Tuesday, May 21, 2002
An article in the Washington Post: A New Thinking Emerges About Consciousness. Thanks to Mickey Kaus for linking to it. I'm not so impressed with the article, but it's a subject that I have an interest in, so I thought I'd talk about it anyhow.
Most of it is devoted to folks like Daniel Dennett who deny the existence of consciousness. I have little patience with these people. Here's the key paragraph on these folks:
The feeling you have as you read this sentence, Wegner argues, is an illusion pulled off by a complex machine in your skull. It not only reads and understands this sentence, he says, but also makes you feel as if you have experienced the reading of the sentence. In other words, the brain, not content with being a remarkably complex machine, also convinces itself that it isn't a machine at all.
Doesn't Wegner know he sounds silly? Listen to him. Who's the "you" that has this experience (illusory as it may be) of reading a sentence? Who's the "you" that is convinced it exists?
So-called scientists are adding absolutely nothing to this debate that wasn't aired by Descartes and Hume. Descartes recognized that there was an indivisible "self" that he experienced - that such a self necessarily existed or else talking about "experience" wouldn't make any sense, as indeed it wouldn't. But, since he couldn't say anything intelligent about this self, he simply made it an axiom. Locating it in the pineal gland was a distraction; what he really did was remove it from the physical world in any meaningful sense, and build his philosophy on the dubious ground of introspection. Hume, retorting, denied the existence of the self, arguing that all we knew about were empirical impressions, understood as physical processes. Our modern demystifiers of consciousness like Daniel Dennett are just cribbing from Hume's book. But what Hume's - and Dennett's - argument amounts to is: consciousness is an untenable paradox about which we can say nothing intelligent and scientific. Therefore, we will deny its existence. This is not science and not logic; it's scientism, the quasi-religious conviction that anything we can't understand with today's science does not exist.
You can demystify will and emotion and calculation and intuition as sub-conscious processes. Maybe I only think I make decisions, have feelings, draw conclusions and have insights. Maybe these things are all just gears turning. But someone has the experience of all these things, and that someone is the self. Denying the self is just stupid; you can't even make intelligent sentences on that basis. Moreover, without an observer all of science falls apart; those who would deny the reality of consciousness raise the real prospect of undermining the foundations of science and of ultimately denying reality itself.
I have considerably more sympathy for Chalmers' view of consciousness. Here's the key section on his views:
Deacon admits that this theory, which tries to explain what consciousness does, doesn't quite get at what consciousness is. Deacon is among the many who quote David Chalmers's description of this as the "hard problem."
"The hard problem is hard because no explanation of brain processes will explain subjective experience," said Chalmers, a philosopher at the University of Arizona. "I am interested in the perceptual aspects of consciousness. The feeling of pain, the taste of chocolate, the sight of blue -- all these are subjective experiences."
Chalmers believes scientists will eventually conclude that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe -- like space, time or gravity -- and therefore not reducible.
"Why does the law of gravity hold? No one can explain that," Chalmers said.
I agree with this. There are a number of apparent irreducibles in the universe. Consciousness is one of them. I suspect that, at some level, it will always be irreducible because there's no coherent way to talk about reducing it; all analysis amounts to slight-of-hand. But irreducibles are not the realm of science; they are the edge of the universe, beyond which science cannot go. That still leaves plenty of territory for scientists to work in trying to understand how our minds work - just as we have plenty of work to understand how the laws of physics work. But why there are minds, as why there are laws of physics, is further than we can go.