Spinoza, the God-Intoxicated Man

He is known as Spinoza, although he might just as well have been known as Espinoza or Espinosa. The de Espinosa family of Sephardic Jews originated in Spain before emigrating to Portugal and then Amsterdam to escape religious persecution. Spinoza was born in Amsterdam as Benedito de Espinosa, referred to himself as Benedict de Spinoza in his Latin writings, and is now often called Baruch Spinoza. He lived in the 17th century and was a truly great philosopher.

What follows is from “Why Spinoza Still Matters”, written by Prof. Stephen Nadler for Aeon:

Spinoza’s views on God, religion and society have lost none of their relevance…. In his distress over the deteriorating political situation in the Dutch Republic, and despite the personal danger he faced, Spinoza did not hesitate to boldly defend the radical Enlightenment values that he, along with many of his compatriots, held dear. In Spinoza we can find inspiration for resistance to oppressive authority and a role model for intellectual opposition to those who, through the encouragement of irrational beliefs and the maintenance of ignorance, try to get citizens to act contrary to their own best interests.

Nadler then gives an excellent summary of Spinoza’s basic position: 

Spinoza’s philosophy is founded upon a rejection of the God that informs the Abrahamic religions. His God lacks all the psychological and moral characteristics of a transcendent, providential deity. The Deus of Spinoza’s philosophical masterpiece, the Ethics (1677), is not a kind of person. It has no beliefs, hopes, desires or emotions. Nor is Spinoza’s God a good, wise and just lawgiver who will reward those who obey its commands and punish those who go astray. For Spinoza, God is Nature, and all there is is Nature (his phrase is Deus sive Natura, ‘God or Nature’). Whatever is exists in Nature, and happens with a necessity imposed by the laws of Nature. There is nothing beyond Nature and there are no departures from Nature’s order – miracles and the supernatural are an impossibility.

There are no values in Nature. Nothing is intrinsically good or bad, nor does Nature or anything in Nature exist for the sake of some purpose. Whatever is, just is. Early in the Ethics, Spinoza says that ‘all the prejudices I here undertake to expose depend on this one: that men commonly suppose that all natural things act, as men do, on account of an end; indeed, they maintain as certain that God himself directs all things to some certain end; for they say that God has made all things for man, and man that he might worship God’.

Spinoza is often labelled a ‘pantheist’, but ‘atheist’ is a more appropriate term. Spinoza does not divinise Nature. Nature is not the object of worshipful awe or religious reverence. ‘The wise man,’ he says, ‘seeks to understand Nature, not gape at it like a fool’. The only appropriate attitude to take toward God or Nature is a desire to know it through the intellect.

The elimination of a providential God helps to cast doubt on what Spinoza regards as one of the most pernicious doctrines promoted by organised religions: the immortality of the soul and the divine judgment it will undergo in some world-to-come. If a person believes that God will reward the virtuous and punish the vicious, one’s life will be governed by the emotions of hope and fear: hope that one is among the elect, fear that one is destined for eternal damnation. A life dominated by such irrational passions is, in Spinoza’s terms, a life of ‘bondage’ rather than a life of rational freedom.

People who are led by passion rather than reason are easily manipulated by ecclesiastics. This is what so worried Spinoza in the late 1660s, as the more repressive and intolerant elements in the Reformed Church gained influence in Holland. It remains no less a threat to enlightened, secular democracy today, as religious sectarians exercise a dangerous influence on public life.

In order to undermine such religious meddling in civic affairs and personal morality, Spinoza attacked the belief in the afterlife of an immortal soul. For Spinoza, when you’re dead, you’re dead. There might be a part of the human mind that is ‘eternal’. The truths of metaphysics, mathematics, etc, that one acquires during this lifetime and that might now belong to one’s mind will certainly remain once one has passed away – they are, after all, eternal truths – but there is nothing personal about them….

The more one knows about Nature, and especially about oneself as a human being, the more one is able to avoid the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, to navigate the obstacles to happiness and well-being that a person living in Nature necessarily faces. The result of such wisdom is peace of mind: one is less subject to the emotional extremes that ordinarily accompany the gains and losses that life inevitably brings, and one no longer dwells anxiously on what is to come after death. As Spinoza eloquently puts it, ‘the free man thinks of death least of all things, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death’.

Spinoza’s ideas concerning organized religion and the Bible were remarkable for the 17th century. Nadler continues:

Clergy seeking to control the lives of citizens have another weapon in their arsenal. They proclaim that there is one and only one book that will reveal the word of God and the path toward salvation and that they alone are its authorised interpreters. In fact, Spinoza claims, ‘they ascribe to the Holy Spirit whatever their wild fancies have invented’.

One of Spinoza’s more famous, influential and incendiary doctrines concerns the origin and status of Scripture. The Bible, Spinoza argues in the Theological-Political Treatise, was not literally authored by God. God or Nature is metaphysically incapable of proclaiming or dictating, much less writing, anything. Scripture is not ‘a message for mankind sent down by God from heaven’. Rather, it is a very mundane document. Texts from a number of authors of various … backgrounds, writing at different points over a long stretch of time and in differing historical and political circumstances, were passed down through generations in copies after copies after copies.

Finally, a selection of these writings was put together (with some arbitrariness, Spinoza insists) in the Second Temple period, most likely under the editorship of Ezra, who was only partially able to synthesise his sources and create a single work from them. This imperfectly composed collection was itself subject to the changes that creep into a text during a transmission process of many centuries. The Bible as we have it is simply a work of human literature, and a rather ‘faulty, mutilated, adulterated, and inconsistent’ one at that. It is a mixed-breed by its birth and corrupted by its descent and preservation, a jumble of texts by different hands, from different periods and for different audiences.

Spinoza supplements his theory of the human origins of Scripture with an equally deflationary account of its authors. The prophets were not especially learned individuals. They did not enjoy a high level of education or intellectual sophistication. They certainly were not philosophers or physicists or astronomers. There are no truths about nature or the cosmos to be found in their writings…. Neither are they a source of metaphysical or even theological truths. The prophets often had naïve, even philosophically false beliefs about God.

Spinoza held that “there are no values in Nature” and “nothing is intrinsically good or bad”, but, according to Nadler, that didn’t stop him from believing that the Bible conveyed a crucial message:

[The Bible’s authors] were … morally superior individuals with vivid imaginations, and so there is a truth to be gleaned from all of Scripture, one that comes through loud and clear and in a non-mutilated form. The ultimate teaching of Scripture, whether the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Gospels, is in fact a rather simple one: practice justice and loving-kindness to your fellow human beings.

That basic moral message is the upshot of all the commandments and the lesson of all the stories of Scripture, surviving whole and unadulterated through all the differences of language and all the copies, alterations, corruptions and scribal errors that have crept into the text over the centuries.

Such were the views that got Spinoza labeled as a “renegade Jew … from Hell” and, more recently, as a “God-intoxicated man”.

Consciousness As Mental, As Physical

It’s been argued that a scientist who grew up in a black and white room and never saw the color red could learn everything there is to know about the physics of light and the physiology of the human body, including what happens in the brain when someone sees red, but not know what red looks like. Presumably, a blind scientist with the same training would be in the very same position. Likewise, a deaf scientist could know everything about the physics and physiology involved in hearing a violin but not really know what a violin sounds like. This is supposed to show that there is something in the universe beyond the reach of the physical sciences: the mysterious mental phenomenon of consciousness.

“Mental” is a word I haven’t used much (or at all) in writing about consciousness, yet consciousness is clearly a mental phenomenon if anything is. But what does it mean for a phenomenon to be “mental”?

The obvious answer, although it’s not very helpful, is that “mental” means “not physical”. But what does that mean?

An exchange of letters I referred to last month between the philosopher Thomas Nagel and a professor of bioengineering, Roy Black, tries to deal with the question. Prof. Black criticizes the idea that “nonphysical factors” are involved in consciousness:

As is frequently noted, the physical basis of life itself used to be just as mysterious as consciousness, and it’s now well explained by biochemistry and molecular biology, without nonphysical factors. So although science as we know it doesn’t explain the link between neurons and consciousness, why expect the link to be “nonphysical” rather than “novel physical”? What is a nonphysical factor, anyway? If the dark energy propelling the expansion of the universe, the strong force holding atomic nuclei together, etc., etc., are physical, do we really need anything more exotic?

… Lots of things in biology—like the development of an organism from an egg—seem impossible, until we stretch our imagination to conceive of simple precursors and mechanisms that could have been worked on by natural selection over billions of years. To quote one of [the philosopher Daniel Dennett’s] nice lines, “evolution is a process that depends on amplifying things that almost never happen.” We need to determine what “thing,” what activity of neurons beyond activating other neurons, was amplified to the point that consciousness arose. What would a precursor of “feeling like” be? That’s what we need to stretch our imaginations further to figure out.

Prof. Nagel responds, but his response is based on an assumption:

The difficulty is that conscious experience has an essentially subjective character—what it is like for its subject, from the inside—that purely physical processes do not share [how does he know this?]. Physical concepts describe the world as it is in itself, and not for any conscious subject….

I agree with Black that “we need to determine what ‘thing’, what activity of neurons beyond activating other neurons, was amplified to the point that consciousness arose.” But I believe this will require that we attribute to neurons, and perhaps to still more basic physical things and processes, some properties that in the right combination are capable of constituting subjects of experience like ourselves, to whom sunsets and chocolate and violins look and taste and sound as they do. These, if they are ever discovered, will not be physical properties, because physical properties, however sophisticated and complex, characterize only the order of the world extended in space and time, not how things appear from any particular point of view [again, how does he know this?].

Nagel’s assumption is that a purely physical process cannot have a subjective character (it cannot “feel like something”). It cannot be “how things appear” from a particular point of view. But if consciousness is a physical process, it does have a subjective character. In that case, how things feel or appear are indeed physical properties of a process that occurs in space and time (it happens inside your head when you’re conscious).

Here’s my take on the mental/physical distinction. Nobody knows what the universe contains at the most fundamental level (or if there is a most fundamental level). But suppose that quantum field theory is correct and, quoting Prof. David Tong of Cambridge University (who I wrote about earlier this year):

The best theories we have tell us that the fundamental building blocks of nature are not particles but something much more nebulous and abstract. The fundamental building blocks of nature are fluid-like substances which are spread throughout the entire universe and ripple in strange and interesting ways. That’s the fundamental reality in which we live. These fluid-like substances, we have a name for, we call them “fields”.

Furthermore, when the fields ripple or are agitated in certain ways, we get sub-atomic particles. An electron, for example, is a kind of ripple in the electron field.

So when I say that consciousness is a physical process, what I’m saying is that consciousness is at bottom constructed from one or more quantum-level fields – or whatever the fundamental building blocks of the universe are – that somehow interact with the quantum-level fields – or other building blocks – from which everything else in the universe is constructed. Maybe consciousness involves a kind of fundamental field that physicists can’t measure or detect yet. Maybe it involves a new kind of interaction between fundamental fields that physicists already know about.

But consciousness seems to be part of the natural world in the same way other physical phenomena are. And because it’s part of the natural world – not a kind of free-floating spiritual or supernatural substance or phenomenon – consciousness can represent other physical events and processes outside itself. Consciousness being part of the world is why we can be consciously aware of our bodies and the world around us.

“Mental”, therefore, refers to what happens in our minds, but at bottom mental phenomena are physical phenomena. Consciousness, like gravity, digestion and baseball, is one of the things that happens in the world. In other words, the “mental” is a subset of the “physical”. Or so it seems to me.

The Way Consciousness Is

Thinking about the United States plumbing the depths of kakistocracy (rule by the worst) is all well and good, but back to consciousness.

The human brain is the most complex object anyone has ever tried to understand. It might be the most complex object in the universe. We might never understand how it works. Robert Burton, a neurologist, writes about being surprised by a patient with a paranoid fear of the FBI that was apparently caused by a mutation in his brain:

Though I didn’t know it at the time, I had run headlong into the “hard problem of consciousness,” the enigma of how physical brain mechanisms create purely subjective mental states. In the subsequent 50 years, what was once fodder for neurologists’ late night speculations has mushroomed into the preeminent question in the philosophy of mind. As an intellectual challenge, there is no equal to wondering how subatomic particles, mindless cells, synapses, and neurotransmitters create the experience of red, the beauty of a sunset, the euphoria of lust, the transcendence of music, or in this case, intractable paranoia.

Neuroscientists have long known which general areas of the brain and their connections are necessary for the state of consciousness. By observing both the effects of localized and generalized brain insults such as anoxia [total lack of oxygen] and anesthesia, none of us seriously doubt that consciousness arises from discrete brain mechanisms. Because these mechanisms are consistent with general biological principles, it’s likely that, with further technical advances, we will uncover how the brain generates consciousness.

However, such knowledge doesn’t translate into an explanation for the what of consciousness—that state of awareness of one’s surroundings and self, the experience of one’s feelings and thoughts. Imagine a hypothetical where you could mix nine parts oxytocin, 17 parts serotonin, and 11 parts dopamine into a solution that would make 100 percent of people feel a sense of infatuation 100 percent of the time. Knowing the precise chemical trigger for the sensation of infatuation (the how) tells you little about the nature of the resulting feeling (the what).

But why should we expect that knowing what chemicals cause the feeling of infatuation would tell us anything about what infatuation feels like? Aren’t those two different questions?

Suppose, however, that we keep improving our techniques for studying the brain, as Burton suggests, and eventually figure out how certain kinds of brain activity become consciousness. It doesn’t seem impossible that one day (maybe 1,000 years in the future) that we will fully understand how “subatomic particles, mindless cells, synapses, and neurotransmitters” allow us to be conscious, just as well as we understand how lungs allow us to breathe (although lungs are a lot less complicated than brains). Suppose we discover how one kind of brain activity becomes a feeling of infatuation and another kind becomes a feeling of resentment. 

Burton implies that we would still be left with what he calls the “what” question, although it might be better to call it the “why” question. Why does our consciousness have the specific properties it does? Why does a note on a violin sound just the way it does? Why does red look like this and not like this or this? In the case of color, scientists might understand perfectly well the relationship between different wavelengths of light, the physiology of our eyes and nervous system, and the colors we see. They would understand that such and such conditions, structures and processes are correlated with seeing red and others are correlated with seeing blue. All of our “how does this happen?” questions would have been answered. So would it still make sense to ask why a particular kind of light looks the way it does or a particular feeling feels the way it does?

I’m not sure it would. Once we understood what leads to colors looking the way they do, or what makes feelings feel the way they do, any “why” questions might disappear. Once we understand the “how” of consciousness, maybe there won’t be anything more to figure out. If there are any neurologists or philosophers still asking “why”, the best answer will be “that’s just the way it is” or “stop asking questions and go to sleep”.

That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. After all, in science, we sometimes arrive at what appear to be “brute” facts. Why is the speed of light in a vacuum 186,282 miles per second instead of 186,300 miles per second? We may never know. That’s just the way the universe works. No further explanation is available. If you have a problem with our speed of light, go live in another universe. If you don’t like the particular colors you see, keep your eyes closed. Or become a cat.

Next up on this subject, assuming I stay conscious: What does it mean to say consciousness is a physical phenomenon? It’s obviously a mental phenomenon, so how can it be a physical one too?

Yes, It’s Your Doom and Gloom Roundup, But Maybe With Light at the End of the Tunnel

Arthur Schopenhauer, “On the Sufferings of the World” (1836):

In early youth, as we contemplate our coming life, we are like children in a theater before the curtain is raised, sitting there in high spirits and eagerly waiting for the play to begin. It is a blessing that we do not know what is really going to happen. 

You tell ’em, Art.

Craig Unger, “Trump’s Russian Laundromat”, The New Republic:

A review of the public record reveals a clear and disturbing pattern: Trump owes much of his business success, and by extension his presidency, to a flow of highly suspicious money from Russia. Over the past three decades, at least 13 people with known or alleged links to Russian mobsters or oligarchs have owned, lived in, and even run criminal activities out of Trump Tower and other Trump properties. Many used his apartments and casinos to launder untold millions in dirty money…. Others provided Trump with lucrative branding deals that required no investment on his part. Taken together, the flow of money from Russia provided Trump with a crucial infusion of financing that helped rescue his empire from ruin, burnish his image, and launch his career in television and politics….

By 2004, to the outside world, it appeared that Trump was back on top after his failures in Atlantic City. That January, flush with the appearance of success, Trump launched his newly burnished brand into another medium.

[The Apprentice] instantly revived his career. “The Apprentice turned Trump from a blowhard Richie Rich who had just gone through his most difficult decade into an unlikely symbol of straight talk, an evangelist for the American gospel of success, a decider who insisted on standards in a country that had somehow slipped into handing out trophies for just showing up,” … Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher observe in their book Trump Revealed. “Above all, Apprentice sold an image of the host-boss as supremely competent and confident, dispensing his authority and getting immediate results. The analogy to politics was palpable”….

Without the Russian mafia, it is fair to say, Donald Trump would not be president of the United States.

I sometimes wonder how many of the millions of people who watched The Apprentice for years and years voted for this “poor person’s idea of a rich person” and whether DT’s shady business deals will ever catch up with him.

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, “Trump Jr.’s Russia meeting sure sounds like a Russian intelligence operation”, The Washington Post:

….everything we know about the meeting — from whom it involved to how it was set up to how it unfolded — is in line with what intelligence analysts would expect an overture in a Russian influence operation to look like. It bears all the hallmarks of a professionally planned, carefully orchestrated intelligence soft pitch designed to gauge receptivity, while leaving room for plausible deniability in case the approach is rejected. And the Trump campaign’s willingness to take the meeting — and, more important, its failure to report the episode to U.S. authorities — may have been exactly the green light Russia was looking for to launch a more aggressive phase of intervention in the U.S. election….

Had this Russian overture been rejected or promptly reported by the Trump campaign to U.S. authorities, Russian intelligence would have been forced to recalculate the risk vs. gain of continuing its aggressive operation to influence U.S. domestic politics. Russian meddling might have been compromised in its early stages and stopped in its tracks by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies before it reached fruition by the late fall.

So the suggestion that this was a nothing meeting without consequence is, in all likelihood, badly mistaken.

Paul Krugman, “Takers and Fakers”, The New York Times

… throughout the whole campaign against Obamacare, Republicans have been lying about their intentions.

Believe it or not, conservatives actually do have a more or less coherent vision of health care. It’s basically pure Ayn Rand: if you’re sick or poor, you’re on your own…. Specifically:

1. Health care, even the most essential care, is a privilege, not a right. If you can’t get insurance because you have a preexisting condition, because your income isn’t high enough, or both, too bad.

2. People who manage to get insurance through government aid, whether Medicaid, subsidies, or regulation and mandates that force healthy people to buy into a common risk pool, are “takers” exploiting the wealth creators, aka the rich.

3. Even for those who have insurance, it covers too much. Deductibles and co-pays should be much higher, to give people “skin in the game”…

4. All of this applies to seniors as well as younger people. Medicare as we know it should be abolished, replaced with a voucher system that can be used to help pay for private policies – and funding will be steadily cut below currently projected levels, pushing people into high-deductible, high-copay private policies.

This is … what conservative health care “experts” say when they aren’t running for public office, or closely connected to anyone who is. I think it’s a terrible doctrine … because buying health care isn’t and can’t be like buying furniture….

But think of how Republicans have actually run against Obamacare. They’ve lambasted the law for not covering everyone, even though their fundamental philosophy is NOT to cover everyone, or accept any responsibility for the uninsured. They’ve denied that their massive cuts to Medicaid are actually cuts, pretending to care about the people they not-so-privately consider moochers. They’ve denounced Obamacare policies for having excessively high deductibles, when higher deductibles are at the core of their ideas about cost control. And they’ve accused Obamacare of raiding Medicare, a program they’ve been trying to kill since 1995.

In other words, their whole political strategy has been based on lies – not shading the truth, not spinning, but pretending to want exactly the opposite of what they actually want.

And this strategy was wildly successful, right up to the moment when Republicans finally got a chance to put their money – or actually your money – where their mouths were. The trouble they’re having therefore has nothing to do with tactics, or for that matter with Trump. It’s what happens when many years of complete fraudulence come up against reality.

As Krugman writes elsewhere:

… everyone, and I mean everyone, who knows something about insurance markets is declaring the same thing: that the [Republican] bill would be a disaster. We’ve got the insurance industry declaring it “simply unworkable”; the American Academy of Actuaries saying effectively the same thing; AARP up in arms; and more [doctors, nurses, state governors, voters]. 

And yet, it still might become law this month. Why?

Jennifer Rubin, “The GOP’s Moral Rot Is the Problem, Not Donald Trump”, The Washington Post:

… for decades now, demonization — of gays, immigrants, Democrats, the media, feminists, etc. — has been the animating spirit behind much of the right. It has distorted its assessment of reality, … elevating Fox News hosts’ blatantly false propaganda as the counterweight to liberal media bias and preventing serious policy debate. For seven years, the party vilified Obamacare without an accurate assessment of its faults and feasible alternative plans. “Obama bad” or “Clinton bad” became the only credo — leaving the party … with “no attachment to any external moral truth or ethical code” — and no coherent policies for governing.

We have always had in our political culture narcissists, ideologues and flimflammers, but it took the 21st-century GOP to put one in the White House….

Out of its collective sense of victimhood came the GOP’s disdain for not just intellectuals but also intellectualism, science, Economics 101, history and constitutional fidelity….the GOP became slaves to its own demons and false narratives. A party that has to deny climate change and insist illegal immigrants are creating a crime wave — because that is what “conservatives” must believe, since liberals do not — is a party that will deny Trump’s complicity in gross misconduct. It’s a party as unfit to govern as Trump is unfit to occupy the White House. It’s not by accident that Trump chose to inhabit the party that has defined itself in opposition to reality and to any “external moral truth or ethical code”. 

Helen Keller, Optimism: An Essay (1903):

The test of all beliefs is their practical effects in life. If it be true that optimism compels the world forward, and pessimism retards it, then it is dangerous to propagate a pessimistic philosophy. One who believes that the pain in the world outweighs the joy, and expresses that unhappy conviction, only adds to the pain. Schopenhauer is an enemy to the race. Even if he earnestly believed that this is the most wretched of possible worlds, he should not promulgate a doctrine which robs men of the incentive to fight with circumstance.

All right, Helen, the good news is that a Republican senator is recovering from surgery and won’t be in Washington this coming week. His vote would be needed to move the Republican bill forward, so the vote has been delayed, giving the opposition more time to terminate this horror show with extreme prejudice.

What We Have In Mind (Consciousness Again)

Last week, I suggested that consciousness is a type of brain activity, the kind that consists in having a phenomenal field that includes sights, sounds, pains and the internal monologue depicted by authors as the “stream of consciousness”.

I also recommended that we reserve the phrase “conscious of” for the most important things we’re conscious of, things like our everyday surroundings, our feelings and our thoughts, not consciousness itself. This approach would rule out questions like “Are you conscious of consciousness?” that to me seem misguided and misleading. I don’t think we’re conscious of consciousness, but rather conscious of other things.

To say that we’re conscious “of” other things is to say that the components of consciousness represent other things. Thus, some of the brain activity that is consciousness represents things outside our bodies (e.g. trees falling in the forest). Some of it represents things inside our bodies (e.g. heartburn). And some represents things that exist neither inside nor outside our bodies: abstract things like possibilities (e.g. sanity in Washington), fictional characters (Wonder Woman) and ideas (justice or the number twelve).

From an article about dreaming, which is usually considered a kind of consciousness:

One of the main functions of our brain is to constantly create a model of the world around us, a sort of virtual reality that helps us interact with our environment.

When we’re awake, that model is heavily influenced by what we are seeing and hearing and feeling. But during sleep, when there’s not much input from our senses, the brain’s model of the world is more likely to rely on internal information, like memories or expectations.

I’d add that the model is also a model of the world within us and the abstract world of memory, intention and imagination. But thinking of the model our brains create as “a sort of virtual reality” is what I have in mind (that’s a pun). It’s the “sort” of virtual reality that isn’t virtual, however. Patterns of neural activation in the brain (what the model is made of) are quite real. And it’s a model or representation of other things that are quite real too, like falling trees and sprained ankles.

One of the things that makes our conscious model interesting is that it includes events and processes that are strictly or primarily mental, like having a premonition. I don’t know if such things are representations of unconscious mental events and processes. Maybe they aren’t representations at all; maybe they’re patterns of neural activation that don’t refer to or represent anything else. But the evidence suggests that we all have a lot of unconscious brain activity that plays a very large role in what we think and how we feel.

So it would be consistent with the view I’m trying to explain that when you have something like a premonition, what you’re conscious of is a representation of the underlying brain activity (the unconscious premonition processing), as well as any related events in your body (like chills).

To sum up, the position I’ve arrived at seems to be a strange, possibly ridiculous mixture of ideas associated with two great philosophers who are generally seen as opponents: the idealist George Berkeley and the materialist Thomas Hobbes.

Berkeley (1685-1753) argued that nothing exists independently of minds: “To be is to be perceived (or to perceive)”. A person is an immaterial mind or soul. The physical world (the Earth, for example) doesn’t exist independently of our minds. Fortunately, our individual minds are able to get along because God (a kind of super-mind) synchronizes our perceptions. He makes sure that when I perceive a red apple (in my mind), you do too.

Hobbes (1588-1679) argued that nothing exists except physical stuff. We human beings, including our minds, are material things. Even God may be a kind of material being. When I see a red apple, and you see a red apple, therefore, it’s because there’s an apple out there and it’s red. That’s the whole story. 

Where I’ve ended up is to agree with Berkeley that our consciousness has the various elements in it that he called “perceptions” and “ideas”. But I agree with Hobbes that consciousness is a physical phenomenon, a very cool physical phenomenon, but a physical one just the same. And the reason my perceptions usually line up with yours so nicely is because our perceptions represent the same physical world, albeit observed from our individual perspectives. 

Being Conscious, But Not of Consciousness

A reader (!) asks: Does [what you posted about consciousness yesterday three days ago] mean that we are only conscious of what’s going on in our brains?

That’s an excellent question. When I say that consciousness is certain kinds of brain activity or patterns of neural activation, it may sound like I’m saying that we’re only conscious of brain activity. In other words, we’re not conscious of the rest of the world or the rest of our bodies.

Given what I’m saying about consciousness, I might explain that we are “directly” conscious of our brain activity and “indirectly” conscious of the rest of the world. Or I could say that our consciousness of what’s going on in our heads is “immediate”, while our awareness of everything else is “mediated”, i.e. conveyed through intermediaries, such as the air that carries sound waves to our ears and the nerve impulses that travel from all over our body to our brain.

So when I raised this question yesterday (“Does this mean we are only conscious of what’s going on in our brains?”), I began by saying “in one sense, yes, because that’s where the physical phenomenon of consciousness takes place”. I then said, however, that in the most important sense our brain activity enables us to be aware of what’s happening outside our brains.

Actually, I recommend that we reserve phrases like “conscious of”, “aware of” or “what we experience” for the things we are ordinarily and importantly conscious of. That’s the standard way of speaking and the best way to describe what’s happening when we are conscious. For instance, when you’re awake, are you conscious of your surroundings? When you raise your arm, do you experience any discomfort? Now that you’re on Social Security, are you experiencing any memory loss?

Asking whether we are conscious of what’s going on in our brains amounts to asking whether we are conscious of our consciousness. It’s a misleading question. It’s like asking someone at the North Pole which way is north. To be conscious is to have a certain kind of brain activity. To be conscious of whatever is to be conscious of something other than your brain activity. That’s because there is no way to be conscious of your consciousness. There is no mechanism, no mental apparatus, no meta-consciousness that allows being conscious of consciousness. Consciousness just is. The world you see, that rumbling in your stomach, is what it looks like, feels like, to have the right kind of brain activity. 

You can think about being conscious. We’re doing that right now. But that’s different from being conscious of consciousness. When you think about consciousness, you’re conscious of your thoughts (about consciousness), just like you can be conscious of thoughts about other things. But consciousness itself just is (I could say it is what it is, but that would be redundant and annoying).

Could an evil demon be tricking you, like Descartes wondered? Could you be a brain in a vat, like later philosophers ask themselves? Sure, it’s possible to be seriously wrong about what you’re conscious of. Maybe what you’re conscious of isn’t ever what you think it is. I’m not worried. You shouldn’t be either. 

If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? Yes, it makes the air vibrate and if it creates enough vibrations and there’s anyone around who’s conscious and isn’t deaf, they’ll hear (be conscious of) the crashing sound. 

I’m not sure what I’ve been saying makes sense. I’ve thought about this topic for a long time but never expressed my thoughts this way before. Maybe what I’m saying is way off the track, but it’s all I’ve got right now. Maybe I’ll get back to it again. In the meantime, stay conscious.

In my opinion, that implies being conscious of other things, not consciousness.

What’s So Hard About Consciousness? (With More Words Than Usual)

Some philosophers call it “the hard problem”. Here’s how Norwegian philosopher Hedda Hassel Mørch describes it:

The nature of consciousness seems to be unique among scientific puzzles. Not only do neuroscientists have no fundamental explanation for how it arises from physical states of the brain, we are not even sure whether we ever will….

Our brains do not merely seem to gather and process information. They do not merely undergo biochemical processes. Rather, they create a vivid series of feelings and experiences, such as seeing red, feeling hungry, or being baffled about philosophy. There is something that it’s like to be you, and no one else can ever know that as directly as you do.

Consider the colored objects below. Scientists can describe what happens when a person sees them. They can tell you why the color of a tomato is more like the color of an orange than a lemon. They can point out that if you mix red and yellow light, you’ll get orange. They can use words and numbers to say what’s happening as light is reflected into your eyes and impulses are transmitted along your optic nerves. 

 

But scientists cannot express or capture how any of these colors look when they, or you, or I see them. Words and numbers aren’t up to the task! The best anyone can do is show you examples. See, this is red! 

Consider how the word “red” is defined in dictionaries. Merriam-Webster says “red” means “of the color red”. Not terribly helpful. Consider how Wikipedia introduces its article on “Red”:

Red is the color at the longer-wavelengths end of the spectrum of visible light next to orange, at the opposite end from violet. Red color has a predominant light wavelength of roughly 620–740 nanometers. 

That would be helpful in some circumstances, but the Wikipedia writers added color pictures of strawberries, a cardinal and the Chinese flag to make things perfectly clear. That’s because pointing out examples is the best way, in one sense the only way, to express the meaning of a word like “red”. That, by the way, is called an “ostensive” definition. When language won’t do the trick, show an example. 

The same difficulty applies to the way a violin sounds, the way roses smell and the way tickles tickle. There is something elusive about the way the world appears. There is something incommunicable about experience. Another way of saying this is that the contents of consciousness are a first-person phenomenon. Science as the formal study of the world can describe and explain what’s happening when you hear a violin from a third-person perspective, but the particular sound you hear is beyond words or numbers. There is something about being a person, what it’s like to be a person (or a bat), that has to be experienced firsthand.

Hmm.

Okay, well, that’s interesting. But I’m tempted to say: so what?

That hasn’t been the usual reaction in the history of Western philosophy. Many philosophers have drawn big conclusions from the scientific elusiveness of consciousness. Here, for instance, is Thomas Nagel writing in an exchange of letters a few months ago (he is the author of the famous philosophy paper “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”):

I do not deny that patterns of neural activation cause experience. What I doubt is that patterns of neural activation alone constitute or are experience—if neural activation is a purely physical process.

The mind-body problem that exercises … me is a problem about what experience is, not how it is caused. The difficulty is that conscious experience has an essentially subjective character—what it is like for its subject, from the inside—that purely physical processes do not share. Physical concepts describe the world as it is in itself, and not for any conscious subject…. But if subjective experience is not an illusion, the real world includes more than can be described in this way.

I agree … that “we need to determine what ‘thing,’ what activity of neurons beyond activating other neurons, was amplified to the point that consciousness arose”. But I believe this will require that we attribute to neurons, and perhaps to still more basic physical things and processes, some properties that in the right combination are capable of constituting subjects of experience like ourselves, to whom sunsets and chocolate and violins look and taste and sound as they do. These, if they are ever discovered, will not be physical properties, because physical properties, however sophisticated and complex, characterize only the order of the world extended in space and time, not how things appear from any particular point of view.

Nagel accepts that patterns of neural activation cause consciousness, but he doesn’t think they constitute consciousness. I think he has two reasons for saying this. The first is what we’ve been considering so far: consciousness has properties (“raw feels”) that cannot be captured by science. The second is that neural activation is physical – it occurs in space and time – but, according to Nagel, consciousness doesn’t.

His conclusion is that consciousness is a mental phenomenon that somehow stands apart from the rest of the universe. Our experience is supposedly a special kind of “stuff” that’s somehow separate from the physical world of quantum fields, waves and particles. (How events in space and time can make something happen that isn’t in space or time has always been a problem for positions like Nagel’s. Another philosopher, Daniel Dennett, says it would be a miracle.)

My own view is that patterns of neural activation don’t cause consciousness. Nor are they correlated with consciousness. Instead, certain patterns of neural activity are consciousness. In other words, consciousness is having certain kinds of neural activity.

If consciousness is a certain kind of activity in one’s brain, that kind of activity in one’s brain doesn’t cause consciousness. That’s because a phenomenon cannot cause itself, so saying there is a causal relationship between particular kinds of neural activation and consciousness implies that they are separate phenomena. Nor are such patterns of neural activity correlated with consciousness, because, again, saying that two series of events are correlated implies that they are separate phenomena. But having various patterns of neural activity occurring in your brain can be and is consciousness.

This isn’t to deny that there are correlations of a sort. When a scientist or technician measures or records someone’s brain activity (or even their own), they are collecting data from an outside, third-person perspective, i.e. the perspective of the equipment that does the measuring or recording. Looking at the data that’s gathered, we can say there is a correlation between the data and the subject’s consciousness.

But we shouldn’t go on to say that the patterns of neural activity detected in the brain are correlated with the subject’s conscious experience. That would imply that the neural activity stands apart from the conscious experience, when they’re really the same phenomenon talked about in two different ways or considered from two different perspectives (i.e. the third person “outside” perspective and the first-person “inside” point of view). 

This view is known as the “identity” theory. To me it seems obvious. Consciousness is brain activity. Certain brain activity is consciousness.

Not so fast, however. How can consciousness and having appropriate brain activity be the same? Don’t “they” have different properties? I don’t think so.

Until there is reason to think otherwise, consciousness should be viewed as a physical process that occurs in the brain. Since the brain is in space and time, so is consciousness. When a person is conscious, they are presented with a phenomenal field, a set of representations, including three-dimensional sights (for most of us) and corresponding sounds (for most of us) and smells, tastes and feelings, as well as thoughts (for most of us). Some of these representations have properties like being red or sweet. These properties belong to the components of the phenomenal field. Another way of saying this is that these properties belong to the experience of having certain brain activity.

Of course, if you were to somehow travel around inside a conscious person’s brain, you wouldn’t see any redness or taste any sweetness. Nor would you find any movie screens or loudspeakers. The most you’d observe would be nerve cells, electrical impulses and chemical reactions with their own distinctive properties. You certainly wouldn’t detect the person’s phenomenal field as the person experiences it.

But if enough of those nerve cells, electrical impulses and chemical reactions are functional, a phenomenal field is present. There is consciousness occurring in there with its various properties, by virtue of the fact that having certain patterns of neural activation is enough for consciousness to occur. (As far as we know, it’s also necessary for consciousness to occur.)

Does this mean that we are only conscious of what’s going on in our brains? In one sense, yes, because that’s where the physical phenomenon of consciousness takes place. In another sense, however, and the most important sense, no, not at all. It’s reasonable to believe that consciousness evolved to help us make our way in the world, partly by representing the world to us. Our conscious experience of the world is damned good, in fact phenomenally good, when you think about it.

In fact, it’s so good that we don’t ordinarily have to think about it at all. We just use it to get around, rather like we use maps, photographs, recordings and other representations. Someone shows you a picture of Miami and asks if you’ve ever been there. Do you say “Yes” or “No” or “What do you mean? Have I ever been in that photograph in your hand?” If you’re not being a smart ass, you’ll answer “Yes” or “No”, because that’s how representations work.

In similar fashion, if someone asks you if you want the banana lying on the table, do you say “Yes” or “No” or “What do you mean? Do I want the portion of my visual field that is mostly yellow with a little bit of brown and green?” Saying “Yes” or “No” is the natural way to respond. It’s true that you can’t keep your consciousness in your glove compartment or put it on Facebook. Plus, your consciousness is what makes it possible to use those other kinds of representations. Consciousness doesn’t represent the world in the same way that maps and photographs do. But in addition to helping us think about the world, remember the past and imagine the future, consciousness also helps us observe and navigate the world, like less simple representations do. 

So that’s what I think about consciousness. Understanding how or why consciousness happens in human and animal brains is a major challenge for scientists who study brains, but it isn’t “the hard problem” most philosophers make it out to be.o-142765670-facebook