Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Consciousness; The Hard Problem: In Search of the Self
Lead: Ian Adelman & Steven Conaway


Summary by Penelope E. Angiulo:

"God for the 21st Century" Part 7, by Russell Stannard ed.

"Introducing Consciousness", by Papineau & Selina

“Closer To Truth” Pg. 3-50

“Elemental Mind” by Nick Herbert

The seventh meeting of the seminar began with Professor Whittier presenting the Mind / Body problem. In introducing this dualism, Whittier explained how understanding the body, through science, medicine, biology, and by function alone is not enough. He went on to say how in medical school, one learns about the causes and effects of disease and treatment, etc, yet this science cannot explain psychosomatic medicinal effects. Whittier continued to say that there is more to understanding the human form and essence beyond the body and that understanding lies with understanding the mind. Some philosophers and scientists try to deny this dualism by saying the mind is a byproduct of the body; they attempt to explain the human consciousness within the brain.

Whittier explained how in philosophical language, mind is used to mean consciousness; human reason and rationality, not the awake state or clear of anesthesia. Body means specifically the brain, the electro-chemical activities of the neuro-cells of the brain, to be exact. Those philosophers and scientists who dispute the dualism of the mind/body problem rely on the intimate relations of the two. The dependency relationship is the idea that consciousness depends on brain states. The correlation relationship, as in neuroscience, is that cortex activity depends on mental capacities of reactions to music, thinking, etc.

Is mind identical to brain, one may ask? Whittier explained how most philosophers say NO, the two are not identical, well except for the “elimator” philosophers.

Whittier went on to say that consciousness has two unique properties; first, “raw feels”, as Nagel of NYU theorized, or ‘what it’s like to be’, a bat, in pain, agony. This “feel quality” refers to what it’s like to see red, taste peppermint, hear music, etc. Secondly, consciousness has the unique property of “intentionality”, or the about-ness of something. The experience, of thinking, or seeing, cannot be explained by science. If I think of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, or the Ocean, or the Washington monument in DC, I cannot explain (yet?), through understanding of the brain, why I experience my thoughts that particular way. Brain states, content, electro-chemical reactions do not capture the essence of the conscious experience.

After his lengthy introduction to the mind/body problem, Professor Whittier launched into an extensive explanation of the history of theoretical consciousness theories.

Whittier began by presenting substance dualism, as started by Renee Descartes. In this tradition, mind and body are absolutely separate and distinct, incomparable entities. The body, is extended, spatially determined by volume, while the mind is unextended, it has no special shape, volume, or composition, and thoughts have no size. In substance dualism, the mind is a completely separate substance from the body; it is even capable of existing on its own. As Descartes was a roman catholic, for him the body was basically a functioning ‘corpse’ of matter, while the mind was the soul, without special characteristics.

Following with this idea, if one was to ask how the two [mind and body] interact, through substance dualism; one would come to understand the ungraspable immortal soul uses the body as a tool. Whittier presented the example of an atomic bomb going off in Durham; the body would be completely incinerated while the mind/soul would survive. He also explained how the ideas of interaction of substance-less mind and substance-full body leads to questions of interactions like with the example of a ghost who can walk through walls but then can pick up a book and hit you over the head; something can either be made of matter and restricted as such or not.

Next, Whittier presented the idea of property dualism; the idea that consciousness is so unique that it cannot be captured by physical concepts. In this tradition, consciousness cannot exist without the body/brain. Whittier then said this is an unintelligible view! He stated how it leads to epiphenomenalism. Whittier said that “Consciousness produced by the brain as shadow is to the tree,” consciousness has no causal influence. Why is this view held? Whittier said it is a prejudice from physics, the causal closure of the physical and the non-physical cause of physical eaffects. Whittier, with a bit of social commentary said only philosophers after the 1960’s hold this view. Professor Whittier said it is absurd to think that consciousness has no influence on the brain, just stop and think of your own lived experience! Prof Whittier drew a chart which showed how mental states go along with time states, (m1, t1, etc) and brain states in turn affect each mental state. He strongly holds that nothing in philosophy should fly in the face of common sense, and to think otherwise is mere folk-psychology.

Next Professor Whittier presented 20th century Functionalism, a theory which applies computer and artificial intelligence complexities to consciousness. This idea holds the distinction of hardware and software as analogous of the brain/body and mind/consciousness. Whittier explained how everyone seems to believe this except him. This theory leads to multiple realizations, like a player piano, in theory one then could run any software on any hardware, and mind could be realized in many ways, aliens, silicone based life, on other planets, etc. Continuing to give a bit more social commentary, Whittier explained how the Aristotle in him comes out to say that the 20th century was the silliest of centuries so far.

Whittier then went on to explain how Aristotle had for causes for any thing, or object, a material cause, a formal cause, an efficient cause, and a final cause. As for a statue, the material cause would be stone, the formal cause would be the artist’s sketch or blue-print, the efficient cause would be the carver/sculptor, and the final cause would be the goal or purpose of having a statue! Whittier agreed that things should be analyzed through these four causes. What then about the causes of an organism? He said they are distinct but not separable. The causes are independent but all ontologically/physically inseparable.

Whittier went on to explain how he believes there is no analogy between a computer and the mind/body problem. A computer running a program, or software, does not know what program it is running, there is no intentionality, it does not have an idea of purpose.

Steve Conaway threw out the question of what if a program could be invented that was designed for self-realization and introspection? Could then there be an analogy between software/hardware and the mind/body problem?

Professor Whittier said NO, Steve should make one for him, bring it in, the hypothetical and thought experiments do not change it. Whittier added a yet more social commentary saying that our culture takes metaphors far too seriously.

Whittier then mentioned the idea of “Transferred Epithets,” which was presented by a British medical doctor and philosopher. As with words like tracking, radar, aircraft, missiles, aiming, etc one must understand contexts. One must understand word use, “we are like machines?” No, machines are an extension of us, humans, in relation to us. Outrageous misuse of language misleads thinking and understanding!

Professor Eberhard Möbius then mentioned, in regards to the computer analogy, that humans themselves dto not know or have a grasp of their final cause or purpose either. Humans too can’t read their own software, only know their hardware!

Professor Whittier responded by trying to connect the ideas to cosmology. For his own theory, are four strata of understanding, first and lowest, the inorganic, chemical, a corpse. Secondly, and one step higher, there is the organic, biological, the body. Third, and higher, there is the mind, psychology (“well, before behaviorism”). Fourth and highest, there is culture and consciousness, sociology and philosophy. Whittier explained how the mind has content; of God, music, preferences; consciousness is being awake in the world. He continues to say how the lower strata can exist without the higher strata, but not in reverse. The strata have existential power, dependency, and value is attributed higher to lower. Professor Whittier does not believe trees or ants are conscious. He continued to express how each layer, or strata, has laws unique to itself, and nothing at one level can be understood by the laws of the others. This theory, again, his own, is anti-reductionistic, and may appear at first sight as if it goes against science. There are however emergent properties and boundary conditions for the strata, i.e. consciousness is limited by the body, as with Alzheimer’s, as the areas are related.

Whittier went on to explain how natural philosophy gives other solutions to the mind/body problem, which he rejects as mistaken. At age 13, Duane Whittier, upon learning about Bertrand Russell’s ideas on perception in middle school immediately rejected the idea as taking science too seriously. Professor Whittier drew a rather simplistic picture of a stick-figure with an eye-ball as a head, looking out on a Colorado-Blue-Spruce tree [a ‘beam’ of consciousness connecting the two], with a beam of light from the sun shining on the tree, while the stick-figure signified Whittier’s brain. The rods and cones of the stick-figure’s retina were stimulated, cells were firing, brain chemicals were reacting, and then he ‘saw’ the tree. This explanation, as Whittier explained does not grasp the intentionality of the visual perception, or its ‘about-ness.’ One’s brain does not ‘look’ out the eyes; there is no beam of consciousness from the person to the blue-spruce tree. Whittier believes one’s real, lived experience is not with one’s brain. How then can one prove there is anything outside of the mind, one may ask?

Here then Whittier presents the ego-centric problem, like the ideas expressed in pulp comics, by mad scientists, and movies like the matrix; which Whittier, with yet more social commentary said was a bad movie, and humans are a poor source of electricity. Whittier gave the example of being able to take the brain out of one’s head and make it believe it (along with its body) is swimming with pretty girls in the French Riviera, which as far as he knows is not possible so therefore consciousness does not explain physical reality and visa versa. Whittier goes on to reconcile the view that ‘I’m in a room; the room is not in me.” As with Russell and his sight/perception ideas, everything is a matter of representation and interpretation by humans … but this flies in the face of common sense! Common sense and science seem, then, to be difficult to reconcile.

Ian Adelman then asked what Aristotle, with his four causes, would say were the causes of mind/consciousness?

Whittier responded with saying that that is the very question we are working to answer! Minds are not just like other objects, i.e. trees, cars, elks, etc. Whittier said it is synthetic sympathetic with Aristotle to mention the ideas of vegetable soul, animal soul, and logical soul, in hierarchy, and as with his theory presented earlier there are different laws applicable, the mind is not a physical object.

Professor Thomas Davis then explained how the mind is an emergent property of life. Is life then a prerequisite for consciousness? How then did life eimmerge from non-life? In the realm of a physical system and self-perpetuating states, things completely different from each other can emerge from its their opposite, the organic from inorganic, consciousness from organic unconscious life. Consciousness then is an independent system that interacts with other systems, mainly the body. Prof Davis then mentioned Elof Boutin, who said that with matter and consciousness, what we see is the interaction.

Professor Mobius jumped in again to discuss fracture lines, in analogy. Drawing an arrow from the inorganic to consciousness, though confusing, is similar to the idea of the big bang; once there was nothing, then suddenly there was something!! [A Huge Universe!] This idea is symptomatic of the universe, and fundamental, nothing, boom, something, as with inorganic, ‘boom’, consciousness?

Whittier went on to say, as with Socrates, a wise man knows that he doesn’t know. Whittier exposed pluralistic ideas.

Mark Santos then asked, why then can’t we see whatever we want to see?!

Whittier responded by explaining the idea of an inverted spectrum, and questions like these or color perception, etc do not interest him and are worthless, they do not excite him!

Whittier then mentioned how as practical problems are solvable, impractical ones are not.

Tavus Begenjova then asked “why are ants not conscious?”

Whittier said he did not know, but in the theory of Pan-psych-ism, [‘across consciousnesses] an idea presented by Whitehead, a British philosopher, there is a degree of mind in everything, in all of nature on different levels, in ants, hydrogen atoms, etc. In Professor Whittier’s theory, from an atom to a molecule to a cell to an organ to a person there isthe organization of matter is going up, and from person to organ to cell to molecule to atom, there is sophistication of mind going down. In his theory, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, there is no mind/matter dualism. It all depends on levels of organization. Mind and body then are connected, but have different levels of organization.

It was here that Ian Adelman and Steve Conaway took over the discussion, getting a chance to present a few other ideas.

They began by explaining the idea of the TurringTuring Test, named for the inventor of the modern computer. It basically holds the idea of testing for consciousness by talking to a program or person or thing and being either tricked or convinced that the person or program or thing is conscious, slightly confusing. They mentioned the AIM program “SMARTERCHILD,” though a bad program is a good thought experiment. Through conversation, someone ‘talking’ to the computer can be tricked into believing that you arehe/she is actually talking to a person, or a conscious being. SMARTERCHILD can easily pass the TurringTuring Test, which Steve presented to Whittier as a non-hypothetical example to the previous dispute.

Steve went on to present the human aspects in computers, and obviously the TurringTuring Test is not valid, as a computer can simulate conversation. Steve then mentioned how culture and society might be better analogies for the human mind rather than computers.

Professor Whittier jumped in again to mention how the TurringTuring Test came from psycho-therapy, and if you asked a computer to give a summary or explain the essence of a written passage or compilation of words, or a book for that matter, it would fail. A computer cannot interpret or grasp meanings.

Steve responded by telling Whittier to try the out SMARTERCHILD out.

Professor Moebius then asked then if whether consciousness can be defined, or is it is a futile to attempt to do so. To him it seemed you cannot define or test it, you know that it is when you see it. “Just like pornography,” Professor Whittier said.

Professor Davis then said there is a problem here, we can’t ‘SEE’ consciousness at all, it is in a unique class, it is hard to figure out. One should not try to define and explain the characteristics of a non-physical idea with characteristics of physical objects.

Professor Moebius cleared up the misunderstanding by admitting that he stretched the meaning of the word ‘see’, he too used inapplicable metaphors to convey his thought, exposing the constraints and limits of language.

Professor Davis leapt back in to express how coming to a definition of consciousness is very hard. The TurringTuring Test attempts to clear up the question of to what we attribute consciousness, whether it is a person, an ant, a computer, etc.

Steve Conaway mentioned Daniel Dennett’s idea of attribution of consciousness as applied toin connection with morality. Steve expressed the idea of how we, as humans, attribute consciousness to those things we care about, levels of consciousness going to those things we care most about in order. We attempt to rationalize this attributing in relation to physical parameters, mental capacities, chemicals, etc. What about an alien? What about Animal Rights? Where can one draw the line? These questions expose a slippery slope argument.

Next Steve mentioned how many people attribute consciousness an observable feeling of pain, not just reaction, but what then is conscious feeling, their brain chemically reacting?? Steve then presented an internet article from Smithsonian Magazine which discussed how fish feel pain. The article explained how trout apparently feel pain when bee venom is injected into their lips. The article went on to explain how these findings lead to controversy with fishermen, as they don’t want to think that their prey consciously suffer.

What then is the suffering? Are the fish not suffering? Is it mechanical? automation? The article gave scientific rebuttals, i.e. fish cannot feel pain as they lack the prefrontal cortex to do so. In Edinburg, Scotland an original study was conducted through which suffering was defined as unpleasant sensory experience in tissue damage. What then is pain? As a sensory component, it is information, as an emotional component, to which we attribute value, it is suffering. Unpleasant-ness is the sense of having the injury, and then as mentioned, can fish have the capacity to experience suffering since they have no prefrontal cortex like mammals? - Under a materialist view, the brain, the mechanics, is exactly the same as consciousness.

Steve then re-introduced the idea that we as humans attribute and define consciousness as it applies to those things we care about, those things/creatures which are most similar to and most like us. For a vegetarian or vegan then, is everything conscious?!

Steve then posed the question “Is consciousness, or a lack of it, just a justification for harming a creature or organism?” This was a very valid and silencing question.

Whittier then presented the problem of the woman in the news, Terry Shiavo, who was brain-dead and on life-support. If her being conscious or not is the judge ofdeciding factor whether or not she can be taken on off life-support, is her husband then just trying to kill her? In vegetative state, a person is not conscious, . Tthey do not experience pain, which is a byproduct of consciousness, just physical damage. For Whittier, physical damage and reaction to stimuli is not the same as the experience of conscious pain.

Whittier went on to re-mention how Western Philosophers, esp. Italian, hold intentionality as necessary of for consciousness;, for something to be a conscious state, one must be conscious of something! Eastern Philosophy, esp. Oriental, speaks of content-free and pure consciousness, something Whittier holds to be a behavioral manifestation, adding how he feels Daniel Dennett has a silly social construction of reality.

Steve jumped back in to say how these ideas seem to contaminate views of consciousness, mentioning anthropomorphism, saying we need one clean version of consciousness to reach any conclusions, quite Socratic of him.

Professor Davis tossed out the question of whether a single-celled organism is conscious. If so, then what about each single cell in the organs of the human body. What then, he asked, happens in cases of heart transplants? I, is the heart conscious? A heart is more complex than an ant.

Ian Adelman then posed the question can a part of the whole [part of the body] have consciousness? [If in a part of a whole can be conscious, can then greater whole be conscious? Society? Planet? Galaxy? Universe?] Is consciousness then a product of cells? Does it have an eaffect on cells? Is consciousness present in the world everywhere?

Ian went on to explain the idea of the Elemental Mind, a thought experiment, where one tries to think of consciousness as some physical particle which is present in greater quantities to different degrees everywhere in the world, a particle that can’t [yet?] be detected.

Beth Hughes then asked, what about the lived experience of phantom limbs?. One’s brain can feel pain because of neural-electric firings. Is this a mere psychological phenomenona?

Professor Davis said how one can accept consciousness as an emergent property of the brain, OR, the brain is used as a tool projected onto consciousness.

Professor Whittier mentioned brains cannot ‘interpret’ consciousness., here aAgain, this is an example of the limits of language, again taking metaphors far too seriously. Participation in pain is different than projection of pain.

Mark Santos said how one could then define consciousness through caring, caring about life, intentionality.

Beth Hughes said she disagreed.

Shellie Chiavetta, jokingly mentioned how only some people actually care about life, but they are still conscious.

Penelope Angiulo brought up the fact that sociopaths do not care about life or anything, for that matter, they have no value judgments beyond themselves.

Greg Haveslat pointed out how fish react by hopping toward water when out of it, but this does not show conscious caring about life.

Brent Paollela chimed in saying human beings flail!

Beth Hughes referenced how dogs and cats will leave to be on their own when nearing death, d. Does that not show caring or conscious awareness of life?

Greg Haveslat added how dogs can sense cancer.

Mark Santos remarked how survival instincts are different than from conscious caring.

Professor Whittier mentioned how this path of inquiry leads to epiphenomenalism, which does not answer the question of consciousness.
Consciousness then can be seen as either; separate from the body and indescribable in terms of physical properties, as held by many philosophers, or a byproduct of the brain, explainable through the body, as held by many (hopeful) scientists.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and science has not yet been able to explain how or why this is so. Some are hopeful of science and its limitless potential, and still some others turn to philosophical theory for truth.

Though we did not reach any grand answers about the nature and existence of consciousness, we definitely provided and outlet for discussion of the idea, through theoretical discussion, philosophy, biology, physics, even being able to include individual reflection and lived experience.