Rethinking Consciousness

Consciousness: The Mind Messing With the Mind - The New York Times

This is the third, and final, article in my short series attempting to dissolve the mystery surrounding consciousness. In the first article, The Qualia Delusion, I argued that qualia weren’t genuine features of lived, in the moment, phenomenal experience. Instead, they were psychic-objects we constructed after the fact in a vain attempt to explain it. Since qualia are the mysterious accompaniments to mental states that supposedly make it like something to experience X, thereby making the hard problem of consciousness hard (how can we explain that the perception of red comes with a particular, subjective feeling (a quale) of redness?), exposing them as second-order, reflective concepts, effectively dissolves the hard problem, at least, in its current form. The world and things in it are lived through the body, not thought by the mind through mental objects called qualia. The second article, Towards an Understanding of Consciousness – Henri Bergson, outlined a number of important concepts we will need in this article, specifically becoming, continuity, duration, perception, and memory. In this article, I assume a knowledge of both of those earlier articles. With that said, let’s sort out this consciousness thing once and for all.

Consciousness

In the first article, I initially defined consciousness as awareness (of self and surroundings) accompanied by qualia (redness, painfulness, etc.), which imbue that core awareness with phenomenal subjectivity. Having kicked qualia out of original, lived experience, we are now left with a definition of consciousness as just awareness; i.e. something already significantly, although not totally, demystified. The ill-defined hard problem, which turned on notions of equally ill-defined qualia, is out, so what is left to explain? First, we have to more precisely define ‘awareness,’ and second, we have to explain what this second-order reflective capacity is.

Consciousness as Awareness

Okay, so consciousness is awareness. Just to be clear, this means that consciousness is our immediate sense of engaging with things around us. Naturally, this omits many physic phenomena, such as imagination, memories, abstract thoughts, etc., which is fine. I’m not dodging these; we will address them later. The thing is if we aren’t clear about what consciousness is and what it isn’t, we have no hope of ever understanding it. One of the biggest problems with the word ‘consciousness’ is that its tendrils have slowly spread out over so many diverse phenomena that to even utter the word now is to invoke a spectre so vast and diffuse, it’s impossible to explain simply because we no longer know what it refers to.

If consciousness is awareness, of what is it aware? Whoops. Did you notice that slip? Consciousness isn’t aware of anything. Why? Because it isn’t some mysterious ‘thing’ out there in the ether picking out objects in front of it. This is another trap we fall into all too easily; namely, turning consciousness into a substance, a thing. This is precisely the mistake Descartes made (and why Sartre insisted on talking of consciousness as a nothingness). Once you go down this rabbit hole, you wind up either believing in a soul-like entity, or twisting yourself into knots trying to avoid believing in a soul-like entity. Let’s start again.

If consciousness is awareness, of what is it an awareness? Self and surroundings. This is fine, but there’s another subtle trap here (really it’s just the one from the first paragraph of this section reasserting itself once we’ve let our guard down a bit). We have to remember that this awareness is not a rarefied, cognitive one comprised of qualia, concepts, and various other mental abstractions; rather, it is immediate and lived. So, awareness of my surroundings is fundamentally embodied and engaged. When you grab that cup and take a sip of water, you don’t cognise anything, but you are nevertheless awareness of everything. You don’t see colours and shapes which then must be collated into cups, tables, etc. Of course, at some rudimentary, physical level, this is what is happening in the rods and cones of the retina, the optic nerve, and the brain, but this is all about as far from consciousness as you could get. If we were going to cash this type of mechanical, stimulus-reaction process out as consciousness, then my camera is conscious every time I take a photo. Awareness (consciousness) of the world is your active, embodied engagement with it. We talked a lot about this in the first article, so I won’t dwell on it here.

The same basic principle holds for awareness (consciousness) of self. Broadly speaking, awareness of self includes awareness of my body and my psychic states (my feelings, my thoughts, my beliefs, etc.). Let’s look at the body first. Clearly, my consciousness of my body, like my consciousness of the world, is nothing like my conceptual knowledge of objects. But nor is it like my active engagement with objects around me. I don’t manipulate my limbs, or direct my eye movements as if I were controlling a machine. Merleau-Ponty talks about our awareness of our bodies happening through a body schema, in which I don’t know my body or limbs by feeling them to be located in space in relation to other objects (the table, the floor, my shoulder, etc.), or even through some form of internal proprioception; rather, I am originally, immediately aware of my body as that which reveals other objects to me. Sartre puts this nicely when he says we surpass our bodies as biological objects. In reaching for the cup, my attention doesn’t go to my arm or hand, in order to move them; it goes right to the cup. My body moves, but only insofar as it responds to the invitation the cup extends to me. Another way of saying the same thing is that my immediate awareness (consciousness) of my own body is nothing more than the fact that I am my body.  

Exactly the same thing is true for awareness of my psychic states. Again, we must resist the temptation to posit consciousness as a thing before which psychic states manifest. This would be to come to the party too late, after immediate awareness (consciousness) has been and gone, leaving us with nothing more than a post hoc mental construction full of qualia and other mythical beasts. Think about what happens when you are talking with a friend. There is an easy back and forth; a question here, an answer there, a point made one moment, a supporting reason given the next, and so on. At any point are you constructing your thoughts? Is there ever any distance between you and them? Of course there isn’t. Your thoughts arise seemingly on their own. This has prompted some (particularly those with Buddhist inclinations) to rush to the hasty conclusion that the self is an illusion and everything is just happening on its own, or what may even be worse, that ‘you’ are an epiphenomenon, an ineffectual conscious witness with the mere illusion of control. In actual fact, your thoughts (or feelings, or beliefs, or any other psychic phenomena) are arising on their own; the mistake is to think this is all happening without ‘you,’ as if you were separate from them. In exactly the same way we saw with the body, my psychic states reveal the world to me. My sadness reveals this event as something to be sad about; my immediate reply illuminates that question as something to be answered in this way. With a little massaging of Heidegger’s original intent, one might even be able to get away with calling this attunement. My psychic states attune me to the world in that they tell me what events mean and how to respond to them. And, as with the body, my psychic states occur, or I think/feel/have them, only insofar as they are a response to the invitations the world (or things/events in it) extends to me. Another way of saying the same thing is that my immediate awareness (consciousness) of my own psychic states is nothing more than the fact that I am my psychic states. 

The Spectrum of Consciousness

As I mentioned in the first article, this analysis of consciousness as awareness means that consciousness is no longer the sole prerogative of human beings. On the contrary, it extends to all living things. We can run through the list. The very lowest level of living things are all awarenessess (consciousnesses) of their surroundings to some degree or other. They may not be capable of perceiving everything we can, or as richly as we do, but if consciousness is awareness, and we aren’t going to start introducing arbitrary cut-off points or imaginary features like qualia, then all a living being needs to do to be conscious at this minimal level is be able to distinguish between hot and cold, or light and dark, or food and not-food.

All living things are also awarenesses of their bodies. Again, they may not be able to manipulate objects with their bodies like we can, but this isn’t a requirement for consciousness. You might object that plants don’t actually know anything about their leaves or bark. Sure, a plant moves towards the sun when it grows, but it doesn’t do so consciously. Hold on. Here is where we start muddying the waters with an ambiguous definition of consciousness. What does it mean to do something consciously? Consciousness is awareness, and not just awareness, but immediate awareness. It has nothing to do with ‘higher’ cognition or conceptual understanding, and everything to do with embodied engagement. In the same way that we don’t need to think about our bodies to be consciousness of them, neither does a plant. A plant is awareness (consciousness) of its stalk if it moves its stalk (or its stalk moves) in response to the environment, revealing the environment as it does so. All plants, indeed all living beings, do this.

Awareness of psychic states is where we encounter the first absolute boundary between living things, as it is extremely unlikely that all living things have psychic states. This presents no problem to our thesis though. Consciousness is immediate awareness of self and surroundings. All living things satisfy both of these conditions, even if their ‘self,’ lacking psychic states, is less complex than ours.

At this point you might be feeling a little uncomfortable with where this article has gone. Plants are conscious? What kind of tree-huggery is this? The account of consciousness I am suggesting here only seems outrageous, I believe, if one continues to think of consciousness in the fuzzy, ill-defined terms from which I have tried to purge it; i.e. as some kind of first-person, subjective experience in which it feels like something to see red. You are, of course, free to continue to think of it like this, but I believe this is an explanatory dead end, a dead end with a name; the hard problem. Remember, we were originally happy defining consciousness as awareness plus first-person qualia. After discovering that qualia didn’t belong here, I have simply jettisoned them from our definition (I’m not going to ignore them though – they will make an appearance a little later), leaving only awareness. Consciousness is awareness, awareness is immediate, consciousness is immediate awareness. No muss, no fuss.

This approach to consciousness, while perhaps pushing us beyond our boundaries in one direction, also conveniently erects a (reasonably) solid boundary at the other. I’m talking about panpsychism, which this definition of consciousness gives us good reasons to eliminate once and for all. Panpsychism tends to take advantage of the confusion and ambiguity surrounding the word ‘consciousness’ to drag those tendrils of which I spoke earlier out just a little bit further. With a tighter definition in place – consciousness is awareness – we close some of those loopholes. It is harder to argue that a rock is awareness because we are more comfortable with what the word ‘awareness’ means.

The Origin of Consciousness

Good. Consciousness is immediate awareness. This gives us a definition that actually means something, but has merely played a bit of a shell game concerning the mystery of how consciousness (awareness) arises, by hiding it under a different term. We’ve defined awareness, but now it’s time to explain it.

Perception

The lowest form of awareness (consciousness) is that of one’s surroundings. We will start here with perception. In the second article, I described Bergson’s conception of pure perception as passive and transparent. It’s passive because the brain/mind doesn’t actively create, or add anything to, the sensory stimuli; and transparent in the sense that the sensory stimuli, the nerve signals, the neuronal firing, none of these things terminates anywhere in an internal image or representation. The only thing that exists in perception is the concrete object. However, this doesn’t get us to conscious perception, or a perception which qualifies as awareness.

As I explained in the first article, we aren’t disinterested agents speculating, or cognising, about our surroundings; at least, not originally. First and foremost, we are bodies intensely concerned with acting in the world, and this requires utilising the objects around us. In this then, we never perceive objects never as raw, physical conglomerates of stuff devoid of sense or meaning. On the contrary, from the very beginning they are imbued with meaning and significance for me. Perception only notices what is of interest to me as an embodied locus of action. This means that rather than perception adding or creating anything; it is actually a diminishment of the object. I don’t perceive those aspects of the object that contain no relevance to me. Heidegger illustrates this supremely well with his example of tools. When a carpenter looks at the tools and machines of her trade, they call to her body,[1] inviting her to lathe this or plane that; in other words, they are immediately meaningful as tools for doing this or that. When I look at them, however, all I see are interesting contraptions; collections of blades, levers and handles. I may recognise them as tools, but they lack the rich web of meanings they have for the carpenter because I know nothing about carpentry. Of course, the carpenter, by virtue of perceiving them at all, has also diminished the objects. She doesn’t recognise their capacities in the same way a person who fears an intruder has broken into their house would; that is to say, as weapons for cracking said intruder on the head. A collector of rare tools perceives them as collectibles to be displayed, someone looking for their misplaced glasses will perceive them simply as ‘not my glasses,’ and so on. No one person perceives the tools in all their aspects, but that is not a failure or limitation; it is just what it is to perceive.

It is this diminishment of the object that, following Bergson, we will call conscious perception; ‘conscious,’ certainly not because it is accompanied by some ineffable, first-person, subjective feeling, nor even because someone is deliberately, intellectually intending something; rather, it is ‘conscious’ because it is a choice, the original choice (of some capacities inherent in the object over others) by which awareness (consciousness) of an object becomes possible in the first place.

The crucial notion of diminishment quite neatly explains why a video camera isn’t conscious, despite being capable of taking in sensory information about its environment. A reasonable argument could be made that a video camera ‘perceives’ in the passive and transparent senses I discussed above; however, a video camera lacks the capacity of even the most primitive form of life to be a locus of action. No video camera is interested in the objects around it (even in the most basic sense of that word, as we might say that a plant is interested in the sunlight it grows towards), such that its behaviour is shaped by them; i.e. the video camera doesn’t diminish the objects around it at all because it is incapable of using them for anything. The result of this sensory promiscuity is that it doesn’t, it can’t, discern any objects at all. It is not conscious, not because it lacks qualia or can’t think about objects; rather, it is not conscious because there are no objects for it in the first place.

Thus, the lowest level of consciousness (awareness) arises directly and immediately out of the core sensory apparatus belonging to any living organism capable of perception as I have outlined it here, all without anything that requires a ‘hard’ explanation. If you can see your way to the existence of living organisms with sensory apparatus, you have awareness (consciousness) of the environment.

Duration and Memory

Awareness of self we broke into two; awareness of body, and awareness of psychic states. I spoke above about awareness (consciousness) of the body as that which reveals other objects to me through effective action, not as a biological machine. This direct concern with the external world means that awareness of the body overlaps significantly with what we have already concluded about awareness of one’s surroundings. Inasmuch as a living organism’s conscious perception is achieved through a body, its awareness (consciousness) of this body naturally follows.

How it is that we are awareness (consciousness) of our psychic states will require a more elaborate explanation, in which the challenge will be to explain how psychic states arise in the first place. This endeavour is usually attempted by starting from the premise that everything is physical, and then trying to explain how the psychic emerges from this. This approach is doomed to failure. One might as well try to explain how gold could ‘emerge’ from lead. Then you get the lurch to the opposite extreme in which the starting premise is that the physical is already psychic; i.e. panpsychism. Aside from the obvious problems that bedevil panpsychism, a lesser-noted problem is that panpsychism doesn’t even pretend to try to explain how the ‘psychism’ arises in the ‘pan’ at all. Assuming everything is conscious doesn’t explain consciousness.

In the last article, I talked about duration. This will be our starting point to explain the existence of psychic states. There I said duration essentially reduced to two elements; succession and enduring. Succession means that elements in a process follow one another in time, so we are only ever present to one element at a time. To conceptualise; i.e. make an abstraction of, the process, so that multiple elements appear juxtaposed before us, is to spatialise time, effectively eliminating it. The quality of enduring means that even though only one element ever appears before us, that one element is interpenetrated by all of the elements that came before it, as it gnaws into a future which is a perpetual creation. This is a fairly solid description of our psychic states, but now we need to turn to the thorny question of how duration; that is, succession and enduring, arise. For this, we will need another concept from that second article; pure memory. In that article, we saw that pure memory, or the past, is that portion of the continual process of becoming (time) which is no longer present to us, a reservoir comprised of events from our respective histories. What we didn’t do there was make explicit the connection between memory and duration; i.e. explain why memory, rather than being a static reservoir of images/events, is actually a process.

Nature is a continuous succession. We typically think of the natural world as static or fixed, but in truth, it is a ceaseless flow. Of course, we can, and do, break it into chunks to suit our needs, but at its core, it is a succession. This means human life, being a part of the natural world, is also a succession. We get that for free, as it were, but this only gets us half of the kind of duration we experience. This is where memory comes in, fitting into duration as the engine, or driver, of that second half; i.e. the way individual elements interpenetrate each other, the feature that makes duration endure, as it were. It accomplishes this feat through a twofold operation: by prolonging a series of moments into each other, and contracting them into one intuition.

As time passes, events that we live move from the present moment into memory. However, this present moment is not an abstract, indivisible limit which divides the past from the future; rather, it is actually a thick temporal slice, a synthesis of (especially the immediate, but also, in relevant situations, the more distant) past and the present. This synthesis is precisely what Bergson means by the prolonging of the past into the present. It is this which creates the “interconnexion” of moments that so characterises duration. In addition to prolonging past moments into the present, memory also contracts them in such a way that they can be apprehended in a single intuition. All experience, no matter how fleeting we think it is, is in actuality, a compression of a series of continuous events which we then experience together as a single whole. Memory, then, takes the continuous succession that already exists in nature, and prolongs and contracts it into a lived duration.

Another way of putting this is to see the prolonging as a gathering up of a series of moments, a melting of each into the other, while the contracting makes them digestible as a whole. This expresses the process in a way that accords nicely with the ancient philosophical question of the one and the many; a motif, not only with a distinguished philosophical pedigree, but one that Bergson frequently emphasised.

Now, the point of this discussion was to explain psychic states. How does this investigation of memory and duration do that? Well, quite simply, my claim is that psychic states are nothing more than a succession of events that are prolonged and contracted by memory into a lived duration. Forget emergence, forget explaining the unextended from the extended, forget first-person experience. The psychic states that all human beings live are a naturally occurring phenomena in the kind of world we happen to live in; i.e. one in which events that succeed each other in time are prolonged and contracted by memory into a lived duration.

The Objection

One might feel vaguely dissatisfied with this, something to the tune of, “But this still doesn’t explain how psychic states actually arise from a material world, unless they are being smuggled in with memory, in which case the problem is just being pushed back a step.” First, look at how the objection is framing the problem of physic states. In asking how psychic states arise from a material world, the questioner is doing two things: (a) setting up a stark dualism between psychic states and the material world; and (b) specifying the form that the answer must take; in this case, one of emergence.

Concerning (a), while I acknowledge that the psychic is not the same as extended matter, this series of articles, if nothing else, has been an attempt to narrow the chasm between the two. The psychic is not some mysterious, phenomenal realm full of unextended, exotic fauna like qualia; nor is the physical a realm of discrete, independent objects. Rather, the psychic is very much grounded in the world, even as the world is grounded in a form of duration (a continuous succession of events). If the difference between the two is not as great as the objection presupposes, the problem is not with the explanation, it’s with the objection. 

Turning to (b) next, the objection, in setting up the dichotomy the way it has in (a), is demanding an answer that somehow produces the unextended from the extended. As I have said before, this is, I believe, impossible. Once again, the problem is not in the explanation proffered here, it’s in the objection. In truth, no explanation will ever satisfy this condition; they don’t call it the hard problem for nothing.

The more interesting problem this concern raises is the one concerning memory. Have I just substituted an inexplicable memory for an inexplicable consciousness? This accusation is not entirely without merit. It’s legitimate in the sense that I am postulating this memory-driven duration as something of a brute fact of the universe (Bergson does build duration into a somewhat broader metaphysical framework in Creative Evolution, but that is a little outside the scope of this, already longer-than-intended series of articles). One could ask, for example, “How did memory get started?” Of course, this is not just a problem for Bergson or metaphysics. Whatever ‘ultimate reality’ science conceives of, be it quantum fields, strings, or some other exotic structure, will also fall victim to this question. Even the claim of quantum physicists that they can get something from nothing (something about virtual subatomic particles constantly popping into existence out of a vacuum due to the Heisenberg principle) is obviously vulnerable to the question: “But where did the Heisenberg principle come from?” Whatever ultimate ground we theorise our universe is built on will have to be an ultimate type of fact; i.e. one that doesn’t admit of further explanation.

However, this objection is also unfair because memory has a couple of advantages over consciousness as an ultimate ground. First, we understand what memory is, and what it does. There are no conceptual problems associated with the term. Compare this with consciousness, which is, as I’ve argued throughout this series of articles, a completely intractable problem. Not only does no one know what it is, half of the intellectual community believe it to be a ‘hard’ (read: impossible) problem, while the other half think it’s an illusion. Second, memory gives us a tidy mechanism that actually does seem to account for what comprises psychic states. A naturally occurring succession (giving the continuous sense of becoming we feel in psychic states); the prolongation of some of those events so they endure rather than existing only for an instant (giving the sense of continuity over time that marks psychic states); the contraction of a number of these prolonged events into a single whole (giving the vivid sense of being engaged in the world that is a part of psychic states). There is no left over mystery to explain here. Compare with consciousness, which, even if we try to force it into fundamental reality with a roll of duct tape and a wheelbarrow of good intentions (à la panpsychism; sorry panpsychists, I’ve really hammered your theory in this article), doesn’t give us any kind of insight into how consciousness works its first-person magic.

With psychic states explained, we can finally turn to an explanation of our awareness (consciousness) of our psychic states. This is the easy part, because it turns out to be exactly the same (albeit in a slightly more indirect fashion) as the explanation concerning awareness of our surroundings and our bodies. Originary awareness (consciousness) is always fundamentally concerned with a lived situation; not an intellectual knowing. We aren’t trying to explain how we know our psychic states as if we were a detached observer looking at something external to ourselves (we will come to this in the next section, but this isn’t consciousness); we’re trying to explain our awareness of them inasmuch as we are them. Recall that I spoke earlier about awareness (consciousness) of psychic states as a kind of attunement to our surroundings, in the sense that they tell me what events and objects mean, and how I ought to respond to them. This is another way of saying that this awareness entails a diminishment of the event or object, or an original choice which makes the object/event appear as an object/event in the first place. In exactly the same way that this diminishment made perception conscious; that is to say, which made it qualify as awareness, it does exactly the same thing for psychic states.

The Intellect

So, consciousness is awareness, and originally awareness is always acted rather than thought; more closely related to the body than a mysterious, ephemeral, ‘lights are on’ quality. However, there is another aspect of our mentation which no article claiming to have resolved consciousness could ignore. In the first article, you may remember that I relegated qualia, not to the status of illusion, but to a realm outside of consciousness; a post-consciousness, reflective realm which Bergson calls the intellect. While the intellect is certainly different from consciousness, which, again, is our original, embodied awareness of our environment and ourselves, lest we be accused of playing a shell game; i.e. of having explained consciousness merely by shifting what was inexplicable in it to the intellect, we’d better turn our attention to this.

Let’s begin with a definition. The intellect is that capacity we have for abstract, reflective thought. It is what allows us to step back from our lived, engaged, immediate awareness of, and immersion in, a situation, and instead think about it, conceptualise it. Is there a metaphysical mystery here? I don’t think so. On the contrary, the metaphysical picture we have laid out seems to have all we need to explain this.

I have argued that what I’ve been calling memory-infused duration is a natural and fundamental feature of reality. All living things endure, and are therefore consciousnesses/awarenesses, but not all of them have psychic states; that is to say, not all of them are capable of prolonging and contracting the succession that is the lowest form of duration, into the memory-infused duration higher life-forms live. Those life-forms that lack psychic states would include the microscopic variety, such as bacteria, viruses, etc., and plants. The higher life-forms capable of experiencing psychic states would include animals from dogs, cats, horses, and so on, up to the big players; the great apes, elephants, and dolphins. Everything in-between these categories I leave to the reader to judge for him or herself.

What that brief taxonomy shows is that there is a clear progression from the lowest life forms up to the highest, in which we need appeal to nothing more than duration and memory. What about that one class of animal I left out, though; the only one that has completely left this mountain it ascended by means of a gentle progression, and vaulted to a completely separate peak; the intellectual animal, human beings? What I’m asking here is: Do we need to invoke some magical element to explain the intellect? And what I’m answering is: No.

As I’ve argued ad nauseum, all living beings are first and foremost practically directed towards the world. Action is king. This is true not just on evolutionary scales but even in the present. Aristotle was right to say that we are different from other animals by virtue of our capacity for thought, but he was wrong to define us by this, as if abstract, speculative thought was what essentially characterised us. First and foremost, we are acting beings. Only secondarily, are we thinking beings.

Now, not all actions are equally effective, and not all effective actions are effective forever. In any circumstance where there is competition and/or change in such a way that actions that worked well in the past need to be modified to work in the present, we find an animal that needs to change its strategy. More often than not, this change of strategy happens through an evolution that never rises above pure instinct, but if that animal has already clambered up that slope I mentioned before and reached the top of the mountain such that it is capable of experiencing psychic states (condition A), and if it has physical characteristics that let it manipulate objects with some level of precision (condition B), then another option becomes available. Instead of evolution selecting for certain instinctual, hard-wired behaviours, it starts selecting for less certain, open-ended, pseudo-intelligent behaviour. Let’s say that action X has always worked well in the past to achieve a certain goal. One day, however, action X no longer works. After repeated, failed efforts, our animal notices, quite by chance and with no genuine reasoning taking place, that if it performs action X slightly differently (action X’), the goal is once again realised. It has now learnt something. Given enough time, and enough such experiences (and importantly the satisfaction of both of those conditions I mentioned earlier), our animal, or more likely one of its distant descendants, begins to crudely reason (still in relation to the practical achievement of some goal), such that it is now capable of expanding its repertoire of actions, going from performing action X’ to achieve the goal to achieving the same goal through the completely different action Y.

However, no matter how skilled an animal gets at effectively achieving goals, this will never provide the impetus to leap to that new peak. The run-up to this ambitious feat can only be undertaken through the development of language. Again though, we don’t need to posit any magical ingredient for this. Our action Y animal above, which we left crudely reasoning how certain actions lead to certain goals, is only a small step away from conveying what it has ‘learnt’ to others through grunts that, again quite accidentally at first, pick out certain objects in the surrounding environment. From certain vocalisations representing certain present at hand objects, the door now opens (very, very slowly) to certain vocalisations representing objects not currently present (remember that memory had already opened duration up, letting our animal exist beyond the immediate present, in a ‘thicker’ temporal duration, as it were, although a duration that, prior to the development of language, was not known in any explicit, reflective way). Once, if, this step is taken, the leap is made, and the new intellectual peak, where true abstraction and conceptualisation dwell, awaits.

There is one last point I want to make concerning this. Even though I have traced out a path from memory-infused duration to intellectual thought that doesn’t require any magical qualia or ‘lights coming on,’ I have also taken pains to stress that there is a leap involved, where I intend the word ‘leap’ in its full Kierkegaardian sense; i.e. indicating a change of quality, not the mere (quantitative) aggregation of more of the same. Prior to the development of language, the animal lives rather than knowing, and no amount of the former will ever enable the animal to transition to the latter. It is this that makes the transition a leap, and something as extraordinary as it is significant.

It is here that those who have been once bitten by the (mainly monotheistic) religious belief that humans are the focal point of God’s creation will start to squirm uncomfortably. Is this guy repeating this mistake? I mean, he’s already claimed that we are higher than our highest animal cousins; that we are on a completely different peak, no less. Isn’t this starting to sound a little bit like he’s claiming humans are special in some way? It better be! I am claiming this. Anyone who claims to believe that we are just advanced chimps hasn’t been paying much attention to either chimps or humans. Undoubtedly there are similarities, we share a common ancestor, after all, and undoubtedly, there is absolutely nothing preventing chimps from making the same leap we did… but they clearly haven’t made it yet! Sure, we can teach chimps to count, and arm them with a vocabulary of around 130 words, but our best efforts pretty quickly hit a brick wall. They just lack the cognitive capacity to abstract from the world of experience and think along the conceptual lines that we take for granted. Again, calling this a qualitative difference isn’t saying that there is something intrinsically special about humans, nor is it claiming that there is some intrinsic lacuna in chimpanzees (or other animals) barring them from the hallowed ranks of the animalis intellectualis; it’s merely recognising the vast difference, a difference in kind, not degree, between lived duration and the intellect; a difference that, despite the absolute transformation it entails, doesn’t require the postulation of any suprasensible Mind or metaphysical magic.

Conclusion

Man, we’ve covered quite a bit of ground in this article. Let’s see if we can’t bring it all home. We started by rejecting the idea that consciousness is a mysterious, ineffable quality that somehow attaches itself to otherwise non-conscious phenomena. With this prejudice out of the way, a closer look at what we tend to mean by ‘consciousness’ revealed that, far from the suprasensible, phenomenal realm we think consciousness is, it is actually far more prosaic and practical; in fact, consciousness is what we experience when we aren’t thinking about what we are experiencing. In other words, it is fully in the world. The word I suggested best captures this is awareness

Awareness, we decided, comes in three ‘flavours;’ awareness of our environment, our body, and our psychic states. After noting that this analysis meant we had to admit all living things were conscious(nesses) (not by conferring some incoherent first-person experience to all living organisms, but by coherently defining consciousness), we then went looking for an origin of this awareness; that is, a mechanism which would explain how it arises in the first place. It turned out that none of these ‘flavours’ of awareness required anything like the ‘hard’ explanation some commentators have demanded from an explanation of consciousness. Instead, we saw that awareness ‘arose’ directly and naturally from living beings engaged in the world. In fact, awareness in all three ‘flavours’ was conscious if it served to diminish brute perception of objects/events; i.e. if it added an element of choice, such that movement and interaction with objects/events was not just random, but directed and focused. This, it turns out, is what makes object/events appear as the objects/events they are in the first place.

The only other thing that needed explanation here was the existence of psychic states themselves. For this, we turned to the notion of duration as succession and enduring, the latter being driven by memory as a prolonging and contracting of those states into each other. In terms of a more detailed explanation of duration, I argued that the succession of events/states was a natural feature of the world, and although we had to make memory a bedrock assumption, it is a clearly defined phenomenon that, rather than being a clumsy, metaphysical add-on, is a temporal feature which, as such, naturally fits in as an extension of an already temporal succession. Contrast all of this with trying to explain ‘consciousness;’ a hazy, ill-defined, first-person phenomena that makes it like something to experience X.

Although this explained consciousness (which turned out to be a lived duration), in the name of thoroughness, we also needed to explain that other aspect of our minds; the intellect; i.e. that reflective, speculative capacity we have to abstract out from our absorption in the world and conceptualise it rather than live it (thus giving us the capacity to create qualia). We found that this didn’t require any magical explanation either, but rather derived quite naturally from duration (although it did involve a qualitative transition) as long as a few key conditions were met, the most important of which was the development of language.

In closing, let me stress one last time the point that has really undergirded, and been the driving force behind, this entire article. The word ‘consciousness’ has become so hopelessly muddled and laden with so much phenomenal, metaphysical baggage that any sensible explanation is now completely impossible, not because it’s too complex, but because the word no longer refers to anything meaningful. It’s become like Voldemort in Harry Potter; a bogeyman neuroscientists and philosophers whisper about in dark corners with empty euphemisms, like “first-person experience,” “the lights coming on,” and “what it feels like to see red.” This has resulted in three broad camps; the objective optimist who believes somehow, one day, we’ll explain this magical thing as an ‘emergent’ property of a lump of physical matter (which, they don’t seem to realise, will necessarily involve turning that lump of matter into something even more mysterious); the ‘hard’ exponent, who realises the futility of explaining the magical in terms of the non-magical, but can offer us no other way forward; and the consciousness-denier, who has so given up on the hope of an explanation for this magical capacity that he or she, like sufferers of body integrity identity disorder who would rather have the limb they deny is theirs amputated, would rather deny the very thing that underwrites their existence as a living organism able to deny consciousness in the first place. Each of these camps fails for the same reason; they have all accepted a definition of consciousness that means nothing. Once we muster the strength to knock this first domino over, we find that all of the others follow suit. I remember while talking about this with a friend, as I was only just beginning to delve into Bergson, having the inchoate thought (which I absolutely couldn’t justify at the time) that the ‘solution’ to the consciousness problem was going to turn on realising that we had been thinking about it all wrong. Three Bergson books, a handful of grey hairs, and hours of intently staring at my monitor later, I believe I can finally back this claim up.


[1] Although Heidegger does talk about tools in a referential context, he doesn’t connect this with the body the way I have here.

3 thoughts on “Rethinking Consciousness

  1. Pingback: Rethinking Consciousness – Thoughts

  2. This is simply one of the best articles I’ve ever read. I am very appreciative of you. There are philosophers out there with not a fraction of your talent, and they’re hiding behind paywalls, so I’m grateful for your generous accessibility.

    Liked by 1 person

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