Consciousness and Downward Causation

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

For many people, the phenomenon of consciousness is the best evidence we have that there must be something important missing in our basic physical description of the world. According to this worry, a bunch of atoms and particles, mindlessly obeying the laws of physics, can’t actually experience the way a conscious creature does. There’s no such thing as “what it is to be like” a collection of purely physical atoms; it would lack qualia, the irreducibly subjective components of our experience of the world. One argument for this conclusion is that we can conceive of collections of atoms that behave physically in exactly the same way as ordinary humans, but don’t have those inner experiences — philosophical zombies. (If you think about it carefully, I would claim, you would realize that zombies are harder to conceive of than you might originally have guessed — but that’s an argument for another time.)

The folks who find this line of reasoning compelling are not necessarily traditional Cartesian dualists who think that there is an immaterial soul distinct from the body. On the contrary, they often appreciate the arguments against “substance dualism,” and have a high degree of respect for the laws of physics (which don’t seem to need or provide evidence for any non-physical influences on our atoms). But still, they insist, there’s no way to just throw a bunch of mindless physical matter together and expect it to experience true consciousness.

People who want to dance this tricky two-step — respect for the laws of physics, but an insistence that consciousness can’t reduce to the physical — are forced to face up to a certain problem, which we might call the causal box argument. It goes like this. (Feel free to replace “physical particles” with “quantum fields” if you want to be fastidious.)

  1. Consciousness cannot be accounted for by physical particles obeying mindless equations.
  2. Human beings seem to be made up — even if not exclusively — of physical particles.
  3. To the best of our knowledge, those particles obey mindless equations, without exception.
  4. Therefore, consciousness does not exist.

Nobody actually believes this argument, let us hasten to add — they typically just deny one of the premises.

But there is a tiny sliver of wiggle room that might allow us to salvage something special about consciousness without giving up on the laws of physics — the concept of downward causation.

More here.