[Paleopsych] Scruton: The Unobservable Mind

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The Unobservable Mind

    The Unobservable Mind
    Roger Scruton Febuary 2005

    Consciousness is more familiar to us than any other
    feature of our world, since it is the route by which anything at all
    becomes familiar. But this is what makes consciousness so hard to
    pinpoint. Look for it wherever you like, you encounter only its
    objects -- a face, a dream, a memory, a color, a pain, a melody, a
    problem, but nowhere the consciousness that shines on them. Trying to
    grasp it is like trying to observe your own observing, as though you
    were to look with your own eyes at your own eyes without using a
    mirror. Not surprisingly, therefore, the thought of consciousness
    gives rise to peculiar metaphysical anxieties, which we try to allay
    with images of the soul, the mind, the self, the subject of
    consciousness, the inner entity that thinks and sees and feels and
    that is the real me inside. But these traditional solutions merely
    duplicate the problem. We cast no light on the consciousness of a
    human being simply by redescribing it as the consciousness of some
    inner homunculus -- be it a soul, a mind, or a self. On the contrary,
    by placing that homunculus in some private, inaccessible, and possibly
    immaterial realm, we merely compound the mystery.

    Putting the point in that way makes it clear that, in the first
    instance at least, the problem of consciousness is a philosophical,
    not a scientific, problem. It cannot be solved by studying the
    empirical data, since consciousness (as normally understood) isnt one
    of them. We can observe brain processes, neurons, ganglions, synapses,
    and all the other intricate matter of the brain, but we cannot observe
    consciousness. I can observe you observing, but what I observe is not
    that peculiar thing that you know from within and that is present, in
    some sense, only to you. At least, so it would seem; if this is some
    kind of mistake, it is a philosophical and not a scientific argument
    that will tell us so.

    This appropriation of the question by philosophy is apt to make
    scientists impatient. Surely, they will argue, if consciousness is
    real it must be part of the real worldthe world of space and time,
    which we observe with our senses and explain by science. But what
    part? First-person reports of conscious states are radically affected
    by brain damage, and the behavior that leads us to describe others as
    conscious originates in the nervous system, whose functions seem to be
    largely controlled by the brain. Common sense and scientific inference
    therefore both point to the brain as the seat of consciousness. So,
    scientists argue, lets study the brain and find out exactly which of
    its processes correspond to our conscious mental states. That way,
    they suggest, we will find out what consciousness is.

    But will we? Unfortunately, the philosophical problem comes back at us
    in another form. How exactly do we discover a correspondence between
    consciousness and a brain process, given that consciousness is not
    something that we observe? And suppose we overcome that difficulty and
    produce a theory correlating conscious mental states with specific
    neurological events. This means that we have discovered what
    consciousness is only if we can advance from correspondence to
    identity. And that is precisely what so many philosophers doubt we can
    do. True, there are some who defend the view that conscious states are
    identical with brain processes, but they defend it on philosophical,
    not scientific, grounds. And their view is open to radical objections:
    for example, how can a state of one thing (a person) be identical with
    a process in another (a brain)?

    If the neurobiologist Christof Koch, professor of cognitive and
    behavioral biology at Caltech, enters this territory with some
    trepidation, he nevertheless hopes to take possession of it in the
    name of science. The task, he believes, is to avoid getting lost in
    definitions and conceptual puzzles and instead to discover the
    neuronal correlates of consciousness. He at once narrows that target,
    however, to the minimal set of neuronal events and mechanisms jointly
    sufficient for a specific conscious percept. In other words, the
    object of study is not consciousness as such but specific conscious
    percepts, in particular those involved in visual perception. Kochs
    ambition, nevertheless, is to integrate the analysis of vision into
    the more general program that he developed with the late Francis
    Crick, one of the discoverers of the structure of DNA, who contributes
    the foreword to the book. That program is to explain how consciousness
    evolved and identify the processes in the brain that carry it. The
    book gives a fairly comprehensive account of what neurobiology has to
    say about the higher functions of the brain. It is not surprising,
    therefore, that the writing is densely scientific and heavily
    referenced, with many digressions. But proceeding on the supposition
    that the science is correct, what do we make of the title? Does
    neurobiology in the style of Crick and Koch really take us further in
    the quest for consciousness? Or is it simply amassing more and more
    information about the brain, without telling us how brain and mind are

    First Person Singular
    One of the problems, which constantly intrudes on Kochs argument but
    is never resolved, is that conscious mental states do not belong to a
    single category. We assume that all sensations are conscious (there is
    no such thing, for example, as unconscious toothache), that there is
    both conscious and unconscious thought, and that while desire may be
    unconscious, intention never is. But what do conscious mental states
    have in common? At times Koch seems to suggest that they are all felt
    by the subject, or that they each possess a particular subjective
    quality or quale that is observable only to the subject. But we dont
    feel our thoughts, and there is no subjective quale that distinguishes
    the belief that two plus two is four from the belief that three plus
    three is six, or the intention to sit down to supper from the
    intention to eat a steak. In the case of language-using creatures, we
    distinguish conscious from unconscious mental states through the
    first-person perspective. A state is conscious if the subject can
    truly confess to it, without having to carry out an investigation and
    on no basis other than understanding the words that he uses. Hence in
    other places Koch seems to take the first-person case as
    characteristic of consciousness, a procedure that deprives him of a
    clear basis for attributing consciousness to animals, who never
    confess to their mental states because they never confess to anything.
    This is serious, since the science on which Koch draws derives from
    examining the brains of mice and monkeys.

    Crucial to the Koch-Crick approach is a thought experiment involving
    the idea of the unconscious zombie. This is a creature all of whose
    behavior issues by reflex action, mediated by the cortex, but who is
    not conscious of what he is doing. This creature feels nothing, has no
    inner qualia andpresumablyno first-person awareness of his own mental
    states. So what else does he lack? Or can he be exactly like us and
    lack only those things? Koch is of the view that a zombie would lack
    the capacity to plan for the future or to deal with multicontingency
    situations where complex choices must be made. Plotting, planning, and
    deciding, he says, are among the important functions of consciousness
    and point to a Darwinian explanation of why consciousness exists.

    Such an argument will help in the quest for consciousness only if we
    can show how feeling, qualia, and the first-person case are connected
    to plotting and planning. If the connection is only contingent, then a
    zombie could possess all the functions of consciousness without the
    feelings. If the connection is necessary, then it must be established
    in some way other than by scientific inference. As it is, the reader
    is left at the end of Kochs book with the puzzle with which it began:
    granted that there are neuronal correlates of consciousness, what
    exactly are they correlated with? And what exactly do we mean by

    To answer that question, I would suggest first that we dismiss the
    idea of purely subjective qualia. The belief that these essentially
    private features of mental states exist, and that they form the
    introspectible essence of whatever possesses them, is grounded in a
    confusion, one that Wittgenstein tried to sweep away in his arguments
    against the possibility of a private language. When you judge that I
    am in pain, it is on the basis of my circumstances and behavior, and
    you could be wrong. When I ascribe a pain to myself, I dont use any
    such evidence. I dont find out that I am in pain by observation, nor
    can I be wrong. But that is not because there is some other fact about
    my pain, accessible only to me, which I consult in order to establish
    what I am feeling. For if there were this inner private quality, I
    could misperceive it; I could get it wrong, and I would have to find
    out whether I am in pain. To describe my inner state, I would also
    have to invent a language, intelligible only to meand that,
    Wittgenstein plausibly argues, is impossible. The conclusion to draw
    is that I ascribe pain to myself not on the basis of some inner quale
    but on no basis at all.

    Of course, there is a difference between knowing what pain is and
    knowing what pain is like. But to know what it is like is not to know
    some additional inner fact about it, but simply to have felt it. We
    are dealing with familiarity rather than information. While one
    philosopherThomas Nagel, a professor at New York University and author
    of The View from Nowhere, a fascinating study of subjectivityhas
    placed great emphasis on the what its like idea, suggesting that it
    describes a distinctive mark of conscious experience, the idea remains
    opaque to further analysis. What its like is not a proxy for a
    description but a refusal to describe. We can spell it out, if at all,
    only in metaphors. Q: Whats it like, darling, when I touch you there?
    A: Like the taste of marmalade, harmonized by late Stravinsky.

    Similarly, we are not going to get very far in understanding
    consciousness if we concentrate on the idea of feeling things. For
    there are conscious mental states that have nothing to do with
    feeling. We feel our sensations and emotions, certainly, just as we
    feel our desires. All of those mental states would once have been
    classified as passions, as opposed to mental actionsthought,
    judgement, intention, deductionwhich are not felt but done. I can
    deliberately think of Mary, judge a picture, make a decision or a
    calculation, even imagine a centaur, but not deliberately have a pain
    in the finger, a fear of spiders, or a desire for more cake. Even if I
    could have a pain by willing it, or if I manage to suppress my
    desires, this does not mean that pains and desires are actions, but
    only that they are passions that I can affect through mental
    discipline, as a yogi might reduce his heart rate. Moreover, there are
    psychologists and philosophers who seem quite happy with the idea of
    unconscious feelings. We may balk at the expression, but we know what
    they mean. It is possible to feel something without being conscious of
    the feeling. Feeling is a mark of consciousness only if we interpret
    feeling as awareness. But what is it to be aware of something? Well,
    to be conscious of it.

    Emergent Properties
    How do we fight ourselves free from this tangle of circular
    definitions and misleading pictures? Two ideas seem to me especially
    helpful in explaining our sense of consciousness as a realm apart. The
    first is that of an emergent property. Mental states generally, and
    conscious states in particular, can be seen as emergent states of
    organisms. A useful analogy is the face in a picture. When a painter
    applies paint to a canvas, she creates a physical object by purely
    physical means. This object is composed of areas and lines of paint,
    arranged on a surface that we can regard, for the sake of argument, as
    two dimensional. When we look at the painting, we see a flat surface,
    and we see those areas and lines of paint, and also the surface that
    contains them. But that is not all we see. We also see a face that
    looks out at us with smiling eyes. In one sense, the face is a
    property of the canvas, over and above the blobs of paint; you can
    observe the blobs and not see the face, and vice versa. And the face
    is really there: someone who does not see it is not seeing correctly.
    On the other hand, there is a sense in which the face is not an
    additional property of the canvas, for as soon as the lines and blobs
    are there, so is the face. Nothing more needs to be added in order to
    generate the faceand if nothing more needs to be added, the face is
    surely nothing more. Moreover, every process that produces just these
    blobs of paint, arranged in just this way, will produce just this
    faceeven if the artist herself is unaware of the face. (Imagine how
    you would design a machine for producing Mona Lisas.)

    Maybe consciousness is an emergent property in that sense: not
    something over and above the life and behavior in which we observe it,
    but not reducible to them either.

    The second helpful thought is one first given prominence by Kant and
    thereafter emphasized by Fichte, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and a whole
    stream of thinkers down to Heidegger, Sartre, and Thomas Nagel. The
    idea is to draw a distinction between the subject and the object of
    consciousness, and to recognize the peculiar metaphysical
    (Wittgenstein would say grammatical) status of the subject. As a
    conscious subject, I have a point of view on the world. The world
    seems a certain way to me, and this seeming defines my unique
    perspective. Every conscious being has such a perspective, since that
    is what it means to be a subject rather than a mere object. When I
    give a scientific account of the world, however, I am describing
    objects only. I am describing the way things are, and the causal laws
    that explain them. This description is given from no particular
    perspective. It does not contain words like here, now, and I; and
    while it is meant to explain the way things seem, it does so by giving
    a theory of how they are. In short, the subject is in principle
    unobservable to science, not because it exists in another realm but
    because it is not part of the empirical world. It lies on the edge of
    things, like a horizon, and could never be grasped from the other
    side, the side of subjectivity itself. Is it a real part of the real
    world? The question begins to look as though it has been wrongly
    phrased. I refer to myself, but this does not mean that there is a
    self that I refer to. I act for the sake of my friend, but there is no
    such thing as a sake for which I am acting. (The parallel illustrates
    Wittgensteins view of these puzzles as essentially grammatical.)

    We can relate to conscious creatures in ways that we cannot relate to
    objects. Their behavior is the outcome of the way things seem to them
    and can therefore be altered by altering the way things seem. Giving
    them food for thought orin the case of more primitive animalsfood for
    perception and food for belief, we also bend them to our purposes.
    Because they feel pleasure and pain, they can be rewarded and punished
    and so taught to behave in new ways. Everybody who has trained a dog
    or a horse in even the simplest task knows that consciousness is an
    essential intermediary in achieving the final result, and that there
    is nothing puzzling about this at all: consciousness is as much a part
    of the behavioral repertoire of the animal as eating and excreting. It
    consists in a set of functional connections between world and
    behavior, of a kind that leads us to identify a point of view, a way
    things seem that distinguishes the creature with which we are dealing.
    This point of view is also the quickest and easiest channel to the
    springs of its behavior.

    In referring to behavior, we dont have to accept the old behaviorist
    theory that mental predicates can simply be reduced to behavioral
    syndromes. When we interpret behavior as the expression of a conscious
    state, we are expressly situating it in an intuitively understood
    nexus of causal relations. The behavior of a man in pain is only
    superficially like the behavior of an actor who is pretending to be in
    pain. The sufferer really cannot stand on his injured leg, and the leg
    really is injured; the actors behavior is voluntary, the sufferers
    involuntary. And so on. All those judgments are hypotheses concerning
    the functional connections between world and behavior, and they form
    parts of a spontaneous theory that some philosophers have called folk

    Now, there are certainly neuronal correlates of consciousness, so
    understood: namely, all the electrical processes that are necessary to
    generate conscious behavior (among which, according to Koch, gamma
    wavesoscillations recorded by an electroencephalogram in the 30- to
    70-hertz domainare particularly important). Some animals exhibit these
    processes; some (insects, for instance) dont. To discover the source
    of these processes is, in a sense, to discover the seat of
    consciousness in the brain. But does this bring us any nearer to
    knowing what consciousness is? Suppose you came across a person who
    behaved and talked as you did, who related to you in all the ways that
    people relate to each other, and who one dayto your
    astonishmentunzipped the top of his head to reveal nothing save a dead
    kitten and a ball of string. Scientifically impossible, perhaps. But
    logically possible, and giving no grounds at all to deny that this
    person was conscious.

    The Unselfconscious Dog
    To put the point another way, consciousness is an emergent property of
    organisms. But it emerges from the total behavioral and neurological
    repertoire, not from brain processes considered in themselvesjust as
    the face in the painting emerges from the whole array of colored
    patches, not from the canvas that supports them, considered in itself.
    Of course, you cannot have the behavior without the brain, just as you
    cant have the painting without the canvas. In that sense there will be
    neuronal correlates of consciousness. But the discovery of these
    correlates does not tell us what consciousness is, nor does it solve
    the mystery of the subject, nor the equally perplexing mystery of the
    first-person case.

    There is a difficulty that I have avoided, and which Koch too avoids,
    though incidental remarks show that he is aware of it. This difficulty
    arises from two radical ontological divisions in the realm of the
    mental. First, there is the division that separates conscious from
    unconscious creatures. We attribute perception of a kind to mussels
    and oystersbut are they conscious? Should we feel remorse when we pry
    open the oyster and sting its wounds with lemon juice? We are inclined
    to say that such organisms are too primitive to admit the application
    of concepts like those of feeling, belief, and desire. Maybe that goes
    for insects, too, however much we may admire their amazing social
    organization and perceptual powers.

    Secondly, there is the division that separates merely conscious
    creatures from self-conscious creatures like us. Only the second have
    a genuine first-person perspective, from which to distinguish how
    things seem to me from how they seem to you. The creature with I
    thoughts has an ability to relate to its kind that sets it apart from
    the rest of nature, and many thinkers (Kant and Hegel among them)
    believe that it is this fact, not the fact of consciousness per se,
    that creates all the mysteries of the human condition. Although dogs
    are conscious, they do not reflect on their own consciousness as we
    do: they live, as Schopenhauer put it, in a world of perception, their
    thoughts and desires turned outwards to the perceivable world.

    The difficulty is this: we want to say of human beings that their
    self-consciousness is a systematic attribute of their mental life,
    which affects everything that they think and feel. We want to say of
    dogs that their consciousness is a systematic attribute of their
    mental life too, since it distinguishes them categorically from
    mollusks and beetles. Yet similar mental states seem to exist at all
    three levels. The beetle sees things; so does the dog; so does the
    person. How is it that one and the same mental processvisual
    perceptioncan exist in three different ontological predicaments, so to
    speak: as a reflex link between visual input and behavioral output, as
    a conscious perception, and as part of the continuous and
    distinguishing sense of self?

    That question has led some writers (the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio
    in his book Looking for Spinoza, for instance) to think of
    consciousness and self-consciousness as monitoring processesa move
    that comes dangerously close to the old homunculus fallacy. It is not
    as though my mind were just like a dogs, only with a self observing
    it, or a dogs just like an insects, only with an internal monitor.
    Consciousness and self-consciousness are holistic properties, which
    emerge from the totality of a creatures physiognomy and behavior. We
    may discover organizations in the brain and nervous system that are
    biologically necessary for these features. But those neuronal
    correlates are no more likely to cast light on the mysteries of
    consciousness than the back of Leonardos Mona Lisa can explain the
    mystery of her smile.

    The conclusion to which I am tempted is not that there is no such
    thing as consciousness, but that there is nothing that consciousness
    is, just as there is no physical object that actually is Mona Lisas

    Roger Scruton is visiting professor in the Department of Philosophy,
    Birkbeck College, London, and the author of more than 20 books,
    including Modern Philosophy and England: an Elegy. He farms in
    Wiltshire, England.

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