The Objectivity of Consciousness
G. Stolyarov II
A Journal for Western Man-- Issue XXXVI-- June 5, 2005
Note: This essay is the twelfth chapter of Mr. Stolyarov's new comprehensive filosofical treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, which can be ordered in electronic format for only $2.50 at http://www.lulu.com/content/140855. Free previews, descriptions, and information on A Rational Cosmology can be found at http://rationalargumentator.com/rc.html.
Partly as a response to my article, “The Fysicalist View of Life, Consciousness, and Volition,” Reginald Firehammer has published the treatise, “Consciousness Itself,” in which he presents, among other ideas, his rebuttal to the fysicalist model of consciousness. Within that argument, he posits the notion that consciousness is inherently subjective and that no man could possibly know what another’s consciousness is like. As I am an adherent of the fysicalist view, I see fit in this essay to explicate my true position on consciousness. I shall defend the proposition that consciousness, like all other aspects of reality is objective, meaning that any individual, if he undertakes the required procedures, can understand what another’s consciousness is like. Furthermore, I will demonstrate that human perception of fysical fenomena is, for all healthy, non-defective persons, fundamentally the same and provides accurate knowledge about the natures of said fenomena.
Can We Observe Others’ Consciousness?
According to Mr. Firehammer, there is an inherent limit to what we may know about another’s consciousness. He writes:
Consciousness in other people and other creatures is inferred from their testimony (in the case of people) or their behavior (in the case of animals), but cannot be directly observed. We believe the testimony of others about their consciousness, because what they describe sounds exactly like what we experience, and we have no reason to suspect them of deceiving us. If someone were not conscious, it is unlikely they would attempt to fool others into thinking they were. If they were not conscious, how would they know what it is and what possible motive could they have for deceiving others about it?
Mr. Firehammer claims that it is impossible for us to definitively prove that somebody else is conscious, and, where the capacity for proof is absent, we have to simply take their word for it. Or, in the case of animals, we see that their behavior is sufficiently interactive with their environment to presume that they possess consciousness. Yet, this argument runs into a pitfall. Even using today’s computer technology, it is possible to create a “talking program” with a sufficiently broad ability to respond to a variety of data input. It might even be possible to program the computer to state, “I am conscious,” as an answer to the corresponding question. Yet, it is also known that a modern computer is not conscious, no matter how interactive it might be. If the computer is not conscious, and the animal is, there must be a means of demonstrating both truths. Clearly, then, to delineate between what is conscious and what is not, especially in so-called “borderline cases,” we need a more rigorous standard of proof.
Yet, under Mr. Firehammer’s model, this standard of proof is nearly impossible to establish, as Mr. Firehammer denies almost any certainty of similarity between even the perceptions of two human beings:
In general we assume [an]other’s consciousness is like our own, and there is good reason to assume it. In fact, however, [an]other's consciousness could be quite different, and we could never know it. If we try to explain to one another what our consciousness is like, I may give you examples of how I perceive things, and you the same. For example, I might point to a red car and say, "I perceive that color as red," and you might point to a blue car and say, "I perceive that color as blue." Neither of us will be astonished that we agree on the names of the colors, but, if we think we have any more idea of how the other actually perceives those colors, we are mistaken. The actual conscious experience I have when seeing red might be the actual conscious experience you have when seeing blue, and the actual conscious experience you have when seeing red might be the actual conscious experience I have when seeing green.
So, Mr. Firehammer’s model leads us to a dead end in terms of demonstrating objectively the existence of consciousness. The ostensive demonstration that he likes to employ is, in many cases, inconclusive. (Even for some human beings, it is at times hard to say whether they are conscious! Anyone who has observed a hip-hop-mesmerized zombie would express a similar doubt.) And, to add to the problem, Mr. Firehammer claims that there is no other gateway to an understanding of consciousness that we can employ, since, in his theory, he has placed barriers between even elementary perceptions of various individuals. To demonstrate the existence of consciousness objectively, we must show that these barriers are artificial and remove them.
My contention is as follows: Let us presume that you and I are entirely healthy individuals, with no sensory impairments. If I observe a red ball (or any other entity) from a given angle, and then you observe the red ball from the same angle, in the same environment, we will both see the same red ball in the same way. There will be no difference between my perception and yours. To demonstrate this, only the fysicalist model of consciousness will suffice.
The fysicalist model acknowledges that there are fysical mechanisms which are necessary for consciousness to function. The eyes function as receptors of light of a certain "frequency," which then transmit a signal of the light’s reception through the optic nerve to the visual cortex of the brain. For all healthy organisms in the human species, even though they will vary somewhat in their genetic makeup, the functionality of all their organs will be the same, and so will be the mechanisms by which these organs will function. For two healthy human beings, the eyes may be of different colors, shapes, and sizes, but their functional structures will all be the same. Similarly, two healthy individuals may have brains of different sizes, but the innate qualities of their brains would be identical, including those qualities which automatically (i.e., non-volitionally) allow a human being to experience perception of the world around him. It is true that two healthy individuals may differ vastly in intelligence, reasoning, and speed of thought. However, none of this is due to any inherent difference in the perceptual mechanisms of the brain. Every man is born tabula rasa, meaning that every man’s intellectual mind is a blank slate, but every man’s perceptual mind is already fully established at birth, seeing as, provided that one’s organism does not suffer any fysical impairments, the way one perceives with one’s senses never changes during one’s life.
Fysics has already demonstrated that variety in colors is a result of quantitative differences in the measurements of light on the electromagnetic spectrum. (This model is contingent on experiment, and there can be legitimate disputes about what the true units of measurement pertaining to the electromagnetic spectrum are. However, one thing is certain: there is a way to quantitatively measure differences in color.) Thus, if you and I have the same functional structures of the eyes, and the same perceptual capacities of the brain, we will “see” the same thing when the same "frequency" of light enters our pupils at the same angle in the same environment. It is true that I can never have your particular experience, in the sense that I cannot be you. However, I can fully know what that experience is like, by looking at the same object, in the same environment, from the same vantage point as you did. Auditory, olfactory, and tactile senses have similarly been explained in terms of quantitative fenomena (be they sound waves, chemical interactions, or variations in temperature and pressure), and, given a certain quantity of external stimuli, coupled with fundamentally same fysical mechanisms (ears, nose, hands, brain) in healthy individuals, will produce the same perception in multiple people. Furthermore, the similarity of human perception holds not only for specific entities, but for perceptual qualities in general. The color red, associated with a certain wavelength of light, will always be perceived in the same manner by fysically healthy individuals. Two individuals might disagree about whether a given level of sound is “loud” or “soft,” but they will still be perceiving the same level of sound. What differs for them are their subjective interpretations of the sound they perceive, but the perception of the sound itself is objective and incapable of being “interpreted” by the brain as anything other than what it is.
If the fysical mechanisms of perception differ, however, so does the perception itself. For example, a visually impaired individual will see all entities in a different manner than a visually healthy one. A fly with thousands of visual receptacles will see entities differently than a human being with two eyes. This does not mean, however, that it is impossible for a healthy human being to understand exactly what these modes of perception are like. It suffices to know what fysical mechanisms of the perceiving organisms are involved in receiving what sensory stimuli. Then, on the basis of this data, a computer might be used to replicate precisely the image that the organism perceives. Granted, this is not an easy task, and would require an intimate knowledge of another organism’s fysiology, brain structure, and nervous system, as well as considerable computer processing ability. Yet such an understanding is quite conceivable, much as it is possible for a computer to currently create an image from the vantage point of a mechanical probe used to explore areas directly inaccessible to human beings. Human beings cannot directly see inside their own bodies, volcanoes, or narrow shafts in Egyptian pyramids, but probes and computers have made it possible for us to understand what such an experience would be like. Therefore, unlike what Mr. Firehammer contends, it is quite possible not only to know what another healthy person’s consciousness is like, but to know what any consciousness different from our own is like.
From the fysicalist viewpoint, all consciousness is objective, in that it is a result of objectively occurring fysical processes that, if understood, could lead to a full knowledge of consciousness.
The Objectivity of Pain
Mr. Firehammer tries to demonstrate the subjectivity of consciousness by using pain as an example:
A broken bone is, to consciousness, extremely painful, but a broken bone, as a physical phenomenon, in terms of physics, has no attribute which can be called pain. No x-ray, physical examination, or analysis of any kind will find any attribute about a broken bone which can be called pain. The pain associated with a broken bone exists only in the context of a living organism and only to consciousness. Pain exists and is real, it is an indication of a real physical state, but does not itself exist physically, and has no physical attributes or explanation.
This is not a correct explanation of pain, as it leaves out the context in which it occurs. Pain is the result of nerve signals being sent into the brain to alert it of fysical threats to the organism’s integrity. People whose nerve endings in a given area are damaged will not experience pain in that area, no matter how severely they might be hurt. It is true that analyzing the broken bone in isolation from everything else will yield no clues as to what causes the pain. However, analyzing the sum of the broken bone and the nerve endings which connect to it will result in pinpointing the origin of the pain as existing in those nerve endings. It is also true that the same nerve ending damaged in the same way in two different, otherwise healthy individuals will result in the same amount of pain, perceived in the same manner. But, in essence, there is nothing non-fysical about the experience of pain, and, thus, this example does not refute the objectivity of consciousness, nor its existence as a fysical process.
A False Dichotomy
Further, Mr. Firehammer seeks to establish a dichotomy between the mechanisms of conscious perception and the perception itself:
It has been suggested that given sufficient complexity in the proper configuration, it is possible for a physical process to produce "consciousness." It is supposed, for example, that a complex nervous system like that of the higher animals and human beings in some way produces consciousness. Conscious vision, for example, in this view, is produced by the nervous system providing information from the eyes that are processed in some way by the brain, which process is "seeing." In fact, no physical process can be vision—even if in some way information reaching the brain from the eye through the optic nerves could be processed into an image, it would be like an image on a TV—but an image on a TV is not vision and can only be consciously seen if someone is watching the TV. That is what consciousness is; it is the "seeing" of the image. Whatever the physical brain does, it cannot itself be consciousness. The behavior of the brain is only more physical action; it only makes available to consciousness what is seen, heard, felt, smelled and tasted—the brain itself cannot see, hear, feel, smell or taste anything.
This dichotomy, however, is a false one, as it falsely categorizes the perception and the perceiver. The perception is not the image formed in the brain, but rather the objective external stimuli that cause the formation of the image. The perceiver is not some non-fysical process, but rather the sum of the mechanisms and processes involved in the reception of the stimulus. In visual perception, the “image” is the external world. The eyes, optic nerve, and brain are the “seer” of the “image.” Whatever “that which is seen” must be, it, like the television image Mr. Firehammer mentioned, must be outside all the mechanisms which are doing the seeing. Thus, the distinction between the seer and the seen already exists, and in an extremely commonsense manner, too. There is no need to create another artificial distinction by designating that which is seen to include the processing done by the eyes and brain, and then designating “consciousness” in the non-fysical sense as the seer. I claim that consciousness is the seer, while remaining the sum of all the mechanisms which see, as well as all other perceptual mechanisms in general. The operations of the eyes and brain are the “seeing”!
The Unity of Consciousness
Mr. Firehammer claims that consciousness cannot be fysical because all of its processes are unified:
In the more formal description of this aspect of consciousness I said, "It would be impossible, at the physical level, to make all the discrete physical events required for detection of separate phenomena be a single event." What that means, is, there is no physical system which is able to detect sounds (microphones, for example) images (a video camera, for example), pressure and weight (a transponder system, for example) temperature (and electronic thermometer for example), movement (a electro-gyroscope for example) which can all be recognized in all its detail all this data as a single event or process. The information that all these detection systems provide, at the physical level, must forever remain discrete. The laws of physics and information theory, both determined by the principles that govern physical existence, exclude the possibility that this information can be integrated into a single thing or phenomenon, like my consciousness. If my consciousness were a phenomenon of the physical, it would not be a single thing, but a collection of separate and discrete things. Physically, the unity of consciousness is an impossibility.
The so-called “unity” of consciousness in, however, in fact, a simultaneity, in the sense that the human organism does not have a single location which processes all sensory data, thoughts, and emotions. Rather, these occur alongside one another and at the same time. The eyes and one portion of the brain account for seeing; the ears and another portion account for hearing; a third portion of the brain accounts for abstract reasoning. Consciousness is the sum of all these processes, which are naturally perceived as occurring at the same time, because they do. There is, furthermore, interaction among these various components of the brain, since the simultaneous conscious experiences are part of a single organism. For example, my reasoning faculty can identify the fact that I am seeing and hearing something and analyze that thing. Thus, consciousness amounts to discrete, simultaneous processes unified by highly elaborate interactions among the various functions which make the processes possible.
This idea avoids the accusation made by Mr. Firehammer that the fysicalist view would only be consistent with a single “master consciousness cell” that somehow unifies conscious perception. In fact, this does not follow from the fysicalist view at all. The fysicalist recognizes that decentralized systems often function far better than centralized ones. Just as an economy governed by the capacities of a single “master planner” would fail, as the contents of that planner’s mind are not enough to govern the complexity of interactions within that economy, so would a consciousness guided by the capacities of a single “master cell” never be practical, as that cell’s machinery is far from sufficient in directing the complexity of the entire organism. Rather, the human organism and its consciousness are more analogous to a free market economy, in which every cell, tissue, and organ performs functions that are most compatible with its nature, and, in turn, result in a stable, efficient, prospering system which is the organism and its conscious faculty. In the “economy” of the organism, additionally, communications among various parts are so well coordinated (just as free markets tend to result in far more superior communications than regulated societies) that, in most cases, the organism acts in unison and is therefore said to have a single identity and individuality. When these communications are disrupted for any reason, the organism begins to act in a way opposed to its survival interests, and is termed diseased or impaired in some manner.
Is Fysicalism Mysticism?
Mr. Firehammer levels an accusation against the fysicalist worldview that, as paradoxical as this might seem, equates it to mysticism:
The physicalist argument that the conscious experience is an "attribute" that just "emerges" from physical events ignores the most important question of all, "how?" If they answer at all, it is the same as all mystic's answer, "somehow!" They do not know how it happens, but are sure it does. It is really an odd kind of faith and is based on a kind of paranoid fear of admitting that reality might have attributes other than those of the merely physical. It falsely equates "objectivity" and "physics," as though anything physics cannot explain cannot be objectively true. It is the same mistake the Pythagoreans made in claiming the same kind of universal power of explanation for mathematics (until they discovered incommensurables which drove some of them to suicide.) It is itself a kind of mysticism—a stubborn insistence that no evidence will be allowed that does not fit the physicalist dogma. Once accepted, it apparently makes one blind to the nature of their own consciousness (which is the only one they can know).
What Mr. Firehammer fails to realize, however, is the division of labor between the filosofer and the scientist. The fysicalist is the filosofer. His job is not to show how a given system can be explained in terms of fysical fenomena, but only that it can be explained in such terms. Then, it is the job of the fysicist, chemist, and biologist, i.e., the scientists, to discover the precise mechanisms, knowing, from the filosofer’s reasoning, that they can and do exist. The filosofer’s job is to state what is conceivable in a scientific explanation, that is, what is not logically absurd or metafysically impossible. But no filosofer can, from filosofy alone, advocate a single specific model for a given fenomenon. It is the job of empirical investigation to figure out precisely what mechanisms are involved in life, consciousness, and volition. This is a vast task, far from being complete. Just as there are many possible fysical models for functional powered flight, so there are many possible fysical models for life, consciousness, and volition, and it is the job of the hard sciences, through observation and experimentation, to discover which one of these models truly explains how human life, consciousness, and volition function. The fysicalist is not omniscient, and he admits it. Yet admitting lack of omniscience is not mysticism; it is intellectual honesty.
Furthermore, fysicalism does not rule out laws, abstractions, and models outside the sfere of the discipline of fysics. Quite the contrary, it would be rather awkward not to have the laws of economics to explain human action, and try to explicate the latter solely on a subatomic level. However, the fysicalist realizes that all laws, models, and abstractions are ultimately tools that real, fysical human beings must use to apply to and interpret the real, fysical behaviors of real, fysical entities. There is nothing mystical or obstinate about this, nothing stubborn except a categorical adherence to that, which exists and a similarly staunch refusal to fall prey to Cartesian dichotomies between mind and matter which neglect the fact that all entities exist in one world, not two.
G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent filosofical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician and composer, contributor to organizations such as Le Quebecois Libre, Enter Stage Right, the Autonomist, and Objective Medicine. Mr. Stolyarov is the Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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