I learned something new this week about the online magazine The Conversation. A number of their articles that are shared around don’t show up in their RSS feeds or site navigation. It appears these articles only come up in searches, although it’s possible they show in in the site’s email newsletter, which I’m not subscribed to. What seems to be unique about these stories is that they’re contributed by people at The Conversation’s “partner” institutions. Being a partner appears to be about providing funding, which seems to make these articles advertisements of a sort.
Most of these articles are reasonably competent, although they don’t seem to meet the usual standards for the articles the site does make a stronger claim of ownership to. One, which I learned of by Sci-News republishing it, by Steve Taylor with Leeds Beckett University, is an article on consciousness that takes a pretty strong panpsychism stance. The fact that the article is an introduction to his book only makes the advertisement aspect feel stronger. (Although admittedly, such intros are fairly common in other magazines.)
I’ve noted before that panpyschism can be divided into two broad camps. The weaker stance, which I’ve called naturalistic panpsychism, simply defines consciousness in such a deflated manner, such as it only being about interaction with the environment, that everything is conscious, including rocks and subatomic particles.
The stronger stance is pandualism. Like substance dualism, it posits that consciousness is something above and beyond normal physics, a ghost in the machine, but in the case of pandualism, the ghost pervades the universe. It exists as a new fundamental force in addition to ones like gravity or electromagnetism, and brains merely channel or “receive” it.
It’s not unusual for individual panpsychists to blur the distinction between these two stances, often using rhetoric evoking pandualism, but retreating to the more conservative naturalistic variety when challenged. (One prominent proponent retreated to the fundamental force being quantum spin.)
I think naturalistic panpsychism isn’t necessarily wrong, but it isn’t particularly productive either. But I do think pandualism is wrong, for the same reasons that substance dualism overall is wrong. It posits an additional fundamental force of some type for which there simply isn’t any evidence. The proponents often cite consciousness itself as evidence, but that’s begging the question, assuming that only their preferred solution explains subjective experience.
Taylor’s article puts him firmly in the pandualism camp, and somewhat to his credit, his language seems to make clear he has no intention of retreating to the naturalistic camp if challenged. He uses a very common argument as a launching point for his position:
Scientists have long been trying to understand human consciousness – the subjective “stuff” of thoughts and sensations inside our minds. There used to be an assumption that consciousness is produced by our brains, and that in order to understand it, we just need to figure out how the brain works.
But this assumption raises questions. Apart from the fact that decades of research and theorising have not shed any significant light on the issue, there are some strange mismatches between consciousness and brain activity.
The point of the last sentence is virtually a mantra among people who want to take an expansive view of consciousness and evoke the types of things Taylor does. In this view, science is utterly helpless before the problem of consciousness and has made zero progress on it. The thing is, this is simply not true. Science has made enormous progress in understanding how the brain and mind works, including in the cognitive capabilities that trigger our intuition of consciousness.
I’m currently reading Stanislas Dehaene’s book on consciousness, Consciousness and the Brain, where he discusses one empirical study after another nailing down the neural correlates of conscious perception. It’s in line with what I’ve read in many other neuroscience books.
Of course, the work of Dehaene and his colleagues is in terms of what Ned Block calls “access consciousness”, which includes David Chalmers’ “easy problems”, the aspects of consciousness, the specific functional capabilities, that are accessible to science, such as content being accessible for verbal report, reasoning, and decision making.
I suspect Taylor and Block would argue that Dehaene isn’t studying “real” consciousness, essentially phenomenal consciousness, the redness of red, painfulness of pain, the “what it is like” aspect of experience. Dehaene in his book makes clear that he’s in the camp that doesn’t see the distinction between phenomenal consciousness and access consciousness as productive, so the “omission” doesn’t bother him.
While I do think the distinction can be useful in terms of discussing subjective experience, I agree with Dehaene and many others that we shouldn’t see it as a failing of his work that he only addresses phenomenal consciousness in terms of our access to it. In fact, I wonder what explanation phenomenal consciousness needs that isn’t explained by access consciousness.
It seems to me that phenomenal consciousness only exists with access consciousness. They are two sides of the same coin. Without access, phenomenality is simply passive information, inert data. Access consciousness is what breathes life into the ineffable qualities that phenomenal consciousness provides.
All of which brings me to the reason for this post. Many people see phenomenal consciousness as somehow an intractable problem, one that science can’t solve, one that many people cite as driving them towards various forms of dualism or the expansive types of panpsychism that Taylor advocates.
My question is, what am I missing? What is it about the raw experience of red, or pain, or any of the other examples commonly cited, that requires explanation beyond our ability to access and utilize it as information for making decisions?