Mind: A Fundamental Feature of the Universe

Mind: A Fundamental Feature of the Universe

Consciousness is something of an outlier in our scientific age. To the partisans of scientific reductionism, it is an article of faith that, like so many other phenomena before it, consciousness must be susceptible of a materialist explanation. But though this view may initially appear reasonable, I believe that consciousness presents unique and insurmountable obstacles to any attempt at scientific reduction. In this paper I will argue that the persistent difficulty of accounting for mind reductively is reason to broaden our conception of the universe, not to contract our conception of consciousness.

The “hard problem” of consciousness–the source of our perplexity–is the problem of subjective experience. As Thomas Nagel points out, if a being is conscious there is “something it is like” to be that being (219). There is something it is like–a rich and incomparable inner phenomenology–to the experience of eating a delicious piece of strawberry cheesecake, gazing up in awe at a magnificent sunset, or feeling the pang of regret and loss while contemplating a past relationship. Conscious experience is clearly associated with physical processes in brains, but why and how do such physical processes give rise to consciousness?

A solution to the hard problem of consciousness requires an explanation of the relation between physical processes and conscious experience. A reductionist explanation, beloved of those committed to a materialist worldview, seeks to provide that explanation wholly on the basis of physical principles that do not themselves appeal to consciousness. However, I believe that there are formidable problems with any reductionist explanation of consciousness. Though other arguments could be adduced, space permits me to adumbrate only two of them. Following David Chalmers, I refer to them as the conceivability argument and the knowledge argument (Chalmers 247).

The conceivability argument draws our attention to the fact that we can conceive of a philosophical zombie, an organism that is physically identical to you, but that lacks consciousness. From the outside, this being would appear to be identical to a conscious being, reacting to stimuli and behaving exactly as you would. And if we could somehow look inside its head and observe its brain processes they would be identical with yours. But the zombie would be different from you in one crucial respect: It would lack phenomenal experience. While there is nothing it is like to be a zombie, there is something it is like to be you. From the conceivability of zombies, we can infer their metaphysical possibility. And if an entity could be physically and behaviorally identical to a conscious being but lack consciousness itself, then a reductive explanation of consciousness in purely physical and/or behavioral terms is untenable.

The knowledge argument makes the case that there are facts about consciousness extrinsic to the physical facts about neurobiology. Frank Jackson presented this argument in a particularly vivid and compelling way with his thought experiment about the scientist Mary (275). Mary is a brilliant neuroscientist with an exhaustive knowledge of all of the physical processes involved in seeing color. But she has spent her entire life in a black and white room without actually experiencing red. In spite of her impressive command of the physical facts with regard to vision, it seems that there is still a gap in her knowledge. When she does eventually leave the room and sees red for the first time, she learns something new. She learns “what it is like” to see red. If the Mary thought experiment is sound–and it certainly coheres with the intuitions of many people–then there are truths about consciousness not deducible from physical truths. It follows that, though the intersubjective data provided by physiology and neuroscience are certainly enlightening and useful, they are not equipped to shed much light on conscious experience. No matter how much our understanding of brain states and the physical processes that accompany them progresses, we will be no closer to knowing what it is to be a subject of consciousness.

As David Chalmers points out, both the conceivability argument and the knowledge argument demonstrate that there is an epistemic gap between the physical and the phenomenal. If one can conceive of a physical system identical to that of a conscious being but without subjectivity or know all of the physical truths about something without thereby knowing the relevant phenomenal truths as well, then conscious experience is not something that admits of a reductive physical explanation. And from there it is hardly a logical leap to infer that the physical and the mental are ontologically distinct.

Naturally, committed reductionists are resistant to this line of reasoning. One reductionist approach simply denies that there is any phenomenal experience to be puzzled by in the first place, thereby evading the epistemic gap. The other accepts the epistemic gap but denies that it entails an ontological gap. At this juncture I will briefly consider and assess each of these positions.

Those who deny that there is anything to the mental beyond behavioral and/or functional manifestations are known as eliminativists. They argue that there is no inner subjectivity, no mysterious “raw feels” or “qualia” that must be accounted for. Rather, the domain we associate with the mental can be characterized in wholly functional and/or behavioral terms. Consequently, there is no epistemic gap. The “hard problem” of consciousness is a self-imposed one that dissolves when one realizes that in reality there is no special phenomenal character of experience crying out for explanation. To explain the functional and behavioral operations that constitute the mental is itself a tall order, but science is surely up to the task.

In his article “Out of the Closet: A Qualophile Confronts Qualophobia,” the self-confessed “qualophile” Joseph Levine engages with the work of the prominent eliminativist Daniel Dennett. Dennett’s ambition is to “quine” qualia–that is, to deny resolutely their existence or importance (226). He thinks that it is is a mistake to think that we can isolate qualia or phenomenal experience from everything else that is going on in mentation, that we can strip things down to the irreducible way things look, sound, feel, taste, or smell to various individuals at various times. The original sin of qualophilia is the unfounded supposition that there is such a residual property to take seriously in the first place.

Conversely, Levine insists that we should treat qualia as a basic datum that itself requires explanation. Part of what leads to the qualophile’s and the eliminativist’s talking past each other is confusion over the relation between a state’s qualitative phenomenal character and its representational content. Acknowledging the intimate link between phenomenal character and representational content does not automatically lead to acknowledging that all there is to qualitative experience is its representational content. The divide comes down to this: the qualophile claims we have access to data in our experience that demands explanation from a theory of mind; eliminativists like Dennett claim that all we have is our propensity to make judgments (Levine 11).

To the qualophile, this is mere sleight of hand. Functionality and intentionality undoubtedly play a part in our mental life, but surely they do not exhaust it. Are we really to think that advanced robots that replicated or even exceeded the functional aspects of human mentality are conscious in the same way that we are? I suppose it ultimately comes down to intuition–if a professed eliminativist genuinely doesn’t share the intuition that we have phenomenal experience I suspect that we are at an unbridgeable impasse. Intuitions can be wrong of course, but the qualophile will stick with her intuition until she has been presented with very strong arguments against it. And she will observe that, far from making a powerful case for eliminativism, eliminativist arguments tend to simply beg the very question at issue. She may even speculate that the eliminativist denial of the manifest is driven more by a dogmatic a priori commitment to the reductionist project than by a dispassionate empiricism.

For those who see the folly of denying qualia but don’t want to abandon the materialist project, there is another approach. This approach is commonly known as identity theory. Identity theorists allow for the verisimilitude of phenomenal experience but hold that mental states can be identified with physical states in the brain. They would say that we are dealing with a single, unitary phenomenon that nonetheless can be apprehended either from the inside, through introspection, or from the outside, by observing the firing of neurons. Identity theorists often advert to the relation of identity that obtains between water and H2O or lightning and electrical discharge. These identity relations are not a priori truths; rather, they are discovered empirically. Similarly, the phenomenal and the physical may be conceptually distinct, but science will eventually show us that they are identical.

But these kinds of analogies are not as illuminating as the identity theorist thinks. The character of the epistemic gap in the case of brain states and consciousness just seems qualitatively different from the gap involved in the reductive analogies. To return to the knowledge argument, if we were in possession of the complete truth about the physical world we would know all there is to know about water and lightning. But the non-reductionist submits that one can know all there is to know about neurobiology and still be a neophyte when it comes to consciousness. And to return to the conceivability argument, it doesn’t seem that we can conceive of a world where you can have H2O without water and a certain pattern of electric discharge without lightning. Yet a philosophical zombie, an organism physically identical to you but without phenomenal experience, does seem conceivable.

Indeed, scientific reductionism is so plausible and successful when applied to just about any phenomenon apart from mind precisely because it brackets the subjective appearances of the phenomena as they present themselves to different first person points of view. As Thomas Nagel points out, in most of our attempts at reduction, moving away from the subjective first-person perspective to an objective third-person perspective brings us greater understanding. But when it comes to first-person experience itself, it is not clear that taking the third-person stance–as the the identity theorists do–is the right way to go about it. This is because the first-person point of view is the essence of the internal world and not merely a point of view on it (Nagel 222). Ergo, we cannot even begin to make sense of the view that there could be a relation of identity between mental states and brain states.

In view of the arguments thus far presented, I think that we should admit that consciousness probably cannot be given a reductive explanation. Barring a conceptual revolution of some kind, science is not even in a position to generate a “theory of everything.” It follows that, instead of implausibly denying the manifest or impotently straining to make the square peg of consciousness fit into the round hole of neurobiology, we should simply accept consciousness as a brute fact or fundamental feature of the universe. We should forthrightly embrace non-reductionism about mind.

The much-reviled dualism should not be dismissed out of hand. That said, dualism is, admittedly, incompatible with modern physics. Dualism posits causal interaction both from the physical to the mental and from the mental to the physical. This is a problem because, if the physicists are to be believed, then the microphysical realm is causally closed off. As a result, causal interaction across the ontological divide would be an impossibility. It might be replied that microphysical closure is just an a priori postulation that will be superseded eventually. And, in point of fact, developments in quantum mechanisms do open up some fascinating possibilities. But even so, the non-reductivist should be clear-eyed about the difficulties of a dualist account.  

Epiphenomenalism sidesteps this “interaction problem” by simply denying that the mental mental realm exerts any causal influence on the physical. It thus maintains some continuity with modern physics without dismissing the reality and irreducibility of phenomenal experience. Oddly enough, there doesn’t seem to be a knockdown argument against epiphenomenalism. In fact, it has had its share of sophisticated defenders, the aforementioned Frank Jackson among them. That said, there is something very counterintuitive about it. As David Chalmers points out, it seems strange to say that a sensation of pain plays no causal role in my hands moving away from a flame, that it is just some sort of extraneous byproduct (263). It is true that we only observe regular connections between phenomenal states and actions–Hume dispelled our uncritical illusions about causation long ago. Still, though this may be a coherent view, it is an inelegant one (Chalmers 264). I am willing to keep an open mind about it, but unwilling to call myself an epiphenomenalist until the evidence compels me to.

The non-reductionist approach that most intrigues me is the quasi-panpsychism of David Chalmers. This view builds upon Bertrand Russell’s observation that, while physics characterizes physical entities and properties in terms of their relations to one another, it seems that there must be some underlying intrinsic properties to ground these entities. You can’t have relations without relata, and it stands to reason that those relata would have intrinsic nature. Physics is accurate, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the intrinsic nature of entities. Consequently, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to hypothesize that the intrinsic properties of the physical world are phenomenal. Either phenomenal properties or properties that are not themselves phenomenal but in some way constitute or generate phenomenal properties–proto-phenomenal properties, if you will–are immanent to all of physical reality. Physics emerges from the relations between entities, consciousness from their intrinsic nature.

This view will no doubt sound preposterous, even fantastical, to those who have imbibed the reductionist worldview. Some might derogatorily ask if it implies that there is something it is like to be an electron. The proto-phenomenal version of the theory would evade this reductio, but it should be conceded that the view is indeed a strange one. It stands the reductionist project on its head, infusing the entire universe with mind. But it requires no radical upending of physics, for it merely supplements physical theory with intrinsic nature–phenomenal properties play a causal role by virtue of constituting the intrinsic nature of the physical. Until we find ourselves in the possession of more incisive criteria by which to adjudicate between the non-reductionist theories, we shall likely have to settle for aesthetic considerations. On those grounds, panprotopsychism seems to me to be the clear winner.

In conclusion, my survey of the philosophical literature has led me to the belief that the project of materialist reductionism is a fool’s errand. If we grant the epistemic gap between the physical and phenomenal–and the eliminativist refusal to grant this seems to me to be risible–then we ought to embrace non-reductionism. Although there is much that we do not know and perhaps cannot know about consciousness, we can be reasonably confident of at least one thing: Mind is, in some sense, a fundamental feature of our universe.


Works Cited

Chalmers, David J. “Consciousness and its Place in Nature.” Philosophy of Mind: Classic and Contemporary Readings, edited by David J. Chalmers, Oxford, 2002, 247-272.

Dennett, Daniel C. “Quining Qualia.” Philosophy of Mind: Classic and Contemporary Readings, edited by David J. Chalmers, Oxford, 2002, 226-246. Print.

Jackson, Frank. “Epiphenomenal Qualia.” Philosophy of Mind: Classic and Contemporary Readings, edited by David J. Chalmers, Oxford, 2002, 273-280

Levine, Joseph. “Out of the Closet: A Qualophile Confronts Qualophobia.” Philosophical Topics,

Vol. 22, No. ½ (SPRING and FALL 1994), 107-126. Print.

Nagel, Thomas. “What is it Like to be a Bat?” Philosophy of Mind: Classic and Contemporary Readings, edited by David J. Chalmers, Oxford, 2002, 219-225.


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