Consciousness: Problem, Paradox, or Practice?

A quick contextualizing note for those who are just joining the tangled thread of my recent blogalogue concerning the nature of consciousness and its relationship with the nervous system and surrounding cosmos: Last month, Steve Ramirez, a PhD candidate at MIT, posted an entry on his blog ( concerning neuroscience’s supposed successes explaining the “problem” of consciousness purely in terms of electrochemical behavior in the brain. My name and some of the ideas I have expressed on YouTube were mentioned in his victory speech, so I decided to respond with a video. You can find his original entry, along with my short comment in response, here. Steve has since posted a follow-up rebuttal, to which I will respond in what follows.

Perhaps it would be best to begin by making my interests in this philosophical discussion about neuroscience clear. As a philosopher, I am not so much interested in the experimental results of neurophysiology labs across the world (which are only occasionally surprising), but in the paradigms that are employed to design and frame their research programs (i.e., to define “problems,” or what Thomas Kuhn called the “puzzles” of normal science).

Take the so-called “problem of consciousness”:  Is, or is not consciousness entirely reducible to/explainable in terms of  intracranial collisions between molecules? I will argue it is not, for philosophical reasons. Many neuroscientists, including Steve, believe it is. This belief informs the design of conceptual models and experiments, making it no surprise that results typically confirm the original hypothesis. The puzzle for neuroscience was never “what is the nature of consciousness?”, but “how is consciousness represented in the brain?” I think there are institutional reasons for this. The continued existence of the neuroscientific discipline as currently conceived depends upon framing the “problem” of consciousness in a reductionistic manner from the get go (this is not true of more interdisciplinary approaches, like neurophenomenology).

Steve sums the classical neuroscientific paradigm up well:

Your conscious thoughts really, and I mean really, are “just” the sum total of patterns of neurons firing.

My interest in claims such as this is existential, even emotional, rather than scientific. Thinking is the source of my very identity, the fount out of which all I know and am pours forth. I am unable to conceive of myself, or anyone else, as a bundle of neurons without first sterilizing my thinking, so that it gives birth only to abstractions and generalities, losing sight entirely of concrete, embodied life. Ethics is, for me like for Emmanuel Levinas, first philosophy. Only a sociopath could take literally the idea that thinking is “just” the mechanical interaction of neurons, because to do so would be to entirely ignore the radical ethical responsibility that comes immediately upon conscious recognition of another consciousness. Human beings are not objects, or the result of the activity of many tens of billions of tiny objects. No amount of objectifying knowledge about another consciousness could ever cancel his/her irreducibility as a consciousness. Thankfully, no scientist I know of actually does take literally the idea that consciousness is “nothing but” the brain. Something more complicated is encoded in their brazenly reductionistic rhetoric.

Science is not the disinterested pursuit of truth absent the emotions and feelings associated with goodness and beauty, or at least it can only be fallaciously conceived of as such. Sam Harris’ neo-Aristotelianism (or maybe neuro-Aristotelianism?–I discuss it again below) is a sign that science is beginning to realize that its findings have always had sociopolitical implications, and even Richard Dawkins gives an almost spiritual significance to the aesthetic value of science, calling it “the poetry of reality.”

So what underlies the seemingly absurd claim that thought is merely the movement of molecules? Not the truth of any empirically demonstrable theory. The reason I take issue with neural reductionism has nothing to do with a disagreement about scientific facts, and even if it did, “mountains of evidence” can easily be reduced to an ant hill by a shift in paradigmatic perspective (there was plenty of evidence for the Ptolemaic solar system for thousands of years; it took the Copernican metanoia to see it otherwise).

Then what leads some neuroscientists to claim in theory what they could never and would never live up to in practice? I believe it is a rather philosophically unreflective commitment to certain outmoded Enlightenment values (like the desire to rationalize and control all of life). The social imaginary associated with scientific materialism and the technologization of society has shown itself historically to be both dangerous and ultimately impossible.

It’s no secret. I’m an Idealist and a Romantic and am proud to carry forward, as adequately as I can, the spiritual and intellectual lineage of figures like Plato, Plotinus, Goethe, Schelling, Hegel, Coleridge, and Emerson. I also champion science and the vastly expanded cosmological picture it continues to paint for humanity. But I conceive of science as another cultural activity alongside the likes of art, spirituality, and philosophy. These other spheres of cultural meaning approach the truth independent of the puzzle-solving of scientists. Consciousness in particular is a sort of ultimate issue, since it is, as far as we can tell, what makes us human. Steve nominally agrees that we need a multi-dimensional (or what I’d call a transdisciplinary) approach, though I think his choice of language says a lot  about how he’d like to go about collaborating (i.e., the “problem” of consciousness must be “attacked” from all sides). What if consciousness is neither a problem nor something best understood by way of assault?

The shortcoming of an overly scientistic approach to consciousness is precisely that consciousness’s paradoxical and participatory nature (paradoxical and participatory in that it manifests in different modes as both subject and object, noumenon and phenomenon) is artificially framed as a “problem” to be solved by way of reverse-engineering. But consciousness and its trinitarian panoply of thinking, feeling, and willing cannot be understood in the same way a mechanic understands an engine.

Steve writes:

A person’s (mis)understanding does not necessarily depend on how many “evident facts” they know – it depends on their ability to properly interpret a finding independent of their emotional state.

To approach an understanding of consciousness, you must fully participate in it. It is the living, breathing matrix within which everything we do and know and feel arises and subsides. Being conscious must be practiced and developed to be known, otherwise it remains not a problem but an insoluble intellectual paradox. In other words, emotional involvement is of the essence if it is our own and others consciousness we hope to understand. (Even from within the neuroscientific paradigm, research like Harris’ on the neural correlates of moral decision-making shows that the recognition of seemingly objective truths like 3-2=1 depends upon activity in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, associated with emotion and taste. I mention this study with some reservations about the notion of “neural correlates of consciousness” that I will explain below.)

I am not interested in the “problem” of consciousness, though I may on occasion philosophize about its paradoxicality as such. In the end, however, what concerns me most is the practice of deepening consciousness, which means not only striving to learn the truth, but to feel the beautiful and to will the good. Is neuroscience relevant to these pursuits? Of course! Do its methods, paradigms, and data have some sort of a priori authority over other ways of knowing? Of course not!  (Which is not to say that there may not be a posteriori reasons for altering a philosophical perspective because of a neuroscientific discovery–it is only to say that critical appraisal is always warranted of supposedly scientific claims that border on the metaphysical).

I’d like to close by offering a take on the research program geared toward discovering the “neural correlates of consciousness” (NCC). Steve cites Crick and Koch’s research often, and writes the following in support of the general theory:

Specific qualia are evoked  from the interaction of the specific [neural] regions…depending of course on the properties of that of which we are aware. So if you’re reflecting on a painting in front of you, it involves the interaction of thalamo-visual-prefrontal networks, which transform and encode the painting (i.e. the stimulus) as a specific pattern of neural firing that you experience.

This approach to the study of consciousness conceives of brain activity as a kind of internal representation of the surrounding world. The basic idea is that some sort of isomorphism exists between the structure of things in the environment and the pattern of neural firing in the brain. The brain, it is said, generates a mental picture of the external world. This is where the paradox begins… On the face of it, the NCC approach claims that all we are finally aware of is the neural activity inside our skull, which is an encoded version of what our senses were able to perceive regarding the features of the mind-independent world. In theory, this neural activity should be sufficient enough on its own to convince a conscious subject that they were having an experience of the mind-independent world. In other words, even a brain in a vat, fed the proper electrical impulses to mimic sensory inputs, could be conscious (albeit of an entirely virtual world). The paradox is that if the neuroscientist is right about the neural basis of consciousness, he simultaneously calls into question the substantiality of the world he believes he inhabits.

But regardless of any hypothetical situation reminiscent of Descartes evil demon, the NCC approach ignores the extent to which consciousness is fully embodied and augmented by various cultural practices and artifacts (language, first and foremost). As Evan Thompson makes clear in his book Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, to claim that the content of a neural state and the content of an experiential state are identical is simply a category mistake.

Thompson writes (p. 350):

Experiential content and neural content are different kinds of content…Experience is intentional (world-presenting), holistic (constituted by interrelated perceptions, intentions, emotions, and actions), and intransitively self-aware (has a nonreflective subjective character). Neural content as standardly described has none of these features. Although there are various sorts of systematic relations between experiences and neural processes, we need not assume that these relations include any content match.

Thompson goes on to criticize the “building block model” of consciousness (a phrase coined by John Searle) upon which the NCC approach is based. It is an aggregative model wherein the full richness of actual experience is analyzed into separate sensory modalities so as to isolate the specific neural regions that these modalities may be associated with. Thompson follows Searle in problematizing the the assumption that consciousness is the summation of distinct sensory events that are somehow bound together into the unity of our experienced world. Instead, he suggests a different approach, which Searle called the “unified field model.”

Thompson again (p. 351):

According to this model, the neural substrates of individual conscious states should not be considered sufficient for the occurrence of those states, for those states themselves presuppose the background consciousness of the subject. Any given conscious state is a modulation of a preexisting conscious field. An individual experience of conscious state (such as visual recognition of a face) is not a constituent of some aggregate conscious state, but rather a modification within the field of a basal or background consciousness.

With the unified field approach, consciousness is recognized to be an embodied process always already engaged with and interested in the world. Consciousness is understood not to be locally produced in specific neural regions, but brought forth through the ongoing dynamic interaction of brain, body, and world. Thompson’s approach to neuroscience is phenomenological, meaning it has roots in a Husserlian tradition where empathy, intersubjectivity, and the irreducibility of the lifeworld take precedence over the abstractions of scientific materialism. If you’re curious to know more about his approach to issues surrounding consciousness and neuroscience, read this essay about ecologically-informed epistemology, or an older blog entry about enactivism.

Here’s a clip of that ol’ rascal Alan Watts that seems relevant after all this headiness:


5 Comments Add yours

  1. DirtySpaceman says:

    Nicely done, sir.

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