The Problem of Consciousness

martedì, marzo 10, 2009
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Notwithstanding the constant progress of neuroscientific research, which seems to promise increasingly detailed and precise knowledge of mental functioning, some scholars believe, it is still a fundamental aspect of thought that has not yet found its place within scientific paradigms. There may be difficulties in attempting to give a satisfactory explanation of this particular aspect, which may be defined as “the problem of consciousness”.

The problem of conscious experience derives from its characteristic subjective quality which appears to accompany every conscious elaboration of thoughts, emotions, sensations and, more generally, every shape and nuance of interior life. Indeed, it seems that the infinite variety of our mental universe is often enlightened by a fundamental perception, which is at the origin of every sense of authentic identification with our own experience. Deep pain as well as the most intense joy can truly belong to our experience precisely because “they have a certain effect” on us and no one else, never completely communicable and also invisible under the strongest microscope.

Upon careful reflection, no element of the material or functional structure of the brain necessarily implies that a particular cognitive process or neurobiological organization is accompanied by consciousness. Therefore, it is possible that as long as we can trace the cortical roots of a mental state or its formal mathematical representation, something is still left unexplained that, by its very nature, can not be included in the efficient models of cognitive sciences. These are based on an analysis of the physical and functional properties of conscious experience and they do not necessarily also include intrinsic properties of subjectivity suggested by the intuition and language of common sense.

Effectively, the “explanatory gap” between the qualia and the scientific theoretical paradigms strictly in the third person can easily appear irresolvable. In this case, the subject at hand is the conceptual adequacy of a purely objective analysis as the premise for a thorough definition of human consciousness. The limits revealed by renowned “mental experiments” based on anti-reduction approaches regarding the translation of mental life only in physical or functional terms would be determined by the idea of reduction itself and not by technical deficiency. From this point of view, the promise of neurobiological research or the mirage of a new kind of physics – that, for example, shifts the definitive explanation of the mind to the subatomic level – might not be able to fully satisfy the explicative and descriptive needs of the person.
But also recognising the ontological consistency of subjectivity and avoiding the epiphenomenist approach, it could be hypothesized that qualia knowledge is denied absolutely because language and knowledge are founded on an objective structure that, by definition, can never completely explain subjective phenomena. This is the usual solution adopted by “mystery theories” that admit the reality of consciousness (and the relationship of the individual with his own consciousness) but deny that its essence can be described or understood, perhaps also due to the original limits of human brain.

We would do well to remember that, in this case, the term “consciousness” does not mean the simple ability to be aware, which can be defined as a form monitoring of one’s own thoughts, but the subjective experience felt through being aware. This idea is generally expressed by distinguishing between the concepts of the “phenomenical” and “cognitive” mind. If the role of the second seems increasingly defined and crucial when explaining psychic activity, the placement of the first still escapes the natural order. Following the models of neuroscience, our thought increasingly seems like the result of an enormous quantity of unconscious elaborations and biochemical processes and the phenomenical consciousness could also appear as a reflection of this deep level, a simple echo without an authentically active role: “you are your synapses”. In this paradox, all the distance separating the ideas of common sense regarding the nature of the mind from the theories and models of sciences seems to coalesce.

On one hand, cognitive science interprets the mind as a representational system (in a wider sense, also extended to neurobiological and connectionist models) and creates the bases for including thought and interior life into the paradigms of the natural sciences. More and more clear are the mechanisms that permit a brain to produce those cognitive abilities that determine intelligent performance by interpreting environmental perceptive input in order to construct a suitable rational response. On the other hand, in this cognitive notion of the mind, consciousness seems to play no significant role. After all, a computer certainly does not appear conscious in the sense we are when we say we have experiences, however it can exhibit intelligent behaviour, which can be described with mentalistic language that is perfectly comprehensible to the cognitive sciences.

Therefore, it is understandable why many scholars claim that the many leaps in neurobiology as well as in cognitive model development of conscious experience can not yet provide a satisfactory explanation of why being conscious has a “certain effect”, thereby defining the true qualitative difference that distinguishes us as persons. It is, in fact, in the conviction that consciousness possesses this particular qualitative or intrinsic character along with the relational properties of its cognitive and neurobiological structures, which seems to open up an explanatory gap in the naturalistic explanations of subjectivity.

The possibility of attributing functional states to a system that, even thought it exhibits identical behaviour to that of a person, has no authentic subjective experience is the basis of one of the most famous questions of the criticism of reductionist approaches to the life of the mind. If it is logically possible that particular cognitive or neurobiological states (thus functional, in a broad sense) are unaccompanied by consciousness, then the latter does not seem to be explainable by the simple possession of those states. This problem also appears if specific laws are found that link neurobiological or cognitive states to conscious states, since it would still be necessary to explain why these laws exist. Once again, if a world where these laws do not exist is logically possible or conceivable, the genesis of consciousness in our world is yet to be explained.

Furthermore, even admitting a “multiple realizability” of mental states and shifting from classical reduction to functional explanations, the problem of consciousness remains unchanged. Functionalist models reconstruct, in relational terms, the properties to be reduced, but they offer no explanation of the intrinsic qualities that subjective experience can have. To be concise, a reductive explanation of a phenomenon develops through an analysis that is necessarily expressed in objective and extrinsic terms, which could be inadequate, by definition, to fully explain the subjective character of consciousness.

If the explanatory possibilities of reductionist approaches still appear rather uncertain, the definitive renunciation of a satisfying explanation of consciousness could have unpleasant consequences. Above all, an essential characteristic of human nature, such as is subjectivity, the fundamental centre of all thought and existence, could be condemned to eternal mystery. In addition, the impossibility of including consciousness in natural science could justify epiphenomenist solutions: consciousness exists but has no function; it is like a shadow or a phantom of the true mind that is structured neuro-cognitively.

From this point of view, the subject that can best support reductionist approaches refers to mental causality. If mental states are to be effective in the physical world and if, at the same time, following the second law of thermodynamics, we believe that only physical causes have physical effects, it is than necessary to systematically link mental and physical properties. If we expect consciousness not just to be a phantom, it should be possible to describe it in physical terms. Vice versa, the consistency of an anti-reductionist approach is forced to take another look at the nomological closure of physics. The exploration of causal pluralism strategies could be a possible alternative to overcome this difficulty, even if the problem is probably only being postponed. What is the relationship between different levels, for example between physical causes and psychological reasons? How do they interact in an individual?

Despite these difficulties and also taking into account the obvious importance of developing neurobiological and cognitive theories of mental functioning, it may seem necessary to take seriously the qualitative states in their refractoriness to naturalistic analysis, even if only to be able to render the subjective experience as fully as possible. One part of the solution could consist of clarifying, as much as possible, the nature of the problem and the terminology used to express it. What is meant by “explanatory gap”? Is the notion of qualia the right way to present the irreducible character of the conscious experience?

Furthermore, if a fundamental problem of conscious experience is to link third-person data with first-person data, the development of more sophisticated methodologies to investigate first-person data and of formalisms to express them is one of the biggest challenges that the neurosciences must face. In this way, it could be useful to investigate the strategies of phenomenological method to more precisely define the structures of the subjective experience.


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