Thursday, March 14, 2013

Mind and Cosmos

In his new book, Mind and Cosmos, Thomas Nagel, an atheist and professor of philosophy at New York University, joins a growing number of other philosophers and scientists in challenging evolution, albeit without offering an alternative.

Nagel’s argument is with reductive materialism, the idea that atoms and molecules and physical laws can explain everything in biology, including evolution. As pointed out in several reviews (e.g. NY Times) his knowledge of biology and evolution is superficial and, at times, outdated. As he readily admits, his discussion “is just the opinion of a layman.” But in his layman's opinion evolution is counterintuitive, it “flies in the face of common sense.” It doesn’t seem to occur to him that if that were the basis of scientific research, quantum theory, the most counterintuitive area of physics, would never have been accepted, despite the overwhelming evidence that it accurately describes reality as we know it.

Consciousness? Despite the false starts, Nagel’s argument eventually turns to more solid footing, that of consciousness. As he argued in his influential paper in the 1970s "What Is It Like To Be a Bat?" the experience a bat feels in its own mind is not knowable by simply knowing the chemistry of its brain. Nagel doubts that mind and consciousness could ever be explained by a materialistic description. Since Neo-Darwinian evolution is based on materialism, it can never explain mind and consciousness. Despite efforts to describe consciousness by invoking brain function, biologists have had a very difficult time in even defining consciousness.
Nagel insists that he doesn't believe in intelligent design or in any other theistic solution. He believes that consciousness will eventually turn out to be a vital and primary force of nature, not only in evolution but in the cosmos.

Physics, the most advanced of sciences, has something to say about mind and consciousness. Quantum mechanics invokes consciousness and the act of observation as necessary for the “collapse” of the quantum wave function of potentialities into the one reality we actually live in. It is surprising, therefore, that Nagel doesn’t use the findings of quantum physics in his own argument. If consciousness is a necessary force in the quantum universe, then it is not unreasonable to propose that consciousness plays a vital role in the biological world. A teleological argument is what Nagel strives for, though without invoking physics, his most powerful tool, his argument is weak. Nagel brought a knife to a gunfight.

Andrei Linde has no such timidity. Professor of Physics at Stanford University and one of the main authors of the inflationary universe theory, eternal inflation and the inflationary multiverse, Linde is one of many physicists invoking consciousness in the cosmic scheme. He has proposed a new paradigm of reality (1) made up of three different fundamental constituents: physical space-time, matter, and consciousness. In the most recent “brane” theory of physics, we live in a four dimensional membrane or “brane” in a higher-dimensional space-time. In this model, the extra dimensions are invisible not because they are small but because they form a parallel universe or universes. Consciousness is conceived of as occupying a distinct brane of its own, separate from the brane on which our physical bodies exist. Consciousness exists in the absence of matter, just like gravitational waves, and has force and dimensions of its own.

John Smythies, a neuroscientist and philosopher, has extended Linde’s model (2) by viewing reality as consisting of three elements: physical space-time (10 or more dimensions) containing physical matter, phenomenal space (i.e. consciousness) in a parallel universe, and a second dimension of time (time-2) which is seen as the observer’s field of observation moving through space-time. Smythies has borrowed work done in two or more time dimensions (3) implied by M-theory and allowed by special relativity.

Whatever the accurate model turns out to be, it is becoming evident, at least for some prominent physicists, that consciousness is a separate force in the universe distinct from physical reality. Biologists, however, are still working on the mechanistic level of trying to figure out the basic chemical interactions and have not yet undergone the revolution that Nagel is calling for: a transcendent theory that includes consciousness and which describes a deeper underlying structure driving evolution and existence itself.

Immortal Intelligence. Which brings us to the possibility, and hope, of many scientists and theologians of a theory of the cosmos in which consciousness is an immortal force outside of time and space and where science and theology are shown to merely describe two sides of the same coin.

1. Linde, Andrei, Scientific American, November 1994
2. Smythies, John, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 10, No. 3, 2003, pp. 47-56
3. I. Bars, C. Deliduman, O. Andreev (Southern California U.). Mar 1998. 23 pp. Published in Phys.Rev. D58 (1998) 066004 USC-98-HEP-B1 DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevD.58.066004