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Fisher and Consciousness

May 12, 2010

Here’s an interesting passage from R. A. Fisher, one of the great scientists of the 20th century:

The surface or limit separating the inner from the outer life of each living thing is also, in our experience, the true seat of our consciousness, the boundary of the objective and the subjective, where we experience, through our imperfect sense organs, what comes to us from the outside, and with at least equal obscurity, that which rises into consciousness from within. If consciousness is, as it would seem, the symbol, or even the means, of unification in our being, this is the region to which creative activity could most fitly be traced.

This is from “The Creative Aspects of Natural Law,” his Arthur Stanley Eddington Lecture from 1950 (PDF). He is responding to scientists and philosophers, Smuts and Bergson in particular, who imbue germ cells with minds of their own. They are shaped not just by ordinary cause and effect but by something creative or willful–a life force–that stands outside it. Fisher’s response is wise: why locate that creative element somewhere remote from our experience and not where we already know it to be, in consciousness itself? Why make germ cells and not organisms themselves the actors? Each act of an animal expresses its individual will. But there is no general will, no perfect form which each creature is trying to achieve, just a population of individual wills.

This still means, I suppose, that a full view of life requires looking at something more than ordinary cause-effect relationships. But it’s not as though this creative element is, for Fisher, something that stands alongside mechanistic causation. The world itself is thoroughly mechanistic. Consciousness is entwined with that world, but never a part of it. When Fisher talks about consciousness residing in ‘the surface or limit separating the inner from the outer life of each living thing’ he is, obviously, not saying that it is our skin or nerve endings or indeed any physical part of us that constitutes consciousness. Consciousness is not a thing in the world but something like its outer limit.

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