An Exchange of views on ‘Consciousness’

By | February 24, 2010

Recently one of my philosophical correspondents and I engaged in the following exchange regarding the concept of consciousness. I offer part of that exchange below with no implication that anything was resolved. At best, we raise the issue of consciousness and touch upon some of the consequential puzzles.

Call him the “S-Factor.” Call me “Moi”

S-Factor:
“My consciousness of what I am doing is irrefutable evidence of the existence of consciousness.”

Moi:
In other words, you claim that the following inference is sound:
1. I am conscious of what I am doing (viz. keying in a sentence).
2. Hence, consciousness exists.

I would agree if all you mean by “consciousness exists” is that there are beings (myself, in this example) who are capable of consciousness; i.e., there are beings (biological beings) who are capable of being conscious of things.

But this means that your valid inference above shows can be restated:
3. I am conscious of what I am doing (viz. keying in a sentence).
4. Hence, there exists a being capable of being conscious. (Or a being capable of conscious states; or, as you might prefer, a being capable of consciousness)

My awareness what I am doing is irrefutable evidence of the existence of a being (namely, myself) capable of being conscious of something or other. The inference then becomes rather trivial. Moreover, one can argue that ‘consciousness’ in this sense is a biological concept insofar as it refers to the capability of a biological being.

Isn’t it true that if I can explain the evolution of beings capable of conscious states I have explained the evolution of ‘consciousness’?

The alternative is to argue that when you claim that ‘consciousness’ exists you’re saying more than simply “beings who are capable of conscious states exist.” But this seems to imply that ‘consciousness’ is an entity or property over-and-above the reality of beings who can have conscious states, that it is “a strongly emergent property of organisms,” as you state it. “Consciousness, at least, is a strongly emergent property of organisms. ”

When you state that consciousness exists are you saying more than I say if I were to say: “Conscious beings (namely, persons) exist”?

Obviously, explaining how animals capable of complex conscious states evolved is a difficult job. But in my opinion it is the job of explaining the evolution of beings (animals) with complex brains and sense faculties, capable of being conscious of their surroundings and eventually capable of self-consciousness and reflection. It is not the job of explaining the “strongly emergent property of consciousness,” with the suggestion that consciousness is something apart from the evolved capability of biological beings.

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S-Factor:
You pose the question: When you state that consciousness exists are you saying more than I say if I were to say: “Conscious beings (namely, persons) exist”?

The answer to the question is no. I am not saying more than you would be saying if you were to say that conscious beings exist.

Obviously, explaining how animals capable of complex conscious states evolved is a difficult job. But in my opinion it is the job of explaining the evolution of beings (animals) with complex brains and sense faculties, capable of being conscious of their surroundings and eventually capable of self-consciousness and reflection.

Yes. That’s the job. But is it possible? That remains to be seen. Meanwhile, if we keep using the term “consciousness” but are unable to explain this property in terms of lower level processes, we are at least treating it as a pragmatically emergent property. Furthermore, if we think that we really do have this property, that it is not a mere fiction, we are treating it as strongly emergent.

It is not the job of explaining the “strongly emergent property of consciousness,” with the suggestion that consciousness is something apart from the evolved capability of biological beings.

The phrase “strongly emergent property of consciousness” does not carry the suggestion that consciousness is something apart from an evolved capability of biological beings. In fact, the term “property” in the phrase tells us that we are not talking about a substance in its own right, but about a property of a substance. But until the explanation of the origin of this property is given, it’s an open question how these beings got this property. Any explanation we could give would have to be in terms of some sort of natural process (otherwise we wouldn’t consider it a legitimate explanation), but until such an explanation is given we can’t just assume that there is such a process.

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Moi:
Yes, but I still have a problem with your way of stating things, rather your way of framing things. Your way of stating the problem certainly suggests that consciousness is some type of entity (even if you qualify it as a property). The very fact that you assume that there’s a significant issue as to whether it exists or not, suggests to me that you’re leaning very heavily to the idea that consciousness is not simply another capability of human beings, but is something unique (maybe even mysterious). After all, you include an argument demonstrating “irrefutable evidence of the existence of consciousness.” In my previous email, I tried to show that this sounds very strange when you substitute for “consciousness”, “persons who are capable of consciousness.” Is this something that is subject to doubt so that one has to produce arguments demonstrating “the irrefutable evidence that conscious persons exist”?

Also, I question your assumption that “consciousness” is not a biological concept. Many commentators and researchers argue that it is. I realize that this is a debatable issue; but I don’t concede that the consensus is not (ultimately) biological in nature. Again, I believe your assumption is part of an effort (maybe subconscious!) to differentiate “consciousness” as something over-and-above the other unquestioned capacities (abilities) of persons.

You ask whether it is even possible to explain consciousness in biological terms, and again, suggest that this may not even be possible. A number of people in the neurological, cognitive, and psychological sciences have been working this project. Some have even written books. Do such explanatory theories succeed? Maybe not yet, but surely such theories are possible and do much to clarify the issue. Why would you suggest that such a project is not even possible? If not possible, do you then set “consciousness” aside as another profound mystery?

5 thoughts on “An Exchange of views on ‘Consciousness’

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