An Email Exchange on the Question of Consciousness

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 12, 2014

A number of members have been sending emails back and forth on the question of whether there is something distinct about human “consciousness” (thus setting us apart from other animals).

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Ivan wrote to me, suggesting that the group might benefit from reading Thomas Nagel’s essay, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (click here to read).  And he added this commentary:

The crux of Nagel’s argument is that for every conscious being there is something internal and subjective that it is like to be that being and that this something cannot be reduced to that physical object we refer to as the brain. I mention this because I noted the reference to consciousness in the materials you circulated.

Personally, I don’t find the question, “What is consciousness?” difficult to understand — it’s the totality and flood of feelings, thoughts, sensations and perceptions we all experience throughout our lives. The difficult and interesting question from my perspective is: how can there be consciousness in the physical world of particles and forces described by modern science; or, how can the slab of meat inside our skulls possibly account for conscious life — after all, they are categorically different. One way to put this is that there is a seemingly unbridgeable “explanatory gap” between the brain in our skull and our conscious life…

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Dean then happened to send to the group a link to an opinion piece in the New York Times (click here to read) by Michael S. A. Graziano, covering some of the same territory.

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To which I responded by sharing my response to Ivan’s earlier email:

Why are we talking about consciousness? Why is this coming up for us in advance of the meeting? 

This question may not seem, at first glance, directly related to the topic this month, which is devoted to exploring prehistorical understandings of what it is to be human…

And yet it comes up quickly when we consider their (and our) relationships with other animals. Certainly it is central to why humans have claimed a unique status, as the only animal capable of self-awareness, “free will,” a “soul,” a “moral sense” — all resting on “consciousness.” For these are the buzz words that have traditionally set us apart — in the Great Chain of Being model favored by religions.

These words have warm associations for us all of… specialness, awareness, attentiveness, etc. But they are also linked to our sense of difference and alienation from nature, I would suggest.

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Is this guy, in some important way, not self-aware?

As for the article, I am more with Churchland et al. over Nagel and Searle, in the sense that I agree that our “mental states” — desires, feelings, “logic,” even the sense of self-awareness itself, are probably merely folk descriptions of neuronal-electrical activity in our physical brains.

Now of course they still matter deeply to us — we desire, we feel, we are aware of ourselves! — but that doesn’t mean that they need mystify us and stump us with an “explanatory gap.” The experience of being a bumblebee is (we may imagine) a series of urges to fly straight to pollen sources, to return to the hive, to jitter in a way to convey information to other bumblebees. The experience of a human is a series of urges to make human-like noises, causing reactions in other humans, to eat, to walk, to have sexual intercourse, etc.. We can call it our vaunted “consciousness” but as far as I can see it really is no more than the record we keep of these urges. I am unimpressed by consciousness.

And it’s not only philosophers who dwell on this word too much, in my view. People who practice meditation, are similarly hung-up on consciousness. They often claim to want to escape thoughts and experience “pure consciousness”. But I am suspicious that such a state is merely another record of neuronal activity, this time oriented towards an intuitive unity of physical inputs and other brain activity (perhaps lessoning the left hemisphere’s role and listening to the right hemisphere). It is no more transcendent or “pure” than anything else (though it certainly feels good and may be a worthy goal to pursue for promoting happy and peaceful behavior).

I do think, like Churchland, that the whole language around this is a residue of supernaturalism and religion, artifacts of our history.

But I am open to the possibility that I just don’t see it. In which case my resistance to the mystery about “consciousness” is interesting in itself. What threat would it pose to me if I were to acknowledge a problem here with my materialist/naturalist view?

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Ivan then wrote back again:

Thanks for your thoughts and, yes, I think on this one we are going to have to agree to disagree!  I’m admittedly hung up on consciousness – my feelings, thoughts, sensations, my internal experience of color and awareness of the information I process, my very sense of self – all seem to me to possess a distinctive qualitative reality and to constitiute the most important (real) feature of my existence…

Also, the “explanatory gap” strikes me as philosophically self-evident: conceptually, I don’t see an explanatory bridge from brain to consciousness any more than I do from brick to consciousness. One strategy, of course, is to invoke the concept of a “brute fact” – i.e., it is just a fact of nature that when certain stuff (organic chemicals, etc.) combine in a certain way, you get consciousness. But brute facts are not only philosophically unsatisfying, they also seem to me an admission if ignorance. Another strategy (Nagel’s most recent one) is the suggestion that our current picture of the physical world is incomplete and it is this incompleteness that bars (conceptually speaking) the reduction of mind to brain. That certainly seems to me a real possibility (but certainly NOT any kind of argument for the existence of God in any remotely religious sense).

At the end of the day, my sense is that there are aspects of the world that may forever remain mysteries (brute facts, I suppose) to our species. I think consciousness may be one of them, but perhaps even gravity falls into this category (attraction from a distance – really? How does that work? It just does, and so we have an incredibly powerful explanatory model that allows us to make successful predictions). In this somewhat broader context, I highly recommend Chomsky’s article, “Mysteries of Nature” (click here to read)  published in the Journal of Philosophy and available online.

And yes – this is certainly interesting stuff to ponder …

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To which I responded again:

Hey Ivan,

Thanks for writing back again on this with more clarification of your thoughts.

I understand that you have the feel of a distinctive quality to your self-awareness or “consciousness”. (So do I, you will be reassured to hear. Have no fear of those frequent scenes in sci-fi movies where the trusted companion is revealed to be a cyborg, with circuits and wires under his skin instead of the stuff you expect.)

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But I still don’t understand the threshold difference between our responses to this feeling. Why should this distinctive feeling of consciousness call out, to you, for some additional “whole is more than the sum of its parts” explanation? To me it is unclear, even, what you are looking for… Something more than your brain and its activity?

By the way, what do you think of the analogy a neuroscientist used when interviewed (click here to read)… He said that, to him, wanting to separate “consciousness” from the physical parts of your brain is akin to wanting to separate “motion” from the parts of your car. You’re never going to find a separate thing: motion is just what your car DOES when you have those physical parts working together. In the same way, isn’t it an answer to say that consciousness is just what your brain does when you have all these neural networks working together, sending electrical/chemical signals around in response to internal and external stimuli?

I do agree that there are many things that we are never going to understand, due to the limitations of our particular mental make-up (adapted for survival as medium-sized, predatory mammals living in grasslands). I wish we could see like hawks, think like dolphins… Being human, we are astonishingly good at social interaction, and we have had surprising success in understanding the mechanics of the physical world around us (gravity being an exception, as you point out). Still, we are unavoidably limited by our finite capacities. So yes, that could be one way to explain why we can’t understand and define consciousness… 

But another is just to say that there is, simply, no additional, supra-material thing to grasp. Yes, there is the subjective experience of each brain (actually, each hemisphere of the brain separately, as experiments show!). But we already have methods of conveying that. Art describes that subjective experience quite well — hence the shiver you get when you encounter it. The experience of listening to music can even capture subjectivity without words. Aren’t these enough? Why do you seek an observer-independent explanation? (Well I agree it would certainly be interesting, if possible — but I suspect there would be little to say except that which we already know, namely that “consciousness” is a feeling, the feeling of being present.)

I suspect that this difference between our outlooks (as esoteric as it is; some in the group, I am sure, will feel our difference is a case of intellectually splitting hairs), will keep coming back to interest us as we try to grope our way towards a non-supernatural approach to meaning.

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To which Ivan responded one last time (in CAPITALs — though, mind you, he was not shouting, only differentiating between my email and his response):

On the question I posed on why he wanted some “additional” explanation, other than a biological one (what he refers to as a “brute fact”)…

I’M NOT LOOKING FOR AN “ADDITIONAL” EXPLANATION – JUST AN EXPLANATION. THE INTERNAL WORLD OF CONSCIOUSNESS, WITH ITS DISTINCTIVE QUALITATIVE FEEL, IS AS MUCH A PART OF THE NATURAL ORDER AS THE PLANT ON MY DESK; HENCE, IT TOO CRIES OUT FOR EXPLANATION. THE ELECTRICAL AND CHEMICAL ACTIVITY THAT TAKES PLACE IN MY NERVOUS SYSTEM SEEMS TO BELONG TO AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT REALM. IT IS CLEARLY RELATED TO CONSCIOUSNESS, BUT EXACTLY HOW THE TWO WORLDS INTERLOCK IS WHAT WE DON’T REALLY UNDERSTAND AND THE PROBLEM IS THAT SIMPLY PILING UP MORE KNOWLEDGE RE THE TYPE OF PHYSICAL ACTIVITIES THAT TAKE PLACE IN THE BRAIN, AND LEARNING ABOUT ADDITIONAL “CORRELATIONS” BETWEEN BRAIN AND MIND, WON’T CHANGE THAT ONE BIT. YOUR LAST SENTENCE REMINDS ME OF A FAMOUS ARTICLE IN THIS AREA: “WHAT MARY DIDN’T KNOW” (click to read). MARY IS A COLORBLIND SCIENTIST WHO KNOWS EVERYTHING THERE IS TO KNOW ABOUT THE BRAIN. ONE DAY HER COLORBLINDNESS IS CURED AND SHE EXPERIENCES THE COLOR RED FOR THE FIRST TIME. DID SHE LEARN SOMETHING NEW? OF COURSE. DOES THIS SUPPORT THE POSITION THAT BRAIN AND MIND ARE NOT IDENTICAL – I THINK SO.

(But do we need something additional to explain, for example, the feeling of anger? Or the taste of a mango? They are “part of the natural order” as well, aren’t they? Why is “consciousness” different for you — that is, why does it require a deeper explanation than other mental states? — Tom)

Then Ivan responded to the analogy that consciousness arises from the physical parts of a brain… like motion arises from the physical components of a car.

I DON’T FIND THIS LINE OF REASONING CONVINCING AT ALL. I DON’T FIND IT HAS ANY REAL EXPLANATORY POWER. IS THE ARGUMENT NOW THAT CONSCIOUSNESS IS BRAIN ACTIVITY OR THAT IT RESULTS FROM BRAIN ACTIVITY (VERY DIFFERENT POSITIONS)?? ALSO, MY EXPERIENCE IS THAT NEUROSCIENTISTS HAVE A HARD TIME UNDERSTANDING THE PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUE AND A TENDENCY TO DIMINISH THE SIGNIFICANCE OF QUESTIONS AND PHENOMENA THAT DON’T FIT EASILY WITHIN THEIR CURRENT EXPLANATORY MODEL. IN ANY CASE, YOU DON’T NEED TO GO TO THE NEUROLOGIST. SEARLE TRIED ARGUING THAT CONSCIOUSNESS STANDS IN THE SAME RELATION TO THE BRAIN AS DIGESTION TO THE STOMACH. BUT AGAIN, I’M NOT CONVINCED AT ALL. THE STOMACH DIGESTS FOOD BY CRUSHING IT UP AND SECRETING CHEMICALS THAT BREAK IT DOWN (OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT …) – ALL OF WHICH IS CONCEPTUALLY CLEAR AND SO PHILOSOPHICALLY UNPROBLEMATIC. THE STRUCTURE AND ACTIVITY OF THE STOMACH “SLOTS” EASILY INTO THE PHENOMENON OF DIGESTION. I DON’T SEE THAT THE SAME HOLDS FOR THE STRUCTURE AND ACTIVITYOF THE BRAIN AND THE PHENOMENON OF CONSCIOUSNESS.

THERE DOES SEEM TO BE SOMETHING ADDITIONAL TO GRASP – ADDITIONAL TO THE WORLD OF PARTICLES AND FORCES AS CURRENTLY DESCRIBED BY PHYSICISTS: THE WORLD OF CONSCIOUSNESS. THIS WORLD WILL ALWAYS HAVE A PRIVATE, SUBJECTIVE CHARACTER, BUT DOESN’T ANY GENUINE EXPLANATION OF HOW WE HAVE CONSCIOUSNESS NEED TO BE PUBLIC AND OBJECTIVE (AND SO OBSERVER-INDEPENDENT)?

(I don’t think it does. That is a theological habit, I think, which is still ingrained in all of us: looking for a universal basis for things (Plato’s ideas, for example, or the major monotheistic religions’ versions of an unfathomable God). In the same way we still have the habit of looking for universally applicable or “categorical” moral or aesthetic rules — when our own private and subjective (and often ad hoc) ones do quite well, in most cases. — Tom)

I JUST WANT A CONCEPTUALLY CLEAR EXPLANATION OF HOW CONSCIOUSNESS CAN EXIST IN THE WORLD AS CURRENTLY DESCRIBED BY PHYSICS. IT MAY BE THAT CONSCIOUSNESS IS BEST SEEN AS A KIND OF COUNTER-EXAMPLE THAT SHOWS THE PHYSICIST’S CURRENT PICTURE IS LACKING SOMETHING. THAT IS NAGEL’S VIEW. WHY SHOULDN’T THIS BE THE CASE?

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With that, Ivan and I agreed that we were getting perilously close to reaching the limits of what we could accomplish with an email exchange — and we would have to carry our concerns into a person-to-person conversation sometime!

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