Two New Links

We welcome two new additions to the waka waka waka sidebar tonight. The first, called Mixotrophy, is a brand new blog by reader and commenter Andrew Staroscik, a bacteriologist and oceanographer. The other, recommended by Andrew, is the blog Sandwalk, which is the website of one Larry Moran, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Toronto.

Andrew called Sandwalk to my attention because of a recent post and comment thread there on the subject of consciousness. Dr. Moran takes a rather hard line, usually referred to as “eliminative materialism”: he denies that consciousness exists! This is a difficult view to defend, of course, but one value of staking out such a position is that it forces critics to declare exactly what it is that they are saying does in fact exist, and this can be helpful in avoiding a lot of the vagueness and hand-waving that often substitute for clearly defined terms in this acrimonious debate.

But I must say that like most folks I always greet the eliminative position with the feeling that those who defend it can’t really be serious, or that if they are, they must mean something, somehow, other than what they seem to be saying. To be sure, consciousness plays a good many tricks on us, and in particular the fact that by its very nature it cannot be aware of its own gaps and boundaries inclines us to imagine that is enormously more plenary and inclusive than it actually is. Likewise, even the subjective experiences we refer to as qualia are surprisingly slippery things. Although we would imagine that when it comes to our qualia we are infallible authorities, and that our subjective experiences are a place where ontology and epistemology become one, it turns out that this is not reliably the case, as Daniel Dennett convincingly argues in his well-known paper Quining Qualia.

But to deny that consciousness exists? How can anyone get away with this? There is plainly something that goes away when we fall asleep, and returns when we awaken — something that the anesthesiologist mercifully deletes during the ghastly medical procedures we must occasionally endure, and restores when the ordeal is over — and that ontologically subjective something is exactly what makes it “like something” for us to be alive. It is our self-reflective awareness, the awfulness of our pains, the sweetness of our joys. If it does not exist, then in perhaps the most fundamental sense, we do not exist. But I do admit, defining consciousness in precise, objective terms is difficult, to say the least, and it is that difficulty, I think, that makes eliminative materialists suspect that somehow we are trying to pin down something that actually isn’t there, or at least something that really isn’t the sort of thing we think it is at all.

But I don’t doubt that Dr. Moran is just as conscious as the average human being, and certainly experiences genuine, subjective, painful pain when he stubs a toe. So what is it, exactly, that he is denying? This is what I am never quite able to get hold of. There are some very thoughtful and intelligent folks who defend eliminative materialism; I’ve read their books, seen them speak, and so forth, but I still can’t grasp what, exactly, it is they could possibly be eliminating with a straight face.

Anyway, that’s enough for now. Do go and have a look at the discussion at Dr. Moran’s site, and let’s all give Andrew some traffic.

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2 Comments

  1. Andrew says

    Malcolm,
    Thanks for calling attention to my site.

    As for Larry,

    one value of staking out such a position is that it forces critics to declare exactly what it is that they are saying does in fact exist

    this may well be what he is trying to do. One if his larger goals is to challenge all claims of the supernatural. In this sense, the difficulty in defining exactly what it is we are talking about when we discuss consciousness is quite troubling. At its worst, it leads to the use of poorly defined concepts as positive evidence for all sorts of things including the desire to place H. sapiens in a category distinct from the rest of life.

    Posted May 27, 2007 at 8:26 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Andrew,

    You’re most welcome. Glad you decided to start your own site.

    While I think that hard-core eliminativism is far from the right approach to the question — it can shut down further inquiry just as effectively as dogmatic, dualistic theism, in which we just put everything down to God and stop asking — I do strongly agree that there is a good deal of conceptual fog that needs to burn off before we can get anywhere with this puzzle.

    Posted May 27, 2007 at 9:24 pm | Permalink