Notes on the Unity of Consciousness

– The unity of consciousness (UoC) broadly refers to the fact that consciousness comes to us in and is experienced as a unified form (duh). I don’t have this conscious experience and that conscious experience – I don’t experience a series of discrete ‘bits’ but rather have one single experience of consciousness. Or, to be a bit more precise, all my experiences occur within one unified consciousness. This is a fairly old idea, with lots of arguments that go back as far the neo-platonists (for those interested in a more contemporary exploration of and argument for the unity of consciousness, see William Hasker’s ‘The Emergent Self‘). Kant called it the ‘transcendental unity of apperception, and David Bentley Hart gives a good description from a more classical point of view:

‘…in order for there to be such things as representation, or reason, or conceptual connections, or coherent experiences, or subjectivity, or even the experience of confusion, there must be s single unified presence of consciousness to itself, a single point of perspective, that is, so to speak, a vanishing point, without extension or parts, subsisting in its own simplicty.’ (‘The Experience of God’, p. 197)

– The UoC is generally thought to be related to the ‘binding problem’, which John Searle explains as follows:

‘If you think of consciousness, for example, your present conscious field, as made up of the various elements – your perception of the chair over there, your feeling of the clothing against your back, the sight of the trees and the sky outside your window, the around of the stream coming in from below – then you are confronted with a number of serious problems. Most famously, you are confronted with the problem…of how the brain can bind all of these various elements together in a single united conscious experience.’ (‘Mind, Language, and Society’, p. 80)

– It may be helpful to distinguish the UoC from the binding problem, however, in the following way: the UoC is a metaphysical ‘problem’, while the binding problem is a psychological/biological ‘problem’.

– It’s fairly common to point to medical cases concerning brain trauma, surgeries, etc, as examples of how consciousness can break down (two oustanding sources for those interested in the biological/medical aspect of consciousness are, ‘Consciousness, A Users Guide‘, by Adam Zeman and ‘Mapping the Mind‘, by Rita Carter  – surely such traumas/injuries/surgeries/what have you prove that a disruption in the brain means a disruption in consciousness. But, going along with the distinction between the UoC and the binding problem, there should be a distinction between the empirical/psychological ‘ego’ (for lack of a better term) and consciousness – in short, a distinction between the UoC and psychological unity should be made. Hart also makes roughly this point in ‘The Experience of God’:

‘…it is necessary to grasp that what is at issue here is not mere psychological unity or integrity of personal identity or of private memory over time. These can be diminished, impaired, or largely destroyed by deep psychosis, brain damage, cortical surgery, drugs, amnesia, and so forth. The unity of consciousness, however, is immune to all disruption. When I say that consciousness cannot be reduced to material causes I am not denying that the regular operation of consciousness in corporeal beings are dependent upon the workings of the brain, or that the contents of consciousness can be radicaly changed or disrupted by physiological events. I am talking here only about the transcendental condition of consciousness, a simple and perhaps anonymous singularity of vantage, which makes subjective awareness and mental activity possible. It is present even when the ego’s psychological or cognitive operations have been disoriented, clouded or shattered. It is the failure to make this distinction – between, on the one hand, the unity of this transcendental perspective within the mind, and, on the other, the integrity of personal mental states…’ (p. 198-199)

– Searle spends a good deal of time defining consciousness as unified – it simply is a unified thing by definition. Hence, even in, say, split-brain patients:

‘If we think of the split-brain patients as having two centers of consciousness, then we are not thinking of a single consciousness that is broken in two, we are thinking, rather, of two separate unified conscious fields. What is unthinkable is that there should be an element of consciousness that is disunified. That is, it is unthinkable that my conscious states should come to me as a simultaneous series of discrete bits, for if all the bits were part of my conscious awareness at once, then they would all be a part of a single conscious field. If, on the other hand, we were to think, for example, of seventeen bits, each as having a separate existence, then what we are thinking of is seventeen separate consciousnesses, not one consciousness with seventeen elements.’ (‘Mind, Language and Society’, p. 82-83)

– It may be helpful to think of the UoC as related despite being distinct. Underlying the binding of my conscious experiences (experiences which take place within the field of consciousness) is the unity of consciousness itself:

Unity of consciousness ——–> binding

– Breakdowns within various perceptual modalites does not = breakdown in consciousness.


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