Kenneth E. Nahigian
Free Inquiry June/July 2007, p.43-45 http://www.secularhumanism.org
In the noisy and contentious debate between naturalism and religion, it
seems odd that religious believers rarely pose consciousness as a problem
for the loyal opposition. The most outspoken apologist hardly ever brings
this up. Yet, at first glance, the phenomenon of subjective cognition --
that private sense of "I" -- seems the chief critical problem, not just for
mechanistic biology, but materialism in general. I sometimes see it as the
Achilles' heel of naturalism.
If I were a religious believer, this is where I would aim my big guns. I'm
not, but I do see a wonderful landscape to explore here, much of it virgin
territory. Let me try a few shaky steps.
The question is: What is this "I," and how in a mechanistic universe can "I"
even be? Is private consciousness, subjective experience -- what
philosophers call qualia -- the ultimate sign of supernatural underpinnings?
Is naturalism incomplete? Have we materialists missed the point so long
merely because it is so damned obvious?
Let me clear up some possible muddiness. By consciousness, I mean the
private experience of self, "I think, therefore I am," not the behavior that
goes with it.
Modern psychologists who speak of consciousness tend to use the term
behavioristically -- an observed sensitivity to stimuli, a way some animal
bodies move and react, acquiring information and returning it. Psychologists
have good reasons for speaking so, but I'm using the word in the more subtle
sense, a sense that might be a bit more difficult to pin down. Conscious
behavior is not an obvious problem for naturalism. The older kind -- you
might call it the Cartesian kind -- just might be.
I am not assuming an independent duality of body and mind, nor questioning
the obvious link between them. The evidence connecting brain events to mind
events is compelling and strong. Drugs alter brain chemistry to induce
emotions; surgeons remove parts of the amygdala (a brain structure) from
violent criminals, who then become less violent; stroke victims suddenly
lose large portions of their personal identities; Alzheimer's patients
simply "melt away." And, at Stanford University, psychoneurologists have
analyzed EEG recordings to identify, with more than 91 percent accuracy,
what word or phrase a patient is thinking.
In September 1848, a railroad worker named Phineas Gage had an accident-an
iron rod went through his skull. He healed and lived thirteen years after
the accident, but the injury produced a dramatic personality change,
including complete repudiation of his devout religious belief. "Gage was no
longer Gage," said his friends. For people of faith, his case might also
raise interesting theological questions. After the accident, was Phineas
still saved or was he damned?
None of this is my issue here -- mine is far simpler, and more elusive.
Naturalism simply gives no good reason why subjectivity of consciousness
should exist in the first place.
Suppose a billiard player offered to demonstrate a complex bank shot that
would involve a great many interacting balls on a very large pool table.
Suppose he bragged to you that the intricate careening and reciprocation of
the balls would somehow cause the billiard table to become self-aware, to
think private thoughts, to emote, and to achieve a unique subjective
identity. That would seem a bit crazy, wouldn't it? And you'd start edging
toward the door, wouldn't you? Yet this craziness is what is happening in
your skull, at this moment. Reflecting on this should convince you that
subjective consciousness, as I use the term, is a quite different kind of
thing. It is something unique, strange, beautiful, subtle -- and even
Consciousness has traditionally presented slippery and compelling problems
for philosophers -- the mind/body problem, the free will problem, and
conundrums of unique identity. In the philosophy business, the core problem
I've outlined here is called the fundamental problem of psychology (FPP). It
is one of the two so-called Holy Grails of philosophy, the other being the
fundamental problem of metaphysics ("Why is there anything, and not just
With regards to FPP in particular, the big mystery wells from a sense that,
if consciousness is "just" another function of a mechanical universe, then
it is a unique function -- the only process in the machine's operation that
seems unnecessary. How wonderful and singular this is, to find at the center
of the mechanistic model and the heartbeat of our daily lives a fundamental
process in apparent excess to all the rest.
Mechanism is the model or paradigm that explains things in terms of matter
and energy, particles bumping together, or waves of probability interfering
across quantum space. I do not denigrate this model. History has vindicated
it again and again. It works; it is coherent, has parsimony and predictive
integrity, and, within it, is a dizzying beauty that unfolds like an
infinite flower. Moreover, it hands us results accurate to many decimal
places, something no magical system, no theology, has ever done.
But mechanism also depends very much on how its parts fit together. Like a
house of cards, knock out one card and the rest come tumbling down.
(Hard-core science-fiction author Larry Niven expressed it succinctly:
"Changing one law is like trying to eat one peanut.") That, in fact, is the
chief strength of mechanism: the way parts dovetail and "click."
Philosophers call it "consilience." Try to scratch one part from the big
picture -- like electromagnetism, nuclear force, x-rays, helium, amino acids
-- and, immediately, problems are storming at the door.
But consciousness, ah! That is something else. Pry it from the big picture,
and ... what? Well, we stop being aware. Not much else happens. The wheels
of the mechanistic model seem to continue to whirl on, at least with respect
to all the basic laws we've learned so far. In short, nothing in the basic
laws of chemistry or physics requires this subjective ghost in our heads. As
far as physics and chemistry are concerned, we might as well be soulless
robots. Consciousness seems like an extra added attraction, like peanut
butter spread on a bran muffin.
The wonderfully apparent nonnecessity of consciousness has always astonished
and delighted me, and I expect that it will continue to do so. Though a
freethinker and evolutionist, I feel almost compelled to give a nod to
mysticism, unable to evade a suspicion that mind/self/subjectivity
represents a kind of crack in the cosmic egg, a deep enigma sitting right on
our doorstep, a clue pointing to something mysterious leaking up through the
underside of things.
Speaking as a whimsical materialist, I find this wonderful, something to
take me down a peg in my materialistic hubris. If creationists or Christian
apologists now want to grab this ball and run with it, bringing up the FPP
in their debates, they are welcome to. Certainly, it makes more sense
overall than the warmed-over nonsense about fossil gaps and moon dust.
But I urge caution. The problem is both larger and smaller than you might
think. It is smaller, because it is easy to argue that FPP is not a problem
for science, which concerns itself with objective events. The FPP, such as
it is, relates to subjective consciousness. The objective/behavior type of
consciousness, as observed earlier, is not a critical problem. The
mechanistic model can easily explain that kind, at least in principle. It
can explain why we talk to each other, why we smile or frown, why we weep,
blush, remember childhood nightmares, why we use words like consciousness in
the first place and even why we discuss the "problems of consciousness."
from the outside, looking in, no real difficulty exists. The mechanistic
model only seems to falter on the subjective side, that is, explaining the
way consciousness feels from the inside, looking out.
Dwell on this long enough, and you will be nudged towards an eerie paradox.
The problem of pure subjective consciousness seems to exist only for you,
the observer. You can never really get inside someone else's mind, never
really see another as he or she claims to see him- or herself. Everything
you perceive is from your point of view, by definition. So, in a surprising,
ineluctable, logical sense, you are alone in your universe. "Other" people
are black boxes that move and speak and posture. And, when you talk of their
thoughts or desires, it seems to be a kind of shorthand for modes of
goal-oriented, information-returning behavior. You seem to speak of the will
and desires of others much as you speak of the "desires" of a chess-playing
computer (e.g., "It wants to keep its king behind the pawns," or "It likes
to get its knights out early").
If this kind of solipsism bothers you, good. It should. But you will be
drawn to it as you pursue the idea of consciousness as a purely "private"
The FPP is also smaller in the sense that it doesn't really contradict the
mechanistic model -- it just seems oddly superfluous in comparison. While
the model seems to fail to explain or predict consciousness, nothing in it
tells us that consciousness cannot occur.
Some argue, for example, that all consciousness is one entity and that each
of us is an individual manifestation of it. The brain in itself is not
consciousness and does not manufacture its subjectivity, but it somehow
"tunes into" universal self-awareness, adding conditionalized particulars
such as memories, personality, desires, and knowledge. When we die,
consciousness does not end. Rather, we let it go-and like wave froth or
spindrift, it falls and melts into a vast ocean, some sort of abstract
ur-consciousness which subsists in the very dance and weave of atoms. What
this would be like I can't imagine. Obviously, the hypothesis is pure fancy,
as impossible to disprove as to prove. But I like to indulge in the
mysticism of it.
On the other hand, the FPP is a larger difficulty than you might think,
because it is as much a problem for theology as it is for science. When a
theologian tries to face down the problem of mind or subjective identity,
the tendency is to "explain" it as an expression of God's love and grace.
This sort of explanation simply nudges the mystery around in a little
circle. "We are conscious because God made us so." Why? "Because he loves
us." Then why didn't God make the rocks and trees conscious? "He doesn't
love them -- not as he loves people." Why doesn't he love them as much? "Why
should he? They aren't conscious beings."
More seriously, a theologian might say that we are conscious because we have
souls. But what is a "soul"? Why are souls conscious? (And, if animals do
not have souls, does that mean animals are unconscious, without feeling?
Descartes thought so!) For that matter, is God conscious? If so, why? Must
we postulate a Supergod? Or if God is simply conscious by his own nature,
why not just say people are conscious "by their own natures"? Simplify the
model -- achieve parsimony.
Moreover, is the soul equivalent to subjective consciousness, or is
consciousness simply one attribute of a soul, where the soul itself exists
objectively, publicly, and in relation to other souls? If so, why not strip
off a layer of language and just say that consciousness is an attribute of
But if the soul is equivalent to consciousness, and one-dayold embryos have
souls, are they conscious? Are souls indivisible the same way consciousness
is supposedly indivisible? If so, what happens when a zygote fissions to
form identical twins -- does this condemn one of the twins to life without a
soul (a walking robot)? (And then could we ever know which one?)
Suppose you lost your soul one day, but the particles in your body and brain
continued to interact as before, in answer to the same physical laws. Would
your body ever admit it had lost its soul?
These questions have an impudent tone, but I pose them sincerely. They are
not trivial. And, mind you, they don't pertain just to Christianity. They
come part and parcel with the Hindu notion of atman, Scientology's thetan,
and Rosicrucianism's ego. To my knowledge, religion has made no progress on
them, except to cloud them in a haze of semantics. The only religion that
sidesteps the problem of consciousness is Zen.
Western religion and Western philosophy often offer a kind of
ghost-in-the-machine model of consciousness. I'm not sure that explains much
or has much to do with the real problem. Nobody has the full truth of it
yet. And it leads us right to legitimate, indeed, vital questions about the
nature of identity, cognition, freedom, and will.
Certainly, it is important to ask such questions and to try to answer them.
And I have nothing against supernatural answers in principle, except I have
never been quite sure what "supernatural" is. The "answers" supernatural
explanations provide tend to be so vague, so equivocal, that nothing ever is
solved. Like the old saw about Chinese food, an hour later my mind (my
brain?) is hungry again.
Freethinker Ken Nahigian is a part of a Sacramento-based philosophical think
tank consisting of him, four cats, and some shrubbery.