Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Consciousness: The Hard Problem, Lead: Bill Hurd


Summary by Daniela Möbius:


Consciousness: The Hard Problem

Reading: Introducing Consciousness by David Papineau & Howard Selina

The discussion about consciousness began with the statement: “Everything we have dealt with so far in this class has been ‘easy’…Now for the hard stuff!” (In reference to Chalmers distinctions between “easy problems” of consciousness involving the objective study of the brain, and the “hard problem” exploring the explanation of phenomenal consciousness.)

The introductory question “Who/ What is conscious?” led into a poll, where the class was asked to distinguish cats, chimps, amoebas, bacteria, Data (from Star Trek), people ‘jacked in’ to the Matrix, and new-borns as conscious or not. This resulted in a wide array of responses and arguments for each distinction. No clearly definable answers could be given to end stipulation for both sides of the argument, raising questions about why we tend to give the answers that we do.

Often times we consider something conscious out of ‘emotional determination,’ because we want it to be conscious. Take our pets as an example. Additionally, consciousness is ‘often used to determine moral agency.’

In further discussion, the differences between personal subjective experiences, referred to as phenomenal experiences, and merely being aware, were distinguished. There is a distinction between awareness and self-awareness. This brought about the question if we can merely be aware, or whether we must be aware of being aware (“awareness squared”) in order to be considered conscious. The majority of the class discussion focused around ”self-conscious” experience, the sense of “I”.

In order to provide participants in the class with the necessary tools for discussion, a brief summary of essential theories in the realm of consciousness were discussed:

The presenter stated that: “There are two types of people in the world - those who revel in the mystery created by a magician, and those obsessed with figuring out exactly how the heck they did it!” This led to a brief discussion about the mysterian view, which suggests that consciousness is and always will be a complete mystery. Since this viewpoint does not contribute to further insights, the discussion was focused on theories aiming to understand how consciousness works.

Dualism states that there are two kinds of stuff: Mental and Physical.

Epiphenomenalism suggests that the physical gives rise to the mental, but that the mental component cannot influence the physical. Here the conflict of causal impotence resulted in some discussion.

Animism represents the opposite point of view in that an invisible spiritual cause lies behind every material motion. Matter is subordinate to the mind.

Interactionalism suggests that mind and matter mutually influence one another.

A discussion began about interactions between the mind and the brain (mental and physical). Descartes’ theory of interactions between mind and brain in the pineal gland of the brain was talked about. On this subject matter, discontent was expressed about Descartes’ inconclusive answer to Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia’s question: “[How can a spiritual substance influence a material substance and vice versa when each substance is so very different from the other.]”

Epiphenomenalism’s arguments on causal impotence sparked discussions about whether our mental influence on the physical realm is merely an illusion. The notion that our conscious thoughts have an effect on physical events was compared to a child sitting in the passenger seat with a toy steering wheel, pretending to drive a car, which is controlled by someone else. (p.66, Papineau & Selina)

Another discussion revolved around Epiphenomenalism’s implications that there could be a Zombie with no consciousness that would behave just as an individual with consciousness. Chalmers speculated that if a David Chalmers’ Zombie were to exist, it would talk just the same about consciousness even though it has none to speak of in reality. Additionally, Prof. Davis brought up the example of watching a movie, stating that when an individual is so engaged in a movie they feel as though they become the character, even though they have no influence on their actions whatsoever.

Leibniz’s theory of Monads was discussed during various points in the discussion. According to Leibniz everything is deterministic. Just as the material world can be broken into smaller components such as atoms, the mental aspects can be divided into small components, called monads. Each monad is thought to have a material atom as a counterpart, resulting in a “predetermined harmony.”

Monist views suggest that there is only one kind of stuff. This is further categorized into the Idealist view, meaning “all is mind” and the Materialist view, suggesting that “all is body.”

In response to the Monist point of view, a discussion arose about materialist determinism. In this point of view, everything is determined, which brings up the question of how this is different from a computer program. If everything is determined, there does not seem to be any free will. If there is no free will, how is this consciousness?

Einstein believed that everything could be determined by the laws of physics, stating that, “God does not play dice!” However, quantum mechanics demonstrated otherwise. It showed that events on a level of individual atomic particles are often entirely determined by chance. Many questions came up about the Quantum Mechanic’s connection with consciousness, which has been speculated to be the possible interface between mind and brain, mental and physical. It is explained such that quantum mechanics cannot completely determine an outcome. For example: In experiments involving atomic particles, quantum mechanics can only determine that a certain percentage of decays will occur during a certain time period. What cannot be determined is which particles will decay and when they will decay.

If we allow quantum indeterminism to be the interface between mental and physical realms, we may argue that consciousness can influence quantum indeterminism. Can we cause a certain outcome to occur just by thought? This idea was further discussed with the ideas that a microscopic influence can result in macroscopic effects in a chaotic system. However, even if consciousness could play an influence, this influence cannot be measured by scientific methods, rendering this argument inconclusive. This argument was enforced by discussions about “randomness.” For example, when an individual plays the Lottery, there is a certain probability that they will hit the Jackpot. However, even if the game is rigged, we still have the same probability distribution. (Prof. Davis) A second example to explain this concept was recording the outcome of flipping a coin a hundred times. If you recorded a few outcomes contrary to the actual outcome, a computer would be unable to determine the difference between the actual and fictional results. (Prof. Davis) Thus, quantum indeterminism becomes the “back-door” to the consciousness argument. (Prof. Möbius) Additionally, someone posed the question “why we assume that the answer to consciousness is on a sub-quantum level?” Why not look at the larger picture?

A continuing conflict in defining and understanding consciousness comes from our inability to show the mind’s exertion on physical matter. We can only talk about “likeliness,” unless we were to come up with a series of requirements for consciousness, which brings us back to the initial question of defining what has consciousness. Does a loaf of bread have consciousness? There is nothing that it is like to be a loaf of bread. Although it could be argued that this is also not certain. Can we refer to a computer as having awareness, due to its ability to provide stimulus and response? Some suggest that even a computer’s basic ability to process input and output data displays a certain degree of consciousness. Others argue vehemently against this notion, suggesting that circuits determining reactions do not suffice as awareness or consciousness. If you consider stimulus and response as sufficing as evidence for consciousness, how would you categorize the electric shock-induced twitching of a dead frog’s legs, which is a similar response to that of a living frog. How do we address the difference between mechanical response and conscious movement? Can we consider degrees of “interactiveness” to determine consciousness? (For example: The way an animal interacts with its environment and the way a computer responds to stimuli could be approached as an interpretation in terms of higher levels of organization. On the other hand, a rock does not do anything. Therefore there is no basis to infer that it is conscious.) Questions continued about whether a computer could become conscious? Is there a component, which would enable this? Are there various degrees of consciousness? Is there a certain point, or a “flip” where something can be considered conscious or not? The argument was brought up that everything could have consciousness. However, when we attribute consciousness to things, how does consciousness exist in that thing? In this case, does every piece of matter have consciousness? Do individual atoms have consciousness? (Refer to Leibniz’s Monads.) Is our consciousness a summation of our individual atoms’ consciousness, which results in a conscious entity? Someone made the comment that it is almost easier to argue that consciousness is outside of the material world, such as dualism suggests. Another suggested that consciousness “[could be viewed as something reminiscent] of a stream (of consciousness) outside of the material, which some dip into more than others.”

Another continuing conflict in the discussion continued to be our inability to define consciousness. This is understandable since it is our consciousness itself that allows our observation of the thing itself. It appears that we cannot apply our scientific methods to explore consciousness because we cannot separate the object from the observer. It may be argued that another observer can study the consciousness of someone else. However you can study something all you want using science, but the experience is something completely different. The example of the woman and the red rose was discussed to clarify. (p.111, Papineau & Selina)

Another argument revolved around the belief in an afterlife. For example if you believed in reincarnation, you would be obligated to reject consciousness arising from matter. This makes you a dualist, or perhaps an idealist.

Again the discussion turned to attempting to define consciousness. Consciousness was suggested to relate to complex behavior. It is stated that we need complexity, complex structure for new emergent property to come up, or in order to make interaction happen. This led into a discussion on emergent theory, which suggests that complex brain structures give rise to consciousness. It is argued that in every instance where we find consciousness, we also find complex brain structures. Again, there is a problem. No evidence can prove that consciousness arises from any physical system, as there is no evidence otherwise. (There may be evidence that consciousness is associated with physical beings with complex brain structures, but we cannot count on this as an absolute truth.) Someone argued that: “Just because past experiences have shown the sun to rise every day, does not mean that it will happen tomorrow.”

Every theory discussed in the readings and in the class discussion has some kind of a shortcoming or conflict. Every approach the discussion led to more questions than answers, and ultimately a dead-end. With an attempt to avoid the spiritless conclusions of the mysterian view, the discussion about consciousness was continued the following week…