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The big unanswered philosophical question

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I feel like most questions in modern philosophy come down to the tension between these two hard-to-reconcile observations:


1. Consciousness seems to be a material phenomenon.

2. The material world seems to be a conscious phenomenon.


What I mean by the former is that consciousness comes from brains, and brains can be picked apart and dissected into the lower level physical concepts of chemistry and physics.  There is a lot of strong evidence that thinking is fundamentally a physical process; it doesn’t merely just “hang out” around the brain.  For instance, getting drunk… if thinking wasn’t physical, how could alcohol, a chemical, affect it?

We’ve learned a lot about how consciousness works via scientific inquiry.   We can cut open someone’s brain, tickle a nerve, and have them report sensations of warm or red or whatever.  We can watch a babies brain develop in utero, going from a couple unconnected neurons sending signals randomly to cohering into a full human mind.  We can talk about the evolution of consciousness in the context of natural selection and cultural change.

It’s very hard to argue against the statement that consciousness is a material phenomenon without willful denial of a lot of life experience.  Notions of the “soul” as somehow distinct from the body seem naive when every component of what we think of as soul — personality, logic, memory, emotion — are expressed through a time-bound series of mental reactions that can be disrupted or modified by physical stimuli.

However, it’s equally hard to argue against the second statement, that the material world seems to be a conscious phenomenon.  Absolutely everything we think we know about the world is because we have experienced it as sensory; we see things, we hear things, we touch things, we smell things.  As many people have pointed out, we could all be living in the Matrix, and we wouldn’t know the difference.

I would go as far as to say we don’t really know what the word “exists” means outside the concept of consciousness.  When I say the cup on the table exists, I mean that I can touch it and feel it, and if I close my eyes and look again, I’ve come to expect from past experience that it will still be there to touch and feel.  That’s why “If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” persists as the exemplary meaningless philosophical question, because we have no access to whatever “underlying reality” there is that would permit us to definitively give a yes or no answer.  What possible scientific experiment would permit us to put that question to rest?

The current mainstream view these days in the academic and scientific communities seems to be an acceptance of 1 — that consciousness is physical — and a denial of 2 — that the physical world is conscious.  The story is that since the beginning of time, there have been these things (electrons, quarks, what have you) whizzing around in an empty universe, and that eventually they came together and evolved themselves into human beings.  In this story, consciousness isn’t structurally important to the nature of reality; it’s just one more phenomenon in a universe full of interesting phenomenon.

There’s an act of faith involved in this story, which is the belief in the reality of matter and energy outside of the presence of human observers.  The faith comes from the fact that when we do  experiments, nature behaves in a way that’s far more consistent and complex than limited human minds could conceive of on their own, which certainly suggests there is something out there outside of our own heads.

The act of faith doesn’t seem problematic to me.  There’s no reason to think that we’d be able to know for sure about reality, without taking something on faith, and faith in the existence of scientific law seems to justify itself by the almost magical accomplishments of science and engineering.

What does seem problematic is that it leaves a big unanswered question — where are we, the observer, in this story?  The scientific description of the universe as matter and energy interacting in a law-like manner explains everything that we perceive except for our perception of it.

One explanation I’ve heard is that the first-person perspective is “illusory”, in the sense that we trick ourselves into believing we’re conscious.  There’s a lot of scientific evidence that consciousness is a constructed phenomenon, a story that we tell ourselves after the fact.  You might say “I decided to pick up the cup”, but scans of your brain shows that your arm started moving before the thought entered your conscious awareness.

I have no doubt this is true, but it’s still not an explanation.  An “illusion” is a concept that presupposed a first-person observer who gets tricked by evidence that misleads her from the underlying reality.  But in this case, we’re saying that the existence of the first-person observer is itself the trick.  What does that even mean?  Who’s getting tricked?

It seems perverse to end up with a story that says that our primary evidence — I see, I feel, I hear — isn’t real, and instead reality is this totally unobservable thing that gives rise to our primary evidence.  I’m not sure how to express this objection rigorously, but there seems to be a fundamental incompleteness to any theory that discredits the evidence on which it is based.

So anyway, we have these two views of looking at the universe — first that there is this primary, unexplainable thing called consciousness, and the physical world can be described in terms of patterns as observed conscious phenomenon, and second that there is this primary, unexplainable thing called the material world, and consciousness can be described in terms of patterns that the world gives rise to.  Both seem true, and irreconcilable with each other.

I think the state of the problem right now is that we really just don’t know, and that a lot of writing on this subject is the attempt of papering over the not-knowing with stuff that sounds good.

There are interesting cultural divides related to this, as well — sympathy towards view 1 vs view 2 seems to be one of the big cleavage points in the American political landscape right now, with the secular on one side of the line and the religious on the other.

I’m not terribly sympathetic to a solution to this dilemma that tries to throw out view 1 or a solution that tries to throw out view 2.  My sense is that both views are grounded in something pretty fundamental about human experience, so arguing that one of them is just wrong and the other is right is going to lead to a broken philosophical system.

The third alternative is to argue that this way of framing the problem is incorrect.  This is another trend in thought which I think is more promising.  The basic thing is to say that the distinction between reality and experience — consciousness and the world — is what is illusory, the artificial creation of a subject-object dualist perspective.  Rather, it’s two different ways of describing the same unified thing, that being reality / consciousness / god / the universe.  This way of resolving the problem comes out of Eastern thought.  I’ve been re-reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which one well-known attempt to address Western-framed questions through the lens of Eastern metaphysics.  My college thesis was in the same vein.

Although something seems more “right” to me about this third approach, I feel like writing in that space hasn’t really done a a good job answering what the relationship between consciousness as a physical phenomenon to consciousness as an experiential one really is.

We understand the physical side of consciousness much better now than the Zen monks did back when they were sitting around thinking non-dualistic thoughts back in the day.  We don’t have a complete story for how consciousness works, but we can now say some meaningful things about it: it’s a computational feedback process that involves forming representations of things in the world, including representations of itself.  This quality of self-representation seems to be the thing that makes consciousness so weirdly unlike most other physical phenomenon in the way it picks up and magnifies complexity, leading to things such as language, art, ability to build rocket ships, etc.

So if a monist metaphysics is true, I wouldn’t really expect to be able to give a written explanation that describes in objective terms how the whole thing works.  Rather, I would expect that the only way I could achieve a sense of understanding is to erase the distinction between myself as the person asking the question, and the phenomenon I’m trying to understand, thus forming an explanatory circuit with me in the middle of it.  That’s largely the purpose of meditation and similar spiritual practices — to get one’s mind to a state where you can actually experience understanding as opposed to being stuck in the rational, intellectualizing place where understanding is impossible.

The interesting question is whether there is degrees of understanding even in a place of non-seperation from the universe.  The way that spiritual traditions describe it, it’s kind of, you have the perspective, or you don’t.  But a lot of people entering that mind frame didn’t understand computer science, cognitive science, etc.  Can you actually practice cognitive science from a state of enlightenment?  What does such a science look like?  It would have to be inherently value-oriented instead of objective.  (That’s largely the point of Zen and the Art of Motercycle Maintenance  insofar as I understand it — that traditional, objective thinking misses the importance of having values in one’s relationship to the universe.  Where “values” basically come down to saying, this is good, I want things this way, i.e., understanding and wanting things to be a certain way as being intrinsically one process instead of the instrumental reasoning that’s more traditional in Western thought — i.e., 1. I want this, and 2. this is how the universe is, so 3. this is what I should do).

Okay, I’m starting to ramble here, so I’m cutting this post off for now.  I think that last paragraph is probably three blog posts or maybe a book before it even starts to make sense.

Written by jphaas

May 12th, 2013 at 3:41 pm

Posted in Uncategorized