was due to some inexplicable élan vital, but now we know that it can be explained entirely through ordinary chemical processes.  The same will one day be true of Consciousness.”

It's a little presumptuous to appeal to future scientific discoveries as an argument for any position, since by definition those discoveries haven't happened yet.  That is why these people instead make an inductive argument, based on imagined triumphs of Science over Mysticism in the past.

But there is a key dis-analogy between Life and Consciousness: we are directly aware of the latter but not of the former (except insofar as it includes the latter).  And the argument that Physics cannot explain Consciousness is not based on the detailed form of the Laws of Physics.  So long as they consist of formal mathematical equations which merely describe the spatio-temporal patterns of material entities, it seems that the problem remains insoluble.  At the very least, a radical change in how we even do Physics would be necessary.  And as for neurological studies, surely brain researchers could go on and on making lists of which neural processes correspond to which conscious sensations, and classifying them into patterns, without ever explaining from the basic Laws of Physics why that particular set of correspondences should hold (or any set).

I said earlier that I am going to confine myself to plausibility arguments, but in this stage of the argument I think strict demonstration is possible: to deny that we are conscious clearly contradicts experience; but to say that our consciousness follows logically from the known Laws of Physics is also manifestly false when consciousness is properly defined.  So it appears that our description of the Universe in terms of physical laws is incomplete.

This is why many of the early Enlightenment philosophers and scientists were Dualists.  Because they assigned all conscious, sensory, and “secondary” qualities to mind rather than matter, they were free to construct scientific descriptions of matter which made reference only to their “primary” qualities, those capable of mathematical modeling.  Having assigned these quantities to the “soul”, they were free to do quantitative physics on the rest.  To go one step further and also banish these secondary qualities from the mind, was for them obviously inconsistent. As the philosopher St. Ed Feser says:

...the reductive method in question is like the method of getting rid of all the dirt in the house by sweeping it under a certain rug.  While this is a very effective way of getting rid of the dirt everywhere else, it is not a strategy that could possibly be used to get rid of the dirt under the rug itself.  On the contrary, it only makes the problem of getting rid of that dirt even worse.  And that is exactly why the mind-body problem as it is understood today essentially came into existence with Galileo, Descartes, and Co. and has remained unsolved to the present day.  What these early modern thinkers wanted (for certain practical and political ends) was a completely quantitative, mathematical description of the world.  Irreducibly qualitative features—secondary qualities, final causes, and the like—since they would not fit this model, were thus essentially defined away as mere projections, “swept under the rug” of the mind as it were. But that only makes the idea of dealing with the mind itself in the same manner even more hopeless.  For these early moderns, the mind just is, you might say, the holding tank for everything that doesn’t fit their quantitative method.  Naturally, then, that method cannot coherently be applied to the mind itself.

This does not mean that a Cartesian mind-body Dualism is the only or best way of describing our situation—I think it isn't—but at least it recognizes explicitly some of the problems at stake.  (There are several other options which recognize the objective reality of the mind, which go by names such as “Property Dualism”, “Hylomorphic Dualism”, “Epiphenomenalism”, “Idealism”, etc.)  But any view which says that all mental quantities can in principle be derived from a purely physical description of the brain, is necessarily incoherent and wrong on philosophical grounds.   And no amount of progress in empirical Science can ever prove that which is logically impossible.

Note that the logical contradiction lies in a reductionistic form of materialism which claims that all of our mental properties can be derived from external, physically measurable properties.  On a non-reductionistic definition of "matter", to mean "that mysterious thing which we are made of, which may have additional properties besides those which can be externally measured", it would not necessarily be a contradiction to say that we are entirely made out of matter.  Such a viewpoint would be a type of Property Dualism, which asserts that that we are one type of entity which has both physical and mental properties.

My arguments should stand on their own apart from any suspicions about my motivations.  But since this term “soul” has popped up, let me add that for many years, I thought it was possible to reconcile Christian theology with the view that the human mind is identical to the material brain.  I thought then, and I still think now, that the reason we will live forever is because of God's promises and his faithfulness, and not because of what we are “made out of”.  It was not my interest in Theology, but trying to make sense out of the Philosophy of Mind, which led me to see the contradiction in a purely materialistic conception of human beings: that we are solely what can be physically measured about the brain.

Next: Stories and Atoms

[Next-to-last paragraph added later.]

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