Apr/May 2009

Consciousness Conundrum

Two books try to reclaim the mystery of existence

Mark Kingwell


Human reason has this peculiar fate,” Immanuel Kant wrote in 1781, “that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.” He was talking about the way reason can speculate about, and yet not know, the ideas that transcend it. For some philosophers, consciousness—what Kant called the self—counts as one of these ideas. We can no more illuminate the nature of our selfhood than, as in a celebrated metaphor sketched by Julian Jaynes, a flashlight can illuminate its own structure. The limit of reflection lies at the margin where reflection is made possible.

Still, philosophers are nothing if not persistent in the face of a challenge. Even though one fairly influential contemporary school of thought— called, with a nod to the one-hit wonders who gave us “96 Tears,” the New Mysterians—has concluded that consciousness can never be known, it remains the holy grail of philosophy. From arcane European layerings (Husserl, Heidegger, Derrida) to aggressive reductionist or eliminativist accounts (the mainstream of today’s analytic tradition), everybody has a view of what makes consciousness possible. Few works set out quite so expressly (or, one might add, arrogantly) to settle the question as Daniel Dennett did in his 1991 book Consciousness Explained, but one way or another, they’re all in the business of explaining consciousness.

At the risk of making an unsafe generalization—a prerogative of the conscious mind—I will say that there are just two interesting nonmaterialist threads in the recent literature, one on each side of the mainstream consensus. The first emphasizes the functional redundancy of consciousness: In evolutionary and behaviorist terms, there is no need for the sense of self, the first-person inwardness, that you and I cherish so much. The most vivid version of this claim has spawned, via a sort of evil-genius thought experiment, the concept of the philosophical zombie. These are not the mute, staggering monsters of cinema; rather, they are creatures who behave exactly like humans in all the observable ways—but without the addition of what we like to call inner lives. In the words of David Large, these zombies “spend a lot of time discussing their thoughts and maybe their ‘feelings’, display conscious behaviour, use a rich vocabulary, and may even hold day schools and write books on being human and philosophical zombies.”

Philosophical zombies talk about thoughts and feelings, in other words, but don’t have them; the lights are on but nobody’s home. (Who has not had this feeling about other people now and then, perhaps while on the subway?) And notice that these zombies would be exactly as successful as nonzombies in evolutionary terms—topping the food chain, driving cars, shopping, polluting the planet, what have you. The resulting view, wherein consciousness is distinct from material reality but unnecessary to it, is called epiphenomenalism.

Hard-line materialists find even this too much. For them, consciousness must be explained entirely as a function of matter, not as even theoretically distinct from it. Materialist accounts have many nuances, but their central tenet is that the world is made of matter, not mind, and what we call the conscious self is some species of more or less interesting fiction: a center of narrative gravity, maybe, or a “user illusion” the way your computer’s friendly graphical user interface hides the lines of code that are its reality.

Flanking the center on the other side is the current version of phenomenology, the idea that selves are embodied consciousnesses. This position emphasizes that matter and mind are not distinct (contrary to what Descartes disastrously concluded) and, being not distinct, not subject to either an epiphenomenal or a materialist “solution.” Persons have horizons of meaning, and we can only understand human life, including things like art and architecture but also science and evolutionary biology, in terms of projects of significance extended over time. (For the record, my sympathies lie in this quarter, especially as consciousness is lodged in space, place, and built forms.)

For the most part, finding allegiances among these positions and their dozens of intramural subdivisions, themselves often acrimonious, is a matter of philosophical character. You have to choose, and defend your choice, on the basis of reasons. Two recent books, one by a science writer and one by a cognitive-science philosopher, seem prompted by a different impulse, itself framed as a zeitgeistig gesture. Materialists say the self is an illusion, but that turns out to be OK. Science, these books suggest, needn’t take the mystery out of life; it can preserve and even enhance the mystery!

Thomas Metzinger’s The Ego Tunnel is presented as “a stunningly original view of consciousness,” which it certainly is not. His main view, that the self is an emergent property of the human brain as its sensory array negotiates the physical world, is uncontroversial among most philosophers. What is new is his metaphor, the tunnel, which he argues best represents the partial and skewed way a given brain does this. Discussing experiments in neuroscience involving phantom-limb awareness and lucid dreaming, he concludes that the tunnel we each dig through reality is open to conscious revision and changes in direction. We can actively shift or expand our tunnels, as long as we are prepared to move away from the entrenched idea that the self is fixed.

Well, I guess so, though this can’t help sounding a bit Dianetical. Personally, I would be happier to see ways of shifting behavior on a more collective level, reducing resource consumption, say, or finding ways to make dangerous ideas like religious fanaticism less appealing to so many people’s ego tunnels. Still, Metzinger is crisp in his arguments and has a keen appreciation of essential ideas: Since there’s nothing special about carbon-based life-forms, ego software can in theory be produced by any hardware; consciousness must be understood as having a world, not just having awareness. The book is both a good, if sometimes tendentious, overview of current philosophical thinking and a provocative, if sometimes goofy, speculation about future developments in the field.

The same cannot be said about James Le Fanu’s Why Us?, an accessible account of how “two of the most ambitious scientific projects ever conceived have revealed, quite unexpectedly—and without anyone really noticing—that we are after all a mystery to ourselves.” The two projects are the attempt to account for genetic diversity and the attempt to explain how the brain supports the mind. Le Fanu’s tale is one of ambition curling back on itself: The very desire to understand that prompted these scientific-research programs in the first place brings us back, like it or not, to the wonder of our mysterious selves.

It’s a good story, well enough told, but its premises are false. “Scientists do not ‘do’ wonder,” Le Fanu writes in his introduction. “Rather . . . they have interpreted the world through the prism of supposing there is nothing in principle that cannot be accounted for.” I cannot say whom he has in mind with that blithe collective “scientists,” but scientists of many kinds emphatically do “do” wonder, both as a basic impulse of investigation—the same astonishment before the world that, in ancient Greece, prompted the birth of philosophy—and as a conclusion. Le Fanu has not been paying attention: Quantum mechanics and the unified field theory, not to mention genome mapping and the best neuroscience, are all about wonder. The real trouble would seem to be the twinned assumption that “science” is always cold, conclusive, and reductive while “wonder” is loose, numinous, and awesome. Neither notion survives scrutiny: Wonders do not cease just because we attempt to understand ourselves and our world, and real wonder is not mere stargazing but rather driven by that very same desire to understand: what Aristotle saw as the basis of all philosophy.

The particular target is Charles Darwin and the evolutionary orthodoxy Le Fanu feels dominates science—perhaps never more so than now, 150 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species. Limit cases in genomics and neuroscience, he argues, undermine the authority of the Beagle voyager. He concludes his book this way: “Before long [Darwin] must fill that vacant chair in heaven alongside Marx and Freud,” whose “self-evidently erroneous theories” are surprising, in retrospect, only because anyone was prepared to believe them even for one moment. At this point, perhaps within ten years, “the triumvirate will be complete.” For those keeping score, that’s the well-known triumvirate of discredited crackpot global Victorian theories. Avast ye, Darwin.

The analogy is strained if not simply absurd. Darwin’s ideas have influenced science, to the extent they have, because they satisfy the epistemic norms of any principled investigation: verifiability, fecundity, and explanatory power. Where the ideas have not so satisfied, they have fallen away, as all such ideas do. Freud and Marx desired a similar “scientific” status but did not achieve it, and we rightly divorce their important insights about mind and society from any ambition in the physical sciences. Only in the English-speaking world is the idea represented by the word science both so monolithic and so physicalist. Where is the equivalent in our tongue of the German distinction between Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften?

Le Fanu’s book thus amounts to a new rhetorical form that we might call reverse scientism, whereby the hopes for science are raised artificially high in order to dash them to the ground. Don’t bother, unless that sort of exercise sounds like fun. There is much more to chew on in Metzinger’s experiments, and more still in the really creative contributions to these debates from phenomenologists and other dissenters from materialist orthodoxy, such as Ed Casey, Don Ihde, Andy Clark, and David Chalmers.

Now stop reading and go outside. You’ll see that your mind, illusion or fiction or mystery, is not all in your head.

Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and the author, most recently, of Concrete Reveries: Consciousness and the City (Viking, 2008) and Opening Gambits: Essays on Art and Philosophy (Key Porter Books, 2009).

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