Consciousness regained? Philosophical arguments for and against reductive physicalism

#1
Someone linked to this paper in a facebook group (Human Consciousness project).

I'm not sure that this paper is really saying anything. First of all the author Thomas Sturm gives no actual arguments to suppose reductive materialism is true but merely contents himself with giving counter-arguments to the arguments opposing reductive materialism. Secondly these counter-arguments do not seem to me to be in fact counter-arguments at all, but merely beg the question by assuming the truth of reductive materialism at the outset.

He tries to defend the identity thesis. A large part of his counter-arguments boils down to the fact that just because 2 apparent things do not appear to be one and the same thing, this does not entail they are not. He justifies this by giving examples like Farrokh Pluto Bulsara and Freddy Mercury being one and the very same person.

However with the examples he gives we can independently follow the paths of both things and see that their paths through space-time are one and the same. We cannot do this with a brain state and a particular conscious experience. For one thing we cannot follow the conscious experience through space-time since it does not have a location (or at least we can only say it has a location by transparently begging the question and asserting it has a location since it is one and the same thing as the brain event).

Secondly the conscious experience has absolutely nothing in common with the object or physical state it is said to be identical with. Physical objects states or processes have properties such as mass, location, charge or are wholly characterised by structure and dynamics. And of course they are objective and discernible form the 3rd person perspective. Conscious experiences, on the other hand, are characterised by the qualitative and wholly lack any physical properties.

Therefore to say they are the same is vacuous -- it's not actually saying anything. If they neither share the same location not have any properties in common whatsoever, then by definition they are not identical.


Looking at reply 2 in response to the explanatory gap argument his argument appears to be that our raw conscious experiences or qualia seem to have causal effects, therefore qualia can be wholly reduced to a functional analysis.

This certainly appears to be true of the physical world. At least from a scientific perspective there's nothing more to an entity or process over and above it's causal powers to affect its environment and hence will be susceptible to a functional analysis.

However this is not the case with our phenomenal consciousness or qualia. Certainly my conscious experiences, for example my emotions, have a causal impact on the world. However it is asinine in the extreme to suppose that my emotions are nothing but such causal powers. An emotion such as fear is not constituted by my behavior, but rather by the raw emotion experienced.

In fact with this argument the author is simply transparently begging the question again.

The existence of phenomenal consciousness necessitates the falsity of reductive materialism. This of course does not rule out the possibility of non-reductive materialism being correct, and certainly doesn't rule out the possibility that the brain creates consciousness. But it is false to say they are one and the same thing or process or state.

OK skeptics (or anyone else), what am I not understanding?
 
S

Sciborg_S_Patel

#2
It's promissory materialism as far as I can tell. Which is fine so long as one isn't closing off other avenues of explanation.

Though I do think he's trying too hard to dismiss the explanatory gap. Chalmers has pointed out how big of problem this is, as noted in this thread.

I'd suggest he keep in mind the words of Sam Harris - who has a neuroscience PhD himself - that discusses how nonsensical emergence is:

It might still be true that the laws of physics themselves sprang out of nothing in this sense, and the universe along with them—and Krauss says as much. Perhaps that is precisely what happened. I am simply claiming that this is not an explanation of how the universe came into being. To say “Everything came out of nothing” is to assert a brute fact that defies our most basic intuitions of cause and effect—a miracle, in other words.

Likewise, the idea that consciousness is identical to (or emerged from) unconscious physical events is, I would argue, impossible to properly conceive—which is to say that we can think we are thinking it, but we are mistaken. We can say the right words, of course—“consciousness emerges from unconscious information processing.” We can also say “Some squares are as round as circles” and “2 plus 2 equals 7.” But are we really thinking these things all the way through? I don’t think so.

Consciousness—the sheer fact that this universe is illuminated by sentience—is precisely what unconsciousness is not. And I believe that no description of unconscious complexity will fully account for it. It seems to me that just as “something” and “nothing,” however juxtaposed, can do no explanatory work, an analysis of purely physical processes will never yield a picture of consciousness. However, this is not to say that some other thesis about consciousness must be true. Consciousness may very well be the lawful product of unconscious information processing. But I don’t know what that sentence means—and I don’t think anyone else does either.
 
#3
Well I want to know what is meant by saying reductive materialism is true.

Let's suppose that the physical processes within brains do indeed produce consciousness. If we were to say this is because conscious experiences are identical with such physical processes, then in what way does this differ from saying that such processes elicit consciousness? (as in non-reductive materialism).

Unlike Clark Kent and Superman, or the morning and evening star, or Farrokh Pluto Bulsara and Freddy Mercury, there's no conceivable way we could verify they are indeed identical. That is to say we cannot trace the path through space-time of a particular individual's consciousness and show it traces the same path as the neural correlates of that person's conscious experiences.

It seems to me to say that the experience of blueness is identical with some neurons firing (or whatever) is not to say anything substantive about the world. It remins the case that there is a quale of blueness and this is wholly dissimilar to the correlated neural activity. So in saying they are identical, what is one actually saying? More specifically how does it differ from saying the neural activity elicits the experience of blueness? (I use the word "elicit" to suggest a tighter relationship than the word "cause" implies).
 
S

Sciborg_S_Patel

#4
Yup. As Sam Harris, the great atheist "Horseman" says, the words "physical processes produce consciousness" don't make any more sense than saying "something comes from nothing".
 

Paul C. Anagnostopoulos

Nap, interrupted.
Member
#5
Let's suppose that the physical processes within brains do indeed produce consciousness. If we were to say this is because conscious experiences are identical with such physical processes, then in what way does this differ from saying that such processes elicit consciousness? (as in non-reductive materialism).
I have no idea. Don't philosophers make subtle distinctions in this area?

~~ Paul
 

Paul C. Anagnostopoulos

Nap, interrupted.
Member
#6
Yup. As Sam Harris, the great atheist "Horseman" says, the words "physical processes produce consciousness" don't make any more sense than saying "something comes from nothing".
How is this different from "physical processes produce computation" or "atmospheric processes produce weather"?

It might be different, but I don't know why. The fact that we can completely explain computation and reasonably well explain weather is not an answer to the question. We couldn't do either of those things 500 years ago.

~~ Paul
 
S

Sciborg_S_Patel

#7
How is this different from "physical processes produce computation" or "atmospheric processes produce weather"?

It might be different, but I don't know why. The fact that we can completely explain computation and reasonably well explain weather is not an answer to the question. We couldn't do either of those things 500 years ago.

~~ Paul
In the two cases you list - weather & computation there's nothing subjective going on. It's simply matter of going from higher to lower orders of abstraction.

But Harris does address some of these concerns in part two of his Mysteries of Consciousness series.

Many readers of my previous essay did not understand why the emergence of consciousness should pose a special problem to science. Every feature of the human mind and body emerges over the course development: Why is consciousness more perplexing than language or digestion? The problem, however, is that the distance between unconsciousness and consciousness must be traversed in a single stride, if traversed at all. Just as the appearance of something out of nothing cannot be explained by our saying that the first something was “very small,” the birth of consciousness is rendered no less mysterious by saying that the simplest minds have only a glimmer of it.

This situation has been characterized as an “explanatory gap” and the “hard problem of consciousness,” and it is surely both. I am sympathetic with those who, like the philosopher Colin McGinn and the psychologist Steven Pinker, have judged the impasse to be total: Perhaps the emergence of consciousness is simply incomprehensible in human terms. Every chain of explanation must end somewhere—generally with a brute fact that neglects to explain itself. Consciousness might represent a terminus of this sort. Defying analysis, the mystery of inner life may one day cease to trouble us.
I suspect Harris is close to becoming a proponent, probably all he needs now is one good hit of ayahuasca. ;-)

Seriously though I'd be curious how he interprets things like the IQOQI results or the recent "quantum shadow" stuff mentioned in New Scientist. Zeilinger has noted how philosophers, not to mention the Dalai Lama balk at seeing the weirdness of the quantum world.

Though the Dalai Lama fully admitted that he'd have to change the teachings if QM was right about reality's firmament. Philosophers, not so much it seems:

Have any philosophers picked up on the conceptual 
implications of your research?

I have a program where I invite philosophers to see what goes on in the lab, because it changes your intuition. A great majority of philosophers are realists, though sometimes naive realists. I often ask them, “Why are you so realistic? If you analyze your fundamental notions you might conclude that these things are more counterintuitive than you think.” Often the answer is, “Yes, but I want to describe reality.” And then I say, “I also want to describe reality, but why are you not satisfied with describing the reality of the observations? Why do you want a hidden reality that exists independent of the observation?” And I don’t get satisfactory answers.
 
#11
I have no idea. Don't philosophers make subtle distinctions in this area?

~~ Paul
Well they are. But if consciousness exists I don't understand why reductive materialism isn't wrong by definition.

If consciousness is one and the very same thing as some physical process, and such physical processes obviously have causal powers, then it follows that consciousness has causal powers too. So thre's that motivation for advancing reductive materialism. But that does nothing about the problems I've raised.
 
#12
How is this different from "physical processes produce computation" or "atmospheric processes produce weather"?

It might be different, but I don't know why. The fact that we can completely explain computation and reasonably well explain weather is not an answer to the question. We couldn't do either of those things 500 years ago.

~~ Paul

Those 2 examples can be reductively explained. Hence weather is nothing but the sum total of all atmospheric processes. This is not so with consciousness.
 

Paul C. Anagnostopoulos

Nap, interrupted.
Member
#13
In the two cases you list - weather & computation there's nothing subjective going on. It's simply matter of going from higher to lower orders of abstraction.
You say this as if it's just obvious that "subjectivity" makes it impossible to move through levels of abstraction. Also, I'm not sure how computation is simply an abstraction of electronics.

But Harris does address some of these concerns in part two of his Mysteries of Consciousness series.
"The problem, however, is that the distance between unconsciousness and consciousness must be traversed in a single stride, ..."
This sounds as if there is no room for proto-consciousness or other levels of consciousness. Why would we assume this? Why doesn't he say the same thing about computation?

I suspect Harris is close to becoming a proponent, probably all he needs now is one good hit of ayahuasca. ;-)
Just in case he isn't already potentially misinterpreting his experiences.

~~ Paul
 
#15
There's no reason to suppose that the weather isn't the sum product of the interactions of all these individual atmospheric processes.

This is different though from the original issue. Many reductive materialists agree that consciousness cannot be derived from physical processes, this is why they say that consciousness is identical to some physical processes. It's a kinda cheat to try and escape from the fact that reductive materialism is transparently false.
 
S

Sciborg_S_Patel

#16
You say this as if it's just obvious that "subjectivity" makes it impossible to move through levels of abstraction. Also, I'm not sure how computation is simply an abstraction of electronics.

This sounds as if there is no room for proto-consciousness or other levels of consciousness. Why would we assume this? Why doesn't he say the same thing about computation?
if you think subjective experience can arise from a higher level of abstraction, I'd love to see an explanation that doesn't require what Harris notes as a "something from nothing" type miracle.

Regarding Computation as abstraction of Electronics -> Perhaps you have a different definition of abstraction, or I'm admittedly just using the wrong English word. What I mean is that whatever happens in a program is ultimately just hardware moving around.

As for proto-consciousness, Harris addresses this when he notes even the smallest glimmer of experience has to be explained. I accept Panpsychism in some variety being a possibility.
 

Paul C. Anagnostopoulos

Nap, interrupted.
Member
#17
There's no reason to suppose that the weather isn't the sum product of the interactions of all these individual atmospheric processes.
Yes, but how do you know that consciousness isn't like that?

This is different though from the original issue. Many reductive materialists agree that consciousness cannot be derived from physical processes, this is why they say that consciousness is identical to some physical processes. It's a kinda cheat to try and escape from the fact that reductive materialism is transparently false.
Why is it transparently false?

~~ Paul
 

Paul C. Anagnostopoulos

Nap, interrupted.
Member
#18
if you think subjective experience can arise from a higher level of abstraction, I'd love to see an explanation that doesn't require what Harris notes as a "something from nothing" type miracle.
I don't know how it can. But people are saying it cannot as if they have some kind of logical proof rather than a gut feeling.

Regarding Computation as abstraction of Electronics -> Perhaps you have a different definition of abstraction, or I'm admittedly just using the wrong English word. What I mean is that whatever happens in a program is ultimately just hardware moving around.
Yeah, I don't think of that as an abstraction, but I don't know the right word. Supervenience or something. I don't know why consciousness can't be just brain mechanisms moving around.

As for proto-consciousness, Harris addresses this when he notes even the smallest glimmer of experience has to be explained. I accept Panpsychism in some variety being a possibility.
I certainly won't argue that there is some level of consciousness that doesn't need to be explained. But isn't "the distance between unconsciousness and consciousness must be traversed in a single stride" just a bit of an overstatement? Does the distance between not-alive and alive have to be traversed in a single stride?

~~ Paul
 
S

Sciborg_S_Patel

#19
I don't know how it can. But people are saying it cannot as if they have some kind of logical proof rather than a gut feeling.
Taken at face value, I don't see how experience of conscious awareness is reducible to bits and pieces. I don't believe any materialist position has been able to explain why we should assume it to be so.

A charitable balance then presumes the paradigm that best describes reality is a choice between the immaterialist and materialist positions, with the former encompassing idealism/neutral monism/panpsychism. As an advocate for tolerance of religion I certainly don't have a problem with materialists making their leap of faith.

This would, however, cause of shifting in academia once we realize Matter -> Mind is an article of faith in the way Multiple Worlds Interpretation. Science classes should include the alternative paradigms mentioned above, and it should be noted that a Cosmic Consciousness of the kind Kaku describes as part a valid interpretation of the Measurement Problem shouldn't be summarily dismissed. Especially given realism itself seems to be challenged empirically.

I don't know why consciousness can't be just brain mechanisms moving around.
Do you think basic mechanisms are conscious?

But isn't "the distance between unconsciousness and consciousness must be traversed in a single stride" just a bit of an overstatement? Does the distance between not-alive and alive have to be traversed in a single stride?
I don't think believe so. Not-alive and alive could have a spectrum, as Martin Hanczyc suggests.

Even proto-consciousness is a major leap of the kind Harris describes.
 
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