One of the major tenets of nonnaturalism with respect to phenomenal consciousness is the idea that “qualia” do not fit in anywhere in “nature”. [Definition:”Qualia” is a coinage of recent analytic philosophy of mind. It refers to the purely subjective consciousness. “What it is like to be x.” It is generally agreed that rocks have nothing that it is like to be a rock, but there is something that it is like to be in pain, or to be angry, to be a fish or a human. This “what it is like” is called “qualia”. ]
We only have direct access to our own qualia, and have to infer or have indirect access to the qualia of others. According to many, this means that qualia cannot be interpreted as a physical process nor consequently as a biological process. I assume (but of course do not know) that there are enough people working on reverse engineering the mind such that a physical reduction will make decent progress in the next few years. In this post, I would like to discuss how this is a priori possible by interpreting qualia biologically. This will entail the basic ideas behind a theory that would be a candidate for a naturalistic theory of qualia and subjective consciousness.
First, a little background: according to my view (explained elsewhere in this blog), living creatures as such are essentially functional where ‘function’ is a combination of physical processes and information processing. Since I am not discussing the physical implementation of this function at all, I will ignore what Aristotle calls ‘material causes’ and ‘efficient causes’. Instead I will only deal with ‘formal causes’ and ‘final causes’. And these latter will be spoken of as “information processing” and biological “functions” respectively. I will show how consciousness has a biological purpose (final cause) and how it serves that purpose ( formal causes ). More specifically, consciousness is a form of “data mining” of a person’s total accessible information, both conscious and subconscious, from the external world, metabolism and health.
Much of this analysis is derived from an online dialogue on this subject. First, there is a challenge from a non-naturalist “Q”, who denies that qualia have any biological function at all and cannot possibly be caused by any physical process.
Q: “Dennett and other naturalists claim that non-naturalism
“goes against literally mounds of scientific evidence that a functioning brain and mind (conscious experience) are one in the same and that consciousness is actually what an active brain state produces when it’s doing what it does. In some way, it’s similar to “roundness” and “rolling” of a ball down a hill. That’s what certain “round” things do when they are on a “slope” in a gravitational field.”
This analogy is ridiculous. “Roundness” and “rolling” are observable features of the physical world. “Consciousness” is not. You could run a million brain scans on me and, in the end, all you’d have is information about physical entities (neurons, electrical charges and so on.) You can’t observe my qualia in this way. Or, to put it another way: I could be a philosophical zombie and the brain scans wouldn’t pick this up. Consciousness is something above and beyond a feature of the physical world.”
A: To illustrate my response, let’s start with an example from settled science: the physics of weather. It seems natural for people to be non-naturalists concerning many natural phenomena, and among the most universal of these is the weather, especially lightning. But some humans are naturalists w.r.t. this and claim that lightning “is” static electricity. Since static electricity seems likely to be supernatural this contradicts the predominant opinion of the human race. While lightning is publicly observable, static electricity is not. Or is it? You cannot see static electricity itself, merely its effects. On the other hand, consciousness cannot be seen directly, only its effects…. unless you’re consciousness itself. But what if you were static electricity? Then would the analogy be exact?
Q: “This is a better analogy, when modified as you suggest. But then are you admitting that consciousness is not illusory or epiphenomenal — it is a force that causes effects, not an effect caused by forces?”
A: The reason I put “is” in quotes is to highlight the relevance of the Question of Being to this topic. What does it mean that one thing “is” another? That lightning “is” static electricity? Or that Earth “is” a planet? Or that humans “are” animals? Obviously being a human is not the same as being an animal, but yet the statement is true is it not? I think that same is true of the statement “humans are conscious”.
A similar problem exists with the statement “Mathematics is a human invention.”, which is either true or not depending on what you mean by “is”. Likewise with “x is consciousness”.
Q: “For the last one, I’d say that the problem resides more in what is meant by “human invention”. Still — good questions. Will give them some thought.” I think that it’s probably “real” it’s just real in a different way from other things. There is not one way to say “is”, but many, as Aristotle says. For example, lots of people say that “really” numbers don’t exist. Nonsense! What they really should say is that physical objects and numbers “are” in very different ways.
Q: I guess the central question at stake here is, “Is consciousness a causal force (or the manifestation of/effect of a causal force) that is distinct from and independent of deterministic physical forces, or is it not?” That sums it up pretty well, methinks.”
A: Yes it is a causal force; it’s much more physical than a number, but even a number has physical effects.
Q: “Am in total agreement with that — but I’m a bit puzzled. I thought you saw consciousness as, essentially, a higher-level emergent phenomenon arising from lower-level deterministic complexity. Have we been in violent agreement all along (like for the past 2 years, LOL?).”
A: That’s how I see it, all right
Q: “So if consciousness is reducible (in principle) to fundamental deterministic physical forces, in what sense can it ALSO be a causal force acting independent of them?”
A: I don’t care if physical forces are deterministic or not. It’s pretty obvious that we are physical beings who have consciousness.
How independent is “independent”? If we look at cultural concepts and memes, we see that they sort of take on a life of their own as “mass psychology” and can be said to really exist even though they are not independent of individual humans. Likewise qualia/consciousness takes on a life of its own even though it’s fundamentally dependent on matter and energy. All these things exist, they just exist in different ways.
Saying that some “x” is ultimately a “y” does not mean that x is not real. it’s a different sort of being, that can be referred to under two different aspects, one as functional adaptation, the other as qualia. As a functional adaptation, it is something which can be seen in its effects on the physical world. For the example of mathematics, one can refer to numbers as being created by humans, but you can also say truthfully that “2+2=4” was true long before humans evolved, by looking from within the “world of numbers”. From this aspect, numbers seem to be the supernatural entities revered by Pythgoras, since our very way of considering them abstracts from their physical substrate.
Abstraction from physical substrate” is exactly what makes them so useful, since the formal qualities are meant to apply to any physical situation that is formally congruent to the number, equation, shape, etc., not to something made of a certain material or in a certain location, or from a certain culture, etc., the latter all being more concrete but also more limited in scope.
From another perspective, according to Karl Popper’s ontology, there are three types of things:
1) First World- physical things
2) Second World- qualia, or subjective experience
3)Third World- memes, ideas, cultural artifacts like numbers, poems, theories, styles, techniques, etc.
Where is “consciousness” in all this? It seems that it is #2, except that for higher animals, there is overlap with #3. However, any particular creature’s experience of being aware of a number (#2) is not the number itself (#3). However, the quality of the Second World is greatly affected by what sorts of things are subjectively experienced; First World or Third World. Consciousness for animals is the existence of qualia (2nd world). Consciousness becomes human when the experience of 2nd world phenomenology because interwoven/imbued with 3rd world entities, schemas and ideas which go beyond the merely present and thus make possible both knowledge and error on a level greater than that possible for mere “non-human” animals.
You might reasonably ask about consciousness: “Why should it be good to enlarge the possibility for both knowledge and error?” The answer is to enlarge the domain of possibilities from which to select. Thus the realm of knowledge/ignorance is a special case of the Baldwin Effect and the “evolution of evolvability”. These are reasons why biological evolution follows an path of exponential growth much like Moore’s Law, where evolution proceeds at a faster pace as time goes on. We can see how consciousness reflects this because conscious creatures have much more individuality than unconscious; meaning they present a wider variety of phenotypes for selection to work with. But this ‘individuality’ is merely a by-product of consciousness, not its original function. In short this original function is to boil all the confusion of so many different stimuli from so many different levels of reality (merely physical, social, past memory, inner physical drives of sex, hunger, warmth, etc.) into a condensed form where it can affect the decision processes that define an animal’s actions. How else could all the myriad factors that go into a single decision be brought into relation with a decision other than by some form of data mining? And how else would it be implemented than by consciousness? Chalmers makes much of how “surprising” consciousness is as the basis for non-naturalism, and I agree it is surprising. However, it is far less surprising once one sees its function. All biological functions are fundamentally information processing, so we should expect to see the essence of consciousness as a form of information processing. All that remains is to take this formal and functional analysis as the starting point for the reverse engineering of how consciousness performs this function. But this aspect of the subject is beyond my expertise.