1 What consciousness is
Philosophers once thought that while there were plenty of problems about the nature, and even the existence, of physical reality we each knew the existence and nature of the mental well enough from our own case. On this I believe that they were right, but the present philosophical fashion mostly has things the other way round.
They were right, at least, so far as consciousness goes. As for nonconscious aspects of mind, I offer no view of them here.
What then is consciousness? Well, it is too basic a reality to be explicated in terms which do not to some extent beg the question. But there are devices for pointing out what it is to those whose philosophy has not robbed them of eyes to see.
Two of the best devices are these:
There is nothing of which one cannot ask “what is it like?” Appropriate answers either specify some of its observable properties or tell you more literally how far it is like or unlike something else. Thus in a book on sea shells I find the following description of the common otter shell. “50-55 mm. long; oblong in shape, white and pink, with brown periostracum” while the oblong otter shell is described as “like the common otter shell, but more definitely oblong”. However, there are some things concerning which we may wonder not what they are like but what it is like to be them (perhaps even including the original little shellfish).
Now whenever you wonder what it is like to be some individual, you are really trying to imagine their state of consciousness. If I seriously wonder what it is like to be a daffodil I am thinking of the daffodil as conscious. The usual opinion is that there is nothing which it is like to be a daffodil, that is, that it is not conscious. In contrast, I may wonder what it is like being a certain duck which I am watching (whether in general or more specifically at that very moment). Probably I cannot imagine it in any way likely to hit the truth but at least I am confident that there is a truth of the matter.
When you wonder what it is like to be X the reality which you are wondering about is the consciousness of X (either in general or at some particular moment). This is something different from X, since to believe that X is conscious is evidently to believe in the existence of something pertaining to X additional to everything about it as a thing out there in the common physical world.
Another device for drawing attention to what consciousness is is to point out that its prime examples are particular organisms’ personal versions of the world around and in them. A stone does not have its own personal version of the world; a human being and a duck do. Such at least is the almost universal human opinion whose content rather than justification these devices concern.
Complete knowledge of another person’s (let alone an animal’s)state of consciousness is doubtless impossible, but its limits are often exaggerated. Since consciousness is for most of us dominated by the surrounding physical environment as it presents itself to us, the first thing I usually need to know in order to grasp something of the character of another’s present consciousness is something of their immediate physical environment and their orientation within it. I know a good deal about someone’s consciousness if I know that they are a person, culturally educated much as I am, and are in the Louvre looking at the Mona Lisa.
However, knowing what objects someone is perceiving and from what point of view, and taking account of such things as whether they seem to see or hear things more or less clearly than one does oneself, still leaves out much of importance about even the more purely perceptual aspect of consciousness. For the perceived world comes to each of us drenched in emotional qualities which there is reason to believe vary quite a bit between different people. How great this difference is between any particular individuals, and how far one may enter into another’s alternative emotional world, is more a question of partially knowable fact than a metaphysical problem.
There is, of course, more to consciousness than the perceptual presentation of the environment (and sensations of one’s own body). There is all one’s conscious thought, imagery and feeling. Still,the substantial grasp of another’s consciousness supplied simply by knowing what they are seeing and hearing etc should dispel the idea that it is an ineffable mystery.
However, the character of our states of consciousness is only to a very limited extent describable by the use of our usual standardised predicates. Certainly words for sensory qualities, feelings of pleasure and pain, and predicates ascribing propositional attitudes, can take us some of the way but they are woefully inadequate to convey the total character of an experience. The people who are best able to do this are poets, and in a different medium, composers (and it may require some sophistication to understand them). But most of us are more like cats, in that we have quite rich experiences but are not too good at describing them.
2 Self consciousness
Consciousness is typically said to be of something, in the sense of having something as its object. But there is an important distinction between consciousness of what is also a component of consciousness and of what is not. If I attend to a pain which I am feeling then the pain is both an object of my consciousness and a component of it. The same is true of the things I see or otherwise perceive around me strictly in the character which they present to my senses, that is, in my personal version of them. But if I become conscious of your intentions in saying something then what I am conscious of is not a component of my consciousness. Likewise physical things of which I am aware, but not perceiving, are not components of my consciousness, (though the imagery, words and something of their meaning, through which I think of them are).
Some will deny that there is any sense in which the physical things which we perceive are components of our consciousness. However, in my opinion the physical world as we ordinarily nontheoretically believe in it is an imagined indefinitely larger, and inwardly fuller, whole of which the perceptual fields, within which the things we perceive figure, are fragments which have for the moment also become part of our consciousness. The matter is different, of course, if we are thinking of that “objective” world, which exists other than in “subjective” versions of itself, with which science, or perhaps metaphysics, purports to deal.
It should not be supposed that all components of consciousness are objects of consciousness. Those which are in the background of one’s experience help to make up what it is currently like to be oneself, but they are not objects of attention and it seems best to say that one is not conscious of them. There must be some such components of one’s consciousness of which one is not conscious. There must, for example, be some acts of attention in consciousness which are not themselves attended to (and thus objects of consciousness as well as being components of consciousness); to deny this is to be landed in a vicious infinite regress.
It is important to distinguish consciousness from self consciousness. (Failure to do so bedevils discussions of animal consciousness.) However, “self consciousness” has various different meanings. It may mean, for example, knowledge, or concern with, how one is appearing to or being thought of by others. This is not a necessary feature of consciousness. It may also mean the power and periodic practice of deliberate introspection, that is to say, the scrutiny, rather than the mere living through, of one’s own passing thoughts and feelings, or the dwelling of attention on how things appear to one perceptually, rather than the utilisation of this to gain information about one’s environment. Many conscious animals are in all probability without self consciousness in either of these senses. A third sense of “self consciousness” refers to a division within consciousness between the feeling of one’s own being and the awareness of other things. Perhaps the most lowly animals lack even this, but surely vertebrate predators and their prey must each experience the difference there is between them.
If animals are in various senses below self consciousness, humans may in various senses move above it. Complete absorption in music may be a case. Likewise in mantra-repeating meditation consciousness of oneself assaying it may lapse till the mantra itself is lost in some more mystical state. For others self consciousness may be heightened as they wonder what the point is of these meaningless repetitions.
Consciousness, in my opinion, in all these forms, self conscious or otherwise, has the generic feature of being felt or lived through. And that whose existence consists in being thus felt is not out there in the physical world; not in the depersonalised world of scientific theory, and not in the world of daily life (of which it would be more true to say that it exists variously in our different consciousnesses than that consciousness exists in it).
3 Is consciousness tied to physical reality?
Having got the idea of consciousness as that which it is like to be a certain physical individual, I believe that one can move on to a more basic idea of what it is by realising that the same general kind of reality, which constitutes what it is like being some physical individual, could conceivably exist without there being a physical individual of which it is the consciousness. Certain types of out of the body experiences maybe examples. For in such cases, although scenes in the ordinary physical world are seen from a series of shifting perspectives on them, there may neither be, nor seem to be, any physical thing occupying the positions FROM which they are seen.
Such consciousness would not be the consciousness of any physical individual, not that is, the what-it-is-like-to-be-it of any such individual. However, out of the body experiences are of something physical in a different sense of “OF” in which it stands for the relation between consciousness and its objects. For they are experiences of certain bits of the physical world.
Could there be a consciousness whose content (in the sense of any sort of object or component of it) was entirely non-physical? Well, I can imagine states of consciousness pertaining to an apparently bodiless being whose only object was music emanating from no apparent physical source. What I cannot imagine, however, is a consciousness which had nothing sensory in its contents, and was just pure intellection. So while I believe that there might be a consciousness of a wholly non-physical reality I am extremely doubtful whether there could be a consciousness which lacked all sensory content.
In saying that such a non-physical consciousness is possible I mean that it is not ruled out by the very nature of consciousness. What sorts of consciousness the character of the universe as a whole permits or rules out is a matter to be settled by a larger metaphysical enquiry than is possible here.
Although consciousness, as I see it, is the most familiar of realities and must always remain quite distinct from anything which science can ever find out there in the physical world, materialism is undoubtedly the dogma of the day. How is this? The more disreputable reasons are ideological, (e.g. the fear of footsteps to religion); a more reputable reason is its being so continually there for each of us that it cannot be picked out as something special.
Materialist explanations or denials of consciousness take a variety of forms, united by a desperation to avoid what, as a result of great confusion, is thought to be spookiness. (Because it best suits their purposes, the materialist’s emphasis is typically on the mental in some more general sense than that of the conscious. But it is meant to cover all forms of consciousness too, and what I say about the mental in rebuttal of materialism concerns only this.)
There is the type/type identity theory for which every type of mental state (process, occurrence or whatever) is a type of brain state; the token/token identity theory for which every particular mental state is a brain state, though the mental and the physical classification of them into types is different; there is the functional theory for which a mental state is a state playing some characteristic causal role in the determination of behaviour and what really plays this role is always a brain state; and there are various sorts of “supervenience” theory.
All these theories rest upon one or other faulty analysis of what it is to be a particular sort of mental state, faulty at least in its application to conscious states. For they all regard descriptions of mental states, qua mental, as descriptions of their causal relations which are non-informative as to what actually these states inherently are but which by now it is becoming obvious are states or occurrences in the brain.
The great objection to all this is that in knowing their character qua mental, at any rate in the case of conscious states, we do know their inherent character, implicitly at least even if there is room for debate as to how this knowledge is best expressed.
Some philosophers today hover between acceptance and rejection of materialism by the claim, that though mental characteristics of events, states or processes or whatever are not physical, yet they are supervenient upon physical properties. That is, once all the physical facts about what is going on in the brain, and perhaps what its present environment is, the mental facts somehow follow necessarily.
The trouble about this theory is as to what kind of necessity this is. One view is that it is a quasi-causal relation, which operates one-way from the physical to the mental. This is equivalent to epiphenomenalism. As such, it is really a form of dualism, with one of the duo playing a purely passive, but none the less distinct, role in reality. Moreover, it is difficult to explain how there can be any real process of describing one’s mental experiences, because they will play no role in prompting what one says. Another interpretation is that it is rather like the sense in which a face in a picture may emerge from a pattern of lines which could be geometrically described without reference to it. The trouble about this example is that it concerns what can only happen in consciousness, not between consciousness and something else. For it is only in consciousness that the face emerges, not in the physical world. Another comparison is with moral facts which are supposed to emerge from non-moral ones, but this is best explained by a presumed non-factuality of moral statements which could not apply to consciousness as a basic factual existence.
There is one type of materialism which is not open to objections such as ours, that advanced, by Herbert Feigl, among others. For Feigl knowledge of a mental event qua mental is knowledge of its inherent nature, while knowledge of a physical event qua physical is knowledge of its place in a complex physical system. This justifies the conclusion that mental events are certain physical events (within the brain) revealed as they inherently are. This is the mirror image in fact of materialisms of the kind more usual today.
This theory is highly suggestive of a panpsychist theory for which ultimate events are all mental on the “inside” (in their inherent nature) and physical on the “outside” (their role in the great causal system we call “nature”). But Feigl denies this, though he admits that he may be a pan-quality-ist. According to this nature is qualitative “on the inside” and physical “on the outside”. But the qualitative is only mental when it forms certain special patterns (such as occur in brains); moreover the specific qualities in nature at large are unknowable.
Personally I hold that panpsychism is true, namely that the inner being or inherent nature of the physical world is “mental” in the sense that it consists in streams of consciousness, feeling or experience, interacting with each other in a law-like way and that science charts the abstract structure of the system they form, and of which the world of everyday life is a pictorial appearance. Panpsychism, however, can offer three different slants on human and animal consciousness between which I personally hesitate.
I The first holds that while the inner being or inherent nature of all physical phenomena in general is mental, it makes no difference to the basic laws of nature by which they are governed whether their mentality is of the type distinctive of human or animal consciousness, or of that presumably more monotonous and impersonal type which characterises the inner nature of non-neural physical reality. Thus there is no breakdown of ordinary physical laws within the brain. It seems odd, however, that processes of such a novel inner nature should fit so cosily into the standard causal system.
II A more promising, if more scandalous, form of panpsychism, will hold that while our consciousness is, indeed, the “in itself” of certain physical processes in our brains, these are a novel kind of physical process which develop of themselves, and in interaction with more ordinary physical processes, according to partly novel causal laws. The most plausible version of this view is that the physical “external” aspect of our consciousness is a kind of field pervading the brain and possessing a form of unity which otherwise belongs only to the inner being of the most minute building blocks of physical reality.
III A third form of panpsychism will hold that, though the inner nature of physical reality is certainly mental (consists in processes of low level consciousness) there is no physical reality of which our consciousness is the inner nature, so that its character is purely mental.
In some versions of II and III, the distinction between them will rest on a purely verbal decision as to whether one calls the total causal system to which our consciousness belongs together with the conscious “in itself” of the physical world at large, a physical system or restricts this term to that part of it in which standard causal laws are inviolate. Panpsychism of type III would only be the clearly favoured alternative if our consciousness is an influx from a realm of consciousness of the “higher sort” which is otherwise, largely or entirely, causally separate from the consciousness which is the inner nature of our physical reality.
6 Consciousness and behaviour
On all these views the relation between our personal consciousness and our physical behaviour (and other bodily occurrences) is causal in nature. To many philosophers today this will suggest that it is in all respects contingent. But is this correct? Is there not some necessity to the fact that certain forms of consciousness are typically associated with certain forms of behaviour?
One solution is to say that mental predicates should ideally be of two distinct types; those which concern the inherent character of mental states and those which concern their causal ambience. The connection between a type of mental state and the behaviour to which it typically leads will be contingent if it has been specified by a predicate of the first type, analytically necessary if it has been specified by a predicate of the second type. The fact that some predicates of one type pick out the same mental states as those of the other type is a purely contingent fact about the actual world; possible worlds in which they do not are two a penny.
Anti-materialism thrives on attention to predicates of the first type, materialism on those of the second type. The anti-materialist insists that the materialist ignores the intrinsic nature of mental experiences, the materialist objects that anti-materialism cannot explain how descriptions of mental phenomena turn on the behaviour which they are likely to produce.
Both views have a point. On the one hand, conscious mental states seem to have their own characteristic inherent character. On the other hand, it seems absurd to say that the relation between these and the sorts of behaviour associated with them is always purely contingent.
There is only one view which can combine what is strong in each of these theories. According to this, various of the most significant properties of conscious states are both definite characteristics of those states as they inherently are, and also are such that of necessity they exert a particular type of influence on the stream of consciousness to which they pertain, and by means of this upon the world of others, and its presumed “objective” physical basis.
Thus to take the most obvious, and I believe most basic case, it seems to be a necessary feature of pleasure that it produces an attempt within consciousness to sustain it and of pain that it produces an attempt within consciousness to expel it. As a result of this we desire pleasure and the absence of pain because the thought of pleasure to come is a pleasant state which consciousness struggles to sustain and the thought of pain to come is an unpleasant experience which consciousness struggles to expel. Since will seems to be only a form of desire which typically causes the actualisation of its own object, these desires may become acts of will which issue in physical behaviour which affects the likelihood of pleasure and pain in the future.
These tendencies of pleasure and pain are only tendencies. Other conscious or unconscious (unconscious from our point of view, that is)influences may inhibit these effects. Moreover, pleasures and pains may be so to speak “wrapped up in” hedonic qualities of the opposite sort. Thus masochism, for example.
Most philosophers dare not suppose that there are any inherent properties of things which necessarily create certain tendencies. For this would be to acknowledge a form of necessary causation which David Hume is supposed to have shown once for all to be impossible.
But Hume, I agree with A. N. Whitehead, was wrong, and it just is the case that there are such necessities, at least necessities of tendency. Hume was right that we cannot see necessity; visible phenomena follow on each other in a purely contingent way. But emotional and hedonic states do have an inherent tendency to influence the development of consciousness in one direction rather than another. This is not because they consist in whatever it is which has a certain causal tendency, but because they have definite natures with certain necessary influences.
Their first influence is on consciousness itself, in which they produce experiences of agency. But these experiences of agency work on the public world. They somehow do so, of course, in the first place as intimately connected with (or as constituting part of) the “in itself” of the brain and through this on signals sent to the muscles. Just how they do this is still problematic, but a full account would have to do some justice to necessary elements in the relation between consciousness and physical behaviour.
A final point is that it may be the ultimately psychical character of the physical which alone explicates the necessity of the laws of nature. For these may be necessitated by the inner psychical nature of physical reality, in which something like pleasure and pain exert their own intrinsic power.