Back Goldfinch looking backwards

When I accepted the challenge from the library friend to undertake to prove that mind could exist apart from matter, I thought to look around for the opposite view to find out just what proof to the contrary I had to deal with. At first it rather surprised me that I could find no actual argument to that effect. I found many scientists who were clearly taking the position for granted and a very few who went so far as to say explicitly that mind was entirely a product of matter (Sir Frances Crick in his The Astonishing Hypothesis was one). But there was no demonstration or just explicit argument to that effect.

Eventually though (after some months) I did discover a direct effort to prove the position — it is Thomas Huxley’s essay “On the Hypothesis that Animals Are Automata” from 1874. As I came to it from a neuroscientist’s book arguing the contrary (Brain Wars by Mario Beauregard) and have seen it cited now in a couple of other places, I am presently supposing it to be the last-known and best argument for a position that so many people hold without knowing exactly why. I think they are like my friend in supposing the scientists have testable findings to that effect. Huxley’s argument does involve some explicit tests on frogs and one very interesting case history of a French soldier suffering a strange war psychosis, but it amounts to question begging as regards consciousness. As we shall see.

So here goes.

I’ll quote Huxley from the pages of the original book indicated in the pdf linked above right. Thus 199 is the first page of the text there. This is the 2nd paragraph:

But, in the seventeenth century, the idea that the physical processes of life are capable of being explained in the same way as other physical phenomena, and, therefore, that the living body is a mechanism, was proved to be true for certain classes of vital actions; and, having thus taken [200] firm root in irrefragable fact, this conception has not only successfully repelled every assault which has been made upon it, but has steadily grown in force and extent of application, until it is now the expressed or implied fundamental proposition of the whole doctrine of scientific Physiology. (199-200)

My emphasis, as it will be in all the following quotations. Too bad that I am unaware of the assaults that have been made on what seems to a modern a pretty innocuous truth. Given the subject of this essay, I imagine the assaults must have been aimed at what is likely an unstated component of the underlined claim — that the very life that appears to be in the body is also of a mechanical nature and so doomed to death when the mechanism fails at last.

A quick glance at the Life section of the Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy will reveal that there is no generally accepted definition of life today. My copy of Campbell, Reece & Mitchell’s Biology 5th edition (1999) confirms that indirectly by confining itself to statements like this: “Life resists a simple, one-sentence definition because it is associated with numerous emergent properties.” It has a nice page of pictures listing “Some properties of life” that starts with “(a) Order: All other characteristics of life emerge from an organism’s complex organization...” (4-5). That leaves open the question of where order comes from.

Since Huxley’s essay is of interest to us for its materialist take on consciousness, I found it interesting also to look up “consciousness” at the SEP and discovered that their author for that section feels that we must not even speak of life as such:

Since the demise of vitalism, we do not think of life per se as something distinct from living things. There are living things including organisms, states, properties and parts of organisms, communities and evolutionary lineages of organisms, but life is not itself a further thing, an additional component of reality, some vital force that gets added into living things. We apply the adjectives “living” and “alive” correctly to many things, and in doing so we might be said to be attributing life to them but with no meaning or reality other than that involved in their being living things. (Section 2.3 here on 20120716)

I thought that made a certain sense, and it seemed to me one ought, then, to reason the same way about consciousness. Not something distinct from conscious things.  However, that doesn’t hold for an article on consciousness: .

It must be that this chary approach to life is part of the same, contemporary world view that militates against mind having any existence apart from matter. Stephen J. Gould, both a significant evolutionary biologist & paleontologist (coauthor of the punctuated equilibrium theory of evolution) and a great science writer, expresses both the essential difficulty biologists have with life and their uneasiness with it as he defines the systems approach in biology:

First, nothing in biology contradicts the laws of physics and chemistry; any adequate biology must be consonant with the “basic” sciences. Second, the principles of physics and chemistry are not sufficient to explain complex biological objects because new properties emerge as a result of organization and interaction. These properties can only be understood by the direct study of whole, living systems in their normal state. Third, the insufficiency of physics and chemistry to encompass life records no mystical addition, no contradiction to the basic sciences, but only reflects the hierarchy of natural objects and the principle of emergent properties at higher levels of organization. (Quoted in Connie Barlow, ed, From Gaia to Selfish Genes. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994. 103.)

It distresses me to see these scientists running so hard away from anything that smacks of “the mystical.” Looks like Gould thinks recording a mystical addition would be a contradiction to the basic sciences. Which would seem to me to mean that science has defined itself in such a way that it cannot discover anything mystical, no matter what. So if Jesus walked into a science lab and started turning sulphuric acid into wine, what would all the white coats do? Maybe call that emergent miracles? And reassure us that it records no mystical addition. The Laws of Nature are still safely wrapped up in their approved basic science box.

Moving on with Huxley, however, I propose to follow him along in his slow argument, looking out along the way for the interests of the nonlocal mind theory. It is far more economical to do that in the form of a running commentary directly on the pages of his paper, which also permits the interested reader to see everything Huxley is saying, and not just some parts I am pulling out for commentary here. Anyone interested in the argument may jump to this pdf and follow along. It is formatted to allow the reader to add comments alongside my own. (Adobe Reader is available on line without charge and permits doing this.)

Here is a link to Huxley’s essay (in pdf format) that was working on 20120714.

I should also recognize Corliss Lamont’s The Illusion of Immortality (1990). First published in 1935, fifth edition (!) 1990. It is the direct argument that Chris Carter pays attention to in his own argument for mind apart from matter. See my presentation of Carter here. I’ve checked the book out of the library now, so I’ll take a look at it and report back eventually. 20120717.


First published Fri Jun 18, 2004; substantive revision Mon Aug 16, 2004

Perhaps no aspect of mind is more familiar or more puzzling than consciousness and our conscious experience of self and world. The problem of consciousness is arguably the central issue in current theorizing about the mind. Despite the lack of any agreed upon theory of consciousness, there is a widespread, if less than universal, consensus that an adequate account of mind requires a clear understanding of it and its place in nature. We need to understand both what consciousness is and how it relates to other, nonconscious, aspects of reality.

    1. History of the issue

    2. Concepts of consciousness

        2.1 Creature consciousness

        2.2 State consciousness

        2.3 Consciousness as an entity

    3. Problems of consciousness

    4. The descriptive question: What are the features of consciousness?

        4.1 First-person and third-person data

        4.2 Qualitative character

        4.3 Phenomenal structure

        4.4 Subjectivity

        4.5 Self-perspectival organization

        4.6 Unity

        4.7 Intentionality and transparency

        4.8 Dynamic flow

    5. The explanatory question: How can consciousness exist?

        5.1 Diverse explanatory projects

        5.2 The explanatory gap

        5.3 Reductive and non-reductive explanation

        5.4 Prospects for explanatory success

    6. The functional question: Why does consciousness exist?

        6.1 Causal status of consciousness

        6.2 Flexible control

        6.3 Social coordination

        6.4 Integrated representation

        6.5 Informational access

        6.6 Freedom of will

        6.7 Intrinsic motivation

        6.8 Constitutive and contingent roles

    7. Theories of consciousness

    8. Metaphysical theories of consciousness

        8.1 Dualist theories

        8.2 Physicalist theories

    9. Specific theories of consciousness

        9.1 Higher-order theories

        9.2 Representational theories

        9.3 Cognitive theories

        9.4 Neural theories

        9.5 Quantum theories

        9.6 Nonphysical theories

    10. Conclusion


    Other Internet Resources

    Related Entries

Rupert Sheldrake sheds some light on the contemporary protest: “Descartes’ mechanical philosophy {it was called the mechanical philosophy} involved a conscious rejection of the old scholastic orthodoxy still taught in universities. In this Aristotelian tradition, the world was alive; nature was animate and contained within herself her own principle of life and her own ends; all living beings had souls. Descartes expelled all souls and purposes from nature; only human beings had conscious minds and conscious purposes, because their rational minds, like God’s, were spiritual and therefore not part of the material world” (47-48, The Presence of the Past, 2nd ed, London, Icon Books. My emphasis.) When Descartes heard what happened to Galileo, he decided to suppress publication of his treatise on man (”de homine”). That was 1633. He did publish it in Latin in 1642.