Essays

Consciousness – John Symons

The ordinary experience of consciousness

Arising from sleep, consciousness is achieved.  In my case, this achievement requires some additional chemical assistance in the form of coffee.  Eventually I manage the transition and can confront the morning.  This transition from sleep to consciousness is a useful starting point for us when we think about what it means to be conscious.  We are also familiar with what we sometimes think of as distinct states of consciousness: there’s the ordinary busy consciousness of work and family life, the experience of concentrating on a task that requires focused attention, the distracted or manipulated internet consciousness as we engage with our screens, the immersive experience of listening to a great piece of music or reading an engrossing book, the heightened and deepened quality of prayerful or meditative consciousness, and perhaps even the altered states of consciousness that result from the use of hallucinogens.  These are all ways of being conscious that many of us can recognize and distinguish.  Consciousness is familiar and yet deeply difficult to explain.

Can there be a science of consciousness?

Science and philosophy have only begun to tackle the problem of explaining consciousness in earnest since about the mid-1980s.  For much of the 20th century, the notion of consciousness was regarded by many scientists and most philosophers with suspicion.  ‘Consciousness’ seemed hopelessly mysterious and too tied to religion or mysticism to make it a proper object of study for empirical science. For example, the American psychologist BF Skinner rejected the study of mental phenomena like consciousness back in the 1920s, arguing that only observable, measurable aspects of reality involved the physical aspects of behavior.  This attitude persists to some extent, but far less than in the past.

Skinner’s behaviorism was not really a practical way of doing psychology and it was quickly abandoned by most psychologists who began thinking about ways of measuring what happens on the inside the person as they perceive, make decisions, and solve problems.

While consciousness is an ongoing challenge, other aspects of our mental lives have been easier for us to understand. Scientists can explain much of what happens in the human visual system, and can build artificial systems that can respond appropriately to the environment using mechanical vision, we can build systems that sniff the air for traces of chemicals, and our computers can be programmed to solve challenging mathematical tasks with great speed.

Computers have long been better than us at games of strategy like chess and go and machine learning systems are increasingly exhibiting intelligence in new ways in a variety of domains.

The persistent puzzle of subjective experience

However, while psychology and artificial intelligence make progress, consciousness continues to be seen as a deep puzzle. And it has been this way for at least 40 years.  As the philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote back in the 1970s “without consciousness the mind-body problem would be much less interesting.  With consciousness it seems hopeless.”  In his classic 1974 essay “What is it like to be a bat?” Nagel argued that the problem of consciousness is hopelessly insoluble, here’s why… Science is in the business of discovering objectively true accounts of otherwise mysterious phenomena.  It’s important too that we can understand and share these accounts. However, any genuine theory of consciousness, it seems, is required to include the subjective aspect of consciousness. There seems no way to avoid the fact that there is something it is like to be conscious– something it is like for that conscious being itself.

The problem of reconciling the subjective aspect of consciousness with the third-person perspective of natural science is not easy.  One person’s private perspective, according to Nagel, is simply not available to others.  I can tell you what it is like for me to taste lemon or to see red, but you can never truly know what it is like for me to have my subjective experiences.  This has been a common response to the problem of consciousness, and it is an aspect of what Dave Chalmers later called “The Hard Problem of Consciousness.” Hard as opposed to the relatively easy problems of building computational models of sensation and thought.

I think that it is a mistake to have too pessimistic an attitude towards explaining and understanding consciousness. In fact, we can say quite a bit about consciousness. Even when it comes to its most subjective aspects we are often quite good at communicating what experiences are like in ways that make them shareable.  The fine arts and literature have developed effective means of communicating subjective experience and sharing perspectives in ways that offer genuine connection between us.  I think we’re also getting a handle on what it is that’s special about consciousness.  I agree with Chalmers and Nagel that traditional science is unlikely to shed too much light on the nature of consciousness, but I would add that traditional science does not exhaust the space of reasoning and understanding.   Science isn’t everything.  Imagine you are confronted by someone who argues that one should only believe what is scientifically verifiable.  You can respond by asking him whether that claim itself is the product of some scientific inquiry.  Science cannot tell you that you should only believe what science tells you since the question of whether or not to believe science is not itself a scientific question.

Avicenna’s floating man

Philosophers are interested in basic questions about knowledge, existence, and value.  These are generally questions that scientists are not equipped to answer.  Philosophers use reason and imagination to poke and prod reality to see what falls out.  For example, when we are trying to figure out what something really is, we can conduct thought experiments to see what aspects of a thing it can do without in order to determine what it absolutely essential to it.  If we think about the conscious self, for example, we might follow the thought experiment of the great 11th century Persian philosopher Avicenna.  Avicenna led his readers through a series of reflections on what we would now call consciousness in his most important book, The Book of Healing.  While Avicenna is one of the fathers of modern medicine, The Book of Healing has not a medical text.  Instead, it is one of the landmarks of Islamic thought, presenting the most advanced presentation of logic, mathematics, and metaphysics of his time. Here we find his famous falling man thought experiment.   A thought experiment usually takes the form of a story or an imagined scenario that is intended to help lead the mind to a clearer understanding of the nature of things.  In his extraordinary floating man thought experiment Avicenna leads us to see that the conscious self is essentially distinct from its physical body:

  • One of us must suppose that a man was just created at a stroke, fully developed and perfectly formed but with his vision shrouded from perceiving all external objects – created floating in the air or in the space, not buffeted by any perceptible current of the air that supports him, his limbs separated and kept out of contact with one another, so that they do not feel each other. Then let the subject consider whether he would affirm the existence of his self. There is no doubt that he would affirm his own existence, although not affirming the reality of any of his limbs or inner organs, his bowels, or heart or brain or any external thing. Indeed he would affirm the existence of this self of his while not affirming that it had any length, breadth or depth. And if it were possible for him in such a state to imagine a hand or any other organ, he would not imagine it to be a part of himself or a condition of his existence.

— Avicenna, “De Anima , the book of Healing’ Na”, Avicenna, L E Goodman

Avicenna presents a picture of the self, independently of the body. Our essential nature has, on this view, nothing to do with the body.  This view inspired later philosophers like, most famously, Rene Descartes to argue that the essence of human existence is consciousness and that we are only contingently related to our bodies.

If we try to think about what it’s like to be unconscious we find, of course, that we can’t do that.  In some sense, it’s simply not like anything to be nonconscious.  We can imagine not seeing, not hearing, not tasting, and having no proprioception, but it’s not possible for us to say what it’s like to have no conscious experiences at all.

Still, there are times when we are not conscious. When we are in a deep sleep, under certain kinds of anesthetic, or even when we are on a boring drive, our body is present, but our conscious self seems to be absent.  Consider the phenomenon of road hypnosis.  This is a condition familiar to most mid-Westerners in which a person can drive safely and purposively for long stretches of time with no recollection of having consciously done so.  There are a variety of ways we might interpret the phenomenon of road hypnosis.  Perhaps it’s just a memory phenomenon, we actually were conscious driving between the Salina and Manhattan exits on the long boring Kansas Turnpike – after all, it’s not as though we were asleep – but maybe our minds simply didn’t bother recording the experience in memory.  Alternatively, perhaps what we might call the higher function of consciousness simply isn’t needed when we are driving in relatively boring traffic on long straight stretches of road.  We clearly do not need to be conscious to accomplish some tasks.  We don’t need to be conscious of our breath, or our digestive system in order for those to do their work, similarly, perhaps driving on boring roads in light traffic is also something for which conscious experience is unnecessary.  In whatever way we end up interpreting road hypnosis and other similar phenomena, it turns out that during these disruptions in the ordinary flow of conscious experience we can do a great deal.  Apparently, we can drive a car safely for example.

But notice what happens when we encounter heavy traffic, or when a deer leaps across the highway, or our passengers get off their phones for a moment to talk to us.  Suddenly, as traffic slows or as other people engage us in conversation, we are back in the flow of full conscious experience.

There seem to be some things, it seems, that we cannot do without being fully conscious.  Without being fully conscious, we can hear that someone is saying something, but we cannot for example, be an attentive listener to others, we can respond to attractive stimuli without being fully conscious of doing so, but we cannot appreciate beauty, we can act according to rules, automatically saying “please” and “thank you” without really thinking about it, but we cannot recognize the moral qualities of events and actions without, in some sense being conscious.  Consciousness seems to allow us access to domains of value that are not accessible to unconscious beings or even to ourselves in our unconscious moments.

Zombies

Thinking about beings that do not have consciousness has been a useful way for philosophers to understand the essential features of conscious experience.  Think for example of zombies.  David Chalmers has argued that we can imagine beings with exactly the same physical states as our own but without conscious experience.  My zombie twin would talk like me, walk like me, laugh and cry like me, but he would do so without any conscious experience taking place.  He would cry out in pain when he dislocates his knee, but there wouldn’t be anything that its like for him to feel pain.  The lights would all be on but no one would be home.  This shows, according to Chalmers, that consciousness cannot be identified with the physical states of the body.  Because of this, he argues that consciousness is essentially non-physical.  He reaches the same conclusion as Avicenna using a very different thought experiment.  Chalmers’ zombies are not like the zombies of fiction, judging from just their outward appearance, for example, they are indistinguishable from us.

By contrast, when we think of plodding zombies from the movies they are often depicted as mechanical, slow-moving, creatures of habit. In George Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead, many of the zombies make their way to the shopping mall banging on the glass doors following the patterns and habits of their lives as consumers. Romero is making the not-so-subtle ideological point that we consumers are already living empty zombie-like lives.

This idea of the zombie, somehow like us, but without consciousness is incredibly revealing.

The idea goes back to the days of slavery in the Carribean and more deeply to the religious traditions of West Africa.  Given the terrible conditions that they endured, many slaves would have anticipated death as a release from their condition.  In Haiti, for example, one concern was that death would not mean freedom from slavery. The risk was that a bokor or sorcerer would reanimate one’s body, subordinate one’s will and enslave the dead person yet again.  The zombie represents the terrifying prospect of a continued condition of enslavement.

In order to prevent this and in order to ensure that death really was a way of escaping slavery, Haitian practitioners of vodou prayed to a being called Baron Samedi who exists at the crossroads of the living and the dead and who accompanies the souls into the land of the dead.  One of his roles is to ensure that body of the dead person rots in the grave and is not available for enslavement as a reanimated zombie.

What would a Haitian practitioner of vodou think of the following from the American philosopher Dan Dennett.

“Human consciousness” Dan Dennett writes “is the brain’s ‘user illusion’ of itself.”  It feels real and important to us but in fact, it’s not.  Consciousness is just something that happens to be excreted by a complex system of billions of tiny machines called neurons.  Consciousness is the story the brain tells itself about itself, but it’s not a story that matters very much since in order to do their jobs brains don’t really need to understand how brains work.  On Dennett’s view, human consciousness is just along for the ride, sitting on top of a giant ecosystem of biological processes, but playing basically no role in those processes.  Dennett’s view of consciousness is provocative and in some ways very attractive. On Dennett view, consciousness is epiphenomenal it relates to the brain in the same way that patterns of foam float on an ocean wave.  He doesn’t deny that consciousness exists he just doesn’t think it really matters much in the scheme of things.

In one sense, it would seem as though the very category of mattering doesn’t make much sense apart from conscious beings for whom things matter.  If we were never conscious, then what does and doesn’t matter wouldn’t really be a question for us.  At least for human beings, we need to be conscious in order to have access to questions of what does and doesn’t matter.  Of course, Dennett is not talking about significance, meaning, or value.  Instead, he is thinking in terms of cause.  The conscious self is the effect of causal processes taking place in the physical level, it does not act on the physical level of reality in any regular manner.  To put it in philosopher’s jargon, consciousness does not have the kind of downward causal power to qualify it as a real thing.  Conscious experience doesn’t act on the body that causes it to come into existence.

For Dennett, consciousness has no function, it’s epiphenomenal.

As we have seen, for dualists like Chalmers, Avicenna, and Descartes strikingly, it’s also the case that consciousness has no role in the physical world.  Perhaps we can understand consciousness as having a function.  But what would such a function be?  On my view, consciousness is that capacity for engagement with the dimension of value.  Things need not be the way they appear, there are other ways that things can be, things can go right or wrong, they can be beautiful or ugly, or good or bad, normal or abnormal.

The ability to be surprised, to notice when things have gone wrong, to attend to conversations, norms.  To be appreciative of beauty.  To notice the abnormal, to follow a norm, to love, to recognize that some things matter.  These are the aspects of reality that consciousness makes available to beings like ourselves.

Those features of what we can call normativity are not alien to nature. They might actually be fundamental features of reality.   They seem alien if you believe that what’s really real is what we are told by our latest best physics, but that’s not an option for reasons I’ll talk about in a later article for Manaa.

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