Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
Consciousness is called “The Hard Problem” which Prof. David Chalmers of the University of Arizona explains: (Chalmers is not a materialist. jfly has explained his position more clearly in the comment section below.)
The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we think and perceive, there is a whir of information-processing, but there is also a subjective aspect. As Nagel (1974) has put it, there is something it is like to be a conscious organism. This subjective aspect is experience. When we see, for example, we experience visual sensations: the felt quality of redness, the experience of dark and light, the quality of depth in a visual field. Other experiences go along with perception in different modalities: the sound of a clarinet, the smell of mothballs. Then there are bodily sensations, from pains to orgasms; mental images that are conjured up internally; the felt quality of emotion, and the experience of a stream of conscious thought. What unites all of these states is that there is something it is like to be in them. All of them are states of experience.
It is undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing. Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.
This is the mainstream view of the problem, which assumes that experience arises from a physical basis. It is an automatic, unquestioned assumption that guides scientific thinking. Yet this problem isn’t particularly difficult and I don’t think it takes a big brain scientist to sort it out, as long as you’re willing to question whether experience arises from physical processes. The reason that the problem is so hard is that it’s being viewed from the wrong direction. If you come at it from a different direction, it is not nearly so difficult.
Mainstream science starts with the body and works its way out. Study the body and brain more, the thinking goes, and the problem will eventually be solved. But this is not the only direction available; it is quite possible to start with consciousness and work towards the body.
The first part of solving the problem is to understand the difference between an object and its meaning. An object is not the meaning that we attach to it. This can be quite difficult to grasp, so I’ll take quite a bit effort to explain it.
We’ll use the example of a chair for the sake of simplicity, but this could be absolutely anything at all. A chair can be thought of as a pattern. It is not an object, it is an idea. As such, it is completely immaterial and has no basis in physical reality as we know it.
A chair can be a picture of a chair. It can be made of individual atoms or it can be made out of galaxies or wood. It’s still a chair. It does not matter whether we can sit in it as long as the representation looks like a chair to us. The materials that a chair is made out of do not have an inherent “chairness” to them. If you took the backrest off of a flat chair, you might have a small table instead.
If you grind a chair up into itty bitty pieces then it ceases to exist at all even though all of the materials that made the chair still exist. It is possible to have an object that some people regard as a chair, but others do not. It can be made from a very wide range of materials and in an enormous variety of shapes and sizes. It is possible to construct an object that looks like a chair from a certain angle, but if you move, it no longer looks like a chair any more. In that case, a chair can vanish completely from existence just by moving the observer.
No pattern recognition = no chair. The materials are all still there, but what’s absent is the idea that they form a chair. If, for some reason, the materials stop being recognized as a chair, then the chair ceases to exist because “chair” was only ever an idea.
A chair isn’t just meaning that we have attached to a pattern. A pattern is not a pattern until we attach meaning to it because a pattern is an idea, not a thing. And because it is an idea, we don’t discover patterns, we create (and destroy) them. To put this another way, there is no such thing as a pattern without consciousness.
So for the brain to arrange electrical fields into patterns that become consciousness, would require the brain to self create those patterns, which it cannot do unless it already understands how to create patterns. (because a pattern is an idea and is not made of anything) This creates a paradox whereby the brain requires consciousness in order to create consciousness.
The creation of patterns absolutely requires interpretation of those patterns which requires consciousness. Energy/mass cannot create patterns unless it knows what they mean. So either all matter is conscious, (which cannot be ruled out a priori) and acting on itself or we have a dualistic situation whereby consciousness is acting on mass/energy. Otherwise, the act of interpretation can never occur and therefore no form of consciousness at all can exist. Since consciousness does exist, we have to reject models where it arises from the patterns that only it can create.
In other words, the brain cannot possibly create consciousness.