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Serious about delusion #5

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The concept of ‘personal explanation’ is important to Ward’s argument. This is my personal explanation of why I do not buy it.

Fifth in a series responding to Keith Ward’s Why there almost certainly is a God: Doubting Dawkins1

See also Serious about delusion #1; #2; #3; and #4

Personal Explanation

Keith Ward

Keith Ward

Ward begins the section like this:

Finite minds come into existence when a complex neural network exists. We can formulate a rule that whenever some such neural network exists, then conscious states will exist. But that is a causal statement, not a statement that reduces conscious states to nothing but physical states. If the brain is impaired, our mental processes are impaired, so our mental processes are closely linked to the occurrence of brain-states. But they are still different. We are not just information-processing systems. We are also conscious appreciators of the meaning of information, and creative initiators of new processes of thought.

But Ward’s materialist opponents are not claiming it is 100% certain that minds come into existence when a complex neural network exists. The materialist claim is that, according to the available evidence, minds come into existence when a complex neural network (of the correct structure) exists; and that there is no justifiable reason for thinking that minds can arise any other way. So it is odd to characterise this hypothesis as a ‘rule’. It is not a ‘rule’ that opposite magnetic poles attract. It is a fact, in the sense of an established observation.

Yes the materialist hypothesis that conscious states emerge from brain-states is a causal statement. But so what? Why does its status as a causal statement mean it cannot at the same time be a statement ‘reducing’ conscious states to physical states?

We need to dig a bit into what ‘reducing’ needs to mean here.

Candle flame

Candle flame

Put on hold for a moment the question whether it is actually true that conscious states can be reduced to physical states. And think of a flame. Incandescent or ionised particles give it its colour and light. Other explanations account for its heat, shape, movement and sound. Are we not justified in saying that the sum total of those explanations (assuming they are true) collectively ‘reduces’ the flame to those explanations? We are not ‘explaining the flame away’ – the flame is still there. But we have eventually reached the point where we have successfully explained every feature of the flame which we wanted to explain – in the sense of providing a set of conditions which are collectively sufficient for the flame to exist. We are after the same kind of ‘reductive’ explanation for the mind.

In the case of the flame we would not say: But that is a causal explanation, not an explanation that reduces the flame to nothing but physical states of affairs. Our objective was to explain everything there was to explain about the flame and, as far as I can see, we have achieved it.

We do not need to stipulate that the set of conditions which are collectively sufficient for the flame to exist are also collectively necessary for it to exist. There may be different sets of conditions which can give rise to a flame, and it may be impossible to word them in such a way as to exhaust collectively all the possible conditions which could give rise to a flame. But it seems fair to say we have not yet come across a kind of flame, or an instance of a flame, whose set of sufficient conditions does not fit the sum-total of current scientific knowledge. It is possible though that such a flame could exist.

It is not obvious that we cannot set ourselves an equivalent objective in the case of consciousness. In theory we could then have a complete set of causal statements which explain everything there is to explain about consciousness, in the sense of supplying a set of conditions which are collectively sufficient for the existence of consciousness. If we do not achieve that objective, it will not be because of the causal nature of the statements. It will be for some other reason – perhaps because the set of causal statements is incomplete.

Or there may be something about the nature of consciousness which makes it impossible for us ever to have a complete causal explanation. But that would be a different issue. Ward has not demonstrated that yet, so his assertions about our not being only information-processing systems but also conscious appreciators of meaning etc are so far just assertions.

We are not denying we are conscious appreciators of meaning and creative initiators of new thought processes. What we are denying, so far, is that anyone or anything has demonstrated that these features of consciousness cannot ever – and cannot in principle – be scientifically explained.

Ward makes a lot of the truism that just because a complex neural network may be a sufficient condition for consciousness, this does not make it a necessary condition. And therefore a divine consciousness could exist which is not the result of an evolved neural network. But so what? A flame could exist which is not the result of incandescent or ionised particles or something equivalent. The point is we have not yet come across a flame which defies scientific explanation of that kind. If that was all the God claim came to we could stop the argument there and then. But, as I mentioned last time, his book is not called Why there just might be a God.

To summarise: the point about scientific explanation not being equivalent to a set of conditions which are collectively necessary for consciousness is both trivial and beside the point. And Ward’s claim that science will never be able to supply a set of conditions which are collectively sufficient for consciousness is unjustified. Neither point establishes – yet – that consciousness has a unique status vis-à-vis scientific explanation.

But Ward needs this unique status, because he wants to claim not only that consciousness can never be fully scientifically explained, but also that

the existence of conscious minds introduces a new form of non-scientific explanation for why things happen as they do. Scientific explanation… works by referring to some initial state (a ‘cause’) and a general mathematically describable law. That law predicts what regularly follows from the initial state, and it does so without any reference to purpose, value or consciousness.

But there is another sort of explanation. The Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne… calls it ‘personal explanation’.2 It only comes into effect when persons, or conscious minds, exist. Then it explains some of the things that persons do in terms of knowledge, desire, intention and enjoyment.

Richard Swinburne

Richard Swinburne

Ward sees this ‘personal explanation’ as ‘a perfectly satisfactory form of explanation’, which

does not seem to be reducible to scientific explanation. If it is, no one yet has plausibly suggested any idea of how to reduce it. How can my talk of knowledge, desires, intentions and awareness translate into statements of physics that only refer to physical states and general laws of their behaviour?

[T]here is more than one sort of explanation for why things happen as they do. Scientific explanation in terms of physical causes and general laws is one sort of explanation. Personal explanation in terms of desires and intentions is another.

We need to be on our guard, because in the next section (A Final Personal Explanation of the Universe) Ward claims that, on the God Hypothesis,

there will be an irreducible personal explanation for why the universe exists. God will know what universes are possible, will evaluate some as more desirable than others, will intend to bring one or more universes about, and will enjoy and appreciate… bringing them about…

He claims that a ‘great many philosophers, both dead and alive’, are behind him in accepting

the irreducible existence of consciousness, and the irreducible nature of personal explanation.

Materialists try to connect personal and physical explanation:

either by reducing the personal to the physical (reductive materialism), or by supposing that the personal just emerges out of the physical for no particular reason (emergent or non-reductive materialism). The former theory conflicts with our everyday experience of conscious life. The latter gives up on explanation.

The God Hypothesis however has a ‘very elegant solution’,

by postulating that there is an overarching cosmic personal explanation that explains physical states and laws as a means to realizing some envisaged purpose.

This looks like another reductionism, but in the opposite direction. It reduces scientific explanation to personal explanation, instead of the other way round.

We need to backtrack, because Ward takes a leap or two to get here.

First there is the point about the existence of conscious minds introducing a separate category of non-scientific explanation – personal explanation – for why things happen as they do. Ward has proposed, but not established, that consciousness is irreducible to scientific explanation. But interestingly his words do not imply a belief that consciousness is in principle irreducible to scientific explanation. What he says is:

If it is [reducible], no one yet has plausibly suggested any idea of how to reduce it.

Would he have said: if it is possible to add two and two to make five, no one yet has plausibly suggested any idea of how to do it?

The jury is not out on whether two plus two is five. But it is out on whether consciousness is reducible to scientific explanation.

This matters because, if we have not yet ruled out a scientific explanation of consciousness, then we have not yet ruled out the possibility of giving a scientific explanation of (human) personal explanation. (This is on the assumption that personal explanation is a mode or feature of consciousness.)

And if this is the case, we have not yet established that scientific explanation and personal explanation are equally sound but categorically different – ie that

Scientific explanation…is one sort of explanation. Personal explanation… is another.

And this matters because we have reason to be cautious about accepting the idea of ‘two kinds of explanation’.

If scientific explanation and personal explanation are equally sound but categorically different explanations for ‘why things happen as they do’, then for a particular event E, there could be a scientific explanation or a personal explanation. In each case the explanation – in order for it to qualify as an explanation – would supply a sufficient reason for E.

But could there be both kinds of explanation? If so, a state of affairs representing the scientific explanation (sufficient reason) for E could in theory pertain at the same time and place as a state of affairs representing the personal explanation (sufficient reason) for not-E (either the negation of E or something else incompatible with E).

This suggests that for a particular event E there could never be both kinds of explanation – there could be either a scientific explanation or a personal explanation but not both. The events would never be the same kind of things, so their explanations would never conflict. So the Es which qualify for personal explanations would be actions and decisions initiated by knowledge, desire, intention and purpose; whereas only philistine Es like candles burning and rocks rolling downhill qualify for scientific explanation.

Unfortunately this does not fit the facts. There are events which qualify for both kinds of explanation. A familiar one is breathing. Most of the time – in fact all the time we are asleep and most of the time we are awake – we breathe unconsciously, by means of an automatic response to the pH of our blood. (A scientific explanation if ever there was one.) But we can also, within limits, breathe when we want to and stop breathing when we want to.

So how does this work? In a matter of minutes we can flip-flop backwards and forwards between automatic breathing (admitting of scientific explanation) and conscious breathing (admitting of personal explanation). We can be on the brink of breathing in automatically because our carbon dioxide level is building up, and then suddenly decide not to – on a whim. For a time we only breathe in and out when we tell ourselves to – until for some reason we realise we have forgotten about breathing because our thoughts have strayed onto something else, and we have slipped back into automatic breathing for a while without having a clue when this happened.

What we cannot do though is, at the same time, both breathe in automatically (because our blood pH is dropping) and consciously not breathe in (because we don’t want to). Bear in mind that we also cannot automatically breathe in and automatically not breathe in at the same time; nor consciously breathe in and consciously not breathe in at the same time. The ‘personal’ and ‘scientific’ explanations do not seem quite so distinct.

We have not proven they are not distinct. But it is not self-evident that they are distinct. And the claim that they are distinct is at least problematic.

So it is still possible that either personal explanation is in principle reducible to scientific explanation (in the sense of ‘reducible’ clarified above), or that scientific explanation is in principle reducible to personal explanation (if for example all scientific explanation is underpinned by a god’s decision to structure the universe in a particular way).

On the side of the former are: (i) the sum-total of scientific knowledge to date; (ii) the list of things which are now explained but which were thought to have been inexplicable at some point in the past; and (iii) therefore the reasonable expectation that at least some of the things which are currently unexplained could well be explained in the future. What is there on the side of the latter, other than an individual believer’s axiom that a god exists as that individual believer conceives it?


1 Keith Ward, Why there almost certainly is a God: Doubting Dawkins, Lion Hudson, London, 2008.

2 Richard Swinburne, The existence of God, Oxford University Press, 2004.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


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