Thursday, May 31, 2007

"The Problem and Promise of Consciousness" by Richard Schain

“The Problem and the Promise of Consciousness” by Richard Schain

Departing from my habit of posting only my own writings in this blog, I reproduce here an article by Richard Schain, first published in Philosophy Pathways, Issue number 127, 30th May 2007:

Richard Schain is one of the very few philosophers who swim against the current of present-day materialism and empiricism in their endless metamorphoses. Towards the end of the article Schain refers to “a certain Quixotism inherent in philosophical activity.” Here’s certainly a veritable Don Quixote fighting in the cause of the inner reality of a human being. I simply love the final six paragraphs of the article.

I have appended a few peripheral remarks which I jotted down while reading the article in obedience to an inveterate habit of mine.

[I apologize for the defective manner in which the article appears here. I have twice tried to copy it in proper form and will try again. The reader may look it up in the PhilosophyPathways site.]

'The emergence of an individual consciousness from the void is, after all, the most amazing fact of human life...' Hamlin Garland, A Son of the Middle Border, 1917

In a recent interview with David Chalmers conducted by Seher Yekenkurul(Philosophy Pathways Issue 123), it was stated that the 'basic question in thephilosophy of mind is the mind/ body problem.' The term body really refers tothe brain since it is the connection of mind to brain that concerns a largenumber of philosophers who are attempting to decipher the mystery of thisrelationship. The vast majority of these individuals accept the materialistthesis of modern science, namely, that all reality is reducible to materia.Lately, however, because of the intractability of the problem of reducing theconscious mind to brain processes, the dichotomy between monism and dualism hasbeen fudged by philosophers like David Chalmers and John Searle who say thatconsciousness is an 'emergent property' of the brain and is not reducible tospecific neuronal events. A growing literature exists on the merits of this idea.

The concept of philosophy as an aspect of the human condition refers to one'sconsciousness of the nature of the self and of the universe, the so-calledhigher consciousness. This is a primary datum, first arising in the westernworld within the Ionian societies of Greek-speaking peoples. Philosophy came tobe valued by these peoples as a unique aspect of their culture. Subsequently, itwas adapted by the Romans and then by all later European civilizations. Theestablishment of philosophy in universities rather than solely within churchinstitutions resulted in the widespread dissemination of philosophic thought inwestern culture. It became an independent branch of European culture, intimatelyassociated with the Enlightenment movement in Europe.

However, coincident with the Enlightenment and the rise of an independentphilosophy, a distractive phenomenon began to emerge, namely, the preoccupationof philosophers with the mind-brain relationship. It had been known since thedays of Hippocrates that the brain was intimately connected to the psyche, butnot much importance was given to this realization except in certain diseasestates like epilepsy or brain damage. Philosophers did not concern themselveswith the mundane issue of the mind-brain relationship. They concentrated on thedevelopment of their minds. The establishment of the Christian doctrine ofduality of spirit and body strengthened this approach. Descartes was perhapsthe first philosopher to concern himself closely with the nature of themind-brain relationship. His infamous assertion that the pineal gland was thesite of interaction of soul and brain irreparably damaged his reputation in themodern era. Soon afterwards, Leibniz asserted that brain processes and mentalprocesses unfolded simultaneously, but without any connection other than thatin the mind of the Creator. Here was the ultimate dualism looked upon now withderision by hardheaded scientists.

These questions were peripheral to mainstream philosophy until the nineteenthcentury when the scientific revolution extended into detailed studies of thehuman brain. Scientists began to wonder about the significance of higherconsciousness if it could only arise from an inauspicious-looking three-poundlump of grayish, gelatinous substance in the cranial cavity. The eminent German neuropathologist Rudolf Virchow joked that after examining hundreds of humanbrains, he had never found any evidence of a soul. Gradually philosophers beganto turn their attention to the brain, especially since the prestige ofscientific investigation could be used to bolster the reputation of a fieldthat many thought of as worthless, unscientific rumination. The discovery ofthe microscopic complexity of the brain underneath its undistinguished physicalappearance lent fuel to their interest. Somewhere, amidst the billions ofneurons making up the human brain and their complex interactions must lie thesecret of consciousness.

Actually, from the point of view of rigorous science, there is no moreknowledge today about the relationship of consciousness to the brain than therewas in the era of Vesalius in the sixteenth century. Vesalius was a Flemish anatomist who was the first to carefully describe the anatomy of the brain,based on his many dissections of that organ. He knew that the living brain wasnecessary for the mind to function but could say no more than that. What morehas been added by all the variegated descriptions of neurons, synapses,neurotransmitters and brain electrical phenomena? Much has been learned aboutthe fine structure of the brain and associated neural mechanisms. However,there is virtually no connection of all these details to an understanding ofthe conscious mind.

Neuroscientists who study the brain are much more inclined to relate theirfindings to disease states originating from pathological processes. Infinitelymore is known now about the pathophysiology of neurological disorders such asParkinson's disease, epilepsy, paralytic strokes and encephalitis. Motor andsensory functions and, to a lesser extent, speech mechanisms have beenlocalized to specific brain areas. Most neuroscientists, however, avoid theproblem of the mind-brain relationship. Those few who have done so, likeCharles Sherrington, John Eccles and Wilder Penfield, have often ended with aposition of frank dualism. For a long time, reputable British and Americanneurophysiologists confined themselves to studying the reflex systems of thespinal cord. Moving above this locus would expose them to the charge ofmysticism.

There is probably no one in the history of philosophy who thought more deeplyabout the problem of the relationship of the mind to the brain than did WilliamJames, longtime professor of psychology and philosophy at Harvard University. Itis worth quoting from him. After the most detailed consideration of all thepossible relationships of consciousness to brain, he concluded that 'nature inher unfathomable designs has mixed us of clay and flame, of brain and mind,that the two things hang indubitably together and determine each other's being,but how or why, no mortal may ever know' (Principles of Psychology, Chap. VI,The Mind-Stuff Theory, 1890). I cannot see how this situation has changed anysince James penned his profound thought on the matter.

In recent decades, however, philosophers have moved in where angels feared totread. It is in the modern era of analytic philosophy that intricatespeculative webs have been spun about ways in which consciousness may make itsappearance in individuals. Utilizing behavior theory, cybernetics, quantummechanics or recent advances in neuroanatomy and neurophysiology, philosophershave rivaled medieval scholastics in speculating about the nature ofconsciousness.

One of the leaders in this modern day scholasticism is John Searle who isexplicit that 'Consciousness is caused by lower-level neuronal processes in thebrain and is itself a feature of the brain' (The Mystery of Consciousness,1997). Intuitive thought does not permit one to conceive how billions ofindividual neurons, modifying billions of synaptic structures secreting myriadsof neurotransmitter substances can give rise to a unitary sense of self with aunitary consciousness. Recognizing this problem, some contemporary'neurophilosophers' like Searle have resorted to the metaphysical idea ofconsciousness as an 'emergent property' of the brain. In other words, it isstill a mystery from the point of view of scientific monism.

Thus the difficulty in imagining any way in which even an elementaryconsciousness can be reduced to neuronal processes -- not to speak of thehigher consciousness out of which philosophy itself has emerged -- has forcedphilosophers with a broader scope to acknowledge that the traditional conceptof dualism has some merit albeit they will rarely acknowledge themselves asdualists. Instead, the idea is put forth of 'property or emergent dualism' inwhich subjective experiences ('qualia,' a resort to the time-tested scientifichabit that if you don't understand something, think up a new name for it)represent a different ontological reality from the material brain. Stubbornly,however, philosophers like Chalmers and Searle maintain that they are notreally dualists because they conceive of the conscious mind as a feature orproperty of the brain. All this may seem like pedantic quibbling to theordinary observer. But such is the ingrained resistance against dualisticthought in an academic philosophy imbued with the worldview of scientificmonism.

I fail to see any logical contradiction to the concept of dualism except thereis no reason to believe that reality is limited to only two realms ofexistence. Physicists now talk of an eleven dimensional universe instead of theconventional three or four, if time is included. The notion of a concretematerial reality is ever more blurred by advances in sub-particle physics. Eventhe apparent phenomenon of absolute time and space has disappeared, to bereplaced by relativity theory. Philosophers, more than others, should realizethat our awareness of reality is as much determined by our own perceptualapparatus than by what is actually out there beyond our selves. It is all welland good to confine oneself to strict materia-oriented, causality-determinedscientific principles when building a bridge or repairing the plumbing but whenit is a question of higher consciousness, it is philosophic insight notscientific methodology that is needed.

It seems to me that with respect to the question of consciousness, much ofcontemporary philosophy has lost itself in the pursuit of trivia. What is to begained by the continuous pursuit of newly discovered brain functions thatcorrelate with conscious states? The philosophic fallacy referred to byAristotle as a metabasis eis allo genos (Posterior Analytics), a passing fromone realm of being to another in philosophic discourse, is constantly beingcommitted. Now that neurologists have learned with the use of radioisotopes toconvert metabolic activity of the brain into brightly colored visual images,one can foresee a whole new domain of brain correlates to be related toconscious states. Perhaps we will be confronted with a new form of phrenologythat will connect characteristics of the mind to images generated by positronemission tomography (PET) rather than to bumps on the cranium. But all this isso much trivial pursuit. One thought from Plato is worth a thousand PET scans.For the philosopher, the temptation to sell one's philosophic soul for a messof neurological pottage is best avoided. Anyway, since philosophers do notengage in laboratory studies, they will never be more than camp followers of the neurosciences.

The history of conceptions of a higher consciousness in the western world goesback thousands of years to what Bruno Snell called 'the discovery of the mind'in Greek-speaking civilization. Subsequently, philosophy as a manifestation ofhigher consciousness continued its development in the west, even with therestrictions laid upon it by Christianity and the backwardness of the MiddleAges. The European Enlightenment gave rise to a flowering of philosophy thatcould be compared to the heyday of the Greek polis. A new phenomenon inphilosophy arose in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with theemergence of a remarkable group of 'existentialist' philosophers, the mostnotable of which were Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche.

But after that, a blight seems to have descended upon philosophy. Instead offresh insights into the nature of man and the universe, there has appeared anobsessive preoccupation with science -- cognitive science, computer science,neurological science, critical thinking science -- anything to avoid thechallenges of philosophical thought as it was known to Plato and his successorsin the history of western philosophy. Perhaps Nikolai Berdyaev, Teilhard deChardin and Abraham Joshua Heschl were the last important philosophical mindsof our era not to be intimidated by the sciences. Today the old physicaltyrannies of Christianity have been replaced by the psychological tyranny ofscientific thinking. The models of creative metaphysical thought seem to beconfined to representatives of churches, albeit still constrained by Christianor Judaic dogmas. This is a sad situation for philosophy.

Since the neurosciences have given no insights into the basic phenomena ofconsciousness such as wakefulness or intentionality, it is hardly to beexpected that they will shed light on higher consciousness; e.g. ideas aboutthe significance of man in the universe, about the nature of time andcreativity, and on the traditional areas of philosophy -- axiology,epistemology and eschatology. These are the substance of philosophy; theirimportance lies in their intrinsic content, not their connection to the brain.Philosophic thought is a dimension of reality in its own right and not merely avehicle for some other purpose. There is a certain Quixotism inherent inphilosophical activity. No pragmatic or sophistical benefits should be expectedof it. The unique mix of intuition, rationality and passion that enters intophilosophy represents the highest achievement of the human condition.

Individuals may die, the whole human race may come to an end; but with thegrowing awareness of the relativity of time, it is reasonable to envision thatthe phenomenon of a higher consciousness will find its place embedded in thecanvas of eternity (R. Schain, In Love With Eternity, 2005). With such aperspective, consciousness does not represent a problem of cognitive orneurological science but a promise of personal fulfillment. If I may paraphrasean assertion by that unique philosophical mind of antiquity, Jesus of Nazareth,the kingdom of heaven is to be found within the mind of every authentic philosopher.

(c) Richard Schain 2007
Web site:


I have some reservation about the Hamlin Garland quote which speaks of the ‘emergence’ of consciousness ‘from the void’. In my opinion, the notion of emergence blurs the question. I find it inconceivable that mind/intelligence should have come into being from stuff devoid of intelligence. In the same way I find it inconceivable that life should have come into being from stuff without life. That is why I have repeatedly said that I can only think of the ultimate source and origin of all things as creative intelligence. Human consciousness (a word I usually shun) and the human faculty of discursive thinking may have come into being as the evolutionary answer to circumstantial challenges. But I don’t see ‘consciousness’ (narrowly understood, not the ‘higher consciousness’ Schain is concerned with) and thinking as exemplifying what is best in human intelligence, just as I don’t see choice as exemplifying free will at its best and purest. I see the best of intelligence and freedom in creativity and spontaneous activity. But I do not want to repeat here what I have often said before. (For instance, in Hypatia’s Lover (2006), pp. 153-7.)

With regard to the basic mind/brain problem or pseudo-problem, I can sum up my position in two moves. First, attempting to find mind by examining the brain is a sample of the reductionist illusion. It is no better than trying to understand “I love you, Mom” spoken by a child to her mother by analyzing and describing the sound waves conveying the spoken words: the meaning of what is whole is in the whole. Second, however mind may have come about and however the intelligent activity in me may be engendered, it is in this intelligent activity – of which I am immediately aware – that I find my proper character and my whole worth, and it is in this active intelligence that I find reality as opposed to which all else is evanescent shadow, and it is this intelligent activity, this creative reality, that is the proper study of philosophy.

Let me just add another note on terminology. I have more than once expressed my dissatisfaction with the way contemporary philosophers use the terms monism and dualism. Philosophers with whose position I find myself in basic agreement – Richard Schain for one – have been calling themselves dualists. To me the term dualism suggests the Cartesian separation of mind and body as two substances apart. (I will not cite the putative soul-body dualism attributed to Plato since my view on this question goes against mainstream scholarly wisdom and would call for lengthy explanation and defence.) The term monism has been – in my opinion wrongly – ceded to materialists and out-and-out empiricists. But again I must refrain from expanding on a theme I have dealt with at some length elsewhere.

D. R. Khashaba
Cairo, Egypt
31 May 2007

Sunday, May 20, 2007


D. R. Khashaba
[Appeared in on 25 May, 2007: ]

The ongoing debate between atheists and theists has become ludicrous, banal, and unprofitable. I have long thought that the more vociferous atheists were following a wrong strategy and wrong tactics, leaving the religionists free to pose as unrivalled defenders of moral values and the realities of the life of the spirit (the expression ‘spiritual life’ has become suspect among rationalists and been ceded to religion, which is a pity). The propagandist and frenzied approach of the fashionable atheists is reducing us to the sorry choice between dogmatic religion and stark materialism. So it was a pleasure to come across a sane and balanced review article by Anthony Gottlieb:

Gottlieb reminds us that in the second century of the Christian era “it was Christians who were called ‘atheists,’ because they failed to worship the accepted gods.” We may also recall that in fifth century BC Athens Anaxagoras was accused of atheism because he taught that the sun was not a god but a flaming piece of matter. Socrates was accused of atheism because he did not revere the gods that the city revered, even though he could pray not only to Zeus and Pan but also to the sun.

Anaxagoras, Socrates, and early Christians, beside rejecting the beliefs commonly accepted by those around them, had their positive beliefs. Today vocal atheists are all energetically engaged in the task of breaking down dogmatic beliefs, but they do not show as much energy in advancing the positive aspect of their thought.

The task of emancipating humanity from the clutches of superstition, fanaticism, and bigotry, is needed and is urgent. But neither the enthusiasm of the all-out atheists nor the desperate but tepid efforts of the religious moderates show any signs of success in that direction. The outspoken atheists are read and applauded by those who are already convinced of the harm done by religions. The moderate religionists cannot make headway with their fundamentalist co-religionists, because in each of the major established religions (I speak chiefly of the monotheisms that I know at first hand) there is as much authoritative textual support for the extremists as for the moderates; and all talk about inter-faith conciliation and understanding is deception or self-deception because each religion in its heart of hearts denounces the others as worthy of damnation. The best they can achieve among themselves is a truce necessitated by the inability of any one of them to eradicate the others.

The human situation is sickening. If there are gods up there they must be debating not if but how to put an end to the whole bad project. If we give up on the gods and decide that we have to rely on our own devices, then the way forward as I see it is a two-pronged drive.

The human world is in very bad shape. There is abject poverty, disease, ignorance, misery, side by side with abundance, waste, astounding technology — I need not go on. Our politicians and economists play games in their artificial, closed systems of unquestioned fictions of expediency, power, market values, economic forces — all of which are worshipped more blindly than any supernatural god has ever been. The world of human beings must be re-formed on a wiser and more just basis. This is the first prong of the combined drive. In the short term we may have to fight terrorism and all sorts of conflict by various means but in the long term a united world based on justice, equal opportunity for all humans, and dignity for all humans, is the prerequisite for withering the roots of terrorism and conflict.

Secondly, we have to work towards a new age of enlightenment, to spread understanding and fellow-feeling among all humans. No amount of bare, disjointed facts, can infuse sense into life. The positive, empirical knowledge obtained by the methodology of the sciences, can be useful (or harmful) but cannot nourish the human spirit. Humans need a ‘likely tale’ (to borrow a phrase from Plato) to hold on to, to give the chaotic mass of their experiential content some coherence. To the naïve and simple masses of humankind their received religions satisfies that need but – as we should by now have discovered – it does so at a heavy cost. We need a culture that fosters moral and spiritual values unlinked to dogma and superstition. This is the task of art, literature, and philosophy. That will be our alternative to religion, but we should take great care not to turn it into a new religion: we need an alternative to religion, not an alternative religion.

The way forward I have indicated, with its two branches, will be slow, full of hardship, and not at all certain. But there is no other way.

In Let Us Philosophize (1998) I concluded the chapter on Religion as follows:

“The one perfect religion that has ever been given to mankind has been grossly misunderstood, neglected and almost completely forgotten; the religion whose prophet claimed no knowledge, no wisdom, no power, no authority — whose name was Socrates. Socrates may have had the temperament of a mystic. Yet we acclaim him as a philosopher precisely because he went beyond mysticism. He demanded that whatever we hold valuable be fully intelligible. He was deeply religious; he sought the fullness of the inner life. But he was not content with a mystical richness of life, and there lay his glory.

“No specific knowledge, no body of doctrine, can secure our salvation: Only a free, ever-creative mind will give us salvation. Not any body of knowledge, but the creative pursuit of understanding, makes us into what we crave to be — whole human beings. That should be the ideal of education.”

D. R. Khashaba

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


D. R. Khashaba

The state of Plato scholarship is deplorable. It has become an industry. But in saying this I am wronging industry. Progressive industry has creative research behind it. Plato scholarship has become a mechanical skill off which anyone who is not a complete dunce can make a lucrative business.

I have just read a learned review and I am saddened: a review by Professor Dustin A. Gish of Professor Devin Stauffer’s The Unity of Plato’s Gorgias: Rhetoric, Justice, and the Philosophic Life: I give here a selection of the many angry notes I jotted down while reading the review.

We read that “Socrates counters Polus in a Machiavellian mode, adopting an extreme stance, commonly known as the ‘Socratic thesis,’ according to which doing injustice, far more than suffering injustice, is the greatest evil for human beings.” To say this, in my view is to reveal the sad fact that we have become incapable of understanding the ground principle of the Socrates-Platonic moral philosophy. What, in the hands of academic pundits has become a paradoxical Socratic thesis to be explained and confuted, is the insight by which Socrates lived and for which he died. To have a particle of doubt about this is to make of Socrates’ whole life and of his death a mascarade. In the Crito we read that we are never intentionally to do wrong … doing wrong is always evil and dishonourable … Nor when injured injure in return, as the many imagine, for we must injure no one at all … We may do no evil … Nor do evil in return for evil, which is the morality of the many … [I am picking up phrases from Jowett’s translation, which may not be state-of-the art for our pundits, buth which is good enough for my purpose.] Can anyone say that this is a ‘stance’? Socrates may have been truly a fool, but Plato was under no illusion; he makes Socrates warn that “this opinion has never been held, and will never be held, by any considerable number of persons; and those who are agreed and those who are not agreed upon this point have no common ground, and can only despise one another when they see how widely they differ.” (Jowett) (See my “The Rationality of Socrates Moral Philosophy” available under Essay in my website:'%20Moral%20Philosophy.htm This was subsequently included as Chapter Two in my Plato: An Interpretation (2005).)

So when we read of a “seemingly impassable divide between” Callicles and Socrates, I would say that the divide, far from being merely ‘seemingly impassable’, is the totally unbridgeable one between “those who are agreed and those who are not agreed upon this point”

Professor Gish writes, “Stauffer’s thesis is that the unity of the Gorgias derives from Socrates’ concern throughout the dialogue with rhetoric. This means that the ascent implied by the tri-partite division of the dialogue … is deceptive, for the thrust of its arguments toward (a defense of) the philosophic life – its action – never transcends rhetoric at all.” I will not argue against this. I will simply say that, in my reading of Plato, all that he wrote had one lodestar, the philosophic life. To look for any overriding concern other than that in any work of Plato’s is to miss its central nexus and give it a false interpretation.

Evidently the book not only makes Socrates concerned with rhetoric; it also makes much of a “Socratic rhetoric” and of a “noble rhetoric” which Socrates is supposed to advocate. The insistence on transforming Socrates’ dialectic into a ‘noble rhetoric’ on the strength of a marginal remark by Socrates about a possible proper use of rhetoric, and the making of the ‘noble rhetoric’ into the central theme of the dialogue, is a distortion of the position of Plato and a corruption of Plato’s linguistic usage. What do we gain by calling Socrates’ dialectic rhetoric, obliterating the distinction that Plato was at pains to establish? It is one thing for us moderns (and for the ancients outside the Academy) to speak of rhetoric in a new sense, a proper rhetoric that may be part of serious literary studies; it is quite another thing, which makes for confusion, to make the term cover both the rhetoric of the Sophists and the dialectic of Socrates in discussing a work of Plato’s. (It is only in the Phaedrus that Plato showed tentative interest in rhetoric as an art of effective writing or effective speech.)

We read of the “mystery of Socrates’ interest in Gorgias” as a mystery “raised but not resolved in the dialgue’s prelude”. This is one of those pseudo-problems that academic philosophers fabricate to keep themselves in business. The Socrates of the dialogue is interested in Gorgias because the author of the Gorgias was throughout his life concerned with the opposition between rhetoric and the candid give and take of philosophical discussion.

However plausible Stauffer’s psychological analyses of the dramatic personae of the dialogue may be, I think it perverts Plato’s intention to think that his primary object was to expose the conflicts and contradictions inhering in the souls of Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles. In the Socratic elenctic discourses, Socrates unravels the contradictions and confusions in the minds of his interlocutors to make them look inward into their own minds. The Gorgias is not properly an elenctic discourse. Here Socrates is not in search of the meaning of a term (which is the common scheme of the elenctic discourses) but is actively advocating the one positive principle of his life: the whole worth of a human being is in the integrity of the soul which we must preserve at all costs, even at the cost of readily suffering injustice in preference to committing injustice.

So they make of the Gorgias, the manifesto of the philosophic life, an insincere tournament of wits in which the wily Socrates, with his Machiavellian rhetoric beats the more naïve rhetoric of the Sophists. They murder both Socrates and Plato — I wish they did it in anger! No, they do it coldly to find in the cadavers matter for their learned dissertations.