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The hard problem of metaphysics
From a complete description of the universe we seem to be able to exhaustively derive a totality of all facts about the universe, save for one key phenomenon: consciousness. I argue that if consciousness is only knowable through the unique metaphysical relation we bear to it, then it necessarily follows that other significant phenomena may exist in our universe we don’t know about without the necessary metaphysical relation(s). I explore ways of framing this idea and investigating it conceptually. I discuss finding hints in our universe to discover other potentially obscured phenomena. I then discuss basic objections and offer replies. Finally, I discuss possible implications and avenues of exploring this idea that are beyond the scope of this post.
Scientifically and philosophically, it is broadly accepted that humans are conscious in the sense that we have inner phenomenal lives – a what-its-likeness to our existence or at the very least, according to some, an illusion thereof. You get kicked in the shin, it hurts. An extension to this acceptance is, that this what-its-likeness is only knowable through itself – it doesn’t seem like its existence can in principle be derived or known from any description of the universe. To know of experience, one must undergo experience. It is only by this metaphysical relation we bear to consciousness that we know of it.
If consciousness is an exception to the rule that everything is knowable through the description of the universe, then it cannot be ruled out that there may be more exceptions. Stated more broadly, it cannot be easily ruled out that in fact other potentially significant phenomena are entirely obscured from us – entirely unknown, hidden in plain sight, and knowable or accessible through one or more metaphysical relations, which are also entirely unknown to us.
To continue exploring this, I will describe how consciousness needs to be framed for the sake of this argument, and how the other parts of the argument come together or apart. I will then question what this argument implies in the metaphysical sense and how we may attempt to say something about a possible unknown of this sort.
The core of the argument
This argument rests on consciousness as a phenomenon only being knowable through being itself – that it cannot be inferred through other means. That if a non-sentient robot, would observe and communicate with us, be able to hold all key facts about us and our behavior in its cognitive system, it would never in principle be able to guess the existence of consciousness. That when we scream in pain there are not just observable signals that travel from A to B in our body triggering behaviors, but that we feel something when this happens. This unique metaphysical relation forms the basis for the premise of the argument put forth in this post.
To make clear the point of this argument, to make it as robust as it can be and to bare exactly the core assumptions minimally required to accept it, I’d like to establish the following:
While the focus is on phenomenal consciousness, that is, the what-its-likeness of consciousness, it is not necessary to accept any particular position in debates on phenomenal consciousness to go along with the core argument. It is therefore best to frame consciousness or at least consider it for the sake of argument, in a bare minimum way, where it is simply the referent or explanandum that fuels the argument. So we treat consciousness not as that which is explained in such and such way, but as that about which there is an ongoing debate. So whether one accepts qualia or not, with whatever qualities, or considers some parts of or all of consciousness an illusion (more on this in the “objections and replies” section), is not the point. That one has an explanandum about which to have such considerations at all, is the point.
It may very well be that there are in fact other metaphysical relations by which we may know of or access consciousness. That doesn’t change the fact that we have been contemplating consciousness philosophically for millennia and investigating it scientifically for centuries, without becoming acquainted with other such relations. And that in itself would then still be an ample argument to take very seriously the idea there may be more significant phenomena hidden from us in our universe.
Establishing the above may tempt us to think about other phenomena being only knowable through 1st person experience, or somehow having to be “directly accessible through themselves” – as is the case with consciousness, but that is not the argument nor necessary to make the argument. There may indeed be such phenomena and undoubtedly can be very exciting – novel qualia and beyond – but what we’re after here is grasping the very relation by which we arrive at the notion of consciousness. The relation by which we know of consciousness – 1st person experience, knowing, could itself be differently framed by virtue of acquaintance with other unknown phenomena in our universe. Just like consciousness seduces us to make conceptual divisions like the first- and third-person perspective, whatever else might be out there could yield new metaphysical considerations and taxonomies, classifications of a sort we cannot imagine. But I argue what we can at least imagine, is that other such relations might exist. And how we might figure out what is out there I dub the hard problem of metaphysics, which a wink to Chalmers’ hard problem of consciousness as well as the meta-problem of consciousness.
So there are two parts to what this argument suggests: a relation by which we know a phenomenon (direct experience in the case of consciousness), and the phenomenon itself (consciousness). The question at this point is: what other phenomena might there be out there and by what relations would they reveal themselves or could we know of them? This may seem like fairly certain and relatively concrete grounds on which we can conduct further investigation – however – we have to question further whether separating the phenomenon from the relation, would apply across the board for all other phenomena, or whether they would call for entirely different classification of parts and relations, insofar those may apply, and perhaps exist on a spectrum or spectra, whether they would call for a taxonomy to be made. While from our current vantage point it seems intractable to speculate on this, as mentioned previously, I find it still important to make note of it due to the, metaphysically and epistemically speaking, potentially revolutionary nature other “hidden” phenomena and relations we may bear to them. It may very well be that in our universe we have a richly populated space of interesting phenomena and relations, and yet are only acquainted with one.
At this point we can see that it seems very difficult if not impossible to deny the possibility of other significant phenomena unknown to us, yet it is even more difficult and likely impossible to imagine them. What else can be said about it, then? Is it worthy of any speculation? I tend to think that it is, however, difficult it may be.
Firstly, consciousness is an extremely significant part of our existence. This tells us it’s possible for such significant ontological categories to exist in a universe but be unknowable without a relation of “access” to them. Secondly, like biological agency is at least an interesting descriptive case from which we could never infer consciousness as previously established, but at least suspect something interesting is going on when comparing say, a rock to a human. So too may we hope to find similar clues in descriptions of the universe that may indicate there is more to them than their description.
If we want to be bold, we could even say: in any universe where we know of a phenomenon solely through a unique metaphysical relation we have to it, we must consider that more such phenomena may exist in that universe.
Objections and replies
Initially, it may seem there are two main ways to knock down this argument. One way is to deny that consciousness is only knowable through itself and demonstrate it can be indeed knowable through other means, akin to Chalmers’ debunking argument about beliefs about phenomenal consciousness. However, we should stress that if there are other ways of knowing it, we can still posit that it’s difficult to “access” and other interesting, hard-to-access phenomena may be out there, as mentioned earlier. A second way would be to claim and demonstrate consciousness is the only conceivable or possible phenomenon that is the exception to the knowability of facts through description of this universe.
Here are three examples where objections could come from.
(1) Objection: “Consciousness can be known of indirectly or inferred.”
Reply: This is not established and therefore the onus is on the claimant making this objection to demonstrate how consciousness can be known indirectly. Surely a non-sentient intelligence or agent could gather that in terms of entropy, biological life is interesting, and perhaps the a concept of agency could be established – but if like in the philosophical zombie there is “nothing going in there” with regards to the assessing non-sentient, non-conscious agent or intelligence, there seems to be no way, in principle, for it to even guess the existence of consciousness. Such an agent could at most make only an argument akin to the argument this very post puts forth that there may be “more out there”, if and only if it had anything to go on, like I argue we do, thanks to consciousness. In any case, if I could even begin to imagine how this objection would sound, I would not have written this post.
(2) Objection from physics: “Our knowledge of physics suggests other phenomena that may be hidden from us are unlikely or impossible to exist.”
Reply: An exhaustive and descriptive account of the laws of physics obscures consciousness entirely from us as outsiders, so this argument would require specifying how physics can be used to speculate about the likelihood of other phenomena obscured from us. I think the biggest challenge here is that consciousness is a phenomenon that can be right in front of us, yet we’re blind to it unless we’re actually conscious ourselves. We can try making appeals to dimensions, for example, and speculate about where there is “room” for any phenomena, but the whole issue that the descriptive account doesn’t seem to give or leave any “room” for consciousness, yet here it is.
(3) Objection from philosophy of mind: “This argument relies on a particular position in philosophy of mind, it doesn’t apply if one is an eliminativist about qualia or an illusionist.”
Reply: The main thrust of this idea is agnostic as to one’s position on consciousness in philosophy of mind. Because this argument relies on consciousness, it may be misunderstood as an argument in philosophy of mind, or about mind, or rely on any particular position in philosophy of mind, yet is in fact not and it does not. New qualia, different minds, while very fascinating, are also not what this argument is about. The argument is strictly about metaphysical relations of our universe that may exist and be entirely hidden from us – hidden in plain sight even. So if one is illusionist about consciousness, for example, then one could say: if consciousness is only knowable through itself, but illusory, other such relations may exist in our universe, and they too may very well (for all we know) be questioned in the sense illusionism questions what it considers the illusion of what-it’s-like-ness.
Conclusion and further exploration
The premise that consciousness as a phenomenon is only knowable through the metaphysical relation we bear to it, seems unassailable, and therefore inevitable is the conclusion that other potentially significant phenomena which we may know of through other metaphysical relations may exist.
Further exploration of this idea may fall in roughly the following three categories:
(1) Investigating whether we can speculate at all about the likelihood of other phenomena being present in our universe, based on what we know about our universe and consciousness.
(2) Speculation about how we might conduct an investigation to look for hints in our universe of other hidden phenomena.
(3) Surveying epistemic frameworks, taxonomizing discoverability of phenomena and arguments that may help frame the aforementioned pursuits.
As to its importance – I believe this is reflected in our ongoing millennia-old debates and investigations into mind and consciousness. There may be fascinating and significant phenomena out there as significant or more significant than consciousness. I hope it is as exciting to my readers as it is to me and that others will care to expand on the argument and explore it further.
I’d like to thank Paul So for valuable insights and comments in discussing the original paper for this idea.
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