The enigma of consciousness

Winston Churchill was describing the action of Russia when he said,

It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

But those words are also an apt description of human consciousness.

Of the three perplexities singled out by Owen Flanagan, I am least informed about this one. (I’m not very knowledgeable about any of the three, but consciousness least of all.)

I’m not alone in my ignorance: even the best and brightest minds are groping in darkness. Consider the following comments from an interview between Phillip Adams and Paul Davies, a physicist and author:

Phillip: Paul, I am aware that almost every branch of science seems to be attacking the problem of consciousness – there’s a profusion of books and theories coming out. But where are you physicists?

Paul DaviesPaul: Floundering around, I think! There are some scientists who think that consciousness is such a problem it is best defined away. Let’s sweep it under the carpet, they say. Let’s make out that the conscious self doesn’t really exist, that we only imagine it – we merely hallucinate our own existence. Then the problems go away. …

So there is a strong temptation to try and define the problem away, to say that the human body or the human brain is just a very complicated machine, doing what all machines do, which is slavishly complying with the laws of physics. In that case, if you knew enough about what’s going on in my head you could predict precisely what I’m going to do. Any notion of there being a self in my head here, a self which has a certain will, wanting to move an arm, and so on, just disappears. I am reduced to a very complicated machine. …

[But] I think we have to take consciousness seriously, in spite of the fact that many scientists would like to do away with it.

Davies makes the point, perhaps obvious, that consciousness is very intimately connected with the brain:

Phillip: With Alzheimer’s disease we often observe the person’s physicality, even some vestige of personality traits, but the self gradually evaporates.

Paul: So it would appear. It’s quite clear that consciousness – selfhood – and mental activity in general, are very intimately connected with the electrochemical activity of the brain. …

From the scientific point of view consciousness is associated with complexity, and the brain is an exceedingly complex system. In my opinion, consciousness emerges when matter and energy are organised to a certain level of complexity. So it is entirely possible, although I don’t know the answer to this, that human beings are unique in having the required level of complexity for full self-awareness to emerge.

I find this reference to complexity very interesting. The naturalist model looks like this:

  1. We don’t know where matter/energy came from. But we believe that if you organize molecules with sufficient complexity, inanimate matter comes to life.
  2. We don’t know how matter ever reached a stage of sufficiently complex organization that it could live. But we further believe that if you increase the complexity even more, consciousness spontaneously emerges.
  3. Alternatively, maybe consciousness doesn’t exist and “self” is an illusion. Frankly, that hypothesis solves a lot of problems, from the perspective of physics! When you get down to brass tacks, we don’t see how consciousness can be accounted for in our system.

Why is consciousness such a problem for physicists?

From the physicist’s point of view the mystery is this: I think thoughts, I have ideas, emotions, impressions, sensations – mental activity – and I can respond to this mental activity in a very obvious way, just by moving parts of my body. So, for example, if I would like to raise my arm to wave away a fly … my arm obligingly goes up.

Now, how can thoughts do that? How can the desire ‘I would like to raise my arm’ be turned into the physical activity of the arm moving? … To put it in the most blunt form, how can thoughts move matter?

This is a necessary belief of the theist, that an immaterial entity can cause effects in the material realm. Nonetheless, Davies remains committed to a naturalist worldview. In his opinion, consciousness is solely a function of matter and complexity:

It’s perfectly clear to me that if consciousness is associated with a physical process of some sort – swirling electrical patterns, say – as exemplified in complex brain activity, then we could in principle build a system that would be conscious. It’s quite obvious, for example, that if we could map your body and brain to a sufficient level of detail and build a replica over here then we would have something that is conscious. We can imagine rebuilding or duplicating Phillip Adams atom by atom, ending up with a conscious person.

It’s very important to realise that every atom in your body – imagine plucking a carbon atom out of your brain, for example – is identical to a carbon atom in a lump of wood, or a carbon atom in the sun, or whatever. Carbon atoms are all precisely identical, so there is nothing special about the stuff of which you are made. It is the way that stuff is put together that is the key to producing life and consciousness. It is the complex organisation of the matter that gives rise to consciousness, not the actual material of which you are made.

Or perhaps the dualists are right, there is a “ghost in the machine”.

Throughout this series of posts, I’ve kept my claims modest. Here I only want to emphasize how speculative the whole naturalist system is.

Never mind certainty: are there adequate grounds for confidence here? It looks like nothing more than a house of cards to me.

[Coming soon … further exploration of The God Who May Be]


7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Simen
    Jan 25, 2007 @ 16:48:17

    I don’t see how saying “consciousness is an illusion” solves anything, as for us to be able to talk about consciousness in any meaningful way we must already be conscious.

    Anyway, I don’t see how you can call naturalism speculative while at the same time supporting the view that there is an unobserved, immaterial soul.


  2. 49erDweet
    Jan 25, 2007 @ 23:26:10

    You do point out an interesting paradox, though stephen, between those realms of “informed thought”.

    Drilling even further into this divide I’m wondering how naturalists will explain the “mentally rehearsing intended physical movement improves subsequent quality of performance” phenomena? I see/hear examples of it apparently working with athletes, etc., all the time, and yet logically – from what Davies seems to say – the episodes simply don’t “exist”. Passing strange, I think.

    Enjoying reading even though I’m not commenting much these days. Cheers


  3. addofio
    Jan 26, 2007 @ 13:34:47

    Hallelujah! Something I totally agree with Simen about: ” I don’t see how you can call naturalism speculative while at the same time supporting the view that there is an unobserved, immaterial soul.” Of course it’s speculative–anything anyone says about consciousness at this point is pretty speculative, and that applies equally to us all. Eventually we may hope to speculate ourselves into some knowledge, but we face a lot of speculation before that happens.

    I agree with his first point too. If you think about it, the existence of one’s own consciousness is the one brute fact that one cannot deny. We may question the existence of other people’s consciousness–but not of our own.

    re: 494’s qeustion: A naturalistic explanation of the efficacy of mental rehearsal of movement would be based on an understanding of learning in terms of the activity and modification of neural circuits, and the fact that parts of the brain interact with each other and affect each other. I won’t pretend to offer such an explanation–I don’t know enough about the brain’s neurochemistry–and I don’t want to suggest there are no puzzles the phenomenon poses to science, or even that some of those puzzles might not extend to questions of consciousness. I am only claiming that the phenomenon is eminently susceptible to naturalistic explanation.

    I can’t remember if I recommended this book to you before or not, but I’ll risk it. “A Mind So Rare” by Merlin Donald is the best thing I’ve read about human consciousness. It’s very wide-ranging, drawing on and weaving together evolution, human biololgy (especially biology of the brain), human culture, and philosophy. He doesn’t have, and wouldn’t claim to have, all the answers, but it comes closer to furthering out understanding of consciousness, I would argue, than any other theory I’ve seen.


  4. Stephen
    Jan 26, 2007 @ 14:42:57

    • Simen:
    I agree with your first point. Even Paul Davies seems to agree that denying consciousness is special pleading, to avoid certain difficulties. But if you read the whole interview, he lays out some of the arguments in support of the “no consciousness” position. It’s an interesting debate, and it at least shows how little understood consciousness is.

    I don’t see how you can call naturalism speculative while at the same time supporting the view that there is an unobserved, immaterial soul.

    There’s no contradiction there. As long as I acknowledge that my position is speculative — and I do — I can point out that naturalism is also speculative.

    I am trying to problematize the naturalist perspective. It won’t do for atheists / naturalists to speak as if they have it all figured out, while claiming that religious people are building castles in the air.

    That’s the way that Dawkins and other naturalists come across to me. But the fact is, we’re all building castles in the air. If you agree with me on that point, that’s all I set out to achieve.

    • 49er:
    I liked your point about mentally-rehearsed movements, but I think I understood it differently than Addofio did. I think you offered it as a critique of the view that there’s no consciousness. If you meant something more than that — i.e., that it is evidence of the “ghost” in the machine — perhaps you could explain your argument in more detail.

    • Addofio:
    I think I’ve responded to most of your points earlier in this comment. But I should thank you for the book recommendation. I do plan to do some further reading in this field (so many books; so little time!), and I will definitely take your advice and check that one out. Such an interesting topic!


  5. Jamie
    Jan 27, 2007 @ 10:41:36

    Davies assumes that if you combine molecules in a manner that is complex enough, they will become self-aware (he even goes so far as to say this fact is “quite obvious”). That’s a huge leap. He sees a correlation and assumes a cause/effect relationship. But it is illogical to just assume such a connection. Is there any legitimate reason to assume that correlation equals cause here?


  6. addofio
    Jan 28, 2007 @ 01:05:59

    Just read this

    which I thought relevant to your question. You might find it interesting.

    Perhaps when considering what science may have to contribute to the discussion, a physicist isn’t the most relevant scientist to consult.


  7. Bill
    Jan 31, 2007 @ 23:24:19

    I must be honest I have read little on this but here is an interesting article on the physical side of consciousness I found in a link in Jewish Atheists Blog.,8816,1580394,00.html


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