Author of the Month

Does Consciousness Depend on the Brain? (cont.)
By Chris Carter

Ferdinand Schiller was an Oxford philosopher in 1891 when a book titled Riddles of the Sphinx appeared which, according to the cover, was written by a “Troglodyte” (cave-dweller). This troglodyte turned out to be Schiller, who in his book attacked the prevailing materialism of the late nineteenth without revealing his name in order to avoid “the barren honours of a useless martyrdom.” Schiller likened himself to the man in Plato’s Republic who has glimpsed the truth but finds that his fellow cave-dwellers simply do not believe his accounts, and so consider him ridiculous.

In his book Schiller proposes that “matter is admirably calculated machinery for regulating, limiting and restraining the consciousness which it encases.” He argues that the simpler physical structure of “lower beings” depresses their consciousness to a lower point, and that the higher organizational complexity of man allows a higher level of consciousness. In other words,

Matter is not what produces consciousness but what limits it and confines its intensity within certain limits … This explanation admits the connection of Matter and Consciousness, but contends that the course of interpretation must proceed in the contrary direction. Thus it will fit the facts which Materialism rejected as ‘supernatural’ and thereby attains to an explanation which is ultimately tenable instead of one which is ultimately absurd. And it is an explanation the possibility of which no evidence in favour of Materialism can possibly affect.4

As for the effects of brain injury, Schiller argues that an equally good explanation is to say that the manifestation of consciousness has been prevented by the injury, rather than extinguished by it. With regard to memory, he thinks that it is forgetfulness rather than memory that is in need of a physical explanation: pointing out the total recall experienced under hypnosis and “the extraordinary memories of the drowning and dying generally”, he argues that we never really forget anything, but rather are prevented from recalling it by the limitations of the brain.

The French philosopher Henri Bergson held similar ideas to those of Schiller, although it is unclear if he ever read Riddles of the Sphinx. Bergson attempted to reconcile physical determinism with the apparent freedom of human behavior by proposing a theory of evolution whereby matter is crossed by creative consciousness: matter and consciousness interact, with both being elemental components of the universe, neither reducible to the other.

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