Do You Hear What I Hear?

Fenster writes:

Consciousness is such a given that one would not think to consider it as a problem.  It is just there.  But the fact that it is there, and what it means that there is a there there, does pose a knotty set of problems for philosophers and scientists.

Some brave souls think the problem can be solved, or has been.  Philosophers like Daniel Dennett hold that consciousness is nothing other than an artifact that results when “100 trillion little cellular robots” in our brains do whatever it is that they do. . . .

and that in turn consciousness is just a kind of illusion.

Stalin said “no person, no problem.”  The same might be said of consciousness.  The problem goes away if it is a nothing more than a by-product.

Indeed, the modern view seems to be that consciousness is a function of brain activity and that’s that.  But is it?

Adam Frank, a professor of Astronomy at the University of Rochester, argues that such a conclusion is almost certainly premature and could easily be wrong.  Taking a more agnostic view in comparison with Dennett’s well-known hard atheism, Frank argues more modestly that the materialist position appears to rest on shaky ground.

I suppose to do justice to summarizing Frank’s argument you would have to have a grasp of the quantum mechanics that underlie it, and I don’t have that grasp.  But while I am an amateur to the science of the issue, the implications of the science argument can be grasped by a non-scientist and so the article is worth a read if this is an issue that interests you.  For sure it is worth noting that any philosophical argument of the type Dennett poses is based on science.  That we have 100 trillion little robots inside our heads is an impressive and even intimidating fact worth noting, but whether they do what Dennett says that do in the manufacture of the consciousness illusion is another . . . matter.

The gist of Frank’s argument relates to measurement.

When I was a young physics student I once asked a professor: ‘What’s an electron?’ His answer stunned me. ‘An electron,’ he said, ‘is that to which we attribute the properties of the electron.’ That vague, circular response was a long way from the dream that drove me into physics, a dream of theories that perfectly described reality. Like almost every student over the past 100 years, I was shocked by quantum mechanics, the physics of the micro-world. In place of a clear vision of little bits of matter that explain all the big things around us, quantum physics gives us a powerful yet seemly paradoxical calculus. With its emphasis on probability waves, essential uncertainties and experimenters disturbing the reality they seek to measure, quantum mechanics made imagining the stuff of the world as classical bits of matter (or miniature billiard balls) all but impossible.

When dwelling on the weirdness of it all he was reminded of the advice given to young physicists with similar hang-ups: “shut up and calculate.”

Frank approvingly cites the work of David Chalmers, who argues that there is an easy problem of consciousness and a hard problem.  The easy side relates to things that science currently knows how to measure:

• the ability to discriminate, categorize, and react to environmental stimuli;
• the integration of information by a cognitive system;
• the reportability of mental states;
• the ability of a system to access its own internal states;
• the focus of attention;
• the deliberate control of behavior;
• the difference between wakefulness and sleep.

The hard part?

The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we think and perceive, there is a whir of information-processing, but there is also a subjective aspect.

Chalmers acknowledges Dennett’s materialistic view that experience is an artifact of brain activity . . .

but how is it that we know that?  Are those who hold this view merely extrapolating from the easy questions to the hard one?

Chalmers doesn’t mention words like spirit and owns up to his bias as a scientist in favor of finding naturalistic answers to the hard problem.  And he sketches out some directions.

My gut responses to this?  First, I would think that one line of research could relate to how experience emerges through gestation and birth. At least we have here a situation in which at one point in time there is no experience and then there is.

The other way of solving the problem is if we able to manufacture experience in machines or animals. If we do that by means of matter alone, and not by, say, manipulating some emergent property of consciousness that we find, then it adds weight to the notion that our own consciousness is a function of gray matter.

But there is a limiting factor in a way, and that is that just as we live and die alone we experience alone. People talk about a ‘shared experience’ but the problem is that there is no such thing. I know what experience is because I experience it. You have to believe me on that. I only “know” your experience by observing you report on it, not via actual experience.

Black Mirror toys with this theme in the new season, speculating on ways that experiences can be merged. If that is possible then we might be better off judging whether our smart and emotionally capable robots are actually feeling what we feel. Short of that it is the tragedy of Speilberg’s AI.  Is David actually feeling things? And does our experience amount to more than an illusion?

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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16 Responses to Do You Hear What I Hear?

  1. Brendan says:

    You’re ripe to read Thomas Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos”.


    • Fenster says:

      Thanks. I just put it on reserve.


      • LemmusLemmus says:

        Good grief! I’ll give you the short version instead:

        Nagel can’t conceive of evolution having produced something as complex as humans. Hence, Darwin was wrong.


    • brendan says:

      Lemmus: you know the old tripe about how if people’s beliefs tend to move from X to Y as they accumulate experience and knowledge, then Y is probably true? I and many others have flipped from being 100% sure that random mutation and selection explained complex life to leaning towards that the real explanation is much wilder – God or a simulation or a multiverse where improbabilities don’t matter.

      Why? It’s not easy to briefly summarize. Don’t have the time to try right now. But until you’ve read guys like Behe and Meyer, withhold judgement.

      Also worth a look:


  2. Fenster says:

    And then the short version of Dennett:

    “I said 100 trillion robot cells goddammit, 100 trillion. You don’t think 100 trillion of anything would be enough to make you aware you are watching TV?”


  3. Will S. says:

    I don’t understand how the sheer complexity of the brain doesn’t give hardcore materialists at least some pause, in that it doesn’t seem unreasonable to me for people to conclude that what is so complex might just perhaps not be through chance, but rather by design. But then I’m not a materialist, and I can’t get inside their heads any more than they can get inside mine, I suppose…

    Liked by 1 person

    • brendan says:

      Right. We can’t figure out how blood clotting evolved, i.e. how a first functioning version could’ve arisen by chance, followed by iterative mutation by mutation improvement. Yet it’s taken for granted that the brain and conscious experience arose from materialist evolution. It’s absurd but understandable how the conventional academic wisdom got like this.


      • JV says:

        I’m not a materialist, but there are plenty of phenomena we have a good understanding of today that, 200 years ago, would have seemed to be utter magic. To argue for intelligent design based on our current lack of understanding of a phenomena seems insufficient to me. I agree, though, that the certainty of some who seem to believe in scientism is foolish.


  4. Will S. says:

    “I’m not a materialist, but there are plenty of phenomena we have a good understanding of today that, 200 years ago, would have seemed to be utter magic. To argue for intelligent design based on our current lack of understanding of a phenomena seems insufficient to me.”

    Oh, certainly, I can agree with that; recalling of course Arthur C. Clarke’s famous adage ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’, and indeed, arguing for I.D. based on present gaps in understanding alone would be woefully insufficient, to be sure. But it doesn’t seem unreasonable to me that people will look at a highly ordered, complex system and have trouble seeing it as a product of sheer randomness and accident.


  5. Brian Gardam says:

    True, consciousness begins at birth and ends at death. But it can also temporarily disappear, with a concussions or coma. It can also gradually fade away. Watching an Alzheimer’s patient lose more bits of himself, and finally lose a sense of himself, convinced me that whatever turns on the light of consciousness, it is definitely rooted in the meat of our brains.


  6. Read Galen Strawson.


  7. Jeffrey S. says:

    And if you really want to wade into the deep end of the philosophic pool, my main man Professor Feser is the go to guy who always does a masterful job of explaining why materialism is…nonsense:


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