A "Proof" for the Existence of God, Part 2: Consciousness is Brute

[Disclaimer: This series is not really going to deliver a proof for God's existence. This is why the word "proof" is in scare quotes. It is, rather, a suggestive line of argument. However, "A suggestive line of argument for God's Existence" isn't a very good blog title. So, the goal of the series is not to arrive at a Q.E.D. moment. It is, rather, to end with a "That's an interesting argument" moment.]

Before proceeding with Part 2 of my argument for the existence of God, I'd like to add to my disclaimer. Each step of my argument is also an argument. Thus, on the road we'll travel people may beg off at various points. For example, in the my last post I said the method of science cannot explain the phenomena of consciousness (i.e., sensation). Many philosophers agree with me. But others do not (see the work of Daniel Dennett for deflationary treatments of the Hard Problem). What this means is that I'm building an Argument on top of arguments. Thus, there will be weak spots, loose ends, and debatable assertions all through this series. So, think along with me until you hit the plausibility wall. I'm guessing many of you might make it all the way to the end with me. For the rest? I'll catch up with you in my next series.

Moving on...

In the last post we confronted the Hard Problem of Consciousness, the inability of science to give an empirical account of sensory experiences. In this post I want to draw out the implications of the Hard Problem.

What does it mean to explain something? In science explanations are of two kinds: Reductive and functional.

Reductive explanations will "explain" a phenomenon at one level of analysis by appealing to a "lower" level of analysis. This lower level of analysis is considered to be more "fundamental" than the higher level of analysis.

For example, why do leaves change color in the autumn? To "explain" this color change appeals are made to the chemical changes going on in the leaves and the tree. This kind of explanation "reduces" the phenomena to some lower level mechanisms or building blocks, in this case botany reduces to organic chemistry. Okay, so let's ask the next question: Why do the chemicals in the leaves behave the way they do? To answer this question organic chemistry reduces to physics, more specifically the physics of atoms and molecules. Fine, but why do atoms behave the way they do? A further reductive explanation would then appeal to even more fundamental entities such as protons, neutrons, and electrons. Great, but why do these particles act the way they do? Moving further down, we deal with quarks and fundamental entities like quantum numbers. Eventually, we hit the explanatory basement. Here, at the most fundamental level, we simply have brute facts, the "givens." Things like spin, mass, and charge. These entities simply have no explanation. They are, rather, the building blocks of all explanations (or at least the empirically reductive ones).

Other explanations are more functional. Functional explanations specify the causal relationships between physical objects. In short, to explain something functionally is to specify the the causes the brought the phenomena into existence.

Generally speaking, science is in the business of providing both reductive and functional/causal explanations. That is what science does.

However, one of the implications of the Hard Problem of Consciousness is that science cannot explain sensation. More precisely, science cannot provide reductive, functional accounts of consciousness. Consciousness is non-reductive.

Recall that science can illuminate the neural correlates of consciousness but that consciousness does not "reduce to" neural functioning. Correlation is not explanation. That is, is seems unclear how a neural account would bridge the reductive gap to account for the different sensations of, let's say, color or the tastes of sweet or sour. Nor is it clear that science could provide a functional/causal account of sensation. (Note that lot's of mental processes do have robust reductive/functional explanations. Memory, for instance. Memory is largely explained via functional models with clearly defined biological mechanisms such as synaptic growth. Color vision, as a general cognitive feature, also has a functional account: To aid in visual discrimination. But colors themselves seem to defy functional accounts: What function does the shade of robin's egg blue serve?)

What this seems to imply is that like mass, charge, and spin--things taken as given or brute--consciousness cannot be reduced. Thus, it appears that the only logical implication of the Hard Problem of Consciousness--the irreducibility of sensation to reductive accounts--is that consciousness must be taken as given. Consciousness is brute. An irreducible feature of the universe. Conscioiusness is like an electron's charge, it must be taken as a funamental constituent, a fundamental building block of nature.

The universe, as a brute fact, feels.

(Post Script: The movements of the post follow the route paved by David Chalmers in his book The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory one of the most influential books regarding the nature of consciousness and reductive explanations. If you disagree with this post, take it up with Chalmers.)

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16 thoughts on “A "Proof" for the Existence of God, Part 2: Consciousness is Brute”

  1. Please excuse this rambling. Consciousness is an emergent phenomenon, in my opinion. Shortly after the big bang, the universe was a boring place. There were not even any elementary particles for quite a while. Finally, things cooled down enough to where electrons and protons could get together and form hydrogen atoms. With regard to matter, for a long time it was mostly hydrogen and a little helium. And they don't do much with each other or themselves. Eventually things get organized to where there are a number of other elements too and they get together and enable some new and interesting features of matter to emerge called molecules. Some four billion years ago or so on the young earth that was as far as it went. At some point eventually molecules are brought together into new arrangements called prokaryotic cells. These cells do things that atoms can't do, and things that molecules can't do. Other cells develop. At first cells are independent and isolated. Eventually, they band together to form multicellular life. As time progresses on earth, the hierarchy of complexity continues building new levels. With each new level of this hierarchy, the new is comprized of a complex arrangement of the immediately lower entity and new properties, relationships, and features emerge. The highest level of this is presently consciousness/sensation.

    All of this has unfolded over a long period of time and it has a symmetry and beauty to it. I think the universe must have been meant to function in this way, so, it must be God's will.

  2. So the blueness of a robin's egg ... does that exist? And if it does, does it exist in the egg, or in the person who sees it?

  3. ... It matters because if the quale is in the person, then we can expect that it is not irreducibly simple, but extraordinarily complex.

    On the other hand, if the quale is in the egg - I mean, external to the observer - then I expect you're a little bit better off for the purposes of your proof.

    I don't know where you end up if you say the quale doesn't actually exist.

  4. Ah, the question of color physicalism! That way madness lies. :-) The funny thing about color, to me, is its irreducible subjectivity. Yet there are huge problems either way whether you try to frame colors as purely in the mind, or as mind-independent properties of objects.

    Here's some interesting reading: http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/journals/analysis/preprints/TYE.pdf

  5. Matthew,
    I would say the quale is in the mind and not the egg. The color is a sensory experience I have in my mind. My arguement is that this experience is not reducable to the frequency of the radiation bouncing off the egg or the chemical changes that radiation causes to my optical receptor cells or the subsequent firing of neurons in the brain. It is true that the color sensation of the egg is uniquely specified by a particular configuration of all those physical events, but it is not reducable to those events. It is only correlated (uniquely so) with those events. That is the argument I'm borrowing from Chalmers and McGinn.

    When I say that experience is irreducably "simple" I'm speaking about the end result of a reductive explanation, not a scientific account of a particular sense experience (which can be highly complex). That is, a reductive explanation is going to have to, at the end of the day, take consciousness as brute.

    Thanks for the links!

  6. @Richard - "When I say that experience is irreducably "simple" I'm speaking about the end result of a reductive explanation..."

    I think I do understand what you (and Chalmers) are saying: that consciousness, like the spin of a quark, is a brute (mathematical) fact and cannot be broken down into components. But if the experience of blue can be said to exist only in my mind, it suggests that blue can indeed be broken down into components: in particular, the neurological components that you describe as "only correlating" with your perception of blue. And if we could observe the neurological activity closely enough, we could indeed demonstrate that when you say you're experiencing blue, you're actually seeing the color I would describe as green.

    Furthermore, saying that neurological activity merely correlates with the experience of blue muddies your definitions. Hume famously observed that all science can *ever* positively demonstrate is a correlation, and so if you're going to say that neurological activity merely correlates with experience, we should probably also make it clear that copulation merely correlates with the conception of children, and swallowing sulfuric acid merely correlates with death.

  7. Here's my take on the so-called "explanatory gap": it can actually be viewed as necessarily arising from the first-person character of our phenomenal states. That is to say, we can't explain why brain activity gives rise to conscious experience in a manner parallel to that in which we can explain precisely why collections of H2O molecules manifest "water" properties within certain ranges of temperature and pressure, but this is simply because the cases *aren't* parallel because in the case of brain and mind, the properties themselves to be explained would be the very ones trying to do the explanation!

    I had a philosophy paper idea on this that was going to be "The 'Explanatory Gap' Is All in Our Heads," but just today I've discovered that paper's already been written: by Michael Tye, under the title "Phenomenal Consciousness: The Explanatory Gap as Cognitive Illusion." Tye holds that just that there's an explanatory gap that must needs remain unsoluble but that we shouldn't worry about it, but that there's no explanatory gap in the way things are. Here's a brief summary: There are two ways to take the question 'Why is this brain state this feeling?' Tye--"one natural way to take the force of the term 'why' here is as a request for cogent empirical reasons to believe that the concepts have the same referent." The answer to this is simply that they unfailingly correlate with one another, and hence physicalistically there's no reason not to take the feeling and the brain state as two descriptions for the same referent. Tye also makes a point that addresses Matthew's point above: correlation is not the same thing as causation; what the physicalist should say is not that brain states cause pain, but that they stand in an identity or near-identity (perhaps "constitution" or "supervenience") relation.

    Suppose, on the other hand, that what is wanted is an a priori deduction purely conceptually that the feeling and the brain state must be identical. To this question, though, "it is conceptually guaranteed by the character of phenomenal concepts and the way they differ from third-person concepts that the question has no answer." (Tye) This is because phenomenal concepts don't fall under some description at all; rather, tokens of that type are known immediately through experience. The whole paper can be accessed here: http://www.utexas.edu/cola/depts/philosophy/faculty/tye/Phenomenal.html

    I'm like Discount Philosophy Paper Links Warehouse over here. (Anybody get that reference?)

    All that said, though, even if one agrees with Tye (as I'm inclined to, in case you couldn't tell) that there's no "gap" there objectively to be explained, it still seems a wondrous fact--no less because "brute"--that qualia should be realized at all, physically or no.

  8. Matthew: "And if we could observe the neurological activity closely enough, we could indeed demonstrate that when you say you're experiencing blue, you're actually seeing the color I would describe as green."

    I don't see how you could do this, you don't have access to my "green" or me to your "blue." How could you verify with close neural examination that each experience is the same?

    Matthew: "Furthermore, saying that neurological activity merely correlates with the experience of blue muddies your definitions."

    Perhaps I was not clear enough. I take Hume's point. What I should have said is that I'm assuming there is a correlation. Given that consciousness is private I actually only have access to one part of the correlation (neural activity). The other part (sensation) is never empirically observed. In short, this is what makes the hard problem hard: You assume there is a correlation, but you cannot verify the correlation. In other scientific domains both sides of the correlation are empirically observed.

    I've seen your comments but I need to digest them. I'll be back soon.

  9. Micah,
    Okay, having digested your comment, here's my first cut at a response:

    Tye seems to suggest that by pointing out that there is an identity relationship he has offered an explanation. That is, he points out that there is an identity relationship between certain physical states and conscious states but does not proceed further as to why this might be so. But it is the very existence of the identity relationship that must be given a scientific account. Why are brains conscious but not oceans or tables? Stepping back from the Hard Problem, why are some physical systems conscious and others not? That seems to be a legitimate question Tye just walks away from as if the question is just a simple logical mistake or a rhetorical confusion. It isn’t a logical mistake; it’s a legitimate scientific query: Why are some physical systems conscious and others not?

  10. Richard-
    I haven't read all of the comments here in detail, and some of your clinical language is a bit more than I can fully take in, but I think I get the gist of the argument, and...

    I think there are a ton of other properties that we experience that are neither quantifiable nor reducable in any scientific schema - beauty, love, anger, joy, awe, compassion, etc. That is, with consciousness of the physical world also come a huge array of other experiences that are equally irreducable. We can correlate physiological phenomenon to these things (in some cases), but the things to which they correlate don't explain why we experience them.

    Make sense?

  11. @Micah - "in the case of brain and mind, the properties themselves to be explained would be the very ones trying to do the explanation!"

    I'm not sure I understand why this makes impossible a reductive description of experience.

    And as far as I understand what Tye is saying about an "identity relationship" between a brain state and pain, I think I have to agree: it seems that there is an "is-a" relationship between my brain state and my experience of pain ... my pain *is* a brain state and nothing more, and the brain state *is* my pain, and nothing less.

    @Richard - "How could you verify with close neural examination that each experience is the same?"

    I am making these arguments based on the assumption that the brain is a terrifically complex meat machine. If this is so, then it seems reasonable to expect that certain structures or patterns in the brain are identical or at least similar from person to person ... in other words, I expect that the machine language of the human brain is fairly standard.

    If this is the case, then with enough study, people should be able to decipher the machine language and understand - just by looking at the code as it runs through the processor - what is going on in a person's brain. If this is indeed possible, one would simply send the instruction "blue" to a person's brain, and he would experience blue.

    I expect one would discover the instruction for "blue" - and whether it was the same for all brains - by experiments of this sort: 1. send instruction that we think means "blue" to the brains of persons A and B. 2. have the people tell us what they experienced. The chip experiment that Tye talks about seems to do a similar thing, it just leaves the black box of the brain unopened, and leaves us to wonder about the cause of people's different perception of shades of color: is it because their brains receive different stimuli, or because they have been shaped differently and therefore respond differently to identical stimuli, or some other, more mysterious reason?

  12. Matt,
    Generally, I agree with you. However, as a psychologist I tend to study, reductively, the things you list. I think tentative "explanations" have been offered for many of the things on your list. I lecture on these things regularly in my psychology classes. Spiritual, romantic, and poetic people will tend to resist many of these "explanations" for a variety of reasons. I myself resist some of them as I teach them. But hard-hearted scientists have, in many cases, made great progress in offering many explanations.

    I agree with you. Inferentially, once you nail down the exact neural correlates and verify that they hold universally, you can infer we are having the same experience of, let's say, "blue." But still you have not fully confirmed this. Even with the data in hand it is still possible that color experiences diverge. True, that is not the most parsimonious conclusion, but Occam's Razor isn't foolproof. In the end you have to make an assumption: Physically identical configurations WILL produce identical conscious experiences. But that is an assumption. There is no data verifying that step in the argument.

  13. @Richard - "Physically identical configurations WILL produce identical conscious experiences. But that is an assumption. There is no data verifying that step in the argument."


    I'm not sure how that fits into the larger proof, but I'm willing to shut up and see where you go with it. =)

  14. Matthew,
    Well, I could be wrong. My sense is that on the Hard Problem people tend to argue to standstills. I'm just pleased that I, apparently, have brilliant readers. As I look back over these comments from Steve, to Micah, to Matt, to you I would have never dreamed when I started blogging I'd get this kind of hard/deep feedback(intellectually speaking) from readers. It kind of makes me paranoid, like "Uh oh. If my thinking gets sloppy I'm going to get jumped. You can't fool these guys..."

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