By R.N. Carmona
Why a blog post and not a proper response in a philosophy journal? My very first journal submission is still in the review process, close to two months later, for one. Secondly, blogging allows me to be pedantic, to be human, that is, to express frustration, to show anger, to be candid; in other words, blogging allows me to be myself. Probably of highest priority is the fact that I do not want my first publication in the philosophy of mind to be a response. I want to eventually outline my own theory of consciousness, which is strongly hinted at here, and I prefer for that to be my first contribution to the philosophy of mind. I do not find panpsychism convincing and I think there is another theory of consciousness, similar to panpsychism in ways, that is much more cogent. I have outlined some qualms I have with panpsychism before; to people new to the blog, you can read here. In any case, I will be responding to a number of points in Strawson’s Realistic Monism: Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism. Here I will outline refutations that should leave panpsychism unresponsive once and for all as it is not a productive theory of consciousness, i.e., it does no explanatory work and does not illuminate further research; it gives us no real direction to go in.
Strawson states: “You’re certainly not a realistic physicalist, you’re not a real physicalist, if you deny the existence of the phenomenon whose existence is more certain than the existence of anything else: experience, ‘consciousness’, conscious experience, ‘phenomenology’, experiential ‘what-it’s-likeness’, feeling, sensation, explicit conscious thought as we have it and know it at almost every waking moment” (3). Strawson not only sounds like an absolutist, but he has, no doubt intentionally, boxed out real physicalists like the Churchlands and Daniel Dennett. For my purposes, I deny none of these things. I am not an eliminativist though in the past I have called myself such when I lacked a better term for my own point of view. Now, I believe I have located a better term and so, I call myself a recontextualist. I do not deny qualia. What I strongly deny is what panpsychists think they entail: usually a version of nonphysicalist panpsychism or even covert substance dualism in where mental phenomena are ethereal. In light of this, I suggest that qualia are physically reducible in obvious ways already known to us and in currently non-obvious ways yet to be discovered or understood; we simply have to do the work of demonstrating how what-it’s-likeness is physically reducible. I do not think Strawson dodges recontextualism and this will become clearer as we move on.
He explains: “It follows that real physicalism can have nothing to do with physicSalism, the view — the faith — that the nature or essence of all concrete reality can in principle be fully captured in the terms of physics. Real physicalism cannot have anything to do with physicSalism unless it is supposed — obviously falsely — that the terms of physics can fully capture the nature or essence of experience” (4). I think the word physicSalism is clunky and so, I will exchange it for the word physicsism, which I think ties nicely to its predecessor scientism. There is not a chasm between someone who thinks science is the only way of knowing and someone who thinks physics is capable of explaining everything. Strawson makes the mistake of thinking physics stands alone among the hard sciences, as if it is the ground level of scientific explanation. I think chemistry joins physics in that department and as such, real physicalists can be physicsists if they are also chemistrists, the idea that a great number of physical phenomena are reducible to chemistry. If monism, that there is only one substance, and physicalism, that this one substance is physical in nature, are true then it is incumbent on Strawson to address the notion that science cannot apprehend certain physical phenomena. Strawson, therefore, is guilty of the same dualistic tendencies he accuses Dennett of (5), and he seems to bite the bullet on this in offering his “‘experiential-and-non- experiential ?-ism’” (7). Per his view, there are actual physical phenomena explainable by science, especially ground level hard sciences like physics and chemistry. On the other hand, there are quasi-physical phenomena in where Strawson feigns at physicalism while also betraying the fact that he means nothing more than nonphysicalism. This has to be qualified.
So, let us grant that Strawson would qualify the sense of sight as uncontroversially physical. Now, he claims that the what-it’s-likeness of seeing red is also physical and yet, science has no account for this per his claims; not only does science have no current account, but it can never have a viable account because, in his own words, “experiential phenomena ‘just are’ physical, so that there is a lot more to neurons than physics and neurophysiology record (or can record)” (7). I am a real physicalist and I strongly disagree with this statement. For starters, I think his statement is informed by a conflation some people tend to make: if something is explainable by science, it lacks existential meaning and so, anything that is explained by science enables nihilism. In other words, if we can explain the origin of morality without recourse to God, morality is suddenly meaningless in the so-called ultimate sense and just is relativistic or subjectivistic. This is wrong-headed. Explaining the what-it’s-likeness of red would not change the fact that red is my favorite color; nor would it change my experience of seeing a blood red trench coat hanging in a clothing store, as if begging me to purchase it. In a naturalistic world, meaning is decided by us anyway and so, nihilism does not follow from the fact that science explains something. Love is not any less riveting, captivating, and enrapturing if science somehow explained every detail about falling in love, loving one’s children, loving the species one belongs to, and loving species entirely different from oneself.
This aversion to science eventually explaining qualia reeks of nonphysicalism and to my mind, just is nonphyiscalism being labeled as physicalism, which is really just a nominal label that is so far failing to cohere with what is normally meant by physicalism. The notion that physics, chemistry, genetics, and neurophysiology can never record those aspects of neurons that account for qualia is incompatible with physicalism. If science can apprehend physical substance, and qualia are a physical substance as Strawson claims, then science can apprehend qualia. To say otherwise is for Strawson to admit that what he means by physical in the case of qualia is actually not physical at all. It is covert dualism and nonphysicalism. I have no qualms with scientists fully understanding why red is my favorite color. This does not then dampen my experience or make it meaningless.
Likewise, I know that sexual attraction reduces to mostly superficial, properly aesthetic, considerations and pheromones that induce a reaction in my brain, which then translate to a host of bodily reactions, e.g., feeling flush and then blushing, feeling either nervous, excited, or some combination of both, feeling a knot in my stomach. This does not accomplish making my attraction meaningless or, at least, making it less meaningful because, in truth, while I understand the science of attraction, it does not register when I am in the middle of experiencing attraction. These considerations factor even less when I have fallen in love. I do not think, “well damn, scientists have me pegged and I am only feeling all of these sensations because of serotonin and dopamine releases in my brain; love is ultimately meaningless.” What gives vibrance to experience is the experiencer.
Experience is akin to aesthetics, hence why we find some experiences pleasurable while there are others we can describe with an array of negative words and connotations. Science can also explain why a lot of people hate waiting for a long period of time, why just as many people hate the feeling of being out of breath, and why pretty much anyone hates going to work after a night of inadequate sleep. Science explaining these experiences does not change the interpretation of the experiencer; science does suggest why we have very common associations between most experiences, from pleasurable to painful to everything between, and that speaks to us being one species. So, experience can be explained by science and science can even predict the interpretation of this or that experiencer, but science does not dampen phenomenal experience. Panpsychists confuse that we have phenomenal experience with that we interpret phenomenal experience. Physicalism is not opposed to science fully explaining either of these and in fact, it has done much in the way of explaining both. Strawson tries to avoid this and yet claims: “If everything that concretely exists is intrinsically experience-involving, well, that is what the physical turns out to be; it is what energy (another name for physical stuff) turns out to be. This view does not stand out as particularly strange against the background of present-day science, and is in no way incompatible with it” (8). Well, if indeed it does not stand out as particularly strange against the background of present-day science, then all concrete things can be explained by science. This entailment seems uncontroversial and obvious for anyone identifying as a physicalist.
Strawson stipulates that “real physicalists … cannot deny that when you put physical stuff together in the way in which it is put together in brains like ours, it constitutes — is — experience like ours; all by itself. All by itself: there is on their own physicalist view nothing else, nothing non-physical, involved” (12). This is patently false as it alludes to mind-brain identity theory. It is not just atoms coming together in brains like ours. Human consciousness is compound reductive. In other words, human consciousness is not reducible to just one physical, macro aspect about our biological structure. That is to say that it is not reducible to just our hands or just our feet or just our brains. Strawson’s conflation of physicalism, as usually construed, and mind-brain identity theory leaves out crucial elements of experience, namely our central and peripheral nervous systems; the parts of the brain because anyone versed in the pertinent science knows that when it comes to the brain, the parts are more integral to consciousness than the whole; sense apparatus like our eyes, noses, pain receptors, and so on; and finally, external objects that provide the mind with data to process, interpret, make sense of, and so on.
From the perspective of differential ontology, and given that I have been thoroughly disabused of flippant idealism and solipsism, I know that my thoughts are not organically generated as if in a vacuum, within my brain. My thoughts are invariably and intimately connected to whatever I am occupied with, in the present time by Strawson’s various claims about what physicalism entails. If he had never written his thoughts, then I would not be countering his claims with my own. Perhaps I would be thinking about lunch at 12:26 pm ET, but alas, I am not. The point being that when I do start to think about having lunch, my thoughts about what to eat will be influenced by hunger pangs that amount to a feedback loop between my brain and my gut, again demonstrating the importance of organs other than just the brain in accounting for my experience, and pretty much any human being’s experience, of hunger. That feeling would take priority over my desire to respond to Strawson. Deciding what to eat amounts to constraints, like what food I have in my pantry and refrigerator and a desire not to spend money on takeout. So, I can only end up eating what is already available to me; in this case, only unexpected factors can change this course. Perhaps a neighbor or a relative is decided on bringing me baked lasagna and since I currently do not know that they have these plans, that option does not feature in what I am thinking of having for lunch. In any case, what has become clear is that phenomenal consciousness reduces, in part, to a litany of physical objects, some of which are not even in your vicinity. What is also clear is that the brain alone does not account for phenomenal consciousness.
Strawson and other panpsychists are looking in one of the right places, to be sure, but understanding phenomenal consciousness is like understanding a crime scene, and as such, we have to be aware of various factors that make the crime cohere, from blood spatter patterns to the murder weapon to point of entry (and whether or not it was forced entry) all the way up to possible motive. If we stop short at the murder weapon, then we can conclude the person was stabbed, but we cannot make any conclusions as to how many times, in what areas of the body, by whom, and for what reason. Phenomenal consciousness, uncontroversially, is exactly like that! Strawson and panpsychists sit out on the porch of the brain and do not venture into a mansion with many rooms, light switches, outlets, and the such. Neurons, synapses, neurogenesis, neurodegeneration, memory formation, recollection, confabulation, and so on are critically important in accounting for certain experiences. We cannot say the what-it’s-likeness of déjà vu is due to the fact that particles are conscious. That tells us nothing, does not help us elucidate on this experience, and ultimately, lacks explanatory power. It is simply a vacuous claim. Real physicalists can enter the many-roomed mansion and start to explain why this experience feels a certain way, and why some of us interpret it the way we do; for instance, there is a delay between seeing and being aware that we have seen, and so, in those small intervals of time, we can fool ourselves into thinking we have already seen what we just realized we saw. In other words, your brain “knows” what you see before you realize you have seen it. Generally, however, scientists think that déjà vu is tied to memory, so if we are sitting on the porch, trying to explain what it’s like to have this experience, we are in the wrong part of the house. We have to venture into the hippocampus, for instance (see Hamzelou, Jessica. “Mystery of déjà vu explained – it’s how we check our memories”. New Scientist. 16 Aug 2016. Web.).
I will free to skip the entire section on emergentism because while I find this account intriguing, it is implausible and has, what I think, are obvious commitments. Strawson defines it as follows:
Experiential phenomena are emergent phenomena. Consciousness properties, experience properties, are emergent properties of wholly and utterly non- conscious, non-experiential phenomena. Physical stuff in itself, in its basic nature, is indeed a wholly non-conscious, non-experiential phenomenon. Nevertheless when parts of it combine in certain ways, experiential phenomena ‘emerge’. Ultimates in themselves are wholly non-conscious, non-experiential phenomena. Nevertheless, when they combine in certain ways, experiential phenomena ‘emerge’. (12)
If this is the case, then emergentism is committed to idealism and to solipsism, “sometimes expressed as the view that “I am the only mind which exists,” or “My mental states are the only mental states”” (Thornton, Stephen. “Solipsism and the Problem of Other Minds”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.). The obvious drawback here is that there is no way to pin down where these properties emerge from. The source will vary from one first person point of view to the next or, to put it facetiously, from one person under the illusion that they have first person perspective to another person under the same illusion. I will claim that all that exists is my mind while someone else can lay claim to their own mind existing. I will then claim that all else emerges from my mental states while the next person makes the same claim. Then the question becomes, when we are both shopping for clothes, why do we both see a blood red trench coat for sale and why is it that my mental state of wanting to buy it does not emerge from his mental state of barely noticing the coat? How can these same properties group together to become the same object from two people under the illusion that their respective mental states are the only mental states? Emergentism, with respect to consciousness, does not evade these problematic commitments.
To understand the next couple of sections in his paper, in where Strawson’s claims go off the rails and get even wilder, the following have to be kept in mind:
- The non-experiential thesis: “[NE] physical stuff is, in itself, in its fundamental nature, something wholly and utterly non-experiential” (11)
- Real Physicalism: “[RP] experience is a real concrete phenomenon and every real concrete phenomenon is physical” (12)
- P-phenomena: “the phenomena of liquidity reduce without remainder to shape-size-mass-charge-etc. phenomena” (13)
- “The central idea of neutral monism is that there is a fundamental, correct way of conceiving things — let us say that it involves conceiving of them in terms of ‘Z’ properties — given which all concrete phenomena, experiential and non-experiential, are on a par in all being equally Z phenomena” (23)
Setting aside Strawson’s side-stepping of chemistry, which easily shows how liquid water can “emerge” from two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, the reason we cannot have Z phenomena is because the question of how consciousness can come from non-consciousness is itself reducible to a scientific question that has yet to be fully answered: how did life arise from non-life? Consciousness, as we know, is found in living things, so per the combination problem, what criteria need to be met for a consciousness like ours to take shape? Is it size, mass, shape, charge? Buildings and mountains are far more massive than us and by extension, are larger and have more particles generating what should amount to greater charges; and yet, mountains and buildings do not appear to be conscious at all. This is a critical clue because clearly, the haphazard combination of particles when a mountain forms or when a building is erected does not accomplish giving rise to consciousness like ours. Briefly, the combination problem can be formulated as follows:
Take a hundred of them [feelings], shuffle them and pack them as close together as you can (whatever that may mean); still each remains the same feeling it always was, shut in its own skin, windowless, ignorant of what the other feelings are and mean. There would be a hundred-and first-feeling there, if, when a group or series of such feelings where set up, a consciousness belonging to the group as such should emerge. And this 101st feeling would be a totally new fact; the 100 feelings might, by a curious physical law, be a signal for its creation, when they came together; but they would have no substantial identity with it, not it with them, and one could never deduce the one from the others, nor (in any intelligible sense) say that they evolved it.Goff, Philip, William Seager, and Sean Allen-Hermanson. “Panpsychism”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Summer 2020. Web.
To do away with Strawson’s assertions concerning consciousness coming from experiential ultimates, I summon help from an unexpected source. Though the neo-Aristotelian uses this thought experiment for different purposes, it is enough to show that basic organization does not consciousness make. Jaworski, no doubt inadvertently, presents a version of the combination problem that cuts deeply into Strawson’s thesis. He explains:
Suppose we put Godehard in a strong bag — a very strong bag since we want to ensure that nothing leaks out when we squash him with several tons of force. Before the squashing, the contents of the bag include one human being; after, they include none. In addition, before the squashing the contents of the bag can think, feel, and act, but after the squashing they can’t. What explains these differences in the contents of the bag pre-squashing and post-squashing? The physical materials (whether particles or stuffs) remain the same — none of them leaked out. Intuitively, we want to say that what changed was the way those materials were structured or organized.Jaworski, William. Structure and the Metaphysics of Mind: How Hylomorphism Solves the Mind-Body Problem. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. 9. Print.
Intuitively, I do not say that what changed is just the organization or structure of these materials. That dodges Jaworski’s neo-Aristotelian commitments. I also add that the spark of consciousness is what changed. There is, in this case, irreparable damage to the claustrum, thus making consciousness impossible to turn back on, so to speak (see Koch, Christoph. “Neuronal “Superhub” Might Generate Consciousness”. Scientific American. 1 Nov 2014. Web.). Furthermore, there is irreparable damage to other pivotal organs that make it possible for us to make any claim to being alive. The liver, heart, stomach, etc. have all lost their function. The matter is still there, but the electric fields that make us conscious are permanently off. This is why I am conscious and an inanimate object, equal in size and weight to me, perhaps a boulder, is not conscious. Non-experiential things can be used to design other non-experiential things or can naturally form into other non-experiential things given that organic compounds and electric fields are entirely absent. The question of how consciousness arises from non-consciousness just is the question of how life arises from non-life. Just because we currently do not have a fuller, more detailed picture does not mean we have license to offer theories like panpsychism, which possess nothing in the way of explanatory power. The panpsychist and neo-Aristotelian think they are headed in some definite direction, but they are both quickly approaching dead ends.
Electric fields theory (EFT) of consciousness, indeed similar to panpsychism, at least prima facie, is where panpsychists should place their chips. Tam Hunt elaborates:
Nature seems to have figured out that electric fields, similar to the role they play in human-created machines, can power a wide array of processes essential to life. Perhaps even consciousness itself. A veritable army of neuroscientists and electrophysiologists around the world are developing steadily deeper insights into the degree that electric and magnetic fields—“brainwaves” or “neural oscillations”—seem to reveal key aspects of consciousness. The prevailing view for some time now has been that the brain’s bioelectric fields, which are electrical and magnetic fields produced at various physical scales, are an interesting side effect—or epiphenomenon—of the brains’ activity, but not necessarily relevant to the functioning of consciousness itself.
A number of thinkers are suggesting now, instead, that these fields may in fact be the main game in town when it comes to explaining consciousness. In a 2013 paper, philosopher Mostyn Jones reviewed various field theories of consciousness, still a minority school of thought in the field but growing. If that approach is right, it is likely that the body’s bioelectric fields are also, more generally, associated in some manner with some kind of consciousness at various levels. Levin provided some support for this notion when I asked him about the potential for consciousness, in at least some rudimentary form, in the body’s electric fields.Hunt, Tam. “The Link Between Bioelectricity and Consciousness”. Nautilus. 10 Mar 2021. Web.
While I am committed to monism, the idea that only physical substance exists, and am therefore committed to physicalism, I am not committed to the idea that particles are the kinds of ultimates that attend to consciousness. Cells are the ultimates that attend to conscious beings like ourselves. This is the reason why the boulder lacks consciousness despite weighing as much as I do. Intuitively, the boulder should have roughly the same amount of particles in its structure as I do, but of utmost priority here is determining what I possess that the boulder does not. I am, as it were, activated by electric fields, receptive to my environment, can respond and adapt to it. The boulder, on the other hand, cannot do this. One might want to ask why, when the boulder finds itself gradually eroding under a small waterfall, it does not simply relocate itself? If, like me, it has a rudimentary spark of consciousness, why does it resign itself to a slow death, i.e., erosion? Bioelectric fields account for why I will move out of the way of an oncoming vehicle while the boulder remains idle under the waterfall, slowing eroding as time goes on.
This is probably the most damning response to Strawson: various domains of science are needed to understand consciousness. If EFT is accurate, and I see no reason for it to be inaccurate, cell biology is just as crucial as physics, chemistry, and neurophysiology. This makes for a comprehensive understanding of consciousness, comprised of the convergence of all our domains of knowledge. Philosophy of mind no doubt has a role to play, but not when it ventures far and wide from what science suggests. There is already a fundamental distinction between non-life and life, between inanimate objects and people. It follows, therefore, that if consciousness is inhered in living things, then it cannot be attributed to non-living things. This smacks of common sense and yet, philosophers are willing to occupy the fringes with popular theories like panpsychism. Some pretty anecdotes have come from this idea. Some say we are the universe experiencing itself, but if the universe already had all the makings of phenomenal consciousness, why does it need overrated chimpanzees who are preoccupied with reality tv, social media, violence against one another, and all manner of mundane and superficial nonsense to understand itself? If any composition at all, even absent bioelectric fields, is enough to account for consciousness, why not just configure itself into a Boltzmann brain that has no potential to develop the silly prejudices and biases humans tend to have?
My account starts to make clear how I can be committed to NE and RP and lead us in the right direction as it concerns Z phenomena. P phenomena are well-accounted for as they pertain to inorganic compounds. Of course, it begs the question to say that we have not quite nailed P phenomena as they concern organic chemistry. To reiterate, our ignorance with respect to how inorganic compounds become organic compounds that are essential to life does not give us license to make as many wild assumptions as we please. Any hypothesis, even within philosophy, especially if it encroaches on the territory of science, has to demonstrate awareness of scientific literature or at least, incorporate science wherever it is germane to one’s theory. Claiming that particles are actually experiential entities that account for why we are conscious pushes the buck back. Panpsychists have moved the goalposts and if they were correct, we would still be tasked with comprehending the consciousness of things utterly unlike ourselves. Thankfully, we do not have to do that and we can focus our energy on understanding why there is a what-it’s-likeness to our experiences. Again, there are important clues: for instance, people who were born blind cannot see while dreaming:
When a blind man is asked if he dreams the answer is immediate: ‘Yes!’ But if we ask him if he sees anything in the dream, the answer is always doubtful because he does not know what it is to see. Even if there were images and colours in his brain during the dream, how could he recognize them? There is, therefore, no direct way, through the dream reports, to evaluate the presence of visual activation in the dream of congenitally blind subjects.Carr, Michelle. “Do Blind People See in Their Dreams?”. Psychology Today. 29 Dec 2017. Web.
If experiential particles give rise to sight, then why do particles seem entirely dependent on eyes? Why do they not simply configure themselves in another way in order to circumvent the blindness of the eyes? It is quite telling that in the absence of a sense, the corresponding phenomenal aspect of experiences associated with that sense are also absent. My compound reductive account predicts this; this is unsurprising on my theory of consciousness whereas on Strawson’s account, and any panpsychists account, there is no way to account for this. Severe retinopathy is usually what causes people to be born blind. There are millions of light-sensitive cells within the retina, along with other nerve cells that receive and process the information that is sent to your brain, by way of the optic nerve. On EFT, therefore, blindness is damage within the electric fields that result in sight. The cure for blindness is to restore the electric fields within these cells so that communication between nerve cells is possible. That would then restore any corresponding phenomenal experiences. The mere organization of particles clearly does not accomplish this. EFT seems to have far more explanatory power than panpsychism does and if we took pains to assess just our five ordinary senses, we would be able to see that like blindness, anosmia, aguesia, deafness, and things like neuropathy, hypoesthesia, and CIP (congenital insensitivity to pain) are all reducible to nerve cell damage in the nose, mouth, ears, and extremities respectively. In simple terms, bioelectric pathways are damaged and thus, turn off communication to the brain, and in turn, cut off the corresponding qualia. This is essentially what I mean by recontextualizing qualia and Strawson clearly does not dodge that bullet.
Ultimately, I think EFT should supplant panpsychism in popular circles. I can agree with the notion of conscious cells because they are among the smallest structures atoms have assembled into within living things. I disagree with the idea of conscious particles because when they organize into air fryers, thermostats, buildings, mountains, and sand dunes, despite having comparable mass, size, shape, and charge to living things, none of these objects appear to be conscious; in other words, none of these objects appear to be aware, awake, attentive, and most importantly, alive. I can knock on a fish tank and the fish with the blankest stare in the tank can respond to a stress signal and move away from that area in the tank. I can throw a rock repeatedly into a harder material and it will continue to remain idle; put another way, I can take a geologist’s hammer to sediment over and over again, whether for a dig or in a fit of sustained rage, and the sediment will remain idle, allowing me to crack and break it as much as I please. Conscious beings, on the other hand, have a bias toward survival and retention of their structure. To use as humane an example as possible, if you were to do something that caused an insect pain, perhaps sending minor electrical charges into one of its legs, its automatic response will be to try to escape the situation. The insect, like you, wants to survive and ensure that it is not crushed or, in this case, burnt to a crisp. The same cannot be said of the myriad, non-experiential macro objects around us day in and day out. Strawson and panpsychists, aside from co-opting terms like physicalism when they really do not mean physicalism, would do well to renounce panpsychism and accept a better theory of ultimates: electric fields theory of consciousness. Then they can come to my pluralist physicalist account that allows for compound reductionism. To my mind, this is the only real way to study consciousness.
By R.N. Carmona
In the beginning this world was only brahman, and it knew only itself (ātman), thinking: ‘I am brahman.’ As a result, it became the Whole. Among the gods, likewise, whosoever realized this, only they became the Whole. It was the same also among the seers and among humans. Upon seeing this very point, the seer Vāmadeva proclaimed: ‘I was Manu, and I was the sun.’ This is true even now. If man knows ‘I am brahman‘ in this way, he becomes this whole world. Not even the gods are able to prevent it, for he becomes their very self (ātman). So when a man venerates another deity, thinking, ‘He is one, and I am another’, he does not understand.Olivelle, Patrick. Upaniṣads: A new translation. New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 1996. 15. Print
This passage from the Bṛadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad coincides with the earliest ideas of ātman (the self). The Upaniṣads, unlike the Vedas, explore ātman in greater detail. The “Ṛgveda (c.1200 B.C.E.), the earliest textual source from ancient India, ātman had already a wide range of lexical meanings, including ‘breath’, ‘spirit’, and ‘body’” (Black, Brian. “Upanishads”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.). Interestingly, the Upaniṣads, taken together, do not yield the same interpretation of the self, so there is a sense in which the concept of ātman anticipated a view in modern philosophy of mind. We will circle back around to that later. Of importance now is laying out a brief overview of the ātman in Hinduism. Then, we will turn to the Buddhist interpretation of the idea, anattā, which has interesting parallels to modern views of mind.
The Vedic idea of ātman never fell out of fashion as is made apparent in Uddālaka’s teachings. His idea of ātman is pretty much identical: it is the life force within all living things, the very essence creating a bridge between the parts and the whole. This is in keeping with Advaita Vedānta in where the “experiencing self (jīva) and the transcendental self of the Universe (ātman) are in reality identical (both are Brahman), though the individual self seems different as space within a container seems different from space as such” (Menon, Sangeetha. “Vedanta, Advaita”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.). Yājñavalkya offers a different interpretation, equating the self with consciousness rather than a life force. He ” characterizes the self as that which has mastery over the otherwise distinct psycho-physical capacities. He goes on to explain that we know the existence of the self through actions of the self, through what the self does, not through our senses—that the self, as consciousness, cannot be an object of consciousness” (Black, Ibid.). Despite differences from Uddālaka’s interpretation, Yājñavalkya still adheres to Advaita Vedānta. The Advaita school of Vedānta yields a concept of God that accords with panentheism.
Prajāpati also equates ātman with consciousness, but crucially, he also conflates it with the material body. Prajāpati, therefore, presents a strain of another school in Vedānta, namely Dvaita, which is dualistic. In a sense, it is a dualism of mind and body or consciousness and the material, but more importantly, it is a dualism of jīva and the Brahman, e.g., humankind and God. Given Prajāpati’s distinction, we see the beginnings of monotheism or henotheism, and the much later bhakti tradition in Hinduism in where a devotee of a given god is to unite their soul to this god by way of their love and devotion. Though there are other interpretations of ātman and Brahman in Hinduism, Advaita and Dvaita suffice for our purposes.
In Buddhism, there is no ātman. We are, therefore, introduced to the concept of anattā or non-self. There is no static, immutable, essential soul or consciousness. This is crucial for Buddhist teachings regarding suffering (dukkha) and detachment because if one does not have the idea of an essential self, one is less likely to pity himself over others, to regard his own suffering as having higher priority than that of other beings. Coseru elaborates:
The centrality of the not-self doctrine in Buddhist thought is explained on the basis of its pragmatic role in guiding the adept on the path to enlightenment. Furthermore, the not-self doctrine provides a justification for treating endurance, independence, and self-subsistence as neither desirable nor attainable, but rather as what they are: mistaken notions resulting from the habitual tendency to construct an identity from a stream of physical and subjective phenomena.Coseru, Christian. “Mind in Indian Buddhist Philosophy”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2012. Web.
As Coseru also points out, there is a sense in which the Buddhist idea of anattā anticipated Hume who thought that there was no self to apprehend within our perceptions. Along with anattā, Buddhists present “a fluid account of experience as an ever-changing stream of psycho-physical events. This dynamic model of human existence comprises the five classes of phenomena the Buddha referred to as the “aggregates of grasping” (upādāna-skandha), on account of our tendency to grasp after and identify with them” (Ibid.). This is opposed to our idea of a fixed self or consciousness experiencing life in a Cartesian theater.
When considering the Hindu idea of ātman and the Buddhist response of anattā, we can start to see how we could have avoided all of Descartes’ mistakes in the philosophy of mind had we been more studied on Eastern religions or other religions aside from Christianity. Christianity, akin to Dvaita, creates a dualism between God and man. There is never a sense, per Christian theology, in where man and God are identical or one. There is no sense in which man’s consciousness and God’s are identical either. Descartes took this a step further, dualizing the physical body and the mental soul. Hindus adhering to Dvaita Vedānta had already committed this error and the Buddhist idea of anattā, aside from reducing consciousness to the physical domain, suggested that there is no-self to speak of and more importantly, that there is no phenomenal consciousness to capture. It is an illusion.
Interestingly, the non-duality of Advaita Vedanta (monism), can be seen as paraphrasing anattā in that ideas of the self are illusory, a part of the Brahman dream (maya). This leads to the idea of mokṣa, the notion that we can free ourselves from the cycle of death and rebirth. For Hindus adhering to Advaita Vedānta, mokṣa is attained when one accepts the self as being one with Brahman. For Buddhists, Nirvana is the emptying of ideas of self and ultimately realizing that there is no self; this is how one comes to free oneself from the cycle of death and rebirth. Under both interpretations, there is a sense in which there is no self. On the one hand, any self that is at variance with the Brahman is illusory, a product of the maya while on the other, there is simply no self and any erroneous ideas we get about the self proceed from the ego. The ego is the engine through which false narratives of the self are created.
Further exploration of the self and ego delve too far into the philosophy of mind, but brief comments are in order. The Churchlands and Dennett adhere to anattā if ātman is defined as phenomenal consciousness. Ramsey states:
Dennett challenges not just our conception of pain, but all of our different notions of qualitative states. His argument focuses on the apparently essential features of qualia, including their inherent subjectivity and their private nature. Dennett discusses several cases—both actual and imaginary—to expose ways in which these ordinary intuitions about qualia pull apart. In so doing, Dennett suggests our qualia concepts are fundamentally confused and fail to correspond with the actual inner workings of our cognitive system.Ramsey, William. “Eliminative Materialism”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2019. Web.
It can be argued, therefore, that if the history of philosophy of religion had been different, then the history of philosophy of mind would have proceeded differently. In other words, the missteps philosophers have taken throughout the history of philosophy of mind likely would not have happened. Of course, we would be dealing with a set of different mistakes, but some of these mistakes would not prevail till this day due to the obstinacy of apologists who do not want to relinquish the idea of Cartesian dualism. A thorough understanding of ātman and anattā would have at least disabused us of the idea of a theater of consciousness or a fixed self, and related ideas like qualia, which as Dennett points out, are problematic. See my recent “Nonphysicalism in The Philosophy of Mind and Its Shortcomings” for a discussion on why the ideas of qualia and phenomenal consciousness are untenable.
On the philosophy of religion front, the concepts of ātman and anattā are fertile ground for discussions within the cosmotheological and ontotheological traditions (see Wildman, Wesley J. Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future For The Philosophy of Religion. State University of New York Press. Albany, NY. 2010. 248-261. Print. for an overview of these traditions in the philosophy of religion). As stated earlier, we now move away from mono or henotheistic frameworks and consider, for example whether panentheism best explains features of the universe, on the one hand, and features of being on the other. For one, consider the idea that we are star stuff. We are comprised of the same matter and energy that pervades the rest of the universe. In that sense, then, we are not distinct and all things in the universe recede back to the Big Bang singularity. Perhaps our ideas of essentialist distinction are illusory, a dream-like story we continue to tell ourselves. In light of this, there is either no self or the self reduces to the universe. Given the recent resurgence of panpsychism, some have argued that the universe is very much like a supermassive brain (see Ratner, Paul. “The universe works like a huge human brain, discover scientists”. Big Think. 19 Nov 2020). In any case, a closer look at Hinduism and Buddhism will take us in non-monotheistic directions that may prove fruitful in ongoing discussions in the philosophy of religion and of mind.
Ultimately, we begin to see why it is of the utmost importance to break up the Christian monopoly in philosophy of religion, so to speak. We can see how the winding history of ātman and anattā anticipate certain strains in the philosophy of mind while also providing new, fertile ground in the philosophy of religion. In Advaita Vedānta, there is just one self, the Brahman. Every other idea of self is illusory. This has some staggering implications for ongoing discussions about identity as well. In Buddhism, given anattā, we see that the “I Am that I Am” uttered by Yahweh is ultimately an error of the ego, overinflated and now extended into the idea of God. Furthermore, this supports the idea that the jealous, vindictive, tribalist gods so often prone to favoritism, unironically, of the people who happen to worship them, are created in our image. Anattā suggests that gods like Yahweh, Allah, and those pertaining to the various mono and henotheisms around the world are extensions of the ego imposing false ideas of the self. Most philosophers of religion, concerned not only with the nature of but also with the identity of God, seldom wrestle with the idea that perhaps there is no universal ātman, e.g., there is no God. This has some resonating implications all its own. The purpose here has been to move the philosophy of religion in yet another fruitful direction; while I can begin to exhaust possibilities, it is important for me not to create a self-induced echo chamber, especially given that my interest is to encourage philosophers of religion to travel down these newly paved roads. Anattā has far reaching implications for free will, ethics, identity, existentialism, and other areas of philosophy as well. In any case, it should be clear why Christianity’s iron grip on the philosophy of religion needs to be loosened.
Disclaimer: What follows is Chapter 5 of my book Philosophical Atheism: Counter-Apologetics and Arguments For Atheism.
Personal experience and emotions are subjective. They aren’t, however, irreducibly subjective. We will return to this shortly. When I get a cut on my finger, smell pizza, or see different colors, there’s something it is like for me to have these experiences, something that is entirely subjective. This pertains to phenomenal consciousness, the aspect of consciousness that results in Chalmers’ hard problem of consciousness. This what it’s like is what philosophers call qualia.58
Qualia feature as an important motivation for accepting ontological arguments, the likes of which were discussed in the previous chapter. They also feature in transcendental arguments (TAGs), which will be discussed in the next chapter. Take, for instance, Richard Swinburne’s and Robert Adams’ Argument from Human Consciousness.59 The argument can appear as follows:
P1 It is a fact that human consciousness exists.
P2 That fact can be adequately explained within a theistic framework (i.e., one which posits God’s existence), whereas it cannot be adequately explained within an atheistic (or naturalistic) framework (i.e., one which denies God’s existence).
P3 Hence, there is a fact which only theism can adequately explain.
C Therefore, God must exist.60
Like Conifer, I will openly admit that this isn’t Swinburne’s or Richard’s exact argument. It is, however, a general form of the argument. The difference is that Swinburne puts emphasis on what he thinks are nonphysical mental states. His argument relies on his preferred theory of mind, substance dualism or Cartesian dualism. It is important to note that not all substance dualists are Cartesians dualists. E.J. Lowe is a substance dualist who divides a human being into two substances: body and person, in where person is a psychological substance that differs from the body.61 Swinburne and Cartesian dualists would instead say that a human being is body and soul; the soul transcends space-time and is a nonphysical substance that isn’t confined to our universe. They would argue that the mind is immaterial and the body is physical.
Given this, P2 implies Swinburne’s stipulation. A naturalistic or atheistic account of consciousness would not be able to account for nonphysical states of consciousness, assuming there are any. P2 or Swinburne’s P1 — that genuinely nonphysical mental states exist — are the premises one has to debase in order to refute his argument. In order to do this, one must show that qualia are not nonphysical and that there can’t be any nonphysical mental states. One can therefore approach qualia through the lens of philosophy of religion and from the perspective of philosophy of mind. Yet if one chooses the first route, it will come to a crossroads with the second route; they will meet at some junction, so this is to say that it’s required for one to have a grasp of competing views in the philosophy of mind prior to ruling out Cartesian dualism.
I will therefore focus on naturalistic theories of mind and approaches to qualia in order to demonstrate where Cartesian dualism goes wrong. As stated above, for Swinburne’s argument to work, substance dualism needs to prove superior to other views in the philosophy of mind. Given the sciences mentioned and given the cogency of some of these other views, it’s not only that substance dualism fails to make a strong case, it’s that it can’t.
C.S. Peirce, writing in 1891, said of Cartesian dualism: “The old dualistic notion of mind and matter, so prominent in Cartesianism, as two radically different kinds of substance, will hardly find defenders today.”62 More than a century later, matters are more bleak. Neuroscience and cognitive science have marshaled in an incredible body of evidence that strongly suggests that the mind is not one with or part of a disembodied soul. The mind is intimately tied to the very much physical brain and world. Rhawn Joseph, speaking of one his split-brain patients, puts it this way:
2-C complained of instances where his left hand would act in a manner completely opposite to what he expressively intended, such as turn off the T.V., or change channels, even though he (or rather his left hemisphere) was enjoying the program, or perform socially inappropriate actions (e.g. attempting to strike or even strangle a relative). On at least one occasion, his left leg refused to continue going for a walk and would only allow him to return home.63
This could serve as reason why on some accounts, like J.C.C. Smart’s, the mind is reducible to the brain. Joseph, in another paper he wrote in 1988, would conclude that the left and right hemispheres are responsible for different tasks and that because of this, intra-psychic conflicts arise in where “unbeknownst to the left brain, sometimes the right perceives, remembers, or responds to some external or internal source of experience and/or to its own memories and, thus, reacts in an emotional manner” whilst “the left (speaking) hemisphere in turn only knows that it is feeling something but is unsure what or why, or, conversely, confabulates various denials, rationalizations and explanations which it accepts as fact.”64 My own account will go further, since phenomenal consciousness is reducible to more than just the brain. I will briefly discuss three theories that are much more cogent than substance dualism. The case is more than likely that some other view of the mind best explains consciousness.
The first view we will discuss, like the other views, is naturalistic. It is a view born out of the move away from phenomenal and toward psychological explanation. Ryle argued that all mental concepts are accompanied by corresponding behaviors, and that these behaviors are caused by mental states. I want to highlight this view because Gilbert Ryle has an effective and accessible refutation of Cartesian dualism. To him, Cartesian dualism makes a category mistake.65 This occurs when you put one thing that more aptly belongs to another category in the wrong logical category. Ryle uses the example of a prospective student or visitor visiting Oxford who sees almost the entirety of the campus, and then asks whether he can see the university. The individual didn’t realize that the university is comprised of the same buildings he just visited.
To Ryle’s mind, Descartes committed a similar error. The body, on Ryle’s view, accounts for people’s talents, memories, and so on. Descartes, like dualists following him, believed in a soul, the proverbial ghost in the machine. Ryle argued that intelligence is a combination of a number of properties such as wit, spatial capacity, critical thinking, eloquence, and so on. Intelligence doesn’t exist apart from the body. Neither does it exist parallel to it, the way a branch of dualists called parallelists argued. Intelligence is comprised of these various physical properties that are a part of and associated with the body.
If Ryle is correct, Swinburne’s view has already failed. The dualist may retort by claiming that Ryle has simply begged the question. In order for the accusation to stick, it isn’t enough to claim that intelligence and the like are part of the body. If Ryle’s contention is left as is, the dualist might have a point. So there’s more work to be done. There’s also the fact that Ryle conflates the phenomenal and the psychological; the former is concerned with why an experience feels a certain way, with the what it’s like of a given experience whilst the latter focuses on a mental state’s causal role. Chalmers’ summarizes his concern with Ryle’s view: “To assimilate the phenomenal to the psychological prior to some deep explanation would be to trivialize the problem of conscious experience; and to assimilate the psychological to the phenomenal would be to vastly limit the role of the mental in explaining behavior.”66 Perhaps J.C.C. Smart’s reductionism can succeed where Ryle’s view failed.
On Smart’s view, mental states are identical to brain states. My feeling pain in my back is identical with nociceptors responding to a fractured disk in my spine.67 A naturalist defending this view is not only saying that Cartesian dualism commits a category error. S/he is also providing reasons for drawing such a conclusion. If brain states and mental states are identical, then notions of a ghost in the machine are off base. This is the hallmark of a neuroscientific perspective of mind.
Take, for instance, the severe brain trauma experienced by Phineas Gage. An explosion sent a tamping iron through his left cheek bone at a high speed; the iron exited at the top of his head and was found several rods68 behind him. His brain injury was such that it resulted in drastic changes in his behavior. John Martin Harlow, the physician who attended to Gage, published a report in the Bulletin of the Massachusetts Medical Society in where he discussed Gage’s behavioral changes:
His contractors, who regarded him as the most efficient and capable foreman in their employ previous to his injury, considered the change in his mind so marked that they could not give him his place again. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint of advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operation, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. In this regard, his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was “no longer Gage.”69
Before the hard problem of consciousness, Smart’s theory held more sway. Most philosophers, in other words, readily admitted that mental states are contingent on brain states, albeit not entirely. They added that there are irreducible, nonphysical mental states called qualia.
Saul Kripke and then David Chalmers developed this nonphysicalist theory further. Kripke questions the identity component of the theory whilst Chalmers defends a theory he regards as more complete. Kripke makes use of the philosophy of language and cites rigid designators, which speaks of the same object in all possible worlds. We can think of Hilary Putnam’s famous example of XYZ. Putnam envisions other worlds or even a twin Earth having lakes and rivers in where water isn’t H2O, but rather XYZ. Despite this, though XYZ isn’t water, it is counterpart to our H2O.70
Kripke uses the example of heat being the same as molecular motion. It isn’t that he’s ignoring radiant heat. Rather, he’s highlighting molecular motion that one feels as heat. He then suggests that we can use these analogies to show that this isn’t the case with the brain process of pain. He also suggests that it is possible for such processes not to be felt as pain. Kripke concludes that mental states aren’t contingent on brain states in the same way the sense of heat is contingent on molecular motion.
Chalmers, on the other hand, proceeds from the question “Why should there be something it is like to be such a system?”71 Even though he admits that the aforementioned sciences have given us a better understanding of human behavior, he believes we are in the dark with regards to consciousness and that it remains mysterious. He tries to develop a theory of consciousness by taking consciousness seriously, by assuming “that consciousness exists, and that to redefine the problem as that of explaining how certain cognitive or behavioral functions are performed is unacceptable.”72 Even though he directs his work at people “who feel the problem in their bones,”73 it is of particular interest because Chalmers’ theory accounts for what I agree are three relevant variables, namely the structures of consciousness and awareness, and information. Chalmers’ theory is also one that takes qualia very seriously. So even if Swinburne himself or a proponent of his argument were to abandon Cartesian dualism and instead argue that what’s irreducibly nonphysical about the mind are qualia, then a reductionist like myself would be obligated to contend with Chalmers’ view.
I am, in other words, throwing the theist a bone. Swinburne’s substance dualism is out of style and his discussions with Adams are dated.74 Regardless of this, I want to update his argument with a modern nonphysicalist view that can be ushered in to defend the argument. Chalmers’ view fits the description and being that he accepts the insights of modern science, though he only accepts them as they regard the so-called easy problems, his view is far superior to a view that states that the insights of modern science don’t explain mental states at all or one that would ignore the insights of cognitive science and neuroscience.
Chalmers does not do this. In fact, he feels that scientists ignore what he coins the hard problem; he feels that the question of what it’s like isn’t even asked or is brushed aside for some far off date. This is why I emphasize that I partly share the Churchlands’ and Dennett’s view. Recall my discussion on nominalism in the previous chapter. Unlike the Churchlands and Dennett, I won’t simply eliminate phenomenal consciousness. I will admit that it definitely exists, but I will attempt to reduce it in an unexpected way. I will do this by reducing qualia to multiple lower level phenomena. So like a nominalist who states that ‘humanity’, for instance, can’t be aptly called a universal, I will argue that qualia cannot be understood as nonphysical. So it’s more a recalibrating of the way we understand qualia, a way of redefining the term. It’s not merely the what it’s like of an experience, but more so what it’s like to experience this or that, i.e., what it’s like to experience one particular thing or another.
To be fair, contending with Chalmers’ work can fill a book of its own. It’s almost a crime that I’m devoting part of a chapter to his theory. What’s equally criminal is that I’m devoting a short space to my own theory. I will, despite these concerns, highlight my issues with Chalmers’ theory and then present my own. I feel that the important parts of this particular task can be done in a short space like this one and I will set out to do that.
To be clear, Chalmers’ view is naturalistic. He does not offer a supernatural account of mind. So when I say that I’m throwing the theist a bone, I am not at all saying that Chalmers rendered a supernatural explanation for consciousness. What I am saying, however, is that his account can be reconciled with supernaturalism. He can be regarded as a panpsychist, one who thinks all things are somewhat conscious. Chalmers is not arguing that thermostats, for instance, are self-conscious. What he means is that there’s something it is like to be a thermostat. He acknowledges that most people would recoil and feel that such a conclusion is intuitively nonsense, but he adds that such people have to present an argument(s) to show that a thermostat isn’t conscious in the phenomenal sense.
An analogous view is Leibniz’s view on substance and his subsequent philosophy of mind. For Leibniz, bare monads have perceptions. In fact, bare monads have infinitely many perceptions. Furthermore, all monads, whether bare or complex, perceive the universe at every moment.75 Given this, a theist can put a supernaturalistic spin on Chalmers’ view. Chalmers admits that his view is speculative and that speculation is necessary to get ideas on the table. A theist, despite the fact that all speculation is not created equal, can take it upon himself to offer further speculation, the kind that meshes better with their own beliefs.
This recognition isn’t the only reason I find Chalmers view concerning. Chalmers has gone too far in suggesting that thermostats have phenomenal consciousness, that there’s something it is like to be a thermostat.76 In offering my reductionism, which avoids his equivalence between reductionism and logical supervenience, I will also offer an argument against the notion of a conscious thermostat. Before that, I have to offer a minor quibble.
Chalmers expresses reluctance in giving up hope on materialist reductionism. He states that we have to go beyond materialism in order to account for consciousness despite the fact that it’s beautiful and thus far successful. He presents an argument against materialism that immediately struck me as false, especially in light of materialism’s explanatory success. Perhaps we don’t have to go beyond it. Maybe we are required to rethink or reframe the problem, and I happen to think Chalmers has contributed much to what can result in a working theory of consciousness. To summarize his argument, he argues that if we recognize that there are conscious experiences in our world, we must grant that it’s logically possible for there to be a world (think universe) wholly identical to ours save the fact that the positive facts of consciousness aren’t the case. From this he concludes that materialism is false.77 His notion of philosophical zombies (p-zombies) also stems from this logical possibility.78
As will be repeated in different ways throughout, one should be wary of drawing ontological conclusions on the basis of logical considerations. I can certainly imagine a p-zombie, but it doesn’t follow that they exist in this world or another. This rests on the following questions: whether conceivability implies logical possibility and whether logical possibility implies ontological reality.79 Chalmers, to my mind, is committing the same mistake Anselm committed when he argued from the conception of the greatest being to the existence of it. My suspicion, and I’m not sure this suspicion occurs as often as it should in philosophy, is that everything that is logically possible can’t possibly have an ontological place in this world or another.
As mentioned earlier, materialism has a successful track record, so abandoning it at first sign of seeming failure is to throw the baby out with the bath water. If materialism is beautiful, simple, and elegant — everything one would want a good theory to be — why the sudden knee-jerk reaction? Why abandon it now, especially when one admits that phenomenal consciousness is poorly understood? Chalmers openly admits that we have nothing in the way of psychophysical laws or a theory of consciousness that accounts for the phenomenal aspects of our experience and yet, he’s willing to throw out a viable framework that has a proven streak of success.80 I am wary of going that far.
Even if I offer an inductive argument, Hume notwithstanding, one can accept the conclusion that the theory of consciousness will be materialistic. So as to avoid the Problem of Induction altogether, I can take a more scientific, hypothetico-deductive approach and offer a series of hypotheses each having a set of expected circumstances should they turn out to be true. Upon experimentation, I can either falsify or confirm each hypothesis and from this, get a theory of consciousness. I must confess that I don’t know what exactly that will look like. When discussing my own p-zombie, I will offer conjecture that may prove to be a viable hypothesis.
My own view, which I’ll call Hegelian reductionism, is also a naturalistic view that I think will succeed at a mutiple-reduction of consciousness. Like Chalmers admitted of his theory, I’ll admit that my theory is speculative. I agree that much speculation is needed to get us going in the right direction. By multiple-reduciton, I am not arguing that mental states are identical to physical states. I am not arguing that mental states are reducible to neurological states. Nor am I arguing that consciousness is restricted to the brain, that consciousness can, in other words, exist in a vacuum. As Hegel recognized in his Phenomenology of Spirit and as Chalmers explained in The Conscious Mind, there are two structures that have to be accounted for: as Chalmers calls them, the structure of consciousness and the structure of awareness, both of which are mediated by an information space.
The relevant question is: awareness of what? Chalmers and Hegel will both acknowledge that we are aware of things around us. Chalmers explains that “the structure of consciousness is mirrored by the structure of awareness, and the structure of awareness is mirrored by the structure of consciousness.”81 A good analogy is the upside-down from the Netflix Original “Stranger Things.” In the upside-down, the small town of Hawkins, Indiana is represented in a manner that is roughly identical topographically and geometrically. Will’s house is the same distance from Hawkins Laboratory in the upside-down and in the actual world.82 In like manner, one’s visual field has a size, a scope, a given geometry that corresponds to what is represented in the structure of awareness.
Though I have no qualms with Chalmers’ structural coherence or with his notion of information, which he characterizes as the “specificity of a state within a space of different possibilities,”83 I do have qualms with the direction he takes when addressing the question of whether experience is ubiquitous. The first postulate of my own theory of consciousness is that phenomenal consciousness belongs to biological beings. As Todd Tremlin states, “as a biological machine…the human central nervous system has much in common with those other living organisms, designed, as all are, to control bodily function and to interpret and respond to signals received from the outside world.”84 This isn’t to say that phenomenal consciousness cannot, at some point in the future or even now in an unobserved present (e.g. a world in where sufficiently advanced aliens reside), belong to robots or AI. I grant that such entities can have phenomenal consciousness, but as far as we currently know, only biological beings have it. It follows that I don’t attribute phenomenal consciousness to thermostats, air conditioners, or what have you.
What’s required for phenomenal experience is what Hegel coined as the thing and its properties. Put another way, we can use the Lockean terminology discussed in chapter two: a thing and its qualities. We can think of things, their shape, mass, and extension, and also their color, texture, and dispositions. A thermostat lacks this awareness because it lacks the apparatus usually associated with awareness. From the human all the way down to the slug, I agree with Chalmers because all biological beings have sense apparatus. Clearly this is where the structure of awareness takes shape because without such apparatus as our central and peripheral nervous systems, eyes, ears, nose, and hands, we would receive no information and thus, lack phenomenal experiences. Due to limitations of language, we might say that a thermostat senses thermal expansion and then knows to switch an electrical circuit either on or off. It would be a mistake to conflate sense as just used with sense in the way we normally construe it.
A thermostat does not sense anything. It is a tool that is constructed in a certain way in order to achieve a desired effect. Thermostats have bimetallic strips that are comprised of two different metals. These strips are placed back to back. The reason two different metals are used is because the one will have a high coefficient of linear expansion and will therefore, expand when the temperature increases and this results in the bending of the bimetallic strip in one direction toward either opening or closing the circuit. One might contend that I have merely explained how it works and have not cancelled out phenomenal consciousness in thermostats. I will retort by saying that the person making such a claim has begged the question. Despite the fact that we haven’t rendered a viable theory of consciousness, they are content with imbuing objects like thermostats with phenomenal consciousness. Something has gone awfully awry.
Biological beings, like humans and slugs, and Chalmers would agree, were not created for a given purpose. They were not designed to carry out a specific task or set of tasks. They do not operate in a given way. Furthermore, they have sense apparatus, some far different from others. We can imagine that the talons of a bald eagle have a similar textile sense to human hands. Yet if we admit that, per Hegel, texture has arguably as much to do with the object in question as it does with extremities, whatever similarity in textile sense might exist in the talon and the hand including the corresponding qualia of touch, are reducible to some combination of the objects being felt and the dispositions pertinent to each extremity. So smoothness, hardness, roughness, leatheriness, and the like will be partly due to whatever the talon or hand is touching. Far from eliminating qualia, I am locating the what it’s likeness of our experience not only in our consciousness, but also in what Hegel referred to as the objects of consciousness, things and their qualities. As stated earlier, consciousness cannot exist in a vacuum.
All one has to do is return to the common examples of qualia. There’s something it is like to smell pizza, experience pain, see a given color, and so on. If matters weren’t as they are, if light were not an astrophysical phenomenon that accounts for the available spectrum of colors we see, if chemistry didn’t result in the different textures we feel, if expansion of molecules didn’t result in warmth, if taste buds and receptors didn’t exist in the papillae on the tongue, inner cheeks and esophagus, if we lacked both our peripheral and central nervous systems, our phenomenal experiences would be nonexistent. So phenomenal experience is not reducible to just the brain, though the brain no doubt plays a pivotal role in interpreting or mediating the information relayed from the objects of consciousness. Consciousness, it would follow, is also reducible to physical structures like skin, papillae, eyes, ears, noses, nervous systems and so on. It would also follow that it’s reducible to the objects around us and to the physical phenomena and laws that permit color, heat, and sound.
Think of the particular cadence of a guitar when listening to a player who plays well. The sound is not exactly mysterious, given that an acoustic guitar and electric guitar are designed to sound somewhat distinct. The beautiful cadence of a melody or a solo can be contrasted with the harsh and unpleasant sensations one receives from the chaotic sounds coming from a novice player. The notes are more than likely not crisp; the chord is not clear and very often a novice player will cancel out a note in the chord with his clumsy fingers. Yet the cadence of a well-played guitar is due not only to the design of the guitar, acoustic or electric, and if electric, it’s not only due to the amplifier and pedal board, but most importantly, it is due also to the expertise of the person playing the guitar, the individual who composed the song. Music is often imbued with personal experience and emotion, both of which a number of listeners will find relatable.
In this sense, phenomenal experience is reducible in more ways than one and it is unclear whether a set of psychophysical laws are even necessary. If consciousness is not reducible to merely the brain, but also reducible to the objects of consciousness, if, in other words, consciousness is reducible to the information bridging Chalmers’ structure of consciousness and structure of awareness, then we would have to make do with explaining consciousness through existing laws. So though this can be seen as sort of an eliminativism of qualia, I am not arguing, like Dennett and the Churchlands do, that phenomenal consciousness is an illusion and that qualia don’t exist.85 The former is not an illusion and the latter definitely exist, but they pose no great mystery.
Think of a tetrachromat, for example, a woman identified as cDa29 in a recent study conducted by Gabriele Jordan.86 If you take the monochromat thought experiment seriously, if you think that someone like Mary, a scientist who has lived her entire life in a black and white room, is logically possible, then it follows that you agree with the conclusion that when she first sees a color, she only learns what it’s like to see that color. She already knew that colors existed because she’s an expert in neuroscience and is familiar with the electromagnetic spectrum.87 The vast majority of us are trichromats in that our eyes have three kinds of cone cells. This means that it is entirely possible for us to learn what it’s like to see a color we currently do not see, a color we currently can’t even fathom.
Yet an astute observer will notice that our learning of what it’s like to see this color is simultaneous with seeing the color. Therefore, the object possessing that color, the astrophysical phenomenon of light permitting the color, and this new fourth cone in our eyes would be fully responsible for our experience. Without any of these factors, we would not be able to have this experience, let alone consider what it’s like to have it. So my eliminativism doesn’t do away with qualia, but rather with the mystery that purportedly accompanies them. I am not arguing, like the Churchlands, that it’s a pseudo-issue like Ptolemaic celestial spheres. What I’m arguing is that pain, for example, feels a certain way because of what this specific quale reduces to, due to what it’s like to experience this or that — whether an object or a richer experience like sky diving or admiring a painting.
Compare an oil burn on the hand to a piercing of the hand. How have we convinced ourselves that the oil doesn’t have a given chemistry and thus, a given set of dispositions and that, on the other hand, the blade of a knife doesn’t have a chemistry distinct from that of the oil and therefore, a given set of dispositions that differ from that of the oil? The oil’s viscosity and the fact that its boiling point is roughly one and a half times more than the boiling point of water account for the skin blistering feelings on the hand. The blade’s hardness and sharpness account for the skin piercing, nerve damaging feeling in the hand. This isn’t to say that both pains can’t be felt on and within the hand, but they are distinct because the objects causing the pain are distinct. There is a sense in which phenomenal consciousness is reducible to these distinct objects.
I think that such a theory, at the very least, lifts the veil. This theory would, in other words, do away with the mystery that often surrounds qualia. By extension, this Hegelian theory of consciousness does away with the motivation a theist has for being convinced by Swinburne’s Argument from Consciousness, ontological arguments, and TAGs. What’s more is that this theory reintroduces materialism thus resulting in an overall consistency in a naturalistic philosophy, the likes of which I’m presenting in this work.
This theory also proves superior to Cartesian dualism because, unlike in the case of dualism, mental states are confined to the physical world and are explained, in a consistent manner, via physical parameters and objects of experience. Unlike the Cartesian dualist, this theory doesn’t make use of an ethereal substance that somehow interacts with a physical substance. As Chalmers stated, “it remains plausible that physical events can be explained in physical terms, so a move to a Cartesian dualism would be a stronger reaction than is warranted.”88 Cartesian dualism also violates principles of simplicity and plausibility, unless one has a predilection for preferring a theory of consciousness that’s much more complex than it has to be, not to mention beyond the reach of our senses, scientific tools, and so on. A Cartesian dualist, in light of neuroscience and cognitive science, would be left with no choice but to deny the portrait offered by these sciences. My theory fully accepts these portraits and makes good use of them.
Given this, consciousness need not be contingent on god. There are no nonphysical mental states. Qualia, at least at the start of this chapter, seemed to be the most viable candidate. As it turns out, qualia are not at all nonphysical. They are simply much more difficult to reduce to lower level phenomena and it is this difficulty that has led to a sense of mystery and bewilderment. As Chalmers states, there’s nothing we are more intimate with than consciousness and yet, it is hard to understand the phenomenal aspect of it. It’s difficult because we often think about this aspect in isolation of real world objects that give rise to these experiences and the accompanying what it’s like of these experiences. We become aware of these various objects and they are represented in some way within our consciousness, these mirror structures pervade all of our experiences, and information mediates the link between consciousness and awareness, but one often fails to account for the things around us, and the physical phenomena and laws that imbue these things with qualities.
Unless one is to go full idealist and deny the independent existence of objects around us, there’s no denying that our phenomenal consciousness, as Hegel well understood, partly reduces to the things around us. This theory may be doused in speculation, but speculation, given our current circumstances, is required. This is how we bring ideas to the fore and make them available for discussion, elucidation, and refutation. What’s manifest is that my theory is wholly naturalistic and accounts for mental states without need for a supernatural agent or explanation.
The primary objection one can raise is that it appears I have begged the question with regards to the existence of objects. They will argue that what’s required is an epistemological account that accounts for the existence of things around us. I would agree that such a requirement is a reasonable demand. I have not, however, begged the question. There’s still the fact that we seem to experience other things and people, so even if some version of idealism holds, my theory would make for a secondary explanation of consciousness. The primary one would focus on how exactly the mind is responsible for reality as we experience it.
Another objection will certainly involve self-knowledge, which given my account, wouldn’t be at all possible without other people and things. Following philosophy’s long history of thought experiments and setting aside the question of whether conceivability entails logical possibility and the question of whether logical possibility entails ontological reality, I will ask the reader to imagine the other philosophical zombie (p-zombie). Chalmers has argued that the mere logical possibility of there being a p-zombie like his entails that physicalism is false. His p-zombie, which is a zombie that’s psychologically indistinguishable from any other human being, lacks qualia and therefore, lacks phenomenal consciousness. His p-zombie gets the most attention though at least one other has been offered. Steven Harnad offered a neurological p-zombie. His p-zombie isn’t one designed to counter physicalism. Rather, it’s one employed to bolster the case for the Computational Theory of Mind and a case for artificial intelligence.89
Imagine a person indistinguishable from a human being. Now imagine that this person is blind, deaf, and mute. Further, imagine that this person cannot taste, smell or feel anything. Imagine that this person is devoid of all senses, even the sense of knowing when it’s time to urinate and digest. On my Hegelian reductionist account, sensations feature in the information received from the physical world. Sights, sounds, colors, textures, and so on inform our awareness, a structure comprised of our nervous systems, skin, sense apparatus and other smaller structures like papillae; this in turn informs our consciousness. Information mediates awareness and consciousness. This is in agreement with David Chalmers’ view. Where we differ is that I conclude that without our senses, we would not have phenomenal consciousness, especially since the qualia of sight, for instance, is simultaneous with whatever we are seeing.
My p-zombie shows that my reductionist account succeeds, since accounting for the p-zombie’s self-knowledge and qualia is impossible. Whatever account one might render is all but ineffable. Can this p-zombie proceed as Descartes did and eventually say “I think therefore I am”? If s/he knows of no people and no other objects, how can this person prove him/herself to exist? On my differential ontological view, we know who we are, in part, because of differentiation with other people and objects; there are no essential properties about us. So if such a p-zombie is possible and lacks what Chalmers calls the structure of awareness, how then can it retain a structure of consciousness? Moreover, if it lacks senses and cannot receive information, how then is his/her consciousness informed? If Chalmers’ p-zombie refutes physicalism, my p-zombie proves physicalism; a stalemate would ensue. My p-zombie would lack phenomenal consciousness only because s/he lacks all senses. This shows quite conclusively that qualia are dependent on our senses and the objects we interact with, and that without neither of these, we’d have no phenomenal consciousness to speak of.
The goal of this chapter isn’t to ensure that my theory is bulletproof. The goal is to divorce qualia from their supposed connection to supernatural agents or modes of explanation, and despite the speculative nature of my theory, the task has been completed. As mentioned earlier, we can’t simply ignore the insights of neuroscience and cognitive science, and assert that mental states are nonphysical. Neither can we follow Chalmers in overreacting and disavowing materialism due to its seeming failure to solve the hard problem of consciousness. Despite the conundrum of phenomenal consciousness, I’ve chosen not to abandon a strict naturalistic approach and a materialistic framework that has hitherto proven successful. What is demonstrably unsuccessful is the project of proving that nonphysical mental states exist. By extension, arguing from such mental states to the existence of god is unsuccessful.
58 Tye, Michael. “Qualia”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 20 Aug 1997. Web.
59 Adams, Robert. The Virtue of Faith. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1987. Print.; Swinburne, Richard. The Evolution of the Soul. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1986. 185. Print.
60 Conifer, Steve. “The Argument From Consciousness Refuted”. Infidels. 2001. Web.
61 Lowe, E. J. (2006). Non-cartesian substance dualism and the problem of mental causation. _Erkenntnis_ 65 (1):5-23.
62 Charles S., Nathan Houser, and Christian J. W. Kloesel. The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992. 292. Print.
63 Joseph, Rhawn. The Right Cerebral Hemisphere: Emotion, Music, Visual-spatial Skills, Body-image, Dreams, and Awareness. Brandon, VT: Clinical Psychology Pub., 1988. Print.
64 Joseph, Rhawn. “Dual Mental Functioning in a Split-brain Patient.” Journal of Clinical Psychology J. Clin. Psychol. 44.5 (1988): 770-79. Web.
65 Weed, Laura. “Philosophy of Mind: An Overview”. Philosophy Now. 2011. Web.
66 Chalmers, David. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. 16. Kindle Edition.
67 Smart, J.C.C. “The Mind/Brain Identity Theory”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 18 May 2007. Web.
68 One rod is the equivalent of roughly 5.02 meters.
69 Costandi, Mo. “Phineas Gage and the effect of an iron bar through the head on personality”. The Guardian. 8 Nov 2010. Web.
70 Joe Lau and Max Deutsch. “Externalism About Mental Content”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 22 Jan 2014. Web.
71 Ibid. , xi
72 Ibid. , xii
73 Ibid. , xiii
74 Kimble, Kevin, and Timothy O’connor. “The Argument from Consciousness Revisited.” Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion Volume 3 (2011): 110-41. Web.
75 Jurati, Julia. “Gottfried Leibniz: Philosophy of Mind”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ND. Web.
76 Ibid. , 293
77 Ibid. , 123
78 Ibid. , 94
79 Balog, Katalin. “Conceivability, Possibility, and the Mind-Body Problem.” The Philosophical Review 108.4 (1999): 497. Web.
80 Ibid. , 215
81 Ibid. , 225
82 Dickens, Donne. “Everything ‘Stranger Things’ didn’t explain about the Upside Down (basically everything)”. Hitflix. 18 Aug 2016. Web.
83 Ibid. , 278
84 Tremlin, Todd. Minds and Gods: The Cognitive Foundations of Religion. New York: Oxford UP, 2006. 54. Print.
85 Dennett, Daniel Clement. Consciousness Explained. London U.a.: Lane, the Penguin, 1992. Print.; Churchland, P.S. 1986. Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.
86 MacDonald, Fiona. “Scientists have found a woman whose eyes have a whole new type of colour receptor”. Science Alert. 25 July 2016. Web.
87 Nida-Rümelin, Martine. “Qualia: The Knowledge Argument”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.
88 Ibid. , 125
89 Harnad, S. “Minds, Machines and Turing.” The Turing Test Studies in Cognitive Systems (2003): 253-73. Web.