Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Consciousness, the Hard Problem

Lead: Michelle Conroy & Swapnil Bhatia


Summary by Nick Copanas:

Universal Consciousness?

Twelve billion years after emerging from a singularity, the universe started asking itself questions. "Why something, why not nothing?" "What should I wear today?" "Whom should I vote for in the next election?" "Am I gaining too much weight?" "What makes language possible?" "How can I know beauty?" "Will it rain this weekend?" "What is the right way to act?" "Where should I eat today?" "Cream and sugar?" "What do we mean by freedom?" "Paper, or plastic?" Most of the questions seem banal, and are largely ignored by the universe. Some questions seem so valuable, that the universe writes them down in the hope of always remembering them. Yet the entire set of questions that the universe has asked itself, from "To be or not to be?" to "Where are my car keys?", from the "ordinary" to the "inspiring," is an amazing collection of the universe’s struggle to find meaning in its existence. What is significant about the questions is not necessarily what answers the universe seeks, but that the universe seeks, questions, and reflects on itself at all—that the universe now experiences and is curious about its experiences. What a miracle that something could emerge from nothing, and then become aware that it was something.

What is this ability to be aware that the human part of the universe possesses? How is it possible for matter to know that it is matter, for matter to feel and care for other matter? For atoms to desire, or hate other atoms? What is this "consciousness" that has emerged—what makes it possible and what is it able to do? Is consciousness definable at all, and what would a definition of consciousness be? What are the criterions for consciousness? Like most of the universe’s endeavors, the search for the meaning and origin of consciousness leads to more questions than answers. It is difficult to describe, in words, what the experience of consciousness is. As Paul Brockelman said during the discussion, "All the words are slippery because there is a difference between words and experience. At best, the words are just models." These words are an attempt to capture an experience that cannot be entirely captured, or reduced to words.

How to Describe Consciousness?

Our inability to describe consciousness does not mean that we lack any knowledge of what consciousness is. We experience consciousness, and that experience of consciousness itself constitutes a kind of "knowing" about what it is. Whether consciousness is reducible to certain qualities, or propositions, however, constitutes much of the present debate. If consciousness is reducible to certain qualities, what is the nature of those qualities? Are properties of the mind products of the interaction of material? Are our thoughts, feelings, and experiences simply the product of complex chemical reactions, or is there a soul, something beyond the physical, that accounts for our experience? As Nick Herbert writes in Elemental Mind, "Two major conjectures dominate the scientific debate on the nature of mind: (1) mind is an ‘emergent feature’ of certain complex biological systems; (2) mind is the software controlling the brain’s computer like hardware. [There is] a third hypothesis—that, far from being a rare occurrence in complex biological or computational systems, mind is a fundamental process in its own right, as widespread and as deeply embedded in nature as light or electricity."

Theories about Consciousness

The answers to these questions will have profound effects on the way we live. If the mind is simply the product of chemical reactions, then the properties and possibilities for the mind are entirely knowable to science. Events in the mind would be predictable, and therefore, freedom would not exist. If we are not free, how may we be held accountable for our actions? If we are simply material, then death would be the end of our selves. This materialism, however, seems reductive to our experience. In the world, we act as though we are free to make choices, and others are free to make choices. Is it possible, then, that there is something beyond the material that constitutes our minds, allowing us to not exist as slaves to our own brain chemistry? According to Herbert, this theory, dualism, that the mind exists separately but interacts with the body, is a view held by most Americans. This dualism would imply that there is a fundamental reality—one that is permanent and unchanging, where the self, or the soul, has immortality. Death, suffering, disease, change, would all be characteristics of the material world. How then, would we treat this world if we believed in dualism? Would we care about a world that is changing, that is not real in any permanent sense? Would we treat the world as just a collection of objects?

Theories about consciousness, however, do not seem to encompass the nature of consciousness. We live and act not as determined entities, or souls operating body machines, but as bodies in a world, with a language. What, then, is real? What is it our consciousness experiences, and how can it assert knowledge about this world we occupy? Consciousness may only be able to know what is lived, or what is experienced. We cannot, for example, get outside of consciousness, to observe consciousness like we would observe an object. What, then, are the products of our conscious minds? How can we assert that we have any knowledge if we do not know what the faculty of knowing is?

Can We Recognize Consciousness?

Perhaps, however, we lack any ability to answer questions about consciousness. Solipsists believe that we cannot assert anything about the world in and of itself, since we can only know the world as we experience it. Therefore, they conclude, we have no justification for asserting anything about how the world is in and of itself. Furthermore, since we cannot assert any knowledge outside of our experience, we cannot claim that anything exists outside of our own consciousness. Therefore, we cannot know that any other minds exist. "The philosopher’s other-mind problem is complicated by what I call ‘the Grand Illusion’: the persuasive conviction that the entire universe is centered around my self. When I look at my own experience I do indeed appear to be located at the center of the world, a bright focal self full of intense sensations and feelings, compared with which the rest of the world seems drab and devoid of feeling," (Herbert 10). Solipsism, however, can provide us with little knowledge about our existence, and virtually no knowledge about how we ought to act. "Bertrand Russell once said solipsism is completely irrefutable but boring: we should just ignore solipsism in favor of less defensible, but more interesting models of the mind," (Herbert 10).

We might be able to assert some knowledge of what consciousness is if we may assert that other minds exist. We could infer, from common characteristics about our consciousnesses, certain properties of the mind. We might be unable to have, however, any knowledge of another person’s experience, beyond what they tell us. Therefore, we could be mistaken that they are conscious at all. As John Searle remarks in Brain and Mind, it is impossible, based on observation, to tell whether or not others actually do have consciousness, or whether or not they are "zombies." If, however, we want to escape solipsism, we must assert that if we observe another mind as conscious, then it is conscious. As one person pointed out during the discussion, "We have assumed there’s a difference between experiencing another consciousness and observing another’s actions, when there may be no difference." The philosopher Alan Turing believed that we will have developed artificial intelligence when a human is unable to distinguish between a computer and another human. There seems, however, to be a difference in believing that another is conscious, and another person being conscious. "For me the Turing test misses the point: it seems highly unintelligent to base the important question of whether a machine has intelligence or not on human gullibility," (Hebert 8).

The Last Word

Perhaps we will never know what consciousness is and why it exists, whether consciousness is a subject or a predicate, whether it is an object or immaterial, whether others exist, or whether there is only one consciousness, if consciousness animates matter, or if matter generates consciousness. Perhaps all things are conscious, or perhaps, nothing is conscious. In my experience, however, I have some understanding, prior to reflection and introspection, about the world. In that "pre-ontological" understanding, or understanding that exists prior to any theory of what it means to be, I act as though others are conscious, and I myself am conscious. Included in that basic understanding, is the notion that there are consequences for choices that my consciousness makes. These consequences, in part, arise from a caring I have for others like myself. I will therefore continue to act as though others exist. Even if they are unanswerable, however, questions about the nature of consciousness will continue to drive this small part of the universe that somehow thinks, that is in some way aware of the universe. The mystery of our being, as Eric Wochholz said during the discussion, is what makes it beautiful.

May 17, 2001