THE SOFT PROBLEM OF CONSCIOUSNESS

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The first person is conveyed in immanence and directly accessed only through introspection. In contrast, neuropsychology studies the objective interrelationship between brain function and cognitive, behavioral, and emotional states. This correlation is the basis for the hard problem (as it is called), which asks, “How does the nervous system give rise to consciousness?” From this standpoint, what consciousness is as such gets overlooked. Indeed, there is a completely different way to think about the mind-body problem. Since it is the flip side to the hard problem, we will call it the soft problem of consciousness.

As we have previously discussed, the body appears in the clearing that is made possible by consciousness. The clearing, as what allows access to the body in the first place, precedes the body in a definite sense. The order we must follow here has nothing to do with cause and effect in the sense in which we know it in physics. From the “hard” point of view, a body is posited before consciousness can exist, but from the “soft” point of view we have to posit the clearing first and then the body. This idea only makes sense if one realizes that what exists, what stands out from nonbeing, is not the physical substratum as such but its manifestation. What is decisive is not a mere physicalness in which everything remains indistinguishable, but the disclosure of existence as actually being there as something in particular — that is, as being one thing and not something else. The act of distinguishing one thing from another, of setting it in itself as what it is according to the hermeneutical meaning upon which any phenomenon depends, cannot happen without the mind. Consciousness is the openness in which things stand out not only against nonbeing but against each other in order to become what they are in themselves.

Object-centered approaches fail to orient themselves with regard to consciousness. As we said at the outset, first person experience is only given in what is called introspection. At the same time, words like “introspection,” “immanent,” and “inside” mischaracterize the nature of consciousness. For the most part, consciousness does not occur “inside.” Sensory stimuli come into the body and affect the nervous system, but the phenomenal effect, the point of the mechanism, mostly results in the reverse: preception — and particularly that belonging to the faculties of sight and hearing — goes in the opposite direction, occurring outside of the body without itself being an object that can be detected in the world. That is the essence of subjective perception vis-à-vis all objects, including in relation to the nervous system itself. Consciousness as such cannot be given as an object. Being essentially an absolute transparency, it gets overlooked by the natural sciences and consequently by psychology itself.

Of course, we also have thoughts that we perceive as being “inside my head.” Ideas, sensations, and emotions are given together with and in the same conscious clearing as the external world. Two distinct regions, the inner and outer, are distinguished, but it is one and the same clearing: the self. The openness of the clearing includes both regions. But “inside the head” is not to be confused with what occurs inside the brain; they are not the same phenomenon. Except under clinical circumstances, what goes on inside the brain is precisely what we are not conscious of. From the standpoint of the soft problem, it is therefore incorrect to say that consciousness qua consciousness (consciousness as such) occurs in the brain. Rather, the brain is an object within consciousness.

Hence the need for a different kind of psychology. The problem is, however, that psychology developed in the nineteenth century on the basis of the physiological discoveries in sensation and perception of Johannes P. Muller and Hermann von Helmholtz. Since changes in the nervous system affect consciousness, it is not surprising that psychology would anchor itself in neurobiology. Founding itself on physiology, psychology oriented itself around the body, interpreting the mind in terms of the body instead of the body in terms of the mind. As a result of the limitations imposed by this approach, psychology underwent a crisis. After the basic division into genetic and descriptive psychology, it fragmented into various schools: structuralism, behaviorism, Gestalt psychology, psychoanalysis, and cognitivism.

In terms of the hard problem, behaviorism was pivotal. It rejected introspection as a method and argued that consciousness should not even be an object of psychology. What was this ephemeral thing called “consciousness” anyway? Merely an abstract chimera of philosophy. Psychology, it was argued, should instead root itself in hard science, physics and biology, cause and effect. With that, the mind’s most essential aspect, the clearing, dropped out of reach. The study of consciousness originated within philosophy and now had to return to it. Still, objectivity might be the rallying cry, but it is always the subject, not the object, that is being objective: the soul is still there within science; it is just taken absolutely for granted.

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