Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

Is consciousness beyond mind and matter?
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The Mystery of Consciousness and the Conflict Between First Person Subjective Experience and the Mind as an Object in Understanding OCD

How can a physical object like a brain generate or produce a personal subjective character of experience? Philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists called this subjective experience as a “Qualia” or “Consciousness”? It seems logically implausible to move from one to the other, that is, from pure objective to pure subjective experience.

But there are schools of thought which reduce mental phenomena as if it is an epiphenomenon of the brain or matter – a method known as reductionism, devised by a school of philosophy known as physicalism or the physicalist theory of mind. It reduces “consciousness” as a by-product of some physical processes in the brain in a way similar to a natural physical phenomenon explained purely in physical terms.

For instance, the phenomenon of lightning on earth occurs as charges develop in the clouds due to collision of particles inside them. The lighter positively charged particles form at the top of the cloud and the heavier negatively charged particle sinks at the bottom of the cloud that repels the electron on the surface of the ground and makes the ground positively charged. And when the magnitude of the accumulated charges becomes so large that it can overcome the resistance of the air in between the cloud and the earth surface, then charge from the cloud gets discharged, the phenomenon which we call as lightning – electrical discharges.

In similar vein, physicalism reduces “consciousness” or the “conscious experience” to nothing more than a physical stuff or so to speak as something like a by-product of the brain activity.

American philosopher, Thomas Nagel in his famous philosophical paper published in the Philosophical review in October 1974, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat”? attacked this argument posed by physicalism for ignoring the uniqueness in the “mind-body problem” which is so unlike other physical reductionist approach of explaining the objective phenomena.

For instance, can we imagine, what it is like to be 30 feet tall? Even though we may not exactly know what it’s like to be 30 feet tall but we will certainly feel like something or to be in certain ways.

But imagine for an instance, what would it be like to be a “rock” or a “pillar”? Certainly, there is nothing like to be a “rock” or a “pillar”. The “rock” will never experience darkness or a feeling of loneliness or being in a certain room or to experience nothingness or feel blankness.

But if we enclosed ourselves into a dark room surrounded by four walls, we will obviously feel the darkness/nothingness, the sensation of breath or the experience of no significant smell of any kind and so forth.

But such things will never be experienced by the “rock” or “pillar” as there is nothing like to be a “rock” or “pillar”. And that “thing” that a person feels/has like to be a 30 feet tall and that “thing” which the rock doesn’t have to feel like being a rock is what we call as “consciousness”.

As Nagel puts it, if we say that an organism has a conscious experience at all means,  basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism or something it is like for the organism. And he argues that this experience of a subjective character of experience can never be captured by the method devised by the physicalist that is reductive analyses of mental phenomena. Or in other words, a robot or automaton can behave like a human though they will never experience the feeling of being human.

Bats have experience and we may also believe that there is something that it is like to be a bat. As we know that bats perceive the world primarily by “sonar” or “echolocation”. They produce high frequency shrieks or sounds and the sound waves that come out of their mouth hit the environment of objects and bounce back to them. And this process enables the bats to acquire information enabling them to locate the precise distance, size, shape, motion or certain features of the environment comparable to those we make by vision.

Nagel argues that the bat “sonar”, though it is a form of perception, is entirely different in its operation from how humans perceive the world of objects. He is of the view that “it is entirely impossible to imagine or to feel the subjective experience to be like a bat”. Or in other words, it will not be helpful to imagine oneself webbing one arms and to fly up in the dark and catching insects in one’s mouth or perceive the world by a process of reflective sound signal that bounce back from the objects in the environment or spending the entire day hanging upside down by one feet in an attic.

Bat may have a certain version of a feeling of pain, fear, hunger and lust beside the “sonar” and perhaps these appetites would be common to us and perhaps not. Nagel contends that even these experiences will have in each case a specific subjective character which is beyond our ability to conceive as our experience provides a basic material for our imagination and whose range is therefore limited.

For instance, if there is a “dog” sitting on the couch and when we approach the “dog” as an object of investigation then possibly we can look at two dimensions. On one hand, we can look at it and study from the objective appearance as it is as science does and on the other hand, internally there is something like, what it feels like to be a dog. In the former case, it is a general standard method used in neuroscience and psychology to explain “consciousness” reducing purely as some kind of a by-product of physical processes in the brain. In the latter case, it is so subjective in the sense that it seems we need to get inside the dog and live through it and experience the first person lived experience which looks entirely impossible.

Therefore, Nagel argues, “whatever may be the status of facts about what it is like to be a human being, or a bat, or a Martian, these appear to be facts that embody a particular point of view”.

Hence, Nagel attack the entire version of physicalist theory by stating that it could never capture the facts about the phenomenological character or subjective character of experience because physicalism by definition get away from a particular subjective point of view or by reducing our dependence on species-specific point of view toward the object of investigation which in turn the description become more and more objective.

But the “consciousness” itself does not fit the pattern because “consciousness” just is what things are like from a particular subjective point of view. Or in other words, science gets farther away from a specific viewpoint and explains how “things” really are objectively and not how things “seem” to us subjectively. And the “Qualia” or “consciousness” is just the “seeming” (what it’s like to be a bat) of “what things are like” from a subjective point of view.

Any creature that has a complex cognitive structure like human can probably understand the physical reality of the world in a way human does by giving them the same science that we have and all its discoveries but what an intelligent “Martian” or a “bat” could not give us is the fact about species-specific sense of what it is like for the experiencing organism or so to speak “what it is like (for them) to be a bat” echolocating to fly around.

In Nagel words, “if anyone is inclined to deny that we can believe in the existence of fact like this whose exact nature we cannot possibly conceive, we should reflect that in contemplating the bats we are in much the same position that intelligent bats or Martian would occupy if they tried to form a conception of what it was like to be us. And the structure of their own minds might make it impossible for them to succeed and we also know they would be wrong to conclude that there is not anything precise that it is like to be us”.

Science fundamentally deals with “objects” and “consciousness” on the other hand is “subjective” and objective science by its definition could not accommodate something as subjective as “consciousness”. Therefore Nagel falsifies the claim of physicalism for reducing the “conscious experience” simply as a physical stuff and argues that the science of “consciousness” is probably impossible and hence a mystery.

David Chalmer, an Australian philosopher who is currently a pioneer in the field of consciousness study, pushed forward this argument in his article titled “The puzzle of conscious experience” published in Scientific American(2002).

Chalmer says, “from an objective viewpoint, the brain is relatively comprehensible. When you look at this page, there is a whir of processing: photons strike your retina, electrical signals are passed up your optic nerve and between different areas of your brain, and eventually you might respond with a smile, a perplexed frown or a remark”. In this part, Chalmer is talking about the processes happening in the brain as some kind of physical processes.

In the same paragraph he continued by stating what he meant by “conscious experience”. But there is also a subjective aspect. When you look at the page, you are conscious of it, directly experiencing the images and words as part of your private, mental life. You have vivid impressions of the colours and shapes of the images. At the same time, you may be feeling some emotion and forming some thoughts. Together such experiences make consciousness: the subjective, inner life of the mind”. Or in other words, “the way things feel for the subject” or say what it is like to experience a colour such as blue.

He separates the problem of “consciousness” into two categories. That is between the “easy problem” of consciousness which is not as easy as it sounds but which he feels can be solved by doing more rigorous science or possibly in the near future and the “hard problem” of consciousness. And the “hard problem” is the area where the central mystery lies where none of the disciplines in the field could answer this problem.

Chalmer says, the “hard problem” “is the question of how physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience. This puzzle involves the inner aspects of thought and perception: the way things feel for the subject. When we see for example, we experience visual sensation, such as that of vivid blue. Or think of the ineffable sound of a distant oboe, the agony of an intense pain, the sparkle of happiness or the meditative quality of a moment lost in thought. All are part of what I call consciousness, it is these phenomena that pose the real mystery of the mind”.

Chalmer’s argues that most of the reductionist claims come from the progress of what he terms as the “easy problem” and it has nothing to do with the “hard problem”. Chalmer believed that if the “hard problem” of consciousness is solved, it will have a startling consequences for our view of the universe and of ourselves.

The oxford university press release 5 great unsolved philosophical questions. Amongst them is the fundamental existential question, that is “Who am I”. And I feel this question is directly linked with the above mysteries and what David Chalmer calls as the “hard problem of consciousness”. When Jung studied his archetype of self, he said that this abstraction known as the self does not necessarily work in the realm of science. In Jung’s words, “the purely biological or scientific standpoint falls short in psychology because it is, in the main, intellectual only”.

Evan Thompson, a professor of philosophy in the university of British Columbia, says in his book “Waking, Dreaming, Being” that the study of “consciousness” was not of a recent origin (last 20/30 years) but it develops over many centuries and millennia in Indian philosophy specifically the “Upanishads”.

The Upanishads are the philosophical essence of the Vedas also collectively known as the Vedanta which comprises the highest and final spiritual culmination of the Vedas. Here I will try to explain “consciousness” from one school of Vedanta known as Advaita Vedanta or non-dual school of Vedanta (one practice by Vivekananda).

Take for instance, if we see an object before us (say, a bottle) then the eyes must be different from the object. In other words, in order to perceive the world out there with names and forms then the eyes must be different from the object in order to see it. And the only thing which the eyes cannot see are the eyes themselves but they can see objects which are different from themselves. And here the forms (world of objects) are perceived (seen) and the eye is its perceiver(seer). One operating principle which we found from this logic is that the “perceiver” (seer/subject) and that which is “perceived” (seen/object) are different and belong to two different categories.

Corollary to this logic, we also know that the eye is the perceiver (seer) in respect of the various forms but it becomes the “object of perception” in its relation to the mind. That is the mind knows the eye, for it is the mind that thinks: I am blind, My eyes are open/close, I get a blurry vision etc. In this case, the eye is subject to changes which are perceived by the mind. And to remind the operating principle once again, the “perceiver” or “seer” (mind/subject) is different from the “perceived” or which is seen (eyes, that is object).

The third corollary is that, modification in the mind or the mind stuff such as thoughts, emotion, desire, determination, doubt and faith, understanding and fears etc. all of this is in the mind. And all of these are known to us. Or in other words, there is something who knows what is going on in the mind or something who watches our mind. We know our ignorance, memories, ideas, misery, happiness or peace, fear or whatever. Therefore, following the above logic that is, the perceiver (seer/subject) must be different from the perceived (seen/object) then it follows that there is a “witness” to the mind. Or that is to say, the mind becomes the “object of perception” (or something which is seen) which we are conscious of.

This is an obvious fact which is grounded in experience and we can experience it at the moment. But I have no idea what it is but I know for sure that I can experience it and everyone of us can experience it.

But who is this “witness” or “seer of the mind” who is aware and conscious of the activity in the mind? This is what Chalmer’s called the “hard problem” of consciousness. The Advaita Vedanta declares that it is the “consciousness” itself or the “pure consciousness”.

It differs from the reductionist claim in the sense that it treats “consciousness” as something apart from the body and mind and it can never be known as an object.

The non-dual Vedanta would probably challenge modern neuroscience to go on doing more and more rigorous science but they will never find it. And if they do find it and “consciousness” turns out to be of some kind of epiphenomenon or by-product of the brain activity then Advaita philosophy will get in trouble.

To simply put, everything which we are aware of is not “consciousness”. The “consciousness” of sight, sound, smell, tastes and touches are therefore “objects of consciousness “and we are aware of them and that which is aware of them is “consciousness”.

The reason why I brought this philosophy is to put forward an argument that the “intrusive thought” that the person with OCD experience, is in the “mind” and not to the “seer” or “witness of the mind” or the first person subjective experience ( or consciousness if we want to call it as we are aware of them).

In obsessive compulsive disorder individuals have uncontrollable, unwanted, disturbing thoughts or mental images (obsession) and engage in repetitive behaviours (compulsion) to neutralize such thoughts.

The OCD thoughts and behaviour are outside one’s control. The individual loses control over the mind but in contrast, the mind has control over the individual. But one of the interesting phenomena in OCD is that the sufferers are well aware about what they are suffering.

A person has a first person subjective experience and the “intrusive thoughts” or mind waves appear as something “out there” objectively different from the witness or seer/knower of the mind. It is a constant conflict between the first person subjective experience and the “intrusive thought” appearing as an object in the mind. And often, the “intrusive thoughts” or the mind win the game over and over again.

In the process, they lose freedom and control over their thought and become the slave of the mind. We need a rein to control the wild horses (mind) but if the charioteer loses its grip over the rein then naturally the horses will go wild.

To put it differently, if I am aware of the “misery” in the mind then the “misery” is an “object” in the mind and I am the “consciousness” aware of the “misery” in the mind. The thoughts in the mind are “objects” of awareness and in this way if we eliminate everything that is an “object” in our experience, then finally we are left with “consciousness” alone.

And by the principle that we follow as stated above, the seer/knower (subject) and seen/known (object)must be different then it logically follows that the “mind” must be different from the “consciousness” or “knower of the mind”.

If the person with OCD fails to realize that the “intrusive thought” or the various modifications of mind are the objects in the mind and identify themselves with the thoughts then the disorder is unlikely to go for a long time. The more one identifies and associates the incoming thought with themselves, the more the person will suffer. I am aware of the difficulties but it is a fact.

One thing which I feel hesitant to put remark on people committing suicide because of mental disorder is the fact that the intensity of misery associated with mental pain is so serious and intense that sometime it becomes speechless to describe the pain.

It seems to me that they are not necessarily weak people but they are just tired. Afterall we are human and   it is an extremely exhausting journey to walk for a long miles in a deserted area with a heavy backpack unsure about if they could ever reach their destiny.

It is reported that people suffering from psychotic disorders such as Schizophrenia are characterized by a disconnection from reality and the person with the condition is usually unaware of his/her behaviour.

In this case, it seems that the first person subjective experience gets instantly identified with the “thought” itself and the windows of space/opportunity available to discriminate between subject and object such as in the case of OCD dissolve.

And whatever thoughts that pop up in their mind, it does not appear as an object to them but instantaneously identified with the subjects themselves. And as a consequence the delusional thoughts are identified as if it is a reality. It is just a hypothetical presumption and I may be wrong.

For instance, a person says something very harsh to me, and I begin to feel that I am getting heated. And suppose that, the person goes on until I am perfectly angry and forget myself and identify myself with the anger.  When the person first began to abuse me, I still thought “I am going to be angry” where I have not lost my discriminative ability to separate the subject or “I” and the object appearing as “anger”.

“Anger” was one thing that is an object in the mind (seen/perceived) and “I” was another that is the “seer” or “witness” of the anger/mind, but when I became angry, I instantaneously/immediately identify myself with the anger or I was anger itself.

The former is the case with OCD where the person still has the ability to perceive the “object” appearing in the mind and the discriminative faculty is not entirely lost and the later I suppose is the case with psychotic disorder such as schizophrenia where the first person subjective experience get instantly identify with the “thought” or mind itself and every thoughts becomes as if it is real.

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