• RolandTyme
    5
    Hello everyone,

    I'm a philosopher by training though not a philosopher of mind, but I don't work in philosophy or academia any more.

    I've had some thoughts about the hard problem recently, and I was wondering if anyone could match them to a particular theory on the topic and ongoing discussion.

    I was recently talking to a friend of mine, who was explaining the position of illusionism with regards the qualitative character of mental states, i.e. that we only believe we have such states, but actually this is an illusion. A way to gloss this position is that we are all actually philosophical zombies, only most of us don't know it, and even those who do can't shake the belief we aren't.

    I've got my own problems with this position, but leaving it aside, it seemed to bring out clearly that a physicalist account of the mind does need some kind of solution to the hard problem - i.e. how do we account for consciousness (in terms of the experience of states with qualitative character) within our best account of physics. If we can't, then we need to accept some kind of non-physicalism about the mind, in which these kinds of states don't exist within the same realm as physical stuff.

    Reading a popular coffee table book about astronomy and modern theoretical physics got me thinking that this seems an unnecessary dictonomy at this stage. Those guys are happy to counternance all kinds of aspects of the physical universe which go well beyond what we might characterise as a kind of meat and two veg Hobbesian materialism, i.e. we've got 3 dimensions of space, 1 of time, and matter is just stuff located within those coordinates.

    I then got thinking about this phenomena of consciousness we all have. One of the things you can note about it is that it is definitely not co-extensive with everthing going on inside and around our bodies. I don't have pain or sensory receptors in my brain. I don't have eyes in the back of my head, and I can't feel what exactly is going on in my pancreas right now - at least, not with very much resolution. Consciousness relates certain types of information the nervous system of the body has access to, and not others. I remember reading recently, I think in new scientist, that one theory of consciousness is that it has evolved to allow the organism to respond to certain problems in the environment and itself with great nuance and feedback.

    It's an obvious point against certain kinds of physicalism that we cannot open up a person's brain (or even nervous system in general), and see a little simulacrum of what the person is experiencing. But I think that that is what physicalism (unless we want to be illusionists, as described) needs to presume they are looking for - as the qualitative aspects of consciousness need to be accounted for. If we can't locate these states somewhere in the physical world (construed as the world explorable by modern - or the best - physics), then we will have to admit that non-physicalism may well be true.

    But as mentioned, we don't need to assume that physicalism means the same as an older variety of materialism, in which it is very difficult to situate consciousness, simply because when we open up the brain, we don't see the qualitative consciousness of another person. It may simply be that the qualitative consciousness hasn't been detected yet, or can't be, using the experimental tools we have at our disposal. This is par of the course in physics - lots of phenomena are postulated but need technology or conditions to develop in order for them to be confirmed.

    For example, there is lots of new work now being done in quantum biology. It now seems that there are lots of ways in which biological entities have evolved in order to incorporate quantum effects into their functioning. We might not have expected this, and we may even be tempted to think "but how did the organisms know quantum physics was there to be used?" The answer is - they didn't. They randomly mutated in such and such ways that ended up bringing quantum effects into play, and some of these had evolutionary beneficial effects.

    I think it would be worth while to consider moving forward with the hypothesis that consciousness is something like this. It is some kind of physical effect which displays a qualitative character, but an effect which we cannot yet directly observe in the brain. Why we cannot just observe it would be something for philosophers and scientists to develop hypotheses about - much like biologists are developing and testing hypotheses using quantum theory to try to explain biological processes they couldn't previously - and then test those hypotheses that can be testable, try to work towards those hypotheses that are in theory testable, but not yet, and think through the remainder. Only after all these have been shown to fail should we then be considering the option of non-physicalism, because only then would consciousness really be a problem which was outside the bounds of our best science.

    Can anyone tell me if there are programmes of research into consciousness, qualitative states, and the hard problem along these lines? Thanks alot.
  • Isaac
    2.2k


    If I've understood you correctly, this sort of idea was explored by Roger Penrose in the 80s and early 90s. He wrote a book on his idea of how vibrations of microtubules could maintain quantum superposition. See here.

    Most neuroscientists thought that it was impossible and duly it was calculated that any such state could not possibly last long enough to transmit a message, here.

    I think the idea has been shelved since, but I may not be entirely up to date on it, others may know something more recent.
  • schopenhauer1
    4.2k

    On a related note regarding your remarks on Illusionism- I have similar thoughts on it. To say "consciousness is an illusion" is to not explain the illusion itself (what it is, and how it is equivalent to bio-chemical or physical states). An illusion is still itself a phenomenon- one that needs to be explained. I have a whole thread on this idea here if you are interested and want to contribute:

    https://thephilosophyforum.com/discussion/318/is-mind-is-an-illusion-a-legitimate-position-in-philosophy-of-mind/p1
  • RolandTyme
    5
    Thank you both of you.

    The one thing I would add Isaac is that I've tried not to assume that the explanation of consciousness would necessarily be to do with quantum physics (though that definitely seems the most likely avenue, if at all) - though using quantum biology as an example probably suggested that. It's the more general point that we have this phenomena, we have these developing lines of enquiry in physics, so we should be exploring all options.

    Thank you Schopenhauer. I may not get round to having a look today, but I will try to remember. You're worries about it sound similar to mine.
  • Echarmion
    1.3k
    But as mentioned, we don't need to assume that physicalism means the same as an older variety of materialism, in which it is very difficult to situate consciousness, simply because when we open up the brain, we don't see the qualitative consciousness of another person. It may simply be that the qualitative consciousness hasn't been detected yet, or can't be, using the experimental tools we have at our disposal. This is par of the course in physics - lots of phenomena are postulated but need technology or conditions to develop in order for them to be confirmed.RolandTyme

    But, then the question is: How is that different to just believing what you want to believe? Saying that "it's detectable, but we don't yet have the necessary tools l" is functionally identical to "God did it". It's not a permissible argument in rational discourse, because it's an admission of ignorance masquerading as an argument. If the qualia of consciousness hasn't been detected, for whatever reason, then that is an argument against physicalism. It cannot be turned around and be used as an argument for physicalism by tagging on an "yet".
  • ernestm
    881
    I agree with schopenhauer on this point. One might explain how the phenomenon exists in terms of physicalism, and even perform experiments to validate the expalnation, but it doesnt actually have any pertinence to the experience.

    I can give a kind of parallel example. Suppose you have three pencils on the desk. You look at them and think, there are three. It doesnt have anything to do with the pencils. The three is in your mind. Similarly, you can find out how neural pathways create consciousness perhaps. You could even identify the ones triggered when you think 'there are three pencils.' But that does not define the experience you have of looking at the pencils and thinking there's three of them. It merely defines how the experience is produced.
  • Isaac
    2.2k
    It's the more general point that we have this phenomena, we have these developing lines of enquiry in physics, so we should be exploring all options.RolandTyme

    Ahh, then I'm afraid you've lost me as far as what these "developing lines of enquiry in physics" are, if not quantum physics. Perhaps you could expand on what other areas of physics you think might be profitable lines of enquiry for studies of conciousness?
  • Isaac
    2.2k
    that does not define the experience you have of looking at the pencils and thinking there's three of them. It merely defines how the experience is produced.ernestm

    What kind of thing would 'define' the experience. You seem to be using 'define' in an odd way here. If I 'define' my experience of eating a pizza I usually mean by that some verbal account of the senses and thoughts that occurred. That's easily done with your pencil example. What more of a 'definition' are you looking for?
  • RolandTyme
    5
    Thanks for your comment Echarmion.

    So I didn't take it that I was giving an argument for Physicalism and against Anti-Physicalism, but I was trying to think about - given the assumption that we want to try for a physicalist explanation, what kind of approach should we take with regards our overall methodology and hypotheses.

    I agree that the illusiveness of qualia in the physical world is an argument against physicalism, but it isn't a decisive one, until we have explored all the options (within the bounds of what counts as reasonable justification, given our epistemology).
  • RolandTyme
    5
    Well, I don't know off the top of my head. I know that some physicists think that there are more dimensions than the 4 standard ones, though I can't remember if it's orthodoxy. I'm afriad I'm not a physicist, so I didn't want to presume that I could just say "quantum mechanics" and get at everything they may be exploring, but rather present the problem in more general philosophical and methodological terms, which is all I'm trained to do, really.
  • RolandTyme
    5
    Hello Ernestm, thanks for engaging in the conversation.

    Could I just check - your post implies Schopenhauer is disagreeing with me, but I couldn't see that. Should I be looking at the thread that Schopenhauer posted before I answer you. Just to flag it up, I may not get round to that tonight. Thanks very much.
  • Enrique
    204


    Been thinking about this issue a lot lately, and have reached some studied insights that might be of interest to you.

    A few of my blog posts at WordPress.com would probably give you some ideas.

    The Nature and Human Impact of Qualia proposes a simple physical model.

    If you want some background in biological and psychological concepts informing the theory, I suggest reading The Origins and Evolution of Perception in Organic Matter

    The second half of my post Orthodoxies and Revolutions in the Science of Human Perception explains this theoretical framework's epistemological foundations.

    An even more basic exposure to core concepts of experimental quantum biology involved, drawn from a recent book published on the subject: Quantum Mechanical Biology.

    A lot of this is speculation, but also plenty of factual detail to ponder along the way. If you've got any derivative ideas, I'd be interested, I love discussing this topic!
  • ernestm
    881
    well I wa sthinking of the nature of numbers at the time, but the same applies to all emotions which is more obvious.
  • bongo fury
    401
    To say "consciousness is an illusion" is to not explain the illusion itselfschopenhauer1

    It might be. I'll have a go.

    I'm looking at the back of my front door, conscious of my consciousness of the colours and patterns: edges, curves, corners, textures, gradients. My dog (if I had one) is looking at roughly the same thing, and I know (haha, might need correcting) from psychology class that neurons in my visual system that are sensitive to certain kinds of edges, gradients etc. have rough counterparts in hers.

    Of course, I don't know from class whether she is conscious too, but my crude theory of consciousness would say not. To put it another way, she isn't subject to the illusion, because she, not having linguistic or other symbolic skills, isn't skilled in reading a scene as a picture, and in reading a picture as an array of features, identifiable as kinds (of pattern or object) in a linguistic scheme - verbal or pictorial or both. So she isn't likely to make a habit of confusing, say, the door handle, still less her internal response to the door handle, with pictures of door handles. I don't mean confusing in the obviously pathological way of being likely to mistake any of these for each other, but in the sense of readying a plethora of appropriate responses to, say, movement of the handle, that depend on skill in differentiating and interpreting symbols as representing door handles, as much as they depend on manipulating actual ones. When the physical skill is so soaked through with symbolic and intellectual correlations, we might well - and harmlessly - think of our internal processes in readying to deal with the handle as being composed of pictorial components, like parts of an actual picture.

    Whenever you think you have a "mental picture" of something presently or previously perceived, or imagined, and the sense that this creates a hard problem, consider an alternative interpretation to the effect that you have just determined a relatively narrow preference among appropriate actual pictures. How might a zombie assess its own thought process, supposing that the process was one of narrowing its preference (as to the appropriate selection in some symbolic context) among a range of pictures? It would need to associate the process with the narrowed range of actual pictures, of course. And if it were indeed able to so shiver its neurons as to repeat the determination of readiness to select the range of appropriate pictures, it might form the habit of associating, even confusing, the thoughts with the pictures.

    In that scenario the creature has reason to recognise its own experience in our descriptions of consciousness. Especially if those descriptions acknowledge, as I think they should, the habitual confusion or at least correlation of thoughts (brain-shivers) with actual pictures.

    Disclaimer: these ruminations are inspired by Nelson Goodman's far more careful analyses here and here. However, not only does Goodman expressly warn against reading them as dealing with consciousness (rather than merely "thought"), but I should mention he was also an ardent dog lover, and sponsor of animal welfare.
  • Luke
    685
    It may simply be that the qualitative consciousness hasn't been detected yet, or can't be, using the experimental tools we have at our disposal.RolandTyme

    Just wanted to note the contradiction or silliness of the position that the existence of qualitative consciousness might be ruled out because "we" can't "detect" it.
  • schopenhauer1
    4.2k

    So while this is interesting, this has more to do with easy problems like cognition and the role of symbolic representation. The hard question goes beyond this and asks "How are the physical components equivalent to mental components". How is what you are saying addressing that? I don't see it.
  • bongo fury
    401
    The hard question goes beyond this and asks "How are the physical components equivalent to mental components". How is what you are saying addressing that?schopenhauer1

    By saying that mental components are a fiction which we get into the habit of entertaining as a convenient aid to succesful cognition. "What was my previous brain-shiver?... Oh yes, the one selecting picture A or picture B." Obvious how that abbreviates...
  • schopenhauer1
    4.2k
    By saying that mental components are a fiction we get into the habit of acknowledging as a convenient aid to succesful cognition. "What was my previous brain-shiver?... Oh yes, the one selecting this or that picture."bongo fury

    "What" is this "fiction we get into the habit of acknowledging"? You are making the mistake of thinking the "illusion" refers to the cause rather than its presence in general. I have no doubt we can missatribute the causes of a phenomenon but in this case, we cannot explain away so easily its presence.
  • bongo fury
    401
    "What" is this "fiction we get into the habit of acknowledging"?schopenhauer1

    The picture in the head. It doesn't happen.
  • schopenhauer1
    4.2k
    The picture in the head. It doesn't happen.bongo fury

    Then why are we even talking of pictures in the head?
  • bongo fury
    401
    Then why are we even talking of pictures in the head?schopenhauer1

    For my part, I thought they were included among your alleged "mental components"?
  • frank
    5.1k
    Isn't your conclusion similar to Chalmers'? That science needs to grow toward a theory of consciousness starting with qualia as the subject of research?

    If so, I think I would turn toward his writings to get an idea what that research would look like.
  • schopenhauer1
    4.2k
    For my part, I thought they were included among your alleged "mental components"?bongo fury

    Mental components don't happen. Yet we are discussing them. You say they are fictions. Fine, the fictions themselves are something. We are reasonably discussing them. You can add stuff like language and representations etc. but these are all mental things after the fact. How is it the nerve-firings are these fictions?
  • bongo fury
    401
    How is it the nerve-firings are these fictions?schopenhauer1

    But the nerve firings actually happen. Your inner film show doesn't. That's what I'm saying, anyway.

    Maybe there are "illusionists" who come close to agreeing with you that the inner film show happens in some illusory way. In which case I understand your exasperation, as I say here.

    But I'm becoming ever more convinced that it's an illusion in the sense of not happening.
  • schopenhauer1
    4.2k
    Your inner film show doesn't.bongo fury

    "What" is the inner film show? We don't think, yet here we are thinking. To clarify, let me quote what I have stated before on this issue:

    Some people in both the idealist and the materialist camp (in much different fashions) want to claim that first person consciousness is an "illusion" of some sort. Is using the term "illusion" just another term for the "mind" and this "illusion" still has to be accounted for or can the concept of illusion have its cake and eat it too? In other words, can illusion really claim that the mind only "feels" like it exists, but does not really and that's the end of the story or does the "feels like" phenomena of illusion still have to be accounted for in some way?schopenhauer1

    I agree. I think people do a switcharoo and try to explain the causes of consciousness as some sort of hitherto unexplored origin and then because it is some genus of causes which is not what we originally thought, they want to then go an extra step and say the actual consciousness is therefore an illusion. If we want to bring in Wittgenstein, we can bring it there. It's not even an illusion as much as something that was not what we originally thought. They are confusing everybody by misusing the word illusion.schopenhauer1

    In other words, there is still is the "feels like" phenomena of illusion that still has to be accounted for in some way, even if we are mistaken as to its causes.
  • bongo fury
    401
    We don't think, yet here we are thinking.schopenhauer1

    I don't say we don't think. Unless you are saying zombies don't think?
  • schopenhauer1
    4.2k
    I don't say we don't think. Unless you are saying zombies don't think?bongo fury

    The theater in the brain is reported. What are they reporting? Presumably that includes you and me. If you say you don't have anything like reportable internal events, you would be the first conscious person to do so. No one is saying the brain doesn't cause consciousness or contribute to its presence. The illusion if it is the same as neurons. Whence the illusion?
  • bongo fury
    401
    If you say you don't have anything like reportable internal events, you would be the first conscious person to do so.schopenhauer1

    I guess my spoken and thought (sub-vocalised) words are evidence of brain events, but you wouldn't say they describe those events? So, no, I don't see how I or anyone can report on their brain events.

    So I can only surmise that here...

    The theater in the brain is reported. What are they reporting?schopenhauer1

    ... you meant specifically reports of a theater in a different place - in a mind?

    And then you ask if I dare to deny having reports of this nature to file?

    I don't deny having filed such reports most of my life. But I do insist they were all fictional: concerning non-existent images and audio, and too often also non-existent homunculi.

    And I must stress: it's not that the visions I reported turned out to be hallucinations, visions with no veracity, it's that I made up having the visions at all.
  • schopenhauer1
    4.2k
    I don't deny having filed such reports most of my life. But I do insist they were all fictional: concerning non-existent images and audio, and too often also non-existent homunculi.bongo fury

    So what is the nature of this non-existent fictional images and audio and homunculi? Not the things correlated with them (neurons). If you say "illusion" you are begging the question and have exhausted this conversation.
  • bongo fury
    401
    So what is the nature of this non-existent fictional images and audio and homunculi?schopenhauer1

    What is the nature of non-existent fictional characters in a work of fiction?
  • neonspectraltoast
    195
    Everyone recognizes that characters in books are fictional. Trying to convince us that other people are fictional is a different matter. Yes, people can get creative with themselves, but that doesn't mean they're a character that some foreign event is responsible for.

    To try and split the identity from one's own brain is nonsense. It isn't some foreign author creating a story. It is literally a part of us.

    What people have a problem with is that it isn't the whole story. Our physical form, our surface, plays a role, too. And that isn't internal. It belongs to the external world.

    The idea that none of this is happening defies all of the evidence that it actually is happening. If we can't trust that it's even something, surely we can't say the brain creates the illusion of something, as our experience of the brain would be illusory, too. That's not just a hard problem; it's an impossible problem. You can't just grant the brain the magical ability of being infallible, no matter how much you want to understand.
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