On with the Show

When I was in the eighth grade, my parents took the family to see John Kennedy on his campaign swing through Ohio during the final weeks of the 1960 presidential race. My mother and father were ardent Democrats living in a suburb of Columbus that was even more ardently Republican. Although Ohio would eventually go for Richard Nixon by a quarter of a million votes, the crowd that turned out for Kennedy that October evening was large and enthusiastic, filling State House Plaza in downtown Columbus. Standing at the edge of this throng, we strained to catch a glimpse of the candidate. A huge roar went up from the crowd when he appeared on the steps of the state capitol. Unlike the grandfatherly presidents I was used to, Kennedy was young and glamorous. But the thing that was most striking to me when I saw him that evening was that he appeared in living color.

Later generations may find it odd that I would make such an observation. But I grew up at a time when the images appearing on television, in newspapers and in news magazines were overwhelmingly in black and white. As a result, news events and public figures appeared as drained of color as they did in those old movie newsreels from the 1930s and 1940s. There was no way to tell that astronaut John Glenn had red hair or that Jacqueline Kennedy was wearing a pink outfit on the day her husband was assassinated in Dallas. For that matter, there was no way to tell from the television images broadcast by Apollo 11 whether or not the moon was made of green cheese.

I mention all this because science does a much better job of explaining a black-and-white world like the one we used to see on TV than the world as we actually experience it, in living color. When John Glenn went into space, my ninth-grade science teacher was able to explain why his space capsule didn’t fall back to earth once it reached orbital velocity. But science has little to say about the redness of his hair. Sure, we know all the facts about the wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation and light receptors in the eye, but that tells us nothing about the redness of red, our subjective experience of it.

And it’s not just colors. There is a whole range of sensory and emotional experience that is beyond the purview of science. We cannot register the pain and horror that Jacqueline Kennedy must have experienced on that terrible day in Dallas as her husband’s life ebbed away in the back seat of a limousine. Nor measure the wonder of those Apollo astronauts who first stood on the surface of the moon and looked up at the earth from a quarter of a million miles away. There is no way to turn our interior life inside out so we can examine it scientifically.

Philosophers have a name for the trappings of our inner life that appear to be universal but actually play to an audience of one in the theatre of the mind. Their term is qualia, those subjective, non-physical attributes of our experience produced by our senses and emotions. And while certain qualia may appear to be part of the external world, it is not always clear whether they originate there or in the mind. You and I may agree that grass is green, but I have no idea whether the color you see in your mind is the same as what I see. Nor can I satisfactorily explain to my color-blind son what greenness is like, other than to tell him it is the color of grass, which to him is indistinguishable from brown.

Does it matter? Science has assumed that it does not, ignoring subjective reality in favor of the external world that exists outside our individual consciousness. And while this may be fine as far as it goes, scientists tend to take it farther than it can go by claiming that reality is entirely explicable in physical terms. But as the neurologist Oliver Sacks has noted, scientists like Charles Bonnet were wondering some 250 years ago how “the theater of the mind could be generated by the machinery of the brain.” There were no answers then or now, leaving an explanatory gap that some philosophers believe is irreducible.

Lacking an explanation for consciousness means that our scientific understanding of reality is at best incomplete. So says philosopher Thomas Nagel in an influential essay entitled “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”, which was published in 1974. Nagel insisted we can know every conceivable fact about a conscious entity and still not know what it is like to experience the world as it does. Sure, we may all understand what it tastes like to eat a peach. But what if we were a bat hanging upside down in an attic and navigating by sonar? Although not blind as widely believed, bats can find their way easily in the dark using echolocation, a sensory tool that is entirely outside human experience or imagination. If the what-it-is-like character of an experience is fully comprehensible only to the experiencer, then greater objectivity takes you farther away rather than closer to the true nature of the phenomenon.

Nagel’s case against overreaching by scientific reductionists was greatly expanded in his book Mind and Cosmos, written nearly 40 years after his groundbreaking essay. Not only does scientific materialism have no explanation for what goes on inside the mind, he argues, but consciousness may be the whole point. “Mind and everything that goes with it is inherent in the universe,” he writes, suggesting there may be a built-in tendency toward greater consciousness. Nagel believes there may be some “natural teleology” at work in which “things happen because they are on a path that leads to certain outcomes.”

To suggest that the universe has a point is, of course, utter heresy within the scientific community, particularly among neo-Darwinists. The whole point of evolution is that it has no point, operating according to the blind mechanics of natural selection. Nagel counters that this view in “almost certainly false,” largely because three billion years of random mutations are not enough time to produce complex life forms from nonorganic ingredients, much less demonstrate how brute matter becomes conscious.

In truth, the mechanism of natural selection does a better job of accounting for the evolution of existing life forms than in explaining how life arose in the first place. The spontaneous generation of organic molecules from inorganic compounds has never been observed in nature or reproduced in a laboratory. The astronomer Fred Hoyle once calculated that the odds of cellular life arising by chance are one in 1040000 -- that’s 10 with 40,000 zeros after it. Hoyle memorably likened this to the chances of a tornado sweeping through a junkyard and assembling a 747 jumbo jet. (To which one might add that the tornado would also have to assemble a brain capable of flying a 747.) Critics have pointed out that evolution doesn’t work in giant leaps but in tiny incremental steps over vast periods of time. Still, the probability of life arising by chance is sufficiently remote that even Nobel-prizewinning biologist Francis Crick acknowledged “the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle.” Crick went so far as to suggest that the earth might have been seeded with organic matter from an extraterrestrial civilization worried about its extinction. “Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved,” he once cautioned. Thus, the co-discoverer of DNA was willing to resort to science fiction to sidestep an inconvenient fact about evolution, which is that nobody can figure out how it could have gotten started purely by chance.

As an alternative to the undirected operation of physical laws, Nagel suggests that the universe may be governed by what he describes as a “nonpurposive” teleology, meaning that the it has certain built-in tendencies without being guided by any external agent. Nagel is treading a fine line here, since it would be easy to conclude that some higher power is at work behind the scenes. Teleology – a concept as old as Aristotle – normally implies that there is a purpose to things, which in turn often means there is someone in charge with a particular end in view. However, Nagel is an atheist and no fan of anything resembling intelligent design. He’s not even that crazy about a teleological explanation, but it is the best he can do without bringing God explicitly into the picture.

Meanwhile, certain theorists within the scientific community have begun to suggest that something other than blind chance may be at work in the universe. Cosmologists point out that some 20 physical constants – among them the force of gravity, the mass of a proton, electromagnetism and the strong and weak forces – seemed precisely calibrated to allow life to emerge after the Big Bang. Could this “anthropic principle,” as physicist Brandon Carter called it, be part of the natural teleology that Nagel talks about? Then there are quantum physicists who argue that the behavior of elementary particles in the subatomic realm may play a role in the emergence of consciousness in the larger universe. According to quantum theory, these particles exist is an indeterminate state until they are observed. If this is also true of the universe as a whole, as John Wheeler and other eminent physicists believe, then consciousness may not be an incidental part of the universe but essential to its existence

The scientific community as a whole is a long way from embracing any theory suggesting that nature has stacked the deck in favor of a predetermined outcome. And so the explanatory gap remains. There is nothing to say that science won’t eventually come up with plausible explanation for how living cells arose from dead matter. And then perhaps we will be in a better position to tackle the most daunting mystery of all: how and why the machinery of the brain operates the theater of the mind. In the meantime, I am sticking with a pet theory of my own. Perhaps the reason consciousness evolved is the universe just wants to put on a show.

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