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.