The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Non-Event Causation

The US philosopher John Searlemakes a two-fold claim: consciousness cannot be reduced to the neurological processes that cause it, but is indeed a biological feature of the brain.

Brains cause minds, in his opinion, although we will not find feelings and emotions in the material processes of the brain, because feelings and emotions are higher-order features of the brain. Searleattacks the Cartesian tradition from the foundations: both dualism and materialism make no sense.The division of the world into matter and mind is arbitrary and counterproductive. In his view, we simply have to face the facts: consciousness is caused by brain processes, but consciousness cannot be reduced to those brain processes because it is a "first person" phenomenon and the brain processes are "third person" phenomena. To Searle, the mind-body problem has never existed: Descartesinvented a vocabulary, a terminology, not a real problem.

In a similar vein to the school of "supervenience", Searlecompares the mind-body problem to explaining how electricity arises from electrons or liquidity from molecules.

Searleis content with stating that consciousness is a (causally) "emergent" property of systems, just like electricity and liquidity. Searle realizes that liquidity can be predicted from the properties of elementary particles, whereas consciousness cannot be predicted from the properties of neurons. Searle realizes that Physics can explain how the features of electricity correspond to the features of electrons, whereas we can't explain (yet) how the features of consciousness arise from the features of neurons. Physicists can explain why (and exactly under which conditions) a set of molecules can achieve the phase transition to liquidity, whereas neurologists canít explain when exactly non-conscious matter becomes conscious. Searle thinks that it is not just a limit of today's neurophysiology (likely to change with time), but that this will always be the case, that it is impossible to provide a material explanation of the features of consciousness. Searle thus admits a crucial difference between consciousness and electricity or liquidity or digestion: consciousness is special in that it cannot be explained.

Searlehas nothing to offer other than declare that mental life exists and that it emerges from neurons, which is equivalent to saying that liquidity exists and that it emerges from liquids.

Searlethinks that computers have no minds because they are not brains, but he never proves the underlying assumption: that they are not brains. In Searle's jargon, "brain" is simply the "thing" that enables the mind. His entire theory can therefore be viewed as a mere tautology: the mind is due to the thing that causes it. What that thing is remains a mystery. Ultimately, Searle merely states that the mind exists. If one has not defined what a brain is, it is hard to claim that something is not a brain.

Searlebasically resurrects Thomas Nagel's argument that consciousness cannot be explained. Thus, consciousness is not an emergent process like liquidity, because liquidity, like all emergent properties, is reducible to the physical process that creates it. Emergent properties are normally predictable by science: we know when (and why and how) a substance is a liquid and not a solid or a gas. If consciousness is indeed an emergent property, why should it be the only one that we cannot predict and explain?

Searleis not baffled by the emergence of conscious feelings from unconscious neurological processes of the brain. He finds it perfectly understandable. And therefore he downplays and ridicules all theories that tried to solve this paradox. But it is like somebody not being puzzled by the fact that the sun rises and sets every day, and contenting himself with the idea that it must be a feature of the Earth.


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