Monday, April 03, 2017



D. R. Khashaba

Scientists and scientifically minded philosophers have been wrangling with the intractable problem of consciousness — intractable because, in my opinion, it is a pseudo-problem that neither scientists nor philosophers are justified in raising in the first place. I have dealt with the problem frequently and extensively and thought I had no need to revert to it again, but I have been reading a rich major article by Joshua Rothman titled “Dennett’s Science of the Soul”

The following disjointed notes are thoughts evoked by the article. I give my notes as I wrote them down while reading, with the minimum of editing. They necessarily leave much unsaid. Everything in double quotes (“”) below is from Rothman’s article..


We human beings are aware of having a ‘within’, a subjective being, that we think “the rest of the material world lacks”. Do we know this? Science is not given to know the inside of things and philosophers may speculate but can never demonstrate or be certain since it is not in the nature of philosophical thinking to reach any factual knowledge. That is the insight Socrates expressed plainly (Phaedo, 95e-102a) but which we have been ignoring to our detriment.


We read: “How would you know whether an octopus is conscious? It interacts with you, responds to its environment, and evidently pursues goals, but a nonconscious robot could also do those things.” Here two problems are juxtaposed, not to say confused. Does an octopus have consciousness? The simple answer is: we can never know. But is the octopus a nonconscious robot as Descartes said all animals were automata? All I can say is that I am confident a little kitten has initiative, it frolics freely; a robot will only imitate it if programmed to do so.


Consciousness cannot be a scientific concept. A scientific concept is a token for observed phenomena — time, gravity, evolution, growth, decay. In itself the concept is a fiction: it represents a particular interpretation of the phenomena. The phenomenal appearances (pardon the pleonasm) of consciousness are not consciousness. Consciousness is the reality behind the phenomena: my invisible person is the reality behind my phenomenal appearances.


“In the nineteenth century, scientists and philosophers couldn’t figure out how nonliving things became living. … Only over time did they discover that life was the product of diverse physical systems that, together, created something that appeared magical.” First, we deceive ourselves when we think we understand how “diverse physical systems … created something”. We ‘know’ but do not ‘understand’ how a seed becomes a sprout. Second, I have said this before but will repeat it: When we lose our innocent puzzlement at the magic of life, we have not grown wiser but have become blunted.


If scientists will say that they are only concerned with the question how it is that it comes about that we have feelings and thoughts and intentions and that that is all they seek and all they know, there would be no quarrel between science and philosophy. Call our feelings and our intentions, our loves and our revulsions, call them effervescences or epiphenomena or illusions or what you will; they remain what is importat to us, what constitutes our characteristically human life; and these are, or should be the sole concern of philosophers as they are the whole concern of poets and novelists and musicians. Suppose I were to have a coma and in that coma to have continuous lucid dreams (happy and unhappy) and that were to continue until I finally die: which would be the life I lived, the life of my vegetating body or the dreams I lived through in my ‘illusory’ consciousness? So is the quarrel after all a quarrel about words? No, it is about which is more valuable, our ‘too, too solid flesh’ or our vanishing dreams.


What is a whole? It is not the sum of its parts; it is a reality over and above the total parts. That is metaphysical reality, reality on the metaphysical plane. Hence, what reductionists call ‘illusion’ I call metaphysical reality, reality on the metaphysical plane.


We are told that the ‘creation’ of Homo sapiens required “billions of years of irreplaceable design work”—performed by natural selection. How? The sensible answer is: We don’t know. Scientists insist that we know. Which, to my mind, is not simply to be content with our ignorance but to congratulate ourselves on our ignorance. This is what Socrates called the greatest amathia.


The hard problem is not really hard since it is not really a problem at all. It only looks like a ‘hard problem’ because we seek to ‘solve’ a non-existent problem and on top of that go about it in the wrong way.


The difference between my computer and me is not that my processes are accompanied by an effervescence called consciousness and the computer’s processes lack this accompaniment. The difference is that I initiate my processes. It is our creativity, our originative power, that makes us human. However smart a computer gets, it cannot deviate from what its programmer has instilled in it. And even if a computer should acquire subjectivity, we will never understand that subjectivity by studying its mechanism and its processes.


Soon, it is said, a computer “may have meaningful conversations with you”. Conversations that sooner or later get insipid because they will be completely predictable. You enjoy playing chess with a computer only because the possible moves of the chess pieces are practically unlimited.


Is there mind in all things? To assert that would be to say something of the actual world and – with Socrates and with Kant – I maintain that philosophy (pure reason) can say nothing of the actual world. But I think I am within my rights to say that I cannot find things intelligible without conceiving of ultimate reality as intelligent and of intelligence as inherent of all things.


The long and the short of the problem is this: There is really no problem. We humans have an outside and an inside. The outside is physical. The inside is — what better word can we find than ‘metaphysical’? The means for studying the outside are inapplicable to the inside. Apply all the criteria of objective existence to consciousness and the return is: Nothing is there. But that nothing – and I insist it is no ‘thing’ – is what interests me as a philosopher and is all that is of value in human life. It is wrong of philosophers to say that the mind exists, because that hands it over to the scientists, and the scientists, examining it, find nothing. The cause of the quandary is that the philosophers mistakenly assume that what is real must somehow BE, and the notion of being is ambiguous and deceptive. It is assumed that what is real must be ‘something’ and that creates all the contradictions and all the perplexities of metaphysics. To resolve these difficulties I maintain that what is ultimately real is not a thing, not an entity, but is sheer creativity, intelligent creativity: I hesitate even to call it creative intelligence because that somehow reifies it: it is the creativity that is the reality. Further, I do not say that that tells us anything about the world or the universe: I say only that is how I find things intelligible. (What I am saying here sounds enigmatic: it only becomes cogent in the context of my total metaphysical outlook.)


There is nothing wrong with ‘materialism’ — that is the ground material of all objective science: I even have no objection to saying that that is all there is. What I strongly object to is to think that that is what is real. Plato did not deny the actual existence of visible things, but he maintained that it is the intelligible (as opposed to the visible) that is real. I call my philosophy a version of Platonism.


Dennett challenges Chalmers to name “a kind of experiment that would get at ‘first-personal data,’ or ‘experiences”. That’s just it! Empiricists think that only what can be verified experimentally is ‘real’. Subjectivity cannot be objectified. Once you objectify it, it is no longer subjective. Kant tried in vain to objectify the transcendental unity of apperception. (Let me add here that I acknowledge all that Dennett expounds positively. He only goes wrong when he thinks that scientific research and learning can answer philosophical questions. Dennett – a very great lovable man as Rothman pictures him – thinks like a scientist. Philosophical questions are strictly meaningless to him.)


Grant me that my feelings, my ideals, my aims matter most and I will grant you that they are all products of physical processes, but I maintain that your physical bodies and processes (1) in themselves are fleeting shadows; (2) in themselves have no meaning; all the meaning you attach to them is conferred on them by your concepts and theoretical assumptions. On the other hand my feelings and values are real in themselves and meaningful in themselves. My mind and the workings of my mind are what I know immediately and indubitably and they are what I live for and live by.


Rothman writes: “I couldn’t understand how neurons—even billions of neurons—could generate the experience of being me.” That we will never understand. Science does not, can not, give understanding. Science can never tell us what things are but only how things work. (Again the opposition of ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’ has meaning only in the context of my philosophy and my special terminology.)


Cases of brain damage have no relevance to my position. It is as if a person relapsed to a lower stage of evolution. An individual might lose or might never develop the powers of conceptual thinking peculiar to humans. When we die we revert to the plane of physical being. What remains of us is then totally encompassed by physics and chemistry. That does not mean that Life is nothing but the physical constituents of the body. My position is that philosophy is solely concerned with the realm of ideas and values that constitute our proper human being. This realm has nothing to do with science and science as science has nothing to do with it.


The ‘hard problem’ is a delusion generated by scientists meddling in philosophical questions and by philosophers venturing into the realm of factual knowledge.


Our trouble, scientists and philosophers alike, is that we fail to confess our ignorance. The methods of science can show us how things work and how they turn into this or that, but can never tell us what things ultimately are or why they are. Philosophical reflection gives us insight into our inner reality and gives us a clearer understanding of our ideas and purposes, but can never give us any factual knowledge about things outside ‘us’, and that includes our bodies and brains. And we are not given to mix these two radically distinct modes of ‘knowing’ or to relate them in any way. Any attempt to do that plunges us into the fathomless labyrinth of illusory problems like that of the ‘hard problem of consciousness’.


The soul is just what is other than body. Descartes led modern thought into its gravest error by his doctrine of two substances. Mind is what is not substance; we might say it is the transcendent unity of the body, the reality over and above the actuality of the body. And I hasten to say that what I am saying is a myth, because we in fact do not know; the mind, understanding, intelligence, is an ultimate mystery, and of ultimate mysteries we can only speak in myth, as Plato spoke of the Form of the Good only in myth and parable


To speak of “the reality of the material mind” to me sounds like speaking of the squaredness of the rectangular circle!

D. R. Khashaba

April 3, 2017

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