Consciousness (IV) — The Case of the Lunatic Fish

(I) — Atheism, Science, Philosophy: The Origins of the Conflict

 (II) — Digging Up the Conflict’s Roots
 (III) — Does the World Pantry Stock More than Sugar?

Too many of the academic philosophers of consciousness are overly concerned with the paltriest aspects of consciousness, and work their tails off trying to convince themselves and others that they are no threat to physicalism. While man’s nobility lies in the power of thought whereby he traverses all of time and existence, our materialists labor mightily to make physicalism safe for the smell of cooked onions.” — Bill Vallicella

At last, we can approach an introduction to the subject of our actual topic: Consciousness. The first thing we need to get clear about here is: what are we talking about when we use that word, “consciousness”? And the first problem that appears in attempting to answer this question is that language systematically fails us.

It isn’t that my understanding of what I’m trying to discuss is vague. It isn’t that the thing I am trying to discuss itself is necessarily even vague. It’s that language isn’t built to address it. In the roughest outline, language evolved from the roots of a process that involved something like people pointing at external objects they could both commonly recognize, and correlating that object to the production of a particular sound. On the one hand, consciousness in the sense I’m referring to isn’t an “object” amongst other objects which I can clearly point to. On the other hand, consciousness in the sense I’m referring to is present in absolutely everything—in one sense, it would be correct to say that it is literally the only thing you have ever known, felt, or experienced. It isn’t impossible to level an intuitive grasp on what the kinds of phrases I’ll be using refer to, but it isn’t always immediately easy. A gradual and slow introduction is necessary.

Part of the problem is precisely that consciousness is in any other object or process I could conceivably point to: there’s no way for me to talk about consciousness without at the same time talking about some other object or process that isn’t in and of itself, strictly speaking, consciousness at all—and this makes offering explanations of things other than consciousness and then claiming to have explained consciousness itself frustratingly easy to get away with. But for anything at all that I could imagine pointing to, your experience of that thing would be—prepare for an incredibly unwieldy phrase—all and only composed of you having the experience of experiencing only the purely experiential elements of that thing in your ongoing stream of experience. And your experience of it is all that you actually have.

Any concept, thought, or experience of anything whatsoever that you ever have at all is, in fact, made up of literally nothing other than those elements which I am calling “consciousness.” But I can’t directly use any sort of language that is capable of pointing you to the part of that which is “consciousness” directly, because all that language can actually do is point at these other things in which consciousness is contained. I am left in the difficult position of having to ask you to try to recognize aspects and properties of your thoughts and experiences which are present in absolutely everything you have ever thought or experienced at all, which is not about the particulars of any of these particular thoughts or experiences at all, and which you have never had anything else to contrast with (because, by definition, anything that could provide such contrast by lacking these elements could never be thought or experienced).

Thich Nat Hahn quotes Siddhartha Gautama in Old Path, White Clouds as saying: “ . . . my teaching is a method to experience reality and not reality itself, just as a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself. A thinking person makes use of the finger to see the moon. A person who only looks at the finger and mistakes it for the moon will never see the real moon.” While this may sound either irritatingly vague, pretentiously obvious, or both (and I am certainly not trying to compare myself to Buddha!), I think it describes the situation: there is simply no way I can try to describe what I am talking about, in principle, that does not require some effort on the part of the reader to grasp the concept on his own using my words as tools—because there is simply a huge gap between the phenomena I am trying to describe and anything that language is capable of doing to allow me to try to point in its direction. (In fact, I contend that this is exactly why many fallacies are able to become as prevalent as they are in philosophy of mind: it is easy to become misled into thinking that an explanation of something other than consciousness itself is actually an explanation of consciousness.)

David Foster Wallace, in Infinite Jest, offers us an appropriate parable: “This wise old whiskery fish swims up to three young fish and goes, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ and swims away; and the three young fish watch him swim away and look at each other and go, ‘What the fuck is water?’” As he elaborated in a 2005 commencement speech to Kenyon College, “The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” What the word and concept of consciousness is referring to is only hard for us to see at first because we are swimming in it—and swimming in it is quite literally the only thing we have ever done (—in fact, even the very part of us that is doing the “swimming” is it).

If I try to point at water to direct your attention to the thing I’m trying to talk about, you may look straight through it and think I am pointing at something else—if I try to point to the water beside me, you’re going to look through the water itself and believe I’m pointing instead at some nearby rock. If I try to point to the water below me, you may look through the water again and believe that I’m pointing at the ocean’s floor. The best I can hope for is to tell you to trust me when I say that I’m not going to be pointing at the thing you’re going to think I’m pointing at, and that the thing I’m pointing at is something that’s everywhere; something that is everything other than the things you’re going to think I’m pointing at—and then hope that what I’m trying in this frustratingly indirect way to attempt to express will, at some point for you, just “click.”

It’s no wonder it’s so easy for materialists to claim that anyone who suggests that there are flaws in materialism is just blathering nonsense. Dismissing the lunatic fish that keeps pointing at things, asking you if you can see them, and then yelling at you for thinking he’s pointing at the thing he’s very clearly and obviously pointing at is easy. Listening long enough to start to think the fish might not be so lunatic after all, understanding what he means, and trying to find a more efficient way to explain what he’s trying to say to anyone else—besides joining him in pointing at things and then yelling at people and making it seem clear to everyone else that you’ve simply gone mad and become one of the lunatics too—isn’t nearly as easy a route to making it look like you have a solid grasp on things and know what it is that you’re talking about.

Sadly, in most cases the best way to try to even begin to ‘point at’ some aspect of the meaning of consciousness is to invoke a thought experiment which demonstrates, by illustrating in practice, some type of contrast between consciousness and other forms of phenomena: one way to sharpen the relief of our concept of consciousness is by emphasizing what it is not. The unfortunate problem this poses is that these also happen to be the very same thought experiments which are supposed in other contexts to be taken as arguments refuting physicalism—and this, in turn, makes it unavoidably all too easy for the physicalist to charge that these arguments ‘beg the question’ by assuming whatever conceptualized understanding of consciousness they’re supposed to be taken to prove.

This pitfall plagues nearly all discussions in philosophy of mind, but it results less from the quality of accurate thought or rational argument that it is possible to produce within philosophy of mind than it does from the very inescapable nature of the case: consciousness itself is intrinsically a subjective, first–person phenomena, which cannot even be identified objectively as a phenomena which exists at all in third-person (without a first–person subject who can infer its existence through analogy with his first–person knowledge of his own case). Unique to absolutely any other phenomena (even though, ironically, we only know of any other phenomena whatsoever within and through the subjective lens of conscious experience itself), there is no common objective external reference point which any of us can appeal to in discussing it—everyone must look, independently, at his own private, subjective experience. Even the best arguments here are only capable of “pointing at the moon;” and they will inevitably appear “circular” just so long as someone either refuses to look, or tries but still fails to see it for themselves.

The only response that can be given to this is that circularity and ‘begging the question’ are not fallacies of thought, but fallacies of argument. An argument is circular and will ‘beg the question’ if it contains premises which will be seen with equal skepticism by someone who is skeptical of the conclusion of that argument for the same reasons they are skeptical of the conclusion. This is classified as a fallacy because the goal of an argument is to prove that skepticism wrong to the satisfaction of the skeptic—so an argument that begs the question fails at this task because it merely repeats implicitly the conclusion the skeptic doesn’t want to accept as one of its assumptions. The fact that the question-begging argument fails to objectively disprove the skeptic doesn’t mean, however, that any train of thought that is circular is either false or irrational for an individual to accept. The real question worth asking is: “Is this circle making contact with reality?”

And there very well may be true statements which we absolutely cannot, in principle, support in any way without at some point “begging the question.” To return to a previous example, there is absolutely no way to argue against solipsism without ‘begging the question.’ If someone truly disbelieves that anyone has any inner experiences whatsoever except for himself—if he believes that the world is his own private dream, or that he has been plugged into a virtual reality simulator in which he alone is actually a real player (and not just generated artificially by the computer), or that he (alone) is God creating a simulation of a world to inject himself into—then yelling at him angrily: “I have a life! I have a consciousness! Damn you![1] would only meet a response of: “Yes—that’s exactly what I’d expect computer generated characters to say inside of this virtual reality game.”

You absolutely know without a shred of doubt that he is absolutely wrong—and yet, you just as absolutely have no conceivable way of “proving” it to him with any sound, non–circular argument. Appropriately, the example of solipsism deals (in different ways) with the same subject matter addressed in philosophy of mind: private subjective experience. The solipsist denies its existence anywhere but in the one case he experiences immediately and directly—his own. For this, the solipsist is universally considered absurd. Yet the eliminative materialist goes on to not only do that, but to deny it in even the one case he actually experiences indisputably, immediately and directly for himself—and for this he’s respected enough to publish in prestigious philosophy journals.

With that said, I’ll now label three aspects which I think are central to what consciousness is, and then I’ll proceed to discuss thought experiments which I think help illustrate something in their direction. Obviously, for now this can be only a broad outline of terms that will only later be explained, and so not much of it is going to be particularly helpful (yet—bear with me).The first: phenomenal experience—which is private, subjective and qualitative (and suffuses absolutely everything contained in and expressed by the first–person perspective of conscious awareness); the second: intentionality—the ‘world–reflective’ nature of thought as well as the ability of representational symbols such as the words composing this page to possess “meaning” (derivative of the fact that thoughts contain and represent intrinsic meaning); and the third: the uniqueness of our personal identities (over time) as conscious beings—consciousness entails a referent for the indexical “I” which is unique from all other “I”s in a way that physical entities as ordinarily understood are not unique from each other. In consciousness as we in this world know it, each of these separate aspects tie together at once to create a singular unity of all of these in one phenomena; and we can only get an attempt at ‘pointing at’ the unified phenomena of consciousness as a whole indirectly, by attempting to ‘point at’ each of these elements of the phenomena separately in turn (and each, once again, even more indirectly).

It will be spelled out, in turn, how physical phenomena as we ordinarily understand them (and perhaps, or perhaps not, as we can only understand them [3]) lack every one of these elements. If this is so, then our options with regards to the above elements of consciousness are: either explain how they could appear as an inevitable physical and logical consequence of building blocks of physical processes which lack every one of these elements completely, or else conclude that none of these phenomena really exist. And if it turns out that we can’t coherently do either of these, then the final options become straightforwardly: (1) either reformulate our entire conception of what it is for something to be “physical,” if we can identify a way to do so that is both (a) coherent and (b) actually does successfully the gap we’ve previously identified [3], or else (2) admit that consciousness is simply a phenomena in its own right, characterizable by its own distinct traits and properties which are dramatically unlike those which characterize those other entities which we ordinarily classify as “physical.” I believe I have argued to rational satisfaction that nothing, in principle, actually successfully manages to rule this option out. I hope to continue to show that further considerations turn out to render it the only truly live choice—and at least, at a bare minimum, by substantial leaps and bounds the most natural and well–justified inference.

~.::[༒]::._It’s All In Your Head_.::[༒]::.~

The most obvious element of consciousness is the most pervasive and yet also the hardest to pinpoint clearly with language: experience. Academic philosophers, rarely particularly concerned to make their discussions of the deepest mysteries of human existence comprehensible to the standard human being, have coined the particularly unhelpful term, “qualia.” [2] To make matters worse, philosophy’s thought experiments invoking “qualia” often have a bizarre tendency to focus in narrowly on isolated examples like the existence of color in their illustrations, as if there were anything uniquely peculiar to color as such.[4]

Both the bland, lamely technical–sounding choice of the term “qualia” and the frequent narrow choice of focus on color as if it in particular posed some special problem in distinction to everything else might seem to some readers on first sight to imply something to the effect that the physicalist picture is, so far as it goes, accurate and complete—only it turns out that there’s just one tiny detail in a small corner of the picture we can’t fill in: namely, this abstract worry about “qualia,” which somehow seems to apply particularly to the case of color perception. This impression helps make it easier to write the “problem of qualia” off mentally as something that we can just relax and expect to be resolved by scientific discovery in time.

But the situation that this implies could not be further from the truth; the problem runs infinitely deeper. “Qualia” is not some queer, technical detail, as the word by its impression would seem to connote: it is as immediate to us as the fact that we are experiencing anything at all. And there is nothing special about color: what goes for color goes for absolutely every aspect of every other form of experiencing whatsoever that we are capable of, every bit as strongly; what is mysterious here is nothing peculiar to color per se, or even to vision in general, so much as it is to the nature of experience altogether as a whole.[4]

Discussing color is just one way of attempting to ‘point at’ one of the key aspects of what it is about experience in general which makes it mysterious. But surely focusing on it in isolation is far from an ideal way to point the mind towards the general encompassing mystery. The thing about color that makes it problematic in this way applies to literally absolutely every other aspect of thought and experience whatsoever simultaneously. And this is where arguments more or less necessarily can only “point at the moon,” leaving it in principle up to the reader to have to carry on where the pointing expressed by the words drops off, and perform the actual act of looking at the moon for himself—this is where I become the lunatic fish who can only keep pointing in different directions and claiming to be pointing all the while at the same thing (which, if you can’t figure out what I’m trying to say for yourself, will look absurd—clearly I keep pointing at different things!)

In a sense, what we’re getting at here is a kind of reiteration of the old philosophical trope, “If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” The correct answer is “no”—the force of the tree’s collapse might cause a vibration of molecules in the air, but these do not become “sound” unless and until there is a conscious observer in the vicinity whose mind can translate those vibrations into a subjective, qualitative experience.  But the question is: Why does this even happen at all? This is the essence of the bridge we are trying to gap—subtracting from the picture that there is anyone around to have a conscious experience of the forest, what we have in the forest is not sound, but a vibration of physical particles that can be characterized purely in terms of the inert motions of blind particles through space, driven by mechanical cause and effect.

But if you pay attention to it, you should easily be able to realize that you never actually have anything like this revealed to you by your experiences at all. You never have any experience that is “of” blind, inert vibrating molecules—or of any other sort of purely physical phenomena besides. Your actual experience is, in fact, all and only composed “of“ the fundamentally subjective, qualitative phenomena known as “sound” itself, and this phenomena only exists in the form in which we know it to exist within your very experience itself. And the qualitative way in which “sound” exists inside your first–person subjective experience is wildly unlike the quantified way that we presume physical motion of any sort exists within unobserved physical space.

“Yes, but those experiences are still created by the underlying physical processes, are they not?” For the moment, just bracket that assumption off to the side. First, because it’s exactly the assumption that the reasoning here is and is going to be casting reasons for doubt over in the first place. But second and more to the point, because what I’m talking about here is your experience. Your experience simply does not reveal to you a world of vibrating photons, atoms, and molecules. What it reveals to you is a world of colors, sounds, tastes, bodily sensations, emotions. . . all things that are defined, completely through and through, by their qualitative essence as ways that experiences can feel.  (It also reveals a world of things like intentions, desires, representation and meaning—but these fall under intentionality, and will have to be incorporated into the picture separately).

We’ve seen in previous entries that the definition of physicalism is that “[the world at its most fundamental core is] 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 [ . . . ] psychological, social, economic, political, [and] cultural facts supervene on the physical facts and are ultimately explained by them.” We’ve also seen that historically, for the atheist, the key point of the advance of science is precisely that it removed God from the picture precisely by removing mental phenomena from our conception of how the natural world works. Physical processes, no matter how we conceptualize the specific details, cause things to happen without desiring, planning, or otherwise intending to—these are all traits (or at least apparent traits) of minds. The physicalist, as the quote from Rosenberg himself shows, assumes that whatever the particular details might be, whatever the physical processes are, they will basically be like this. And most certainly, they lack experiences—whatever they do, electrons, fermions, or bosons do not feel [3]. This means that, for the purposes of our analysis, it simply does not matter what the actual traits of the ultimate physical phenomena that physics will settle on might be: no physicalist accepts that they will differ in any way from these essentials, and it is from these essentials alone that our analysis proceeds.

Now, the plainest thing in the world to see is that the question of whether something is an experience or not is absolutely binary: the answer is either “yes” or “no,” and there are absolutely no steps in–between the two. The question of when a pile of sand goes from being a “heap” of sand to becoming a “mountain,” for example, is one that has rough edges: at exactly which point in the process of removing singular grains of sand from a “mountain” has it devolved into a “heap?” At exactly which point in the process of adding singular grains of sand to a “heap” does it become a “mountain?” Reasonable people could disagree, and there is no objective way to determine the answer. Some questions are like this: the question of when a new “species” has evolved has rough edges, and evolution can address the transition from one species to another through the small, gradual steps that are involved without needing to bridge any fundamental gap of absolute difference between an original “species” and a second. But the question of conscious experience is not like this—the difference between something being a subjective experience and something not being a subjective experience is as absolute as absolute can get. There may be various degrees of complexity or sensitivity or detail within an experience, but either something is an experience or it isn’t.

There is no middle ground between the two—but this also means there is no ground that can be covered in any gradual steps as a means of bridging the gaps between the two. And there is, therefore, no way to proceed gradually in steps from non–experience to experience. The move from non–experience to experience, if it happens, could only happen as an extraordinary leap across galaxies which happens all in one sudden and dramatic inexplicable move. Leibniz first and most clearly described the problem inherent in this on the record in 1714: “It must be confessed, moreover, that perception, and that which depends on it, are inexplicable by mechanical causes, that is, by figures and motions, And, supposing that there were a mechanism so constructed as to think, feel and have perception, we might enter it as into a mill. And this granted, we should only find on visiting it, pieces which push one against another, but never anything by which to explain a perception.” But the “pieces which push one another” that describe Leibniz’ mill are just exactly what describe the essence of the physical entities accepted as the (and the only) basic building blocks of the universe by physicalists—and gradual, almost imperceptible additions of singular (and mechanical) grains of sand at a time are exactly the way evolutionary accounts perform their explanatory work (and the only way that they can).

The tools that physicalism offers us are, in principle, no help to us here. We aren’t merely failing to see how an explanation from tools like these could be possible; we can positively see that an explanation of a phenomena like this with tools like this cannot be possible—in just the same way that we can see that a two–dimensional canvas is not capable in principle of allowing us to draw a three–dimensional object on its flat surface. Picture all the blind physical entities you like moving in any inert causal pattern you wish—at no point are you just going to be literally looking at a subjective private conscious experience. You don’t have to sit and contemplate the entire near–infinite combination of ways to picture blind physical forces moving through space in order to see why. It’s right there contained within the very concepts themselves.

To elaborate on what I mean by calling them “private,” for a moment, while we’re here: if we think of the field of conscious experiences that a conscious observer possesses like an immersive “movie” playing inside their mind (and rest assured, anyone who tries to argue that something like this isn’t true, however they may want to present the pretense of having made some complicated new discovery, is merely denying a primary datum of experience), then when we look inside someone’s physical brain, we see nothing at all like this anywhere. And just as with Leibniz’ mill, we can’t even see anything that indicates that they should be there. So, then: exactly how is it that it is there—and why?

One concept that the physicalist will often appeal to in his defense here is “emergence.” In the end, this is little but a fancy word and a convenient black box that allows the physicalist to pretend he is actually imagining what an explanation of the appearance of consciousness might look like without actually doing anything like that at all—but merely hand–waving in syllables. “Emergence,” as a concept, is supposed to refer to systems that possess traits which none of the ingredients adding up to make up that system individually possess. On the surface, of course, that sounds promising. But as soon as we consider a single example of it, we’ll realize how bankrupt the promise of explaining consciousness through “emergence” actually is.

One of the most paradigmatic examples of the concept of “emergence” is the “emergence” of the patterns of physical behavior we call “wetness” from the molecular behaviors of H2O. None of the individual molecules that go up into creating a liquid are “wet,” and yet as a consequence of their interactions, the resulting substance ends up despite this being “wet.” What this is supposed to suggest to the emergent physicalist is that if water can be wet without the molecules that make up water being wet, then maybe a physical system can realize phenomena like subjective experience without the neurons (or even lower–level physical items) that make them up possessing subjective experiences, too.

But how does that concept actually work? How it works in the case of water is that we are, in the first place, identifying a structural, relational phenomena when we target ‘wetness’ for explanation—foremost among those traits, for example, we are identifying the fact that most things will sink when placed in water. And then, when we zoom in on the underlying physics, we are just getting a closer view of what is obviously the very same exact structural, relational phenomena: so we explain the fact that many objects will sink when placed in water, for example, through the fact that molecules of H2O connect loosely enough to allow other molecules to fit into the gaps of space between them and therefore fall through.

The key to understanding the relationship involved in this picture is to see that if we understand the micro–physical details about how H2O molecules move in space, no further question about how the “macro”–phenomena of “wetness” appears out of this can even so much present itself to a curious mind. Once other molecules are slipping through the gaps of space between loosely linked molecules of H2O, it is plain to see that what we have here is already just exactly the phenomena we call sinking, and hence the relationship involved in any possible ordinary example of “emergence” is that of one structural relationship “explaining” another structural relationship. I use scare–quotes around the word “explaining” because we aren’t actually even talking about one thing explaining another; we are just talking about taking what is obviously one structural, physical relational phenomena and zooming in on its structural, relational details.

Structural, physical relational details (like a molecular understanding of H2O) can help us to understand physical–structural phenomena (like why things sink in water). But nothing that is in any way actually new is “emerging” anywhere in this story; “emergence” just refers to our ability to take some structural, physical relational phenomena,  and come to understand it better by zooming in on its structural, physical relational details. Structural relational details can help detail structural relational phenomena, but the very point we’ve labored throughout this entry to emphasize is that conscious experience is not a structural, relational phenomena; so trying to “zoom in on” underlying structural relational details to account for consciousness just simply misses the fact that it is not a structural relational phenomena we’re looking to explain in the first place. What we need to explain here isn’t the mere functional fact that a pair of eyes open in the morning, a brain calculates how to move itself through space, and then hands select a food to consume, but the fact that from the moment I wake up, these things happen within a subjective, qualitative movie (that no one else can see besides me) composed of the feeling of hunger, the felt desire to alleviate it, the qualitative, subjective sight of the room I wake up in combined with all the qualitative sensations of my body and the room and smells around me, and a decision—for reasons—to choose one method of alleviating that hunger over the others.  So long as structural relational details are all we have to “build” our picture out of, we won’t find anything to explain the existence of invisible subjective experiences floating mysteriously anywhere inside Leibniz’ mill no matter how we put together those details. 

Surprisingly, some who call themselves physicalists will actually acknowledge that everything said up to here is true, and still try to amend the definition of “physicalism” in such a way as to allow them to keep calling themselves “physicalists” in some other sense. Jaegwon Kim in particular chose for the most up–to–date monograph covering his long–evolving views a title which reflects this effort explicitly: Physicalism, or Something Near Enough.” Even after spending ten years or more of his career coming around to the view that physicalism of the ordinary sort can’t be saved, Kim still rests his entire continued project on the hope to at least find “something near enough.” And what Kim does, in short, to try to cede as little ground to the force contained in arguments like these which even he, a ten–year–running physicalist, couldn’t fail to find compelling against his previously held stance, is suggest that we can get “near enough” to a physicalist worldview by contending that even if physical phenomena strictly considered are not all that exists, the physical dimension of reality is still, at least, “causally closed.”

Causal closure of the physical domain is a principle which almost all physicalists will accept in some form. In Jaegwon’s words, what the principle states is that: “if we trace the causal ancestry of a physical event we need never go outside the physical domain.” What Jaegwon Kim realized was that if we combine this claim with the realization that subjective experience can’t be reduced to or accounted for in terms of physical mechanism,  then we end up with a description of reality known as epiphenomenalism, on which experiences more or less dangle off the edges of the world before simply falling off (I’ll explain this more in a minute). Jaegwon’s description of the state of play was thus that the choices are to either claim that subjective experience can be reduced to physical description (which is what he had, by then, saw the same compelling reasons to reject which I am outlining here), reject the principle of causal closure, or else accept epiphenomenalism—and so, refusing to reject the principle of causal closure and hoping to find in it “something near enough” to physicalism to rescue him from the stark position which admitting the clear point that subjective experience cannot be reduce to physical description had placed him in, Kim settled for epiphenomenalism. It isn’t physicalism strictly speaking, because conscious experiences—which seem to dangle awkwardly somehow off of some causally irrelevant metaphysical edge of the world—can’t be explained, but isn’t it still “something close enough”?

Pay close attention: this is going to be another one of those places where, as with Daniel Dennett’s outright denial of the existence altogether of subjective experience, I accept everything argued for by a physicalist philosopher right up to the point at which they’ve identified the logical choices, and just before they make a decision between them reflecting the bias towards physicalism. I think Kim’s description of the state of play is absolutely correct. However, I also think—as I will show in a moment—that epiphenomenalism is a viewpoint that we can conclusively refute and rule out completely. If I’m right, then that means going all the way towards rejection of even the principle of causal closure is the only choice—because, eliminativism, reductionism, and epiphenomenalism all being false, conscious experiences are both real, irreducible to anything else, and demonstrably have unique causal influences all of their own over the world in their own right. If I’m right, then what this ends up getting us close to is an interactionist form of dualism arrived at by a logical, rational, piecemeal divide–and–conquer process of elimination. 

One of the easiest ways to explain an epiphenomenalist relationship is by example. If you stand in front of a mirror and jump up and down, your reflection is an epiphenomena of your actual body. What this means is that your body’s jump is what causes your reflection to appear to jump—your body’s jump is what causes your real body to fall—and your body’s fall is what causes your reflection to appear to fall. It may seem to be the case that your reflection’s apparent jump is what causes your reflection to apparent fall, but this is purely an illusion: your reflection doesn’t cause anything in this story; not even its own future states. If we represent physical states with capital letters, states of experience with lower–case letters, and causality with arrows, then a diagram would look something like this:


Thomas Huxley, not the first to espouse the view but the first to give it a name, described it by saying that consciousness is like the steam–whistle sound blowing off of a train that contributes nothing to the continued motion of the train itself. We shouldn’t fail to realize how extreme the dehumanization of this view is, even still, despite the fact that it acknowledges conscious experiences as real: if this is true, then nobody ever chooses a partner because they are experiencing love; nobody ever fights someone because they are experiencing anger; nobody ever even winces because they are experiencing pain. Rather, a blind inert physical state moves by causal necessity from one state to the next; and it is the meaningless motion of these blind inert forces by causal necessity that explains everything—conscious experiences just happen to incidentally squirt out over the top of these motions as a byproduct, and you are, in effect, a prisoner locked inside the movie in your head with your arms and legs removed and absolutely no influence or control whatsoever over what does or does not happen inside of it. In the words of Charles Bonnett writing in 1755, “the soul is a mere spectator of the movements of its body.”

I would ask you to contemplate the severity of what might result if someone were to actually take this proposal seriously and really honestly begin to look at life and their own conscious existence in this horrific and dehumanized way, but according to the claim of epiphenomenalism, believing that epiphenomenalism is true never has any causal effect on anyone’s physical behavior—nor on any of their future mental states—in the first place either. A series of blind, inert physical events leads to their brain responding physically to the input of symbols and lines (and it is only a mere epiphenomena of this that they have any experience of “understanding their meaning,” but any “ideas” contained therein—as such—would simply in principle have no ability to play any further causal role in anything further whatsoever, either of the individual’s future conscious beliefs or their future physical behavior); and from here a purely physical sequence of physical causation leads to further physical states (which then happen to give off more epiphenomena in turn). On this view, the fact that pain even feels painful” is a mere coincidence; for it is not because we feel pain and dislike it that we ever recoil away from a painful stimuli: one physical brain event produces another, and it is only a mere unexplained coincidence that what the first physical brain event happens to give off like so much irrelevant steam is a feeling that just so happens to be painful in particular. 

It literally could just as well have been the case that slicing into our skin with a knife would produce the sensation that we currently know in the world as it is as “the taste of strawberries,” and the physical world (according to epiphenomenalism) would proceed in just exactly the same way as it does now. This would be true because: (1) epiphenomenalism admits that conscious experiences are something over and above physical events, and we do not know why particular conscious experiences are linked with particular physical events (since the former are not logically predictable from the latter given that claims that it “emerges” are acknowledged by definition by epiphenomenalism to fail), and (2) none of them play any causal role in anything anyway. Our conscious lives could have consisted of one long feeling orgasm, or one long miserable experience of pain, or one long sounding “C” note combined with the taste of blueberries and a feeling of slight melancholy, and again, everything in the physical universe would have proceeded in exactly the same way it does now. And it is only a coincidence of whatever extra rule specifies that particular conscious experiences superfluously ‘squirt out’ and dissipate into the cosmic aether like steam that our world happens to be otherwise.

Unfortunately, while most people—including philosophers—are content to stop here and reject the view for sheer counter–intuitiveness alone, philosophy of mind has been somewhat lazy at producing actual logical objections to it. Actual refutations of epiphenomenalism often aren’t very well known, but there is one that is absolute and undeniable and refutes even the possibility that anything like epiphenomenalism could possibly be true completely once and for all. That is: if epiphenomenalism were true, no one would ever be able to write about it. In fact: no one would ever be able to write—nor think—about consciousness in general. No one would ever once in the history of universe have had a single thought about a single one of the questions posed by philosophy of mind. Not a single philosophical position on the nature of consciousness, epiphenomenalist or otherwise, would ever have been defined, believed, or defended by anyone. No one would even be able to think about the fact that conscious experiences exist.

And the reason for that, in retrospect, is quite plain to see: on epiphenomenalism, our thoughts are produced by our physical brains. But our physical brains, in and of themselves, are just machines—our conscious experiences exist, as it were in effect, within another realm, where they are blocked off from having any causal influence on anything whatsoever (even including the other mental states existing within their realm, because it is some physical state which determines every single one of those). But this means that our conscious experiences can never make any sort of causal contact with the brains which produce all our conscious thoughts in the first place. And thus, our brains would have absolutely no capacity to formulate any conception whatsoever of their existence—and since all conscious thoughts are created by brains, we would never experience any conscious thoughts about consciousness. For another diagram, if we represent causality with arrows, causal closure with parentheses, physical events with the letter P and experiences with the letter e, the world would look something like this:

… e1 ⇠ (((P⇆P))) ⇢ e2 …

Everything that happens within the physical world—illustrated by (((P⇆P)))—would be wholly and fully kept and contained within the physical world, where conscious experiences as such do not reside; the physical world is Thomas Huxley’s train which moves whether the whistle on top blows steam or not. And e1 and e2 float off of the physical world—for whatever reason—and then merely dissipate into nothingness like steam, with no capacity in principle for making any causal inroads back into the physical dimension of reality whatsoever. This follows straightforwardly as an inescapable conclusion of the very premises which epiphenomenalism defines itself by. But since the very brains which produce all our experienced thoughts are contained within (((P⇆P))), in order to have any experienced thought about conscious experience itself, these (per epiphenomenalism) would have to be the epiphenomenal byproducts of a brain state that is somehow reflective or indicative of conscious experience. But brain states, again because per epiphenomenalism they belong to the self–contained world inside (((P⇆P))) where no experiences as such exist, are absolutely incapable in principle of doing this.

To refer back to our original analogy whereby epiphenomenalism was described by the illustration of a person jumping up and down in front of a mirror, then: it would be as if the mirror our brains were jumping up and down in front of were shielded inside of a black hole in a hidden dimension we couldn’t see. Our real bodies [by analogy, our physical brains] would never be able to see anything happening inside that mirror. And therefore, they would never be able to think about it or talk about it. And therefore, we would never see our reflections [by analogy, our consciously experienced minds] thinking or talking about the existence of reflections, because our reflections could only do that if our real bodies were doing that, and there would be absolutely no way in principle that our real bodies ever could.

The fact that we do this, then—the fact that we do think about consciousness as such, and the fact that we write volumes and volumes and volumes and volumes philosophizing about it, and the very fact that we produce theories (including epiphenomenalism itself) about its relation to the physical world in the first place—proves absolutely that whatever the mechanism may be, conscious experiences somehow most absolutely do in fact have causal influence over the world. What we have here is a rare example of a refutation that proceeds solely from the premises of the position itself, and demonstrates an internal inconsistency.

But Jaegwon Kim has already identified all the possible options for us! Either experiences and physical events are just literally identical (which even Kim himself rejects, for good reasons we have outlined here), or else epiphenomenalism is true (which Jaegwon Kim accepts, but which the simple argument outlined just now renders completely inadmissible)—or else the postulate of the causal closure of the physical domain is false—and conscious experience is both irreducible to and incapable of being explained in terms of blind physical mechanisms, and possesses unique causal efficacy over reality all in its own right.

How the hell does conscious experience get there in the first place, then? How could it be possible for conscious experiences to have causal efficacy over a physical world if the two really are as different as they’ve been described here to be? The ordinary atheistic account of reality starts with only blind physical entities, and as it is ordinarily conceived, proceeding from here by the blind mechanistic accounts of cosmological and evolutionary science is supposed to be sufficient to account for everythingand this is precisely what was supposed to have rendered the speculative accounts of religion obsolete. So if the account above is correct, just where does its truth leave that narrative? And indeed, if that blind mechanistic account of the Universe were completely true, we wouldn’t be conscious entities who had any conscious experiences of anything at all.

So how can something like conscious experience even exist within a world like ours at all? In future posts, we’ll explain what intentionality and ‘thisness’ are and incorporate both into the picture and show that the mystery (and the absolute incapacity of the physicalist tools to even possibly begin to account for it) ultimately goes much deeper than even this. Then, we’ll look back and try to figure out what exactly we’ve proved, and begin to deal with a variety of more detailed objections to the train of reasoning presented thus far. For now, I have no choice but to pause here, and hold off on making strong pronouncements until intentionality and ‘thisness’ have been included in the discussion and incorporated into a more fully fleshed out conception of the basic nature of consciousness itself.

This does, however, readily bring us up to speed to contemplate one mystery that will be discussed in extensive detail later: how subjective experience could possibly “interact” with a physical world. While the fact that it requires this sort of “interaction” is often taken to be a reason to reject dualism (the notion that conscious experiences are neither reducible to physical processes nor causally epiphenomenal with respect to them), this can’t be right: the question of how conscious experiences and physical structures relate in general is just the basic question which all philosophy of mind deals with, and to say the least, the supposition that subjective experiences and physical structures could somehow be “identical” is no less incomprehensible than the notion of the two interactingin fact, I will argue that whereas the notion of subjective experiences and physical structures being “identical” is incomprehensible because it is senseless, our inability to fully conceptualize “how” an interaction between experience and the physical would “work” just represents a limitation of our own conceptual facultiesand not one of the nature of reality.

[1] Disgustipated — Tool

[2]  In the paper Quining Qualia, Dennett makes the following statement (which will, no doubt, sound obscure to most readers—bear with it; you’ll see the point by the end): “The infallibilist line on qualia treats them as properties of one’s experience one cannot in principle misdiscover, and this is a mysterious doctrine (at least as mysterious as papal infallibility) unless we shift the emphasis a little and treat qualia as logical constructs out of subjects’ qualia-judgments: a subject’s experience has the quale F if and only if the subject judges his experience to have quale F. We can then treat such judgings as constitutive acts, in effect, bringing the quale into existence by the same sort of license as novelists have to deter mine the hair color of their characters by fiat.”

How seriously would this statement be taken if we just substituted the word experience where the word qualia appears? “The infallibilist line on experience suggests that one cannot in principle be mistaken about one’s experience (say, that one is experiencing pain), and this is a mysterious doctrine (at least as mysterious as papal infallibility) unless we shift the emphasis and treat experience as a logical construct out of peoples’ judgments that they are having experiences: a subject is having experience F if and only if the subject judges himself to have experience F. We can then treat such judgings as constitutive acts which, in effect, bring the experience itself into existence by the same sort of license as novelists have to determine the hair color of their characters by fiat.”

Come again? Does the philosophical term “qualia” make it more or less easy to get away with making an utterly absurd, ridiculous claim sound deep and scientific? The use of technical neologisms like “qualia” and academic philosophy’s tendency to try to dignify itself by modeling philosophical discussion on the logical language of mathematics or programming with phraseology like “F if and only if P > Q, where F is . . . ” is what allows people like Dennett to get away with saying things like, “The only thing it means to have an experience is to claim to have an experience. Your experiences of the world ‘exist’ in the same way that Atticus Finch ‘exists’ in the universe of To Kill a Mockingbird (which is to say: they don’t)” while concealing this absolute blabbering nonsense behind language just obscurantist enough to create a facade of apparent scientific objectivity.

[3] I will discuss, at some later point, whether we can in fact reconceptualize the physical world to possess properties like subjective private experiences and intentionality  ‘all the way down’ intrinsically and thereby resolve the problems that would follow otherwise.  This view, which can take various particular forms, is known as panpsychism. While I applaud its commitment to taking the problems of philosophy of mind seriously (as they are precisely the ones I am endorsing as serious problems here) enough to consider something many people would otherwise automatically write off as absurd in an attempt to resolve them, I think it ultimately fails to resolve them as well, for its own reasons, which I won’t be able to begin to explain until later. For now, including caveats for panpsychism in every paragraph would just be too overwhelming, especially for the fresh initiate to philosophy of mind; so in this and everything that follows, for the sake of clarity, simplicity, and ease of communication, I bracket it to the side to be addressed separately in its own later post.

[4] A footnote for those already familiar with the philosophical arguments or those prepared to take a substantial detour without my added guidance: see Frank Jackson’s presentation of the Knowledge Argument. Why is Mary only colorblind (or inside of a black and white house)? The experience of seeing black and white is still qualitative in all the ways that matter. Surely that doesn’t make the example ideal for showing us the thing that it’s trying to show to us. Why not stipulate that Mary is blind, and has no subjective experiences of vision (“qualia”) at all? It is important to note that even if we experienced nothing but a permanently “black” visual field, if we were experiencing that black visual field, that would still be every bit as much a qualitative subjective experience in the problematic sense as a “color” like red. The “lights” would still be “on” for that experience of permanent pitch darkness, if we were experiencing that permanent pitch darkness, even if we didn’t know to call it that because we had never experienced anything else to contrast it with, in a way that there are no “lights on” for a visual experience of pitch darkness when an atom mindlessly buzzes around in space.The real underlying problem these points are getting at is that physicalism can’t account for the first–person subjective “point of view” in general. Why is there even a “point of view” “inside” the brain at all? (Anything—anything whatsoever—that a “first–person point of view” is composed of would be, in the only sense really relevant to this stage of discussion, “qualia.”) For that matter, why not stipulate that Mary is a robot who has no subjective experiences of anything at all, and then ask whether this robot would be capable of forming any knowledge on the basis of the physical facts of the universe alone that subjective experiences of any kind exist anywhere? Isn’t it obvious that these minor tweaks to the argument are immediately more powerfully illustrative?


One response to “Consciousness (IV) — The Case of the Lunatic Fish

  1. Pingback: Can materialistic science answer life's big questions? |317|

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