Consciousness? Sounds Phenomenal.

Consciousness is phenomenal consciousness. By this, I mean that consciousness is characterized primarily by what Searle calls its ‘first person ontology’. Consciousness is fundamentally a ‘what it is like’ kind of thing. Flanagan notes that consciousness may have depths we can’t access, features we can’t grasp, and a good deal more that lies beyond our cognitive capabilities – this is all true. However, if consciousness exists, it is phenomenal, and while this surely isn’t the entire story, it’s certainly the most important part – I’m clearly marking myself out here as part of the tribe who see consciousness’s fundamental nature as qualitative. Continue reading

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.

A Short Philosophy of Perception

A good definition of perception, in my opinion, is ‘to be aware of something’. We usually think of sight when we think of perception – that’s the knee-jerk definition, but obviously we can perceive through the other senses. I can perceive through smell, touch, hearing, taste, etc. There’s more to perception than biological processes, however.

Sense perception is both active and passive – passive in that my sense organs receive the sensory data of which I’m aware (they don’t manufacture the data) and active in that my sense organs are active things. My ears and eyes, though they are passive in the reception of data, aren’t simply sitting there, they are actively a part of the sense process.

Perception is more than just raw sensory perception, though – the mind plays an active role in the organization of sensory data into a meaningful and unified conscious experience. The mind can also perceive, though in a different way than sense perception – one can perceive a contradiction, for example. Again, there is an active and passive element to mental perception (and mental processes in general).

The interesting thing about perception, however, is that it’s not an act, or a deliberate thing, or something that we do – I can’t simply turn off or turn my sensory perception, or cease to be aware of things. There may be times when I’m not consciously aware of any given thing (someone may be in the room that I’m not aware of), of course, but that’s not something I can change by a kind of sensory act.

Beyond the active, conscious, sensory and mental aspects of perception, there’s the unconscious side of perception – and this unconscious perception shapes our conscious perception by shaping the way in which we perceive things. The sensory and mental aspects of perception are one part of the picture – the unconscious aspect can be thought of as a kind of formal cause to the conscious aspect. James K. A. Smith expounds the emotional aspect of perception in ‘Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works’:

‘Most often, and most fundamentally, there is an unarticulated (and inarticulable) set of dispositions and inclinations that are activated immediately upon perceiving a situation (my note: Smith refuses to think of perception in an abstract, subject-object way. Perception for Smith involves the whole person, and perception is always of a whole situation in all its grit and messiness) – because that perception is already an evaluation, a “take” a construal that is “seen” emotionally. The scene is colored with a certain affective hue that then inclines me to respond in certain ways. That emotional perception of a situation is not merely a hardwired, biological reflex…’ (p. 39)

The key thing to take away here is that perception is not a clean-cut process of noticing an object – perception isn’t static because the world isn’t static. To perceive is to perceive in a way that has been unconsciously shaped by our habits, which, by shaping our perception, shapes our actions in the world. The thing to note is that this means our perception is shaped by our action, which is shaped by our perception. Perception occurs at different levels, as I’ve already hinted at – there is conscious, active perception and deeper, unconscious levels of perception – these deeper levels are emotional levels, which were referred to in the quote above:

‘We have perceived and understood our situation in a certain light, although with little or no conscious reflection. This is a way of saying that our world (our situation) stands forth meaningfully to us at every waking instant, due primarily to processes of emotion and feeling over which we have little [conscious] control. And yet the situation is meaningful to us the most important, primordial and basic way that it can be meanginful – it shapes the basic contours of our experience. The situation specifies what will be significant to us, and what objects, events and persons mean to us at a pre-reflective level.’ (Mark Johnson, ‘The Meaning of the Body’, p. 59′, quoted in Smith, ‘Imagining the Kingdom’, p. 37)

Perception, as I’ve shown in this post, is a complex, multi-leveled phenomenon – far from being a mere static awareness, it’s an awareness that is shaped by what we do, which in turn shapes our awareness. There’s a lot of fertile ground here for further work – hopefully in the future I’ll do a bit more work on this subject. I’d like to tie in Polyani’s thought as well as Aristotelean.

Note on Consciousness

I’m drawn to emergent individualism as a theory of consciousness – somewhat similar to Searle’s biological naturalism in that it grounds consciousness in the biological (but not solely in the biological), but avoiding the naturalism and allowing for the transcendant, particularly in the orientation of the mind (intentionality). As I understand it (and I’m a novice in the emergent world) various properties emerge when a physical system achieves a certain level of complexity, and this seems to me to be supported by the scientific data.

I always keep in mind the danger of conceptual confusions, especially in philosophy of mind.


Searle argues for biological naturalism against dualism and materialism – he claims that dualism/materialism both lead to incoherent conclusions. I agree with this, for the most part. Cartesian dualism, or substance dualism, seems to be largely a dead end (except for Swinburne) – and, as I’ve noted before, dualism of this stripe is pretty much a product of Descartes systematic abstraction and reification of the mind and secondary qualities.

Now, I have no problem with consciousness being a biological kind of thing – it is certainly silly to think of consciousness as a kind of mysterious non-material product of an equally mysterious mind, and then this leads to the interaction problems. So perhaps, instead of naturalising consciousness, as Searle does, there’s a mediatory way. Suppose we think of consciousness as physical and biological but simply not reducible to the physical and biological.

For me personally, it’s intentionality that is the biggest circle that a naturalist has to square, and I don’t think it can be done. It seems to me to be pretty much wishful thinking to suppose that a purely physical system can be ‘about’ something, or have any kind of intentionality. Hart makes an interesting point:

‘Thoughts can be directed towards things, but (if the modern picture of nature is true) things cannot be directed towards thoughts, and so the specific content of the minds intentions must be determined by consciousness alone. One could never derive the specific meaning of a given physical event from the event itself, not even a brain event, because in itself it means nothing at all; even the most minute investigation constituents and instances could never yield the particular significance that the mind represents it as having.’ (‘Being, Consciousness, Bliss’, p. 195-196)

Note on Unconscious Activity

The famous Libet experiments are often taken to show that there is no free will – there are a host of other experiments, of the empirical and philosophical, that are along the same lines, which attempt to demonstrate that from a lack of conscious control over our entire mental life we have no free will. What I see, however, is a statement of the obvious. Most of what I do every day is unconscious – from driving to work to typing while talking to someone else, pretty much all of what I do is not consciously controlled by me. David Bentley hart had an interesting insight in ‘Being, Consciousness, Bliss’:

‘Whatever that impulse is, then, it constitutes at most a physiological potential for action, not a decision to act. So, even taken entirely on their own terms, these experiments tell us little that we do not already know: that the impulse to act frequently comes before we consciously choose to comply with or resist that impulse. One might almost say that our free decisions seem to act as formal causes of action, imposing determinate order upon the otherwise incohate promptings of our neurons.’ (p. 163-164)

David Bentley Hart on Consciousness and Knowledge

‘Consciousness does not merely passively reflect the reality of the world; it is necessarily a dynamic movement of reason and will toward reality. If nothing else is to be concluded from the previous chapter, this much is absolutely certain: subjective consciousness becomes actual only directed through intentionality, and intentionality is a kind of agency, directed toward an end. We could never know the world from a purely receptive position. To know anything, the mind must actively be disposed towards things outside itselff, always at work interpreting experience through concepts that oly the mind itself can apply. The world is intelligible to us because we reach out to it, or reach beyond it, comng to know the endless diversity of particular things within the embrace of a more general and abstract yearning for a knowledge of truth as such, and by way of an aboriginal inclination of the mind towards reality as a comprehensible whole. In every moment of awareness, the mind at once receives and composes the world, discerning meaning in the objects of experience precisely in conferring meaning upon them; thus consciousness lies open to – and ventures into intimate communion with – the forms of things. Every venture of reason toward an endm moreoever, is prompted by a desire of the mind, a “rational appetite.” Knowledge is born out of a predisposition and predilection of the will toward beings, a longing for the ideal comprehensibility of things, and a natural orientation of the mind toward that infinite horizon that is being itself.'(David Bentley Hart, ‘The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss’, pp. 238-239)