Sunday, March 22, 2015

Consciousness is Divided.

The so-called 'hard problem' of consciousness hides a very obvious truth: our consciousness of the world, and ourselves in it, is divided.

Susan Blackmore writes in her Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction (2005), 'No one has yet succeeded in bridging the fathomless abyss, the great abyss or the explanatory gap between inner and outer, mind and brain, or subjective and objective.'

I want to suggest this is not strictly true. The statement can be true only to the extent it has a limited explanatory function for the study of modern natural science. But it is clearly not true to say that no one has bridged the gap between 'inner and outer, mind and brain, or subjective and objective.'

I bridge that gap simply by being me. Incidentally, so do you, simply by being you. Proof of this fact is found in the simple things of life: like feeling hungry, falling sleep, or hitting your head on a low door-frame. The subjective experience of corresponds directly to an objective state of affairs, without which my subjective experience makes very little sense.

So we can take exception with the literal wording of Blackmore's statement 'No one has yet succeeded in bridging the fathomless abyss.' Forgive what may seem like a silly platitude, but we all are fathomless abysses. We bridge ourselves all the time.

What would prompt Blackmore to claim that no one bridges over themselves?

Blackmore belongs to a new coterie of philosophers of neuroscience, who think of consciousness as an emergent property in matter. An extremely versatile concept, emergence allows a person to say that consciousness is at base a material phenomena, but will not be explained in the same terms as other material phenomena.

For example, the fact that I have a subjective awareness of myself must be explained with reference to the matter of my brain, but it will not be explained in terms of classical mechanics and the law of gravity, or the law of thermodynamics, or the theory of relativity--all of which the physical stuff of my brain is subject to. As an 'emergent' phenomena, consciousness requires a 'higher' order of explanation--but one which, in theory at least, can still be grounded ultimately in the matter of the brain.

Emergence assumes an evolutionary account of human life. It assumes that enough time will have passed for life to have emerged from non-living material; and for complex organisms to emerge from the singled cell-organisms; and for single-celled organisms to emerge from the simple self-replicating building blocks of life; and for the highly complex phenomenon of consciousness to to emerge in complex organisms.

So when a philosopher of neuroscience like Blackmore talks about consciousness, we want to note very carefully that she proposes to merely refer to a person's subjective perception of things, which she says has emerged in the course of human evolution. The evolutionary process itself is an objective process. It does not arise in a person's subjective perception of things. It is instead discovered at the late point in the course of human development--say, in the work of Charles Darwin and subsequent evolutionary thinkers.

The main thrust of my argument against Blackmore has to do with how she divides the world between an individual person's subjectivity and the empirical universality of a scientific claim.

I call your attention to your own self-conscious experience of things. And I invite you to tell me if this admittedly very generic account does not fit your situation.

At the present moment, there is a screen in front of your, which you are looking at. If you lift your eyes up from the screen, you will note that you are (or, more precisely, you body is) situated is a space filled with other objects. We might also say that the space you find yourself in is filled with other bodies or other things. The words can be used interchangeably, so long as they remain at the level of a extremely generic description.

So far so good. Your body is situated in space relative to other object/bodies/things. Now where is time? Where is the past, present, and future? Or, more precisely, where are things in the past, things in the present, and things in the future? The answer for where things in the present are is relatively straightforward: things in the present are situated relative to your body in space.

The question where things in the past or future are will prove a little more difficult to answer. Why should this be the case? Let's take a simple example: what did you have for dinner last night? To answer the question requires that you think back to a place and a time where and when you ate a meal. You remember yourself sitting down at a table, or in front of the television, eating a meal.

Note how your conscious attention divides in two ways: to a place and to a time. The place where you ate dinner last night is somewhere in the 'external' world. It is possible to return to the place you ate your meal. If you have the time, you can get up and walk there. If you ate at home last night, you will probably return their tonight. But you cannot--and this is the crucial difference--return to the time that you ate your meal. In fact, you can only remember eating your meal in that place and at that time--and that is if your memory is good, which mine is not.

On the strength of this example (and numerous other examples can be provided), we may generalize the point by saying: persons have a subjective, or conscious, awareness of themselves situated here and now. That conscious awareness is divided in half: persons are 'externally' aware of their present bodily situation in a space relative to other bodies; they are also 'internally' aware of things in the past (memories) and they anticipate possible futures (expectation).

If persons think about other places and times--that is, other than the here and now they currently occupy--the idea of those other places and times must be reconstituted 'internally' (i.e. mentally). And the simple reason this is the case is that persons cannot transport their bodies at will across space and time. To do admit that you have a body, in this sense, is to admit that one exists under definite limitations, not so much on what persons can think, but on what persons can do.

The fact that she has a body (and so a brain) is a terrible inconvenience for Blackmore's argument. In the first place, it is not clear who we are talking about anyone if we posit an 'unfathomable abyss' between Blackmore's brain and her mind. If there is no possible way for Blackmore herself to cross over, there would be no way for her to make her thoughts known to the rest of us.

In the second place, if we keep clearly in mind the fact that she has (or, better yet, is) a body, her account of the emergence of consciousness in the course of humanity's evolutionary history is no longer quite as straight-forward as she would have us suppose.

Let us take for granted that evolutionary processes operate on bodies (--and if not bodies, then what?), which are always and everywhere situated in some place and time. Because of their own bodily situation, a person cannot directly observe evolutionary processes in action. They must instead, like Charles Darwin, draw inferences from bodies in the world, which they can observe. Such inferences allow persons to construct a reasonable account of how things might have come to pass in the past. Arguably, this is what evolutionary biologists still do today, though their methods of inference have grown infinitely more sophisticated.

The point I want to make is that, so far as persons are concerned, there is no 'fathomless abyss' between 'inner and outer, mind and brain, or subjective and objective' in the way that Blackmore describes. The reason this must be the case is that evolutionary processes are not an objective in the way that she describes.

Whenever a person thinks about the way things were in the past, they engage in an intrinsically speculative effort to understand the present world, in which they find their bodily selves. To the degree that persons forget this fact, they forget that they have a body.


See: Consciousness is Never a Problem

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