Tag Archives: consciousness

Consciousness Dilemma, take 2

Back in January I wrote up a post on what I believe to be a major problem in the study of consciousness. Now, with the introduction of Consciousness Online (started by the estimable R. Brown), I feel my dilemma should get some renewed attention.

Here’s the argument:

  1. Assume someone knows what consciousness/mind is.
  2. If someone knows something, then it is part of his or her consciousness.
  3. If someone knows what consciousness is, then his or her consciousness has a part that contains consciousness.
  4. 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?

  1. We can only write or say finite things.
  2. 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.
  3. Writing down what consciousness is would require us to write something infinite.
  4. Therefore we cannot write down/ say what the consciousness is.

One might think that we would still be able to figure out pieces and put them together to get the full picture, and use terms like ad infinitum to represent some infinite, but comprehensible, process. However this would require us to know that the picture that we were putting together was an accurate one.  The only way to know that we were putting together an accurate picture would be to already have an overall theory of consciousness that we knew to be correct. Hence the piecemeal approach begs the question.

With no bottom up method possible, nor any top down method available, even if someone were to discover what consciousness is, she wouldn’t be able to tell anyone.  Therefore we will never have a full understanding of our consciousness.

So the dilemma is to come up with a story about philosophy of mind (and associated disciplines) while necessarily lacking a story about consciousness. Anyone have anything to say?

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Intentionality is Dead

After Buddha was dead, his shadow was still shown for centuries in a cave–a tremendous, gruesome shadow. God is dead: but given the way of men there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown.–And we–we still have to vanquish his shadow, too.
~F. N.

If want to study the mind, we believed that we needed to understand intentionality:

Intentionality is the power of minds to be about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs. —SEP

However intentionality is nowhere to be found. Intentionality is supposed to give us everything, it is the power of the mind, but in giving us everything, it itself is nothing.

These are the cases:

  1. Intentionality is the mark of all mental states.
  2. Intentionality is the mark of some mental states.

If intentionality exists in every mental activities, it’s then on par with ‘It’s raining or it’s not raining,’ and just as vacuous: any and every mental activity would be intentional implying that ‘mental activity’ = ‘intentional activity’. It is a distinction without a difference.

On the other hand allow for some mental things being intentional and other mental things not being intentional, i.e. the intentional is a subset of some greater mental activity. Then we’ve conceded that we aren’t asking about what we are or how we do what we do, but labeling a subset. I’m all for getting things labeled correctly, but we’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

Intentionality is dead. Whatever use we have gotten out of it in the past we should be thankful for but it is time to move on.

Long live Commitment

I stated in my metaphysics that conscious things make commitments. We are committed to doing certain things at certain times and other things at other time because of other commitments we have made. If we are committed to remembering someone’s birthday, then we take steps to ensure that we know what time of year that person was born. If these steps include some power of the mind ‘to be about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs,’ so be it, but all these things are secondary to the commitment initially made.

Some may call foul at this point: The objection to intentionality above applies to commitment and hence I am not practicing what I preach. If everything is a commitment then commitment is just as vacuous a concept as intentionality was accused of being.

Yes commitment is fundamental and hence may appear vacuous to some, but commitment comes with an internal structure that intentionality lacks. Intentionality is a power of the mind. Powers lack any internal structure: they act without having a more fundamental thing causing them to act, else that thing would be the power.

Say I am committed to my friends’ happiness and because of this commitment I send them cards on holidays. Commitments allow for structured derivative commitments, e.g. being committed to my friends’ happiness means I am committed to sending out letters and a commitment to sending out letters means a commitment to remembering and recording addresses. This food chain of commitments that is created, where the smaller commitments become part of bigger commitments which are part of even bigger commitments (with all sorts of interrelations between chains), gives us plenty of relations to investigate. Therefore it is true that analyzing a single commitment alone will get you no nowhere (e.g. analyzing a commitment to recording addresses) but analyzing groups of commitments will be far from vacuous.

Understanding ourselves and how we do what we do requires us to have a perspective on commitment, which I’ve discussed in briefly in my metaphysics. As meager an analysis as I am currently able to provide, it is still more than I felt we had before. Commitments determine our perspectives on certain situations and our perspectives likewise determine our commitments. Through analysis of our commitments and our perspective on things, we can understand how and why we do what we do. I don’t mean this to be a merely theoretical point but a practical one as well: we try to accomplish different things for specific reasons and when asked, we are able to give those reasons. Sometimes we have to preface our explanations with a description of how we perceived the situation to justify actions that seem unreasonable in hindsight, but this is all part of how we actually do and explain things.

Posted in metaphysics, mind, philosophy. Tagged with , , , , .

Consciousness Dilemma

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.

  1. Assume someone knows what consciousness/mind/divine spark/what-you-will is.
  2. If someone knows something, then it is part of their consciousness.
  3. If someone knows what consciousness is, then the consciousness has a part that contains consciousness.
  4. 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?

  1. 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.

——-

in b4:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Hand-waving is a legitimate kind of communication.
    • No.
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