Consciousness is unexplained; therefore Intelligent Design

by Neil Rickert

Of course I completely disagree with the claim that is suggested by my title line.  However, people are making that argument, so I want to comment.

Apparently, Thomas Nagel makes that kind of argument in his book “Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False“, or at least that is what I have gleaned from a recent review.  I have not read Nagel’s book myself — I don’t think I have the patience.  His reasoning in “What is it like to be a bat?” was already hard to take.

Religious apologists often make a similar argument.  And it is easy to see why, for they want to point to what they see as a gap where they might locate their god of the gaps.  But, as far as I know, Nagel is not a theist.

The Hard Problem

David Chalmers has formulated the question of consciousness into the form that he named “the hard problem.”  It is the question of explaining our perceptual experience, and Chalmers often discusses that in terms of qualia.  He contrasts it with easy problems, such as our ability to discriminate.

Presumably, Chalmers takes the easy problems to be easy, because we could design a mechanical robot which acts is if it had solved the easy problem.  But, as of yet, there is no known way to design a mechanical robot that would have conscious experiences of its world (that would experience qualia).

If our meaning of “explain consciousness” is that we must present a design for a conscious system, then our failure to explain consciousness is surely a failure of design.  The puzzle, then, is why someone such as Nagel would see it as evidence of a failure of evolution and as evidence in favor of design.

My own view

As I see it, our whole approach to these questions is mistaken.  Designing a mechanical robot to discriminate does not really solve the problem of discrimination.  For, in some sense, all we have done is designed a mechanical apparatus to carry out our discriminations in accordance with how we want them done, as a kind of proxy actor on our behalf.  But, of course, that is a limitation of the design approach that dominates thought on such questions.

To really solve the discrimination problem, we would need to explain how an autonomous system can decide for itself what discriminations to make, and by what means to make such discriminations.  A design approach only explains how we can impose our ideas on the designed entity.  So I see the whole idea of design as a mistaken approach to questions such as discrimination or consciousness.  We should, instead, be investigating how abilities to discriminate could have evolved.

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