(This is a repost from February 2013 slightly emended, except for an addendum added today. Reposts are the reruns of the blogosphere. You don't watch a Twilight Zone or Seinfeld episode just once do you?)
A couple of days ago I had Nicholas Humphrey in my sights. Or, to revert to the metaphor of that post, I took a shovel to his bull. I am happy to see that Galen Strawson agrees that it is just nonsense to speak of consciousness as an illusion. Strawson's trenchant review of Humphrey's Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness is here. Unfortunately, I cannot see that Strawson has shed much light either, at least judging from the sketch of his position presented in the just-mentioned review:
There is no mystery of consciousness as standardly presented, although book after book tells us that there is, including, now, Nick Humphrey's Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness. We know exactly what consciousness is; we know it in seeing, tasting, touching, smelling, hearing, in hunger, fever, nausea, joy, boredom, the shower, childbirth, walking down the road. If someone denies this or demands a definition of consciousness, there are two very good responses. The first is Louis Armstrong's, when he was asked what jazz is: "If you got to ask, you ain't never goin' to know." The second is gentler: "You know what it is from your own case." You know what consciousness is in general, you know the intrinsic nature of consciousness, just in being conscious at all.
"Yes, yes," say the proponents of magic, "but there's still a mystery: how can all this vivid conscious experience be physical, merely and wholly physical?" (I'm assuming, with them, that we're wholly physical beings.) This, though, is the 400-year-old mistake. In speaking of the "magical mystery show", Humphrey and many others make a colossal and crucial assumption: the assumption that we know something about the intrinsic nature of matter that gives us reason to think that it's surprising that it involves consciousness. We don't. Nor is this news. Locke knew it in 1689, as did Hume in 1739. Philosopher-chemist Joseph Priestley was extremely clear about it in the 1770s. So were Eddington, Russell and Whitehead in the 1920s.
One thing we do know about matter is that when you put some very common-or-garden elements (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, sodium, potassium, etc) together in the way in which they're put together in brains, you get consciousness like ours – a wholly physical phenomenon. (It's happening to you right now.) And this means that we do, after all, know something about the intrinsic nature of matter, over and above everything we know in knowing the equations of physics. Why? Because we know the intrinsic nature of consciousness and consciousness is a form of matter.
The main point of Strawson's first paragraph is surely correct: we know what consciousness is in the most direct and unmistakable way possible: we experience it, we live through it, we are it. We know it from our own case, immediately, and we know it better than we know anything else. If Dennett doesn't know what a sensory quale is, then perhaps the cure is to administer a sharp kick to his groin. Feel that, Dan? That's a quale. (I am assuming, of course, that Dennett is not a 'zombie' in the technical sense in which that term is used in philosophy of mind discussions. But I can't prove he isn't. Perhaps that is the problem. If he were a zombie, then maybe all his verbal behavior would be understandable.)
In the second paragraph Strawson rejects an assumption and he makes one himself. He rejects the assumption that we know enough about the intrinsic nature of matter to know that a material being cannot think. The assumption he makes is that we are wholly physical beings. So far I understand him. It could be that (it is epistemically possible that) this stuff inside my skull is the thinker of my thoughts. This is epistemically possible because matter could have hidden powers that we have yet to fathom. On our current understanding of matter it makes no bloody sense to maintain that matter thinks; but that may merely reflect our ignorance of the intrinsic nature of matter. So I cannot quickly dismiss the notion that matter thinks in the way I can quickly dismiss the preternaturally boneheaded notion that consciousness is an illusion.
I agree with Strawson's first paragraph; I understand the second; but I am flabbergasted by the third. For now our man waxes dogmatic and postures as if he KNOWS that consciousness is a wholly physical phenomenon. How does he know it? Obviously, he doesn't know it. It is a mere conjecture, an intelligible conjecture, and perhaps even a reasonable one. After all it might be (it is epistemically possible that) the matter of our brains has occult powers that physics has yet to lay bare, powers that enable it to think and feel. I cannot exclude this epistemic possibility, any more than Strawson can exclude the possibility that thinkers are spiritual substances. But to conjecture that things might be thus and so is not to KNOW that they are thus and so. All we can claim to KNOW is what Strawson asseverates in his first paragraph.
Here is Strawson's argument in a nutshell:
1. We know the intrinsic nature of consciousness from our own case.
2. We know that consciousness is a form of matter.
3. There is nothing mysterious about consciousness or about how matter gives rise to consciousness; nor is there any question whether consciousness is wholly physical; the only mystery concerns the intrinsic nature of matter.
The problem with this argument is premise (2). It is pure bluster: a wholly gratuitous assumption, a mere dogma of naturalism. I can neutralize the argument with this counterargument:
4. If (1) & (2), then brain matter has occult powers.
5. We have no good reason to assume -- it is wholly gratuitous to assume -- that brain matter has occult powers.
6. We have no good reason to assume that both (1) and (2) are true.
7. We know that (1) is true.
8. We have good reason to believe that (2) is false.
Further Thoughts: Strawsonian Theology? (20 September 2015)
Strawson tells us that he is assuming that we are "wholly physical beings." Now a proposition cannot be true or false unless it is meaningful. But what does it even mean to say that we are wholly physical beings given that this entails that some wholly physical beings are conscious and self-conscious? What does 'physical' mean if beings as richly endowed with mentality as we are count as "wholly physical"? There is a semantic problem here, and it looks to be a failure of contrast. 'Physical' contrasts with 'mental' and has a specific meaning in virtue of this contrast. And vice versa. So if nothing is mental, then nothing is physical in the specific contrastive sense that lends 'bite' and interest to the thesis that we are wholly physical. To put it another way, if nothing is mental and everything is physical including us with our richly endowed inner lives, then the claim that we are wholly physical is not particularly interesting. It is nearly vacuous if not wholly vacuous. It has been evacuated of its meaning by a failure of contrast. If we are wholly physical in an umbrella sense that subsumes the contrastive senses of 'physical' and 'mental,' then Strawson has merely papered over the problem of how the mental and the physical are related when these terms are taken in their specific senses.
Suppose Einstein and his blackboard are both wholly physical. We still have to account for the fact that one of them is conscious and entertains thoughts while the other isn't and doesn't. That is a huge difference. What Strawson has to say is that in us thinking and feeling beings powers of matter are exercised that are not exercised in other, less distinguished clumps of matter. Hidden in the bosom of matter are powers that a future physics may lay bare and render intelligible.
But if Strawson widens his concept of matter to cover both thinking and nonthinking matter, does he have a principled way to prevent an even further widening?
If minds like ours are wholly physical, why can't God be wholly physical? God is a mind too. Presumably God cannot be wholly physical because God is not in space and is not subject to physical decomposition. But if we can be wholly physical despite the fact that we think and are conscious -- if there is nothing in the nature of matter to rule out thought and consciousness -- then perhaps there is nothing in the nature of matter to rule out material beings that have no spatial location and are not subject to physical decomposition.
If an advanced physics will reveal how meat heads like us can think, then perhaps there are other properties and possibilities of matter hitherto undreamt of. Consider Christ's Ascension, body and soul, into heaven. Christ's Ascension is not a dematerialization: he ascends bodily into a purely spiritual, nonphysical, 'dimension.' Without losing his (resurrected) body, Christ ascends to the Father so that, after the Ascension, the Second Person of the Trinity acquires Christ's resurrected body. On our ordinary way of thinking, this is utterly unintelligible. God is pure spirit, pure mind. How can Christ ascend bodily into heaven, and without divesting himself of his body, enter into the unity of the purely spiritual Trinity? It is unintelligible to us because it issues in a formal-logical contradiction: God is wholly nonphysical and also in part physical. A mysterian would say it is a mystery. It happened, so it's possible, and this regardless of its unintelligibility to us.
On Strawson's approach there needn't be any mystery here: some parcels of matter have amazing powers. For example, we are wholly material and yet we think and feel. It is truly amazing that we should be thinking meat! If so, God might be a parcel of matter that thinks, feels, and -- without prejudice to his physicality -- has no spatial location and is not subject to physical decomposition. If so, the Ascension is comprehensible: Christ ascends bodily to join the physical Trinity. It is just that he sheds his particular location and his physical mutability. He remains what he was on earth, an embodied soul.
The same could be said of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven. She too entered bodily into heaven. On a Strawsonian theology, this might be rendered intelligible without mysterianism.
To sum up. If matter actually thinks and feels in us, as Strawson holds, then he has widened the concept of matter to embrace both 'ordinary' matter and sentient, thinking, 'spiritual' matter. But then what principled way would Strawson have to prevent a further widening of the concept of matter so that it embraces God, disembodied souls, angels, and what not?