Is consciousness something that exists objectively – or is it only subjective?

There are philosophers – like David Chalmers and John Searle – who argue that you can’t say that human consciousness has entirely objective properties – at least a part of it is essentially a subjective thing. Searle says it’s “ontologically subjective” – ie that its very existence is subjective – there is no such thing as an objectively existing consciousness. There is a very thisness of the human experience that can’t be captured from outside, that is unique to the individual experiencing it – ie what it’s like to drink a cup of tea and get pleasure from that – that nobody else can share, and that therefore this does not exist objectively, but only subjectively.

I think this is wrong.

It leads to a conclusion that I consider bizarre: if the thisness of experience is only subjective, and only knowable by the experiencer – and that is used as a criterion to conclude that it doesn’t have objective properties, there is a problem. If there is a thisness to human experience, there is also a thisness to the states of being of inanimate objects – drops of water, pieces of wood, trees, ships, cars, grains of sand. All these things are equally inaccessible from the outside. There is a certain quality or property, from the point of view of the inanimate thing, that I can’t capture. So, from this, it’s hard to see how we could say that anything has a fully objective existence, since ultimately, there is an unreachable thisness to everything. This appears to lead to the conclusion that vast parts of the universe do not objectively exist – all we are left with is the assertion that my subjective experience exists.

This amounts to an extreme version of idealism – ie that the only thing that exists is my subjective experience. In contrast, which I personally find much more plausible, is the outlook of scientific realism – that there are in fact, objectively existing things in the universe and those things exist irrespective of whether I’m conscious of them or not. If I’m dead or unconscious all those things still exist.

OK, one way out of this is to argue that there is something unique about subjective consciousness. It’s a special kind of thisness and it means that this alone does not have objective qualities. This seems a pretty strange view.

Firstly, I’m suspicious of any argument which goes on the lines – ‘everything in the universe obeys certainly laws and principles EXCEPT when it comes to humans (and animals).’ Why would humans, who evolved within the universe, defy a basic aspect of the universe – namely objective existence? Just how would humans have developed this special capacity?

And secondly, this uniqueness accorded to humans doesn’t really make much sense. After all, it’s indisputable that humans are in the universe. So the experience of consciousness happens within the universe, somewhere. We know the phenomenon exists, from extensive reports and examination. We know where it takes place, and have a reasonable idea of how it takes place. And yet, some are arguing that it doesn’t exist objectively? That doesn’t make sense to me.

I think the central confusion at the heart of the argument that I’m attacking is as follows: it confuses access with objective existence.

Access is not a criterion necessary to confer objective existence on anything. A simple example: no human being can access a black hole, but the scientific consensus is that black holes very definitely exist objectively – but we literally can’t access, or get inside them. We infer black holes from other phenomena, but that is quite adequate to allow us to come to a firm conclusion that they objectively exist. There are still some questions unanswered about black holes, but we have enough information to be confident in our assertions about their existence.

I think similar considerations apply to human consciousness. The reason I’m writing this is that in an online discussion I came across an individual who constantly demanded that someone tell him what the objective properties of consciousness are. It was obviously a “gotcha” implying that it is an impossible question to answer – and that therefore, we can’t explain or describe consciousness in objective terms.

So first of all – yes, granted! We can’t access all aspects of human consciousness from outside – it is experienced by the individual, and I can’t be the individual (though a thought on that later). Therefore, there is a subjective element that always escapes the outsider. But, as above, this does not at all mean that consciousness is not objective. We can infer what it is – and we have plenty of information about it, based on objective properties.

First of all, we know it has the following components:

  1. An information processing system in our brains, which is constituted by synapses and neurons and their electro-chemical activity. Consciousness is not only based on this, the information processing is a component of consciousness.
  2.  It’s quite clear that another component of consciousness is our sense perceptions – visual, hearing and so on. We also have bodily sensors – for balance etc – which give us information about our position in space, relative to other things.

My typical image of consciousness is something like a continuous visual display, with a running commentary of thought, coupled with projections of physical feeling and emotions and spatial awareness, running inside my brain.

For this “display” we co-opt our visual and sensory apparatus, and combine this with our information processing system, which produces the never-ending churn of thoughts, ideas, impressions etc etc.

So for me, we already have a pretty satisfactory account of what is going on, even if we haven’t filled in the picture of how everything works. We know that consciousness is based on a material brain, that it coopts our senses, and that it uses the information process in our brains. How exactly does consciousness arise from all these things? As mentioned, we don’t yet have a full description, but it seems to me that we have a solid accounting of the parameters it must obey, and what the source and supply of consciousness is.

To me, I have to say, human consciousness doesn’t seem that mysterious. It’s a well- researched phenomenon that we are understanding better and better.

We have an enormous amount of information on consciousness from first-party reports – ie for most of human existence, we have been reporting what goes on in our consciousness. This can be mistaken, sure, but people can be trained to be more rigorous in their reporting, and this information can definitely be useful in defining consciousness. We also have many tools, like functional MRI, to examine brain activity and find correlations between thoughts and ideas and actions – which is now being used to create machines to act on thoughts in a person’s brain – for example someone who can’t physically push a button, can now think about pushing a button and a machine, trained to recognize patterns of brain activity, can respond.

So we have a great deal of first-party and third-party reports, and tools-driven scientific analysis of brain activity, which improves our understanding of what consciousness is. I think that all this points to an objective phenomenon, that can be investigated and explored. The fact that we can’t access everything from outside does not prevent us at all from coming to conclusions and strong inferences about consciousness, based on an objective understanding of what it is.

In fact, it’s very banal and commonplace to not have complete access to things outside ourselves – the whole of the universe is not wholly accessible. I don’t know exactly what it’s like to be a rock or a bat – but I can make some educated guesses based on both my intuitions and objective criteria. We know something about stasis – about the impact of wind and water. We know something about movement and the experience of fear. We know something about sonar pulses. And with humans we know vastly more – so surely human consciousness is much, much less mysterious than the quality of being a rock, for example.

And as with black holes – the fact that we don’t yet know everything about consciousness, does not mean that we can’t confidently say that it’s a definitely existing objective phenomenon.

Is the subjective exclusion to outsiders going to exist absolutely forever? Even that is questionable. In the future, we might be able to completely reproduce a human brain and place it, simultaneously, in an identical context to another human being on which its modelled. We then have the two brains experiencing something alongside each other – then the subjective experience of one brain would be identical to the other brain (or at least close enough to not be relevantly different).  There would be a crossing of the divide between the human and the artificially created brain. Fanciful and a long way off – and probably no one will bother to do it – but certainly not inconceivable as a thought experiment. In that context, we could confidently say that the thisness was accessible and shared.

But on the larger point: do I agree that consciousness is “ontologically subjective”? No. I do accept that part of it is experienced subjectively, but that doesn’t have any bearing on whether it has objective properties of not. I think it’s pretty obvious that human consciousness does exist objectively.

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