More on consciousness (i).

I want to say more about consciousness in the next few postings, given that my last sortie into the area was necessarily desultory (this is a blog, not an encylopaedia of philosophy).  The ?hard problem?, as set up by Chalmers, is this: we have a set of physical phenomena including (but not, as I noted, restricted to) the brain; and we have a set of mental phenomena, such as thinking emotions, qualia, etc.  (I take the Wittgensteinian point that these phenomena are not simply ?bubbles? floating in space; but in general have behavioural aspects: ?dividing 3796 by 37? can be done ?in the head?, but also worked out on paper by lots of more or less mechanical movements of the hand). 

The hard problem, as formulated, is simply inexplicable.  Kant pointed out the reason for this, in a different context, in the last section of First Critique:

 'I must never presume to opine, without knowing at least something by means of which the judgment, in itself merely problematic, secures connection with truth, a connection which, although not complete, is yet more than arbitrary fiction. Moreover, the law of such a connection must be certain. For if, in respect of this law also, I have nothing but opinion, it is all merely a play of the imagination, without the least relation to truth. Again, opining is not in any way permissible in judging by means of pure reason. For since such judging is not based on grounds of experience, but being in every case necessary has all to be arrived at a priori, the principle of the connection requires universality and necessity, and therefore complete certainty; otherwise we should have no guidance as to truth.'


In other words, given the two sets of phenomena, mental and physical (with deference to Wittgenstein for a moment), merely 'opining' about the connection between the two without any idea at all about the universal law that connects the two means our opinion is just that: ie not worth anything.  What we need is some more general law: when X happens, Y follows; which we can apply to consciousness and its physical ground.  But we have no such thing, basically because consciousness seems completely unique; there is nothing else like it in the universe.  Indeed, as far as each one of us is concerned, there is only one example; ie our own. 

Suppose we had an excellent, indeed perfect, science of the neurology of consciousness.  Let us invent a classical mad scientist who, not wishing to rely on behavioural investigations of others, intervenes in his own brain, and thus discovers exactly what sorts of neuronal connections and activities give rise to what sorts of mental phenomena.  For example, if I have this neuronal configuration, and these neurotransmitters released at these times and in these concentrations, then, he might report, he sees green. This is indeed a perfectly possible and reasonable research programme.  But where will it lead?  One would indeed find sets of connections, such as seeing colours in general would be underlain by particular structures; or calculating square roots, etc etc.  One would be able to predict what mental state someone was in by looking at their brain structure.  But we would never get any further than this: the actual connection between the two things would remain entirely opaque.  After all, we already know roughly what sorts of results one would expect: and we do not as a result know roughly how consciousness is actually ?produced?.  What else do we expect to find?  The brain is complex, but not mysterious: we know exactly what it is made up of, we have some idea of how it is organized, and how it works.  Let me give a counter-example.  We know quite a lot about electricity and how it is generated; for example in a battery.  Now we come across - for the first time - an electrical eel.  After a few painful encounters we know that the eel is 'somehow' producing electricity.  It might be amazing to us that an animal can do the same thing as a battery: but because we have a general theory of electricity to do with electromagnetic radiation, electrons, potential difference etc, we would have a very clear research programme about what to do with the eel.  And then we would discover that actually the eel does the same stuff - as we would expect -  as all other generators of electrical energy, in its own way, for sure.  But what possible analogy could be employed in the case of consciousness? 

Of course, given that we have set up a problem that seems impossible to solve, we must be asking the wrong question.  One common way to attack it is to deny the premise about the fundamental nature of consciousness and 'aboutness'.  After all, if you ask someone to define what they mean by being conscious, they typically can't give a very impressive answer.  But this does not mean necessarily that the whole concept is suspect; rather, the trouble is that we can't give 'like' answers.  For example, if someone asks 'what is it like to be electrocuted?' you can answer 'well, it is like being burnt, but there is also a shock, like being hit hard by something; and then it is startling too, like being surprised by someone suddenly'.  But what sort of answer could be expected to 'what is it like to be conscious?' It is not like anything.  All we can do is compare some mental states to others, e.g. 'seeing green is quite like seeing blue, but not very like seeing orange': but that is hardly helpful.

The sort of unease one feels when poking around in these sorts of issues suggests that something is very very wrong indeed.  One can go and meet the materialists half way and, for example, oppose the idea of the person being a real unified point of view, as opposed to some sort of 'illusion' (but who is having the illusion?  And what extra understanding of the world does this add?).  But this really doesn't solve anything.



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