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Copyright   James R Meyer    2012 - 2024 https://www.jamesrmeyer.com

The Dead End Path of the Consciousness Myth

Page last updated 10 Jun 2024


Imagine the following scenario. A primitive species, the Wiwahoo, a species with some intelligence and communication discover several working internal combustion engines. They marvel at the power that these machines provide. They also remark on how much noise they create and that the amount of noise appears to have some correlation to the amount of power produced. From this observation, one of them suggests that if they make a detailed analysis of the sounds, they will then not only understand the sound, but also the operation of the engines. The others consider this suggestion, and with a few exceptions, they all agree that they should follow this course of action. For years, they continue on this course, inventing new terminology to describe the nuances of the sounds produced by these machines.


Now consider the story of the notion of consciousness. For the most part of human history, there was no terminology that corresponds to the current term “consciousness”. As Peter Hacker has pointed out in his article “The Sad and Sorry History of Consciousness”, (Footnote: Peter Hacker, PDF The Sad and Sorry History of Consciousness: being, among other things, a Challenge to the ‘Consciousness-studies Community, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements 70 (2012): 149-168.Also see The confused conceptions of consciousness and The bogus mysteries of consciousness by the same author.) it was only in the 17th century that the term first appeared, where its meaning, like the Latin it was derived from ‘conscius’, was to have knowledge of something (such as a secret that not everyone had knowledge of). It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that ‘consciousness’ came to be used to signify wakefulness as opposed to being unconscious. It was only later that all sorts of other vague notions were attached to the term and which did not have at that time any definitive meaning, and which still do not have any definitive meaning. But despite these difficulties, the majority of philosophers consider that the term “consciousness”, which supposedly encompass this nebulous set of notions, is very important, and that the the detailed study of it is of the utmost importance.


But, as for the case of the Wiwahoo and their assumption that the sounds emitted by internal combustion engines are important and worthy of intense study, almost no-one seems to question that assumption that the vague notion of consciousness is of extreme importance. We know that the sounds emitted by internal combustion engines are simply side effects of the principle of operation of the engines, and that these sounds do not of themselves generate any meaningful power. So why do people assume that the vague set of notions referred to by the term “consciousness” is not similarly a side effect of the method of operation of the brain? The human brain has evolved to give humans a greater chance of surviving and producing offspring. To do this, it has evolved a brain that is able to generate a quite detailed model of the real world that a human inhabits. And, of course, a part of this model is a model of that human themselves, complete with nuances of how that human might be predicted to behave in various circumstances. And it is not surprising that humans with a large evolved brain seem to have more of these characteristics than, for example, a dog or a cat. Would a more highly advanced intelligence be amused or dismayed to discover that many humans consider that an intense study of the nebulous notion of consciousness of itself can tell us something of fundamental importance?


Of course there are many ongoing studies that are nominally studies of consciousness, but which, by the use of methods such as fMRI, are in reality using scientific means to study of the finer structures of the brain and which have no need for any notion of consciousness. And it is those scientific methods that are revealing more information about the operation of the brain, not any notion of consciousness.


A Replacement for Religion

The current state of things regarding the notion of consciousness is starkly reminiscent of the arguments of theologians and philosophers through the ages. Based on gut feelings and emotions, they invent a term such as “god”, and ascribe to it various properties, but one is never given a final definitive and complete description of what it is that they are trying to define by the term “god”. One can conclude that whatever they might be trying to describe, there is no evidence whatsoever that such a thing actually exists.


And today, we are faced with the same situation regarding the term “consciousness”. Clearly, we are not talking here about a person being conscious as opposed to being unconscious. Nor is it the case that consciousness - as considered by various philosophers - can be defined in simple terms of a few well defined properties. Just as is the case for the term “god”, one can never get a final definitive and complete description of what it is that various philosophers are suggesting by the term “consciousness”. And in exactly the same way, one can conclude that whatever notion they have and which they are claiming to describe, there is no evidence whatsoever that such a thing actually exists.


But philosophers such as Galen Strawson claim that the denial of the nebulous notion that is called consciousness is absurd. (Footnote: Galen Strawson, PDF The consciousness deniers, The New York review of books 10 (2018).) But take a good look at how he comes to this conclusion: what he does is refer specifically to one particular thing, for example, a person feeling cold - he then claims that if one denies that the term “consciousness” isn’t sufficiently well-defined to represent anything that actually exists as any thing/property, then because Strawson claims that “feeling cold” is a part of his vague notion of “consciousness”, then you are also denying that people feel cold. That is a blatantly obvious straw man argument that should fool no-one - people feel cold because they have physical temperature sensors that send messages to the brain. It is worth noting Strawson ends his article by referring to what he calls “consciousness deniers” as exemplifying statements by Cicero and others: “no statement is so absurd that no philosopher will make it.” Oh, the irony.


It would seem that the type of person who in previous centuries had feelings that led him to believe that there was some sort of supernatural being, and who would have entered the priesthood is the same type of person that clings to the belief that there is some sort of mysterious unexplainable property of the human brain that they call “consciousness”.


Why philosophers love the term consciousness

It is easy to take a critical look at what has been happening and what is happening with regard to the term consciousness. About three hundred years ago philosophers invented a new word - consciousness - which is so slippery in terms of meaning that no-one can ever clearly define it. Then the philosophers decide that there is a problem because they cannot see how the thing that is supposedly represented by this new word “consciousness” can be produced by the human brain. So, to solve that imaginary problem, some philosophers decided to invent more new words and phrases - such as qualia, panpsychism, “what it is like to be” - additional terms that no-one can ever clearly define. (Footnote: If you want to get some sort of idea of what the people who use these terms might be be trying to say, an internet search is always an option.) For example panpsychism supposedly refers to some sort of mysterious property that every thing is claimed to have - a completely unscientific and unfalsifiable notion.


This might be amusing in a satirical novel, but it’s not amusing when it has become quite clear that academic philosophers are using such words, not in any genuine attempt to further human knowledge or clarification, but as a cynical route for career advancement whereby they can continue indefinitely to churn out useless articles all based on tortuous discussions of these invented indefinable words. And all because current academia rewards quantity over quality of published articles.


An excellent example of this is given by the pronouncements of the philosopher Galen Strawson. Strawson does his best to sit firmly on the fence, but at a few places he offers us a glimpse of what he is really doing, such as in his article: “Consciousness Isn’t a Mystery. It’s Matter”: (Footnote: Galen Strawson, PDF Consciousness isn’t a mystery. It’s matter, New York Times 16.5 (2016): 16.)

“… we know exactly what consciousness is - where by ‘consciousness’ I mean what most people mean in this debate: experience of any kind whatever. It’s the most familiar thing there is, whether it’s experience of emotion, pain, understanding what someone is saying, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting or feeling. It is in fact the only thing in the universe whose ultimate intrinsic nature we can claim to know.”


But that’s not a definition at all. It’s simply transferring the question to what is meant by “experience ”. If a fly experiences a gust of wind that blows it off course, does that mean flies and humans have the same thing that is termed “consciousness”? And if that were the case, what utility would there be in such an all-encompassing term?


Strawson also states that:

“The trouble with functionalism is that it has to allow that unconscious creatures – creatures whom there is ‘nothing it is like to be ’– count as conscious just so long as they function (behave) indistinguishably from conscious creatures.”


But this claim relies on the simplistic assumption that there can be a thing that has all the observable behavioral characteristics of a human except that it lacks a thing/property that is called “consciousness”. The absurdity should be obvious - the onus is on the claimant to first prove that such a thing can exist, not for anyone else to prove to prove otherwise. It’s self-serving nonsense that should fool only the gullible.


Other Pages Related to Consciousness

See also the pages The Fallacy of the Mind-Body Problem, The Mary’s Room fallacy, The Chinese Room, Bishops Dancing with Pixies?, Man versus Machine and A John Searle Inanity which discuss matters relevant to the nebulous notion of consciousness.

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Copyright   James R Meyer   2012 - 2024