Most of us are dualists. We believe we have both bodies and minds. We believe we peer out of our bodies by way of our minds and that the combination gives us our sense of self, our souls, if you will. We don’t think about it much; we just accept the idea that we have an internal mental world separate from the exterior physical world. We believe our bodies are made of the same stuff—atoms and molecules—as the rest of the material universe. We’re not sure what our minds are made of—some sort of nonphysical stuff. Even though we don’t know what mind is, we think that most (though not all) of our physical actions are controlled by our minds rather than the other way around. We refer to the mind that we are aware of as consciousness. We don’t really think about consciousness much either; it’s just there. However, we believe we control our consciousness through our selves, and we call this “free will.”
This is what most people believe, if they think about it at all. But it is not correct, and it is not what I believe. There is no such thing as “mind” or “consciousness” or “self” or “soul” that is in control of our physical actions or that is independent of the physical world. The notion of mind as separate from body is simply an illusion, albeit a powerful one.
I know that there are only a small minority of people who agree with me on this point, but I’m OK with that. We refer to ourselves as materialists. We believe that all that exists is the physical world, governed by the laws of nature. In effect, everything that happens is dictated by those laws and how they interact with that physical world. And, since we are part of the physical world, everything that happens to us or that we do is governed by those same natural laws. That doesn’t leave room for consciousness to have any active role. Nevertheless, there it is; we all experience it. We can see, hear, feel, smell, taste. We think about things. We can imagine, dream. We feel emotions. We can plan things and then act on those plans. Not only does consciousness appear to be a real “thing,” it seems to have a causal role, even a controlling role, in our behavior. What is going on?
Admittedly, science has had a difficult time explaining consciousness. Much—very much—has been written on the subject, with scant success. Let me pose the following analogy that I hope will help, a little at least.
My father-in-law never had a formal education beyond the 8th grade. Even so, he was blessed with great curiosity. I recall one conversation we had regarding the nature of water. He understood that water consists of molecules of H2O. However, he visualized those molecules as swimming around in some sort of liquid medium, as if “wetness” were a quality or property separate from or in addition to the collection of H2O molecules. But in fact the wetness is just the way that we experience that collection of molecules. We simply aren’t able to get down to observation on the molecular level, so how we perceive those molecules collectively is as “wetness.” We refer to the quality of wetness as an emergent property of the water. This, of course, is a description rather than an explanation. And the key danger here is in using the term “property” as if it were something in addition to the water itself. It is not; rather, it is simply how we experience the water molecules en masse.
In similar fashion, I believe the problem with explanations of consciousness is that they are attempts to describe what consciousness is, as if it were a quality or property or entity unto itself, over and above the underlying neural activity, just as my father-in-law thought of wetness as a property separate from or in addition to the simple collection of H2O molecules. In short, consciousness is simply how we experience the neural activity of our brains.
The only consciousness each of us can experience, of course, is our own, and that’s consistent with my explanation. We infer consciousness in others on the basis of the consciousness that we experience personally. We cannot observe the consciousness of another because consciousness is simply our way of observing our own neural activity. And, just as it is not possible to experience water at a molecular level, so it is simply not possible for each of us to examine our own brain activity on a neuron-by-neuron level. Instead, what we do experience we label consciousness. In other words, consciousness is the term we use to describe neural activity on a macro level in the same way that wetness is the term we use to describe a characteristic of water as viewed on a macro level.
A couple ancillary points to consider:
Because other animals also engage in complex neural activity, it is reasonable to presume that they too experience consciousness. Moreover, it’s really not far-fetched to assume that computers also experience consciousness. If so, this is not a sinister concept, such as the portrayal of HAL in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Consciousness, if it exists in computers, is epiphenomenal, just as it is for humans. It doesn’t have any effect on a computer’s behavior. That behavior is dictated by the design of the computer’s hardware, the way in which it is programmed, the input that it receives, and the output options to which it is connected—again, just as it is for us humans. That’s not to say that a computer could not be sinister. It’s just that any such behavior would be attributable to the computer’s programming, not to the fact that it had consciousness.
One unanswered question: Why do we recognize some brain activities as conscious and not others? We recognize sight as conscious but not routine neural activity that is concerned with, say, digestive activity. One answer has been that consciousness of certain brain activity, such as sight, carries an evolutionary advantage, whereas consciousness of routine activities such as digestion, does not.
© 2015 John M. Phillips