Galen Strawson is a philosopher whose ideas I have a certain affinity for, and his recent op-ed in the New York Times on consciousness and the physical is well worth reading.
I have for a few years now had certain ideas flowing in my head regarding epistemology and its relationship to physics. I have, as a result, recently come to see Strawson as a certain fellow traveller even though Strawson’s concern is with consciousness (I don’t agree with his take on moral responsbility).
Let us first look at Strawson’s argument regarding consciousness, as he presents it in the op-ed.
We often view the nature of consciousness as “the hard problem,” a sort of amazing mystery if not the mystery of mysteries, when in fact, according to Strawson, we know what consciousness is.
Indeed, it is the most familiar thing that we do know.
We know what conscious experience is because the having is the knowing: Having conscious experience is knowing what it is. You don’t have to think about it (it’s really much better not to). You just have to have it
Let us take Strawson’s lead and accept this.
He goes on;
So we all know what consciousness is. Once we’re clear on this we can try to go further, for consciousness does of course raise a hard problem. The problem arises from the fact that we accept that consciousness is wholly a matter of physical goings-on, but can’t see how this can be so. We examine the brain in ever greater detail, using increasingly powerful techniques like fMRI, and we observe extraordinarily complex neuroelectrochemical goings-on, but we can’t even begin to understand how these goings-on can be (or give rise to) conscious experiences
The mystery isn’t so much what consciousness is. Rather, the hard problem of consciousness becomes; how is it that physical matter or whatever physical process occurs in the brain gives rise to consciousness? We have no idea because our understanding of the physical world does not equip us to answer this question.
Strawson elaborates on this point by illustrating the problem with respect to the mechanical philosophy, which purported to offer us a complete picture of the fundamental nature of the physical world.
The German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz made the point vividly in 1714. Perception or consciousness, he wrote, is “inexplicable on mechanical principles, i.e. by shapes and movements. If we imagine a machine whose structure makes it think, sense, and be conscious, we can conceive of it being enlarged in such a way that we can go inside it like a mill” — think of the 1966 movie “Fantastic Voyage,” or imagine the ultimate brain scanner. Leibniz continued, “Suppose we do: visiting its insides, we will never find anything but parts pushing each other — never anything that could explain a conscious state.”
It’s true that modern physics and neurophysiology have greatly complicated our picture of the brain, but Leibniz’s basic point remains untouched
The conclusion that Leibniz, Descartes, among others drew, and many draw today, from this is that of dualism; the mind and the physical are two different substances. Far better, Strawson says, it would have been for Leibniz to conclude that the mechanical philosophy is wrong, as it is, in so far as it cannot tell us how it is that physical processes give rise to consciousness. Strawson also rejects the other fashionable response to the conundrum of the physical and consciousness, namely eliminativism.
This dismisses the problem by dismissing consciousness as a feature of the physical world. Consciousness is but an illusion.
However, as Strawson points out, we have no reason to suppose that our understanding of the physical world is anywhere near complete so our grounds for eliminativism are not as sturdy as commonly supposed.
I’m not interested here in consciousness. I am interested in knowledge. The two are not the same, of course. Michael Polanyi’s tacit knowledge is a type of unconscious knowledge, for instance.
But I think we can make similar conclusions regarding knowledge. Ultimately, we live in a universe governed by physical laws or processes. We have consciousness, but we also have knowledge.
How is that matter can come to know?
I submit, dear reader, that this is *THE* problem of knowledge.
Traditionally the theory of knowledge has its own “hard problem,” namely that of scepticism. The most studied problem of scepticism is scepticism with respect to knowledge of the external world.
How do you know that you’re not being deceived by an evil demon, or that you’re a brain in a vat? You don’t really know; so therefore you have no firm grounds to state that you know pretty much anything about a putative external world including its very existence.
I rather suspect that the problem of scepticism really is a problem of matter. In other words, it is an *ontological* problem, just as much, if not more so, than it is an *epistemological* problem.
We tend to adopt a type of dualism here too. We have a substance called “mind” and we have an “external” physical world composed of matter. The very phrase “external world” speaks volumes.
A dualistic outlook, it seems to me, gives rise to scepticism. Notice in this case eliminativism is not really an option, that is eliminating knowledge from our picture of physical reality, as scepticism is eliminativism.
We could start to grapple with this “hard problem,” how is that matter knows, by looking at the simplest cases in the organic world that we can find (humans are too complex) for example plants, simple multicellular life such as sponges and so on.
But we can be even more basic in the case of knowledge, as compared to consciousness, for issues of knowledge do enter into the physics we know. One can see them in thermodynamics, in the uncertainty principle but most especially regarding quantum mechanics, entanglement and the EPR paradox.
Strawson is a panpsychist with respect to consciousness. Physical matter can and does have states of consciousness, and to the extent that out best theories of physics do not show us how then they are incomplete.
The same, I submit, holds with knowledge. Physical matter can and does have states of knowledge, and to the extent that our best theories of physics do not show us how then they are incomplete. Protons, neutrons, atoms, molecules, cells know stuff.
Stuff knows and if stuff has consciousness then stuff knows that it knows stuff!!!!!
Epistemology has been a dead end because it does not even pose the “hard problem,” let alone provide theories that account for it. The latter, of course, cannot be done until physics catches up, assuming it can which is another matter.
Scepticism arises because we adopt a ready dualism between mind and matter. But if we knew that matter has mass, energy, spin, and knowledge, and the processes by which it has these categories, then the problem of scepticism would not exercise our minds anywhere near to the degree that it has.
If protons, electrons and neutrons can have knowledge, then so can a mind which is but protons, electrons and neutrons.
We don’t how it is that matter has knowledge so we don’t know that we’re not a brain in a vat.