Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Mystery and ineffability do not mix

Conciousness is said, by some, to be both mysterious and ineffable.  It is both beyond our present-day understanding and it has aspects that will be always beyond our explanation.  One of those aspects is the quale, the unit of the quality of experience, the atom of what-it-is-likeness.  It's clearly impossible that qualia can be reduced to an explanation which involves only the movement of particles, as, after all, how can the redness and scent of a rose, and the pain of its thorns, ever be expressed in the language of physics?

This argument has the feel of truth, because it's hard to deny the feeling of the inexplicable when we think of our conscious lives.  And yet, feeling isn't proof.   Feeling isn't evidence for anything but the feeling itself.  Feeling doesn't inform.

The argument is a mistake, an incorrect use of labels.  Mystery isn't an attribute of consciousness - it describes our beliefs.  Mystery is always provisional, because part of the nature of mystery is that you can never know when the mystery disappears.  While there is mystery there can be no claims to ineffability, as this is a claim of knowledge, knowledge that mystery denies.  A path cannot be claimed to be beyond navigation while there is no knowledge of the route of the path.

When it comes to consciousness, we don't know if a physical explanation will satisfy, but we do know that we aren't able to make judgements yet.  Until the physical is explored in great detail, insistence that consciousness is beyond the physical are hugely premature, even assuming this position is coherent.


Flying Goose said...

Mystery really means that which is open only to initiates, from the greek, μύστης, one who is initiated.

So in one sense, consciousness will remain a mystery to those us who have not been initiated into the 'dark arts' of neuroscience etc.

Laurie said...

Perfectly put. Talking about mystery AND ineffability as if they were two aspects of the same phenomenon is just sloppy thinking. But that's one of the consequences of the 'anyone can do philosophy' scattergun approach. Using language, as opposed to (say) mathematical symbols to determine troof is HARD, and requires persistent and rigorous revision.