Saturday, January 24, 2015

Consciousness as Real and Immaterial

In my doctoral dissertation on metaphor theory and philosophy of language I spent time looking at how the physical brain processes figurative language. (One main text at the time was Cognition and Figurative Language, by Honeck and Hoffman.) "Metaphor" is not, as Aristotle and others thought, an elliptical simile (i.e., a simile minus the word 'like'). The brain processes metaphor and simile differently.

One of my doctoral advisors was Dr. James Ashbrook, a neuro-psyschologist/theologian. I will never forget Dr. Ashbrook sharing the time when he began to do neuro-studies and held, for the first time, a physical human brain. He was filled with awe and wonder that this 3-pound blob of jellylike goo processed language and contained consciousness. How could this crazy thing called the "mind" emerge from or supervene upon or causally effect the physical brain?

These questions have not gone away. See Oliver Burkeman's well-written essay "Why can't the world's greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness?" Consciousness is real, and seems to be nonphysical. As neuro-philosopher David Chalmers says, I’m talking to you now, and I can see how you’re behaving; I could do a brain scan, and find out exactly what’s going on in your brain – yet it seems it could be consistent with all that evidence that you have no consciousness at all.” If you were approached by me and my doppelgänger, not knowing which was which, not even the most powerful brain scanner in existence could tell us apart." ("Doppelganger" = a point-for-point physical equivalent to myself, except without consciousness.) 

Some scholars accept Chalmers's ideas, others do not. But what is called the "Hard Problem" of first-person subjective consciousness remains.

There's a lot in Burkeman's essay that is very helpful, and readable. I wonder if the Hard Problem is in principle unsolvable, since one would, it seems, have to posit consciousness in order to theorize about it. 

Or, perhaps it can never be solved because...

"... we’re just constitutionally incapable of ever solving the Hard Problem? After all, our brains evolved to help us solve down-to-earth problems of survival and reproduction; there is no particular reason to assume they should be capable of cracking every big philosophical puzzle we happen to throw at them. This stance has become known as “mysterianism” – after the 1960s Michigan rock’n’roll band ? and the Mysterians, who themselves borrowed the name from a work of Japanese sci-fi – but the essence of it is that there’s actually no mystery to why consciousness hasn’t been explained: it’s that humans aren’t up to the job. If we struggle to understand what it could possibly mean for the mind to be physical, maybe that’s because we are, to quote the American philosopher Josh Weisberg, in the position of “squirrels trying to understand quantum mechanics”. In other words: “It’s just not going to happen.”"