How core is confusion about consciousness?
Last updated: 12.13.2020
Published: 11.08.2020

How core is confusion about consciousness?

Some people I know claim that they are not confused about consciousness. That’s not how I feel. I feel very confused about consciousness.

Actually, I’m not sure that “confusion” covers it. Some things feel confusing like a puzzle: “Where did my keys go? I literally just had them. I put them right there.” That is, it feels like we know roughly the shape that the clarification will eventually take, but we don’t know what it is. Other things feel confusing like the liar’s paradox (is “this statement is false” true, false, or what?): e.g., heady and abstract, a confusion about “what to say,” about “the right theory.”

Consciousness, for me, has some of this, but it also feels confusing in a different way, more akin to the way that reality itself, the fact that there is anything at all, feels confusing: deeper, more brute, more direct. There are, of course, thought experiments — philosophical zombies, Mary’s room, spectrum inversion, etc — that serve to bring some of this into more respectable philosophical daylight. But I’m not sure these capture it, just as I’m not sure that “there could have been nothing” captures what feels brutely mysterious about being itself. Maybe these articulations seem too “tight” and “clean,” too “controlled”; whereas the true thing, for me, often feels more inchoate, pre-verbal, raw; closer to the feeling of awe, of being “struck dumb.”

I am not putting confusion and mystery on a pedestal here: I would very much like to be non-confused about consciousness, and I am hopeful that further reflection will untie the knot.

In the meantime, though, my question is: how much of a problem is this for attempts to understand other things? I’m asking partly because I sometimes notice the following pattern. I’ll start off wanting to understand something that isn’t consciousness — for example, what it is to perceive something, or to make a mistake, or to find something beautiful, or to intentionally move your arm. Then, in the course of thinking about this, I’ll notice that the thing I’m interested in feels connected somehow to viewing the world from the perspective of a particular agent — that is, from the “inside,” as opposed to from the “outside.” And because consciousness, to me, seems centrally tied to the fact that there is (or seems to be) an “inside” perspective at all, I start to wonder whether in order to understand the thing, I’m going to need to become less confused about consciousness — which seems like a non-trivial project.

I think an early encounter with Thomas Nagel’s book The View From Nowhere might be partly responsible for this pattern of thought. Nagel characterizes a number of philosophical issues (related to the philosophy of mind, action, and value) in terms of the tension between the subjective and the objective perspectives, and concludes, as I recall (I looked back at the introduction in the course of writing this), that the tension is irreconcilable, at least with current intellectual tools. Rather than trying to overcome this tension, then — for example, by trying to subsume one perspective within the other — we should live maturely with its discomforts.

Something in the vicinity of Nagel’s approach resonated with me in college, and looking back, I think it left a mark on my approach to related issues. But it also leads to a kind of philosophical deadlock: the difficulty of reconciling the subjective perspective of a particular agent with an objective conception of the world pops up everywhere, but it can’t be resolved. Nagel’s resignation to this can seem, in one mood, like wisdom (Reinhold Niebuhr, who I also read a lot of in college, often followed a similar pattern: identify a tension, say that we should live at its intersection rather than trying to resolve it definitively in either direction, and leave it at that); but to those seeking further clarity, it gives no guidance (save, perhaps, “cease”).

Perhaps inspired by Nagel, a part of me suspects that my confusion about consciousness is closely linked to confusion about other issues related to the nature of perception, action, and value, and where the link in question has to do with something difficult about forming a mechanistic, causal model of phenomena intimately tied to being a particular agent. I‘m also skeptical, though, of positing too deep a connection here, partly because I expect a cleaner, more analytic framing of the relevant issues to reveal many dimensions along which the relevant issues seem very distinct; and it seems very possible to make progress on understanding these issues without positing (or at least, making explicit) particular views about consciousness. 

A view on the extreme other end of the spectrum would be that these issues can be entirely understood even while issues about consciousness remain totally unresolved. My impression is that many folks in the sciences tend to treat questions about consciousness in something like this way; perhaps it spills over into philosophy as well. The case for taking this approach in the sciences, though, seems buttressed by the plausible assumption that the physical world is causally closed (e.g., all physical events have physical explanations, or something like that, though don’t ask me what I mean by “physical”). This assumption frames debates about the hard problem of consciousness as focused on a certain type of metaphysical icing — a kind of “extra realm” or “extra property,” which, insofar as it is “extra” relative to the physical world, doesn’t make a causal difference to anything else we observe (or say, or think — this is one of the most embarrassing aspects of dualism). This makes it easier to say: maybe this icing exists, maybe we just have weird, misleading intuitions about it, but regardless, we can explain everything else — or at least, everything “physical” — without it, so in other domains, we can mostly ignore the issue. 

Because philosophy does not deal solely with explaining physical phenomena, though, this approach seems less justified there; and insofar as philosophers ignore issues about consciousness in treating e.g. action, perception, ethics, etc, I expect it has more to do with a (reasonable) desire to avoid having to solve every difficult problem at once (similarly, philosophers will appeal to “knowledge,” “causation,” “possibility,” etc, even absent complete theories of these things).

That said, I also see people appeal to consciousness in attempting to defend views in other areas that seem metaphysically and epistemically suspicious in ways reminiscent of dualism about consciousness. For example, non-naturalist moral realists, confronted with questions about the metaphysical status of moral properties, and about how we get epistemic access to them, will sometimes try to tie the relevant metaphysics and epistemology to consciousness in some way — for example, by suggesting that moral properties are “phenomenal properties,” and that we know about them in the same way we know that we are e.g. seeing blue – – e.g., “directly,” via these properties just being “present” to us (in my experience, this move is especially common amongst those sympathetic to hedonistic utilitarianism). This kind of thing makes me feel like ignoring/remaining confused about the issue isn’t innocuous. 

Overall, my current best guess is that there is indeed some core confusion or cluster of confusions related to subjectivity, with implications not just for the hard problem of consciousness but for other areas of philosophy besides; but that this doesn’t mean that in order to become non-confused about those areas, you need to first become non-confused about consciousness. Rather, my guess is that the best route is to try to tackle each issue on its own terms, using whatever tools seem most directly helpful; to devote some time to trying to understand consciousness directly; and to step back periodically and think about how the relevant issues relate. At least, something like that is my current plan.