I came across this tweet by Amanda Gefter:
William James, the founder of American psychology was an illusionist? I only read the opening portions of the essay, but it appears so. However, even in 1904, illusionism, the belief that consciousness isn’t what it seems, was a very nuanced thing:
To deny plumply that ‘consciousness’ exists seems so absurd on the face of it — for undeniably ‘thoughts’ do exist — that I fear some readers will follow me no farther. Let me then immediately explain that I mean only to deny that the word stands for an entity, but to insist most emphatically that it does stand for a function. There is, I mean, no aboriginal stuff or quality of being, contrasted with that of which material objects are made, out of which our thoughts of them are made; but there is a function in experience which thoughts perform, and for the performance of which this quality of being is invoked. That function is knowing.
So the assertion is not that consciousness doesn’t exist at all, but that it doesn’t exist as an entity, a corporeal thing. It is best thought of as a function, a process. There is no ghost in the machine, not even a 100% naturalistic version, just the machine itself and what it does.
This view seems to rest on a distinction between things and processes, between entities and functions. But is this a coherent distinction? It often is for various purposes, but when we’re talking about the ultimate ontology of something, it seems like we have to be a bit more careful. And that care requires acknowledging that every thing ultimately reduces to a process.
In this case, the machine itself, the nervous system, the neurons, synapses, glia, are themselves processes in action. They can be reduced to the activity of proteins and other biological mechanisms. Constructs like proteins are actually molecular chemistry in motion. Molecules are atoms exchanging electrons. Atoms are subatomic particles exchanging photons, gluons, and other bosons.
Even elementary particles like quarks and electrons are basically excitations of quantum fields, in other words, processes. I guess we could stop at space, time, and quantum fields and say those are the things, but some physicists even wonder whether time itself might not be an emergent thing. Ultimately, all things may be emergent from underlying processes. Reality may be structure and relations all the way down.
Now, my own view of consciousness is relentlessly functional, so my ontology is similar to James’. However, I’m uneasy with simply saying “consciousness doesn’t exist”. Consider that the operating system of the device you’re using to read this, whether it be MS Windows, Linux, iOS, or whatever, is inherently what your device does. It’s a function.
Yet despite this, we still often talk about software as a thing in and of itself. It is a construction, one requiring armies of programmers to build. Technology companies view it as a costly asset, an investment. At the end of the day, it remains a function, what our machines do, but we find it productive to discuss it as a thing.
There is no scientific evidence for any ghost in the machine. Neuroscience finds only the process, the function. It’s important to understand that. (Granted many people haven’t come around to that point yet.) But once that’s understood and acknowledged, there is validity in discussing it as a thing in and of itself, since all things emerge from processes.
Unless of course I’m missing something?