Wednesday, July 08, 2009

What is Consciousness?

Somebody once asked the above question and here was my briefest of possible replies:

For me the subject of consciousness generates major category conundrums. In one sense our whole world is consciousness, (or better ‘conscious cognition’): From intimate internal experiences, through perceptions revolving round the senses, to elaborate theoretical artifacts that interpret those perceptions; all these things are part of 'the consciousness experience' and we can only connect with the putative 'world beyond' via the medium of conscious cognition. Conscious cognition is not a thing that takes its place amongst the many observed things of the world; that is, it is not simply another category that exists side by side with things like cars, atoms, and animals, but rather it is a kind of super category that embraces all things: How can we point to consciousness when it is consciousness that’s doing the pointing? How can you define consciousness when it is consciousness that is doing the defining? How can we declare consciousness doesn’t exist when it is consciousness that is declaring it? How can consciousness detect itself when it is consciousness that is doing the detection? How can one observe consciousness when it is consciousness that is doing the observing?

And yet paradoxically consciousness itself delivers the conviction that consciousness is not all that there is; conscious cognition itself suggests that there is a world beyond whose elements, if rightly juxtaposed, succeeds in ensconcing consciousness. So consciousness may see its ‘personal self’ as an assembly of impersonal elements thus producing that familiar philosophical tension between personality and the ‘plain elemental things’ of which conscious cognition seems to consist.

I have never been keen on dualism myself, but it is difficult to get away from consciousness’s partitioning of the world into the ‘us’ of conscious beings and the ‘it’ of the world of elementals beyond sentience. What is primary then? Us or it? In an attempt to resolve the dualist dilemma, the best of a bad bunch of solutions is to think of consciousness like a programming language whose compiler is written in terms of that self same programming language; like a self describing programming language consciousness can be described in terms of its own theoretical artifacts, artifacts that are too simple to classify as having ‘personality’ or consciousness - for example such things as atoms, fields, neurons, computation or whatever. Consciousness describes itself in terms of its consciousness of unconscious elementals. The question of which is primary, ‘us or it’, doesn’t then arise; ‘us and it’ can never be logically separated, since one requires the other.

Now that’s what I call a philosophical dodge – declare the problem of dualism as unintelligible and therefore null and void.

The above expresses my lifelong slant toward a kind of “cognitive” positivism; that is, my opinion that a universe of elemental bits and pieces is unintelligible without the context of a-priori sensing, perceiving and thinking mind(s). If the cosmos consisted only of one bit of data then the descriptive burden of science would be at its lowest and there would be very little to explain. But if only one bit exists there is nothing else to relate that bit to and “explanation” is impossible, because explanation can only happen in relation to and within the context of other preexisting stuff in which the single bit is embedded. In short, the simple “one bit cosmos” is meaningless. Moreover, we will certainly not find aseity in one bit or even in a cosmos that is a collection of elemental bits; elementals are far too simple for that. The foregoing considerations suggest to me that some highly complex context must have an a-priori existence in order to lend meaning to the concept of explanation and in turn to give meaning to that which is elemental.


Thoughts said...

You might be interested in New Empricism which considers these issues from an empirical viewpoint.

Timothy V Reeves said...

Hi Thoughts

I've booked marked your web page. As you go into a lot of detail about consciousness it will take me a bit of time to do justice too your work. As I haven't made a special study of consciousness I hope your work will help supplement some of my rather general observations on the subject.