For a couple semesters in grad school, I was distracted reading philosophical and scientific theories on the nature of consciousness. I became interested in the subject by way of Owen Barfield whose theory about the “evolution of consciousness” I thought had interesting literary applications. But after the sudden passing of my advisor and a serious reassessment of what my academic goals, I changed directions.

Still, I waded into some of the deeper waters of consciousness studies in the work of philosophers/scientists such as David Chalmers, Daniel Dennet, and John Searle. Even before external circumstances prompted me to shift my area of study, I was already sensing that I needed to stop reading about consciousness studies for a while.

Part of the problem, as Michael Robbins points out in his recent review, is that popular/widely-accepted studies of consciousness presuppose a purely physicalist view of the world and of human experience. Everything can and must be reduced to the phenomenon of chemical reactions. Such a commitment has, to the credit of these theorists, produced some fascinating theories about the relationship between mind and body. From Robbins:

How, for one thing, do the mental and physical orders interact? A complete description of consciousness will be, on this view, a physical description of brain states: the absurdly complex interactions of neurons, axons, glia, synapses, “a trillion mindless robots dancing,” as arch-physicalist Dennett has it. For Dennett, the brain produces a “user illusion” that you’re in control, but in fact it’s running the show. You’re a robot, and the movie theater is empty.

Most of these theorists eschew any stringent separations between the operations of the mind and bodily experience. Nevertheless, the variety of theories about how consciousness exists, where it exists, and why it exists are mostly incompatible with one another. It turns out that “physical facts” can be co-opted for any number of theories. And if you’re committed to denying a transcendental reality, it’s hard to see how any of these theories of consciousness will gain traction. Robbins puts his finger on the problem at the end of his essay:

Thus, it seems to me, the proliferation of ever wilder positions. You are the apple. Consciousness is an illusion. And, hell, maybe you are the apple. Crazier things have turned out to be true. But if you simply rule in advance that the mind must be physical and assume that an understanding of consciousness must be a materialist understanding, because scientific materialism is obviously correct, you end up looking for your keys under the streetlamp because that’s where the light is.


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