Philosophers and cognitive scientists often have metaphysical ambition. So, for example, Chalmers provides us with information metaphysics of consciousness, along with dualism, pancomputationalism, and panpsychism. But even the standard functionalist model has metaphysical qualities, as it is not grounded in biology or any other physics—it is implementation independent. In this sense, the standard functionalist model precedes physics. The dream is a theory of the mind that is independent of biology—a universal one beyond empirical science. Metaphysical ambition is one reason why it can be puzzling to read various philosophers of mind who purport to ground their work biologically, as they nevertheless develop metaphysics that has little, if anything, to do with biology.
A better approach would be to build genuinely biological accounts. We ought to study the brain as something other than a stepping stone on the way to functionalist metaphysics—as something to philosophize about as a sincere effort to advance brain research. The best example I can think of is Searle’s biological naturalism. Searle provides reflections on consciousness as a genuine biological causal phenomenon, on the everyday phenomenology of consciousness, and on how researchers could go about solving the problem of consciousness—how they could arrive at a scientific solution. Searle’s philosophical inquiry remains faithful to biology. This makes him virtually unique in the philosophy of mind. Why does he remain respectful of biology and those who work in the field? I think Searle realizes that we know that brains are conscious and, at the moment, our investigations—or practical pur- poses—ought to begin there. I share such sentiments. The primary concern ought to be to understand how consciousness works in the brain, if we are seeking a scientific solution.
But isn’t it biological chauvinism to claim that our research on consciousness should remain faithful to biology? Why couldn’t we develop accounts of consciousness orthogonal to biology? We might be able to do this someday. Who knows what the future holds? However, the biologically orthogonal accounts we have seen so far have been formal and without adequate causal explanations.
Imagine a lab called Orthogonal where researchers tackle the problem of consciousness through orthogonal means—without biological dependence. The researchers can be inspired by biology, but the accounts they are seeking should be universal and independent of physical implementation. Orthogonal researchers are united through the belief that information theory will help to explain not only mind and consciousness but also reality at large. They don’t allow themselves to be sidetracked by biological orthodoxy. They go on with their main task instead—to build Orthogonal 1 (O1 for short), the first conscious robot.
One day they announce their success and invite the public to a demonstration. The public arrives and is presented with O1, who is a replicant of Mr. Anderson, a real person. Mr. Anderson and O1 walk on stage to meet the crowd. They smile as they stand with arms around each other’s shoulders. The reporters shout, “Who of you is the real Mr. Anderson?” Both answer, “I am!” The reporters shoot off questions on topics from sports to the state of the economy. The questioning goes on, and psychologists perform psychometric tests—everything from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory to Rorschach ink blots. Finally, they agree. There is no telling who’s O1 and who’s Mr. Anderson.
A press conference follows, where the identities of O1 and Mr. Anderson are revealed. Countless pictures are taken by reporters, but one of them is not taking any. He gathers himself to ask a question: “How do we know that it is not all dark inside O1?” An O1 executive retorts, pointing at the reporter, “How do we know it is not all dark inside you?” A dialogue follows:
Reporter: My brain biology causes consciousness. O1 lacks that. He is supposedly beyond
biology or anything like it.
Executive: What is wrong with that? O1 is like you. Prove that O1 is not conscious!
Reporter: Let’s shift the burden; what causes O1 to be conscious?
Executive: What causes him to be conscious is nothing physical. O1 is not conscious because of his electronics. O1, why don’t you explain?
O1: Look, I am implemented in this physical stuff, and you’re implemented in that physical stuff (pointing to the reporter), but why are we conscious? We’re conscious because of how we process information and behave as embodied and environmentally situated agents, but neither behavior nor information are physical notions.
Executive: You won’t find magical consciousness stuff inside O1, but it’s the same with you. If we look inside you, we won’t find it there either. We are patterns—neither more nor less; even Aristotle knew this. The mind is a dynamic recursive pattern, and that pattern is not physical in itself. We are looking at the pure patterning of consciousness, including embodied, behavioral contingencies, embodied perception, and so on. See, in the end, you would have to be just a pattern because you are a dynamic pattern of trillions of particles called cells. We don’t care about the particles; we care about the patterns. Think about it this way: within a few years, all of the atoms in your cells are replaced, but the pattern that is your mind remains.
Reporter: The problem, as I see it, is that we know I am conscious but we don’t know that O1 is. Abstract patterns are insufficient, and as long as you have no physically grounded causal account, you have no account at all! I have evolved to be conscious, and it is my biology that causes me to be so, but there is nothing biologically causal in your account. There is not even anything essentially physically causal in your account, and without it, we have no reason to believe that O1 is conscious.
O1: Look—in the end, there is nothing essentially physical to consciousness. Francisco Varela, the pioneer of enactivism, put it nicely: “I don’t believe in physical reality. To me, the atoms and the quarks are ways in which we can be in this world.”
Executive: You say that biology and physics are primary; we say that the mind is primary.
We are constructing a beautiful science of the mind, which builds on this insight. The best we can say so far is that minds are patterns that can be realized in physics, but the physics is less real than the patterns.
The strength of functionalism has often been seen as implementation independence. However, this strength turns into weakness when we try to solve the problem of consciousness. Why? Because consciousness is not implementation independent—at least if we view consciousness as a physical phenomenon. However, faced with this problem, some philosophers choose dualism. The re-emergence of dualism can also be seen against the development of a larger contemporary metaphysical framework with four components, discussed in sections “Forms Ontology and the Otherworldly,” “Systems Views,” “Copenhagen Skepticism,” and “Technological Ontology.”