My July 2018 Scientific American column, titled “The Final Mysterians: Are consciousness, free will and God insoluble mysteries?” generated a lot of online attention, some of it critical attention by professional philosophers, who strongly suggested that I misrepresented a number of concepts related to these topics.

The philosopher Justin Weinberg at the University of South Carolina, for example, who runs the DailyNous philosophy site (@DailyNousEditor on Twitter), posted a fusillade of tweets admonishing me and the @sciam editors for publishing such a mischaracterization of mysterianism, the hard problem of consciousness, and compatibilism, even posting a comment by the renowned philosopher Colin McGinn, the chief proponent of mysterianism, who opined, “That was a dreadful article by Michael Shermer and utterly baffling why Scientific American published it.”

Weinberg then tried to do a mic drop on me by referencing the film Annie Hall, where Woody Allen’s character Alvy Singer is exasperated while standing in a movie line by some bloviator yammering on about Marshall McLuhan; Woody reaches behind a big movie poster and pulls out McLuhan, who then upbraids the blowhard thusly: “I heard what you were saying! You know nothing of my work! You mean my whole fallacy is wrong. How you got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing!” To which Alvy Singer says, “Boy, if life were only like this,” a line repeated by Weinberg in triumph.

Instead of sniping back at Weinberg on social media, I invited him to submit a letter to the editor—as I did months before when he publicly admonished me for what he considered to be my misunderstanding of utilitarianism (my May 2018 column), but to date he has not responded to either request. Then I decided to turn the tables and talk to the Marshall McLuhan of mysterianism himself by inviting Colin McGinn to dialogue with me on my Science Salon podcast on these topics. A 90-minute dialogue (along with a friendship) ensued on these and related subjects. Long-form deep dive discussions on important topics has become part-and-parcel of the Intellectual Dark Web, of which I am a member (whatever that actually means), and Colin and I dove deep into these subjects, which you can watch/listen to here. In an email before our conversation, McGinn enumerated to me (at my request) his four objections to my column thusly, which I shall address one by one:

1. The Meaning of Mysterianism.

McGinn: Dualism is not a form of mysterianism; it is a positive position about the mind-body relation. It doesn’t say that human knowledge is limited in this area or even that there is anything mysterious afoot—even though it might contain mysteries (e.g. interaction), contrary to its intention.

Shermer: This is odd because it was the philosopher Owen Flanagan (whom I quote in my column) who called dualism the “old mysterianism,” in contrast to the “new mysterianism” on offer from McGinn. Since I am focusing on the new mysterianism, McGinn are in agreement on this point, although in labeling consciousness, free will, and God as “final mysterianism” I’m expressing my own interpretation on these matters, not simply reiterating the viewpoint of others.

2. What is it like to be a bat?

McGinn: Your account of Nagel (and Brian Farrell before him) is garbled and misleading: the point is just that we can’t form adequate concepts of alien forms of experience, not about us becoming bats (it’s like the old point about the blind and concepts of color).

Shermer: I always thought that the whole point of Nagel’s “bat” essay is that we can never know “what it is like” to experience someone else’s personal subjective experience—their qualia. So in our conversation I asked McGinn to elaborate on what he (and Nagel) meant. Here is how he articulated Nagel’s argument (and my interpretation of it):

CM: What you are saying is not off the mark in the sense that that does come up in Nagel’s paper, but what it misunderstands is what the role of that is in the argument and what the argument actually is that that occurs in.

            MS: I think a lot of people read it by the title.

CM: Right. The paper is not that easy to read. People latch onto the “bat” thing and they think “well I understand the bat thing.” The bat thing is just a heuristic. … It has nothing to do with the idea that we can’t imagine our way into having bat experiences. That would be crazy. Of course you can’t imagine your way into having bat experiences. Nobody can. I can’t imagine my way into having experiences I don’t have. A blind man can’t imagine himself into having visual experiences. It’s not possible. … Nagel’s point is this: The only way to have a concept of a type of experience is by having that type of experience. 

            MS: That sounds like the same thing.

CM: The only way to have a concept of a type of experience is by having the type of experience.

            MS: Okay…?

CM: In the case of the bat—we realize we don’t have the concept of a bat’s experience. Why not? Because we don’t have bat experiences. It doesn’t tell you that you can’t have bat experiences—maybe we can, maybe we can’t. That’s not the point. The point is: the only way we can have the concept is by having the experiences. You’ve got to see the contrast case. He’s talking about subjective versus objective in that paper.

Suppose we take the concept of shape, let’s say cubical. I have the concept of cubical. I don’t have to be cubical to have the concept of cubical. I have the concept of a bat, I have the concept of an elephant, or of a mouse. I don’t have to be a bat or elephant or mouse to have the concept of those things. Those are physical objective things. But what distinguishes the experiences, according to Nagel, is that I can only know what that property is—having an experience of a certain type—by having that kind of experience.

            MS: That sounds like the same thing, no?

CM: It’s not saying there’s some difficulty of humans ever having the experience of a bat. In fact, it’s easy to have the experience of a bat. All you need to do is put into our brains the relative cortical machinery that bats have in their brain and you’d have the experience of a bat. So what? It doesn’t matter for the argument. So now we would know what it’s like to be a bat if we had the experiences ourselves. There would still be that asymmetry—that contrast—between the case of being a bat or elephant versus having a certain type of experience. That’s what crucial. The argument is: Given that contrast between the two types of concept, it’s not possible to explain subjective concepts by means of objective concepts because they’re completely different kinds of concepts.

            MS: Got it.

CM: The blind man example makes the point just as clearly as the bat. That’s why the bat is not essential. The blind man can’t have the concept of experiences of color or any other type of visual experience. … The only way he’s going to get the concept of a visual experience is by having visual experiences. But he can have the concept of an eye or a nose without having those things—they’re objective things. Nagel’s point is certain concepts you can only have by having what he calls a certain point of view, a sensory point of view. I can know all about the bat’s brain without having a bat’s brain.

For further elaboration on this and related issues by McGinn I recommend reading his paper “The Problem of Philosophy” along with Nagel’s original bat article.

3. The meaning of compatibilism

McGinn: Compatiblism is not what you say it is: it’s the doctrine that free will and determinism are logically compatible, as opposed to the doctrine that they are logically incompatible.

Shermer: I can’t see how free will and determinism could ever be logically compatible if those words are to mean what they imply; in this paragraph in my column I am trying to offer what is essentially a form of behavioral compatibilism, in which we actively engage with the causal net of the universe, tweaking the causal vectors here and there, to direct our “choices,” if that’s the right word (perhaps “options” would be more accurate).

Throughout this discussion, please bear in mind that my column is in the opinion section of Scientific American, so the ideas presented within are mostly my own interpretation of some discovery, finding, study, experiment, hypothesis, theory, or ideology. For example, in my paragraph on free will, I argue “we are active agents within the causal net of the universe, both determined by it and helping to determine it through our choices. That is the compatibilist position from whence volition and culpability emerge.” In his tweet barrage Weinberg insisted “No, it’s not.” And “What @michaelshermer says is definitive of compatibilism is true of one of compatibilism’s rivals, hard determinism.” And “This is nonsense writing, but makes use of relevant terms and so fools readers.”

Weinberg is making the mistake of thinking that I’m just restating some textbook description of compatibilism (of which there are many, actually), when in fact I’m offering my own idea of how we can live in a deterministic world with some degree of freedom. In point of fact, as I argue at length in my chapter on free will in The Moral Arc, which is heavily influenced by philosopher Daniel Dennett’s theory of compatibilism in his well-received and oft-referenced book Freedom Evolves, the “degrees of freedom” that an organism has very much effects how many different pathways it can take in its life—bacteria not so many, rodents quite a few more, monkeys more still, and humans with the most degrees of freedom. Choosing which pathway to take is a form of freedom, even if the world is determined. In any case, if Weinberg thinks that I don’t understand compatibilism because I’m a philosophical naïf, then he can take up the matter with one of the most prominent philosophers of our time, Dan Dennett.

4. Is God Mysterian?

McGinn: Your discussion of God mixes up several issues, but none of it leads to a mysterian view of God, i.e. that our knowledge of God is inherently limited. Most important, mysterianism concerns existent things, so for an atheist there is no need to accept mysterianism about God.

Shermer: By “God” I’m using the broadly accepted definition of a supernatural being outside of space and time, who created our universe and everything in it, and occasionally reaches in to stir the particles. This is the God that the vast majority of people in the Western world believe in. It may be that atheists have no need to call God a mysterian problem because they don’t believe in God, but most people do and so I’m responding to them, saying:

You can’t know if there’s a God or not in any scientific sense because a supernatural entity is, by definition, outside of nature, so the natural sciences cannot detect it/him. If this entity reaches in to stir the particles (say, to cure cancer or some other miracle), then that God—or at least his actions—should be detectable, and to date no detection has been made.

That said, the late physicist Victor Stenger argues persuasively (in God: The Failed Hypothesis) that if there was such a deity the world should have certain characteristics (e.g., miracles, or violations of natural law), which it doesn’t have (law and chance explain events), and other features like natural evil (earthquakes, tsunamis, cancer) that would seem to negate God’s existence (theodicy, or the problem of evil). In this line of reasoning I agree that it would be reasonable and rational to conclude that there is no God inasmuch as the absence of evidence is evidence of absence.