The relevant problem: what is it that we are experiencing?

Duggan’s Dew, Oban, Rebel Yell and I were talking past each other yesterday as we watched the Canada-USA hockey game. The problem was Duggan’s ardent refusal to contemplate the hard problem of consciousness lest he be tempted, somehow, to believe in God. How he manages this refusal to address the issue of the quality of mental experience is by setting up a series of blocks in his own mind, as if Rebel Yell and I were older teenagers trying to trick a naive six-year old  into relinquishing a treasure. The defence starts to look like a Young-Earth Creationist trying not to understand the 5 billion years of earth’s geology.

This morning I came across a statement of the problem which we were vainly trying to lay before our august friend yesterday in the tavern. The book in question is Biocentrism, and the author, Robert Lanza, is quoting the Australian philosopher David Chalmers. Here is Lanza in his own voice (at p.171):

What makes a consciousness problem easy or hard is that the former concern themselves solely with functionality, or the performance aspects, so that scientists need only discover which parts of the brain controls which, and they can go away rightfully saying they have solved an area of cognitive function. In other words, the issue is the relatively simple one of finding mechanisms. Conversely, the deeper and infinitely more frustrating aspect of consciousness or experience is hard, as Chalmers points out, “precisely because it is not a problem about the performance of functions. The problem persists even when the performance of all the relevant functions are explained.” How neural information is discriminated, integrated, and reported still doesn’t explain how it is experienced.”

So the question is: is the human mind ultimately a material phenomenon? That is to say, not merely produced by matter and its motions, acting through natural and sexual  selection, but fully explainable in terms of those agencies? In short mind=brain. No functioning brain means no functioning mind, in any circumstances.

I take the view that awareness is primary, and that awareness attaches itself to brains and is amplified by them the way radio signals are found and amplified by radios into speech and music. Only in the human case, every person interprets the awareness through their own mind, so each appears to be listening to their own music. The materialist view (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and that gang of philosophical illiterates) proposes that thought is produced by the mind as the liver produces bile. Terminate the brain and you terminate the mind, necessarily. The mind, for them,  is a purely physical entity.

An obvious inference from my views on the primacy of awareness is that artificial intelligence (of the kind manifested by chess playing programs) will not lead to self-awareness of the kind that even an ape has. There will be no Lieutenant Commander Data’s in our future.

This issue was touched upon in a fascinating interview with the physicist Stephen Barr, author of Modern Physics, Ancient Faith.


Q: You’ve written about the issue of artificial intelligence. Many scientists and technicians seem to think it only a matter of time before a genuinely artificial intelligence, capable of engaging in all the kinds of intellectual activities of human beings is created. What is your view?

Dr. Barr: I think they are wrong. I do not believe that the human intellect and will are reducible to the operations of a machine. There are philosophical arguments going back to Plato and Aristotle for the immateriality of the human intellect. And I think that there are very suggestive indications from both modern physics and mathematics that seem to dovetail with these philosophical arguments. I am thinking in particular of quantum theory in its traditional formulation and Goedel’s Theorem in mathematics. There are some great scientists (like Sir Rudolf Peierls and Eugene Wigner) who argued on the basis of quantum theory that the human mind could not be explained by mere physics. And there are several eminent philosophers and mathematicians who believe that Goedel’s Theorem shows that the human mind cannot be explained as a mere computer. I explain these arguments in the latter part of my book.

So, Duggan, the issue is not God. He more or less takes care of Himself. The issue is: are there minds? and what are they? My view is that they are not ultimately material, and if that is so, the universe is a whole lot more interesting than materialists will allow.

A video related to the subject of modern physics versus materialism is available: