Galen Strawson versus Nicholas Humphreys on Consciousness
But Strawson's theory is no better
Yesterday I had Nicholas Humphrey in my sights. Or, to revert to the metaphor of that post, I took a shovel to his bull. I am happy to see that Galen Strawson agrees that it is just nonsense to speak of consciousness as an illusion. Strawson's trenchant review of Humphrey's Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness is here. Unfortunately, I cannot see that Strawson has shed much light either, at least judging from the sketch of his position presented in the just-mentioned review:
There is no mystery of consciousness as standardly presented, although book after book tells us that there is, including, now, Nick Humphrey's Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness. We know exactly what consciousness is; we know it in seeing, tasting, touching, smelling, hearing, in hunger, fever, nausea, joy, boredom, the shower, childbirth, walking down the road. If someone denies this or demands a definition of consciousness, there are two very good responses. The first is Louis Armstrong's, when he was asked what jazz is: "If you got to ask, you ain't never goin' to know." The second is gentler: "You know what it is from your own case." You know what consciousness is in general, you know the intrinsic nature of consciousness, just in being conscious at all.
"Yes, yes," say the proponents of magic, "but there's still a mystery: how can all this vivid conscious experience be physical, merely and wholly physical?" (I'm assuming, with them, that we're wholly physical beings.) This, though, is the 400-year-old mistake. In speaking of the "magical mystery show", Humphrey and many others make a colossal and crucial assumption: the assumption that we know something about the intrinsic nature of matter that gives us reason to think that it's surprising that it involves consciousness. We don't. Nor is this news. Locke knew it in 1689, as did Hume in 1739. Philosopher-chemist Joseph Priestley was extremely clear about it in the 1770s. So were Eddington, Russell and Whitehead in the 1920s.
One thing we do know about matter is that when you put some very common-or-garden elements (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, sodium, potassium, etc) together in the way in which they're put together in brains, you get consciousness like ours – a wholly physical phenomenon. (It's happening to you right now.) And this means that we do, after all, know something about the intrinsic nature of matter, over and above everything we know in knowing the equations of physics. Why? Because we know the intrinsic nature of consciousness and consciousness is a form of matter.
The main point of Strawson's first paragraph is surely correct: we know what consciousness is in the most direct and and unmistakable way possible: we experience it, we live through it, we are it. We know it from our own case, immediately, and we know it better than we know anything else. If Dennett doesn't know what a sensory quale is, then perhaps the cure is to administer a sharp kick to his groin. Feel that, Dan? That's a quale. (I am assuming, of course, that Dennett is not a 'zombie' in the technical sense in which that term is used in philosophy of mind discussions. But I can't prove he isn't. Perhaps that is the problem. If he were a zombie, then maybe all his verbal behavior would be understandable.)
In the second paragraph Strawson rejects an assumption and he makes one himself. He rejects the assumption that we know enough about the intrinsic nature of matter to know that a material being cannot think. The assumption he makes is that we are wholly physical beings. So far I understand him. It could be that (it is epistemically possible that) this stuff inside my skull is the thinker of my thoughts. This is epistemically possible because matter could have hidden powers that we have yet to fathom. On our current understanding of matter it makes no bloody sense to maintain that matter thinks; but that may merely reflect our ignorance of the intrinsic nature of matter. So I cannot quickly dismiss the notion that matter thinks in the way I can quickly dismiss the preternaturally boneheaded notion that consciousness is an illusion.
I agree with Strawson's first paragraph; I understand the second; but I am flabbergasted by the third. For now our man waxes dogmatic and postures as if he KNOWS that consciousness is a wholly physical phenomenon. How does he know it? Obviously, he doesn't know it. It is a mere conjecture, an intelligible conjecture, and perhaps even a reasonable one. After all it might be (it is epistemically possible that) the matter of our brains has occult powers that physics has yet to lay bare, powers that enable it to think and feel. I cannot exclude this epistemic possibility, any more than Strawson can exclude the possibility that thinkers are spiritual substances. But to conjecture that things might be thus and so is not to KNOW that they are thus and so. All we can claim to KNOW is what Strawson asseverates in his first paragraph.
Here is Strawson's argument in a nutshell:
1. We know the intrinsic nature of consciousness from our own case.
2. We know that consciousness is a form of matter.
3. There is nothing mysterious about consciousness or about how matter gives rise to consciousness; nor is there any question whether consciousness is wholly physical; the only mystery concerns the intrinsic nature of matter.
The problem with this argument is premise (2). It is pure bluster: a wholly gratuitous assumption, a mere dogma of naturalism. I can neutralize the argument with this counterargument:
4. If (1) & (2), then brain matter has occult powers.
5. We have no good reason to assume — it is wholly gratuitous to assume — that brain matter has occult powers.
6. We have no good reason to assume that both (1) and (2) are true.
7. We know that (1) is true.
8. We have good reason to believe that (2) is false.