Why is Life in the First Person?

By Mark Haddon, originally published at The Telegraph.

Why is life in the first person?

We think. We feel. We are aware of ourselves and the world around us. We have consciousness. We are made of the same raw materials as bacteria, as earth, as rock, as the great dark nebulae of dust that swim between the stars, as the stars themselves. But somehow, a vanishingly small fraction of that brute stuff (you, me, chimpanzees maybe, chickens possibly, worms probably not) has been cunningly arranged into objects which experience what the American philosopher William James calls “subjective life”. How is that possible? Why do most of us feel that we are something more than molecules? Why are even ardent materialists haunted by the sense of being something insubstantial inhabiting a physical vessel?

The ancient Egyptians had a sophisticated model of a five-part soul attached to an earthly body. Doubtless simpler models go back much, much further. It is a puzzle which, in its manifold cognate forms, has fascinated, divided and defined human culture for at least as long as we have been able to write about these things. What do we mean by the soul? Does it live on after death? Can we be reincarnated in the body of someone not yet born? When does consciousness begin and when does it end?

Over the last 50 years biology, neuroscience and psychology have made huge advances in solving what the Australian philosopher David Chalmers called the “easy” problems of consciousness, the questions of how the brain performs (and sometimes fails to perform) its mechanical and computational functions: how we remember, how we process information from the external world, how we direct our attention, how we make judgments and take decisions… But we are no nearer to solving what he called the “hard” problem, the question of why we experience these things from the inside, as subjects.

The problem still nags at me. How difficult can it be? The raw material is not squirreled away inside an atom. It didn’t happen 14 billion years ago. It’s not hiding on the other side of the universe. It’s right here. Stop reading and look around the room, become aware of your feet, remember what you were doing yesterday. How is it possible for a lump of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium and potassium to do these things? I can’t shake the conviction that some kind of answer is just around the corner but I still have absolutely no idea what kind of answer it might be.

Indeed, far from solving the puzzle, recent advances in biology, neuroscience and psychology have, if anything, made it more complex. It is getting more and more difficult to fall back on the idea that there is some kind of ghost in the machine, the idea, most famously posited by Descartes, that the mind is a non-material entity connected to a material body. We understand the working of the brain in rapidly increasing detail and while what Edgar Allan Poe called “the magic pinions and the wizard wheels” are breathtakingly complex, it really does look like it’s just molecules in there. Everything so far observed inside the human head is a chemical reaction, an event which happens automatically when the right molecules are in the right place in the right state at the right time.

Materialism – the belief that everything in the universe is made exclusively of matter and that all mental events are therefore identical to interactions between matter – seems to be winning. Indeed there are many philosophers and scientists who believe that it has already won. But it feels like a pyrrhic victory. We are getting closer and closer to knowing precisely what happens in the brain when we juggle, or taste lasagne, or recognise an angry face, but this offers us no help in explaining how and why those things are experiences, only in showing the neural correlate, the stuff that happens in the brain at the same time. It may very well be that there is no ghost in the machine, but how on earth does a machine give itself the impression that there is one?

Why is life in the first person?

We may never find a truly satisfying and conclusive answer. We may realise that it was the wrong question altogether. But you will never really know what it is like to be me and I will never really know what it is like to be you. And this very unknowability of other human beings is, in large part, what fuels our fascination with poetry and fiction and art, those windows into other minds. And as for the puzzle of why it is like anything to be either you or me, that promises to remain one of the deep and abiding mysteries of the universe for a long time.

This article was originally published at The Telegraph, and is partially reproduced here without the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.

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6 Responses to Why is Life in the First Person?

  1. Materialism is not winning, not by a long shot. This issue is and will continue to move in the direction of a panpsychic perspective. Not long ago such a perspective—that consciousness is a fundamental feature of the natural world—was thought to be rubbish. Now it is fast becoming a respectable viewpoint. A recent article in the NY Times reports on the scientific finding that insects have consciousness and individual ego experience. Although most of the scientifically minded panspychic advocates promote a materialistic version of it, that is to be expected. But this is no more than moving the goal post.

    Gaudiya Vedanta posits a spiritual panpsychic worldview, in which matter is one with consciousness in that both are fundamental aspects of the advaya jnana tattva.

    • prahlada bhakta dasa

      Guru-Maharaja, can you please explain what you mean by a “panpsychic perspective”?

    • Can you explain what advaya jnana tattva means?

      The topic is complex and difficult to understand but I wondered if Gaudiya theology was a form of panpsychism or should be classified as something else. Idealism seems closer, but since Gaudiya’s are realists about matter that doesn’t seem right either.

      Gaudiya’s don’t seem to be very concerned with explaining those sort of details in the way naturalists are focused on and in the conceptual framework the naturalist discussion uses. Do you think that is something lacking in the Gaudiya tradition?

      I agree when you say materialism is losing ground on this topic, but if someone is only concerned with the explanatory details I wonder how it helps the Gaudiya position if it hasn’t been elucidated in the sort of details naturalists demand. We can only retreat to the mysterianism stance which isn’t a challenge to any particular position. The general scientific motivation for materialism remains unaffected if the explanatory deficient on this particular topic is universal.

  2. The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness (July 7, 2012, UK)

    We declare the following: “The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the
    neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that
    humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also
    possess these neurological substrates.”

    All empiric science is reductionistic materialism by definition, but still, there is some progress in the right direction. I posted this 2-page PDF here http://jayaradhe.nl/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf for your convenience.

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