Coming To Grips With Consciousness

BrainScanWall-Smith

“Brightly colored brain scans are a media favorite as they are both attractive to the eye and apparently easy to understand, but in reality they represent some of the most complex scientific information we have. They are not maps of activity, but maps of the outcome of complex statistical comparisons of blood flow that unevenly relate to actual brain function. This is a problem that scientists are painfully aware of, but it is often glossed over when the results get into the press.”

Quoted from “Our brains, and how they’re not as simple as we think,” by Vaughan Bell, “a neuropsychologist who researches the brain and treats people with neurological difficulties.” The Observer, Saturday 2 March 2013 – http://observer.guardian.co.uk/

“It’s worth noting that philosophers…(generally) do not conclude that there is no sense in which an experience is physical. Seeing red, for example, involves photons striking the retina, followed by a whole string of physical events that process the retinal information before we actually have a subjective sense of color. There’s a purely physical sense in which this is “seeing.” This is why we can say that a surveillance camera “sees” someone entering a room. But the “seeing” camera has no subjective experience; it has no phenomenal awareness of what it’s like to see something. That happens only when we look at what the camera recorded. The claim that experience is not physical applies only to this sense of experience. But, of course, it is experience in this sense that makes up the rich inner experience that matters so much to us.”

chalmers 2011

David Chalmers,(*) remain(s) one of many “philosophical naturalists,” who maintain(s) that there is no world beyond the natural one in which we live. The “philosophical naturalist’s” claim is rather that this world contains a natural reality (consciousness) that escapes the scope of physical explanation. Chalmers, in particular, supports a “naturalistic dualism” that proposes to supplement physical science by postulating entities with irreducibly subjective (phenomenal) properties that would allow us to give a natural explanation of consciousness. Not surprisingly, however, some philosophers (view) Chalmers’s arguments as supporting a traditional dualism of a natural body and a supernatural soul. — Quoted from the New York Times “Opinionator – A Gathering of Opinion From Around the Web” – The Stone March 12, 2013 by Gary Gutting (who) is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

 

For years now, I have been researching the human subjective experience of consciousness, studying the many resources surrounding the nature of the mind, investigating as much as I can about the developments in neuroscience, and reading as widely as possible in the many related subjects like psychology, philosophy, and in a variety of spiritual traditions, all in the service of a greater understanding of my own subjective experience of life. I know there are elements coalescing within me, at times bursting to come out, but I am impeded often by both temporal distractions and my own mental exhaustion from a variety of urgent matters. Every once in a while, I like to review my own writing about particular subjects and resources in hopes of stimulating my thought processes, and recently in my current workbook, I came across a review I wrote of Chalmers’ book, “The Conscious Mind,” and it prompted me to give it another look.

One of the main reasons I have admired David’s work over the years is due to the many instances where he has shown a willingness to periodically engage in unconventional thinking as a means of expanding on conventional ideas. Even though there aren’t many others who even go as far as he goes, I can’t help but feel that it still isn’t quite far enough. Even as broad in scope as his book seems to be, it still stays carefully away from anything too potentially controversial. After all, he has a professional reputation to consider, and a vested interest in maintaining academic integrity, but even so, his courage in pursuing his ideas is admirable. The environment in which academics generally must function, often requires that they pay attention to such considerations, and by doing so, hopefully lead them to conduct research that is productive and publishable.

MotionIllusion2

Much has been made of our perception of the natural world through our senses and how little of its true nature is evident through our cognitive functionality. Indeed, as the image above demonstrates, our common sense notions of how an image printed with ink on a piece of paper could not be in motion are immediately called into question. We can explain how it is that our brain translates this image into one that appears to be moving on the page, but the EXPERIENCE of its motion takes place within us subjectively, and that requires more explaining.

Experience is a subjective mental state, according to Chalmers, one that we can know only as we have it. Consciousness can best be characterized, he says, as “the subjective quality of experience.” He enumerates the various types of “conscious experiences,” from the most subtle to the most pronounced, all of which “have a distinct experienced quality.” He goes on to say that “if it were not for our direct evidence in the first-person…the hypothesis (of the existence of conscious experience) would seem unwarranted.” “Consciousness is part of the natural world,” he insists, and suggests two major areas that cry out for explanation: 1) The very existence of consciousness, and 2) the specific character of conscious experiences. Chalmers would like for the theory of consciousness to “enable us to see (it) as in integral part of the natural world,” and frames the problem of consciousness as something that “arises from physical systems.”

I do not believe necessarily that “physical processes give rise to consciousness,” nor that “…the emergence of consciousness needs to be explained in terms that seem intelligible,” if by “intelligible” he means “empirical.” Our experience of our individual existence is clearly dependent upon our temporal capacity for cognition, and is made manifest in the physical world through our central nervous system and our natural cognitive endowment as human beings, but it is my personal view that consciousness itself, this foundational and ineffable vehicle of experience may not originate in our physical systems at all, although there may be, as Chalmers describes it, “a lawful relationship between physical processes and conscious experience.” For some, there isn’t much difference between those two phrases, but being related and simply being are quite different.

What we perceive as experience owes a great deal to the physical nervous system and cognitive functions of the brain, but it seems more likely to me, particularly as one who HAS these experiences, that they are far too rich, deeply personal, and occasionally so profoundly beyond the machinations of the natural world for them to be solely dependent on them for their existence. Just because we rely on our intact and functional physical cognitive system in order that experience may “register,” or for us to be aware of them, does not, in my view, indicate that consciousness “arises” from those physical processes.

We may eventually come to understand why we have these experiences, and David’s reasoning regarding the character and nature of consciousness being possible to explain in terms of his “naturalistic dualism” is perfectly alright with me. The inner workings of every phenomenal process we examine do not easily reveal themselves always through current scientific methodology, but it is certain that our understanding is increasing and expanding due to the efforts of people like David Chalmers, and I am grateful that such individuals exist who ponder these issues. Those who insist on a more tangible, empirical explanation for consciousness may not find much satisfaction in my own ideas and inclinations, but my respect and admiration for David far exceeds any amount of disparity in our views generally. We have corresponded occasionally over the years, and his gracious encouragement and probing questions in response to mine have had the effect of pressing me to dig deeper. In the last chapter of David’s book, he even allows himself to speculate a bit, and warns the reader that such speculation “…falls well into the realm of speculative metaphysics, but speculative metaphysics is probably unavoidable in coming to terms with the ontology of consciousness.”

I couldn’t agree more.

(*)”David Chalmers is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Consciousness at the Australian National University and also Visiting Professor of Philosophy at New York University. He is the author of “The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory,” and numerous other books and articles in philosophy and cognitive science. His 2010 John Locke Lectures at Oxford will shortly be published as “Constructing the World.” – from the website psychoontology.org