Consciousness (VII) — Panpsychism: Panacea, or Flash in the Pan?

A great deal of clarity can be achieved in philosophy of mind if we simply clarify the concepts of experience and physical properties. Experience can acquire its definition by direct observation of the operations of consciousness itself “from the inside.”[1] Meanwhile, the definition of “physical property” which I assume is something like: “abstract geometric structural properties and blind (e.g., non–‘purposeful’) dispositions towards patterns of inert cause and effect.”[2] Think of it like this: if I look at the wall next to me, I do not ordinarily assume that the wall has any of the dispositions to move or be moved by other objects in space that it has because it is blue. Rather, the modern picture of science would have me assume that I perceive it to be blue because of the way that the wall’s spatial–structural properties cause it to be disposed to reflect or absorb various mathematically definable frequencies of light. What is the relationship between its “blueness” and the abstracted geometric structures and inert causal dispositions towards blind patterns of spatial movement that correlate with me experiencing it as “blue?” Does that “blueness” exist in the atoms of the wall itself, or does “blue” only exist inside my mind itself as a function of my own conscious act of synthesizing a perception from those physical ingredients? Does it make sense to call the two properties “identical?” Does one “emerge from” or “reduce to” the other? That is the basic heart of the problem the existence of phenomenal consciousness poses. None of these answers are obviously correct; each has at least some apparently significant difficulties; and yet some answer has to be true. 

My argument throughout this series has been that if we assume that physical objects are described through and through by “physical properties” as just defined—and we assume that the world as a whole is composed of no other essential ingredients at its ultimate core than physical objects as so defined—then it becomes simply incoherent to conceive of how any of the properties of experience which we know directly and immediately through our very acts of experiencing (and, no less, through which we we make all our inferences, without exception, about the world we can only assume—even with great justification—lies outside of those experiences themselves) could come to exist. While some physicalists may swear that future science will somehow ‘eventually’ resolve that question even if we can’t see how from here, I argue that this is exactly like realizing we have been trying to draw a robust 3D figure onto a flat 2D canvas, and realizing we need an entirely new medium in order to get the kind of figure we’re looking for to “fit” into the picture at all—that we are therefore absolutely justified to throw out the canvas completely, while what physicalists are doing is swearing that we’ll figure it out if we just keep trying, and that we’re shirking our intellectual obligations if we don’t spend the rest of eternity drawing lines every which conceivable way on the canvas until we figure it out, because we’re inferentially justified by the success of all our previous drawings of 2D figures on that canvas to believe that this one will eventually be able to fit, as well.

The ordinary physicalist would have it that science is progressing so thoroughly towards a complete understanding of the world that we should assume it is inevitable that it will eventually account for the nature of consciousness and the human organism in nothing other than those very terms. On the contrary, I contend: (1) that we are not understanding the world at all unless we are coming to understand the nature of our own consciousness’ place within it; and (2) that in an important sense, the only aspects of the world which we know directly at all are the qualitative and intentionalistic aspects of consciousness known to our most direct and unmediated awareness of existing which physicalism simply erases by fiat and by definition out of the picture of what it is that “reality” is most ultimately composed of. I think accounting for the nature of the human organism and consciousness is something like a marathon, and I think all physicalist attempts to even begin to account for it fail in principle so extremely that they are tripping on their own shoelaces and slamming themselves into a concussion on the pavement at the literal very first step. What the philosophers call “qualia” (and intentionality) are not some mere incidental detail(s) that we need to find some way to tidy up into our otherwise successful picture of the world; the only thing we know with the kind of knowledge that knows with immediacy are the “qualia” (and intentionality) that compose the entirety of our very existence, from every single sensory field that we experience what we take to be an external world through, to the physical sensation of “being in (or part of) a body” to emotions to the feelings of exerting mental effort (to, in the case of intentionality, every single thought we ever have “about” absolutely anything whatsoever at all). And the physicalist or materialist account simply erases these from its understanding of the natural world—and then simply can’t ever coherently get them back, in principle, once having done so. Yet, not only do we know that they are there—they are actually the only thing we know at all. The entire notion of “a physical entity” as we ordinarily conceive of it is purely an abstracted concept—and physicalism cannot even account for the existence of “concepts,” since these inherently “refer” to something and have “meaning”—but no physical object defined by its purely abstract disposition to move this way or that through space when pushed this way or that by a physical object with similar dispositions is ever “about,” “refers” to,  or “means” anything. 

The conscious life we all know and experience is like a chicken pot pie we’re all tasting at every single moment. Physicalism is like the philosophy that the only ingredient that ever went into creating that pie was sugar—refuted in reverse by the fact that if that were true, it would predict that the chicken pot pie we all know we’re tasting and doing nothing other than taste at every moment simply could never have come to exist. We know, from the final products we are all observing and doing nothing other than observe at every moment through unmediated awareness of awareness itself, that that in principle can not be the only kind of ingredient that the world is built out of. It isn’t some small technicality that needs to be chopped up into some hacksawed form that can be stuffed into our ordinary physical picture of the world. It’s a failure to account for the fundamental existence of the only phenomena our awareness of which ever even causes us to postulate the independent existence of any sort of external physical world at all. To return to the earlier example: I never see the world of inertly interacting particles that physics supposedly tells me describes how the wall “really is” at all. The only thing I ever see is exactly the component that the physical picture of the world tells me is not part of how the world really is down deep at its root at allits “blueness. And the very notion that “physical” objects exist in this abstracted sense at all is purely a theory devised purposefully in order to account for the “blueness” and subjective felt sensation of texture which I do know by direct, unmediated awareness unquestionably does exist. Supposing that this is ultimately what the world is built out of renders us incapable in principle of accounting for every single aspect and component of the one and only thing that composes all of our actual direct knowledge of the nature of reality. It is a concept derived by subjective conscious awareness for a reason, when physicalism cannot even account for the existence of “concepts” or the notion that things are ever done “for reasons” (that is, to achieve purposes as opposed to because it was pushed) at all.

If we want to even begin to understand what 3D reality might actually look like, we simply have no choice but to throw out that canvas entirely. The conscious, subjective, ‘private,’ qualitative and sensational, purposeful, intentionalistic, logical and conceptually thinking minds we know firsthand are themselves basic parts of the ultimate “furniture” of what reality itself most ultimately is. And we have no choice but to start from there. No other starting point can even get us to arrive at the fact that it exists, when its existence is the only thing we actually know directly—and the one and only medium through which we postulate the existence (however justifiably) of anything else whatsoever at all.

We might sketch a diagram of the connection between the various possible positions as so:

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Pinpointing the central core of the question in this way helps us to understand how all the positions relate, and why they are organized in the order in which they are. Phrased in this way, interactionist dualism is hardly an ad hoc or arbitrary thesis—it is simply a “Yes” answer to ‘Do conscious experiences and intentionality exist?’, followed by a “No” answer to ‘Can conscious experience and intentionality be understood as identical to / reducible to / emergent from (all of these phrases ultimately amount to different ways to verbally express the same ontological claim) anything other than themselves (especially physical properties in particular)?’ followed by a “No” answer to ‘Can conscious experience and intentionality be understood as epiphenomenal with respect to the world?’ Each of these answers can be extremely well supported with extensive and detailed argument. They are not “arguments from ignorance” about how the materialist claims are true any more than the atheistic argument from evil is an “argument from ignorance” about how it is true that God is omnibenevolent despite the existence of apparent evils (well, I suppose that one might argue that it is—but one would have to argue that it is and at least prove that that argument is successful in order to justify the right to claim so).

The ultimate question which all of these positions provide differing answers to is the very straightforward one of how the physical, causally disposing properties of physical objects (and forces) and subjective/qualitative experience ‘hang together’ in the world. And the “mind–body problem” exists as an objective problem regardless of what anyone ‘feels’ about it: we really don’t know how the two should fit together in our general picture of the world, and there are a strictly limited number of logical possibilities for what the answer could be, each of which faces at least some immediately apparent difficulties. Physical objects (and forces) are what they areobject–ively,” in a way that is fully visible to all outside observers—yet, if you look inside of my brain, you aren’t going to encounter anything like the subjective taste of chocolate which I’m experiencing. How the hell does it ‘sit’ “in there,” then? That’s mysterious, whether you think there’s a materialist answer for it or not. In a sense, that already—just plain in and of itself—looks a hell of a lot like a “ghost” inside of a “machine.”

If we use loose terminology like “mind” and “brain,” it’s easy to formulate pseudo–‘positions’ in philosophy of mind in terms so loose as to be meaningless enough to be worth neither defending nor refuting. “The mind is what the brain does,” goes one of the popular slogans. For God’s sake, what does that mean?! It could mean entirely different things depending on how exactly you define “mind” and how exactly you define “brain”—nevermind how you define the word “is,” nevermind the word “does.” But if we think of physical properties in the way I’ve defined them (without necessarily making assumptions about whether “physical properties” as defined are the only kinds of properties physical objects and forces have—if there are others, we can specify them and add them in later and see if they change anything) and focus clearly on the subjective, qualitative (and intentionalistic) aspects of consciousness which create the problematic mysteries, we can begin to chart a space of logically possible ways of holding them together. And then maybe we can start to get somewhere.

As I have drawn the situation, what we have is a train moving from eliminativism to reductive/emergentist/identity accounts to epiphenomenalism to interactionist dualism. In the broadest sense, we might define a “physicalist” as someone who is intellectually disposed to want to try to jump off of this train as soon as the leap doesn’t look suicidal. If the “physicalist” thinks he can swallow eliminativism, he does so—and if he can’t, then he prepares to jump off at the very next possible spot in order to stay as far away from interactionism as he conceivably can. It’s as if we’re all immigrants crossing the border by hopping a train headed for the Central Arizona Detention Center—the sooner we can get off this thing, the better; and if it eventually turns out that the jumps all look fairly equally suicidal, well, we’re just going to have to pick one and jump—anything is better than letting it ride all the way into the station.

“Dualism is to be avoided,” per Dennett, “at all costs.” And when Jaegwon Kim concludes that experience can’t be reduced to or “identified with” physiological processes and therefore decides to settle for epiphenomenalism, he doesn’t apologize for giving us a horror story narrative of the human condition wherein we’re all locked in streams of experiences that have no causal influence over anything whatsoever (where the mind is, as I described it before, like someone tied up with eyelids taped open in the back of our heads with arms and legs dismembered, passively forced to watch a screen, with no control or even slight influence over any part of the body or mind at all)—he doesn’t apologize for defining a psychiatric disorder (depersonalization disorder) as the fullest state of enlightenment about the true nature of reality—no; he apologizes for the fact that he had to deviate slightly from ordinary physicalism in order to get something he could even consider coherent: “The position is, as we might say, a slightly defective physicalism … [but] I believe that this is as much physicalism as we can have….  Physicalism is not the whole truth, but … near enough should be good enough.” [3]  It would hardly be unreasonable to say that the entire motivating premise behind almost all mainstream philosophy of mind is the attempt to answer the question, “What’s the best way not to be a dualist?” (Or, “what is the best way to reduce us all to inert physical mechanisms?[4]”)

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

I have throughout this series, however, held the caveat that I am defining “physical objects” as possessing only “physical properties” as I have defined them in order to make my way up to here. This does not invalidate what I have said up to here, even if by redefining “physical objects” to possess more than just “physical properties” we end up finding answers—I have been making only the assumptions of ordinary physicalism itself (and physicalists aren’t even the only ones who share the assumption). I’ve done this for a specific reason—as I think the particular nature of the critique I am going to make here can only be understood clearly if the dialectic as I have presented it up to here has been understood first.

Panpsychism is a position whose adherents will likely accept almost everything I have said up to here. Panpsychism presents itself as a solution to the mind–body problem—indeed, it presents itself as a solution to the problems exactly as I have defined them. I attacked the idea that the concept of “emergence” holds promise for making consciousness explicable on physicalism, for example, in my entry (IV). In Thomas Nagel’s 1979 article, ‘Panpsychism,’ he formulates panpsychism as a solution to exactly the same problem, writing: “ … there are no truly emergent properties of complex systems. All properties of complex systems that are not relations between it and something else derive from the properties of its constituents and their effects on each other when so combined.” The panpsychist solution? Posit that conscious experience is nothing new whose sudden appearance in the world needs any explanation because matter, all the way to the deepest “rock bottom” level, is experiential to the core to begin with—and explain that we’ve created the very difficulty of the mind–body problem itself by defining consciousness out of the ‘core (physical) ingredients’ of reality. So the sudden appearance of consciousness in human beings out of “physical” processes doesn’t need to be explained—consciousness is everywhere, embedded right in the very center of those ‘physical’ processes themselves.

Note, of course, that the panpsychist can’t say anything less than that conscious experience and intentionality themselves reside all the way down to the deepest levels of the entities in reality—there is simply nothing “in between” an experience and a non–experience. There may be varying degrees of robustness and detail within experiences, but something quite simply either is an experience or it isn’t. It may be that what it ‘feels like’ to be an electron is more like what it feels like to toss and turn during a deep sleep than what it feels like to be a wakened human being, but it must ‘feel like’ something. So long as experience rests in the roots, we can get experience to grow in the branches in more refined forms. We can’t evolve through stages from non–experience to experience, but we can evolve through stages from less robust and detailed to more robust and detailed experience just as long as we start with any kind of experience at all. To take my previous analogies in Does the World Pantry Stock More than Sugar?, the panpsychist solution would be to say that while the bag labeled ‘sugar’ was the only one in the pantry, it turns out that flour was mixed in with sugar in the bag all along. That certainly sounds promising. And indeed, I spent a long time thinking panpsychism was at least an equally probable answer aa dualism to the problems I’ve identified in other accounts, myself.

 _______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

I ended up reaching the conclusion, however, that panpsychism doesn’t foot the bill. In fact, all it does is create the illusion of doing so by turning the tab upside down so that we might not so easily recognize the numbers that are now upside down and on top of the tab instead of in ordinary, face–up recognizable form down at the bottom where we expect to see them. To realize why panpsychism fails to advance anything on the Hard Problem over materialism, we’ll have to try to imagine the numbers we recognize normally in inverted visual form in order to recognize them once we see them. Taking the paradigm which I have outlined above will be extremely helpful as an aid for seeing this.

the-60000-dollar-bill

The first key point to recognize is this: the fundamental core of the problem of consciousness is the question of how subjective, qualitative experience (and intentionality) could possibly relate to the physical causally disposing properties of the world. To say that consciousness exists everywhere, in conjunction with all instances where physical properties exist, is—in fact—not even an answer to this question. So far, the position specified is not even a response to the mind–body problem. Now, that’s not to say in any derogatory way that the fact that the bare claim of panpsychism (that consciousness in at least some form exists “all the way down” to the physical bedrocks of reality) hasn’t been formulated into a robust position yet on the actual mind–body problem itself just because that bare claim has been made immediately renders it inadmissable. To say that the bare claim is “not even a response” to the mind–body problem is not to imply the tone of the statement that it is “not even wrong.” It just means we have to actually formulate it before we are dealing with an actual position on the mind–body problem. But it is absolutely crucial to see that just because we specify that consciousness exists everywhere, we have not formulated any answer to the question of how the experiential properties of reality (wherever they may be) and the physical properties of reality actually stand in relation to and relate to each other. If we trace back through the chart, however, we can simply invert every single one of the positions there and see that exactly the same points apply! 

In the most superficial form, what makes the existence of consciousness seem mysterious at its first glance is the fact that, when we look in someone’s brain, we don’t see their experience of “tasting chocolate”—we just see physical structures and motion. The most basic issue is that we clearly seem to be dealing with two different types of properties, and it’s a mystery how they stand in relation to one another. If the bare claim of panpsychism is true, then the mystery that holds for the question of how instances of subjective conscious experience and physical dispositional properties to causally interact with other physical structures relate within a human mind/brain simply holds in exactly the same form for material micro–entities everywhere: when I look at an atom, I don’t “see” a feeling. So how does that ‘sit in there’ with the physical properties?

The basic thrust of the branching series of arguments earlier was as follows: either instances of experience and physical properties can be “identified” with each other, or else one can be “reduced to” (e.g., “claimed to be ‘emergent’ from”) the other, or else we can eliminate one or the other (eliminating the physical would be idealism, which I also bracket aside in the current analysis for reasons I will eventually discuss), or else one is epiphenomenal with respect to the other—or else it must be the case, by process of elimination, that interactionism is true. What are the panpsychist’s most viable options? In exactly which of these ways is consciousness ‘everywhere?’

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

The panpsychist, even on his own terms, simply does not have the option of saying that experiences and physical properties are identical. We arrived here precisely because of the Hard Problem of consciousness in the first place: if it is even conceivable that we could imagine having a “zombie” world, then it follows that the properties of experience and physical causal dispositions are not identical. But forget zombie worlds; even the materialists will agree with the point when formulated thusly:  if we can even imagine that panpsychism could conceivably not have been true, then the physical properties of the world around me and the experiential properties of the world around me are not simply literally identical. 

The only real argument in the panpsychist arsenal in the first place is that panpsychism is a solution to the problem of emergence (e.g., categorically new things can’t appear out of ingredients categorically unlike themselves, which are different not merely in degree but in kind; but if we posit that the “bedrock” entities reality is composed of are essentially ingredients of the same ‘kind’ as consciousness, the human consciousness–pie can then be accounted for in terms of the “ingredients” in reality’s pantry)—but the problem of emergence doesn’t even appear (and there would therefore be zero motivation to even consider panpsychism) unless we have rejected the “identity” of subjective conscious experiences with physical structures and causal dispositions to begin with. The two kinds of properties simply are not the same thing, in any case—that follows from a mere analysis of the conceptual content of both ideas alone, even if their existence does in fact coincide absolutely everywhere. But even if someone disagrees with that point, they are still left with no legitimate reason to go beyond the ordinary materialist mind–brain “identity” theory and into panpsychism anyway.

The physical properties as such clearly can’t be eliminated. That would leave us with a very bizarre sort of idealism, wherein the only kind of interaction that actually ever happens is psychic telepathy: your couch is a soul telepathically transmitting the experience to you of softness, green visual qualia, etc (or else we would be headed in the direction of a Berkeleyan sort of theistic idealism). Eliminating the experiential properties as such is even more obviously moot. And this point in the discussion brings us to the two remaining ways that the panpsychist might try to actually formulate the relationship between consciousness (as such) and physical properties (as such). The spread of conceptually possible options now looks like: Eliminate the mental, eliminate the physical, “identify” the mental and the physical, “reduce” the mental to, or have it “emerge” from, the physical; “reduce” the physical to, or have it “emerge” from, the mental; or treat the mental as an ontologically ‘extra’ property to the physical in a causally closed world—or interactionism. First and most plausibly, on the last approach of those just mentioned, the panpsychist may wish to hold to the causal closure of the physical properties of reality and say that consciousness exists everywhere as an effete tag–along—where experiences, as such, have no causal efficacy in their own right. We might think of this as the ‘property dualist’ version of panpsychism.

The problem, of course, has been thoroughly investigated already in the original opening discussion of subjective qualitative conscious experience in this series—“[I]f 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.

… 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 epiphenomenalism is false. 

Alright, well … what alternative does that leave?

It isn’t pretty.

(Back to the list: Eliminate the mental, eliminate the physical, “identify” the mental and the physical, “reduce” the mental to, or have it “emerge” from, the physical; “reduce” the physical to, or have it “emerge” from, the mental; or treat the mental as an ontologically ‘extra’ property to the physical in a causally closed world—or interactionism.)

The only alternative is for the panpsychist to propose an inverted version of emergentism. He could say, for example, that whereas the physicalist proposed physical substances whose underlying operations naturally result in the appearance of “conscious experiences” by logical consequence in the same way that the underlying behavior of H2O molecules naturally results in the appearance of what we would recognize as the behavior of water, so he proposes that consciousness is in fact the substance of all reality—which leaves his theory with the need to account for the appearance of physical properties as emergent from the base root of consciousness in a parallel yet inverted way.

Just what would this actually entail?

To say the least, nothing better. We’d have to assume that the real “substances” that make up the world are something like  ‘minds’ or ‘selves,’ and that the velocity of a particular electron—for example—“emerges” in either the weak or strong sense from something like the electron’s felt desire to go a particular speed, or the electron’s feeling of a certain subjectively registered qualitative degree of felt “anxiety.” If the Hard Problem left materialism incapable of working to get experience coherently out of physical processes, then this ‘emergent’ form of panpsychism is equally absurd and inadmissible and fails just as much to offer any conceivable way of getting physical processes out of experiential roots. And the only alternative that would allow us to avoid that is, again, to make the substances physical and tack the experiential properties on as a universal tag–along—which would result in epiphenomenalism, which is every bit as incoherent and inadmissible.

(Back to the list: Eliminate the mental, eliminate the physical, “identify” the mental and the physical,“reduce” the mental to, or have it “emerge” from, the physical; “reduce” the physical to, or have it “emerge” from, the mental; or treat the mental as an ontologically ‘extra’ property to the physical in a causally closed world—or else interactionism.)

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

The upshot of all this?

Any conceivable reason one might actually have for reaching the point where panpsychism would appear worth considering as a potential solution to the mind–body problem will end up exactly being a reason why panpsychism itself fails to solve those very same problems. Just as “the mind is what the brain does” is a catchy slogan empty of any real substantive content and therefore worth neither defending nor refuting in terms as vague as those—and just as the materialist owes us some actually meaningful account of the actual relationship between consciousness and physical processes (as well as how it is that he actually understands the nature of each)—and just as performing this exercise will leave us with a variety of different positions which might stand or fall separately according to the particular merits or demerits of each, so the same goes for panpsychism.

“Experience is everywhere” is every bit as much a catchy slogan that is simply empty of the real substantive content needed to say that one has an actual position on the relationship between consciousness and the physical world. It stands every bit as much in need of being spelled out through some specified, actually meaningful account of what it means to say that that is true. What makes the notion of a brain that is seemingly all consciousness on the inside yet also seemingly purely physical from the outside mysterious goes every bit as much for the notion of a conscious boson.

And it turns out, in the end, that there is simply no way to actually formulate panpsychism coherently any more than there was any viable way to do so for materialism—at the very minimal least, one cannot say that any virtue of panpsychism is that it overcomes the problems had by ordinary physicalism, for actually formulating the claim that experience is everywhere into any meaningful details of how it is that that is so will inevitably result in one having to defend exactly the same premises one would have to reject in order to reject physicalism and see any possible reason to even try to adopt panpsychism in the first place. If we reject physicalism for its inability to both make sense of the relationship between “private” subjective conscious experience and “public” physical structure plus causal disposition and also avoid the modus tollens–forming dead end of epiphenomenalism, then panpsychism is no viable detour away from those problems.

Specifically, we have no reason to contemplate panpsychism at all unless it seems to be a viable solution to the problem of emergence. But no problem of emergence even appears to begin with unless we reject the mind–brain “identity thesis” on which subjective experiences and physical causal dispositions are literally identical and we therefore acknowledge a “hard problem” about the relationship between consciousness and the physical as our starting point. This leaves the panpsychist without the choice to say that the two types of phenomena are just literally identical (and the claim is transparently false, anyway, simply because we can even conceive of panpsychism failing to hold), and it means that the only possible ways of formulating the details of panpsychism left either result in epiphenomenalism or else result in a Hard Problem that was even more confused and ridiculous than the original one.

Pessimistically, I expect one predominant response to come from most panpsychists who consider this argument. Just as “emergent” materialists predominantly respond to the critiques of materialism by ignoring the fact that they charge, for good reason, that the inert causal patterns of internally ‘blind’ structural physical entities will never account for the appearance of subjective conscious experience in principle and ignoring the fact that science (per assumptions which they share) is never going to uncover anything other than more inert causal patterns and blind structures in principle, shirk the obligation to actually formulate materialism into something actually workable and coherent, and shrug while telling us that science will work out all of the details some day, so we should all shut up and stop trying to think philosophically—so I expect the panpsychists to primarily respond by simply refusing to accept the burden of formulating panpsychism into any specific workable and coherent form. But the issue stands, whether they accept the challenge or not: one of these actual relationships has to hold true between subjective experiences and physical causal properties. Panpsychism seems to fail for exactly the same reasons materialist accounts fail, no matter which of them we might try to pick.

So anyone who can swallow the materialist premises has no reason to contemplate panpsychism in the first place, and non–materialists turn out to have no reason to consider it any likely solution to the problems that the premises of materialism create after all. Accept the underlying assumptions of the materialist positions? You’re left with no reason to postulate panpsychism to begin with. Reject the underlying assumptions of the materialist positions? You’re left with no reason to think panpsychism actually offers a way out of them. While this may seem like a short order dismissal for a philosophy with roots stretching as deep into the past of philosophy as panpsychism, most of the work has already been done over the preceding entries—in the rejections of physicalist emergentism, identity theory, et cetera. All that was needed here is to point out that panpsychism actually has to be formulated into a claim, damn it and then show that it fails to solve the problems it billed itself to begin with as the solution for. The previous 20–30,000 words in entries (IV) through (VI) exist to explain why those problems truly are problems serious enough to disqualify a position from serious consideration.

Eliminating either the mental or physical? Neither are options for the panpsychist, by default. “Identify” conscious experiences with physical properties? (1), they simply aren’t identical kinds of properties—by the panpsychist’s own lights as well, if he admits that it is even logically conceivable that panpsychism might have been false; (2), the panpsychist would have no reason to posit panpsychism in the first place if he could identify them, because the problem of emergence that forms panpsychism’s sole valid motivation disappears if we don’t have to get anything to emerge because the two can be considered ‘identical’ to begin with. If the panpsychist finds this at all plausible, it is because things that are ‘identical’ and things that are (posited to) coexist everywhere at all times feel similar to naive intuition. “Reduce” physical properties to, or have physical properties “emerge from,” conscious experiences by supposing all that exist are mental substances, with emergent physical properties? This just turns the hard problem of getting subjective sensation out of neural movement into the absolute batshit absurdity[5] of trying to get an electron’s velocity out of how it’s been feeling. Treat the physical object as the substance, with the mental properties tacked on—the same regular old property dualism as ever, except that it posits that those properties exist everywhere? Well, that leads—once again—to the inexcusable conclusion of epiphenomenalism. Panpsychism makes a nice offer to foot the bill and puts a sincere effort into writing a check, it just turns out it doesn’t actually have any cash in its bank account.

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

We might say that the deep, fundamental conceptual gaps between “physical properties” as we have defined them (“mathematically describable geometric structures and mathematical–functionally describable tendencies towards patterns of spatiotemporal motion”) and the subjective, qualitative, phenomenal, intentionalistic (etc.) aspects of experiential consciousness are rather like the Grand Canyon. If the conceptual gaps are the Grand Canyon, then the intractable problems that appear on the ordinary materialist views which say that everything that makes up the human mind are at root ultimately ‘physical’ are the “jumping across the Grand Canyon from East to West” problem.

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If panpsychism appears to actually solve any part of the problems of consciousness at all, it merely does so by leaving the Grand Canyon entirely and then returning to the plains to the West. The “jumping across the Grand Canyon from East to West” problem might have been solved by this act of relocation, sure—but now we just have the “jumping across the Grand Canyon from West to East” problem—and it turns out that that is just exactly the same problem. The relocation doesn’t actually even begin to make bridging between the two a whit more plausible or coherent at all—you just have to look East instead of West now in order to see it again: it just now takes a slightly different form of ‘looking.’

Panpsychism, in the end, turns out to be a pointless act of relocation pretending to be a bridge. If what we need is an actual bridge, then this simply isn’t it. For my part, I’m going to defend the position that that’s simply not a jump that can be made because we actually are dealing with two separate territories. 

_______~.::[༒]::.~ _______

[1] For all complaints that “introspection” is too unreliable to be of any use here, I refer to my previous entry (VI). In sum: “introspection” is unreliable at forming theories about why the data of conscious experience is what it is, but it is not even sensible to suggest that it could be unreliable at identifying what the data of conscious experience is. And while we may be mistaken as to whether we’re identifying plain data directly or crafting a theory to account for it in an given case, it takes an equal measure of both refining our ability to craft accurate hypotheses through falsification and “introspection” to determine this—but some piece of incontrovertible data will lie somewhere underneath all acts of theoretical “introspection.” If I think something that someone said made me feel ill, and it turns out that I only began to feel ill at that moment because an uncooked piece of meat hit my stomach right as they finished speaking, I can be mistaken in all my “introspection” about why what they said made me feel so ill, but I can’t be mistaken in my “introspection” of the fact that I do feel ill. 

All ordinary talk about illusions makes a distinction between an appearance, and the reality underlying that appearance which gives rise to it: ‘a stick half–placed in water appears to be bent; but it isn’t really bent.’ Thus, all ordinary talk about illusions precisely takes consciousness for granted, because consciousness itself is the very medium in which the misleading “appearance” exists—and it is simply incoherent to suggest that consciousness itself could be an “illusion” in anything like the same way, because where consciousness is concerned, the very existence of “appearances” is a major defining component of the “reality” we’re interested in: the reality of the existence of “appearances” themselves. We have to be careful, yes, but we can distinguish between the acts of “introspection” that could, in principle, be fallible; and those which, in principle, can’t. And I have only claimed three basic things as candidates for what falls into the category of things that can be known infallibly through “introspection”:

(a) that our experiences are of a subjective and qualitative nature, composed all the way through proprioception to the combination of sensory fields to emotions of absolutely nothing other than “raw” feelings and sensations—(and these can’t be analyzed in terms of abstract geometric structure and blind dispositions towards patterns of inert cause and effect);

(b) that our conceptual thoughts are “about” things; that thoughts have intrinsic “meaning” and semantic “content”—quoting Rosenberg, “Suppose someone asks you, “What is the capital of France?” Into consciousness comes the thought that Paris is the capital of France. Consciousness tells you in no uncertain terms what the content of your thought is, what your thought is about. It’s about the statement that Paris is the capital of France. That’s the thought you are thinking. It just can’t be denied. You can’t be wrong about the content of your thought. You may be wrong about whether Paris is really the capital of France. … You might even be wrong about whether you are thinking about Paris, confusing it momentarily with London. What you absolutely cannot be wrong about is that your conscious thought was about something. Even having a wildly wrong thought about something requires that the thought be about something.”—(and this can’t be analyzed in terms of physical causation either: again quoting Rosenberg, “[but] science has to deny [this]. Thinking about things can’t happen at all. The brain can’t have thoughts about Paris, or about France, or about capitals, or about anything else for that matter. … How can the first clump—the Paris neurons in my brain—be about, denote, refer to, name, represent, or otherwise point to the second clump—the agglomeration of Paris? … How can one clump of stuff anywhere in the universe be about some other clump of stuff anywhere else in the universe—right next to it or 100 million light-years away?”)

(c) that our experiences are of experiences overlapping across time; and thus that our awareness itself includes awareness of the fact that our identities as conscious subjects depends on this stream continuing to persist—and, therefore, that what makes me “me” is a fact about my consciousness itself; e.g., whether or not it continues persisting in the way that it usually does in waking life—(and this can’t be analyzed in terms of any third–person–verifiable facts, even if third–person–verifiable facts may covary with it and are the best that third parties can have—in some cases, if we kept all the third–person–verifiable facts between me and someone who looks and acts exactly like me identical, there would still be some plain unanalyzable fact about which one was “me.” Quoting Swinburne, “Using the word ‘experience’ for a brief moment in a wide sense, we may say that the succession of perceptions is itself a datum of experience; S experiences his experiences as overlapping in a stream of awareness. … [And] it is in the unity of a stream that we primarily discern the identity of a subject.’”)

[2] In assuming this definition, I do not assume that the “physical properties” as so defined are all that there are—or even necessarily that what we call “physical” objects (and forces) must be composed all and only of what I have defined as “physical properties.” But I happen to think that they are the only kinds of properties which “physical” objects (and forces) do have, and I happen to expect that any physicalist reading will naturally agree: the thesis of physicalism is often defined, after all, through the thesis of “causal closure of the physical.” In other words, physical entities are defined by their dispositions to act causally on the equivalently defined physical properties of other physical objects (and forces). Analogies might be made that the fundamental nature of the world is that of a mechanical clock, or a table of billiard balls, but these analogies can be misleading in that they would seem to imply that deterministically defined pushing and pulling is the only kind of physical causation that exists. Thus, the existence of quantum indeterminacy (for example) might be used to argue that this picture is a red herring. However, probabilistic determination is still blind and inert physical determination. A formula that specifies a metaphorical dice roll to determine the input of one of its variables is still, in the sense relevant here, “determined.” The details of how these blind and inert cause and effect dispositions operate is entirely beside the point, so analogies of this sort are as likely to be misleading as helpful.

[3] David Chalmers writes an amusing comment. “This calls to mind a counterfactual book called Straight, Or Something Near Enough subtitled I Just Fool Around With Guys on Weekends.  “The position is, as we might say, a slightly defective heterosexuality … but near enough should be good enough, right?”

[4] Is it really so illegitimate for me to wonder why preserving physicalism at all costs is a priority this high to begin with? At exactly what point—if any—would it no longer be so naive and philosophically inexcusable for me to ask, “What about preserving a little bit of fucking humanity? What about something that preserves even just the tiniest sliver of any kind of ‘purpose’ or ‘meaning’ for the existence of conscious life at all?” It’s one thing to reject the entire body of evidence for evolution wholesale because you want to believe you were specially designed by a personal loving creator, but does it really leave me in the same boat with them to feel uneasy about this degree of dehumanizing everything that makes us ‘human’ (using the word in the sense of ordinary person’s mush–headed connotation) to begin with?

[5]

What is it like to be bat–shit?

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Consciousness (VI) — The Fire That Cannot Burn Itself

In entry (IV), I identified three central aspects of the nature of consciousness: “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).”

I save the third aspect for last because it is, argumentatively, the weakest, and I believe acceptance of it hinges on acceptance first and foremost of the other two aspects first (or at least of the first of them). If we can accept that consciousness itself is a subjective, first–person phenomena—that consciousness is the very appearance of subjective phenomenal experiences to the first–person perspective—that “subjectivity is precisely the form in which [consciousness] has its existence”—and that the very mystery of consciousness is that the subjective phenomena presenting to my first–person conscious awareness cannot be seen in third–person by peering inside my physical brain (whereas there is nothing about any physical object, force, or event as ordinarily understood which cannot in principle be seen from an outside, third–person perspective)—then it is hardly unreasonable to accept that some further aspects of what consciousness is can only be known from first–person observation of it, in principle.

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

“Introspection” has become a dirty word—and for perfectly good reason: psychology has proven nothing for the past hundred years if not that we do not always accurately know the true reasons why we do the things that we do or desire the things we desire or like the things that we like simply by ‘glancing inside of ourselves.’ Subconscious motivations affecting the course of one’s entire lifetime pattern of behavior can sometimes become uncovered only by the use of extensive psychotherapy to draw them out into an individual’s conscious awareness, and the whole myriad of biases we all hold without having awareness of them further identified by years of psychological study have most definitely deepened the problem profoundly. To take just one of the million possible examples, “In a classic study, college students watched a video interview with a university instructor who had an unfamiliar foreign accent. In one version of the video, his responses were warm and likable; in the other, they were cold and unlikable. Students who saw the warm and likable version later rated the instructor’s accent as more pleasant than did those who saw the other version. However, they were unaware that his likability influenced how they perceived his accent and even confidently claimed that the reverse had occurred—that his accent made them like (or dislike) him. This experiment … suggests people’s false confidence in [introspection’s] reliability.” Furthermore, we all seem to weigh our observations of others’ behavior far more highly than we do their own ‘introspective’ reports of themselves when trying to analyze their motives (“Even when one is privileged enough to have access to others’ introspections, such as when those others share their thoughts about a particular judgment, that access is of an indirect sort. Consequently, one may value it less—e.g., ‘I know you think his cold personality didn’t affect your perception of him, but I have to weigh that against how harsh you were about his accent.’”) even while giving our own acts of introspection a rating of infallibility we refuse to extend to others (Source: The Introspective Illusion (pdf), Emily Pronin).

We must carefully try to distinguish, however, between what are the direct datum of conscious experience, and what are theoretical attempts at explaining those datum. There really is a sense of the word “introspection” in which it is describes something that is, in principle, infallible. And there is also a sense of the word “introspection” in which it is as imprecise and fallible as using a paper towel ‘telescope’ to try to measure sunspots.

We use “introspection” in both senses of the word, interchangeably (call them observational “introspection1” and theoretical “introspection2”); and sometimes when we think we’re doing only the former type of “introspection1” we are nonetheless blending in elements of the latter—rendering what we might think are purely the former observational types of “introspection1” fallible in direct proportion to the amount of theoretical “introspection2” which we’ve unconsciously mixed and blended into the act. But “introspection1” itself can allow us to clarify when and where what we are doing is truly “introspection1” as opposed to “introspection2”—and indeed may even be absolutely instrumental for our doing so.

To see this simple point, suppose someone with schizophrenia suffers from severe auditory hallucinations. “Introspection1” would be utterly impotent at being able to reveal whether or not the statement that “the air vent believes I will drown on Tuesday” is true—the inference that the air vent actually does believe this would be a theoretical explanation to try to account for the direct data of observed experience, and it might not be the best one. It would, however, at exactly the same time, be every bit as true that “introspection1” would be absolutely infallible at revealing whether or not the statement that “I am having an experience as if of hearing the air vent tell me it believes that I will drown on Tuesday” is true—because this is the direct data of observed experience.

A science that took the former kind of “introspection2” as infallible and treated every such claim as unquestionable would never be able to get off the ground. But so, too, would a science that treated the latter kind of “introspection1” too lightly. If we did not take seriously peoples’ claims to know “by introspection1” that they are hearing voices, we would never even have identified schizophrenia as a real psychological disorder. It took a combination of both trusting “introspection1” and distrusting “introspection2” in order to both recognize schizophrenia as a real psychological disorder and begin trying to learn how to treat it. And all other reports of experience will be the same. In every case in which “introspection2” fails, there will be both elements of theoretical inference which are responsible for the error, as well as elements of infallible “introspection1” from which these inferences were made.

To return to the example quoted from The Introspective Bias above, the participants of this study were wrong when they made guesses about why they disliked the instructor’s accent—but they could not be wrong when they claimed that they disliked the instructor or his accent. The only reason we are even able to draw a contrast between the participants’ reports of why they believed they disliked the instructor’s accent and what the study gives us reason to believe actually happened is because we take for granted that they are giving us infallible information when they tell us  whether they did in fact like or dislike the instructor’s accent—because only once we grant from these “introspective1” reports that participants in the second case came to dislike the “cold” instructor’s accent while those in the first case had no dislike of the “warm” instructor’s identical accent can we infer that the proper explanation of what happened is that, contra “introspection2,” disliking the instructor is what caused dislike of his accent. But the accuracy of “introspection2” is only even capable of being challenged in this case to begin with because we take the accuracy of “introspection1” for granted.

In other words, it simply is not possible to even mount a challenge for “introspection2” of the theoretical–explanatory sort without absolutely granting the capacity of “introspection1” to have unquestionable access to at least some certain direct, immediately present contents of consciousness. The difficulty simply rests in clearly identifying which category given acts of “introspection” properly belong to, and in refining one’s ability to “introspect1” while keeping these acts clearly distinct from one’s theoretically “introspective2” fallible interpretations of what is thereby infallibly immediately and directly seen.

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

Having—I believe—settled this background, I am prepared to open my argument. Language, evolved as it was to navigate the world revealed by the contents of consciousness, is as before and always a clumsy and inefficient tool for trying to discuss the nature of consciousness itself; but I can begin to gesture in the direction of the what I want to show by saying something like this: Revealed through “introspection1” as a direct and unmediated datum of subjective experience, we can become aware that the subjectivity of experience invariably brings along with it something worth calling subjecthood—and  the uniqueness of every conscious subject of experiences is absolutely uniquely unique to that particular subject.

It is striking to me that so many questions that children are known to frequently ask turn out to revolve around some of the deepest philosophical questions there are. One of these is a question that can be phrased variously either as: “Why am I me?” or as something like: “If I had been born to different parents, would I still have been me?” I think it can be demonstrated that this question is absolutely both meaningful and profound, and refers to yet another categorical difference between consciousness and physical objects—and I have an original thought experiment for helping to draw out more clearly for intuition just what it is that the question points us in the direction of.

A common response to a question like this is to attempt to “demystify it” into the much more trivial and uninteresting question, “Why is any particular thing the particular thing that it is?” As before in entry (IV)’s discussion of phenomenal experience and entry (V)’s discussion of intentionality, ‘purpose,’ and the ‘meaningful’ nature of conscious thought, arguments against the direct and immediate datum of conscious experience often proceed from the assumption that these data must not be true, because materialism is true—were materialism true, these data could not be what they appear to be; therefore, since materialism is true, these data just can’t be what they seem to be and we must dismiss them whether we can find independently justifiable grounds for doing so or not. It is this approach, however, which gets things ass–backwards.

The direct data of consciousness can’t be dismissed out of hand just because they conflict with what would have to be true if materialism were true. We do not know with any kind of automatic certainty that materialism is true—not even by following the premises of naturalism itself, as I have labored to argue across more than 30,000 words so far: even those very premises are perfectly compatible with the possibility of arriving at the conclusion that consciousness itself could be a unique, fundamental phenomena of its own—and as these are the very data which challenge the claim that materialist claims about the mind can be true, they cannot be dismissed simply by saying the equivalent of “that‘s false because materialism is true.”

Now, to be absolutely clear, I am not saying that anyone knows it to be true by sheer introspection alone that they actually ‘could’ have been born to different parents—really ‘could’ in the sense in which the Powerball lottery machine, when it turns on, really ‘could’ dispense their ticket’s number in a few moments. The deeper point lies in this: thinking about the nature of what is conceptually “possible” can, if not directly reveal truths to us about the world, reveal to us the direction in which certain kinds of truth will have to lie—truths which will have to exist in order to explain why that conceptual “possibility” does not in fact hold true.

The nature of an argument with this form shouldn’t be hard to understand; we all perform this kind of reasoning in obvious ways in everyday life, without thinking of it quite in these terms. I may very well reason starting with the premise that “I can conceive of the sky having been some other color than blue,” for example, and adapting this into the language of philosophy we could phrase the point by saying that there is no inherent logical contradiction in the possibility of there being an Earth in a possible world without a blue sky. Since I am correct in this—nothing logically requires a sky to be blue on principle—this means I can only be right that there must be some empirical answer to the question, “Why is it blue, then?” The answer turns out to lie, of course, in a combination of things like shorter wavelengths of light—such as blue—having a greater tendency to bounce around as well as the make–up of our eyes. But what matters for our purposes here is the fact that our ability to simply conceive of the sky having been a different color is a valid guide to help point us in the right direction to find the explanation for why it is, after all, the color that it is: eventually, we get an account in which we can’t conceive of—for example—shorter wavelengths of light not bouncing around more—and only then do we say that the reason the sky is the color that it is has been ‘explained.’  [1]

The argument in my entry (IV) revolves, without stating or presenting what is said there in these explicit terms, around the point made through what is known in modern philosophy as the “zombie argument.” To summarize the whole thing in brief, what the “zombie” in the zombie argument asks us to imagine is not the Hollywood brain–eater, but something much different: an entity with all the abstract, geometrical structural build and blind physical cause–and–effect dispositions of the human body and brain—who is without any internal conscious experiences. Since this is conceivable, the argument goes, internal conscious experience is something ‘extra’ to the ordinary “physical” properties just listed—and so, unless we can explain how it turns out to be the case that these physical concepts really do conceptually entail subjective conscious experience (despite appearances!) as I explain and refute even the conceptual possibility for in my discussion in entry (IV) of emergentism, then it really is something extra, and physicalism is false. [2]: Note on why I did not phrase my own argument in these terms.

The form followed by the “zombie argument” gives us a convenient way to draw out the precise sense in which that question absolutely does turn out to be profoundly meaningful. While it doesn’t in and of itself immediately reveal a truth to us, it unquestionably reveals to us the direction in which a certain kind of truth will have to lie in order to explain why what is conceptually “possible” turns out not, in fact, to be the actual truth. Just as the fact that a zombie world is conceivable demands that we give reasons why we turn out not to be in such a world, and the search for what those reasons would have to be leads us to see the necessity of rejecting physicalism itself (because further argument establishes that the types of facts which we ourselves have defined to be the nature of “the physical” facts—abstract geometric structure and blind cause and effect disposition—render it impossible by that very definition of what “physical” is conceptualized to mean that physical facts can account for what that difference is), so it is with the question, “Why am I me?

The question does not presuppose anything about the metaphysical nature of “the self.” The question refers first and foremost to something which we bloody well can conceive of as a conceptual possibility, and then asks us to consider what would have to be the case about reality as it actually is in order to account for the fact that that conceptual possibility is not an actual reality. If conclusions about the metaphysical nature of “the self” are finally entailed as a conclusion at this point, the mere fact that the physicalist does not want to accept such a conclusion does not mean that the argument “begs the question.” A fallaciously question–begging argument is not one that establishes a conclusion that its opponent does not want to accept; but one which includes that conclusion in its premises more or less explicitly. If it is in fact the case that I can conceive of a world where “I” was not “me” (or more properly, where “me” was not “I”—I’ll explain in a moment), and my ability to conceive of this compels me to refer to some kind of fact that would be capable of accounting for the fact that that conceptually possible outcome turned out not to be an actual one, and it turns out that the only kind of fact that could possibly hold together such an account is one which makes reference to something like a metaphysical “self”—then the mere fact that the argument entails conclusions which the physicalist wants to reject is simply not a fact that establishes that original premise to beg the question. It is, in fact, the physicalist who must find some way to reject those premises which does not beg the question in favor of physicalism.

As I said before, the common approach to ‘deflating’ and ‘demystifying’ this question is by making analogy with material objects: “Why is any particular object the particular object that it is? If it wasn’t that one, it would be a different one. So what?” But what the question actually attempts to hint at is a difference in the identity criteria for consciousness as contrasted with identity criteria for physical objects. Simply asking us to think of it as if the question when directed towards consciousness was no different from that question when directed towards physical objects is worse than begging the question—it doesn’t even form an argument with premises; it simply comes bald–faced and asks us to imagine there isn’t a problem.

Just as the “zombie argument” has us imagine a world containing all the geometric–structural and blind–cause–and–effect–dispositional properties of our world, and points out that it is conceivable that a world with only those kinds of properties could exist without containing any subjective experiences—in order to proceed from there—so a parallel adaptation of that argument establishes a similar point here: For any given physical object, to have the particular structural and causal–dispositional properties that that object has is just simply to be that object. I very clearly cannot even conceive of the world I am in right now as having been such that a particular atom inside my left finger right now could have taken an identical causal path throughout time as it did in this universe, and had exactly the same structural and dispositional properties as it had in this one, without its—simply by definition—thereby having been that same exact particular atom. What the “deflationist” of the question wants us to do is take the same attitude towards conscious experience which we would take towards those physical entities—summed up in essence as:

However, what I most absolutely can conceive of is this: a world identical to this one in both the physical and experiential events which it contains in which the man named “Aedon” writing this essay right now exists every bit as much as he does right now—and has an identical set of not only physical traits, but also an identical set of subjective experiences as “I” qua conscious subject of experiences have had in my life, and took a identical course through time as I have taken in this world—in which “I” qua conscious subject of experiences am not  the one who was the subject of those experiences. It is not even possible to conceive of this in reference to ordinary physical objects; it can’t even be imagined.

But I can conceive of it in reference to my–“self.” I can perfectly well conceive of a world in which all the facts about what physical cause–and–effect events occur and what experiences are had in which “I” did not have any experiences—indeed, whenever I imagine parallel universes or possible worlds in which “Aedon” exists, I am doing just exactly that: imagining a world containing “me” (as entity) in which “I” (as conscious subject) do not exist. I cannot conceive of this world having been such that a given atom traced an identical causal path through history without, by definition, conceiving of a world where “that atom” was just exactly that atom. But I can conceive of a world where a person who bore my name existed, did everything I did, and had every experience I ever had, without thereby simply by definition conceiving of a world where I as the conscious subject of those experiences came to be. The existence of “I” simply does not follow logically from the existence of “me;” and so the question of why “I” exist simply remains unmoved after a full explanation has been given for the existence of “me.”

A question directed towards a physical object along the lines of, “Why is that particular apple that particular apple?” can therefore be fully satisfied by a causal description of how those particular atoms arrived at the particular place in time and space they did. But a description of the physical formation of this body—and even a description of all the subjective experiential states of this mind—simply does not satisfy the question, “Why am I me?” and something more is undeniably needed. Something that could account for the existence of facts about identity which are not entailed by abstracted facts about experiences described in impersonal terms—something that could account for the fact that this “I” is something profoundly distinct from every other “I” that exists.

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

Someone like David Chalmers will sometimes speak, as he does in Consciousness and its Place in Nature, of the “zombie argument” through the metaphor that “If God could have created a zombie world, then (as Kripke puts it) after creating the physical processes in our world, he had to do more work to ensure that it contained consciousness.” In putting the point in this way, Chalmers does not express belief in the existence of God—he uses the metaphor to emphasize a certain way of illustrating the relationship between physical processes and consciousness—to say that the relationship is such that something like this could have been how it would have worked in a different universe. Likewise, we can do something similar here. Just as I can imagine God creating possible worlds and use the metaphor to illustrate a conceptual relationship (without thereby committing one way or another with regards to the actual existence of God), so I can perfectly well imagine sitting outside of the Universe, looking on it as a collected series of every moment of time that ever passed within it, omniscient with regards to every impersonal physical event that takes place within that Universe and every impersonal fact about what experiences are ever felt or perceived by the subjects within that Universe.

Yet, even knowing these facts, if God tells me next that am going to be born into that world to experience the subjective flow of time as one of those subjects, I will simply have no basis within the facts that I know for guessing when and where or as whom I am going to be born—and wherever it is that I am born, it will end up being a surprise. Just as Chalmers’ metaphor indicates that the facts about experience are additional to the physical facts without committing us in any way to the literal truth or possibility of the truth of the metaphor, so this one illustrates that the facts about the identity of conscious subjects exist over and above even the facts about experiences themselves.

In fact, it seems as though even if we picture God creating a series of nonphysical angelic conscious minds, without even confounding the picture by imagining them in interaction with a physical plane, even after the creation of one of these particular streams of consciousness something more would still be needed to warrant that any particular angelic mind will be “me.” In other words, suppose God creates ten minds in a row: a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j. What makes his creation of c any different from a, b, d, e, …  such that c in particular but not any of these others ends up being me? Why doesn’t c end up coming into existence without his existence being my existence in just exactly the same way that all the others do?

This argument doesn’t beg the question. We can conceive of a scenario like this with regards to the subject of conscious experiences; we cannot even conceive of a scenario like this with regards to ordinary ‘public’ physical objects. So something—some kind of fact—has to exist that has the capacity to explain why these possibilities do not hold. But in principle, whatever that fact is, it simply cannot rest in the ordinary physical facts—nor even the facts about qualitative experiences.

Subjective experiences simply do not come to exist without being “owned” by “subjects.” Whatever it might ultimately turn out to mean to be a ‘subject,’ subject–ivity intrinsically and invariably entails “subject–hood.” And this is not, ultimately, some new fact over and above the facts about those experiences themselves—it is entailed by the very concept of the existence of experiences, as the very notion of subjective experiences existing without a subject of those experiences existing is simply—on reflection—incoherent. The mystery of consciousness, therefore, is not just the mystery of why “experience” exists as a general phenomena, but is also the mystery of why “I” uniquely exist as the unique particular that I do.

Looking back, I don’t think it’s mere coincidence that this is one of the philosophical questions children are known to so frequently ask—it really does strike straight into the very core of the mystery of existence itself: “Why do I exist?” A causal account of the formation of a body and brain—and even one that explains how a mind came to be—simply won’t suffice to answer it, as I will always be able to fully coherently conceive of that mind coming to exist without it being mine—just as occurred for the millions of minds that came before me, and the millions that came to be at the same time mine did—and I will therefore always be perfectly well within my rights to ask and wonder, “Okay, but—why am I me?”

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

Much is often made by those who advocate reductionism towards the “self” of Hume’s application of his “bundle theory”—in which objects have no substance beyond the mere coincidences of their collected properties—to deconstruct the notion of the “self” by what Hume presented as nothing other than sheer introspection.

“There are some philosophers who imagine we are every moment intimately conscious of what we call our self … [But f]or my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. … If any one, upon serious and unprejudiced reflection, thinks he has a different notion of himself,… [a]ll I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. … But setting aside some metaphysicians of this kind, I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions….”

But what goes often ignored in discussion of Hume’s “bundle theory” is that Hume himself turns against his own conclusions in the appendix to that very chapter:

“Upon a more strict review of the section concerning personal identity, I find myself involv’d in such a labyrinth, that, I must confess, I neither know how to correct my former opinions, nor how to render them consistent. … In general, the following reasoning seems satisfactory. All ideas are borrow’d from preceding perceptions. … When I turn my reflection on myself, I never can perceive this self without some one or more perceptions; nor can I ever perceive any thing but the perceptions.

… So far I seem to be attended with sufficient evidence. But having thus loosen’d all our particular perceptions, when I proceed to explain the principle of connexion, which binds them together, and makes us attribute to them a real simplicity and identity; I am sensible, that my account is very defective, and that nothing but the seeming evidence of the precedent reasonings cou’d have induc’d me to receive it. If perceptions are distinct existences, they form a whole only by being connected together. But no connexions among distinct existences are ever discoverable by human understanding. We only feel a connexion or determination of the thought, to pass from one object to another. It follows, therefore, that the thought alone finds personal identity, when reflecting on the train of past perceptions, that compose a mind, the ideas of them are felt to be connected together, and naturally introduce each other. However extraordinary this conclusion may seem, it need not surprize us. Most philosophers seem inclin’d to think, that personal identity arises from consciousness; and consciousness is nothing but a reflected thought or perception. The present philosophy, therefore, has so far a promising aspect. But all my hopes vanish, when I come to explain the principles, that unite our successive perceptions in our thought or consciousness. I cannot discover any theory, which gives me satisfaction on this head.

In short there are two principles, which I cannot render consistent; nor is it in my power to renounce either of them, viz, that all our distinct perceptions are distinct existences, and that the mind never perceives any real connexion among distinct existences. Did our perceptions either inhere in something simple and individual, or did the mind perceive some real connexion among them, there wou’d be no difficulty in the case.”

What seems to have happened here is actually quite strikingly contrary to the popular “self”–eliminating reading of Hume. Rather than conclude on the basis of his bundle theory that the “self” does not exist, Hume seems to have in fact realized that the fact that we can even possess a concept of a “self” (whether that concept even accurately reflects reality or not) establishes a formidable modus tollens against the very empiricist epistemological view—that all ideas are derived from sensory impressions—that formed the basis for his entire bundle theory of substances in general, which he had just applied to the mind in particular, in the first place.

Notice that what Hume had challenged in his original argument was that anyone has “a different notion of himself” than the one which he had just described, in which the very concept of the “self” is composed of nothing but discrete, uncollected “perceptions.” Notice that in the appendix, he reiterates his underlying epistemological premise that “All ideas are borrow’d from preceding perceptions.” “Introspection1” seems to have resulted in Hume doubting his own account of knowledge, given the realization that it would predict that we could never even form an idea of the “self” at all which we manifestly do possess—and which even his own account—in fact—appealed to implicitly. The dilemma was this: Hume’s epistemology entails that no one can ever even have ideas which are not formed out of perceptions themselves. And yet, something must account for our tendency to even attribute the existence of a common owner to these successive perceptions: but “my account is very defective … all my hopes vanish, when I come to explain the principles, that unite our successive perceptions in our thought or consciousness.” And he even ends with the conclusion that “Did our perceptions either inhere in something simple and individual [e.g., an enduring self] … there wou’d be no difficulty in the case.”

Quoting from Wade L. Robison’s “Hume on Personal Identity,” “… we all think we have an idea of the self … [and] Hume has to explain this fact, [yet] … the sort of explanation he used [ends up appealing] to the existence of … [a] self distinct from any bundle of perceptions….” Quoting from Stephen Nathanson in “Hume’s Second Thoughts on the Self,”

“Since there are five distinct (though related) positions here, one may easily go wrong in specifying the part of Hume’s theory that is the source of his dissatisfaction. The five theses are (1) that the mind is no more than a collection of perceptions; (2) that the mind is not a simple entity possessing strict and proper identity; (3) that we have no notion of the mind distinct from our ideas of particular perceptions; (4) that our perceptions do not inhere in anything simple; and (5) that there are no real connections among perceptions. … If we look back at the sections of the Treatise where Hume explains the apparent unity of the mind, we find that his explanation committed him to the existence of persisting tendencies or dispositions of mind which, if acknowledged, give a meaning to the phrase “the mind” which is not exhausted by talk about bundles of perceptions. … Hume’s answer to the question of why we mistakenly believe in a single, persistent self is that there is a propensity of the mind to mistake instances of successive objects for instances of identity.

[Quoting Hume] “The feeling of contemplating a single object is so like the feeling of contemplating a succession of related ones that the resemblance Makes us substitute the notion of identity, instead of that of related objects. However at one instant we may consider the related succession as variable or interrupted. we are sure the next to ascribe to it a perfect identity … Our propensity to this mistake is so great … that we fall into it before we are aware; and tho’ we incessantly correct ourselves by reflexion, and return to a more accurate method of thinking, yet we cannot long sustain our philosophy, or take off this bias from the imagination.”

Hume stresses that the tendency to confuse successions of related objects is a deep one, which is not eradicable by philosophical reflection. This and other “seemingly trivial principles of the imagination” (2S4n) are basic, persistent features of the mind. … What Hume says here is no mere slip nor slight departure from his bundle theory, for in effect the basic theory of the Treatise is precisely a theory of the mental dispositions that constitute human understanding and which give rise to our beliefs about space, time, physical objects, causation and the self. The fundamental problem that Hurne begins to recognize in the appendix is the incompatibility between his analysis of the self and his central explanatory principles. If there are basic, persisting dispositions of mind, then the self is no mere bundle of perceptions.

… Hume’s explanatory apparatus gives content to the idea of self or mind in terms of its dispositions without requiring that there be a direct awareness or impression of the self. Dispositions are not introspectible items, and the idea of self (distinct from a perception–bundle) to which Hume is committed has its basis in theory, not immediate experience. We can at this point well appreciate Hume’s sense of frustration. His psychological theory generates an idea of the mind distinct from perceptions. This conflicts not only with his bundle analysis of the self, but also with his empiricist doctrine of the dependence of all ideas on prior impressions. The roots of the difficulty that Hume has stumbled on lie deep within his philosophy. … Hume’s problem arises because his theory requires that there be mental dispositions or propensities … [but] Propensities are not perceptions [and] To have an idea of a self with propensities is to have an idea of a self which is more than a bundle of perceptions.

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

If we think of “the self” as merely a collection of discrete, frozen photo snapshots, then there is simply no way that these snapshots could reference each other. Only if we include a camera into the picture do we then have an object capable of taking a snapshot of any collected part of the preceding series of snapshots—but then we have an inevitable duality between the camera and its snapshots; and this duality helps to capture a strong metaphor for the duality between “the self” and Hume’s discrete ‘snapshot’ moments of perception.

Contra Hume’s original attempt at introspection, an awareness of something which is not itself subject to “perpetual flux and movement” is absolutely revealed to us by our awareness itself—and is the precondition of our even being able to perceive this flux at all. Experience does not just consist of isolated snapshots described as (awareness of a C chord) and then (awareness of a F chord) and then (awareness of a G chord), hanging discretely as isolated events—it consists of {awareness of the transition from (awareness of a C chord) into (awareness of an F chord)}; {awareness of the transition from (awareness of an F chord) into (awareness of a G chord)}; And it is in this absolutely continuous flow of awareness that awareness of the flux of change becomes the experience of melody instead of just singular notes and chords—and is why the experience of hearing a melody is different from the experience of hearing singular notes and chords. The very capacity for awareness of the flux itself is therefore exactly what presupposes and entails the existence of a continuous observer partially beyond that flux with the capacity to witness it.

The problem Hume faced is that the continuous observer simply can’t take itself as a direct object of its observations in the same way that it can all its other observations—just as (to quote Alan Watts) “you can’t look into your own eyes without a mirror, you can’t bite your own teeth, you can’t taste your own tongue and you can’t touch the end of one finger with the same finger,” even though eyes are nevertheless a precondition of vision, teeth a precondition of biting, tongues a precondition of tasting and fingers preconditions of touch—or as the camera required in my analogy to take snapshots of a collection of the preceding series of snapshots can’t capture a photograph of itself, but whose existence could only be inferred from the existence of snapshot photographs containing members of the previous set of photographs.

Or just as fire can’t, in principle, burn itself.

 _______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

 Physicalist accounts of the nature of identity therefore fail in principle to be capable of capturing something that is basic and fundamental and revealed directly and immediately by “introspection1” to each and every single one of us at every single moment of our existence. Inevitably, a physicalist attempt to account for the nature of identity must resort itself to ‘reducing’ identity to some purely causal relationship or physical resemblance or other. One of the most common criteria chosen for this purpose is physical storage of memory, and I will stick to this example alone for my illustration here because I do not think the essentials of the problem change in any way whatever purely physical relationship we might choose. In effect, what accounts like this end up with no way to avoid saying is that there simply no deep sense in which the person called “Aedon” at any given time–1 “is” the person called “Aedon” at time–2 and not the person called “John” at time–2 except that the person called “Aedon” at time–2 happens to possess some of the memories and some of the personality traits of the person called “Aedon” at time–1—that there is, in other words, merely a certain kind of ‘similarity’ or other which holds between the two.

Like attempts to reduce the phenomena of qualitative subjective experience to “a logical construct out of peoples’ judgments that they are having [experiences]” (where we pretend that these jugments about experiences are not being made because the experiences themselves actually exist) and to reduce the phenomena of intentionality to “a pragmatic matter of how best to talk, when talking metaphorically [about patterns of events]” (where the very existence of language itself presupposes the existence of intentionality in a very deep sense which this account shows no suggestion of being capable even in principle of accounting for at all), so accounts of this kind smuggle an illegitimate facade of seeming plausibility in for themselves by identifying something that typically comes along with the phenomena of identity itself while utterly ignoring the thing itself. Is there anything more obvious to anyone than that his “identity” consists in nothing other than the continued persistence of his experiences—in and of itself, regardless of what physical criteria might or might not covary with or follow from experiential persistence or contingently cause or allow the flowing stream of subjective experiences to continue to persist?

As with the absurdity of the solipsist who flagrantly denies that anyone else has any subjective experiences whatsoever besides himself, and the absurdity of the eliminative materialist who goes a whole step even further into lunacy from solipsism and denies the existence of even his own directly self–manifested subjective experiences as well, positions which flatly deny basic enough datum of observation simply can’t be refuted with any argument that isn’t technically ‘circular’ (however much this “circle” may only be a circle making, and asking the “skeptic” to return to making, contact with reality). Likewise here: I do not imagine the following example to form an “argument” that could possibly be sufficient to convince someone who denies the plain datum I hope to use it to help point attention to. I am limited by the principle of the case such that all I can say is that I think it points us to the truth of something that all of us can plainly and easily see for ourselves if only we look at it—and that anyone advocating for any alternative account is simply failing or refusing to ‘look at it.’

Suppose in a few years we come upon a newly invented device that appears to be something between a teleportation device and something that appears to produce either one or two physiological ‘clones’ of the teleportee during the act of apparent teleportation. I deliberately use the word “appears” here to emphasize that we will not know the objective truth about what the device actually does: all we actually know is that someone steps into the entry–device we’ll call T1, and then two people who appear in all respects to be physically and psychologically identical to the person who stepped in appear in two separate output terminals we’ll call T2 and T3 no less than a single Planck second later (the shortest conceivable duration of time), so that the relationship between the person who steps in at T1 and both the persons who appear at T2 and T3 is no different in any respect from the relationship that holds in everyday life between any past version and any future version of any given individual. Perhaps some type of quantum event even occurs, so that two different parallel universe “you”s branch off together in one universe.

On this scenario, any conceivable physical or psychological criterion of identity will have it the case that it is just trivially true that the “you” who steps out at T2 will be the same “you” as the “you” who stepped in at T1 no more and no less than the “you” who steps out at T3. And this is equally true no matter what particular relational criteria we might pick. Yet, isn’t it obvious that any such account must necessarily leave out the one singular core defining aspect of what we actually want to know? I’ve emphasized throughout these arguments that third–person approaches to categorizing consciousness will often miss central elements of its very essence given the fact that consciousness itself is a first–person phenomena. The same is true here: no matter what relational, physical, or psychological criteria you might give me, they will leave out the question of what happens to my first–person, subjective stream of experience as I step in at T1. 

Do my experiences come to an end? Is my experience one of stepping in at T1 and stepping out at T2, while a duplicate or quantum parallel of me faces me from T3? Is it one of stepping in at T1 and stepping out at T3, while a duplicate or quantum parallel of me faces me from T2? Is it something even more bizarre—say, of coming to receive sensory input from and direct intentional control over two bodies instead of one? Whatever might empirically hold true here, any relational criteria whatsoever will absolutely leave this question unanswered—will leave any answer to the question above still perfectly meaningful. Thus, no causal account of identity can capture the essence of identity—period. Personal identity depends on the continuance of the subjective stream of conscious experience itself to continue just as we know that it does in the ordinary course of life—period. While some physical, causal, or psychological criteria might reliable correlate with, covary with, or strongly indicate as a matter of fact—that is, a fact of the “so it happens to turn out” kind—what these criteria might be simply cannot be revealed by armchair philosophizing about the nature of identity. (Ironically, I’m the one insisting that ordinary philosophical accounts of the nature of identity—including materialistically motivated, reductionist ones—are pushing thought experiment beyond any reasonable limitations in terms of how much they can actually tell any of us about reality!)

Further, suppose the “you” who steps out at T2 receives a lifetime of luxury from the conductors of this experiment, while the “you” who steps out at T3 is harvested for horrific human medical experiments. Unless you are such a thoroughgoing utilitarian that you give no moral weight to rational self–interest over maximizing global pleasure over pain as a principle at all, the question of whether your experience ends, or else you become the “you” at T2 or the “you” at T3 (or some even more bizarre alternative) could not be of more central importance. Whichever might be the case, the idea that the people at both T2 and T3 will look like you and act like you might leave a quandary for third–person perspective–holding parties who may be able to reason that “identity for all practical intents and purposes” is as good as they’re going to get and thus treat both of the new clones exactly as if they were the same ‘real you,’ this simply has no reason to give you, the conscious subject stepping into the terminal, any reason for comfort. What are you going to experience when you step into T1?

It is a plain datum of experience itself that experience continues discretely across time and thus could in principle either persist or fail to persist regardless of any sort of physical or psychological continuity or discontinuity, you will be not just perfectly justified to wonder which scenario will actually happen—to wonder whether your experience persists at all, or ceases; and if it persists, in which of the two new subjects you will experience yourself persisting as—but absolutely irrational not to. Your life would literally depend on it. And if physicalist theories don’t allow for this option, then it’s too bad for physicalist theory. Physicalist accounts, if they leave out this fundamental feature of consciousness, simply prove themselves incomplete theories to account for the reality of what we are—and it is our theories which must expand to include capture of all of reality; reality will not always shrink to fit cramped boxes of theory. There is a fact about whether your experience ceases as you step into T1, or continues at T2 or T3 (or something else). Physicalist accounts literally cannot even account for the fact that there is a fact. 

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

Sad to say, this isn’t as hypothetical a thought experiment as it sounds—and should be. Large swaths of transhumanists advocate the idea of “mind uploading” as the secular equivalent to Christianity’s pre–tribulational rapture: the idea goes that immortality is soon going to be guaranteed—by science—perhaps as early as 2045, as soon as we develop the technology needed to duplicate brain functioning in computers.  An article by one Kenneth Hayworth, ironically titled “Killed by Bad Philosophy,”  gives us an example of the disturbing line of thought: “Our intuition tells us that being me (Ken) right now staring at these words on my laptop screen is fundamentally different from being another person, say my friend John, staring at these words on his laptop screen. Of course there is truth to this, … [b]ut our intuition also tells us that being Ken right now staring at these words is somehow fundamentally similar to being Ken driving in his car to work. … I submit that this intuition is wrong, and that it is fundamentally incompatible with our computational view of the brain’s functioning [See my previous entry (V) to this series for what I consider an absolutely decisive refutation of this “computational view of the brain”]. …

… The debate over mind uploading revolves around a central question, “What do you consider to be you?” … “You” [is nothing more than a] unique set of declarative memories (semantic and episodic), [a] unique set of procedural “memories” (memories for how to react both physically and mentally under particular circumstances), and [a] somewhat unique set of perceptual “memories” (circuits for how, for example, we recognize that this particular arrangement of spots on our retina is a straight line).” Therefore, any place whatsoever where these physical patterns are replicated would automatically qualify as “you” in the only sense that can even be talked about. Forget asking whether your experience will persist in this altered form—making any sense of that question would require a rejection of the premises of physicalism, and we absolutely can’t have that—indeed, the only reason anyone ever even considers it is because they have been “brainwashed by … religious belief systems … to reject … scientific materialism….” Hayworth continues: “[I] feel as protective of my future uploaded self as I do my future physical self. I look forward to … [being uploaded into]  a robotic body…. mind uploading is a … cure for death….”

Thus, to return to my teleportation example, I think anyone attending plainly to the facts of experience itself sees that it is most absolutely a question—and again, the most important question I could possibly ask, were I faced with the decision—whether my subjective stream of experiences would continue upon stepping into T1. On a view like Hayworth’s, however, there literally isn’t even a question: both the copies at T2 and T3 are “you” simply by trivial definition given the fact that they contain your “declarative memories, … procedural ‘memories’, … [and] perceptual ‘memories.’” Because those are all that exist—or at least all that the physicalist story can account for.

I’m not sure whether I will find it more terrifying or depressing once they actually do start blowing their brains out.

Sad as it may be for me as a non–theistic individual with a mild distaste for religion to say, I think it’s unquestionable that there really are times when many theistic philosophers turn out to have a hell of a lot more plain fucking sense than many atheists—and this is one of them. Quoting Richard Swinburne, “Using the word ‘experience’ for a brief moment in a wide sense, we may say that the succession of perceptions is itself a datum of experience; S experiences his experiences as overlapping in a stream of awareness. … It is in the unity of a stream that we primarily discern the identity of a subject.’” And what third–person detail empirically might happen to determine, or indicate, as a contingent matter that identity has continued is simply indeterminate in principle from the third–person perspective which physicalism by definition has to take—just as with the existence of subjective experiences and of thoughts with intrinsic “meaning,” as previous entries explored. The identity of a conscious subject rests in his consciousness itself. The implications of views like Hayworth’s provide a reductio ad absurdem of his own very premises—as so many of the physicalist proposals which we’ve explored do.

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

Sam Harris is one of many who invoke Buddhism in the process of telling is that what introspection really reveals is the lack of any “owner” of one’s conscious experiences at all—that it takes “look[ing] … with sufficient rigor” to realize “the illusoriness of the self.” Harris tells us that “… the Buddhist tradition, taken as a whole, represents the richest source of contemplative wisdom that any civilization has produced. … the ascendance of Buddhism would surely be a welcome development. …  the core insight into the illusoriness of the self can be found there … And cutting through this illusion does not require faith …. It’s disconfirmable through meditation … you can actually look for this thing you’re calling your “self” and fail to find it in a way that’s conclusive.…You can have the sense that there is a center of experience … drop away.”

He means to interpret this, of course, in a sense fully compatible with his own interpretation of the implications of neuroscience, and reductionistic (if not eliminative) materialism more generally. (And he hastens to add the caveat that “the continued identification of Buddhists with Buddhism lends tacit support to the religious differences in our world … [so] merely being a self-described “Buddhist” is to be complicit in the world’s violence…”). The problem is that people like Harris have probably gotten the basic doctrines of Buddhism profoundly distorted and confused.

Whether or not the doctrines of Buddhism are true, my interest in it here is entirely secondary to the question, “What do people generally come to feel about the nature of their experienced ‘self’–hood when they examine it deeply?” If Buddhism represented an unbroken stream of subjective realization by those setting the resolution to examine it with ‘rigor’ throughout centuries of human history that the entire notion of the persisting conscious subject is an illusion, then this would at least imply a deep divide within subjective phenomenology itself and weaken the case that “introspection” points towards the existence of an enduring ‘self.’ But people like Sam Harris, in making arguments like these about Buddhism, have—at the very least—tremendously oversimplified the picture. What follows will be disorganized, as my goal is less to establish my own linear thesis about what Buddhism says as to expose holes in the thesis espoused by the likes of Harris from a variety of angles (I honestly suggest anyone not familiar enough with Buddhism and the claims about Buddhism I am countering to follow me simply skip over this section—prefacing with the requisite background is simply beyond my scope here).

One of the most immediately obvious problems with nihilistic interpretation of Buddhism is this: Buddhist texts very clearly define the state of Nirvana as somethingBut if the perspective Buddhism encourages is there is no possibility for the continuation of experience whatsoever because there is no continuing subject of experiences in any sense, then how could the state of Nirvana mean anythingBuddhist texts even use a specific word—parinirvana—which literally translates “completed nirvana” to refer to the nirvana attained after death: “[L]ike all beings, [someone who has experienced nirvana in life] must die. But unlike other beings, who have not experienced ‘nirvāṇa,’ he or she will not be reborn into some new life … [I]nstead of being reborn, the person ‘parinirvāṇa-s’ … Modern Buddhist usage tends to restrict ‘nirvāṇa’ to the awakening experience and reserve ‘parinirvāṇa’ for the death experience” (Rupert Gethin, Foundations of Buddhism).

It seems perfectly reasonable to ask: if Buddhism (1) were as reductionist about the nature of the ‘self’ as someone like Sam Harris seems to believe, and (2) held as its ultimate goal the cessation of suffering through entrance into ‘parinirvana,’ why would there be no schools of Buddhism anywhere advocating mass suicide as the most direct possible route to that goal?

Introductions to Buddhism often state things like: “According to [the Buddha], [man] was merely a ‘bundle of perceptions’ (sankharapunja) or a group of aggregates (khandha)” (David Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy, p.39) and “What we call a ‘being’, or an ‘individual’, or ‘I’, is only a convenient name or a label given to the combination of these Žfive [khandha]” (Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, p.51). If this were entirely true, and the achievement of nirvana were supposed to be the result of extinguishing attachment to these “khandhas”—behind which nothing (according to statements like these) exists—then what it does it mean when the Buddha speaks of those who have achieved parinirvana in experiential terms, as in the Samyutta Nikaya (22.87) where he says: “[T]hrough unestablished consciousness[,] Vakkali the clansman has become totally unbound”? And what does it mean when, in Udana (8.3), the Buddha is quoted saying: “There is, monks, [something] unborn [and] unfabricated. If there were not …, [it] would not be the case that emancipation … would be discerned. But precisely because there is [that which is] unborn [and] unfabricated, emancipation from the born [and] fabricated is discerned”?

The Mahaparinirvana Sutra, which tells the story of the Buddha Gotama’s own death, even quotes the Buddha as saying: “When I have taught non–Self, fools uphold the teaching that there is no Self. The wise know that such is conventional speech [vyavahara-vat] and they are free from doubts.” What could he have meant by that? Kosho Yamamoto, translator of the text, writes (in Mahayanism: A Critical Exposition of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra) that: “[The Buddha] says that the non–Self which he once taught is none but of expediency … He says that he is now ready to speak about… the affirmative attributes of nirvana, which are none other than the Eternal … [and] the Self….” He goes on: “the Buddha says: ‘O you bhiksus [monks]! Do not abide in the thought of the non–eternal [and the] non–Self … as in the case of those people who take the stones, wooden pieces and gravel for the true gem [e.g., who take lesser truths for the truly important one] ….” Tony Page, likewise tells us in Affirmation of Eternal Self in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra that the sutra’s claims are that: “The Self (atman) is reality (tattva), the Self is permanent (nitva), the Self is virtue (guna), the Self is eternal (sasvata), the Self is stable (dhruva), the Self is peace (siva).(Trans. Hodge, 2006) … You should know that all beings do have it, but it is not apparent, since those beings are enveloped by immeasurable klesas [defects of mind, morality, and character] … (Trans. Hodge, 2005).” And the Nirvana Sutra isn’t a special case: Michael Zimmerman, in his 2002 analysis of the Tathagatagarbha Sutra (A Buddha Within), tells us that “[T]he existence of an eternal, imperishable self, that is, buddhahood, is definitely the basic point of [the sutra] … [furthermore] the Mahaparinirvanasutra and the Lankavatarasutra characterize the tathagatagarbha explicitly as atman [an imperishable self]….” 

So what is the difference between “no Self” and “non–Self?” Miri Albahari writes (in Against No–Atman Theories of Anatta) that “It is notable that whenever the Buddha did warn against identiŽcation, it was invariably in connection with the conditioned khandhas [the group of physical and mental aggregates which are in a constant state of flux, none of which can be identified with a ‘self’]  … not the unconditioned Atman beyond name and concept.” The Girimananda Sutra offers a direct response to the question, “What is the perception of not–self?” And the answer which follows is:  “[A] monk — having gone to the wilderness, to the shade of a tree, or to an empty building — reflects thus: ‘The eye is not–self, forms are not–self; the ear is not–self, sounds are not–self; the nose is not–self,  aromas are not–self; the tongue is not–self, flavors are not–self; the body is not–self, tactile sensations are not–self; the intellect is not–self, ideas are not–self.’ Thus he remains focused on not–selfness with regard to the six inner & outer sense media. This is called the perception of not–self.” The implication seems to be that the doctrine the Buddha is promoting is to avoid identifying with things that are not ‘the self’ in order to escape suffering—not that there is not a ‘self’ in any sense at all.

Thus, in the Culamalunkya Sutra, we read of a disciple of the Buddha’s who comes to consider a number of “speculative views have been left undeclared by the Blessed One, set aside and rejected” and desire the Buddha’s answers. The Buddha’s response comes as so: “Suppose, Mālunkyāputta, a man were wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions, his kinsmen and relatives, brought a surgeon to treat him. The man would say: ‘I will not let the surgeon pull out this arrow until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble or a brahmin or a merchant or a worker.’ … So too, Mālunkyāputta, if anyone should say thus: ‘I will not lead the holy life under the Blessed One until the Blessed One declares to me [these answers,] that would still remain undeclared by the Tathāgata and meanwhile that person would die. … Whether there is the view ‘the world is eternal’ or the view ‘the world is not eternal,’ there is birth, there is ageing, there is death, there are sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair, the destruction of which I prescribe here and now. …

… Therefore, Mālunkyāputta, remember what I have left undeclared as undeclared, and remember what I have declared as declared. And what have I left undeclared? ‘… ‘The soul is the same as the body’—I have left undeclared. ‘The soul is one thing and the body another’—I have left undeclared. ‘After death a Tathāgata exists’—I have left undeclared. ‘After death a Tathāgata does not exist’—I have left undeclared. ‘After death a Tathāgata both exists and does not exist’—I have left undeclared. ‘After death a Tathāgata neither exists nor does not exist’—I have left undeclared. Why have I left that undeclared? Because it is unbeneficial, it does not belong to the fundamentals of the holy life, it does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna.”

Likewise, Hane Htut Maung, author of Consciousness: An Enquiry into the Metaphysics of the Self, writes: “it is apparent, on exploration of the Pali Canon, that the Buddha never denies the existence of the self. To the contrary, he very clearly rejects annihilationism. In the Alagaddupama Sutta, he states: “Speaking in this way, teaching in this way, I have been erroneously, vainly, falsely, unfactually misrepresented by some brahmans and contemplatives [who say], “Gotama the contemplative is one who misleads. He declares the annihilation, destruction, extermination of the existing being.” But as I am not that, as I do not say that, so I have been erroneously, vainly, falsely, unfactually misrepresented by those venerable brahmans and contemplatives [who say], “Gotama the contemplative is one who misleads. He declares the annihilation, destruction, extermination of the existing being.” (MN 22, trans. Thanissaro, 2004)”

Also striking is that in passages in which the Buddha’s words are read as denying the existence of the self or of existence beyond death, what he actually does is refuse to answer. As Thanissaro Bikkhu points out, “the one place [in the Pali canon] where the Buddha was asked point–blank whether or not there was a self, he refused to answer. When later asked why, he said that to hold either that there is a self or that there is no self is to fall into extreme forms of wrong view that make the path of Buddhist practice impossible.” Thanissaro concludes: “In this sense, the anatta teaching is not a doctrine of no–self, but a not–self strategy for shedding suffering by letting go of its cause … [until] questions of self, no–self, and not–self fall aside. Once there’s the experience of such total freedom, where would there be any concern about what’s experiencing it, or whether or not it’s a self?”

Another plausible answer also suggests itself: as the Tibetan Buddhist scholars and meditation masters Palden Sherab and Tsewang Dongyal write in Opening to Our Primordial Nature, “The true nature of mind is beyond conception, yet it is present in every object. The true nature is always there, but due to our temporary obscurations we do not recognize it … The primordial nature is beyond conceptions; it cannot be explained … cannot be encompassed by words. … you cannot see it or touch it; it is beyond expression.” Perhaps the Buddha believed that the nature of the true ‘self’ could not be grasped through concepts, and therefore any conceptual answer whatsoever would be misleading—leading him to respond to such questions at times with an attempt to throw the questioner out of the state of trying to conceptualize it at all. Perhaps the “not–self” strategy was comparable to the “neti neti” (translated, “not this, not that”) of Hinduism and the via negativa of Western theology in that the strategy was to try to encourage an experience of the ineffable by guiding the mind away from false concepts of what it is. The Wikipedia entry for via negativa notes that “An example can be found in the 9th-century theologian John Scotus Erigena‘s assertion: ‘We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being.’” Certainly, Erigena’s purpose in making a statement like this was not to commit to atheism—however easy it might be to commit the mistake of reading him this way. “Our plight, on this reading, is that we perceive the conditioned world with a deeply rooted bias. We falsely project, both emotionally and intellectually, ideas of a ‘self’ qua I–permanent–non–suffering, upon what is inherently not–self, the khandhas.” (Miri Albahari)

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Those who argue against the notion of an enduring conscious self get the basic order of knowledge wrong—as with the denial of both qualitative/subjective experience and intentionality, they start with metaphysical theories extrapolated to explain their conscious experiences, rather than keeping their theories in reference to the plain data continually revealed directly by those experiences themselves, and they reason backwards from “the metaphysical theory is true; therefore, the data must be denied and rejected because the theory is true” even if we can find no independently reasonable justification for rejecting the offending premises to dismiss any problem–data which doesn’t seem to fit into the theory they’ve created about the ultimate nature of the world. On the contrary, any sane account of consciousness must account for the primary data which conscious experience reveals; and amongst the primary data revealed by conscious experience is that experience itself persists across time—and can either continue or fail to continue persisting.

At the same time as they get the basic order of knowledge itself backwards, they also further frequently misrepresent both Hume and Buddhism in support of the misguided claim that what “introspection” actually reveals is the lack of any common subject to one’s stream of subjective experiences. On the contrary, what introspection into the nature of conscious identity actually reveals is that the mystery of consciousness is not just how something so categorically and fundamentally different from ordinary physically described entities should exist in general, but of why I should exist as the absolutely unique particular conscious subject I unavoidably am at this particular point in all of time and space and no other.

The ultimate nature of the world quite simply has to be profoundly more bizarre than the physicalist is willing to consider for it to even be conceivable that things could be the way that they are. As before, reality won’t shrink to fit our theories about the nature of reality; it is our theories which will have to expand—and it is only the beginning of the necessary expansion to admit room for something strikingly close to the traditional notion of an enduring metaphysical “self.” And on my view, even if it does turn out to be the case that consideration of the evidence revealed to us by consciousness itself should push us towards some broadly “religious” vision of the world, the only appropriate response to that discovery is: “So be it.” Rejecting plain evidence simply because of where it leads is precisely the offending mistake that garners religion what contempt it does deserve—and it is a sad irony that atheists who oppose religion for this reason would commit the same mistake in so many fundamental ways.

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[1] We can always conceive of a different qualitative color being subjective experienced after the eye is stimulated by a particular quantitative wavelength of light (and even after this stimulation becomes activation of a particular region of the brain), but this just gets us back into the center of the mind–brain problem itself, and so I set it aside for my current purposes here. A future entry will explore the nature of perception in more detail.

[2] Crucially, note the point that, as I have presented this form of argument, the only premise needed for it to go through is mere conceptual “possibility.” If we can even coherently imagine it, then these arguments, as stated here, go through—without invoking any premise more than ‘what can we conceptually conceive?’ And then asking why what we can conceive is not the case. I avoided presenting my own argument in the terms established by the “zombie argument” in my own essay in (IV) because I don’t consider it the most effective way to illustrate the core of what the argument is actually trying to get at—it invites a debate over varying notions of “possibility,” “conceivability,” “necessity” and all the complex relations between them that simply are not needed in order to make the actual point: it is far more effective, I think, to phrase it along the lines that the premises of materialism deductively predict that we should in fact be in a so–called “zombie world”—and that those premises are therefore falsified by the plain fact that we are notWe don’t need to say that it is “conceivable” that a world containing all the geometric–structural and blind–cause–and–effect–dispositional properties possessed by our world “could” have contained zombies and invite some complicated debate about the nature of modal concepts and relationships between them; we can simply say that it is a straightforward prediction of the materialist premises that if these were true, then we would be in a “zombie world”—so these premises are falsified by the fact that we manifestly are not such zombies. In this, we can invoke the words of the “eliminative materialists” themselves—who thoroughly agree with the entailment, yet remain so committed to the abstract premises of materialism that rather than abandon them at this point, they prefer to conclude that they actually really are in fact zombies devoid of subjective experiences or intentionality of any kind themselves. And from there, we can point out the utterly incoherent equivocations inevitably involved in every possible “emergentist” or “reductivist” attempt to “have” the “cake” of consciousness kept intact by avoiding eliminativism while “eating it” by retaining the premises of materialism that inevitably lead to eliminativism whether they like it or not, too. This leaves us with the stark decision of either embracing pathetic, rank absurdity by eliminating the very basis from which we derived the concept of materialism itself in the first place through eradicating subjective experience and intentionality entirely as the eliminativists do, or else accepting that the very premises of physicalism have been falsified. Still, despite not being the most efficient way to make the point clear, I think that the argument does succeed. And while the form that the argument follows is not, in my estimation, the most efficient way to illustrate that point, I believe it can be adopted much more efficiently in the present context

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Further Bibliography on the Nature of Conscious “Selfhood”:
Indexical Thisness as a Basic Property — Kevin Vallier

Consciousness (V) — Thinking Thoughts About the “Aboutness” of Thought

Previous Posts:
(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?
 (IV) — The Case of the Lunatic Fish

 “In the beginning, there were no reasons; there were only causes. Nothing had a purpose, nothing has so much as a function; there was no teleology in the world at all.” — Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained

“[W]e are here discussing a fundamental and irreducible feature, or rather presupposition, of all thought, all conceptual activity and all action, and … our aim is simply to bring it to people’s notice, to try to help them grasp what we are talking about. It can only be noticed or grasped, or not; it cannot be further described or defined.” — Alan Gault and John Shotter on Intentionality in Human Action and Its Psychological Investigation (1977)

Physicalist interpretation of the world and human consciousness is often implicitly supported by the impression that whatever the case may be about “qualia” (that queer, overly abstract–sounding term for the one phenomena we could not know more intimately, indeed the one and only phenomena we ever know “intimately” at all, subjective conscious experience), everything else about the human mind can be explained with only the physicalist account’s conceptual resources. That is to say, even when the physicalist wants to grant that “qualia” may hang awkwardly in his picture of the nature of human consciousness and reality in a way he admits he doesn’t know how to resolve [1], he still expects that descriptions in terms of form, structure and motion and can at least explain everything that mind–brains do. 

The picture of the situation suggested by this is that the human entity can be understood as something like a computer—we just don’t know how to explain why experience comes along for the ride with its physical processes. However much wrapping up subjective experience within a physicalist account may be impossible in principle, the impression that it could be reasonable to expect that that could be done extends from the belief that physicalist accounts of mechanism can at least explain everything that mind–brains do—and ‘if it can explain everything that they do,’ the reasoning goes, ‘why shouldn’t it eventually be able to explain what they are?’

That’s the impression, at least. But is it so? A crucially important distinction needs to be made here between, one the one hand, asking whether we could replicate a particular process with a procedurally defined mechanism; and on the other hand asking whether that particular procedure and mechanism accurately describes the way that the process being replicated is actually performed in the real world. In principle, we could most certainly replicate anything that we witness any mind–brains in our world doing through procedurally defined mechanisms that don’t make reference to consciousness—in principle, for example, we could build robots who are programmed to do things like scream “Ow, I’m in pain!”—and substitute any behavior other than independent logical reasoning (for reasons that will hopefully later become clear) you like, and in principle we should be capable of designing a robot to perform that behavior,too.  However, this simply doesn’t entail that executing procedurally defined mechanisms which don’t make reference to, or involve the participation of, consciousness itself is how the human mind–brain actually does it.

In other words, the physicalist’ impressions about the otherwise viability of physicalism in explaining the ultimate nature of the human organism outside the question of “qualia” is aided by the fact that we seem to at least be able to imagine the functions which minds execute being performed without the active causal participation of consciousness itself—and this is what allows us to theoretically bracket off the “hard problem” of why conscious experience comes along with the causally eventful world from all the “easy problems” of detailing how it is that that causally eventful world operates—a distinction which even David Chalmers concedes in his challenges to materialism. But the problem is that even if we can imagine this—even if consciousness doesn’t seem metaphysically necessary for the performance of these functional operations (e.g.: even if they could conceivably exist even if consciousness didn’t)—consciousness may still be naturally necessary for the performance of these functional operations, nonetheless (e.g.: given the way our world actually is, consciousness is involved when these functional operations are performed in our actual world anyway, and those functions just aren’t going to happen otherwise in our world given the way our world is). Suppose in this Universe, I was born trapped inside a brick cube with no tool to get out besides a fiftyfive pound sledgehammer: a fiftyfive pound sledgehammer would not be a metaphysically necessary means of breaking out of the cube—in some other Universe where I was given something else, a twenty pound sledgehammer would have been fully sufficient for the job—but given the way our Universe as we know it was actually set up, I just wasn’t going to be breaking my way out of there any other way. And more than that: in any Universe where a fiftyfive pound sledgehammer is what I was given, the fiftyfive pound sledgehammer will be naturally necessary in every single one of them, however metaphysically necessary it isn’t. So this is a case where the lack of metaphysical necessity that the physicalist intuition is based on simply does not prove the lack of natural necessity that he actually needs, which his intuition actually needs to be based on in order to be relevant to supporting the claim that we can understand the nature of our own world by analyzing the nature of “easy problems” separately from the “hard” one. The fact that we can treat the functions of the “easy problems” as mere functions (supposing we really can) just wouldn’t prove that doing so was actually the best or even viable way for us to understand the nature of the reality we are actually in.

Of course, simply stating that it isn’t proven won’t get us very far. Are there reasons to positively think that it is not through the execution of procedurally defined mechanisms which don’t make reference to, or involve the direct participation of, consciousness itself that the human mind–brain does what it does? Yes—and in fact, we have already seen the clear hints of one in the discussion in the last entry on the self–detonating nature of epiphenomenalism: what is happening when I talk about experiencing a feeling of pain? In general, what is happening when I talk about the subjective dimensions of my experience in specific distinction from the physical properties that come along with them in general? While we might be able to program a robot to ask questions about philosophy of mind, or scream “Ow, I’m in pain!” without it actually knowing what it is that these terms mean, this is clearly not how it happens with us: clearly(*), we do these kinds of things because we subjectively have the actual experience of pain, and because our comprehension of the conceptual difference between subjective experience and physical phenomena is what allows the problems of philosophy of mind to occur to us. Hence, it is apparent on the basis of this alone that conscious experience itself is playing some role in even the functions that our mind are seen to perform in the world. And with no barrier left in principle to the idea that consciousness as such plays a role in the function of human minds, the only questions remaining are the empirical ones of “what roles?” and “to what extent?” 

(*) When I say “clearly,” I do not mean that intuition alone is sufficient to prove this to be true. I refer, rather, to the refutation of epiphenomenalism in the previous entry.

Intentionality is a concept which can help expand our understanding of the role that conscious experience as such plays in the functioning and operation of the human mind. Once again, as with “qualia,” what we have in intentionality is a word that refers to a wide class of phenomena that are related by some very subtle aspect which they possess in common, which it is—every bit as much as before—extremely difficult to pick out in ordinary language even though it should eventually be easy to see that it refers to something with which all of us could not be more directly and immediately familiar, once the concept becomes clear.

Intentionality refers to a class of phenomena ranging from the fact that when you desire something, your desire is “for” that thing—to the fact that when you believe something, your belief is “in” the truth of an idea—to the fact that when you consider what to eat for breakfast, your thoughts are “about” ideas like food: there is something in terms like “of,” “for,” and “about” in phrases like these that emphasize a certain way that conscious experiences and intentions can be “representations of,” or “directed towards,” certain aspects of—or even towards currently nonexistent possible future states of—the world. This is going to turn out to be a kind of relationship that is not only difficult to explain in physicalist terms, but just as impossible for physicalism to account for in principle as we concluded was the case in the entry (IV) for subjective experience.

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Intentionality can be difficult to think about in part because, in the flow of actual conscious experiences in reality as we know them, the elements of privacy/qualitativeness/subjectivity and intentionality are united simultaneously in one event. So, when you were thinking about private/qualitative/subjective experience in the previous post, you were probably also thinking about a state possessing intentionality without even realizing it. However, while the term intentionality picks out something that can be (and almost always is) a component of our qualitative, subjective experiences, not all qualitative subjective experiences possess intentionality. If we focus on these examples for a moment in isolation, the added element that intentionality brings to the table might be a little easier to see.

Imagine reaching a deep state of meditation in a sensory deprivation tank with your eyes closed, ears plugged, and so on in which you suppress all verbal or conceptual thought and focus wholly and single–mindedly on, say, a raw sensation of pleasure, without retaining any connected concept of the source of where that sensation is coming from. Deep enough in this state, you would be having an experience composed thoroughly of “qualia,” but possessing no intentionality: nothing that is “reflective of” or “directed at” any state or any aspect of the world outside of the experience itself. Similarly, you might become lost in deeply imagining something like an undifferentiated field of color, and the same could be said. Now, while these states would involve experiences “of” pleasure or color, we should be careful not to be misled by that language: there is no “of–ness” relationship in this example—the important point is that these experiences would be neither directed at, nor reflective of, anything outside of the experience itself. 

So, perhaps one helpful way to think about what intentionality adds to the picture is to imagine a physical duplicate of our world with all subjective experience stripped out, containing all and only physical phenomena: the organisms in this universe look like us, and act like us, but they don’t have any sort of inner experiences whatsoever. Now imagine that without adding such things as conscious beliefs about, desires for, intentions to, thoughts about or knowledge of anything, we add to this world only raw experiences like those just described. Just as comparing our world to an otherwise physical duplicate containing no conscious experiences at all helps us to obtain an intuitive mental grasp on what it is that conscious experience adds to the physical picture, so comparing it to a world possessing conscious experiences, but only those which fail to possess intentionality, may help us get a grasp on intentionality. Just as the “zombie world” cases help us to see that physical functions are not all that we need to explain about our world in order to understand consciousness, so an example like this should help us to see that it doesn’t stop at “qualia,” either.

Of course, we should realize that what we’ve just done is arrive again at the epiphenomenalist scenario from the opposite direction! A world of physical duplicates containing only experiences like that of our “deep meditator” could perform physical movements and perhaps even speak, but they could never do so because of their experiences: the only way the world could be like this is if experiences were just something that came alongside physical processes ‘for the ride’ in a sort of metaphysical back seat—without the capacity of thought to be “about” its conceptual contents which in turn are “directed at” states of the world, the inhabitants of this world would have no capacity to self–referentially acknowledge their subjective experiences as a phenomena within the world. When the phenomena of consciousness as a whole is construed by some materialists to be characterizable as a process with a physical capacity to make “self–referential” reports of their own states (see Higher Order Theories of Consciousness), this notion poaches intuitively plausibility for itself by smuggling intentionality in without clearly acknowledging and admitting it as such. What we have begun to demonstrate is that these aspects of consciousness in reality ‘go together:’ despite their abstract conceptual differences, arguments that work for one generally work for others at the same time.[2]

Just as the non–mechanistically describable phenomena of private subjective experience itself appears to be fundamental to the world and a part of the explanation of some of our behaviors (demonstrated by the fact that we ever think and talk about subjective experience, in conceptual distinction to any accompanying physical processes, at all), a powerful case can be made that intentionality—this capacity of consciousness to “direct itself towards” concepts and ideas which are “reflective of” things beyond themselves—is simultaneously and equally fundamental (and also part of what we’re exhibiting when we “direct” our thoughts “towards” and then express ideas “about” those conscious experiences). Just as we have argued previously that materialist accounts must either call a subjective experience and a physical process “identical” (or do this in effect under the slightly different, and in my analysis simply more misleading, terminology of “emergence”) or else eliminate the phenomena altogether—and argued that if conscious experience can neither be reduced to and explained in the terms of non–conscious physical ingredients nor eliminated, then its existence simply refutes the materialist hypothesis (and something “non–physical” turns out not only to exist, but to be the one and only thing whose existence we know directly, and which turns out to be the one window through which we infer anything else we may believe at all, as a result of how the materialist account chooses to define “physical”)—so the same argument can be made every bit as strongly for intentionality.

When these arguments are applied to intentionality, however, they can be much harder to intuitively ‘see’ and take hold of at first as a result of the fact that anything that an intentional state does could hypothetically be performed by a robot which does it because it is mechanistically programmed and not because of its possessing any capacity for intrinsic intentionality—and it is easy to think about the function performed by an intentional state without thinking about the intentionality of that state by imagining that function taking place through a causal process simulating the original process while lacking its own intentionality, explain the function performed in causal–physical terms, and then simply fail to see that the intentionality of the actual original phenomena itself has not thereby been accounted for. Yet, as we will see shortly, the only reason we can even imagine a physical process duplicating a procedure which simulates intentionality to begin with at all is because of our own intrinsic intentionality which we can project (itself an intentionalistic process) into physical processes in which it does not actually reside apart from our own irreducibly conscious and intentionalistic projections. 

One of the most famous thought experiments in philosophy of mind is the Chinese Room argument from John Searle. Of the argument, David L. Anderson writes, “It is probably safe to say that no argument in the philosophy of mind (or in any area dealing with the nature of thought and cognition) has generated the level of anger and the vitriolic attacks that the Chinese Room argument has.” Stevan Harnard, editor of the journal the argument was first published in (in 1980), informs us that “The overwhelming majority still think that the Chinese Room Argument is dead wrong.” I am more than convinced that the overwhelming majority simply miss the point that is being made by the argument and are responding in fear resulting from the false impression of something being proven (about the impossibility of the success of a certain kind of artificial intelligence program) that the argument was never trying to show in the first place.[3] In my estimation, the thought experiment is simply doing no more than clarify the conceptual distinction between intentionality and function. In the words of Searle himself, the point is this: “syntax is insufficient for [because it is not identical with] semantics.” In other words, merely reordering a number of symbols according to a set of rules—performing a function—is not identical with consciously understanding the meaning of those symbols (or performing the function of manipulating those symbols because of a conscious understanding of their conceptual meaning and of the logical relationships between their meanings).

The thought experiment goes as so: “Imagine a native English speaker who knows no Chinese locked in a room full of boxes of Chinese symbols (a data base) together with a book of instructions for manipulating the symbols (the program). Imagine that people outside the room send in other Chinese symbols which, unknown to the person in the room, are questions in Chinese (the input). And imagine that by following the instructions in the program the man in the room is able to pass out Chinese symbols which are correct answers to the questions (the output). The program enables the person in the room to [look and sound like someone who understands] Chinese, but he does not understand a word of Chinese.”

I think most ordinary readers, on seeing this argument, will immediately “get” the point the thought experiment is illustrating and agree that a physical ability to manipulate a set of symbols is simply not the same identical thing as a conscious ability to understand their meaning. The arrant confusion of the critics of the argument is most illuminatingly revealed by one particularly ludicrous counter–argument—which so happens to be the most popular: ‘the man might not understand Chinese, but the room as a whole does.’ As Ray Kurzweil puts it, “the man is acting only as . . . a small part of a system. While the man may not see it, the understanding is distributed across the entire pattern of . . . the billions of notes ( . . . ) .”[4]

Rather than actually addressing the point of conceptual distinction which the argument clarifies, these critics simply beg the question in a most obliviously vacuous way by defining “understanding” to mean something other than what Searle is getting at – as “the (mere) ability to manipulate symbols.”  But the very point the argument illustrates is that the physical ability to manipulate symbols just isn’t simplistically identical to the conscious ability to understand their meaning! What these critics fail to understand is that this is an argument about first–person consciousness (and the intentionality which goes along with it): again returning to the words of Searle, the point is that “Computational models of conscious [experience and intentionality] are not sufficient by themselves for conscious [experience and intentionality].”

No one makes the counter of suggesting that “the room” or “the system” actually understands Chinese because they actually think “the room” or “the system” is a subject of internal, concept–representational subjective experiences (which is just simply what Searle means here when he uses the word “understanding”). They do it because they simply flat–out ignore the distinction which Searle asks them to see and go on to define “understanding” to literally just mean the physical ability to manipulate symbols anyway, while ignoring intentionality entirely—and then they substitute this sense of the word “understanding” into Searle’s sentences without even allowing him to tell them what he actually means by his own choice of words himself. Thus, they derive a meaning from Searle’s point that is tautological, but is not at all what Searle meant.

And seeing why it is obviously implausible if not impossible that “the room” should have any subjective inner conscious representation of any meaningful concepts entailed by Chinese symbols should precisely help demonstrate why the very notion these critics appeal to in their defense that we are just such “rooms” composed of just such individually mechanical and non–representational parts as the pieces of paper held by the man in the Chinese room is implausible if not impossible for just the same reason. We’re back in Leibniz’ mill! In other words, the premise that this is how reality works would seem to entail the prediction that conceptual ‘understanding’ as we know it to exist isn’t possible, and to thus be refuted by the incontrovertible fact that it does. 

The capacity to grasp the meaning of symbols appears to be a basic property of consciousness itself (and a very clear example of intentionality—the capacity of experiential conscious states to somehow ‘reach out’ and direct themselves towards or reflect within themselves, intrinsically, things or ideas which lie beyond themselves). And the argument is more than successful to show that this capacity is simply not plainly identical to the physical ability to manipulate those symbols according to a rule–based pattern. However, the problem should now start to become clearer: as elaborated in the previous entry, physical mechanism is the only “ingredient” physicalist philosophy has to build any “pies” that exist from. How could intentionality, on a physicalist picture, ever even ‘get there’ at all?

 _______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

I’ve quoted the materialist Daniel Dennett and the “near–enough” physicalist Jaegwon Kim, previously, to support the point that I am not inventing the problem which subjective conscious experience poses for materialistic and physicalist accounts of the nature of the human mind on my own: the materialists and physicalists themselves lay out for us what the options are, and they choose their own bullets with regards to how to try to square the “two–dimensional” canvas of their physicalist premises with the “three–dimensional” conscious reality we all live, breathe, and know to try to avoid expanding that canvas to include any added dimensions. Here, I quote Alex Rosenberg, author of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality as an example of an outright eliminativist about intentionality—later, I’ll discuss Dennett’s attempts to account for (a reduced form of) it in roughly “emergent” terms.

“[S]everal of the most fundamental things that ordinary experience teaches us about ourselves are completely illusory. Some of these illusions are useful for creatures like us, or at least they have been selected for by the environmental filters that our ancestors passed through. But other illusions have just been carried along piggyback on the locally adaptive traits that conferred increased fitness on our ancestors in the Pleistocene. [ . . . ]

[ . . . ]

Suppose someone asks you, “What is the capital of France?” Into consciousness comes the thought that Paris is the capital of France. Consciousness tells you in no uncertain terms what the content of your thought is, what your thought is about. It’s about the statement that Paris is the capital of France. That’s the thought you are thinking. It just can’t be denied. You can’t be wrong about the content of your thought. You may be wrong about whether Paris is really the capital of France.

The French assembly could have moved the capital to Bordeaux this morning (they did it one morning in June 1940). You might even be wrong about whether you are thinking about Paris, confusing it momentarily with London. What you absolutely cannot be wrong about is that your conscious thought was about something. Even having a wildly wrong thought about something requires that the thought be about something.

It’s this last notion that introspection conveys that science has to deny. Thinking about things can’t happen at all. The brain can’t have thoughts about Paris, or about France, or about capitals, or about anything else for that matter. When consciousness convinces you that you, or your mind, or your brain has thoughts about things, it is wrong.

Don’t misunderstand, no one denies that the brain receives, stores, and transmits information. But it can’t do these things in anything remotely like the way introspection tells us it does—by having thoughts about things. The way the brain deals with information is totally different from the way introspection tells us it does. Seeing why and understanding how the brain does the work that consciousness gets so wrong is the key to answering all the rest of the questions that keep us awake at night worrying over the mind, the self, the soul, the person.

We believe that Paris is the capital of France. So, somewhere in our brain is stored the proposition, the statement, the sentence, idea, notion, thought, or whatever, that Paris is the capital of France. It has to be inscribed, represented, recorded, registered, somehow encoded in neural connections, right? Somewhere in my brain there have to be dozens or hundreds or thousands or millions of neurons wired together to store the thought that Paris is the capital of France. Let’s call this wired-up network of neurons inside my head the “Paris neurons,” since they are about Paris, among other things. They are also about France, about being a capital city, and about the fact that Paris is the capital of France. But for simplicity’s sake let’s just focus on the fact that the thought is about Paris.

Now, here is the question we’ll try to answer: What makes the Paris neurons a set of neurons that is about Paris; what make them refer to Paris, to denote, name, point to, pick out Paris? To make it really clear what question is being asked here, let’s lay it out with mind-numbing explicitness: I am thinking about Paris right now, and I am in Sydney, Australia. So there are some neurons located at latitude 33.87 degrees south and longitude 151.21 degrees east (Sydney’s coordinates), and they are about a city on the other side of the globe, located at latitude 48.50 degrees north and 2.20 degrees east (Paris’s coordinates).

Let’s put it even more plainly: Here in Sydney there is a chunk or a clump of organic matter—a bit of wet stuff, gray porridge, brain cells, neurons wired together inside my skull. And there is another much bigger chunk of stuff 10,533 miles, or 16,951 kilometers, away from the first chunk of matter. This second chunk of stuff includes the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, the Louvre Museum, and all the streets, parks, buildings, sewers, and metros around them. The first clump of matter, the bit of wet stuff in my brain, the Paris neurons, is about the second chunk of matter, the much greater quantity of diverse kinds of stuff that make up Paris. How can the first clump—the Paris neurons in my brain—be about, denote, refer to, name, represent, or otherwise point to the second clump—the agglomeration of Paris? A more general version of this question is this: How can one clump of stuff anywhere in the universe be about some other clump of stuff anywhere else in the universe—right next to it or 100 million light-years away?

[ . . . ] What is going on [ . . . ] is just input/output wiring [ . . . ]. The brain does everything without thinking about anything at all. And in case you still had any doubts there is Watson, the Jeopardy playing computer, storing as much information as we do, without any original intentionality.”

What Rosenberg suggests, in other words, is that (in order to coherently hold on to the premises of physicalism, one must believe that) it turns out that all of us actually are the man inside of Searle’s Chinese Room: we may think we understand Chinese, but science shows that all we are is neurons—and neurons, like all physical objects as modern physics understands them generally, can only execute blind procedures by the inert force of causality; they don’t do things for “reasons.” And no physical entity moving through space “represents” any other physical entity. So whatever it is you may “think” you are, “science” proves that you’re the man in the room who doesn’t understand “the meaning” of Chinese after all.

The most basic problem that arguments like these leave out is this: consciousness itself is a subjective phenomena; subjectivity is precisely the form in which it has its existence.  It existsas a subjective phenomena. While our experiences can in certain kinds of cases mislead us about what is happening in the external world, these cases involve a distinction between an appearance within subjective experience and the nature of the underlying reality beyond range of our perception which contributes that appearance into our awareness: obviously and undeniably, when it comes to understanding the external world, appearances can be misleading. However, when we deal with most of the internal phenomena of consciousness as such, it is the very existence of appearances, in the first place, which we are concerned with: “the appearance” very literally just is the reality we want to explain, because the fact of the existence of the phenomena of consciousness is, in many ways, the fact of the existence of the phenomena that things ever “appear” to anyone at all. Hence, when dealing with the properties of consciousness proper, no distinction between “appearance” and “reality” can even be made, and the very concept of “illusion” is therefore rendered meaningless. 

All that it means to have had a conscious experience is just literally to “seem” to have had a conscious experience. “Well, it just seems like you have seemings” is not an answer to any question about the nature of  “seemings” themselves. The seemings themselves really exist; that part simply can’t coherently be denied. All other examples of “illusions,” outside the realm of consciousness itself (such as the fact that a stick placed in water will seem to be bent), precisely take consciousness itself for granted because within consciousness itself is where the illusion resides. Consciousness simply can’t even in principle be “an illusion” in anything like the same way. And what goes for conscious experience also goes for intentionality: to “seem” to have a concept in your conscious awareness and “understand” the “meaning” of what it refers to and what it is that it is “about” is just—literally—what it means to have a concept whose referentiality and meaning you understand. Calling that an “illusion” is, in fact, just literally meaningless. If Rosenberg were right, we wouldn’t be capable of reading and understanding the ‘meaning’ of the words he wrote; and he wouldn’t have been capable of writing them to express the idea in the first place. We would never have been able to grasp the conceptual distinction between understanding the (semantic) ‘meaning’ of words and ‘understanding’ how to manipulate them procedurally (syntax). And yet, anyone understanding the concepts that these intrinsically meaningless patterns of lines somehow refer to has all the evidence they could possibly ever need that—in fact—we do. 

But Rosenberg’s claim is false for an even more interesting reason, and illustrating the falsity will get us even closer to an intuitive picture of the heart of what intentionality is and the role that it plays in conscious life (and, via consciousness, the world as a whole). The suggestion that “information” in the purely physical sense we see exhibited in computers could replace the role of intentionality and thoughts “about” ideas with intrinsic propositional content in understanding the nature of thought trades off a naïve intuition that all of us probably share about how it is, and what it means to say, that computers even “compute” to begin with. What turns out to be the case is that computers, strictly speaking, are not in fact “computing” at all—rather, it is solely because of our capacity for intentional acts of understanding and representing concepts that we can use the physical processes of a “computer” as placeholder for our own intentionalistic ability to grasp and express and understand both logic and “meaning.”

The Chinese Room thought experiment previously illustrated the point that, in Searle’s words, “syntax is insufficient for semantics.” In other words, the physical manipulation of symbols by procedural rules is insufficient for conscious understanding of any meaning that may be referred to by those symbols. Searle eventually went on to realize, however, that this thought experiment actually smuggled a form of intentionality into the premises in its own way, and thus failed to show how deep the problem with intentionality actually does go. To quote the words of Searle: “Computation does not name an intrinsic feature of reality but is observer-relative and this is because computation is defined in terms of symbol manipulation, but the notion of a `symbol’ is not a notion of physics or chemistry. Something is a symbol only if it is used, treated or regarded as a symbol. The Chinese room argument showed that semantics is not intrinsic to syntax. But ( . . . ) syntax is not intrinsic to physics. There are no purely physical properties that zeros and ones or symbols in general have that determine that they are symbols. Something is a symbol only relative to some observer, user or agent who assigns a symbolic interpretation to it. So the question, ‘Is consciousness a computer program?’ lacks a clear sense. If it asks, ‘Can you assign a computational interpretation to the processes which are characteristic of consciousness?’ the answer is: ‘you can assign a computational interpretation to anything.’ But if the question asks, ‘Is consciousness intrinsically computational?’ the answer is: nothing is intrinsically computational. Computation exists only relative to some agent or observer who imposes a computational interpretation on some phenomenon. This is an obvious point. I should have seen it ten years ago but I did not.”

To see this even more clearly, we’ll take the simple example of a calculator. Even if we don’t think the calculator ‘understands’ any concept of the meaning of ‘2 + 2’ when it calculates, we still ordinarily assume that it is, on some physical level, actually at least in some sense “calculating” ‘2 + 2.’ But this assumption is false—and what goes for calculators goes for absolutely every other form of physical calculation besides. To bolster the claim that intentionality can be dispensed with because “Watson, the Jeopardy playing computer, stor[es] as much information as we do, without any original intentionality” turns out to be meaningless, because the physical patterns that Watson actually stores turn out not to be actual “information”—not even in an unconscious sense—at all.

To see this, we’re going to have to scrape the symbols off of the buttons of the calculator, leaving all of them blank. Physically, after all, the shape ‘2’ is just literally nothing whatsoever other than a series of spilled dots of ink. And per Rosenberg, “How can one clump of stuff anywhere in the universe be about some other clump of stuff anywhere else in the universe—right next to it or 100 million light–years away?”  The problem for the physical clumps of stuff that we use to represent concepts like numbers goes even deeper: the concept we use the symbol ‘2’ to refer to is not even a physical entity present anywhere as such, and yet it could be described as existing nearly anywhere. How could any physical shape created by dropped bits of stuff landing in certain places on a surface possibly be ‘about’ such an abstract concept as that? The physical pattern of the symbol is only said to “represent” that because we use itfor the purpose of representing it. So after removing the symbols off the buttons on the calculator, let’s alter the programming of the calculator to ensure that each shape that was previously programmed to be displayed on the calculator’s screen becomes a random new shape instead.

Now, when something presses a few of the blank buttons on the surface of the calculator, and a shape resembling something Japanese appears on the screen, what is the calculator—as a physical entity—doing? Is it calculating? The answer is a surprising, but now obvious “no.” The “calculator” goes through a series of electrical state transitions, which process is completely determined by the physical properties of electricity—and that’s it. Everything that is happening within this system is determined purely by the laws of physics—by the physical properties of electricity, which do not coincide even with any procedural laws of syntax. The reason this physical object is able to become a “calculator” is solely because we, as conscious observers possessing intentionality, can see that these physical properties would make it a convenient tool to use for this purpose[12]—and we in turn apply the symbols in the correct way not only to allow us to calculate the meaning of the concepts entailed by the pattern ‘2 + 2’ which the calculator as a physical object has no awareness of, but even to cause it to happen to be the case that the pattern of inputs and outputs will now coincide with any sort of logical rules about syntactical manipulation!

Suppose instead of scraping the physical patterns of dropped ink off the surface of the calculator’s buttons, we switch the ‘+’ symbol with the ‘3,’ the ‘÷’ symbol with the ‘9,’ and the ‘2’ symbol with the ‘4.’ Now, an input of “2 + 2” will cause the screen to display physical shapes in a pattern that looks like “434,” and an input of “43÷” will cause the screen to display the shape “11,” and an input of “93” will display “ERR.” The “calculator,” as a physical object, isn’t doing a single thing differently than before.  But now, simply by altering a few of the physical shapes on its surface, it isn’t even following rules of syntax at all. And what this should cause us to realize is that that is just because it never was following such rules in the first place. We understand rules of syntax. We observe the causal inputs and outputs of the physical states of a given way of wiring up the calculator. We devise a way to apply the symbols to the surface of the buttons of calculator in such a way that the “calculator” will only be “following syntactical procedures,” nevermind calculating the concept “2 + 2” to derive the concept of “4,” purely incidentallyand not as a result of any physical property of the system.

The implication of this is that unless we can accept that we are just required to posit intentionality itself as a fundamental category of the world in its own right [10] , analogies to try to explain human consciousness through analogies with “computers” are useless—because the very concept of computation itself presupposes the existence of a conscious observer with the capacity for intentionality in the first place, and simply does not exist as a physical phenomena in the world without one—just precisely like the “sound” the falling tree never makes in the forest if there isn’t a conscious subject of private, subjective experiences around whose mind can translate the physical vibrations of molecules resulting from the collapse of the tree into sound. So it is, likewise, with the forms of “computation” which are “performed” by “computers.”

You might say that when it comes to the relationship between consciousness and computation, it’s the thought that counts. 

Unfathomably useful tools though they may be, they can only be said to process “information” of any kind whatsoevereven unconsciously—because we are around to attribute any kind of “meaning” whatsoever (even that of its being a “symbol” that has any place in any logical system of syntax or grammar) to the intrinsically meaningless physical patterns that physical causality allows us to display on their outputs, and which we apply to their inputs (whether in the form of specific conceptual content, or even solely the basic fact that that pattern even represents a “symbol” of any kind that must be manipulated according to logical rules of any sort at all.) [6] (All of these points go for verbal language, as well.[7]) To quote William Hasker in Metaphysics: Constructing a World View, “Computers function as they do because they have been constructed by human beings endowed with rational insight. And the results of their computations are accepted because they are evaluated by rational human beings as conforming to rational norms. A computer, in other words, is merely an extension of the rationality of its designers and users; it is no more an independent source of rational thought than a television set is an independent source of news and entertainment.” 

But this goes not merely for “rationality” in the sense that requires “understanding” of the concepts referred to by symbols, it goes every bit as much as well for even the syntactical manipulation of the symbols themselves, because even symbol manipulation exists only as a concept which minds impute over the physical world—and not as a physical state of the world itself. What, physically, does “information” consist of in the first place? The very idea of “information” is an intrinsically intentionalistic concept that can only be made sense of in terms of a conscious mind who is “in–formed” by whatever process is in question—who is able to have intentionalistic concepts “formed” “in” his mind through understanding the relationship between one sequence of facts and another.

The shadows cast by a sundial allow me to determine the time of day, but the shadow itself does not represent any actual kind of “information” except in the most trivial way that it happens to be the kind of thing that a mind could conveniently use as a marker for determining some other physical state. While the relationship between the shadow and the sun which the shadow allows us to gather “information about” is, superficially, a causal and physical one, the key point is that every so–called “informational” state is going to have a diffferent causal description—the physical relationship between time and the rings that accumulate within tree trunks over time is going to be completely different from the physical relationship between the time of day and the shadows cast over a sundial as a result of the movement of the sun, and so practically by definition there is simply no way to physically specify what it is that these examples hold in common. The only common feature is that minds can come to understand (e.g., with intentionality) that relationship, whatever its particular details may be.

So the concepts of physical “information” or “information processing” hold zero hope for explaining anything about the conscious human exercise of intelligence as we know it, because at the physical level of reality, none of these even exist; and the sole sense in which they do exist is one that can only be made sense of through presupposing the existence of conscious minds with the capacity to “understand” and think in terms of concepts in the first place; calculators can only be said to “calculate” at all because conscious minds understand not only the concepts referred to by symbols such as “2,” “+,” and “4,” but even rules of syntactical symbol manipulation in such a way as to allow us to slap these physically meaningless patterns onto the right inputs and outputs of the calculator so that, in following its literally meaningless series of physical state transitions, “rules of mathematics” will be happen to be “followed” by the physical operations of the calculator completely by coincidence and not as a result of anything it is doing as a physical object.

This can be seen most clearly by realizing, again, that switching a few of the symbols around on the calculator’s surface will immediately cause it to be no longer even following rules of syntax, despite nothing about the internal physical processes of the calculator changing whatsoever. The only thing that makes a “calculator” physically useful is that its physical properties allow given inputs and outputs to be consistently linked, and we can see that this would make it convenient to use for this purpose. But then, for any “calculation” in any sense whatsoever to take place at all requires us mapping symbols (that only minds possessing intentionality even know are “symbols,” because the very concept of “symbol” refers not to any physical fact, but to how those facts are interpreted and used by minds) to those inputs and outputs in such a way that logical rules of any sort are being “followed” by the calculator at all. And what goes for calculators goes for any other form of physical “computation” whatsoever: it exists in the only sense in which it has “existence” solely through the intentionalistic interpretations of a conscious mind.

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

Previously, we took an argument from Daniel Dennett, who said (paraphrasing) “If [materialism—reality at its root is all and only blind and mindless causal process], and [the emergence of subjective experience from unconscious physical process doesn’t make sense], then [subjective experience can’t exist]—and [materialism is true], therefore [subjective experience does not exist]” and we kept the skeleton of the logic (If P, then Q. P, therefore Q), but established that since subjective experience can’t be dispensed with, if emergentism can’t work then it is the materialist premise that has to go (If P, then Q. Not–Q, therefore Not–P), so we should do the same thing here. Rosenberg, in essence, tells us: “if [materialism—reality at its root is all and only blind and mindless causal process], and [emergentism of intentionality from unintentional but only causal process can’t work], then [intentionality can’t exist].” Well, the intentionality that we know as an intrinsic part of our experience can’t be eliminated any more than experience itself can. Where the eliminative materialists think they’re producing modus ponens arguments justifying conclusions that eliminate ordinarily understood aspects from human consciousness and self, they’re actually creating perfect modus tollens arguments against the truth of their own starting premises. Rosenberg concludes “P [materialism is true], therefore Q [intentionality cannot exist].” What we are actually required by dictates of truth to conclude, if the skeleton of this logic is correct, is “Not–Q [intentionality exists], therefore Not–P [materialism is false.]”

Next, we’ll begin to look at an attempt to explain intentionality as something which “emerges” from processes which don’t of themselves possess intentionality, to highlight the inescapable flaws that any such account in principle will run into. But first, I want to detour through a discussion of the general point which that example will serve to support.

It should have become relatively clear in light of the arguments explained in the previous entry that for all the verbal and linguistic posturing, there really aren’t, in the end, multiple ways to be a materialist after all—all the different ways of trying to categorize it really do, in the end, just end up amounting to the same ultimate claim. The eliminative materialist says, “X doesn’t exist. Only Y’s exist.” In contrast to that, what the “emergent” materialist thinks he can get away with saying in order to retain his materialism while avoiding eliminativism is: “Sure, X exists, but X [which looks one way, and appears to have a certain set of x–traits] is really a Y [which looks totally different, and actually only has y–traits].”

My conclusion, to state it frankly, is that this is genuinely little more than an outright expression of cognitive dissonance in response to (1) wanting desperately to hold on to the materialist or physicalist premises, and (2) realizing in eliminativism how absurd their very clear consequences actually are. To help see this, let’s replace these claims with examples. The eliminativist says: “Flour doesn’t exist. Only sugar exists.” The emergentist however, realizing that this is plainly absurd, tries to say hold on to reductionism without eliminativism by saying: “Sure, “flour” exists, but “flour” is really sugar.”

How is this claim actually any different? Despite the superficial brush of appearances, it isn’t! The truth is that the reality that both of these statements describe turns out to be exactly the same: sugar is the only thing that actually exists. The only thing we actually have here is a minor dispute about language—about the most appropriate way to speak about the situation where sugar is the only thing that exists—about how to use the word “flour” now that we believe that the concept we previously used it to refer to doesn’t exist).  But in either scenario, sugar is quite plain and simply the only ingredient that we’re postulating exists, and if it turns out that consciousness has properties (and in fact, even merely the “appearance” of properties) of a “chicken pot pie” [see entry (III)], then this should rightly cast extreme doubt on (if not count as an absolute disproof of) the claim that the “sugar” of blind, causally brute physical forces are the only ingredients stocked in reality’s pantry.

To spell this out with another substitution, where the eliminativist says,  “Unicorns don’t exist. Only horses exist.” The emergentist tries to say,  “Sure, “unicorns” exist, but “unicorns” are really only horses.” It is abundantly clear now that both claims eliminate the substance of the concept referred to by the word “unicorn.” The two camps on this question would merely be in disagreement on what to do with the empty skeleton container of a word that is left over after the elimination. The emergentist thinks he can get by with holding on to his materialist premises while refusing to perform the absurd eliminations that the eliminativist explains follow from materialism (e.g., that nobody ever has any conscious experiences, or thinks thoughts “about” anything whatsoever), and he tries to create the optical illusion that this verbal mirage somehow changes something about the substance of the situation, when—in reality—it doesn’t at all, and thus there is simply no way in principle this can alter any ultimate analysis of where the reality of the situation stands. And this is why all accounts of “emergence” are just inevitably going to turn out to be inherently self–contradictory—the only work that remains is to perform various levels of tedious technical work to expose the contradictions in new varieties of attempts, depending on how technical and tedious a particular effort to conceal them is.[8]

Because it is for systematic reasons that the contradictions will inevitably appear; it simply turns out, in the end, that the core problem at the central root of the basic physicalist picture of the world is the lack of any logical identity between subjective conscious experience, and blind and unconscious physical ingredients; or between the phenomena of intentionality, and unintentional causal process [5]. At some point, we should begin treating such claims as the philosophical equivalent of an engineering student claiming to have discovered how to create a perpetual motion machine: it isn’t just “something we’ve not yet proven possible.” It’s something we’ve discovered is impossible because we’ve discovered the systematic reasons which prevent it from being possible even in principle. You can’t create a machine that produces work without the input of energy, and you can’t derive conscious experience from purely unconscious processes or intentionality from purely causal processes. The eliminativist sees this clearly, and actively decides to bite the bullet and deny that we “understand” “ideas” or “concepts” or otherwise have any thoughts which are “about” (or make reference to) anything at all or otherwise even have any kind of subjective experiences. Yet every physicalist who tries to reject eliminativism (as rightly they should) is attempting an inevitably doomed project—trying to have their cake and eat it too. And the only answer is simply to abandon the physicalist premise itself and admit conscious experience and intentionality themselves as fundamental, “bedrock” aspects of the nature of reality itself all in their own right.

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

As a case example in attempts to argue for “reductionism” about intentionality, we’ll return to the case of Daniel Dennett (who in this case, intriguingly enough, turns out to be making at least a shallow attempt to avoid eliminativism about intentionality). In the paper Evolution, Error, and Intentionality, Dennet tries to make the argument that we can ‘build our way up’ to the intentionality of human consciousness through gradated steps beginning from the “proto–intentionality” of evolution.

Throughout, his account is only able to appear to get anywhere at all off of the ground because he projects intentionality into places where it only “exists” as a result of human intentionality “placing” it there. In the process he must, as always, try to have the cake of conscious experience and intentionality (whether he wants to explicitly admit it or not, the premises will have to slip it back in somewhere in order not to devolve into even more blatantly concentrated absurdity than is currently at least dispersed throughout a more subtle series of equivocations) and eat it through reductionist “explanations,” too. In one place, he summarizes his position as so: “[W]e [have] no guaranteed privileged access to the deeper facts that fix the meanings of our thoughts, [because] there are no such deeper facts [and therefore—placing Dennett precisely in agreement with Rosenberg—no real meanings of our thoughts at all].”

Yet, in another, he begins: “A shopping list in the head has no more intrinsic intentionality [e.g., actual meaning] than a shopping list on a piece of paper.” But as he goes on, notice the attempt to point back in the refrigerator at the cake he suddenly pretends not to have just pulled out and eaten: “What the items on the list mean (if anything) is fixed by the role they play in the larger scheme of purposes [there’s intentionality popping its head in, again!]. We may call our own intentionality real, but we must recognize that it is derived from the intentionality of natural selection, which is just as real—but just less easily discerned because of the vast difference in time scale and size. So if there is to be any original intentionality—original just in the sense of being derived from no other, ulterior source—the intentionality of natural selection deserves the honor. What is particularly satisfying about this is that we end the threatened regress of derivation with something of the right metaphysical sort: a blind and unrepresenting source [my emphasis] of our own sightful and insightful powers of representation. [ . . . ] While it can never be stressed enough that natural selection operates with no foresight and no purpose, we should not lose sight of the fact that the process of natural selection has proven itself to be exquisitely sensitive to rationales, making myriads of discriminating “choices,” and “recognizing” and “appreciating” many subtle relationships. To put it even more provocatively, when natural selection selects, it can “choose” a particular design for one reason rather than another ( . . . ).

His argument is that what intentionality really consists of is just the ability to hold what he calls “the intentional stance” towards an object or pattern, in which we interpret phenomena “as if” they do things because of ‘beliefs,’ ‘reasons, ‘desires’ and so on—and this is justified as a kind of fiction, in Dennett’s view, by its empirical success in making accurate predictions: “Certainly we can describe all processes of natural selection without appeal to such intentional language, but at enormous cost of cumbersomeness, lack of generality, and unwanted detail. We would miss the pattern that was there, the pattern that permits prediction . . . ” What this suggestions gets backwards is that the very notion of “holding an interpretive stance” towards something itself presupposes intentionality, whether we’re talking about the ‘intentional stance,’ the ‘physical stance,’ or any other: even if we try to speak, as Dennett does, of “Mother Nature” as a fiction, the development of this fiction as a representational concept and the language used to represent and communicate it to other intentional agents is intentionality. The account simply presupposes exactly what it is meant to try to explain—as any attempt must.

This is similar in ways I will explore to Dennett’s redefining of the very phenomena of subjective experience itself as nothing other than “a logical construct out of peoples’ judgments that they are having [experiences] . . . [where] such judgings [are] constitutive acts which, in effect, bring the [so–called] [experience] itself into existence” in the paper, Quining Qualia, discussed in the last entry: if this definition of conscious experience seems plausible to anyone, it can only be because they are taking for granted subliminally that people communicate judgments about their experiences because they are having experiences. There is a relationship between the two, but it is most definitely not that the judgment creates the “experience” (where “experience” is just defined as statements about experience[11]).

In Quining Qualia, Dennett proposed this ludicrous suggestion as a “solution” to the “problem” of two people, Chase and Sanborn, who begin to dislike the coffee they’ve been drinking every morning for years, one of whom thinks the coffee itself has grown worse over time, the other of whom thinks his own tastes have simply changed. What Dennett suggests this thought experiment proves is that one of them has to be mistaken about what they are experiencing—therefore, he reasons, there are no such thing as subjective experiences which we know so intimately that experiment cannot refute them, and therefore we are best off concluding that no such thing as experience exists at all, and all that actually needs to be explained is the fact that people ‘talk’ about[11] experiences.

So he concludes, “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 . . .  treat qualia as logical constructs [of ] judgments . . .  Yet, what Dennett obviously has utterly misunderstood right from the very beginning of his discussion is that the experience his coffee drinkers are having is that they no longer enjoy the coffee. And his example does nothing to undermine the fact that they cannot in principle be wrong about this. What Dennett has gotten confused is an unbelievably basic distinction between an experience and the subject of that experience’s further rational inferences about why[11] they are having it.  

Either of the coffee drinkers might be—indeed, one will have to be—mistaken about what fact it is that explains why they are having the experience they are having. But that poses no challenge whatsoever to the idea that they cannot be mistaken about the experience of no longer enjoying the coffee, itself. Indeed, we all expect that if Chase and Sanborn devise the empirical tests that Dennett mentions to test and refute their competing hypotheses about whether the coffee has changed, their tastes have changed, or something else, they will find one of these answers—precisely because something will have to provide the explanation for why they are having the experience of no longer enjoying the coffee—because the thing they cannot even in principle be mistaken about is that. 

And so he weaves a similar tale here regarding the intentionality of conceptual thought and language: “Consider then the members of a Putnamian tribe who have a word, “glug,” let us say, for the invisible, explosive gas they encounter in their marshes now and then. When we confront them with some acetylene, and they call it glug, are they making a mistake or not? All the gaseous hydrocarbon they have ever heretofore encountered, we can suppose, was methane . . .  Of course once we educate them, they will have to come to mean one thing or the other by “glug,” but in advance of these rather sweeping changes in their cognitive states, will there already be a fact about whether they believe the proposition that there is methane present or the proposition that there is gaseous hydrocarbon present when they express themselves by saying “Glug!”?”

With yet another “problem” in hand, Dennett is ready with yet another “solution:” just as before, we simply have to do away with the assumption that their statement actually refers to any concept at all: “It is not just that I can’t tell, and they can’t tell; [it’s that] there is nothing to tell.” Now, as such examples often do, this one tries to get us to eliminate something we previously thought we knew about first–person consciousness by cutting our internal first–person awareness of the first–person phenomena of consciousness out of the equation from the start, by having us look at the behavior of a third party from the outside, in third–person, where by definition that person’s external behavior (and not any internal experiences which might drive or explain them) is all that we’re able to consider for the sake of the example to begin with. So, let’s re–situate the analogy back into the first–person perspective again and see what happens.

Suppose you were born a male in an all–male society, where you’ve been taught to refer to everyone you see as a “man.” With this scenario clearly in mind, suppose a female missionary visits your tribe—and when you refer to her as a “man,” she corrects you and tells you that she is, actually, a “woman.”  Now, it is clear that one of two or three scenarios have to take place. In the first, you will respond with something roughly like: “No, you have a face, two legs, and two arms, you walk and talk—clearly you are a man” to which she might respond, “no, look: I don’t have a penis.” To which you would be most naturally inclined to say something like: “Wow. You’re a strange kind of man. I’ve never known a man who didn’t have a penis before” to which she would respond: “that’s not how we use the word ‘man.’ You use the word ‘man’ like we use the word ‘person.’ But when we use the word ‘man,’ we mean to refer (roughly) to someone with the traits which allow them to play the ‘male’ role in reproduction, in distinction from ‘women.’” To which you will respond: “I see. The word ‘man’ means something different to you than it means to us. I’ll change the way I communicate to reflect that [or else, you can change yours to reflect what I have now told you that mean].”

Otherwise, in the second scenario, you will respond with something like: “Bullshit. Let me see your penis” to which, let us assume, she does so—at which point you will say: “Oh, my God. That isn’t a penis. You really aren’t a man after all!” Alternatively, for the third, you might not have consciously meant anything like either of these. You might realize that the word “man” is just something you have always said out of sheer habit during conversation all along, wiithout intending to refer to any clear concept by it one way or another. But in either case, you were absolutely using the word in a specific way; even if, in a scenario like the third, that specific way was not “to refer to a specific concept.” What Dennett turns out to really be saying here is that we must do away with the notion that statements mean anything or are used in any determinate ways by people ‘on the inside’ at all, simply because these meanings can’t be determined conclusively beforehand ‘from the outside:’ “there is no ground to be discovered in their past behavior or current[ly observable] dispositions [emphasis mine] that would license a description of their glug-state as methane–detection rather than the more inclusive gaseous–hydrocarbon–detection.”

To return to our own example, it is true that there is nothing in your past behavior (or currently observable dispositions) that makes it clear according to any externally quantifiable third–person set of criteria whether you are using the word “man” to mean “person” or “biological male,” prior to the interaction that is bound to ensue after the woman denies that she is a “man.” Thus, an outside observer (such as Dennett has us take the role of for his version of the thought experiment) isn’t capable of knowing what you meant by the word prior to that interaction. However, just because it is true that, prior to the interaction, your disposition was not currently observable, it does not follow that you did not at that point have a current disposition. In fact, it is precisely during that ensuing interaction that the disposition which in fact existed previously will become observable, and the existence of that disposition is precisely why the interaction will go one way or the other. And that disposition is represented by what your intention was in using the word. 

There is no justification in this supposed “problem” for doing away with the notion that people have ideas in mind and intentions any more than there was justification in the supposed “problem” in the example of coffee drinkers in Quining Qualia to do away with the notion that people do have subjective first–person experiences which they alone have first–person access to and which, as such, they cannot be mistaken about (even if they can draw mistaken inferences about why they are happening). If externally quantifiable criteria can’t suffice to account for intentionality, the only thing this actually proves is that intentionality is something distinct from what can be externally quantified.

However, the primary data, which we know immediately from directly observing the intrinsic contents of our own first–person experiences first–hand, that our conscious thought operates by picking out and representing inherently intentionalistic concepts, is a fact that Dennett must try to find some means of denying in order to try to dilute “intentionality” into something that the only tools which any evolutionary approach to explaining it can even attempt to use, since he recognizes that these tools would be incapable of accounting for it otherwise: after discussing the example of a machine designed for the purpose of detecting U.S. quarters which eventually ends up by mistake in Panama, where it turns out to be equally capable of detecting the Panamanian quarter–balboa, he asks whether the machine is ‘mistakenly’ identifying quarters all the while, or rather at some point begins to ‘accurately’ identify quarter–balboas. Suddenly ignoring the fact, which he previously recognized [9] that this simply depends on the conscious intentions of the people who are using the machine for either one or the other purpose at any given point in time, he concludes that “[since] the two–bitser is just an artifact[, i]t has no intrinsic, original intentionality, so there is no “deeper” fact of the matter we might try to uncover. This is just a pragmatic matter of how best to talk, when talking metaphorically.”

But since “We are artifacts [of natural selection]. . . survival machines for genes that cannot act . . . in their own interests,” it follows that “the same pragmatic rules of interpretation [must apply] to the human case.” And “if we are such artifacts, not only have we no guaranteed privileged access to the deeper facts that fix the meanings of our thoughts, but there are no such deeper facts [and therefore, it would follow, no meanings to our thoughts at all!]” But Dennett, in extending this analogy, misses the very point (which again he previously conceded to[9]) that the only fact that determines which state the machine is “in” is precisely defined by the deliberate purposes for which human beings are using it in the first place. 

The argument gets everything precisely backwards, by assuming the absoluteness of precisely the very unproven physicalist premises that the observed aspects of consciousness cast under question, drawing conclusions that eliminate plainly, directly observed data about how consciousness operates (e.g., by understanding ideas through having thoughts which are intrinsically “about” the concepts to which they refer), and then blithely proceeding to eliminate those fundamental aspects of thought, consciousness, experience, and the self in sacrifice to the premises with hardly a moment’s pause—“A shopping list in the head has no more intrinsic intentionality [e.g., actual meaning] than a shopping list on a piece of paper.” Yet it does this, no less, while projecting things we can only describe as possessing “intentionality” because human beings project their intentionality into them when using them for conscious purposes—to try to “explain” human intentionality and purpose.

What Dennett has created here turns out to be an argument whose conclusion refutes its own premises. There is no  “deeper fact” about whether the quarter–detector in Panama is “really” detecting quarters or quarter–balboas—because this depends on the purpose to which it is being intentionally adopted by intention–driven, purpose–adopting human minds[9]. Therefore, since human beings are artifacts as well (resulting from a process that doesn’t even craft them in the ways that it does for literal “reasons”—a fact that Dennett equivocates around by using the metaphorical language that the mindless process of evolution “selects . . . [a] design . . . [for] reason[s]” rather than simply describing this in the more accurate literal language that traits end up proliferating as a result of given causes), human beings do not have intentional concepts or purposes, either. But then it would follow that no one was ever adopting the quarter–detector for either the purpose of detecting quarters or the purpose of detecting quarter–balboas, either—a claim that even Dennett himself seems not to believe is true! And we circle right back around yet again to the very phenomena that Dennett is pretending that any of this is somehow explaining.

Thus, for Dennett, conscious experience itself just is literally nothing more than the fact that people talk “about” their experiences—nevermind that they do so because there are experiences for them to talk about. And intentionality itself just is literally nothing more than the fact that people can “hold intentional stances” towards things and interpret them in ways that help them predict the future—nevermind that they are able to do this in the first place only precisely because of the very capacity of human minds to interpret and represent meaning, which is exactly the phenomena of intentionality Dennett somehow thinks he’s reducing. But notice that if Dennett is right about intentionality, then it follows that he pulls the rug out from under even his own reduction of conscious experience to statements “about” fictional conscious experiences, because even the appearance that these statements are “about” experiences or anything else is merely a fiction, too! As is the notion that any of this even “appears” to be any sort of way at all—for there are no appearances; you simply speak about the world as if there are. But—again—you don’t ever actually speak or think determinately “about” anything, either. Yet it can’t even be quite right to describe any of this as a “fiction,” because fictions are representational narratives, and the brain—being a physical object—doesn’t operate through semantic, propositional narratives or through “representing” anything. Despite the illusion that it does—which doesn’t exist either, because all that actually exists are your statements “about” experiences. But not only do the experiences not exist, the statements aren’t even “about” anything. How is it even possible to get things this wrong?!

The ultimate motivation for all this absurdity is, of course, that “either you must abandon meaning rationalism—the idea that you . . . not only hav[e] access, but . . . privileged access to your meanings—or you must abandon the naturalism that insists that you are, after all, just a [blind physical] product of [blind, physical] natural selection.” And Dennett sides with abandoning the idea that we ever know what we “mean” by anything (while delivering this in a paper which tells us that he means this). But we have far more overwhelming evidence for the fact that thought expresses meanings which our conscious minds are capable of understanding than we do for the claim that “[we] are, after all, just [blind physical] product[s] of [blind physical processes of] selection [acting on blind physical entities].”

The case of Dennett proves that the non–physicalist is not inventing these inherent problems and contradictions. Even those who are committed to physicalism end up seeing them—and no less than that, even when they see the rank absurdity entailed by those premises, many continue stubbornly defending these premises against every notion that makes conscious thought and experience comprehensible at all, and even well past the point that they can only continue to press the point through contradicting themselves repeatedly at the deepest and most fundamental levels.

The entire article containing Dennett’s argument, itself—representing nothing other than the use of language which represents thoughts that are “about” concepts and the abstract logical relationships between them—is itself fundamentally all and nothing other than an exercise which originates in the “objective,” “real” intentionality present in Daniel Dennett’s conscious mind the entire time. The physicalist is simply left with no option but to deny subjective experience from concepts he derived from his own conscious experience, and deny the conceptual and representational nature of thought through thoughts “about” the logical consequences of the concepts, expressed in representational symbols. [7] This is the most overwhelming refutation of physicalism there could possibly be.

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______ 

[1] Because he recognizes explanations of material structure and inertly caused motion can’t in principle explain private, subjective experience (and explanations of form, structure and motion are by definition the only tool that the physicalist account has)—points which the previous entry, “The Case of the Lunatic Fish,” labored in detail to make, with reference to physicalists themselves expressing difficulty with it, while Jaegwon Kim—for example—openly defends the position that subjective experience just ‘dangles’ off the physical processes of the world awkwardly.

[2] Compare the Knowledge Argument, for example, to Lawrence Bonjour’s martian.

[3] Even if Searle is perfectly correct, the accuracy of his point that “computational models for consciousness stand to consciousness in the same way the computational model of anything stands to the phenomena being modeled. Nobody supposes that a computational model of rainstorms in London will leave us all wet” simply poses no necessary challenge to the possibility that we could eventually create a fully working model of human intelligence.

[4] Kurzweil follows this up with the elaboration that: “I understand English, but none of my neurons do. My understanding is represented in vast patterns of neurotransmitter strengths, synaptic clefts, and interneuronal connections. Searle appears not to understand the significance of ( . . . ) emergent properties.” This is the assumption from which the “systems reply” is supposed to proceed. But the hidden linking premise between “understand English” and “none of my neurons do” which is supposed to bridge this claim in defense of the systems reply is that “My understanding [in the specifically intentionalistic rather than functional sense] consists of nothing other than physical neurons which operate solely by causal function without any intrinsic capacity for intentionality.” Unlike the questions I admit to have technically had to beg at points throughout my discussion due to the nature of the cases they involved, Kurzweil begs the question in favor of a point that is a strong empirical claim about the world, and is not accessible through introspection by anyone’s claim (not even Kurzweil’s). Nor is it in any sense something which has been proven empirically.

Furthermore, it is exactly the assumption that the reasoning this argument presents actually provides reasons to reject. It should be fair to say that there are more and less offensive ways to ‘beg the question.’ Bluntly ignoring an argument that gives reasons to think a certain conclusion is false only to flatly reply that “those reasons are incorrect, because the conclusion is true” while giving no other reason to reject them (not even “because I know by immediate awareness that the conclusion is true, and I’m sorry that that leaves me in the inescapable position of having to technically beg the question as the only way I can try to ‘point towards’ what I know to be true”) is surely among the most offensive and least defensible, but it is what any critic who tries to take Kurzweil’s approach would in principle have no choice to resort to.

If a critic actually wanted to try to take this approach in anything so much as resembling a reasonable way, they would admit the unbearably obvious conceptual distinction between a physical ability to execute a procedure and a conscious ability to intentionalistically ‘understand’ which the thought experiment serves to draw out, and then suggest some way how—to our surprise—there is some way to bridge the gap from physical procedure to intentionality with the tools offered by physical procedure alone. The whole point of this entry, however, is to explain the systematic reasons why this is impossible and incoherent in principle. Kurzweil simply fails to demonstrate any concrete appreciation for any kind of actual understanding of the “significance of ( . . . ) emergent properties” of his own; he merely uses the term as a means of hand–waving—with arrogance.

[5] A particularly tedious technical attempt to get around this is to appeal to the Kripkean notion of “a posteriori necessity.” Anyone who thinks Kripke’s idea is relevant here has simply been, in the words of this article, “misled by language”: “[I]t is important not to confuse conceptual analysis with metaphysics. [A common interpretation] is that Kripke made a metaphysical discovery: that he discovered really interesting modal metaphysical facts (e.g. water is necessarily H2O) that we come to grasp through empirical discovery (i.e. water’s molecular structure).” Thus, the defendant of physicalism who appeals to this notion suggests that we can “discover” that the mind and the brain are identical empirically (a posteriori), even though they aren’t identical conceptually (a priori), in the same way Kripke is supposed to have discovered this for something like the identity of water and H2O. However, “ . . . this is not quite right. . . although Kripke discovered something philosophically interesting (two empirical facts plus the law of identity), he didn’t discover anything metaphysically interesting.”

This is why Kripke himself repudiated the idea that conscious states and physical brain states were or could be “identical” for variations on precisely the same reasons in essence which I have defended throughout this series. If there’s no conceptual identity, there’s no identity. And the notions of conscious experience and physical process, or of intentionality and causal procedure lack conceptual identity completely—a truth which simultaneously renders it true for all the same reasons that it is impossible in principle to “build” either of the former out of any combination of ingredients made up solely of the latter. The differences are not a matter of degree, but of category. The dimensions in which the phenomena of consciousness are measured represent fundamentally different categories from those which the physicalist defines “physical” phenomena as possessing. If the physicalist chooses to do this, then the physicalist has defined himself into a corner.

The moment we admit that consciousness truly does possess these properties (that is, the moment we reject eliminativism), physicalism has failed by definition—but these are the definitions provided by the physicalist himself, not those invented by critics. So this argument, despite being true “by definition,” does not “beg the question” except at the step at which the only way we can “point at” these properties of consciousness is by introspection—which in turn is true regardless of the quality or lack thereof of any publically verifiable argumentation that can be made because consciousness itself is a subjective phenomena—is the very existence of the phenomena of subjectivity itself—to begin with. If someone wants to side with Dennett and deny his own subjective experiences (or with Rosenberg and deny that he ever thinks “about” anything), while pretending he did not arrive at these conclusions by thinking “about” things he knew solely because he observed them within his own subjective stream of experience to begin with, I can no more formally argue against him without “begging the question” than I can do so against the solipsist. But the falsity of the central claim of physicalism as a whole ultimately turns out to follow from nothing more than this.

[6] Similar analogies with computers are sometimes made towards qualia: in defense of “emergence,” the arguer will point out that “the color blue” is not physically represented inside the processing unit, and yet it still manages to appear in the screen—and this is supposed to prove, by analogy, that “the color blue” could appear in consciousness without being physically represented inside the neurons. However, the only “color blue” that “appears in the computer screen” is just exactly the one that exists within and as an aspect of your subjective conscious experience in the first place. The “color blue” as such isn’t physically in the screen, either, any more than it’s in the CPU.

[7] Just as what happens inside of a calculator is not, in and of what it intrinsically is, actually any sort of physical act of “calculation” apart from the attributions of conceptual–representational “meaning” by convention to symbols which are laid on top of the physical processing as such by intentionalistic conscious observers themselves, so there is nothing about a word, as a physical object, that is intrinsically “about” anything. Words are only “about” something by proxy: because conscious minds have the power to invest and derive “meaning” in and from the world. If I write the word “Hungry”, it means something. If grains of sand blow in the wind and land in the shape of the word, it is meaningless. And it is meaningless because the wind possesses no intrinsic intentionality. When and where the shape does ever mean anything, it means something because it expresses conceptual thought “about” the world within the conscious mind of an observer, and the only time we read intentionality of any sort out of the physical world, it is because it was “put there,” so to speak, by a conscious observer, intentionally—not just “due to” a mechanical “cause,” but rather “for” a “reason.” 

Purposes and intentions and representationally experienced understandings of concepts are simply an irreducible part of any explanation that would be capable of giving any sense to what we do when we “understand” language. There would, of course, be a very different sort of causal process—with different causal connecting details—between a human being arranging physical matter into certain shapes and a mindless physical process like the wind arranging the same matter into the same shapes. The question is whether this can possibly be accounted for without intentionality itself as an irreducible part of that sequence of causation—whether the only relevant causal difference rests in anything other than the fact that the wind would not be consciously intending to perform the act that it does for a reason which reason intrinsically involves reference to the fact that the idea which those words represent is “about” something it wants to express something about. The point is that blind physical causality which does not happen for “reasons” at all appears to be incapable in principle of accounting for this.

[8] Hypothetically, we might conceive of an identity theory whose “X is identical to Y” claim is more accurately represented by an analogy like “The mailman named John who comes to your front door every morning is identical to the man named John you see at the bar on Friday nights.” In a case like this, recognizing that two things are “identical” doesn’t mean reducing one to the other. However, what we have in a case like this is one category of event defined in spatio–temporal terms, and what we do in a case like this is recognize a spatio–temporal relationship between a (spatio–temporally defined) thing in that category which we identified at one place and time, and a (likewise spatio–temporally defined) thing in that same category which we identified at a different place and time. In other words, two spatio–temporal events are united by a specifically detailed spatio–temporal relationship between them which can be expressed in a claim like: “When the mailman goes home, he changes clothes and heads out to the bar to drink all night.” In practice, it simply is not possible to extend a theory of this sort to consciousness, because the basic properties we appear to observe within consciousness (subjective experience, intentionality, etc.) seem to belong to different categories altogether than the basic properties the physicalist has defined physical entities as possessing (causality without intentionality, blind process without experience)—and this means the options are either to deny that consciousness really does possess those properties, or else “reduce” them—these are quite simply the only ways to secure a so–called “identity theory,” and so again, any “identity theory” must collapse into either eliminativism or reductive emergentism. Those are the only two options from there—but reductive emergentism collapses, in turn, into eliminativism for the reasons explained above.

[9] “I would say […] that whether its Panamanian debut counts as going into [a state of (inaccurately) identifying quarters] or [a state of (accurately) identifying quarter–balboas] depends on whether, in its new niche, it was selected for its capacity to detect quarter–balboas—[…] by the holder of the Panamanian Pepsi–Cola franchise.”

[10] Or at least try to explain how it could “emerge,” but we’re still getting around to the critique and rejection of that notion. In my view, the only basic form which any proper solution can possibly follow is to accept that intentionality itself represents a fundamental, innate capacity of consciousness, which is accepted as a fundamental phenomena within the world in its own right in turn.

[11] Note, no less, the intentionality that is merely presupposed even here! As we see, for Dennett there are ultimately no thoughts or statements which are determinably “about” anything, either!

[12] Itself a notion intrinsic to intentionality, and not explicable in terms solely of brute causality: thus, Rosenberg rightly derives the conclusion that physicalism would require us to eliminate even this too: “If the physical facts fix all the facts, however, then in doing so, it rules out purposes altogether, in biology, in human affairs, and in human thought-processes too. . . [therefore,] the mind is no more a purpose driven system than anything else in nature. This is just what scientism leads us to expect. There are no purposes in nature; physics has ruled them out . . . If the brain cannot be the locus of original intentionality, then original intentionality just doesn’t exist. But without intentionality, we have to recognize that most of our conceptions about ourselves are also illusions. If plans, projects, purposes, plots, stories, narratives and the other ways we organize our lives and explain ourselves to others and ourselves, all require intentionality, then they too are all illusions.”

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:

epiphenomdiagram

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?

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?

Hardly.

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

Consciousness (II) — Digging up the Conflict’s Roots

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

Intuitively, the atheist feels vaguely, without necessarily even having any consciously or explicitly identified set of reasons, that if human consciousness could not be explained in thoroughly physical terms, this would somehow pose a dangerous threat to his entire worldview—and he enters into the discipline of philosophy of mind with this prejudice coloring his perception from the moment he begins to explore its questions.

Plenty of forms of “atheism” the world over (present even in the religious sects of Buddhism and Hinduism) seem, without believing in any deity at all, to have no issue with nevertheless acknowledging the existence of what the typical Western atheist would even describe as, for all intents and purposes, “souls.” Yet, however much these perspectives may lack belief in a deity, the term “atheism” doesn’t call them to mind for us because the word—whatever its formal denotation—does, in fact, connote a specific, developed worldview—which generally holds something like the series of claims that: (1) the scientific method is the most effective, or the only way to investigate the physical world; (2) the world itself is, at root, fundamentally ‘physical’ through and through; and (3) since the world is thoroughly physical and science is the best (or only) way to investigate the physical, science is capable of doing everything religion is ever supposed to have, answering every question about ‘who we are, why we are here, and where we are going’ in what are ultimately purely mechanistic terms (summarized by the scientific accounts of cosmological and evolutionary sciences, conceived of in a physically deterministic sense) and thus rendering any sort of religious speculation whatsoever absolutely superfluous. In the minds of many, it is this capacity of science to now replace the answers once given to great questions by religion with its own which has made it possible for atheism to become “respectable.”

Yet this trend, I have argued, is not because of any necessary direct logical connection between the nature of human consciousness and the existence of God per se, but because of the contingency that the religions of the West have historically chosen to predicate themselves on particular tellings of stories in history rather than, strictly, on metaphysical and theological beliefs per se—as science progressed, it inevitably found these historical claims to be untrue (the world, for example, is most certainly greater than a mere six thousand years old); and as it did so, the battle lines became drawn around science and religion in particular, with the conflict between the two hardening and changing the shape of each of them in turn, like two people in an abusive relationship who begin to hate the foods the other eats, or the small habits they practice, for no reason other than the fact that these are what the person they feel so much disdain for likes and does, the relationship thus giving them tastes (and distastes) they might never have formed outside of it through their own solitary development. The battle over religion having formed around the pivot point of crisis established by modern findings of science which directly contradict the  claims of religions which have chosen to center themselves on historical, empirical claims, a tendency thus develops within an atheism that evolves out of this condition to increasingly want to strengthen the force of science’s argument against religion by denying that anything could possibly stand, in any way, beyond the reach of full explicability by science and the peculiar methods of investigation which science is suited to at all.

The first and most fundamental mistake committed by the atheists’ typical approach, however, is that it philosophizes science unconsciously, without knowingly and explicitly owning up to what it is doing. The true internal nature of the “physical” entities investigated by science is left entirely unrevealed by the strict facts of science itself. Strictly speaking, even the fact that those entities are “physical” in any way that is ordinarily assumed at all is left unproven by science, and is unnecessary as an assumption for just continuing to engage in scientific practices—strictly speaking, science simply allows us to predict what we will observe in the future based on the correlations we find between our observations today. Yet, this endeavor, in and of itself, says absolutely nothing about the possibility that something like Berkeleyan idealism could be true: what if our observations correlate in the ways that they do not because there are truly “physical” entities existing “out there” at all, but because we are living within a virtual simulation rather akin to a dream world created by God, who actively chooses to always allow our observations (which are all that ever actually exist) to consistently correlate?

“Science,” insofar as it simply applies the scientific method of testing and refining hypothesis to increase the accuracy of our predictions, simply says nothing whatsoever about whether the correlations it finds exist for a reason like this one, because the entities it observes truly are blind and physical forces composing the “rock bottom” of reality, or for some other reason besides (there could perhaps be a thousand examples in between these two extremes). As a practice, it simply says nothing about any of these possibilities; and it simply doesn’t need to. A practice that tests and refines hypotheses about our future observations simply says nothing, in and of itself, about the intrinsic nature of the reality behind our observations or about how it is that our very observations are possible (or what their relationship is to the world) in the first place.

The atheist commits himself to particular philosophical interpretations of precisely what science does and can reveal, and in precisely what way it reveals to us what it reveals. So far as it goes, this is fine—anyone else would be applying their own philosophical interpretations should they want to provide any alternative answer to the same questions, too; and one of these interpretations does, after all, have to be true. The problem is just that these interpretations typically are not acknowledged as such and instead are treated as if they are simply what “science” itself transparently reveals to us to be true—and this isn’t so. The best explanation for science’s success may lie in the interpretation that all reality is in fact composed at its root of only blind physical forces operating by mathematically capturable laws; but science itself quite plainly does not intrinsically reveal to us that this is true as a transparent fact.  If we branch off from here into philosophy of mind and we begin to find that this interpretations doesn’t allow us to do a great job of accounting for the possibility of consciousness, we are perfectly well within our rights to question that interpretation and consider whether alternatives, in light of the questions raised by philosophy of mind, don’t do a better job of allowing us to hold together a more cohesive understanding of the full phenomena of the world around us.

However, we shouldn’t miss the point that the reason admitting this isn’t so simple is because, to a large degree, the entire purpose for which science is adopted against religion by the atheist in the dialectic is precisely that it removes the mind and mental concepts from the picture. Scientific cosmology is important because it removes the requirement for any intention within a (divine) mind to create behind an explanation for the existence of  “creation.” Evolutionary biology is important because it removes the requirement for any intention within a (divine) mind to design behind an explanation for the build of all life forms on Earth. Where once we had mind and intention and purpose and desire as the bedrock of our ultimate explanations for these things (e.g., that God wanted to do it, for such-and-such reasons), now we have replaced them with blind, mindless causality that is best described by deterministic mathematical laws.

And so the hard–line philosophy of physicalism becomes so intimately associated with “atheism” as to become nearly its synonym because it seems natural to the atheist to assume from here that as the deepening of our understanding of reality progresses, it will continue to move in this direction: it will continue to dethrone the place of consciousness in reality; it will continue to reduce “mind” to the mere byproduct of the physical; it will continue to reduce what once seemed to be “intention” to the blind forces of mere brute causality; and it will, finally, result in a picture in which everything that exists is the mere byproduct of a world running blind on fixed, predetermined rails that no one built, and where consciousness is—at best—something that shows up at some later point inside the train and whose role is limited—at most—to the ability to glance out at the predetermined rails the world is running on from the window.

The question philosophy of mind brings us to is whether this process can continue once it reaches up to the consciousness we all experience—once it moves from eliminating the existence of intentionality in a hypothetical divine mind in favor of a story that replaces this with blind causality on to carrying this project through to the task of similarly dethroning the “purposes,” “desires,” and conscious intentionality we all experience first–hand and to reducing even these fully to blind forces of brute causality as well. This is the project which physicalism does—and must—set for itself, and we should not fail to see that this redefining of who and what we are at the core of our everyday experienced being is even more extreme than any dethroning of any particular religious claim by science has ever been.

There is again, however, absolutely nothing inherently contrary to the project of science, conceived of in the clearest and most unassuming terms, in accepting the possibility that some phenomena which are irreducibly “mental” could indeed simply turn out to be part of the rock bottom list of “things which reality is composed of.” The atheist (or naturalist or physicalist) is not relying on anything which has been strictly proven when he assumes that this cannot be so. What he has against this possibility is, in the most literal sense of the word, a prejudice—a prediction, however based it may be off of what the atheist considers to be a trend in this general direction. The problem is that this prediction is so often assumed to be so much more than it actually is—it is assumed to be, or at least spoken of as if it is, something that has actually been proven somehow by the facts strictly demonstrated by science as such. A couple of parables will serve to help illustrate the risks contained in holding on to this assumption too fervently.

To adapt an analogy first proposed by the philosopher David Chalmers, let’s rewind ourselves for a moment back to the time of Newton. All that we know of the “rock bottom” kinds of entities that science suggests the world contains at its root as the building block of all further entities is the atom, and the only kind of interaction we know of that takes place as the building block of all further interaction between things in the world is direct physical contact between these entities: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction;” and so the world is much like a complicated collection of very tiny billiard balls bouncing into each other. Now, consider the confusion that Newton expressed from within this view of the nature of the world about gravity when he wrote: “It is inconceivable that inanimate Matter should, without the Mediation of something else, which is not material, operate upon, and affect other matter without mutual Contact… That Gravity should be innate, inherent and essential to Matter, so that one body may act upon another at a distance thro’ a Vacuum, without the Mediation of any thing else, by and through which their Action and Force may be conveyed from one to another, is to me so great an Absurdity that I believe no Man who has in philosophical Matters a competent Faculty of thinking can ever fall into it.”

Because Newton had no reference point within the list of entities which the science of his day had so far established to make up the most basic “building blocks” of reality which he saw any option of “reducing” an explanation of gravity into, he was left to simply regard this “action at a distance” to be some kind of bizarre mystery. Of course, in the modern day, most of us know the correct answer (or at least, something much closer to it): the “vacuum” which Newton spoke about is not just vacant space—space, itself, turns out to be a “thing;” a thing that can be curved; a thing in its own right, not reducible to any other “bedrock” entities, but existing all on its own right beside them. Newton was confused because he couldn’t explain gravity in terms of local atomic interactions. His confusion was appropriate: it can’t be. But the answer to that conceptual dilemma could only come in realizing that atomic forces and local “billiard ball” interactions between them are not the sole building blocks of reality; something new simply had to be added to our list of what those entities are. And there was absolutely nothing contrary to the project of science in allowing ourselves to admit that space itself was just such an entity.

Now, for  another example (this one closer to Chalmers’ own use of it, but still modified slightly for my purposes), let’s move to the early 19th century, at a time when the phenomena of electromagnetism had yet to be discovered. Suppose someone has, by accident, discovered a magnet, and set up shop on the side of a street somewhere using those magnets to cause lead shavings to “levitate” while claiming to have discovered “magic.” They would call this “magic,” of course, merely because it violates their own expectations about the world—expectations set, quite simply, by an incomplete worldview that does not tell them about electromagnetism but instead references only atomic phenomena. A modern day skeptic who encountered this street magician might insist that science shows that no such thing is possible (per the assumption that “science shows” that all that exists “at rock bottom” are atoms, which cannot interact with each other “at a distance”)—and his way of refusing to accept that “magic” is real would be to insist that whatever is going on, it must be explicable in terms of the particular entities so far acknowledged by the science of his day—direct physical contact between atomic particles. However, no such reduction would ever be possible: the phenomena produced by electromagnetic forces would, quite simply, never be explained in terms of local mechanical interactions between atomic particles. Yet if the skeptic were stubborn, he might continue insisting on to no end that unless and until we’ve explained the street magician’s trick in terms of such interactions, we haven’t understood what’s going on. But—we could easily imagine him swearing to us—once we understand all the facts, we willone day!—know exactly how the phenomena in front of us is explained by local, atomic interactions.

And while his claim would, in one sense, be impossible to refute, and our skeptic might have gone on making this unredeemable promise to us forever, we know today that he would simply be wrong. Once again, the correct answer is that electromagnetism was simply a new phenomena, belonging to the “bedrock” of reality itself, in its own right; and is not something reducible to the terms and functions of any other “bedrock” entities like atoms. The correct response to this encounter with “magic” absolutely would have been to accept that something we previously would have considered “magical” and counter to our then–so–far recognized entities and laws simply was, in fact, real—that it was not the magic tricks with magnets that were not as they appeared, but our own assumptions about reality that were at fault as a result of the fact that they were incomplete. The analogy should be clear enough: physicalists often promise that even if we don’t know the details at present, a completed science of consciousness will absolutely—swear!—be able to explain exactly how subjective consciousness is explained in terms of the somewhat less linear, yet still most assuredly blind, mechanical and deterministic[1] entities and forces (and laws describing them) acknowledged by current science, once its understanding is complete.

How much stock should we put in this sort of promise? Is it possible we could be in a similar position with regards to consciousness as Newton was towards gravity, and as a skeptic before the time of Maxwell would have been towards magnetic “magic tricks”—encountering a new, and fundamentally different sort of entity whether we realized it or not, and yet potentially indefinitely refusing to acknowledge this, out of nothing more than sheer prejudice about what kinds of phenomena reality can or cannot contain—committing ourselves to a promise of eventual reduction which is irredeemable in principle (because the phenomena is one that exists in its own right, and simply does not reduce) and therefore committing a mistake we might never even see the error in, because no length of time in which the promise goes unredeemed is ever going to “prove” that it is irredeemable because it was made in error?

[1] I use this word in the loose sense that even if the laws are probabilistic and “random,” as the laws of quantum mechanics may be, they still “determine” when a randomized roll of a metaphorical dice in some equation will be performed as a part of the equation itself. Even “random” laws are still “deterministic” in this basic sense.

Continued posts:
(III) — Does the World Pantry Stock More than Sugar?
(IV)  The Case of the Lunatic Fish

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

The typical person who develops an interest in philosophy of mind comes into the matter through a prior interest in the topic of philosophy as a whole. Predominantly, those who find themselves attracted to philosophy (other than philosophy of religion) are atheists—and by and large, those who are members of an organized religion will tend to perform their “philosophizing” amongst those who share their religion, rather than amongst the mixed environment of a formal philosophy class.[1] It could even be said that for many, the very project of philosophy itself is to build a worldview which fills in the gaps to answer the questions once addressed by religion, in the wake of religion’s demise. Nietzsche, writing in 1882, gave the clearest precedent for this conception of philosophy when he wrote, “God is dead. . . And we have killed him. . . What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us?”

Generally, the kind of atheist who decides to pursue philosophy will have a consciously dim view of religion’s influence in the world—a declaration of atheism most usually does not just express a belief that the claims of religion happen to be false, but even further, that it would be positively worth the effort to erase religion from the world. Whether Karl Marx writing in 1833, “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness;” Sigmund Freud writing in 1929, “The whole [religious worldview] is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above [it];” or Sam Harris in the 21st century writing, “If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion,” rarely is atheism expressed as a position on something which rational people could disagree about; most often it is, in effect, synonymous with the belief that religion positively ought to be eradicated. Even more rarely, for example, do we hear the opinion expressed by someone who happens to think God does not exist that the fact is disappointing. 

The average  individual enters the debate on philosophy of mind, at the very least, with the solid impression in the background of his awareness that the scientific method generally seems to be resolving questions previously thought to lie in principle beyond its scope and fall instead within the realm of religion. To the first question, “Why are we here?” the Christian account of an intentional creation of the world by God  (as well as the argument that the existence of “creation” logically requires the existence of a creator) has been nullified by advances in the sciences of cosmology and evolutionary biology. As Richard Dawkins puts it: “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually respectable atheist.”

Though we may lack a full understanding of some of the details (such as the exact mechanism of anthropogenesis), science is generally supposed to have already fleshed out a relatively complete picture of the course of the Universe as a whole and of the place of human beings within that picture; and it is assumed to be on an inevitable path of continuing to fill in all missing details until a final account is complete—and it is the advance of this picture, which begins with a Big Bang, proceeds to the gradual formation of galaxies and to the formation on some planets in these systems of single-celled organisms, finally to the evolution of human beings through a process of natural selection out of these origins, and then ultimately to the collapse of the Universe into a final state through either heat death, a “Big Crunch” back into its original state before the Big Bang (which may or may not eventually result in yet another Big Bang), or a “Big Freeze”—that has made it possible for disbelief in the existence of God to be, at least from the viewpoint of people like Dawkins, “respectable.” Notably, this story begins with only physical entities and forces in its account, and it proceeds through a purely physical sequence of causation to account for absolutely everything in existence.

While many adherents of an organized religion may attempt to incorporate the facts revealed by science into their belief structure, an all-too-common response is to deny their truth entirely. Religious criticism of the scientific findings of Charles Darwin began within Darwin’s own lifetime, with the 1847 publication of the Princeton Biblical scholar Charles Hodge’s What is Darwinism? which concluded with the answer: “It is Atheism” (a point taken to be the decisive argument against it); and the conflict continues today, with as many as four in ten Americans still believing, over 150 years after the first publication of On the Origin of Species, that God created all life in Earth in exactly the same form it exists today just 10,000 years ago or less. (In fact, if the chronologies recorded in the Bible are added up together, and we were to assume that every detail and length of time was recorded accurately, there would in fact be just six thousand years between God’s creation of all life on Earth and the present day.)

Clearly, a battle has formed, in which the interplay between these two sides has caused them to mutate in response to each other. On one side, we have those who are committed to the belief that one particular book from one particular ancient culture accurately records the entire story of all life from the beginning of time itself, and who believe they can consider this “knowledge” without any need to first investigate the claims they have made and test them (except, at best, as an afterthought). However sophisticated or even seemingly plausible the objections may be which any particular religious believer can produce against the idea of evolution, the root of his objection is almost always the same: he has read Genesis 1; and Genesis 1 says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. […] And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly […] Let the land produce […] livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” […] Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness (…).” Having read these words, the religious individual needs look no further, unless to produce more complicated justifications for what he already knows whether he can produce arguments or justifications for it or not. In at least the basic outline, the religious believer knows without a doubt exactly when and how the sequence of creation went down.

And on the other side, we have the atheist who understandably sees this commitment to the belief that one “knows” things they haven’t arrived at through questioning and testing to be irrational; sees the need to admit, first and foremost, our lack of automatic knowledge and the fundamental need for a careful method of investigating and testing claims in order to thereby discover the truth; but who then almost inevitably goes further, and advances an account on which science is supposed to have revealed a full and complete account of absolutely everything, revealing a world composed at root of nothing but blind physical objects and forces crunching, banging, expanding, and evolving through purely blind physical sequences of causation to produce everything that there is, by sheer accident. In the words of Richard Dawkins, “The universe [is] […] at bottom […] nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

While the strict definition of the word “atheism” may state that it merely denotes a lack of belief in the claim of God’s existence, by all measures of popular usage, the term has indeed largely come to connote positive belief in a substantially developed worldview rather than a mere, simple lack of belief that the God of popular theism exists. And that worldview has evolved (excuse the pun) in a specific number of ways, for specific reasons. The peculiar battlegrounds on which religion has fought with its skeptics has caused those skeptics’ worldviews to shift, in response, in ways that they might not have otherwise in attempt to hold their ground on those particular fields. In India, for example, 77% of respondents gave the affirmative answer to the question, “Do you agree that enough scientific evidence exists to support Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution?”—compared to just 41% of the United States. In a culture where the dominant religions advance a cyclical cosmology incredibly similar to the Big Bang–Big Crunch–Big Bounce model of modern cosmological science and evolution faces less opposition from the religious, the non–religious are less likely to worry that the truth of evolution might render our lives without “purpose” (the cyclical worldview of their religion does not advance the need for any linear “purpose” to begin with), or even that it undermines the likelihood of the existence of the soul—as one school of Hindu thought, known as Samkhya, even accepts the notion of reincarnating individual souls while rejecting the existence of God! Whatever the formal definition, few in the West think of a worldview like this one when the word “atheism” is used.

The peculiar set of religious claims which the non-religious act in reaction to in the West influences the shape that the worldview of those who reject religion here will take in response to that rejection. There will be a tendency amongst those who see reason to be hostile towards religion to feel an automatic distaste towards anything which it promotes — Nietzsche, to take the most obvious example, wrote that Christianity “turned every value into a disvalue [and has] contempt for every good and honest instinct (emphasis mine).” (Similarly, the religious will broadly tend to form their own reaction to these trends in turn by growing less and less trusting of science and the claims of scientists in general.)

In his 1983 Science on Trial: The Case For Evolution, evolutionary biologist Douglas J. Futuyman writes: “Some shrink from the conclusion that the human species was not designed, has no purpose, and is fully the product of mere material mechanisms—but this seems to be the message of evolution.” Notice that Futuyman is not content to end the sentence with the statement that evolution gives us the message that “the human species was not designed”—even though this, formally, is all that the theory of evolution in and of itself necessarily seems to prove. Futuyman makes the leap to the further statement that the message of evolution is that the human species “has no purpose, and is fully the product of mere material mechanisms” in reaction to the fact that these happen to be frequent further concerns carried by Christianity.

It was not Darwin—who wrote in The Origin of Species that “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved”—who raised concerns that evolution would render life “purposeless,” but his Christian critics. Darwin even confessed this of his own personal views elsewhere: “With respect to the theological view of the question. This is always painful to me. I am bewildered. I had no intention to write atheistically. [ . . . ]  There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars [ . . . ] [Yet] I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. [ . . . ]  I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.”

Simply in and of itself—so far as it goes—the evidence of evolution strictly says nothing at all about, for example, a topic like free will. Could we imagine that the free, conscious decisions that species make about how to use their inherited abilities could play some role in how they might go on to evolve? Sure, we can. Does any of the hard evidence supporting the fact that evolution occurs rule this possibility out? Not really. What of the fact that the developing embryo seems to reenact stages of evolution—what of the fact that humans and other primates share the same broken, nonfunctional genes in the same specific places in their genome—what of the fossil record addresses the metaphysical question of free will? Strictly speaking, none of it does. But, for better or worse, evolution ends up getting absorbed into a materialistic and deterministic worldview in which man is fully “the product of mere material mechanisms”—largely as a result of where the battle lines end up drawn around religion (and Christianity, in particular): because the progress of science began to dismantle religions which chose to base themselves so largely on false historical claims, this led to a battle with lines drawn between “matter” and “spirit:” if science is going to be the weapon that destroys religion, then it must destroy the religious concept of the “soul” as well. Again—the dialectic looks much different in India. The particular shape and form that this conflict takes is a result of the contingencies of the particular claims made by the religions of our culture; this conflict becomes the branching point at which two groups split and evolve in differing directions specifically in reaction to each other.

Daniel Dennett, one of the so-called “Four Horsemen” of contemporary atheism, is an example of one very prominent atheist tackling the questions of philosophy of mind. Yet, his readers do not always understand what his position on the relationship between conscious experiences and the brain is. His position is that there is, in fact, no relationship between conscious experiences and the brain because there is no such thing as conscious experience. An exchange between Daniel Dennett and John Searle in the New York Review of Books makes this clear. Searle directly accuses Dennett of saying it—and Dennett explicitly accepts the charge. “To put it as clearly as I can: in his book, Consciousness Explained, Dennett denies the existence of consciousness. […] For him, it refers only to third-person phenomena, not to the first-person conscious feelings and experiences we all have. […] I think most readers, when first told this, would assume that I must be misunderstanding him. Surely no sane person could deny the existence of feelings. But in his reply he makes it clear that I have understood him exactly. He says, “How could anyone deny that!? Just watch…”

How, and why, does Dennett arrive at this conclusion? We begin to put together how it might have happened in the introduction to his book Consciousness Explained, where he writes: “in this book, I adopt the apparently dogmatic rule that dualism is to be avoided at all costs.” Dualism—the idea consciousness can’t be explained in terms of blind, physical mechanism, but is—somehow—something additional to that, something which exists in its own right and perhaps has the capacity to interact with the world all on its own. Dennett adopts this “dogmatic rule” against dualism even though he admits that “It is not that [he] think[s] [he] can give any knock-down proof that dualism […] is false or incoherent.” Yet, does not every single one of us have all the evidence we need to know that the claim that nobody ever has any feelings or inner experiences is absolutely false and incoherent? The main reason Dennett does give for adopting his “dogmatic rule” is what he calls “[the] fundamentally antiscientific stance” of dualism. What does he mean by “antiscientific?”

Dennett goes on to express his disappointment that “[t]he few dualists to avow their views openly have all candidly and comfortably announced that they have no theory whatever of how the mind works” and explains that this leaves him with “the lurking suspicion that the most attractive feature of [the dualist idea] is its promise of being mysterious” before concluding, finally, that his justification for the “dogmatic rule” is that “given the way dualism wallows in mystery, accepting dualism is giving up.”  This clearly raises the simple question: is there, in fact, some mystery left over about the existence of conscious experience, after Dennett’s attempt at an account? A critic would say that there absolutely is, and that the dualist is not “giving up” on addressing that mystery nearly as much as Dennett is: in other words, that pretending that a mystery doesn’t exist is absolutely no good way to go about solving one if one actually is there—and all of this serves to most dumbly beg the question: “So, is there a mystery here, or not?”

It seems as though Dennett’s own preposterous “explanation” of consciousness, itself, suggests an answer: faced with what he sees as a decision between either acknowledging that consciousness is, in some sense, “mysterious,” or else denying the very existence of his own subjective feelings and experiences altogether, Dennett prefers to bite the bullet covered in strychnine. If we were to encounter someone telling us that trees don’t exist, we would reflect for a moment on our basic experiences with the world,  recall our many countless experiences with trees, and write them off as a lunatic in a worryingly dangerous level of denial. Why, when Dennett tells us that nobody ever has any experiences of the color green when they look at a tree, or of the roughness of the texture of bark when they touch one, should we take him a whit more seriously or consider him a whit less insane?

It goes without saying that typically, when someone begins to enter a state of denial, there are powerful underlying psychological forces which cause them to do so. Can Dennett’s place at the forefront of the social battle between science and religion be ignored? Could it simply be that the need to see science as something promising completely objective answers to every conceivable question religion has ever played any part in attempting to address could be so strong that Dennett would literally rather deny that he ever has any experiences of anything than acknowledge that the existence of these experiences might, in any way, pose mysterious problems which he himself can’t immediately see any clear answer for?

And if these psychological motives can be so strong for Daniel Dennett, might that be enough reason for all of us to question the impact that this social background might have on our understanding of the issues raised by philosophy of mind as well, and cause us to wonder what we might have thought had we approached those questions with a “beginner’s mind,” without that influence? What might we have thought about them had we approached them with an open mind, starting fresh and clear from the beginning?

[1] See, for example, the PhilPapers survey which finds that 66.2% of all respondents favored atheism, compared to only 18.6% of all respondents favoring theism. By contrast, amongst all respondents specializing in philosophy of religion, the numbers are reversed: 68.4% favor theism, whereas only 18.6% were found to favor atheism.

Continued posts:

 (II) — Digging Up the Conflict’s Roots
 (III) — Does the World Pantry Stock More than Sugar?
(IV)  The Case of the Lunatic Fish