In the Weekend Review section of yesterday’s New York Times there appeared an essay called, “Are We Really Conscious?” with the tag line: “It sure seems like it. But brain science suggests we’re not.”
First, what do we mean by consciousness or being conscious? A good synonym is “awareness”: to be conscious is to be aware. It’s to have subjective mental states about one’s environment, and in that respect a great many creatures besides ourselves are conscious (the dog chases the cat and barks at the mailman, right?); further, it’s to be aware that one is aware–to be tuned into one’s own subjective mental states (to be aware of them as mental states). It was thought for a long time that humans are the only creatures with that sort of self-awareness, though there’s evidence that other higher-order animals have some form of it as well.
Consequently, the question, “Are we really conscious?” is a monumentally stupid thing to ask. Why? Because consciousness, awareness, is a precondition of asking, understanding, and attempting to answer the question. As language-users, as creative thinkers, as creatures capable of art, music, doing mathematics, dancing–hell, of telling and laughing at fart jokes–we have a very sophisticated and sensitive relationship to our environment. Our minds are extraordinary information-processing centers (and so much more!), taking in sensory data, processing it, and somehow spurring reactions in the form of behavior. All that essentially involves awareness–consciousness!
Now, the problem of consciousness, how these magnificent brains of ours produce our conscious mental states, is so far a mystery, in fact one of the greatest mysteries and as-yet unsolved problems of science and philosophy. The human brain is a tremendously complex organ–one of, if not the, most complex things in the universe, with tens of billions of neurons firing to make up our experience of ourselves and the world.
There are many ways to try and approach the problem of consciousness, to answer the big problem. (One of the more sensible approaches to the problem–though there isn’t yet a solution!–is John Searle’s; check out his book, The Rediscovery of the Mind.)But who would suggest that we’re not conscious at all? The author of the Times essay is a guy named Michael Graziano, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton, and in his essay he’s citing the work of Daniel Dennett and Patricia Churchland, two philosophers who work in this area. Their position is called “eliminativism,” because they propose to solve the big problem by simply eliminating consciousness altogether. This speaks to the magnitude of the mystery: People are so confounded by it, that they’re willing to come up with very complex theories saying frightfully stupid things to try to deal with it. Think about it. They’re literally saying you’re not aware, you’re not conscious. You don’t feel, believe, remember, daydream, fantasize, perceive, any of those things–those are all internal, subjective, conscious mental states, and according to Dennett and Churchland, they’re fictions. We don’t really have them in the way we think we do.
Besides the great difficulty of the question of mind and consciousness, there are a couple of other problems with scientific methodology that are in play here.
First, science approaches problems from a third-person, objective viewpoint, and it considers any investigation that doesn’t take that approach as failing to live up to the standards and practices of science. The problem is that, as Searle puts it, consciousness has a first person ontology: it’s only accessible by the person who’s consciousness it is. It’s not accessible from a third person point of view. In other words, I can only think my own thoughts. You don’t have access to them. So consciousness falls outside the range of phenomena that can be investigated, as science has traditionally been understood. If we can’t examine it, study it, poke at it in a lab, it must not really exist.
Second, science has a very practical, and historically a very successful standard approach in describing and understanding phenomena at the everyday level, by looking at the components of those things at the micro-level. That is, we can predict a lot about everyday medium-sized objects by looking at their minute parts, their atoms and molecules (and even minuter parts than those). The problem is that this approach has been so successful that it’s become a kind of dogma that everything at the macro level is explained by the micro level; that everything just is atoms and molecules, and the even smaller bits. In other words, scientists (and philosophers of an ilk) confuse description with explanation. That is, when scientists are describing things at the micro level, they mistakenly believe they’re explaining those macro things as protons, neutrons, quarks, etc.
A third problem is the mathematization of nature by science. That is, in order to achieve it’s great predictive success, science wants to describe everything in mathematical terms. All objects of investigation have to be mathematically describable, and anything that can’t so be reduced is dismissed as unreal. Brains can be weighed and measured, but mind’s can’t, ergo…
Now, this is fine and causes no harm if you’re trying to understand why a table is solid, why water is wet, why people get sick from germs, why balls roll down inclined planks, and so forth. But when you’re trying to explain human experience, trying to capture, describe, explain the meaning of Shakespeare, or Beethoven, why you love chocolate ice cream, or any other complex human achievement, to say it’s really just molecules made up of atoms, which are really just empty space, which is all reducible to a few fundamental forces at the quantum level that can be measured and calculated mathematically…well, you’re getting silly again.
As Nietzsche put it way back in the 1880s:
“A ‘scientific’ interpretation of the world, as you understand it, might therefore still be one of the most stupid of all possible interpretations of the world, meaning that it would be one of the poorest in meaning. This thought is intended for the ears and consciences of our mechanists who nowadays like to pass as philosophers and insist that mechanics is the doctrine of the first and last laws on which all existence must be based as on a ground floor. But an essentially mechanical world would be an essentially meaningless world. Assuming that one estimated the value of a piece of music according to how much of it could be counted, calculated, and expressed in formulas: how absurd would such a ‘scientific’ estimation of music be! What would one have comprehended, understood, grasped of it? Nothing, really nothing of what is ‘music’ in it!” (The Gay Science, 373)
Nietzsche is talking in the pre-20th Century language of mechanics, but we can easily update his sentiments with the contemporary talk of quantum physics, as I hinted above. With it’s methods, science is wonderful, helpful, generates real knowledge about the world; but it’s incapable of investigating lived human experience in all its richness and meaningfulness. That isn’t to say, mind you, that there is no reasoned approach to human experience, no arguments to be made, no evidence to examine. It’s only to say that we need a different methodology–that of Philosophy!