Changing How the World Thinks

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Could consciousness be a brain process?

Dualism may not be false, but it isn't required

John Hiel

Why is consciousness so perplexing to so many? Perhaps, owing to our being conscious, we regard ourselves as experts on the matter, and it seems to us blindingly obvious that consciousness could not possibly be a brain state or process. We have a front-row seat, an unmediated first-hand awareness of what conscious experiences are like, and we know well-enough what brain processes are like. The two could not be more different.

In the hands of philosophers, this sentiment is transmuted into the doctrine that consciousness cannot be identified with, or ‘reduced to’, anything physical. The reduction in question must be a relation among explanations, or predicates, not as it is sometimes cast, a relation among properties. What would it be to reduce something to something else?  If the As are not reducible to the Bs, explanations of the As could not be derived from explanations of the Bs, nor could A-terms be analysed or paraphrased in a B-vocabulary.

In the hands of philosophers, consciousness cannot be identified with, or 'reduced to', anything physical.

Why does our confidence in the outré character of consciousness not extend to tables and trees? Take tables. We know what tables are like, and we know what physics reveals about their makeup. Individual tables are solid, coloured, smooth to the touch, but physics tells us that tables are, as Eddington put it, mostly empty space sparsely populated by colourless particles. Or tables might turn out to be perturbations in fields, thickenings in spacetime, or something stranger still. We are content to leave it to physics to discover the nature of whatever it is that makes assertions about individual tables true, thereby telling us what those tables are.

Our inability to extract truths about tables from truths about particles or fields is unremarkable: tables are, in this regard, irreducible. What would be remarkable is someone’s insisting that from this it follows that tables could not possibly be clouds of particles or disturbances in fields, because tables obviously differ from such things. Claims to the effect that tables ‘arise’ or ‘emerge’ from clouds of particles or perturbations in fields, while more common, would be no less remarkable.

Why not think the same of consciousness? Why not think that neuroscience, and ultimately physics, might eventually reveal the nature of whatever makes particular ascriptions of consciousness true, what consciousness is?

Two shibboleths bar the way.

First, qualities of conscious experiences present themselves as altogether unlike anything neuroscience is likely to uncover. Qualities of your visual experience of a ripe tomato seem altogether unlike qualities, however fine-grained, of your brain. Observations of brains are, in theory at least, unexceptionable, but talk of observing another’s experiences is patent nonsense.

Second, each of us enjoys immediate access to our own conscious states, each of us occupies a ‘first-person perspective’ on our own experiences. Others might observe your brain, and goings-on in your brain. Your brain is open to the public, not so your experiences. You alone can experience your experiences, you alone can know first-hand what they are like.

Your brain is open to the public, not so your experiences. You alone can experience your experiences, you alone can know first-hand what they are like.

The two shibboleths rest on a common misapprehension. Consider an uncontroversial distinction between

        •   your observing something’s being in a state or undergoing a process;

        •   that something’s being in that state or undergoing that process.

Now suppose you are examining my brain while I am looking at a ripe tomato. Were conscious experiences brain processes, in observing an occurrence in my brain, you would be observing my visual experience. I am experiencing a tomato. You, in contrast, would be experiencing, not a tomato, but a brain process that is my experiencing the tomato.

In experiencing the tomato, I am conscious of something red and spherical. The tomato, not my experience, not my conscious state, is red and spherical. You are in a very different state, the state of experiencing an experience of a red tomato. Why think that an experience must resemble what it is an experience of, or that you could work out what it is like for me to experience a ripe tomato by observing my experience of a ripe tomato?

Why think that an experience must resemble what it is an experience of, or that you could work out what it is like for me to experience a ripe tomato by observing my experience of a ripe tomato?

To imagine that an experience of something red must itself be red (or ‘phenomenal red’) is to fall prey to what Ullin Place called the phenomenological fallacy. Again, assuming that experiences are brain processes, the fact that what it would be like to experience an experience – your observing my visual experience of something red and spherical, for instance – differs dramatically from what it is like for me to undergo the experience cuts no ice when it comes to the status of consciousness.

If you persist in the thought that redness resides in me, not in the tomato, you have bought the farm, bifurcated the universe, and embraced a robust brand of dualism. The lesson here is not that dualism is false, only that it is by no means required.

Finally, it is worth remarking that talk of a ‘first-person perspective’ misleadingly suggests that our relation to our experiences is one of inward observation: we have direct, first-hand access to our experiential states. But my having an experience of a tomato is not a matter of my being aware of my conscious state in a way you could never be, but of my being in a state of awareness of a tomato. My states, experiential or otherwise, are ‘private’ only in the sense that no one else could be in my state. Trivially, my states are my states. This is not to engage in special pleading on behalf of a controversial doctrine. Rather, it is simply a consequence of a distinction between being in a state, experiential or otherwise, and being in the state of experiencing that state.

Perhaps what is most perplexing about consciousness is not consciousness itself, but that so many find it perplexing.

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kyoung21b 13 March 2020

I found the comparison with the properties of a table illuminating, but perhaps not in the sense intended. Describing e.g. the hardness or the shape of the table does seem to require something as remarkable as describing consciousness, relative to the quarks and leptons composing the table. How to completely describe how that set of quarks and leptons acquired the relational properties it did relative to the set of quarks and leptons that comprise me would seem to require elements that (according to current physical theory) go all the way back to fluctuations in the initial density of matter. And how that particular set of fluctuations arose seems a bit mysterious (agency may not be an answer but speculations about multiverses containing not only all sets of fundamental laws but all sets of initial conditions given those laws also seem a bit baroque). So though we humans like to think of the explanation of consciousness as the "hard problem" it feels to me like the attempt to describe any "emergent" property suffers a similar fate.