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The Philosophy of Consciousness

Updated on April 17, 2017

The Book of Philosophy tells us “Philosophy is not so much about coming up with the answers to fundamental questions as it is about the process of trying to find these answers using reasoning rather than accepting without question conventional views or traditional authority.”

The Philosophers’ Mail echoes that thought: “Is it really true what people say about love, about money, about children, about travel, about work? Philosophers are interested in asking whether an idea is logical – rather than simply assuming it must be right because it is popular and long-established.”

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Let the Debate Begin

One of the ways in which philosophers try to find answers to questions is to argue. This is not argument in the fashion of “reality” television in which people yell at each other and resolve nothing. Philosophical argument is of a quieter, more dignified nature.

One of their many points of disagreement is on the nature of consciousness. It doesn’t help in unravelling this story when The Atlantic magazine carries a story on the topic under the title “Most Popular Theories of Consciousness Are Worse than Wrong.”

Fortunately, Australian philosopher David Chalmers has come to the rescue – a bit. In a 1994 paper, Dr. Chalmers divided the problem of consciousness into two parts, easy and hard.

Brain Physiology

The easy part is to study the brain where consciousness clearly lives, perhaps. Scientists can study brain functions and explain them in chemical and electrical terms. They can identify which parts of the brain are connected to feelings of happiness or which area is used to recognize faces. They can also point to the part that suggests placing the mortgage money on Hoof Hearted in the fifth at Belmont is a good plan.

Some scientists argue that consciousness is a function of brain size. A human has a more heightened sense of consciousness than, say, a mouse. The human brain contains about 86 billion nerve cells, while a mouse has to get along with just 75 million. So, the mouse lacks the computing power to handle complex thought.

For some philosophers this is enough; this is the physical explanation of consciousness.

Kristian Marlow (Psychology Today, March 2013) says the appeal of this theory is that it’s simple. He adds that “it gives us a really good reason to think that computers can become conscious.” If brains are simply computers made of meat “it’s possible that a silicon chip could run the same software as us.”

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Insoluble Problem?

The other view of consciousness, the hard part, is why and how an arrangement of brain cells brings about consciousness. And, Kristian Marlow says this mystery “may never be solved.”

He adds that there are two arguments about why this may always be unknowable: “The first argument is that our puny brains aren’t capable of coming up with a solution … The second argument is that a solution to a problem requires that you aren’t a part of the problem.” What does this mean?

Solving problems requires the ability to step back and view the issue globally, from afar. But, because we are part of the big picture we can’t do that. As Mr. Marlow puts it “We simply cannot solve the hard problem because we don’t have access to the level of information necessary to piece everything together.” We can't see it in its entirety because we are in it.

Biocentrism

The accepted theory of the origin of the Universe is that it started with the Big Bang and that it was filled with matter such as hydrogen and other elements. This matter was without intelligence. The next step is that unseen forces such as gravity and electromagnetism created everything we can observe and study.

But, Dr. Robert Lanza (professor of biology at Wake Forest University) asks how human consciousness came out of this “stupid stuff.” He says we have been looking at the Universe upside down.

Here’s Paul Kennedy of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporations radio show Ideas: Dr. Lanza “takes the common assumption that the Universe led to the creation of life and argues that it’s the other way around: that life is not a by-product of the Universe, but its very source.

“Or, put another way, consciousness is what gives rise to our sense of there being an ‘out there’ when, in fact, the world we experience around us is actually created in our consciousness.”

His biocentrism idea says that consciousness exists outside the human body we think it inhabits. That means that consciousness does not die when the physical body dies. So, what happens to it? This is where Dr. Lanza introduces us to multiple universes. He says a body might be dead in one universe but the consciousness is alive and well in another universe to which it has migrated.

This is certainly revolutionary thinking but before it’s dismissed as crackpot theory it has to be noted that plenty of physicists and astrophysicists say multiple universes are quite possible.

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Universal Mind

A very old theory says that we don’t have individual consciousness but our minds are part of a collective consciousness. Certain strains of Buddhism believe in the idea, as well as ancient Chinese and Greek philosophy.

Tania Kotsos promotes the concept in books and seminars. She writes that the universal mind “is all knowing, all powerful, all creative and always present. As it is present everywhere at the same time, it follows that it must also be present in you - that it is you.”

She leans on Albert Einstein for support. He noted that “everything is energy” and that “a human being is a part of the whole called by us [the] Universe.”

The theory holds the promise of a form of immortality; after death the individual mind merges with the collective conscious. However, it’s a theory that cannot be proved, nor can it be disproved.

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Bonus Factoids

According to the British Broadcasting Corporation the French philosopher René Descartes had a theory that monkeys and apes were able to talk – but kept quiet in case they were asked to do any work.

The British philosopher Bertrand Russell made the joke that “The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as to not seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.”

Sources

  • “Most Popular Theories of Consciousness Are Worse Than Wrong.” Michael Graziano, The Atlantic, March 9, 2016.
  • “How do you Explain Consciousness?” David Chalmers, TED, March 2014.
  • “What is Consciousness?” Kristian Marlow, Psychology Today, March 1, 2013.
  • “Biocentrism: Rethinking Time, Space, Consciousness, and the Illusion of Death.” CBC Ideas, October 4, 2016.
  • “Immortality.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • “You are One With the Universal Mind.” Tania Kotsos, Mind Your Reality, undated.

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