by Ted Honderich

A piece of journalism on the current state of the Philosophy of Mind and the need for something really new, maybe the idea of perceptual consciousness as existence, a very different existentialism.

The place you’re in – what is it for you to be aware of it now? If it’s a room, in what does your seeing it and the rest of your perceptual consciousness of it consist? If we could say, we’d be on the way to understanding the nature of consciousness generally, including your having the thoughts to which a good newspaper gives rise and your wanting and intending to be nowhere else. 

The current Philosophy of Mind, by far the most industrious part of philosophy, nearly industrial, mainly puts out fundamentally similar accounts of perceptual consciousness. All them are inclined to be called Physicalism by their makers, this being satisfactorily less definite than Materialism. 

The toughest-minded Physicalists are in Australia and California, where, maybe as a result of the sun, powers of belief are great. Eliminative Materialists hold that your being perceptually conscious of your surroundings has only neural properties – such properties of neurons as those having to do with transmitter-substances. 

To this dismal regiment, even the Functionalists take themselves to be superior. It is the central idea of Functionalists that being aware of the chair over there is something with a causal role, an effect-cause – misnamed a function. Being aware of the chair is the effect of the chair, and of a light-pattern on your retinas and so on, and also the cause of your body’s moving towards it and so on. 

This awareness is in your human case neural, but it might have been silicon. It’s the causal relations that are somehow fundamental to it. So we can usefully spend a lot of time, if we want to understand ourselves, in thinking about our boring computers. A high price to pay, but worth it. 

Functionalism, like Cognitive Science with the same philosophical ambition, is incoherent. It takes your being aware of the chair to be nothing more than something with a causal role. In which case what distinguishes the effect-causes like that one from your little gain in weight, also a matter of input and output, and of which you are never conscious? Functionalism, in studying a category of effect-  

causes, the conscious ones, covertly picks them out by using some understanding of them that it says doesn’t exist. 

The fatal thing about such Physicalisms is that they leave something out, as known to all of us not mind-dead for philosophical purposes. You can call it subjectivity. But the Physicalisms have a tremendous recommendation. They do not make it impossibly obscure how consciousness does what it does – interact causally with matter, say chairs and limb-movements. The Mind-Body Problem is not made as hopelessly insoluble as it was for the primitive dualist Descartes. Of course awareness can interact causally with a chair or a knee if awareness is neurons.  

To save the Philosophy of Mind from its computerized fate, we need something a lot different, something radically different, but with the same recommendation. It will probably have some metaphysics in it, reflection on the nature of reality, ways of conceiving what there is. 

We can try actually thinking from the start about what it is for you now to be aware of your surroundings. IT’S FOR A WORLD SOMEHOW TO EXIST, ISN’T IT? A certain totality of things? It’s for things somehow to be in space and time, isn’t it? Don’t we need an idea of consciousness as existence? 

This new Existentialism, happily totally unrelated to the old, doesn’t leave out subjectivity. It positively affirms a subjective world. But this isn’t a merely mental world. It’s stuff out there in space and time. It can therefore interact with what we call the physical world. So there’s hope for the Philosophy of Mind. Anyway, I have some.  

For a lot more words on this new hope for the Philosophy of Mind, you can try the philosophical papers on Consciousness as Existence listed in Publications List. -- and, for the whole truth, the 2014 book Actual Consciousness.