Always on my mind
I was recently asked why humans evolved the appreciation of beauty. Latent within the wording is the tacit assumption that appreciation of beauty is in fact that something that “evolved” in humans, that is to say something that, in the course of our evolutionary journey from protozoa to the present, a) at one point wasn’t there, b) appeared somehow via Darwinian mechanisms, and, most notably, c) served some value and survived the rigorous selection process of nature so as to still be a characteristic of humanity today. My reply then was “[Our appreciation of beauty] is not a product of evolution, but an innate quality of the human spirit”, a reply that, as can be seen above, has gotten me in hot water with many of the members of this sub. My aim right now is to explain what I meant by that and, to answer your question, to elaborate on why I take my perspective on what it means to be a person to be favorable to the strictly naturalistic accounts preferred favored by many modern orthodoxies.
Essentially what we’re asking is: What does someone refer to when they say “I”? What am I? What is consciousness? In the current philosophical tradition there are two “problems” associated with consciousness, namely the “Hard” problem and the “Easy” problem. The Easy problem consists in understanding how consciousness processes stimuli, perceptions, memories etc. ie., how our minds process, store and manipulate information. The Easy problem has had quite a bit of headway made on it. In fact, everything that has been thrown at me in this thread as an explanation of consciousness falls under the headway made on the Easy problem. Essentially the Easy problem consists in understanding the mind/consciousness as an analogue to a digital computer, ie., as an information processor-- and this is something that has been done very well, however it’s also where the controversy begins.
There are many people who think that this is where the story ends, ie., that the mind/consciousness is essentially just a very complicated and fleshy digital computer, that the terms mind/brain/consciousness are all basically referring to the same thing. It seems to me that this is the viewpoint favored by many in academia. In the words of one of my interlocutors elsewhere in this thread, consciousness will be “revealed to be no more than a larger and more beautiful complexity of the simple bacterial response to stimuli”. This is the naturalistic description I am objecting to, known in other quarters as the “computational” view of mind. The quiddity of this viewpoint is that consciousness is a) a complexity, meaning the aggregate of some other factors or parts (as opposed to something singular and whole) and b) essentially a collections of inputs and outputs, ie., ‘responses to stimuli’.
So what is the problem? As mentioned earlier, in addition to the Easy problem of consciousness, there is the Hard problem. Essentially the Hard problem consists in taking what is really the fundamental experience of consciousness, ie., asymmetrically accessible subjective conscious experience, and coming to grips with it within a naturalistic framework. Now, why is this a problem? It’s a problem because implicit within the naturalistic framework is the need to confine or at least base everything within the objective physical domain, ie., the domain of physics and observation. But this can’t be done—my consciousness, and your consciousness, is entirely subjective-- it’s asymmetrically accessible. What I mean by that is that there is nothing I can EVER do to your brain that will give me the experience of being you—the most I could ever get is some dim perception of being you through the lense of being me. We cannot get out from behind our own subjective consciousness. So it seems then, from a cursory analysis of its basic nature, that consciousness somehow exists over and above the objective external world—something outside it peering in. Incidentally this is coincident with how we experience things—I don’t experience myself and the objective world as one, there is an logical dichotomy inherent in the act of perception, ie., that of the perceiver and that being perceived. Furthermore, I don’t experience myself an aggregate of parts— I experience myself as one person.
So the problem is this—it’s been the job of naturalistic science for the last 200 years to come to grips with the most fundamental attribute of our being, our subjective consciousness, within a naturalistic framework. In other words an account of consciousness purely in terms of the material and processes of the objective physical universe. The perceiver must be confined entirely to the realm being perceived as external to it. There have been many attempts, but so far, in 200 years, there has been no headway at all on the Hard problem that does not in some way involve sacrificing something essential to our experience of consciousness.
Naturalists, then, are faced with a choice—either maintain that truly subjective consciousness is an illusion somehow, that it can be reduced to a product or result of objective processes and confined to an objective world. The problem here is that there seems to be no way to do this without sacrificing our inherent subjectivity, the very essence of what we perceive within us and that with which we are the most intimate. The infinite “I”, the source of all inspiration and creativity within is much too vast to be fettered by the finite crystalizations of the physical world. On the other hand, naturalists could admit, finally, that metaphysical naturalism is a grossly insufficient framework with which to get a complete picture of reality.
Ultimately what is at stake here is a matter of fundamental world views, of which there are basically two general sorts—materialism and idealism. Materialists maintain that the material world is the most fundamental plane of reality, with everything else, consciousness included, being derivative from it. Idealists, on the other hand, maintain that consciousness is more fundamental. The viewpoint, then, that I am defending above all is idealism—I believe the world within me is more fundamental and meaningful than the world without. My reasons for this are simple and empirical—all I have ever experienced is either consciousness, or something delivered to my faculties through the medium of consciousness. To my mind and heart, along with all my experience, I am a conscious being first and foremost and a material being second. My body is the source of aches, pains and a desire for food, but my consciousness is the seat of my understanding, of my perception, feeling, yearning, love of all things and above all who I am as a perceiver. It seems utterly absurd to me to cast into doubt the very faculty by which I am able to question or contemplate anything at all. To my mind, any picture of reality that does not represent subjective asymmetrical conscious experience as the fundamental feature of our existence has its priorities out of whack.
Looking at it in a Platonic way-- in the external world appear to be examples of things that are beautiful, but it is by my inner faculties, which alone perceive the infinite form of beauty (as how else could I recognize beauty in the world if I didn’t have an innate inner sense of what it was) that I am able to discern and appreciate beauty. From every angle I come at this, and given the failure of the current paradigm to even make feasible in a complete way, I have no difficulty standing behind the age old belief that a human being is fundamentally an individual spark, or a soul, of an Infinite Consciousness that forms the essential matrix of all that is.