What can philosophy tell us about the nature of consciousness?

8 Responses to What can philosophy tell us about the nature of consciousness?


    In modern digital age people have become used to thinking of brain as an organic computer; thus dismissing the possibility of soul or seperate consciousness. I heard this analogy recently. It postulates that consciousness exists in a seperate realm, that the organic material of the nervous system acts as a type of radio antenna to an external consciousness or the soul. To a layman (lesser mortal web editor) seems like an interesting take on cartesian philosophy.
    Maybe this question is more domain of neuroscience. I would still maintain that brain is an organic computer, but the crude reductionist models i.e Skinner et al are severely lacking. I read somewhere that experiments on fruit flies (suitable here for simplicity of system) have shown that their reponse to a given stimulus wasn’t always predicable. So even in such an animal with a simple nervous system stimulus A doesn’t always elicit resopnse B, so it definitely isn’t case in higher mammals like humans. In short the flies were exhibiting a ‘free will’. That doesnt necessarily mean that they have a consciosuness or soul, but there is something apaprently unpredictable going on, perhaps arising from events at a quantum level influencing nervous system. Could this explain human free will, or does the antenna analogy hold true here for existence of an outside consciousness or soul; or could it be apparently unpredictable behviour just an explicable evolutionary trait evolved to help avoid predators in flight? I dont know, someone enlighten me!


  2. admin says:


    You’ve asked one of the most complex and long standing questions in philosophy – the relationship between the mind and the body. As soon as we try to clarify this relationship it seems we are stuck in paradoxes.

    One of the dominant paradigms in our time of course is scientific materialism which reduces all mental phenomena to the physical and material. So for example a materialist would argue that the brain and the mind are one and the same thing and essentially our thoughts are simply neuro-chemical processes.

    Opponents of the view begin by looking at the nature of ideas themselves. We can go back to Plato in his Phaedo. Consider for instance an abstract idea like justice – does it have physical properties? Weight or color? Does it take up space? Does it gravitate?

    Well if it has none of the attributes of a material object it cannot be material. But if the thoughts and ideas in the mind are immaterial than how could that which contains them(the mind) be material? This is an argument one finds in Plato and later developed by Thomas Aquinas.

    In modern philosophy views similar to Plato get expounded. By the time you get to Descartes you have an elaborated view of what is called substance dualism or in a popular metaphor “the ghost in the machine”- mind is one substance(Res Cogitans) and the body is another material substance(Res Extensa). But this also raises problems. Clearly our minds and bodies interact. If I want to move my hand first I form the thought in my mind and then my hand moves in the world of physical objects. Also if I damage my brain sufficiently my ability to think is also affected.

    Aristotelians would also point out in contrast to Plato the dependence of thought on sensation which is of course an activity of the body. We do not for instance think of colors which we have never seen; and Aristotle would argue that even lofty notions like justice are complex abstractions from the experience of our senses. So Aristotle would argue that while the mind is immaterial it is nonetheless dependent on the material world to some extent for its ideas and functions.

    I don’t pretend to sort out the mystery of the mind and consciousness in a few paragraphs – nonetheless two positions seem implausible to me.

    First the position that the mind and ideas are simply physical realities or objects in nature

    Second that mind and matter are such utterly distinct substances that they cannot and do not interact in any way.

    The truth I am confident lies between these two extremes.

  3. Miles Smit says:

    Who are you going to believe, me or your lying mind?

  4. admin says:


    Interesting article. I do agree that there is some form of interaction between the body and the mind so that one can affect the other.

    The problem I see with a reductive physicalist account is that we actually experience thoughts and they have none of the attributes of physical things – if my mind is thinking about “truth” the thought of “truth” does not gravitate, take up space, bounce, have weight and color, etc… Thus my consciousness that experiences the thought of truth can’t be purely physical. It may be that when we are thinking about truth there is some physical neuro-chemical process going on that we CAN see, feel, or touch with the instruments of science and they have some relationship to our thinking; but to say that those chemicals and electrons ARE “the idea of truth” such as it exists in our minds seems implausible.

    The knowledge that the physical sciences bring should be very much part of the discussion about the mind/body relationship. The question however is not whether non-physicalists are open to the sciences, but whether science is open to realities that are not physical. If non-physical possibilities are ruled out at the start of our investigation by a dogma that all reality is physical, than of course we will only get one kind of answer – even if it is wrong.

  5. Blaise says:

    Hi everyone, I am enjoying the comments and debates on this forum. It is, I might add, quite rare to find online philosophy forums with such intelligent and thoughtful content. Keep up the good work!

    Moving on to the topic at hand I want to say that I very much agree with what has been said above: namely that the question of whether consciousness is reducible to the brain or deeper aspects of our physiology, such as the structure of the neural processes underlying brain activity, is an open question and one that is unresolvable by current science. Michael Shermer says as much in his Scientific American article posted above with his strange argument that although science cannot explain consciousness, current physicalist theories about what it must be are somehow correct anyway.

    One problem with current metaphors arguing that the brain is analogous to a computer and holding that the brain creates the mind is that, in taking the analogy literally, it becomes easy to presuppose that there is no ‘problem’ of phenomenal consciousness. We can define phenomenal consciousness as the immediate awareness including what the philosopher Thomas Nagel called the ‘the what it is like’ property that accompanies higher order thought. For various reasons to be clarified in what follows below, I take phenomenal consciousness to be different from psychological awareness or activity. Shermer, by contrast, seems to conflate the two in his article.

    Very briefly, one of the central problems of reducing phenomenal consciousness to a physical system can be stated as follows: when we think we always think ‘about’ something. This fact or datum is usually called the intentionality of thought by contemporary philosophers. The argument that higher level thought is intentional goes back to Aristotle but was reintroduced into contemporary philosophy by the German philosopher and psychologist Franz Brentano (1838-1917). In 1874 Brentano maintained that, so far as we can discern, no physical object or system manifests anything like the property of intentional inexistence (i.e. the non-practical and immediate direct awareness and representation) of objects or contents of mental awareness. Intentional correlates or mental phenomena, Brentano argued, are therefore non-physical in some fundamental sense. To put it another way, we can say that when we have higher order thought we can make present to consciousness contents and objects that are not physically present or spatially determinable (As was rightly stated above where is my thought of the truth of a matter of fact? What color is it? How much does it weigh?, etc, etc. these aspects of conscious awareness or thought are, of necessity, immeasurable or what is the same non-objectifiable).

    A computer, of course, is a physical system. Although it is tempting to view the outputs of computer programs as representational and somehow intentional in the above sense, insofar as the computer screen displays symbols and signs that ‘stand for’ words, meanings and other information, there is nonetheless no evidence that the computer is capable of original intentionality.

    That is, although it becomes tempting to say that the computer displays intentionality in Brentano’s sense, deeper thought on this matter will reveal that the representational properties of the computer are unconscious and, at best, very primitive analogies for unconscious psychological activity. The fact that the output of a computer is meaningful and useful or somehow representational of reality is, arguably, that we (as primary agents of intentionality) are present to read the screen and interpret its purely physical signs and outputs.

    What the computer outputs or symbols are not, therefore, are phenomenal or conscious representations of objects or meanings in the world. This aspect of higher order thought, i.e. the reflective sense of making present contents and objects as frequently accomplished in human thought, is completely lacking in the computer. The proof of this, if any is actually needed, is that the computer has absolutely no awareness of what it is doing; nor does it possesses the ability to program itself or break free of its current programming.

    Even if a computer could advance to a level of complexity where it could somehow directly react to situations outside itself or spontaneously adjust to its environment and effectively re-program itself, it still has no phenomenal consciousness in the sense that we mean by self-awareness and object directed experience of itself or its surroundings.

    This leads to a challenge for the physicalist or the reductionist who wants to say that consciousness is merely a program of the brain. Namely, for physicalism to be true the physicalist must explain how intentionality can arise from a purely physical system.
    So far no artificial or man-made physical system displays anything like original intentionality, but obviously this doesn’t mean that intentionality is non-physical in a deeper or metaphysical sense. The behaviorist or functionalist, for example, will simply argue that what I am calling intentionality arises from suitably complex enough physical systems (such as living organisms or some, eventually to be produced, super-quantum computer). The physicalist will therefore maintain that intentionality can be naturalized. Brains cause consciousness as the mantra goes. But the brain is a physical system and phenomenal consciousness is not physical in any currently intelligible sense of the word . Therefore how does the physical ’cause’ or create the non-physical?

    I cannot, of course, completely answer the physicalist position in a single blog post but I will say that I believe there are only four compelling and coherent extant philosophical positions regarding an explanation of the mind-body problem or what can also be called the problem of consciousness. Physicalism is one, Behaviorism (a closely related psychological cousin of physicalism) is another, functionalism is the third and the fourth and final candidate –out of vogue these days but hardly because of this in any way ‘refuted’ by science – is dualism.

    Let me end by saying that, as it stands, physicalism (if the physical is understood as modern physicists or behaviorists understand it) has insurmountable hurdles in its way regarding its ability to provide anything approaching a coherent explanation of intentionality.


    I’m going to try and put my tuppence worth in from a non academic and non philosophical point of view. It is many years since I graduated in psychology. However at time I was under the impression
    that cognitive functioning in various areas of brain resulted in consciousness, and that injury or impairment resulted to a particular area resulted in a particular impairment. Years of working with people with mental illness, head injuries and dementia have reinforced this view: thus apparently vindicating the physicalist position. The obvious question is though as last contributor put,’how does the physical ’cause’ or create the non-physical?’ ; i.e consciousness. It would seem that the physicalist position appears to be mostly correct, but missing a large and and fundamental element: which apparently takes us back to square one. Does this make sense?

  7. admin says:


    Yes I think that’s certainly true – clearly damaging the brain can affect the functioning of the mind; so this is good strong evidence there is a relationship between the physical thing(the brain) and the mental reality(the mind). The question is whether one can be reduced to the other.

    I think Blaise’s contribution may point to the philosopher’s distinction between the first person and third person perspective. From the third person perspective we can’t observe the mind or consciousness – we might see a neuro-chemical impulse firing and causing a hand or limb to move. This is the perspective of the physical sciences.

    The mind and consciousness however can only be known from the first person perspective. The person in the first person experiences the THOUGHT that he WISHES to move the hand, and low and behold he sees the hand respond to his wish.

    In the case of brain damage something we experience as physical – say a blow to the head – seems to affect the mind.

    But in our ordinary experience things also work the other way – our thoughts which we experience as non-physical seem to affect the body.

    So clearly there is a mysterious interaction.

    The question is whether the mind can be REDUCED to something physical.

    I am arguing that our first person experiences suggest something deeper and more complex is going on.

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