[maverickphilosopher] William F. Vallicella: Bull Meets Shovel:
Could Consciousness Be A Conjuring Trick?
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maverickphilosopher at lists.powerblogs.com
Thu Sep 15 16:57:26 EDT 2005
Posted by William F. Vallicella:
Bull Meets Shovel: Could Consciousness Be A Conjuring Trick?
Thanks to Steve Thomas for directing me to the following load of
bullshit, if I may be permitted a technical expression lately
introduced by Professor Frankfurt. 'Bullshit,' like 'being,' is said
in many ways (to de on legetai men pollachos -- Aristotle, Metaphysics
Bk IV); I will indicate at the end how I am using the term.
The following statement by Nicholas Humphrey (Psychology, London
School of Economics) is one among many answers to a question posed
here. The question is: What do you believe is true though you
cannot prove it?
I believe that human consciousness is a conjuring trick, designed
to fool us into thinking we are in the presence of an inexplicable
mystery. Who is the conjuror and why is s/he doing it? The conjuror
is natural selection, and the purpose has been to bolster human
self-confidence and self-importance=E2so as to increase the value we
each place on our own and others' lives.
If this is right, it provides a simple explanation for why we, as
scientists or laymen, find the "hard problem" of consciousness just
so hard. Nature has meant it to be hard. Indeed "mysterian"
philosophers=E2from Colin McGinn to the Pope=E2who bow down before the
apparent miracle and declare that it's impossible in principle to
understand how consciousness could arise in a material brain, are
responding exactly as Nature hoped they would, with shock and awe.
Can I prove it? It's difficult to prove any adaptationist account
of why humans experience things the way they do. But here there is
an added catch. The Catch-22 is that, just to the extent that
Nature has succeeded in putting consciousness beyond the reach of
rational explanation, she must have undermined the very possibility
of showing that this is what she's done.
But nothing's perfect. There may be a loophole. While it may
seem=E2and even be=E2impossible for us to explain how a brain process
could have the quality of consciousness, it may not be at all
impossible to explain how a brain process could (be designed to)
give rise to the impression of having this quality. (Consider: we
could never explain why 2 + 2 =3D 5, but we might relatively easily
be able to explain why someone should be under the illusion that 2
+ 2 =3D 5).
Do I want to prove it? That's a difficult one. If the belief that
consciousness is a mystery is a source of human hope, there may be
a real danger that exposing the trick could send us all to hell.
David Chalmers formulates the 'hard problem' as follows: "Why is all
this processing accompanied by an experienced inner life?" (The
Conscious Mind, Oxford 1996, p. xii.) Essentially, the 'hard problem'
is the qualia problem. To explain it in detail would require a
separate post. Now Humphrey offers us an explanation of why the 'hard
problem' is hard. It is hard because nature or natural selection -- H.
uses these terms interchangeably above -- meant it to be hard. Her
purpose is to "fool us into thinking we are in the presence of an
inexplicable mystery." She wants to fool us in order to "bolster human
self-confidence and self-importance." How thoughtful of her. Of
course, to say that she is fooling us implies that consciousness is
not mysterious but just another natural occurrence.
Not only does Nature fool us into thinking that consciousness is
mysterious, when it is not, she also makes it impossible for us to see
that this is what she has done. But there may be a loophole: it may be
possible to "explain how a brain process could be (designed to) give
rise to the impression of having this quality," i.e., the quality of
consciousness. By 'impression,' H. means illusion as is clear from his
arithmetical example. So what H. is suggesting is that it may be
possible to explain how brain processes could give rise to the
illusion that there is consciousness, the illusion that brain
processes have the quality of consciousness.
But this 'possibility' is a complete absurdity, a complete
impossibility. For it is self-evident that illusions presuppose
consciousness: an illusion cannot exist without consciousness. The
'cannot' expresses a very strong impossibility, broadly logical
impossibility. The Germans have a nice proverb, Soviel Schein, so viel
Sein. You can't have Schein without Sein, seeming without being.
The water spied by a parched hiker might be an illusion (a mirage),
but it is impossible that consciousness be an illusion. For wherever
there is illusion there is consciousness, and indeed the reality of
consciousness, not the illusion of consciousness. If you said that the
illusion of consciousness is an illusion for a consciousness that is
itself an illusion you would be embarked upon a regress that was both
infinite and vicious.
In the case of the mirage one can and must distinguish between the
seeming and the being. The being (reality) of the mirage consists of
heat waves rising from the desert floor, whereas its seeming
(appearance) involves a relation to a conscious being who mis-takes
the heat waves for water. But conscious states, as Searle and I have
been saying ad nauseam, are such that seeming and being, appearance
and reality, coincide. For conscious qualia, esse est percipi.
Consciousness cannot be an illusion since no sort of wedge can be
driven between its appearance and its reality.
A French philosopher might say that consciousness 'recuperates itself'
from every attempt to reduce it to the status of an illusion. The
French philosopher would be right -- if interpreted in my more sober
It is also important to note how H. freely helps himself to
intentional and teleological language, all the while personifying
Nature with a capital 'N.' Nature meant the hard problem to be hard,
she had a purpose in fooling us. She fooled us. Etc. This is a typical
mistake that many naturalists make. They presuppose the validity of
the very categories (intentionality, etc.) that their naturalistic
schemes would eliminate.
There is no problem with using teleological talk as a sort of
shorthand, but eventually it has to be cashed out: it has to be
translated into 'mechanistic' talk. They owe us a translation manual
as I quoted David Stove as saying here. In the absence of a
translation manual, they can be charged with presupposing what they
are trying to account for, and what is worse, ascribing meanings and
purposes to something that could not possibly have them, namely,
Natural Selection personified. What is the point of getting rid of God
if you end up importing purposes into Natural Selectionp ersonified,
or what is worse, into 'selfish' genes?
So Humphrey's statement is bullshit in the sense of being radically
incoherent. It is pseudo-theory in the worst sense. One of the tasks
of philosophers is to expose such pseudo-theory which, hiding behind
scientific jargon (e.g, 'natural selection'), pretends to be
scientific when it is only confused.
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