Nagel, Atheism, and the Problem of Consciousness

The problem of mind and consciousness is captured well in a recent article on the hostile reception to atheist Thomas Nagel's book which questions the long-prevailing, materialist assumptions behind evolutionary naturalism. Regrettably, Nagel does not yet seem to have taken the step of reconsidering his own atheistic assumptions in light of naturalism's problems with consciousness. The article reads, in part:

As the New Republic‘s Leon Wieseltier, a rare supporter, put it: “For the bargain-basement atheism of our day, it is not enough that there be no God: there must be only matter.”

Though mind remains a major topic in philosophy, it has been traditionally shunted to the edges of the physical sciences, in favour of a quantitative, math-based understanding of physical laws. Even when it takes a central role, as in neuroscience, consciousness is frequently described as simple information processing, as if brains were nothing more than computers made of meat, with consciousness as a running program – known as the computational theory of mind.

This theory is evident in U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent pledge to raise $3-billion for a “Brain Activity Map” and the European Union’s funding of a $1.3-billion Human Brain Project.

Both these projects seek to map the functions of grey matter. To question this foundational theory, however, even to sketch its limitations, is to invite scorn.

Prof. Pinker, whose tweet is one of the snarkiest reviews of Prof. Nagel’s book, believes the computational theory of mind resolves the paradox of how mind emerges from matter.

“It says that beliefs and desires are information, incarnated as configurations of symbols. The symbols are the physical states of bits of matter, like chips in a computer or neurons in the brain,” he wrote in How the Mind Works. “Computation has finally demystified mentalistic terms.”

Philosophers point out this fails to solve the “hard problem” of consciousness. The soft problems are how to explain the various functions of the brain, as the Brain Activity Map would do. The hard problem is how to explain what it feels like to be conscious, to explain mind in terms of matter, not just describe it.