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.