Consciousness And Being

I think one interesting option for the reductive physicalists to address the mind/body problem is through pointing to the difference between acquaintance and being.

That is, in our thinking of (existent) things we always relate to them indirectly – we don’t become those things nor in some other way get hold of their being, but we can think of them in terms of our acquaintance with them (the thing that I saw, touched, perceived then and there), hearing about those things (the thing that John told me about), or rightly assuming those things (the person who committed Whitechapel murders.) Even we think of them as beings, it is being of something else – not being me.

So, if we think in those terms about subjects, we think of any person through some kind of acquaintance, information or assumption, but separately from this every person has his/her own being. When we approach people, and examine them, we are examining their properties on different levels, but apart from this we can’t see what it is like to be such and such system in such and such conditions. So the way to resolve the mind-body issue for a physicalist would be to say that what we call consciousness IS nothing but this being – the being of such and such physical system.

I think this would go nicely with anti-Cartesianism (especially in relation with our language), because any so called ‘phenomenal experience’ would be in fact specific being such and such specific physical system in such and such specific conditions. For example the phenomenal experience of seeing a rabbit, would be nothing but – being a person (expand to the full physical description of what kind of system the person is) that sees a rabbit (expand to the physical facts of how this kind of cognitive system is related to the outside environment).

It would also nicely address the issues of illusion and hallucinations… Let’s mark being the person from the previous example with B1. We could then say that the phenomenal experience of hallucinating a rabbit is nothing but – being a person that hallucinates a rabbit (expand to full physical description), and then point that being the B2 is like being B1 in some way (the physical descriptions of the subjects in both cases will correspond).

An ontological question here appears – what does it take to have a being? If consciousness is nothing but being of some special kind of system, why it is this kind of system that has being, and not some sub-system or super-system?  I see two possibilities:
1.It is possible that from the lowest to the highest physical levels systems have being (which of course intuitively makes sense, our brain has being, but also every part of it have being, and the whole planet which includes our brain has being), but only on this level (being this kind of system) there appears perception and thought, so being this kind of system is being a subject which perceives and thinks.
2. The other possibility is that there is some kind of property which makes some part of the material world to have being as a whole. For example, Richard in his presentation  on what is a brain state (to which I already pointed in the previous post) talked about synchrony – the case where “neuron cells fire in unison, but also they are phase locked with each other”.  This might be a direction in which to search for some ontologically more fundamental spatio/causo/temporal characterization,  which would be a condition for talking about system with being (and hence for a system to have consciousness).

Anyway… maybe this is how reductive physicalists actually think about the issue, and I’m just uninformed.
And I better stop now before I convince myself into reductive physicalism. :)

4 thoughts on “Consciousness And Being

  1. Welcome to the Dark Side :)

    But seriously, the position you describe here doesn’t seem that different than Rosenthal’s in his essay ‘Two Concepts of Consciousness’ where he is dealing with the Nagelian intuition that there is something special about subjectivity that science (so so physical reductivist) can’t account for (the famous ‘what it is like for the creature from their point of view’). Have you read that essay?

    As for 2, yep that’s pretty much the strategy…but I guess I don’t see the distinction between 1 and 2. Is it supposed to be that in 1 we are only ontologically committed to percieving creatures, but in two we are commiyted to brains and their states?

  2. Hey Richard,

    I haven’t read the Rosenthal’s essay, thanks for pointing to it.

    As for distinction between 1 and 2, I guess I didn’t succeed in formulating the issue nicely. Let me try again…

    We can distinguish ‘thought of as being something’ vs. ‘actually being something’. Namely something can be thought by us as being something while not actually being anything (and probably the other way around). For example, is book actually being something, or is it just thought by us as being something? Is each of the pages in the book being something, or is each of those just thought by us as being something? Are bunch of books on the table being something, or is the whole bunch just thought by us as being something (namely a bunch of books)?

    Given the idea that different phenomenal experiences are nothing but *actually* being something, namely being such and such kind of system in such and such conditions, we are implying that at least some higher-level systems are actually being something (and not merely thought as being something).

    So, now the issue is… what kind of systems are actually being something (and not merely thought as being something)?

    The two possibilities (probably there are more) which I could see are:

    1.Any configuration of parts is actually being something, but only certain configurations which can perceive and think are being something which can perceive and think – hence are conscious subjects.

    2.There are certain more specific conditions for a whole (configuration) being something. (E.g. the system of the three planets closest to the Sun might not be anything, while it might be thought by us as something). In that case it might be that the specifics of the system which give it abilities of perception and thought to coincide with some deeper ontological condition for a system to be something, and hence for “appearance of consciousness”. (Interesting thought might be that conditions for having perception and thought are not same with the conditions for being something, and that it just incidentally so happens that in our case both coincide on some level of our brains)

    Hope the distinction makes more sense now? (And yes, it might be that 1 and 2 could be mapped to talk about whole creatures vs. e.g. brain states, but doesn’t have to be. In case 1,the question appears also if there is multiple consciousnesses corresponding to e.g. the brain, the brain – neuron N1, the brain – neuron N1 and N2, etc.., etc…)

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