Hard or Impossible? Neil Rickert’s attempt to ‘explain consciousness.’

Neil Rickert was at it again attempting to ‘explain consciousness’ over at PS at the imperative-phrased invitation of Joshua Swamidass to: “Tell me how you think consciousness evolved.” https://discourse.peacefulscience.org/t/rickerts-ideas-on-consciousness/3684/

Neil had written this: “What it really boils down to, is that there is no such thing as metaphysical truth. There is only conventional truth. And different social groups will disagree over their social conventions.”

TSZ poster BruceS answered Neil’s challenge and addressed part of its background assumptions: “Another fan of Rorty-style pragmatism… Seems to be a cult among TSZ moderators.” So perhaps this is worth discussing here as well (though obviously the lone religious theist moderator at TSZ Mung was forgotten in BruceS’s comment).

I too reject the notion that “there is only conventional truth,” a view, however, that this site’s founder Elizabeth Liddle also seemed to hold. In the fields I have studied, this is a view held largely by social constructivists, which is often turned into a kind of ‘sociologism’ – the ideology that holds all things can be explained by appeal to societies or groups alone. This view, however, unfortunately comes at the cost of other ‘truths’.

Thus, I respectfully disagree with Neil and believe that the claim “there is no such thing as metaphysical truth” is just his own convenient fiction. It would seem that he has taken a massive detour away from ‘metaphysical truth’ and is now trying to ‘explain’ something that cannot actually be explained. Additionally, it appears that this detour has had to do largely with an attempt to create a ‘religion substitute,’ along the lines of Daniel Dennett’s evolutionistic-atheist worldview.

Rickert tells: “I was a deeply committed Christian for part of my life. But I came to doubt that, long before I started to study human cognition.” https://discourse.peacefulscience.org/t/rickerts-ideas-on-consciousness/3684/4 It thus seems that it was instead a reaction against YECism that had an important role in Neil leaving whatever Christian community he had been ‘deeply committed’ to, prior to taking up a pastime study of human cognition. If not for YECists, he might still believe in metaphysical truth & a Creator who loves us – all people – even Neil.

Rickert writes about his, “study of consciousness, where I have to look at how people make conscious assessments of what is true.” He admits that he holds “a view which many people – perhaps most people – will see as wrong. That’s why it is difficult to explain consciousness.” Yet, this makes the mistake of suggesting that it is merely other peoples’ fault why he can’t ‘explain consciousness,’ rather than taking responsibility for his inability or lack of success to convince others about how ‘consciousness evolved’ (implied: naturalistically, without need, use or role for a supernatural Creator) on himself. Maybe ‘consciousness’ simply can’t be ‘explained’ and hence there is little value in trying to do so (unless or even if one is trained as a PhD in the field and has made it their life’s passion). Otherwise, I don’t understand the ‘that’s why’ implied in Neil’s assessment of the professed difficulty of ‘explaining consciousness.’

I find the rejection of YECism dilemma fascinating and surely relevant for the TSZ community, most of whom reject YECism. It is not one commonly faced where I grew up, so please excuse if my questions come across as ignorant or insensitive. However, I did personally face and had to grapple with the ideology of YECism as told to me by a person who I highly respect still to this day and who has become a very successful practitioner in his chosen field of study & expertise (non-academic), which has nothing to do with the age of the earth. I even thought YECism had some glimpse of merit for a time, before realising that what had to be ignored and discounted in order to remain a YECist displayed errors too voluminous to seriously entertain.

Does rejection of YECism lead some people into a crisis of faith? How do we face or encounter YECists as still respectable and worthy human beings even though we wholeheartedly disagree with the ideology that they have embraced (as part of their consciousness)? I believe Neil is right to wonder about these things. And I believe it would be wrong to act unjustly towards or to treat people in an inhumane way simply because they hold an ideology that is damaging usually to no one other than themselves and their local religious community, as if I held any power as ultimate judge over the care for their souls by demanding that they turn away from ideological YECism.

“We can, of course, sit back smugly knowing that we are right and that the YECs are wrong.  But, at the same time, the YECs can sit back smugly knowing that they are right and that we are wrong.” … “People do not like explanations of what they already take for granted.  They don’t believe that an explanation is needed, since they already take it for granted.  And, if pointing out that what they take for granted depends, in part, on social conventions, then they are likely to see that as questioning what they take for granted. / This is why it is hard to explain consciousness.” – Neil Rickert https://nwrickert.wordpress.com/2019/02/21/the-hard-problem-of-consciousness/

My concern with the social constructivist and ‘social convention’ approach to ‘truth’ is that it places the utmost difficulty on the doorsteps of other people, rather than accepting responsibility on one’s own doorstep by insisting that one *can* ‘explain consciousness.’ It is surely unfortunate, however, because Neil may not have had to face this dilemma in a different Christian community, given that YECists constitute a rather large minority view among Christians worldwide (despite what R. Byers says). Indeed, most Christians don’t get upset with each other about ‘evolution’ or ‘consciousness’ as they go about their regular lives of prayer and worship and aren’t upset by it in their beliefs or relationships with others at their local churches.

Another option, one that Rickert might like to consider, is that consciousness is something that can’t actually be explained, certainly not ‘scientifically’. It may even be a God-given reflection of human beings as ‘ensouled’ creatures. Consciousness may thus simply be always something greater than what can be grasped by highly limited, finite human minds, rather than a temptation toward trying to become god-like in our self-understanding; a topic not meant for full comprehension. At some point, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Bahai’s and others must simply admit we don’t have all of the answers and consciousness, as well as some ‘metaphysical truths,’ are surely strong candidates for such an admission.

Leaving the Church because one can’t understand/explain why YECists couldn’t change their minds when faced with a huge amount of ‘strictly scientific’ evidence for an ‘old earth’ may indeed be felt by some as a very difficult but necessary situation to face. It is not one that perplexes me and I have never faced any pressure from a religious person inside a ‘house of worship’ to adopt their hypothesis about the age of the Earth. I have been calmly told about their views, but never with insistence. There is help, however, for those who have experienced pressure or insistence. Indeed, this is precisely what the BioLogos Foundation was built to encounter, as it is made up largely of former YECists who didn’t turn away from religious faith but found a way to embrace theology without accepting YECism, i.e. while rejecting YECist ideology.

Please consider this as an attempt at understanding and simply offering an answer to Rickert’s dilemma, rather than at dictating any particular solution to the problem. As it involves his own personal history that he has volunteered on the internet on this extremely sensitive topic, I certainly do not wish to put any words in Neil’s mouth or to misrepresent him or his view. I do not wish to ‘out’ his thoughts or character about anything he wishes to keep private. Please do forgive my inability to ‘explain’ these things more clearly, as I’m just trying to understand what if any link there might be between rejecting ‘metaphysical truth,’ trying to ‘explain consciousness’ and leaving a church due to what might appear as YECist fanaticism and refusal to accept scientific knowledge about the Earth, creatures and people on it.

263 thoughts on “Hard or Impossible? Neil Rickert’s attempt to ‘explain consciousness.’

  1. petrushka,

    I’m still interested in your response to this:

    You’re back to talking about usefulness, but the issue is whether a sentence like “Joe was born in 1948” can actually be true or false.

    I submit that “Joe was born in 1948” is true if in reality, Joe was born in 1948.

    Do you disagree?

    Do you agree that there is a fact of the matter regarding Joe’s birth year? (Assuming that Joe exists, that his birth didn’t straddle the stroke of midnight on December 31st, etc.).

  2. keiths: There’s a difference in reality, and not just by convention, between an event happening 40.1 earth revolutions after the Tunguska event versus one happening 44.6 earth revolutions PT (post Tunguska).

    I’m not attempting to leave reality out. However, our ability to reference reality depends on conventions. Leave out the social conventions, and you are left with a subjective reality. Leave out your private internal “conventions” (or whatever the private equivalent of “convention” should be called), and you are left with no reality at all — except perhaps what William James called “a blooming buzzing confusion”.

  3. Neil,

    I’m not attempting to leave reality out. However, our ability to reference reality depends on conventions.

    The Tunguska event depended on solar system physics, not on human conventions. Yet your claim is that all truth is conventional:

    What it really boils down to, is that there is no such thing as metaphysical truth. There is only conventional truth. And different social groups will disagree over their social conventions.

    If a “social group” adopts the convention that the Tunguska event never happened, then their convention is not a “conventional truth” — it’s a conventional falsehood.

  4. keiths: If a “social group” adopts the convention that the Tunguska event never happened, then their convention is not a “conventional truth” — it’s a conventional falsehood.

    As so often happens, you manage to completely miss the point.

    I am not suggesting someone should or would adopt the convention “the Tunguska event never happened”. Rather, I am saying that our ability to talk about or know about the Tunguska event already depends on many social conventions.

  5. Bruce,

    Internalism doesn’t prevent language from being tied scientifically to concepts; far from it.

    In fact, I’ve already mentioned a scenario — the fluency test — in which your history-based externalism would actually impede the establishment of a such a connection, whereas internalism wouldn’t.

    Suppose Swampman is zapped into existence, and his physically identical non-Swampman counterpart is struck by the same lightning bolt. They stumble out of the swamp, dazed and singed.

    They are accosted by a pair of scientists who wish to study the effects of lightning strikes on verbal competence. The scientists administer an extensive battery of English-language fluency tests to the two, each of whom passes the tests with an outstanding score.

    The first scientist, a history-based externalist, says “Well, that was a bust. We have no idea whether either of these guys understands English. After all, we don’t know their histories.” The second scientist looks askance at his colleague and says “What are you talking about? They both passed our tests with flying colors. Of course they understand English.”

  6. Neil,

    I am not suggesting someone should or would adopt the convention “the Tunguska event never happened”.

    I didn’t say you were.

    What you are claiming is that all truth is conventional truth, and that’s just goofy.

    That the Tunguska event happened, in reality, is independent of human convention.

    Suppose the UN General Assembly unanimously passes a resolution stating that the Tunguska event never happened, and every person on the planet endorses it. It will still be true that the Tunguska event happened.

    The UN resolution will contain a conventional falsehood, not a conventional truth.

  7. keiths:
    Alan:

    Both hemispheres process language, and that’s the basis for many split-brain experiments.

    I didn’t refer to hemispheres. But let me rephrase and say half (in broad terms) the brain’s activity is nonverbal.

    Out for the day but this BBC video might be of interest.

  8. keiths:

    These are the same debates that KN and I had about functional versus historical ways to understand norms for mental representations. The Piccinini paper I mentioned gives a nice summary of the positions there.

    I’m not interested in pursuing the logical nuances of the twin earth and swampman thought experiments, since they have nothing to do with science. I prefer my philosophy to be grounded in good science.

    You are right to link the issue to scientific practice. That is what the Piccinini paper I mentioned earlier and the Shea book try to do.

    I should confess one thing: I have mentioned approvingly the linguists Jackendoff and Evans. To the extent that these two can be slotted into the traditional philosophical categories, I think they are best called internalists, especially about language itself but also about meaning in language. That is why I did a goal post move into concepts; those two authors are less easily classified when it comes to concepts.

    ETA: In particular, I agree with you when you say

    Internalism doesn’t prevent language from being tied scientifically to concepts; far from it.

    It’s concepts that need externalism of a sort to provide norms. Or at least so says teleosemantics. Here I am taking the standard view that concepts are a type of mental representation (but as noted in 1.4 of this link, that does not exclude other ways of understanding them)
    https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/concepts/#OntCon.

  9. Neil Rickert: W”Scientists do choose between paradigms, and they usually see that choosing as rational.However, it is a pragmatic choice rather than a logical choice, so if you equate “rational” with “logical” then it would not be rational.

    Of course I agree with you. I was just trying to describe a standard interpretation of SSR; the one preferred by some post modernists. I’m not saying I agreed with the interpretation.

    I’t been a while since I read his article, but I recall Kitcher having a more nuanced but still appreciative understanding of Kuhn’s major contributions to philosophy and sociology of science.

  10. keiths:

    More on the conflict with physicalism later.

    Been there, done that with you (we had spirited exchanged on physicalism as supervening on the current state of the universe, where “current” is taken as in the reference frame of the mental representation process under consideration, and which would therefore include the physics-type of information from past events in the past light cone of the events in that process.)

    You are welcome to have another go at it, but I won’t be involved this time around.

    Ironically, the causal history approach is offered by materialist philosophers as a way of naturalisting norms for representation — that is, as a counter to those non-materialist philosophers saying such norms lie outside the scope of science!

  11. Kantian Naturalist:

    It seems to me that Brandom was basically right to argue that understanding a concept amounts to knowing how to knowing how to track the valid inferences drawn from the use of a word in a sentence.

    My problem with this is it ties concepts to language use. That’s the wrong way around for me.

    I prefer understanding concepts in an evolutionary context, that is understanding how animals have concepts, likely as mental representations underlying dispositions to action.

    Then proceed to understanding how human language use enriches our repertoire of concepts. The Evans book I mentioned (“Crucible of Language”) takes a go at that starting from the view that concepts we inherit from evolutionary analysis are perception-based, and then using cognitive linguistics to explore how language extends the possibilities for concepts in human meaning, eg by adding abstractions, like redness as an abstract property being added to red pre se as perception-based concept.

    I hope that PP can be used to understand at least the perception-based concepts, but Evans does not go that way. He uses instead Barselou’s work on perception and concepts.

    Another interesting aspect of cognitive linguistics is the theory that even abstract concepts are in part embodied, eg as in Lakoff’s work. This has neuroscientific evidence — the same brain areas are activated for thinking about abstract concepts as in the control of the body actions they can be understood as relating to.

  12. Neil Rickert: My read was that Erik was trying to compare a paradigm about the solar system with the solar system itself.

    Do you agree that science can make progress in the sense that a later theory is progress over an earlier one when the later theory is able to successfully predict a wider set of phenomena than the earlier one, while still including all the phenomena covered by the earlier one? GR versus Newtonian gravity would be one example.

    I do agree it is a separate step from that notion of scientific progress to the notion that the reason science makes progress is because theories are doing a better job of representing and referring to structures (or maybe entities) of reality. I think that is where you and I part company.

    There is the further view that we can characterize theories as “converging” to a limit theory, where this theory limit is true in the Peircean sense of truth meaning indefeasible by further scientific inquiry.

    Here I am focusing on the word ‘converging’ which has a mathematical limit connotation for me and for you as well I suspect. There is a Jay Rosenberg paper that tries to justify that mathematical sense; I believe KN first mentioned it and we had an exchange on it some time ago. I’m not interesting in going there again; I just want to mention that is could be seen s involved since ‘converging’ has been used in this context.

    (The paper is “Comparing the Incommensurable: Another Look at Convergent Realism”)

  13. Kantian Naturalist: It’s kind of weird to see a sociologist quoting Pascal without even an attempt to show that Pascal’s claim has any empirical support.

    I guess one difference between us & what makes that seem weird to you is that I’m a human being too, not just a specialized academic quack, or a philosophistic ethno-religious apostate who clings to so many contradictory ideologies in their ‘secular-agnostic’ worldview that they appear proudly & profoundly confused. Why would experiencing that spiritual vacuum, KN, require empirical support? Even you may have such a vacuum in your ‘selfless’ heart though admitting that would require more humility & wisdom than you usually display here as you celebrate the worship of Science above ‘mere theology’.

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