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Is the hard problem of consciousness really “hard”?

When we try to think about what it is that is aware within us, and how it is aware, we come up against a what can only be described as a “semantic wall”.  Regardless of whether we subscribe to a materialist or dualist philosophy, this wall remains. While the “problem of consciousness” is easy enough to express, ie, how organized matter might possibly create qualitative “subjective experience” from otherwise non qualitative causes and effects, the actual mechanism of such subjectivity remains impossible to even image, let alone describe. Although a dualist conception allows us to posit a “subjective mirror side” to reality in which qualia  present as entities or effects which are “experienced”, the semantic problem remains, for whether we posit to this subjective side all those qualia which might be “triggered” by brain events, we still need to describe the “awareness mechanism” which experiences these qualities. This kind of  “qualic mind/effective brain” dualism only appears to answer the question, as the actual machinery of experience remains ineffable. In fact, the  process of “being aware” refuses to fall into place within any purely mechanistic theory of consciousness, no matter how the complexity of its explanations might evolve.

Trying to explain the “awareness mechanism” always produces this endless explanatory regression, or gap. In the materialist explanation there is simply no place for a subjective function unless posited – usually by a kind of intellectual sleight of hand – as an arbitrary and otherwise unexplainable process, while the dualist idea falls down the moment we try to explain awareness by applying causal geometric and mechanistic concepts to the phenomena of “mind” and how it might interact with “matter”. By doing so, we simply re-create the very problem we were trying to solve by positing a mind/brain dualism in the first place.

So, on the surface of things, it would seem the problem of consciousness is not merely hard… it‘s really, really hard.

Trying to describe mind in purely objective terms simply does not work, for nowhere in such terms –  whether they refer to subjective processes or not – is there a conceptual ability to describe a “subjective mechanism”. While we might have a language in which we can describe subjective experience, we have no language in which we can conceptualize the actual subjective process. No spoken, written, geometric or mathematical language can image “subjectivity” as a process, for all language is created from the formalized subjective experience of objective data.  Language actually builds us into a semantic “consensus reality” in which no subjective process is actually explainable, even if the process itself is a phenomenon of our experience.

Does this mean the really, really hard problem of consciousness could not be answered, even though you or I might have somehow actually discovered or experienced the answer to it?

Let’s leave this question for the moment, while we clarify some ideas and locate some reference points.

First, it is necessary to discriminate the learned processes of mind from the fundamental idea of awareness, i.e. the ability to actually have “subjective experience”. It is this function of awareness about which the problem revolves. All other processes indicative of mind or consciousness in action can be visualized and possibly resolved within a purely mechanistic and objective system of inquiry. Consequently, and only because of its common usage in psychological literature as a term for the higher functions of mind and their development, I will not use the word “consciousness” further in this essay, but  terms such as “awareness” or “fundamental subjectivity”, as a way of making this distinction from complex or developed consciousness clear.

Second, I want to strongly press the point that, since all human experience is subjective, there is no way to set the primacy of any particular part of its purely perceptive experience. For instance, in terms of a primary awareness, there is no process by which it is possible to determine that sensory phenomena are any more or less “real” or “illusory” than any other phenomena to which this primary awareness is subject. Such determinations as might be made in this regard are in fact merely arbitrary, being relative only to the to the particular metaphysical position of developed consciousness and can have no place in an argument regarding the fundamental process of awareness itself.


Is primal awareness an “objective” condition?


Is it possible that some aspect of primary awareness intrudes upon the world of experience to the extent that it’s effects are visible within the “objective” cosmos?

Absolutely. Time, in both its subjective and apparently objective forms, is one of these aspects, and I have argued in a previous paper* that the arbitrary functions and constraints definable within quantum physics result from another.

Indeed, if there were no way in which the physical could intrude into the mental then their would be no experience at all, and it consequently follows that this “blurring of boundaries”, which is the “space” in which awareness takes place, must also see a similar intrusion of its operational world into the apparently objective world of experience.

That this intrusion mediates a hidden subjectivity within physics and its “third person objective” view of the cosmos can be shown through the paradoxes it creates and the need to posit arbitrary physical functions to “particles” and “fields” which cannot be further defined by inquiry.

* (see appendix)

But understanding that awareness or some phenomenological aspect of it intrudes into the world it sees as objective reality does little more than reiterate the understandings of the ancient Chinese, for whom the great diagram of Fu-Si represented the most fundamental statement possible about the world.


Is there a way to imagine awareness?


This question, as you will see, automatically begs the problem we are trying to elucidate. By “imagine”, what do I mean? Everything the word imagine conjures to our mind involves the imaging of objectified phenomena. For instance, an often used term for subjectivity is “reflection” or the mirroring back of reality. But this image falls down immediately we try to “see” awareness as a property of reflection, for the process already has a hidden observer, ie, the one “seeing” the reflection. Awareness once again “removes itself” from the image associated with it.

This endless game of hide and seek is seen by materialist philosophers as a kind of bugaboo, an unreal and false condition produced by the (admittedly, as yet unexplained) self or identity process of brain consciousness. Now, whether or not it is currently explainable in terms of brain function, for the materialist this process must  nevertheless exist, ergo the “hard problem”, at least as we conceive it, must not exist – indeed it cannot, for if it did, then it would be impossible to assert that awareness arises from nothing more than certain complex states of matter. For the materialist, the hard problem devolves to a purely physical conundrum which in time will – somehow – be fully explained.

But, however unfortunate it might seem, the process will never be explained in such terms, for the materialist viewpoint is itself nothing other than a product of the same “objective fallacy” which already rules out the explanation of subjective mechanisms. Yet even within the constraints of the consensus reality in which materialism thrives, its view of mind still suffers from a serious flaw; an Achilles heel which has already taken so many direct hits that it is surprising materialistic notions of mind continue to be held as anything more than quaint philosophical anachronisms.

Put simply, the materialist notion of the psyche stands or falls by its necessary adherence to purely “physical” properties of matter. That is, there can be no question regarding its being affected by phenomena which cannot be physically explained, or, if such psychic phenomena exist which appear to be non physical, then these too must be ultimately be explainable in physical terms.

Now, because paranormal psychic phenomena do exist and because some of them are of such a nature as to be truly unexplainable in physical terms, the materialist notion of a purely physical psyche is automatically invalidated, for such phenomena show that at least some part or process of the psyche must be essentially “non physical”.

This, of course, has been the state of the argument for a long time, but the materialist position has not changed, simply because those who cling to it refuse to allow for such phenomena within their explanations, usually by denying their existence as “real” effects.


Parapsychology and fence walking – or is it sitting?


Parapsychologists assert that the phenomena they study exists; that PK, ESP etc are objective phenomena and thus able to be studied and analyzed by due scientific process. So why has more than 100 years of such scrutiny produced no answers whatsoever to the question of how such phenomena occur?

We know that certain states of consciousness are sometimes conducive to them, but that they can also occur outside such conducive states. We know an awful lot about the mythology projected upon such paranormal phenomena, but we haven’t a clue as to whether this mythology contains even a germ of validity outside the subjective context in which it is produced.

True enough that the parapsychologist is somewhat behind the eight ball, for he has no clear explanatory grid into which he can fit his findings, nor is there even an agreed working hypothesis of mind/brain function he might borrow for this purpose. Nevertheless, he continues to investigate, using what seems to have become a tried and true method  – not only in parapsychology but also in physics –  the good old reductio ad infinitum, or the causal explanation of one unknown by the mysterious operation of even greater unknown.

Thus, it is not the shade of poor old Uncle John who tells the medium where he hid his last will and testament, but her seemingly infinite powers of ESP, which roam the ether and collect just this important piece of information.

But giving a new name to the unknown hardly counts as science, unless you are determined to assert that the idea of communication with a “spirit” is far less agreeable than the existence of an essentially infinite and god like power of perception.

“Would you like six, of half a dozen, Madam?”

It might seem more scientific to assert ESP as a function, but it explains nothing at all – indeed one might argue that, regardless of its obvious mythological derivation, the spiritualistic explanation does at least offer a phenomenological grid in which everything fits. Whereas, what, how or why, is ESP?

If it seems I am arguing the spiritualist view, I certainly am not. I am merely pointing out the fact that without a clear explanatory dynamic which includes the mechanical relationship of consciousness to matter, parapsychology, for all its investigations, will remain little more than a taxonomy of the paranormal, full of all the either’s, or’s and maybe’s  it has held since it began.


Science and the Objective Fallacy.

Amusingly, the Encyclopedia Britannica article on consciousness relates one notion of the Skinnerian school of thought as being that, since the subjective factor of “mind” cannot be objectively apprehended as anything other than a physically reactive human functionality “we can only say that people behave “as if” they were conscious.” But how can you suggest that people behave “as if” they were conscious unless you agree that “conscious” behavior exists in the first place? Secondly, and far more importantly, how can we negate the subjective viewpoint of the mind and thence posit an only external, objective vision of human behavior, when the subjective position, i.e. our own “subjective” awareness, is all that we actually have by which to assess such behavior? That without this subjective awareness of human states unique to mind, there could be no psychology in the first place?

But this conceited inversion of logic we see in the behaviorist school of thought is not so much amusing as it is downright dangerous. Not only does it make a nonsense of the most inspired yearnings and capacities of the human mind and heart, its affect within the physical sciences promotes the vision of a hostile universe in which conscious life is little more than a kind accidental and often unfortunate fungus which occasionally spreads across planetary systems when the physical conditions are fortuitous.  It is true that his notion – that we are somehow a mere artifact or product of the extremely limited cosmos we apprehend – has ever set the background to even our most religious apprehensions of our place in the universe, but as a built in assumption within the materialist science which now has us in thrall of its technological magic, it is no longer a merely limited philosophical viewpoint set by a lack of greater knowledge, but a damning limitation of our humanity; a despicable creed which insists we cannot be anything other than that which the feted high priests of either religion or materialist science tell us we are.

Let us be quite clear about this. Today’s materialist science insists that life arises purely from the fortuitous mechanics of matter, and that consciousness is a secondary product of life’s evolved complexity. Thus, they assert, that in the profound silence and utter darkness of non-being, where no thing is aware, where neither stimulus nor registered reaction exist, things nevertheless “happen” between particles of energy in such a way as to form not only the “universe” but also the structures of life. Further, that at some point, at some miraculous moment, out of no thing, awareness suddenly becomes.

Science’s vision assumes an a-priori and objective, third person viewpoint from which it  posits the activities of “matter” before it became aware. I am quite sure science is not here championing the existence of God, so what is it doing? It is reasoning after the fact, taking its own human awareness for granted within a vision of the cosmos which pre-existed awareness. Science conveniently forgets that there is no such vision of the cosmos; that without some other godlike consciousness, there is no prior existence to anything. But science insists that matter precedes awareness. Thus in its view, matter must contain all the intelligence of nature’s evolved forms within itself; within its own laws. The laws of matter therefore pre-exist all creation. Matter then becomes the creator of all things, and reveals itself to us as no more, and no less, than God himself.

Within a reasoning which places all but mind into an objectified cosmos, there is no escape from this ultimate agreement between science and religion. The two are forced together, and indeed, were never separate in the first place. They differ only in the one minor area of focus, and both reveal to us the same ultimate position: that the workings of the entire universe are revealed in the study of its apparently objective parts, and that regardless of how you conceive him, whether as law or as love,  whether you come to him through the study of his justice or his mercy, an unknown and indescribable God rests at the bottom of all things.

The longed for eschatological peak of science’s investigations is the ultimate “theory of everything” in which all is explained. Some scientists and mathematicians believe we are even close to such a universe collapsing explanation. Study of the apparent facts and explanations science has amassed reveals a very different story however: a story whose reading  shows us that the scientific mind lives in a fantasized cosmos little different to those found in religious mythologies; a kind of “just so” universe in which the apparent or “objective” facts are overlaid with a grid of metaphysical explanation, any part of which has no more fundamental substance than its need to fulfill an explanatory role within a particularly biased representational image of archetypal forms.

Here, we encounter – both in religion and science –  the metaphysics of clunk working on the grandest of scales. The universe reveals itself to us as no more and no less than the projected imagery of our most discriminating ideas. Ideas which, at bottom, both arise from and are constrained by the laws relating what we call “psyche” to its material representation; laws whose function, and the specific values which arise from their dynamic relationship, create the very substrate and logic of our perceptions. Without an understanding of these laws; without a clear picture of our own conscious relationship to the cosmos we perceive, there can be no “ultimate theory”; nor can we assert, beyond our “commonsense” fashioning of subjectively satisfying explanations for phenomena, that we know anything fundamental about the universe in which we find ourselves.