Why do we still have problems
MITRA © NOVEMBER 2017—November 2017
Home | Contact
Why do we still have problems understanding consciousness?
This was written as https://www.quora.com/Why-do-we-still-have-problems-understanding-what-consciousness-is-Can-we-find-the-ultimate-answer/answer/Anil-Mitra-2.
Here, I will be improving the foregoing answer.
When we ask “what consciousness is”, it may occur to us
that it is very different from what we call matter.
So some questions come up
- Is consciousness or subjective awareness in all its
forms different from matter? And if so, how is it related to matter. It
must be related to matter in some way for we always find consciousness
in material organisms. I don’t insist on that ‘always’ as a metaphysical
truth but it does seem empirical.
- In turn, what is matter? Our first understanding is that
it is something we sense. But we also notice patterns of behavior and
this begins the science of physics. Our ultimate understanding of matter
today is primarily in quantum theory and secondarily in relativity. Are
the quantum properties necessary? Or is classical physics sufficient to
understanding mind? I suspect quantum theory is necessary but perhaps it
is not enough—a deeper (or lateral) theory may be needed. Neurology may
be sufficient but if consciousness or parts of it depend on
indeterminism, fundamental physics may be necessary.
- So it’s not clear that we have a sufficient grasp of
physics (and so on) to explain consciousness—to say what consciousness
is—in material terms. However, at least as a first approximation,
consciousness appears to appear in brains.
- But let us imagine that deep down matter is all there is
(‘substance’) and we have understood it fully. Its not altogether clear
that we will but let us assume so (if we hadn’t understood it fully we
would not be justified in saying that it is all there is). Now in that
case, it is obvious in a very general sense what consciousness must be.
It must be something that we might call the ‘interiority’ of matter:
matter in self-interaction. After all, if matter is all there is and if,
as we tend to agree, there is consciousness, then consciousness must be
a function of matter and most likely matter in interaction. We might say
that consciousness arises from matter but that would be inaccurate;
rather, consciousness is matter but from another perspective.
- What interaction? I don’t think we know. How does
consciousness get to be so intense in humans and other animals, how does
it have its variety—cognition, emotion, willing, perception… we know
some things but not at a very fundamental level.
- That is, if you accept the foregoing material argument,
then we do have a good grasp on one aspect of consciousness—what has
been called the hard or philosophical problem of what consciousness is
in substance or material terms. I think the hard problem is hard only
because our philosophy has been bad. On the other hand we are far from
an adequate address of the easy or scientific problem. Perhaps seeing
consciousness in the right way as an aspect of matter may help with the
- Is consciousness emergent? I don’t think consciousness
itself is emergent. I do think its intense and varied qualities as they
appear in animals is emergent but it is the detail and not the substance
(mind from matter) that is emergent. But it does not seem to me that so
far emergence has done any significant explaining in consciousness.
- Meanwhile I think approaches like ‘Integrated
Information Technology’ are a good idea. The idea there is to put aside
the question of what consciousness is and focus on what it does and
finding information processing models for it. It’s a good idea because
it doesn’t make sense to let our ignorance about the material details to
hold up studies. On the other hand I don’t think IIT is a replacement
for fundamental studies in the neurology of conscious / subconscious /
- Summary. I think we have a decent account of the
fundamental thing that consciousness is in very general terms. But we
await a mature detailed scientific account of consciousness.
- Postscript. An illustrative insert on free will.
Think about will. What is it? On the material ‘side’ in the above
description, it is matter doing its thing. On the consciousness side it
is consciousness-preconsciousness doing their thing.
Experiments show pre-consciousness wins? The experimenters themselves
agree that that’s but one interpretation. In any case, the experiments
concern simple operations. Life is a long operation.
Now what about the free part of free will. It is unclear to me
why we would have will if it weren’t free—what would it’s adaptive
advantage be? It seems it must be free for adaptive advantage. But if
free then there must be indeterminism.
The counterargument is that randomness cannot produce structured
responses (David Hume noted this). But that is a poor description of
what is going on. The organism is structure. Indeterminism is a small
part of it. It produces small changes; intelligence notices which are
adaptive (‘new ideas’ or elementary ‘new actions’).
That is freedom of will occurs at the boundary between structure and
So you can see, at least tentatively, the open ended material model is
giving us a good general handle on consciousness and showing us at the
same time that some of its processes must be indeterministic—just as in
quantum mechanics structure arises out of probabilistic process in bound
For more on indeterminism in the world, see Anil
Mitra's answer to How can free will or determinism be
scientifically/mathematically deduced or proved?.