I thought I might publish this little note that I wrote a little while ago on “consciousness” being combined with apparently monist/physicalist/materialist thought.
The modern concept of Consciousness is an idea that was originally derived from Descartes and his famous cogito ergo sum, focus on reflexive thought, and separation of the subject and the object, of the mental and the physical. Doubting anything beyond one’s own thought leads to the idea of a bodyless thinker, a “consciousness”. Descartes solidified a changing view of the word “conscious”, altering a Latin meaning of the word that was closer to a general sense of “knowing”, and changing it into an object or entity that was involved in reflexive thought. Though several variations exist Descartes’ reasoning is typical of Dualist thought generally.
Since then no clear or widely accepted definition of Consciousness has arisen (the first paragraph here is a good illustration of the many alternatives), but it can still be argued that the use of consciousness makes sense in a Dualist framework, where the doubt of everything but one’s own thoughts seems to imply a metaphysical entity that must exist to “do the thinking”. In other words, consciousness makes sense in a Dualist world.
In contrast to Dualist thought stands Monism and Physicalism. They reject the idea that the world is divided into two substances. Monism asserts there must be only one substance, and physicalism asserts that subject is material or physical. Physicalist thought starts not with the self, but general observations of the world, including people. The self is usually established afterwards as one instance of the category of people or humans. We observe human behaviour, and with modern technology, we also observe the brain and postulate it as an explanation for the behaviours. Consciousness never comes into the equation for a Physicalist.
Now it would be very strange and totally unjustified for a Monist or a Physicalist to start using a Dualist concept with a Dualist justification. Yet this occurs in the discussions of prominent Monist scientists using the word “Consciousness” when they are discussing fields such as neuroscience or AI development. Claims that they have “found consciousness in the brain” or that “consciousness is an emergent property” of, say, certain neural networks are commonly accepted without any philosophical questioning. For example Rodolfo Llinás talks about Consciousness and subjectivity (Dualist concepts) as a physical process in the brain (asserting Physicalism).
When Monist scientists talk about Consciousness, they are deeply confused about their philosophical positions. A philosophical Physicalist doesn’t look for physical explanations of Consciousness, he or she asserts that Consciousness is a Dualist concept and has no place in their Physicalist worldview. They assert there is no such thing as mind, as subjectivity, as Consciousness. A Dualist rejects this, and asserts that the mind and the brain are not the same thing. To mix and match Dualist and Monist concepts is deeply confused, even when the person doing it is a brilliant neuroscientist or researcher.
The debate between Dualism and Monism will continue, but both camps can agree that the other’s concepts are centuries-old tested philosophical systems and that mix-and-matching shows an unfortunate intellectual confusion.