Husserl: Consciousness is Not a Thing

Our common sense notion of consciousness is that it is a thing—I have a mind and my mind is perceiving and thinking. Much of philosophy has been spent trying to discover what consciousness is or simply assuming that it already understands what it is. However, Edmund Husserl, building on the work of Kant, took issue with the standard notion of consciousness as a thing-in-itself.

The short of it is that Husserl said that when we examine consciousness we do not find a metaphysical substance. He agreed with Hume, Kant, and Kierkegaard on that. Husserl said that we detect that which consciousness is aware of but not consciousness itself. What defines consciousness is not a subject (we have no impression of it as Hume pointed out) but the objects of consciousness—consciousness always takes an object. This was Husserl’s doctrine of intentionality. Consciousness “points to” something and all we really “see” is what it points to. I liken it to how we don’t see the eye, we only see what the eye sees. Consciousness is completely transparent in that way. Husserl believed that armed with this understanding we can begin to discover essences because we can leave out the stumbling block of trying to describe the substance of consciousness and can go “to the things themselves.”

The metaphysical question here is whether consciousness can be considered to be any kind of substance—a thing-in-itself. Does consciousness depend on nothing else for its existence as Descartes believed? Can consciousness be predicated (part of Aristotle’s definition of substance) like other objects such as a tree, i.e. it is tall, has leaves, etc.? My understanding of Husserl’s argument is that because consciousness exists only in the mode of intention—taking an object—then it cannot be considered a substance or a thing-in-itself. Thinking is nothing unless it is thinking about something, and only in the action of thinking about something does consciousness exist. One could say that consciousness is never a noun, only a verb. Thus, it is not something that is concrete. In fact, nothing in consciousness can be considered complete because awareness is always incomplete and sketchy. The word Husserl uses is “adumbration.” Our thoughts are not crystal clear, they are adumbrations “surrounded by a halo of indeterminacies which could themselves be filled out only through successive adumbrations.” Our ideas are constantly in flux reactining continually in response to new ideas and new information. Thus, in no way can consciousness be considered a concrete thing-in-itself that can be defined independently. This does not mean that consciousness is not real, but it means that consciousness is not a concrete object such as a tree. I don’t think this reality leads us into the morass of postmodernism but it does mean we can’t go back to a pre-Kantian notion of objective consciousness as I accuse the analyticals of doing.

Some have countered that okay, consciousness is not a thing-in-itself but it is a “state the brain can be in.” I suspect that Husserl would not even agree with that notion because calling it a “state” is to still give it a kind of substance; but it is hard to pin Husserl down on something like that. It also requires a much longer discussion of modality than I want to get into here.

I should add that Husserl’s views of consciousness are why I am so skeptical of neuro-this and neuro-that trying to tell us what consciousness is, because the most it could ever show are the objects and effects of consciousness, if that, and the field seems to fundamentally not grasp that it can’t do what it tries to do. Neuroscience claims to be “finding the neurocorrelates of consciousness” when they hook up a person to a machine and lights flash on their monitor. I agree that that is what neuroscience attempts. I will use the Turing Test to illustrate my problem with it. Let’s say we have a machine that lights up when we hook it up to a person. What do the lights tell us? Like Turing’s machine—we see only the result, we cannot tell what is at the other end causing the result. A glitch in the machine could cause the same light pattern on the monitor—is that consciousness? How would be able to tell? Another illustration is Wittgenstein’s “beetle” thought experiment. If someone says “beetle” to describe the contents of a box they are holding but we cannot see into, what does that tell us? Do we, in hearing “beetle,” now know what is in the box? Can we be sure that what they mean by “beetle” is what we mean by “beetle?” And how would we be able to tell if they are telling the truth? If someone says “beetle” we can be sure only that someone has said “beetle” not what is actually in the box. What these two thought experiments illustrate is that effects are not to be confused with causes. The lights on a machine tell us only that there are lights on a machine. It does not tell us “aha! consciousness is found!” anymore than we could say we know that is a human (Turing) or there is actually a beetle in the box (Wittgenstein).

Consciousness still eludes objectification and probably always will. It is not a thing-in-itself.

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Kierkegaard: Truth is Subjectivity

Poor Soren Kierkegaard, he never gets his due. Partly because he was Danish, and the ethnocentrism of most philosophers leaves him out. Of course the other reason Kierkegaard is so often ignored is that what he writes is harsh and uncomfortable; some of it very dark and cynical (but that’s for another time). Nevertheless, acknowledged or not, Kierkegaard still has a strong influence upon our society and philosophical development for the past century.

Perhaps Kierkegaard’s most important idea was his radical declaration that truth is subjectivity. He realized that regardless of what else could be said about epistemology, one unalterable fact remained: all human experience was subjective; even objective truths could only be experienced and known subjectively. Let’s take an objective truth like mathematics. Math is true right? So how much do you care about it? Chances are that if you aren’t a professional mathematician or accountant math doesn’t mean much to you and isn’t a big part of your life. You assign a subjective value to the objective truth of mathematics in terms of what it means to you which alters how you perceive math. Let’s take another example: a natural disaster kills 5,000 people in a land 15,000 miles away. That is an objective fact but how much does it affect you? Now let’s say someone you love is injured in an accident; how much does it affect you? More than did the disaster in a far off land? Most certainly and who would blame you for it?

Kierkegaard understood this basic reality of human nature: we place more importance on things we care about than things we don’t. These are subjective judgments. Values and the importance we place on facts are always subjective. More importantly, Kierkegaard understood that not only do we make these subjective judgments, we cannot avoid making these subjective judgments.

Reality presents us with a series of events. We are forced to make choices in response to these events – and if you choose not to decide you still have made a choice. Kierkegaard said we are beings who must choose and act. Every choice that we make is indeed made by us. Even if we decide to do what others tell us to do, that is a decision we make. So everything we do is subjective and there is no way to avoid that. Not that we don’t try, Kierkegaard said; we so often try to hide in objectivity. He meant that we try to ignore our responsibility for our choices and actions by pretending that we have no choice – pretending there is only one objective answer for our situation. We see this all the time when people blame the situation, their environment, their upbringing, basically blaming anything else but themselves and not being mature enough to take responsibility for their choices. Kierkegaard wasn’t dismissing the reality that our environment does have a very real effect in us and that it does limit our options. But we are still responsible for our own choices within those limits. No matter what we must choose and act.

We own our own decisions and the results of our choices and actions. Our reality is ultimately one that we create – our truth is perceived and lived subjectively. That concept that truth is subjectivity is the centerpiece of Kierkegaard’s new philosophy of existentialism, one of the major schools of philosophy ever sense.

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Thoughts on Improving College Education

As a professor, here is my humble take:

The K-12 system needs to improve; too many students arrive in college without the skills needed to complete college work.

Both primary and secondary educational advisers need to do a much better job of helping students find a college track that makes sense for them. Schools spend too little time and money on advising programs and too many students are lost not knowing what classes or major to take. It doesn’t just hurt the students’ college years, it hampers their career and earning potential for years to come.

Colleges have de-emphasized learning and academic standards in favor of a “get their money and keep them in school” mentality. Students should be required to perform or lose their place not coddled to keep the tuition dollars flowing.

The other problem in secondary education today is not the professor-student ratio, it’s the administrator-student ratio. Two decades ago there was one administrator for every 125 students, now it is one administrator for every 78 students. Meanwhile administrator salaries are significantly increasing. It is now typical for a college to pay its president the equivalent of what they pay adjunct faculty for 80-90 course sections. Yes, that’s right, the average adjunct professor would have to work 20 years to make what a college president makes in one year. The proliferation of administrators and their inflated salaries is driving tuition costs up while providing little benefit to the schools and their students.

Finally, college should be free for students who can demonstrate academic ability and can fulfill academic requirements once they are in college. That’s the system most other nations have – the ones passing us in level of education. It will also make college like the business world – perform and you get compensated – a much better preparation for real life than out current system.

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The New Alchemists

There are some who claim they can read tea leaves. You can’t of course, not unless you have the proper training and years of experience; at least that’s the story. But though that detritus at the bottom of cup means nothing to you the tea leaf readers will tell you what they mean and you can’t tell if they are full of crap or not–just trust them, they tell you.

The New Hadron Collider has been smashing subatomic particles together along with the usual promises that this time physicists will reveal untold insights into the mysteries of the cosmos. See, they have these computer monitors with a bunch of lines and smudges on them that they claim they can read. You can’t of course, not unless you have the proper training and years of experience; at least that’s the story. At the NHC press conferences about the chatter is that they are reading the “tea leaves” searching for the “God Particle.”

And so another era of alchemy/scholasticsm begins… shadowy scientists chasing phantoms and making up nonsense about nothing arguing over how many bosons can dance on the head of a pin and all the while these priests of science telling us “trust us, even though you can’t read our language, we can.”

The “language” I refer to is the “results” of the experiments–the “tea leaves” on their monitors–which by their very nature are putative. Understanding this “language” is not a matter of training or intelligence, not a matter solvable by physics or mathematics, and no amount of hard work resolves the issue. An example of what I mean: Show me a quark; not what your theory speculates you can produce on a detector if you create a particular set of circumstances; show me an actual quark in a natural state. If you can’t, you are just chasing shadows….

The “God Particle” is the Higgs boson–an imagined particle that has never actually been detected, just “indications” that it exists. Physicists have spent several decades and billions of dollars looking for it. And when the “indications” never go beyond “tantalizing hints?” Then what? Will they admit that the “God Particle” doesn’t exist, or will they do what they’ve done before when they couldn’t find it with all of the previous colliders, say we need to build an even more powerful collider–which is why they built the New Hadron Collider. At what point do they admit there is no such thing? Or will they be like The Believer in Anthony Flew’s parable of the mythical gardener–always adding yet another qualification of why we can’t detect it? Or perhaps they will go back to their rooms like medieval monks and return to speculate on chimera.

We ridicule the excesses of medieval alchemy yet today we hail the same thought processes as cutting edge science, just as the medievals hailed their “science.” Centuries from now what will they say about today’s physics?

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What Atheists do NOT Know About the Study of Religion

A solid article by a philosopher on hypocritical atheists who make comments on matters on which they are ignorant.

What Atheists do NOT Know About the Study of Religion

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