Published on October 15th, 2009 | by Harmonist staff18
Dr. Lekshmi Ramakrishnaiyer
Human consciousness is just about the last surviving mystery. With the unceasing march of science and technology, human vistas of knowledge appear to have no visible boundaries. It makes the scientifically-minded feel that there hardly exists a problem that may be termed a mystery. But consciousness is an entity that still remains a mystery to contemporary philosophers, psychologists, neurophysiologists, and cognitive scientists. Today, anyone who wishes to do some serious thinking on fundamental human issues is prompted to revisit this “new” (and yet, age-old) mystery.
What Is the Problem?
Imagine yourself enjoying the pleasant smell drifting from the gorgeous vase of roses placed on your table. The experience, of course, is something that is likely to remain etched in your memory. But what is this experience? One may not even be able to describe it to oneself, for this is an extremely private phenomenon and has a subjective quality all its own. These ‘private qualities’ are termed “qualia”. Our conscious experience consists of qualia. So the problem of consciousness can be formulated thus: how are qualia related to the physical world, or how does the objective physical brain manage to produce subjective qualia?
The problem of consciousness is a decidedly tricky problem. It seems to be presenting perpetually new and divergent facets to philosophers, psychologists, and cognitive scientists. Part of the problem is that in common usage the term consciousness is used very ambiguously. It is often contrasted with what is unconscious or is used as a synonym for ‘attending to something’. But the problem of consciousness does not fundamentally pertain to any of these. It is primarily about personal experience or subjectivity, or possibly a state transcending subjectivity, if such a state does exist.
What makes the problem of consciousness somewhat different from other mind-body problems? Consciousness is not synonymous with mind, which has its own distinctive meaning and functions. At the same time, consciousness is viewed by many as a by-product of the brain, and today our knowledge about the functioning of the brain, about neurotransmitters, neuromodulators, and the like, is increasing by leaps and bounds. We might have expected all this knowledge to have clarified the nature of consciousness, but it has not really done so. Not that we are ill-equipped to understand the ways and functions of the human brain—it may be that consciousness is something not amenable to brain science. This may actually suggest alternate modes of approaching the problem through first-person methods and spiritual techniques. This is what Husserl was suggesting when he wrote in 1929: “If I reflect properly on my states of consciousness, I will be learning thus what is the nature of the psychical and comprehending the being of the soul, and when I follow this procedure to the very end, I am face to face at last with the ultimate structure of consciousness.” We could call the above-mentioned two views the objective and subjective accounts respectively. We must see how consciousness is discussed by the advocates of these two approaches.
Most contemporary philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists have taken the third-person approach towards consciousness. In their explorations, consciousness has come to be divided into categories like phenomenal consciousness and access consciousness. The American philosopher Thomas Nagel has introduced a useful expression to describe what phenomenal consciousness is: an experience is phenomenally conscious if there is something that it is like to have that experience. In the example of the roses cited above, there is something that it is like to experience the smell of roses. Phenomenally conscious experiences have the special properties called qualia. Another variety of consciousness discussed by modern thinkers is access consciousness. A mental state is access conscious if it is available for the rational control of speech and behaviour and can play a role in reasoning. For instance, someone may not be able to answer the question, “Which city is the capital of Portugal?” but nevertheless be able to answer the question, “Is Lisbon the capital of Portugal?” In this case, the information about the capital of Portugal is said to be accessible.
It is important to note that the concept of access consciousness is quite distinct from that of phenomenal consciousness. Let me illustrate this point: Imagine a robot. It might believe that it is about to be attacked, and that belief might rationally control its actions, its speech, and such other programmed functions. This means that it might be access conscious of being under attack – but it may not be phenomenally conscious. Though we can develop hypotheses about how access consciousness is achieved, when it comes to phenomenal consciousness, we have very few ideas. In fact, we have no idea how the brain generates phenomenal consciousness. David Chalmers, a contemporary Australian philosopher, has called the challenge of explaining how the brain gives rise to phenomenal consciousness the “hard problem”:
If any problem qualifies as the problem of consciousness, it is this one. … even when we have explained the performance of all the cognitive and behavioral functions in the vicinity of experience-perceptual discrimination, categorization, internal access, verbal report, there may still remain a further unanswered question; why is the performance of these functions accompanied by experience? Why doesn’t all this information processing go on in the dark, free of any inner feel?
Broadly speaking, phenomenal consciousness challenges physicalism in two ways. First, it presents a metaphysical challenge: can qualia be accounted for in purely physical terms? Second, it presents an epistemological challenge: even if we accept that qualia are, in fact, physical, can we understand how the brain generates phenomenally conscious experiences? This distinction was explicitly stated for the first time by the American philosopher Joseph Levine.
The “Mary thought experiment” suggested by the philosopher Frank Jackson is an argument to press the metaphysical challenge of qualia. Mary is a super-scientist who has been raised from birth in a black-and-white room. In the room she learns all the physical facts of relevance to human color vision. One day she is let out of the room and sees a ripe tomato in good light. “Wow!” she says, “Now, I know what red looks like!” It is only now that Mary has experienced the quale of redness. This knowledge is something fundamentally new: what red is like. No amount of knowledge about physical facts could have prepared her for the raw feel of what it is like to see red. Mary knew how the brain discriminated stimuli, integrated information, and produced verbal reports. She also knew that colors were names for specific wavelengths in the spectrum of light. All these are the easy problems of consciousness. Yet she did not know what colors actually looked like. Thus it follows that there are facts about conscious experience that cannot be deduced from physical facts about the functioning of the brain. Jackson is a property dualist as far as qualia are concerned. To him qualia are the non-physical properties of the brain.
Then there is the epistemological side of the problem. Think about a painful experience. Brain scientists would equate this with the rapid firing of neurons in a certain part of the brain. But this does not explain “painfulness”. Philosophers like Thomas Nagel and Joseph Levine have argued that there is an explanatory gap between the neuronal firing and the experience of painfulness. According to Levine, phenomenal properties like painfulness (a quale) are simple in that they have no structure. He goes on to assert that the lack of structure exhibited by qualia generates the explanatory gap.
Having reviewed the hard problem and the explanatory gap, let us now take a look at the alternate approaches to consciousness.
First-person approaches to consciousness are inextricably bound up with the concept of self. The notion of self gains importance in the problem of consciousness because it seems logical that there be someone who is having the experience, that there cannot be experiences without an experiencer. Our experiencing self seems to be at the center of our personal world, is self-aware at any given time, and continues to be so from one moment to the next. In other words, it seems to have both unity and continuity. But the problem starts when one asks what kind of entity this experiencer might be.
In ordinary parlance, the self is the subject of our experiences, an inner agent that makes decisions and carries out actions, a unique personality. There are, broadly speaking, two types of theories about the nature of self: the ego theories and the bundle theories. The former hold that underlying the ever-changing experiences of our lives there is an inner self that experiences all these different phenomena. All ego theories are unanimous in their acceptance of the self as a continuous entity that is the subject of a person’s experiences and the author of his or her actions and decisions. Ego theories include the Hindu theories of transmigrating immortal souls, Descartes’ dualism, and most modern personality theories. According to bundle theories, the feeling that each of us is a continuous unified self is an illusion. There is no such self but only a series of experiences linked together in various ways. There are experiences but there is no one entity which has them. Bundle theories include the Buddhist notion of anatta, Hume’s “bundle of sensations,” and Dennet’s “no audience in the Cartesian theater.”
Regardless of which theory of self we choose, we are confronted with the following problem: how does the brain generate phenomenally conscious experiences called qualia?
Yoga and Consciousness
What is needed for solving the above problem is a theory that can account for the real being of humans: a first-person account to human physical and non-physical ways of being. The philosophy of yoga is one such clear account of the spiritual as well as psychosomatic being of humans.
Unlike other sciences which view humans as primarily psycho-physical entities, yoga views them as fundamentally the self encased in the psycho-physical system. So, in this system, consciousness is not taken as a by-product of matter, nor is the self identified with ego. In yoga, consciousness, which is identified with the self (purusa), is considered a fundamental principle constituting humans. The yogic concept of the human being can be explained in terms of the kosas or sheaths that have been elaborated in the Upanishads. Pure consciousness (self) is encased in the material vehicle of the five sheaths, the panchakosas: annamaya kosa (the physical sheath), pranamaya kosa (the vital or energy sheath), manomaya kosa (the mental sheath), vijnanamaya kosa (the intellectual sheath) and anandamaya kosa (the sheath of bliss).
According to yoga, our states of consciousness can be resolved into two “parts”—permanent and changing. The permanent part is that pure consciousness by virtue of which we have the notion of self reflected in our consciousness and are able to examine our own mental activities as witness. The changing part is that form of consciousness which is constantly varying according to the constant change of its contents. A fundamental characteristic of consciousness is that it undergoes changes of state within itself. We cannot distinguish states of consciousness from consciousness itself, for consciousness is not something separate from its states; it exists in them, passes away with their passing, and is submerged when they are submerged. It has been suggested that an invariable relation exists between matter and consciousness: “a change in consciousness corresponds to the change in the vibration of matter (change in state and not change of place) and vice versa.” Thus the self (consciousness) becomes identified with whichever sheath is most active at any given moment.
Understanding Qualia in the Light of Yoga
For a better understanding of phenomenally conscious experiences (qualia) in humans, it is necessary to go through the yogic theories of knowing. Two elements, purusa (self) and mahat (intelligence), play key roles in the process of cognition. But neither, by itself, can serve as the subject or experiencer, for purusa is external to phenomenal experiences and mahat, being derived from material prakrti, is incapable of any conscious experience. So the Sankhya philosophers suggest that conscious experience is elicited by them jointly.
The details of the process of cognition can be put in the following way: the object first makes an impression upon one or another of the senses, either directly or in a mediate fashion. Perception is effected by means of a psychic sign—an image or idea of the object in question. Mahat itself assumes the form of the object. The purusha illumines the mahat or is reflected in it, and the latter, though material, is fine enough to receive this reflection. Thus illuminated, mahat serves as the conscious subject. Therefore, mahat may be viewed as the physical medium for the manifestation of spirit. In this sense, we may call their union the empirical self, as distinguished from the transcendental self, or pure consciousness. Every cognition or the nominally conscious experience (quale) is a result of this blend.
The yogic theory of cognition seems to fill in the explanatory gap. But the yogi, unlike the neuroscientist, has visited consciousness through a different route. One needs to follow the spiritual path and practice meditation to walk this way. Of course, this is also a sure path to truth. Moreover, it also helps one understand what the real problem of consciousness is. Consciousness is no more viewed as a non-physical product of the brain but as the ontological principle that makes for human beings. Pure consciousness, in fact, is not an empirical principle but the eternal, transcendent, and cosmic self.
Towards a Broader Knowledge
The study of consciousness is unique. There have been arguments over whether consciousness can be studied from the objective third-person approach or from a subjective first-person approach alone. What appears to give these arguments their peculiar twist is the fact that in the study of consciousness the inner life itself is the phenomenon to be explored. Many important contemporary thinkers like Chalmers, Searle, Nagel, Levine, Pinker, and McGinn hold that consciousness has essentially a first-person or subjective ontology and so can not be reduced to anything that has a third-person or objective ontology. Revisiting the new mystery makes philosophers, psychologists, and scientists rethink the substantive claims of physical science and fosters the admission of alternate ways of inquiry in widening the domain of human knowledge.