Scholarly article on topic 'Explaining Phenomenal Consciousness. Does Conceivability Entail Possibility?'

Explaining Phenomenal Consciousness. Does Conceivability Entail Possibility? Academic research paper on "Philosophy, ethics and religion"

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Abstract of research paper on Philosophy, ethics and religion, author of scientific article — Mircea Dumitru

Abstract Explaining phenomenal consciousness may very well be the scientific and philosophical problem of our age. There is a conceptual tension which makes the task of giving a unitary explanation to the mind and to the physical world one of the most persistent and intriguing enigma. The predominant outlook about the natural world is of a physical kind. However, the mind and especially the conscious subjective experience do not seem to fit within this naturalist and physicalist explanation. It appears that we are caught in a dilemma, for we either stick to a physicalist explanation, or else we should figure out a dramatic change of our conception about the natural world.

Academic research paper on topic "Explaining Phenomenal Consciousness. Does Conceivability Entail Possibility?"

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Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 78 (2013) 635 - 641


Explaining phenomenal consciousness. Does conceivability entail


Mircea Dumitru*

University of Bucharest, Faculty of Philosophy, 504 Bd. Splaiul Independentei, Bucharest, Romania


Explaining phenomenal consciousness may very well be the scientific and philosophical problem of our age. There is a conceptual tension which makes the task of giving a unitary explanation to the mind and to the physical world one of the most persistent and intriguing enigma. The predominant outlook about the natural world is of a physical kind. However, the mind and especially the conscious subjective experience do not seem to fit within this naturalist and physicalist explanation. It appears that we are caught in a dilemma, for we either stick to a physicalist explanation, or else we should figure out a dramatic change of our conception about the natural world.

© 2013 The Authors. Published by Elsevier B.V.

Selection and/or peeeeevtew under responsibility of PSIWORLD 2012

Keywords: Consciousness, Materialism, Dualism, Conceivability, Metaphysical Possibility

1. Theoretical debate

Explaining phenomenal consciousness may very well be the scientific and philosophical problem of our age, the last frontier of knowledge. However, this is an extremely difficult task; for any attempt to find a proper place for consciousness within the natural world turned out so far to be not at all trivial. There is a conceptual tension which makes the task of giving a unitary explanation to the mind and to the physical world one of the most persistent and intriguing enigma. The predominant outlook about the natural world is of a physical kind. However, the mind and especially the conscious subjective experience do not seem to fit within this naturalist and physicalist explanation. It appears that we are caught in a dilemma, for we either stick to a physicalist explanation, but then it seems that we have to leave out consciousness, or else we should figure out a dramatic

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1877-0428 © 2013 The Authors. Published by Elsevier B.V. Selection and/or peer-review under responsibility of PSIWORLD 2012 doi: 10.1016/j.sbspro.2013.04.366

change of our conception about the natural world, which of course is extremely improbable. But then, is any attempt at understanding consciousness a dead-end, something which is doomed to fail?

Even raising the issue in a neutral way which does not beg the question for or against the main contenders in the metaphysics of mind is not easy. To begin with, one may question the soundness of drawing the alleged distinction between the easy problems of consciousness, such as the ability to discriminate and integrate stimuli, to report information, to monitor internal states, or to control behavior, and the hard problem of consciousness, viz. the problem of why do we have subjective experience (Chalmers, 2003), or why, in Nagel's famous phrase, there is something it is like to be in a conscious state (Nagel, 1974, pp. 435-450).

People who resist the view that there is a genuine distinction to be drawn here have at least two kinds of answer. First, following the late Wittgenstein (1958) they can argue that the 'unbridgeable gulf between consciousness and brain-process' is only an illusion: the mystery of subjective experience is the outcome of our own mystification; for we are those who project certain misunderstandings of the conceptual or grammatical articulations of our language onto reality, and consequently we find that reality mysterious and unintelligible. Second, they feel that what prima facie looks like an intractable problem within the received computationalist paradigm will eventually find a solution; and that solution will come along the same lines that other distinctive dimensions of the mental, such as rationality and intentionality, did come along. After all, when the project of 'naturalizing the mind', which roughly means the attempt to show how mental phenomena can be explained or explained away in physical, non-mental terms, seems so promising why not be optimistic about the prospects of explaining the subjectivity of the phenomenal consciousness using the same pattern of explanation that is used so successfully when rationality and intentionality are at stake?

The hope here is that structures and functions of the brain will provide an appropriate causal explanation for consciousness in the same way that they actually did that for rationality and intentionality. To be more specific, in the case of the easy problems what one looks for is an explanandum for certain behavioral and cognitive functions. The required explanation proceeds via the causal role that a certain structure or mechanism plays in the cognitive system, and there is compelling evidence that computational mechanisms instantiated by neural structures fit the overall causal nexus within which brain and mind are integrated. So, what makes materialism a very attractive position in current metaphysics of mind is precisely this causal story that materialism tells us about how intelligent human behavior is produced by physical structures through their causal roles that they play within our cognitive economy.

But now, is there any compelling evidence that the same explanatory materialist strategy will do with respect to the properties of phenomenal consciousness? Against the background provided by the current science of the mind is it reasonable after all to embrace the optimistic view that the same materialist causal explanation will provide eventually the resources needed to place consciousness within the physical order of things?

Here it is a diagnosis of the current state in philosophy of mind, offered by an important American epistemologist, viz. BonJour (2010, p.4): "Recent philosophy of mind has been dominated by materialist (or physicalist) views: views that hold that mental states are entirely material or physical in nature, and correlatively that a complete account of the world, one that leaves nothing out, can be given in entirely materialist terms. Though ... this may be changing to some extent, philosophers of mind who are willing to take seriously the possibility that materialism might be false are still quite rare."

We can hear lately dissenting voices when this issue is at stake. For the advocates of dualist solutions to the problem of phenomenal consciousness will answer in the negative to the question raised before. The rationale is that explaining intelligent behavior and cognitive functions will not do in general as a solution to the issue of why when we perform a cognitive function we subjectively experience certain qualitative states which have a phenomenal character, with phenomenal properties also known as qualia that characterize what it is like to be in that state. Why, after all, the performance of those functions is accompanied by a subjective experience and does not take place, as it were, blindly, or in the dark?

Here it is again BonJour (2010, p.4): "I have always found the situation extremely puzzling. As far as I can see, materialism is a view that has no very compelling argument in its favor and that is confronted with very powerful objections to which nothing even approaching an adequate response has been offered. The central objection, elaborated in various ways ..., is that the main materialist view, quite possibly the only serious materialist view, offers no account at all of consciousness and seems incapable in principle of doing so. But consciousness, as Nagel pointed out long ago, is the central feature of mental states - or at the very least a feature central enough to make a view that cannot account for it plainly inadequate."

But even writers who are not self-avowed dualists acknowledge the peculiarity of consciousness. Thus, Levine (2001, p. 6), who in his Purple Haze. The Puzzle of Consciousness articulates and defends a reductionist materialist story about mind, nevertheless emphatically says that 'if mentality were exhausted by rationality and intentionality, I don't think the mind-body problem would be so pressing. Sure, we don't completely understand how either rational inference or intentionality arises in nature, and it may turn out that we never will. But at the moment there is no reason for deep-seated pessimism. The explanatory mechanisms we have available - formal processes with nomic/informational relations - might do the job. We have at least a clue how something made out of what we're made out of could possibly support these features of mental life. But when it comes to consciousness, I maintain, we are clueless.'

The issue of dualism has been brought to the forefront of the consciousness studies lately because of a group of three epistemic arguments which are directed against the materialist explanation of consciousness (David Chalmers, 2003). More specifically, there is the so-called explanation argument, the conceivability (or the modal) argument, and the knowledge argument. Since in the remaining part of my paper I'll focus on certain moot points of the conceivability argument, let me give you in rough outline the other two arguments.

The explanatory argument goes like this. Since physical accounts explain at most spatio-temporal structures and functions or causal roles in the production of a system's behavior, and since explaining structure and function does not suffice to explain phenomenal consciousness, it follows that no physical account can explain consciousness.

The upshot of the knowledge argument is that knowledge of physical facts does not entail knowledge about consciousness. The argument has got a vivid and famous illustration in a thought experiment conceived by Frank Jackson (1986). The story goes like this: Mary is a neuroscientist who knows everything there is to know about the physical processes which are involved in color vision. However, Mary lived her entire life in a black-and-white room and consequently she never experienced red. It appears then that there are truths about experiencing color vision that Mary does not know: she does not know what it is like to see red. What is important to emphasize is that even if we presuppose that she has complete physical knowledge and perfect powers of reasoning she is not able to perform the deduction of what it is like to see red from her complete repertoire of physical knowledge. Of course, later, if her color vision is not impaired and she experiences red she will learn something new of which she had been ignorant so far. That something Mary learns is precisely what it is like to see red.

In a general, more abstract form Mary's case motivates the following argument: since there are truths about consciousness that are not deducible from physical truths, and since materialism is false, if there are truths about consciousness that are not deducible from physical truths, it follows that materialism is false.

The last argument in this group of three epistemic arguments is the conceivability argument. A simple version of the argument will look as follows (David Chalmers, 2003):

Consciousness is non-physical, because it is at least conceivable that there be zombies, and if it is conceivable that there be zombies, then it is metaphysically possible that there be zombies, and if it is metaphysically possible that there be zombies, then consciousness is non-physical.

A more abstract form will make explicit the anti-materialist substance of the conceivability argument. Incidentally, this shows that a common thread of all views in the metaphysics of mind which have a materialist commitment, such as identity theory, logical behaviorism, functionalism or eliminative materialism, is the modal

thesis: Necessarily (physical truths entail phenomenological truths). Let then P be the conjunction of all microphysical truths and Q a phenomenal truth whatsoever about the world. The more general conceivability argument will proceed thus:

Being conceivable that P & ~Q entails being metaphysically possible that P & ~Q, and being metaphysically possible that P & ~Q entails materialism being false, and since it is conceivable that P & ~Q it follows that materialism is false.

The first step of the argument is a conceivability statement: it is at least conceivable that there be a zombie, which is a system physically identical to a conscious being, which nevertheless does not experience at least some of that being's conscious states. To be sure, chances that there are zombies in the actual world are almost nil. And we can say even more: the way things are physically rule out the physical possibility of there existing zombies or a zombie world, which is a universe physically identical to ours which, nevertheless, lacks consciousness. However, it seems that our power of imagining things can produce a coherent picture of such a universe. On reflection there is no contradiction in the idea of imagining zombies.

Then the second step in the argument is a daring one from a modal logic point of view. In a few words this premise can be dubbed the conceivability-entails-the-possibility thesis. It connects logically the conceivability of zombies to the metaphysical possibility of zombies.

What is the import of all this to the theme of dualism? Well, if a zombie world could have existed then consciousness is not necessitated by the physical arrangements of things, and hence consciousness must be something non-physical. For if a metaphysically possible world, which is a perfect replica of the physical arrangement of our actual world, lacks any trace of conscious experience of systems over there, then consciousness must be a non-physical ingredient of our actual world.

Now, all those three arguments are neo-Cartesian arguments whose general pattern is the following:

There is an epistemic gap between the physical truths and the phenomenal truths, and since there being an epistemic gap between the physical truths and the phenomenal truths entails there being an ontological gap between the two domains, and since furthermore there being an ontological gap between the two domains entails that materialism is false, it follows that materialism is false.

This common pattern of neo-Cartesian arguments nicely brings out the dialectics which is going on here. For the reactions of materialists against this form of dualism can be read off from this pattern. Thus, one form of materialism, viz. 'type-A materialism', rejects premise one, whereas another type, viz. type-B materialism, which is of interest for my paper here, endorses premise one and denies premise two. But either way dualism is blocked.

Type-B materialism is instructive for our discussion here because it collides head on with the form of dualism advocated by the conceivability argument. What this form of materialism rejects is that epistemic failure entails ontological failure. According to this form of materialism, there is indeed an epistemic gap between the physical and the phenomenal domains, but that gap is not underwritten by a corresponding ontological gap; hence conceivability does not entail possibility. In other words, even if the two realms do not connect via conceiving or knowing or explaining, it doesn't follow that there is no ontological connections between the two domains. Hence, even if a zombie world is conceivable, it is not, however, metaphysically possible.

Going back to our three arguments what all this means is that we can conceive zombies but that is not sufficient for them to be metaphysically possible; or Mary does not know some truths while she is in her room, but those truths concern all along some basic physical facts (and when Mary gets out of her room she comes to know the same facts under different guises). Type-B materialism even acknowledges the distinction between the easy problems and the hard problem of consciousness. However, there is no ontological gap underlying the epistemic gap between the two domains.

What is now the kind of relation which holds between matter and mind according to this type of materialism? Most forms of type-B materialism spell out the relation in terms of identity between phenomenal states and physical states or functional states. There is a powerful kind of argument which can be used to back the identity relation involved in this construal of type-B materialism, and what I mean by this are statements used to express

theoretical identifications of the kind 'Water is H2O' or 'Gold is the element with atomic number 79'. Kripke (1971) and Putnam (1975) have argued that these are cases of identities which are not known a priori or derived through conceptual analysis, and so they are empirical identities, but they are nevertheless metaphysically necessary. Type-B materialists hold that identities of the same kind obtain between phenomenal concepts and physical or functional concepts. However, this is kind of ironical, for Kripke himself explicitly rejects this view. I'll come back to this in a moment. So, type-B materialists will say that what Kripke holds about theoretic identifications, like water is H2O, applies equally well to the relation between consciousness or phenomenal concepts on the one hand, and physical or functional concepts, on the other hand, which is that we may discover empirically that the two distinct concepts refer to the same thing in nature. Those truths are a posteriori and necessary.

This is a superb move which is meant to conciliate the epistemic gap between the two domains (for since we discover empirically that phenomenal and physical concepts co-refer there is nothing within the repertoire of our knowledge which entitles us to infer a priori possibility from conceivability) while ruling out the ontological gap (deep down the thing to which both concepts refer is the same physical thing). And of course, this move aims at accommodating the common intuition people have, which is that the subjectivity of the mental does not fit well within an objective description of things, with the materialist view that ultimately everything there is out there is physical in its nature.

It is quite natural then for a type-B materialist to try to make use of Kripke's work on the necessary a posteriori truths. For since those truths are metaphysically necessary but not knowable a priori, a type-B materialist will find a natural option to qualify the conditional 'Physical truths hold only if Qualia hold' as being a necessary a posteriori truth, which parallels the necessary a posteriori truth 'Water is H2O'. The epistemic gap is there, for there is no a priori entailment from Physical truths to Qualia, but the counterpart ontological gap is absent. Type-B materialism is vindicated by Kripke's work. (Sic!)

But be that as it may. Well, it's ironical, to begin with. For Kripke shows that the identity between phenomenal concepts and physical concepts is not of the same kind as the identity expressed by the sentence 'Water is H2O'. So, the issue now is what makes consciousness an exceptional case to which a conceivability type of argument does apply? And when I say 'exceptional case' I really mean it, for it appears that it is only in the domain of consciousness that conceivability can be a reliable guide to possibility.

Toward the end of his classic Naming and Necessity, and also in his paper 'Identity and Necessity' Kripke observes that materialists have argued for some or even for all of the following statements:

Persons are (identical with their) bodies.

Sensations are (identical with) neural events.

Types of sensations are (identical with) types of neural events.

and he devises a type of neo-Cartesian argument against each of those claims. Kripke stops short of endorsing the arguments. However, he clearly says that the arguments are valid and suggests that the premises are intuitively plausible. In addition to that, the modal considerations the arguments are built on are powerful and efficient not just against the above mentioned identifications, but also against materialism as such.

In the passages related to our issue, Kripke motivates two different modal arguments against the identification of a person with his/her body; likewise for the identification of sensations (or type of sensations) with neural events (or types of neural events). If we focus upon the rejection of the first kind of identification then the structure of argumentation is twofold. There is an argument based on the Cartesian concept of a disembodied mind, which goes like this: Kripke might have existed without his body; therefore Kripke ^ Kripke's body. And there is another kind of argument which is similar to the arguments involving zombies. Here it is: Kripke's body might have existed without Kripke; hence Kripke ^ Kripke's body.

Kripke himself is crystal clear about the validity of those two arguments. He says: 'Now the one response which I regard as plainly inadmissible is the response which cheerfully accepts the Cartesian premise, while denying the Cartesian conclusion.' (Kripke, 1972; 1980, pp. 334-335) How is that working? Let 'Kripke' be a

name, or rigid designator, of a person, and let 'B' be a rigid designator of his body. Then, according to Kripke's modal metaphysics and semantics, if Kripke were identical to B, then the supposed identity, being an identity expressed by a sentence in which two rigid designators occur, would be necessary, and Kripke could not exist without B and B could not exist without Kripke. And Kripke himself rightly says: 'A philosopher who wishes to refute the Cartesian conclusion must refute the Cartesian premise, and the latter task is not trivial.' (Kripke, 1972; 1980, pp. 334-335).

In another passage we find: 'All arguments against the identity theory which rely on the necessity of identity, or on the notion of essential property, are, of course, inspired by Descartes' argument for his dualism ... The simplest Cartesian argument can perhaps be restated as follows: let "A" be a name (rigid designator) of Descartes' body. Then Descartes argues that since he could exist, even if A did not, 0~(Descartes = A), hence -(Descartes = A). Those who have accused him of a modal fallacy have forgotten that "A" is rigid. His argument is valid, and his conclusion is correct, provided its (perhaps dubitable) premise is accepted. (Kripke, 1971, n. 19).

But why would somebody think that the argument is invalid? One reason could be that people might construe the form of the argument along the following lines (where t is non-rigid): it is possible that (t exists without t); therefore t ^ t. And this makes sense. For if there is some possible world with respect to which (the non-rigid designator) t designates something that t exists without at that world (so that the premise is true), it could still be the case that t and t designate the same thing in the actual world (and thus the conclusion is false).

Kripke's own interpretation of the Cartesian argument insists on taking both t and t as rigid designators. Then the modal argument is in very good modal standing: since 0(t exists without t), and 0(t ^ t), it follows that t ^ t. Now, the neo-Cartesian argument got its modal honorability, provided the diamond is read as metaphysically possible. But to this, one might still reply that the move begs the question in favor of answering in the affirmative to the main issue I am dealing with here, which is whether conceivability entails possibility. For remember that the starting point of a Cartesian argument consists in conceiving something to be the case. So, it's time to go back again to the main issue before I finish.

It seems that what we need is a sort of direct argument for the idea that conceivability entails possibility. And this could go as follows. What we want to argue for is the thesis that Conceivable (P & ~Q) entails Possible (P & ~Q).

The suggestion should not be that zombies are physically possible relative to the actual world. Rather, since we can coherently conceive a zombie world then even if such a world is ruled out as a physical possibility by the physical laws that obtain at the actual world it is nevertheless metaphysically possibly possible relative to the actual world, in the sense that if the things were different from a physical point of view and a different set of physical laws had obtained then that different set of physical laws would have not metaphysically necessitated a physical system which has conscious states. So, it may very well be the case that a zombie world is inaccessible in one step from the actual world but via the coherence of conceiving a zombie world it is accessible from the actual world in two steps, which means that it could have existed. But then, if the accessibility relation between worlds is transitive then in a very precise model theoretic sense we've got the following reduction principle: if a zombie world is metaphysically possibly possible then it is just possible. A pair of possibilities collapses to one possibility: for whatever is possibly possible is just possible or to phrase this in an alternative way, something is possible precisely when it is possibly possible. And since entailment itself is transitive, it follows that if a zombie world is conceivable in the actual world then it is possible relative to the actual world.

Now, I know quite well that most people usually react drastically to this kind of arguments involving fictional objects and very abstract notions and principles. It is very legitimate then to ask ourselves what the relevance of this kind of analysis would be to so great a problem. How much is it worth this arm-chair philosophizing about consciousness? In this respect, it is very instructive to take a look at the attitude of an experimentalist towards this way of tackling the issue. Harris (1995), for instance, in his paper called 'An experimentalist looks at identity' says: 'Experimentalists who consider themselves to be working on the mind or on the brain find this argument laughable; but this is not due to any error in the formalism. So long as Kripke stays within his formal

system, the substitution of properties that he makes is unimpeachable. But when he substitutes elements of the real world (minds and brains) for x and y, the argument breaks down completely. . What we have here is simply an example of an incompatibility with which every experimentalist is intimately familiar: the failure of a formal model to accommodate the complexity of reality. In formal systems identity means no more than substitutivity within the system; but in the world of sticks and stones additional or other criteria apply. However, what disturbs the experimental scientist more deeply than the inapplicability of Kripke's logic to the real world is the illusion that a question as complex and as intractable as the relationship between mind and brain could be disposed of by an exercise in formal logic (Harris, 1995).'

Well, what can be said in defense of this line of argument is that dualists can make the same general points using epistemological arguments, and what is even more interesting for my own project, which is, again, that of figuring out what functions modal notions serve within the arguments coined in philosophy of mind and consciousness, using the framework of the two-dimensional semantics. But I have to leave it to this for the moment.


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Chalmers, D. (2003). Consciousness and its Place in Nature. In Stephen P. Stich and Ted A. Warfield (Eds.). The Blackwell Guide to Philosophy of Mind, (pp. 102-142), Blackwell Publishing.

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Kripke, S. (1972, 1980). Naming and Necessity. Harvard University Press.

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