Re: Consciousness

From: HARNAD Stevan (
Date: Sun Jun 02 1996 - 18:34:22 BST

> From: Topping Jane <>
> Date: Wed, 22 May 1996 13:43:07 GMT
> We are all conscious beings yet no one fully understands exactly what
> consciousness is. We know what consciousness isn't - a rock isn't
> conscious.

Well, we're pretty sure a rock isn't conscious, but how does that help
in saying what consciousness is.

> So, how can we define consciousness?

It's not clear that it's a DEFINITION we are seeking, especially if we
don't yet understand what it is. Probably it's enough to point to it and
rely on our shared experience to fill out what the "it" is. (Rather like
pointing to red, rather than trying to define it...)

> There are two
> distinctions which need to be made. Firstly we, as human beings, are
> conscious of events, properties and knowledge which has been termed by
> Dretske as "creature consciousness." This is a straight forward
> definition- rocks are not conscious of any of these things.

This seems to be focusing on what we are conscious OF. But what is the
consciousness itself? (Kid-sib couldn't figure it out form this...)

> "State
> consciousness" however, refers to certain mental states ( either
> conscious or unconscious) which occur within a conscious person. Thus,
> a distinction is made between conscious beings (creature consciousness)
> and conscious beings having conscious thoughts and feelings( conscious
> states). States are only conscious if the animal in whom it occurs is
> conscious of them. An important part of consciousness is awareness.

Consciousness and awareness are the same thing; they're just synonyms.
And states are only "mental" if they occur inside creatures that have
conscious states.

It would simplify things if you thought of consciousness as feelings,
and the rest is just the details about WHAT you happen to feel. Everyone
knows what feelings are: feeling angry, feeling cold, feeling confused,
feeling as if you understand, feeling as if you know the meaning fo
something, etc.

Internal "states" are just events inside a system. If the system is like
a stone or a thermostat or a car, the internals states are not conscious
states, because there are not feelings going on in there: There's nobody
home in there. On the other hand, there ARE feeligns going on inside US,
hence there IS somebody home in there (us), feeling those feelings.

Whatever the state of having a feeling is, that is a conscious state;
but what you feel is the feeling, not the state. Cognitive theory has to
find out what the state is, to explain HOW you got that feeling, and in
what that state consists physically. You cannot introspect the physical
basis of a feeling state; you can only introspect what it's like to feel
that feeling.

> For
> example seeing is visual awareness. A person may not be paying
> attention to what they see but they are still conscious of it. A higher
> order awareness of an experience can be in the form of a thought (you
> think that you are experiencing something), or in the form of an
> experience ( the experience itself makes the creature aware of
> something).

Be careful, because you can end up in a profitless labyrinth involving
feeling, and feeling that you are feeling here. Set aside the
differences between feelings -- the difference between feeling angry,
and feeling that you are feeling angry -- and just focus on the fact of
feeling itself. THAT is consciousness. The rest is just the details
about whether you happen to be conscious of this or that; that's just
about the CONTENTS of consciousness, not about the FACT of
consciousness. Awareness of being aware is just one of these
"higher-order" contents of consciousness, but people tend to get drawn
into it as if it WERE the problem of consciousness.

It isn't. If you could explain ordinary, 1st order feelings -- how it is
that anyone/anything can feel ANYTHING at all (e.g., how an axolotl can
feel pain when pinched), and in what that consists -- then you will
already have gotten your series of Nobel Prizes for solving the
mind/body problem and the rest (e.g., the higher-order feeling of being
aware that you are aware of something, or of contemplating the mind/body
problem itself) would just be the icing on the cake you had already
successfully baked.

> It is also useful to explain how brains extract what is
> important, to define consciousness. This can be done using
> neuropsychology and relating consciousness to firing or non-firing in
> cell assemblies. However, it must be remembered that neuron assemblies
> are only conscious if the creature in whom they exist, is conscious of
> their processes.

To be conscious you don't have to be conscious of anything in
particular; you just have to be conscious of SOMETHING: You have to
have SOME feeling or other, even if it's only one fleeting feeling,
like an ouch experience, and you are standing full-face in front of the
mind/body problem.

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Tue Feb 13 2001 - 16:23:42 GMT