In Crick’s view, the brain “sees,” “hears,” “believes.” “guesses,” and even makes “interpretations:’ But as philosopher Peter Hacker and neuroscientist Max Bennett point out, it is a conceptual fallacy to attribute qualities to the brain that are possessed only by persons.
My brain isn’t conscious; I am conscious. My brain doesn’t perceive or hear things; I do. My brain isn’t thinking; I am thinking. Crick is guilty of something called the pathetic fallacy, which is the fallacy of ascribing human qualities to inanimate objects. Certainly we use our brains to perceive and reason, just as we use our hands and feet to play tennis. But it is just as crazy to say my hands and feet are playing tennis as it is to say my racket is playing tennis. By the same token it is wrong to portray the brain as perceiving, feeling, thinking, or even being aware of anything.
There is a deeper problem with extending the materialistic understanding of nature to human beings. For starters, we experience the outside world—the world described by the laws of physics and chemistry—very differently than we experience ourselves. This is a point emphasized by philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. All other things we experience indirectly, from the outside, through the apparatus of our senses, but ourselves we experience directly, from the inside, without the involvement of our senses. Only about ourselves do we have this kind of “inside information,” which is the clearest, most fundamental knowledge we can have. Based on this privileged and unique access, we know that the external account of reality, however accurate it may be in describingraindrops and cheetahs, is not the full story when it comes to describing ourselves.
We are sure, for example, that we exist. David Hume said that we can’t really even know this: “When I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hate, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception and never can observe any thing but the perception. Consequently, for Hume, the self is a fiction because it cannot be empirically located. But the remarkable thing is that we are conscious of our own existence prior to having any feelings and thoughts. Besides, our feelings and thoughts are experi- enced as “possessions” somehow distinct from the self, while the self is experienced directly. Schopenhauer writes that as we are the subjects of our own inquiry, the materialist mistake is that of “the subject that forgets to take account of itself.” Hume is observing sensations while ignoring the fact that he is the one who is doing the observing. He is allowing his indirect knowledge of external phenomena to trump his direct knowledge of the “I” that is having these experiences.
We not only exist, but we are also conscious. This consciousness seems utterly basic: we cannot get “behind” it, and it is our entire mode of access to the world of experience. We seem to share consciousness with at least some other animals, but not with plants or nonliving things. Moreover, human consciousness seems to be of a different order than animal consciousness. For instance, consider the way that we experience music. From the materialist point of view, music is nothing but vibrations that collide with eardrums and provoke neural reactions in the brain. But we experience music in an entirely different way. Even our most mundane thoughts and experiences seem inexplicable when described in terms of physical and chemical transactions alone. A doctor, for example, may know more about my cerebral cortex than I do, but of my inner thoughts he knows nothing, and he will never be able to see or weigh or touch them, no matter how good his instruments.
In an earlier chapter on evolution we saw that there is no good scientific or Darwinian account of consciousness. The best that cognitive scientists like Steven Pinker can offer is promissory materialism: we believe consciousness is an epiphenomenon of material reality, but we’ll explain later how atoms and molecules can produce something as radical and original as subjective consciousness. But an explanation yet to come is no explanation at all. Until it arrives it makes far more sense to take consciousness for the irreducible reality we experience it as. Why let conjecture and unpaid intellectual IOUs make us abandon something as fundamental as our self-awareness? Why accept the mental as a projection of the physical when, as far as we are concerned, it is our indispensable window to all the physical reality we can ever experience?