Home > Uncategorized > Academic summary notes on the problem of consciousness

Academic summary notes on the problem of consciousness

From my archives:

My Notes: An Intro to the ‘problem’ of consciousness

Because I’ve been lazy recently, today is a “5-minute post”, in which I fish out something that I’ve previously written that I think will be interesting. Not, perhaps, to the audience I hope to have, but to the very small audience I currently have.

Review: Consciousness and Its Place In Nature. This an introduction to an introduction: notes on a 45-page philosophy paper authored by David Chalmers that seems to me to serve as a pretty good introduction to the field of the philosophy of mind. It gives you a framework for understanding how theories differ, and what jargon terms mean. I hope that my notes summarizing it makes sense to you: do they? I recommend reading/skimming the article yourself, it’s the first article listed on his webpage right here. <– But be warned! That beast of an article that took me over two hours to read.

There is a hard problem of consciousness as opposed to easy problems. For when the easy problems are accounted for, what’s left over is the fact that it is like something to be you.

By the way, an earlier taxonomy by a philosopher named Broad said that mental (and physical) states can be one of four things: delusive, reductive, emergent, or a basic property. Chalmers has a new ‘taxonomy’, though, of six groups–three materialist, three not.

By the way, there are three basic arguments against materialism: explanatory, conceivability, and knowledge. They all share the characteristic of an ‘epistemic gap’, meaning that material explanation does not explain consciousness. The assumption is that this entails an ontological gap (or that there must be more than one ‘kind of thing’, in my limited understanding).

The explanatory argument: physical functions only explain–that is, only examine the structure and function of material things–but this is not sufficient to explain consciousness. The conceivability argument–the zombie problem: zombies are physically conceivable, defined as humans without the first-person experience, or with mental processes occurring ‘in the dark’. The knowledge argument: consciousness isn’t (it seems) deducible from the facts even if you’re an omnipotent perfect reasoner. In other words, if all physical facts regarding consciousness are not all the facts, consciousness is nonphysical.

Both materialism and non-materialism face respective challenges. Materialism must account for the ‘epistemic gap’ of the hard problem of consciousness. Non-materialism must account for the apparent fact that physics is ‘causally closed’, or that there’s no ‘room’ for consciousness.

There are three ways for materialists to resist the ontological gap-due-to-the-epistemic gap: Type A, there is no gap, Type B, there is an epistemic but not an ontological gap, Type C, the (epistemic) gap will become closed in the future. Type A is called eliminativism. What Type B would say is that zombies are conceivable, but they’re not metaphysically possible because there’s ultimately an identity of nature with mind (in other words, no separation is possible because they’re ultimately the same thing somehow).

The problem with eliminativism is it ‘denies manifest reality’–that consciousness is an ‘explanandum’ (an actual word that means a thing that needs explaining). Therefore its arguments must be strong; but to the contrary, they seem to be weak arguments of analogies that do not hold upon examination. The problem with Type B materialism is the ‘primitive identities’ problem. It assumes an identity of consciousness with nature, but not that an explanation or means of knowledge about consciousness is possible. But this identity business seems an awful lot like (the math that reveals) the discovery of a fundamental law of physics. This suggests it actually follows the spirit of nonreductiveness. The problem with Type C is that it is an appeal to ignorance in my opinion, and also that it collapses into a different argument-Type upon examination. For instance, if it assumes that ‘in the future, we’ll see that functional explanations suffice’, it’s actually Type A in disguise.

There are also three ways that non-materialists can resist the apparent ‘closed causality’ of physics. Type D is called interactionism and denies causal closure, Type E is called epiphenomenalism and says that the mental and the physical are completely separate (no interaction), and Type F is called monism and says that consciousness is somehow the intrinsic nature of reality, even supplementing physics, which doesn’t speak about the “intrinsic nature” of reality. (But the idea of the ‘intrinsic nature’ of reality is something I don’t quite grasp the meaning of.)

The objection to interactionism is obvious: how do they interact? There’s no causal nexus, or place of similarity, by definition it seems, since we’re assuming that nature and mind are fundamentally different. But Chalmers cleverly points out that the same could be said of the fundamental forces in physics (I think this alludes to my suspicion that he is monist; see down two paragraphs). There’s something cool about interactionism and quantum mechanics: in theory, interactionism may eventually be empirically testable, and thus perhaps even test the presence of consciousness.

Epiphenomenalism doesn’t say there’s no interaction between nature and mind, but rather that it goes in one direction only: from nature to mind, and not vice versa. An odd implication of epiphenomenalism is that a constant stream of ‘lucky coincidence’ is necessary if our experience of pain really plays no part in our decision to move our hand from a fire. On a similar note, an interesting objection to epiphenomenalism: it seems to deny any possible knowledge of consciousness, if saying ‘I am conscious’ is not due to the feeling of consciousness. This is an “inelegant” theory.

Chalmer’s Type F: monism has responses to all three arguments, namely, conceivability (zombies), explanatory, and knowledge. It features consciousness and physical reality as deeply intertwined, and concludes that it is fertile ground for investigation, because there is no detailed theory on it yet. The problem it faces is the ignorance about how you could break down consciousness into components and how conscious phenomena are composited.

Conclusion: it’s often assumed that materialism simply must be true, even if it’s hard to see how, but there are reasonable alternatives. Consciousness may have a ‘fundamental’ place in nature.

3 Endnotes

1: There’s an interesting concept, intermediacy, used to get around that it seems impossible to explain consciousness physically. That is, there’s some mediating agent X between the physical world and consciousness such that if you could explain consciousness in terms of X and X in terms of physical world, you could still be a materialist, albeit in a roundabout way. Chalmers finds this unconvincing, claiming that the gulf is too deep and that one of the two chains must necessarily be too weak to bridge it–no matter how you conceive of X. In other words, X is either a chicken or a man, no in-betweens. If you stick feathers up your butt, the illusion is just an illusion, because you’re just a man trying to pretend you’re in between being a chicken and a man and not just a man.

This concept is used again in Chalmer’s monism to propose a panprotopsychism which may or may not be the special case of panpsychism. The monism Chalmers describes is said to have the surprising–and seemingly crazy–implication that it is like something to be an electron (or anything else). The concept of panprotopsychism waters that down by saying, I think, that everything has some intermediate (neutral?) substance that is the seed for mind. Or something.

2: By the way, the wave function collapse of quantum mechanics is interesting for the philosophy of mind because of the fact that measurement is what produces collapse. This suggests the idea that it could be that conscious states are like physical states, but with the extra constraint of no superposition, so that when another state threatens to superpose, collapse is the response (I admit that my mind is muddled thinking about it). Chalmers–a math genius by the way–says that physicists who raise eyebrows to the idea that quantum mechanics could reconcile consciousness with nature should examine the idea more carefully if they’re really sure that physical theory rejects interactionism.

3: From a meta-view, I wondered how a science sociologist might see this paper. In my opinion, philosophy journal articles function as subtle conformity tools. It seems pretty clear to me that Chalmers is rooting for Type F-Monism and that the effect on readers will be to put a halo on it and consider that outlook the most reasonable–and exciting (at least I do). So I think one of the primary functions of philosophy papers might be to change the climate of opinion even more than establishing truth. After all, my mind is far better informed, but quite hazy regarding which is the most accurate of the six main outlooks; due to the subtlety of the arguments, it’s not at all clear. In fact I think it’s very difficult to understand it all (maybe even for the brightest) to the point where some ‘truth’ becomes evident, so that you can demonstrate not only what’s wrong, but also what is correct–and that’s why there will always be philosophers. Consequently, we end up depending on our feelings of apparent-reasonableness, excitement, and other emotional undercurrents more than we should when we read something challenging.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. August 19, 2012 at 7:53 am

    Yay! I remember this. Curious what your thoughts are now. Have you read this (?): http://tinyurl.com/8fyu2f2 (taking the split-brain/confabulation discussions to a new and more interesting level)

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