Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Planet Narnia Part 3: Consciousness

I have been doing a series of blogs on Michael Ward’s fascinating book Planet Narnia. My first two posts can be found here and here. In this post I want to pick up on another secondary theme found in Ward’s book; namely, the peculiar logical status of conscious cognition. 

 That we have a name for consciousness can in itself be the cause of logical typing errors. For example, we might say something like: “In this world we have objects like matter, space, plants, animals, human beings and consciousness!”. It might appear from the construction of this list that consciousness is just another category, like materials and animals, that we can subject to observation. However, in this list consciousness is the odd one out; we don’t observe consciousness, rather it is observation; in all observations conscious cognition is implicit and therefore it is also implicit in all scientific testing. 

Somebody who has made the category error of thinking about consciousness as if it is just another object subject to observation is Larry Moran. In this post he says: 

Now, I happen believe that there's no such thing as "consciousness" in the sense of something tangible that we can point to and say. "That's consciousness."

I would accept the face value of that statement: Take me to a brain and all I am aware of is the third person perspective of neural activity. Moreover, we’re told that a large part of brain activity is unconscious so even if I‘m looking at brain activity I’m not necessarily looking at activity that maps to “consciousness”. But this is really beside the point; the point is that this neural activity is how the first person's conscious experience registers in the consciousness of the third person observer. Therefore conscious cognition is the implicit backdrop and stage of any narrative spoken from a third person perspective. However, this exercise in self-awareness seems too reflexive for Larry and because he fails to observe anything that looks like “consciousness” in brain activity he simply defines consciousness as identical to neural activity: 

“I think it’s merely a descriptive term for brain activity. Consciousness may be an important and useful word for describing the phenomenon, but that’s all it is” 

Larry seems unable to detect the presence of consciousness cognition implicit in the phrase “describing the phenomenon”; there has to be a first person perspective for whom the whole thing is a phenomenon observed and described. It’s almost as if people like Larry lack a degree of self-awareness: They can see the third person story, but have no category for the first person story, Given that third person descriptions conventionally contain no explicit reference to an observer it is no surprise that Larry thinks consciousness doesn’t exist. But thinking that consciousness doesn’t exist is a bit like thinking that “observation” doesn’t exist. What then is the final arbiter of scientific theories in the face of this attack on the reality of observation? As Ward correctly says: 

To Lewis (as to Barfield), scientists in the modern period were too often naturalistic in their world view, apt to commit the error of removing their own minds and their thinking processes from the total picture of the world that they were trying to understand and inhabit. P242 

It was the very foundational nature of observation (or experience/consciousness) in science that lead me, at a very early stage in my philosophical musings, to be drawn toward positivistic schools of thought. I was drawn toward them because they acknowledged the scientific centrality of the conscious observing thinking agent; in fact, that highly complex agent was effectively axiomatic to positivism. This led me to a favourable view of idealism as a philosophy. According to Ward it seems that a similar shift toward idealism happened to Lewis himself: 

…they maintained that abstract thought, if obedient to logical rules, gave indisputable ‘truth’ and the possibility of ‘valid’ moral judgment. Barfield, who had advanced beyond realism some time before his friend, taught Lewis that, if thought were purely a subjective event, these claims for abstract thinking would have to be abandoned. Lewis was not willing-indeed, not able – to abandon them……He now saw that a realist philosophy that admitted only sensory perception would be effectively solipsistic, but if solipsism were true it could not know itself to be true. The cerebral physiologist who says that thought is ‘only’ tiny physical movements of grey matter must be wrong, for how could he think that thought truly except by participating in the medium which the logic of his statement denies? “The inside vision of rational thinking must be truer than the outside vision which only sees movements of the grey matter; for if the outside vision were the correct one all thought (including this thought itself) would be valueless, and this is self contradictory” P34

 I would want to comment on this quote as follows: The cerebral physiologist who says that thought is ‘only’ tiny physical movements of grey matter is in one sense right because his third person perspective on the first person will mean that observations of the latter will only ever reveal tiny physical movements of grey matter. But if we are a cerebral physiologist we must not neglect to carry out the reflexive operation of looking back down the line of our observation to ourselves where it becomes apparent that implicit in our third person account of the brain are the observations and theorizings of a first person perspective. It may well be that every conscious event maps on a point by point basis to some kind of neural activity, but this still leaves us with the observer-observed dichotomy between the first person and third person perspectives. 

Ward tells us that given this kind of philosophical background Lewis became an idealist: 

Lewis had wanted Nature to be quite independent of his observations, something other, indifferent, self-existing. “But now, it seemed to me, I had to give that up. Unless I were to accept an unbelievable alternative, I must admit that mind was no late-come epiphenomenon; that the whole universe was, in the last resort, mental; that our logic was participation in a cosmic Logos” (Logos as a pervasive spirit of rationality…) Lewis was moving toward an idealist philosophy. To be more precise, he was recognizing that his present position already entailed idealism. P34

There is, however, a major and obvious issue with a thorough going idealism that asserts that ultimate reality is only vested in the observations, perceptions and thoughts of conscious cognition. This is the old question about the reality of events which seem to be well beyond the spot light of conscious observation. We have a compelling intuition that our world is benevolently rational and therefore that the signals arriving at our door, whether they be the fossil remains from deep time or the starlight from deep space, are not just a deceptive sensory façade, but instead an interface to something real and beyond. There may be no entities that qualify as conscious observers in deep space or deep time and yet the compelling rational integrity of the cosmic order demands these signals be treated as a clue to a detailed reality beyond close observation. Lewis, in all likelihood, understood this completely and may be it is this that drew him toward Berkelyan idealism, a form of idealism where humanly unperceived cosmic quarters nevertheless have a place in the conscious cognition of God:

However, it was only a small step to theism. Indeed, Lewis admits in ‘Surprised by Joy’ that he cannot now understand how he ever regarded his idealism as ‘something quite distinct from Theism’. Rather ‘idealism turned out, when you took it seriously, to be disguised Theism’. He considered Berkeley’s account of idealism ‘unanswerable’ and when asked what school of philosophy God might support, he replied, ‘God is a Berkeleyan idealist’. P35 

I personally have no a priori problem with the notion that the motions of neural atoms, motions which constitute the third person perspective of my brain, have a point by point mapping to my every conscious thought and in that sense “explains” them. But why should this system of atoms should be graced with an epistemology that seems to work? That is, why can an ensemble of atoms successfully reach knowledge about themselves? There seems to be nothing in science which obliges guaranteed “self-knowledge”. In this connection Ward quotes Haldane: 

The naturalistic alternative refutes itself, in Lewis view, for the reason given by Haldane: ‘If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true… and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms’ P217

We could short cut the self-defeating self-reference here by simply accepting benevolent rationality as an axiomatic brute given and probe no further. But for theists benevolent rationality is a rational assumption in the context of a theology of providence. (See How to know you know you know it

I’m not sure, however, that I would want to follow Lewis into the next stage of his thought, a stage which to me smacks of dualism and ghost in the machine. Following on from my last quote Ward says: 

Since this position is self-refuting, Lewis concludes that it cannot be true; human thinking must be sharing in a ‘supernatural reason’. By ‘supernatural’ Lewis means that human thought, when true, is not simply dependent upon the interlocked system of natural causes and natural effects. Rational knowledge is not caused by effects; rather it is the consequence of grounds, being determined only by the truth it knows, not by digestion or heredity or the weather or any other non-rational, naturalistic causation. P217 

For me this kind of thinking disrupts the agreement and harmony between conscious cognition and the “interlocked system of natural causes and natural effects”. Although I’m not dogmatic about it, I have no problem with the notion that there may be a complete point by point conformity between one’s first person experiences and the “system of natural causes and effects” as observed by the third person. On that basis I have no a-priori objection to the idea that “Rational knowledge is caused by effects”; in fact my understanding of theism is sympathetic to this idea: God is as much creative sovereign over the third person perspective of atoms and particles as he is over the first person experiences that map to the system of particulate motions. Therefore the system of causes and effects that we observe could well be efficacious enough to provide conscious cognition with “self-explanation” (See the forward of my book here where I moot this idea). But it is when we posit no providential underwriter of this system of self-explanation that the self-defeating self-referencing problems arise. 

At one point Ward quotes Barfield who in my opinion expresses well the situation we find ourselves in: 

Science deals with the world which it perceives but, seeking more and more to penetrate the veil of naive perception, progresses only toward the goal of nothing, because it still does not accept in practice (what-ever it may admit theoretically) that the mind first creates what it perceives as objects, including the instruments which science uses for that very penetration. It insists on dealing with ‘data’, but there shall no data be given, save the bare precept. The rest is imagination. Only by imagination therefore can the world be known. And what is needed is, not only that larger and larger telescopes should be constructed, but that the human mind should become increasingly aware of its own creative activity. P241-242 (Barfield) 

We cannot peep round the interface of our perceptions or dispense with the imagination which interprets what it sees and builds the superstructure of a rational world on those perceptions. Whether we believe in a providential theism or not, science can only proceed if we are positive about the assumption of a rational world amenable to the imagination. Without this assumption being the foundation of our thought we have little epistemological purchase on the cosmos. Without this assumption being proactively exploited all science and knowledge ends.


William Erwin Thompson, of whom I have done two posts (see here and here) and whose ideas I feel are linked to Planet Narnia, is another author who understands the status of consciousness. See the second of the two posts I have linked to where I quote from Pages 98 and 99 of Thompson’s book Passages about Earth.

I have written on the subject of consciousness several times in this blog as follows:


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