For Rebecca Goldstein
Daniel Dennett called one of his books Consciousness Explained. He should have called it Why, Even with My Gifts, I Cannot Explain Consciousness Away. Dennett gives a compelling account of how various unconscious events occur in our brains and how some of these come to our attention, and he makes jolly good fun of what he calls the “Cartesian theatre” with its “homunculus” inside, “watching the show,” but he stops just short of explaining away consciousness, and there is a reason for this: It cannot be done. I shall argue, below, that some of the pretheoretical intuitions that nonphilosophers have about the reality of consciousness are surprisingly robust, clear, and distinct, while the dismissal of those intuitions by orthodox contemporary professional Anglo-American philosophers (who, by and large, accept some version of physicalism or functionalism) is an article of “faith” strong enough to cause them to dismiss that which is not only the clearest, most distinct of our understandings but also prerequisite to any clarity or distinctness. For the physicalists and functionalists, believing is seeing. Theirs is a kind of theology, and, as Wallace Stevens says, “theology after breakfast sticks to the eye.”
There are many, many binary oppositions that seem to entail a default dualism on the part of those who employ them: mind/body, immaterial/material, universal/particular, proposition/sentence in a language, use/mention, a priori/a posteriori, sentience/nonsentience, being-for-itself/being-in-itself, thought/action, nominal/real, rule-creating/rule-following, subjective/objective, first-person/third-person, free/determined, teleological/nonteleological, experiencer/experienced. Contemporary reductionists who would exorcise mind from our vocabulary as though it were necessarily a ghost in the machine aren’t taking, I think, a scientific attitude with regard to the mind/body problem. George Santayana wrote in Reason in Religion that it’s easy enough for a worm-eaten old satirist to poke fun at the scientific inaccuracies of religion, but it’s much more difficult to account for it. The same is true of the default dualism that informed the development of those binaries. The burden is upon us, as philosophers, to account for the fact of the overwhelming tendency, throughout the centuries, of philosophers and nonphilosophers alike to carve up nature in that way. That most people, some pretheoretically and some theoretically, have considered it given that such binaries carve nature at its joints, to use an unpleasant but apt analogy, is itself a fact of nature that it is the job of our science to observe and explain. That these binaries are perfectly intelligible and that each is well-attested in our experience of the world means something, as I hope to show, below, and it means more than simply that we’ve always been confused, as when we thought that the sun rose and night fell. The inescapable fact is that intelligibility itself requires an ontological entity to which a concept can be said to be intelligible—that spooky experiencing mind that reductionists so anxiously wish to rid us of.
Let’s deal with the last of challenges to reductionism first. It’s simple enough to create physical processes that instantiate functional analogues of concepts, such as the sum of an addition, but there’s a difference between such a set of processes and an entity such as ourselves that experiences the having of concepts. That’s the point, of course, of Searle’s Chinese Room Gedankenexperiment, which has never been adequately refuted. People who identify the two are making a category mistake as surely as do those who confuse, say, use and mention. What is true of concepts and other ideas such as beliefs is true, as well, of qualia. One can say that my experience of pain entails that I have these C-fiber impulses (such an experience does except in a few bizarre, wildly pathological states), but one cannot say that the experience IS those. C-fiber impulses and experienced pains are ontologically distinct entities. A feeling is not the neural impulses that give rise to it. A mind is not a brain. Entailment or supervenience is not identity. One cannot make the mind-body problem go away, as, say, Richard Rorty attempts to do in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, by claiming that it’s just a matter of using the language wrong, of hypostetizing a predicate and making it a subject, in which case “This pain is terrible” is, like “Redness is yummy,” a loose use of language. (Rorty’s argument is a little more complicated, but that’s what it boils down to.) The mind-body problem and the universals-particulars problem are no more the same than a proposition is the same as the English (or Swahili) sentence that states it. Only a highly conditioned analytic philosopher could come to Rorty’s conclusion, and it is conclusions that preposterous that give philosophy a bad reputation among people who think that philosophers are supposed to be MORE careful in their thinking than the rest of us are. (Though, of course, there are highly trained analytic philosophers, Saul Kripke, for example, who don’t speak so outlandishly on this subject. See his discussion of pains and brains in Naming and Necessity.)
Because of the concomitance of physical and mental states, there is, of course, a sense in which talk about mental entities/experiences/states is adjectival, and it’s philosophically interesting that that’s so, but one can’t say, as Rorty does, that making that observation “dissolves” the mind-body problem. Neither is there anything scientific about trying to do so. A scientist does not ignore some facts, in this case the experience of entertaining a thought or of feeling a pain, just because they are inconvenient. Instead, a real scientist says about unexplained phenomena, “There are some things that I don’t yet understand.” There is no shame in that. Quite the contrary. That’s just being honest about the current state of knowledge and understanding. Dennett dismissively calls those who think that there is a hard problem of consciousness mysterians. But isn’t the proper response to a mystery to say, “That’s mysterious”? What other response is possible except silence?
One must sit down before the facts like a little child, Huxley said. That statement is in the true spirit of science and of philosophy, and it is in this spirit that we must reject the reductionist program that runs from Laplace, through the Vienna Circle misinterpreters of the younger Wittgenstein, to Ayer and Carnap and Ryle, to the twentieth-century behaviorists and the contemporary physicalists, functionalists, and hetereophenomenologists, a program that simply ignores much of what requires explanation. As Einstein is reputed to have said but did not, to our knowledge, actually say in precisely these words, our job is to seek answers that are as simple as possible, BUT NOT SIMPLER. Qualia (perceptions, bodily sensations, imagery, emotions) and other mental experiences (representations, beliefs, concepts, goals, intuitions) are not the physical processes on which they supervene. The world we experience has this dual aspect. As David Chalmers put it, that I have toes and thoughts are very different things. That’s simply the way things are. The universe contains us and other sentient entities with these spooky things called experiences, and professional philosophers need to accept that if they are to stop talking what is clearly arrant, errant nonsense.
Imagine a grandfather and his grandchild watching a PBS production of Romeo and Juliet on television. Romeo finds Juliet in the crypt, seemingly dead, and kills himself. The grandchild exclaims, “Why did he do that?!” The grandfather explains that a television camera recorded some actors in a studio, that the analogue recording was edited and sampled and digitized and stored as orientations of metal filaments on disc drives, that the recordings were played back by means of a mechanism that translated those orientations of metal filaments into streams of photons sent down fiber optic cables to a set-top box that transduced them into streams of electrons shot by a gun onto a fluorescent screen at one end of a cathode ray tube. An explanation like the grandfather’s (much elaborated) might be close to complete (though it cannot, our science tells us, be complete), but IT IS NOT AN ANSWER TO THE DAUGHTER’S QUESTION, which is asked AT A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT DESIGN LEVEL about phenomena at a completely different design level.
I suspect that there are two aspects of the hard problem of consciousness that make it particularly hard. One is that we have limited access to the way things are. We are like a child, confined to a room throughout her life, looking through a particular window at a particular courtyard and taking that courtyard for the world. Many years ago, the semiotician Jakob van Uexkull asked us to consider the lowly tick. A tick, in Uexkull’s telling, has four senses: she can sense light on her back; she can smell butyric acid, given off by the sebaceous (sweat) glands of mammals; she can sense temperatures in a narrow range around 35 degrees centigrade (the temperature of mammalian blood); she can feel with her feet. That’s it. That’s the entire access to the universe of a tick. Now, imagine that it is raining. For the tick, it’s welling up. The point is that we are ticks, too. There are explanations for phenomena experienced by the tick to which the tick has no access whatsoever. Clearly, the same is true for us, as the examples of other creatures with different kinds of access and the changing of our access through the building of prostheses, such as spectroscopes and electron microscopes and superconducting supercolliders demonstrates, but at any given time, there is much that we simply cannot know because we haven’t the perceptual or other cognitive tools, and in fact there are truths about the world that we don’t know and might never know, such as whether Socrates felt rain on his forehead on a particular day in his 23nd year or, instead, spent the entire day inside. There’s no reason to think that we great apes have the conceptual machinery to understand why we have experiences as well as toes or how we can have real agency, that is neither determined nor random. Yet it is impossible for us to dispense with these very real aspects of our lives. That’s problem one. The second problem is that many complexly interacting systems evince characteristics at the design level of the system that do not exist in the substrate of the system’s components. In other words, they give rise to emergent phenomena. But it is also possible that these aren’t simply emergent phenomena at all but, rather, phenomena we haven’t the ability, given our cognitive and perceptual limitations, to figure out. We are existence proofs that certain complexly interacting physical systems are loci of qualia, mattering, agency, purpose, freedom, what Sartre referred to as nonpositional reflective being, contents of consciousness, situatedness, thrownness, fallenness, orientation to Others, mind. We haven’t a clue how that can be so. But it is.
Some reductionists have fallen back on an epiphenomenal account of consciousness. Yes, experiences are quite real, but they ride on top of and are entirely accounted for by bottom-up systems (whether or not these are conceived of as deterministic). However, it should be obvious enough to those with scientific dispositions that nature is rarely so frivolous, so lacking in economy, as to create something complex that serves no purpose whatsoever. It’s a violation of the economy, the parsimony, so evident, everywhere, in nature to believe that experiencing does not, itself, play a causative role, top down. It’s difficult to understand why the same sorts of people who would accept as wholly reasonable the heuristic of, say, cladistic parsimony (motivated by repeatedly confirmed economy in nature), would think of experiencing as an inconsequential, non-causative free rider.
It would be the ULTIMATE irony, wouldn’t it, if that were so? That that to which things matter is the one thing that doesn’t matter?
The stubborn persistence of Anglo-American academic philosophers in their denial of mind is almost enough to make one think that David Chalmers’s philosophical zombies actually exist. Maybe there are such entities, and they all hold chairs of philosophy, and for THEM, pains are just C-fiber impulses because they don’t have a clue (or a functional physical process resulting in an output interpretable by a sentient consciousness as a clue) about what it means when people talk about “the experience of a pain.” Maybe one of those was named Richard Rorty. Maybe another is named Daniel Dennett. Maybe these zombie philosophers are marvelous to behold–philosophy machines of enormous sophistication–but just don’t have any there there, to borrow Gertrude Stein’s marvelous phrase. Maybe Kripke and Nagel and Chalmers have qualia and Dennett and the Churchlands, say, don’t. That would explain a lot.
Dennett points out that people are default dualists. As an evolutionist, he should have taken pause at that. It’s like saying that we’re default eaters or default procreators. We’re that way because it is possible for stuff to have experiences, because having experiences itself confers survival value to reproduction, enables us in this minimal sense to fare well, and evolution is a machine for faring well in the world. There’s nothing supernatural about any of this, of course, for whatever is, is the natural. But there’s nothing to suggest that experiencing is necessarily explainable by creatures such as us or by any creature living in a universe constructed like ours. Perhaps in the mind/body problem we are bumping up against our current cognitive and perceptual limits or against more fundamental limits to any understanding that we might ever develop. There is much in nature that remains mysterious, much that our science tells us MUST remain mysterious, much that many think is not knowable, in principle (such as the precise simultaneous position and momentum of an elementary particle).
Some of the Gnostics said that first there was Sophia, and she gave rise to Eros, but they had it backward. First, there was the raw fact that some entities fared well and others didn’t. Blind processes (perhaps–we have nothing like real evidence to the contrary) gave rise, in time, to a spectacularly successful means for faring well, to sentience and to an essential characteristic of sentient entities, the ability to reason, which is deeper than and considerably antecedent to the ability to create symbolic representations. I suspect, as Ginsburg and Jablonka have argued, that sentience is very, very ancient, that the first life forms with some version of sentience arose at the end of the PreCambrian and that that event in the history of life accounts, in part, for the Cambrian Explosion because, of course, even rudimentary sentience has enormous survival value. Perhaps inexplicable experiencing and making of choices acts upon the substrate that first gave rise to it, making it different in ways that confer survival value; perhaps reasons are fundamentally different from reactions, as the naively unphilosophical are inclined to think when they contrast a twitch with a grasp. Certainly, the choices that we make at the wholly different design level of the experiencing mind affect our wiring. Philosophy, if it is to be, in fact, fundamental, needs to go back to its source, its spring. It should conceive itself as the art of applying reason to the goal of faring well, which is why reason evolved in the first place.
While I’m dissociating myself from a number of received notions current among reigning philosophic and scientific intelligentsia, I might as well add this: It’s a commonplace of evolutionary theory that evolution is not teleological, and there is a sense, of course, in which that is true. But once the blind process of evolution hit upon the strategy of creating conscious minds, if that’s what happened, it gave birth to purposeful designers and purposeful design and so clearly became teleological. We choose our mates, and often enough, fortunately, we do so based on the quality of their minds, though we have no notion what those might be.
And finally, in the next step, should we survive, we are in the process of becoming the designers of the designing process itself and may even, in time, use technological means that exploit the supervenience of the mental upon the physical to develop the means to bridge the ontological gap between subjectivities (my mind over here, yours over there), as, perhaps, other entities throughout the universe have long since done. That’s a scary and exciting possibility, fraught with potential dangers and rewards. But it does seem that we are headed in that direction, and again, as was true after the arrival of sentience, everything changes.
BTW, even now we have a rough means for bridging that ontological gap, of course. We call it love.
Copyright 2013, Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.
For other essays (and cartoons!) by Bob Shepherd on philosophical subjects, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/philosophy/