The Relation of Consciousness to the Material World Essays

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The Relation of Consciousness to the Material Worl

The relation of consciousness to the material world is puzzle, which has its origin in dualism, a philosophy of mind which posits their fundamental separation. Dualism, in turn, has its roots in folk wisdom. The belief that humans are more than bodies and that there is something in human nature that survives bodily death has its origins in prehistory; it becomes explicit in the mythology of Ancient Egypt and Assyria and was formulated into a philosophical position in the Platonic thought of Ancient Greece. But the contemporary view that the interaction of consciousness with matter poses a problem which may be beyond scientific understanding can be traced to a clearer formulation of
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Within twentieth century philosophy and science it is far more fashionable to reduce dualism to a form of materialism, for example to assume or attempt to show that consciousness is nothing more than a state or function of the brain (physicalism or functionalism). If either form of reduction is successful the explanatory gap left by dualism disappears, for the reason that all that needs to be explained can then be explained within the domain of natural science. Fashion, however, is beginning to change (see, for example, the debates between Dennett, Fenwick, Gray, Harnad, Humphrey, Libet, Lockwood, Marcel, Nagel, Searle, Shoemaker, Singer, Van Gulick, Velmans, and Williams in Ciba Foundation Symposium 174, 1993). The reasons for this are many - but in essence they have to do with the realization that once one has explained everything that there is to explain about the material structure and functioning of brains, one will still be left with the problems of consciousness. To put matters crudely, one cannot find consciousness by any conceivable histological examination of the brain. Nor, as Nagel (1974) puts it, can one know what it is like to be something from a physical description alone. In Velmans (1991a) I have

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