Tuesday, 10 August 2021

Can we be certain that other people are conscious?

How does an individual know anyone else is conscious at all? How does an individual rule out the possibility that every other person is merely a sophisticated biological robot wholly lacking any experiences?  After all, we never actually see anyone else's consciousness. So, is it at least conceivable that everyone -- apart from you, the reader -- are simply unconscious automatons, or what philosophers refer to as p-zombies? That no-one else, apart from you, has an inner conscious life? 

The answer, of course, is that an individual cannot be absolutely certain that others are conscious. But that it is highly likely since other people act like us. They scream in pain when hurt, display appropriate emotions on their faces under the relevant circumstances, and so on. So one can confidently infer that everyone else is conscious, just like oneself. That's the commonsensical view and certainly the view that I hold.

There is an apparent intractable difficulty here though.  One of the mainstream suppositions of scientists is that the world is causally closed, meaning that every event that ever happens has a full explanation in terms of antecedent material causes. This includes us human beings too, and so includes all the material processes occurring within our brains. But if everything people ever do and say are purely due to material causes occurring in their brains rather than being an expression of their consciousness, then it seems we cannot infer that other people are conscious! 

Let me try to convey this very important point again. Suppose a robot declares it is conscious; that it feels fear, hope and so on. We could check that out by disassembling it.  We will find out that the robot says all these things, not because it is conscious and actually experiencing such emotions, but because it is programmed in such a manner to say these things. That being so, we surely have zero reasons to ascribe consciousness to it. Similarly, given the important proviso of causal closure, the exact same applies to us human beings. We can examine the inside of someone's brain and by noting the material chains of causes and effects, we can, at least in principle, figure out exactly why that person behaves and says what he does. It's all just material causes and effects playing out, and we have no more reason to ascribe consciousness to that human being than we did the robot.

How do those who advocate causal closure escape this absurdity?  How can anyone who subscribes to causal closure believe that anyone else is conscious at all given that everyone's behaviour is just the result of material causes playing out?  It seems we have no more reason to ascribe consciousness to anyone else than we have reason to ascribe consciousness to the Earth as it orbits the Sun, or a boulder as it rolls down a hill.

They allegedly escape this apparent intractable difficulty by espousing materialism.  Materialists advocate something of highly questionable intelligibility.  They maintain that consciousness is quite literally the very same thing as certain material processes.  Examples are behaviourists who hold that consciousness is literally identical to behaviour.  Or identity theorists who hold that consciousness is literally identical to brain processes.  Or functionalists who hold that consciousness is literally identical to the causal role of such brain processes (there are many flavours of materialism). 

In which case, given the behaviour of a person or the material processes occurring in their brains, their consciousness is logically entailed in much the same way that 2 + 2 = 4 is entailed. That we can look or examine the physical processes occurring in the brain and somehow, derive, have complete certitude, that that person is experiencing consciousness.

Incidentally, this is why materialists hold that p-zombies are conceptually incoherent or metaphysically impossible.  Since consciousness is the very same thing as the relevant material processes, then a being who looks like us, and has a working brain like us, metaphysically necessarily must be conscious, just like the area of a perfect circle must necessarily be πr²

However, the materialist position here just seems to me to be straightforwardly incorrect.  Regardless of whether we are looking at a person's behaviour or the processes occurring in their brains, we could never be absolutely certain that they are having conscious experiences.  How could we?  How does observing any material process allow me to be acquainted and have full knowledge of another person's consciousness?  It just doesn't.  Yes, the material processes might cause consciousness, might somehow elicit consciousness, but it's literally nonsensical to assert that such material processes are the very same thing as consciousness.  And this shouldn't be of any surprise since material processes are cashed out exclusively by their physical properties -- mass, momentum, charge and so on.  Conscious experiences, on the other hand, apparently wholly lack any such physical properties.  Hence, by definition, consciousness cannot be the same as the correlated physical process and therefore there is no identity, nor any necessarily entailed connection, from one to the other.

The obvious alternative is to deny both causal closure and materialism. Instead, and as commonsense dictates, consciousness in and of itself really does play a causal role in the world.  So, for example, the words and sentences you are reading now are the result of my consciousness.  The material processes alone are insufficient.  It is true that, unlike the materialist, we cannot have absolute certainty that others are conscious. But, via the notion that similar causes have similar effects, we can have a very high confidence.

Sunday, 1 August 2021

Neither we nor the Earth are special?

Annaka Harris, the wife of Sam Harris, says in a recent article:

Each transformative shift in our understanding of the universe has delivered the ego-shattering message that we’re not special—Earth is not the center of the universe, and life, including the human brain, is made up of the same particles as the stars.

This is a widespread view, particularly amongst academics. But, I don't regard it as being accurate. 

We need to bear in mind that the notion that we are not special is, to a large measure, a result of the birth of the mechanistic philosophy in the 17th Century and the materialism it engendered (see my Science, the Afterlife, and the Intelligentsia). 
At least amongst educated people, this resulted in the widespread conviction that we are merely sophisticated biological machines and that our apparent free will is illusory.  This, in turn, seemed to imply that there is no God, no soul, that we are mere puppets of external forces, and, to cap it all, this is the only life we have.

However, as I have extensively argued in this blog, we have no reason to believe any of this. On the contrary, we are obliged to conclude the following:

  1. Consciousness is fundamentally different from any material thing or process (see my Why the existence of consciousness rules modern materialism out).
  2. That it's very much an open question whether brains somehow produce consciousness (see my Brains affecting Minds do not rule out an Afterlife).
  3. That our consciousness is necessarily causally efficacious (see my A Causal Consciousness, Free Will, and Dualism).


What about the Earth?  Is it true that it is not special?

It might be true that Earth isn't at the centre of the Universe.  Indeed, current understanding tells us there is no centre.  But, nevertheless, Earth might be special, indeed extremely special should the rare Earth hypothesis be correct.   The argument here is life arose on Earth due to a long series of extremely improbable events, all of which had to take place before the Earth had any chance of developing complex life. 

Then there is the fact that the constants of nature appear to be eerily fine-tuned so as to allow life to appear in the Universe (even if the Earth is the sole planet in the Universe to actually harbour complex life).

Then there is the nature of the material world and the laws that govern it. Our  investigations of the microscopic realm have revealed the existence of a bewildering plethora of subatomic particles whose behaviour is described by quantum mechanics rather than the classical mechanics of commonsense.  If the world were as it seemed prior to just 200 years ago -- that is governed by Newtonian mechanics and lacking such an intricate structure -- then virtually none of our modern technology would have been possible.  Is this just fortuitous, or is something else going on?

On this note it is curious that the world, on the one hand, is of sufficient complexity to allow the existence of our modern-day technology, but, on the other, is not so abstruse that we human beings are unable to grasp it and profit from its complexity in the creation of our technology. A complexity that human beings are capable of fathoming, but apparently no other animal on this planet.
So, arguably, it is almost as if the world were contrived, somehow, to be like this?

I think we live in a very curious and perplexing Universe.  Not only stranger than we imagine, but, perhaps, stranger than we can imagine. Indeed, arguably, it seems contrived by something -- whoever or whatever that something might be -- to allow for the existence of complex life, even if it only exists on this one planet. In summary, in my opinion, we lack compelling reasons to justify the assertion that neither we nor the Earth are special.

Often it's extremely hard to decide what is the rational thing to believe.

It's extraordinarily difficult for most of us to decide what the truth is on many contentious issues. Will we witness catastrophic clima...

Popular Posts