As scientific research exponentially expands and progresses its reach and grasp, the role of the philosopher has become somewhat marginalized. In ancient times, it seemed almost a prerequisite for scientists to also take part in philosophy, hence the greats like Aristotle and Pythagoras. But now, as science becomes much more complicated and all-enveloping, the scientists of today hardly have time to sit back and process the information they are discovering. As the scientists spend long nights crunching numbers, it has become the role of the philosopher to put the information that science discovers into context for the laymans, those of us unwilling or unable to do the number-crunching.
One long-standing problem of philosophy is that of consciousness. Since the dawn of philosophy, thinkers have tried to find the right place to put consciousness in our logical picture of the world, and have had nothing but trouble doing so. The majority of our logical reasoning is about the material world, which appears to behave more or less by logical principles. But when it comes to placing consciousness, philosophers have more often than not steered away from materialism and placed consciousness in the realm of the metaphysical. But as logical people have continuously done away with the metaphysical, we have tried harder and harder to pull our consciousnesses out of that realm and into our logical picture of the world, but still to no avail. The philosopher most often cited when it comes to these matters is DesCartes, who championed the concept of dualism. Cartesian dualism asserts that the only thing we can know exists is our own consciousness, yet that consciousness cannot be said to exist in the physical world. So we are left with both the empirical view that nothing but our consciousness exists, and the materialist view that our consciousness doesn’t exist. But dualism is a hard pill to swallow for many. It flies in the face of our need for everything to fit into a logical picture. This has caused many people to dismiss consciousness as a by-product of brain function, the end result of data analysis.
Enter neuroscience: a complex and quickly-growing branch of biochemistry that attempts to map the events that occur in our brain under certain circumstances. The more we map out the processes of the brain, the more advocates of a metaphysical mind have had to strip down the definition of consciousness. Things like memories, emotions, and even some abstract thinking have now fallen under the category of what can be explained through materialistic neuroscience, causing advocates of the physical consciousness to theorize that one day all of consciousness will be defined by physical processes of the brain. This becomes the fulcrum of the debate, the materialists claiming that just because we haven’t found a physical explanation for consciousness yet, doesn’t mean that one doesn’t exist, and the metaphysicalists(?) stating that the true definition of consciousness evades physical science.
One contemporary philosopher who has championed this debate is David Chalmers. Chalmers has done a fantastic job of defining where we can draw the line between the physical and metaphysical consciousness. He has dubbed these two categories as the ‘easy problem’ and the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. According to Chalmers, the easy problem of consciousness describes the entire process of data analysis, while the hard problem has to do with subjective experience. While materialists claim that subjective experience is the end result of data analysis, Chalmers believes there is a fundamental difference. This difference is something he calls ‘qualia.’ Qualia is the subjective experience of sense-data. For example, as your eyes take in a certain wavelength of light, your brain processes that wavelength (perhaps incorrectly as discussed in the Limits of Language post) as the color red. But the physical data of the wavelength has no correlation to your definition of ‘red’ in your mind. One simple thought experiment to better grasp this concept is to imagine a person whose color spectrum is somehow switched. This person would see red as violet, and vice versa, and, similar to the negative of a photograph, all the other colors would follow suit. Now this person would grow up learning to call what we define as red ‘violet’ and so on. There would be no way to tell that this person’s color spectrum is switched, because there is no way to observe his subjective experience.
While Chalmers has given us a terrific vocabulary to discuss this debate, I think there is an easier method to understanding the difference between our brains and our minds, and that is the struggle between the two. We humans have always and eternally waged a battle with our brains. We know full well that our brain can play tricks on us. Our data analysis processes can lead us to false information, yet we can be fully aware of it. For example, when we watch a magician or look at an optical illusion, we are willingly participating in a presentation of the fallacy of our minds. We are fully conscious of the fact that our data analysis is feeding us false information. We’ve entered into a reciprocal process of data analysis where we let our sense-data deceive us, yet use the knowledge of the deception of our sense-data to put the illusion into its proper context, so that we don’t think the magician is some kind of demon. This knowledge of the fallacies of our brain functions permeates the rest of our lives as well. As psychological theories have entered the common vocabulary, the contemporary person may be well aware of his or her own psychological idiosyncrasies, and behave accordingly. The common phrase, ‘the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem,’ is a perfect example. The knowledge of a fallacy of the mind, and the definition of it as such, allows our consciousness to take that knowledge into account when making a decision, and choose whether or not to act on that fallacy, or rise above it. For example, if we recognize the times we let our emotions govern our decisions, then the next time it happens we can choose to ignore our emotions and govern ourselves according to our reasoning.
Now none of this unequivocally proves the metaphysical mind, but it is a rather interesting notion that we can be ‘conscious’ of the fallacies of our data-analysis processes. The question begged here is whether or not this is simply another level of data analysis, or if the knowledge of these fallacies is evidence of a transcendent consciousness.