On Philosophy

June 11, 2006

Can Consciousness be Explained Objectively?

Filed under: Mind — Peter @ 4:58 pm

Most philosophers agree that consciousness has a first person ontology. That is just a fancy way of saying that to describe and understand consciousness we form our descriptions so that they include a subject who is conscious and who is experiencing the conscious states. But does an explanation of consciousness require this first person ontology? Is it possible to explain consciousness in objective terms? Of course an explanation of consciousness would have to explain how the first person ontology comes about as well; I am not asking if it can be left out of our description of consciousness. So is an explanation, in objective terms, that tells us which systems are conscious, which features of the systems contribute to consciousness, and why there is a subjective viewpoint associated with this consciousness possible?

Our initial reaction might be no, because so far such an explanation hasn’t been constructed successfully. For example various higher order theories of consciousness have been proposed, which explain why a state is conscious in terms of other states, but generally it is agreed that such explanations are lacking. Consider however the case of color. Color is a subjective experience; as far as we know there is nothing like the color we experience built into the world, it’s all just photons and atoms. However this hasn’t stopped us from giving an objective explanation of color, involving reflected light and the sensitivity of various neurons in the eye to specific wavelengths. Despite the fact that we have completely omitted the first person aspects of color we still consider it a valid explanation.

At this point some would argue that I am confusing the qualia of color (the subjective experience of color) with the phenomena of color (the physical events that are required for color experience). The explanation of color that I have given they say explains the phenomena but not the qualia. By following this type of argument to its logical conclusion then we could say that there is a phenomena of consciousness and a qualia of consciousness (how it feels to be conscious). Assume then that we explain the phenomena of consciousness in objective terms. Such an explanation however would also explain why we have qualia, when we have them, and how they are structured (since they are part of consciousness), and thus in a significant way the objective explanation has captured the subjective qualia, although reading such an explanation of a qualia could not provide you with the experience of having that qualia (more on that below).

To object to this kind of explanation would require one to believe that the phenomena of consciousness and the qualia of consciousness are one in the same. While it is possible that this is true there is no necessary reason that it must be so. The only evidence that currently supports the idea that the qualia and phenomena of consciousness are identical is that so far they haven’t been separated by an explanation of just the kind I am looking for. However the failure to accomplish something doesn’t show that it is impossible, and so at the moment I will reject this objection, although I admit that if it was proven in another way that the qualia of consciousness and the phenomena of consciousness were identical I would have to abandon my search for an objective explanation of consciousness.

Let us then turn to the thought experiment of Mary the color scientist who has never seen color. We assume that Mary knows everything there is about color and the experience of color, including the activity in the brain occurs as a response to color. However even so we think that when Mary is first presented with a colored object she will learn something new, and thus the objective explanation of color (and by extension consciousness) has failed to capture something. Assume for a moment though that qualia are really just states of the conscious system as observed by that conscious system (this is a reasonable starting point for most objective explanations). It is true then that the only way to experience a qualia would be to have that qualia. Yet it doesn’t mean that we can’t understand the system and the phenomena of qualia within that system without having them ourselves. For example I think I understand the phenomena of blindness fairly well even though I have never experienced real blindness, just approximations (closed eyes, dark room, ect). So yes, it is true that Mary will have a new experience upon first seeing a colored object, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that her understanding of color was somehow lacking; the explanation (understanding) and the experience are separate.

It is for these reasons then that I continue to pursue an objective explanation of consciousness (coming soon).

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