Storm 1915 by Ilmari Aalto (detail)

Storm by Ilmaro Alto (1915, detail)

I’ve been grappling with a series of interrelated questions: How, where and with what do the physical sciences begin? Why do they begin there? Should philosophy start in the same place and proceed in the same manner, or does it follow an altogether different path? If it follows a different path, is it necessarily a bad thing that philosophy isn’t a science, and might it even be one of philosophy’s tasks to serve as an antagonist to the physical sciences, to be unscientific in a particular and pointed manner? Finally, do scientists make ontological and epistemological assumptions which only philosophers can systematically correct? In figuring all this out, we’ll take our bearings again from philosopher Daniel Dennett, who provides a possible answer to our first question.

It is really quite clear what the raw material or input to the perception and comprehension systems is: wave forms of certain sorts in the air, or strings of marks on various plane surfaces. And although there is considerable fog obscuring the controversies about just what the end product of the comprehension process is, at least this deep disagreement comes at the end of the process being studied, not the beginning. A race with a clear starting line can at least be rationally begun, even if no one is quite sure where it is going to end (Consciousness Explained 231).

However, if science and philosophy aren’t running the same race, this supposedly “clear starting line” might be different for each of these two disciplines. Dennett is careful to point out that he is talking about the beginning of the process being studied (of the physical operation that produces comprehension) and not of the procedure of studying that process. Epistemologically, however, the two are very much related. Where science pinpoints the beginning of the process is likely also to be where the procedure of studying it begins. Wave forms don’t begin by being isolated; that is already a move made by the human mind. What constitutes the input’s context? Do other factors, perhaps even the conscious brain itself, have to be in place before it even makes sense to pinpoint the wave form as the beginning of the process?

The way Dennett sets up the problem is already deeply problematical and shows why choosing the wave form as our starting point commits us to an equally problematical conclusion. He begins with input, which doesn’t just refer to something out there in nature. Input is also a concept. Hence we’re already dealing with conceptual matters, with the categories that help us conceive how reality “really” is. As I noted last time, this move sets us up for having to determine consciousness as output, which is also partly a conceptual matter, a way of thinking about reality. As I noted last time, how and where we begin already dictates how and where we end up, namely, consciousness as product.

Dennett approaches the phenomenon of being conscious by asking a specific question, namely, how consciousness gets produced by the brain. This easily turns into an engineering problem: Can the effect be artificially reproduced? The experience of being conscious itself this way of approaching the matter leaves entirely out of account. For this, we have to focus not on the process or the product but on the consciousness of the scientist or engineer himself or herself as he or she goes about his or her business studying the phenomena. What use is there in asking about consciousness as such? For one thing, it presents us not with isolated wave forms but with a holistic phenomenon that includes subject and object together—the phenomena as they exist in integrated fashion in conscious minds, which might very well be where they acquire their ultimate meaning and purpose.

Engineers like to do things. Consequently, they’re usually only interested in the hard problem of consciousness: how is it produced? What I’m calling the soft problem of consciousness often doesn’t seem like a problem. It might even seem trivial. Nevertheless, there are ontological and epistemological questions here that have engaged, fascinated, and perplexed the human mind for centuries. If philosophers have hardly ever produced what scientists like to call concrete results, it might very well be because the activity of philosophy largely rests in the contemplation itself, not in any “usefulness” in the common understanding of that term.



  1. Thanks for the challenging question. For important ontological reasons, I define existence according to its etymologically derived meaning: to emerge, to come into being, to stand out. It is a verb not a thing. To stand out from what? From oblivion. As I see it, existence is a conceptual matter, a determination of things, and not a quality adhering to objects which are cut off from any understanding of being, from any determinability. Existence is the emergence of things for those beings for whom the concept of existing makes any sense at all. From this standpoint, what remains in oblivion is itself a phenomenon: it is that which remains unperceived and unknown but precisely as unperceived and unknown, namely, noumenon.

    But now the question naturally arises: If existence is a conceptual matter, do animals have any conception of it and, if not, how do things exist for them, if at all? I find this to be a fascinating question, and I believe I can flesh it out with a little help from Heidegger. Because of the way people usually use the word “existence,” it naturally sounds ridiculous to say that things don’t exist for animals, even if animals exist for us. In fact, according to the common understanding, it sounds absurd to say that things don’t exist at all unless they are there for those who have an understanding of existence (even if for most people this understanding is pre-thematic and remains inexplicit). To avoid confusion, just keep in mind how I am defining the word “existence.” This is not an arbitrary redefinition. Not only do I have eminently defensible logical grounds for it, but the innermost sense of the word informs my definition.

    As for Kant, we should be clear that for him nature is itself a phenomenon. Anything science has access to must be discovered. Once things are discovered and known in space and time, whether directly or indirectly, he says they are phenomena. Noumenon is by definition unknowable since it is that which does not conform to our finite abilities to perceive and to know.

    I largely agree with Kant, but it all depends on whether we bring God (omniscience) into the picture. From reading the Critique of Pure Reason and large chunks of some of his other works, my strong sense is that Kant believed in God. At this point, for me, it makes sense to speak of the noumenon as existing in so far as what escapes our comprehension still exists for God. People used to believe that the entire universe was sustained in its existence by God. This view makes a lot of sense to me, although it is scorned by educated people today.

    Personally, I would rather reserve the word existence for the being who knows he or she exists and reserve the word “subsist” for those beings who have no consciousness at all. In order to express our thoughts, we have to use words, and this easily results in ambiguity unless one carefully defines one’s terms. Mathematics is much more exact than language, but it is also limited in what it can express.

  2. you wrote, “as for Kant, we should be clear that for him nature is itself a phenomenon.” and as Kant seems to say that phenomena does not exist except in the mind of the subject, so do you agree that nature exists only in the mind of the subject?

    • Yes, but my answer hinges on how I’m using the term “existence,” which I explained in my reply to your previous question. If there’s no mind, and consequently no awareness of anything, then nature is in exactly the same state we’re in when we lose all consciousness. When we’re totally and completely unconscious, nothing’s there. At this point, most people will want to say, no, you mean things aren’t there for us, but they’re still there even if nobody is conscious. My reply is no, you’re downplaying what conscious experience actually contributes. The real “there” is supplied by experience not by space or any other non-conscious thing. If nothing is there for any sentient being, then, actually, nothing is there at all because there’s no being-there (Da-sein). It’s only from the standpoint of consciousness that we observe that the universe was there all along and will go on being there. And that’s because when we make that observation we’re supplying the phenomenon of thereness for it. Kant goes a step further and makes space itself subjective. It’s not that I’m saying nature’s just a holographic projection of the mind or anything absurd like that, which is how some people want to take it. I’m trying to draw attention to the important function consciousness plays in reality because some thinkers want to dismiss it altogether as not even part of reality, as irrelevant to it. Science wants to determine nature as it is independently of the mind. I think that’s impossible since whenever science deals with anything it is already as the content of consciousness. What scientists deal with can’t ever be anything but. Objectivity is a mode of subjectivity. An objective determination is just that: a determination of the object. Getting rid of consciousness also gets rid of the object. For me, the current way of thinking is just a way of getting rid of the soul and of denying the fact that existence revolves around it and not around the insensate object.

  3. Human beings exist. They exist for themselves and for each other. Things like rocks, stars, space, and time exist for human beings, but not for themselves or for each other, so I say that they depend on us for their existence. The way I use the term, existence depends on the mind, so it is a form of idealism. Physics doesn’t account for the lack of psychological states. Physicists don’t deal with psychology at all in any thematic way, but they nevertheless make constant recourse to psychology since science is an endeavor of the mind. Science is through and through a psychological activity. Because the physicist can never obviate his or her own consciousness even when he or she is being objective, he/she goes on thinking about the world as if consciousness were present even when theoretically no consciousness is supposed to be present. This is what Nagel calls “the view from nowhere.” The physicist takes the being there of the object for granted without properly elucidating what this “being there” is.

    • A hallucination exists as a hallucination, a fictional character as a fictional character, a thought as a thought. All things that are real exist, but not all things that exist are real. There are also things that used to exist but no longer exist. The matter or energy of which it was made may still be around, but not the thing itself. Has it then “become nothing”? Traditional logic, which is a bit limited on this point, says that the concept of “the nothing” is sheer nonsense since you can’t speak of nothing as if it were something. Heidegger often gets criticized for writing about “das Nichts,” the Nothing. But these critics usually don’t understand that in Heidegger it is a phenomenological notion, which is why he speaks about it in reference to death and anxiety. As for things in oblivion that entirely exist outside of consciousness, I don’t say that they are nothing, exactly, but for all intents and purposes they are virtually nothing. That is, they count for nothing unless one factors in consciousness, a being for whom things actually matter and mean something.

  4. The problem for the philosopher, at least, is that the world is full of meanings all the way down. How is it that Dennett came by his question? How is that such a question is disclosed? Dennett takes it as unproblematic. But how is that such a question becomes unproblematic? It clearly doesn’t arise in the way you have rehearsed his “starting point.” It is a virtual miracle that he could come by this as a starting point, for clearly this is a highly interpreted and sophisticated starting point. It is because we are never without meanings, the question is how new meanings arise. Because of the omnipresence of meaning, I can’t even make sense of “objective” knowledge or entities. Since meanings require a mind, I can only think that such entities are in the Mind of God, a perspective I am not convinced we can attain.

  5. Bill wrote,” I can’t even make sense of “objective” knowledge or entities.”
    Neither can I. It seems to me that perhaps knowledge and also entities are always from a subjective point of view or perspective. Though I am open to being corrected.

    • I have no problem with the notion of objectivity. It’s just that it’s rooted in subjectivity. The problem isn’t with objectivity per se but with a limit case, i.e., total objectivity. Dennett writes about the transition to objectivity as if subjectivity had been obliterated in the process. To see where I’m coming from on this, you have to understand the strong reductionist trend among philosophers and scientists today. It’s as though, having gotten rid of the soul and the mind and reduced everything to the brain and/or its functions, they now feel compelled to get rid of consciousness as well. They claim that consciousness isn’t real as anything distinct from the brain. You see, they have to reduce it to the brain to make any sense of it considering how they define the concept of reality. To them, only what is in principle observable is real. But consciousness can’t be observed. Signs of consciousness (behavior, for example) can be observed, but not consciousness itself. This is why in the Turing test it really doesn’t matter if consciousness is present in the machine; the fact that it effectively simulates human thinking and behavior is enough. For if consciousness is essentially a first person phenomenon, how could they determine that the machine is actually conscious? At best, they could only say that if certain structures and functions are present, then consciousness must also be present. But they would have to infer it; they wouldn’t be observing consciousness itself. People say things like “consciousness resides or occurs in the brain.” By speaking that way, people betray that they don’t know what consciousness is, or at least that they lack an adequate conception of it. Consciousness does not occur in the brain; the very notion is ridiculous. Rather, it straddles the inner and the outer. It occurs not in the brain but inside the head. Phenomenologically we’re talking about two distinct spaces. We don’t perceive the space inside our head (that phenomenal space where we perceive our thoughts occurring) as a space inside the brain even though objectively we know that the brain is inside the head. What happens in the brain are merely the functions and processes that mechanically produce the effect. But the effect itself, i.e., consciousness, does not reside in the brain. In fact, consciousness mostly resides out in the world. But to reductionists such talk sounds “mystical,” as indeed it must considering the limited and at times inadequate conceptual apparatus through which they see and make sense of the world.

      2+2=4 is objectively true. But that it is as true for you as it is for me by no means implies that it exists independently of minds. Even in the case of such a straightforward little sum, we’re talking about things meaning and mattering, about something being posited–and not just posited but posited as something.

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