Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The different views about Consciousness

One of the hottest areas in philosophy today (based on the number of books about it) seems to be the “mind body” problem, which I believe is closely related to the study of consciousness. That is, how exactly does the conscious mind interact with the body and make it act? What causes that mysterious subjective sense of self, the feeling of “what it is like to be somebody”? Of course, this is not just an area of philosophy, but merges in many ways with psychology, neuroscience, and perhaps even quantum mechanics (or perhaps I should say the philosophy of quantum theory).

In doing quite a bit of reading on the subject as a layman, I believe we can see several distinct ways of thinking about it.

Behaviorism, perhaps not so important or widely held today, tended to ignore or even deny the phenomena of consciousness, essentially arguing that it is not an important aspect of behavior. Actually, I can sympathize with this position up to a point, in that consciousness is not an observable, and the behaviorist position, interpreted to mean that we should concentrate on aspects of reality that permit observation, seems to have much going for it. However, denying that consciousness exists, and denying that it likely has evolved for an important reason, seems foolish to me. Not that some kind of stimulus and response mechanism isn’t responsible for a lot of what causes some, or even most, human behavior. I suspect that it can go along way toward explaining much of it. It is just that it’s not the whole thing. Surely the quality of consciousness does affect some actions, for why else would it have evolved? Some have argued it is an “epiphenomena”, that is, something that has come about accidentally, that serves no real purpose. But it seems to me that nature does not waste effort in that way. Any trait that is there is there for a reason. Maybe the behaviorist would argue that it is there simply to make the animals that have it feel better about themselves, and perhaps, at the human level, to rationalize what they have done.

Reductionism, or materialism---the view that consciousness will be explained and even artificially created eventually (e.g., via AI or neural net techniques). This view rejects attributing any kind of mysterious aspect to consciousness, and argues that it is simply a quality brought about by natural selection that will soon be completely understood. Leading proponents of this viewpoint, at least in the popular press, have been Daniel Dennett, Francis Crick, Richard Dawkins, Douglas Hofstadter. Probably a majority of today's philosophers and evolutionary biologists would be in substantial agreement with them, so this is probably the mainstream academic position, though no doubt there are many variations and nuances within the broader camp. Crick’s The Astonishing Hypothesis could be viewed as the quintessential argument for this perspective, maybe along with Dennett’s Consciousness Explained. In this view, consciousness does affect action, and in fact that is just why it has evolved, because it helps the organisms that have it survive and procreate, thus getting their genes into the gene pool. This school of thought also suggests that consciousness may have evolved because of the value to survival of there being an agent within the organism that cares what happens to it. I find this way of thinking plausible, but tend to go more with the next group.

The New Mysterians---people who argue that consciousness will never be understood, usually from the point of view that we do not have the mental capacities to solve the problem, and that furthermore, consciousness is entirely subjective and hence not amenable to scientific exploration. In this camp would be Roger Penrose, Martin Gardner, and David Chalmers, to name but a few. Even though I am a great admirer of, and largely a follower of, Dawkins, Crick, and Dennett, my sympathies tend to lie with these New Mysterians. I suspect those of the reductionist persuasion tend to be suspicious of religious motives in this camp, and that is quite possibly the case, in a sense. I think it depends on what exactly is meant by “religion”. I myself would confess to an inkling that there is something mysterious and other worldly about the existence of the “finely tuned” universe and the emergence of conscious observers within it. But that is a far cry from believing that the God of any of the world’s present religions is responsible in any way for it. Some in this broad school of thought would hold that quantum mechanics, with all of its strange entanglements, ghostly wave functions, and bizarre uncertainties may be involved, and would present a barrier to ever fully understanding consciousness. Some would argue that consciousness is even more fundamental that the existence of an objective world, something that certain interpretations of quantum mechanics would seem to support.
The New Mysterians seem more inclined than the other two branches to consider the moral implications of the non-observable nature of consciousness. For example, somewhere Penrose asks if it is moral to turn off a computer system that has passed the Turing test and hence might be regarded as being conscious, this dilemma in part arising for the very fact that consciousness is not observable.

Tied in with the mind-body problem and the nature of consciousness is the issue of whether the will is free. The first two camps would say no, while the third, the New Mysterians, would tend to argue that we can never understand the sense in which we are free or determined. While acknowledging that free will seems meaningless, since action must be caused by a combination of genes and experience, the view that it is caused only by those two mechanisms also leads to paradoxes. For example, the argument of a determinist is under cut and rendered invalid if the argument itself is caused by those factors. A sort of “garbage in, garbage out” argument.

To be continued in a later blog entry.