The Problems of Consciousness

A Skeptic about Consciousness


This is a fictional email exchange, designed to bring out some of the difficulties we have in using language to pick out our sense of the word "Consciousness". What if someone steadfastly maintained that they had no such thing? In attempting to convince him that he does, or perhaps to discover in just what way he is broken, we may also sharpen our own ideas about the phenomenon.


From: skeptic@example.com
To: poc@theogeny.com
Subject: Consciousness a problem?

I've read your pages on "the Problems of Consciousness", and I must say that I really don't get it. Are you just saying that neurophysiology is too hard, and we'll never figure it out? I don't understand your claim that, as well as the facts about physics and biology that we can find out using better and better instruments, there are also somehow some _other_ facts.

All these metaphorical words like "blooming, buzzing confusion" and "inner narrator" are just reflections of our own ignorance; once we've found out more about how brains work, we'll be able to make tighter and less metaphorical statements about mental states, and we won't have to resort to metaphor.

(I realize that what I'm saying here is something that you explicitly reject on that "unsatisfactory arguments" page, but I have to admit that I don't understand your counterarguments at all. You say that you can't imagine how any objective facts about your brain could tell you anything about your consciousness; but I can't understand why you think that!)

Cordially,
A Skeptic About Consciousness


  From: poc@theogeny.com
To: skeptic@example.com
Subject: re: Consciousness a problem?

Thanks for the note! I admit it's hard to find a small set of words that picks out exactly what we mean by "consciousness". Just introspect for a moment, though, and you'll probably get the idea. "Subjective consciousness" refers to your inner experience, as you actually experience it. The facts about what it's like to be you that can't be captured by any amount of description of what the atoms in your brain are doing.

We're willing to admit that science may get to be arbitrarily good at describing, and mostly even predicting, the states of the atoms and neurons in our brains. But that still wouldn't capture the *inner experience* of seeing a red thing, or thinking a particular thought.

Hope that helps!

POC


From: skeptic@example.com
To: poc@theogeny.com
Subject: re: Consciousness a problem?

No, actually it doesn't help much! Those are just all the same metaphors again, and I don't know why you think that science will not be able to find out the facts behind them. Of course, if you think that consciousness has causal impacts on the physical world, so that eventually we'll discover that human behavior actually violates the laws of physics, that would be the case; but I don't know why anyone would think that. We're made of matter; why assume that part of it is magical?

Skeptic


  Fro