Is consciousness “in the brain”?

Let us turn now a slightly brighter light on consciousness itself . As Darwin’s bulldog T.H.Huxley wrote: ‘How it is that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissue is just as unaccountable as the appearance of the Djinn when Aladdin rubbed his lamp.’

This is the famous ‘explanatory gap’. For as is well known, neuroscientists have never discovered the location of consciousness. This is simply a confirmation of the fact that consciousness should be defined as percipere = ‘what perceives and cannot be perceived’. Nor have neuroscientists discovered the locations of long-term memory and tacit memory – which is also a very interesting fact, though I shall have no space for it here. Moreover, no-one has discovered how the sense information travelling along the neural pathways in the brain is transformed into conscious experience. This is a part of the famous problem of qualia.

The arguments about qualia are of course well known, but perhaps I shall be forgiven if I repeat the essence of them here. For we need to establish (1) the inadequacy of the materialist causal model and (2) some important features of the phenomenal field.

Qualia is of course the term for the lived density of experience: the ‘feel’ and ‘look’ of colours, the ‘feel’ and ‘flavour’ of sounds in all their infinite variety, the felt texture of objects, the rich (but literally indescribable) tastes and odours of things. Qualia are the raw sensory material of conscious experience, they are what we feel and how we feel it. They are the essential substance of all our experiences, but they are incommunicable to others, because we have no means of transmitting these ‘feels’, these ‘experiences’, directly from one brain to another. Talking about them is quite inadequate. For instance, how do you describe the slightly flushed golden-green of a James Grieve apple , or its completely individual ‘James-Grievish’ flavour? How do you describe the sound of Johnny Hodges’ alto sax or Cootie Williams’ trumpet? How do you describe the taste or the smell of coffee – or the difference between the smell and the taste — to someone who has never experienced them? You can appeal only to other people’s similar experiences — provided they have had them. If we haven’t had the experience of a particular quale, then we cannot imagine it.

Now how does the machinery in the brain produce this living experience? The answer is We don’t know. One can track the electrochemical message conveying “Feel this as CRIMSON!” a certain distance through the brain. But then there comes a blank wall. How does this physical message actually make whatever unknown something that does that kind of feeling feel it? WHAT does it do to WHAT so as to make WHAT perceive the experience BRIGHT CRIMSON? The answer is that none of these WHATS can be found in the physical brain, and the whole business of experiencing a quale is completely mysterious. As indeed is the whole business of experiencing anything at all. Experience itself is the great mystery.

There is an absolute gulf between the electrochemical message and the subjective experience of CRIMSON (or of COLD or WET or ANGRY or anything you like). The experiential side of the process is completely invisible to the scientist. He can’t see my seeing — or hear my hearing — or feel my pain. His material instruments just stop providing any information at this point. Once something passes from the world of physical process over the threshold of consciousness, physical instruments fall silent, cease to operate. The transformation of the physical neurochemical message into the experience is completely invisible to the scientist, and there is no way of seeing how, under any conceivable circumstance, it could become visible.

This frightens some materialists so much that they issue specious denials of this otherwise universally admitted fact. D. M. Armstrong, for instance, in A Materialist Theory of Mind claims that

There is nothing that it feels like to see something, or touch something or taste something.’

Daniel Dennett likewise claims in Consciousness Explained, that qualia don’t exist, they merely seem to. Evidently Dennett doesn’t understand about ‘seeming’. Seeming is what appears to consciousness; and what appears to consciousness cannot be doubted to so appear. It is the source or origin of its so appearing which may, depending on circumstance, be supposed to be illusory or not. But (supposedly illusory or not) what is experienced is indeed experienced.

What is the logic behind these two astonishing denials? Both these philosophers are determined to adopt the materialist doctrine. They are exceptionally clear-sighted about this, however, in that they think that subjective experience, qualia, etc, have to be denied because otherwise their existence would actually disprove materialism. Their position therefore vindicates mine, since it shows what you have to deny, to be that kind of materialist: namely, the evidence of your senses. Since your senses are the source of all your information, you are thereby denying the facts themselves and the source of those facts. As Democritus wrote,

Intellect to Senses: ‘Ostensibly there is colour, sweetness, bitterness; actually only atoms and void.’
Senses to Intellect: ‘Poor intellect! You get your evidence from us, and you hope to overthrow us? Your victory is your defeat.’

The same error is being repeated 2400 years later.

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