The Dueling Philosophers

Consciousness is the most familiar and bewildering phenomena in the universe. As observers, we share an experience of being an immaterial “I” resting somewhere between the ear lobes watching life’s narrative unfold. Yet when neuroscientists peer down the optic nerve, loop around the limbic system and up to the frontal lobes, the observer is nowhere to be found.

The ineffable “I” has yielded two opposing views in regards to the nature of self in the towers of academia. The dominate theory of mind is material reductionism, which suggests that consciousness is a function of the brain in the same way digestion is a function of the stomach. Consciousness consists of a conglomeration of brain modules that have evolved to fulfill various niches.

The antithesis of material reductionism is Cartesian dualism, which suggests that the mind and brain are two separate substances. The brain consists of wet stuff inside our heads and the mind consists of immaterial “stuff” outside, though intimately tied to our heads. Dualists quibble over whether consciousness is fundamental or a derivative of the universe and how the mind/brain interact with each other. Quibbles aside, the basic idea behind dualism is that the mind and brain are distinct.

Dualism is thought to have been gutted and left for dead by advances made in neuroscience. In recent years, however, dualism has made a surprising comeback precisely because of advances made in neuroscience.

Cognitive science has taken active steps toward solving the “easy problems” of consciousness. The phrase “the easy problem of consciousness” isn’t meant to trivialize challenges tackled by cognitive science. Awareness, wakefulness and categorization are phenomena that can be explained by neural wiring and are thus regarded as “easy.” Cognitive science has done an excellent job of mapping the confines of thought by associating conscious states with brain states. Fundamentally, however, cognitive science spins a theory of correlation rather than causation. Neuroscience has had little to say in regards to the intractable hard problem of consciousness.

The hard problem of consciousness consists of why the wet stuff inside our heads produces subjective experiences. Computers, for example, are capable of simulating models of the world. Yet computers seem to not share subjective experiences, such as the sensation of red or the taste of peppermint. People do have these experiences. What therefore is the cognitive disjunction between computer wiring versus neural wiring that allows the latter to produce an experience of what it is like to be something?

The impression given thus far is that deriving a scientific understanding of consciousness is a futile exercise. Not all is lost. When a scientific discipline faces limits, it must expand its framework in order to advance. Aristotelian physics, for example, was a reigning theory that attempted to explain how various forces acted on corpuscles of matter. After much time and resistance, Aristotelian physics was superseded by Newtonian physics and even further still by relativity and quantum mechanics. These advances were made by expanding the scientific framework. Relativity expanded our understanding of gravity by quite literally stretching the fabric of space-time. The scientific approach to consciousness might be in a similar state in need of revision.

It is too soon to tell what ventures extend past neuroscience’s current horizon. One possibility purported by the philosopher David Chalmers is naturalistic dualism, which preserves the spirit of science by avoiding spirits altogether. Rather than being a derivative of brain activity, Chalmers suggests that consciousness is fundamental, meaning non-reducible. Space, time and matter are considered non-reducible elements of the universe. The scientific picture of reality stems from these basic units. Chalmers suggests that consciousness could be lumped together with these other basic units.

Chalmers is not the first person to suggest that consciousness is a basic element of reality. Many eastern religions, such as panpsychism, have purported consciousness to be a fundamental property of the universe. One property that the basics elements of the cosmos share is universality, meaning they transpire across all planes of existence. If consciousness is fundamental, then it is not too much of a leap—though a leap across the universe nonetheless—to suggest that consciousness is universal as well.

If consciousness transpires across all modes of reality, does that therefore mean a blade of grass is conscious? The short answer is yes, provided the object embodies information. The long answer is that the amount of consciousness an object secretes is relative to the amount of information it can store. The more complex the object, the more consciousness is exhibited. Such reasoning peddles the provocative idea that even an electron occupying the carapace of an atom flickering in and out of existence is conscious. Nevertheless, the amount of consciousness a particle possesses is contingent upon its complexity, in the same way the weight of a particle is dependent upon its mass. The amount of consciousness a human brain possesses is quantifiably greater than the amount of consciousness a particle possesses.

Perhaps an even more provocative thought than the idea that electrons are conscious is that computers and robots are conscious. Yet computers seem to lack the intractable “I” that makes the hard problem of consciousness so difficult. Therefore, some dualists are of the conviction that consciousness is only manifest in an object with a certain amount of complexity. It is for this reason, so it is suggested, that the biological substrate of thought is conscious, whereas the computational substrate of thought is unconscious.

Unfortunate for those who wish to salvage the idea of eternal souls, naturalistic dualism does not necessarily offer hope for immortality. Consciousness, though separate from matter, can only express itself through objects that have the ability to process a modicum of information. Provided the brain is no longer functioning, consciousness does not have a medium to express itself through, in the same way a guitarist cannot play music through a guitar with cut strings.

Dualism has been met with fervor in the towers of academia in the last century. Thus far, materialist descriptions of the mind have failed to explain consciousness in purely physical terms. Only time will tell whether dualists or materialists will have the last laugh. Currently, the two philosophies seem to be in a never-ending duel.

By Nathan Cranford

Stanford Encyclopedia
Prospect Magazine

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