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8/31/10

Once More: The Hard Problem of Consciousness Revisited (My Brain Is Starting To Hurt. Or, Is It MY Brain?)

What follows is not merely idle speculation. It is a core problem of neurophilosophy as neuroscience searches for the neural correlates of consciousness (NCC).

Causal closure is what it's all about. How can a cause, brain matter, produce consciousness as some kind of physical phenomenon? How is my delight in the exquisite beauty of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata a physical phenomenon? How can you explain as physical phenomena what it feels like to be you? How is all that a physical effect from a physical cause, which philosophically would be physical monism? If we don't accept monism we are thrown back to dualism with its two things, some kind of (1) ghost in this (2) machine we call the body.

Put it differently and in grammatic conjugation: How do we get from the first person, "I," and how I live my life to the third person, where all is an object related to me, including my consciousness? How does this sense of being me get rendered so that it can be discussed in the third person? Can it ever be rendered thus?

For some time I have believed that the way out of this problem is to view the world as also containing consciousness. One way to think about it is this: Just as some quantum phenomena are up quarks or down quarks, or photon particles, so others could be consciousness phenomena.

As conjecture, this is not a great leap. We find that non-locality operates at the quantum level. That is, across great distances, photons, for example, can "talk" to one another so they change polarity as they speed toward a target. This is what Einstein would call "spooky action at a distance" but this quantum entanglement is nonetheless a proven case. So, too, perhaps, this is the case with consciousness as non-local. I find that Galen Strawson has a view that would be sympathetic to mine. Read on.

"The hard problem is this: it is widely supposed that the world is made entirely of mere matter, but how could mere matter be conscious? How, in particular, could a couple of pounds of grey tissue have experiences?

Until quite recently, there were two main schools of thought on this. According to one, the hard problem is actually very easy: the answer is that consciousness ‘emerges’ from neural processes. This succeeds in replacing ‘what is consciousness and how is it possible?’ with ‘what is emergence and how is it possible?’ But it doesn’t seem to get much further; many find it less than satisfactory. According to the other view, the hard problem is so hard that it can’t be real: consciousness must be some sort of illusion. Many of this persuasion tried hard to convince themselves that they are, in fact, not conscious, but few of them succeeded. Centuries ago, Descartes suggested, plausibly, that the attempt is self-defeating.

There is, I should add, another way to respond to the hard problem. One might hold that the world isn’t made entirely of matter after all; there is also a fundamentally different kind of stuff – mind-stuff, call it – and consciousness resides in that. Notoriously, however, this view has hard problems of its own." More

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