Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
walk into fog
Man with his back walking through the fog street
Photo licensed via Adobe Stock

Is a Science Writer’s “Agnosticism” a Futile Pursuit?

John Horgan, a creative thinker and able writer, is agnostic about quantum mechanics, consciousness, and God. But let’s look at the bases for that.
John Horgan

If science writer John Horgan had merely said that agnosticism is the only sensible stance regarding God, there would be little surprise. That view is over-represented in popular science writing. But he says the same thing about quantum mechanics and consciousness too. Some brief snippets from his article (with brief responses):

He’s not happy that quantum mechanics, a well-established branch of science (our computers would not work if it were not real) cannot eliminate the role of the conscious observer:

Quantum mechanics

Introducing consciousness into physics undermines its claim to objectivity. Moreover, as far as we know, consciousness arises only in certain organisms that have existed for a brief period here on Earth. So how can quantum mechanics, if it’s a theory of information rather than matter and energy, apply to the entire cosmos since the big bang? Information-based theories of physics seem like a throwback to geocentrism, which assumed the universe revolves around us. Given the problems with all interpretations of quantum mechanics, agnosticism, again, strikes me as a sensible stance.

John Horgan, “What God, Quantum Mechanics and Consciousness Have in Common” at Scientific American (August 14, 2021)

Well, a scientific approach to anything must hold all known past discoveries in tension with unknown future discoveries. The reason quantum physicists have not been able to eliminate the conscious observer from quantum mechanics (quantum physics) is not that they didn’t want to. It was that they couldn’t. Observation created their measurements. See, for example, “In quantum physics, reality really is what we choose to observe. Physicist Bruce Gordon argues that idealist philosophy is the best way to make sense of the puzzling world of quantum physics.”

Now, we don’t have to be idealists. But we should see that the physicists who report on quantum mechanics are simply recounting their observations. It is not clear what we should be “agnostic” about, apart from the need to respect the fact that we do not know all things, We make reasonable decisions all the time about what to believe, despite not knowing all things.

Consciousness

Philosopher Daniel Dennett, in his cockily titled Consciousness Explained, asserted that consciousness clearly emerges from neural processes, such as electrochemical pulses in the brain. Francis Crick and Christof Koch proposed that consciousness is generated by networks of neurons oscillating in synchrony.

Gradually, this consensus collapsed, as empirical evidence for neural theories of consciousness failed to materialize. As I point out in my recent book Mind-Body Problems, there are now a dizzying variety of theories of consciousness. Christof Koch has thrown his weight behind integrated information theory, which holds that consciousness might be a property of all matter, not just brains. This theory suffers from the same problems as information-based theories of quantum mechanics. Theorists such as Roger Penrose, who won last year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, have conjectured that quantum effects underpin consciousness, but this theory is even more lacking in evidence than integrated information theory.

John Horgan, “What God, Quantum Mechanics and Consciousness Have in Common” at Scientific American (August 14, 2021)

The underlying assumption, of course, is that consciousness is created by the material brain, as opposed to being resident in it. If consciousness is immaterial, then maybe it isn’t created by a material substrate and the error lies in assuming that it is.

Can we study consciousness if it is immaterial? Probably; after all, we study information and information is immaterial: A full zip drive weighs the same as an empty one. It’s not clear how agnosticism would help. Re-examining and maybe altering our basic assumptions might work better. See, for example, “ The brain does not create the mind; it constrains it.”

God

Why do we exist? The answer, according to the major monotheistic religions, including the Catholic faith in which I was raised, is that an all-powerful, supernatural entity created us. This deity loves us, as a human father loves his children, and wants us to behave in a certain way…

My main objection to this explanation of reality is the problem of evil. A casual glance at human history, and at the world today, reveals enormous suffering and injustice. If God loves us and is omnipotent, why is life so horrific for so many people? A standard response to this question is that God gave us free will; we can choose to be bad as well as good…

On the other hand, life isn’t always hellish. We experience love, friendship, adventure and heartbreaking beauty. Could all this really come from random collisions of particles? Even [Steven] Weinberg concedes that life sometimes seems “more beautiful than strictly necessary.” If the problem of evil prevents me from believing in a loving God, then the problem of beauty keeps me from being an atheist like Weinberg. Hence, agnosticism.

John Horgan, “What God, Quantum Mechanics and Consciousness Have in Common” at Scientific American (August 14, 2021)

If free will exists, and there is certainly research evidence for it, sadly, that is the explanation. We have as much free will to do good as to do evil. Religious traditions, East and West, insist that we are responsible for our choices. We are not forced either by God or by nature to do evil. So what, in this case, does agnosticism amount to? Denial of God or denial of free will?

The agnosticism Horgan, a creative thinker and able writer, espouses sounds like hoping for answers that conform to a materialist view of the world. But if the world is not in fact strictly materialist, the wait may be indefinite. The goal may be unattainable.

Note: Horgan’s book, Mind–Body Problems (2018) is available free online at the link.

You may also wish to read: Why did a prominent science writer come to doubt the AI apocalypse? John Horgan’s endorsement of Erik J. Larson’s new book critiquing of AI claims stems from considerable experience covering the industry for science publications. Horgan finds that, despite the enormous advances in neuroscience, genetics, cognitive science, and AI, our minds remain “as mysterious as ever.”


Mind Matters News

Breaking and noteworthy news from the exciting world of natural and artificial intelligence at MindMatters.ai.

Is a Science Writer’s “Agnosticism” a Futile Pursuit?