Two Views Of A Secret

A correspondent (and occasional commenter) and I have been exchanging emails over the past few days about the mystery of consciousness — a topic that used to occupy a fair amount of space around here, but which has been bumped off the page lately by political rants and screeds.

My friend and I make fundamentally opposite assumptions. For him, consciousness and purpose are bedrock features of the world, while I suppose that consciousness emerges, somehow, from the substance and activity of our brains. (It’s worth noting that he is a theist, and I’m not.)

My interlocutor asked me:

Do you think there is such a thing as raw consciousness, awareness, an Observer; or do you think there is just an incredibly complicated causal mental chain that somehow includes self-awareness, somehow generated by the same process?

My inclination is toward the latter model, of course, and though I wasn’t sure I understood just what “raw” consciousness means, I replied that the materialist view would be that the brain being what it is, and doing what it does, is what gives rise to consciousness, and that any Observer is therefore just an aspect of the brain in action.

My friend clarified:

Obviously there is the question of how a materially-caused causal chain of thoughts can observe itself, let alone how/why it “feels” qualia.

This is, of course, very much the question. It’s all very well for us materialists to simply assert that consciousness arises from the workings of the physical brain, but until we can offer some account of in virtue of what, exactly, a pinguid, three-pound lump of meat can do this trick, we are never going to persuade the dualists and idealists. We may indeed have plenty of good, empirical reasons to think this must be the way it is, but as it stands we really have no physical account whatsoever of what consciousness is, nor of what the necessary and sufficient physical circumstances are for it to arise. Any materialist who doesn’t admit this is simply not being honest.

I acknowledged to my correspondent that this was indeed a truly vexatious problem, and added a link to Daniel Dennett’s oft-cited paper on the slipperiness of qualia. In his reply, he mentioned Dennett’s “multiple drafts” model of the way the brain promotes localized cognitive processes to full conscious awareness by a sort of competitive process, as well as Dennett’s focus on the easily demonstrable “gappiness” of consciousness, and said:

I suppose you go along with this? Could it be like putting the cart (certainly not Descartes) before the horse — pledging faith in materialism so that, if Dennett’s line of thought is where materialism winds you up, then you believe it; you can’t really question the result because the result proves you’re incapable of doing that. Materialism is the premise, not the consciousness you live with. It’s a faith-based thing. You believe in materialism more than your own consciousness…

I replied:

Not so fast. It isn’t just an arbitrary choice to think that consciousness is a result of the material brain at work; the balance is tipped toward that view by all the ways that consciousness seems to be supervenient on the state of the physical brain. Damage the brain, damage the mind in predictable ways. Stimulate this or that neuron, get a conscious perception – a smell, a memory, a melody – again in repeatable, predictable, mappable ways. Etc., etc., etc., in a thousand compelling examples.

If the brain were just a “radio receiver” of some sort, a metaphor that some find appealing, you wouldn’t expect to be able to interfere with reason itself, or personality, the way we can by tampering with the brain. Then there are also all those Libet-style results, about “action potential” preceding conscious awareness of voluntary decision-making.

It seems to me the most parsimonious account to imagine that the brain came first, and that consciousness arises from its activity somehow.

But I do think Daniel Dennett goes too far in trying to fob off consciousness as an illusion. Yes, it’s gappy as hell, and tricks itself in various ways. But he almost seems to try to get rid of subjective awareness altogether, which is crazy. I mean, for there to be an illusion, there has to be someone being fooled, right? But he always says he isn’t denying consciousness altogether, that he is misunderstood — though I’ve yet to figure out what he means. Wish I could find myself next to him on a plane someday.

We found ourselves, albeit briefly, on common ground. My friend next sent this:

We’re in synch here… I know and can’t disagree with the supervenience points, of course. I don’t suppose the Buddha really said it, but I’ve always kind of thought the points we’re discussing explained the aridity of consciousness that Buddhism posits. You see where I’m going, or where I came from at the beginning. The other side of the supervenience stuff is the unalterability of the raw, observing consciousness, if stripped of sufficient secondary reactions: it doesn’t matter how drunk, how in pain, how dizzy, etc., you are. Sometimes you go out like a light, but your raw awareness in dreamland is the same awareness and the dream and sleep yoga literature tells us you can learn to wake up to raw awareness in non-REM sleep, or whatever, non-dreaming, deepest sleep.

I thought he was helping himself to too much here:

I am not sure I agree about the “unalterability” of the “raw” experience. It seems you are going for a binary, there-at-all/not-there-at-all distinction — and certainly there are times where it’s not there at all, and times when, obviously, it is — but you are compressing the dynamic range far too much. I think the lowest levels of consciousness are very different indeed from higher ones, and also that dreaming consciousness is very different (in degree, or level, or whatever) from waking consciousness.

It seems to me that consciousness is one of the most “alterable” things there is, in fact.

He replied:

I disagree. The observer is constant. I know this from personal experience. It would be interesting to talk about the layers built thereon, and the degree to which they are merely causal in origin, and whether the observer can jog the causal chain so as to nudge things out of your material view. But the observer is always there, always the same.

Hmmm… I thought that this Observer was getting awfully detached, indeed rather suspiciously so:

Well, as they say, “if you make yourself small enough, you can externalize everything”. But I’d say that pretty much everything about our conscious experience can change: its contents, emotional state, level of awareness, just about anything you care to name except the most basic distinction between being conscious at all or entirely unconscious — and of course we are not conscious of being unconscious. That is a very important point: consciousness is not aware of its own borders, so it seems that it is plenary, constant, consistent, in a way that it most certainly isn’t.

I am well aware of the cultivation of an Observer; it is the foundation of the Gurdjieff work, and I worked very hard at it for many years. But to me that is about control of attention, about training the brain to work in a new way. So I see consciousness very much as changing, as coming and going, expanding and contracting, depending on what is happening in the physical brain.

Also, I had to ask:

What do you mean by “always the same”?

He replied:

Well, as I said, no matter how drunk or dizzy or sleepy or sad you are, there is a part of you that just observes this and is not befuddled at all. Sometimes I think there’s a missing period. It gets lost at points, seemingly, during sleep, and seeming hitches at sleep transitions; as far as I can tell, I lost it during anesthesia; but it is so constant, and I can really know it is there through wake-sleep-dream–I’ve traveled with that; so I can believe it’s there during unconsciousness, but bringing back the recollection of it is hard. Presumably, it takes a lot of work to know it when it isn’t observing anything.

Anyway, I was going to add that my last point about it being hard to know the observer when it isn’t observing anything (and of course one works toward that in meditation) raises interesting subject/object questions, including suggesting there is something to the idea individuality is a snare & delusion. If one hypothesizes there is a sea of consciousness, then that membrane of individual awareness, without it being aware of anything, is elusive — or maybe one can grow it bigger with practice. But in my cosmology it must work something like that: that there’s awareness, awareness of self, awareness of self-experience, awareness of one’s thoughts, a lot of layers of awareness of one’s thoughts.

Deep waters here. He continued:

I would say that when one observes one’s thoughts, or shall we say the subject matter one sees arising in one’s consciousness, one sees causal relationships … and the causality can be related to events, and ultimately to materiality; but what is it that observes this? This never changes. My reaction of disgust at the unoriginality of my thoughts spirals out into that same world of causal relationships, but that which observes exists, is never befuddled, is always the same. It is of course hard to sever it from everything built upon it. Perhaps you cannot do it. Perhaps most people cannot do it. Perhaps I cannot do it very well… I don’t really believe that, though. I think everybody can do it, but may not have focused and worked on it. I think this is why children get dizzy and adults get drunk: so they can calmly observe their ordinary consciousness become unusual, so they can separate themselves from their… can’t find the right word, experiences, certainly; so their consciousness can be more obviously on two planes for awhile, because we are so used to the seamless integration of our linear mental chatter and our observing of it. Some people get high to calm down, to feel better, to otherwise regulate their somatic and experiential system; but some healthy people do it as a kind of unwitting spiritual exploration. Dennett doesn’t believe this, but you can’t grasp Dennett on this point; neither can I; and Dennett is not an explorer of consciousness; he is just a manipulator of data and theories about it.

And there we left it, for now. But there was an item in the paper today that said some interesting things about all of this, which I’ll save for next time.


  1. Kevin Kim says

    Your correspondent seems to subscribe to the notion of the “unity of consciousness,” of there being a constant “I” or “Observer.” I wasn’t sure how or why he was throwing Buddhism into that mix, since Buddhism generally takes a middle-way approach: at the conventional level, it’s possible to speak of a self, but fundamentally, none exists (無我, anatman).

    Dennett almost goes in this direction in his “Quining Qualia” paper: if I recall correctly, the paper uses a series of thought experiments to pull apart the very idea of qualia. His method isn’t too far removed from a Buddhist’s deconstruction of supposedly permanent/constant individuality. What’s revealed, through such analysis, is a bunch of related parts but no core or essence — like a bird that, after we pluck all its feathers, turns out to be nothing but feathers.

    Perhaps for this reason, Buddhists find it useful to keep some form of the question “Who arrives at the conclusion that there is no self?” as an aid to meditation. Who is sitting zazen? Who is denying selfhood? Etc., etc. The nonexistence of self is, Buddhists argue, a conclusion we can arrive at through inner and outer empiricism. They would also argue that it aids one’s practice to hold that question of “Who’s reaching this conclusion?” constantly in mind — mainly because the answer is constantly changing, pace your correspondent.

    I don’t think there’s a constant Observer at all, and as your friend might say, I base that on my own experience. Kevin at 40 is not the same as Kevin at 5. True: causality (or intercausality) links Kevin-at-5 with Kevin-at-40, but we shouldn’t confuse continuity with fixity, permanence, or constancy. To the extent that there exists a phenomenon that we can conventionally label a self, it’s appropriate for me to use pronouns and adjectives like “me” and “my,” and to refer to “my experience.” But ultimately, those words point to nothing fixed, non-relational, or non-contingent.

    I’d say that consciousness rests on matter. No matter, no consciousness. Simple. William of Occam would love my point of view. However, I’d also contend that a material universe like ours possesses the inherent potential for consciousness — a topic worthy of further study, because the implication is that, even before sentience arose, consciousness already existed in potentia. Further, I’d submit that consciousness is always consciousness-of. It makes no sense to speak of consciousness without an object.

    Just a few jumbled thoughts. I’ll finish by noting that not all Buddhists sing the same tune about (1) the nature of mind and consciousness, or (2) the existence of the non-relational and unconditioned. Some Buddhists actually buy into a more “oceanic” view of consciousness, and some Buddhist texts veer dangerously close to solipsism, as can be seen (at least arguably) in the Yogacara school.

    Posted April 12, 2010 at 11:44 pm | Permalink
  2. JK says

    I’ve not been in receipt of the capabilities to argue as ably as either yourself or your correspondent where “the mystery of consciousness” is concerned. But whenever I consider “what” is going on somehow I always find myself considering illusions.

    Posted April 13, 2010 at 12:00 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Thanks, Kevin, for that thoughtful comment. You raise a particularly interesting point about “consciousness-of”. I’ve argued elsewhere (contra Bill V., in particular) that there can be unconscious intentionality, but hadn’t really thought about whether there can be non-intentional consciousness.

    One question that occasionally disturbs my rest is just why, if our materialist view is the correct one, and if intentionality can be unconscious, consciousness exists at all.

    Posted April 13, 2010 at 9:55 am | Permalink
  4. jeanie desiree oliver says

    I love these kinds of posts.
    It’s not that I don’t appreciate the others, but find myself treating them as more of “educational” reading. I read so I will learn about someone else’s perspective.
    Of course, I would love to find myself sitting by any of you on the plane as I can talk faster than the plane can fly! My questions for you, Malcolm, your friend, or Kevin would tumble out.
    I present to all of you a brain that is changing as inappropriate blood flow is causing the most incredible “actions”. I don’t really know how to describe in short, but my feeling of there being 2 of me is very real. And not in “The Many Faces of Eve” sense! More as one sense of one level of me is watching out for the other. Well, I’m not explaining it well, but if I had to have something go wrong with me then it has actually been amazing to find out what my brain would do to overcome it’s own adversity.

    Posted April 15, 2010 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *