Article: The Unobservable Mind
- The Unobservable Mind
Roger Scruton Febuary 2005
Consciousness is more familiar to us than any other feature of our world, since it is the route by which anything at all becomes familiar. But this is what makes consciousness so hard to pinpoint. Look for it wherever you like, you encounter only its objects -- a face, a dream, a memory, a color, a pain, a melody, a problem, but nowhere the consciousness that shines on them. Trying to grasp it is like trying to observe your own observing, as though you were to look with your own eyes at your own eyes without using a mirror. Not surprisingly, therefore, the thought of consciousness gives rise to peculiar metaphysical anxieties, which we try to allay with images of the soul, the mind, the self, the subject of consciousness, the inner entity that thinks and sees and feels and that is the real me inside. But these traditional solutions merely duplicate the problem. We cast no light on the consciousness of a human being simply by redescribing it as the consciousness of some inner homunculus -- be it a soul, a mind, or a self. On the contrary, by placing that homunculus in some private, inaccessible, and possibly immaterial realm, we merely compound the mystery.
Putting the point in that way makes it clear that, in the first instance at least, the problem of consciousness is a philosophical, not a scientific, problem. It cannot be solved by studying the empirical data, since consciousness (as normally understood) isnt one of them. We can observe brain processes, neurons, ganglions, synapses, and all the other intricate matter of the brain, but we cannot observe consciousness. I can observe you observing, but what I observe is not that peculiar thing that you know from within and that is present, in some sense, only to you. At least, so it would seem; if this is some kind of mistake, it is a philosophical and not a scientific argument that will tell us so.
This appropriation of the question by philosophy is apt to make scientists impatient. Surely, they will argue, if consciousness is real it must be part of the real worldthe world of space and time, which we observe with our senses and explain by science. But what part? First-person reports of conscious states are radically affected by brain damage, and the behavior that leads us to describe others as conscious originates in the nervous system, whose functions seem to be largely controlled by the brain. Common sense and scientific inference therefore both point to the brain as the seat of consciousness. So, scientists argue, lets study the brain and find out exactly which of its processes correspond to our conscious mental states. That way, they suggest, we will find out what consciousness is.
But will we? Unfortunately, the philosophical problem comes back at us in another form. How exactly do we discover a correspondence between consciousness and a brain process, given that consciousness is not something that we observe? And suppose we overcome that difficulty and produce a theory correlating conscious mental states with specific neurological events. This means that we have discovered what consciousness is only if we can advance from correspondence to identity. And that is precisely what so many philosophers doubt we can do. True, there are some who defend the view that conscious states are identical with brain processes, but they defend it on philosophical, not scientific, grounds. And their view is open to radical objections: for example, how can a state of one thing (a person) be identical with a process in another (a brain)?
Full Text at TechnologyReview.com
Robert Karl Stonjek
- I fail to see in what way Roger Scruton sheds any light on the
consciousness question, though I suppose he could get an "A" for
effort. He makes the error several times of making assertions ~
things he considers to be facts or truths ~ which he has no right to
make, while challenging other people's doing the same thing at times.
For example, he says:
"Now, there are certainly neuronal correlates of consciousness, so
understood: namely, all the electrical processes that are necessary
to generate conscious behavior (...). Some animals exhibit these
processes; some (insects, for instance) dont. To discover the source
of these processes is, in a sense, to discover the seat of
consciousness in the brain."
The idea that the brain is "the seat of consciousness" hasn't really
been proven scientifically. Sure, brain activity has been shown to
be necessary for quite a range of conscious activities ~ remove or
damage a certain part of the brain and specific activities are
interferred with ~ but that doesn't indicate the brain is the seat
of consciousness any more than damaging or removing part of a TV
would tell us that the TV is the source of programs we see on it.
Also, he offers an analogy to consciousness by saying Mona Lisa's
smile in the DaVinci painting is an emergent quality of the paint
and canvas, and then says, "Consciousness and self-consciousness are
holistic properties, which emerge from the totality of a creatures
physiognomy and behavior." I think his logic and evidence are
somewhat lacking here. First of all, it takes more than paint and
canvas to create an image of someone smiling. It takes someone
viewing the work of art and that person already having a concept or
image of what a smile looks like. Secondly, it's never been shown
that consciousness and self-consciousness emerge from a creature's
physiognomy and behavior. It's pure speculation ~ a belief on his
Early on he states, "This appropriation of the question by
philosophy is apt to make scientists impatient. Surely, they will
argue, if consciousness is real it must be part of the real world ~
the world of space and time, which we observe with our senses and
explain by science." Scientists can argue that as much as they like,
but doing that doesn't make it so. It's my understanding that when
science became an independent domain (some 500 years ago?), the
agreement was that science would seek to explain the workings of the
material world while religion (Christianity) would continue to
proclaim knowledge of the nonmaterial realm. Now that science has
pretty much replaced Christianity as the state religion, however,
scientists seem to think they have some kind of right to determine
the truth about something as nonmaterial as consciousness. Just who
is doing the appropriating here?
Scruton ends by saying, "The conclusion to which I am tempted is not
that there is no such thing as consciousness, but that there is
nothing that consciousness is, just as there is no physical object
that actually is Mona Lisas smile." Duh!!! Any high school kid
could've told us that. For this we pay him to write articles like
this? No wonder consciousness studies isn't making much progress.
--- In MindBrain@yahoogroups.com, "Robert Karl Stonjek"
> The Unobservable Mind<Snip>
> Roger Scruton Febuary 2005
> Consciousness is more familiar to us than any other feature of our
no scientist is questioning the brain as the seat of consciousness. Indeed, the Cartesian duality, which considers a separate consciousness from the brain, is not taken seriously in any scientific circles. Until evidence to the contrary emerges, the brain is considered to be the seat of consciousness by default.