A Little More Qualia and Rambling

The Aristotelian tradition holds that consciousness is something only attributed to a human being as a whole – I think this makes sense. It seems to me that issues like the free-will debate, mind/body problem etc happen when something such as consciousness is abstracted from the human as a whole and made to be simply one thing among others that we have. So maybe it’s not so much that we have consciousness and free will – maybe those are intrinsic to being a human and can’t be abstracted from the whole man and analyzed in the same way that, say, hair colour or weight can. Thomas Reid had a cool angle on consciousness that I think to be pretty spot on:

‘Consciousness is a witness which gives us information of every thing which takes place in the interior of our minds. It is not the principle of any of our faculties, but it is a light to them all. It is not because we have the consciousness of it that any thing goes on within us, but that which goes on within us would be to us as though it did not take place, if it were not attested by consciousness. It is not by consciousness that we feel, or will, or think, but it is by it that we know that we do all this. Consciousness is indeed more or less distinct, more or less vivid, but it is in all men. No one is unknown to himself, although very few know themselves perfectly, because all, or nearly all, make use of consciousness without applying themselves to perfect, unfold, and understand it, by voluntary effort and attention. In all men consciousness is a natural process; some elevate this natural process to the degree of an art, a method, by reflection, which is a sort of second consciousness, a free reproduction of the first; and as consciousness gives to all men a knowledge of what passes within them, so reflection gives the philosopher a certain knowledge of every thing which falls under the eye of consciousness.’ (Thomas Reid)

So it’s not the principle of any faculties – but is the light by which we know we do all this. Interesting. Reids definition of consciousness avoids some of the problems you get if you abstract consciousness from the human as a whole – I don’t see any mind/body problem here though that’s not to say there couldn’t be one. 

2 thoughts on “A Little More Qualia and Rambling

  1. Chris Falter October 14, 2013 / 6:33 pm

    Physicists have been dealing with a similar duality for some time: is an electron (or some other baryon) a wave or a particle? In some situations it is easier to think of it as a wave, in others as a particle. Ultimately, though, it is both–especially if some variation of super-string theory turns out to be accurate.

    In the same way, you could say that we humans are both matter and spirit, and you can no more cleave the 2 aspects asunder than you could cleave an electron’s waveness and particleness apart. (Don’t do a spell check on those words, I just invented them.) Of course we don’t have a mathematics-based set of equations that unites soul and body, unlike the physicists…but then why does all reality have to be explained in terms of math?


    • whitefrozen October 14, 2013 / 7:44 pm

      Right, there are some interesting analogies that could be made with current physics – Torrance has some interesting things to say about the concept of ‘nature’ in terms of human nature, following the patristics (mostly Cyril of alexandria, athanasius, and John Philoponus) that definitely have some bearing on a christian anthropology.


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