Most theories of the mind held today are materialistic. While this may be true, consciousness seems to be a problem that materialists cannot solve. Consciousness is the ability to truly experience what is happening in the world, another name for it is “qualia”. It would seem that by accepting the fact that there is such thing as consciousness that this would only lend itself to a type of Cartesian Dualism. Many theories of the mind attempt to account for consciousness in various ways, and through exploring them we can make an effort to understand how the consciousness of human beings operates in relation to the mind. The truth of the matter is that a widely acceptable theory of consciousness eludes contemporary philosophers. In his book Philosophy of Mind, John Heil explores the many ways both dualists and materialists attempt to explain consciousness. Here I will focus on the prominent theories of today.
In terms of philosophy, theories of mind have come very far since Rene Descartes. Philosophers (along with scientists and psychologists in modern times) have seemingly explored all avenues possible as to how our mind works. As of late, the most widely held views of the mind are mainly materialistic, that the mind is reducible to physical events in one way or another, depending on the theory of course. Materialism has certainly struggled through and evolved from many problems concerning the mind, but it seems to lack the ability to explain consciousness. The problem of consciousness, to be clear, is how we can explain the existence of sensory experience, especially when we cannot find any physical “consciousness” itself? Surely we are aware that we are conscious of what is going on around us, but what makes us aware of that? There are two common ways to discuss consciousness, the first being creature consciousness. This concerns what a sentient creature is conscious. This would type of consciousness presents itself when an animal (humans included) is “awake, alert, and aware of the goings-on in its environment” (Heil 162). This type of consciousness is generally uncontroversial, as it is merely concerning the state of being conscious or unconscious. The second type of consciousness is called mental state consciousness. This second type is much more controversial and difficult to explain. It refers to how things seem rather than what is immediately apparent to you. This type of consciousness “has a phenomenology: there is something it is like to be in that state, something you might have difficulty articulating, but something you recognize immediately: you know it when you experience it” (Heil 163). From here forward, when speaking of consciousness, this is the type it is referring to. It is fruitful to explore how different theories attempt to explain the latter type of consciousness, but it must remain in the back of our minds that there is no clear answer as to how to explain it in relation to reality.
Dualistic theories of the mind are fairly easy to grasp when speaking of consciousness. Substance Dualism, the theory that there are two different kinds of material, physical and mental, explains consciousness fairly well if you adhere to such a conjecture. By asserting that there are mental and physical properties of the human experience, we can explain the fact that we cannot know the nature of consciousness in terms of physical matter. Other similar approaches to understanding the mind include epiphenomenalism, parallelism, and occasionalism, among others. These views have their differences, but all essentially derive from dualism. However, the problem with these theories is that they put the mind “above” the body, thus separating it. By separating the mind and body, we cannot firmly grasp the causal interaction between the two.
Better avenues to explore in explaining consciousness, if we wish to comprehend it in scientific terms, are the views of materialists. Functionalism, usually a materialist theory of the mind, but not always, holds that the mind is the way the brain works. To explain consciousness, functionalism maintains that physical states and mental states combine, which form consciousness. For example, a conscious pain-state in a functionalist view would go as follows, “You would be in a state brought about by tissue damage, or pressure, or extremes of temperature, and one that itself brings about a range of characteristic ‘pain responses’, behavioral and mental: you cringe, you form the belief that you are in pain, and you acquire a desire to take steps to alleviate the pain” (Heil 164). Thus, the functionalist explains consciousness by telling us the causal interaction between mental and brain states. This does not clarify consciousness sufficiently, however. Surely there is more to consciousness than the causality between awareness of reality and the physical goings-on of the brain. There is a feeling you have when you are in a certain brain state, there is a qualitative dimension, or “what it’s like”, to be in it. Another problem of consciousness in reference to functionalism is that of “emergence”. It is easy to see how “by putting together molecules in the right way, you get a liquid. But how could you get consciousness from arrangements of nonconscious material particles?” (Heil 172). It is very difficult to grasp a situation in which being conscious of how you feel arises, “emerges”, from brain and mental states, which seem to not have this in their own essence. So it seems that functionalism cannot satisfyingly explain consciousness.
An idea worth mentioning, while not widely accepted, is that of Panpsychism. This theory holds that rather than qualia emerging from material that does not possess it, that qualia is included among properties of objects perceived. Pansychism argues that we perceive objects with consciousness included in that perception. If we feel sad when we see a certain image, it is because that image holds that conscious state. While this is not a commonly recognized view, it seems to better explain consciousness of human beings.
Representationalism is a prominent theory of the mind in contemporary philosophy and science. There are different forms of Representationalism, but the theory as a whole maintains that the mind uses symbols to represent thoughts, and those symbols are manipulated by the brain in order to result in an output. For example, the thought of wanting a drink of water would be represented by a symbol, put through a program, outputting the symbol for getting a glass of water. The representationalist regards consciousness as a representation, “Compare dreading an upcoming examination with experiencing undirected dread-angst. Your dreading an examination is apparently representational: your dread has an object, the examination. But angst, unfocused dread, appears not to be representational, not to have an object” (Heil 176). A representationalist believes that all conscious states are representations of something in the material world. This is all seemingly fine for things that originate in the material world, but what of dreams and hallucinations? While adherents to this theory would assert still that hallucinations and dreams are also purely representational, it seems that they falls short here. Even in purely material ways does this theory fall short. Unless Representationalism conforms to a sort of panpsychism, it is questionable as to where qualia of experience, thus consciousness, emerges from.
Consciousness is undoubtedly one of the most difficult questions to grapple with in the philosophy of mind. No matter what theory of mind we turn to, Substance Dualism, Functionalism, Panpsychism, or Representationalism, we run into many problems. Unfortunately, it seems that this problem will not be easily solved. Some believe that it is impossible to solve without a complete paradigm shift, others believe that once science and philosophy meet in the middle a type of materialism will surface to explain it. How we, as humans, form our feelings about certain things is seemingly mysterious, and to some extent disturbing considering it is the one thing we regard ourselves as knowing the most intimately.