Qualia, Consciousness, and Zombies

I am currently reading Christof Koch’s memoir Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist. Christof Koch is a Professor of Cognitive and Behavioral Biology at CalTech. You can find the first two posts of his book here and here. In chapter 3 of the the book Koch looks at the nature of consciousness and why this concept challenges the scientific view of the world. Consciousness is a hard problem – according to philosopher David Chalmers of the Australian National University it is The Hard Problem (more information on Chalmers here). In fact Chalmers suggests that consciousness is a serious challenge for materialism – although it doesn’t invalidate science or darwinian evolution, and as far as I can determine he is an atheist or agnostic. This video from 2009 provides an interesting overview of his Chalmer’s ideas. Zombies come into the discussion at about 2:20.

As The Hard Problem, consciousness appears to be inexplicable in the context of reductionist science, yet Koch remains convinced that an explanation exists. Science should be able to explain the world within us as well as it explains the world around us. Koch introduces the concept of qualia, used as well by Chalmers (definition about 5:40 in the video above). Quale is a philosophical term that describes the essence of an experience, qualia is the plural of quale. The experience of red or green or bitterness are qualia. “Qualia are the raw feelings, the elements that make up any one conscious experience.” The essence of these experiences are natural phenomena wired into the brain.

According to Koch:

I believe that qualia are properties of the natural world. They do not have a divine or supernatural origin. Rather they are the consequences of unknown laws that I would like to uncover.

Many questions follow from that belief: Are qualia an elementary feature of matter itself, or do they come about only in exceedingly organized systems? Put differently, do elementary particles have qualia, or do only brains have them? … Does my Mac enjoy its intrinsic elegance, whereas my accountant’s slab of non-Mac machinery suffers because of its squat gray exterior and clunky software? Is the Internet, with its billion nodes, sentient? (p. 28)

In a number of places in his discussion Koch pits the natural mechanisms for qualia – or consciousness – over and against the religious concept of the soul.  Consciousness is not separable from the physical brain and as such it obeys, on some elementary level, the laws of physics. Koch suggests that the dualist approach with a soul inhabiting a body does not seem to make much sense. We are fully embodied creatures. Although Koch uses this as part of an argument against religion, many Christians take a more unified, wholistic view. The concept of humans as fully embodied unities is not intrinsically inconsistent with Christian faith. I, for example, don’t consider myself a dualist.

The Difficulty of Defining Consciousness. Neuroscience in general, and the study of consciousness in particular, is a field in its infancy. There are several consequences of this – the most important is that it is a work in progress. Conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt – not because they represent bad science, but because they represent attempts to get at the truth. They are subject to refinement and redefinition as the field progresses. Here Koch makes an important point:

A habitual misperception is that science first rigorously defines the phenomena it studies, then uncovers the principles that govern them. Historically, progress in science is made without precise axiomatic formulations. Scientists work with malleable, ad hoc definitions that they adapt as better knowledge becomes available. Such working definitions guide discussion ans experimentation and permit different research communities to interact, enabling progress. (p. 33)

This is true across the board, in physics, in chemistry, in evolutionary biology, and in neuroscience. Scientists work at proving or disproving hypothesis based on definitions – but everything is subject to revision in the face of evidence. The object is not defense of some pet construct, but determination of the most accurate explanation of the world around us and within us. Any working hypothesis will need to be revised, and may need to be rejected.

Working Definitions. Koch gives four working definitions of consciousness, none of them complete but each capturing an important part of consciousness.

Common sense definition: Consciousness is equated with our inner mental life.

Behavioral definition: A checklist of actions or behaviors that would certify an organism as conscious. A medical diagnosis. Emergency room personnel will evaluate consciousness according to a range of response.

Neuronal definition: This relates to “the minimal physiological mechanism required for any one conscious sensation.”

Philosophers definition: Consciousness is what it like to feel something. (Although as Koch notes later on emotion is not essential, the experience can be “flat” and still reflect consciousness.)

None of these definitions is foundational. None describes in unequivocal terms what it takes for any system to be conscious. But, for practical purposes,  the behavioral and neuronal definitions are the most useful. (p. 34)

It isn’t exactly surprising that a neuroscientist would find these definitions the most useful. That non-human animals experience consciousness seems hard to deny – and they certainly can plan and scheme. My cat is particularly devious at times. The difference is one of degree along a continuum not a fundamental change in the nature of being, it is quantitative not qualitative. (Although no other creature can sequence its own genome, or “build a globe-spanning internet”).

The Science of Consciousness. And here is another important assumption according to Koch (but always recall that working hypotheses in science may be revised or rejected later on):

As a starting point, I assume that the physical basis of consciousness is closely linked to specific interactions among neurons and their elements. Although consciousness is fully compatible with the laws of physics, it is not feasible to predict or understand consciousness from these laws alone. (p. 35)

David Chalmers reflects more on this in another YouTube video – dated a couple of years earlier than the one above.

Personally, I think the study of consciousness may precipitate a revolution in world view something akin to the materialist revolution brought about by the age of science. But like Koch, I expect the answer to the problem of consciousness to be consistent with the laws of physics. Unlike Koch and Chalmers, I think it might point us back toward God. I don’t think there will be a “gap,” that is, a phenomena inexplicable without God, providing empirical proof of the existence of God. Rather I think we may see a serious twist in the nature of our understanding of at least part of reality. This is all speculation, however.

Is consciousness a hard problem? What do you think of Chalmers description of it as The Hard Problem?

Do you think this is a problem that may require a solution beyond materialism?

If you wish to you may contact me directly at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If you wish to comment on this post please see Qualia, Consciousness, and Zombies at Jesus Creed.

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