Implications of the Theory of Qualia: The “Solution” to the Problem of Consciousness
1. What Else is There?
From the “Qualia” paper we see that at least one aspect of consciousness, the qualitative aspects of experience, can only be understood by realizing that they are the processes of sensory transduction. But this insight generates other problems. We know now that the problem of qualia cannot exhaust the issues of consciousness since qualia are not produced by the brain while consciousness apparently is and thus we can have qualia without being conscious of them and we can also then have consciousness without sensory qualia. What ever is going on in our heads when we dream, hallucinate or experiment in a sensory deprivation tank, the brain activity does not involve external stimulation and thus does not involve real qualia. So the question now becomes: What else is there to consciousness besides qualia?
But first of all let us admit again that to claim that we can have qualia without conscious awareness of them may seem to beg a larger question, or at least an occasional assumption. Those who believe in something like the unity of conscious experience or the integrity of a particular experience will have difficulties with this view. But those who think that we can’t deconstruct consciousness or resolve an element of experience into different aspects ignore an essential fact about the physical events producing experience, namely that they are processes and processes must have components or at least stages. Consciousness in total, in all aspects, must involve some sorts of “mental” or physical processes. It is either supported by or consists in complicated biological events and while this upon reflection may seem obvious, it is not necessarily a fact that is always acknowledged in the analysis of our mental lives.
Some discussions would seem to assume that at any given moment we are either conscious or we are not, that the light is either on or off with no dimming possible, even though this view seems divorced from everyday experience. What’s more problematic is the notion that something is necessarily either conscious or it isn’t, that an entity can either be attributed with consciousness or it cannot. Either / or theories are difficult to sustain once we adopt a process theory of consciousness unless perhaps we maintain that consciousness is a singular or single type of process. But theories of the singularity of consciousness or even those which would severely limit the number of relevant processes must fail because we know that qualia in fact involve numerous diverse processes and could well involve many others that most biological systems, for example, don’t exhibit. Human beings for instance might have an organ for detecting magnetic fields (as pigeons do perhaps), an organ that provided a distinct sensation, or separate organs for detecting various components of the electromagnetic spectrum besides the eyes we have for visible light. Or we might have pressure transducers analogous to the lateral lines of fishes or radiation detectors. If qualia are sometimes part of consciousness, then once we realize that qualia are processes, the whole notion of a simple, essentialist theory of consciousness becomes suspect.
Biological systems involve many different sorts of processes and including many different information based processes so what counts for consciousness and what doesn’t and why? Our internal organs are frequently doing things we are not generally aware of. Some of these even involve transduction processes- digestion for example. Some of these subconscious transduction processes might even involve something we could regard as information based activities. So even transduction events which involve information don’t necessarily result in awareness or experience. Shifting the focus from consciousness per se to conscious experience might be helpful here. Now some would perhaps claim that in doing so we loose the problem, that the issue is the nature of pure consciousness, devoid of any particular experiential element. Others might allow the move because they maintain that all consciousness is consciousness of something (Sartre?), and that the problem of consciousness is exhausted by the problem of conscious experience. But regardless of the “pure” consciousness issue –the question of if it really exists or not- the exploration of the problem of conscious experience, let us call this awareness, can perhaps help us with some fundamental issues.
If we can explain awareness we will be making great progress. But what is the essential quality or property of awareness? It cannot be any particular experience, we are aware of many things in many different ways. Neither can awareness be defined in terms of overt behavior. Behavior is complicated depending on and requiring many things besides experience and we don’t generally respond to every thing we are aware of. Moreover behavior sometimes occurs without anything we might want to call a causative conscious experience. But awareness does seem to nevertheless be tied to or connected with the possibility of responding to that which we are aware of even if the phenomenon can not be explained away behaviorally. Simply put the connection seems to be this: To say we are aware of something is to say we have an internal neurological state capable of generating the specific information required for a volitional response.
But what’s the nature of this internal neurological state? It doesn’t actually have to produce behavior for any number of reasons ranging from paralysis to lack of interest. What sort of pre- potent or potentially potent state might we discover in the brain that might be regarded as the essential precursor of behavior or more generally of all types of neurological activity relevant for consciousness? Do these states involve anything more than specific, response selecting activity? For biological systems using neurons, an immediate answer suggests itself. Nervous tissue, at least in the CNS, requires constant system level controls on its overall level of activity and reactivity. Because neurons are so small and sensitive these cells and their networks must be constantly inhibited to prevent mass, random, and chaotic activity which does not serve the organism. Without this control we would all be wild, hallucinating epileptics. The nervous system, at least at the central level, works through inhibition and disinhibition, and it is these controls on accidental activity provided by neurological sub systems that are the foundation for all other functions of the system.
Sensory processes, the generation of movement and everything else done by the brain happens because specific networks overcome the generally inhibitory influences produced by local cortical and global subcortical systems. The basic characteristic of all these inhibitory regulatory activities is that they are non-specific; they are regional or global and hit every neuron in the effected system. In contrast, specific patterns of activity are produced by external stimuli and result in behavior by generating patterns of network activity which are more or less unique to the stimulus and the resulting response. Both syntactic behavior and sensory processing/recognition require at least semi unique line labeled patterns of information and related information processing in neurological system whose overall operational potentials are controlled by other, non- specific, influences.
This non- specific support- control- maintenance activity in the cerebral cortex has to be another component of consciousness –unless we think that awareness exists only in the particular case. Otherwise, this is the process we were looking for, the sine qua non for everything else that goes on in the brain. This is consciousness without content but it is very difficult to “experience” this pure consciousness. The problem is that the sensory deprived brain will try to fill the experiential void with activity which is reminiscent of that which results from normal sensory experience or other forms of normal activity, e.g., recalling memories. Non-specific inhibitory activity probably produces these sorts of events by itself, i.e., it effectively produces noise in the system which under certain circumstances can produce something resembling normal sensory input in various cortical sensory centers. So we are seldom if ever left with encephalic states representing pure empty consciousness. (But: Close your eyes, plug up your ears and concentrate on holding your breath –Afterwards does it seem like anything else was going on? Were you aware of anything?)
Let us consider some immediate implications of the ideas outlined above. But first of all let us note that that they really includes very little speculative science; all they really assume is that there is something else going on in the brain besides immediate reactions to external stimuli and the development of the potential for specific responses. This is hardly controversial regardless of whether or not the details turn out to be like the above theory would suggest. What’s really important here is the notion that consciousness is system specific and that it is generally inconsequential in and of itself. It is only important because it supports other things, the activities that constitute the real business of the nervous system. Pure consciousness here then is something that happens only in complicated biological systems with brains as far as we know and is purely preparatory and regulatory. It exists only so other things can happen.
It is quite possible that non- biological systems might exhibit intelligent human like behavior, perhaps even be regarded as ethical systems without anything that correlates with human consciousness. Perhaps their information systems just aren’t active unless they are doing something. Perhaps they would always be off unless they were triggered on. They might, we could suppose, have only instances of consciousness when they were active with some information based activity. But intelligent autonomous agents would have to have something else. If capable of generating their own behavior without external influences, their control systems would have to have some way of initiating it. These control systems might always be on or only operate intermittently. We might regard entities like this then as being either continuously or intermittently conscious. We might then adopt the view that non system specific consciousness, i.e., consciousness per se, is an inevitable aspect of the capacity for spontaneous, enduring, autonomous agency. (As explained previously, agency as the term is used here is only the capacity for internally generated syntactic behavior. Syntactic behavior is that which involves timed, sequenced and controlled elements. A clockwork mechanism can be an agent of a very limited kind in our view.)
We should distinguish our ideas here from those associated with medical or physiological theories of consciousness even though they may seem similar. The problem with scientific theories of consciousness is that they all ultimately depend on behavior for supportive evidence–even if it is not external or motor behavior. Medical or physiological theories of human consciousness will always depend on behavioral evidence for validation, even if it is only the behavior of certain areas of the brain without any external manifestations. To be scientific they must be falsifiable and this involves some sort of observable, i.e., behavioral evidence. But requiring empirical evidence to support theories of consciousness will always seem to beg the question of whether or not the phenomenon of interest really admits to scientific analysis. Is the basis of experience amenable to experience based evidence?
Unless we are willing to concede that science has or can produce all the answers here the problem of consciousness is not scientific it is epistemological. But it is not simply conceptual or purely philosophical either, it does not depend on metaphysics or reside in some special unique area of concern like “the philosophy of mind”; it is specifically epistemological. It concerns what we can know and how we can know it which is a complicated system dependant problem. If we think we just experience consciousness or just have it with or without content, and cannot really talk about it, fine. But if we want to think about it or more significantly, talk about it, then we are constrained in our efforts by the processes that support thinking and talking and these are limited by the nature of the information based neurological activities that produce them both.
2. Consciousness as an Epistemological Problem
It is easy to assume that well formed, cogent questions automatically have some sort of epistemic value; it is harder to prove it. We don’t generally assume we have to “prove” our questions according to some sort of epistemic criteria. But questions are only cognitive experiments, or tools for intelligent investigations. As such they may or may not prove useful, but utility of some sort is the principle value of a question. If a question fails on this criterion it is hard to see why we should keep on asking it or trying to answer it. One of the things we could consider here with respect to evaluating a question is to ask what we can do to answer it. If this “doing” simply involves more talking about it, then we are forced to consider the nature of the information based behavior that constitutes this discussion. If “doing“ involves producing empirical evidence then we have some sort of scientific or at least experiential basis for the answer. But if we assume that the question cannot be answered empirically, then we are limited to considering a particular kind of behavior, perhaps it is philosophical analysis, for answering it and required to consider the inherent limitations of this kind of activity. But this is never done. We do not do epistemic reviews of our linguistic performances in terms of the biology, neurology and ultimately information based processes that produce them. This is a large part of the problem generated by the questions surrounding the phenomena of consciousness.
Some questions are immediately related to obvious phenomenon or concerns. It is easy to imagine a subject for questions like: ”What am I looking at?” or “What did you say?” Here, the subject, perhaps some unresolved experience, in some sense causes or is the basis or foundation for the question. Sometimes, however, the subject has no direct connection to the questioning or answering process and the question has to be analyzed to determine what it is about. Questions about consciousness are of this latter sort. They cannot have as their immediate subject the phenomenon of consciousness itself because anything we might want to call pure consciousness cannot generate the specific neurological activity required for a response to a “thing” based inquiry. Consciousness cannot ask or talk about itself. It merely supports this sort of activity in the course of some peculiar operations necessary for the controlled functioning of certain kinds of systems. Thus, if we ask why consciousness is the way it is in any of the various forms of this question, consciousness itself cannot determine the answer. There is no factual basis, no evidence of any kind to generate or even lend support for a particular answer. Some things just are what they are and like what they are like.
I cannot tell you why my consciousness is like it is, and you can’t tell me either. We cannot resolve fundamental questions about the nature of experience by trying to externalize them or turn them into public questions for some sort of quasi-empirical investigation. Person “A” cannot say how things seem to person “B” except through the behavior of “B” whose internal experiences are known only through outward manifestations. This is an epistemic end state problem, and we can imagine other examples. Physics may someday reach the limits of resolution on issues generated in one of its principle areas of concern, the extremely small and simple. On the other end of the scale, there are inherent limits to our ability to predict the performance of certain kinds of large systems, meteorological ones for example. With other types of problems, those generated by complicated systems of certain specific types we have already reached an end point or limit of analysis and knowledge. This because an information based system like the human brain is not necessarily able to, and probably cannot as a matter of fact, generate specific information about all of its internal states and that is simply all there is to it.
The processes of what we are calling pure consciousness cannot tell us about the experience of consciousness like the eye and the ear tell us about the external world. These processes lack the capability to provide qualitative information required for descriptive or analytical behavior. Indeed it is not even clear what we could mean by qualitative information here. Quantitative information may be another matter however. The brain may be able to develop response networks that are sensitive to the overall level of activity in the support or regulatory systems. Thus maybe when we say that we are feeling tired or under the weather or have some other sense of reduced or altered consciousness we may be reporting on the state of these systems. Or we may just be responding on the basis of some sensory- motor input from other neurological centers.
The content of consciousness is still another issue. In particular the question of why we can be aware of some internal states and not of others is amenable to empirical investigation. If we can think about it, talk about it, or in any way generate a cortically based reaction to it, we can and evidently do say that we are or can be conscious of it. The content of consciousness is a function of information sourcing and flow in a nervous system. If an internal state generates, in a unique or distinguishing manner, information which is sent to an effecting element of the cortex then we seem to be able to be consciously aware of it. But this cortical based theory of the perceptible is the result of the dependency of science or empirically based justification schemas on behavioral evidence for demonstrating the existence of something. The observer cannot say that a subject is aware of anything without evidence for the claim; the catch is that if the subject can’t say it either when the system does not produce the requisite information. They too will fail to manifest awareness even to themselves and the question of whether or not they are truly conscious of something falls into the area described previously were questions becomes unanswerable.
Consciousness then has three components: qualia, the regulating/ support activities of the brain and the cortical component produced by the effective aspects of neurological system operations. But we should regard this theory as more of a discovery than an analysis. It is not necessarily “what we mean by consciousness” or an “analysis of the concept of consciousness”. We have figured out some things by considering certain elementary facts and can give the results a name: “The Theory of Consciousness”. We are justified in labeling it this because there is nothing else to be considered, new science aside, and if consciousness is anything, if the word really designates anything at all, it must be these sorts of things because there is nothing else and these seem to be the sorts of things we are talking about when we talk about consciousness..
The most important part of the theory is that relating to the notion of the content of consciousness, because this is where the distinctions between various types or examples of conscious systems must be made. We can make artificial conscious systems, but they probably won’t have human like consciousness and this is the important difference. The issue is not if other systems, biological or otherwise, are conscious but rather it is what they are or can be conscious of. Machines will not typically be aware of anything resembling the feelings or internal states associated with hope, aspirations, fears or desires etc. because they won’t have the biological hardware required for these things. No machine will roll its head back, sigh and say: “I hope I win...” because it can’t. (We should hope!)
If we want to explain or justify human values or human exceptionalism we have to tread carefully around concepts like intelligence and consciousness. Machines will be as smart as we are and will probably acquire a type of consciousness with advanced agency. Anything with a brain and sensory organs is probably already conscious. It will become increasingly difficult to separate out the essential aspects of humanness; those things which we think make us more important or more valuable than other types of cognitive or conscious systems even if we are able to completely define the scope of human awareness. Just saying: “They haven’t got it therefore they’re not as valuable as we are…” will not work very well. For one thing, artificial systems may in fact to appear to have say, emotions, even if they don’t have the requisite hardware. For another, humans are sometimes viewed as superior if they lack certain types of dispositions like fear or greed that have conscious components. Is a smart machine who is not fearful or greedy superior to a human who is? Our machines will probably be intelligent, fearless, friendly, loyal and honorable. How many people do we know like this?