The unsolved mysteries of consciousness.

Scrutinizing culture.
Nov. 30 2009 6:10 PM

The Dangerous Mysteries of Consciousness

We still need answers.

(Continued from Page 1)

In fact, Dawkins' all-too-casual, almost dismissive language here offers a rare admission of a big open question: the fact that neither he nor his theory has yet to find a scientific explanation of—even to agree on a definition of—consciousness. It always makes me queasy when advocates of science take cheap shots at creationism and intelligent design as if they have All the Answers themselves. I am deeply skeptical about intelligent design, too, but it's important to acknowledge that "our" side doesn't have all the answers, that no matter how much we know, mysteries remain. Someday, science may well explain how a random mutation resulted in consciousness where none had been before.

Tallis is particularly good on the old argument about the evolution of the eye. He doesn't say that the human eye could never have been achieved through evolution because of its "irreducible complexity," as the intelligent-design advocates do. Rather, he points out the difference between explaining the development of a complex and sensitive means for registering the visual world and explaining the nature, location, and stuff of visual awareness:

Firstly, chemical or electrochemical sensitivity to light is not the same as awareness of light. Secondly, the content of awareness of light—brightness, color, never mind beauty or meaning—is not to be found in electromagnetic radiation, which is not intrinsically bright, colored, beautiful or meaningful. These secondary and tertiary qualities are not properties of the physical world and the energy in question. Thirdly, it is not clear how certain organizations of matter manage to be aware—of impingements of energy, and later of objects, and (in the case of humans) of themselves—when very similar organizations of matter do not have this property. This problem is more evident much further down the evolutionary path, when we look at neurons that are, and those that are not, associated with consciousness in the human brain and see how little distinguishes them. The biological story of the evolution of the eye from single cells to full-blown eyes tells us nothing about the journey from light incident on photosensitive cells, producing a programmed response, to the gaze that looks out and sees, and peers at, and inquires into, a visible world. …

Computers, after all, do not get any nearer to being conscious as the inputs are more complexly related to their outputs, however many stages and layers of processing intervene between the two. There is nothing, in short, that will explain why matter in a certain form will go "mental".

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I disagree with Tallis on at least one point. He insists that consciousness must have an adaptive evolutionary explanation. And indeed human consciousness may at first have been adaptive. But adaptive functions can go awry, as when a species' reproductive capacity outstrips its food supply. And if you look at the last century in terms of war and slaughter and genocide, you have to wonder whether the more violent tendencies of consciousness are turning out to be maladaptive. Otherwise, why would we consciously place our species in danger of extinction through a Faustian bargain with nuclear physics?

Like Tallis, Colin McGinn is particularly good in condemning materialist explanations of consciousness, pointing out that it's impossible to collapse the mind into the brain. Or, as he puts it: "[T]he mind is … meat neither more nor less." To the materialist the feeling of "pain, for example, is nothing more than a firing of certain fibers in the brain. The feeling of pain simply reduces to such physical processes. The two are not merely correlated; they are identical." To the materialist, Mr. McGinn continues, "the mind is the brain in disguise. The djinn is the lamp."

He goes on to point out that he could hypothetically "know everything about your brain of a neural kind … its anatomy, its chemical ingredients, the pattern of electrical activity in its various segments … the position of every atom and its subatomic structure … everything that that materialist says your mind is. Do I thereby know everything about your mind? It certainly seems not. On the contrary, I know nothing about your mind. I know nothing about which conscious states you are in … and what these states feel like to you..."

If they are not, if in fact consciousness is an instance of dualism—of the mind being somehow different, not identical with the brain—of what then is the nonmaterial "stuff" of consciousness, the "self" and all that, made? Philosophers tie themselves into knots seeking to resolve these questions. (Thomas Nagel's review of Galen Strawson's new book, Selves:An Essay in Revisionary Metaphysics, in the London Review of Books is a particularly good display of the incredible difficulties of the problem, although my favorite recent book on the subject is the brief but cogent Seeing Redby Nicholas Humphrey.)

Another acute critic of the pure materialist theory of consciousness is the mathematician and philosopher David Berlinski, whose impressively argued critique of scientific certainty on the subject can be found in his new book, The Devil's Delusion.Berlinski has suffered—unfairly, I think—from the fact that his work often appears in the pages of a religiously-oriented publication (Commentary) and from the suspicion that he has some hidden creationist or intelligent-design agenda. Which he explicitly disclaims. Berlinski is scrupulous not to suggest that he has the answer or that God is the answer or any of that. He just doesn't think, when it comes to the evolution of "awareness," that anybody has All the Answers. Or any of them.

McGinn and Tallis and Berlinski: the mysterians! "Metaphysical heretics" might be more dignified, but I like the fact that from Mysterians take the name from the '60s one-hit-wonder rock group Question Mark and the Mysterians, best known for "96 Tears," which became a seminal influence on punk and No Wave later on. They've got what you might call a philosophical version of a punk rock attitude toward on these questions, a disdain for the nobs who sit on their fat certainties. I consider them heroic for entertaining heresies that dismay the religious and the irreligious, both of whom claim too much.

It's a difficult place to be, not knowing whether one can know the answer to the deepest mysteries. I think David Foster Wallace—particularly in his book on infinity—felt this acutely. He was a Mysterian. Hamlet was: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy," he says. (At least, that's how it appears in the Quarto of the play; in the Folio it's "in our philosophy." Did Shakespeare revise? We still don't know.) Nabokov: I don't see him as a Mysterian. I think he saw it all like Milton's God did, spread out in space and time before him. He wasn't a Mysterian because "it" wasn't a mystery to him. Part of what is intriguing about his work is the way you get glimpses of his vision, his metaphysical synesthesia.

When I say the mystery of consciousness is a dangerous one, what I mean is that nobody wants to admit they don't have things All Figured Out, and it's particularly destabilizing not figuring yourself out. Where do my thoughts come from? Are they determined by my biochemistry? Is my reaction to this column the product of free will?

If I had the time, I would establish an international Mysterian society for those who recognize that the universe is still a profoundly mysterious place and yet don't want to be alone thinking dark thoughts about it. That's really all I want to do. It bothers me. I want it to bother others, too.