Max Velmans: Reflexive Monism

consciousnessMax Velmans: Reflexive Monism

in:-  Conversation on Consciousness

This piece takes the form of an interview that Max Velmans gave to Susan Blackmore, as part of a series of interviews with prominent consciousness theorists. Velmans has developed a theory of consciousness called reflexive monism. He  starts by thinking in terms of the three dimensional space that surrounds us. He contrasts this approach to both dualism, and to standard reductionist approaches that seek to portray consciousness as a state or function of the brain. The standard view is that sensory inputs to the brain are processed to the point where they become a conscious experience in the brain.

Velmans, however, suggests that the subjective experience is not in the brain, but is the three dimensional world around us. In this theory, there’s no split between the three dimensional world and the world in the brain, although he accepts that there is a world outside the brain, which is as described by physics and therefore very different from what we experience. Velman’s view is that the history of the universe through the Big Bang and the process of evolution leads to the present situation where we have human organisms each with an individual viewpoint or perspective on the whole universe. The universe is thus differentiated into bits that each have a view of the whole. This idea is labelled as reflexive monism.

Velmans sees consciousness as a fundamental property. He agrees with Chalmers in this although not in other respects. However, he seems, in this interview, uncertain how to develop this concept. He tries to compare the distinction between the objective and subjective view to experiments in quantum mechanics where the description of a particle depends on the arrangement of equipment. Unfortunately, this is a view of quantum mechanics that many have drifted away from. The more modern view might be that the description changes when the quanta interact with the environment, and that particular experimental arrangements produce such an interaction. Velmans, who is not a quantum consciousness theorist, intends only an analogy, but this does place a question mark over whether this whole concept of two unrelated views of the same thing or two aspects of the same thing without any apparent physical connection actually means anything. Velmans suggests here that identical information is being presented in two different ways. In a way, this is likely to be in some sense true of any physical explanation of consciousness in the brain, but without some suggestion of what physical structure might underlie the dual aspects, we really don’t have much to go on.

Velmans attempts to further substantiate his view with a thought experiment. There could be an experimental situation where a scientist was looking at a brain scan of relevant neurons in a subject’s brain, while the subject was simply looking out and getting a subjective impression of the room they were in. So the scientist is getting an objective impression of the subject’s brain state, while the subject is getting the subjective output of the brain state. The scientist and the subject then swap roles, with the scientist looking at the room while the subject looks at a scan of his brain. It is suggested that this somehow doesn’t make sense, or blurs the subjective/objective roles. However, the action of looking at a scan of neural processing and of looking at what the neural processing produces are still quite distinct as between objective and subjective, whether the person having the objective experience is a scientist or untrained. There is nothing magical about being a scientist that makes their experience objective, regardless of what they are looking at. Velmans suggests that it is something to do with being in a scientist’s role when looking at the scan, but the objectivity is nothing to do with the job description of the observer, and all to do with where they are looking. In the detail of his written material Velmans is one of the most logical and incisive of writers, but in the end this looks like an unsatisfactory merger between ideas of consciousness as a fundamental property of the universe and more conventional views wedded to classical physics.


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