Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Consciousness Ensnared?

The New Yorker recently did a story on Paul and Patricia Churchland, two philosophers who have worked together on the mind-body problem for all of their 37-year marriage ("Two Heads," by Larissa MacFarquhar, February 12, 2007). The Churchlands are avowed materialists when it comes to the consciousness question -- they are so sure, in fact, that consciousness is identical to the brain that they look to neuroscience to provide an explanation for the apparent mind-body dualism. This is somewhat unusual, even among materialists and especially among philosophers of mind, who do by and large believe that the brain gives rise to the mind, but who don't like to entangle themselves in the squishy and seemingly arbitrary complexity of a living brain.

The Churchlands are attacking the non-materialist, non-reductionist views of mind, especially those articulated so well by Kenny Felder in his "Are You a Robot?" lecture. Those arguments run something like this: no matter how complex a computer gets (and the human brain is an exceedingly complex one) it still doesn't explain what consciousness is. Doing lots of really complex operations in no way necessitates the rise of a subjective observer who witnesses those operations happening, and is aware of the witnessing. That awareness of thought and experience is, to the subjective observer, completely irreducible. It just is. That's what leads meditators and mystics to conclude that consciousness is what philosophers call a "primative," a fundamental building block of reality itself. This line of thought is also the bedrock of my own personal theology, so I take this question very, very seriously.

The Churchlands critique of this line of reasoning runs like this: OK, you can't imagine how a mechanistic brain gives rise to experience. So what? The history of science is chock full of truths that were unintuitive and completely unimaginable until scientific disciplines and knowledge evolved sufficiently to make sense of them. At one time, it was perfectly obvious that the world was flat, and no one could imagine how you could explain the experience of earth and sky any other way. And yet, eventually, that "obvious" truth was eventually overthrown, and everyone takes for granted their current concept of a round earth. Consciousness is just another phenomena that will eventually be explained. To argue otherwise -- "I don't believe it because I can't imagine it" -- is to essentially argue that ignorance is absolute, and is indistinguishable from the position of those who would have killed Galileo for suggesting the world was not the center of the universe. It is the same sort of reasoning creationists use to establish the existence of God: "I can't imagine how such a complex world could come to be without a Creator; therefore, there must be a God." To which most scientists reply: "No, that doesn't mean there must be a God. It just means you have a pretty lousy imagination."

The Churchlands don't really have a compelling explanation of mind; they just don't want people to assume that all truths must be intuitively compelling to be acceptable or true. And I think that's a perfectly legitimate (and troubling) bit of epistomology to wrap your head around. You can't assume that you will recognize the truth when you first meet it. Nor can you assume that the mysterious and irreducible will stay safely mysterious.

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