In the midst of a renewed debate on consciousness, one member of the Humanist Association of Canada newsgroup asked: "So what can we agree on? That thought, feelings and emotions ARE physical brain activity? If so, do they then exist in a physical sense? That brain activity is a private thing that cannot be directly observed by others? That the brain and mind are one, and the same thing?"
What follows is the posted response to these questions.
So what can we agree on?
We can agree that we are animals amongst animals and that there is nothing outworldly about humans or animals.
But what should be the worldly status
of what was in the past classified as immaterial-outworldliness
is what we do not agree on.
Because the intangible was wrongly classified as supernatural, progressive mankind understood it wrongly and chose to flush it, to relegate it to the not-real set. But this throwing out was itself an error. The intangible has to be properly classified (i.e., defined, understood), not ignored simply because it is intangible.
So, towards that end, here goes:
What (the h___) is consciousness anyway?
Consciousness is the "in itself" of the thing which appears to us otherwise as our physical bodies.
Let us first ask this rhetorical question: when we see an object, say a table, do we see the table, or do we see the light that is reflecting off the table?
End of introduction
To a realist, an object that we see or sense will always be no more than the image we have in our minds of that object as it stands out there.
Either way we look at it, whether we are seeing or touching objects, the only "access" we have to what is "not us" is through the effect that external realities have on us.
So, we have two "things" (two "things to think about", not two "substances"): the sensation of the object and the object in itself.
The scientists use their intelligence (our sixth sense, if you like) to construct the object, or to reconstruct it, as best as they can, using the information that is available in what their senses are picking up, that is available, in other words, in the effects that the external objects are having directly on their beings or indirectly on their beings through scientific instruments. They do this reconstruction in order to get "closer" yet to the truth about that external being, closer to this truth by comparison to what their senses seem to be telling them initially.
But this reconstruction is misleading. Here scientists may tend to think that with their intelligence, they are getting closer to the object in itself. A table is not really a "solid" wall, one might think. It is "in fact" a cloud of minuscule busy-bodies swishing about and keeping you out. However, we must not confuse these two dualities: on the one hand, the sensation of the object (its representation in our minds by our senses) and the object in itself and, on the other hand, the sensation of the object, again, and the "intelligible" object (its representation in our minds by our intelligence, i.e., the scientific representation). From a conceptual point of view, both the object as conceptualized scientifically and the object in itself appear very similar, but they are radically different. The object as conceptualized is still a product of our limited capacities, a product, in this instance, of our limited cognitive capacities. The object in itself is whatever stands out there, in complete independence from whatever our perceptual or intellectual capacities may be.
The quantification of objects, their description in measurable terms, is simply a very useful practice; it gives us power over these objects; however, what it tells us about these may actually be, in some sense, quite "poor" knowledge, despite the great usefulness of this information.
I will discuss immediately what is meant by this "poorness", as this will quickly become more significant. Our scientific information about the world can be compared to a map of the world. Take a map of a city. What information is there on a map of a city? Lots of information, certainly. But this map is but a piece of paper that is ye big and so forth. The city in itself is infinitely richer in facts then the simple map. Toys strewn right and left in this basement, such and such foods in this or that fridge, all the people crawling about. But to get around the city, you only need the map and so you take from the city, as such, just the information you need to cope with it. The "poorness" of our scientific information in comparison to the richness of the facts that are actually there could be comparable to this deficiency of information offered by a map of a city. The significance of this will become immediately evident.
This first point then, in three parts, is
A) that we still have two "things", the object in itself and the effects this object has on us, its appearance to our intelligence.
B) that we never have access to things in themselves. We only have access to the effects they have on us.
and C) that the object as it appears to our intelligence will be an abstraction and therefore a skeletal representation, while the object in itself will be marked by an infinite complexity.
But now, to proceed, we have to indicate one exception to this rule.
This exception is when WE are the object. Then, we ARE the thing in itself.
If objects have a being-in-itself that differs from the image we have of that being in our minds, then, we, ourselves, as objects, must have a being-in-itself that must differ from the image we can construct of ourselves in our minds. The suggestion is that there is no need to think of this being-in-itself as a third "thing" that we can conceive of, besides our material being (that is our being as it appears to our intelligence) and our intangible existence as consciousness; we can simply assume that our consciousness is that "thing", or a manifestation of an aspect of that "thing" the expression "our being-in-itself" refers to.
This is a queer proposition. There is no doubt about that. Yet this does not render it any less worthy. Indeed, consciousness IS a queer thing. The suggestion, to be rejected or accepted, criticized or improved, needs to be understood properly first.
If we are, as consciousness, an aspect of our being in itself, then this could help to explain many things. If our consciousness is an aspect of our being in itself, and if this being in itself is infinitely complex, then, as consciousness, we must be an aspect of that infinite complexity, this very complexity which cannot be, under any circumstances, externally accessible. Do we not have an access to this being in itself, albeit, a different kind of access, simply by being subjectively that entity itself? Indeed, I think we do, and this is what would explain the various "intangible" qualitative aspects of experience. It does not suffice to offer an explanation of the relation between body and mind, between matter and the apparently immaterial; we also have to explain why this set of "things" (qualitative aspects of experience) bears no physical characteristics.
When we see the sun shining, for example, we experience two orders of knowledge, objective and subjective. From seeing the sun, we can derive much information, quantitative information, about the sun. But we also know, on an entirely other kind of knowledge register, what it is to be a biological robot, if you like, a robot that is sensing the sun. That experience includes all kinds of qualitative aspects that will remain unquantifiable by our intelligence. These aspects would remain unquantifiable because they would be an aspect of the being in itself that we are, a being that transcends in every direction the categories of understanding which homo sapien has, or could ever have, for that matter.
When we try to think through this conception of consciousness, that we are the in-itself of what appears to us as fleshy perceptual apparatus, numerous problems arise. No doubt, under close scrutiny, such a "theory" (theory is in brackets because we are not in science, we are in metaphysics) would have to be rejected. But all theories are but approximations of the truth which have to be rejected upon close inspection. Theories are only relatively true or false. This theory is still relatively closer to the truth about what consciousness can be, so far as I can judge, than anything else that has been offered on this subject.
It is also a theory that has many advantages, in regards to explaining the presence of the inveterately unexplainable intangibles, in regards to resolving many dilemmas in ontology and epistemology that are now thousands of years old. For example, we can now understand why consciousness must necessarily always appear "immaterial": a microscope could never catch a glimpse of consciousness any more than it can grasp a glimpse of the "in-itself" of an object, because consciousness would be an aspect of our being in itself; looking at an object's substructure is still just looking at an object, and the difference between "matter" and consciousness would be the difference between "seeing" matter and "being" matter. And this theory bears other consequences especially in regards to finding the subjective grounds of a solid respectable status for various fields of knowledge, like arts and morals, and for various subjective entities or concepts that a scientific endeavour knows not what to do with other than forget about them – because they can't be seen under the microscope – such as merit, love, guilt, will, and so on. But this is not the time to demonstrate these consequences. We have an answer for the question that was raised, what is consciousness, and this answer was explained.
That should be plenty for starters.
B r i a n M o n a s t