Monday, February 14, 2011

what's the problem, exactly?

Substance dualists like to say that there's no clear connection between brain states and subjectivity. This divide between first- and third-person ontology (more simply, subjective and objective reality) is at present inexplicable, and presents itself to scientists and philosophers as "the hard problem" of human consciousness: why do we experience? One of the substance dualists' favorite arguments is that, when one thinks of a horse, no actual horse appears inside the human brain: no horse-shaped electrical pattern, no homunculus-like horseling running around inside the gray matter, nothing recognizable as (and relatable to) a horse. To be fair, the dualists aren't saying that no representation of the horse exists (many would grudgingly concede that it may), but rather that the connection between a thought about a horse and a particular brain state indicating a thought about a horse is far from obvious, and that this militates against the physicalist contention that "the mind is what the brain does."

I concede that the dualists' basic point can't be refuted directly; science is still figuring out how to correlate brain states with subjectivity but has, in my opinion, already come a long way. And yet, despite the continued existence of the hard problem, the dualists' "no horse in my head" argument strikes me as a weak objection to physicalism. Look at a Blu-ray disc, for example. All you see is a disc that, when you tilt it in different directions, seems to reflect a shifting rainbow pattern. Yet you know that, in conjunction with a TV and a Blu-ray player and all the proper settings and connections, that disc is a key component in displaying a movie-- sight, sound, director's and actors' commentaries, etc. When I look at the disc, I see no movie, no director, no actors, and yet I know that the information corresponding to those concepts is contained on the disc.

Why, then, should we be troubled about the absence of literal horse-images in our brains? As the Blu-ray shows us, other non-conscious phenomena have similar properties: they contain information that isn't evident until an array of devices makes it so.


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