I watched Dan Dennett’s Ted Talk “Can We Know Our Own Minds” yesterday and it reminded me of a problem I had with the study of consciousness. I am convinced a solution cannot be written down or said.
- Assume someone knows what consciousness/mind/divine spark/what-you-will is.
- If someone knows something, then it is part of their consciousness.
- If someone knows what consciousness is, then the consciousness has a part that contains consciousness.
- Therefore someone has a consciousness that contains consciousness.
Up until this point I am willing to grant that all this is possible. Our consciousness may be able to contain itself within itself. But could we write it down?
- If someone’s consciousness contains consciousness, then their contained consciousness contains consciousness itself and so on ad infinitum; this person’s consciousness has a self referential infinite regression.
We can’t write down or say something that contains a self referential infinite regress (without some form of hand-waving) and hence we will never have a solution.
I’d really like someone to come up with a solution to this problem. Or not. It is perfectly acceptable to me (if not better) that we will always have more to learn about ourselves. The issue then becomes to properly understand exactly what we are studying and accomplishing in philosophy of mind/consciousness/etc. or in neuroscience.
- The use of ‘know’ above is illegitimate: we can know what a car is without knowing all the parts and so the above argument is wrong for assuming that knowing implies complete understanding of all parts.
- In the case of consciousness if we do not know how all the parts work, i.e. there is a black box somewhere that we do not understand, then we can’t say we understand consciousness. The mystery of the whole thing is that we always seem to make progress but the end is never in sight.
- It makes no sense to say that when we know something that it is therefore ‘part’ of our consciousness. I may know the average sale price in Amazon.com but that doesn’t mean it is a proper part of my consciousness.
- The only alternative to saying ‘something is part of your consciousness if you know it’ is to say that things aren’t part of you consciousness when you know them. If you can explain how you know things while keeping those things separate from the consciousness, then more power to you. I don’t buy it.
- Perhaps we can’t know our own consciousness but we could know someone else’s, avoiding the regress.
- If the person whose consciousness you know knew your consciousness, then this would return to the regress. If you disallow a person to learn anyone’s consciousness of anyone who previously learned their consciousness (or anyone in the chain of people who learned their consciousness), besides being ad hoc, it’s ridiculous that you learning something about someone else would prevent that person from learning something.
- Hand-waving is a legitimate kind of communication.