Consciousness & happiness

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Jim's question

Last night, Jim asked (brilliantly I thought), "What's the best question I can ask to start a discussion about consciousness?" I replied, of course, that he had just asked the best question. My answer fell short--here's my best effort:

Start off the conversation by trying to define consciousness. It's a bit like pulling yourself by your bootstraps, but here goes.

Philosopher Ned Block makes a useful delineation between phenomenal consciousness and access consciousness. Access consciousness is the availability of the brain's resources to respond, analyze, react, speak, make decisions. The sort of stuff, in other words, that we assume a smart computer will be able to do in a decade or so, what has been called (see my post What's the problem, anyway?) "the easy problem."

Phenomenal consciousness, or phenomenality, is the hard problem, given flesh by the question, What is it like to be me? Thomas Nagel posed this question some years ago: What is it like to be a bat? Not a bat with a human brain asking itself that question--that's not a bat. And if you were an actual bat, you wouldn't be you, asking the question. Nagel concluded the problem was insoluble.

But we can ask What is it like to be this cup in front of me, that a few minutes ago held coffee? Well, I guess it's like…nothing. We can, I think, agree that it's like nothing to be a cup. Or a wall. Or a tree. Or a bacterium. Or a fish…

Uh oh. This is where it gets squirly. Is it like something to be a fish? A dog? A bonobo? A baby? You?

OK, let's assume that it's like something to be you, just as it's like something to be me--there's a certain quality of barryness here, now. That's what I mean by consciousness. That ineffable feeling that it's like something to be you.

So let's take another look at that teletransporter (my post, Natural-born dualists). You're standing in this booth about to press the button that will analyze you--every last nuance of your physical structure, down to orbiting electrons and a zillion microcurrents of charge in every cell of your body--and send the information across town or across the world where you'll be reconstructed, every last detail complete and in place. Would you push the button? Would I?

Well, it's all well and good, I think, for my material self to shift effortlessly, just like in Star Trek. (Apparently Gene Roddenberry dreamt up the transporter to save the cost of portraying a huge spaceship landing on alien worlds--cheaper by far to film just the crew arriving!) But what about my barryness? What happens to that?

Answer 1: (Monism) Don't worry, be happy! My barryness, my consciousness, my sense of self, is part of the package. Reassemble my physical body and you've got everything, including consciousness.

Answer 2: (Dualism) Don't push the button! Consciousness is something extra, non-physical. It may stay behind while the rest of me goes!

What do you think? (And do you have any choice in that???)

'nuff to get the conversation going?


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