By Daniel A. Kaufman
The philosophical problem of consciousness is a problem concerning subjectivity.
To be conscious is to be conscious of something: a color; a smell; a feeling or emotion; etc. This is why it is alternatively described as “conscious experience,” “self-consciousness,” etc.
Consciousness, therefore, is a kind of point of view. Specifically, it is a first-person point of view.
Linguistically, ‘conscious’ is a two-placed expression: “x is conscious of y.” It may sometimes be used in a way such that it appears to be a one-place expression – i.e. “Is he conscious?” – but the second place is implicit. If he is conscious, he is conscious of something.
All points of view imply people whose points of view they are. Consciousness implies a person whose first-person point of view it is.
(Token) physicalists in the philosophy of mind maintain that our mental states are identical with electro-chemical states of our brains. This means that our states of consciousness are identical with electro-chemical states of the brain.
Let’s suppose that such an identification can be made. My seeing red at this moment consists of electro-chemical processes, X, Y, and Z. The problem of consciousness remains, as one still has to account for the experience’s subjective qualities; how it seems. And this requires that we account for the person to whom it seems.
In the case of conscious mental states, then, the person remains as an ontological dangler, even after a successful physicalist reduction.
It would seem that consciousness requires a picture of the mind that is essentially homuncular.
Without this two positioned-picture – the experience that seems a certain way and the person to whom it seems that way – we must maintain that seemingness is in matter and energy themselves. The trouble is that this is incomprehensible. It’s not that we don’t know how to do it; we can’t imagine what even would count as doing it.
This “hard problem of consciousness” has led philosophers in a number of bizarre, fruitless directions. Some have concluded that there must be an actual invisible little person inside one’s head. These are the “Mind/Body Dualists.”
Others have concluded that consciousness is simply intrinsic to matter; that everything from muons to mountains to marsupials to middle school teachers are conscious. These are the “panpsychists.”
Yet another group, following Daniel Dennett have suggested that there is no such thing as consciousness; that consciousness is a “user illusion,” analogous to a folder icon on a computer’s desktop.
None of these moves help in any way.
Regarding Dualism, no account is given of how there can be little, invisible, non-material people inside people’s heads nor how they can have a point of view of anything. And the problem simply resurfaces, when we inquire how we should understand the consciousness of the little, invisible, non-material person, without landing us with infinitely nested homunculi.
Regarding panpsychism, to suggest that something need not even have a brain in order to be conscious contradicts all the scientific understanding of the phenomenon that we’ve accumulated thus far. But regardless, if one part of the “hard problem” is to explain how seemingness could be an intrinsic quality of matter, then simply stipulating that it is obviously is of no help.
Regarding consciousness-as-user-illusion, it raises the obvious question of how we can talk of suffering under an illusion, without a person who so suffers which, if not answered, renders this move as unhelpful than the others.
Science aims to provide a third-person and entirely quantitative view of its objects. This means that in principle, it is not equipped to provide us with the understanding we seek regarding consciousness, which is inherently a first-person, qualitative phenomenon.
In phenomenology, philosophers study conscious experience from the first-person perspective. It is an important endeavor, but, it does not address the problem that we are interested in here, which is how quality and subjectivity are to be understood within a naturalistically conceived world.
Like the free-will problem, which is intractable in similar ways, I believe that the only solution to the problem of consciousness will come via a Wittgenstein/Ryle-style dissolution. How does one know when one has reached such a point with respect to a philosophical problem? A number of indicators (not criteria) I have employed include: (a) the problem points towards skeptical conclusions; (b) the problem involves infinite regresses; (c) the problem leads otherwise very smart people to absurd conclusions that defy both science and common sense and seems only to point in such directions; (d) the problem has stubbornly eluded a solution for a very, very (very) long time; and (e) the problem hints towards category errors, confusions of language, and conflations of the Scientific and Manifest images.
I tried to sketch such an approach in my essay on free-will. (1) Whatever such an approach might look like with respect to the current subject will obviously be very different, though it will be similar in form.