Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Thoughts to chew on: the inexplicability of consciousness in physical terms

In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (the book, not the movie), visitors to the Emerald City must wear green eyeglasses, ostensibly to protect them from the bright glory of the city. In reality, however, the city isn't really green at all and the glasses just make everything look that way. The greenness isn't really there.

But something like this is true of your senses even when you are not wearing tinted glasses. An apple looks red to you, but it isn't really red. That's just the way it appears to you as a conscious being. Someone who is colorblind will see the apple differently than you do. Their "glasses" are tinted a different color than yours.

Matter is devoid of such properties. The redness we see isn't really there. It's just a specific wavelength of light wave, with a specific frequency. Outside of the mind, it has no color.

  • No matter/energy has qualitative properties

But conscious experience is full of such properties. A conscious experience of an apple is an experience of seeing red, green, or whatever color it looks like if you are colorblind. Conscious experiences are experiences of such qualities.

  • All conscious experience is composed of qualitative properties
And the conclusion follows:
  • Therefore, no conscious experience is composed of matter/energy


  1. I think the problem with consciousness is that it is impossible to formulate a definition of a conscious experience that is coherent. The only appropriate description of the experience of red is to point to red and say red is red. You are forced be tautological at this point due to the inherent limitations of language.

    None the less, I agree that consciousness has a unique character that does not appear to be reducible to physical terms. It is the subjective objective gap between first person and third person I find the most challenging about consciousness.

    Why is it that certain configurations of matter have first person experiences? Do all configurations of matter have phenomenal experience? Does subjectivity spring out of the proto-conscious matter after a certain density of connections? That seems the only way out of it for the materialist but that quickly collapses into idealism.

  2. Adam,

    Exactly. It is a serious problem for materialism, which has led some (such as Chalmers) to abandon it in favor of property dualism.

    I personally do not know what the solution is, although hylomorphism offers some interesting answers and the best defenses of it I've seen come closer to being consistent with modern neuroscience than materialism does.

  3. I've recently been reading some history in Philosophy of Mind and it's interesting to read how up until recently mind was actually considered less problematic then matter. Even Bertrand Russell found the concept of matter more troubling then the concept of mind.

    Basically, what is matter? That's something for a materialist to define before we can even attempt to have a coherent discussion on the mind-body problem. Matter seems to be whatever we define to be explicable in natural terminology but then it's not really materialism but naturalism.

    Naturalism is the coherent position to take if an atheist wants to argue such a point I think. They could simply state that it seems that only the natural world exists and therefore mind must be natural. (Even if we cannot explain what mind is). This is perfectly coherent with evolution since it would be surprising if evolved organisms could understand everything.

    That is not to say I agree with this position but I think it's a much better position then eliminative materialism.