Consciousness and wonder

The so-called “mind-body problem” is a standard topic in upper division philosophy classes. Regardless of how far back the class starts (whether it starts with behaviorism or with Descartes), it inevitably ends up or passes through contemporary debates over ‘consciousness’. Consciousness–the ‘what it is like’ to be a being aware of the world–is thought to be mysterious. And philosophers, who love neologisms, have taken to calling the subjective ‘feel’ of experiences “qualia” (“quale” in the singular).

Qualia, they argue, are profoundly mysterious, because one can give a functional analysis of the mind without appealing to them. That is, what the mind does can be explained without reference to consciousness, which seems to imply that consciousness as such is epiphenomenal–like so much inert froth on the bubbling cauldron of our non-conscious brains. (See for instance David Chalmers’ argument in The Conscious Mind.) On this view, it is logically possible for there to be (though of course no one thinks there really are) zombies–people who look and act just like anyone else, but who aren’t conscious at all (there’s nothing it is like to be them). The writer Robert Wright (in the last section of his book Nonzero) has even gone so far as to say that consciousness, which we might never have had (!), is what gives life meaning.

As an empiricist however, I’m very skeptical of this claim that consciousness is epiphenomenal. It appears to be false. In the case of blindsight patients, for example, the loss of conscious experience has some pretty clear mental and behavioral implications. And so while philosophers may assert that a functional analysis of the mind that doesn’t appeal to consciousness is possible, this claim appears to be false. Philosophers, predictably, haven’t really offered anything but the most general analyses of the mind, and none nearly complex enough to account for the full range of human behaviors and capabilities.

Though they claim to be naturalists then, these philosophers are falling into a Cartesian trap. Descartes, if you recall, thought much could be learned about the mind (for instance, that it can survive without the body) through introspection. Some theistic philosophers still endorse (or employ without explicitly endorsing) such views (Richard Swinburne in The Evolution of the Soul for instance, and William Hasker in The Emergent Self). But if psychology and neuroscience teach us anything, it’s that our minds aren’t to be trusted for anything but the most mundane tasks–and even then, we’re pretty awful. (It’s always therapeutic and humbling to breeze through Wikipedia’s list of cognitive biases.) To be an empiricist then, is to reject the assumption that armchair philosophizing can tell us anything about how the world is structured. To be sure, close attention to one’s experiences can tell us a lot about those experiences, and even, in proper dialogue with the sciences, about the structure of the mind (but not the brain!)–that’s what meditative practice is all about. But introspection and thought-experiments (about zombies or otherwise) can’t tell us whether or not some feature of our mental life is ‘logically separable’ from all our other mental goings-on.

The pragmatist Hilary Putnam (in The Threefold Cord) has suggested that there is confusion about consciousness because consciousness is imagined to be a thin layer (epiphenomenally) superimposed on other mental phenomena. This confusion has its roots in the simple extraordinariness of being a living, conscious being. Being conscious is amazing!!

But the fact that we (and our closest evolutionary relatives) are undeniably conscious does not make consciousness a ‘thing’ (to be conceptually abstracted from the mind). We are alive, but life is not a ‘thing’. “Life” is our word for a variety of relatively well-understood biological processes. So also “mind” is our word for a variety of things the human brain does. So also “self” is a word we use to conveniently structure our world and experience, though no single ‘self’ is to be found in or around the brain. And finally, “consciousness” is just a word. Philosophers say it is a ‘property’ of certain types of organisms, but that is just another way of saying that some organisms are conscious. We get clarity on such phenomena not by trying to imagine zombies, but by doing research. Something, incidentally, philosophers are not very good at.

I’m not especially qualified to make this judgment, so take it with a grain of salt. But, as far as I can tell, much of so-called ‘consciousness studies’ (at least, that which is concerned with “the hard problem” of ‘explaining’ consciousness) is a waste of time.

It is said that philosophy begins in wonder. But no one said it had to be good philosophy.