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If human beings are nothing more than matter, why are you conscious as yourself?

October 30, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

If human beings are nothing more than matter, why are you conscious as yourself?

Quora question:

Philosophy: If human beings are nothing more than matter, why are you conscious as yourself?
The implication of materialism is that we are in essence wet robots, without free will, just chemical reactions. But if this is true and we are conscious, then does it logically follow that all chemical reactions have “consciousness” to some degree? If the human mind is just an extremely advanced computer, then at what point does “consciousness” occur?

We don’t know that chemical reactions are unconscious, but if they were, then it makes sense that the entire universe would also be unconscious. It is very tricky to examine the issue of consciousness and to draw parallels within common experience without unintentionally smuggling in our own expectations from consciousness itself. This is the Petito principii or circular reasoning which derails most fair considerations of consciousness before they even begin in earnest.

Unlike a clock which is made up of gears, or a particular sized pile of hay, the addition of consciousness has no conceivable consequence to the physical function of a body. While we can observe a haystack burst into flames because it has grown too hot, we cannot look at the behavior of a human body see any special difference from the behavior of any other physical body. There is complexity, but complexity alone need not point to anything beyond an adjacency of simple parts and isolated chains of effects.

Just as no degree of complication within a clock’s mechanism would suddenly turn into a Shakespearean sonnet, the assumption of universal substitution is not necessarily appropriate for all phenomena, and for consciousness in particular. To get a color image, for instance, we need to print in colored dots, not black and white. Color TV programs cannot be broadcast over a monochrome display without losing their color.

Unlike chemical or mechanical transformation, the nature of awareness is not implicated in the shuffling of material particles from one place or another. Any natural force can be used to do that. We have no scientific reason to insist that conscious participation and aesthetic appreciation is derived from some simpler functioning of complex systems. To the contrary, ‘complexity’, and ‘system’ can only make sense in the context of a window of perception and attention. Without some teleological intent to see one part as part of a whole, and to compare remembered events with current perceptions, there is no such thing as ‘function’ at all.

There are several important points wrapped up in this question, which I will try to sum up.

1. The failure to consider consciousness metaphysically.

This is the most important and most intractable issue, for three reasons:

  • because it is difficult for anyone to try to put their mind outside of mind. It’s annoying, and winds up feeling foolish and disoriented.
  • because it is difficult in particular for the very people who need most to get past the difficulty. I have found that most people who are good with logic and scientific reasoning are not necessarily capable of doing what others can. The skillset appears to be neurological, like handedness or gender orientation.
  • because those who do have difficulty with thinking this way are often not used to intellectual challenges that escape their grasp, their reaction is so defensive that they react with intolerance. It’s not their fault, but it cannot be cured it seems. Some people cannot see 3-D Magic Eye art. Some cannot program their way out of a paper bag. In this case it is the ability to consider consciousness from a prospective rather than a retrospective view which can prove so inaccessible to so many people, that frothing at the mouth and babbling about unicorns, magic, and the supernatural is considered a reasonable and scientific, skeptical response. Of course, it is none of those things, but it takes a lot of patience and courage to be able to recognize one’s own prejudices, especially when we are used to being the ones telling others about their biases.

2. The taboo against metaphysics, panpsychism, and transrationality

Long after Einstein, Gödel, and Heisenberg shattered the Humpty Dumpty certainties of classical math and physics, we are still trying to piece him back together. Regardless of how much we learn about the strange properties of matter, time, energy, biology, and neurology, there are a huge number of very intelligent people who are convinced that we will only know the truth about the universe when it all looks like a vast deterministic mechanism.

The compulsion to reduce awareness to passive mathematical or physical states is ironic, given that the defense of automaticity is often accompanied by very hands on personal intention. Even when it is pointed out that arguing against free will is futile (since someone without free will could not change their own opinion about it even if they wanted to, let alone someone else’s opinion), the mind of the determined determinist will always find a way of insist upon being in the right, even when they are ultimately sawing of the limb that they are sitting on.

When it comes to anything that suggests the possibility of non-human awareness, many people not only become personally uncomfortable, but they become socially uncomfortable as well. The taboo against unconventional views on science (even when backed by anthropological universality) is so pervasive and xenophobic that it is career suicide for a working scientist to publicly acknowledge them in any but the most condescending tones.

3. The pathetic fallacy

The pathetic fallacy is to take a metaphor in which some inanimate object is given a human quality (“The camera loves you”), and take it literally. While I count myself among those who once saw computation and pattern as being the only ingredient necessary for awareness or life, my understanding now is that no pattern can exist without a capacity for pattern recognition. The ability to receive and make sense of the real world is not a matter of generic relations of disembodied bits of “information”, but is in fact the concrete reality of the cosmos. The universe does not exist for us humans, but it cannot exist as silent, unconscious, intangible physics for billions of years and then suddenly invent the whole of sensation, emotion, intuition, cognition, etc, just for some hominids on this backwater planet. It now strikes me as profoundly anthropocentric to imagine that the entire universe could be devoid of perceptual content until life evolved.

In my view, the universe itself is nothing but a continuum of qualities of consciousness. These qualities, however, relate to experienced contexts. We cannot take the human-ness out of a human and put it into a machine. Biology has mechanisms and performs computation, but if that’s all it was doing then the inside of the brain would look like logic, not like sex and violence and musical theater.

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