Friday, April 16, 2010

Daniel Dennett on the unreality of consciousness

Daniel Dennet denies the obvious. About consciousness he says: "It's just not there." Does he make a good case? Does the fact that we cannot notice some changing feature of our experienced environment establish that consciousness is 'not there'? No. It just shows that conscious entities can miss things. After all, whose doing the missing?

Does the fact that consciousness is associated with neurons doing their business establish that consciousness does not exist? No. It's just evidence that dualism is probably false, that souls or immaterial minds probably do not exist. But, to go beyond that and claim that consciousness is not there, as you are actually consciously formulating the very argument that allegedly makes the case, is to say the least...odd.

Two philosophers on consciousness

The first is an interview of David Chalmers, doing a bit of stage setting. He discusses quite a few things including: the logical possibility of zombies (beings that act just as conscious beings actually do, but who have no consciousness going on). He allows that this is a logical possibility (essentially says this is something you can imagine, and describe without involving yourself in some inconsistency). He then moves on to a discussion of what are termed "qualia", i.e., the subjective 'feels' of direct first person experience of things like colors, and gives a quick sketch of the famous thought experiment of Mary the color ignorant scientist who knows all there is to know about perception of the color red, but has never herself directly experienced it, because she has lived in a black and white environment. All of this is by way of an intro to the 'problem of consciousness'. His basic point; we can tell, using scientific methods of detection and investigation, in detail how the brain behaves when we undergo particular mental states, how it stores memories, and where, how it behaves when using language, and we still have no idea why all that functioning, all that activity brings about conscious first person experience as well. We can find constant concomitance, but cannot explain why or how it happens. We just note that it happens.

Next up, one of my favorite philosophers (as you can tell if you look at the history of this blog) John Searle, on the same topic. His basic point is that consciousness seems so mysterious because it is something that is unique in being first person, or subjective. But, science clearly indicates that consciousness is always located in functioning brains, and no other place. So, it would appear to be a physical property, just as electrical charge is obviously a physical property, or liquidity. These properties are never found, as it were, outside of physical things, but are properties of physical things, be they single items (a single electron for instance) or a collection of physical things (a puddle of water molecules). So, we have overwhelming evidence that consciousness is a physical property. But, and here is the stickler, no other physical property is like it. So, our language naturally divides things with a duality of terminology (mind/matter) that leads us into thinking that dualism is true. Dualism is the view that there are two fundamentally different sorts of substance (soul/mind/spirit and matter), or the view that there are two fundamentally different sorts of property (mental and physical). In philosophy of mind the former view is called 'substance dualism' and is associated most with Descartes. The former view is called 'property dualism' and is a creature of the 20th century. Searle is neither. Mind, for him is a physical property, that can only arise in brains, or things very much like them. It is unique though in that it is first person. No other physical property is like it.