Brief Thoughts on the Analogy with Vitalism

It is sometimes asserted that consciousness and many of its aspects are illusory. Some of this, I believe, may turn out to be true. For example, our naive conception of conscious will seems to be at least partially illusory (see here and here for my views on that). Some, however, claim that even such fundamental notions as our sense of self are illusory, finally claiming that consciousness as a whole will one day be explained away as an illusion. I, as you may have guessed, take serious issue with this claim.

A common line of argument taken to support the claim draws an analogy between the present situation and the endeavor to explain life some hundred years ago. There were, in those days, the vitalists. These were the theorists who could not imagine that dead matter and its interactions could account for all that there is to complex life—there had to be something extra, some elan vital, or life force, underlying all of this. Even if we explain heredity, reproduction, growth, etc., we will still be missing something—namely life itself. We now know that they were wrong, dead wrong, and that, in fact, there is simply dead matter interacting in specific ways that leads to the formation of complex, living organisms.

Now take the assertion made by many contemporary philosophers of mind: even if we explain vision, intelligence, emotion, etc. (i.e., the so-called “easy problems” of consciousness), then we will still be missing something—namely consciousness itself. If we explain all of those things that can be worked out computationally, then we will be missing the very thing that we sought to explain in the first place: subjective, conscious minds. But is this necessarily the case? Might consciousness simply fade away the more and more we know about these other processes? Maybe consciousness is simply the elan vital of philosophy of mind, say proponents of this analogy.

This could not be further from the truth. When it came to explaining life, a higher-level property such as the elan vital was postulated to account for something that we did not know the cause of: the difference between living and dead objects. When it comes to consciousness, we are not postulating something above and beyond what we already know. In the words of Descartes, “I think, therefore I am.” His dualism may have been misguided, but he was spot on in stating that there is nothing that we know with more certainty than that we are conscious, that we are our own self. In this way, the analogy is deeply flawed. Something can only be explained away if it was postulated to explain something that we know to be true. Consciousness, however, was never postulated. Instead, it was the very phenomenon that we set out to explain. We may be wrong about the details, and in all likelihood we are, but we are not, as a matter of fact, wrong when we state that we are conscious beings, that consciousness is a real, existing phenomenon that begs explanation in its own right.

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