The Paradox of Consciousness

One of the most puzzling aspects of consciousness is that subjectively, we know it exists and is real, but logical reasoning and scientific analysis can lead us to conclude that it does not exist. In my previous post, I provided a general overview of the mystery of consciousness, but in this post I want to focus on the paradox that results when we try to reconcile what our subjective experience leads us to believe about consciousness with what a scientific, physicalist understanding of the world implies about consciousness.

I want to clarify what I mean by consciousness. I define it as an internal, subjective experience. Moreover, I believe an integral aspect of consciousness is that it consists of a representation or model of the external world that seems to exist inside your head. As you read this post, you are most likely looking at a computer. But is what you see when you look at the computer exactly how it appears in reality? Do you know how your computer looks from a completely objective, third-person point of view?

I argue that the answer is no; you only know how the computer looks as a representation in your consciousness. Consider the perspectives of animals that do not see in the spectrum of visible light. When a mosquito, which has infrared vision, looks at your computer, it sees something very different than what you see. Is what you see the most accurate version of how the computer actually appears in reality? No, what you see is merely one model image of the computer inside your head. The mosquito sees a different representation. Neither you or the mosquito knows what the computer actually looks like in reality.

But if your consciousness represents the external world, where exactly do these representative images exist? If you reflect on your experience, it seems your consciousness is centered somewhere inside your head, behind your eyes. However, the only thing inside your head is your brain. We find no representations or models or images of the external world inside the brain. We observe no consciousness – no mind or self – existing in the head.

As a result, from an objective perspective, we seem forced to conclude that consciousness does not exist. There actually is no mind, no representations of reality, because these things cannot be observed or measured. From a scientific, physicalist standpoint, all that exists is matter and physical things. The brain exists, as do all of the neurons and electro-chemical processes that produce your behaviors and actions. But a mind – and the representation of the computer that we discussed earlier – cannot really exist.

But can you honestly believe that your mind does not exist? To hold such a belief seems incoherent. Your mind – your consciousness – seems like the only thing you can know for sure exists. As stated before, can you really know what the external reality actually looks like – or actually is? All you know is what is represented to you in consciousness.

Thus, we have our paradox. Logical reasoning leads us to conclude that consciousness does not exist, or at the very least, should not exist. And yet, our subjective experience tells us consciousness most certainly is real. The person who unravels this riddle will surely be deserving of a Nobel Prize, if not the recognition as one of the greatest thinkers in the history of the world.

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2 thoughts on “The Paradox of Consciousness

  1. Well, what we have are chemicals. When those chemicals act together, they create the illusion of perception and the illusion of a consciousness. What we believe to exist as consciousness, what we feel as “I” and “my” (feelings, thoughts, etc) is just an illusion caused by the chemicals in our brain.

    Think about what makes you happy or makes you feel good. It might be your family, friends, entertainment, anything. We look at that and say: “my friends make me happy”. Now I’m not a chemist, but isn’t the reality of it just that the stimulus of your friends causes a rise in serotonin in your brain? And you feeling happy is just an illusion (necessary for survival) created by the release of serotonin or dopamine?

    The paradox lies in the fact that the only being who can study consciousness and try to qualify it as accurately as possible is that same being that experiences it. It’s sort of like having the only key to a safe locked inside that safe. Being conscious (in the sense of human consciousness) is what allows us to study consciousness, and thus, you have a bias.

  2. “you only know how the computer looks as a representation in your consciousness. Consider the perspectives of animals that do not see in the spectrum of visible light. When a mosquito, which has infrared vision, looks at your computer, it sees something very different than what you see. Is what you see the most accurate version of how the computer actually appears in reality? No, what you see is merely one model image of the computer inside your head. The mosquito sees a different representation. Neither you or the mosquito knows what the computer actually looks like in reality.”

    So? The map may not be the territory, but that does not mean that the map doesn’t exist. Representations of things absolutely do exist – they’re separate from the original thing, and make necessary simplifications, but they are very real. If I take a picture of you with my phone’s camera, that picture is not you – and leaves out many details (such as spectra of light that it doesn’t capture) but it’s real. It’s physically, quantifiably, measurably real – the image of you is being stored in the magnetic states of a bunch of memory registers.

    “We find no representations or models or images of the external world inside the brain. We observe no consciousness – no mind or self – existing in the head.”

    Not yet, anyway. Our understanding of the brain is extraordinarily limited – we still don’t QUITE understand the nuts and bolts of how memories are encoded. Only in the last few years have we gotten a decent understanding of how sensory and motor data is encoded (good, non-technical summary here: http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/110031-a-bionic-prosthetic-eye-that-speaks-the-language-of-your-brain )

    “The brain exists, as do all of the neurons and electro-chemical processes that produce your behaviors and actions.”
    If I showed you the state of all the memory registers inside your computer, would you find that to be a useful way to browse the web? No, cuz that level of description isn’t what you’re able to process. But, if you were an alien explorer and all you could do was sense the states of the computer’s memory and you were trying to predict what it was going to do next just based on the flipping of bits, it wouldn’t make much sense as a purely physical process – when a physical system is representing the abstract, its physical behavior is influenced by the abstract.

    Yes, at the lowest level, all of these things are physical. It’s not a one-way street, however. Higher-level forms of order emerge emerge, and subsequently affect what happens at the lower levels.

    (Please do keep blogging, Joe! 🙂 )

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