Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Abigail Crocker & Lex Joy


Summary by Lee Petersen

Consciousness, the hard problem: in search of the self

Abigail and Lex begin the discussion by presenting two definitions of consciousness. There is an objective psychological definition of consciousness (we have thoughts and feelings as processes that occur in our brains), as well as a second less definable subjective definition based on what it is to feel (what it means to feel and how things are experienced). While the former definition includes the senses, there is more focus on physiological processes. The latter definition is based more on what it means to feel something, like how pain is perceived by an individual. We know pain can be recognized (as part of the psychological definition), but not so much what it is like for different people.

The objective definition, or idea, of what consciousness is leads us to Thomas Nagel and the question, what is it like to be a bat? We know that bats have limited sight, and that they use echo location as a primary means of navigation and finding food, but there is no way for us to know what it is like for the bat using echo location.

Three options were then presented for understanding what consciousness is. The first is the dualist perspective. The dualist option takes the ideas of the objective brain and subjective consciousness as two distinct entities. The second, materialist, option equates mind and brain. The third, mysterian, option states that the idea of consciousness is essentially not understandable—there is nothing proven and may never be proven.

The presentation moved on to Descartes and more dualism. Descartes believed that there is a self, or mind that interacts with the brain causing physical effects but mind is always distinct from matter. DeVries pointed out that there are actually two kinds of dualism. The first is substance dualism which opposes material things vs. immaterial things; that is, there are things that are spatial and have properties like mass and velocity, and then things that are non-spatial and thinking and have properties like feeling. The second kind of dualism is property dualism, where there are still physical and mental properties, but some things can contain both properties. Property dualism means that there doesn’t need to be a second explanation about how mind and body interact, as would be suggested with substance dualism.

Next mentioned was George Berkeley. Berkeley believed that there is no material world and that “to be is to be perceived.” In other words the conscious entity creates the material realm, a form of Idealism.

From here the discussion stemmed back to the mysterian view. Prof. DeVries made the point that we are finite, and cannot understand everything, but this does not mean that things are unintelligible. Another point is made that we may always make progress, but an ultimate mystery will always remain. Prof. Moebius points out that Lord Kelvin once thought we were on the brink of discovering one last thing, and that then we would know everything there is to know about physics, but then that thing turned out to be General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, thus we find that we were only looking at a little bit. Prof. Moebius asks if this concept is unique to physics, or if it happens in other sciences and philosophy as well.

Prof. deVries responds that there is no limitation on conceivability, but in imagination. The fact that we can’t imagine what it’s like to have echo location, doesn’t mean that we can’t understand it. As you learn more and more, it becomes easier to wrap your mind around things that were little understood or not understood in the past. He makes the point that we don’t know how far we can go.

Here the presentation continues with the idea that God can’t create zombies. According to Kripke, if there can be a human shell devoid of consciousness and lacking feelings, then there must be a distinct difference between conscious properties and physical or structural properties. An example could be copying a person cell by cell so that all the arrangements are exactly the same as the original, but the duplicate lacks awareness or consciousness. Kripke would say that since this copy could not function like the original without consciousness then you have not truly created a zombie. In other words, consciousness plays a part in an individual’s behavior.

Next in the discussion we turn to quantum indeterminism and the article, “Free will? Not as much as you think” by Barbara Feder Ostrov. The article points out that analyzing part of the brain that may be responsible for decision making shows that a person may make a decision up to ten seconds before the person is aware of that decision. A point is brought up that quantum mechanical events, including events in the brain, do not have to be determined by prior physical causes. At most prior physical causes only fix the probability for various possible results. This quantum indeterminism gives a materialistic explanation while leaving a possibility for free will.

Now the discussion goes largely to the idea of free will and different viewpoints as well as unanswered questions.