The Metaphysics of Selection Theory


In this work I give my response to the thesis that consciousness and value are utterly outside of science. I am attempting this within the perspective of Selection Theory (If you are unfamiliar with Selection Theory, see previous post here).   By “utterly outside of science” I mean necessarily or metaphysically outside of the realm of what science can in principle explain. This is what we will call ‘non-naturalism’. Prominent examples include David Chalmers’ position on phenomenal consciousness. Many other arguments or paradoxes seem to support this sort of non-naturalism, such as the “Chinese Room”, “Mary the Color Scientist” and the “Possibility of Zombies”. In what follows, I will try to address this problem and most of these paradoxes from a naturalistic pespective using a vocabulary influenced by Aristotle. I think Aristotle is well-suited for such a project since he took information and function seriously, while constraining his theories with certain empirical demands typical of naturalism. [In a future work we shall look into the tensions of final causation with atomism, but this will not substantially affect our present thesis.] If successful, this approach should provide common solutions challenges to naturalism concerning qualia and ethics.

The Arkhe, genus, and species of Phenomenal Consciousness

Why are so many averse to agreeing that the scientific description of certain things is what they most truly are? For everything that science explains, the most essential nature of what it is is how it is is defined in the accepted theory. Consciousness and ethics should be no exception.

Explaining anything whatsoever means to subsume it under a more universal principle. This is true of all explanations from ethics to math to physics to economics to carpentry, to chess to music to any other skill or science you care to name. With consciousness, the case should be no different; any possible explanation for qualia must derive from a higher (more universal) genus of beings. But what is the genus of beings that of which consciousness is a species?  I have never ever heard anyone give an answer to this other than the one that I propose here, so it seems to me that nobody else can even get started thinking about qualia. In this work we shall  proceed with the naturalistic method, which is pretty much identical to what Aristotle would follow if he were here.

Qualia – a species of the genus “living” and the super-genus “natural”?

For Aristotle, all the different sorts of beings can be potential or actual; and it seems that qualia are not special in this respect, and it’s clear that qualia are not one of the “Categories” either. What about “natural” or “non-natural”?  I know that this is exactly what is up for debate here, but in Aristotle and in this context, “nature” (Gk. “physis”) simply means “that which changes with time’.  There is another sense of “nature” which is oppose to “tekne“, but both of these opposite sense are part of “nature” as we will use it here to mean the realm of “beings which change over time”.  Now we must notice that this is different from Descartes’ thesis that nature as res extensa occupies space. There is much evidence that qualia occupy space, but this will not be assumed for my argument.  However, even Descartes assumes that the res cogitans must change over time and is therefore part of the Aritotelian phusis. If the non-naturalist wishes to say that qualia are not natural, then they are certainly a very different sort of non-natural being from the Forms (unchanging essences) or God (unchanging substance). And of course non-naturalists have no problem with multiplying entities beyond count, for they care not a whit of Occam’s Razor. “Why not?” they might wonder? But it seems clear from a naturalist  perspective that conscious beings (those beings with qualia) are a species of the genera of animals, those beings which move and have sensation.  Animals, in turn are a subset of living things. Since consciousness is a part of biology, we should expect it to have a biological function. So on this view, consciousness must have an adaptive function or be a by-product of some adaptive function. This is exactly what biology assumes when it encounters some unexplained train in nature, and naturalism assumes that qualia are just one more unexplained trait that we have found in a living creature. This obviously true, and non-naturalism should rightly bear the burden of proof for why qualia should not be considered to be a biological trait.


The Role of Non-naturalism in Science.

Furthermore, it seems that many people who profess qualia non-naturalism also profess to being unable to imagine how qualia could have a function and how matter could give rise to qualia. Of course, this is not the only thing that they cannot imagine. They (as well as myself) cannot imagine how nothing can go faster than light, or that time and space did not pre-exist the Big Bang, but both of these have imagined, believed and proven by currently-accepted natural science. The fact that you cannot imagine something is not and cannot be boundary past which science is not allowed to go. Since this is true, non-naturalism must allow that all of its objections are not binding on science but merely voicing the implications of following out common sense intuitions about empirical theories. While it is clear that science is  not at all bound to observe the limits of common sense, non-naturalists do in fact play a postitive role in clearly defining the problems faced by naturalists (i.e. those who actually seek to solve the problems). This is the role played by WIlliam Paley with respect to Darwin, for example. Paley gave his best non-naturalist account of adaptation, which in retrospect we would not even call a “theory”, but it was the dominant theory back then. Qualia non-naturalism today plays the role of Paley for the Darwins of today’s cognitive science.

On the other hand, claiming that conscious beings (or ethical beings) are so unique as to be of an utterly separate ontological category is making a radically unfounded claim that makes further inquiry impossible. Naturalism of the sort defended here claims that ethical and conscious beings are a subset of animals, living things and physical things .Only if we grant this reasonable assumption can we even begin to solve our debates in ethics and metaphysics.

If one is to demand that we explain consciousness or ethics in abstraction from its physical and biological status, we are ipso facto refusing to even consider the possibility of explaining it. The same is true of any scientific subject.

It’s almost as if one demanded that we explain lightning without accepting that it can “be” static electricity. The hardheaded “science-skeptic” could say that lightning “expresses itself through” static electricity or perhaps merely “correlates with” static electricity but could “never be reduced to mere physical phenomena”. One could even adduce the fact that one “could easily imagine” lightning occurring without static electricity in some Twin-Earth thought experiment. This is what Chalmers seriously advocates in his treatment of consciousness, as well as what is implied by any moral non-naturalism that follows G. E. Moore’s ‘Open Question’ argument. Taking this stance makes science of any sort impossible. I am of the view that natural science has already learned that a ‘Twater’  for a “Twin Earth” is impossible, and I think we are close to proving that metaphysical zombies are impossible, and evolutionary science has all the resources needed to prove that a “Moral Twin Earth” is impossible.

Consciousness IS a subset of living systems and everything essential to it can be limited to one of two categories of predicates:

1) What it shares with other physical, living, and animal beings. In Aristotle’s terms, conscious beings share all the essential attributes of any genus of which they are a species. In terms of computer science, conscious objects, inherit all attributes and functions of their superclasses.

2) How it is different from other animals. As Aristotle said, all definitions require a differentiation to define a species within a genus.

But one of the essential attributes of living creatures ( in evolutionary theory ) is that all biological attributes are either adaptations or byproducts of adaptations. This means that consciousness is either epiphenomenal or it is an adaptation. If it is an adaptation, then it MUST have a functional characterization that can be confirmed with the same level of rigor of any other functional analysis in other areas of biology (for example the function(s) of wings, skin, livers, et cetera.). If this is true, consciousness accomplishes the same function as the processes of non-sentient lifeforms, but it uses a different means to fulfill these functions. In my view, it is a radically different means, but not so radical that it requires a non-naturalist categories. Aristotle, were he alive today might say it like this:

  • Merely physical beings (matter, energy) go through change but stay ‘the same’ through all the changes (underneath the appearances).
  • Life is just like matter except one of the changes is goes through is to reproduce more instances of the same/similar form. This is what I refer to when I say that life is essentially information processing.
  • Animal life is just like other life except it also has qualia; movement and sensation.  Perhaps this is what you mean by “consciousness”. Consciousness in this sense is having a subjective experience of sensation, motivation and animal-level identity.
  • Human life is just like other animals life except it also (following Aristotle) “has language” or in other words is “political”.  Both of these mean that humans are defined by their adaptive strategy; the reliance on language to implement rules for cooperation.

There is no other way to do science of humanity.


The Functionalistic Analysis of Phenomenal Consciousness

To answer Chalmers’ non-naturalism in philosophy of mind, we need only give a functionalistic analysis of phenomenal consciousness. The following is one  general idea that could form the beginning of such a theory: Consciousness is kind of like money. The evolution of money is “surprising” in the same way that Chalmers says that consciousness is, but once we see that it has emerged and see how it functions, we can see that money fits perfectly with Darwinian science and the physics of information. Since all life is just information processing, we need only analyze anything in terms of information to learn what it most truly ‘is’.

Using this analysis, we could have predicted  that certain commodities would make ideal forms of money, but we could not predict what money would look like, e.g. that pictures of famous people would be on it (kind of like not being able to predict the “how” of qualia).. We may also be surprised that modern fiat money would predominate over classical ‘hard’ money, but in retrospect, we can see how fiat money functions according to the same basic laws as other money. Under the evolutionary biology defined by the currently accepted physics of information, all of this is a mere extension of the fundamental definition of biological beings. Economics thus defines a normative science that inherits is fundamental principles from more general realms of beings. However, each step down the ladder of Being does introduce surprising / emergent phenomena. Emergent phenomena are fully explainable in retrospect in a reductive manner, but not ahead of time. Thus each newly emergent phenomenon is ‘surprising’ but ultimately natural.


We could not predict the emergence of consciousness, but ultimately it must have ‘the same’ higher-level functions as other forms  of biological information processing.  Animals “could” have been zombies in the same way that (for example) Saturn “could” have been a slightly smaller copy of Jupiter. After all, Jupiter and Saturn are made of basically the same stuff. However, there are mystifying differences between these two planets that could never have been foreseen. (Great Red Spot, greater visible turbulence on Jupiter, Rings and weird polar weather on Saturn, to name a few). These differences are, as with consciousness, due to the surprisingness of complex systems. It’s just that living systems are much more complex, meaning only that their physical patterns are more complex. It is hard to imagine a better solution to the same problem.

The comparison with money works on multiple levels. In the same way that money makes different values comparable among goods for sale, so also does consciousness make different values comparable among the various resources, obstacles, dangers, etc. in the world of an animal. And in both cases, we not only have various values to compare, we also have a privileged locus of comparison the self, which can either be a back account in one case or an individual organism’s subjectivity in the other. Both are forms of information processing, and neither could work without the privileged locus of subjectivity. Both require intersubjectivity to manifest their maximum effect. This is a pretty straight forward hypothesis derived from a well-established theory. The anti-naturalists, on the other hand, have nothing to go with at all except the claims that naturalism is to be eliminated because it contradicts their philosophical categories. This is not at all the first time that some new phenomenon has a clear empirical explanation that conflicts with previous philosophy. The very biochemical concept of life conflicted with previous science. So did the idea that the Earth was a planet. Non-naturalism at any frontier of science is not following a very encouraging precedent.





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