Consciousness (III) — Does the World Pantry Stock More than Sugar?

Previous posts:
(I) — Atheism, Science, Philosophy: The Origins of the Conflict
 (II) — Digging Up the Conflict’s Roots

The basic approach of my analysis will be to argue that when we look at the potential tools of explanation provided to us by the physicalist account, we simply do not have the resources within it to explain the kinds of things we know need explaining in consciousness. In short, I will defend the claims that: (1) We know at least some aspects of what needs to be accounted for, in consciousness, through our very direct experience with and within the phenomenon of consciousness as conscious beings; (2) when we look at the tools which physicalism restricts us to for explaining things, these simply are not capable in principle of being used to explain what we know needs to be explained.

What are the physicalist tools of explanation? The physicalist answer to the question, “What is the world really like?” is described in the words of Alex Rosenberg: “It’s fermions and bosons, and everything that can be made up of them, and nothing that can’t be made up of them. All the facts about fermions and bosons determine or “fix” all the other facts about reality and what exists in this universe or any other. . . Another way of expressing this fact fixing by physics is to say that all the other facts—the chemical, biological, psychological, social, economic, political, cultural facts supervene on the physical facts and are ultimately explained by them.” On a physicalist account, if we identify some aspect of consciousness which we think stands in need of explanation, we have two options: first, we can try to explain how it results as the inevitable, logically entailed product of “the physical facts” being what they are; and second, if the phenomena in question can’t be accounted for in this way, then the only way to continue to hold on to physicalism is by accepting that the phenomena itself just doesn’t exist—because, per physicalism, if it isn’t accounted for by the physical facts, then it can’t. The only alternative to these two options is to accept that something exists which is not accountable for in terms of “the physical facts” as we normally understand them—and to consider this is to consider denying the very truth of physicalism itself: if this is so, then either there is more to reality than “physical” objects and forces, or else our understanding of what it means to be “physical” is so far off–base that we might as well call some entities we know exist non–“physical” anyway.

Thus, my approach will be: (1) to identify some aspect of conscious experience which at least appears to need to be explained; (2) establish that this phenomena cannot be accounted for in ordinary physicalist terms—which calls either the phenomena itself or the terms of physicalism into question; and finally, (3) establish that this is not a phenomena we can coherently do away with; that proposing that it just might not actually exist at all is not a viable option—and thus, that it is the terms of physicalism, and not the phenomena which we’ve identified, which must go. Some physicalists will be under the impression that any argument of this general form must, necessarily, be an “argument from ignorance.” Is this so?


For a simplified analogy: suppose I find myself inside of a strange house, and suppose I am told two things upon being discovered: first, that absolutely nothing else can come into or out of any part of the house; and second, that absolutely no foods, food ingredients, condiments, or anything otherwise edible whatsoever exist or ever have existed anywhere inside the house besides sugar. Now suppose that, after some period of time, I smell the scent of something cooking, and I walk into the kitchen to find out what it is—and after making my way there, I discover a freshly baked chicken pot pie.

What am I to think? It seems that this event would put me in a situation comparable to that of a physicalist asking questions about consciousness: my first option is to decide that the chicken pot pie after all must in fact have been made, somehow, from nothing but sugar. If I decide that this isn’t possible, then the only remaining option that allows me to continue believing the claim I was given upon entering the house—that sugar was the only “ingredient” contained in that microcosmic world—is to decide that what I’m looking at must not be an actual freshly baked chicken pot pie at all: perhaps, for instance, it’s a wax simulacrum. But if I can satisfy myself that it is real, then the only rational option that this leaves me is to accept that since (1) I’m looking at a genuine, freshly baked chicken pot pie right now; and since (2) that simply can’t be explained with an ingredients list containing nothing but sugar, (3) the claim I was given upon entering that sugar is the only ingredient ever inside of the house was false.

We can, at least in some circumstances, reason backwards from consequential phenomena we see to determine if a given claim about what kinds of “ingredients” went up into making it are plausible or not, without requiring an absolute knowledge of those ingredients—I don’t, for example, have to have the absolute knowledge that would be provided by a video recording of everything that has ever happened in the kitchen in order for it to be rational for me to decide that I was either lied to or misled. The arguments for dualism, I will argue, are something of this sort. We have, in our own inner experience of consciousness, the evidence of at least certain phenomena which we can directly observe—comparable to a chicken pot pie. If the arguments I intended to make succeed, then the physicalist claim may turn out to be comparable to the claim made in our story that sugar is the only ingredient that the closed world of the house has ever contained.

For another comparable example to demonstrate why the claim that these are “arguments from ignorance” is wholly mistaken, consider a flat, two–dimensional surface like a canvas; and then, consider a three-dimensional object—whether a prism, or a cube, or a pyramid. Supposing someone offers you a canvas and asks you to draw one of those objects—and I mean a real, three–dimensional drawing; not a two–dimensional rendering of one: how should you respond? Obviously, you should respond that this is impossible. And you have absolutely no need to sit and devise a thousand ways to attempt doing it before you can be absolutely justified in this conclusion: simply by understanding what the concept of a three–dimensional object entails, and understanding what resources the concept of a two–dimensional surface offers, it is not just that you can’t see how this could be possible—no; on the contrary, you perfectly well can see that it is impossibleAnd you have absolutely no need to “empirically test” that claim by drawing lines a million different ways across the canvass in order to know it. (Conversely, if someone tells me that there is a three–dimensional object behind me, I can know immediately without even needing to turn around that what they are referring two will not be something drawn on a single flat, two–dimensional surface.)

And so, again, if I make an argument analogous to the claim that physicalism is offering a two–dimensional surface to try to account for the three–dimensional phenomena that is consciousness, there is no appeal to “ignorance” contained in this form of argument; rather than arguing from what I don’t know about consciousness, I would be making an argument from what I know about what the concepts of consciousness, and of physical reality, do entail, to draw out an illustration of where a conflict of some sort positively lies. (And this isn’t always easy to explain, even when the conflict itself is simple! Just try imagining how you would go about explaining the fact that a three–dimensional object can’t be drawn on a two–dimensional surface to someone who didn’t get it and wasn’t able to plainly see the fact for themselves. Imagine that, no matter hard you tried, they just kept mocking you for thinking you could know that when you haven’t tried every single conceivable way to draw lines on a two–dimensional surface yet.)

As I proceed in this, I will be relying on the words of the physicalists themselves. As suggested by the earlier discussion, there will on any given aspect of consciousness generally be two different types of physicalists: those who think we can explain a given phenomena in the terms of, and as the unavoidable physical and logical consequence of, the inert causal operations of underlying blind physical forces, and on the other hand those who conclude that, since we can’t do that, the phenomena is one we must simply be prepared to do away with and deny that actual reality of, whether we like it or not. I will side with the former in accepting that there are very good reasons to want to retain some of these phenomena; that eliminativism is not a viable choice, because it clearly denies some aspects of reality which, whether the physicalist likes it or not, are simply real (or, in other words: that the pot pie is not a wax simulacrum, but really does contain edible chicken, which thus gives us a thing standing in need of explanation). However, I will side with the latter in accepting that the “naturalizations” (or “reductions” to physical explanation) of these phenomena attempted by the former are impossible, and fail.

Where I differ from both is—a position I argued for in the previous entry—in denying that there is any good reason to stay committed to the premise of physicalism in this situation in the first place, other than mere prejudice—held as dogma—about what kinds of entities the world is or is not possibly free to contain, obtained not for any truly rationally justifiable reason (as I will proceed throughout to argue) but rather simply because of the way that the social battle between science and religion has warped understanding of both. If we had no objective proof of the claim that the world pantry contains nothing but sugar in the first place, if we have every reason to believe the chicken pot pie in front of us is in fact edible, if we have every reason to think chicken pot pies can’t be produced out of sugar as a lone ingredient—then we should be prepared to take the possibility that the world just simply does happen to contain more than sugar seriously. And there’s simply no reason in principle why we shouldn’t.

We have already seen in part (I), for example, that when Daniel Dennett finds himself faced with this situation in trying to locate subjective experience on his philosophy’s two–dimensional canvas of the world, and finding it impossible to explain it in mechanistic terms, he decisively prefers to bite the bullet and literally deny outright that he—or anyone else—ever has any experiences of anything at all. If I can establish that Dennett has the situation correct right up until the final point where he decides that this is the more appropriate bullet to bite, and ride on the coattails of this kind of philosophical work right up to the point where I think it’s very clearly the appropriate time to jump off, then a meaningful argument against physicalism is most certainly possible to make.

Along the way, I will try to explain just what makes all of this so interesting, in concrete terms that hold practical relevance to our lives—I will, in other words, try to keep these questions held in a focus that is “human.” As a human being myself, these questions are personally, directly interesting to me, on a private level. As a religious nonbeliever, I have a personal stake in various aspects of the dialectic between science and religion outlined in the previous sections. These are not simply abstract technical questions I happen to find interesting, like (say) an engineer fascinated by mathematics trying to solve an engineering problem. They concern the very core of the very basic human question, “Who (and what) am I?” And I will argue that physicalist perspectives do, in fact, dehumanize us—in fundamental and significant ways.

At these stages of argument, it should not be mistaken that I am ever arguing that the reason we should reject a physicalist account is just because it dehumanizes us (in the sense of “making us feel dehumanized,” or at least being something which arguably should). Rather, if a physicalist account should be rejected, it should be rejected first and foremost because it either explicitly denies, or else by failing to be able to account for them implicitly denies some parts of what we really, truly, in fact and in reality, actually are. However, an intrinsically connected component piece of this picture is that if an account does explicitly or implicitly deny some aspect of what we really are, then believing an objectively impoverished account of the world may lend itself to a subjectively impoverished internal or relational life.

Believing in the claim of solipsism, for example (e.g., that my subjective experience is the only one that truly exists in the world, whereas everyone else is something like a figment of my imagination, lacking actual internal experiences completely, so that life is quite like a computer game in which everyone else is artificially computer generated while I am the only actual player) would—first and foremost—be a philosophical mistake. However, we would be justified to oppose that mistake both because of the objective, abstract errors that it commits as well as, simultaneously the internal, emotional, and social consequences that would likely result from someone’s believing it: the two are, in other words, not necessarily separable—solipsism would have these consequences because of its mistakes, and those mistakes are important because of the consequences. Where arguments for the socially or psychologically detrimental possible consequences of physicalist accounts are made, they should not be mistaken for emotional appeals to consequences which simply argue that we must believe these accounts are false because we shouldn’t want them to be true; we have (so I will claim) all the demonstrable reasons for believing them false we should need, but if accounts of the world and the self are factually impoverished, they will arguably lead to an impoverished relationship to the world and to the self in consequence, and we can oppose them for both reasons at the same time.

There is, of course, nothing unusual about this: physicalists often care about refuting dualism at least in part because they believe it represents some obstacle to the successful continuance, in some way, of science. Liberals and conservatives care about refuting each others’ claims about how economics works not just because they care about the abstract details about how economies in theory work, but because they care about what the best way to improve peoples’ lives should be. Philosophies of any kind are frequently inseparable to a large extent from the mentalities which are attracted to adopting those philosophies and from the psychological influences they will tend to have on the minds which adopts them. Most likely only a narcissist who isn’t inclined to care much about the feelings of other people in general would ever be inclined to adopt a philosophical claim like solipsism in the first place.

These prefaces have, finally, laid the backdrop for a more productive discussion to begin of the actual philosophical questions raised by consciousness and prepared me to state the thesis I intend to defend: physicalist accounts are both metaphysically impoverished and psychologically impoverishing. There is no fallacious argument from ignorance represented by the first half of that sentence, and there is no fallacious appeal to emotion or consequences represented by the second. Consciousness is a three–dimensional object that simply cannot in principle fit into any two–dimensional conception of the world. It is not our understanding of consciousness that must be squashed down into perverted, diminished form in order to fit the presupposed canvas of our worldview—but our conception of the world that must expand in order to accommodate what kinds of things actually do turn out to exist within reality as it is. And our appreciation of the mystery of conscious existence as it really is will be profoundly enriched for it.

My reasons for expressing interest in this topic earlier were incomplete. I also think that there are very real and profound mysteries around the existence and nature of consciousness, and that properly contemplating them is in fact an intrinsically valuable experience—much like the experience of glancing up at the stars on a dark night and contemplating the smallness of our relative size within the vastness of space: I consider it the sort of experience that has the power to place our everyday experiences within a freshly conceptualized context that, simply through our appreciation of it, can transform our understanding of ourselves and thus the way we process and experience the same old ordinary events we were experiencing before we spent that time staring out at and contemplating ourselves within the context of the stars—with the difference that a proper contemplation of consciousness through the questions of philosophy of mind creates the distant stars from something that could not be closer to each of us: our very own being. Realizing the distance between ourselves and our understanding of even the most basic nature of our own being should, in turn, instill a kind of existential humility most often sorely lacking in both the evangelistic religions and the atheist campaigners against religion alike. Those who would tell us that the sky is not a window into the infinite depths of space, but merely a painted dome (as might well have been “parsimonious” to assume in some ages past) are not only incorrect—they rob us of the experience of the awe of contemplation.

Continued Posts:

(IV)  The Case of the Lunatic Fish


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