There is an interesting blog post (here) by W Davies. It was written on April fools day and so may possibly be tongue in cheek – if so – too, too subtle. He is a materialist and his question is “where is the cat?” when he looks at his cat.
I can make a picture of a cat in my head; I can close my mind and think of it. So I’m perceiving this image of a cat. Where is the image? Where is the cat? … my initial answer is that the cat is simply a 1:1 correlate of certain neurological activity in the brain. That is, if you open up my head you won’t see a picture of a cat, but you’d see something that’s the equivalent of it, sort of like the dots and dashes of Morse code are not English characters, but they are equivalents of them. From a materialistic perspective, you’d theoretically be able to interpret the activity in my brain through some technology, and recreate the image of the cat that I am picturing on a screen.
He then recounts the video ‘mind reading’ experiments and concludes that there is a coded picture of his cat in his brain. But he still has a problem.
So when I was asked “where” my mental image of the cat is, that’s why I responded in this way — the image is located in the brain – it’s just in a different format. But really, I’m not satisfied with that answer. Because in my mind I can see (well maybe not see, but certainly perceive) the cat; not the equivalent neural ‘code’, but the actual cat. I know where the neural code is, but I don’t know where the cat is.
Actually there are at least three cats: the reality-cat, the cognitive-cat, and the consciousness-cat. Its like the territory, the map and the traveler. All we are aware of is the consciousness-cat, the other two are invisible. We can only infer them (and we do infer them reliably). Consciousness is the awareness of a constructed model of reality. We are not aware of the cat, we are aware of our model of the world which includes the cat. One thing our conscious model does not include is the construction of itself. We not not model the modeling process. Modeling the modeling gives an infinite regression of Quakers on oats boxes. So why does the model seem so real? That is its purpose – it is a model – it’s supposed to feel real – it’s evolved to feel real – it would be useless if it was not believable.
If you abandon materialism, you still have the same problem. Where is the magic mind-stuff that has the picture of the cat, how did it the cat get there, why does it seem real? The answers are similar too. They amount to the idea that we need to be aware of a model of the cat in a model of the world and believe it. This does not side-step any questions but just makes them harder.
The brain expends a great deal of energy to create the model and make it available to many processes in the brain. It does a good job of make that model useful and believably ‘real’. We have to infer how this is done and progress is being made in understanding it. Have a bit of patience. Don’t panic.