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


Post a Comment

<< Home