Husserl and External Reality
Published: 2018-07-29 . Back to ≈

“How does the brain create consciousness?”

“Does the brain create the mind?” As modern science chips away at many of the mysteries concerning what is actually happening inside of our brains, it is natural that questions like these have become quite common. These questions take for granted that consciousness exists, that external matter exists, that the two are not identical, and that some kind of causal relationship exists between the two.

However common, the overarching question of how matter produces or generates consciousness has proven essentially an impossible one to answer, earning it the title of the “hard” problem of consciousness. But if it is impossible to answer, in this post I hope to argue that this is only because it is a meaningless question from the outset.

To see why, let’s take a closer look at our terminology. By “consciousness,” we are essentially referring to subjective experience. On the other hand, when we talk about matter, we are referring to something objective–a fact or object whose existence falls outside of our subjective experience.

This all seems straightforward enough, but the devil is in the details. Let’s consider an example of something that we might consider objective. Imagine that you and I are both looking at a painting hanging on a wall. Because we are standing at different positions with respect to the painting, it looks slightly different to each of us. That is, our individual subjective experiences of the painting’s appearance will not be identical. However, what if we were to take a ruler and measure an edge of the painting? We should both agree on the result of this measurement. Let’s take this measurement as an example of something objective.

What have we done here? While our subjective experiences are not the same in total, we have identified a single element common to our two individual experiences, namely, the number of ruler tick marks falling along one edge of the painting. There are certainly other common elements that we could identify if we took the time. And we would call these shared elements “objective,” since they do not appear to depend on the subject doing the observing, but rather on the object itself.

Now, while these objective elements do not seem to depend on the subject, it would be wrong to say that they are not part of the subject’s experience. Indeed, we’ve shown that they are merely a subset of the full ensemble of elements that make up a subject’s experience. The objective is contained within the subjective. But this contradicts what we supposed previously–that objective things like matter exist independently and outside of our subjective experience!

Now you might object at this point. Matter clearly exists outside of and independent of our consciousness, you might say. Otherwise, why would we expect there to be any commonality at all between your subjective experience and mine.

Fair enough. Let’s assume that matter does exist, entirely external to and independent of our consciousness (assuming for the moment that this sentence in itself is not non-nonsensical). What then are its properties?

Let’s pick a property commonly attributed to matter: it occupies space. What does this mean? Well, let’s look at something specific like a box. There may well be many different ways to describe the notion of a box occupying space, but all of them eventually will boil down to a sort of operational definition. For example, for a box to occupy space means that you can put a ruler against it and measure its length, width, and breadth.

But this is just like the earlier example of the painting. There, we agreed that the length of the painting, though we gave it the label objective, was still contained within our subjective experience. Just so, the idea of “occupying space” is clearly a description of our conscious experience of a box. We simply have no way of knowing how this notion relates to whatever properties matter has as it exists independently of our experience of the box.

Here is an illustration: Think about the movie, The Matrix. In case you haven’t seen it, in The Matrix many humans live their entire lives within a computer simulation built by machines. Presumably, some of these humans are scientists. Let’s assume that the computer simulation is perfectly true to life. Then the scientists in the simulation will come to all of the same conclusions about the nature of external reality as scientists not living in the computer simulation. Of course, they will apparently be quite wrong.

What this highlights is that scientists never study external reality–for all of the reasons that we have discussed up to this point; quite simply, external reality is completely inaccessible to us. What scientists study is nothing more than a subset of their own conscious experience. In particular, the subset that everyone else seems able to agree upon and communicate about.

The scientific project consists of forming models which seem able to predict how conscious experience is likely to play out. While it is common to think of these models as being somehow connected to ontological entities–things having real existence–outside of our consciousness, there is absolutely no reliable way to know what these connections might look like or if they actually exist at all.

At the end of the day, all we know is consciousness. Any time that we try to imagine something “outside of consciousness,” we quite naturally find that what we are imagining is simply an object of our consciousness. Edmund Husserl, the great phenomenologist, summarizes all of this in his pithy quote, “Even God cannot conceive of an object that is not the object of consciousness.”

What then of our question: “How does matter produce consciousness?” Hopefully this question now appears somewhat flawed if not altogether meaningless. Let’s look at two possible ways to interpret the question:

  • The natural way: Let’s suppose there is something called matter that exists totally outside of our consciousness. Then, as we have shown, we can know none of its properties or really anything about it. So it is obvious that we will never know how it produces consciousness if indeed it does.
  • The “enlightened” way: By matter, let’s say that we are explicitly referring to an element within a scientific model which admittedly does nothing more than attempt to model the objective elements of our conscious experience. Then, it is quite meaningless to ask how this matter “produces” consciousness. After all, matter is already part of our consciousness–it is merely a useful fiction used to help make predictions. How can it actually do anything?

Is this the end of the story? Perhaps not. There are clearly all kinds of questions to be asked and answered about the relationship between brain activity and conscious experience, for example. The difficulty is figuring out how to answer these questions in a way that is not meaningless from the start.