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.

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

  1. Neil,

    If you take the world as being a certain way, independent of us, then you are left with us as passive observers and with our brains and cognitive systems having nothing much to do.

    That’s silly. As KN already pointed out, we still have to figure out how to interact with the world in order to achieve our goals.

    Besides that, there is the enormous project of learning about the world. It’s not passive to build particle accelerators and send spacecraft to other planets, nor does it amount to “having nothing much to do” cognitively. Quite the opposite.

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  2. Neil,

    But, for the sake of this post, I’ll assume realism.

    You’ve already (possibly inadvertently) committed yourself to realism with this bit:

    Instead, we should think of that cookie dough as lumpy — I think I’ve used that term before. And some of those lumps are more useful to us than others. So we carve up the dough in order to get to the most useful lumps. And that emphasis on usefulness is pragmatism.

    The lumps are already out there in reality. The carving doesn’t create them.

    For example, the lumps we happen to call the planets, the earth, the moon, and the sun all move in a certain way relative to each other. They don’t consult us before deciding how to move. The lumps do what the lumps do, and it’s our job to figure that out.

    Likewise, it’s an animal’s job to distinguish the lumps that qualify as food from the lumps that don’t. The lumps don’t consult the animal before deciding whether to be food or not. The lumps do what the lumps do, and it’s the animal’s job to figure out which are food and which aren’t. An animal doesn’t die of starvation because it classifies everything in the surroundings as non-food. It dies because it cannot find enough lumps that are — in reality — food.

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  3. keiths: For example, the lumps we happen to call the planets, the earth, the moon, and the sun all move in a certain way relative to each other. They don’t consult us before deciding how to move. The lumps do what the lumps do…

    Whilst I’d agree with this, what puzzles me is that you think it needs saying. Does anyone disagree?

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  4. keiths: it’s an animal’s job to distinguish the lumps that qualify as food from the lumps that don’t. The lumps don’t consult the animal before deciding whether to be food or not. The lumps do what the lumps do, and it’s the animal’s job to figure out which are food and which aren’t. An animal doesn’t die of starvation because it classifies everything in the surroundings as non-food. It dies because it cannot find enough lumps that are — in reality — food.

    Ditto. Animals live by maintaining themselves out of eqilibrium with their surroundings and even simple bacteria use a certain level of awareness to assist them. Who do you think is disagreeing with this?

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  5. Neil:
    We are in a world of things, and those things bear relationships to one another. What counts as a thing is fixed independent of us (therefore fixed by a presumed god). The relations are also fixed independent of us. The job of science is to catalog the things and relations. And, supposedly, induction is used for finding relations, even though induction could not possibly work.

    keiths:
    For example, the lumps we happen to call the planets, the earth, the moon, and the sun all move in a certain way relative to each other. They don’t consult us before deciding how to move. The lumps do what the lumps do, and it’s our job to figure that out.

    I’m struggling to see any intrinsic difference between these views.

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  6. Neil:

    We are in a world of things, and those things bear relationships to one another. What counts as a thing is fixed independent of us (therefore fixed by a presumed god). The relations are also fixed independent of us. The job of science is to catalog the things and relations. And, supposedly, induction is used for finding relations, even though induction could not possibly work.

    keiths:

    For example, the lumps we happen to call the planets, the earth, the moon, and the sun all move in a certain way relative to each other. They don’t consult us before deciding how to move. The lumps do what the lumps do, and it’s our job to figure that out.

    Alan:

    I’m struggling to see any intrinsic difference between these views.

    Ha ha. What you quoted isn’t Neil’s view. It’s his description of a view he does not hold.

    And besides, the two quoted views have an obvious difference. The first is theistic, and mine isn’t. Did you really think Neil was a theist?

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  7. keiths: Ha ha. What you quoted isn’t Neil’s view. It’s his description of a view he does not hold.

    My mistake. What I relied on was walto’s comment here

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  8. keiths: And besides, the two quoted views have an obvious difference. The first is theistic, and mine isn’t. Did you really think Neil was a theist?

    Not obvious to me. What is the obvious difference?

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  9. keiths:

    And besides, the two quoted views have an obvious difference. The first is theistic, and mine isn’t. Did you really think Neil was a theist?

    Alan:

    Not obvious to me. What is the obvious difference?

    God, Alan. Literally. The difference is God:

    What counts as a thing is fixed independent of us (therefore fixed by a presumed god).

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  10. keiths:
    keiths:

    Alan:

    God, Alan.Literally.The difference is God:

    OK, And what difference does that make in reality?

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  11. Neil Rickert: Everybody else:Science is about coming up with grand rules that govern the universe, and something like induction is presumed to be the way of coming up with such rules.

    I have no idea why you think that summarizes my views. You are way off.

    I guess by your idea of truth there is a language community where your assertion about me is true. So there is that possibility.

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  12. BruceS: I have no idea why you think that summarizes my views. You are way off.

    Would it not help to clarify what your view is in that case.

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  13. Neil Rickert: There are two different problems as I see it.

    I agree with both of those concerns and they both are issues that scientific realists must deal with.

    I think they can be dealt with. I think you do not think they can so they provide two more reasons for you to reject scientific realism. Rejecting scientific realism is not a lonely position at al;, you have lots of company from philosophers.

    So I hope that makes you feel less lonely.

    On the other hand, being the company of philosophers be a club that you have a Marxist attitude towards. Groucho-ian Marxism, that is.

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  14. Alan Fox: Would it not help to clarify what your view is in that case.

    Um, re-read my credo and the other things I have said in this thread and all over TSZ tell me why you think I believe anything like that.

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  15. BruceS,
    I don’t. If you’ve made a definitive declaration here, would it be too much trouble to link to it?

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  16. Alan:

    Would it not help to clarify what your view is in that case.

    Bruce:

    Um, re-read my credo and tell me why you think it says that.

    You’re assuming that Alan read it in the first place.

    Keep in mind that he couldn’t even be bothered to read the entire quote from Neil that he copied and pasted.

    ETA: Or to figure out that it didn’t express Neil’s views.

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  17. keiths: You’re assuming that Alan read it in the first place.

    Keep in mind that he couldn’t even be bothered to read the entire quote from Neil that he copied and pasted.

    True I haven’t followed the whole thread closely as it has become somewhat repetitive and hasn’t really addressed the question of consciousness. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone attempt a definition. (I happen to think it’s impossible). And when folks don’t link to their quotes it is time consuming to track them down.

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  18. Alan Fox: True I haven’t followed the whole thread closely as it has become somewhat repetitive and hasn’t really addressed the question of consciousness. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone attempt a definition. (I happen to think it’s impossible). And when folks don’t link to their quotes it is time consuming to track them down.

    You are right about both the repetition and the O/T direction. I am not sure how we got diverted from consciousness.

    In summary: science is not about laws, it is about prediction, explanation, control. It does not do that by creating laws, it does that by creating theories and models. These outcomes are judged for usefulness in meeting the goals of science and hence their suitability for consensus adoption by the relevant scientific community. The judgement is according to a set of the norms for that community. The community itself maintains and improves those norms, again though understanding their contribution to success in meeting the goals of science.

    There is then a further argument to scientific realism based on that being the Inference to the Best Explanation of why science is so successful in creating theories and models which make novel predictions. But scientific realism is not needed to understand the nature of science itself. Scientific realism is a philosophical thesis, separate from the nature and practices of science itself.

    As I admitted upthread, I was careless about mixing theories and models at one point. I may have been careless about laws versus theories and models too. If so, mea culpa.

    The above admittedly does not distinguish science from pseudo science. That has to be judged externally to the scientific community being considered. I have posted about that at places in TSZ. I will leave finding them as a Google exercise for the reader.

    Please print this note and paste it to your monitor for subsequent reference.

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  19. Bruce, to Alan:

    Please print this note and paste it to your monitor for subsequent reference.

    Heh. Do you think he’ll actually bother to read it?

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  20. BruceS: You are right about both the repetition and the O/T direction.I am not sure how we got diverted from consciousness.

    No big deal but it would be nice to discuss consciousness one day.

    In summary:science is not about laws, it is about prediction, explanation, control.It does not do that by creating laws, it does that by creating theories and models.These outcomes are judged for usefulness in meeting the goals of science and hencetheir suitability for consensus adoption by the relevant scientific community.The judgement is according to a set of the norms for that community.The community itself maintains and improves those norms, again though understanding their contribution to success in meeting the goals of science.

    There is then a further argument to scientific realism based on that being the Inference to the Best Explanation of why science is so successful in creating theories and models which make novel predictions.But scientific realism is not needed to understand the nature of science itself.Scientific realism is a philosophical thesis, separate from the nature and practices of science itself.

    That makes sense to me. Perhaps except for scientific realism being separate from scientific practice. Depends on definitions.

    As I admitted upthread, I was careless about mixing theories and models at one point.I may have been careless about laws versus theories and models too.If so, mea culpa.

    Sometimes I assume too much when discussing a concept and thinking other peoiple share my preconceptions.

    The above admittedly does not distinguish science from pseudo science.That has to be judged externally to the scientific community being considered.I have posted about that at places in TSZ.I will leave finding them as a Google exercise for the reader.

    Science, technology and engineering often result in planes that fly; cargo-cult science, not so much.

    Please print this note and paste it to your monitor for subsequent reference.

    No need. It mostly aligns with what I think, today at least. Only liars need to remember their lines.

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  21. Alan Fox: No need. It mostly aligns with what I think, today at least. Only liars need to remember their lines.

    Depends on your age. I can forget what i had for breakfast.

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