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Moral Moments

A Funny Thing About Consciousness

by Joel Marks

My local newspaper recently switched from a black-and-white format to color for the daily comics. That is quite an innovation. For my whole half-century-plus of existence, color had been reserved for the Sunday comics section. For a child and, generalizing from personal experience, for many an habituated adult, seeing that journalistic tome wrapped in tinted drawings has been a weekly source of delight. So some marketing genius has now got the idea to spread the joy to the six other days.

I am not amused. Call me a curmudgeon who is set in his ways but I see no good in the change. The appeal of the daily comics was quite apart from their artwork; instead they – the good ones – gave us a daily dose of wit. We are used to seeing through them, as it were; there are characters, jokes, ideas. Now our attention has been drawn to their superficial aspect, and there they are found lacking.

But it hit me with a jolt the other day that a deep metaphysical significance might also be intimated. The materialist project, according to which we are nothing but physical objects of a certain sort, maintains that we can do quite well without consciousness, thank you very much. So wouldn’t that suggest that consciousness is just like that superfluous, indeed officious, color that has now been imposed on the funny pages?

I’ll take that more slowly. It is obvious that we are physical beings. But are we also more than that? As I related in an earlier column about the psychologists James J. and Eleanor J. Gibson, my own ‘conversion’ into a philosopher came about when I discovered consciousness. I honestly do not know how many of my readers know what I am talking about (and that is relevant to my theme) but, simply put, I am referring to what I experience when I enter a dark room and turn on the lights. Contrast that what we would normally imagine to be the interior life of a robot: It could come into a dark room and flick the light switch, then light would fill the room; but there would be no corresponding filling of the robot’s being with light. Indeed, there is no darkness in the robot’s being either: It is simply not conscious.

When I speak of the light and darkness of interior being, I am speaking metaphorically. But the materialist would caution that am in danger of taking the metaphor literally, of believing that there is something in existence that is not physical light or darkness, and yet which is not just brain cells either. To me (at least the me who was a nascent philosopher) it was obvious – really, the most obvious fact in my new philosophical world, and the most marvelous – that the light of consciousness was neither physical light nor neural matter. After all, I could sometimes still experience it in a darkened room or with my eyes shut (as when dreaming of a lighted room), and there was nothing corresponding to it in appearance beneath my skull (nobody peering inside would have seen a light shining in there ... unless they used a flashlight [Cf. instant water: Just add water]!).

Now, a wizened if not yet wise philosopher, I see so clearly how question-begging that argument is. If the light and darkness, and the interior being itself, are all metaphorical, then their literalness could be anything: even dull grey brain cells!

This business about the new color comics only brings home the point. You see, life went on merrily enough without that color. Indeed, I have suggested that the color is a nuisance, a distraction. Similarly might we not suppose that a robot or android could go about its tasks without a hint of ‘light’ or consciousness? If so, it seems a small stretch to suggest that we ourselves could do so ... in fact, do do so, until some philosophical bozo (or impressionist painter?) happens upon this phantasmic bauble and becomes bedazzled by it.

Furthermore, do we not positively trip over our own feet when we do become aware of consciousness? Who will be the better dancer: the one who moves, or the one who thinks about the moves? Isn’t this the meaning of: “You can’t learn to ski from a book”? Isn’t this what “The Zen of ...” is all about? Become the bow, become the arrow. Do, be, don’t think. Do-be-do-be-do.

This is also just what J.J. Gibson said. The title of one of his books – The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems – was intended to convey the idea that ‘sensation’ is irrelevant to perception. The balance sense was a favorite example: Although it is just as essential to our functioning as any of the ‘five senses,’ it tends to go about its work without invoking consciousness, without our taking notice of it in feeling or sensation. There does not seem to be anything corresponding to light or color or sound or taste or smell or touch to which we need or even can attend when trying to maintain our orientation to gravity. But if we did not perceive its direction, we could not maintain posture or move in a coordinated fashion. (It is only when the system malfunctions that we sense it, as when we become dizzy.)

Ah yes, I am aware of possible objections to my remarks. For example, it may only be certain types of consciousness that are useless or meddlesome, and even then maybe only in certain types of situations; thus, verbal consciousness may often interfere with playing the piano, but a sensitivity to tone and touch could be essential, and verbal thoughts may similarly inform poetic imagery (and writing good ‘Moral Moments’!). I could also be confusing self-consciousness with consciousness per se.

Meanwhile, the gravity sense may be relatively unobtrusive only because it has one simple job: to ascertain which way is down. Even so, a devotee could probably develop a sensibility to equilibrium and an adept describe its phenomenology. Finally, consciousness could be totally physically constituted but still considered to exist for all that.

But those blasted new comics have at least got me thinking that consciousness could be more epiphenomenal than it is the real deal, and hence we ourselves be ... laughing matter.


Joel Marks is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. www.moralmoments.com.

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