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Strawson on Consciousness

For those of us like me who can’t help wondering about the physical reality of subjective mental events, here’s a passage from the ever-excellent Galen Strawson, from a review of Antonio Damasio:

The standard formulation of the “mind-body problem” rests on a huge and wholly unjustified assumption (this assumption, in fact, is Descartes’s deepest error). It is not content with the obvious truth that matter and consciousness seem to us to be utterly heterogeneous things. It slides on to the claim that matter and consciousness are in fact utterly heterogeneous things, in such a way that it is mysterious how one could ever be the basis or “realization” of the other. It shifts from a harmless and true epistemological claim about how things seem to us to a mega-therial metaphysical claim about how things are in reality.Why? Why indeed? The root cause of the mistake is the unsupported assumption that current physics – or indeed ordinary experience, in its own modest but compelling way – gives us a pretty good fix on the fundamental nature of matter, and shows it to be utterly qualitatively unlike consciousness. It is only relative to this assumption that the existence of consciousness in a material world seems in any way mystifying, for there is nothing particularly puzzling about consciousness as it is in itself. We know just what it is like – or at least what certain forms of it are like. Consider an experience of blue or of giddiness. Consider it as it is in itself. You know what it is. So, if our best picture of matter makes it seem incomprehensible that matter should be the basis of (or simply be) conscious experience, all this shows is the inadequacy of our best picture of matter. Locke, Hume, Priestley, Kant and others were very clear about this, but few understand it today. Many now make Descartes’s deepest error, in fact, with far less justification than him – while condemning him for his errors.

It is not in any way anti-scientific to claim that we do not have a good fix on the fundamental nature of matter. Current physics instructs us daily in how foolish it is to assume that we do (while providing a magnificent theoretical framework in which to express and exploit a great deal of information about the behaviour of matter). It is widely agreed that the current “Standard Model” is unsatisfactory; the old quarrel between relativity theory and quantum mechanics remains unresolved; there is turmoil in general cosmology; and String Theory, after the “second superstring revolution”, is again pressing obscurely at the door.

The first problem of consciousness, then, the mind-body problem or qualia problem, is just a vivid proof of our ignorance of the nature of matter, and of the difficulty – seeming impossibility – of reconciling first-personal and impersonal data. There is no metaphysical mind-body problem, only an epistemological one.

I like this for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the conclusion, which takes the most appealing aspects of several consciousness theories–Colin McGinn’s “new mysterianism” (that we are not set up to understand consciousness and never will), Gerald Edelman’s neurological theories (correlates exist, but only go so far in dealing with the problem), David Chalmers’ panpsychism (consciousness as a different kind of property), and John Searle’s anti-functionalism (consciousness as a material-specific property)–while avoiding many of their glaring defects and leaps of faith. Tossing out the metaphysical problem by dismissing it as based on faulty assumptions, and thereby dismissing all linguistic constructions thereof (so long to Kripke’s proof of dualism, e.g.), he leaves open an unbounded epistemological space that is on first glace far more counterintuitive, since it’s far easier to believe that mental and physical events are heterogeneous than homogeneous. And yet to envision an answer that encompasses a homogeneity of the physical and the mental without denying qualia or intuitions of “folk psychology,” intuitions which Daniel Dennett and the Churchlands have hardly managed to tear down successfully, is quite inspiring. For the anti-qualia gang have had the burden of denying the experience of qualia as well as qualia themselves, and thus the experience of the experience of qualia, etc., etc., and this infinite regress does not go down so easily.

Strawson’s approach reminds me of Stanislaw Lem in Golem XIV (read the entire text of Golem XIV), where his panopticon of a computer alludes to Wittgenstein’s unmooring of language while firmly binding an evolutionary etiology of such language:

If one who is thinking could perceive this horizon – his intellectual range – in the same way that he perceives the limits of his body, nothing like the antinomies of Intelligence could arise. And what in fact are those antinomies of Intelligence? They are the inability to distinguish between transcendence in fact and transcendence in illusion. The cause of these antinomies is language, for language, being a useful tool, is also a self-locking instrument – and at the same time a perfidious one, since it tells nothing about when it becomes a pitfall itself. It gives no indication! So you appeal from language to experience and enter well-known vicious circles, because then you get – what is familiar to philosophy – the throwing out of the baby with the bathwater. For thought may indeed transcend experience, but in such a flight it encounters a horizon of its own and gets trapped in it, though having no idea that this has happened!


  1. Davidson called his own position, somewhat similar to Strawson’s, “anomolous monism”

  2. Davidson called his own position, somewhat similar to Strawson’s, “anomolous monism”

  3. This takes me back. I’m very, very rusty on Davidson, so correct me if I’m wrong here… I think that Davidson makes a stronger claim than Strawson, one of non-reducibility. From “Mental Events”: “There are no strict [physicalist?] laws at all on the basis of which we can predict and explain mental phenomena.” That’s one hell of a pill to swallow.

    Strawson seems to be saying that our conceptions of the two things in this reduction equation are flawed, such that there could be a reduction or identity of the mental to/with the physical in a way that does not entail the problems of eliminativism as it is practiced.

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