Check out my current thoughts on the metaphysics of mind and matter. I hold that everything has (at least) two kinds of properties: its intrinsic property (its fundamental nature, what it is), and its causal properties (how it interacts with other entities). This is because I think something interacts the way it does because of its fundamental nature. Something can’t just be a bundle of causal properties, of “dispositions to behave” — there must be something that makes it so it has such dispositions. So there must be something beyond causal properties.
I hold, thus, that something’s causal properties are grounded in that something’s intrinsic property. Again: something interacts they way it does with other things because it is a certain kind of thing. An entity’s nature dictates how it causally interacts with other entities. However, we should keep in mind that the nature itself is not a causal property. If it were, we would fall back to the original “bundle of dispositions” problem. This being the case, then if we are describing something’s causal properties, we are not describing its intrinsic property. This will be important later.
(Obscure passage alert: I am not sure what properties are. I figure they’re not things, but rather aspects of things. So causal properties are aspects of something — they are how something acts. And the intrinsic property is also an aspect of something — it’s how something is. Since how something is (its intrinsic nature) determines how something acts, it may be argued that when one talks about x’s causal properties, one is describing something about x’s intrinsic property. Nevertheless, the crux of x’s intrinsic property is not captured by descriptions of how x behaves. An entity is not, and could not be, “pure behavior” (a bundle of dispositions), but something that originates this specific pattern of behavior.)
Anyway, when someone describes the causal properties of something (the way it behaves under various conditions), one is giving a functional account of that something. One says: an electron is an entity that has such and such resistance to acceleration, such and such electromagnetic-behavior properties (charge), such and such quantum-behavior properties (spin), and so forth. One describes the relations electrons engage in mathematically, and this is part of the functional account of the electron. But the fundamental nature of the electron is not captured, only how they act. In fact, all of our empirical science “only” give functional accounts of objects, such as electrons and brain tissue. Science cannot say what “charge” really amounts to — even if one tries to say it is “an excitation in the electromagnetic field”, one still cannot say what a field really amounts to beyond describing its causal properties.
Check out this helpful illustration I made:
Further on, the same goes for conscious events. We can give a functional account of qualia alright, and explain how they work in the brain to modulate behavior (e.g. how they are caused to appear in a specific spatiotemporal location, contra Dennett, a few hundred milliseconds after someone hammers your toe, and how they further cause other events in the brain that will you cause you to cringe and cry, and later recall and report how brutally painful it was). But we cannot capture, with our empirical science (PET scans, fMRI, etc.) or with a functional account, the intrinsic nature of consciousness.
But consciousness is no different from electrons in this regard. Nothing is function, but rather something that gives rise to function, which is what we can then study and describe directly. We study and describe function, not intrinsic character. (Though I am not saying we are not describing the behavior of the particle, or of consciousness. I am not saying we cannot say nothing “about” things-in-themselves. We are describing the electron and the mental event, since the behavior is of that thing. However, this description of the thing-in-itself is sort of “indirect”, since it does not capture the very thing that produces such behavior, but only its behavior.)
I should add that consciousness only seems so mysterious because we know/grasp its intrinsic nature, and we can vividly see how the functional account does not capture this intrinsic nature. When we try to understand consciousness functionally, something just seems missing. However, when it comes to other physical events whose intrinsic property we do not (and, as I have argued here, cannot) know or grasp, such as electrons, the functional account seems wholly adequate. But a little conceptual reasoning has made it convincing that the electron is not “wholly functional” (not a bundle of dispositions), but something that gives rise to that specific function, and not any other function.
So functionalism is dead, even for ordinary physical objects.
Finally, I want to speculate that everything has a different intrinsic nature. I suppose every feeling is a mental event with a different intrinsic nature, and I suppose every kind of physical particle has a different intrinsic nature. This is important because many have proposed that we cut nature’s pie between entities with qualitative intrinsic natures and entities with non-qualitative intrinsic natures. But this account makes it so there are many ways one could cut the pie, and perhaps both electrons and pains have property X that is not shared by quarks, and so we could talk about entities with X-tive intrinstic natures and non-X-tive intrinsic natures. Perhaps an electron is as different from a quark as it is from a conscious event. What seems to be the case is that they all interact causally, but perhaps their differences are all incommensurable.
So perhaps the debate between monism and dualism is misguided, as Searle thinks it is. There is no fundamental way to cut reality, there is just a multitude of different kinds of things. Everything is what it is, not something else. Could there be a unifying property? What could it be? See the discussion I made of this subject here. It’s quite mind-boggling, I think. (And perhaps I just suck at metaphysics.)
After I wrote the above paragraphs, I ended up re-reading something I read at least a half-dozen months ago: Galen Strawson’s piece on The New York Times regarding the relation between consciousness and physical reality. He writes for something very close to what I am arguing for, and I have no idea whether this idea popped up in my mind recently partially because of having read his essay in the earlier part of 2016:
We may think that physics is sorting this out, and it’s true that physics is magnificent. It tells us a great many facts about the mathematically describable structure of physical reality, facts that it expresses with numbers and equations (e = mc2, the inverse-square law of gravitational attraction, the periodic table and so on) and that we can use to build amazing devices. True, but it doesn’t tell us anything at all about the intrinsic nature of the stuff that fleshes out this structure. Physics is silent — perfectly and forever silent — on this question.
This point was a commonplace one 100 years ago, but it has gotten lost in the recent discussion of consciousness. Stephen Hawking makes it dramatically in his book “A Brief History of Time.” Physics, he says, is “just a set of rules and equations.” The question is what “breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?” What is the fundamental stuff of physical reality, the stuff that is structured in the way physics reveals? The answer, again, is that we don’t know — except insofar as this stuff takes the form of conscious experience.
Strawson also argues that we know very well what consciousness is, what he and I have called its intrinsic nature. The real mystery is understanding what is the intrinsic nature of physical stuff besides consciousness. Perhaps the mystery of consciousness only arises because there is a mystery of physical stuff; we don’t know what it is like, and thus we do not know how consciousness fits in with it. The hard problem, perhaps, arises from our arrogance in thinking we do understand what physical reality is, fundamentally, and we gave a wrong picture of what physical stuff is that made it look incompatible with consciousness.
(I do not think this solves the hard problem. Our account still seems compelling at some points and seems only to be solvable by postulating some sort of panpsychism or protopanpsychism: nature isn’t fundamentally qualitative, so how could qualitative stuff be fundamentally stuff that isn’t fundamentally qualitative? That is, how could consciousness be the brain, and the brain be neural tissue, and neural tissue be cells, and cells be molecules, and molecules be atoms, and atoms be a bunch of non-qualitative entities?)