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On "Consciousness and Its Place in Nature" by David Chalmers (2003), with special guest Gregory Miller from the Panpsycast Philosophy Podcast.
Can we explain human experience using the terms of brain physiology? Well, it depends what you mean by "explain." Our experience has a qualitative character: the feeling of red, the smell of methane, the feel of a cat's scratchy tongue. We can do research and figure out what parts of the body gather this sensory data, how they get to the brain, and which parts of the brain activate when we have these experiences, but according to Chalmers, that still doesn't actually explain why a particular brain state should have the feel to us that it does. We still don't understand how a physical event can cause a mental phenomenon, much less how (or whether) a mental event like an "intention" then causes our physical movements. Physical accounts employ a vocabulary of structure and function, these "feels" (the technical term is "qualia") don't seem amenable to that kind of explanation, therefore there's a conceptual gap between science and the consciousness, and bridging this is what Chalmers famously refers to as "the hard problem of consciousness." For more motivation about why this might be a problem, see our discussion of Thomas Negel's "What Is It Like to Be a Bat" in our episode 21.
"Consciousness and Its Place in Nature" first goes through the different forms of the argument for such a gap, then gives a typology of the kinds of solution that have been proposed, arguing as he goes that the materialist solutions are unsatisfactory in various ways but that other solutions hold more promise. Where appropriate in the discussion, we bring up the two papers that we'll be focusing on for ep. 219 (they were actually planned for this one, but the Chalmers paper was so rich that we just ended up taking all of our time on it): Ned Block's "The Harder Problem of Consciousness" (2002) and David Papineau's "Could There Be a Science of Consciousness?" (2003).
The three arguments he gives against materialism are:
- The explanatory argument. This is the one I just gave: explaining structure and function does not suffice to explain consciousness. Some prominent philosophers like Daniel Dennett deny this.
- The conceivably argument. This is the one that brings up "zombies." It's probably not physically possible that some creature identical in behavior to you could nonetheless not have any of your qualia, but conceptually, it is possible, and maybe such creatures could have existed in a very different sort of universe (it's metaphysically possible).
- The knowledge argument. This is the one that comes out of Frank Jackson's papers about Mary the color scientist who has lived her whole life in a room without color but nonetheless has read every book about what color vision is, how it works in the brain, etc. (Imagine that these books contain even the physiological details that current scientists don't know.) When she emerges from the room and sees color for the first time first-hand, this argument claims that she learns a new fact over and above all the physical facts that were contained in the books. There therefore must be "phenomenal facts" that are distinct from all those physical facts that she knew."
Chalmers then goes through the various positions about consciousness in philosophy of mind literature with an eye to how they respond to these arguments:
Type A Materialism is materialism like Gilbert Ryle's (see our ep. #21) or Pat Churchland's (see our ep. 41) that just insist that consciousness can be fully explained by considerations of function and structure, that zombies as described above aren't legitimately conceivable, and that Mary emerging from the room does not learn any new facts, because there aren't any new facts to learn.
To understand this, it might help to think about Wittgenstein's private language argument: No word in our (or any) language can refer to something that only a single individual can identify. The relation between sign and signified, to be meaningful, needs to stay relatively fixed, and if it's just a word you made up to stand for some private thing in your head, there'd be no way to ensure that its meaning wouldn't drift all over the place. Yet we talk about "pain" and "red" and other seemingly phenomenal experiences all the time. Well, says the argument, then we must be referring to pain-behavior: we see people writhing around in pain and so identify pain, and really, we only secondarily figure out that this sharp sensation now is also pain, largely because our parents, etc., treat us as if we are in pain. So "pain" doesn't refer to a phenomenal quality at all. There really are no words for such qualities, and so they can play no role in our theories: Saying someone did something from an "intention" and some "beliefs" is to make a functional model of their mind (more on this in ep. 220) to try to explain their behavior. We don't learn about intentions and beliefs by introspecting, pointing inwardly, and saying, "Look, an intention! A belief!"
Dan Dennett goes so far as to deny (in "Quining Qualia," discussed briefly in ep. 21) that there are such things as qualia. Certainly there can't be "facts" about these qualia. Chalmers thinks this point of view is very strange and denies the obvious. Whether or not our experience of ourselves is actually informative, i.e.,, whether we can know by contemplating our qualia of red what that qualia actually is in some intrinsic sense, whether or not we can therefore put it into words and say anything really informative about it, much less use the term in an explanation of something else, clearly we do have these experiences, and they are the thing to be explained.
Type B Materialism is the more common scientific type of materialism that doesn't claim that there's anything conceptually wrong with claiming that there could be zombies or phenomenal facts, but claims that as a matter of scientific fact, a phenomenal state is equal to a brain state. It's not just that they're correlated events, but that one simply IS the other, and that this is something we've discovered through science, much like we discovered that water is H2O. So the difference between Type A and Type B is that for Type A, the identity is a priori (a matter of the concepts involved) whereas for Type B, the identity is empirical (something science discovered, not just a matter of concepts).
An argument relevant to this position that we've considered is from Saul Kripke (alluded to in ep. 126), who argues that even though "water" and "H2O" don't mean the same thing, once science discovers that they are identical, we know that they're metaphysically identical. If we consider an alternate possible world where the stuff that serves the function of water (runs in rivers and streams, is for drinking, looks and tastes like water) had a different chemical composition, Kripke argues that actually, that stuff they have still wouldn't be what we call water. He's appealing to our linguistic intuitions to prove this. "Water" is essentially defined by its chemical structure, not its function. However, imagine a comparable case with pain: Let's say we've discovered that pain in us is always accompanied by brain state P. In an alternate world, there are creatures who also phenomenally feel pain, but they have different types of brains, and so they're in brain state Q. Would they (according to our language) actually be feeling pain? Yes, according to Kripke. Unlike water, "pain" is defined according to its phenomenal character, not its underlying material composition.
Type B materialists might like Kripke's analysis of water, but would argue that his analysis of pain is wrong: that pain is exactly like water in this respect. People in the other world with brain state Q might be feeling something functionally similar to pain, and we might have practical reasons if we meet these people to treat their "Q-state pain" as the social equivalent of our "P-state pain," but assuming science really has discovered that P is the thing that pain matches up with in us, then we're going to have to say that, like water, what pain really is is its underlying structure.
The other positions Chalmers covers are interactionism (aka Type D Dualism, from Descartes), where mind and body are separate substances that somehow mysteriously interact; epiphenomenalism (Type E Dualism), where mind is a mere byproduct of brain action, so brain states cause mental states, but it's just an illusion that mental states in turn cause physical changes (the neuroscientific data used to support this that Mark refers to is the Libet Experiment); and "Type F Monism" which posits that there's just a single substance that's beyond what (Newtonian) physics currently understands the world to be. This includes pansychism, the idea that all matter is in some sense conscious or proto-conscious. The panschist answers the hard problem by saying that it's not the burden of the brain to explain why this fundamentally different seeming stuff (qualia) arises out of its particular structure, because qualia are in some sense everywhere. This is a very weird view, but it's one of Greg's specialties, so we let him fill us in on some of the possible details of this view near the end of our discussion. One of the papers he referred to is Pat Lewtas's "What Is It Like to Be a Quark?"
Read Chalmers's paper online, or go ahead and pick up the wonderful collection that David edited, Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings, which we'll be drawing on for a few of the next episodes.
Continues on part two, or get the full, ad-free Citizen Edition now. Please support PEL!
Image by Genevieve Arnold.
This stuff was semi-solved in the 2009s by McFadden et all.
Highly curious why you wouldn’t take the experimentalists seriously. Working on rats he could differentiate conscious states between unconscious, but beyond that he found these sorts of neural correlates between all relatively sophisticated mammals.
Matthew Schaefer says
Because he’s working from a pretty anthropic pov. He is defining consciousness as he, a human, understands it.
There is a deep sophisticated reason why a certain animal is conscious and another is not, and what gives rise to consciousness. Hence it’s a bit painful to have seemingly smart people blather on about this stuff, if they cannot see how this happens. (maybe it takes some extra-visualization to really sink in, maybe you need to be put on fmri or eeg to first-hand see what happens in each moment)
Matthew Schaefer says
Addressing Dylan’s point about a creature that experiences infrared naturally, differently from our technological translation. As humans experience light waves as color, isn’t it conceivable that said creature would experience low frequency waves as a color unknown to us? If so, we can’t possibly conceive of what that color would look like. There is no way to describe a primary color without referencing that color. Our “translation” of infrared waves could never come close to the actual experience of a unique primary color.
Time Traveler says
Consciousness is the only Reality. Everything else is only a projection or an illusion, including the physical body and subtle mind. Can you not see and experience the body and mind? If you can do that, then you are not the body and mind. The Seer is not the Seen; the Experiencer is not that which is Experienced. Then what is your true nature? It is Consciousness. Consciousness is everything, everywhere, in every now!
Neurology really needs to catch up on quantum mechanics. Delayed choice quantum Erasure, etc. Seemingly conscious plays a role in collapsing wave functions, if this is truly the case then the materialistic view of consciousness is very wrong
Time Traveler says
Advaita Vedanta lucidly propounds the theory of Oneness and Universal Consciousness. The keywords in Advaita Vedanta are:
Tat Tvam Asi – Thou Art That
Brahma Satya; Jagat Mitya: Brahman (Consciousness) is the only Reality; the Universe is an Appearance
Ekam Sat: Truth (or Reality) is One
Study of Advaita Vedanta will answer all questions on Consciousness.
OM Tat Sat ️
(OM is Absolute Existence)
More often than not discussion of consciousness is quite chaotic for a good reason. Not only we we are not able to discuss the role of the brain we cannot circumscribe what is consciousness . There are good reasons why that is so. We are not talking about differentiating between say colors but we do no understand where consciousness is localized and what physical reality causes it to express itself.. that will begin to drastically change soon. My book on the origin of consciousness will show conclusively that consciousness has a strategic location and that it is universal and cannot be said not to be at least partially metaphysical. Once you understand the ultimate nature of the universe you will understand the origin of consciousness and whether the universe is natural or supernatural. You cannot understand the origin if the universe and the theory of everything without solving at least the origin of consciousness. When you do these studies you will see the ultimate realities of the universe and the nature of dark matter.
Time Traveler says
If Consciousness has a strategic location, how can it be Universal, and vice-versa?
Consciousness is Universal and everywhere. When you say, “I don’t know what is over there”, you are conscious that there is a place there, which means that Consciousness is there too. Negation of Consciousness is the best proof of it’s presence.
There is no Origin to Consciousness bcoz Consciousness is beyond time, space and cause which are all projections of Consciousness through the power of Maya. Consciousness is Eternal; rather, it is the only Eternal. Everything else is temporary and appears and fades away in Consciousness. The Universe evolved from Consciousness through projection and the Universe will also be involuted back into Consciousness!
OM Tat Sat ️
Abed Peerally says
Well the remarks made show the confusion around discussion about consciousness. To me it is obvious we are all conscious and can imagine anything anywhere. My point is what physical reality causes consciousness to exist in the first place. Consciousness here refers to the physical reality that houses the phenomenon of the reality that gives consciousness not the fact you are aware that colours or good and evil exist. For instance in my opinion plants and even bacteria have conciousness. So what physission cal structures in a bacterial cell creates the capacity for the bacteria to be capable of feeding? Yes consciousness has a strategic location and is universal. My discussion of consciousness in my book covers dozens of pages.
Time Traveler says
Yes, there surely seems to be immense confusion regarding ‘Consciousness’. Which is probably why David Chalmers coined the term – The Hard Problem of Consciousness.
Several scientists, neurologists, philosophers and others are firm believers in ‘Material Reductionism’. They thereby perceive Consciousness also like a Material Reductionist and consider it to be a Material Object.
However, Consciousness is Pure Awareness. It is the Ultimate Subject and can never be objectified by the sense organs or even the mind. It is the witness of everything. And, there obviously can never be a witness of the Ultimate Witness like Consciousness. As an abstruse analogy, can your eye see itself directly?
Consciousness is Infinite, Eternal and Unchanging. It is Universal, Absolute and Primordial. It is Everything, Everywhere in Every Now.
Consciousness has no specific location coz it is everywhere. The moment one says that Consciousness has a strategic or specific location, it is immediately obvious that there is someone or something that can identify that which is in a strategic or specific location. That identification reduces that which is in a strategic or specific location to an Object and all laws and rules of Material Reductionism are applicable.
The moment one drops the perspective of Material Reductionism, one can begin to comprehend Consciousness, as it really is.
No physical reality gives rise to Consciousness. It is Consciousness that gives birth to all physical realities. All physical realities appear and fade away in the One Consciousness that you are. Physical Realities are nothing but ephemeral projections of Consciousness.
I am not a Scientist or Neurologist or Philosopher or Author. I am a very ordinary person. However, I am a devoted student and practitioner of Vedanta and Yoga. I understand the constructs of Consciousness through the Metaphysics of Vedanta, and realize and experience Absolute, Universal, Infinite, Pure Consciousness or Awareness by meditating per the Eight Limbs of Yoga (Ashtanga Yoga) as advocated by Patanjali
With respects and love to all….OM Tat Sat ️
Jennifer Tejada says
Merleau-Ponty goes into great detail about the gap between perception and experience. I’m curious if anyone can explain the difference between this conversation and his explanation of this difference.
Dr Golabki says
After listening to the conversation I was very confused by the zombie thought experiment. I don’t know how it’s different from saying “imagine a magnetic iron bar, now imagine the exact same iron bar except it’s not magnetic”. I suppose it’s imaginable in some dimension, it’s not a logical impossibility like 2+2=5. But I’m not sure how that thought experiment would help a physicist understand magnetism better.
The black and white room thought experiment is more clear to me, as it clear shows that subjectivity is a real thing… although I wonder who was really disputing that point.
I think there are two big problems with how we talk about consciousness –
1. It’s a pretty poorly defined term. I think it probably means a being with both self-awareness and volition, but I’m honestly not sure if that’s generally agreed on.
2. We talk about it like it’s binary, you either have it or you don’t. That’s probably convienient if you’re trying to ground some ethical theory, but I see no good reason to believe it’s true. It seems like it would almost certainly have to be a spectrum.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Go back and check out the Kripke and Putnam eps and see if those help… the mechanism of conceivably and what it’s supposed to say about metaphysical necessity is from Kripke, I think.
Cy Myers says
(I posted in the citizens forum, but this looks like the right place to discuss it.)
The Mary argument assumes a very naive strawman of how a functionalist might think the mind works. But I never really see anyone addressing it. The strawman is the idea that the mind just has a bag of interchangeable facts, and that any sort of input process just creates or manipulates what’s in the bag. So Mary can pour “all” of the facts into her bag, and if there’s anything that’s not in the bag, materialism must be wrong. The Panpschast guy as much as says if you can’t produce audio inputs by studying, materialism must be wrong.
It’s not at all contradictory for functionalism to claim that some brain states can’t be induced by linguistic processing from studying. Specifically, that sensory inputs aren’t “writeable” by the linguistic processing in the mind, or that the conscious mind might not be able to distinguish between beliefs/knowledge directly tied to sensory inputs and knowledge arrived at through other (linguistic) processes.
Max Stirner says
Thank you for articulating this, Cy. Agree.
The Mary argument seems very flawed to me as well. We can take a photo of a river and no amount of studying would ever reveal the sound it was making at the time. If we later introduce an audio recording it doesn’t cause some sort of philosophical problem. It’s simply that the input was recorded in two different ways. In the first case, light frequencies were detected and digitised, in the second case, audio frequencies were detected and digitised.
As you said in a more compact way… in Mary’s brain, there are multiple recording and processing ‘channels’ as well. A linguistic study of colour theory would be unlikely to activate the exact neuronal pathway that the presence of the red light frequency would. Very simplistically, reading about red would mostly activate the frontal cortex, whereas seeing red would mostly activate the occipital lobe. Not only does seeing red activate a different part of the physical brain, but different data is being sent (whatever the ‘code’ is for red).
The support of dualism by the hosts was really surprising to me. Since Heidegger, I thought dualism was dead. Essentially, I think that we must begin to understand our minds primarily as neural networks with a small logical, symbol manipulation capability, rather than vice versa.
The C-fibres firing = pain argument is of a similar ilk. No, C-fibres firing is not equivalent to pain. You have to look at the entire system (environment, body, and mind), not just isolated components. Pain is not just a simple signal. It’s more than 1 = pain and 0 = no pain. Pain demands action. If we are asleep or engaged in some other activity, sufficient pain will quickly become our top priority.
C-fibres fire, signals travel into the brain, millions of neurons fire simultaneously through various pathways, various physical responses are triggered, hormones released, in some cases we become aware of the sensation and have time to consciously decide how best to respond. This last part is important because each situation is unique. In some cases jumping back when you see a snake is good, and sometimes it is not (perhaps when at the edge of a cliff). And if you’re between a cliff edge and a snake, then it ought to demand your full attention. It’s naive to imagine that the focus we have in such moments is a product of the conscious mind. Instead, it is a product of things like adrenaline and wiring that has evolved over millions of years.
However, if you desperately want to elevate consciousness to something more than the conductor of a very large and complex orchestra, then I can see how you’d end up stuck in a lot of philosophical mud (p-zombies, dualism, etc).
Cy Myers says
A couple of times, Wes (and possibly Mark) said something along the lines of “you could describe everything about the brain microstates without having to say anything about experience.” Part of what you’d need to describe is what people say about their beliefs, experience, and desires. The physical, causal explanation of how we come to make statements about having experiences, motivations, etc, would need to be part of this “complete” explanation. This physical, causal explanation would effectively refer to the physical basis of what-we-mean-when-we-say-experience. This is a sort of corollary of the zombie idea: if zombies are possible, there’s a complete, causally closed physicalist explanation of why we say we have subjective experience.
Max Stirner says
Agree with this also. Consciousness seems like a flowing stream to me. It is not only defined by its own constituents, it also requires rock and earth to define its shape. No stream is purely made of h2o molecules either. Even if we grant those assumptions, it’s quite a stretch to claim that by understanding everything about h20 molecules that you know everything about water. I believe there’s at least the problem of computability that is being ignored.
Do you really ‘know’ everything about water just by knowing everything about how a single H2O molecule works? Do you know every configuration possible for a billion trillion water molecules just because you could theoretically calculate and represent them with infinite time and processing power? I would argue that you don’t. It’s certainly not the case with the games of Chess or Go. It’s very easy to learn all the rules of those games, yet completely beyond our ability (and the ability of the strongest computers) to calculate all the possible move combinations. Even if we could somehow output every possible game of chess, who could actually absorb that information and hold it in mind simultaneously within a life time? As such, the Mary argument seems to have something stuck in its hair.
Time Traveler says
When the sun has set
And so has the moon
And all fires have been doused
And there is silence everywhere
Yet I know that I breathe
And live and exist
By what light do I know that?
By the Light of Lights
The Supreme, Ultimate, Eternal Consciousness
It lends Existence to me
And is the light in the sun, moon and fire
And the energy in sound & speech
That is the Only One, the Primordial Light
It is Universal Isness
It is Absolute Awareness
It is Pure Bliss
It is Sat-Chit-Ananda
It is Existence-Consciousness-Bliss
OM Tat Sat ️
Abed Peerally says
There is nothing I have seen in the literature that has advance the only credible remark about the ultimate nature of consciousness in addition to what Henri Bergson wrote, Chalmers has merely observed the pertinence of Bergson’s opinion and rewrote as the Hard Problem of Consciousness. It does not appear possible to reach the ultimate explanation of consciousness. However my two books on consciousness and the universe, particularly the second part provides the penultimate explanations about consciousness. It is not possible to understand consciousness without reference to the manner of origin of the universe. So my book will complete as far as possible what Bergson started, To be published in a few months.
Abed Peerally says
There is nothing I have seen in the literature that has advanced the only credible remark about the ultimate nature of consciousness in addition to what Henri Bergson wrote, Chalmers has merely observed the pertinence of Bergson’s opinion and rewrote as the Hard Problem of Consciousness. It does not appear possible to reach the ultimate explanation of consciousness. However my two books on consciousness and the universe, particularly the second part provides the penultimate explanations about consciousness. It is not possible to understand consciousness without reference to the manner of origin of the universe. So my book will complete as far as possible what Bergson started, To be published in a few months.
Chalmers describes the easy problems of consciousness as including: the report-ability of mental states, the ability to focus, and the deliberate control of behavior.
These phenomena represent the “easy” problems, we learn, because they can be functionally explained, which it turns out, means they can be explained in terms of a physical structure operating in time (as far as i can tell).
He later describes these “functional” abilities as “awareness,” and distinguishes them from experience, while critiquing Baar’s workspace argument, on page 8 of Facing up to the problem of Consciousness:
“The theory shows promise as a theory of awareness, the functional correlate of conscious experience, but an explanation of experience itself is not on offer.” (p.8 my emphasis)
So [reportability, focus, deliberate control…] = awareness?
I don’t get this at all 🙁
I don’t see awareness as merely correlated with experience, but experienced itself! Same with all the things its supposed to contain. There is something it is like to access my mental states, focus, and control my behavior, these “functions” can’t really be functions because they have a purely subjective component, no? If I don’t experience what’s being defined as awareness, I’m not really sure I understand what awareness means anymore.
Max Stirner says
Isn’t it just that ‘awareness’ doesn’t exhaustively capture ‘experience’. Is it possible that you’re trying to understand your own consciousness, whereas Chalmers et al are trying to create a science which would be capable of identifying consciousness in other minds?
I find the discussion fascinating, but ultimately don’t see it as very useful or ever resolvable. The problem IMO is that there is only one consciousness that I can ever experience, mine. When looking at another mind, I am like Mary studying colour instead of seeing and experiencing it. No matter how sophisticated or ‘solved’ a theory of consciousness becomes, I will still be trapped in that room when looking at another person/brain. Even if it was possible to ‘record’ someone else’s consciousness and play it back via some sort of VR device, it would still be part of my own conscious experience. That’s the hardest problem of consciousness IMO, no matter what you do, your own consciousness will just expand to contain everything.
IMO, those studying consciousness are bumping up against the subjectivity vs objectivity gap rather than an explanatory gap. To the best of my knowledge, no one has a logical pathway leading from their own consciousness to proof of something outside/beyond their own consciousness (such as other minds).
Mary’s room begs the question against the physicalist.