Mind over Matter, Part I

For many years I have been curious about consciousness. It is something that most people never think much about, but when you begin to wonder about it it is hard to let the subject go. Consciousness is at the same time the most familiar phenomenon there is, and the oddest of all. We give it up every night and regain it each morning, without wondering how such a change might be possible. We know that consciousness is bound, somehow, to our bodies (and, we assume, not to the ordinary objects of the world), but we cannot begin to imagine how such a binding might be arranged. Consciousness can be aware of itself, but unconsciousness cannot, and so we do not see the “edges” of our consciousness, as we can demonstrate by trying to observe ourselves in the act of falling asleep. Our experiences of our lives in the fleeting present, and of the memories that are all we have of the past, are dependent for their very existence upon our our consciousness.

As reader of these pages will know, I follow quite closely the conversation at Bill Vallicella’s Maverick Philosopher website. Lately Bill has treated his visitors to a good hard look at the philosophical treatment of several aspects of consciousness, such as qualia, dualism-vs.-physicalism, and intentionality. I highly recommend his site to any readers who are curious about the various views that animate this discussion; Bill’s blog is a rara avis in philosophical discourse: simultaneously scholarly, engaging, and accessible. He also attracts a respectable ensemble of readers and commenters.

Consciousness is not a binary attribute. It is not either there or not-there. It is easy to see from everyday language that this fact is part of our common experience – expressions like “half-asleep”, “not all there”, day-dreaming”, and so forth show that our consciousness ebbs and flows. It is possible to perform complex tasks, such as driving a car through fast-moving highway traffic, without being conscious of doing so; those of us who drive often will all have had the experience of having a lively conversation with a passenger, and afterward realizing that many miles have gone by without our having any memory of the countless reactions and decisions that we must have made to have got where we are. Our awareness has been “distracted” by our conversation (from Latin dis- “away” and trahere “to draw”). But what, exactly, is being drawn away?

The idea that consciousness is not simply “on” or “off” has important implications. If there is a continuum of consciousness ranging from coma to our everyday alertness, how can we be sure that our ordinary “waking” state represents the upper limit of what is available? Also, if we observe that our level of consciousness is not simply “off” at night and “on” during the day, but rather varies continuously between the two extremes, is it possible to monitor these variations, study their patterns, and perhaps alter them? If so, how could this be done?

This notion of a continuum of consciousness – not just spanning different types of organisms, but within ourselves, at different times – also has implications for the concepts of qualia and intentionality. Qualia are defended by their philosophical champions on the basis of their “irreducible subjectivity”. Is it meaningful to speak of qualia of which we are not conscious? If a pain occurs while we are sleeping in bed, and we are never aware of it, can it be said to exist? Does an unremembered quale stand on the same footing as those about which we form accessible memories? Consider this: it is winter, you are wearing many layers of clothing, and are on a crowded subway. You become aware of an unpleasant itch at some inaccessible location on your body. At first it is all you can think about, and you are miserable. You see an acquaintance, and strike up a casual conversation. At first you have to actively conceal your discomfort. But as you are drawn into a more engaging discussion your awareness of the itch slowly abates, until it is completely forgotten. Soon, though, you come to your stop and get off the train, at which point you become aware once again of the maddening problem. Where was that quale while you were distracted? Presumably the physical stimulus was unchanged throughout. If what is so special about qualia is their experienced, first-person subjectivity, do they simply cease to be when I am not aware of them? Can something that has, as some have argued, an objective existence, despite its first-person ontology, simply fade in and out of being depending on my moment-to-moment awareness of it?

There is also the philosophical concept of “intentionality”, which is the essential “aboutness” of mental states. Put simply, it refers to the way that thoughts have objects toward which they are directed, and which they represent, in one way or another. If I think of Paris, my thought is about Paris in a way that something nonmental can never be. A brick is not about anything. Since Brentano this has been considered one of the hallmarks of the mental. Traditionally the term “conscious” and “mental” are used rather interchangeably in this context, but again the problem of the continuous variability of consciousness poses a problem. What is a repressed fear? If I am terrified of drowning in a way that never enters my conscious thinking, but still influences my behavior, does that fear not qualify as intentional? But if it never rises to the level of consciousness, and exists solely as a pattern of neural activity that controls my actions in various ways, how is it distinguishable from the merely physical? Do we not in this way have intentionality leaking into the ordinary world?

I’d like to keep these posts to a manageable length, so I’ll resume this thread as time permits. There is much to talk about.

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  1. Kevin Kim says

    I very much enjoyed this. Long may it continue!


    Posted October 30, 2005 at 6:14 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Thanks, Kevin. I have a lot more to say here, and not all of it is about this whole physicalism/dualism business.

    Posted October 30, 2005 at 10:43 pm | Permalink