Must a Philosophy of Mind be a Philosophy of Consciousness?

Coming to Terms with the “Hard Problem”

Some years ago I became exasperated with contemporary philosophy of mind. I stopped reading books in philosophy of mind and I stopped making an attempt to keep up with what was going on in the field. It had come to seem pointless to me, not because I had lost interest, but because the issues and problems that had come to dominate the work of Anglo-American analytical philosophers seemed pointless to me. I didn’t get it anymore. This is not terribly unusual. Philosophers often find that the work of philosophers coming from different traditions seems unmotivated to the point of arbitrariness. Bertrand Russell, who was a close collaborator with Wittgenstein during Wittgenstein’s early period, thought that Wittgenstein’s later work was trivial and without value; Russell thought that Wittgenstein’s work had become pointless.

Things have changed in the philosophy of mind. I have returned to philosophy of mind since my earlier disaffection and I have tried to survey the present situation. I have listened to John Searle’s lectures for The Teaching Company, Daniel N. Robinson’s lectures for The Teaching Company, Patrick Grim’s lectures for The Teaching Company, and Andrew Pessin’s lectures for The Modern Scholar series.

At least one characteristic that marks the difference between continental philosophy of mind and analytical philosophy of mind is not so much two different perspectives on the same thing — like the eliminative materialist saying that there is no such thing as mind in the world, while the Berkeleyan idealist says that there is no such thing as matter in the world, even while both agree that there is one world composed of one kind of metaphysical substance — as it is about two different points of departure, i.e., where we start when we begin to philosophize about the mind. Since each tradition departs from a distinct set of presuppositions, there is a sense in which they are not even studying the same thing.

One of the things that previously bothered me about philosophy of mind was the predominately behaviorist cast of Anglo-American thought. I didn’t see the point of much of the struggles that attended simply recognizing that there is such a thing as consciousness (by which I mean subjective conscious awareness) and that a strictly behaviorist account was inadequate. However, I understand why this struggle occurs. Recognizing the sui generis nature of consciousness is at best humbling and at worst dispiriting, as it forces us to also recognize that we have made zero progress in understanding conscious as consciousness (in contradistinction to what consciousness does, or the functions of the brain upon which consciousness supervenes). For a philosopher, this kind of realization can be a painful moment.

Some recent analytical philosophy of mind has involved making a distinction between the “easy” problems of mind and what has come to be called “the hard problem” of consciousness. I believe that this distinction is due to David Chalmers, who has had a big influence in contemporary philosophy of mind. This brings analytical philosophy much closer to an honest recognition of the painful reality that there is no adequate ontology of mind.

Rather than finding this to be dispiriting, I find it to be interesting, since it is taken analytical philosophy so long even to get to the point where it is willing to consider arguments that there is such a thing as subjective awareness. I realize now in hindsight that part of my exasperation with analytical philosophy of mind was its belaboring of the mere recognition of consciousness, and that many of the issues that analytical philosophers had been discussing and calling “philosophy of mind” were philosophy of mind without any recognition of consciousness, which strikes me as perverse. For me, philosophy of mind was always about the hard problem of subjective awareness.

Contemporary analytical philosophers of mind like to formulate thought experiments based on philosophical zombies (and I have written about them also recently in A Note on Soulless Zombies), in which questions are asked such as whether a zombie twin that is functionally identical to me would be distinguishable from me even if it lacked consciousness. This strikes me as strangely self-referential, as though the analytical philosophers who have denied the very existence of mind in the form of conscious awareness have been engaging in a kind of “zombie philosophy” — i.e., formulating a philosophy of mind that pretends to be adequate but which is ultimately about mind without consciousness.

I find myself asking the reflexively obvious question, such that: if two philosophers formulate philosophies of mind, and each of these seems adequate to all aspects of intelligence and mind, with the one exception being that one philosophy of mind includes subjective awareness while the other simply doesn’t address it at all — i.e., functionally equivalent philosophical doctrines with subjective awareness being the only difference — are the two philosophies distinguishable? Is the zombie philosophy that postulates mind without consciousness just as adequate an account of mind as a philosophy of mind that says something about consciousness?

Here I return to my point about analytical and continental traditions having a different point of departure in the philosophy of mind. When I abandoned analytical philosophy of mind, I did not stop reading works in the phenomenological tradition. But you can’t so much say that phenomenology has a theory of mind anything like the theory of mind one finds in analytical philosophy. Phenomenology and its study of the structures of consciousness begins with the recognition of subjective awareness of the central reality of consciousness; analytical philosophy of mind has only of late culminated in the recognition of subjective awareness as a central feature of mind — and, even then, probably the majority of Anglo-American analytical philosophers continue to be functionalists of some sort or other, willing to say that consciousness is illusory, peripheral, non-existent, not as it presents itself to be, or merely epiphenomenal.

Even though Anglo-American analytical philosophy got itself hung up on the existential question, western thought found a way around this impasse by way of cognitive science, which does not study the existence question, but takes consciousness as a given and attempts to understand and to describe cognition. This is much closer to the phenomenological project. A philosophy of cognitive science (as a special case of the philosophy of science) would overlap considerably with phenomenology.

The implicit philosophy of mind present in psychiatry and cognitive science allowed for the construction of theories of the internal workings of the mind, not shying away from subjective self-awareness, though isolated from the phenomenological account of the structures of consciousness, because the kind of people who created cognitive science came from a scientistic background and were therefore unlikely to have read Husserl or those who followed in his tradition (a missed opportunity for interdisciplinarity). When psychiatrists and cognitive scientists did turn to philosophy, they turned to analytical philosophy, where they found no comparable analysis of the internal workings of the mind.

As a prodigal philosopher returning to philosophy of mind after many years of riotous living in ontology, epistemology, phenomenology, and even guilty pleasures like strategy, I cannot quite hope for the fatted calf of philosophy of mind to be served up for me exactly as I might like it, but I do definitely see possibilities.

While I could be said to have squandered my wealth on wild living in a distant country, I learned a lot while I was away. Now I know why I was dissatisfied with theories of mind as I read them in analytical philosophers, and simply knowing what the problem is constitutes conceptual progress for me. I was lost, and now I am found.

It has been hard enough to get Anglo-American analytical philosophers simply to recognize consciousness as a legitimate constituent of the world; to go beyond the mere recognition of consciousness to understanding the fundamental agency of consciousness in nature requires a further step, and this step will be a bridge too far for many philosophers in the tradition of post-positivist thought.

Because contemporary philosophy of mind in analytical philosophy more-or-less ends with a recognition (or a denial) of consciousness, and has not yet gone further in order to elaborate what exactly consciousness is like, as in the structures of consciousness analyzed by phenomenology, or the structures of cognition studied by cognitive science, the former tradition, while debating the existence of consciousness, has not even progressed to the point where it can consider any detailed discussion of what this disputed consciousness is like.

If we leave analytical philosophy of mind where we find it today, allowing only a minimal recognition of conscious without any examination of its competencies, capabilities, and capacities, it would be hard to avoid some kind of epiphenomenalism, in which consciousness is some pointless and useless manifestation of life that happens to exist but which plays no substantive role in the world. I completely reject this idea.

If, however, consciousness is epiphenomenal, we can easily understand the devalorization of conscious that is increasingly prevalent as a social consequence of the rise to prominence of computer science. How are these connected? The fascination with the Turing Test has led many down Turing’s path, which suggests that if an imitation of consciousness is indistinguishable from consciousness, then it is legitimate to identify the indistinguishable imitation as consciousness, and to regard the question of the ontology of consciousness as useless at best, illegitimate at worst.

The critique and devalorization of consciousness in the spirit of Turing can be considered to be one aspect of the Copernican-scientific lesson to human hubris (and I believe that there are passages in Daniel Dennett’s work that make this explicit, but I will save a detailed treatment of Dennett’s work for another time). I am thoroughly sympathetic to Dennet’s Copernican motivations in his devalorization of consciousness when he refers to consciousness as a “charmed circle,” but to deny the existence of consciousness because the idea has been used for essentially ideological purposes is to throw out the baby with the bathwater — something unfortunately common in intellectual history, and today becoming a barrier to clear thinking. We should not treat consciousness as a charmed circle that marks off a particularly privileged class of organisms that happens to possess consciousness; conscious organisms only exist in virtue of an extensive ecosystem that is crucially dependent upon unconscious organisms, which are for this reason the foundation of our being. But we should not deny or disparage consciousness, i.e., we should not devalorize consciousness, because it is reliant upon other forms of being that are not conscious.

The bridge too far that I mentioned above is that what consciousness does is to create and manipulate meanings, values, and ideas. Consciousness as consciousness does not deal with “sense data” — like “a red patch,” which is a typical example of analytical philosophy — it deals with meaningful entities. For example, and of great evolutionary benefit, is that consciousness recognizes threats. What is a threat? There is no single kind of thing that is a threat. A movement in a dark corner of a room may be a threat; a rustle in the long grass may be a threat; the crooked smile on a stranger’s face may be a threat. A threat is an object, a meaningful object, and moreover a meaning that is highly valuable to consciousness. Consciousness identifies a threatening object as threatening. Henceforth, it is a threat.

The world as experienced by conscious beings is a world saturated through-and-through with meanings and values. We evaluate almost everything in our sensorium first of all as either important or unimportant, that is to say, we value everything that we encounter. If unimportant, it can safely be ignored. (It is relegated to what has been called the margin of consciousness.) What is it for an object to be ignored? It is to shift consciousness away from the object. Consciousness has limited resources of attention. It must save its focus only for that which is most important (such as existential threats).

A connectionist neural network could identify a pattern in the world, and perhaps an advanced system could identify a given pattern as a particular object, following it through the world as it changes but retains its identity as that particular object. This much artificial intelligence as it is currently known can do, and will continue to do better in the future. But artificial intelligence is not yet artificial consciousness, and because our attempts at artificial intelligence are so far not yet conscious, they cannot yet associate a meaning or a value or an idea with an object.

The arguments over whether some mechanical system is or can be conscious — a common constituent of responses to Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment — are misconceived. One hears claims such as, “We can’t know that machines, in executing their programs, are not conscious, etc.” This kind of argument presupposes the ideal privacy of consciousness, which is exactly what mechanistic accounts of consciousness (those that identify indistinguishable imitations of consciousness as consciousness) deny. Cartesian privacy is an idealization, i.e., a formalization of an aspect of conscious, like the Cartesian Formalism of mind-body dualism. If human consciousness fails to exemplify an idealized model of Cartesian privacy we should not be surprised by this, but that “failure” should not be taken as an argument to deny the reality or the efficacy of consciousness.

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