Hacker on consciousness

There is an interview by James Garvey of the philosopher Peter Hacker posted on TMP magazine site (here) about his ideas on consciousness.

“Philosophy does not contribute to our knowledge of the world we live in after the manner of any of the natural sciences. You can ask any scientist to show you the achievements of science over the past millennium, and they have much to show: libraries full of well-established facts and well-confirmed theories. If you ask a philosopher to produce a handbook of well-established and unchallengeable philosophical truths, there’s nothing to show. I think that is because philosophy is not a quest for knowledge about the world, but rather a quest for understanding the conceptual scheme in terms of which we conceive of the knowledge we achieve about the world. One of the rewards of doing philosophy is a clearer understanding of the way we think about ourselves and about the world we live in, not fresh facts about reality. … The world doesn’t have scaffolding. Rather, in doing philosophy, we come to realise the character of the grammatical and linguistic scaffolding from which we describe the world, not the scaffolding of the world.”

Hacker is not happy with the confusion that neuroscience has produced in the hands of popular writers.

“Merely replacing Cartesian ethereal stuff with glutinous gray matter and leaving everything else the same will not solve any problems. On the current neuroscientist’s view, it’s the brain that thinks and reasons and calculates and believes and fears and hopes. In fact, it’s human beings who do all these things, not their brains and not their minds. I don’t think it makes any sense to talk about the brain engaging in psychological or mental operations. … you will find that the operations of the brain thus conceived are being advanced as explanations for human behaviour, for our thinking, believing, seeing, hoping and fearing. That’s wrong, because it’s no explanation. If someone wants to know why poor old Snodgrass, as the result of some lesion, can’t do something that normal people can do, and you say that his brain can’t do it, you haven’t advanced any explanation at all. … There is no such thing as a brain’s thinking, wanting, reasoning, believing or hypothesizing.”

I must say I have some difficulty with this. But it is reasonable to point out that ‘brain does it’ is not an explanation. What is needed is how the brain does it. And it is reasonable not to separate the brain from the person it is part of. He goes on with something that I do really like. He takes on Nagel’s idea, “an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism – something it is like for the organism” and rejects it for three reasons.

(1)“… the answer to ‘What was it like for you to do it?’ isn’t ‘It was like wonderful’ – unless we’re in California – but rather ‘It was wonderful’. So it is a plain confusion to think that for any given experience of a conscious creature, there is something that it is like for the creature to have that experience.”

(2)“Another kind of mistake is a systematic confusion between the qualities of an experience and the qualities of the objects of an experience. The question ‘What was it like for you to love Daisey?’ can be given an answer by specifying the hedonic character of the experience of being in love with her. It may have been wonderful, or heart-breaking. The question ‘What is it like to see something red?’ has no such answer. Seeing a red button, for example, is neither wonderful nor heart-breaking, neither exciting nor boring – it simply lacks any hedonic quality.”

(3)“It looks mysterious because it’s modeled on ‘what’s it like for an X to be a Y?’ “Daddy, what was it like for you to be a soldier in The Second World War? All sorts of stories follow. Daddy, what’s it like for you to be a human being? What on Earth is this question? The question is illegitimate. It’s stepped over the bounds of sense. The requirement is that there be a difference between the X and the Y. What’s it like for a woman to be a surgeon? Perfectly decent question. What’s it like for a woman to be a woman? … as opposed to what? A woman who isn’t a woman?”

Is that not refreshing? But here is the really good stuff.

… understand how consciousness could arise from boring old matter?

“Slow down and start thinking of consciousness as we should, not in terms of ‘what it’s like’. Start with elementary sentience.” Hacker tells a story of a creature hundreds of millions of years ago, a creature with light sensitive cells, avoiding predators, reproducing, and all the while the mechanisms of evolution whir away. Light sensitive cells develop into eyes. Eyes give a creature the ability to see. Creatures that can see can be conscious of something moving in the underbrush over there, and so on. He’s trying to take the mystery out of the equation. He bangs a fist on a table, “How could this stuff be conscious? – It couldn’t! How could consciousness arise from mere matter? – It can’t. Consciousness ‘arises’ from the evolution of living organisms.”

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