Fun with Filosofers


While we wait for the amazing complexity of the human brain to be unravelled by scientists, some philosophers seem to be showing signs of impatience. They want an explanation of the existence of self-consciousness now. And they're getting themselves into a mess as a result.

For them,
degrees of self-consciousness in the animal kingdom are no evidence that it might have something to do with differences in our DNA and consequently in our brains. Neither is the effect on our consciousness of anaesthetics or damage to our brains convincing as an argument for a purely neurological explanation. There are even schools of thought that maintain that a physical explanation of self-consciousness is logically impossible. The most interesting of these is that based on the concept of the ‘zombie brain’. This was explained in an article in issue 96 of Philosophy Now in 2013 by Doctor Philip Goff:

A philosophical zombie, as opposed to a Hollywood zombie, is an exact physical duplicate of a human being that lacks consciousness. A philosophical zombie version of you would walk and talk and in general act just like you ... And the reason it behaves just like you is that the physical workings of its brain are indiscernible from the physical workings of your own brain. If a brain scientist were to dissect your brain and that of your zombie twin, he would be unable to see any difference between them. However, your zombie twin has no inner experience: there is nothing that it’s like to be your zombie twin.

The next step in the argument is this - that a purely physical account of self-awareness requires that it be solely a function of the wiring circuits inside the brain. But if a zombie brain with those same circuits can work without consciousness then that means that the circuitry does not in fact produce self-awareness. So then might a zombie brain actually exist? Unlike say the existence of a square circle, which is logically incoherent, its proponents say that it is logically possible for a zombie brain, identical to a normal brain, to exist. And, they say, if it is logically possible, then that kills off the idea of the neural circuitry being the cause of self-consciousness, because in a zombie brain with the same neural circuitry there is nevertheless no self-consciousness.

Now maybe logically it is possible for such a brain to exist, but is that sufficient to allow us to assert that one really exists? Consider the opposite argument: We can posit the existence of a brain which, as a result of its neural circuitry, has self-consciousness. It’s logically possible. But how could there be one brain with neural circuits producing self-awareness and another absolutely identical zombie version of it with the same circuits, but not doing so? You might as well say that in two cars, absolutely identical in all respects, depressing the accelerator might make one car go faster and the other slower. So then this means that if neural circuitry does in reality produce self-consciousness in a brain, then we have to exclude the existence of its zombie equivalent. But in fact neither argument actually clinches anything. In both cases we have to go one step further and produce actual evidence showing the existence of either a zombie brain or a brain having self-consciousness as a result of its neural circuitry. Only then will we know which of the mutually exclusive hypotheses is true.

To solve the perceived problem of self-consciousness, the same Dr Goff has now however settled on the idea that everything has self-consciousness, whether human beings or neutrinos (Issue 121). The idea of ‘panpsychism’ is that self-awareness is inherent in every aspect of matter, even though normally we only recognise it in the animal kingdom. The argument seems to run as follows:: because the sub-atomic particles of which we are made have mass, our bodies can have mass and because those particles also have consciousness, we are able to have consciousness. But no explanation is given of how this may work. It’s a “just so” story.

Self-consciousness however means that we are aware of ourselves and of ourselves in relation to our surroundings. So in what way are the physical properties of sub-atomic particles, “mass, spin, charge, etc., in their intrinsic nature, forms of consciousness”, as Dr Goff asserts? Yes, they interact with other particles in a precise ways determined by their own properties, but that is not self-awareness. Panpsychists seem to argue that it is a question of degree. Other animals show awareness, but in a reduced form. So we don’t ascribe human-like awareness to mice or spiders. And so just as we would find it difficult to imagine having a spider’s form of self-awareness, we would find it even more difficult to understand the self-awareness enjoyed by a sub-atomic particle. And this, they say, leaves open the possibility that it has self-awareness in some way. This is, however, argument by analogy, which has no logical value. And, more importantly, if the argument is to have any persuasive power, self-awareness must be recognisably the same at whatever level it is said to exist. Unless we want to be in Humpty Dumpty land, self-consciousness cannot completely change meaning as it shrinks. Indeed, if panpsychism is the best explanation currently available, I think I shall get out my self-aware Ouija board to see what’s next in line to ‘explain’ consciousness.

The concept of panpsychism has however given me much food for thought. It has made me realise that invoking the existence of a hitherto undetected universal property to explain the unexplained can be extended to other mysteries. For instance, we are all too ready to believe that our DNA codes to give us two legs and two arms. But why? No-one has ever shown in complete detail the biochemical processes by which this happens. Our acceptance of a DNA-based explanation is obviously just another example of misplaced reliance on physicalism. And in the absence of a physical explanation, the origin of our limbs and their reason for being remains unexplained and should obviously be referred to as the hard limbist problem.

For a philosopher, however, this is simple to resolve. We need only postulate a panlimbist world. I would propose that the reason we humans normally have four limbs is that everything has four limbs, down to and including the smallest sub-atomic particle. Of course we might have to modify our definition of limbs a little bit and also the meaning of the number 4 in view of the absence of anything actually like limbs forming part of mountains or oceans or indeed electrons and protons. We can instead say that they have an inherent quality which we could simply name ‘limb’ like, say, mass or spin or the electro-weak force. We may then assert that this is fundamental to enabling us all to have what we would normally describe as limbs - just like the proposition made by panpsychists that the existence of self-awareness in all matter, including sub-atomic particles, although not in a form that fits the definition of self-awareness, is the source of human consciousness. Problem solved.

Paul Buckingham

17 August 2017

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