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The Problem of Consciousness

As humans, we have a unique awareness of and ability to examine and impact our actions. Our day-in and day-out choices define who we are – whether we are “good” or “bad”, and the ways in which we differentiate ourselves as individuals within the crowd. We choose to like or dislike, maybe even pass judgment on others based on their choices. And we make changes in our behavior based on our ability to scrutinize it.

Or do we?

In an article titled Consciousness is Nothing But a Word, Henry Schlinger attempts to define human consciousness and posit its existence. Consciousness is difficult to define, as its existence has not been confirmed, leaving Schlinger to instead define what people mean when they say the word. Once a definition has been established, then the concept can be studied.

Schlinger offers a refreshingly practical approach to this nebulous problem by focusing on the identification and study of behaviors associated with consciousness – the observable phenomena. He defines these behaviors as the ability to be aware of and recall our actions, and to express events, both internal and external. He defines language as a necessary prerequisite for consciousness and convincingly quotes Helen Keller, who experienced life before learning sign language.

“Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was no world. I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness. Since I had no power of thought I did not compare one mental state with another.”

To illustrate, a child becomes what Schlinger would call conscious, first by imitation and eventually by actual awareness. What is that? A cat? Can you say cat? Cat. Does the child know it’s a cat? Not yet, but she will eventually. And when she does, Schlinger would say she is conscious of her environment.

The opposite is also true. Schlinger refers to someone as unconscious if they are unable to identify and articulate internal and external events. The article uses brain damage, such as anterograde amnesia, as an example. Patients with anterograde amnesia are unable to make new memories, and by Schlinger’s definition, are therefore only conscious of events that happened to them prior to the incident causing the amnesia.

So what does this mean? The article concludes that consciousness is just a word. And by “word” Schlinger means “fantasy”. He concludes his article by saying,

“We skeptics find it all too easy to fault obvious pseudo sciences, but when it comes to our own messy, unscientific thinking about ourselves, we’re a lot less critical. Thus, it will probably take a lot longer to realize that the conscious inner life that so fascinates us may be nothing more than a learned repertoire of verbal and/or imagined behavior than it did to realize that the earth is not flat, that it is not the center of the universe, and that life on earth was not designed by a creator.”

Basically, consciousness is nothing more than the learned expression of internal and external events.

Although I can appreciate what Schlinger has done here, and I believe he’s made an admirable effort to objectify consciousness, I think the reduction of consciousness to behavior leaves much to be considered.

The debate over the definition or existence of consciousness is more than a debate over the awareness and articulation of internal and external events. By this definition, a certain level of “consciousness” could be found in my dog, based on her ability to communicate her pleasure upon hearing the word “treat”, no matter how rudimentary her articulation.

Observable behaviors are the fruit of consciousness, but not consciousness itself. As imprecise as it may be, the debate should include, if not surround, the existence of self awareness and the ability of humans to impact their behavior based solely on analysis, not genetics or environmental stimuli.

And many have indeed weighed in on this debate. The prevailing evidence seems to indicate that behavior isn’t “decided” by the human, but is instead a predictable response to genetic and environmental factors, with a measure of randomness thrown in.

Einstein said,

“A human can very well do what he wants, but he can’t will what he wants.”

And Francis Crick said,

“You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

The implications of this are immense and disturbing.

If there is no free will, then just as we cannot take credit for the fairer aspects of our personas, we also cannot take responsibility for our darker actions. Thieves and murderers are only acting in a predictable manner based on their brain chemistry and environmental cues.

That we are “skeptics” is of no credit to us, but instead only a chance occurrence caused by the alignment of brain chemistry and environmental cues.

And what about people who change? Without free will, the “choice” to change, and admiration of the person who changes for the better, is an illusion. The change was not the person’s choice, but instead a predictable reaction given the person’s genetic disposition and personal history.

Although these are disturbing thoughts, they are no case for free will.

Like evolution, just because one might not like the implications of the theory, they don’t make the theory untrue.

It is what it is.

The concept of human consciousness and free will is one I personally struggle with and about which I continually seek new information.

David Chalmers says the effort to understand consciousness is “the largest outstanding obstacle in our quest for a scientific understanding of the universe”.

In the end we may just have to accept Schlinger’s statement that,

”There can be no science of the mind because science deals with real events, and the the mind is not a real event.”

Skeptic Magazine Vol. 13 No. 4 2008 Consciousness is Nothing But a Word Henry D. Schlinger

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23 Comments

  1. IANAN/P, and most of what I know on the topic I got from Susan Blackmore's "Consciousness – an introduction", which is an excellent book with step by step exercises that could teach you a lot, or drive you insane.

    I consider consciousness and free will undefinable, "I-can't-explain-them-but-it-feels-like-I-have-them" concepts. We can research them, and make approximations, like Schlinger does. Such approximations can teach us a lot, but there will always be that last step that we can't take, and although things seem to point in the direction of "there is no free will", essential concepts like personal responsibility is so dependent on it that we'll just have to take it as a given that "I can make choices".

  2. Consciousness is something I've been struggling with, especially after a beery night out, recently.

    Having watched my father die in December and having experienced unconsciousness after fracturing my skull in November, my assumptions about the continuity of, let's for the sake of vocabulary, the soul have been challenged.

    The Helen Keller quote in the original article triggered a bout of existential angst.

    I know that I'm here. I'm feeling they keyboard underneath my fingers. I have a hot cup of green tea next to me. Why am I experiencing this inside this particular lump of bio-mass and not any other?

    My big question is: will that essence that is "me" survive the expiry of this organic shell?

    On current evidence, I'd say: "very unlikely". So this life is it and I'm nearly halfway through it. Time to start living it.

  3. As for free will, I believe that every move we do is result of the interaction of molecules, quarks and other stuff. But to say that this make us "predictable" is a big step, quantum physics already showed that in the lowers levels electrons, photons and other particles behave truly randomly.

    Our brain is so complex that even if there were no "uncertainty principle" it would behave in such a chaotic manner that it would be impossible to predict it perfectly. But yet most of the time we act very concise way, my wife can consistently guess what music is playing in my head, and even guess what I will do or not do.

    So we are the product of the interaction of molecules, particles in out body? Yes. Does this means that we 100% predictable and do not have "free will", I don't think so, I believe that every moment we have billions of completely random events in our brains, they affect what we'll decide to do, but the web of neurons and connection that make what we are, that make you and me skeptics and other person a religious fundamentalist even those random events out they mold the results of that randomness into something only I would do.

  4. Lev Semonovitch Vygotsky wrote a fascinating book called "THought and Speech." In it, he directly links (interteines, really) the ontological development of language with conscious thought.

    He also has another book called "Mind in Society," though "Thought and Speech" is more thorough in its treatment of developmental psychology.

    I think that Vygotsky's contribution to psycholinguistics is as important as Chomsky's. And Vygotsky does make a very good case predicating consciousness and self awareness upon human language.

    He would be a good supplement to the Dennett books.

  5. I think a lot of misunderstanding arises from thinking that somehow 'no free will' means there is a 'you' outside your brain who is controlled by your brain and helpless to stop it.

    Also, I've never seen a definition of 'free will', other than a capability of generating random output, which humans are extremely poor at.

  6. My definition of free will is the ability to change one’s behavior based solely on analysis, not on genetic disposition or environmental factors.

    As good a definition as I've ever seen. Much better than most, in fact.

  7. The debate over the definition or existence of consciousness is more than a debate over the awareness and articulation of internal and external events. By this definition, a certain level of “consciousness” could be found in my dog, based on her ability to communicate her pleasure upon hearing the word “treat”, no matter how rudimentary her articulation.

    I don't have a problem with this definition of consciousness, nor of there being degrees of it as exemplified here. I think the problem might be with insistence that consciousness be a uniquely human trait.

    So far, many efforts have been made to define humans by some characteristic that distinguishes them from all other animals — ideally in such a way as to also confirm the superiority to them that most of us already tend to feel. To date, every such effort has failed. Tool use? No, quite a few species have demonstrated their ability to use, and even make, tools. Language? No, other animals use it, and several can even learn to understand and even use ours (while we, incidentally, still can't seem to figure out how to use theirs!). Even Mark Twain's brilliant remark on the situation ("Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to."), which implies an assertion that consciousness is uniquely human, fails at accuracy, even though it succeeds at comedy.

    I'd love to come up with a definition of humanity that makes us special (in a good way), and if that involves consciousness, fine. But it clearly can't be done if this is how consciousness is defined; and since this seems as good a definition as one could make, the effort to redefine the word just so it can apply uniquely to human beings seems rather disingenuous at best.

    Thanks, Stacey, for introducing a most interesting topic!

    ~Wordplayer

  8. My definition of free will is the ability to change one’s behavior based solely on analysis, not on genetic disposition or environmental factors.

    Then free will cannot exist, since your ability to perform analysis is totally determined by your genetic disposition and environmental factors. Any changes to your behavior that you make based on analysis are based, by extension, on your genes and environment.

  9. wb4,

    How do we know that all other animals don't have a comparable magnitude of ability for abstract thought? For all we know, whale songs could be the equivalent of bardic poetry, and a butterfly may wonder if he's a man dreaming that he's a butterfly (though I grant that the latter seems unlikely).

    ~Wordplayer

  10. Then free will cannot exist, since your ability to perform analysis is totally determined by your genetic disposition and environmental factors.

    An interesting idea, but not one that can be asserted as fact. Unless there's some evidence out there I'm unaware of that self-analysis is 100% the result of environment and genetics. I could be wrong here, but it seems to me that there is simply no way to know this with anything resembling certainty.

  11. An interesting idea, but not one that can be asserted as fact. Unless there’s some evidence out there I’m unaware of that self-analysis is 100% the result of environment and genetics. I could be wrong here, but it seems to me that there is simply no way to know this with anything resembling certainty.

    I agree. And if we're just speculating, it seems to me it's the level of proficiency at performing analysis that is determined by our genetic disposition and environmental factors, not the ability itself. In which case, the two wouldn't necessarily automatically be linked.

    But then, I'm no expert on this.

    I had the pleasure of meeting Daniel Dennett once, and I think his take on the subject is about where I stand.

    “All the varieties of free will worth having, we have. We have the power to veto our urges and then to veto our vetoes. We have the power of imagination, to see and imagine futures.”

  12. “All the varieties of free will worth having, we have. We have the power to veto our urges and then to veto our vetoes. We have the power of imagination, to see and imagine futures.”

    That's a good quote. I'll be taking that one with me.

  13. ”There can be no science of the mind because science deals with real events, and the the mind is not a real event.”

    I find this to be the limitation here. This is not the purview of science. It is the purview of philosophy. So to say that this is some sort of hole in the accomplishments of Science(TM) is absurd. Science has no more failed because it cannot define "consciousness" than it has failed because it can't objectively define "beauty" or "tragedy".

  14. Nothing, including moral responsibility, can logically said to be dependent on Free Will unless a coherent definition of Free Will is first offered.

    The problem is essentially that Free Will is a negatively defined concept. It keeps telling you what DOESN’T rule over choices, but it is never able to explain how choices get made, and what part “Free Will” plays in the process.

  15. I've got to go with Crick on this one. I kindof think that free will is a useful illusion. Or maybe it's like a difference of levels of looking at things. On the one hand, I think that consciousness definitely is just a result of the mindless activity of brain cells, hormones, and such. And I think that our thoughts and beliefs are also results of such low level activities. But on the level of being conscious, we feel like we have free will and therefore, in a sense, we do. However, I don't think we are skeptics because we've chosen to be. People ask me all the time why I chose note not to believe in God and that's definitely something I didn't choose and would never have chosen. I just learned many things that didn't sync up with my belief in God and eventually I realized that I no longer believed in God. It wasn't a choice. My brain somehow changed my beliefs for me, based on information that I fed into it, not with any intent of changing my beliefs, just with the intent of learning and satisfying my curiosity about other things.

  16. TheCzech – Consciousness and free will definitely are in the jurisdiction of philosophy, not science. What I found interesting about Schlinger’s article is that he tried to define the concepts objectively to bring them within the realm of science, even though in the end I concluded that his approach was too limited (like you said).

  17. It's behavioral. We operate in ways that produce success as we have learned to define it. We allow ourselves ranges of options in observing, judging and acting. We will expand or contract each of those ranges according to what we "learn" from experience. Thus, we are "free" to choose, but we create or limit our freedom based on the rewards we have either enjoyed or suffered.

    The only person with truly free will (as it is traditionally understood) is one who is developmentally delayed, as a toddler, say, or developmentally handicapped, e.g., a lunatic

  18. My take on it, is that, yes, perhaps there’s no such thing as free will, just like there’s no such thing as “the mind”. But the illusion of them, created by our brains, is so real that for all practical purposes it’s a good enough approximation to work in guiding us through the world.

    Like Newtonian physics. It may not be correct, but there’s no point in needlessly complicating matters by introducing factors into the question that won’t, ultimately, change the answer (like using relativity and quantum mechanics to calculate the path of a falling apple).

    In other words, there are so many external factors working on us and everyone around us at every moment of our lives, that our decision making process is essentially not predictable. You could try to account for everything, but it would rapidly grow outside the scope of what’s possible. And what’s more, you might be altering the answer by the very act of investigating it.
    Unless the answer is still 42 at the end of your quest ;)

  19. Stacey wrote:

    My definition of free will is the ability to change one’s behavior based solely on analysis, not on genetic disposition or environmental factors.

    You seem to be positing some immaterial self, AKA a soul. As someone already said (basically), your analysis comes from your neurons, not some little homunculus or ethereal transmission.

    Rystefn wrote, in response to this notion of a material origin of consciousness:

    An interesting idea, but not one that can be asserted as fact. Unless there’s some evidence out there I’m unaware of that self-analysis is 100% the result of environment and genetics. I could be wrong here, but it seems to me that there is simply no way to know this with anything resembling certainty.

    As Dr. Steven Novella has pointed out recently in his ongoing debate with idjit-extraordinaire Dr. Michael Egnor, there is no evidence to suggest that mind is anything more than an emergent property of the brain. And many fMRI studies have located the probable locations for our decision-making faculties.

    Free will is a useful illusion. I have no trouble coming up with evolutionary justifications for the idea of accountability. Consciousness seems most likely to just be a naturally occurring continuum. Jellyfish->myna bird->dog->chimp->human.

    For an interesting discussion on this subject (among others), I highly recommend the SGU interview with Dr. Susan Blackmore.

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