A Quick Way with the ‘Mystery’ of Consciousness

By | January 9, 2011

Recently I overheard the following exchange on the internet.

You seem to assume some great mystery about consciousness that can never be explained by our intelligence. With that I am quite suspicious. I see no great mystery there any more than I see a mystery about self-consciousness or the subject/object dichotomy (category of understanding). – Paulino

McGinn (writer on the subject) would challenge you to explain how mental phenomena arise from brain activity. If you were unable to do so, he would say that his point is proved: there is a great mystery about consciousness. – Spanos

We often hear people (mainly philosophers and some psychologists) assert that consciousness is a mystery which the physical and biological sciences cannot explain. For example, some point to the difficulty — even impossibility — of “how mental phenomena arises from brain activity.” Of course, much has been written and argued on his subject. There are theories which claim that such an explanation is not forthcoming; thus, we cannot escape some sort of dualism – so they claim. Other theories of mind and consciousness take up the challenge and offer accounts of how brain processes give rise to consciousness.

I offer a quick way with this issue which I present by way of a short dialogue between a ‘Mysterian’ — who claims that consciousness is a mystery not explained by the sciences —- and a First-Responder (e.g. scientist) who shows a way to defusing the putative mystery.

Mysterian (Mys): Nobody has ever explained how consciousness can arise from material things or physical processes, such as brain activity.

First Responder (FR): We can explain how conscious organisms (e.g., persons, higher mammals) evolve. This is called evolutionary biology, along with related neurology and evolutionary psychology. In short, we explain the emergence of ‘consciousness’ by explaining how conscious entities evolved.

Mys: But this does not explain consciousness itself. This does not explain the mystery of consciousness arising from purely material/physical processes.

FR: Your mystery arises only because you assume that stand-alone consciousness is a possibility. But if there is no such thing as a stand-alone consciousness, and consciousness is always the consciousness of some conscious entity, then your mystery dissolves.

Mys: But many great and reputable philosophers, scientists, and psychologists always refer to consciousness as such. Surely so many people cannot be wrong and confused about the existence of consciousness?

FR: The term “consciousness” is just a short-hand way of referring to the consciousness of some individual or groups of individuals capable of conscious thought. It is a convenient abstraction like so many other convenient abstractions that we routinely refer to without implying the existence of separate, mysterious entities: e.g., justice, love, evil, law etc. These are not mysterious entities which exist in their own right. What really exist are people in relations to other people which we designate as just, or loving, or evil. The same is true of consciousness. When I am conscious or aware of the cold air as I walk out the door, we might speak of my ‘consciousness’ that it is cold outdoors. But this does not imply a mysterious entity ‘my consciousness.’ It is just a short-hand way of referring to my being conscious of the temperature outdoors.

Mys: It seems that you have simply chosen to side step the difficult problem of showing how our idea of ‘consciousness’ in its own right comes about.

FR: If you insist on such an account it would go something like this. We explain our natural tendency to abstract, viz, the process of abstraction.

1) I (or any animal whose brain is adequately evolved) am aware of some object (a possible predator) in the environment.

2) We restate this as the awareness or consciousness of that object.

3) We make statements like “there is an awareness or a consciousness” of the object.

4) Then, if we’re not too careful, we infer the existence of an abstract entity called ‘awareness’ or ‘consciousness.’

This is how ‘consciousness’ arises.

But, none of this will dispel that human-all-too-human tendency to talk abstractly and then posit the existence of abstract entities. So people will go on scratching their heads and wondering about the “mystery of consciousness.”

One thought on “A Quick Way with the ‘Mystery’ of Consciousness

  1. Firooz R. Oskooi

    This question deserves further digging. If matter is the source of higher levels of knowledge and consciousness, how come it is unconscious itself? How can a dumb clay give rise to a genius brain? Consider this, that closer things approach to rarer (unmaterial, transendental) state the more powerful and penetrating they become! So, isn't this a question of originality? Are we products of dirt and dust or a higher unknwable Intelligence? Down-Up or Up-Down, either way, there must be a higher power to make things work as they do, it simply cannot be the work of accident.


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