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The thing about consciousness
Apropos of Colin McGinn’s “The Character of Mind”
According to The Routledge Dictionary of Philosophy (Proudfoot and Lacey, 2010), Colin McGinn’s The Character of Mind (Oxford University, 1997) is an excellent introduction to the problems posed by the existence of consciousness in the material world. The book begins by stressing our predicament of having no perspective-free conception of the mind. We have the subjective first-person perspective, and we have the objective third-person perspective. We have thoughts and sensations, and we have brains. There is introspection, and there is neuroscience. What we are lacking is a “way of resolving the tension generated by the two perspectives,” and our inability to resolve this tension may “place a permanent obstacle in the way of arriving at a theoretically satisfying conception of the mind.”
This is the predicament to which Edmund Husserlreferred as “the paradox of human subjectivity: being a subject for the world and at the same time being an object in the world.” Most philosophers have found this paradox intolerable; hence the common attempt to treat one or the other perspective as primary, to regard one perspective as better revealing the true nature of mental phenomena. The common reaction in our own day is to eliminate subjectivity by some kind of materialist reduction.
Consciousness, however, appears to be particularly recalcitrant to such a reduction, not least because, as McGinn writes, “it belongs to that range of properties that can be grasped only by direct acquaintance: just as a man born blind cannot really know what it is to be red, so a being without consciousness cannot be taught what it is to be conscious,” and this “not because, not being conscious, he cannot be taught anything” but because in order to know what it means to be conscious, he needs to be conscious.
Consciousness, moreover, appears to be essentially relational; your consciousness appears to be a relation between yourself — your conscious self — and some item, be it an external object (say, a banana) or a sensation (say, a headache). When you are conscious of some item, however, you are not conscious of the relation between yourself and the item. This relation is perfectly transparent to you; you look right through it.
McGinn finds it useful to contrast the evolutionary emergence of mind or consciousness with that of life. While we do pretty confidently divide the world into the living and the non-living, we are hard put to it to place a boundary between the two, to find an unequivocal criterion for distinguishing the animate from the inanimate. Being animate seems to be a matter of degree. This makes it relatively easy to shift the boundary to either extreme, to either define life in purely materialistic terms or claim that even atoms or electrons are somehow alive. The presence of the relation between a subject and an object, on the other hand, does not seem to be a matter of degree. To McGinn, therefore, “either a creature definitely is conscious or it is definitely not.” And if consciousness is an all-or-nothing matter, then “it follows that the possession of a mind is also an all-or-nothing matter, since consciousness is what characterises the mind.”
In the case of life we have to do with a gradual transition from the plainly inanimate to the indisputably living; but in the case of consciousness we cannot take such a gradualist view, admitting the existence of intermediate stages. The emergence of consciousness must rather be compared to a sudden switching on of a light, narrow as the original shaft must have been.... Whatever the explanation is — whether indeed the all-or-nothing character of consciousness can be explained — this seems to be a feature that any account of consciousness must respect.
So far so good. Following a brief and fairly unremarkable discussion of some blind alleys, McGinn restates the “puzzle of consciousness,” beginning “by reminding ourselves of the general nature of the material world, as it is now conceived”:
It consists of causally interacting objects disposed in space, each made up of material parts. These objects are subject to a number of physical forces, such as gravity and the electromagnetic force, and they behave in ways prescribed by physical laws. Before the dawn of consciousness, some time in late evolutionary history, this was all there was in the universe — inanimate, insensate matter, blindly colliding, shrinking and expanding. Basically, it was a world of whirling lumps.
Now, I trust that you have read some of my previous missives,and that as a result you more or less know what to make of this. Even as a caricature of the world of pre-quantum physics, it is grotesque. As an articulation of the gist of contemporary physics, it is utterly bizarre. Who is to blame for this? Not specifically McGinn but rather those many cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind who fall for it. If one tries to solve the puzzle of consciousness on such a premise, one virtually ensures that the solution, should one be found, will be equally ludicrous. McGinn continues:
But now consider conscious experience: this appears to be a phenomenon of another order entirely. Subjective awareness is no part of the physical world of material clumps in space. When consciousness is added to the world we get something genuinely novel, not just a rearrangement of what we already have. Consciousness is something extra, not just the old particles in a new configuration. The theory that serves to explain the world without experience seems radically inadequate to explain the world that contains it. And there is a pressing problem about relating experience to the physical world: how do experiences of red, say, relate to what happens in my brain, which looks just like a particularly fancy rearrangement of matter?... How could such a unique phenomenon have arisen from matter, and what kind of entity is the brain such that it can generate it?
Not for a moment does McGinn consider the possibility that the problem lies with the conception of “the physical world of material clumps in space.” Instead he goes on to discuss four answers that “suggest themselves”: eliminativism, miraculism, irreducibilism, and deflationism. Eliminativism says that there literally are no thoughts and sensations and emotions. All this is prescientific nonsense, analogous to ghosts and witches and ectoplasm. There is just the material brain, with its neurons and chemicals and electrical transactions. Miraculism, in McGinn’s words,
embrace[s] the miracle, declaring that our current world-view is indeed grievously limited.... Consciousness is taken to be the direct expression of God’s will, or at least a sign that there is more to reality than natural forces. Consciousness is the immortal soul made manifest. Thus there is something magical in the world, something beyond the reach of reason and science. When the brain produces consciousness this is like the miracle of water turning into wine — an event for which there is in principle no natural explanation.
Irreducibilism (a.k.a. ”justsoism”) declares that consciousness is a primitive feature of the universe and thus irreducible but “not in any way miraculous.” It is correlated with brain events but nothing can be said to explain how this could be: it just is. “After all, something has to be ontologically fundamental.” Deflationism (or “promissory materialism,” as Karl Popper and John Eccleshave called it) claims that consciousness is not as queer as it at first appears. The idea is that the emergence of consciousness from unconscious matter will one day be as transparently explained as the expansion of mercury inside a thermometer immersed in a heated liquid. This response has been likened by Hilary Putnam to “saying that science may someday do we-know-not-what we-know-not-how.”
The approach favored by McGinn is to take the nature of consciousness for a mystery, in the sense that it is beyond humanity’s powers of theory construction, but all the same to deny that it is inherently miraculous. Epistemologically (i.e., so far as human knowledge concerned), “consciousness outruns what we can comprehend, given the ways our cognitive systems are structured — in rather the way that theoretical physics is beyond the intellectual capacities of the chimp.” On the other hand, ontologically (i.e., so far as things are in themselves), “nothing can be inferred from this about the naturalness or otherwise of the object of our ignorance: what cannot be known about is not thereby supernatural in itself.” Thus he “accepts the full reality of consciousness” (thereby rejecting eliminativism), denies that it is intrinsically miraculous (thereby rejecting miraculism), insists that it has an explanation (thereby rejecting irreducibilism), and disputes our ability to find this explanation (thereby rejecting deflationism):
There exists some lawlike process by which matter generates experience, but the nature of this process is cognitively closed to us. The problem is therefore insoluble by us, but not because consciousness is magical or irreducible or nonexistent; it is insoluble simply because of our conceptual limitations. ...we do not have to accept that the world is an inherently unintelligible place, in which water turns into wine every time an experience occurs. There is ... no more reason to think that consciousness is ontologically queer than to think that digestion is — it is just that we have the concepts with which to understand the latter but we draw a conceptual blank on the former.
What is expressing itself here through the voice of McGinn is fear — not simply fear of religious superstitions or the supernatural or plain irrationality but a terror of the suprarational, of something intrinsically true and valuable “beyond the reach of reason and science,” and hence a desperate need for a reality that is intrinsically dead and unconscious, be it the universal wave function of the Ψ-ontologist or quantum-state realist or some caricature of material reality as that offered by McGinn.
Since we obviously know more about the world investigated by physical science than we do about ourselves as subjects, it makes sense to consult an actual philosopher of science/modern physics about the general nature of the material world. Let’s listen to what Dennis Dieks,coeditor of a leading journal on the history and philosophy of modern physics, has to say:
Most physicists have no clear conception of the interpretation of their most basic theory, quantum mechanics. They are largely unaware of the exact nature of the problems in giving a detailed and consistent account of the physical meaning of the theory; and if they are aware, they often don’t care very much. Only very small numbers of researchers have given serious thought to the interpretational problems of quantum mechanics, and have expressed more or less detailed points of view. As can perhaps be expected from the statistics of small numbers, the diversity of opinion is large. Very different ideas have been put forward, none of them supported by great numbers of physicists.
So it’s not just philosophers of mind that are to blame for the sorry state of the philosophy of mind or consciousness. All the same, something can be stated with assurance, inasmuch as its constitutes the common denominator of all interpretations on offer: quantum mechanics concerns statistical correlations between events. It is moreover widely agreed that these events provide information, and that the quantum-mechanical correlation laws serve to assign probabilities (a) to possible information-yielding events and (b) on the basis of information obtained from actual such events. The information obtained is expressed in either of two forms: “the physical observable X has the value Y” or “the physical system X has the property Y.”
Either proposition raises issues. The first raises the issue of why we are talking about observables. Who observes? Who receives the information? Or if by “observables” we mean physical quantities that can be measured, why talk about measurements? While the issues raised by the first proposition emphasize the receiving of information, those raised by the second proposition draw attention to the quantum system to which the information pertains. What sort of existence do quantum systems enjoy? How are they individuated? How are they distinct from each other? Both propositions raise the further question of how the values attributable to quantum observables or the properties attributable to quantum systems are defined.
It lies outside the scope of this communication to rehearse the answers I have offered in previous communications. Instead I’ll again give the word to Dieks (emphases added):
the outcome of foundational work in the last couple of decades has been that interpretations which try to accommodate classical intuitions are impossible, on the grounds that theories that incorporate such intuitions necessarily lead to empirical predictions which are at variance with the quantum mechanical predictions. However, this is a negative result that only provides us with a starting-point for what really has to be done: something conceptually new has to be found, different from what we are familiar with. It is clear that this constructive task is a particularly difficult one, in which huge barriers (partly of a psychological nature) have to be overcome.
In fact, the quantum domain is compatible neither with the traditional concept of substance (which makes it possible to attribute properties to property-carriers) nor with the principle of causality. Yet these are cornerstones of the classical universe of discourse. If experimental physicists could not employ them, they could state neither what they have done nor what they have learned (to use one of Bohr’s more well-known expressions). Since they can obviously do this, we have to differentiate between two domains, the aforesaid quantum domain and the so-called classical domain. This raises the further question of how the two domains are related. The metaphysically barren answer is known as “instrumentalism.” The most penetrating answer, to my mind, is that the two domains are related like a process and its result, the process being the manifestation of the world, the result being the manifested world.
The manifestation of the world is essentially a transition from the One to the Many — from the undifferentiated unity of a single, independently existing Being or Substance to the spatially and temporally differentiated world and the multiplicity of objects it contains. Across the stages of this transition, multiplicity and differentiatedness are gradually realized. If quantum mechanics is formally a calculus of correlations, it is because what is not intrinsically distinct or multiple (such as the intermediate stages of this transition) can only be described in terms of statistical distributions over events that are intrinsically distinct (like the disjoint regions of space monitored by an array of detectors) or multiple (like the clicks of a counter).
What then accounts for the intrinsic differentiatedness of regions monitored by detectors and the intrinsic multiplicity of counter clicks? This is where one must acknowledge that the world is not simply manifested. It is manifested to us. The information yielded exists for us. It is because multiplicity and distinctness are intrinsic to human conscious experience that they are intrinsic to whatever happens or is the case in the manifested world, including all information-yielding events.
Ever since the advent of quantum mechanics, it has been argued that the theory implicates consciousness. But the original arguments proceeded from a false premise. The state vector (or its position representation, the wave function) was thought to represent a physical state of some kind. As such it seemed to evolve continuously between measurements and discontinuously whenever a measurement was made. The “collapse” of the state vector at the time of a measurement was then attributed to the consciousness of “the observer.”
Quantum mechanics implicates consciousness in a more radical way. As was stressed by Kant and reiterated by Niels Bohr, all physically meaningful concepts owe their meanings more or less directly to the spatiotemporal structure of human sensory experience and the logical or grammatical structure of human thought or language. There is no guarantee that these concepts can be applied to a domain that is beyond the reach of direct sensory experience. And in fact they are inapplicable to the quantum domain. Quantum observables must be defined by something that is accessible to direct sensory experience, to wit: the experimental arrangements by which they are measured.
But if atoms and subatomic particles owe their properties to the experimental contexts in which they are observed, then the experimental apparatus cannot owe its properties to the quantum-mechanical systems of which it is commonly said to be composed. Hence neither microscopic objects (like atoms and subatomic particles) nor macroscopic objects (like the experimental apparatus) can be thought of as independently existing substances. And this means that the objective world — conditioned as it is by how it is perceived and conceived by us — cannot be detached from the subjects for which it exists, not even to the extent it was possible for Kant.
McGinn is certainly right to stress the limitations of our language and of the concepts at our disposal, based as they are on our present, mental and (at best) rational constitution. He is right — obviously — to reject eliminativism. He also right to reject deflationism, i.e., the idea is that the emergence of consciousness from unconscious matter will one day be as transparently explained as the expansion of mercury inside a thermometer immersed in a heated liquid. His rejection of irreducibilism, too, is justifiable, given that our entire present knowledge of the goings-on inside brains is ultimately based on the experiences of neuroscientists, rather than on the (as yet) empirically inaccessible source of our experiences. But it goes too far, inasmuch as it rules out not only intelligent speculation about the relation between our experiences and their empirically inaccessible source but also suprarational or supramental forms of knowledge to which the true nature of consciousness, its true relation to the world, and its role in the manifestation of the world is self-evident. At the very least, a conception of matter has to admitted that does not render the problem of consciousness unsolvable from the start.
When it comes of miraculism, however, McGinn’s animus goes off the rails. His asseveration that there is “no more reason to think that consciousness is ontologically queer than to think that digestion is” is as philosophically vacant as the expression “ontologically queer.” If, on the other hand, the expression is synonymous with “we draw a conceptual blank on...”, while its antonym “ontologically straight” means that “we have the concepts with which to understand...”, then, for all we know, consciousness is magical. Either nature is limited to what is subject to natural forces, which is the position taken by McGinn’s when he denies that “there is more to reality than natural forces,” or nature encompasses both what falls within the reach of rational theory construction and what does not, which is the position taken by McGinn when he declares the nature of consciousness to be a mystery beyond humanity’s powers of theory construction.
In his famous “cat paradox” paper,Erwin Schrödinger expressed the view that “[m]easurements on separated systems cannot directly influence each other — that would be magic.” Bell’s theorem showed that the magic was real, and so do many subsequent theorems, some of them experimentally confirmed. Quantum mechanics deals with statistical correlations, and the magic is that there simply are no rational explanations — no physical mechanisms or natural processes by which the correlations could be explained.
Physicists are typically cool with this. On the heels of his often quoted saying “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics,” Richard Feynmansays [emphasis added]: “I am going to tell you what nature behaves like. If you will simply admit that maybe she does behave like this, you will find her a delightful, entrancing thing.” Daniel Greenberger frequently remarked that “Quantum mechanics is magic.” A classic paper by David Mermin opens with this quote, and on its last page Mermin affirms: “The EPR experiment is as close to magic as any physical phenomenon I know of, and magic should be enjoyed.” In the preface of a book published to honor John Wheeler, Greenberger wrote: ”What makes quantum mechanics so much fun is that its results run so counter to one’s classical intuitions, yet they are always predictable, even if unanticipated.” The probable reason why philosophers of mind are not equally cool with the known correlations between contents of consciousness and electrochemical processes in brains, is that there are no laws by which these correlations could be predicted.
Quantum mechanics predicts but does not explain how nature works. The theory only explains — via its conservation laws — why certain things will not happen. This is what one would expect if the force at work in the world were an infinite (unlimited) force operating under self-imposed constraints, as it is according to the Indian philosophical concept of līlā, which describes the manifested world as the field for a joyful sporting game made possible by self-imposed limitations. If the force at work in the world were such a force, it would be self-contradictory to invoke a physical mechanism or natural process to explain its working. What one would need to explain is merely why — to what end — it works under the particular constraints that it does, or why these constraints have the particular form that they do, and that can be done.
Understanding the evolution of consciousness requires an adequate concept of matter and an understanding of how consciousness came to be involved in matter. I can see no better way to procure these desiderata than to proceed from the Indian philosophical concept of Sachchidananda (sat-chit-ānanda): intrinsically beyond mental categorization, this ultimate Reality relates to the world as a substance (sat) that constitutes it, as a consciousness (chit) that contains it, and as an infinite quality/delight (ānanda) that experiences and expresses itself in it. (While intrinsically the three relata are one, how this can be so is beyond mental comprehension.)
Above I spoke of the manifestation of the world as a transition from the undifferentiated unity of a single, independently existing Being or Substance to the spatially and temporally differentiated world and the multiplicity of objects it contains. We need to conceive of another transition from unity to multiplicity, an ideal and more immediate one. This is effected by what is best described as a multiple inclusive concentration of the original creative consciousness: the One becomes a “whole” each of whose “parts” contains the “whole.” Involution begins when the concentration of consciousness becomes exclusive: the “parts” cease to be conscious of their mutual identity and, as a result, lose sight of the infinite quality/delight at the heart of reality. Supermind has come to be involved in mind.
Involution (as previously discussed here and here) can be carried further. The power of casting infinite quality into expressive ideas can come to be involved in the force that serves to realize expressive ideas as finite forms, and this formative force can in turn come to be involved in the forms it serves to create and maintain. In other words, as supermind can come to be involved in mind, so mind can come to be involved in life and life can come to be involved in inanimate matter. Finally, matter, considered as the principle of finite form, can come to be involved in an indeterminate Substance — the original and sole Reality effectively deprived of its innate consciousness and self-determining force. Thereby the stage for the drama of evolution was set.
Evolution begins when this indeterminate Substance enters into reflexive spatial relations. The first result is matter. In inanimate matter, the formative force of life only serves to maintain forms. When it emerges, it also serves to realize ideas expressive of quality. These it at first receives from a subliminal source. When mind emerges, the force of life mediates between matter and mind. It enables mind to both apprehend matter and act on it. This activity is hidden from us not only by the aforementioned transparency of the relation between the perceiving subject and the item perceived but also by a corresponding transparency between the acting subject and the action performed.
The true character of life and of mind is obscured by the Houdiniesque natureof this evolutionary manifestation. A nervous system of stunning complexity had to evolve before something of the true character of life and mind could evince itself. It is the juxtaposition of transparency with stunning complexity that accounts for the so-called hard problem of consciousness. Its resolution, or rather dissolution, is as easy as understanding the difference between looking through a microscope and looking at a microscope. Looking through it, we see a paramecium but not the microscope; looking at it, we see the microscope but not the paramecium. It has long been recognized that there is no homunculus looking at some kind of image in the brain. What remains to be recognized is that, when mind evolves, there comes into play a physically irreducible subject that looks through the brain (to be precise: through the reality of which the brain experienced and studied by neuroscientists is an aspect).
McGinn suggests as much when he rejects a gradualist view of the evolutionary emergence of mind and consciousness, comparing it to “a sudden switching on of a light.” But if consciousness is, as he maintains, essentially a relation between an experiencing subject and the item experienced, then there can be no “lawlike process by which matter generates experience.” As there is a lawlike process by which a microscope generates images, so there is a lawlike process by which the brain generate neural representations, but there is no lawlike process by which the brain generates an experiencing subject, anymore than there is a lawlike process by which a microscope generate experiences. Understanding the relation between the experiencing subject and the item experienced — a relation at once transparent and involving a stunningly complex nervous system — requires the rich Indian philosophical concept of prāṇa or vital force, and last I checked this wasn’t considered conformable to reason and science. Hence the ruckus about the nature consciousness dominating the philosophy of mind.
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Harry Houdini was a stage magician and stunt performer famous at the turn of the 20th Century, noted for his sensational escape acts.