Consciousness, A Priori Reasoning and Pluralism

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Richard Cox
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Consciousness, A Priori Reasoning and Pluralism

Post by Richard Cox »

Hello everyone,

I wrote the following essay for a course I took on consciousness studies. I wanted to explore a couple of things; how consciousness could be probed with a priori reasoning and the value of adopting a pluralistic approach to studying it. I managed to jam them both in.

I'm going to use the essay as a foundation for further exploration of these areas. I do see it as a starting point in need of further work. I'd certainly appreciate anyone's input.

I recorded an audio version of the essay here:

The PDF version might be an easier read:
https://www.dropbox.com/s/wimcu9uf1eij0 ... s.pdf?dl=0


On Understanding Consciousness

Introduction

In this essay I shall be evaluating the following statement:

‘The challenge to understand the nature of consciousness requires the discipline of science together with a willingness to accept the contribution of other, diverse approaches.’

The first thing to note is that if we recognise we do not understand consciousness, then we must acknowledge we are not in a position to state what coming to an understanding of it might require. In making selections we will, at best, be engaging in educated guesswork.

We must then decide what would constitute a ‘diverse approach’? Given that science is specifically mentioned, a diverse approach would be any approach that is distinctly not-science.

Here we are in danger of smacking into the demarcation problem1—what exactly are the boundaries that separate science from other areas of human knowledge? This is a question which has produced much philosophical debate, including the possibility that there is no identifiable method which constitutes science.2 For practical purposes, I’m going to avoid the question and artificially adopt a deliberately narrow definition, in order that we will be left with plenty of not-science examples to discuss.

A narrow definition of science may include forming hypotheses, making testable predictions and running experiments to gain knowledge about our world. We might add that the predictions must be, at least in principle, falsifiable.

It’s worth stating that not-science would not include things such as psychic or near death experience (NDE) research, when that research is carried out in a scientific manner. To say such research is not scientific would be to conflate the scientific approach to knowledge with belief in a certain world-view. Not-science may, however, include listening to the anecdotes of experiencers and drawing insight into the nature of consciousness from them.

Not-science could also include philosophical inquiry that does not seek empirical verification. This could be in assessing how we are asking questions about consciousness, or in the form of directly inquiring into consciousness itself. The Austrian School of Economics has, for example, made great use of an a priori methodology that rejects empiricism—and by extension most common conceptions of science—as being the correct tool for study in that field.3

Before getting into approaches other than science, we will take a look at what science itself has to say about consciousness.

Science

The antecedence of a scientific approach can be found as far back as the 17th century BCE in the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus; the Egyptian text which contains the first account of the anatomy of the brain.4 Fast-forwarding to today, functional neuroimaging techniques (FNT) allow scientists to peer into the brain and observe the neural correlates of consciousness.5 The results are nothing short of science-fiction. FNT grants a level of observation sufficiently detailed to witness the same individual neurons activated when a visual image is both viewed and imagined.6 It allows for accurate predictions to be made of the contents of people’s dreams,7 for technology that permits the control of machines through thought alone.8 Perhaps most magically of all, it has granted people with locked in syndrome the ability to reconnect with the world, sometimes after decades of isolation, by bypassing the body and permitting the brain to speak directly.9

It is, therefore, no surprise that most neuroscientists believe the secrets of consciousness are contained within the physical brain and that science is the key to unlocking them. Given their dazzling success, should the rest of us simply step back and leave them to crack on with it? Can we conclude, as Francis Crick does, that; ‘A person’s mental activities are entirely due to the behavior of nerve cells, glial cells, and the atoms, ions and molecules that make them up.’?10

There are at least two reasons why this is not a forgone conclusion.

Firstly, science itself does not pull entirely in one direction. Anecdotes of patients reporting out of body experiences during operations gained greater weight when Dr. Penny Sartori documented they were able to describe the procedures they underwent with greater accuracy than a control group.11 Research into psi phenomenon, whilst not impossible to contrive a materialist explanation for,12 does not sit well within that paradigm and perhaps points to a non-material basis for consciousness.13

This indicates that materialism might not hold all the answers, yet we are still talking about employing a scientific approach. For the second reason, we must go beyond scientific thinking altogether.

The Limits of Science

Departing the domain of science, we find philosophy can inform us as to whether observing correlates of consciousness proves that matter creates consciousness, or whether this conclusion arises out of an often unconscious assumption as to the primacy of matter. Correlates are also what we might expect to find if consciousness is primary.

I’ll illustrate with a personal example.

During a period when I was contemplating this very question, I had an experience of taking a drug which caused me to pass out for several hours. When I came round, I was overwhelmed by a powerful sense of consciousness being subject to matter. Chemicals had been able to eliminate my conscious experience altogether.

Then I woke up and realised I’d been dreaming.

In truth there had been no chemicals and no brain for them to affect, only consciousness affecting itself. It is entirely possible to imagine my dream brain being observed through dream FNT and dream brain waves being displayed on a dream screen. I will grant that the level of complexity of neuroscience would not likely be replicated in a dream, but there is no obvious cut-off point for complexity. If this world is a different kind of dream, it could allow for a much higher level of complexity to be dreamt.

Whilst it is conceivable that science could falsify materialism (documenting out of body experiences, for example), it is not conceivable that any demonstration of neural correlates will ever prove that matter gives rise to mind. As no empirical observations can answer the question of what reality fundamentally is, it is a question science is fundamentally locked out of.

Can we perhaps turn to philosophy for further answers?

Philosophy

Philosophy is like Mark Twain—in that reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. If science is concerned with asking questions about the properties of this world, one role of philosophy would be to examine how we are asking those questions. I will now propose and run through one example of how such an approach might bear fruit when applied to consciousness studies.

An A Priori Approach

There are over three-hundred and fifty ways to prove Pythagoras’ Theorem.14 None of them involve the measuring of triangles with a ruler. Geometric proofs differ from proofs in natural sciences in this sense: they can be demonstrated a priori—through pure reason—and therefore do not rely on empirical verification.

Is it possible to prove phenomena in the natural sciences this way too? Let us examine this.

Galileo Galilei is perhaps the world’s most famous empiricist. As the apocryphal story goes, he dropped balls of varying weights off the Leaning Tower of Pisa to demonstrate that they would land at the same time. Minus the particular tower, it’s certainly all true—just not the whole story. In his Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences, Galileo also made an a priori argument for why this must be the case. His character Salviati exclaims: ‘It is possible to prove clearly, by means of a short and conclusive argument, that a heavier body does not move more rapidly than a lighter one’.15

In brief, the argument asks us to imagine two bodies of different weights being joined together as they fall. If gravity accelerates the heavier one faster, a contradiction arises wherein the lighter one acts to slow it down, but also, because they are now one object, the addition of the lighter speeds the heavier one up.

It is quite a wonder that such insight into nature could be gained purely through inner reasoning. It seems an open question as to what role this kind of reasoning played for Galileo, with biographer John J. Fahie stating that ‘to satisfy his own mind alone he had never felt it necessary to make many [experiments].’16

Are there any other fields of human endeavour that have made great use of an a priori approach?

In the social sciences, we find an example within the Austrian School of Economics. In his 1949 treatise, Human Action, Ludwig von Mises rejected empiricism as the appropriate tool with which to study economics. Instead he presented an a priori approach, resting on the central axiom that: Humans act. Von Mises considered this to be a solid foundation, as to even think in opposition to it is to act, and thereby engage in a performative contradiction.17

From this humble beginning, von Mises expanded to create a comprehensive theory of economics. It was for his work on the Austrian Theory of the Business Cycle that von Mises’ student, Frederick Hayek, received the 1974 Nobel Prize.18

Let us now examine what adopting an a priori approach would look like if applied to consciousness studies. Would doing such a thing return interesting and novel information, or would we just be spinning our wheels declaring all bachelors to be unmarried?

To start with, we will need an axiom which is self-evidently true. I propose:

Consciousness is

If consciousness is not, that is to say, if we live in a purely material universe with consciousness being an illusion, this experience we are having doesn’t exist. You are not reading this. This statement is not being observed. If unobservable entities are indistinguishable from non-existent ones, then this statement does not exist. Given this, it seems that the statement ‘consciousness is’ provides a solid foundation upon which to build.

We can then add that:

Consciousness is foundational

All experience arises within consciousness. It is therefore not just something arising; like clouds, or colour, or telephones—all of which we can conceive of a world without—consciousness is foundational to experience.

And from there:

Consciousness is foundational and all encompassing

We cannot conceive of anything outside of consciousness. Existence outside of consciousness is unknowable and therefore indistinguishable from non-existence. In addition to being foundational, consciousness is therefore all encompassing.

It then follows that:

Matter arises in consciousness

We have no access to a material world outside of consciousness. It is inconceivable that we ever could have. All we know and can ever know of matter is that which appears in consciousness. Talk of matter outside of consciousness is therefore meaningless.

And:

The sense of self, the ‘I’ thought, arises in consciousness

If consciousness is all encompassing, then it must contain the perception of the self. The most foundational part of our being is then not the sense of an individuated self, but rather the consciousness in which that self is arising.

Therefore:

Consciousness is one

There is only ever an experience of one field of consciousness in which everything is perceived. We never experience two consciousnesses. Only one field, but not ‘my’ field, rather the field in which ‘I’ and ‘other’ arise.

And:

Consciousness is one, experiencing itself separately

If other entities are conscious, then as consciousness is one it follows that that one consciousness is having multiple experiences of itself.

And:

Consciousness can become conscious that it is one, experiencing itself separately

That we are able to process these points indicates this to be true.

We have then employed an a priori method to reach the same conclusion a mystic might through an inner—a posteri—examination of consciousness. The mystic however, may report certain qualities accompanying this perception of oneness, such an overwhelming feeling of love. ‘Love is how Oneness feels’, to quote contemporary mystic Tim Freke.19 Let’s see if we can take this next step with an a priori method too.

The dictionary defines love as: ‘A strong feeling of affection and concern toward another person’; but this really only tells us what love feels like, not what it is. If, as the mystical experience inclines us to perceive, love is somehow fundamental to the nature of being, can we define it in terms of the absence of something? For example:

Love is the antithesis of strife

For love to be strife would be a fundamental contradiction.

Strife arises out of the perception of separation

If all things are perceived as one, there are no separate parts to hold strife.

Love is perceived in the absence of separation

Rather than love being a feeling that arises under certain conditions, it is what is present when other conditions are removed.

And since:

Conscious is one and therefore absent separation

Then:

Consciousness is love

I am not convinced the logic is as solid with the latter group of statements as with the former, and they would doubtlessly benefit from further reflection and work. Overall however, what this process provides is a rational underpinning for mystical experience. In explaining a consciousness only ontology, we are not limited to referencing the experience of those who claim to have perceived such a thing. We can also make a rational argument for it (this is in addition to other types of argument, such as one from parsimony20). Furthermore, just as the experiential informs the rational, I have observed that reasoning through each step shifts experience into a direct perception of oneness.

With this rational underpinning in mind, let’s now look at another area falling outside of science: that of individual anecdotal experience.

Individual Experience

Mystical literature provides rich descriptions from people looking within to study the source of their consciousness directly. Some form of this study is present in spiritual traditions across the world, but finds perhaps its clearest expression in the Vedanta school of Hinduism with the practice of ātma-vichār, which we loosely translate as self-inquiry. Additionally, people report arriving in similar states through unsought spontaneous mystical experiences and NDEs.

For good or ill, anecdotes are powerful. Individual accounts of mystical experience shape the culture of spirituality21—and increasingly therapy.22 Whilst we can analyse anecdotes to discern patterns23 and even argue this constitutes science, individual anecdotes of inner experience are neither testable nor refutable and therefore clearly not science. The value contained in them, however, is immeasurable.

At this point we must segue to ask what we mean by ‘understanding consciousness’. We must consider that the word understand could have very different meanings depending on context.

To give an analogy, what it means to understand a car engine might be quite different whether you ask a physicist, mechanic or racing driver. By extension, understanding consciousness might be a very different thing for a scientist, therapist or mystic. Different forms of evidence then, may hold different levels of value.

For a therapist, understanding consciousness may mean understanding how a process of self-inquiry (consciousness contemplating itself) can affect a transformation in a person's psyche. This is quite different from what a neurologist would think of as understanding, but is in a sense every bit as real and powerful. Through this process, a profound shift may occur leading to the resolution of an otherwise intractable psychopathological condition.24 What the neuroscientist seeks to achieve through electrical stimulation of the brain,25 the therapist may also attempt through this contemplative approach.

The field of self-inquiry is like many people descending into various dark caves and reporting on what they find. There is no way to take scientific instruments into the caves, thus we are entirely reliant on these reports. We can compare them and find that many details line up, but there is no absolute way to verify any particular one. To dismiss the plurality of reports because they do not amount to scientific data would be self defeating. Instead we must be aware of all the ways in which they might deceive as we utilise them to the full.26

Conclusion

The Ryoanji temple contains a Zen garden with fifteen stones.27 However, from wherever a person stands within the garden, only fourteen of the stones are visible. Whatever the intentions of its creators, it serves as a metaphor for how there may be no one place we can stand to perceive reality in its entirety. A comprehensive perception may require fundamental changes in perspective. That which is obvious from one perspective may make no sense from another; whilst that which is nonsense suddenly becomes the obvious answer. As we make these shifts, even our sense of what it means to understand might change.28

In this essay I have attempted to demonstrate that there are indeed multiple non-scientific ways in which we can probe consciousness. These approaches return results which are both novel and powerful in their ability to affect psychological change. Different approaches may have rough edges and not sit comfortably alongside each other. One may return results which seem to contradict another. A full appreciation requires us to be comfortable living with these contradictions.

I do not contend it is necessary for every individual involved in any form of consciousness studies to embrace this plurality. Neuroscientists will continue to reveal the correlates of consciousness in absence of the input of mystics. Mystics will continue to explore their conscious depths without being required to know what an amygdala is. Indeed, a tenacity bordering on dogma may play a productive role in scientific discovery.29

Returning to our initial statement: we cannot know what will ultimately be required to understand consciousness or even what understanding ultimately means. That different non-scientific methods can be and are being employed to probe consciousness is neither recommendation nor conjecture: it is a fait accompli. We do not have to embrace this to do good work, but if we seek a comprehensive understanding then I suggest pluralism is a necessity.30



References

1 For a thorough treatment see Curd, M and Cover J A (1998) Philosophy of Science - The Central Issues
For an overview see Wikipedia

2 ‘The idea of a method that contains firm, unchanging, and absolute binding principles for conducting the business of science meets considerable difficulty when confronted with the results of historical research.’ Feyerabend, P (1975) Against Method

3 von Mises, L (1949) Human Action
See also Crovelli, M (2006) What Empiricism Can't Tell Us, and Rationalism Can
And Gordon, D (2019) Praxeology: The Method of Economics

4 For an account of the surprisingly advanced medical knowledge found in the papyrus see: West, J A (1979) Serpent in the Sky
And Gonzalo, S; van Middendorp, J and Burridge, A (2010) The Edwin Smith Papyrus A Clinical Reappraisal of the Oldest Known Document on Spinal Injuries

5 For a thorough treatment see Schneider S and Velmans M (2017) The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness
For an overview see Wikipedia

6 Fried, I; Koch, C and Gabriel K (2000) Nature
For summary see Caltech

7 Tomoyasu, H; Tamaki, M; Miyawaki, Yi and Kamitani Y (2013) Science
For presentation see Gallant, J (2017) Human brain mapping and brain decoding

8 See article in The Economist

9 See article in Scientific American

10 Crick, F (1994) The Astonishing Hypothesis

11 Sartori, P (2014) The Wisdom of Near-Death Experiences - Chapter 7, A Five Year Prospective Study on NDEs
A list of Dr. Sartori’s academic publications can be found here

12 As an example: ‘that would not be ESP or PSI, and we would have no need to call it a “paranormal” effect, because we would then know the ability to read minds was due to the properties of neurons and atoms.’ Shermer, M (2016) Arguing Science

13 See: Radin, D (2018) Real Magic. In particular the section Consciousness and Magic (Page 192)

14 See: How many ways are there to prove the Pythagorean theorem?

15 Galilei, G (1638) Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences

16 Fahie J J (1903) Galileo, His Life and Work

17 von Mises, L (1949) Human Action
See also Crovelli, M (2006) What Empiricism Can't Tell Us, and Rationalism Can
And Gordon, D (2019) Praxeology: The Method of Economics

18 For details see: Rothbard, M (1974) Hayek and the Nobel Prize

19 Freke, T (2009) How Long is Now?
And Love is How Oneness Feels presentation at SAND

20 ‘If it can, then, based on the application of proper skeptical parsimony, it is as unnecessary to postulate a world outside consciousness as it is to postulate the flying spaghetti monster.’ Kastrup, B (2014) To understand the anomalous we need MORE skepticism, not less

21 For example see Tolle, E (1997) The Power of Now. Eckhart Tolle’s work, which has been read by tens of millions, is rooted in his anecdotal account of a spontaneously arising self-inquiry.

22 For example see Bays, B (2001) The Journey. Brandon Bays’ work on psychological and physical healing, whilst drawing on neuro-linguistic programming, is rooted in the self-inquiry practice of the Vedanta school.

23 See for example: Long, J (2017) God and the Afterlife

24 For an account of the author’s own experience see Cox, R (2016) Depression and Non-Duality

25 Blumberger, D (2018) Effectiveness of Theta Burst versus High-Frequency Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation in Patients with Depression

26 It is worth noting that scientific data is also not without its problems. See Corbett, J (2019) The Crisis of Science

27 Counting the Stones at Ryoanji Zen Temple

28 For a full exploration of these ideas see Feyerabend, P (1987) Farewell to Reason, in particular Chapter 1, Notes on Relativism

29 ‘Though preconception and resistance to innovation could very easily choke off scientific progress, their omnipresence is nonetheless symptomatic of characteristics upon which the continuing vitality of research depends.’ Kuhn, T (1961) The Function of Dogma in Scientific Research

30 For a full exploration of the case for pluralism see:

‘A scientist who is interested in maximal empirical content, and who wants to understand as many aspects of his theory as possible, will adopt a pluralistic methodology, he will compare theories with other theories rather than with ‘experience’, ‘data’, or ‘facts’, and he will try to improve rather than discard the views that appear to lose in the competition.’ Feyerabend, P (1975) Against Method

And:

‘Proliferation means that there is no need to suppress even the most outlandish product of the human brain. Everyone may follow his inclinations and science, conceived as a critical enterprise, will profit from such an activity. Tenacity: this means that one is encouraged not just to follow one’s inclinations, but to develop them further, to raise them, with the help of criticism (which involves a comparison with the existing alternatives) to a higher level of articulation and thereby to raise their defence to a higher level of consciousness.’ Feyerabend, P (1981) Consolations for the Specialist, Problems of Empiricism, Philosophical Papers Volume 2
Shajan624
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Re: Consciousness, A Priori Reasoning and Pluralism

Post by Shajan624 »

Richard,

Very interesting paper. A multi-pronged approach would be required to understand consciousness. Even more important is to think about what exactly we mean by ‘understand’ or ‘know’ something. Consciousness has an essential role in the act of ‘knowing’ and attempting to know consciousness risks self-referencing, like trying to lift the chair we are sitting on.

I am not convinced about the usefulness of a priori approach to study consciousness and reach some form of consensus. In case of Pythagoras theorem or Galileo’s falling objects a priori approach worked because the elements of the problem are unambiguously representable. I could draw a right triangle on a piece of paper and anyone interested could discuss its properties and come to agreement about what is meant by a ‘triangle’ or ‘right angle’. In contrast, descriptions of ‘internal representations of my own consciousness’ may not convince another intelligent observer.

I find ‘matter arises in consciousness’ problematic as well. It is true our ‘representations’ of matter arise in consciousness. That should lead to the question - ‘is there anything to matter other than our representation of it?’ It is hard to be convinced ‘matter’ = ‘representation of matter’. I see a brick wall in front and know banging my head against it could kill me. This problem of ‘matter in consciousness’ appears to me as much troubling as the problem of ‘consciousness from matter’.
ScottRoberts
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Re: Consciousness, A Priori Reasoning and Pluralism

Post by ScottRoberts »

Shajan624 wrote: Wed Sep 22, 2021 3:30 am I find ‘matter arises in consciousness’ problematic as well. It is true our ‘representations’ of matter arise in consciousness. That should lead to the question - ‘is there anything to matter other than our representation of it?’ It is hard to be convinced ‘matter’ = ‘representation of matter’.
Yes, this is confusing, but there is no standard way to eliminate the confusion. Therefore, one must be explicit in how one is using the terms. Here is my way:

- There are sensory qualia in our experience (smells, tastes. colors, sounds, touch, pain). I (as an idealist) call the total of these qualia physical reality.

- What occurs in physical reality is not determined by me, rather it is determined by something outside of me. If I were a materialist or substance dualist, I would call this matter or material forces.

- As an idealist, I call this ideation or conscious activity.

- In either case, I say that sensory qualia represents this external determination.

Please note that the above is arbitrary and ontology driven. There is no neutral meaning of the terms 'matter' and 'physical'. Hence one must, if giving an ontology, explicitly define how one is using these (and other) terms. With these definitions, I can simply say "there is no matter".
I see a brick wall in front and know banging my head against it could kill me. This problem of ‘matter in consciousness’ appears to me as much troubling as the problem of ‘consciousness from matter’.
Here is the difference. If one assumes there is matter, then one has either the intractable interaction problem of the substance dualist or the intractable hard problem of consciousness of the materialist. By 'intractable' I mean no one has a clue for how the problem might have a solution. The idealist does not have an intractable problem in this sense. Instead it has a plausibility problem, for example, how does ideation produce a brick wall. Here is a simple possibility for an answer: Assume there is an entity called God whose ideation is immensely more powerful than mine, so my will to walk through the brick wall is easily overpowered by God's will that is represented in my sensorium by the brick wall. (Note: I am not claiming that this answer is satisfactory. Just that it is conceivable, while there is not even a conceivable answer to the hard problem.)
Shajan624
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Re: Consciousness, A Priori Reasoning and Pluralism

Post by Shajan624 »

ScottRoberts wrote: Wed Sep 22, 2021 10:44 pm Here is the difference. If one assumes there is matter, then one has either the intractable interaction problem of the substance dualist or the intractable hard problem of consciousness of the materialist. By 'intractable' I mean no one has a clue for how the problem might have a solution. The idealist does not have an intractable problem in this sense. Instead it has a plausibility problem, for example, how does ideation produce a brick wall. Here is a simple possibility for an answer: Assume there is an entity called God whose ideation is immensely more powerful than mine, so my will to walk through the brick wall is easily overpowered by God's will that is represented in my sensorium by the brick wall. (Note: I am not claiming that this answer is satisfactory. Just that it is conceivable, while there is not even a conceivable answer to the hard problem.)
Scott,

That is an interesting way to put it. I suspect the ‘plausibility’ problem appears less intimidating than ‘intractability’ problem only because we are a little biased towards mind than matter.
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Re: Consciousness, A Priori Reasoning and Pluralism

Post by AshvinP »

Shajan624 wrote: Thu Sep 23, 2021 10:32 am
ScottRoberts wrote: Wed Sep 22, 2021 10:44 pm Here is the difference. If one assumes there is matter, then one has either the intractable interaction problem of the substance dualist or the intractable hard problem of consciousness of the materialist. By 'intractable' I mean no one has a clue for how the problem might have a solution. The idealist does not have an intractable problem in this sense. Instead it has a plausibility problem, for example, how does ideation produce a brick wall. Here is a simple possibility for an answer: Assume there is an entity called God whose ideation is immensely more powerful than mine, so my will to walk through the brick wall is easily overpowered by God's will that is represented in my sensorium by the brick wall. (Note: I am not claiming that this answer is satisfactory. Just that it is conceivable, while there is not even a conceivable answer to the hard problem.)
Scott,

That is an interesting way to put it. I suspect the ‘plausibility’ problem appears less intimidating than ‘intractability’ problem only because we are a little biased towards mind than matter.

The above is an interesting point. I agree with Scott that there is no conceivable answer for the hard problem, while there are quite a few for how ideational activity expresses itself in more or less 'ideal' and 'real-concrete' ways. But you also make a good point - after awhile, the lack of any fleshing out of the 'implausibility' problem for idealism makes it seem 'intractable'. Many abstract assumptions/speculations upon more assumptions/speculations are piled on top of one another and then we are lost in a complex maze of them with no apparent exist. Yet it is not actually 'intractable', only apparently. We simply need to find the 'degrees of freedom' in the depth of Thinking which raise us up to a higher vantage point on the maze and begin to trace our way out of it (simple to speak and conceive, but not easy to actually do by any means). I have been reading some Schelling lately and this passage seems apt here:

Schelling wrote:According to these reflections, it just does not seem appropriate to throw the entire burden of this difficulty [re: immanent divinity] only on a single system [of idealist philosophy], especially since the supposedly higher one opposed to it affords so little satisfaction. The generalities of idealism also cannot be of help here. Nothing at all can be achieved with such abstract concepts of God as actus purissumus [purest actuality], the likes of which earlier philosophy put forward, or with such concepts as more recent philosophy has brought forth again and again out of a concern to remove God quite far indeed from all of nature. God is something more real than a merely moral world order and has entirely different and more vital motive forces in himself than the desolate subtlety of abstract idealists attributes to him. The abhorrence of everything real that finds the spiritual befouled through any contact with the latter must of course also blind one’s eye to the origin of evil. Idealism, if it does not have as its basis a living realism, becomes just as empty and abstract a system as that of Leibniz, Spinoza, or any other dogmatist. The entire new European philosophy since its beginning (with Descartes) has the common defect that nature is not available for it and that it lacks a living ground. Spinoza’s realism is thereby as abstract as the idealism of Leibniz. Idealism is the soul of philosophy; realism is the body; only both together can constitute a living whole.
“It is your presumption that freedom is something which you already possess that ensures that you will remain in chains."
Richard Cox
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Re: Consciousness, A Priori Reasoning and Pluralism

Post by Richard Cox »

Hello Shajan624,

Thank you for your response, I’ve had a go at some replies.

I would echo your cynicism of an a priori approach leading to consensus. I can’t see this being the thing that makes the Michael Schermers of this world throw their hands up and declare: ‘Oh now it all makes sense!’

Case in point—I used an example of an apriorism in economics, a field that has never managed to form any sort of a consensus, and not necessarily because of its irreducible complexity. If it can’t be done there, I hold little hope for consciousness studies.

I suppose the main value I see is that reasoning through the steps gives rise to a personal shift in perception towards a consciousness only view. Not to give up on arguing entirely, I would suggest it is as good a way to present idealism as arguments from parsimony for example.


There is an obvious paradox in ‘understanding consciousness’, akin to the mystical paradox of ‘looking at the thing that is looking’. If we start from a materialist perspective, to understand consciousness means to understand how neurons firing gives rise to this strange beast. This endeavour is destined to be a highly descriptive and highly useful but ultimately a failure. Useful because of the technology that may be developed from it, but a failure as consciousness exists in a separate world to the material. The materialist can never know if he’s seeing the real thing or just correlates.

From an idealist perspective we may say that consciousness is, but no more than that. If it’s the foundational thing we can’t get underneath it to say any more. So I suppose my answer is that we can’t understand consciousness. We can describe its material correlates to an ever finer degree, but beyond that all we can say is that it is. This is in contrast to an illusionist position.


Regarding the question of whether there is anything to matter other than our representation of it, how does this sound?

Starting from a materialist perspective: our representations of matter arise in consciousness, not matter itself.

But all we can ever know of matter is our representations.

We must then ask; what is the difference between a thing that is utterly unknowable, and a thing that does not exist?

If the answer is nothing, and things that are utterly unknowable are indistinguishable from things that don’t exist, then to talk of matter existing beyond its representations is meaningless. We may travel to the edges of the universe and beyond, but we will never never encounter such a thing.
Shajan624
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Re: Consciousness, A Priori Reasoning and Pluralism

Post by Shajan624 »

Richard,
Richard Cox wrote: Sun Sep 26, 2021 7:49 pm From an idealist perspective we may say that consciousness is, but no more than that. If it’s the foundational thing we can’t get underneath it to say any more. So I suppose my answer is that we can’t understand consciousness. We can describe its material correlates to an ever finer degree, but beyond that all we can say is that it is. This is in contrast to an illusionist position.
Agree we can’t ‘know’ consciousness directly. Material correlates could be analysed but these are third person representations, not consciousness itself.

But there is another approach worth exploring, in my opinion. We could focus on just one aspect of consciousness to begin with. ‘Objective knowing’ as in science is a function of consciousness and we could study its evolutionary history. Materialists may question the reality of consciousness but cannot doubt the reality of ‘objective knowledge’. How did the mindless machine come to generate ‘objective knowledge’?
Richard Cox wrote: Sun Sep 26, 2021 7:49 pm We must then ask; what is the difference between a thing that is utterly unknowable, and a thing that does not exist?

If the answer is nothing, and things that are utterly unknowable are indistinguishable from things that don’t exist, then to talk of matter existing beyond its representations is meaningless. We may travel to the edges of the universe and beyond, but we will never never encounter such a thing.
This is a tough question. The answer depends on what exactly we mean by ‘knowing’. It becomes easy if we take ‘knowing’ to mean ‘objective knowing’ as in science.

Science is about describing how things behave without any consideration to their ‘intrinsic nature’. We could do science with our representations of ‘things-in-themselves’ and generate reliable data. This won’t be possible with representations of ‘things-that-does-not exist’.

I had tried to explain my thought process in greater detail in Knowledge and Ignorance in the old Metaphysical Speculations forum.
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AshvinP
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Re: Consciousness, A Priori Reasoning and Pluralism

Post by AshvinP »

Richard Cox wrote: Sun Sep 26, 2021 7:49 pm Hello Shajan624,

Thank you for your response, I’ve had a go at some replies.

I would echo your cynicism of an a priori approach leading to consensus. I can’t see this being the thing that makes the Michael Schermers of this world throw their hands up and declare: ‘Oh now it all makes sense!’

Case in point—I used an example of an apriorism in economics, a field that has never managed to form any sort of a consensus, and not necessarily because of its irreducible complexity. If it can’t be done there, I hold little hope for consciousness studies.

I suppose the main value I see is that reasoning through the steps gives rise to a personal shift in perception towards a consciousness only view. Not to give up on arguing entirely, I would suggest it is as good a way to present idealism as arguments from parsimony for example.


There is an obvious paradox in ‘understanding consciousness’, akin to the mystical paradox of ‘looking at the thing that is looking’. If we start from a materialist perspective, to understand consciousness means to understand how neurons firing gives rise to this strange beast. This endeavour is destined to be a highly descriptive and highly useful but ultimately a failure. Useful because of the technology that may be developed from it, but a failure as consciousness exists in a separate world to the material. The materialist can never know if he’s seeing the real thing or just correlates.

From an idealist perspective we may say that consciousness is, but no more than that. If it’s the foundational thing we can’t get underneath it to say any more. So I suppose my answer is that we can’t understand consciousness. We can describe its material correlates to an ever finer degree, but beyond that all we can say is that it is. This is in contrast to an illusionist position.


Regarding the question of whether there is anything to matter other than our representation of it, how does this sound?

Starting from a materialist perspective: our representations of matter arise in consciousness, not matter itself.

But all we can ever know of matter is our representations.

We must then ask; what is the difference between a thing that is utterly unknowable, and a thing that does not exist?

If the answer is nothing, and things that are utterly unknowable are indistinguishable from things that don’t exist, then to talk of matter existing beyond its representations is meaningless. We may travel to the edges of the universe and beyond, but we will never never encounter such a thing.

Richard,

Doesn't your assertion at the end also apply to consciousness if we can "never understand what it is"? That would make talk of consciousness beyond its representations equally meaningless. I don't hold that, but rather I question your premise consciousness cannot be understood in its essence. There is no principled limit to Mind cognizing its own meaning directly (without representations) and exhaustively. We have discussed this at length elsewhere on the forum, so if you disagree I can quote one of those previous comments to provide an argument in support.
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Re: Consciousness, A Priori Reasoning and Pluralism

Post by Richard Cox »

Hello AshvinP,

I must apologise, that was a terrible response and I’m now having to extract myself from the mess I’ve made. I’m specifically referring to having said:

‘From an idealist perspective we may say that consciousness is, but no more than that. If it’s the foundational thing we can’t get underneath it to say any more. So I suppose my answer is that we can’t understand consciousness.’

I think what I was trying to get at here is the sense that arriving at ‘consciousness is’ feels like arriving at a foundational statement. Something that is—from a perspective at least—necessarily true. We can of course then pose the question, ‘what is consciousness?’ The question is being asked in a different way from the materialist sense of looking for correlates of consciousness, rather it is asking, can we experience consciousness directly? This opens up a certain paradox, akin to a camera not being able to take a picture of itself—unless it’s pointing at a mirror (I have a poem about this I’ll put in at the bottom). Are there mirrors we can use to investigate consciousness?

What I was going for in the latter and more speculative part of the essay was to see if I could develop a rational explanation for the mystical experience—where consciousness contemplating itself leads to an experience of an infinite ocean of love.

Is this in any way akin to what you mean by ‘ Mind cognizing its own meaning’?


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Re: Consciousness, A Priori Reasoning and Pluralism

Post by Jim Cross »

Richard Cox wrote: Wed Oct 06, 2021 11:47 am Hello AshvinP,

I must apologise, that was a terrible response and I’m now having to extract myself from the mess I’ve made. I’m specifically referring to having said:

‘From an idealist perspective we may say that consciousness is, but no more than that. If it’s the foundational thing we can’t get underneath it to say any more. So I suppose my answer is that we can’t understand consciousness.’

I think what I was trying to get at here is the sense that arriving at ‘consciousness is’ feels like arriving at a foundational statement. Something that is—from a perspective at least—necessarily true. We can of course then pose the question, ‘what is consciousness?’ The question is being asked in a different way from the materialist sense of looking for correlates of consciousness, rather it is asking, can we experience consciousness directly? This opens up a certain paradox, akin to a camera not being able to take a picture of itself—unless it’s pointing at a mirror (I have a poem about this I’ll put in at the bottom). Are there mirrors we can use to investigate consciousness?

What I was going for in the latter and more speculative part of the essay was to see if I could develop a rational explanation for the mystical experience—where consciousness contemplating itself leads to an experience of an infinite ocean of love.

Is this in any way akin to what you mean by ‘ Mind cognizing its own meaning’?


A Cinematic Puzzle

What’s present
In every scene
Of every film you’ve ever seen
Yet remains unseen?


Except maybe in reflections…
Actually I don't think your response was bad at all. I think I know what you are getting at.

It is a problem with all monisms. At the root of them all is something that defies further explanation which is why they are all nonsensical.
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