by S. Siddharth.

Consciousness and why it is a problem

It seems like not a week passes without someone proclaiming that the human mind and consciousness is the final frontier for science, perhaps forever beyond its reach. It’s even more surprising when it is sometimes leading scientists themselves who say this. The relationship between the body and the mind has been the topic of much debate within philosophy over the centuries. With the increasing success of science in the twentieth century, especially in explaining phenomena that were earlier deemed mysterious, like the origin of life, chemical bonding, etc., it was assumed that it was only a matter of time before consciousness too was explained. However, the air of mystery around the mind and consciousness persists, and there has been a renewed focus on what other disciplines like philosophy have to say about it.

This also comes at a time when a slew of prominent scientists and science popularisers have dismissed philosophy, deeming it irrelevant in the age of twenty-first-century science. This seems at odds with the other scientists’ pessimism over the possibility of a scientific account of consciousness, often on philosophical grounds. What is it about our mind and the conscious nature that makes it so polarising, and so “hard” to explain?  In this essay, this is the broad question that I would like to focus on.

To the nineteenth-century biologist Thomas Huxley, the emergence of consciousness from the activity of the brain was as bewildering as the emergence of the Djinn from Aladdin’s lamp. Despite the scientific progress of the past century, the question still seems as bewildering.  This is not to say we do not know what happens in our body when we smell the rain or feel hungry, but that we do not know why these physical processes are accompanied by any experiences at all, much less these specific experiences.  Why do some physical processes give rise to feelings and experiences? Why do neuronal firings in your brain have to feel some way at all? It is this question that the philosopher David Chalmers called the Hard Problem of Consciousness.

One can notice that the articulation of the problem seems to begin from the assumption that everything that exists is ultimately physical. For many, this is where the problem lies; to them, it seems intuitive that consciousness is just not the same kind of stuff as physical matter. However, a second kind of (non-physical) phenomena is not easy to accommodate; after all, science has been so successful in explaining many “mysteries” based on the assumption that everything is physical, eliminating unnecessary non-physical posits, explaining every phenomenon in terms of physical causes. Where then can we fit a second kind of phenomena in our picture of reality?

Perhaps, it’s the physical that’s the problem?

A more likely solution lies in trying to fit together the mental and the physical as part of the same kind of reality. In trying to do this, philosophers over the centuries have raised the possibility that it’s not the mind that’s the problem but the physical world, and ask if we really know the physical, as well as we, think we do. Consider our perceptual knowledge of the physical world—for example, what we know about a table through our visual experience of it. Is the reality of the table exhausted by what we know by looking at it? No, we further know through science that it is made up of trillions and trillions of smaller particles, while to us it looks like a smooth continuous object. What if we had a visual resolution that was also trillions and trillions of times stronger? Would we then know exactly what the table is? Various philosophers across history have argued that we would still not be able to know the table for what it is. The reason for this being, whatever we know through perception is ultimately the effect of what the object causes in us, and not what the cause in itself is. In this example, the table-as-it-appears-to-us, even if it appears to us as composed of trillions of smaller particles, would still be the effect of some things on our cognitive system. What about the table in itself, over and above its causal influence on other things? If whatever we know about the table is ultimately dependent on the causal powers of the table, it may well be the case that we can never know anything about the table over and above its causal powers. We know what the table does, but not what it is.

This leads us to a sobering conclusion: Any knowledge system that is dependent on perception to know the world can at best tell us about what the different things of the world do in relation to us, but not what they are. This has profound implications for the scope of the scientific methodology. The biggest example of this limitation is the mind. Consider any feeling one has: when one smells coffee, when one is pricked by a thorn, or when one finally understands a joke. All of these, of course, have causal powers—they cause us to feel refreshed, shout out in pain, or laugh out loud respectively. However, what we know of them is not restricted to their mere causal influence, but what they literally are: we know exactly what it is to smell coffee or feel pain. Further, we seem to stand in a position of privilege in knowing our own experiences. A third person can see and hear us shout out in pain, but in doing so, does not literally feel the pain we do. This seems to present us with an opportunity—while everything we know about the world through perception is limited to its causal powers, what we know about our own experiences is not so limited, but extends to its what-it-is, intrinsic nature.

If this were indeed the case, there is a significant difference between our knowledge of the world and our knowledge of our own experiences. Further, it would not be possible to give an account of our experiences completely in terms of physical phenomena precisely because of this difference—experiences as we know them are intrinsically characterized, while physical phenomena of the external world, known through perception are causally characterized.

The realization that our knowledge of the physical world is fundamentally limited opens up the possibility that we do not know enough about the physical world to claim that the experiential cannot also be physical. Since the experiential is known to us in its intrinsic nature and the physical in its non-intrinsic, causal aspects, philosophers have speculated whether one could fill in two gaps in our understanding of the world in one go: one of fitting the experiential in a physical world, and the other of filling in the missing intrinsic nature of physical stuff. In the early part of the twentieth century, two British scholars—the philosopher Bertrand Russell and the physicist Arthur Eddington—independently posited something radical: what if experiential properties were the missing intrinsic nature of all physical phenomena? What if every physical object, including the really tiny ones, was something like subjects-having-experiences? If the brain were the seat of our experiences, and it was made up of the same fundamental stuff that constitutes all physical objects, our best guess is that the intrinsic properties—what it is in itself—of fundamental physical stuff are also something like experiential properties. Or, panpsychism, the view that everything (‘pan’) has mental or mind-like (‘psyche’) features.

This conclusion will seem obviously wrong to many and precisely the reason why one ought to avoid philosophical speculation. I would instead look at it in another way: perhaps it is a testimony to the persistence and hardness of the philosophical problem of consciousness that any solution to it is likely to sound bizarre and crazy. If one is serious about the reality of our experiences, appreciates the limitation of the scientific methodology, something like panpsychism seems to be the most elegant picture that fits them all together.

This is not to say that this thesis is not without its problems, many of which are the points of debate within contemporary academic philosophy. The view that our knowledge and conceptions of the physical world are radically wrong has been propounded by various thinkers across time and geographies, including prominent ones such as Plato, Buddhists such as Nagarjuna, Sankara, and Immanuel Kant. Engaging with the ideas of these thinkers in light of our contemporary concerns is likely to open up rich worlds of possibilities and alternate ways of thinking about the problem of consciousness.

The relevance of philosophy

There are a few other lessons to be learned from the problem of consciousness. For one, it highlights one area where philosophy is likely to play a key role: in critically looking at the dominant ways of knowing the world (in this case, science), identifying its possibilities and limitations, and trying to stitch together an understanding of the world in light of these limitations. The limitation of science that is identified earlier is really significant, for experiences are not just another phenomenon, but a crucial—if not the most crucial—aspect of human (and at least some animal) life. It is the basis of our interaction with the world, our knowledge, values, emotions, actions, and all meaning-making. Given their centrality and the fact that scientific-empirical methods fail to capture their essence, how do we describe, think about, and communicate these realities? How is one going to describe what one feels when one achieves success after years of toil and perseverance when one loses a dear one, or when one goes through the dreary monotony of everyday life? It is for this and various other reasons no doubt, that we need different ways of reasoning about and conceptualizing the world i.e. different disciplines like the arts, humanities, and social studies. A justification for this comes not just from the sciences or these other disciplines themselves, but from a philosophical reflection on how we know what we know about the world.

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