The Epistemology of Consciousness

13613038_sThis post is going to encompass some things that I have never had much success in communicating to other people. And yet, I’m convinced that it is a form of propositional knowledge, and can be communicated. It’s just hard, and I’ve never found the magic words yet. Here’s another try. I’m going to explain why consciousness — by which I mean, the ability to experience reality subjectively, in the first person — must be cosmic and universal, not individual, and on the way, why the mechanistic materialist conception of consciousness as a function of the brain has to be wrong.

I’m going to do so relying on epistemology. Epistemology is the philosophical study of how we can know what we know. It’s also involved in the limits of what can be known, and that’s where the key lies. I’ll explain shortly, after a brief defensive detour, to head off an argument based on a fallacy that this vaguely resembles but is not.

Why This Isn’t an Argument From Ignorance

Argument from ignorance is a logical fallacy that says, in one form or another, “We don’t know that A is not true, therefore A is true.” The reason why this is a logical fallacy should be obvious. That we don’t know if a proposition is not true is not in itself evidence that it is true (it’s merely lack of sufficient evidence that it isn’t). In casual debate, accusations of this fallacy are often tossed into arenas where they don’t belong, whenever anyone asserts anything based on a lack of knowledge. Here are some examples of arguments that include the idea of ignorance but are NOT arguments from ignorance.

The argument TO ignorance. When someone claims to know something, demonstrating that they don’t is not an argument from ignorance. It’s an argument TO ignorance: pointing out that ignorance exists where someone thought it didn’t.

The argument that ignorance is permanent. This is a little more complicated, and it’s more or less where I’m going in this post. Ignorance may be of two kinds. We may not know something because we have inadequate data. For example, we don’t know if there is life on other planets or not. There’s no reason why we can’t find such life, though, if it’s out there, so eventually we may remedy our ignorance and know that life does exist on other planets.

The other kind of ignorance is based on the limitations of perception and cognition, or on the nature of what is observed, about which we are asking the wrong questions. For example, we don’t know the exact position and momentum of a photon in motion. This ignorance, unlike our ignorance about life on other planets, can’t be remedied. No matter how good our equipment gets or how complete our data sets, we will never know the exact position and momentum of a moving photon.

We can actually draw a conclusion from this and from certain experimental evidence that a moving photon doesn’t have an exact position and momentum. The universe exists as we observe it and experience it, and when we are inherently and forever unable to observe something, directly or indirectly, or to experience it subjectively, then as far as we’re concerned it doesn’t exist. The reason we can’t answer the question, “what is the precise position and momentum of a moving photon?” is because, given the nature of photons, it’s the wrong question.

This isn’t the logical fallacy “argument from ignorance,” either. In short, whenever it is logically valid and appropriate to draw a certain conclusion from ignorance, then it isn’t fallacious to do so.

Consciousness and Other Parts of the Mind

When I talk about “consciousness,” I mean the ability to experience reality subjectively, from within, in the first person. That and nothing else. We call this a “mental” ability, and there are other abilities that we put into the same category and tag with the same name. These include the ability to use language, to reason, to feel emotion, to remember, to observe, and to decide. It’s normal and common to lump all of these together as functions of a single entity that we call the “mind,” but they are separate functions and may not be functions of the same thing. That’s particularly true of the inherently subjective functions, the ability to feel emotion and consciousness itself.

The other mental functions named above are all objective functions that can be described in the third person. Now, all of them can also be experienced in the first person, so there’s a connection with consciousness and some cross-over. But we can observe someone talking or writing or responding to spoken or written words, and describe his or her behavior, and that is a third-person account of language use. We can do the same thing with regard to reason, memory, and even observation and emotion. All of these can be described in terms of brain activity and/or overt behavior, and they can also be described in a subjective sense of personally doing or experiencing something.

Consciousness, however can only be described subjectively. There is no behavior or brain function that we can point to, and say, “that is someone experiencing something subjectively, in the first person.” Moreover, all of the first-person descriptions of mental functions that can be described in the third person, become first-person when consciousness is added into the picture. We can imagine and describe language use or perception or emotion (though we prefer the word “affect” in that case) or reasoning or any other similar ability done by a philosophical zombie, but we can never imagine a p-zombie being subjectively aware — that’s a logical contradiction.

What we should take from this is that consciousness is one thing, and all other mental functions something else, distinct from consciousness. All mental functions can be conceived as happening with or without subjective experience also happening. And further, this means that the concept of the “mind” is somewhat misleading. There is no single thing that could be properly called a “mind.” Rather, there are various mental functions which may in specific cases be associated with an individual, and these can be grouped in terms of their nature, but not as parts of a single coherent entity.

Things Closely Tied to Consciousness

There are at least three parts to consciousness as (apparently — more on this below) manifested by a person. These are:

  • The experience of reality in the first person (consciousness itself).
  • The ability to remember experience of reality in the first person (subjective memory).
  • The ability to report experience of reality in the first person (self-reference).

Note that this last does not require actual consciousness, unless we specify that the report must be true. In that case, consciousness itself is a prerequisite of subjective memory, and subjective memory is a prerequisite of (truthful) self-reference. But there is no logical reason why consciousness itself can’t happen without subjective memory or self-reference, and this is an important point that I’ll come back to in a moment.

Regarding whether self-reference is truthful, let’s note that there is no way to tell objectively. In order to do that, we would need some objective way to determine whether consciousness itself is present and active, so that we could tell whether the person claiming to be subjectively aware is telling the truth or not. As there is no way to do this, we can never affirm that someone else is engaging in truthful self-reference. and most psychology and neuropsychology experiments accept people’s subjective self-reference at face value — which is fine for most purposes, but does not allow any claims about where consciousness is coming from.

When someone posits a particular brain function as the source of consciousness, this is exactly the problem that arises. There is no way to objectively verify that anyone is conscious, and so there is no way to show that it is present as a function of some part of the brain, and not present otherwise. We may be able to show that certain parts of the brain are crucial to subjective memory or to self-reference, but we can never show this about consciousness itself.

Remember the discussion above about the position and momentum of the photon. When we cannot answer a question, ever and in principle, it means we’re asking the wrong question. The fact that we cannot observe consciousness itself or verify its existence means that consciousness itself isn’t there to be observed — it’s not a part of the material universe.

Another important point here is that, since we recognize that consciousness itself and subjective memory are distinct, it’s possible to have consciousness where we don’t have subjective memory. This means that many of the things we call “unconscious” — actions performed without attention, or deep sleep — may instead be conscious, but not remembered.

The Inarticulate Problem

It’s common to believe that consciousness arises from the brain (psychic materialism). Most people who don’t subscribe to some form of dualism think that. But no one has ever been able to articulate exactly how that might happen.

To state the problem in perfect clarity, consciousness itself is inherently first-person, while all observed functions of the brain (and of all other things) are third-person. All causal models take the form of a third-person cause (or causes) producing a third-person effect. There is no articulate way to get from any set of events observed in the third person to subjective experience by any causal mechanism that makes sense and doesn’t amount to verbal magic-wand waving.

Note that this has nothing to do with proof or evidence. It’s a step back from that. In order to have, or even to look for, evidence of a proposition, we first have to have a coherent proposition so that we know what to look for. We don’t in this case. The statement “consciousness arises from the brain” is grammatically sound, but logical nonsense, because “consciousness” isn’t a thing that can be observed. It’s a statement without any meaning.

Note also that, to refute me on this, it’s not necessary to have the right answer as to how consciousness can arise from the brain. Certainly it isn’t necessary to have an answer that can be proven, or for which there is sound and solid evidence. All that’s necessary is to have any answer that makes any sense at all, because what I’m saying here is that no such conception is possible.

So far, no one I’ve discussed this with has been able to come up with one.

If it’s not even possible to articulate an idea so that it becomes a coherent proposition, then we may dismiss it as inarticulate fluff. (Unless it’s non-propositional truth, and that’s not the case here.)

What Is It, Then?

Given that we can never observe consciousness, and therefore that it is not part of the material world, we are left with two possible ideas explaining it.

  1. Consciousness arises from some discrete and individual source outside the material world. This is dualism: the treatment of consciousness as inhabiting or emerging from some other reality, something non-material. In this conception, it’s the soul that is conscious, while the brain is what the soul is consious of.
  2. Consciousness is all of the material world — or a function of all of it — rather than any discrete part of it. This is panpsychism: the treatment of consciousness as an inherent function of reality itself, and brain functions creating subjective memory and self-reference as articulating or reflecting the consciousness of the universe. In this conception, individual consciousness is an illusion, while in dualism it is not.

Can we see reason to choose one or the other of these? I think so, although it’s not quite as cut and dried as what leads me to reject psychic materialism.

First of all, dualism is untidy and inelegant. If the individual soul is what is conscious, where does it come from? What happens to it after the body dies? These aren’t new questions, of course, but they are ones that have never had satisfactory answers. Also, how far down the line of biological complexity do we find souls? Do grasshoppers have souls? Trees? In the latter case, is there a soul for an individual tree, for an individual tree cell, or for a forest?

Panpsychism sidesteps all of this complexity and untidiness. Consciousness is an inherent property of reality, and therefore everything experiences consciousness itself (although not necessarily subjective memory). Asking what happens to the individual soul after death is asking the wrong question: there is no individual soul, and consciousness remains what it always was, a property of all creation. Sure, trees are conscious, as are individual tree cells, as are forests. So is everything. (It’s unlikely that trees have subjective memory, though.)

The second problem with dualism is that it ignores the ways in which we can show that the individual sense of self is an illusion in other ways than subjective experience. The illusory nature of the self is dealt with in Buddhism and in the philosophy of Spinoza, of Hume, and others. It’s supported by a rising amount of evidence from psychology. If the individual self is illusory, then it doesn’t make a lot of sense to posit an individual soul to account for it.

Panpsychism has implications about life after death that are radically different from both the simple extinction posited by psychic materialism and any religious conception of individual post-mortem survival (survival in another reality, or reincarnation). I may return for some discussion of this later, but for now, enough.



Filed under Philosophy, Spirituality

6 responses to “The Epistemology of Consciousness

  1. You have clearly put a lot of thought into this. One thing that seems to be left out is where did everything come from( did the physical world always exist? , or is there a creator). My personal believe is that the world was created( could have been something like the ‘Big Bang’) and the evidence seems consistent with a begining. In a created worldview, the concept of an individual self or soul makes more sense to me.

    • The problem with arguments from the origin of the universe is that they merely displace the unanswerable question. Instead of having no answer to where the universe came from, we have no answer to where the creator came from. No matter how you slice it, we end up with the existence of everything having no explanation.

  2. We just have to go with most plausible answer. An eternal physical universe does not seem plausible to me.

    • An eternal universe doesn’t fit the evidence, either. But eternal vs. temporally limited does not equal created versus uncreated. We can have a universe with a beginning, without a creator. Those are two separate questions.

  3. Pingback: Virtual God | Brian Rush

  4. Pingback: Free Will | Brian Rush

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