Something It Is Like To Be A Human Being

“Inner perception is a fiction which was conjured into existence in order to explain how things are with us,” said Peter Hacker, an eminent philosopher who spoke to a gathered crowd of philosophy professors, students, and other interested attendees on Friday, November 8. Hacker, who taught at Swarthmore from 1973-86, is known for his detailed investigation of the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, a far more eminent — and deceased — philosopher whose theory of language indelibly marked modern thought. (You know, languages have to be shared between people — that’s him.)

Hacker, who was Oxford-prim and very funny, argued that consciousness — which has undergirded much of philosophical thought since at least the time of Locke — is “a marvelous piece of grammatical deception.” First, he explicated its various colloquial uses: it is similarly being conscious/unconscious, being conscious of [something], summoning [a past experience] to consciousness, along with a host of other colloquial uses, like being self-conscious. But in philosophy, it has become a sort of remedy for what is referred to in neuroscience as “the binding problem,” which Hacker characterized as follows: “Given that we perceive whiteness by the visual sense, and sweetness by the gestational sense [and so on], what brings them all together to form the perception of a singular…sweet object?” For many philosophers, the answer is that we perceive the information that comes from our senses within another perceptive power located inside our mind, and therefore can pick through our sense perceptions and construct our perception of the holistic sweet object. But for Hacker, we do not need to perceive our own perceptions: “You can’t distinguish between something that you can’t confuse! You can’t confuse whiteness and sweetness.”

Hacker’s work has serious implications in neuroscience, where researchers often look for the “neural correlates for consciousness”; that is, the area of the brain that lights up when we are conscious of something. According to Hacker, such a search is “fundamentally misguided.” Those researchers misunderstand — and limit — what consciousness is. “If you’re a person who thinks consciousness is a spotlight,” said Krista Thomason, a philosophy professor, “It looks like, at least in Hacker’s view, that neuroscience is trying to find the light bulb. And his point is you’re not going to find the light bulb.” That is, neuroscientists won’t find a part of the mind that lights up when someone is conscious, although they might find “an event that occurs in the brain that’s correlated with whatever is in the perceptual field,” said Hacker. However, this event is not what it is to be conscious, which also encompasses the “huge battery of linguistic skills” listed above, such as consciousness of, self-consciousness, etc.

So Hacker’s work systematically decouples “consciousness” from any firm, single definition, especially from one that is an event within the mind. But Hacker’s work also builds up an alternative story, one that encompasses the definitions provided by colloquial speech, and puts at its center the use of language. Therefore, says Thomason, “if you say this set of neurons is consciousness — he’s going to say no it’s not, because it’s not adequately explaining the process we’re interested in…you’re always in the realm of the physical in one sense, because you’re not explaining the [use in the language].”

All the colloquial uses of the word, Hacker said, are valid, although they may have no implication for science or philosophy. His unpacking of the use of the term in philosophy was often hysterical, as when he lampooned another philosopher, Tom Nagel, for “the assumption…that every experience is such that there is something there is like to have it.” There may be “something it is like to eat fresh strawberries” and even “something it is like to be a human being” — which we have mislabeled consciousness — but there is not something it is like “to see the buttons on my yellow shirt.

What Nagel is really looking for, Hacker pointed out, are the “hedonic qualities of what things are; to put it bluntly, jolly nice or bloody awful.” But, “for the vast range of experiences we have, there isn’t anything it’s like to have them, because you identify the experience not by what it’s like to have it or suffer it, but what it’s of!” To see the buttons on Hacker’s shirt wasn’t awful or nice — it was just an experience of seeing the buttons. But it certainly wasn’t like an experience of seeing them. Therefore, while to be human may be “wonderful,” Hacker said, it’s probably not “like wonderful — except in California.”

In fact, it’s not like anything — and again, the whole notion of “consciousness” goes poof.