Thursday, August 19, 2010

Materialist Conceptions of Mind, Part III: Self-Monitoring Brains and Strange Loops

This will be my last post before the start of the new academic semester—at which point most (if not all) of my blog posts will be deliberately paired with topics I’ll be covering in my philosophy of religion class. But before that starts I want to conclude my series of posts on materialist conceptions of consciousness.

In this final post in the series I want to consider what I’m calling “perspectivalism”—roughly, the idea that consciousness is to be identified with the way that brain states “look” from a distinctive internal perspective. But on this definition, perspectivalism needn’t be a materialist conception of consciousness at all.

A non-materialist version of perspectivalism would hold that consciousness is the way that brain states look to a “subject” that isn't reducible to anything physical. On this view, while every conscious state is correlated with a physical state of the brain, and while changes in the brain will always bring about corresponding changes to consciousness (in other words, while this theory of consciousness fully aligns with everything that science tells us about the relationship between mental and neurological phenomena), consciousness does not arise without the introduction of a non-material subject. Such non-material perspectivalism, as defined, does not specify what this non-material subject is (and hence allows for numerous variants), but only what it is not: any component or part of the brain.

A materialist version of perspectivalism, by contrast, shares the idea that states of consciousness are the way that brain states “appear” from a distinctive internal perspective. But the “observer” in this case--that which provides the perspective on the brain states--is the brain itself. In other words, consciousness emerges when the brain begins to monitor its own activity—when brain states begin to represent brain states.

To unpack this idea as best I can, I want to recall a comment from my previous post—which at the time was little more than an aside. The comment is one I made in relation to my extended example of the two instantiations of the photo of my children—one a “hard copy” on my desk, the other an electronically produced image on my computer screen. The image, I said then, is an emergent property of two disparate physical substrates. But then I made the following remark:

Arguably, the emergent property in either case doesn’t really “emerge” in the absence of an observer who has the capacity to find in the similar organizational structures of the two physical substrates a shared meaning. In other words, at least in some cases, emergence requires a subject who is capable of meaning-attributions. Without that observer, we have an arrangement of inkblots or of illuminated pixels, but we simply don’t have an image of my children. That requires someone to find meaning in the pattern—and neither a piece of photo paper with ink on it nor a computer can do that.
The idea here is that the common feature of both physical systems doesn’t really come into existence apart from a meaning-bestowing observer. The idea I want to follow up on here is that consciousness is what certain neurological patterns “become” to the right kind of meaning-bestowing observer—and that the brain itself is capable of being such an observer. Put more simply, conscious states emerge from the physical system of the brain when that brain “monitors” its own processes (in the sense of tracking and modeling them). On this view, it should be clear that perspectivalism is really a distinctive species of emergentism--but one which adds an additional element that is intended, presumably, to help close the explanatory gap that a bare emergentism leaves us with.

What I want to do in this post is explain why such self-monitoring activity cannot solve the problems that I have articulated with respect to the previous species of materialism (identificationism and emergentism). In other words, the arguments I will be developing against perspectivalism will presuppose the conclusions I have reached on the basis of arguments in the previous two posts. As such, I want to offer an initial qualifying remark about what I do and don’t believe I am accomplishing in the current post.

Specifically, I am well aware that the arguments already laid out against identificationism and perspectivalism are not convincing to everyone--and I don't think this post will add anything new to those arguments (and hence won't do anything to convince those who are skeptical of them). My aim here is simply to show that if you find these arguments convincing, then the same basic concerns that lie behind your rejection of identificationism and emergentism will lead you to reject material perspectivalism as well. Material perspectivalism doesn’t add anything new that can rehabilitate materialism if the problems with identificationism and emergentism are granted. In short, what I hope to show in this post (even to those who don’t find in the earlier species of materialism the same problems I find) is that those who do find the earlier species of materialism problematic in the ways I highlighted won’t discover in perspectivalism a way around those problems.

With this in mind, consider the hypothesis that consciousness is what happens when the brain monitors its own activity, so that its brain states become the object of the brain’s own scrutiny. Just as the image on a computer screen acquires a distinctive emergent property by virtue of there being a meaning-bestowing observer to attach meaning to the pattern on the screen, perhaps consciousness is a property that emerges when the brain observes its own states.

There are two main objections to this view. First, in order for the brain to serve as an observer that bestows meaning on its own brain states, we must solve the riddle of how a physical system can generate semantic content. In other words, we must first close the explanatory gap in order for this self-monitoring process to do the job we need it to do. But the job we were hoping the self-monitoring process would do is close this very gap. But if the gap must first be closed in order for the self-monitoring system to close the gap, it follows that the self-monitoring system cannot be what closes the gap.

And so, if you think that the explanatory gap between neurological systems and conscious states is the kind of gap that can’t be bridged without the addition of some external element—that is, if you accept the core objection to emergentism—then the materialist version of perspectivalism won’t work. Perspectivalism, it seems, adds nothing to the explanatory picture that will be convincing to those who are skeptical of the emergentist hypothesis.

The second problem with perspectivalism connects up with the chief objection to identificationism. As a reminder, that objection holds, in brief, that a conscious state cannot be identified with its corresponding brain process because the conscious state (the “quale”) has relational properties that the brain process do not have. For example, I can be familiar with the conscious state (the way the wasp sting on my ankle feels) even though I am entirely unacquainted with the underlying brain state. (The argument is more complicated than this—but for a fuller treatment, see the first post in this series and the subsequent discussion).

At least at first glance, it seems that materialist perspectivalism can avoid this problem with identificationism. After all, for perspectivalism the quale isn’t identified with the underlying brain state at all. Instead, it is identified with the way the brain state appears to a brain that’s engaged in self monitoring activity. And there is no difficulty with an appearance from a certain perspective having properties that the underlying cause of that appearance lacks (or vice versa). I can be immediately acquainted with the way that the northern lights look without knowing anything about the underlying physical reality (and vice versa).

But here’s the problem: on this perspectival view, it’s true enough that a quale is not identified with the corresponding brain event. But it is identified with a second-order brain event—one in which parts of the brain are undergoing brain processes in response to other brain processes.

But if this is right, the original problem just crops up at the next level. The reason why we couldn’t identify the quale with the first-order brain event was because we’re acquainted with the quale even when we are entirely unacquainted with the underlying brain event. But surely the very same thing can be said about the second-order brain event, generating the very same problem. One could try to perform the same move again, by identifying the quale with the way that the second-order "monitoring" brain event looks from a certain vantage point—but if that vantage point is the one provided by a third-order brain event, we’d just be moving the problem up one more level without making any progress. The only way to stop this endless buck-passing would be either to abandon perspectivalism at some point (in which case why not abandon it right away?), or to ground consciousness in the way that a brain state appears to a subject that isn't reducible to a brain state (in which case we’ve embraced non-materialist perspectivalism).

What all of this means is that if one accepts the problem with identificationism, then perspectivalism won’t get us any closer to an adequate materialist account of consciousness.

But before leaving perspectivalism altogether, I want to briefly consider Douglas Hofstadter’s “strange loop.” Here, I must confess that I haven’t had the time to study Hofstadter closely, so there may be something important I’m missing. If so, please pipe in with appropriate comments. In any event, as I understand it the basic thrust of Hofstadter’s idea is that the brain is designed to make representations of objects via various neurological mechanisms—but that one of the things it makes representations of is itself. But in representing itself, it includes in that representation the other representations—including its self-representation. The result is a kind of feedback loop out of which consciousness emerges—like the noise produced when a microphone is held up to the speaker to which it is connected, or the strange visual images that result when a video camera is focused narrowly on a monitor that is displaying a live feed of what the camera is filming.

Now I must confess to finding something really cool and wondrous about these kinds of feedback loops. As I child I often wondered what would happen if one put two mirrors up against one another and somehow managed to get enough light in there to make visual reflection possible—without introducing the lamp itself or any other object that might be reflected. I had fantasies that this would open up a window into some parallel dimension—if only one could get in there to see it (which, of course, couldn’t be done without introducing an object that would then shatter the magic).

The closest I got to achieving this fantasy was to enter the mirror room that’s on display at the Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY (where I grew up). The interior of the room is entirely mirrored—walls, floor, ceiling—so that when one stands in it one sees endless corridors in all directions, with oneself endlessly repeated. There’s also a table and chair made of mirrors, but I always found that element distracting. In any event, I remember thinking that if only I could make myself invisible (and get rid of the mirror table and chair) I’d be able to produce the conditions of infinite-reflection-of-nothing that would open a window to another world.

But as appealing as this infinite feedback loop idea is, I don’t see how it can generate anything really new. Without any light to reflect, two mirrors pressed against each other won’t produce any kind of mutual feedback. A speaker that produces no sounds of its own won’t cause feedback when the microphone is brought close to it unless there are ambient noises in the room to be magnified through the feedback. Likewise for the monitor-and-video loop. These loops need something to work with—and while they can produce a kind of infinite magnification of what is given to them, can something new really arise from them? I don’t see how.

Now, if we accept Chalmers’ view that there are latent “consciousness” properties in matter, I can imagine how a feedback loop of the sort Hofstadter describes might “magnify” these properties—producing discernible consciousness in the brain out of indiscernible “traces.” But in the absence of this Chalmerian assumption, I don’t see how an infinite feedback loop can give us anything new. And so, unless the explanatory gap I talked about in the previous post can be closed in some other way, I don’t see how the mere introduction of a feedback loop can close it. Such a feedback loop might explain many things about the operation of the brain and identity-formation—but it seems that it can explain aspects of our conscious experience (such as our sense of self) only on the assumption that we already have conscious experience.

In short, as an account of the origins of consciousness, I don’t see how the feedback loop can be explanatorily significant. While I think that our brains do engage in self-monitoring activity—and while I think that this self-monitoring activity does generate feedback loops that are going to have interesting results that may explain various features or aspects of our conscious life—I don’t see how they can account for consciousness itself.


  1. Hi, Eric-

    Great post...

    " ... how a physical system can generate semantic content" This hardly much of a problem, with computers generating semantic content day in, day out, in the petabytes. Clearly I am not understanding something here, but semantics alone are not much of a trick to create. We are even being sucked into the "semantic web".

    "What all of this means is that if one accepts the problem with identificationism, then perspectivalism won’t get us any closer to an adequate materialist account of consciousness."

    Which just underlines my initial point that all these arguments boil down to the same issue of whether anything physical could account for my feelings. That is the gap, and like the countless other theological/intuitive claims through history, will be open for vain theo-"logic" until it is explained in detail by people actually delving into the facts of the matter.

    I agree that the feedback loop idea doesn't bridge the divide any better than the others offered. It just remains to state that all the evidence we have outside of how consciousness feels indicates that it has to have some kind of mechanistic, brain-confined basis. That should be enough to tell people to take their intuitions with a rock of salt, especially for a phenomenon that is obviously designed by evolution to assiduously hide its own nuts and bolts in preference for the seamless presentation of other things.

    Ditto for the prospect of latent consciousness in matter, whatever that means. We have no evidence for that whatsoever, so I would give it zero credence... Just as I would give magical disembodied consciousness zero credence- they are equivalent hypotheses as far as we know. Surprises may transpire, but until we need exotic explanations, I'd rather stick with known principles of biology, physics, etc., which are difficult enough to master and far from fully explored in the brain.

  2. Burk,

    "...That should be enough to tell people to take their intuitions with a rock of salt..."

    Yes, including the materialist intuition. Indeed.

    "...all the evidence we have..."

    All the evidence we have, which I think Eric is aware of, at least, most of the evidence any way, could be interpreted either way. "All" the evidence does not necessarily lead anyone to believe a strict materialist account. I thought that was why we were having this discussion.

  3. Yes, my caveat of "the way it feels" is of course the most important datum/evidence of all, and is what we are discussing and stands in need of explanation. We agree there.

  4. Hi Eric

    Such an interesting series of posts. Thank you.

    My reading of the Hofstadter book was he was attempting to show that relational qualities (not sure if this is the right phrase) may exist at the higher level of representation even though they are not apparent at the lower level of representation, and that was where his take on the Incompleteness Theorem came in. So at the level of statements about statements, properties of the whole system emerge that can't be deduced from the statements themselves. Not sure if I have that quite right, I need to revisit it.

    Reading your three entries on materialism, it does all come back to qualia doesn't it? I can certainly see why the intuition that they just must be something other than physical processes is appealing, it is no trouble imagining my way into the stance.

    Perhaps our difference is purely that on this issue I don't trust my intuition much (intuitively I still watch the sun dip down below the horizon each night, despite knowing better). Maybe we also differ on the help current science is providing in sharpening our understanding of qualia, although I'm not sure where your disagreement is on this point.

    Nutting out the way in which visual qualia can float free from the actual visual stimula seems crucial to me (e.g dreaming, or change blindness). At the other end of the process, observing the way our reportage of qualia (e.g colour in our peripheral vision) varies from what appear to be our actual qualia (we have no access to this colour information, beyond guessing) also helps us narrow down our intuition about what qualia are.

    We can also ask sensible and testable questions about the difference between imagining, remembering and viewing the same object, a familiar face say, again to get closer to what we really mean by visual qualia.

    There is an interesting question to be teased out also
    regarding the difference between a sensation, and our thinking about and assessing that sensation. What is the difference between experiencing something and imagining or convincing ourselves we have experienced it, and could it be said we only imagine we have qualia, in other words what we are tempted to describe as an irreducible sensation is nothing more than the tendency to give that description, both to others and ourselves.

    The role of language and memory in qualia becomes fascinating. Why is it that young children lay down no permanent memories for instance? And what of this notion of mentalise, the native language in which we conceptualise, might there not be a native notion of qualia without qualia themselves existing?

    My angle is that these things are at least potentially testable, and the confidence you seem to have that these tests will amount to nothing surprises me. And, to be honest, I just find this style of exploration much more fun than chasing ones own quale around inside a Chinese Room, so perhaps this is a personality thing too.


  5. Bernard,

    With respect to the following: "My angle is that these things are at least potentially testable, and the confidence you seem to have that these tests will amount to nothing surprises me."

    It's probably better to say that I'm confident that consciousness has this essentially internal qualitative dimension that I'm immediately acquainted with--and an implication of this is that I'm presumptively skeptical that any experiments or tests could generate evidence sufficiently strong to cast that into serious doubt. Basically, I just can't get my brain around what such doubt would even look like. To borrow a move from Descartes, any act of doubting qualia would seem to confirm what is being doubted, insofar as the act of doubting has this essentially internal qualitative content.

    That said, I agree that we can be wrong about our own qualitative states of consciousness when we introspect on them or recall them. When we form propositions about our own qualia, we engage in a descriptive/reconstructive project that can fail to capture what was really going on. But it is one thing to say that I can misdescribe my qualitative inner experience. It is something else again to say that I can be wrong about HAVING a qualitative inner experience in the sense Searle and I have in mind. Because--to put it roughly--it seems to me that BEING WRONG in the indicated way amounts to having a conscious state whose qualitative content is a misdescription of the qualitative content of an earlier conscious state.

    None of this is to say that investigations into qualia and their relation to brain states and sensory input shouldn't be done, or that these investigations won't yield very interesting results. For example, it might show that much of my qualitative experience has two "layers" to it--one being generated by sensory input, and one being produced independent of any sensory input based on prior expectations--with the latter layer dominating when my attention is peripheral but vanishing altogether in favor of the former as soon as my attention focuses on it. (By the way, I am very interested in the concept of "attention" and how it relates to experience.)

    So I think this investigation into the complex interplay of sensory input, brain activity, and conscious awareness is interesting and important. But I'd be floored if any of those results spoke "against" qualia in a way that would rattle the epistemic force of my immediate first-person encounter with them (a comment that, obviously, opens the door to a host of epistemological questions...)

  6. Hi Eric

    Thank you for your patience. I don't think I know what 'essentially internal qualitative dimension' means.

    So, for example, a materialist might claim that brain states, or perhaps brain processes is more accurate, are qualia. Thus, to experience a particular qualia, one needs to be in the corresponding brain state. If all qualia are flavoured with the individual's prior experiences, then the only way to know what it's like to experience the world the way you do is to be you, or at least have an identical brain state as you. So, by this description, qualia are both entirely material things, and yet have an essentially internal dimension. So 'essentially internal' does not itself appear to rub up against materialism.

    I can see this is not necessarily qualitative insomuch as the brain state, in an sufficiently advanced world, could be described from a third person perspective.

    So is the difference this qualitative aspect? Not the first person accessibility, but the fact that doubting, seeing blue or sneezing feels the way it does when translated into a brain state, either by the experiencer or a third person imitator.

    If this is the stumbling block, then I am tempted by the circle analogy again. A circle can be defined as the locus of points equidistant from a given centre. Yet, put this physical construction in place (in euclidian space) and a whole heap of other qualities come along for the ride (its curvature, diameter/circumference ratio, the formula for its area and so forth).

    Now, although a Pythagorean would have a different take on it, I am happy not to puzzle about why or how curvature emerges. It just is one of the things equidistance yields, or indeed is. I like that example you gave of the point where the 'but why' question loses its compulsive power. For me, with the circle, the question finishes here. And so it might be with the brain state and the feeling of the brain state. They are simply the same thing, described using different metaphors.

    Or perhaps not. Clearly I make no claims to have solved such a problem of the ages. But this roughly is why the Cartesian doubt analogy doesn't hold for me in this case.


  7. Hi all,

    I'd like to go back to a couple of issues that I don't think have been addressed satisfactorily.

    One thing I find extremely puzzling is how easily some dismiss all the evidence linking consciousness to brain processes. It is very easy to say that it is irrelevant or a category error or a logical fallacy or what not – but it seems rather disingenuous to me. If there is an observable correlation between changes in consciousness and brain states, it is very reasonable to assume that consciousness resides somehow in the brain – and the evidence that such a correlation exists grows daily. Consider that things could have turned out differently: we might have found evidence that consciousness was not always correlated with brain processes and I bet that this evidence would have been found acceptable to non-materialists.

    This blanket dismissal just won't do. If consciousness does not reside in the brain, what is it and how can we explain this correlation? To say that it does not need to be explained won't do either.

    Another puzzling aspect of this discussion is the extreme confidence shown by some in “armchair” arguments. Dianelos has proposed an argument supposed to show that science cannot get anywhere with consciousness (the argument is spelled out by Eric in a comment to another post, here). Some problems with this arguments have been pointed out, enough I think to shed doubts on its validity. I think personally that the argument is a clear case of begging the question and I would expect that all such arguments would turn out to suffer from the same kind of problems. As Eric pointed out, this does not mean that such arguments are useless, of course. But, in this case, they appear to serve mostly to reinforce one's prejudices.

  8. JP,

    The point you make--that there is an ever growing body of correlations between brain processes and conscious states, and that this is something that should not be ignored or dismissed as we reflect on the nature of consciousness--is an important one. These correlations are part of the data that needs to be accounted for by an adequate theory. And purely materialist conceptions of mind account for THIS data quite well: If conscious states just ARE brain processes or are wholly caused by brain processes or are emergent properties of them, then the correlation is accounted for.

    But a few further questions need to be explored. First, are there conceptions of mind that are NOT purely materialist but which account for the correlation? Second, are there other things that an adequate theory of consciousness should strive to make sense of? And if so, then third, how well do materialist and non-materialist theories of consciousness address these other things?

    By a "non-materialist theory of consciousness," I do not mean one in which the physical brain plays no functional role, but one in which consciousness is not WHOLLY explained by reference to the brain.

    So, for example, what I call non-materialist perspectivalism makes the brain a crucial part of the explanation of consciousness--because conscious states just are the way that brain states look from the perspective of a subject. But insofar as the subject is not understood as a physical thing, there is a further, non-material element introduced into the account.

    It should be clear, by the way, that such non-materialist perspectivalism accounts for the correlation between brain states and conscious states quite as well as materialist theories do. The question becomes whether the addition of the non-material element is justified or not--and that depends, at least in part, on what other conditions must be met by an adequate theory.

    ==> Continued

  9. I'm inclined to say, however, that in positing (or denying) a non-material element to consciousness, one has introduced an element whose presence (or absence) cannot be tested for empirically. As such, this is NOT an appropriate move in a scientific study of consciousness. Despite the difficulty of avoiding non-circularity when using the term "methodological naturalism," I am nevertheless inclined to use it here: Insofar as science is methodologically naturalistic, a non-materialist theory of consciousness is really a theory to the effect that there is something about the mind that science will not be able to study. A materialist theory is one which holds that once science has (in the hypothetical future) exhausted its study of consciousness, ALL that there is TO consciousness will have been studied.

    I think it is entirely fair for scientists to refuse to be CONSTRAINED by non-materialist theories--that is, for them to refuse to be told in advance that scientific methodologies will never succeed in accounting adequately for this or that feature of consciousness. And if, somehow, scientific study were able to provide the fodder for a materialist account of consciousness that completely closed the "explanatory gap," then non-materialist theories will have been shown to be philophically inadequate because they introduce an explanatorily superfluous element. No one should, for fear of this result, seek to delegitimize what scientists discover.

    But none of this is to say that someone might not have good reasons, in the absence of such hypothetical scientific advances, for favoring a non-materialist theory of consciousness over a materialist one. It does mean that they are reaching a conclusion of a sort that, methodologically, science does not consider, based on reasons of a kind that the scientific method does not make use of (something I also think is the case for those who advance materialist theories). Whether such reasoning can be sound or not depends on how one answers a range of epistemological questions.

    And all of this once again brushes against questions pertaining to the nature and limits of science.

  10. "But none of this is to say that someone might not have good reasons, in the absence of such hypothetical scientific advances, for favoring a non-materialist theory of consciousness over a materialist one."

    But are they good reasons? Or are they rhetorical rationalizations of a position derived from naked intuition and religious indoctrination? That is the question. I recognize that non-materialist theories are commonly held. That doesn't mean they have good reasons behind them. I think you are flattering yourself in the light of long philosophical and theological naval-gazing to use the formulation "good reasons".

    There is no plausible example or case of disembodied activities that could come close to supplying the explanatory gap from the non-materialist perspective. Thus while there certainly is a gap from the materialist perspective going from brain studies to first-person experiences, there is a far larger gap going from complete unknown and frankly imaginary whatever-it-is to the same first person experiences.

  11. Eric,

    Thanks for your answer. I think you explain the situation very clearly (as usual).

    You say: “I'm inclined to say, however, that in positing (or denying) a non-material element to consciousness, one has introduced an element whose presence (or absence) cannot be tested for empirically.” This may of course be correct but I think there is an intriguing possibility here.

    If we assume a correlation between conscious states and brain processes then there must be some interaction between the brain and this non-material element (NME). If a conscious state residing in the NME can affect the brain, then NME must act on the matter of the brain. Inversely if a change in brain chemistry can affect consciousness (anaesthesia can turn it off) then matter can affect NME.

    If this is correct might it be possible to design an instrument to interact with NME directly, bypassing the brain entirely? And if not, why?

  12. Hi all

    What counts as a good reason is I suppose the whole issue. I can see why we might want to claim consciousness as an exceptional case, in that the item under examination is also the means of examination and this does put it in a special category.

    Whether this allows us to create the notion of an extra-physical dimension, or if this is just a case of inventing an ill defined notion to cover the gaps, is the central puzzle here isn't it?

    I like that you allow room for further scientific exploration on this Eric. Such agnosticism resonates strongly with me.

    To follow up on JP's thoughts, can we claim a clear difference between arguments that take a premise and tease out its implications, and arguments that take a premise and, after a series of contortions, simply reproduce that premise as a conclusion?

    This is not to say the central non-materialist premise is not a compelling one; that consciousness must be non-physical because the central data, the way consciousness feels to me, can not be explained in physical terms.

    My main argument is that this intuition should be the starting point for an exploration, and that the first step is to get a clearer idea of what we mean when we use the term qualia. This still feels very murky to me and this murkiness becomes a stumbling block.

    I still don't know whether non-materialists think of the other great apes having qualia, or where in hominid evolution it began to kick in. I don't know whether qualia are seen as discrete things, or whether we can talk of a little bit of qualia, so maybe a computer has a tiny smidgeon of qualia. I don't know if it's claimed your qualia are like mine, nor whether we can be mistaken about our qualia, and if so in what cases? It becomes very hard to know how to engage with an argument based about such a nebulous term.

    If you've not already seen it, last week's New Scientist has a great article about the development of a scanning sound device to allow blind people to form visual images. And that opens up a whole new series of questions about qualia doesn't it?


  13. JP--Good question. Don't have time to address it now (it's one I'll need to think about), but I'll try to get to it tomorrow.

    I do want to make one point now, however, since I think it will be of some help. (I'll need to make quickly, since I need to get ready for class).

    Consider the following argument form:

    (1) It is not possible to adequately account for X by appealing only to what is contained in Set A.

    (2) Therefore, any adequate account of X must include something that is not in Set A.

    (2) follows from (1). So, if there are good reasons to believe (1), then there are good reasons to believe (2). But (2) is not itself an account of X. Rather, it is a statement about one necessary condition that an adequate account of X will have to meet. And such a statement may be true even if it should turn out also to be true that no one has any acquaintance with anything outside of Set A and therefore has no idea how to construct a coherent account of X in terms of something outside of Set A.

    Put simply, the inference from (1) to (2) does not as such give us an account of X, and its failure to do so is not a problem with the argument(whatever other problems it may have). It IS fair to ask someone who endorses an argument of this form WHETHER they can account for X. But if they shrug and say they have no idea how to account for X, that by itself says nothing about whether there are good reasons to believe (2).

  14. Bernard: This new research IS interesting. I'll need to look it up.

    And yes, depending on the argument, reasoning that relies on premises about qualia will need to address the kinds of questions you pose here. I wonder if phenomenologists such as Husserl may be helpful in offering greater specificity in our descriptive understanding of conscious states.

  15. Hi Bernard,

    You ask when qualia kicked in during evolution. I think this, and the more general question of when and how consciousness appeared, present difficulties for the theistic position.

    The problem is basically this: within the (or at least one) theistic world-view (as I understand what Darrell wrote) there is no ongoing interventions by God during evolution. Or, for that matter, in the whole history of the universe: God set things in motion and the rest followed by itself. Now, if this is true, consciousness appeared as a result of purely natural processes. Certainly evolution didn't produce non-material consciousness out of thin air. But then how? The whole thing seems to imply some form of latent consciousness (like a spiritual ether maybe) and that at some point during evolution we “tapped” into it... Maybe someone can clarify this.

    As an aside, I actually like the idea of all things having some form of consciousness. I wonder what stories mountains could tell.

  16. Hi JP

    I think this highlights an interesting point. The best argument against materialism, at least as it's been presented here, seems to be that consciousness just doesn't feel like a physical process. Putting aside whether one finds this convincing, the solution of a non-physical element to consciousness seems to simply shift the puzzle sideways. We move from 'but how could a physical system produce consciousness?' to 'but how could this thing called consciousness interact with a physical system?' and from my perspective these are perilously close to merging into the same problem.

    At some stage Burk made an niteresting point, that the way consciousness evolved may have involved a mechanism for keeping its mechanisms obscure. This sounds like an easy escape perhaps, but if consciousness emerged as part of an ability to self-talk, building theories of self and other in order to co-ordinate mental capacities and predict the behaviour of others, there is a strong incentive for evolution to make this sense of self compelling.

    Eric, I am still unsure what would count as a good reason for accepting the 'it isn't possible to account for X..' part of the argument you present to JP? Is there more to this than the intuition that consciousness just can't be physical?

    You use an interesting phrase 'depending on the argument' when addressing the issue of clarifying qualia. Is there an argument for the non-physical nature of consciousness that is not reliant upon a definition of qualia? At one stage you suggested one can accept we may be mistaken about the qualia we experience without being mistaken that we have qualia. This gets me wondering, if we can be mistaken about the way we experience qualia, might this mistake not include a mistake about their very nature, in particular their non-physical nature. What I am getting at I suppose is the possibility that we may be carrying an unexamined, folk definition of qualia in our heads which in turn supports the central intuition of the non-materialist case. Possible?


  17. Hi Bernard,

    Is there an argument for the non-physical nature of consciousness that is not reliant upon a definition of qualia?

    This is a very important point. We could try to formalize the arguments Eric proposed in his posts on consciousness and look for possible problems of this kind. I didn't have time to do this during my vacations (wondering instead why there are so many casinos on I40 in Oklahoma – Eric?) and it's not easy to do this correctly. But it would probably be worthwhile. Maybe the existence of a “self” experimenting the qualia is such an assumption.


  18. JP,

    To be clear, I did not say “in the whole history of the universe…” I simply said at the point of origin. I am not a deist. Obviously God is free and could intervene in the physical world at will. I believe the word for that is “miracle.” But I’m not sure why the deist narrative would bother you much anyway because you have articulated a similar narrative when you speak of Natural Selection as also being a somewhat absent watchmaker in certain regards.

    Putting that aside, I’m not sure how you can interpret what I stated to mean “God set things in motion…” and “consciousness appeared as a result of purely natural processes…” As I stated before, the Christian narrative speaks of God creating human life in God’s image at the origin, and therefore the very existence of that life, the fact of it, whether then, now, or future is in essence God formed and imprinted. You are thinking of a time-line, when I am stating that conscious life is eternally God breathed if you will no matter where you wish to start.

    “Certainly evolution didn't produce non-material consciousness out of thin air.”

    With that comment I’m sure you leave many materialists behind, as their thought would be, “Well, it certainly had to because we must a-priori rule out a god, the spiritual, or any transcendent.”
    I am happy to see you are at least open to the idea that there may be more to the physical material world than we think or can see, touch, taste, hear, or feel.

    You note the root problem. How does a physical/matter only, non-personal, non-purposeful, “process” or “mechanism” produce a non-physical, personal, and purposeful thing we call consciousness (or life) with its sense of self and its ability to perceive and produce beauty especially in the forms of music, art, poetry, and literature?

  19. Hi Darrell,

    Thanks for your answer.

    I may have misunderstood you but you might be able to help me anyway – you clearly know a lot about this. The theistic narrative that I was talking about is one that does not involve an ongoing intervention by God. My understanding is that some theists, maybe a lot, endorse such a narrative. Under such a (theistic) narrative the apparition of consciousness seems to present a difficulty: either consciousness is present everywhere (isn't this some form of pantheism?) and humans tap into it at some stage or it appears naturally. Neither option seems theistically satisfying, so to speak.

    Now, I gather this is not your view. But maybe you can help me understand how these theists explain the apparition of consciousness. An ongoing intervention by God presents, I think, other difficulties but let's keep that for later.

    Yes, I wrote evolution didn't produce non-material consciousness out of thin air. The alternative of course is that consciousness is based on the material brain (I was careful to say “non-material” consciousness, in the general sense used by Eric). I agree however that the question is open and certainly difficult.

  20. JP,

    I don't know enough about deism to speak for how they might address the questions we are discussing here. I would imagine they believe that consciousness was there from the beginning (From the deity) and is simply self-perpetuating as the very feature of life and what it means to be human. I think they would still believe that consciousness was there at the origin and not the result of purely material processes over time or due to an “intervention” at some point in time. It is built in. It does not arise, it is there already. In that sense, the deist and the Christian are basically on the same page.

    I also want to clarify something. Regardless the fact that I think the explanatory gap to be unbridgeable given the presuppositions of materialism, such has nothing to do with whether or not I think science should continue to explore, test, and move forward in all areas having to do with the neurosciences. I believe it should. Most science (perhaps all) is done for reasons having little to do with proving a metaphysical point. In this area especially, most research is for health reasons, better medicine, cures, and such. Putting aside the financial reasons (discoveries and the marketing of new medicines and technologies are big bucks), the research will and should continue for reasons of pure curiosity, better medicine, and potential cures or derivative discoveries. I am all for that. In other words, nothing I have stated should lead anyone to believe I think all the work in the neurosciences is a waste of time or unhelpful. Far from it.