Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Consciousness: An Integrated Part of the Natural World

There is a strong tradition in philosophy to begin analyzing the world by trying to consider carefully one’s own experience. After all, you could say that one’s own experience is all that one really has sure knowledge about. Descartes’ analysis of reality beginning with his “cogito ergo sum” is a famous example. However, from here you can get into all kinds of interesting philosophical problems. For instance there is the problem of solipsism: how can I really know anything exists outside my mind? This problem is related to the old mind/body dilemma: my private thoughts and feelings seem to be a different kind of thing altogether compared to my body and other external objects – so how can these “mental” and “physical” worlds co-exist?

The mind-body problem traditionally left you with 3 alternatives. First, you could accept that the world has two separate and distinct parts: this view is characterized as “dualism”. For instance, Descartes proposed a system which was a strong example of dualism, arguing that there was a physical, or extended, world interacting with a non-extended thinking substance (interestingly, he located the point of interaction in the pineal gland). Most philosophers reject this kind of “substance dualism” because of the problem of how two completely unlike substances could possibly interact. Also, most of us find the idea of a unified “holistic” world to be more attractive than a world split into two parts. A second alternative is to be an “idealist” and believe that the world consists only of mind and just appears to be split into mental and physical domains. This doesn’t work for most of us because it contradicts our everyday experience too blatantly; also it is hard for an idealist to explain why there appears to be a physical world. Finally, you could have a “materialist” or “physicalist” view and believe that there is no insubstantial mental realm at all: there is only the physical world. This is essentially the scientific stance: we assume that we will find a natural physical explanation for the workings of or character of the mind. One rejects any “supernatural” explanations. Those with confidence in this view might point to an analogy. Many folks used to believe in “vitalism”, meaning that living things carry an essential element missing in non-living things -- now modern biology explains life in a way grounded in the same chemistry and physics underlying non-living things.

Unfortunately, I believe materialism (or physicalism) is also not a good solution to the mind-body problem. One reason to be skeptical is that we tend be overconfident in assuming that we (via our scientists) understand the material or physical world at a fundamental level. We really don’t. When most of us non-scientists think about physics, we implicitly picture what you might call the “billiard-ball” picture of the world (based on Isaac Newton’s classical mechanics). This picture says that physicists have broken down the world into smaller and smaller pieces (down to the sub-atomic level) and have analyzed the forces and relations among these particles. Then, knowing the position and relations of these particles, you can predict the future course of the system. Actually, you can’t. For one thing, you run into the conceptual problems of quantum physics at the sub-atomic level. Most people have heard of quantum physics and may know something about it, but I don’t think it has penetrated into our everyday thinking. In the twentieth century, physicists overthrew the billiard ball world with the development of quantum mechanics and general relativity. In the case of quantum mechanics, the mathematics which best describe phenomena at the sub-atomic level have mysterious implications for the nature of reality. One finds that you can’t pinpoint the position as well as the momentum of a particle through observation (the uncertainty principle). Also, sub-atomic entities can exhibit the character of both particles and waves. Finally, in some circumstances particles seem to be able to act on each other instantaneously at a distance. While I won’t try to discuss the details of modern physics here, I just want to make the point that in considering how to address the mind/body problem there is arguably as much mystery remaining in the ultimate nature of matter and energy – the body side of the problem -- as there is in addressing the nature of mind.

However, at this stage I want to discuss directly why science has a particularly hard time explaining mind or consciousness. Also, this will set the stage for me to put forward a solution to the mind/body mystery. The reason for the difficulty lies in the scientific method itself.

Each of us has a unique and subjective point of view. Furthermore, our perspective on the universe comes from a vantage point within the universe. No person can claim to have a perfectly objective view, since this would require a god-like perspective coming from outside the universe. The power of the scientific approach is that one simulates objectivity. This is done by carefully examining things using methods which lead to repeatable results which can be validated by other people. This is very powerful and is the basis of the great success of science.

Now, pretend you are a scientist examining my consciousness. You would probably look at my brain very carefully. You would compare what is happening to my neurons and brain chemistry with what is going on with my behavior and my verbal reports about what I’m experiencing. When you are done, you will potentially have explained a great deal about my mind, but one thing will be left over: you will not learn what it is like to have my first person experience – to feel what it is like to be me “from the inside”.

Let me try to pin down what I mean. I have been using the word consciousness, which is a very vague term (and “mind”, which is perhaps worse). Consciousness can be interpreted to include thoughts, feelings, memories and many other related features or processes. The part I’m honing in on is the raw qualitative experience of being; our “bare” subjective awareness; the “what it’s like from the inside” to exist. We can probably successfully analyze and model (with computers or otherwise) many aspects of cognition, sense perception, and memory. But a “third-person” perspective cannot uncover what it is like to have a “first-person” existence. After we’ve explained everything possible through the scientific method, the fact that it is like something to be me is a further fact about the universe. The mind/body problem really collapses into a problem of reconciling subjective awareness with “objective” analysis. And this is not really a problem at all. It is understandable that we have a dualism of points of view: the subjective and the (simulated) objective.

So, consciousness cannot be reduced or explained the way other phenomena have usually been explained by science. (Note that going forward, when I use the word consciousness without qualifying it, I will be using it in the special sense of subjective awareness I have outlined above). However, this does not mean one needs to be an old school dualist. Here is what we need to do given this insight: we must redefine the natural world to include consciousness as a fundamental feature alongside its other features. It is in the nature of the universe to contain the stuff we know as matter and energy; it is equally in the nature of the universe to contain consciousness.

Let me go back briefly to a theme from my first post. I speculated that the common sense perspective of a large group of people was that for the most part science was on the right track but it would probably come up short on some of the most fundamental questions. What I have argued in this post is that in the case of explaining consciousness, this is exactly what has happened. However, “science” can certainly adapt to this insight about consciousness and get on with its investigations – there is no reason at this point to leap to an explanation involving a mind or soul which seems supernatural or irrational. I think this insight may narrow the divide a little bit.

But we have further to go. In my next post I’ll explore some other aspects of the conclusion that consciousness is a natural feature of the world. For instance, can we say where consciousness came from and whether it extends beyond humans?

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