Does consciousness exist?

by Neil Rickert

To answer the title question, of course consciousness exists.

Galen Strawson has an article in the New York Review of Books (h/t Brian Leiter):

I doubt that I am on Strawson’s list of deniers, but perhaps only because he doesn’t know who I am.

What is the silliest claim ever made? The competition is fierce, but I think the answer is easy. Some people have denied the existence of consciousness: conscious experience, the subjective character of experience, the “what-it-is-like” of experience.

Given that introduction, I would probably fit right in with Strawson’s deniers.

We know that consciousness exists, because physicians (medical doctors) can reliably tell whether a patient it conscious.  But that is not what Strawson is talking about.  He is concerned with qualia (the so-called qualities of experience).

Here’s the problem.  “Qualia” is a noun.  “Consciousness” is a noun.  A noun is supposed to be used to refer to an object.  So the question is one of whether there can be a purely subjective object.  And I don’t see how there could be such a thing.  To me, “subjective object” looks oxymoronic.

I see the emphasis on qualia and subjective experience as misguided.  It is an attempt to talk about and describe what cannot be talked about and described.  I don’t expect it to go anywhere.

To be clear, I do support free speech.  I won’t be attempting to stop talk about qualia and the like.  But it does seem a waste of effort.

The what-is-it-like

Strawson also mentions the “what-is-it-like”.  This apparently comes from Nagel’s “What is it like to be a bat”.  This kind of talk, too, seems misguided.

I could not tell you what it is like to be me.  The very expression “what is it like” suggests likening to something else.  But I have not been anybody other than myself, so such comparison is impossible.

Strangely, I think I could probably say more about what it is like to be a bat, than I could say about what it is like to be me.  And that’s without my ever having been a bat.

What I could say about being a bat does not come from a study of qualia.  It comes from a study of perception, of the problems that perception has to solve, of the problems of getting and using information to negotiate the environment.

In his essay, Nagel makes an issue over the fact that the bat uses echo-location (or sonar) as an important source of information.  What I have to say about being a bat is, mostly, that Nagel is making a mistake on this emphasis on the use of sonar.  For the bat, I expect it all has to do with the acquiring and using information.  And the particular sensory mode used for that information is not going to be nearly as important as Nagel seems to believe.

The “what is it like” discussions pretend to ask a question that cannot be answered and that should not be asked.  The discussions sometimes seem to be attempts to make cognition seem mysterious and almost mystical.  However, our own conscious experience comes naturally to us, so there does not seem to be any reason for mysticism.

That’s my two cents worth of commentary.

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20 Comments to “Does consciousness exist?”

  1. “Here’s the problem. “Qualia” is a noun. “Consciousness” is a noun. A noun is supposed to be used to refer to an object. So the question is one of whether there can be a purely subjective object. ”

    I think this misses the entire point. First of all, consciousness is a process, not an object. So the use of the noun “consciousness” here is to refer to a process mediated by the brain. And what “object” is involved in this process? Well we could say that the brain is the object that is involved in this process. And the process which we describe as subjectivity is intrinsic to that object. So the question is not whether or not there can be a purely subjective object, but rather whether or not
    there can be a purely subjective quality/property/process that is intrinsic to some object. And Strawson argues that there can.

    “To me, “subjective object” looks oxymoronic.”

    And I agree, it is. And I bet Strawson would agree as well, as he never argued that consciousness was a subjective object. He argues that it is an intrinsic property of material objects (at least some objects, at least some of the time).

    “I see the emphasis on qualia and subjective experience as misguided. It is an attempt to talk about and describe what cannot be talked about and described. I don’t expect it to go anywhere.”

    I see the mischaracterization of consciousness as being an object (or having to be an object, if it exists) as misguided. And this is what Strawson argues against. He argues against consciousness as having to be an object, but rather an intrinsic property of the object. And the terms “qualia” and “subjective experience” are only meant to refer to these intrinsic properties and qualities. It can be talked about and described even if in a way that is far from perfect. And most people know what is meant by the terms “qualia” and “subjective experience”, so they have been useful enough terms to get by with. The problem lies in the unjustified assumption that consciousness must be an object, and only then does it get classified as a non-physical object which then leads to dualism or eliminativism. Strawson’s whole point was that this move makes no sense, because nobody has yet ruled out consciousness as being an intrinsic property of physical objects. Instead, they’ve treated it as either a non-physical substance, or they’ve eliminated it from their ontology.

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    • Processes can be objects.

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      • Sure, but that doesn’t refute what I said. I was explaining that consciousness is not an object, but better described as a process.

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        • To clarify, a word like “heat” would then be referring to an object as well, and yet heat is not an object per se (even if its treated as one in a sentence). But in any case, with regard to my previous points made above, the point is that consciousness should be treated as an intrinsic property of an object, not as an object itself.

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          • Your qualifications don’t help.

            Galen Strawson was explicit that people who agree that we have conscious experience, but who deny qualia, are deniers of consciousness as far as he is concerned.

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      • Also, as Wittgenstein warned us, we should be careful about thinking that the surface structure of language (e.g. the subject-object distinction) actually tracks on to reality accurately. If the subject-object distinction inclines us to think that an object can never be subjective, then this may simply be an argument against the validity of the subject-object distinction.

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  2. “Galen Strawson was explicit that people who agree that we have conscious experience, but who deny qualia, are deniers of consciousness as far as he is concerned.”

    Yes, and that is because qualia is the intrinsic property, perhaps the only intrinsic property of matter — it is the core of what consciousness is. If people deny this intrinsic nature, they are denying consciousness as it is experienced. They have no justification to do that, because the qualia is the only thing we know for certain exists. This is the “stuff” of experience. So these Deniers are ultimately making some kind of a categorical error where they actually accept qualia (what Strawson refers to as the “stuff” of experience) but then they deny that qualia exists.

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  3. If I hold my hands out before my eyes, my hands are philosophically facts! If I inventory everything on paper that is in this room, the list is yet an additional fact and it does not simplify things.
    Memory is a message we carry in our minds through time for the benefit of our future selves. It’s a form of time travel by an artifact created in the brain by the physical synthesis of proteins and their assembly within the neural network.
    When we have an experience in the present moment we are able to recognize the present facts as well as draw upon memories from the past. Memories are subjective and do not exist in the present moment. They are like the list of items on the paper except that they do not exist.
    Consciousness is the state of being aware of the facts in the present moment; when you are asleep, drugged or drunk you may be in a state of unconsciousness. You can also be unconscious and have thoughts in the form of dreams and these dreams are based on memories. And memories are not facts and do not exist.

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    • Hi Robert,

      ” Memories are subjective and do not exist in the present moment ”

      I agreed with most of what you said above so far (though I’m not sure what you meant exactly by “philosophical facts”, but I take that to be less important in your reply), at least up until this mention of memories not existing in the present moment. I’m not sure what you mean by that. If you are recalling memories in the present moment, then they exist in the present moment. They do not reflect incoming sensory information in the present moment, but that doesn’t make them any less extant in the present moment.

      “They are like the list of items on the paper except that they do not exist.”

      They are like it in the sense that both are stored representations of certain information, but both the memories and the list exist. And in the case of memories, when they are recalled, they are not experienced like reading a list of observations of things in a room. The recalled experiences use much of the same neurological hardware that is used during real-time perception of incoming sensory information. So the memories are in some sense more real than the list of items on the paper because the stored representation is much closer to the actual real-time experience that led to the memories in the first place. They are less of an abstraction than the the list of items on the paper.

      “And memories are not facts and do not exist”

      Again, I don’t know what you mean by this. You having memories is a fact, and memories are stored facts (of a certain sort), including memories of learning that “2+2 = 4”, which is a stored fact in your brain. And these memories do exist (as actual neural network patterns in the brain), and when you recall them, they exist just as much as any other aspect of your perception.

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      • If you were here and I showed you my hand, then we would both agree that my hand in the present moment is a fact. If I tell you now that I am holding up my hand so that only I can see it, then this is a fact for me alone and you have every reason in the world to doubt it! because it is not irrefutable from the perspective of this text. This text is itself its own fact while at the same time it ads to uncertainty and complexity rather than reducing it. By being skeptical of this description it produces even more criticism and commentary, and in turn your criticism and commentary is met with more criticism and commentary, ad infinitum! Soon it is clear that the only certainty that is real is if you were here and we both looked at my hand at the same time!
        Memories do not exist, they are artifacts of experience and are always reflected upon in the context of history. They are not artifacts of facts, but of experience and so are not even reliable! Facts in the present can relatively easily explored and verified, memories can’t because they do not exist!
        Much of the disagreements that exist is not because of intention to the facts in the present, but because of the use of nonexistent belief systems that are interpret them; some people attribute facts to the supernatural, some to a system of philosophy, some to a world view of God or nature! Non of these systems exist, they are however used to provide continuity of memories through imagining that they do exist!

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        • Hi Robert,

          “If you were here and I showed you my hand, then we would both agree that my hand in the present moment is a fact.”

          Well, that’s an odd way to put it, but I would agree that your hand existing would be a fact (though not a CERTAIN fact).

          “If I tell you now that I am holding up my hand so that only I can see it, then this is a fact for me alone and you have every reason in the world to doubt it!”

          Well I could believe that you’re telling the truth, which is one reason not to doubt it, even though I’m less certain than I would be if I were in the same room as you such that I could see it.

          “Soon it is clear that the only certainty that is real is if you were here and we both looked at my hand at the same time!”

          Well I would argue that this is not a certainty, but it is highly likely that your hand exists if we both were able to see it. But I (and you) could be hallucinating in which case what I see as your hand, might actually be a goldfish. I can however be certain that I’m experiencing the seeing of what I believe to be your hand.

          “Memories do not exist”

          This claim hasn’t been demonstrated nor been supported by any rational argument yet. Memories do exist, even if the sensory information that led to them may no longer exist. The memories are actually physically instantiated in your brain, which is a fact. So they exist, just like the neurological schema involved in you being able to read this reply is something that exists. You are confusing “memories” with “what the memories represent”, but they are not the same thing.

          “They are not artifacts of facts, but of experience and so are not even reliable!”

          If you think this is true, then you must believe that your experience at the present moment is also unreliable. In reality, memories can be seen as artifacts but many of them are still artifacts of causal relations that are actually factual. My memory from an hour ago that your name is Robert is a memory of a fact, and the memory itself existing is also a fact (as I already explained, given its physical instantiation in the brain).

          “Facts in the present can relatively easily explored and verified, memories can’t because they do not exist!”

          This is incorrect. Actually your perception that accounts for incoming sensory information is already lagging behind in time from that incoming sensory information, which means that in a sense, your perception could be thought of already as memories or stored models of that incoming sensory information. And as soon as you experience anything, it either winds up in short term memory, long-term memory, or it is lost due to not being stored in either mode. And furthermore, in order to explore and verify facts, you are relying on your memories which provide you with a frame of reference to reason through them accordingly (all the things you’ve learned throughout your life that help you to analyze new information). Imagine that you wiped away all your memories of any past experience. This would mean that you can’t use any of that stored experience to guide you in exploring and verifying facts. In fact, you wouldn’t be able to speak or write in your native language, because those memories would be lost, and you wouldn’t understand the causal structure of the world any better than an infant (it would be even worse than an infant because they have SOME memories to rely upon). Memories do exist or you wouldn’t be able to build upon the knowledge acquired through/with them. Memories may be fallible and in certain cases reconstructed, but that doesn’t mean that you aren’t still relying on them to navigate the world and to update your models/memories in light of new information. It doesn’t make them any less real or factual in their existence and their role in your knowledge over time.

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          • Memories aren’t facts. My word is my word and is only a fact in itself….people do lie and misinterpret facts and so my claim that I have a hand is not a fact for you if you don’t see it and test this for yourself( the level of certainty is not 100%)And if you are hallucinating then you are not conscious either!
            And memory is often confused unless the attention is directed towards a particular fact, like my hand in your face! Memory is an artifact of experience, and often has no relationship to facts!
            I cannot experience your memory, unlike the fact we can share my hand in your face! So memory cannot be verified by another person and two accounts are often typically different because of inattention to details or belief systems!
            Memories morph over time even for the person that holds them. The facts of history do not change! Memories are not facts!

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          • I’ll note that the discussion is getting to be far from the topic.

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          • Consciousness does not exist when you are in an unconscious state like being asleep! End of discussions!

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  4. Maybe you should be separating consciousness from sub-consciousness from non-consciousness and categorizing the differences in the state of the body and the differences in the actual thoughts?

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    • Hi Robert,

      “Memories aren’t facts.”

      Yes, they are and you haven’t shown them to be otherwise.

      “…people do lie and misinterpret facts and so my claim that I have a hand is not a fact for you if you don’t see it and test this for yourself( the level of certainty is not 100%)”

      I don’t need to see it and test it for myself for it to be a fact. If this is what you mean by “fact” then you are using a conception that is different from the common parlance. Most people mean to refer to factual states of affairs, whereby the proposition or statement correlates with reality in some way. I’ve never tested General Relativity to see if time dilation is actually true, but nevertheless I believe it to be a fact, because I have trust in the physics community based on the credibility they’ve demonstrated to me throughout my life. Furthermore, the level of certainty isn’t 100% even if I test some claim to be true because I could be reasoning incorrectly or hallucinating.

      “And if you are hallucinating then you are not conscious either!”

      This doesn’t jive with what doctors, philosophers, or most people for that matter mean by being “conscious”. If you are aware of what you are seeing, then by definition you are conscious of it. And if you are aware of the hallucination, then you are conscious of it. There’s no way around this without twisting the definition or conception of consciousness to something not accepted by most people in the world that have taken the time to think about what is or isn’t considered “conscious”.

      “Memory is an artifact of experience, and often has no relationship to facts!”

      Ah, now here I think you are starting to make a little more sense, in saying that it “often has no relationship to facts”. Now as I see it, they more often than not do have a relationship to facts, even if many of those facts aren’t very useful. And their instantiation in the brain is also a fact.

      “So memory cannot be verified by another person and two accounts are often typically different because of inattention to details or belief systems!”

      That’s not entirely true. I can’t directly verify your memory by experiencing it as you do, but I can often verify whether or not your memory corresponds to any facts about the world.

      “Memories morph over time even for the person that holds them. The facts of history do not change! Memories are not facts!”

      Yes, as I mentioned earlier memories are often reconstructed so they do morph indeed. It’s true that the facts of history do not change, but this doesn’t mean that memories are not facts. The latter does not logically necessarily follow from the former. You seem to be trying to say that “memories are not unchangeable facts” and if this is what you’re getting at then I agree with you. But to say that memories aren’t facts can only be grounded on a train of thought that also denies our ability to access any facts at any time because all of our experience involves comparing new information to a memorized frame of reference in our brain. The only way your claim can be true (as far as I can tell) is if you intend for “facts” to mean something more like “absolutely certain or unchanging facts”. We never have access to absolutely certain or unchanging facts (except for the fact of our own conscious experience, not the interpretation of the experience or the inferences derived from them, but just the experience itself).

      And as Neil said, this is straying way off topic so I’m going to try and end this digression here. But it was mildly fun while it lasted!

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  5. You are starting to sound like Searle!

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