(Please read the first post in this series if you haven’t already.)
Is the “hard problem of consciousness” a mystery? Before plunging in, mind/brain-first, let’s take stock of three things we do know about consciousness, barring the quibbles of the extreme (and extremely annoying) skeptic:
One: We know that consciousness and its palette of diverse elements are real. We know this fact more clearly and directly than anything else. We may, of course, be wrong in how we classify our experience and how we interpret it, in how we think its elements correspond to other parts of the world, but we can be certain that this experience, in all its rich variegation, exists. Poor Descartes (bless his brain) gets lambasted frequently in discussions of the mind-body problem, but he got this point right. Some philosophers—notably, Daniel Dennett (1988, 1991)—have been accused of denying that consciousness is real. I think that a careful, charitable analysis of their work reveals more nuanced views, in which the reality of consciousness or experience is affirmed but certain ways of classifying or interpreting it are denied. To deny the reality of consciousness itself would be, as Galen Strawson (2018) put it, “the silliest claim.” It would be a self-contradiction in more than one sense.
Two: We know that consciousness comes in degrees, that it is not “all-or-nothing.” While the term “consciousness” picks out the most intimately known aspect of reality, it is also fuzzily defined. We have all experienced semi-conscious states, whether in dreams, under local anesthesia, in the delirium of a fever, or in that nebulous, disorienting state as we’re falling asleep or waking up. Enough glasses of rosé can get us there, too. The quality of those experiences is usually diminished compared to our more lucid moments: our sensations are less vivid, our memories are trickier to access, and our train of thoughts follows a more haphazard course. We have also all emerged from a gradual development of awareness over the course of our lives, from reactive fetuses to (relatively) reflective adults. At the onset of this development, we might wonder whether the concept of consciousness or experience even applies. Is there anything it is like to be a fetus? The same question can be raised about simpler, nonhuman organisms, like anemones, sea urchins, or starfish (See Figures 2-4 below). Just as consciousness develops in a single human lifetime, so it has developed over eons of genetic evolution.
And three: We know that consciousness is strongly linked to physical events—namely, electrochemical activity of a particular sort in brains and nervous systems. Wherever we encounter this kind of physical activity, we encounter an instance of consciousness, and vice versa. There’s no good evidence, I think, for the existence of consciousness apart from a material form; “out-of-body” experiences are well explained by events within the brain. Whenever there’s a change in consciousness, there’s a corresponding change in physical activity; philosophers say that consciousness “supervenes” on the physical.
The connection here is so strong that it is reasonable to wonder if it might be an identity. Perhaps conscious events just are physical events of a particular kind. Perhaps the physical terms and the experiential terms refer to the same process. After all, to the best of our knowledge, physical and conscious events completely coincide in space and time. Either they are identical or they are so tightly fused that it would be misleading to call them distinct, interacting substances, reactants and products, or phenomena and epiphenomena. Maybe we could say that they are two aspects of the same thing, “two sides of the same coin.” To switch metaphors: experiences are the manifest, vibrant lotus flowers on the surface of a pond (Figure 5), and the neural underpinnings are the hidden, spindly stalks in the murky water beneath. A person is an inseparable unity of two distinct, but complementary aspects: mind and matter. Hence, this view has been called “double-aspect theory” or “dual-aspect monism.” It is frequently associated with Spinoza, but arguably a similar view (called “hylomorphism”) can be traced back to Aristotle. According to Aristotle, a living thing is a fusion of matter (hyle) and form (morphe). The soul is the form of a living thing, and cannot be separated from the body, or matter.
Why is there such an intimate relationship between mind and matter? It is instructive to consider proposed solutions to the hard problem, and note that all such solutions end up appealing to brute facts that run against our intuitions. Some thinkers, for example, have said that consciousness is a nonphysical or nonfunctional property, and that certain “psychophysical laws” connect that property to physical properties. If you press them and ask, “But why do those psychophysical laws exist?,” a plausible response is, “They just do. That’s the way things are.” The link may seem strange to us, but its strangeness doesn’t imply that a further explanation must be given, that another, less-strange mechanism must be discovered. We might be able to imagine a Zombiverse without that link, without those psychophysical laws, but that implies nothing about reality, and may only be a failure of our imagination.
Other thinkers have said that consciousness just is physical activity of a particular kind. If you object that matter in motion doesn’t entail inner experience, a plausible response is, “Well, it does, in fact. That’s the way we’ve discovered the physical world to be. Time to update your concepts!” Of course, you can find plenty of parallels between the quality of your experience and what is happening neurologically, and that might help you swallow the idea that these are identical processes. The complexity and unity of the rich experience I’m having now is reflected in the complexity and information-integration of my neural processing, for instance. Likewise, there is probably a neural or functional similarity corresponding to the similarity between my experience of red and my experience of orange (in contrast with my experience of blue). It seems that many features of our experience can be explained in this manner. But quite possibly, the intuition will remain that one side of the experience-dynamics equation doesn’t match the other, that some extra ingredient has been smuggled in. That clash of intuition with observation may require explanation, even as the counterintuitive observation does not.
(A two-paragraph tangent: It is an interesting psychological and historical question why conscious humans find it so troublesome to cram consciousness into their theories about the world. Part of the psychological story, I think, is the following: since our consciousness is the pond we are immersed in—the pond we are—we can never directly observe another consciousness, much less see it “entangled” with physical activity. Furthermore, an Ozian curtain of flesh, hair, and bone conceals the intricate mechanisms behind the magic. If we were to pull back the curtain and peer inside, we wouldn’t behold streams of experience (of blue, say) flowing across the wrinkled cortex. Even if we did perceive something blue in there, it would be our experience of blue, not that of the blue-brained subject. Thus, the experience-dynamics relation fits uneasily with our accumulated intuitions about how the world works.
Part of the historical story is that modern science has developed a methodology in which the idiosyncratic and human features of perception are stripped away, leaving behind a non-experiential, mathematical, objective description of the thing perceived. We exiled consciousness from our concept of matter, so of course we find it mysterious why it should emerge from matter. Some thinkers, such as Raymond Tallis (2017), have criticized this methodology for sucking all the meaning, feeling, and concreteness out of our conception of the world. I see the methodology, rather, as a reasonable epistemic move, as long as we remember to pour experience and meaning back in when we suspect the presence of experiencers and meaning-makers. Tangent terminated.)
On the one hand, those who are scientifically minded and faithful to experience should be suspicious of appeals to brute facts about the world, to inquiry-snuffing responses like, “That’s just the way things are.” These are the metaphysical equivalent of the impatient, but pragmatic, parental retort, “Because your mother says so!” Very often in the history of science, further facts about allegedly “well-understood” phenomena had yet to be uncovered, and more empirically adequate theories had yet to be worked out.
But the empiricist must also guard, on the other hand, against “mystery mania”—invoking mysteries and explanatory gaps where there are none. A tendency to reject demands for explanation at certain points forms part of what the philosopher Bas C. van Fraassen (2002) calls the “empirical stance.” Sometimes Mother Nature just “says so,” in which case the hunt for hidden gears, pipes, and pulleys behind bizarre phenomena is a wild goose chase, a waste of intellectual effort. I suspect this is the case with the notorious pop-philosophical question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” There just is, folks. This reply, I think, rightly hurtles over a conceptual obstacle toward the truly worthy pursuit of investigating that “something.”
And I suspect that such is the case with the “hard problem of consciousness,” as well. The most empirically aligned description of the experience-dynamics relation, I believe, is either identity or double-aspect monism. (Note to those familiar with the philosophical literature: I am only asserting a token identity in this series of posts, if “type” of physical activity is understood to exclude a level of abstraction above the molecular. In my next series, I will address the theory of functionalism and the question: At what level of physical activity or functionality does consciousness emerge?) If the relation is identity, it isn’t clear to me that a further explanation is needed; we’ve discovered that our experiential and physical concepts converge on the same bits of reality, and that’s that. Alternatively, if consciousness and physical activity of a particular kind are best described as two sides of the same coin, two distinct properties that nevertheless are inseparable, it doesn’t seem necessary to postulate or search for some physical or nonphysical “glue” to unite them. Their unity may be a marvel: a surprising and extraordinary fact about the universe, without any mysteries beyond what the particular correlations are between them. We mustn’t confuse the lack of an intuitive explanation for the existence of some explanation beyond human (or Martian) grokking.
Note that the currently resurgent view of panpsychism, which posits that consciousness pervades the universe and may appear even among fundamental physical entities, is compatible with both a mind/matter identity theory and double-aspect monism. Chalmers (2003) argues that if the psychophysical relation is a brute fact, then something like panpsychism may follow, since brute facts tend to involve fundamental, universal properties. I will return to panpsychism and Chalmers’ point in my following series on the problem of other minds.
I have wondered at times whether taking the empirical “high road” would mean refraining from classifying the experience-dynamics relation altogether. Is it more prudent to adopt a quietist stance here? We know there’s consciousness; we know it has diverse elements and comes in degrees; and we know there’s a strong connection between it and certain forms of physical activity. Does naming the connection an “identity” versus an “inseparable unity” make a difference to our understanding? Can introspection and scientific investigation adjudicate between the two? Are there different ethical consequences?
In my third and final post of this series, I will address these practical, moral, and methodological questions. I will also outline where I think our investigation of consciousness should head, if the hard problem is dissolved as I suspect. In a nutshell: I will advocate a method popularized by Francisco Varela (1998) called “neurophenomenology.”
Gotta love academics and their sesquipedalian words!
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below! Till next Saturday—
Chalmers, David (2003). Consciousness and its place in nature. In Stephen P. Stich & Ted A. Warfield (eds.), Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Mind. Blackwell. pp. 102–142. Retrieved online at: http://consc.net/papers/nature.pdf.
Dennett, Daniel (1988). Quining qualia. In: Marcel, A. & Bisiach, E. (eds.). Consciousness in Modern Science, Oxford University Press.
—(1991). Consciousness explained. New York: Back Bay Books.
Strawson, Galen (2018). Things that bother me: death, freedom, the self, etc. New York: New York Review Books.
Tallis, Raymond (2018). Of time and lamentation: reflections on transience. Newcastle upon Tyne: Agenda Publishing.
van Fraassen, Bas C. (2002). The empirical stance. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Varela, Francisco (1998). Neurophenomenology: a methodological remedy for the hard problem. In Shear, J (ed.). Explaining consciousness: the hard problem. MIT Press.
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