Consciousness and pop stuff

The “Consciousness Verdicts” explained

So, if you’ve read the “What’s this about” page, you’ll know that this is a survey of pop culture things and their assumptions about what “mind” and “consciousness” are.

There are a couple of points I should clarify now: Firstly, by “consciousness” I mean subjective experiences, feelings and thoughts of any sort. Any feeling of pain or hunger, no matter how unsophisticated, counts as consciousness as I use the word. Anything that has a subjective experience of light or sound or smell or any experience at all is considered conscious.

Personally I prefer the word “sentience” as I think it’s more suitable, but “consciousness” is much more popular so I’ll use it instead.

Are lobsters sentient?

Are lobsters sentient?

Righty. So here are the possible verdicts:

Brain + Mind Dualism: This is the idea that our conscious minds are separate, non-physical entities from our bodies. Anyone who believes our immaterial souls or disembodied minds interact with our brains falls into this category.

(Academically this is usually called “Substance dualism” or “Interactionist dualism”. It isn’t a popular view but there are some recent philosophers/scientists who have supported it, most notably John Eccles.)

Consciousness-as-Property: This is the idea that consciousness is a property of the physical brain, and not something separable from it. Sort of like “hardness” is a property of a brick; a brick’s hardness doesn’t exist independently of the brick itself.

There are actually two substantial sub-categories within this camp; physicalists and non-physicalists. The physicalists, strangely enough, say that consciousness is a physical property. Academic philosophers such a Michael Tye and David Papineau support this view.

The non-physicalists argue that the property of consciousness is caused by the physical brain, but is not itself physical. Philosopher David Chalmers is one proponent of this view

I’ve put these two views together under one category because, for our purposes here, there isn’t much difference between them. They may not like me saying that. But there are a lot of similarities and they do suffer from similar difficulties. The non-physicalists have difficulty showing how something non-physical can affect our physical brains, or if it doesn’t, how we can detect its existence. The physicalists have difficulties because, although they label consciousness as “physical”, they have not (IMHO) provided any convincing mechanism by which it interacts with the rest of the physical world, nor an explanation for why it’s so different from other physical properties.

Consciousness-denialist: This is the idea that consciousness just doesn’t exist. Dogs, horses, goats, robots, and chimpanzees just don’t feel anything ever. They have no more subjective experience than a fork. In fact, neither do humans. (If you’re new to academic philosophy this may seem like a crazy idea, but it has a very respectable academic pedigree. It’s often called “Behaviourism” but there are also other views which deny consciousness but which are not technically Behaviourist either.)

Idealism-or-similar: This is the view which I support. It’s not very popular unfortunately. At least, not until I complete the killer robot with laser eyes that I’m building in the shed. Then I’ll show them! Then they’ll be sorry! Basically, it’s the idea that our whole experience of the world – everything we see, hear, feel, touch, blah, blah, blah – is all part of our conscious experience. However the world which exists beyond these conscious experiences is unknown to us, or at least bears only a sort of “informational correlation” with the experiences we have. The easiest way to think about this is to pretend that you’re just a computer-generated character in a sophisticated version of the game “The Sims”. The world you experience (sights, sounds, smells, objects) is caused by a “reality substratum” (i.e. the computer running “The Sims” program which includes you). But this “substratum” is not available to you; you can’t look hard at the world around you and hope to see the system that’s behind it all. Your consciousness isn’t caused by the brain which you observe inside the game, but by the “reality substratum” itself. This is a bit confusing at first, and hard to summarise in a paragraph. For a fuller explanation, see my Unmaterialism blog.

Alrighty. Onward and upward.


4 Responses to 'The “Consciousness Verdicts” explained'

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  1. You say, “But this “substratum” is not available to you; you can’t look hard at the world around you and hope to see the system that’s behind it all.” This implies a duality. None of these theories allows for nonduality.

    • Trevor said,

      Hi Steph,

      Nice to hear from you, hope life is going well where you are.

      As I know from other conversations you are a type of dualist yourself, so I read this as a sort of claim of victory rather than an accusation of poor philosophy 🙂

      As some philosophers take umbrage with being called dualists, I must defend them a little. Consciousness Denialists wouldn’t be dualists as they don’t subscribe the idea that conscious experience exists at all, so there isn’t really anything for them to be dualist about. The Consciousness-as-Property category also includes a sub-group who declare that consciousness is a physical property, like solidity or fragility, so they would also reject dualism. I don’t think much of that idea, but nonetheless they say it.

      The other Consciousness-as-Property people say that consciousness is a non-physical property and are sometimes called property dualists. And generally speaking they’re ok with that.

      As for own views I tend to call them idealist rather than dualist. Dualism usually refers to views which divide the world into the physical and the mental, which I do not.

      I do divide the world into conscious experience and the-unknown-something-which-causes-conscious-experience, so I can see how that is a type of duality, sure. On the other hand it could be said to be referring to different aspects of reality, like space and time. Or “light” and “that which is not light”.

      So it’s not necessarily a duality as such, it’s just identifying different aspects of reality over all. 

      But the main reason I tend not to talk about my views as a duality is that they are closer to idealism (especially Kant’s Transcendental Idealism) so I think it’s a better label. 

  2. Hmmm…

    I have come to believe that we have (1) conscious experience and (2) experience of the thing that causes conscious experience. This can happen simultaneously.

    Is there anyone who believes that? What are they called?

    • Trevor said,

      Hey, happy new year!

      I’m not sure I fully understand your view, but I’ll take it to mean this: we perceive that we are having conscious experiences, and we also directly perceive the world itself which is causing those experiences. E.g I can see a red ball and I also know that I am having a conscious experience of seeing a red ball.

      If this is what you meant, then yes, there are plenty of philosophers who take this view, Most philosophers in this field, who are not Consciousness Denialists, adopt this view.. David Chalmers is one who gives a more comprehensive account, but there are many, many others. They often say that we perceive the world around us with  our senses, and we perceive our conscious experiences by introspection. (Chalmers says we perceive them by “direct acquaintance” which I think is much better.)

      The objection I have to this is that I doesn’t match up with my own perceptions and reflections. When I perceive a red ball my perception consists of the conscious experience. There is no “double perception”, I don’t perceive the ball and have a separate conscious experience of perceiving the ball. I just have a conscious experience of seeking a ball;  my conscious experience *is* the perception. If one accepts that point, then it follows that we don’t perceive the world as it exists independently of conscious experience. We just have a bunch of experiences, and we infer from these that there is an external world, but we cannot know what this external world is like in itself.

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