Wednesday, November 01, 2006


In virtue of what am I conscious, while chicken soup is not? Most philosophers regard this as a metaphysical question. It is widely held that something about my internal structure – the organization of my material parts – makes me conscious. Perhaps there is something special about neurons, or perhaps the relevant feature is the abstract functional relationships between my internal states, and between those states and my environment and behavior. Or maybe internal structure is irrelevant: If I possess the right causal relationships to my environment and/or the right behavioral dispositions, I am conscious, regardless of my internal organization.

Or one might reject materialism. Perhaps an immaterial soul is necessary, or the possession of immaterial properties. But in virtue of what do I have an immaterial soul or immaterial properties, while chicken soup does not? One might invoke a powerful, soul-imbuing deity, or one might relate the immaterial somehow to internal, material structure or to material causes and behavior patterns. Or perhaps everything is conscious, including the chicken soup; or material things do not exist at all. Or maybe there's some flaw in the very idea of "material".

If this doesn’t exhaust the alternatives, at least it comes close. Unfortunately, every one of these alternatives has seriously counterintuitive consequences. Most people find it intuitively plausible that alien or artificial beings, entirely lacking neural structures like our own, could at least in principle be conscious. Holding neurons to be uniquely capable of grounding consciousness contradicts that intuition. On the other hand, Block and Searle have shown that it is counterintuitive to regard as conscious everything with the right functional organization, or the right causal relationships to the environment and behavioral dispositions, regardless of composition – for example if the structure is implemented by a vast population of people communicating by radio, or by beer cans and wire in outer space. One might suggest that although neurons aren’t strictly necessary, something resembling neurons in some important way is necessary, but it is doubtful that one can escape the dilemma by that maneuver. Any organization functionally similar to human neural structure could probably be implemented in a system to which it would be counterintuitive to ascribe consciousness. More biochemical measures of similarity seem bound to exclude conceivably conscious aliens of some stripe. Insistence that the system be naturally evolved rules out some of the weirdest systems, but it also rules out the intuitively appealing possibility of conscious robots or conscious brains grown in vats.

Non-materialist views suffer similar difficulties. Naturalistic dualism faces the problems described in the previous paragraph with respect to classifying the kinds of systems that have immaterial souls or immaterial properties. Supernatural dualism faces issues of how immaterial substances could have physical effects and of the apparent smooth gradation from beings without consciousness to beings with consciousness in both phylogeny and development, as well as general arguments against the existence of supernatural entities. Panpsychism and idealism are counterintuitive from the outset. And, finally, it's hard to see how some weak notion of "material" could be fundamentally and ineliminably flawed or what it would buy us if it were.

None of this should be news to anyone who has taught a survey course in philosophy of mind. Every metaphysician of mind has to “bite the bullet” on some issue or other – that is, accept certain counterintuitive consequences of his or her position. But how to know which bullet is best to bite? We could try somehow to compare the relative unintuitiveness of various positions - but even if we could do that in some plausible way, using it as our metaphysical method presupposes that our everyday and philosophical armchair intuitions are a good guide to the nature of consciousness, including in strange cases involving aliens, etc. - and that seems to me a rather doubtful position (see my post "Metaphysics, What?"). But, on the other hand, it doesn't seem that there's any straightforward empirical, scientific way to determine whether a silicon-based alien that behaved much like us (for example) has genuine conscious phenomenology (as opposed to merely behaving as though he does), without begging the metaphysical question at the outset. So I'm at a loss.

Let me dub the view that something weird must be true about the mind, but who knows what weird thing is true, weirdism.


Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,
Another (weird) position to take (which I take, though I guess not in fashion these days), is that what is called "phenomenal world" is ontologically primary, and that what is called "physical world" (as in physics - protons, electrons, forces and such stuff) is merely an abstraction from this "phenomenal" world. The physical world (in given sense) is thus reduced to specific type of information that can be abstracted/extracted from the (phenomenal) world based on 3rd person quantifiable measurements and such things.
In this view, being-in-this-phenomenal-world is what we usually name as "consciousness".
On this account the problems of consciousness in the materialistic account (to which you point) show up because in the process of abstracting, the being, subjectivity etc.. are abstracted from (are removed from the picture), and the picture of the world is reduced to whatever is quantifiable and objective. The materialists then try to re-introduce elements that they removed previously by this method of abstraction, but as they equate that material picture with everything that is, they feel that it is proper only to "construct" it somehow from whatever is there in that physical picture. However the needed element is not there, as it was removed when the picture of the objective world was built. Whatever empirical research is made of the brain and its relation to the world will thus fail to give the full picture, and will give us merely account of relations of the abstractions that are left.
Of course, this position also has lot of bullets to bite.

Anonymous said...


In response to

"But, on the other hand, it doesn't seem that there's any straightforward empirical, scientific way to determine whether a silicon-based alien that behaved much like us (for example) has genuine conscious phenomenology (as opposed to merely behaving as though he does), without begging the metaphysical question at the outset. So I'm at a loss."

I would say that it doesn't seem that there's any straightforward empirical scientific way to determine anything without begging at the outset some metaphysical question or other. The fact that there are more people making noise right now over the unintuitiveness of reductive theories of consciousness versus, say, the unintuitiveness of curved spacetime is just a temporary blip.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Sorry to take so long to reply to the comments -- hectic few days! What can I say, kboughan but... weird! :)

Tanasije, I'm inclined to think the view you describe, if I understand it, is not particularly weirder than any other view. It's a form of idealism, I'd say, if I understand it right -- no? But what (besides philosophical intuition) would lead us to decide in favor of it over all the other weird views?

Pete: I actually am inclined to agree -- well, not exactly about the "temporary blip" thing, but with your suggestion that there is nothing uniquely weird about consciousness. For example, I think there is no interpretation of quantum mechanics that isn't weird. Our intuitions simply lead us astray in some areas -- sometimes so fundamentally that we remain at what may be a permanent epistemic loss.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,

Yes, I don't think it is weird too, I put (weird) there just for aestethical reasons, to blend more with your post :).
And yes, it is a form of idealism, not subjective idealism, but transcendental one (so accepts objective truths, and ability of the mind to comprehend them), so the dichotomy between the notion and the world is denied.

Of course inherent to the view (being idealism) is the possibility of intuitive understanding, so the critique that one doesn't have any other basis then philosophical intuition doesn't really concern me.

But of course, I can see how much it is incompatible with empiricism be it of positivistic type [words refer to things] or Quinean [theories more or less good in pragmatic sense] type, and I don't hope to convince anyone.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Ah, well -- not convincing anyone... professional hazard of philosophers!

Overdo it, I encourage it! said...

Perhaps there is something weird about the neurons in our brains. Whether the consciousness is in our internal structures or everything is conscious, but why is the immaterial necessary? And why would there be conscious brains in vats? It's weird!

supersmart said...

My "weirdism" is this: just acting weird, not following groups or subcultures, in the same way Jim Morrison is creepy. Weirdism should be you acting strange, it's not weird or unique if you're a sucker for thinking when it's not your own. As for the neurons in our brains, the immaterial is bullshit, there's no such thing as the immaterial. Weirdism should be how scary you are being different in any way, I'd go with Jim Morrison's "weirdism" and have my own philosophy, I know acting scared people are going to get angry at this, but it's not as bad as it seems, I'm rirky, that is, I'm not like anyone except for myself, I'm distinctive and a king-loving freak, has anyone noticed I'm a man? I follow my own philosophies, and rather than be too much or too little of something or too moderate, I'm a totalist (something I made up), I'm the total of things 100%, gloomism comes into it too, and being gogglesmart (having practical smartness in a supersane, extremely sensible, resourceful way) and sagesourceful (sage on account of resourcefulness), that makes me superintelligent and superwise. So this is the true weirdism, doing new shit like nobody does, a special behaviour that separates you from everybody else. I told myself, "don't be normal, it's boring", and the thing is it's done with class. Why conform to labels when you can invent your own isms? Isms are great, they give you an identity, as an anti-dismonetaryist I'm pro-capitalist and anti-anti-capitalist, I'm also pro-money, as simple as this is it's difficult, anti-dismonetaryism means you save money, can afford just about everything, wear fancy clothes, shuef is that style I invented, exquisite, fancy, stylish, classy, refined, pompous and majestic, yet the behaviour is mild when I'm like this but nonetheless the same guy who shook my hand is now angry with me, every difference I make. I think it's better than the norm, normal is mediocre, it's boring, it's unremarkable. You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. My most consistent behaviour is my rirkiness, my differentness, I can't stop being different, I can't stop doing my own thing, my own invention, it's like when I was fancy and couldn't stop, well I gave in to it and never stopped being fancy since, or with smoking, eventually I'll be different non-stop, consistently, and never change again.