Friday, November 04, 2016



D. R. Khashaba

Scientists and positivist philosophers have brazenly denied there is such a thing as mind, but, to my knowledge, consciousness was not so brashly written off, perhaps because biologists have seen consciousness as the distinctive mark of the human species; yet it has always been a puzzle to modern thinkers.

Aeon published an essay by Professor Anil K. Seth on the puzzle of consciousness: I expect I will have some comments to make but even before I start reading let me state my position bluntly. First, what makes the puzzle of consciousness seem intractable is the positivist dogma that only what is objectively observable is real. But consciousness cannot be objectified simply because it is our inwardness, our inner reality. I am not saying that consciousness (mind)is an attribute of our reality but that it itself is our whole reality. Secondly, consciousness, like mind, like life, like being, is an ultimate mystery that cannot be reductively explained. We have immediate awareness of our consciousness (mind) because that is our reality; that is what we, as persons, are. T am I. There is nothing to ‘explain’, nothing to ‘understand’. My mind is all the reality and all the understanding there is. We are only puzzled because we want to make that ultimate reality conform to the criteria of what science has taught us to call real, not knowing that what is really real is quite other than that.

Professor Seth at the outset mentions Descartes’ bifurcation of the world into ‘mind stuff’ and ‘matter stuff’. That was the fiction that bred endless quandaries for modern philosophy. Descartes made mind (thought) a substance on a par with body (extension). When it was found that the mind did not satisfy the criteria of substantial existence it was simply dropped. Gilbert Ryle labeled it a dues ex machine. Then began the Holy Grail quest for finding the mind in the brain, which Seth designates the “more pragmatic approach” of “modern neuroscience”. I sense that we are on the wrong track when Seth further says that this approach is “guided by philosophy but doesn’t rely on philosophical research to provide the answers”. I insist that answers to the philosophical questions, including questions about the mind, can only be answered by philosophy and not by science. Seth says that “explaining why consciousness exists at all is not necessary in order to make progress in revealing its material basis”. I go with that some of the way: investigating the neurological accompaniments and manifestation of mental activity can progress endlessly, but it can never tell us why there is consciousness (mind) or what consciousness (mind) is. Mind is the reality philosophy begins with and has to accept as an ultimate mystery, as the ultimate foundation of all reality including the so-called physical reality.

Professor Seth assures us that at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science they “are gaining exciting new insights into consciousness”. Congratulations! but it does not make me alter or modify my position. ‘Consciousness scientists’, like physicists both on the quantum mechanics end and the galactic end, will continue to make progress, but they deceive themselves if they think they are dealing with reality: they are dealing with phenomena that will continue to lead on to other phenomena without ever reaching what is ultimately real. The only real thing we know or will ever know is our own inner reality and that reality is of a nature totally different from the nature of anything known to science.

I think I have thus said all I have to say on the subject. I will continue reading Seth’s essay for enjoyment and to marvel at the wonders revealed by such advanced research which, however marvellous, will not exceed the marvel of the chicken hatching out of the egg. I may only add a note occasionally if what I read spurs a thought now and then.

But at once I find I have to make a comment. Seth refers to David Chalmers’ distinction between the ‘easy problem’ and the ‘hard problem’. The easy problem we are told is “to understand how the brain (and body) gives rise to perception, cognition, learning and behavior”. We will never understand that if we expect the body, including the brain, to give us the answer. What gives rise to our thoughts, feelings, and actions is not the body but our whole being, our person, which is a reality transcending the body. Then we are told that the hard problem is “to understand why and how any of this should be associated with consciousness at all”. Again I maintain that science will never tell us that: the philosophical answer to this problem is that consciousness (mind) is our reality: all our experience and action is “associated with consciousness” because mind is the ultimate ground of all being. The body cannot explain itself but the reality of the mind is self-evident to the mind and needs no explaining.

Leaving aside both the ‘easy’ and the ‘hard’ problems, Seth proposes to attend to “the real problem: how to account for the various properties of consciousness in terms of biological mechanisms … without worrying too much about explaining its existence”. This is what science has to do and is all that science can do. But it has also to acknowledge that the ‘hard problem’ is a philosophical problem which philosophy alone can answer.

I like what Seth says in explaining the statement that consciousness is ‘informative and highly integrated’ and I could find in it support for my views on creativity and non-repetitiveness in natural processes but I will not go into that here,

I find this fascinating. “Tononi … argues that consciousness simply is integrated information. This is an intriguing and powerful proposal, but it comes at the cost of admitting that consciousness could be present everywhere and in everything, a philosophical view known as panpsychism.” That’s just it. This is a philosophical position that science has nothing to do with and the wider implication that makes it anathema to science is what commends it to philosophical thinking.

I have nothing to say on the rest of the essay. The essay concludes with this statement: “ We are conscious selves because we too are beast machines – self-sustaining flesh-bags that care about their own persistence.” If you find that ‘because’ in place, that what goes before it follows from what comes after it, I beg you to excuse my stupidity for I can’t see any connection.

(Note: All emphases in quotations above are in the original. I never tamper with quotations by adding or removing emphasis.)

D. R. Khashaba

Cairo, November 4, 2016

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