Saturday, February 25, 2012

Recent Resources on the "Really Hard Problem" of First-Person Subjective Consciousness

I went to bed last night listening to J.P. Moreland's "Argument From Consciousness for God's Existence." (You can download it here for $1.99.) Moreland's talk is a mini-presntation of his daunting Consciousness and the Existence of God. There Moreland defends the truth of the conditional statement: If irreducible consciousness exists (or is regularly correlated with physical states), then this provides evidence (to a degree Moreland specifies in ch. 2) for God's existence. (xi)

Ultimately this works as an example of abductive reasoning: 1) irreducible consciousness exists; 2) the best explanation for irreducible consciousness is either theism or naturalism; 3) it's not naturalism; 4) therefore, theism is the most probable explanation for the existence of irreducible consciousness.
Moreland, therefore, must establish the antecedent clause of the above conditional, which he believes he does by going into painstaking detail re. the possibilities.

I see Moreland as going at what is, on philosophical naturalism, the "really hard problem" of first-person subjective consciousness, and claiming that, on theism, the "hardness" of the problem is seen as what we should expect to see if theism is true.

Moreland concludes: "I have argued that if property/event dualism is true, it provides evidence for the existence of God." (175)
Is this a good argument? I think so. But note this: the matter of "consciousness" is admitted by many to be a "mystery," and in principle an unsolvable one.
For example, consider philosopher Colin McGinn's excellent "All machine and no ghost?" Read this as a doorway into the discussion. Here are some highlights.
  • The philosophy of mind is concerned with the existence and nature of consciousness: what is consciousness, why does it exist, how is it related to the body and brain, and how did it come into existence?
  • We do not now, and likely will never, understand how the conscious mind and the unconscious material world fit intelligibly together.
  • There are five positions, or views, on consciousness.
  • View #1 - Eliminativism. "The eliminativist position attempts to dissolve the problem of explaining consciousness simply by declaring that there isn't any: there is no such thing - no seeing, hearing, thinking, and so on. There is just blank matter; the impression that we are conscious is an illusion. This view is clearly absurd, a form of madness even, and anyway refutes itself since even an illusion is the presence of an experience (it certainly seems to me that I am conscious). There are some who purport to hold this view but they are a tiny (and tinny) minority: they are sentient beings loudly claim­ing to be mindless zombies."
  • View #2 - Dualism. Dualism (J.P. Moreland, e.g.) holds that "consciousness exists, as well as matter, holding that reality falls into two giant spheres. There is the physical brain, on the one hand, and the conscious mind, on the other: the twain may meet at some point but they remain distinct entities. Dualism may be of substances, properties, or even whole universes, but its thrust is that the conscious mind is a thing apart from, and irreducible to, anything that goes on in the body. When I think, my brain indeed whirs but the thinking stands apart from the whirring, as clouds stand aloft from the earth or magnetism exists separately from gravity."
  • View #3 - Idealism. Idealism holds that "there is nothing but mind! There is no problem of interaction with matter because matter is mere illusion - we merely hallucinate brains. The universe is just one vast spirit, or perhaps a population of the same, consisting of nothing but free-floating consciousness, unencumbered and serene. Stars and planets are just perturbations in this cosmic sensorium."
  • View #4 - Panpsychism. "Even the lowliest of material things has a streak of sentience running through it, like veins in marble. Not just parcels of organic matter, such as lizards and worms, but also plants and bacteria and water molecules and even electrons. Everything has its primitive feelings and minute allotment of sensation. The cool thing about panpsychism is that it offers a seductively silky explanation of emergence. How does mind emerge from matter? Why - by virtue of the pre-existence of mind in matter... The trouble with panpsychism is that there just isn't any evidence of the universal distribution of consciousness in the material world. Atoms don't act conscious; they act unconscious."
  • View #5 - Mysterianism. This is McGinn's position. He writes: "Consciousness must have evolved from matter somehow but nothing we could contrive or imagine seemed to offer the faintest hope for explanation. Hence, it occurred to me that the problem might lie not in nature but in ourselves: we just don't have the faculties of comprehension that would enable us to remove the sense of mystery. Ontologically, matter and consciousness are woven intelligibly together but epistemologically we are precluded from seeing how. I used Noam Chomsky's notion of "mysteries of nature" to describe the situation as I saw it. Soon, I was being labelled (by Owen Flanagan) a "mysterian", the name of a defunct pop group, and the name stuck."
McGinn's point is: yes, consciousness is a great and amazing mystery, and likely will forever remain so. He concludes, in a display of rhetorical fireworks: "The "mysterianism" I advocate is really nothing more than the acknowledgment that human intelligence is a local, contingent, temporal, practical and expendable feature of life on earth - an incremental adaptation based on earlier forms of intelligence that no one would regard as faintly omniscient. The current state of the philosophy of mind, from my point of view, is just a reflection of one evolutionary time-slice of a particular bipedal species on a particular humid planet at this fleeting moment in cosmic history - as is everything else about the human animal. There is more ignorance in it than knowledge."

Moreland, on the other hand, sees theism as providing an explanation for consciousness. This is no "God of the gaps" thing, but the use of inference to the best explanation.

The Return of the Soul

Cambridge theoretical psychologist Nicholas Humphrey has invested in this discussion. He's interviewed here. He says: "What I also want to do is reintroduce the soul as a respectable issue for evolutionary psychology and philosophy." Consciousness looks and feels like "something from out of this world... It seems to be something that is beyond explanation in terms of what we know about the material world. That's a claim which many people, religious believers and philosophers, always make."

I agree. Consciousness is a bit of data that, as we attempt to investigate it, provokes awe and wonder and, for some like Moreland and me, brings us back to the matter of God.