Monday, January 28, 2008

More on consciousness

What does it mean to say that consciousness (really subjective experience) is an illusion? An illusion implies the ability to have illusions. So it doesn't make sense to me to say that consciousness (subjective experience) is an illusion. The experiencing of the illusion is subjective experience. Not quite Descartes, but close.

This isn't saying that I am proving my existence because I experience myself thinking. But it is saying the having of an illusion by definition is a phenomenon that requires consciousness.

It may also be that the experience of thinking (in Descartes' version) similarly (again by definition) establishes the existence of the thinker. That is if one grants that one experiences oneself thinking then by definition whatever is experiencing the thinking exists.

1 comment:

P0M said...

"Illusion" clearly doesn't apply, at least as the word is usually understood. A mirage is one kind of an illusion. We think we see water, go to where we thought we say a lake and find only sand. So we distinguish between perceptions that are reliable and perceptions that turn out to have tricked us one way or another. On the other hand, perception may not be quite what we ordinarily take it to be.

Our naive idea is that if we see a cat in the living room, go over an pet the cat, smell its fur, etc., then there is really a cat there. Ordinarily, nobody seriously argues with a case like that. But how about a case where the basis for classification is not so seemingly self evident. One person identifies a certain individual as a witch. Another person identifies the individual as an ordinary human who suffers from schizophrenia. A third person categorizes the individual as a normal person who has been possessed by a minion of the devil. They may be equally sincere. Different people put different constructions on the same data.

When we get down to the brass tacks of quantum theory it is even clearer that the human mind reaches out ("intends")and takes the raw data of experience to be a certain kind of thing. It is possible to look at the products of a laser and take them to be waves. It is possible to take them to be particles. The trouble is that we cannot describe the realities revealed in the physics laboratory without using one account in one set of circumstances and the other account in another set of circumstances. How we try to examine the nature of a photon determines whether it acts like a wave or acts like a particle.

Physics does not talk about what is really there. It talks about observations and measurements that can be made, and it talks about models that are more or less successful in predicting what is going to happen. Science in general has learned caution in regard to the black swans. Science does not claim truth, it only claims (1) ample substantiation (We've done this experiment a gazillion times in a million labs, and it always has worked this way.) and (2) there are experiments that could disprove the theory (the next swan we find may not be white like all the earlier ones were). From time to time a result pops up that shows that a theory is wrong (i.e., it predicts the wrong results). The course of progress is to eliminate more and more things that have turned out to be wrong.

One way that people who study these questions talk about things is to say that science offers only convenient fictions. Here "fictions" does not mean "lies." It means "things that are made by humans (or other sentient beings)." Nature gives us a black box. Put pork in at one end and a sausage comes out the other end. We have no idea what really happens in the black box. But we can imagine various ways that sausages could be made -- anything from intricate clock works to a little old man chained to his work station. Some models give pretty good predictions, and some models give less accurate predictions. As long as our "just so" story gives us a useful guide we will be happy. When it gives us bad guidance we start looking for a fiction that eliminates that problem without introducing bigger discrepancies.

So what we have is not an illusion, it's just a variety of social construct.

One of the things that our culture needs to understand about science is that it does not produce truth. It produces judgments that are based on empirical evidence and are always on tenter hooks to see whether the next empirical evidence that we contrive to get will kill this theory dead. Religion, on the other hand, often tells people what they must believe on the basis of authority and/or the threat of punishment for refusing to believe. It denies the possibility that what is taught as being true could one day be found to be false.

People who popularize science (and probably many scientists as well) set our society up for big trouble when they claim that "science has proven that (whatever)!" "Dental science has proven that hard bristle brushes should be used for the best prevention against loss of teeth." "Medical science has proven that eggs are bad for you." Later, when more evidence accumulates, the popularizers come back to tell us once again what "science proves." People notice and think science is unreliable.