Putting Consciousness First

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Putting Consciousness First


Quote:The hard problem of subjectivity is a very similar challenge, but more subtle. You can’t
articulate in the language of causal structures the hypothesis that a certain physical system
has experience. Many materialists have tried to get around this by articulating in the
language of causal structures something that sounds a bit like experience. We can talk, for
example, about how a certain physical system is ‘sensitive’ to certain features of the
environment, say, the red colour of objects, in the sense that it’s causally set up to track red
objects or respond in some way to the fact that things are red. That sounds a bit like saying
the system is experiencing red. But of course it’s not the same thing at all. The fact that a
system causally-mechanically responds to a certain feature of reality doesn’t entail that it
has any experience of that feature. Another popular option has been to talk about the
capacity of system to monitor its internal states, which can obviously be captured in causal-
structural terms. That sounds a bit like the system is ‘aware’ of its internal states. Well, it
depends what you mean by ‘awareness’. If you just mean ‘causally responds to’, then, yes,
the system is aware. But if you mean that the system ‘experiences’ its internal states, then
this is no way implied by its causal responsiveness to its inner states.

Quote:As we uncover more about the workings of the brain, if there does turn out to be strong
emergence, this would provide a crucial way of making progress on identifying the neural
correlates of consciousness (NCC). Michel Mattias (2019) has argued that for 150 years the
science of consciousness has been having the same debates about where to locate
consciousness, without significantly narrowing down the options. In my view, the root of
these difficulties is that consciousness is not a publicly observable phenomenon. We are
totally reliant on the external signs of consciousness, such as report. But the ‘detection
procedures’ which underly inference from external markers of consciousness to
consciousness itself are controversial, and arguably impossible to justify empirically.

Quote:I therefore totally reject Seth’s characterisation of the hard problem as simply the challenge
of explaining how consciousness exists in the first place, as though everyone agrees that we
have good materialist explanations of the qualitative character of specific experiences. No:
in order to give a materialist account of the qualitative character of red experiences, you’d
have to be able to convey that qualitative character in the language of physical science, and
that simply can’t be done (see my reply to Rovelli). If we assume a functionalist notion of
representation, then predictive processing can help explain the representational content of
experiences. But unless we can capture in the quantitative language of cognitive functions
and predictive processing the qualities of our experience, then a reductive explanation of
those qualities is impossible.

Am I suggesting that we can’t deal with consciousness experimentally? Not at all...
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell

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