Walking to the Edge of Consciousness

This post aims to offer new ways of thinking about consciousness, both our own and that of others.

Philosophers often talk of experience in terms of ‘sensations’, but it only takes a little thought to recognise that experience isn’t something put together out of discrete parts: it’s a whole, from which smaller parts can be abstracted. To take vision as the principal form of perception (which many people do), it’s clear that the primitive visual phenomenon is not any ‘little patches of colour’, but the visual field.

The same, it seems to me, is largely true of consciousness in general: for all that it may be convenient to speak of lots of ‘mental states’, lots of ‘thoughts’ and ‘feelings’ co-existing like lego bricks, we can really only distinguish them against the background of the general unity of consciousness.

At any given moment, I have the visual field before me, my body-sense and the various touch-senses across its surface, sounds and smells coming in from around me, possible courses of action stretching out in front of me, short-term memory of the last few minutes behind me, long-term memories informing my awareness of every thing, a mood or moods colouring everything, reflections and imaginations bubbling up on all sides, all as integral components of the single state that is my consciousness.

What this means though is that we may be misleading ourselves when we speak of particular thoughts or feelings as being either ‘conscious’ or ‘unconscious’. They are components of the overall state, and the overall state is conscious – any further question is just about the details of this.

So for example take some abstracted ‘bit’, like the colour of the curtains to my left, which I pay no attention to. In that I pay no attention to it, it never ‘stands out’: it never becomes my focus, the ‘centre’ of my consciousness. A few things, in practice, follow from this: I will probably not remember it, and unless I shift attention to it I will probably be unable to report it, or to draw any conclusions from it.

Nevertheless, I am not ‘unconscious of it’ in the way that a blind person would be: it is right there in the immediacy of my consciousness, but as a peripheral component. It may well have some measurable effects, such as influencing my mood (if it’s red, perhaps, I am ever so slightly more excited than I would be if it were grey) or making certain words spring more easily to mind when I am asked for a ‘random’ word.

Now this phenomenon, this organisation of the overall field around an attended-to centre and a less-attended-to periphery, is easiest to make sense of (easiest, we might say, to ‘see’) in the case of vision. But similar things apply more broadly. I can think of something, be reminded of something, become aware of something, and then push it out of my ‘focus’ (i.e. attend to something else), and still have it influencing my overall mood and consciousness. So what I illustrate with the visual field should be taken as applying to consciousness in general.

The point is this: as things get further and further away from the ‘focus’, the centre of attention, our awareness of them becomes ever less distinct. We become ever less aware-that-we-are-aware of them. They ‘fade out’ into the background. Beyond a certain point, they become unreportable, or ‘inaccessible’: we can’t tell whether or not they’re there, but they nevertheless are part of our consciousness.

Now sometimes we can tell that they’re there because we can shift our attention on to them: for example, I’m aware of a few facts about Honduras – they play very little role in my mental life, and I rarely think about them, but under the right circumstances I can bring them to the focus/ bring the focus to them.

Now here’s the big question. Are there perhaps thoughts and feelings out there which we can’t, or can’t without great difficulty, focus on? Out beyond the boundary of what know we are conscious of, are there further bits of our consciousness? Are we, that is, conscious of things that we are unable to know we’re conscious of?

This is a point where the analogy of the eye breaks down, because there is a very definite absolute boundary to the visual field, formed by the edges of the eyesocket. Our visual field is finite. But what about the field of our consciousness more broadly? Is there again, a boundary – or does it go on? And how far?

The thing is, this question is in principle undecidable by any empirical means: we can’t ever tell whether there is such a boundary, because by definition it lies beyond what we have access to.

Now I think two things. I think, firstly, that we tend to, without really think it through, suppose that there is such a boundary – we suppose that the ‘field’ of our consciousness is finite. I think, secondly, that doing so is a mistake.

What would it mean if we did not suppose there to be such a boundary? That would mean that our consciousness was a sharp focus on one part of an infinite (or at least unbounded) array. Of course, out beyond what we can report and know about and think about, the consciousness presumably becomes very very ‘blurry’, very very ‘primitive’ and ‘simple’. It loses most of the traits we recognise as characterising consciousness, perhaps – representation, synthesis, imagination, free will, decision, etc. Perhaps it is more like what our mind itself is like when we are asleep, or very young.

In fact though, this would simply mean that our mental structure corresponded to our physical structure: that our mind is just like our body, one piece of an infinitely extended mass of matter, without any sharp boundaries, that was complex and organised in one place (the body and brain) and much less organised further out.

But perhaps the most radical implication would be this: that out there in that desert of consciousness, sometimes the level of complexity may begin to rise again – and what had been the far remote periphery of our mind turns out to be also the remote periphery of someone else’s. That other minds are in fact simply alternative centres of organisation in my own (or rather, in ‘ours’).

That then is one possibility. It might be seen in two ways: as the megalomania of believing that everything in the world is actually part of me, or the shock of dispossession, of realising that my mind is no private inner sanctum, but rather a sort of psychic landscape which I ‘inhabit’ – or rather, am a part of. But that shock, arguably, has to come to us sometime, when we study enough psychology, and realise how little we know of ourselves, and how much our mind really is a sort of uncharted continent.

But how are we to decide between the one possibility and the other, more common-sensical one? We can never test, can never ‘find out’ by some particular experience. Rather, we must do philosophy: we must reflect on what makes the best overall sense of the world. I have written a number of posts in the past arguing that what makes the best overall sense of the world is ‘panpsychism’, i.e. precisely the sort of view explained above. The function of this post is simply to provide a way to conceive of such a counter-intuitive philosophy.

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