On the walls of the world (ii). A little more on cosmology. Psychology and its limits.

I have previously argued that, despite many impressive scientific advances (and they are impressive), we shall never be able to understand the origins of the world; what brought it about or why it exists. In simple terms this can be reduced to the following: we understand causality in terms of one thing (or state of things) causing another; and things do not cause themselves. But in the case of the universe as a whole, there can be no thing that causes it, because by definition all things are in the universe. Afficionados may note at this point a possible invalid logical procedure here; similar, as Russell pointed out to "all men have a mother" to "there is a mother to all mankind", ie the "quantifier-shift" fallacy. this might indeed apply to the argument "Every thing has a cause. Therefore there is a cause for everything". But I am arguing for the opposite: there can be no cause for the universe. If this seems a profoundly secular conclusion to draw, read on in this blog. Now I want to turn to the other blank in our understanding; ie ourselves. And now I shall somewhat preempt the Third Dialogue which shall deal with the same topic, but in more rhetorical turns. Again, this ground has been gone over very thoroughly recently, with absolutely no agreement. So let us delve in once again. The issue of consciousness has been a subject of endless interest to philosophers, and has rather recently begun to be of interest to scientists too. The basic points are well known, and I shall try to enumerate the least controversial of them:

i) Humans are conscious. It is of course not exactly known by this phrase, but the basic idea is of subjectivity: we have a "point of view" that a table doesn't. Or, to put it another way, the question "what is it like to be human?"makes sense, whereas "what is it like to be a table" does not. Kant showed, controversially, that human consciousness was not just some sort of "glow" that accompanied experience, but had considerable intellectual structure, which is why one can never fear becoming a vegetable through, for example; a severe stroke. We can pity such a victim, but we cannot fear ourselves being in such a situation, because to be in such a situation is to have lost the ability to intellectualise one's experience and thus to regret it. This is one of the reasons why the quality of life of those around those with Alzheimer's disease often deteriorates more radically than that of the sufferer themself, who often does not really notice things going wrong.
ii) As the examples of strokes and degenerative disease show, consciousness is at the very least strongly correlated with brain function. Injury, tiredness, illness or hangover will all diminish or alter our conscious states; and we know this happens by alterations in the brain, either physical or chemical. Indeed, various classical cases show that our entire personality can be altered by such things: in both "good" and "bad" directions. I think the above would be agreed on by at least moderates. Now come some more provocative statements:

The basic elements of consciousness; intentionality, qualia and all the rest, are non-reducible. Indeed, Wittgenstein's various obscure writings on the topic imply that we should not even think of them as being strictly activities of the brain. Here is an example of why not, which his disciple Ilham Dilman suggested. Suppose someone was running up a hill. We have all sorts of physiological paraphernalia attached to her, and can see that when she does so, the muscles work harder, the heart beats more strongly and faster, blood zips around the system more, and various hormones are released. In short, the whole system goes up a gear. Obviously if you rip someone's heart out they will, to say the least,, no longer be able to run up hills. But do we thereby think that the activity of "running up the hill" is somehow an activity of the heart, or that it is "in the heart"? Similarly, when we think harder, we also get a set of physiological responses, including the brain working harder as measured by its electrical and chemical activity. But, just as a stethoscope will not reveal "running up a hill" encapsulated in miniature in the heart, why do we imagine that a "Brain-O-Scope" would reveal "thinking" somehow encoded or hidden in the brain? The brain is, after all, just another organ, albeit a fantastically complicated one. But frankly, if you rip someone's heart out you can't think either. Thinking, like running up a hill, is an activity of the human system - the person, not of one component of it.

I want to leave this point aside for a moment and turn to some of the responses to the above comments. Simply because the above seems to suggest that consciousness is something so weird and mysterious that it cannot fit into our scientific world view, there have been various manoeuvers to avoid the problem completely by trying to get rid of consciousness altogether; either by trying to deny it exists at all (e.g. the Churchlands); or by otherwise dismantling it (e.g. Dennett, it seems). One could spend a lot of time picking through all this, but at the end of the day the answer surely is: they cannot really be serious. As a simple result of this, I simply cannot take Dennett seriously. For example, his theory of the "intentional stance" is effectively (Dennett is slippery, but this is surely the bottom line) behavioural: consciousness can be explained by reference to behaviour, and thus, when it comes to it, explained away. It is true that reference to behaviour can predict many aspects of consciousness (e.g. Fred left the cinema because the film was over); but equally true is the fact that we know that we do not just behave but also have a conscious life too. Dennett seems to go further than this, arguing that just as we are conscious, so are parts of our brain "sort of" conscious. How this could possibly be tested, or how exactly bits of the brain are conscious is left alone. Perhaps it is true that one could have a model of behaviour that made no reference to consciousness: but then it would not be a true description of the world, but only an empirical model of it. Scientifically this may not matter at all; but, just as in the cosmological problems I outlined before, it means that we are left effectively floating in a void of ignorance about how the world really is, which is what actually interests some people, including myself.

As Searle points out; science makes progress by extracting the subjective viewpoint from phenomena (see entry on the aesthetics of science and Goethian "science", below): but in the case of subjectivity itself this plan a fortiori cannot make progress. I thus place myself in the camp of Searle, Chalmers and McGinn, who in their extremely different ways, deny that the problem of consciousness can be solved by reduction to physical events. And, as science is all about physical events, it follows that our consciousness is a problem that lies outside science. This sort of view is intensely annoying to many people; but it is in many ways identical to the cosmology issues. People do not, however, say that because we shall never solve the origin of the universe issue that the universe therefore must not exist, or can be reduced to something else. Where does this leave us? We are left in a very curious place. We know of the physical correlates of consciousness, but the idea of a convincing connection between them that goes beyond a mere catalogue is entirely incomprehensible. Further, we know of the problems that Dennett and others have raised with what Kant called the "transcendental unity of apperception", the idea that conscious states do not just occur, but belong to someone; what is nowadays called the "binding problem". Yet we simply cannot get away from it: we are conscious; we are unified; we are a person. This is not to endorse a dualistic view of humans (and by extension, other animals), but simply to point out that science at this point comes to a grinding conceptual halt; we cannot go further. The attempts to do so have sometimes been interesting, but more often silly, bizarre or even embarrassing. I exist, not just as a physical lump of atoms but as a perceiving person, peering in to the universe from its edge: and science will never allow us to look over that edge. We have found the other wall. How do I as a person intervene the world? What is free-will? We inch towards the sublime once more, for these are questions we shall never know the answers to. Think about this terrifying, dizzying, compelling problem hard; in its inexplicability lies the answers to many questions.


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