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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

Andy SmithAndrew P. Smith, who has a background in molecular biology, neuroscience and pharmacology, is author of e-books Worlds within Worlds and the novel Noosphere II, which are both available online. He has recently self-published "The Dimensions of Experience: A Natural History of Consciousness" (Xlibris, 2008).



A Response and Extension
to Lane and Salmon

Andrew P. Smith

Salmon's criticisms of science are to some extent reminiscent of those Kant made of Descartes... But philosophy has moved on beyond Kant.

Don Salmon's "Shaving Science with Occam's Razor" proposes five guiding principles or conclusions about our relationship with reality (or lack of same). He puts them forward as a way of pointing out limits to the scientific worldview. On the surface, the principles seem eminently sensible, and though Salmon clearly intends them as a challenge to science, and to those who are comfortable with its worldview, probably a great many scientists would not quarrel too much with most of them.

However, some philosophers might. While Salmon emphasizes that he is not intending to ally himself with any particular philosophical system, his constant reference to what he calls X—that which “lies beyond our mind-constructed percepts and constructs”—sounds very much like Kant's thing-in-itself.[1] Science, in some though certainly not all respects, is still stuck on Descartes. Not surprisingly, then, Salmon's criticisms of science are to some extent reminiscent of those Kant made of Descartes. I don't think there's anything wrong with these criticisms, as far as they go; they are still relevant today. But more can be said on this matter. Philosophy has moved on beyond Kant, at least in the view of many contemporary thinkers, opening the door to further criticisms of science.

In this article I will discuss some post-Kantian ideas and arguments, with the aim of broadening and deepening Salmon's critique of science. In the process, I will also challenge some major ideas, discussed by David Lane ["The Disneyland of Consciousness"], that are held by many scientists today. A major theme underlying this discussion, which I will develop as I go along, is that while science claims to have long ago rejected a Cartesian view of the world, in fact the influence of this philosopher is still immense. This inconsistency will surely have to be resolved if science is going to bring us closer to reality.

Not Knowing that We Know

Salmon begins his article with this first principle:

1. All that we experience is within (or “by means of”) consciousness.

Hard to disagree with this, isn't it? But the problem is that it appears to be tautological. Experience is usually understood as conscious experience, so this statement is equivalent to saying, all that we consciously experience is through consciousness.

A better version of it, I think, is provided by David Lane, where “knowing” is substituted for “experiencing”:

Everything we have known in the world must come through the medium of consciousness; even the idea of neuroscience, even the idea of philosophy, even the idea of materialism, must arise through the medium of self-reflective awareness. It is, in fact, that medium of consciousness—non reducible in terms of actual lived-through experience—which contextualizes everything we can ever know about the universe.

Who could possibly disagree with this? Well, let me try. Many contemporary philosophers believe in the logical possibility, or “conceivability”, of what they call zombies—hypothetical beings just like us except that they have no conscious experience, or qualia (Chalmers 1996; Seager 1999a,c).[2] Zombies can be said to know everything that we know, even if they have no conscious experience of this knowledge. The proof of this knowledge is that they behave exactly as we do, something they could not do unless they had all the knowledge that we have. For example, zombies can solve mathematical equations, make forecasts about the weather, create all our modern technology, develop morality, and, yes, even have debates about consciousness. If one accepts the conceivability of zombies—and I think most philosophers do, if the definition of zombie is not too stringent[3]—then clearly nothing we know about the world requires consciousness.

Of course, one could define knowledge in a way that implies conscious experience, and probably both Lane and Salmon, along with most scientists and philosophers, regard consciousness as an essential element of knowing or understanding something. This is the main conclusion of John Searle's famous Chinese room argument (Searle 1980). But if we take that view, then we are right back at tautology. Lane's statement becomes: “everything that we consciously know in the world comes through the medium of consciousness”. The point is that if Lane's original statement is to be meaningful, if it says something significant about our situation—something, we might say, that is contingent rather than logical--there must be some distinction between knowledge and consciousness. And if there is, then the zombie argument makes a strong claim that we can have one without the other.

The notion of a completely unconscious but behaviorally normal human being is likely to sound preposterous, and no one is suggesting that they could actually exist. Or could they? Lane skirts with zombie-land when he notes that “determining whether someone is conscious or unconscious is, as far as we can tell at this stage, the result of how we individually interpret a set of behavioral actions”. He then provides some real-life examples illustrating how conscious and non-conscious beings can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from each other.

In fact, each of us could be said to approximate a zombie. Consider language, universally considered one of the “highest” of human achievements, one that in most respects we share with no other animal. Most of our use and understanding of language occurs unconsciously. It has long been appreciated that every language has certain rules, and more recently, that some of these rules may be universal, but identifying these rules has taken long and painstaking research (Chomsky 1972; Pinker 1994, 2007; Fodor 1998; Deacon 1998; Lightfoot 2000; Dor and Jablonka 2001; Bickerton 2003). Why? Just because the rules are unconscious. We are ordinarily not aware of what they are, and have been able to discover (some of) them only by careful analysis of our speech patterns. Yet we all “know” them. It's this knowledge that distinguishes someone who can speak a particular language from someone who can't, as well as all of us from animals who have no language in our sense.

Language is not an exception. Most of our other behavior—physical and emotional as well as intellectual—is also based on unconscious processes (Hunt 1983; Norretranders 1998; Libet 2004; Minsky 2006). This is perhaps the single most significant discovery of cognitive science in the past several decades. Indeed, it could be argued that the more we learn about processes in the brain, the more we discover about them that are not conscious.

Lane quotes the skeptical Colin McGinn: “although a person may know that they have qualia, they cannot meaningfully discuss these qualia from a third-person point of view, and the topic will remain mysterious and unresolvable.” The situation might be even worse than this, though. Philosopher Stephen Katz (1978), speaking of a higher state of consciousness, has argued that if a such a state exists, one beyond thought and words, there would be no way to verify it, even for the person experiencing it let alone for others. This claim, based on the widely accepted procedure of verifying phenomena by putting them into words (the third person point of view) and communicating them to others, can be considered one form of the postmodern argument against a transcendental or absolute, a point I will return to later. What I want to point out here, though, is that the same argument can be made against our ordinary consciousness. If it is truly ineffable, as McGinn acknowledges, then it is very problematic to say that it exists, in the same sense that we say other things in our world exist. We accept the reality of consciousness mostly because it is so obvious to us, and because everyone else says he is conscious. But we cannot apply to it the rigorous scientific verification procedure that we apply to everything else.

So strange as it sounds to say it, consciousness is the one phenomenon we have no knowledge of at all! Or if one prefers, we know about consciousness in a way very different from the way we know anything else. This being the case, I don't think we can say that anything, let alone everything, we know is known through consciousness. We may experience some of what we know through consciousness, but we know it though other means.

What are these other means? I would say communication. Communication is necessary not simply for one person—or any other living thing—to acquire knowledge from another, but also, more fundamentally, to create that knowledge in the first place. This is most obvious in science itself, where no observation becomes accepted as knowledge until it is replicated through a sophisticated process that involves constant communication among many different scientists. But our everyday knowledge of the world is built on the same kind of communication processes, and so, as I have discussed elsewhere (Smth 2009), is the knowledge of other organisms. In fact, physicist Seth Lloyd argues that this process of creating knowledge, or information, was occurring in the universe from the very beginning:

Quantum mechanics, unlike classical mechanics, can create information out of nothing…Almost any interaction will entangle the pieces of a quantum system…entanglement is responsible for the generation of information in the universe.[4]

Let's now bring the discussion back to our relationship with reality. While Kant is generally considered to have made a major advance over Descartes in respect to understanding the subtleties of this relationship, his work does preserve an important distinction reminiscent of the Cartesian split between mind and body: that between the observer and the thing-in-itself (what Salmon calls X). The notion that knowledge is created by communication (in fact, might even be understood as a form of communication) has the effect of breaking down this distinction, and is part of what is often referred to as the embodied view (Lakoff and Johnson 1999; Thompson and Varela 2001; Noe and Thompson 2004; Noe 2010). In the embodied view, our knowledge of the world results from a dynamic interaction between organism and environment (including, especially, other organisms). Knowledge, including consciousness of knowledge, is no longer understood to be localized to the brain, in the form, for example, of what David Chalmers (2000) calls a “neural correlate of consciousness”, but results from certain relationships between the organism and its environment. In other words, knowledge is diffusely localized, distributed in an important sense between the brain, the body, and the external world.

A simple way of stating this idea is that we can no longer make a distinction between subject and object, but rather must view them together, in an inseparable relationship. As we will see shortly, this is the same conclusion that postmodern philosophy has come to.

Is Consciousness like Water?

Before we continue our exploration of Salmon's principles, let's consider another implication of philosophical zombies, one that ultimately reveals, so I will argue, an underlying inconsistency in the scientific worldview. Consider the question of how or why consciousness evolved. Consciousness is frequently associated with flexibility in behavior. Everyone appreciates that vertebrates, particularly birds and mammals, exhibit more flexible behavior than the stereotyped responses commonly exhibited by invertebrates, and the higher vertebrates are universally also considered to be more likely to have some consciousness. This suggested relationship has found striking confirmation in a series of elegant studies of humans by neurologist V.S. Ramachandran. He reported that a cardinal feature of qualia, or conscious experiences is that they can result in several different responses, depending on context; in contrast, unconscious processes always trigger the same response (Ramachandran and Hirstein 1997). Ramachandran even provocatively argues that we can use this and other criteria to determine whether or not a particular form of behavior, or a particular kind of organism, is conscious.

In light of evidence like this, it's not surprising that a popular view is that consciousness evolved because it provides organisms with choices—rather than stereotyped responses—when they interact with their environment. Gerald Edelman expresses this idea in a quote from David Lane's article:

The evolutionary advantage is quite clear. Consciousness allows you the capacity to plan… The ability to consider alternative images in an explicit way is definitely evolutionarily advantageous.

However, the zombie argument offers a powerful rebuttal to this idea. If a zombie can do everything that a conscious organism can do, then it's certainly just as capable of planning, of considering alternative images. Natural selection, as science understands it, can only act on behavior—not on what the organism is experiencing—and the behavior of a zombie, by definition, is identical to that of a conscious organism.

Consider again those alternative scenarios that Edelman thinks are so important to the antelope hiding in the grass. In the materialist view, each one of those scenarios corresponds to a different pattern of activity in the brain, and each possible response the animal makes corresponds to some other pattern of activity in the brain. The act of choosing one particular scenario, and hence one particular response, also corresponds to some pattern of activity. So why is anything more than these patterns of neural activity required? Consciousness can only add something to these neural patterns if it is something very different from them. But then we are flirting with dualism.

What if someone denies that a zombie in this sense could exist? As noted earlier, the less strict form of zombies, those which are functionally but not molecularly identical to conscious organisms, are not difficult to conceive of. Given how little science knows about the relationship of consciousness to the brain, I think it would be very difficult to claim that it would be impossible for unconscious organisms to evolve that could interact with the environment in ways as sophisticated as those of naturally occurring organisms.

But a scientist like Edelman might argue that though zombies might be logically possible, and could have evolved in certain kinds of worlds, they never could have evolved in the natural world that we actually live in. Consciousness, in this view, is an emergent property of neural networks of a certain degree of complexity. It just happens that complex networks manifest consciousness, just as it happens that complex metabolic networks manifest higher-order properties like efficiency and stability, or for that matter, even simple molecules like water manifest higher order properties (relative to those of their component elements) like stickiness or wetness. We could no more imagine, according to this line of thought, complex neural networks that were not conscious than we could imagine molecules consisting of two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen that could not bond among themselves and result in a liquid at prevailing temperatures around the earth.

This is certainly a reasonable possibility, and it seems more consistent with evidence such as Ramachandran's.[5] But as Donald DeGracia discussed in his recent article ["Evolution: Chance or Dynamics?"], emergent properties like these did not evolve by natural selection. They are an example of evolution by constraint. It's possible that they could have been selected for if they provided advantages to the organism, but they did not arise gradually through random variation.

So I think the materialist has only two options here. Either 1) bite the bullet, and admit that consciousness appears to add nothing at all that is advantageous to survival that would not also be manifested by an unconscious organism with the same kind of nervous system; or 2) claim that consciousness is a constraint, rather than a product of natural selection, one that inevitably results when nervous systems reach a certain stage of complexity. I will discuss this issue a little further later.

Deconstructing Constructs

Let's now return to Salmon, and examine his next two principles:

2. The forms or “percepts” that we refer to as “nature” (the physical universe) are all experienced within consciousness—and they are constructed by the mind.
3. The knowledge of the universe provided by science is comprised of concepts which are derived from the observation of percepts—and are also mind-constructed.

The notion that everything we know is constructed is another idea that almost anyone familiar with modern science would agree with to at least some extent. According to the scientific worldview, we learn about the world through receiving sensory stimuli, which are processed in the brain. Hence, what we know about the world is not what it “really is”, but is limited to the results of this neural processing, what Salmon calls constructs.

But this implies a problem if not a paradox. If everything that we call the physical universe is constructed by the mind, that includes the mind itself. In other words, this very statement is simply a construct, rather than a solid principle. The idea that anything we know or experience is constructed can be validated only by providing mind with a reality that the notion of construct itself denies. We seem to be caught in one of Hofstadters's strange loops.

What are the consequences of this? On the basis of his principles about constructs, Salmon later goes on to elucidate a fourth principle, that science can explain only a limited aspect of our experience. In particular, he concludes, we must be silent concerning what “reality”—his “X” that lies beyond our percepts and constructs—is. But since this conclusion is itself based on a construct, how meaningful is it?

Let me be clear here. The issue is not whether we can or cannot determine what “X” beyond our constructs is. The issue is whether this is even a meaningful question. One can only believe that there is an X—whether conscious or material—if one believes in the reality of the construct called the mind. But if one believes in the reality of that construct, why should not one believe in the reality of other constructs?

The position taken by Salmon here seems to be Kantian. He argues that we can't know the thing-in-itself, or X. He is contrasting his position with that of science, which—in this respect—tends to be Cartesian, and believes (for all practical purposes, at least) that it can know the thing-in-itself. Salmon's point, which I believe is sound as far as it goes, is that science is being inconsistent. If you recognize that everything we know is a construct, then we can't know X or the thing-in-itself, and should be very clear about this.

But to the postmodern philosopher, there are problems with the Kantian view as well as the Cartesian one. While Kant denied we could know the thing-in-itself, he quite specifically didn't deny that it existed, or that we could think about it. The postmodernist, in contrast, does call into question these things—and for much the same reason I just suggested. The postmodernist view gives priority to relations, rather than to things or as used to be said, substances. To the postmodern philosopher, there can be no subject without an object and vice-versa; what is primary is neither subject nor object, but rather the relation between the two. They are two inseparable sides of a coin.

The result is that the mind is in effect trapped by this relation; it has no way of getting beyond the relation to think about or verify the existence of the thing-in-itself. It would be like the “heads” side of a coin trying to see a “tails” coin that is separate from its own coin. One could say that in this respect the postmodernist is simply pushing the Kantian view to its logical conclusion. If the situation of the mind is such that it can't know the thing-in-itself, how can it know if the thing-in-itself even exists?

The fundamental issue being raised here concerns the existence of an absolute, that is, something that exists independently of our own existence and our own consciousness or knowledge. Descartes, like most other philosophers of and before his time, believed in God, which served as an absolute for him. A little later we will see just how God was used by Descartes to build his philosophy. Kant did not deny the existence of an absolute, which for him was the thing-in-itself, but unlike Descartes' position with respect to God, he did deny that we could know anything about it. The postmodern tendency is to throw out absolutes completely—not deny them, necessarily, but not use them as a basis for thinking about existence. Not only can we not know God or the thing-in-itself, we cannot even have any certainty that either exists. As we will see later, this view has enormous implications for science.

Cartesian Slaves to Free Will

I implied earlier that science has a sort of schizoid relationship with Descartes, in some respects firmly rejecting his views, but in other respects still clinging to them. On the one hand, most scientists today believe in materialism, a class of philosophical monism that contrasts sharply with Cartesian dualism. In the materialist view, mind is not separate from body or non-material, but results from the same kinds of physical processes. But on the other hand, Descartes still wields enormous influence on science in an area that might be regarded as even more vital than its worldview: the scientific method. The scientific method presumes that an observer can separate himself completely from the object of study. This is pure Descartes. It is impossible in a purely materialist world, where everything is connected to everything else by a great causal web.

To be fair, scientists could argue that while the observer cannot completely separate herself from the object of study, in practice, by carefully designing experiments, the effect of the connection can be minimized. After all, science seems to progress fairly well even if the assumption underlying its method is not strictly true. But in a purely materialist world, can any scientist be said to “design experiments?” Isn't that process, too, a result of cause-and-effect?

This gets to the nub of the problem: in a materialist world, there can be no free will. If we exist in a closed network of causes and effects, then everything we do results from certain causes. Our behavior may be extremely complex and difficult, even impossible, to predict, but if mind or consciousness does not exist outside of the causally-closed physical world, then surely it cannot exert free will.

Yet even very sophisticated thinkers, well aware of this conundrum, expend considerable energy attempting to defend the notion of free will. Daniel Dennett (2004), a hard core materialist if ever there were one, argues for the existence of a process he calls “evitability” (in contrast to inevitability). He points out that a major feature of evolution has been the creation of an increasingly greater range of possibilities or choices for certain organisms—in other words, they have a greater degree of freedom. Here we see an echo of the notion that consciousness is associated with more flexible behavior, with Dennett extending this idea of flexibility (quite correctly, in my view) over the entire range of evolution. Yet Dennett himself admits his view does not challenge determinism, the idea that everything we do is the result of cause-and-effect.

Dennett is by no means alone. The existence of free will has been defended vigorously by numerous scientists and materialist philosophers. Why? Surely a major reason is because these thinkers have not really freed themselves entirely from the ideas of Descartes.[6] The very practice of science, as I noted earlier, indeed of any academic discipline, presupposes an objectivity, a certainty, to observation and thought that seemingly is only made possible by some form of dualism. A little later, we will examine from where Descartes derived this certainty.

Cartesian dualism also, I believe, biases many scientific ideas. Consider the question of evolution of consciousness, which I discussed earlier. At that time, I pointed out that a materialist has just two options, either to accept that consciousness adds nothing to unconscious behavior that is advantageous to survival, or to regard consciousness as an intrinsic property of complex nervous systems. Actually, though, there is a third possibility that ought to be much more attractive to a materialist. The scientist could argue that consciousness is identical to nervous activity, nothing but nervous activity--that once we have explained nervous activity we have explained consciousness. Since the activity itself, according to the zombie argument, is sufficient for selection, this view in effect short-cuts the need for any further rationalization of how consciousness evolved.

There are a few philosophers, such as Dennett (1991) and Paul and Patricia Churchland (1990), who seem sympathetic to this view, but to the best of my knowledge they have never used this argument as an explanation for the evolution of consciousness. Why not? I think this reluctance again reflects the fact that they are still in the thrall of Cartesianism, which insists that consciousness is something very different from physical processes. Of course, many perhaps most people would argue that an identity relationship should be rejected, that our experience alone should be enough to show that consciousness is not identical to nervous activity. But for the materialist to take this position suggests an inconsistency—a hedging of bets, so to speak--in her views.

Why Science Believes in God

Earlier I noted Salmon's fourth principle, that science must be silent on what the thing-in-itself or X is. Let's now consider his fifth and final principle:

5. Because scientific methods do not tell us what lies beyond our mind-constructed percepts and constructs, there is no scientific finding that compels us to think of “X” as either conscious or non-conscious, living or non-living, intelligent or non-intelligent.

I have already pointed out that the postmodern view goes considerably further than the Kantian conclusion implied by this principle: the postmodern argues, we not only can't know the thing-in-itself, but that we can't even know whether it exists. This view, though, has problems of its own. It has some disturbing implications, ones that go well beyond skepticism about ultimate reality. If the Kantian view suggests there are limits to what science can know, the postmodern view suggests something even worse: that a great deal of what science “knows” is absurd.

This, in any case, is the view of the philosopher Quentin Meillassoux (2008). Meiilassoux—who comes to praise science, not to bury it—is particularly concerned with its claim to be able to reconstruct the history of the universe, including the earth. As every reasonably informed layperson knows, the use of technology such as radioisotope dating has allowed science to estimate fairly accurately the age of various fossils, and from these data provide us with a general timeline of events on earth that preceded human beings: the first bacterial cells, the first eukaryotes, the first multicellular organisms, and so on. Meillassoux refers to any particular such datum bearing on this ancient world as an “arche-fossil”.

The problem with this, he argues, is that if all we know are subject-object relations, how can science make any claims about what happened before human beings, or at any rate, before conscious subjects, existed? If there is no observer, how can there be an observed? This may sound like the old “if a tree falls in the forest when no one is there, does it make a sound?” debate, but Meillassoux takes great pains to argue that he is concerned with something far more fundamental:

Though ancestrality [our understanding of events that occurred prior to the existence of human beings] is a temporal notion, its definition does not invoke distance in time, but rather anteriority in time. This is why the arche-fossil does not merely refer to an un-witnessed occurrence, but to a non-given occurrence—ancestral reality does not refer to occurrences which a lacunary givenness [a situation in which none of the currently existing humans happens to be present] cannot apprehend, but to occurrences which are not contemporaneous with any givenness, whether lacunary or not. Therein lies its singularity and its critical potency with regard to correlationism.(318-321; emphasis is mine)[7]

Meillassoux wants to argue, in other words, that prior to humans or other conscious observers, there could have been no such thing as objects or events. The notion of an object of any kind only makes sense, to the postmodern mind, in a world where subjects also exist. Even if a particular object or event is not observed, the existence of observers who are contemporaneous with that event is sufficient to provide that object with what he calls “givenness”, the ability to interact with an observer and manifest itself. But if no observers exist at all—if, according to science, they haven't even evolved—then, according to Meillassoux, we have a real problem:

We would then be obliged to maintain what can only appear to the post-critical philosopher as a tissue of absurdities; to wit (and the list is not exhaustive):

  • that being is not co-extensive with manifestation, since events have occurred in the past which were not manifest to anyone;
  • that what is preceded in time the manifestation of what is;
  • that manifestation itself emerged in time and space, and that consequently manifestation is not the givenness of a world, but rather an intra-worldly occurrence;
  • that this event can, moreover, be dated;
  • that thought is in a position to think manifestation's emergence in being, as well as a being or a time anterior to manifestation;
  • that the fossil-matter is the givenness in the present of a being that is anterior to givenness; that is to say, that an arche-fossil manifests an entity's anteriority vis-a-vis manifestation.(227-231)

What in the world is going on here? The fundamental problem Meillassoux is concerned with is the postmodern rejection of an absolute.[8] The purpose of an absolute, basically, is to objectify the world, that is, to guarantee that what we observe around us has an existence independent of us, and is thus not dependent on the fallibilities of a human observer. As I noted earlier, for most philosophers prior to and including Descartes, God served this purpose, because God is understood as an eternal observer, one who is always present.[9] For Kant, the thing-in-itself serves as an absolute. Though unknowable to us, its existence is not doubted as something independent of the human observer.

What about science? Does it believe in an absolute? The answer is generally yes, and again, goes back to Descartes. As I noted earlier, contemporary scientists, while mostly rejecting dualism in their worldview, practice a method which is strongly influenced by the Cartesian view of mind-body dualism. A major premise underlying this method is that it allows them to observe the world objectively or with certainty. Where does this belief in certainty originate? Most scientists would probably be surprised to learn that it is grounded in a belief in God. Descartes began his meditations with arguments for the existence of God, and only after he had established that did he use it to argue that a world beyond our senses exists, and can be accurately apprehended by our observations. While science has added the critically important criterion of replication, where one individual's observations must be confirmed by an intersubjective community of other observers, the notion that any individual's observations could reflect reality ultimately derives from Descartes' God. God, the French philosopher sincerely believed, would not allow our senses to deceive us.

The irony is obvious. Most scientists, of course, do not profess a personal belief in God. According to some polls[10], the majority express an agnosticism on the question, and some scientists, such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, are outspoken in their atheism. But to repeat: to the extent that they believe their observations are capable of apprehending an existence that is independent of these observations, they are expressing a belief in some kind of absolute.

This absolute, for most scientists, is a set of natural laws or parameters, in particular, those that physicists tells us have been critical to the formation of our universe. Given the existence of these laws, the entire evolution of the universe, including that of the earth and our own species, can in principle be understood. But scientists are powerless to understood where these laws themselves came from. To make matters worse, it is now well understood that many of these parameters are very finely-tuned. If their values were changed just very slightly, the universe as we know it could never have evolved.[11]

It is on these laws that Meillassoux focuses his effort to reform the postmodern view. He denies that any of these laws are absolute, and in fact argues that they are contingent—in other words, there was no necessary reason why these particular laws, and not some others, might have come into existence. This is an exceedingly audacious and seemingly nonsensical move. If these laws were and are a product of chance, there seems to be no reason not only why they could have not turned out differently, but even no reason why they shouldn't be changing right now. Contingency implies constant change, like the weather. If not simply the outcomes of natural laws, but the very laws themselves, are contingent, the result should be chaos. One moment the law of gravitation is in force; the next moment some very different law takes over; the moment after, some other law. As Meillassoux notes, we should not even be around to speculate on our existence.

Everything could actually collapse: from trees to stars, from stars to laws, from physical laws to logical laws; and this not by virtue of some superior law whereby everything is destined to perish, but by virtue of the absence of any superior law capable of preserving anything, no matter what, from perishing.(783-785)

Meillassoux's proposed solution to this problem is to argue, in effect, that we really don't understand what contingency means when applied to the entire universe. Specifically, in order to understand chance, we have to have a finite, or more precisely what he calls a totalizable quantity. For example, we can calculate the odds that a particular number will come up on a throw of dice, because we know how many possibilities there are. Meillassoux argues that when it comes to events in the entire universe, the range of possibilities may not be totalizable, so that our understanding of chance no longer applies. Under these conditions, natural laws, though the product of contingency, might prove to be highly stable, as in fact they are observed by scientists to be.

Having made this claim, Meillassoux goes on argue that both Kant's statements about the thing-in-itself—that it is non-contradictory, and that it exists—are true. He is able to derive them from his arguments about the contingency of natural laws. If one buys his reasoning, then, postmodernism has come full circle, from challenging Kant to accepting him. Meillassoux even speculates that his “necessity of contingency” argument ultimately may allow us to return to a form of Cartesianism—stripped of its God--that understands that mathematical principles exist at the root of our universe.

A Universal Non-absolute?

Meillassoux's arguments for the contingency of natural laws are likely to be viewed by many thinkers as problematic. Rather than analyze and discuss them further, I want to point out a rather obvious alternative solution to the original problem that prompted his work—a solution, I believe, that avoids the need for an absolute, and which is therefore more consistent with postmodern thought. If consciousness has always existed, if it is in fact an intrinsic property of all matter, then subject-object relations have likewise always existed. Every event by definition is always associated with an observer. This is not an omnipotent or omniscient observer in the mold of the traditional God—it is in this sense we can say it is not an absolute—but initially a very simple one that nevertheless has the potential to evolve, just as matter apparently did, to become more complex and more intelligent.

This view, traditionally known as panpsychism, but now going by the (presumably more academically respectable) name of property dualism, is not popular with most philosophers. Nevertheless, the idea has found some support in the work of such important thinkers as David Chalmers (1996), David Ray Griffin (1998), and William Seager (1999a,b). One of its most attractive features is that it seems to offer a way out of the materialist-dualist dilemma. As has long been discussed, the key problem with materialism is that consciousness seems to be something very different from the physical processes of the brain. Dualism, on the other hand, suffers from the apparently logical impossibility of something non-material interacting with the material world. Panpsychism, Griffin has argued, cuts through this Gordian knot. I am suggesting here that it may also may offer a resolution to the postmodern problem that requires all existence to be associated with some subject.

I don't know what Meillassoux himself would think about this.[12] He could and probably initially would point out that not only is it extremely difficult to conceive of what it would mean to say that an atom, for example, is conscious, but we apparently have no way of ever testing this notion. As I emphasized earlier, we can't even verify our own consciousness in the traditional manner of establishing knowledge, and of course there is an enormous diversity of opinion when it comes to the subject of consciousness in other forms of life. V.S. Ramachandran, as noted earlier, claims to have discovered criteria that can determine consciousness, and on their basis he would certainly reject the notion of panpsychism (but see note 5).

Yet there is increasing evidence from animal studies that suggest that consciousness may exist more widely in nature than has conventionally been believed (Hauser 2000; Griffin 2001; Beckoff et al. 2002). Currently, many scientists probably view consciousness in much the same way as Gerald Edelman does, described by David Lane as a “bipartite view”. There is the self-consciousness of human beings, and a simpler, non-reflective consciousness of fairly intelligent organisms like dogs.

I think this is another popular scientific view that deserves a long sabbatical. There is no reason why we can't imagine that other organisms are not only conscious, but self-conscious (which presumably they would have to be if they were to function as a subject in the postmodern sense). The key lies in understanding that there can be very different forms of self-consciousness.

We can begin by noting that are two key aspects of human consciousness that distinguish us from most other animals. First, it is associated with a permanent sense of self. This self has been constructed through language and symbolic thought, and we carry it around with us wherever we go,constantly modifying it in a narrative and historical process. Second, we are aware of ourselves as unique, as an individual different from any other person or organism on earth. Both of these aspects are so obvious and deeply-rooted that most views of self-awareness, like those of Edelman, implicitly understand them as essential to what it means to be self-aware, the very definition of self-consciousness.

But neither of these aspects is essential to be conscious or even self-conscious.[13] With regard to permanence, it's possible to imagine an organism having what I call a situational consciousness; it is aware of itself in the present, as distinct from its environment. Philosopher Maxine Sheets-Johnstone (1998) speaks of this kind of consciousness when she argues that even very primitive invertebrates such as earthworms may have some sense of self through kinesthetic or proprioceptive receptors, “an astoundingly varied and intricately detailed biological faculty that allows a creature to know its own body and its own body in movement…”[14] This does not mean that the worm has a concept or permanent understanding of itself, only that part of its awareness of the environment—if we assume that it has any—includes awareness of something separate from that environment, and which is, so to speak, more closely allied with that awareness. The late animal behaviorist Donald Griffin made a somewhat similar point when he noted that

If we grant an animal perceptual consciousness of its own actions, the prohibition against conscious awareness of who is eating or fleeing becomes a somewhat strained and artificial restriction.[15]

With regard to uniqueness, it is likewise conceivable for an organism to have a sense of being separate from the world without a sense of uniqueness or individuality. Insects and many other arthropods seem to exemplify this. They are capable of distinguishing kin from non-kin as well as members of different castes within their kin (Schneider et al. 1999; Lahav et al. 1999; Dani et al. 2004), but with a few rare exceptions, are not capable of distinguishing one individual from another. They have in effect a group consciousness. They sense their membership in a group, but do not sense either themselves or any other member as unique.

Even if it turned out that very simple organisms were conscious in a meaningful way, it would still be a giant step from there to the notion that all existence—individual cells, even molecules and atoms—are likewise conscious. Yet it is well-recognized that non-living forms of existence can interact with their environment in ways that are often analogous to those of organisms. Neurons can communicate with thousands of cells like themselves, recognizing some as distinct from others, suggesting to some thinkers that they, too, might be conscious (Edwards 2005; Sevush 2006). Bacteria can sense and hone in on certain stimuli in the environment by following an intensity gradient (Koshland 1974), in much the same way that simple invertebrates like earthworms and leeches do (Bielecki 1999). Protein molecules like enzymes have long been known to have an exquisite sensitivity to certain shapes. Even quite simple molecules like amino acids can sense and respond to changes in the pH of their environment.

The conventional scientific view, undoubtedly correct as far as it goes, is that consciousness is completely unnecessary to explain phenomena at the cellular and molecular level. But as we have seen, the same is true of the behavior of organisms, even including ourselves. All our behavior could be performed by a zombie, and a higher intelligence, observing our species the way we observe cells and molecules, might well conclude that we, too, are unconscious.[16] We have also seen that a great deal of our behavior is in fact unconscious. Consciousness is like a very weak light that occasionally allows us a fragmentary experience of what we know. Who is to say that this same light, weaker still but always present to some degree, does not shine within the simplest forms of existence?


1. In personal correspondence with me, Don Salmon emphasizes that he does not intend his views to be considered Kantian. However, at the very least, his article raises issues that certainly bring Kant into the discussion, and I will be referring to some of these issues as I go along. The individual reader can decide to what extent what I say about Kant applies to Salmon.

2. For further discussion of zombies, one can hardly do better than David Chalmers's Online Papers on Consciousness site at online. There is a whole section devoted to articles on zombies, by philosophers pro, con and uncertain. There is also an excellent general discussion of all the major issues at the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, at

3. There are different kinds of zombies, according to how similar they are physically to humans. The most similar type would be a being that is exactly the same as a human being, atom for atom. That a zombie like this is even conceivable is denied by many philosophers, however, because if it is, it implies that all the physical processes that actually exist in the brain can occur without consciousness—in other words, that consciousness is something in addition to these processes, rather than being determined by or in some sense emerging from them. The very possibility of such a zombie then would refute materialism or physicalism.

However, one can imagine a zombie that looks, at the gross level, just like a human being, and that acts just like one, but has at least a slightly different physical brain. This kind of zombie, though still rather fantastic, is not inconsistent with materialism, because it could be argued that it lacks certain brain processes that are to essential consciousness. But it could still think and act just like a human being—generally, this is the minimum definition of a zombie—and therefore it would also know everything that humans know, even though all this knowledge would necessarily be unconscious.

4. Lloyd (2006), pp. 118-119.

5. Though the studies of Ramachandran and Hirstein (1977) are suggestive, their conclusions are certainly not compelling. One could argue, for example, that consciousness is associated with the highest or most complex processes in an organism. Thus in humans, reflexes are unconscious not because this type of behavior is always unconscious, but because they are in effect overlaid by more complex processes that are more important to the organism and thus command its attention. In other words, reflexes would have the potential to be conscious, but in humans this potential is not realized, because consciousness is allotted elsewhere. If this were the case, it would be possible to speak of consciousness of a simpler organism that exhibited only reflexive or hard-wired behavior.

In support of this idea, we need look no further than the phenomenon of dreaming. Dreaming may be regarded as a lower state of consciousness that is generally not experienced except when a higher state—our ordinary waking state—is not active. While both states may to some extent coexist during lucid dreaming, this state is not common, and ordinary consciousness is not fully developed when it does occur.

6. One might object that one hardly needs to be influenced by Descartes to believe in free will. Doesn't it seem obvious that our behavior is free? If free will is an illusion, as materialism seems to suggest, isn't the illusion an extremely powerful one?

I believe, however, that this notion that we have free will is not something that has always appeared obvious to human beings. Many cultures in the past, and some today still, have taken a strongly fatalistic view of life. While this fatalism presumably is not based on a sophisticated understanding of materialism—in fact, frequently it has been encouraged by rulers to keep their subjects in line—at the very least it has had the effect of discouraging individuals from thinking about free will. Descartes' ideas were associated with a sea change in this view, making an immense contribution not simply to science, but also to political and social ideas. Modern democracies of course are based on the idea that people can as well as should be able to choose their own fates.

7. Numbers in parentheses refer to the location in the kindle version.

8. The stakes go even beyond the issue of whether we can make sense of scientific prehistory. Meillassoux further argues that without a resolution to this problem, reason has no defense against ideology. If we don't know whether or not an absolute exists, we have no way to criticize any ideology that claims an absolute, no matter how irrational that ideology may appear:

by forbidding reason any claim to the absolute, the end of metaphysics has taken the form of an exacerbated return of the religious… Faith is pitched against faith, since what determines our fundamental choices cannot be rationally proved….Scepticism with regard to the metaphysical absolute thereby legitimates de jure every variety whatsoever of belief in an absolute, the best as well as the worst…As a result, the struggle against what the Enlightenment called 'fanaticism' has been converted into a project of moralization: the condemnation of fanaticism is carried out solely in the name of its practical (ethico-political) consequences, never in the name of the ultimate falsity of its contents…The modern man is he who, even as he stripped Christianity of the ideological (metaphysical) pretension that its belief system was superior to all others, has delivered himself body and soul to the idea that all belief systems are equally legitimate in matters of veracity…the more thought arms itself against dogmatism, the more defenceless it becomes before fanaticism. (673-674; 686-688; 697-698; 706-707; 716-717; 727-728).

This of course is the “all belief systems are morally equivalent” conclusion. It has long been pointed out as a sort of parody of postmodernism, but Meillassoux takes it very seriously. In a time when religious fundamentalism is making a major impact on both national policies (in the U.S. and many European countries) and is an international issue at the root of so much of the world's conflicts, the importance of Meillassoux's project can't be overestimated.

9. This point was made wittily in a famous pair of limericks by Ronald Knox, referring to the philosophy of George Berkeley. Berkeley was noted for his idealism, his belief that everything is mind or consciousness. A standard objection to idealism is that the things we observe, having no existence outside of our minds, must disappear when we aren't observing them. Berkeley avoided this problem by postulating an observer who is omnipresent, viz., God:

There was a young man who said "God
Must find it exceedingly odd
To think that the tree
Should continue to be
When there's no one about in the quad."

"Dear Sir: Your astonishment's odd;
I am always about in the quad.
And that's why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by, Yours faithfully, God."


11. To some scientists, such as biologist Robert Lanza (2009), this is further evidence for believing that consciousness must have been involved from the very beginning of the universe, an idea I will discuss shortly. I have reviewed Lanza's book at my website:

12. As I pointed out in note 8, Meillasssoux views the problem of arche-fossils, or understanding how events occurred at a time when there were no observers, as only a symptom of a larger problem caused by the absence of an absolute. If panpsychism is truly a solution to the scientific problem that does not involve an absolute, then perhaps it would not resolve the more fundamental problems, such as the impossibility of refuting any belief system that claims its own absolute. We seem to need an absolute to avoid the moral equivalence dead end. Since both Meillassoux's contingency argument and panpsychism address a common problem, though, I think it's worth speculating that they may prove to be identical solutions to that problem. That is, a world where contingency of natural laws is necessary may turn out to be one where subjects are present in every form of matter

13. This point can actually be appreciated without any reference to non-human animals. Most people would accept that babies are conscious, but they do not possess either a permanent self or a sense of uniqueness. Both these aspects of consciousness emerge only through development in early life. Yet babies—if not at the moment of birth, in any case, certainly not long after—do have a sense of separation, of being different, from an external world.

14. Sheets-Johnstone (1998), p. 271.

15. Griffin (2001), p. 16.

16. Philosopher Todd Moody (1994) suggests that if a state of higher consciousness exists, the relationship of that to our ordinary consciousness is much like the relationship of the latter to a zombie.


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