Friday, December 4, 2015

A Non-Physicalism View Of Human Consciousness

The Human Mind

“Physicalism is the thesis that everything is physical, or as contemporary philosophers sometimes put it, that everything supervenes on the physical. The thesis is usually intended as a metaphysical thesis, parallel to the thesis attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Thales, that everything is water, or the idealism of the 18th Century philosopher Berkeley, that everything is mental. The general idea is that the nature of the actual world (i.e. the universe and everything in it) conforms to a certain condition, the condition of being physical. Of course, physicalists don't deny that the world might contain many items that at first glance don't seem physical — items of a biological, or psychological, or moral, or social nature. But they insist nevertheless that at the end of the day such items are either physical or supervene on the physical.”

Daniel StoljarStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy2015

Subjectively: A detail from “Wheatfield under Thunderclouds,” by Vincent Van Gogh. 1890
Photo Credit: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Source: Van Gogh Museum

I am revisiting this topic once again: human consciousness and whether science has the means to define it. This time I post an essay (“I feel, therefore I am”; December 01, 2015), by Margaret Wertheim, in Aeon. Wertheim, a science writer and author, writes on how physicalism influences the thinking of many of today’s practitioners of neuroscience:
The idea that the laws of nature might be able to account for conscious experience – a position known as physicalism – steadily gained supporters in the 19th century and was given a particular boost with the advent of Maxwell’s equations and other powerful mathematical frameworks devised by physicists in their golden age. If the invisible field of a magnet can result from natural laws, then might the same not be true for feelings?
Yet, as some philosophers of the early 20th century began to point out, physicalism contains a logical flaw. If consciousness is a secondary byproduct of physical laws, and if those laws are causally closed – meaning that everything in the world is explained by them (as physicalists claim) – then consciousness becomes truly irrelevant. Physicalism further allows us to imagine a world without consciousness, a ‘zombie world’ that looks exactly like our own, peopled with beings who act exactly like us but aren’t conscious. Such zombies have no feelings, emotions or subjective experience; they live lives without qualia. As Chalmers has noted, there is literally nothing it is like to be zombie. And if zombies can exist in the physicalist account of the world, then, according to Chalmers, that account can’t be a complete description of our world, where feelings do exist: something more is needed, beyond the laws of nature, to account for conscious subjective experience.
Predictably, neuroscience, being a branch of science, puts forth contrary ideas. Let’s take the example of the Van Gogh painting above; you all view the same painting, but not every individual sees the same thing. There is not only a wide variation among individuals on what they see as important, but also on how they view the colours on the canvas (or in this case on the screen). The result is similar at a museum where individuals can view the original painting and focus on different parts, or details, of it.  With art, there is no right answer on what is important, essential; it is a result of human experience, subjective by its definition and being, and which is malleable and changes over time; this is not a result of biochemical or neurochemical reactions in the brain.

Sorry, to disagree with the neuroscientists, particularly the neurobiologists, on this one. But it seems that they as a group are determined to view human consciousness through the lense of objective reality, considering this a measurable scientific entity. They are entering territory where many before them failed. Human consciousness cannot be bound by the objective instruments of science; it will escape its grasp. This is a kind of hubris, denying the hard reality of the wide variety of subjective human experiences that are not at all predictable. Or the same. Or reductive.

In a highly cited paper, “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness,” published in Journal of Consciousness Studies 2(3):200-19, 1995, David J. Chalmers, a philosopher and cognitive scientist, writes about the problem before us:
Consciousness poses the most baffling problems in the science of the mind. There is nothing that we know more intimately than conscious experience, but there is nothing that is harder to explain. All sorts of mental phenomena have yielded to scientific investigation in recent years, but consciousness has stubbornly resisted. Many have tried to explain it, but the explanations always seem to fall short of the target. Some have been led to suppose that the problem is intractable, and that no good explanation can be given.
There are many explanations, many attempts to define human consciousness, and these will continue. After all, science likes neat categories, but the human mind does not comply. Not easily; not always. Making informed and good decisions does not, ought not, suggest that the human mind can be reduced in idea to slower (and low-performing) computers fitted with inadequate search engines and storage memory. This is a variation of an idea—materialism, dating to the ancient Greek philosophers—which was cast aside centuries ago.

When all is said and done, I will side with the human; he makes better jokes and tells better stories. This has everything to do with the subjective nature of human consciousness.

For more, go to [Aeon]