February 18, 2013

Thomas Nagel, Samuel Butler, and the Question of Consciousness

Samuel Butler
(Note: This essay was originally published three days ago on theAtlantic.com. Thanks to Alexis Madrigal and Rebecca Rosen for opening the door.)
We live in an era of scientific triumphalism, when leading researchers in any number of fields claim they are supremely qualified to explain not only how the universe works, but also what it means. Metaphysics, they tell us, can now be considered a subset of physics.

Thus it's not surprising that distinguished hackles would be raised when a spirited counter-attack is launched by a well-known philosopher who contends that scientists
a) have conveniently ignored gaping holes in their understanding of how evolution has shaped the world and 
b) might learn something from the evangelical Christians who promote Intelligent Design.
The philosopher in question is Thomas Nagel, who years ago attracted more than the usual attention accorded philosophy professors with his essay, "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" Nagel's new book, Mind and Cosmos, comes with a subtitle that succinctly describes the epistemological chip he's placed on his shoulder, daring scientists to knock it off: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.

Nagel's argument is that the mechanics of natural selection can't answer one of the most crucial questions of our existence: how living, reasoning creatures emerged from insensate matter. Although he himself is an atheist, Nagel says he shares the theists' conviction that the appearance of such creatures strongly suggests that the universe has, from the beginning, evolved teleologically, meaning it's moving purposively, toward ever-higher levels of consciousness.

Thomas Nagel
"Each of our lives," he writes, "is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself." In the present intellectual climate, Nagel hastens to add, "such a possibility is unlikely to be taken seriously."

He got that right. Mind and Cosmos has been the subject of a number of high-profile takedowns, earning it top honors in the Guardian's list of Most Despised Science Books of 2012. So vitriolic has been the response that, as Jennifer Schuessler pointed out in the New York Times, even a relatively sympathetic review ran under the headline, "Thomas Nagel is Not Crazy."

My purpose here is not to review the controversy (the Times article includes a generous sampling of links for those interested in such a review), but rather to add some historical context by pointing out the striking parallels between Nagel's arguments and those made more than a century ago by one of my heroes, the great Samuel Butler.

Butler is best known as the author of the fantasy novel Erewhon, published in 1872. Erewhon, in turn, is best known for its extended meditation on the possibility that machines might one day attain consciousness and take over human beings.

The central character in Erewhon, unnamed in the original novel but identified in the sequel as Higgs, is a hiker who becomes lost in the mountains and stumbles upon an isolated civilization called Erewhon ("nowhere" spelled backward, sort of). Higgs learns that, five hundred years before his arrival, the citizens of Erewhon were alerted to the danger of technological revolt and banned the use of anything but the most primitive machines. The rationale behind this decision is spelled out in a manifesto called The Book of the Machines, which serves as a vehicle for Butler's musings on the implications of Darwinism.

The basic argument in The Book of the Machines is that technology is just as subject to the laws of evolution as plants and animals. There had to have been a moment in biological history when matter made the leap from inert to alive. Who's to say that at some point machines won't make the same leap? The speed of technological progress suggests they're already half way there.

The playful, almost absurdist tone of the Book of the Machines made it easy to conclude that Butler was making fun of Darwin - On The Origin of Species had been published 13 years earlier, and remained hugely controversial. Butler denied it. He told Darwin in a letter that he'd intended only to demonstrate, for purposes of his own amusement and that of others, how easily a scientific concept could be distorted by exaggerated analogy.

Those feelings soon changed. Not long after Erewhon appeared Butler began to see what he considered the dark side of Darwin's theory: it portrayed evolution as a wholly mechanical process that removed any spark of creative vitality from the universe. This was directly counter to the views expressed, supposedly as a joke, in The Book of the Machines, which argued that willful intention can be discerned on far lower rungs of the evolutionary ladder than those occupied by human beings.

"Even a potato in a dark cellar has a certain low cunning about him which serves him in excellent stead," the Book of Machines says.

He knows perfectly well what he wants and how to get it. He sees the light coming from the cellar window and sends his shoots crawling straight thereto; they will crawl along the floor and up the wall and out at the cellar window; if there be a little earth anywhere on the journey he will find it and use it for his own ends.

Thomas Nagel makes the same point in Mind and Cosmos when he contends that "intelligibility" is "latent in the nature of things." The difference is that Nagel means his argument to be taken seriously, whereas Butler, initially at least, did not.

Early in his writing career Butler considered himself a devotee of Darwin; letters he'd written to newspapers defending natural selection were favorably noted by Darwin himself. Apparently, playing with the ideas implicit in Darwin's theory sowed seeds of doubt in Butler's mind that grew into full-fledged dissent. As Butler's biographer, Clara Stillman, put it, "One of the most interesting things about Butler's reaction to Darwinism is the fact that he was already criticizing it subconsciously before he had any conscious quarrel with it."

That quarrel would come to dominate the remainder of Butler's life. A series of books followed in which he relentlessly attacked not only the limitations of Darwinism, but the integrity of Darwin himself. The great man was guilty, Butler believed, of consistently failing to acknowledge the superior contributions to evolutionary theory of his predecessors, among them Buffon, Lamarck, and Erasmus Darwin, all of whom perceived signs of teleology in evolution.

Charles Darwin

Butler repeatedly argued that Darwinism explained the mechanics of evolution but overlooked its impetus, a point echoed by Nagel. "The appearance of animal consciousness," Nagel writes, "is evidently the result of biological evolution, but this well-supported empirical fact is not yet an explanationit does not provide understanding, or enable us to see why the result was to be expected or how it came about."

Like Nagel, Butler believed purposefulness imbues all of creation. He was not an avowed atheist, as Nagel is, but he did eschew and dismiss conventional notions of deity in favor of what can be described as a scientifically-informed pantheism. There's no need, he wrote, to posit some "quasi-anthropomorphic being who schemed everything out much as a man would do, but on an infinitely vaster scale." Rather, he said,
The proper inference is that there is a low livingness in every atom of matter...It should not be doubted that wherever there is vibration and motion there is life and memory, and that there is vibration and motion at all times in all things.
Clara Stillman points out how neatly these ideas anticipate quantum physics, as well as the physics-inspired philosophies of Alfred North Whitehead and others.

Nagel does not extend his musings in Mind and Cosmos to technology. Those issues became less a focus for Butler as well, once he began to take his objections to the biological problems in Darwinism seriously. He would, however, continue to use technological analogies.

Teleology doesn't suggest that the amoeba knew it was going to evolve into a fish, Butler said, any more than the first person who used a tea kettle necessarily envisioned a steam engine. We get from amoeba to fish, or from tea kettle to steam engine, incrementally. Change is driven by an inclination to adapt at each step along the way. "The manufacture of the tool and the manufacture of the living organ prove therefore to be but two species of the same genus, which, though widely differentiated, have descended as it were from one common filament of desire and inventive faculty."

This is another point Nagel precisely shares. "My guiding conviction," he says, "is that mind is not just an afterthought or an accident or an add-on, but a basic aspect of nature...I believe that the role of consciousness in the survival of organisms is inseparable from intentionality: inseparable from perception, belief, desire, and action, and finally from reason."

Yet another parallel between Nagel and Butler is that both challenged the scientific orthodoxy of their day from positions outside the scientific establishment, and both were considered by members of that establishment unqualified to render an opinion. It may be that the distance between educated amateur and scientific expert has widened since the nineteenth century, but the religious sensitivities Darwinism inflames seem to have remained fairly consistent.

Perhaps the most dramatic shift since Butler wrote has to do with the evolution of technology. If the transhumanists are right, the uprising of the machines is almost upon us. There's still time to ban them, I suppose, although in Erewhon a civil war was necessary to enforce that course of action.


©Doug Hill, 2013


  1. Hi Doug, I'm an italian student and I'm writing my dissertation about Darwin in 19th century english literature. I can't find the source of the quotation by Clara Stillman about Butler. And I can't find anywhere you e-mail address to ask it to you. Could you please let me know where to find it? Thank you so much!

    1. Hello Giorgia, Clara Stillman's biography of Butler shouldn't be hard to find. A Google search just now turned up any number of references, including several used copies for sale on Amazon. At this juncture I don't have it so I can't give you a page number, but an index might help you find it, and it's well worth reading.