The impossible problem of consciousness

Anil MITRA, COPYRIGHT © 2015—2015



Introduction: the hard and scientific problems    1

The impossible problem of consciousness    2

The non problem of consciousness    4

The problems of consciousness    5

The sky is red    5

Science and philosophy    7


The impossible problem of consciousness

Introduction: the hard and scientific problems

There is a problem in explaining how a lump of matter, even a complex and dynamic ‘lump’, the brain, has consciousness. The problem is not an issue of complexity. It is not difficult to see complex behavior arising from a complex brain. The problem is one of materialism or physicalism. The problem is this: we tend to think that the brain is purely material but if it is material it is hard to see how consciousness and subjectivity can be associated with the brain.

This is an umbrella problem—what is the relation between mind and body is the central problem, the question of mental events causing body action is another.

On the foregoing account there is another problem of consciousness. The other problem of consciousness is explaining the details of complex behavior and consciousness from the structure of the brain. This problem is one of explaining the details but not of consciousness itself: the explanations would not explain how consciousness is associated with the brain but how there is behavior as if the person has consciousness. This is the scientific problem of consciousness (there are other problems such as mapping the structure and processes of consciousness but here we will shall be concerned with the hard and the scientific problems).

Because the first problem seems intractable it has been called the hard problem of consciousness.

The impossible problem of consciousness

There is solution to the hard problem that seems to be fairly standard. It is that consciousness emerges at a certain level of material (organic) complexity. But this is not an explanation at all. It explains how as-if consciousness emerges but it does not explain how or that consciousness emerges. This physicalist explanation explains the emergence of low level and then high level as-if consciousness from non consciousness but it does not explain consciousness itself at all.

Why? The lack of explanation follows from the tacit material assumption that there is nothing mind like about primitive matter. From this assumption the emergence explanation cannot be a necessary explanation of consciousness although it might be the outline of a tentative explanation. There is an analogy: the components of a Boeing 747 do not have the property of flight but the 747 does; similarly molecules in the brain are not mental but the whole brain is. Argument by analogy is not necessary even if it is a good or suggestive analogy. But this is not even a good analogy. Where does the analogy break down? It breaks down because both aircraft components and aircraft flight are physical whereas brain components—molecules and neurons—are physical but consciousness is non physical (the material assumption). One could use the argument by analogy to say, analogously to the Boeing, the physical properties of molecules result in the physical property of wetness. But even there it is an analogy whose correctness is retrospective; it does not say why water is wet rather than dry.

This conundrum is not new. It was present with Descartes who posited mind and body as different and exclusive substances such that he could see no way of interaction other than in or via the mind of God. But we are beyond Descartes, are we not? We are not for physicalism which seems rational on the surface of it allows substance theory back in. If you think that matter is real in fact and that mind is real because of your experience of it, and if you also think that matter excludes mind (i.e. if you think matter is a substance) then you cannot explain mind. So you have two options: (a) you minimize or deny mind (the epiphenomenalists and the consciousness-is-nothing-but-an-illusionists) or (b) you invent a non-explanation explanation like God or emergence.

By the way, consciousness-is-nothing-but-an-illusion is paradoxical for illusions are examples of consciousness. You are probably also explaining the real away to suit your philosophy and perhaps being self deceptive. There are physical theories that do without time as a primitive concept and, correspondingly, there are physicists who argue that time is not real. They should really and only be saying ‘in theory x, time is not primitive’. The epiphenomenalist is denying the causal relation between mind and body. By the way showing that mind is not causal in some situations does not show it non causal generally; if my consciousness follows upon neural activity then the consciousness is available for further effect on behavior.

I therefore propose to dub the hard problem the impossible problem of consciousness.

The physicalist with the kind of stripes explained above (which amount to strict substance theory) has unwittingly gotten boxed into a corner whose generic name is ‘substance metaphysics’ and that says substances are distinct and cannot interact. This physicalist, then, is either a monist (the conclusion is that there is no mind) or a dualist (and an epiphenomenalist or a no interaction dualist). The difficulty of the way out of the corner is compounded by the fact that such physicalists do not realize that they are effectively substance metaphysicians and so boxing themselves into tight corners.

The non problem of consciousness

Is there a way out? There is, today, a minority alternative among philosophers which asserts that the elements of matter have primitive properties that, in brains, result in consciousness and consciousness phenomena. This alternative does not say that atoms are conscious. It is not pan-psychism. The following is a good analogy: (a) the parts of a 747 have properties that in the 747 manifest as flight and (b) the parts of brain have properties that in the brain manifest as consciousness. We could have inserted the terms material or mind before ‘properties’ in the analogy but to do so would require some unnecessary hedging. What kind of properties? My guess is that they are properties, e.g. interactions that we already know even though we don’t know how they act together in producing consciousness. It may be, though, that as Roger Penrose has suggested, the physical properties or laws are ones that we don’t yet know; perhaps both known and unknown kinds are implicated.

How careful should we be about not calling atoms conscious? It would not be a mistake if we strictly differentiated high level consciousness and low level ‘consciousness’. However, it might lead to confusion if we were to use the word ‘consciousness’ in both cases. Therefore it is advisable to have separate terms for the properties of particles—perhaps we could call them ‘proto-mental’.

In avoiding metaphysics altogether, the hard and impossible problem has become a non problem of consciousness. We haven’t really avoided metaphysics because we are saying there is a world, there are bodies and brains, and there are particles and fields and forces. But we declined to commit to what kind of things these things are. What we have fully avoided is substance metaphysics. This is not a prohibition against talking of the world as material. What it implies is that if you do use the terms ‘material’ or ‘physical’ you may need to reinterpret those terms.

The problems of consciousness

What remains is one kind of problem. There may be high level problems, e.g. the evolution of consciousness and how consciousness (mind) causes or is associated with action, low level problems such as the relation between the details of mental content and material content, and cross level problems such as what is the neurophysiology of high level consciousness. These problems may be difficult but, barring further discovery, are not intractable.

The evolution of consciousness requires no special explanation. What is evolving is not the phenomenon of consciousness but the effectiveness of high level consciousness. At the conceptual level the problem has become trivial. Of course the details remain scientifically difficult.

‘Mental causation’ is no longer problematic. Provided the physics is sufficiently comprehensive, it is a case of physical causation. Perhaps of course, it would be effective to replace terms such as ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ so as to rid them of there misdirecting connotations.

The sky is red

It will be useful to consider the classic issue that my experience of light at the ‘blue’ end of the visible light spectrum may be the same as your experience of light at the red end. This is often put ‘how do we know that my experience of blue is not like your experience of red’.

I’ll meander through some thoughts on this issue. The point will be to show the unnecessary complication and confusion of explicit or tacit substance metaphysics.

What does logic say?

Logic says nothing. I might argue by analogy: my neurophysiology is similar to yours so my experiences should be similar.

Note that similarity of experience is good enough because even a given individual might experience ‘blue’ differently under identical external conditions.

But analogy is not proof. Perhaps, a slight change in the wiring makes a great change in experience.

And perhaps people are divided into classes (I’m excluding color blindness), those who experience blue as warm and others who experience it as cold. But even a given individual could have those experiences. It is not a case of my blue being your red.

But it is possible that we are wired differently so my blue is your red is a third person’s green is a fourth person’s middle C, is a fifth person’s tender embrace with a lover.

Perhaps when someone says ‘come’ you hear ‘come’ and I hear ‘go’ but I interpret ‘go’ the way you interpret ‘come’.

You see where this is going. The ‘different subjective experience corresponding to the same physical stimulus’ possibility is real but is also an enormous neural complication. And, Ockham’s razor says that unless there is reason to believe my blue is your red, we need not hypothesize the possibility. But of course while these are reasons they are not proof that my blue is your blue.

Now, if where you experience the sky as blue, I have an experience of red but having grown up in the same culture I say blue despite my red experience, it would seem we have no way of knowing this. But if my neurology and yours are identical then our experiences must be identical (similarity does not similarly necessarily follow from similarity). So our different experiences must be due to differences in neurology. It is then entirely possible, and I would guess probable, that someone would wake up one day and say ‘hey, today the sky is brilliant red’ and the rest of us would react with incredulity—or think that they were pulling our collective leg.

The philosopher Wittgenstein might make the following point. Let us say that there is absolutely no way to compare our experiences of objective-blue (light at the blue end of the visible spectrum). It is then without meaning to say that my blue is objective-blue or that my blue and your blue are the same or different. What I mean by ‘without meaning’ is that, under the ‘no way to compare’ premise, the statement ‘my blue is your red’ signifies nothing at all.

But cutting through dualism cuts through all of this. Under similarity of external circumstance and neurology our experiences are similar.

I might be a brain in a vat. There is a philosophical argument against that. But the practical argument is that the computer that generated my experience would have to be more complicated than my brain and the universe. It is the equivalent of ‘God created the universe’. If you don’t believe that you can’t believe that a computer created your experiential universe. If you do believe that God created the universe then I would urge to examine how much more complex that is than the ideas that the universe did not require creation and that the evolutionary explanation of life—when you have understood evolution correctly and when you have analyzed the objections sufficiently—is far simpler than the God explanation. In fact it has to be simpler because the God explanation is not an explanation at all.

Science and philosophy

I’ve thought about consciousness and body—and the red blue problem as a special case—quite a bit. I was reminded by all this about a claim on the Internet that the red blue problem is beyond science (it was stated by a Professor of physics at University of California, Berkeley).

You can now see why I disagree with this claim about science. What has happened is that when ‘science’ makes untenable metaphysical assumptions, science alone cannot shake them off. Philosophy can be an antidote to such assumptions. That is, whereas I referred to the scientific problem of consciousness we should perhaps refer to the scientific and philosophical problem of consciousness (which would be unnecessary if science and philosophy had not today gotten into somewhat oppositional positions). Most simply, however, the antidote is often neither more science nor more philosophy. It is to not make unwarranted assumptions even if they are part of the zeitgeist.

All this, by the way, is not an argument against metaphysics. It is an argument that metaphysics is necessary—at least not to be avoided—and it is important that the metaphysics be careful.