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Today’s article is a guest post by computer scientist, graduate research assistant at the University of Missouri, and friend of SASHA, Ben Schulz.
People say consciousness is a problem. The origin of the problem, as posed to philosophy and science, is actually quite straightforward. We live at a point in history where no facet of the universe seems to lie beyond the reach of scientific explanation, including consciousness itself. There is something about the subjective experience of consciousness, however, that makes these explanations deeply unsatisfying. Satisfactory explanations are thus pursued through various alternative theories of mind that are difficult to ground in the scientific tradition, and the problem thus arises.
What is truly odd, however, is that even though there are two sides to the debate over the problem, only one side seems to view the problem as problematic. Mechanists, such as Dennett, argue straightforwardly and forcefully that every aspect of consciousness can be grounded in an empirically observable phenomenon, given sufficient time and scientific resources. Proponents of the irreducibility of consciousness, such as Chalmers and Searle, argue that consciousness is the root of all immediate experiences and understandings, which are by their very nature a priori irreducible. Most of the debate seems to focus upon the problem of whether physical things, as we know them, are adequate to account for the complex and varied phenomena of consciousness. The mechanists seem to overlook the admittedly difficult-to-discern motivations that makes the anti-reductionists resist reductionist explanations so strenuously, while the anti-reductionists seem oblivious to the fact that their defenses are essentially nothing more than alternative reductionist explanations based on a non-standard metaphysics.
The debate between these two views evokes very strong reactions, and there seems to be little possibility of philosophically reconciling the two. The progress of scientific explanations of the mind suggests that they may prevail in the long run, but the persistence of anti-reductionist accountings of consciousness also seems to suggest that the anti-reductionist program has an effectively infinite space into which to retreat. (There are, it seems, always new places to which to re-locate spirits and essences.) This kind of impasse, when it appears, is often symptomatic of a fundamental difference of values, but it is deeply troubling to think that the physical or non-physical nature of consciousness should come down to a value judgment. Such a judgment would present a very unappealing choice indeed, between either a disingenuous escape into self-directed self-delusion, or a grim nihilism alienated from the very substance of the most vivid and immediate features of personal experience.
The choice, however, between a physical and a non-physical consciousness is a false one. The real question should not be what consciousness is made of, but in what sense we should think of consciousness as real.
For thinkers like Dennett, consciousness is not a problem at all. Everything that consciousness does can be accounted for, in principle, by a biological mechanism, and the realization of this possibility is enough to make the problem vanish. Dennett’s audaciously titled “Consciousness Explained” (1991) is a meticulous, powerful, and extremely persuasive argument to exactly this effect, and I will proceed from the assumption that Dennet’s argument therein is correct. In this admirable work of philosophy, Dennett skillfully deconstructs the classical arguments against a purely physical basis for consciousness, revealing that the disassembly of their pretenses leaves little more than very subtly concealed, baseless assumptions. There is, however, an important philosophical wrinkle that even Dennett does not seem to notice, and that seems to pass by uncommented elsewhere: the very fact that anti-reductionist theories of consciousness can be engaged so effectively by a mechanist argument implies that these anti-reductionist theories are, in fact, mechanist theories in disguise.
The apotheosis of this kind of mechanism masquerading as idealism is Chalmers’ proposal for a “nonreductive explanation” of consciousness. Chalmers suggests that consciousness ought to be considered as something of an elemental physical force, comparable to gravity or electromagnetism. Certainly, the idea of an as-yet undefined physical force does make consciousness a problem, and the simultaneous elusiveness and irreducibility of this sort of ‘mind-force’ makes the problem hard. Dennett dismisses this proposal by incisively and very correctly pointing out that positing such irreducibility is completely unnecessary from a scientific perspective. If, the argument goes, all the functions and behaviors of consciousness can be elucidated in terms of physical processes, then consciousness itself has been elucidated in terms of physical processes. Beneath this argument is a fundamentally philosophical proposition: a thing is exactly the sum of its distinguishing features. This basic proposition is significant because it can be located not just in mechanist arguments, but also, perhaps surprisingly, in anti-reductionist arguments such as Searle’s “Chinese Room” and the substance of subjective experience posited in the philosophical literature under the name of ‘qualia’. Where anti-reductionists thus part ways with the mechanists is in the sorts of things they consider “distinguishing features”: anti-reductionists consider subjectivity itself, or else some hidden force, to be an irreducible, distinguishing feature, while mechanists do not.
Anti-Reductionists seem unwilling to abandon scientific explanation, but just as unwilling to abandon their assertion that consciousness itself is lodged in an elusive substance or force that is fundamentally distinct from any other kind of physical thing. This conflict is the real heart of the problem of consciousness, but the passion it generates is much more than sentimental attachment to an illogical idea. What anti-reductionists really yearn for is a consciousness as real as the other objects of scientific study.
It deserves to be asked why the idea of an irreducible consciousness is so strongly appealing. Certainly, the anti-reductionist view presents a zoo of logical contradictions, but these contradictions nonetheless seem to be grasping strenuously at something. Dennett seems content to dismiss the anti-reductionist furor as a misguided attachment, but such dismissals do not make for a very satisfying explanation of their motive or persistence. The anti-reductionists are struggling to express something problematic in the language of science. The problem may lie with the thing being expressed, but it may just as easily lie with the language in which it is being expressed.
Science today has established itself as the powerful and very successful arbiter truth. As such, Science has become the language of truth. Inhabitants of the modern world are at great pains to argue otherwise. Every language, however, is haunted by some unutterable. The undesired consequence of the triumph of Science is that some features of human experience are not easily articulated in the language of Science, which places them dangerously near to the realm of the unreal. The subjective experience of consciousness is just such a disturbingly inexpressible thing. While prior eras of thought could attribute this most basic and immediate phenomenon to ‘spirit’ or ‘God’, the language of Science has no words for such things. The reduction of consciousness itself to simpler terms is not problematic for the language of Science, but it nonetheless represents a radical shift of worldview.
Science works in such a way that its objects of concern are public and universal. A scientifically recognizable phenomenon must be something that can be demonstrated to others in a reproducible way. This principle lies at the heart of all empiricism: real things are distinguished from unreal things (lies, hoaxes, delusions, hallucinations, flights of fancy, semantic confusions) by an experiment that situates them within the structure of already agreed-upon things. The power and utility of empiricism is quite evident, and I don’t think it needs discussion here. The modern ethos very often, however, goes beyond a mere acknowledgment of empiricism, assuming instead something much stronger: empirically real is absolutely real.
The reason that I agree with Dennett’s arguments is that consciousness does have behaviors and functions whose underlying mechanisms are, in principle, scientifically demonstrable. What the arguments of Dennett and other mechanists overlook, however, is that consciousness also has fundamentally private aspects that cannot be experimentally reproduced in the empirical sense. The anti-reductionists are mistaken to conflate these private aspects of consciousness with empirically describable features, but they are right in their intuition that some part of this bigger picture eludes even the most thorough empirical reduction. The brute fact is that there is, by definition, nothing objectively or publicly demonstrable about subjective experience. (This fact is what motivates the well-known philosophical problem of how we, as conscious beings, know that other beings are conscious.) If we adopt the view that, with no exceptions, everything real is scientifically describable, then it must be that subjectivity is not real.
Consciousness, according to the mechanist account, is scientifically describable because it can be fully characterized in terms of empirically observable features. Taking this thesis as given, a number of difficult philosophical questions clear right up. For example, the problem how one conscious being can tell if another being is also conscious is fully resolved because, in principle, one such being can go down a list of features to look for, attempt to locate them all, and reach a logical conclusion. Disturbingly, however, new and equally difficult philosophical questions appear in some unexpected places. It may be one thing, in the mechanist scheme, for you to determine whether or not I am conscious, but how can you determine whether or not you yourself are conscious? If you’re reading this sentence right now you probably see nothing particularly problematic in the judgment that you are conscious. It’s just obvious. That, however, is exactly the problem. The fact that you are conscious is so blatantly manifest that it seems to need no explanation at all.
To claim something as ‘obvious’ is not generally regarded to be a scientific explanation. Nonetheless, I find it nothing short of incredible that you, the reader, would regard your own consciousness as nothing less than obvious. Let’s suppose, however, that you really aren’t satisfied with this obvious fact: you want a real, scientific explanation. The good news is that, according to the mechanist perspective, an explanation is available or will be forthcoming in the near future. It is instructive, however, to apply Occam’s Razor at this juncture, and to ask what we actually gain by theory that over-explains the already obvious.
In “Consciousness Explained”, Dennett draws a fascinating connection between social justice and the idea that consciousness is fully empirical. This connection occurs in the context of a deconstruction of Chalmers’ strange philosophical device of the “zombie”, a being that is functionally indistinct from conscious beings but somehow is not itself conscious. Dennett mercilessly excoriates Chalmers’ apparent return to the strange idea of “indiscernible identicals”, and compares the arguments necessary to assert the unconsciousness of a philosophical zombie to those arguments made against the humanity of oppressed people in racist or classist societies. This line of argument is quite convincing; arbitrary and insubstantial distinctions between humans are indeed at the heart of racism and classism. If consciousness is just some undetectable, undefinable essence that can nonetheless be somehow discriminated, the door is opened to all kinds of blatant prejudice. It is interesting to ask, however, whether a radically empiricist accounting of consciousness is capable to producing its own kind of dystopias.
Suppose that you are not satisfied with the obviousness of your own consciousness; you demand scientific verification. True scientific verification, however, is not something that you can do yourself. Evidence for your own consciousness must be reproducible outside of your own personal experience of the situation, and it must be possible for others to view the results and agree on them. Taking this as given, you assemble your friends and conduct a scrupulously careful and well-designed experiment to test whether or not you are conscious. Much to your surprise, however, your friends view the results and come to the unanimous conclusion that you are not actually conscious all; feelings to the contrary must have been just an anomaly stirred up by some unusual external sources of interference. You dispute the results, and so the experiment is repeated again, and then again. Each time, the conclusion reached is the same. Your friends must conclude that, charming character though you are, you’re just not conscious.
It’s one thing to be judged unconscious by a few friends who are nonetheless quite fond of you. What if, on the other hand, the matter of the population of unconscious persons was taken up by the state? Might the state might judge the population of unconscious people to be a nuisance, like stray animals? What if the state even regarded them as a danger, considering their obvious proclivity for mistakes and their almost certain lack of any kind of moral agency? Any well organized society would certainly have a corps of professionals charged with monitoring and evaluating the consciousness of its citizens, and something would certainly need to be done with all of the unconscious people dwelling uncomfortably close to the conscious. Perhaps they could just be imprisoned, or, in a society wishing for a more flattering veneer of compassion, indefinitely institutionalized? If appearances were no object, perhaps the state could simply have unconscious people executed? Everyone has to make a few sacrifices, after all, to maintain a well-ordered society. If you yourself were judged unconscious by such a menacingly state-appointed panel of physicians, surely you would appeal desperately for the truth of your own consciousness, no matter how scientific the refutations presented.
I should be clear, at this juncture, that I do not mean to suggest that mechanist theories of consciousness bear any such authoritarian intent, nor do I mean to suggest that their necessary consequence is a dystopian state in which otherwise upstanding people are coldly adjudicated to be subhuman. What the fable of the zombie apartheid exhibits, however, is a world to which has been dealt a crushing blow to the sanctity of private mental life and to the traditional idea of individual agency. In such a world, your most immediate experiences are nothing but a hollow illusion acted out by incomprehensible, alien forces beyond your understanding and control. In such a world, each one of us turns out, under the gaze of science, not to be quite who we thought we were. Certainly, there is a very real loss in this outcome, and it is this loss that the anti-reductionists surely must sense, and it must be the horror they feel at this sensation that motivates them to struggle so fiercely against reductionist explanation.
The problem with anti-reductionists arguments is that, no matter how clever, they are doomed perpetually to retreat ever-further out of the reach of ever-newer scientific developments. The failure of an anti-reductionist explanation of consciousness is inevitable. The demise of subjective, conscious experience, however, is not.
The mechanist position proceeds from the very reasonable assertion that things are nothing other than their distinguishing features. If science can reduce those distinguishing features to physical processes, than those things are also physical processes. The fact that such a reduction is emotionally disturbing to behold is not sufficient reason to reject the deduction; it is certainly not an excuse for attempts to escape into pseudoscientific fantasy. Even so, there is something fundamentally different in the reduction of consciousness to physical processes; it appears to radically undermine the worth and veracity of subjective experience by reducing it to things that we can never quite see or fully understand. If we can’t trust our own subjective experience, what can we trust?
One argument is that the remedy lies in the internalization of the facts of natural science as it is understood today. If only we really convincingly saw ourselves as physical processes, the argument goes, there would be nothing disturbing or frightening about reducing consciousness to these very same processes. There is some truth to this view of things, but the truth is not quite a complete one — at least, not if science is to successfully stand in for religion, as it seems it is being called upon to do in this scenario. The lack is well-illustrated by a small thought experiment. Suppose you very successfully convince yourself of the truth that even your most intimate conscious experiences, from which are woven your very identity as a human being, are nothing other than the interplay of physical forces X, Y, and Z. You take X, Y, and Z to be almost sort of personal totems; they are the real truth of your being, even if you aren’t always able to perceive their activity. One day, a startling scientific breakthrough is announced: the theories of forces X, Y, and Z are proven to be completely wrong, and must be replaced by A, B, and C, which are strange and radically different. From the perspective of science, this is completely unproblematic; theories come and go. For individuals, though, theories of self do not come so cheaply; the new development results in a necessary trauma, as you really honestly and sincerely saw X, Y, and Z as your true self, and it turns out that you were mistaken all along. Science, by its very construction, must reject any theory that is convincingly contradicted by observation, and it is of the strongest necessity that there is no telling which theories may be discarded, or what may replace them. Humans, however, rely very crucially upon persistent, relatively unchanging ideas about themselves in which to ground their identity and orient themselves in the world. The prospect of an existence in which our most basic views of ourselves and of the world are ceaselessly rent asunder and reassembled can only be described as hellish. Such a metaphysical suffering may be manageable, but it is certainly not pleasant.
Consciousness is a special kind of problem because it represents the first and most basic fact of existence. Conscious experience is the means by which we build all of our internal models of the world. Without these world-models, we’re hopelessly adrift and helpless. If consciousness itself is just another kind of model, upon which the others are based, the picture of reality begins to look very tenuous indeed. Our models are based on consciousness, and consciousness is based, it would seem, upon a world that lies forever beyond our grasp. Doesn’t all this follow from a reductionist account of consciousness? No, actually. It doesn’t follow at all.
Ontology and metaphysics matter very much at junctures such as this one because they illuminate the foundational assumptions underlying arguments that might otherwise dazzle us with their vivid complexity. There is an irreducibly metaphysical axiom at the heart of all the despair over the reduction of consciousness to physics, and this axiom deserves a close examination. The axiom is this: there is a real world of objects that are outside of, and fundamentally separate from, subjective experience. That is not a scientific deduction. It is not even an obvious fact. It is a pure decision. If this decision is reversed, if we reject the idea of a universal, objective reality, then all the existential horror evaporates.
It will be immediately objected that such a rejection is solipsistic and fundamentally incompatible with scientific thought. This objection holds no water. The idea of a universal, objective reality is only necessary in order to prevent circular definitions. It is not at all clear why circular definitions should be everywhere forbidden, or whether their exclusion may actually prevent the description of very real and very important phenomena. It is true that circularity may introduce paradox, but no matter how confounding or strange paradox may be, there is no universally recognizable principle dictating that paradoxical statements may not be true or meaningful. While arguments to the contrary are delivered very passionately, they are nonetheless at great pains to justify themselves as anything more than axiomatic insistence.
Circularity immediately eludes the alienation of reductionist explanation by way of a beautifully simple argument. Suppose that you grasp that your consciousness is reducible to basic physical processes X, Y, and Z. What makes the reality of physical processes X, Y, and Z apparent is their empirical demonstration. Empirical demonstration is founded upon direct observation, that is, seeing for one’s self. Seeing for one’s self is conscious event. Therefore, processes X, Y, and Z depend upon your consciousness just as much as your consciousness depends upon X, Y, and Z. Since this is so, there is no reason to privilege your understanding of X, Y, and Z as “more true” or “more real” than your own subjective experience. Ergo, your conscious experience is exactly as real as it was before you conceived of it in terms of physical processes.
The mechanist solution to the problem of consciousness could avoid all the humanistic grief it causes if only it would forgo the insistence on having the last word. Consciousness is such that, properly speaking, there can be no last word.
Of all the authors I know, Douglas Hofstadter comes closest to grasping these facts directly. Hofstadter is a truly unique thinker, in that he admits the mechanistic explanation of consciousness, while still acknowledging the irreducibility of the subject. What’s more, Hofstadter even seems to understand the deep relevance of circularity and self-reference to the problem of consciousness. Hofstadter’s magnum opus, “Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid” (often referenced as “GEB” for short), is a vast, playfully brilliant, and strikingly original exegesis of the complex and strangely consciousness-like behaviors of self-reference as it appears in art, music, symbolic logic and other kinds of abstract systems. GEB stands alone as a truly unique work of literature and philosophy, and is well-deserving of its status as a modern classic. Even so, GEB is more poesis than analysis. Well aware of this fact, Hofstadter published “I Am A Strange Loop” (“Strange Loop” for short) in 2007, nearly three decades after the original publication of GEB, as an attempt to refine and more directly articulate the core philosophical ideas of GEB as they pertain to the problems of consciousness. While I have tremendous respect for Hofstadter as a thinker, and tremendous admiration for his intellectual works, I must humbly insist that there is more to say on the matter, and that it ties directly to the problem of an external, substantive reality.
Hofstadter clearly recognizes the importance of circularity in the development of a phenomenon like consciousness, and he even hints at something like irreducibility in his references to formal undecidability in symbolic logics, but he seems unable to break free of the idea of an external reality. While this inability in no way hampers the theoretical development, it nonetheless tinges the exposition with a faint but ineffable tone of sadness. Hofstadter himself makes this tension evident in the “teleportation to mars” scenario, which appears late in “Strange Loop”, and which I’ve discussed elsewhere. To briefly recapitulate, Hofstadter sketches a hypothetical future in which human teleportation is possible, but only in a purely “informational sense” that does not actually relocate the teleported subject, but merely reproduces a perfect copy of it elsewhere in space. Hofstadter then posits a variation on the scenario, wherein the teleportation procedure results in the death of the original subject, e.g. teleportation from Earth to Mars produces an identical subject on Mars, but results in the death of the subject on Earth. As Hofstadter tells it, this scenario reads like a tragedy of subjectivity: even though the self on Earth knows objectively that a perfect copy with all its distinguishing features lives on elsewhere, it still cannot help but feel sorrow and fear at the prospect of its own inevitable demise. The conclusion, although Hofstadter doesn’t seem to state it directly, is that objectified knowledge of the self is not a substitute for subjective experience of the self. Reflected into the problem of consciousness, a reduction of consciousness to objective terms cannot replace the subjective experience of those very terms. Hofstadter’s teleportation story is a vivid, and beautifully sensitive portrayal of exactly what kind of loss the passage from subjectivity to objectivity presents. In the telling of this story, Hofstadter directly reveals the agony of the problem of consciousness: it is none other than the agony of a world divided into internal and external parts.
It’s important not to get lost in mysticism if we’re to understand why the problem really is bound up in the internal-external division. The best way to do so is to deconstruct Hofstadter’s teleportation tale a bit further. I’ll do this by making explicit the assumption of a substantive external reality, from which a reductio ad absurdum appears. The argument is as follows: Suppose that you are the subject on Earth, who is doomed to die as a result of the teleportation procedure. Suppose also that there is a substantive external reality that exists independently of your subjective experience. Since external reality is independent of your subjectivity, it must be that only the objective changes to your circumstances (i.e. the corporeal facts of your death) will have observable effects in the real world, while the subjective changes to your circumstance (i.e. whatever your experience of death and thereafter happens to be) should make no difference. (Interestingly, this is the source of the bleakness perceived by some in the prospect of soullessness: it makes no difference to the world whether or not your subjective self is snuffed out.) Your dual self, on Mars, is a perfect copy of the you (subject and object) on Earth, and so should be functionally indistinct from the self on Earth in all situations. Quantifying over “all situations”, however, is an extremely strong generalization. “All situations”, however, is also unavoidable if the self on Mars is to be considered truly indistinguishable from the self on Earth. Since all situations must be considered, let’s consider the specific situation of how the self on Mars reacts, in terms of its objectively observable behavior, to the death of the self on Earth. Denote by S the situation in which the self on Mars is aware of the demise of the self on Earth. Denote by R the reaction of the self on Mars to the death of the self on Earth, and put aside its details beyond the requirement that it consists of some empirically discernible event. Would the reaction of the self on Earth in situation S be identical to R?
If the reaction is not identical then we’ve already derived an absurdity; the self on Mars was assumed to be a perfect reproduction, and could not be if its functional behavior differed in any way. Suppose, then, that the self on Earth would react with R in situation S. This supposition, however, presents a difficulty, because it is not clear who the subject is in the definition of S. That is, it is not clear who occupies the place of the self on Earth in: “the situation in which the self on Mars is aware of the demise of the self on Earth.” Perhaps S is obtained by the self on Earth imagining what would happen, and concluding that its reaction would be R — but an exercise of subjectivity (i.e. imagination) would be necessary in order to produce this conclusion, which would make the indistinguishability of the two selves, which has been taken as an objective fact, contingent upon an exercise of subjectivity! Perhaps it is instead the case that S is obtained by direct observation of some other objective event, i.e. perhaps the self on Earth had been produced by a prior teleportation, providing the opportunity to observe its particular reaction in that prior situation. It has already been assumed that both the self on Earth and the self on Mars react with R when contemplating the death of their predecessor-selves as a result of the teleportation procedure. The rub, however, is that the observation of R for the self on Earth was obtained by an earlier, identical teleportation procedure which, itself, produced an identical copy of the subject. If the definition of “indistinguishable reactions” is to have any veridical force, then it must be that that the situations that produced those reactions are also identical. In particular, the earlier teleportation procedure from which was obtained the observation that Earth-self’s reaction was R must also have produced an functionally identical copy. More to the point, Earth-self had a predecessor-self that also would have reacted with R! But how can this be empirically determined? Either there must be an infinite regress of observations of prior-selves, which would seem to be impossible, or there must be a prior-self whose reaction differed. If, however, some prior self failed to react with R, it must be that the teleportation procedure does not produce an identical copy, which contradicts the original assumptions — reductio ad absurdum.
The preceding argument may seem rather long, but I feel it is important to firmly ground the seemingly-mystical rejection of an external reality on a logical premise. Hofstadter’s tragedy of the subject is not mere sentimentalism, but an incisive demonstration of a logical contradiction subtly introduced by the conjunction of reductionist explanation and the assumption of substantive, external reality. It is even more illustrative, I think, to show what happens to Hofstadter’s tale when the assumption of an external reality is removed.
Reintroduce all the assumptions of Hofstadter’s original teleportation scenario, and also explicitly assume that there is no substantive, external reality that is separable from subjective experience. A direct consequence of this new assumption (or rather, the negation of the old assumption) is that life decidedly does not go on as normal for the self on Mars; this self, in all its distinguishing features, only represents a substantive object insofar as its characteristics are subjectively experienced by the self on Earth. There is no puzzle about whether it is possible for me to subjectively die on Earth while objectively surviving on Mars, for the simple reason that it is not possible to cleave one from the other. If subjectivity vanishes, then for all meaningful epistemological purposes so do all the things it experiences — the whole universe as you know it is kaput! But isn’t that just solipsism? Weirdly, no, it is not. The foundation of solipsism is the idea that only knowledge of one’s own mind is sure, and at no point did I promise or assert sure knowledge of your mind or its subjective experiences. What many people find disturbing about reductionist explanations of consciousness is that they undercut even the certainty of knowledge about one’s own mind, since mind would thus apparently be at the mercy of physical forces that are alien to direct experience. But what, then, is left if neither external nor internal knowledge is sure? Does everything really just disappear with the subject?
The answer is that nothing actually disappears at all. The assertion I’ve been driving at all along is that the subject depends on the object, and the object depends on the subject. If one vanishes, then it follows logically that other should vanish with it. The subtlety is that it really doesn’t mean anything to say that “the subject vanishes” or “the object vanishes”, since both of these tacitly presume an observer (God? The Universal Hive-Mind? The Laplacian Demon? The Leviathan of State?) before whom they appeared in the first place. Bluntly, there is no reason whatsoever to presume such an observer. (This should not necessarily be read as a declaration of atheism, but I do not wish to pursue theological matters here.) Yes, if the subject disappeared, then so would the object. Following exactly the same reasoning, the disappearance of the object should also herald the disappearance of the subject. This means, in particular, that a subject without any objective formations is just as much an absurdity as an object with no subjective content. Nothing can disappear with subjectivity or objectivity for the straightforward reason that appearance and disappearance are themselves subjective or objective functions. The very act of inquiring after what happens with the expiration of subjectivity is itself a subjective act — we are already talking about not an absolute truth, but the subjectivity of subjectivity. The result of such puzzling appears to be none other than Hofstadter’s ‘strange loop’. What is different is that there is no longer anything either inside of or outside of the loop. What is interesting is that the absence of any such thing, inside or outside, is decidedly not strange.
I assert that what I’ve developed in the above is wholly compatible with mechanist explanations of consciousness; at no point have I required any functions of the mind that are beyond the grasp of scientific explanation. What is different is that reductionist theories no longer have the last word on what is real or unreal; a loop in the reasoning has been closed, with the result that some decided-upon facts will become undecidable. Science has robbed subjective experience of its privilege as the final word on matters of truth, but acknowledgment of the subjective roots of empiricism rob it of the very same privilege The casualty of this exchange is the aesthetic appeal of a “ground truth” or a “hard foundation” from which all other truths can be systematically derived. Truth no longer comes about as a procedural matter of fact, but as a contingency of the situation itself. Some modern thinkers (Alain Badiou, in particular) seem to be already aware of this dynamic, but their work is, to the best of my knowledge, concerned with deep theoretical work in ontology and metaphysics, and has yet to be applied to the purportedly thorny problem of consciousness, which sits awkwardly at the boundary between physics and metaphysics.
The question remains: Why introduce all this extra confusion, when we could be contented with an exhaustively reductionist theory of everything, with objectivity situated firmly at the foundation of the universe? The answer, I think, is that such a universe is fundamentally alienated and bleak. I firmly believe that we should not look askance at facts just because they are unpleasant, but it is important to recognize that foundational world views are not facts — they are choices. The situation of basic views as choices, rather than self-evident facts (whatever those are), does not mean that all are morally equal. Some views are inconsistent with themselves. Some views are too impoverished or simplistic to account for the inscrutable breadth and depth of human experience. Some views are so severe and rigid that they sacrifice truth in the name of their own symbolic order and internal stability. Some views are so fantastical and diffuse as to be totally vacuous. The choice among these is certainly not easy, and there may be no reliable criteria for doing so — especially considering that new ideas are arising all the time. It is important, however, to understand that a picture of the world that makes you unhappy may not be necessary. You should not carelessly replace it with a flattering self-delusion, but neither should you grimly bear its awful weight. A persistent feeling of despair or emptiness is itself nothing other than the sign of a deep contradiction in your view of your self and your world — such contradictions can be, and must be resolved. As much as I agree with Dennett and the many others who have destroyed and discredited the strange and whimsical theories of the anti-reductionists, I also feel very strongly the urgency that drives the anti-reductionists to such baroque flights of intellectual fancy: if the world of subjective experience is smashed to lifeless atoms, then something important really is lost. There is a beauty and dignity to human experience that, no matter how well-analyzed by scientific explanation, is not and cannot be reducible to scientific terms. The tension between the status of the human being and the progress of science has become almost unbearably strong in our lifetimes, and it is important that we find a reconciliation. Such a tension is not bearable forever.
The good news is that the war between science and humanity must not be borne forever. If only we stop clinging to some very old but wholly unjustified habits of thought, the conflict disappears. In the end, nothing could be more scientific than to reject an assumption that has outlived its usefulness, and nothing could be more human than to rejoice at the freedom it brings.
David Chalmers. “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness”. 1995. Available here.
Daniel Dennett. “Facing Backward on the Problem of Consciousness”. 1995. Available here.
Daniel Dennett. Consciousness Explained. 1991.
Douglas Hofstadter. I Am A Strange Loop. 2007.
Benjamin Schulz is a computer scientist and graduate research assistant at the University of Missouri. His regular blog, “Hot, Cold, Sun, Rain: Practical Spirituality, Irregular Philosophy, and Personal Civics” appears here.
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