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.

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What it is like to be an Electron

In previous posts I’ve talked a lot about the way reason about consciousness, and I’ve tried to drive towards the view that seems most reasonable to me – that consciousness is the basic essence of reality. And in so doing, obviously, the fact that I’ve been deliberately a bit hand-wavy about what I mean by ‘consciousness’ has been unhelpful, since this is an area where people are likely to have little ability to imagine what sort of positive view I’m talking about. So this post aims to rectify that to some degree.

Perhaps the best way to explain what I mean by consciousness is by talking about contemporary philosophy of mind. One of the big, and long-standing, debates is over, in a sense, what to understand by ‘consciousness’.

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The Ownership of Consciousness

This is a clarificatory note on an issue related to panpsychism. The gist is: panpsychism isn’t about saying that “electrons are conscious” because that implies that the electron is like a little individual, united with itself but separated from its surroundings. That’s the form of consciousness living things have evolved, but we needn’t think it’s the type that all of reality has.

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Attributions of Consciousness, Part 3: What the Hell is Matter?

Willand Van Orman Quine once said that the basic question of metaphysics can be put in three Anglo-Saxon monosyllables: ‘What is there?’ One very popular answer is ‘matter’. I am sceptical of this answer. In this post I want to trace the history of the concept of matter, and try to show it’s shortcomings. Around the 15th and 16th centuries, there emerged a concept of matter, about which we could say the following:

1) It’s essential nature is spatial – it occupies space, excludes other things from that space, and has no other defining characteristics. All material things have the exact same essence;

2) It interacts only through direct physical contact;

3) It’s nature can be knowna priori by “intellectual perception” or “intellectual intuition”;

4) It has no trace of consciousness to it.

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Attributions of Consciousness, Part 2

In a recent post I talked about trying to model people’s attributions of consciousness, not just as a psychological endeavour, but with the thought that since the notion itself is very nebulous, an understanding of what it does may illuminate the question of what it means.

The the idea that emerged from the discussion there was of a sort of competition between different ways of explaining things – on the one had, can we attribute beliefs and desires to something in a way that allows us to see how its movements make sense, vs. can we explain its movements simply by a rigid law or combination of rigid laws.

In this post I want to be a bit more detailed, and try to elaborate a little on how I see these two sorts of explanation as competing and interacting and potentially dissolving into contraditions.

So rather than talking about attributing consciousness, I’m going to talk about attributing two major features of consciousness, desires and beliefs (although ‘awareness’ of things might be a better word than beliefs, which sounds rather linguistic, like saying a sentence to yourself).

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Attributions of Consciousness

Like economists, I often find it easiest to think about things by constructing very obviously over-simple models which I accept will need further adjustment. So recently I watched this video and it made me think about the way we attribute ‘consciousness’ or ‘life’ to things. And I thought, let’s do some obviously over-simple models!

Reading a lot of philosophy, especially the classics of the modern period in Europe (Locke, Hume, Kant), we might get the impression that the basic model of human perception is something like:

1) When we look at something, we suppose it to be a (by default non-conscious) object.

2) Some things though are obviously conscious.

The second point is obviously rather vague, and I think there is a vagueness here, a feeling that this isn’t a central or especially important topic. In recent decades the topic of consciousness has come under greater scrutiny, but largely as part of an attempt to make it fit into the framework of a physical theory that takes itself as, in general, dealing with non-conscious things. There’s been a sense that the question “why do we think other people are conscious?” is an interesting question, but not a central or super-important one.

Now I want to suggest a different model, where attributing consciousness is central. The model is something like this:

1) When we perceive movement, we by default attribute consciousness (or ‘life’, or some such vague idea of being something more than just a rock).

2) When we perceive that a certain movement can be entirely comprehended by us, we retract that attribution of consciousness.

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