The Problem of Consciousness


Although I’m not entirely ready to discuss this issue, since I’m still mulling it around in my mind, I thought we might be in need of a topic to kick around for a bit, so I’ll wing it.

I have previously stated my view that God, as “Being” pervades all reality, down to the last atom. Some objectors noted that they saw no evidence of this. I would like to introduce some evidence, launching into it from a different discussion topic we have also had recently – the problem of reductionist arguments for psychological states – ie explanations for our mind which reduce the mind entirely down to physics and chemistry.

I wish to discuss the problem of conscious experience.

It is possible to imagine that physical sciences could eventually give us much insight on the FUNCTIONS of our mental experience. How information is analyzed, stored, collated and evaluated. How we focus our attention. How we control our behavior. Functional components simply need a functional mechanism as an explanation.

But functional explanations leave one phenomena untouched – our actual experience of consciousness. The experience of what it is LIKE to see a color, remember a face, or have a thought. I am not asking how our brain sees, remembers, or thinks – but how these mechanisms generate the actual experience of being conscious of these functions.

“How it is that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of Djin when Aladdin rubbed his lamp”. (T H Huxley)

We may notice that there are correlations between physical states of the brain and the experience of consciousness, but it is a logical error to assume that a correlation implies either a cause and effect, or (even more absurdly) an identity. We notice that whenever the Genii appears, Aladdin is rubbing the lamp. But this hardly “explains” the Genii. We would need to know HOW and WHY one produces the other. Much less can we say that Aladdin rubbing is lamp is ONE AND THE SAME as the Genii.

In a similar way, a brain state may be associated with the experience of consciousness. But it cannot be said to CAUSE it unless we know the exact how and why. Far less is it ontologically identical with conscious experience. The actual experience of seeing the color red does not seem, on observation, to have any identity in it’s NATURE to the firing of neurons in the brain.

Not only that, but it is difficult to see how any progress in neuroscience could possibly account for conscious experience. Neuroscience can possibly discover physical mechanisms which produce mental functions. But conscious experience is not a “function”. It is a state of being. There is no particular reason WHY a particular pattern of neural activity should produce our conscious experience of a vast subjective world.

Wrapping up quickly, I believe that conscious experience is completely unaccountable in terms of reduction to the laws of physics and chemistry. Conscious experience needs to take its place, like mass and space-time, as a fundamental “given” of the cosmos – part of its fundamental nature.

I could expand on many of these points greatly, but perhaps it’s best to let the discussion take care of that.

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