The Non-representativity of Consciousness

At this point in the development of the theory of dots, I owe a couple of articles that haven’t been written yet, one to discuss the abstract nature of time-wise sequences called “processes,” and another to ground mentality in the ontology of rules. These are simple tasks which I will get to in the next few days, but I am anxious to launch the discussion of Consciousness, a major theme in the philosophy of mind and neurosciences these days. These remarks are an introduction to my position on the subject.

First of all, consciousness is a term borrowed from the medical profession, used to denote the condition of a patient being awake, aware, and responsive. In its medical usage, the term isn’t advancing any theories about internal mental constructs or processes, it is only meant to identify a medical condition that can be noted by external observation. For example, post-operatively, the sedated unconscious patient will be monitored for the onset of return to consciousness: he wakes up. This can be determined by observing his behavior. He speaks. He moves about. He responds to questions, his eyes track movments. All these conditions indicate the patient is returning to a normal state of taking care of himself. That’s all that consciousness means to a general medical practitioner.

The term has been borrowed to refer to what philosophy essentially calls subjectivity, namely the existence of an internal mental perspective we have in which we view the world as something external to and separate from us. It has become conventional to associate these subjective mental processes with the brain, even though the brain continues to function whether or not the subject is conscious. The first interesting thing to note about this usage of the term consciousness is that there is nothing particular about brain anatomy that suggests there is any mental perspective inside them. The only reason we suppose there is subjectivity in brains is because you, me, apparently everyone claims to have internal mental experiences consisting of thoughts, emotions, and memories.

Given this decision to ground subjectivity in the biological processes of brains, it has become a problem to both philosophy of mind, and the neurosciences, to try to understand and explain how internal mental experience is caused by synapses, electrochemical signals, and chemical agents. There is a gulf between these sorts of physical activities and what thinking feels like, and it is the hope of bridging this gulf that drives a lot of the discussion of philosophers and neuro guys these days.

The second interesting thing about current usage of the term “consciousness” is that it objectifies the whole subject. We treat it as a thing. We ask where the consciousness is located, how it’s generated, what its properties are, and, of course, how to manipulate it. We might almost think consciousness is an optional part of persons, in the same way a kidney or a gall bladder is optional to the survival of an organism.

John Searle discusses subjectivity in his book “Rediscovering the Mind,” (a somewhat tongue-in-cheek title where he jibes at the nuts-and-bolts physicalism of neuro researchers and philosophers who stake their positions on these biochemical sciences, apparently to remind us that, as inconvenient as it may be to say so, there are minds inside these brain thingies). He points out, early in his book, that subjectivity is inherently irreducible, not because of any magic nature of consciousness, but merely because there is nothing else that is like consciousness, so if you try to reduce it, what you get won’t be conscious. It’s rather like dissasociating NaCl (table salt) into its component elements, sodium (Na) and chlorine (Cl). The sodium is a combustible metal, and the chlorine is a poisonous gas. Neither one is “salty.” This fact, he notes, has no deep consequences; in other words, just because sodium and chlorine are not like salt doesn’t falsify the theory that salt is a combination of the two.

All of this is proceeding in a nice philosophical progression. We are about to concede Searle’s point and admit that, just because subjectivity is irreducible doesn’t mean mind-stuff doesn’t arise from brain-stuff. There is just one problem with this. (Maybe two.)

The basic problem is hinted at by Tom Nagel, another philosopher, who suggests that there is something it is like to be a bat. It’s a reference, not to the physiology of bats, but to the internal experience of being a bat. His point is taken up by David Chalmers, who notes that no amount of studying brain anatomy and the schematics of neural connections is going to give us any clue about what yellow lights look like, or what hamburgers taste like. These points are references to the phenomenology of mental processes. In other words, it is not enough to look at the wiring diagrams for brains. There is an inside to the currents and voltage changes. These biophysical activities represent something. They have a meaning, and the meaning is Consciousness.

To put it bluntly, most of the brain studies have objectified consciousness, and, out of all the vast profusion of stuff in the universe where objective analysis is relevant, consciousness is the one, perhaps the only, place where it isn’t. Consciousness is subjective. You can’t see my consciousness (in the modern sense of internal mental experience). Nor can I see yours. Hence any attempt to objectify it, destroys it. (This is reminiscent of Heisenberg’s principle, where observing an interaction modifies it.)

But it goes deeper than that. In the past, in Heidegger’s times, and earlier, philosophers were wont to discuss the subject of Being. This was to refer, not to the properties of stuff, but rather to the being-as-stuff. Instead of an atomistic approach, it’s a holistic approach. Consciousness is not just a brain process. It is Being. This is so strongly sensed by people that many have chosen to adopt a “Living Will,” a legal document that says in the event of brain death, you’re not to try to keep these people alive by artificial means. Life without consciousness is meaningless, and just a pain and burden to the surviving friends and relatives. (A point of view you may not share, but many do.)

So it is essential, I think, in contemporary philosophy, to return to that idea of Being, and sometimes to talk about Being rather than throwing the word “consciousness” around as if it’s just another property of biological materials. At least, surely, we should be aware of that dimension of it. Brains are not just another organ, dispensable or replaceable. If you were to undergo a brain transplant, who would you be? Yourself? I dare say not. This is not like any other organ. A heart transplant or kidney transplant does not fundamentally change who you are. Alterations to the brain, do.

Adopting a position of mind-as-being will have one other result. It’s that second shoe dropping that I alluded to earlier: consciousness is not the sort of thing where you can make a representation of it. Of course, we will try. All theory makes representations of things. But the basic problem will remain, that the only way to understand consciousness fully, is to be somebody, and that, as we all know, is not just an intellectual position.

The further development of the idea of Consciousness in my writings will stress the idea of consciousness as Being, and refer to it from that vantage point.

About John Valley

Born in Michigan, USA, in 1948, I've since lived all over the US, but back here again. I've worked as operating systems developer, consultant, and published three books on Unix and programming back in the 90's. My interests include philosophy and cooking chili. I can usually be found online in the mornings, on Undernet, chatting with people in the #Philosophical channel.
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1 Response to The Non-representativity of Consciousness

  1. freelance says:

    Just a little interesting note that probably has nothing to do with your point. There have been recent observations that heart transplants have caused significant changes in the behaviour of the recipiant. Conclusions have been made that there is a secondary brain that is located within the heart itself and within this heart are residual memories (behavioural memories, I would assume). I believe I have heard rumours that this could imply that mental states aren’t confined to the brain but can travel throughout the entire nervous system of the body. It’s just something interesting I wished to post because of your mention of heart transplants. Whether it has any implications on the points you make is for you to decide, but I suspect it doesn’t.

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