Thursday, March 10, 2011

Belief in the "soul" does nothing to address the problem of subjective consciousness

Apologies in advance for the even-more-rambly-than-usual nature of this post. I am fighting off a bit of a cold -- which you'd think would advise against attempting to tackle existential questions of consciousness, wouldn't you? Ah well. I'm sure I'll catch some of it in proofreading, but it may be a little, eh, disorganized from time to time.

I mentioned I've been experiencing a bit of existential angst recently, mostly surrounding the nature of subjective consciousness. For one thing, I have recently come to view the following quote, commonly attributed to Mark Twain, in a different light: "I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it." True, my non-existence will surely bother me as much after I am dead as it did before I was born (i.e. not at all). But when one really contemplates the fact that one's consciousness did not exist in the past, it seems to me to be just as terrifying an existential abyss as contemplating one's future annihilation! Now not only do I have to look death straight in the face and come to terms with it, but I have to have a staring contest with the birth of consciousness as well. Oy...

But the fact that I know I won't "suffer the slightest inconvenience from it" is indeed a comfort. I guess the bigger question that has really been troubling me can be expressed most succinctly as, "Why aren't we p-zombies?"

Now, before going any further, I need to be clear that I think p-zombies, in the strongest sense (and in the sense that is troubling me), are a silly idea. Perhaps it is my philosophical naturalism talking, but it seems plainly obvious to me that an identical physical replica to ourselves would experience consciousness in any possible universe. To borrow from Douglas Hostadter, that would be like trying to imagine an identical copy of an internal combustion engine, except this copy doesn't actually burn gasoline to create energy, it just simulates doing so. Yeah, that's silly.

But of course the allure of Chalmers's concept is that it sure seems like a sensible question even if it's not. Indeed, compared to the real universe, it is comparatively easy for me to imagine a universe populated by p-zombies, in that they really do think, and they sure do appear to experience subjective feelings, but there's nobody actually really experiencing it, at least not the way I subjectively experience it. To reference Hofstadter again, he referred to consciousness as "a hallucination hallucinating itself," a phrase which I found somewhat obtuse at the time I read it (though I knew what he meant and basically agreed), but now that same phrase has real resonance, and is terrifying at the same time.

This has been bothering me enough that for a moment I was like, "Man, I almost wish I believed in a soul and the afterlife and all that..." But then I realized that doesn't even answer the question. The question of why some living things are sentient and some are clearly not, and the blurriness of that line... that is all left completely unexplained. Unless, I guess, you believe that no animal except us ensouled humans feels a damn thing (which I realize was the predominant Christian worldview until fairly recently), but that just seems so clearly implausible on its face. And that only resolves the blurriness of the line, it still leaves all of the "whys" untouched.

There is a similar infinite regress as one encounters when trying to give a theistic answer the big "Why is there something rather than nothing?" To that question, for any answer, you can always say, "Okay, so why that?" (e.g. why god?) Similarly, "Why do we have a subjective experience of anything?" has a similar infinite regress. Sure, I can describe how human neurology seems to be quite an adequate machine for simulating subjective experience -- but from an intuitive standpoint, that seems as existentially unsatisfying as Lawrence Krauss' answer to the "something rather than nothing" question: "Nothing is unstable." Krauss' answer is pithy and compelling, but it is no less vulnerable to the reply of, "Okay, why that?"

But if a perfectly good mechanistic reason seems existentially unsatisfying, why should a magic reason be any different?

I can ask, "Why do we feel?" and you can point to all of the neurological mechanisms that allow us to feel, and I can always retort, "Okay, sure, that all makes sense, but why do I actually feel it?" (Which I believe to be a nonsensical question, but it doesn't always feel nonsensical on a sleepless night) If to the first question you instead pointed to the soul, I can ask the same damn question! Well, except for the "making sense" part. But still... again, maybe it's my philosophical naturalism talking, but it seems to me that saying that the soul is the substrate of subjective experience is just as existentially dissatisfying (actually, more so) as saying that the brain is the substrate of subject experience. What is there about the substrate that allows it to experience stuff? Does my soul have a soul? Does my soul's soul have a soul? Where does the regress end?

Answer: It ends with our biology, clearly. There's something rather charming and beautiful and amazing about that, but also rather dizzying. I've been angst-y about it lately, but I still feel like the materialistic explanation is ultimately the most satisfying -- and not only from an expository perspective, but from an existential perspective as well. Magical explanations like the soul don't resolve anything; they just dazzle us enough to make us forget the original question.


  1. Yep: immaterial souls explain consciousness about as well as "Goddidit" explains, well, anything. Which is to say: not at all.

    Recommended reading (which I just finished): Carl Zimmer's Soul Made Flesh. He goes into the history of a lot of this stuff.

  2. I am of the mind that our thoughts, feelings, memories (except for those written or otherwise documented) go the same route as data on a hard drive that is magnetically erased. In other words, ashes to ashes; dust to dust in the most complete sense of the phrase. So, yeah.