The other day I referred to the following bit of dialogue from the new HBO series, True Detective, as sophistry. Now I will explain why I think it to be such. Here is the part I want to focus on. The words are put in the mouth of the anti-natalist Rustin Cohle. I've ommitted the responses of the Woody Harrelson character.
I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self aware; nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, a secretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody’s nobody. I think the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.
Sorting through this crap is as painful as reading the typical student paper. Where does one start with such a farrago of Unsinn? But here goes. The main points made above are these:
1. The emergence of consciousness and self-consciousness in human animals is an accident, a fluke of evolution.
2. We are each under the illusion of having, or being, a self when in fact there are no selves.
3. We have been programmed by nature to suffer from this illusion.
4. The honorable thing to do is to deny our programming, refuse to procreate, and embrace our extinction as a species.
Each of these theses is either extremely dubious or demonstrably incoherent, taken singly, not to mention the dubiousness of the 'is'-'ought' inference from (3) to (4). But in this entry I will address (2) alone.
'There are no selves' is what our anti-natalist means when he say that everybody is nobody. For it is a Moorean fact, undeniable even by our anti-natalist, that every living human body is some living human body or other. He is not denying that plain fact but that these living human bodies are selves.
Now 'There are no selves,' if asserted by a being who understands what he says and means what he says, is asserted by a conscious and self-conscious being. But that is just what a self is. A self is a conscious being capable of expressing explicit self-consciousness by the use of the first-person singular pronoun, 'I.' Therefore, a self that asserts that there are no selves falls into performative inconsistency. The very act or performance of asserting that there are no selves or that one is not a self falsifies the content of the assertion. For that performance is a performance of a self.
The claim that there are no selves is therefore self-refuting.
Assertion is a speech act. But we get the same result if one merely thinks the thought that one is not a self without expressing it via an assertive utterance. If I think the thought *I am not a self,* then that thought is falsified by the act of thinking it since the act is the act of a self.
The point can also be made as follows. If there are no selves, then I am not a self. But if I am not a self, then I do not exist. Perhaps some living human body exists, but that body cannot be my body if I do not exist. What makes this body my body is its connection with me. So I must exist for some body to be my body. My body is my body and not my body's body. So I am not identical to my body. I have a body. 'This body is this body' is a tautology. 'I am this body' is not a tautology. If I exist, then I am distinct from my body and from any body.
So if I am not a self, then I do not exist. But the thought that I do not exist is unthinkable as true. Only I can think this thought, and my thinking of the thought falsifies its content, and this is so even if 'I' picks out merely a momentary self. (I am not committed by this line of reasoning to a substantial self that remains numerically the same over time.) So we have performative inconsistency.
This reasoning does not show that I am a necessary being, or that I have or am an immortal soul, or even that I am a res cogitans in Descartes' sense. What it shows is that the self cannot be an illusion. It shows that anyone who carefully considers whether or not he is a self can attain the certain insight that he is at least as long as he is thinking these thoughts.
Soviel Schein, soviel Sein
There is another way of looking at it. If each of us is under the illusion of having a self or being a self, then who is being fooled? To whom does this false seeming appear? There cannot be illusions in a world without conscious beings. An illusion by its very nature is an illusion to consciousness. So if consciousness is an illusion, then it is not an illusion. The same holds for the self. If the self is an illusion, then the self is not an illusion.
There cannot be Schein (illusion) without Sein (being). "So much seeming, so much being."
Suppose I am conscious of an object in the mode of visual perception: I see a bobcat in the backyard. Does it make sense to try to analyze this perceptual situation by saying that 'in my mind' there is an image or picture that represents something 'outside my mind'?
In the Fifth of his Logical Investigations, Edmund Husserl refutes this type of theory. One point he makes (Logical Investigations, vol. II, 593) is that there is a phenomenological difference between agenuine case of image-consciousness (Bildbewusstsein) and ordinary perceptual awareness. Suppose I am looking at a picture of a mountain. The picture appears, but it refers beyond itself to that of which it is a picture, the mountain itself. In a case like this, it is clear that my awareness of the object depicted is mediated by a picture or image. Here it makes clear sense to speak of one thing (the picture) re-presenting another (the mountain). But when I look at the mountain itself, I find no evidence of any picture or image that mediates my perceptual awareness of the mountain. Phenomenologically, there is no evidence of any epistemic intermediary or epistemic deputy. So on phenomenological grounds alone, it would seem to be a mistake to assimilate perceptual consciousness to image-consciousness. The two are phenomenologically quite different.
A second consideration is that consciousness of a thing via a picture or image presupposes ordinary perceptual consciousness inasmuch as the picture or painting must itself be perceived as a precondition of its functioning as an image. How then can ordinary perceptual consciousness be explained as involving internal images or pictures?
Husserl also points out that, no matter how carefully I examine the picture, I will discover no intrinsic feature of it that is its "representative character." (593) That is, there is no intrinsic property of the picture that confers upon it its reference to something beyond itself. So Husserl asks:
What therefore allows us to go beyond the image which alone is present in consciousness, and to refer the latter as an image to a certain extraconscious object? To point to the resemblance between image and thing will not help. (593, Findlay trans. slightly emended.)
Why won't resemblance help? If picture and thing depicted both exist, then of course there will be resemblance. But it cannot be in virtue of X's resemblance to Y that X pictures or images Y. "Only a presenting ego's power to use a similar as an image-representative of a similar . . . makes the image be an image." (594) Husserl's point is subtle. I'll explain it in my own way. A picture considered by itselfis just a physical thing with physical properties. What makes it be an image? Its physical properties cannot account for its being an image. And the fact that it shares physical properties with some other thing cannot make it an image either. A painting of a mountain can be a painting of a mountain even if there is no mountain of which it is the painting. Pictures of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas are pictures ofsaid hotel even though it has been demolished. The intentionality of a photograph can survive the destruction of its 'subject.' A depiction of Cerberus is what it is despite the dog's nonexistence.
But even if there exists something that a picture resembles, that does not suffice to make the picture a picture of a thing it resembles. Suppose I have two qualitatively identical ball bearings. In an AndyWarholish mood, I take a picture of one of them, the one closer to my computer. Gazing fondly at the photo, I say, "This ball bearing is the one that is closer to my computer." Since the photo resembles theother ball bearing as well, but is not of that ball bearing, it cannot be resemblance that confers upon the photo its intentionality.
What Husserl is saying in effect is that pictures, paintings, movie images, and the like possess no intrinsic intentionality: what intentionality they have is derived from conscious beings who possess intrinsic intentionality. For Husserl, and for me, the project of trying to account for intrinsic intentionality in terms of internal pictures that resemble outer objects is a complete nonstarter. For onething, it leads to a vicious infinite regress: "Since the interpretation of anything as an image presupposes an object intentionally given to consciousness, we should plainly have a regressus in infinitum were we again to let this latter object be itself constituted through an image . . . ." (594)
There are both phenomenological and dialectical reasons for rejecting the image-theory (Bilder-theorie) of consciousness. Phenomenologically, there is no evidence that ordinary perception is mediated by internal images. In addition,
1. The image-theory interprets intentionality in terms of resemblance, but resemblance cannot explain the intentionality of pictures that (i) never had an object, or (ii) lost their object.
2. The image-theory interprets intentionality in terms of resemblance, but resemblance cannot account for a picture's being of the very object it is of as opposed to some other one that it merely resembles.
3. The image-theory is involved in a vicious infinite regress.
4. Since image-consciousness presupposes ordinary perceptual consiousness, it is impossible to explain the latter in terms of the former.
5. The image-theory tries to locate the intentionality of consciousness in the intentionality of a picture when it is clear that there is nothing intrinsic to any picture that could account for its intentionality.
I am reading Ted Honderich, On Consciousness (Edinburgh UP, 2004) and trying to get a handle on just what his theory of consciousness as existence amounts to. An awkward and quirky writer, he doesn't make things easy on the reader, and doesn't seem to realize that in this very fast brave new world of ours the writer must get to the point without unnecessary circumlocution if he wants to keep his reader glued to the page. Here is an example of Honderich's style, from p. 206:
The other option from spiritualism now deserves the name of being devout physicalism. You can say and write, in a career that keeps an eye on some of science, maybe two, and is forgetful of reflective experience, that being conscious or aware of something is only having certain physical properties in the head. Usually this cranialism is a matter of only neural properties as we know them -- thought of computationally or with microtubules to the fore or in any other way you like.
[Note the awkward placement of "Maybe two." It belongs right after "eye."]
Nobody not on the philosophical job of trying to approximate more to some of science or horse sense believes this either. We all know, to make use of a pefectly proper and enlightening parody, that consciousness, isn't just cells, however fancily or fancifully conceived. Everybody on the job tries to give a place to or register what they know when they're not on the job. But they can't do it if they have it that consciousness has only neural properties or conceivably silicon or otherwise physical properties, no matter how they are conceived additionally.
Honderich's thought is not so much expressed as buried in the above mess of verbiage. Here is the thought which is correct as far as it goes expressed in three sentences.
Devout physicalism is the main alternative to spiritualism, or substance dualism. But only someone who fails to reflect on his actual experience could suppose that being conscious of something is a matter of the instantiation of neural properties in the brain. Both philosopher and layman know that consciousness is not brain cells, but the philosopher trying to be scientific is apt to forget it.
Here is Colin McGinn's savage review of Honderich's book. Be aware that there is personal animus between the two men.
The intuitive puzzle is clear, and McGinn presents it with multilayered intensity. He is right that we can never hope to understand how consciousness as we know it in everyday life relates to the brain considered as a lump of matter. But it doesn't follow that consciousness is a mystery -- except insofar as everything is. This move rests on a large assumption that is almost universally held, although it is certainly false.
This is the assumption that we have a pretty good understanding of the nature of matter -- of matter in space -- of the physical in general. It is only relative to this assumption that the existence of consciousness in a material world seems mystifying. For what exactly is puzzling about consciousness, once we put the assumption aside? We know just what it is like. Suppose you have an experience of redness, or pain, and consider it just as such. There doesn't seem to be any room for anything that could be called failure to understand what it is. You know what it is.
BV comments: Strawson is right about one thing: we know what consciousness is from our own case. We experience pains and pleasures, and so on. (And he is also right to avoid the eliminativism that tempts many.) But he misses the problem that McGinn so masterfully presents. It is is not consciousness as we experience it that is puzzling, but how consciousness arises from the gray matter in our skulls. We understand consciousness from the first-person point of view, and our physics gives us a very good understanding of matter from the third-person point of view. What we don't understand is how matter can be conscious.
It is not consciousness that is puzzling, then, but matter. What the existence of consciousness shows is that we have a profoundly inadequate grasp on the nature of matter. McGinn agrees with this last point, in fact: with considerable speculative panache, he develops the idea that there must be something deficient in our idea of space, as well as in our idea of matter. But he still wants to stress the mysteriousness of consciousness; to which the reply, once again, is that we find consciousness mysterious only because we have a bad picture of matter.
BV: Strawson is not making sense. There is nothing particularly puzzling about consciousness, and, contrary to what he says, there is nothing particularly puzzling about brains. What is puzzling is how a brain can be conscious. He doesn't seem to grasp the problem. Besides, how can the existence of consciousness show that we have an inadequate grasp of matter? What does that even mean?
Can anything be done? I think physics can help, by undermining features of our picture of matter that make it appear so totally different from consciousness. The first step is very simple: to begin with, perhaps, one takes it that matter is simply solid stuff, uniform, non-particulate (the ultimate Norwegian cheese). Then one learns that it is composed of distinct atoms -- solid particles that cohere closely together to make up objects, but that have empty space (roughly speaking) between them. Then one learns that these atoms are themselves made up of tiny, separate particles, and full of empty space themselves. One learns that matter is not at all what one thought.
Now one may accept this while retaining the idea that matter is at root solid, dense lumpen stuff, utterly different from consciousness. For so far this picture preserves the idea that there are true particles of matter: tiny grainy bits of ultimate stuff that are in themselves truly solid. And one may say that only these, strictly speaking, are matter -- matter as such. But it's been a long time since the 18th-century philosopher-chemist Joseph Priestley pointed out that there are no scientific grounds for supposing that the fundamental constituents of matter have any truly solid central part, and the picture of grainy, inert particles has effectively disappeared in the strangenesses of modern quantum theory and superstring theory.
Current physics, then, thinks of matter as a thing of forces, energy, fields. And it can also seem natural to think of consciousness as a form or manifestation of energy, as a kind of force, and even, perhaps, as a kind of field. You may still feel the two things are deeply heterogeneous, but you really have no good reason to believe this. You just don't know enough about matter. When McGinn speaks of the ''squishy'' brain, he vividly expresses part of our ordinary idea of matter. But when physics inspects the volume of space-time occupied by a brain, what does it find? It finds a vibrant play of energy, an astonishingly insubstantial, radiant form.
All this being so, do we have any good reason to think that we know anything about the physical that legitimates surprise at the thought that consciousness is itself wholly physical? We do not. And that is the first, crucial step that one must take when facing up to the problem of consciousness.
BV: Strawson is maintaining that the sense of the utter heterogeneity of matter and consciousness arises from an inadequate conception of matter, and that if we had an adequate conception the sense of heterogeneity would dissipate. We would then understand consciousness to be a purely material phenomenon. Now it is true that our concept of matter is pegged to the state of physics, and also true that we now have a more adequate conception of matter than we had in earlier centuries. Well, suppose the volume of space-time occupied by a brain is filled with "a vibrant play of energy, an astonishingly insubstantial, radiant form," as Strawson lyrically puts it. The problem remains: how does brain matter so conceived give rise to consciousness, not to mention thought? The problem remains on any extant conception of matter, no matter how "insubstantial." Strawson is fooling himself if he thinks that the problem arises only on the assumption that matter is the 'ultimate Norwegian cheese."
Strawson is doing nothing more than giving expression to his faith and hope that someday physics will have advanced to the point where it will become intelligible how the brain matter in animals of our complexity can be conscious. But he has no idea of what the solution will look like. He is gesturing hopefully in the direction of he-knows-not-what. Both he and McGinn are naturalists. But he is an optimist where McGinn is a pessimist. Strawson pins his hopes on future physics. McGinn has no such faith or hope. His view is that the matter-consciousness problem has a solution but it is one our cognitive architecture prevents us from ever knowing.
Both philosophers are naturalists who maintain that there is nothing non-natural or supernatural about consciousness. I am not a naturalist. But if I were I would say that McGinn's position is the more reasonable of the two. What best explains the intractability, hitherto, of the problems in the philosophy of mind? Our lack of understanding of physics, or something about our cogntive architecture that makes it impossible for us to grasp the solution? I'd put my money on the latter.
The following first appeared on 15 January 2006 at the old Powerblogs site. Here it is again, considerably reworked.
I saw Daniel Dennett's Sweet Dreams (MIT Press, 2005) on offer a while back at full price, but declined to buy it: why shell out $30 to hear Dennett repeat himself one more time? But the other day it turned up for $13 in a used bookstore. So I bought it, unable to resist the self-infliction of yet more Dennettian sophistry. What am I? A masochist? A completist? A compulsive consciousness and qualia freak?
The subtitle is "Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness." That raises the question of how there could even be philosophical obstacles to such a science. I am not aware that philosophers control the sources of funding for neuroscience projects. And what could a philosopher say that could stymie brain science?
But let's look at a passage:
If we are are to explain the conscious Subject, one way or another the transition from clueless cells to knowing organizations of cells must be made without any magic ingredients. This requirement presents theorists with what some see as a nasty dilemma . . . . If you propose a theory of the knowing Subject that describes whatever it describes as like the working of a vacant automated factory -- not a Subject in sight -- you will seem to many observers to have changed the subject or missed the point. On the other hand, if your theory still has tasks for a Subject to perform, still has a need for a Subject as witness, then . . . you have actually postponed the task of explaining what needs explaining.
To me, one of the most fascinating bifurcations in the intellectual world today is between those to whom it is obvious -- obvious -- that a theory that leaves out the Subject is thereby disqualified as a theory of consciousness (in Chalmer's terms, it evades the Hard Problem), and those to whom it is just as obvious that any theory that doesn't leave out the Subject is disqualified. I submit that the former have to be wrong. . . . (p. 145)
Dennett has done a good job of focusing the issue. On the one side, the eliminativists who hold that the only way to explain the conscious Subject is by explaining it away. On the other side, those who are convinced that one cannot explain a datum by denying its existence.
What we have here fundamentally is a deep philosophical dispute about the nature of explanation, and not a debate confined to the philosophy of mind. What's more, it is not a debate that is going to be resolved by further empirical research. Not all legitimate questions are empirical questions.
It ought to be self-evident that any explanation that consigns the explanandum (that which is to be explained) to the status of nonexistence is a failure as an explanation. Eliminativist moves are confessions of failure. Any genuine explanation of X presupposes (and so cannot eliminate) the existence of X. One cannot explain something by explaining it away. Two related points:
1. One cannot explain what does not exist. One cannot explain why unicorns roam the Superstition Wilderness, or why the surface of the moon is perfectly smooth. There is nothing to explain. In the case of consciousness, however, there is something to explain. So it at least makes sense to attempt to explain consciousness.
2. An explanation that entails the nonexistence of the explanandum is no explanation at all.
Both (1) and (2) are analytic truths that simply unpack the concept of explanation.
I once heard a proponent of Advaita Vedanta claim that advaitins don't explain the world; they explain it away. Now it is surely dubious in the extreme to think of this insistent and troubling plural world of our ongoing everyday acquaintance as an illusion. Whatever its exact ontological status, it exists. If it didn't there would be nothing to explain or explain away. And if one were to explain it away, as one with Brahman, then one would have precisely failed to explain it.
What Dennet is maintaining about consciousness and the Subject is even worse. There is some vestige of sense in the claim that the world is an illusion. It makes sense, at least initially, to say that there is an Absolute Consciousness and that the world is its illusion. But it is utterly absurd to maintain that consciousness is an illusion. The very distinction between illusion and reality presupposes consciousness. In a world without consciousness, nothing would appear, and so nothing would appear falsely. Necessarily, no consciousness, no illusions. Illusions prove the reality of consciousness.
This is a very simple point. It is an 'armchair' point. All you have to do is think to know that it is true. But neither its being 'armchair' nor its being simple is an argument against it. The law of non-contradiction is simple and 'armchair' too.
The denigration of a priori knowledge is part and parcel of the pseudophilosophy of scientism.
Since consciousness exists, the project of explaining it at least makes sense, by (1). By (2), an eliminativist explanation is no explanation at all.
The thing about consciousness is that the only way to explain it in terms satisfactory to a materialist is by denying its existence. It is to Dennett's 'credit' that he drives to the very end of this dead-end road, thereby showing that it is a dead-end.
If Dennett were right, then we would all be zombies, including Dennett. (See Searle, Dennett, and Zombies.) But then there would be no consciousness to explain and to write fat books about.
The demand that consciousness be exhaustively explained in terms involving no tincture of consciousness is a demand that cannot be met. Explanation of what by whom to whom? Explanation is an inherently mind-involving notion. There are no explanations in nature. There is no way the science of matter can somehow close around the phenomena of mind and include them within its ambit. Science, like explanation, is inherently mind-involving.
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 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.
The following statement by Nicholas Humphrey (Psychology, London School of Economics) is one among many answers to the question: What do you believe is true though you cannot prove it?
I believe that human consciousness is a conjuring trick, designed to fool us into thinking we are in the presence of an inexplicable mystery. Who is the conjuror and why is s/he doing it? The conjuror is natural selection, and the purpose has been to bolster human self-confidence and self-importance—so as to increase the value we each place on our own and others' lives.
If this is right, it provides a simple explanation for why we, as scientists or laymen, find the "hard problem" of consciousness just so hard. Nature has meant it to be hard. Indeed "mysterian" philosophers—from Colin McGinn to the Pope—who bow down before the apparent miracle and declare that it's impossible in principle to understand how consciousness could arise in a material brain, are responding exactly as Nature hoped they would, with shock and awe.
Can I prove it? It's difficult to prove any adaptationist account of why humans experience things the way they do. But here there is an added catch. The Catch-22 is that, just to the extent that Nature has succeeded in putting consciousness beyond the reach of rational explanation, she must have undermined the very possibility of showing that this is what she's done.
But nothing's perfect. There may be a loophole. While it may seem—and even be—impossible for us to explain how a brain process could have the quality of consciousness, it may not be at all impossible to explain how a brain process could (be designed to) give rise to the impression of having this quality. (Consider: we could never explain why 2 + 2 = 5, but we might relatively easily be able to explain why someone should be under the illusion that 2 + 2 = 5).
Do I want to prove it? That's a difficult one. If the belief that consciousness is a mystery is a source of human hope, there may be a real danger that exposing the trick could send us all to hell.
Humphrey mentions the 'hard problem.' David Chalmers formulates the 'hard problem' as follows: "Why is all this processing accompanied by an experienced inner life?" (The Conscious Mind, Oxford 1996, p. xii.) Essentially, the 'hard problem' is the qualia problem. To explain it in detail would require a separate post. Humphrey offers us an explanation of why the 'hard problem' is hard. It is hard because nature or natural selection -- Humphrey uses these terms interchangeably above -- meant it to be hard. Her purpose is to "fool us into thinking we are in the presence of an inexplicable mystery." She wants to fool us in order to "bolster human self-confidence and self-importance." How thoughtful of her. Of course, to say that she is fooling us implies that consciousness is not mysterious but just another natural occurrence.
Not only does Nature fool us into thinking that consciousness is mysterious, when it is not, she also makes it impossible for us to see that this is what she has done. But there may be a loophole: it may be possible to "explain how a brain process could be (designed to) give rise to the impression of having this quality," i.e., the quality of consciousness. By 'impression,' Humphrey means illusion as is clear from his arithmetical example. So what he is suggesting is that it may be possible to explain how brain processes could give rise to the illusion that there is consciousness, the illusion that brain processes have the quality of consciousness.
But this 'possibility' is a complete absurdity, a complete impossibility. For it is self-evident that illusions presuppose consciousness: an illusion cannot exist without consciousness. The 'cannot' expresses a very strong impossibility, broadly logical impossibility. The Germans have a nice proverb, Soviel Schein, so viel Sein. "So much seeming, so much being." The point being that you can't have Schein without Sein, seeming without being. It can't be seeming 'all the way down.'
The water espied by a parched hiker might be an illusion (a mirage), but it is impossible that consciousness be an illusion. For wherever there is illusion there is consciousness, and indeed the reality of consciousness, not the illusion of consciousness. If you said that the illusion of consciousness is an illusion for a consciousness that is itself an illusion you would be embarked upon a regress that was both infinite and vicious. Just as the world cannot be turtles all the way down, consciousness cannot be illusion all the way down.
In the case of the mirage one can and must distinguish between the seeming and the being. The being (reality) of the mirage consists of heat waves rising from the desert floor, whereas its seeming (appearance) involves a relation to a conscious being who mis-takes the heat waves for water. But conscious states, as Searle and I have been arguing ad nauseam lo these many years, are such that seeming and being, appearance and reality, coincide. For conscious qualia, esse est percipi. Consciousness cannot be an illusion since no sort of wedge can be driven between its appearance and its reality.
A French philosopher might say that consciousness 'recuperates itself' from every attempt to reduce it to the status of an illusion. The French philosopher would be right -- if interpreted in my more sober Anglospheric terms.
It is also important to note how Humphrey freely helps himself to intentional and teleological language, all the while personifying Nature with a capital 'N.' Nature meant the hard problem to be hard, she had a purpose in fooling us. She fooled us. Etc. This is a typical mistake that many naturalists make. They presuppose the validity of the very categories (intentionality, etc.) that their naturalistic schemes would eliminate. How could they fail to presuppose them? After all, naturalists think about consciousness and other things, and they have a purpose in promoting their (absurd) theories.
There is no problem with using teleological talk as a sort of shorthand, but eventually it has to be cashed out: it has to be translated into 'mechanistic' talk. Eliminativists owe us a translation manual. In the absence of a translation manual, they can be charged with presupposing what they are trying to account for, and what is worse, ascribing meanings and purposes to something that could not possibly have them, namely, Natural Selection personified. What is the point of getting rid of God if you end up importing purposes into Natural Selection personified, or what is worse, into 'selfish' genes?
So Humphrey's statement is bullshit in the sense of being radically incoherent. It is pseudo-theory in the worst sense. One of the tasks of philosophers is to expose such pseudo-theory which, hiding behind scientific jargon (e.g, 'natural selection'), pretends to be scientific when it is only confused.
A central task of philosophy is the exposure of bad philosophy.
Alex Kealy (Institute of Art and Ideas, London) writes:
I'm getting in contact from the Institute of Art and Ideas in Britain as we've just released a video I thought you might be interested in. Called "The Mind's Eye", the video is of a discussion that took place at our philosophy festival HowTheLightGetsIn last year. The panel includes philosopher of mind Galen Strawson and evolutionary psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, and the debate focusses on the nature of the consciousness, whether the term soul is useful and if -- as Strawson alleges -- consciousness is merely an unproblematic result of certain combinations of physical elements. I know that in the past you've blogged on consciousness / qualia and so I thought you might perhaps be interested in posting a link to the video on your blog (it can be found at http://www.iai.tv/video/the-mind-s-eye ), if you find find it of interest and think it might appeal to your readers.
I don't have time now to watch the entire video, but from the opening frames it looks promising.
I am at the moment listening to Dennis Prager interview Dr. Eben Alexander. Prager asked him whether he now maintains, after his paranormal experiences, that consciousness is independent of the brain. Alexander made a striking reply: "We are conscious in spite of our brains." And then he made some remarks to the effect that the brain is a "reducing filter" or something like that.
That is to say much more than that consciousness can exist independently of the brain. For the latter would be true if consciousness existed in an attenuated form after the dissolution of the body and brain. Alexander is saying that embodiment severely limits our awareness.
Well, why couldn't that be true? Why is it less plausible than a form of materialism that views consciousness as somehow dependent on brain functioning and impossible without it?
Let us assume you are not a dogmatist: you don't uncritically adhere to the unprovable materialist framework assumption according to which consciousness just has to be brain-based. And let us assume that you don't have a quasi-religious faith that future science has wonderful revelations in store that will vindicate materialism/physicalism once and for all. By the way, I have always found it passing strange that people would "pin their hopes on future science." You mean to tell me that you hope you can be shown to be nothing more than a complex physical system slated for utter extinction!? That's what you hope for? It may in the end be true, but I for one cannot relate to the mentality of someone who would hope for such a thing. "I hope I am just a bag of chemicals to be punctured in a few years. Wouldn't it be awful if I had an higher destiny and that life actually had a meaning?"
But I digress. Let's assume you are not a dogmatist and not a quasi-religious believer in future science. Let's assume you are an open-minded inquirer like me. You are skeptical in the best sense: inquisitive but critical. Then I put the question to you: Can you show that the Alexander claim is less plausible that the materialist one?
I don't believe that there can be talk of proof either way, assuming you use 'proof' strictly. You have to decide what you will believe and how you will live. In the shadowlands of this life there is light enough and darkness enough to lend support to either answer, that of the mortalist and that of his opposite number.
So I advance to the consideration that for me clinches the matter. Bring the theoretical question back down to your Existenz. How will you live, starting right now and for the rest of your days? Will you live as if you will be utterly extinguished in a few years or will you live as if what you do and leave undone right now matters, really matters? Will you live as if life is serious, or will you live as if it is some sort of cosmic joke? Will you live as if something is at stake in this life, however dimly descried, or will you live as if nothing is ultimately at stake? It is your life. You decide.
Now suppose that when Drs. Mary Neal and Eben Alexander die the body's death, they become nothing. Suppose that their phenomenologically vivid paranormal experiences were revelatory of nothing real, that their experiences were just the imaginings of malfunctioning brains at the outer limits of biological life. What will they have lost by believing as they did?
Nothing! Nothing at all. You could of course say that they were wrong and were living in illusion. But no one will ever know one way or the other. And if the body's death is the last word then nothing ultimately matters, and so it can't matter that they were wrong if turns out that they were.
If they were right, however, then the moral transformation that their taking seriously of their experiences has wrought in them can be expected to redound to their benefit when they pass from this sphere.
One aspect of the mind-body problem is the problem of the subjectivity of conscious experience. As I have argued on numerous occasions, the subjectivity of conscious experience and the manner in which it connects to its physical substratum in the brain cannot be rendered intelligible from an objectifying 3rd-person point of view. Even if we had in our possession a completed neuroscience, we would not be able to understand how conscious experiences arise from the wetware of the brain.
But suppose someone objects as follows:
Robotics is making tremendous strides. In the future we may be able to build robots that are behaviorally indistinguishable from human beings. They will walk, talk, and look like human beings. One can even imagine them being made so human-like that a superficial physical examination would not reveal their robotic status. Imagine a 'female' robot that could pass a cursory gynecological examination and fool a gynecologist or a 'male' robot that could pass a superficial prostate exam and fool a urologist . . .
Suppose further that such a robot not only passes all linguistic and non-linguistic behavioral tests for being conscious, but really is conscious, really does feel ill at ease in the physician's office, even though the physical substratum of the feelings is silicon-based. Suppose, in other words, that consciousness and indeed self-consciousness emerge in this robot.
We will then have an answer to the mind-body problem: we will know that consciousness is nothing special and nothing mysterious. We will know that it does not have a higher, meta-physical or super-natural origin, but is simply the byproduct of the functioning of a sufficiently complex machine, whether the machine be an artifact of a human artificer or the 'artifact' of natural selection.
But if we think about this carefully, we realize that even if this sci-fi scenario were realized, we would still not have a solution to the mind-body problem. For the problem is to render intelligible to ourselves, to understand, HOW consciousness can arise from matter. Building a robot in which consciousness DOES arise or manifest itself does nothing to render understandable how the arisal occurs. Nor does it show that the arisal is an emergence from matter. The mere fact of consciousness is no proof that it has emerged from a physical substratum, and the mere claim that it has so emerged is an empty asseveration unless the exact mechanism of the emergence can be laid bare. And good luck with that.
Suppose that there is a group of philosophizing robots. These machines are so sophisticated that they ask Big Questions. One of the problems under discussion might well be the mind-body problem in robots. The fact that they know that they had been constructed by human robotics engineers in Palo Alto, California would do nothing to alleviate their puzzlement. In fact, one of the philosophizing robots could propose the theory that the emergence of consciousness in their silicon brains is not to be interpreted as an emergence from matter or as a dependence of consciousness on matter, but as a Cartesian mind's becoming embodied in them: at a point of sufficient complexity, a Cartesian mind embodies itself in the robot.
In other words, what could stop a philosophizing robot from rejecting emergentism and being a substance dualist? He knows his origin, or at least the origin of his body; but how does knowing that he is a robot, and thus a human artifact prevent his considering himself to be an artifact housing a Cartesian mind? He might trot out all the standard dualist arguments.
Our philosophizing robot would be able to exclude this Cartesian possibility only if he understood HOW consciousness arises from matter. If he knew that, he would know that he does not have a higher origin. And let's not forget that our philosophizing robot is very smart: so smart that he sees right through the stupidity of eliminative materialism.
In sum, even if we knew how to build (really) conscious machines, such know-how would not be the knowledge necessary to solve the mind-body problem.
To answer the title question we need to know what we mean by 'explain' and how it differs from 'explain away.'
1. An obvious point to start with is that only that which exists, or that which is the case, can be explained. One who explains the phenomenon of the tides in terms of the gravitational effect of the moon presupposes that the phenomenon of the tides is a genuine phenomenon. One cannot explain the nonexistent for the simple reason that it is not there to be explained. One cannot explain why unicorns run faster that gazelles for the simple reason that there is no such explanandum. So if consciousness is to be explained, it must exist.
2. A second point, equal in obviousness unto the first, is that a decent explanation cannot issue in the elimination of the explanandum, that which is to be explained. You cannot explain beliefs and desires by saying that there are no beliefs and desires. A successful explanation cannot be eliminativist. It cannot 'explain away' the explanandum. To explain is not to explain away.
3. Summing up (1) and (2): the very project of explanation presupposes the existence of the explanandum, and success in explanation cannot result in the elimination of the explanandum.
4. Daniel Dennett points out that there can be no explanation without a certain 'leaving out': "Leaving something out is not a feature of failed explanations, but of successful explanations." (Consciousness Explained, 1991, p. 454.) Thus if I explain lightning as an atmospheric electrical discharge, I leave out the appearing of the lightning to lay bare its reality. That lightning appears in such-and-such a way is irrelevant: I want to know what it is in reality, what it is in nature apart from any observer. The scientist aims to get beyond the phenomenology to the underlying reality.
5. It follows that if consciousness is to be explained, it must be reduced to, or identified with, something else that is observer-independent. Dennett puts this by saying that "Only a theory that explained conscious events in terms of unconscious events could explain consciousness at all." (454) For example, if your explanation of pain in terms of C-fibers and Delta A-fibers (or whatever) still contains the unreduced term 'pain,' then no satisfactory explanation has been achieved. There cannot be a "magic moment" in the explanation when a "miracle occurs" and unconscious events become conscious. (455)
6. Now if a successful explanation must explain conscious events in terms of unconscious events, then I hope I will be forgiven for concluding that consciousness CANNOT be explained. For, as I made clear in #2 above, a successful explanation cannot issue in the elimination of that which is to be explained. In the case of the lightning, there is a reduction but not an elimination: lightning is reduced to its observer-independent reality as electrical discharge.
Now suppose you try the same operation with the sensory qualia experienced when one observes lightning: the FLASH, the JAGGED LINE in the sky, followed by the CLAP of thunder, etc. You try to separate the subjective appearance from the observer-independent reality. But then you notice something: reality and appearance of a sensory quale coincide. Esse est percipi. The being of the quale is identical to its appearing. This is what John Searle means when he speaks of the "first person ontology" of mental data.
7. It follows from #6 that if one were to explain the conscious event in terms of unconscious events as Dennett recommends, the explanation would fail: it would violate the strictures laid down in #2 above. The upshot would be an elimination of the datum to be explained rather than an explanation of it. To reiterate the obvious, a successful explanation cannot consign the explanandum to oblivion. It must explain it, not explain it away.
8. I conclude that consciousness cannot be explained, given Dennett's demand that a successful explanation of consciousness must be in terms of unconscious events. What he wants is a reduction to the physical. He wants that because he is convinced that only the physical exists. But in the case of consciousness, such a reduction must needs be an elimination.
9. To my claim that consciousness cannot be explained, Dennett has a response: "But why should consciousness be the only thing that cannot be explained? Solids and liquids and gases can be explained in terms of things that are not solids, and liquids, and gases. . . . The illusion that consciousness is the exception comes about, I suspect, because of a failure to understand this general feature of successful explanation." (455)
Dennett's reasoning here is astonishingly weak because blatantly question-begging. He is arguing:
A. It is a general feature of all successful explanations that F items be explained in terms of non-F items B. Conscious items can be explained Ergo C. Conscious items can be explained in terms of nonconscious items.
(B) cannot be asserted given what I said in #6 and #7. I run the argument in reverse, arguing from the negation of (C) to the negation of (B): conscious items such as pains are irreducible.
10. Recall from #4 that Dennett said that successful explanations must leave something out. But in the case of a conscious item like a pain, what is left out when we explain it is precisely what we needed to explain! For what is left out is precisely the sensory quale, the felt pain, the Feiglian "raw feel,' the Nagelian "what it is like."
11. Amazingly, on p. 455 he retracts what he said on the previous page about successful explanations having to leave something out. He now writes:
Thinking, mistakenly, that the explanation leaves something out, we think to save what otherwise would be lost by putting it back into the observer as a quale -- or some other "intrinsically" wonderful property. The psyche becomes the protective skirt under which all those beloved kittens can hide. There may be motives for thinking that consciousness cannot be explained, but, I hope I have shown, there are good reasons for thinking it can. (455)
Do you see how Dennett is contradicting himself? On p. 454 he states that a successful explanation must leave something out, which seems plausible enough. Then he half-realizes that this spells trouble for his explanation of consciousness -- since what is left out when we explain consciousness in unconscious terms is precisely the explanandum, consciousness itself! So he backpedals and implies that nothing has been left out, and suggests that someone who affirms the irreducibility of qualia is like a lady who hides her 'kwalia kitties' under her skirt where no mean neuroscientist dare stick his nose.
The whole passage is a tissue of confusion wrapped in a rhetorical trick. And that is the way his big book ends: on a contradictory note. A big fat load of scientistic sophistry.
12. To sum up. A successful explanation cannot eliminate the explanandum. That is nonnegotiable. So if we agree with Dennett that a successful explanation must leave something out, namely, our epistemic access to what is to be explained, then we ought to conclude that consciousness cannot be explained.
I tend to the view that all philosophical problems can be represented as aporetic polyads. What's more, I maintain that philosophical problems ought to be so represented. You haven't begun to philosophize until you have a well-defined puzzle, a putative inconsistency of plausibilities. When you have an aporetic polyad on the table you have something to think your teeth into. (An interesting and auspicious typo, that; I shall let it stand.)
Consider the problem of the existence of consciousness. Nicholas Maxwell formulates it as follows: "Why does sentience or consciousness exist at all?" The trouble with this formulation is that it invites the retort: Why not? The question smacks of gratuitousness. Why raise it? To remove the felt gratuitiousness a motive has to be supplied for posing the question. Now a most excellent motive is contradiction-avoidance. If a set of plausibilities form an inconsistent set, then we have a problem. For we cannot abide a contradiction. Philosophers love a paradox, but they hate a contradiction. So I suggest we put the problem of the existence of consciousness as follows:
1. Consciousness (sentience) exists. 2. Consciousness is contingent: given that it exists it might not have. 3. If x contingently exists, then x has an explanation of its existence in terms of a y distinct from x. 4. Consciousness has no explanation in terms of anything distinct from it.
A tetrad of plausibilities. Each limb makes a strong claim on our acceptance. Unfortunately, this foursome is logically inconsistent: the conjunction of any three limbs entails the negation of the remaining one. Thus the conjunction of (1) and (2) and (3) entails the negation of (4). So the limbs cannot all be true. But they are all very plausible. Therein lies the problem. Which one ought we reject to remove the contradiction?
Note the superiority of my aporetic formulation to Maxwell's formulation. On my formulation we have a very clear problem that cries out for a solution. But if I merely ask, 'Why does consciousness exist?' there is no clear problem. You could retort, 'Why shouldn't it exist?' 'What's the problem?' There is a problem because the existence of conbsciousness conflicts with other things we take for granted.
(1) is absolutely datanic and so undeniable. If some crazy eliminativist were to deny (1) I would show him the door and give him the boot. (Life is too short for discussions with lunatics.)
(4) is exceedingly plausible. To explain consciousness in terms of itself would be circular, hence no explanation. So it has to be explained, if it can be explained, in terms of something distinct from it. Since abstract objects cannot be invoked to explain concrete consciousness, consciousness, if it can be explained, must be explained in physical and physiological and chemical and biological terms. But this is also impossible as Maxwell makes clear using a version of the 'knowledge argument' made popular by T. Nagel and F. Jackson:
But physics, and that part of natural science in principle re-ducible to physics, cannot conceivably predict and explain fully the mental, or experiential, aspect of brain processes. Being blind from birth—or being deprived of ever having oneself experienced visual sensations—cannot in itself prevent one from understanding any part of physics. It cannot prevent one from understanding the physics of colour, light, physiology of colour perception and discrimination, just as well as any nor-mally sighted person. In order to understand physical concepts, such as mass, force, wavelength, energy, spin, charge, it is not necessary to have had the experience of any particular kind of sensation, such as the visual sensation of colour. All predictions of physics must also have this feature. In order to understand what it is for a poppy to be red, however, it is necessary to have experienced a special kind of sensation at some time in one’s life, namely the visual sensation of redness. A person blind from birth, who has never experienced any visual sensation, cannot know what redness is, where redness is the perceptual property, what we (normally sighted) see and experience, and not some physical correlate of this, light of such and wave-lengths, or the molecular structure of the surface of an object which causes it to absorb and reflect light of such and such wavelengths. It follows that no set of physical statements, however comprehensive, can predict that a poppy is red, or that a person has the visual experience of redness. Associated with neurological processes going on in our brains, there are mental or experiential features which lie irredeemably beyond the scope of physical description and explanation.
(2) is also exceedingly plausible: how could consciousness (sentience) exist necessarily? But (3), whichis a versionof the principle of sufficient reason, is also very plausible despite the glib asseverations of those who think quantum mechanics provides counterexamples to it.
So what will it be? Which of the four limbs will you reject?
I am tempted to say that the problem is genuine but insoluble, that the problem is an aporia in the strongest sense of the term: a conceptual impasse, an intellectual knot that our paltry minds cannot untie.
But this invites the metaphilosophical response that all genuine problems are soluble. Thus arises a metaphilosophical puzzle that can be set forth as an aporetic triad:
5. Only soluble problems are genuine. 6. The problem of the existence of consciousness is not soluble. 7. The problem of the existence of consciousness is genuine.
This too is an inconsistent set. But each limb is plausible. Which will you reject?
An abbreviated version of the following paper was published under the same title in The Proceedings of the Twenty-First World Congress of Philosophy, vol. 9, ed. Stephen Voss (Ankara, Turkey), 2006, pp. 29-33.
According to Buddhist ontology, every (samsaric) being is impermanent, unsatisfactory, and devoid of self-nature. Anicca, dukkha, anatta: these are the famous three marks (tilakkhana) upon which the whole of Buddhism rests. I would like to consider a well-known Buddhist argument for the third of these marks, that of anatta, an argument one could call ‘The Chariot.’ The argument aims to show that no (samsaric) being is a self, or has self-nature, or is a substance. My thesis will be that, successful as this argument may be when applied to things other than ourselves, it fails when applied to ourselves.
One philosopher's necessary explanatory posit is another's mere invention.
In his rich and fascinating article "Direct Realism Without Materialism" (Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 1994), Panayot Butchvarov rejects epistemic intermediaries as "philosophical inventions." Thus he rejects sense data, sensations, ways of being appeared to, sense experiences, mental representations, ideas, images, looks, seemings, appearances, and the like. (1) Curiously enough, however, Butch goes on to posit nonexistent or unreal objects very much in the manner of Meinong! Actually, 'posit' is not a word he would use since Butch claims that we are directly acquainted with unreal objects. (13) Either way, unreal objects such as the proverbial hallucinated pink rat are not, on Butchvarov's view, philosophical inventions.
But now consider the following 1961 passage from Anscombe and Geach's Three Philosophers, a passage that is as if directed against the Butchvarovian view:
But saying this has obvious difficulties. [Saying that all there is to a sensation or thought of X is its being of X.] It seems to make the whole being of a sensation or thought consist in a relation to something else: it is as if someone said he had a picture of a cat that was not painted on any background or in any medium, there being nothing to it except that it was a picture of a cat. This is hard enough: to make matters worse, the terminus of the supposed relation may not exist -- a drunkard's 'seeing' snakes is not related to any real snake, nor my thought of a phoenix to any real phoenix. Philosophers have sought a way out of this difficulty by inventing chimerical entities like 'snakish sense-data' or 'real but nonexistent phoenixes' as termini of the cognitive relation. (95, emphasis added)
Butchvarov would not call a nonexistent phoenix or nonexistent pink rat real, but that it just a matter of terminology. What is striking here is that the items Geach considers chimerical inventions Butchvarov considers not only reasonably posited, but phenomenologically evident!
Ain't philosophy grand? One philosopher's chimerical invention is another's phenomenological given.
What is also striking about the above passage is that the position that Geach rejects via the 'picture of a cat' analogy is almost exactly the position that Butch maintains. Let's think about this a bit.
Surely Anscombe and Geach are right when it comes to pictures and other physical representations. There is a clear sense in which a picture (whether painting, photograph, etc.) of a cat is of a cat. The intentionality here cannot however be original; it must be derivative, derivative from the original intentionality of one who takes the picture to be of a cat. Surely no physical representation represents anything on its own, by its own power.And it is also quite clear that a picture of X is not exhausted by its being of X. There is more to a picture than its depicting something; the depicting function needs realization in some medium.
The question, however, is whether original intentionality also needs realization in some medium. It is not obvious that it does need such realization, whether in brain-stuff or in mind-stuff. Why can't consciousness of a cat be nothing more than consciousness of a cat? Why can't consciousness be exhausted in its being by its revelation of objects?
Bewusstsein als bewusst-sein. Get it?
But this is not the place to examine Butchvarov's direct realist conception of consciousness, a conception he finds in Moore, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Sartre, and contrasts with a mental- contents conception.
Bear in mind that the word 'consciousness' has several distinct meanings. 'Consciousness' can refer to the state of being awake, to the ability to introspect internal states, and to the phenomenon of attention. But 'consciousness' insofar as it poses a 'hard problem' for physicalists is the subjective quality of experience.
These subjective qualities can be features of sensations, but they need not be. Smashing my knee against a table leg elicits a certain unpleasant sensation. The felt quality of that sensation is an example of a conscious datum in the relevant sense. But so is the shimmering quality of a magnificent Saguaro cactus standing sentinel on a distant ridgeline as viewed in the lambent light of the desert Southwest. Qualia, then, can be associated with intentional objects and not merely with non-intentional states like sensations. Pressing some Husserlian jargon into service, we might distinguish between noematic qualia and hyletic qualia.
But the main question I want to pose is this: What good is consciousness from an evolutionary perspective? Owen Flanagan, Consciousness Reconsidered, MIT 1992, p. 42) has this to say:
What function might sensory or perceptual consciousness serve? Such consciousness could enable an organism to be sensitive to stimulus saliencies relevant to its suvival and to coordinate its goals with these saliencies. Informational sensitivity without experiential sensitivity (of the sort an unconscious robot might have) could conceivably serve the same function. Indeed, it often does. But the special vivacity of perceptual experience might enable quicker, more reliable, and more functional responses than a less robustly phenomenological system, and these might have resulted in small selection pressures in favor of becoming a subject of experience. At least this is one possible explanation for why Mother Nature would have selected a mind with capacities for robust phenomenological feel in the sensory modalities. It is good that reptiles are sensitive detectors of earthquakes. It enables them to get above ground before disaster hits. It is good that we feel pain. It keeps us from being burned, cut, and maimed. . . . Like photoreceptor cells designed for vision and wings for flight, the capacity to experience pleasure and pain is a design solution that Mother Nature has often used in different lineages of locomoting organisms.
I judge this to be a complete failure as an explanation of why consciousness has evolved. All the jobs Flanagan mentions might have been done 'in the dark' by unconscious processing. Yes, pain is good insofar as it keeps us from being burned, cut, and maimed. But pain in this sense is just the sum-total of physical events that play a certain causal role, that of causing the organism to withdraw or protect a part of its body on the occasion of a certain input. Think of a robotic arm equipped with heat sensors. It is designed to retract when the object it touches is at a certain temperature or above. The arm can function perfectly well without feeling anything.
Let's not forget that words like 'pain' lead a double life. 'Pain' is used to refer both to physical events and to their phenomenal manifestation. Phenomenal pain, far from being good, is evil, a form of natural evil. Insofar as it is (instrumentally) good, pain is not felt or phenomenal pain but the physical events that may or may not manifest themselves at the level of consciousness.
Consciousness is real -- eliminativism is for lunatics -- and so consciousness must be explained. But an evolutionary explanation is inadequate. Such an explanation must specify a survival function consciousness serves that could not be served without it. But what could that be? Thus I think David Chalmers (The Conscious Mind, Oxford 1996, p. 120) is on the right track:
The process of natural selection cannot distinguish between me and my zombie twin. Evolution selects properties according to their functional role, and my zombie twin performs all the functions that I perform just as well as I do; in particular he leaves around just as many copies of his genes. It follows that evolution alone cannot explain why conscious creatures rather than zombies evolved.
Chalmers also points out that
. . . the real problem with consciousness is to explain the principles in virtue of which consciousness arises from physical systems. Presumably these principles -- whether they are conceptual truths, metaphysical necessities, or natural laws -- are constant over space-time: If a physical replica of me had popped into existence a million years ago, it would have been just as conscious as I am. The connecting principles themselves are therefore independent of the evolutionary process. While evolution can be very useful in explaining why particular physical systems have evolved, it is irrelevant to the explanation of the bridging principles in virtue of which some of these systems are conscious. (p. 121)
This strikes me as an extremely important point. If we think of evolutionary genesis as proceeding 'horizontally,' then the arisal of consciousness can be thought of as 'vertical.' If we want to explain how consciousness arises from its physical substratum, it is simply irrelevant to be given an explanation of how certain traits were selected for. An evolutionary account might explain 'horizontally' how an organism became sufficiently complex to host consciousness, but such an account would do nothing to explain how consciousness arose 'vertically' from the organism.
A friend of mine and I have ongoing discussions about consciousness. Some of his beliefs I have a hard time accepting. He believes for example that his cat doesn't have conscious experience. I can't put my finger on why I have such a hard time accepting this, but I do. One issue that has come up is whether you can have consciousness without self-awareness. In the discussions he has brought up the issue of blindsight, and claimed its an example of perception without consciousness. This doesn't make any sense to me. It seems to me that talk of perception presupposes consciousness. I was curious as to your thoughts on this matter.
There appear to be two separate questions here.
Q1: Are animals such as cats conscious? It would suffice for their being conscious that they experience pleasure or pain. Do cats experience pain? When I inadvertently step on my cat's foot, she exhibits pain-behavior (makes a certain characteristic sound, shrinks back, gives me a certain look, begins licking the foot.) Now that pain-behavior is not identical to the felt pain, if there is one; but it is evidence for its existence. Or so say I. But now we are approaching the problem of other minds which is too intricate to be discussed in this post. In any case, I don't believe this is what you are asking about. For my part, I no more doubt that my cat is conscious than I doubt that my wife is. Both are sentient beings! But how do I KNOW that? This, roughly, is the problem of other minds. Here is an organism in my visual field. I believe it has a mind more or less similar to my own (less in the case of the cat, more in the case of the wife). The problem is to provide the grounds for that belief. The belief goes well beyond what is strictly evident to the senses; so what justifies it? It is an epistemological problem. Not to be confused with the ontological question whether wife or cat could be philosophical 'zombies.'
Q2: Can there be consciousness without self-consciousness? This may be what you are really asking about. Can one be conscious of an object without being conscious of being conscious of it? I would say yes. The following sometimes happens to some people. They have been driving for some time, negotiating curves, braking, accelerating, etc. But then they suddenly realize that for the last few miles they haven't been conscious of doing these things. They've been 'blanked out.' And yet they were conscious of the road, the cars in front of them, etc., else they would have crashed. We could say that they were conscious of their environment and of the objects in its without being conscious of being conscious of all these things.
In a famous passage Kant says that "The 'I think' must be able to accompany all my representations." That is a good way of putting it. It must be possible for me to say 'I am now aware that the light is red' when I see that the light is red, but there needn't be this self-awareness for there to be the conscious perception that the light is red. So I suggest we say this: every consciousness is potentially self-conscious, but not every consciousness is actually self-conscious.
This is a murky topic due to the murkiness of the phenomenology. It is made even more murky when the first-person POV of phenomenology is blended with the third-person POV of neuroscience.
Some people pin their hopes on future science for a solution of the problem of consciousness as if hope, which has a place in religion, has any place in a strictly scientific worldview. If we only knew enough about the brain, these people opine, we would understand how consciousness arises from it.
But consider an analogy. Suppose you explain to a person that the natural number series is infinite, that there is no largest natural number since for every n, there is n + 1. The person seems to understand, but then objects when you say that it is impossible that there be a largest natural number due to the very nature of the natural number series. Your use of 'impossible' sticks in the guy's craw. He tilts Leftward, you see, and he thinks, quite confusedly, that anything's possible. He doesn't like it when people invoke natures and impossibilities and necessities and lay claim to a priori knowledge. That's too rigid and static for his taste. So he says,
Before long, we will have supercomputers so fast that they can reach the end of the natural number series. Who are you to say that that it impossible? All sorts of things have been pronounced impossible that are now actual. Given the enormous strides being made in computer technology, it is just a matter of time before a computer will reach the end of the natural number series.
Now the rank absurdity of this is (I hope!) self-evident. The fastest possible computer will operate at a finite speed: the speed of light (186, 282 mi/sec) is a speed faster than which no signal can travel. Combine your nanotechnology with cryotechnology, get down near absolute zero, there is still an upper bound on computing speed.
Now here is the analogy. Just as no computer no matter how fast will ever reach the end of the natural number series, no amount of brain science will ever find consciousness in the brain, or explain how consciousness arises from the brain, or how it could arise from the brain.
No doubt some of you will protest that the two situations are disanalogous. But then the burden is on you to explain exactly why they are.
I agree with Thomas Nagel, John Searle, and others that conscious experiences are irreducible to physical states. I have endorsed the idea that felt pain, phenomenal pain, pain as experienced or lived through (er-lebt), the pain that hurts, has a subjective mode of existence, a "first-person ontology" in Searle's phrase. If this is right, then phenomenally conscious states cannot be reduced to physical states with their objective mode of existence and third-person ontology. As a consequence, an exclusively third-person approach to mind is bound to leave something out. But there is an objection to irreducibility that needs to be considered, an objection that exploits Frege's distinction between sense and reference.