For each science there seems to be a naïve folk version. There was a folk physics that allows people to predict that movement of physical objects, and so on with other sciences. This is still seen in expressions like ‘sun rise’ and the spontaneous beliefs on young children. Nothing is as it appears and we get used to the new knowledge. The sky is not as we thought – the stars and sun and moon are not as we thought. The earth is round. Gravity, light, heat are all different then we assumed. Solid material is mostly empty space. The earth is old and constantly changing. Life uses ordinary chemicals and there is no special essence of life. Life evolves. Our naïve folk versions of the world and our bodies have slowly been replaced by better explanations. But we still use a folk version of how the brain works. The unconscious processes were only recognized in the last hundred years. The nature of the brain is still more unknown than known. We guess this by the rate of surprising revelations that appear in the science journals, even the anatomy is not fixed. We are in for a revolution in how we understand our brains and like the Copernican Revolution, Darwinian Revolution and many smaller revelations, it will turn ideas upside down. This is hard – some people got physically dizzy when they learned that the earth rotates – back in the day.
How does the subjective nature of consciousness arise in a physical system? Is it impossible, or ‘an emergent property’, or a normal everyday process? I will pass over the impossible, magical answer. There is a definition of emergent property that has to do with hierarchical levels of scientific theories which I think misunderstands the nature of scientific reduction. What it really seems to mean in practice is that the speaker believes in a material world (or wants to hedge on it) but cannot find a path from a material brain to a subjective experience. So the subjective experience sort of ’emerges’ like a virgin birth from the material world by some new process or whatever that we have yet to find. But that process of emergence is not an ordinary one. Because I am a materialist (no hedging) I am not interest in the weird unknown emergent property. I am looking for a normal everyday process to explain subjective experience.
There really is a gulf here. In 2014 a Russian called Volkov invited 30 people – 9 important western thinkers (including Dennett and Chalmers) and teachers and students from the Moscow State University on a tall ship cruise along southern Greenland. They explored together on land in the mornings and had seminars in the afternoon. The idea was to come to some consensus. They had a great friendly time and in the end not one of them had changed their mind. Not much has changed since then.
To me, once we accept that what we have in consciousness is a model of the world and ourselves in it, that none of it is direct knowledge of the world or of ourselves but a model, then we seem home-free. That is what we have – only a model of the world and a model of ourselves in that world. Who then is the subject that is experiencing these models? If we do not watch out we will have a person inside a person inside a person to infinity. We cannot have a little person watching the screen because they would need perception, memory etc. and would in their turn produce a brain with a screen, to be watched by…. Who is the subject that has the subjective experience? It seem obvious that it must be the model of ourselves that is experiencing the model of the world and ourselves in it. And what we remember is ourselves experiencing the world; we remember a ‘subjective’ experience. It seems so simple. I find this notion very comfortable and satisfying, but then I really do find mysteries unsatisfying.
I have found someone who puts forward this notion or one very similar and more complete and backed up with evidence, Thomas Metzinger. He has written a book called The Ego Tunnel, and in it he lays out a lot of evidence for the idea. He is a philosopher but works with neuroscientists.
But we still have a semantic maze. From our folk psychology, Freudian ideas, and philosophy through the ages, we have accumulated a map of our mental life. Belief, pain, and will are examples of mental vocabulary. There is a rule of thumb in science, ‘cut nature at the joints’. Don’t name entities that are not natural entities. Many of the mental words can slip over to be useful scientific descriptors, but perhaps not all of them. And they may change somewhat in meaning. Take freewill for instance: cutting at the joints, scientist find a progression that goes – goal, plans, intention, execution but there isn’t really a place for freewill except as a marked in consciousness for the whole completed chain that indicates ‘I own responsibility for this action’. To science freewill no longer means freedom to act without the physical restraints of a material world but only decision we are responsible for because they were not forced.
But here is some stubbornness like the people who insist that pain is only what we feel in consciousness, nothing in the brain can be labeled pain only the ‘subjective’ experience. I just hate semantic arguments, and they will go on and on as knowledge progresses and words move from be mental descriptions to being physical descriptions.
Then there is the question of qualia or the colours, sounds, smells of our consciousness. Many cannot accept the idea that the brain could produce qualia. We know that perception gives us the wherewithal to assign shapes and many sorts of characteristics (like colour, movement, texture etc.) to objects. So all that is needed is how the world is assembled out of the results of perception in the global work space (which is not actually a physical space but a process). Through evolution of hundreds of millions of years, this process has been tuned to help us notice what needs to be noticed, recognize what needs to be recognized, understand what needs to be understood. If someone has a better way of doing this than colour, pitch and the other bound characteristics, I would really like to hear it. That is the way our brains model the world and it is an excellent way – built for survival.
There are more unknowns than knowns in how ours brains work. There are lots of surprises to come. But I am happy with the framework I have to fit to ideas into. A non-mysterious, physical, material, and beautiful framework.