Consciousness Was Never A Problem
The so-called ‘hard problem’ of consciousness was never a problem. With all the claims being made by neuroscientists these days, we might be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
The problem of consciousness is currently presented as the problem of how material objects — certain bodies — are conscious at all. Consciousness, the problem states, is not something one would expect in a material object. Stones aren’t conscious. Dirt isn’t conscious. A river isn’t conscious. And it is doubtful that plants, insects, and other ‘lower’ forms of organism are conscious in the sense that we speak about it in ourselves.
When you get to the larger-brained organism, we start to see glimmers of what we would call consciousness. When we get to ourselves, we stare at the problem in the face.
So, the natural next question to ask is, how does a subjective experience of the world arise in the matter of the brain? I can look at my brain, but will not see my subjective experience of self reflected in it. My subjective experience belongs to me. It is always and everywhere my experience. On the other hand, my brain is a highly decentralized system, with no corresponding objective center that could explain why my disparate subjective experience is mine.
If the psychologist Susan Blackmore, who wrote the Oxford University Press’ Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction (2005), is to be believed, ‘No one has yet succeeded in bridging the fathomless abyss, the great abyss or the explanatory gap between inner and outer, mind and brain, or subjective and objective.’
Blackmore belongs to a school of thought that thinks about the problem of consciousness in the following terms: Consciousness is an emergent property that arises from matter in the natural history of our evolutionary development. Ten million years ago one would not encounter consciousness as we presently understand it. Ten million years from now what we call consciousness will have continued to evolve beyond our present ability to recognize. In the same sense, though on a much shorter time-scale, a thousand years ago, no human being actually understood what was at stake in the problem of consciousness. Today, she says, we are for the first time beginning to grasp just how deep the problem runs. What about a thousand years from now? Well, who knows? We may finally understand consciousness. Or we may have a whole new set of questions to answer.
But the problem of consciousness, as I stated at the outset, is not a problem — at least, it is not a problem on the terms it is presently stated. The present discussion as it appears in the philosophy of neuroscience wonders how it is possible for consciousness to arise in a material object. In the present discussion, you would be hard pressed to find a philosopher of neuroscience who would admit that the fact they are a material object — a body — is of any consequence.
The point may seem so basic as to be unimportant, and so not even worth mentioning, I know. But it goes to the heart of the matter: to what one supposes oneself to be studying and to how one supposes oneself to study it.
The problem of consciousness is presently stated in universal empirical terms. It asks how the human race became consciousness in the course of its evolutionary history. For most of the history of the universe, there was no such thing as consciousness. Then we came along.
But the only place a human being ever encounters consciousness is in themselves and in other beings like themselves. Stated in slightly different terms: persons only ever encounter consciousness individually; that is to say, never in abstraction from bodies which are conscious.
Not to put too fine a point on it: I am — this body is — conscious. And the first thing that I notice is that I must be conscious — this individual body must be conscious — in order to ask how the human race became conscious in the course of its evolutionary history.
Seen from this perspective — and what other perspective could there be? — the problem of consciousness does not concern how a subjective experience of the world fits with the objective matter of the brain.
No. The problem of consciousness instead concerns how the subjective experience of the world and the objective matter of the brain fall apart.
Again: I am — this body and its brain are — conscious. I have a subjective experience of the world, yes. The nature of that subjective experience is such that it always seems to be tethered to this body and its brain. My ‘mind’ can wander through thoughts that seem to arisen unbidden by any conscious motive. My ‘mind’ might wander through different places and times in memory. My ‘mind’ might even wander, like Susan Blackmore’s wanders, up and down the course of humanity’s evolutionary history. Certainly.
I, nonetheless, am this body, stuck in this particular place and time, sitting in front of a computer, wondering how to best draw this post to a conclusion. If you ask which part of this body is closest to what I am, I would point to my forehead — between, and slightly above my eyes, behind which you find the cerebral cortex.
So consciousness was never a problem. I have a subjective experience of being this body. My subjective experience may present itself as something more than this body, but it is never anything less than this body. The proof, it seems to me, is that when this body dies, my subjective experience of the world will also cease.
And that is the real problem. Bodies die all the time. But aside from the fact that I am this body, there is nothing, it seems to me, in my singular, subjective experience of the world that suggests it should come ever to an end.
This, no doubt, is what Plato had in mind when he described the soul’s descent into the body and ascent from the body at the moment of death.