The Mind: What is consciousness?

4 07 2011

I’ve spent the past few years reading and studying the topic of the mind, but I’ve barely scratched the surface on the topic. Some believe that the mind exists, others don’t. Of those who believe that the mind exists, some believe it to be merely an emergent property of the brain, while others see it as an immaterial substantial part of who we are as people. The mind is a fascinating subject and one worth thinking about, so I will be devoting a number of upcoming posts to the topic of the mind. If it is a real and immaterial part of who we are, as I believe it to be, then it gives indication that this world is not reducible to material stuff alone. If there is an immaterial aspect to our natures, it gives good indication that there is an immaterial nature to reality. I believe the mind gives us a clue to the existence of God and that will be the case that I build throughout these posts.

Let us begin by examining the question, what is consciousness? Although there is no definitive and exhaustive answer as to what consciousness is, we have some ideas as to what consciousness is like. Van Gulick1 describes several elements of consciousness, including:

  • Sentience – the capability to sense one’s environment.
  • Wakefulness – being awake and alert.
  • Self-consciousness – being self-aware.
  • What it is like – Thomas Nagel described this as “something it is like” to be who you are. The subjective aspect of being who you are.
  • Subject of conscious states – having conscious mental states
  • Transitive consciousness – the ability to be aware of many things at the same time or one thing over time.

Other aspects of consciousness include:

  • States one is aware of – the awareness of having states of awareness or of conscious states. These are also known as meta-mentality or meta-intentionality.
  • Qualitative states – otherwise known as qualia, these are states that have an experiential or sensory nature to them. Whenever we have a sensation (sight, sound, feel, taste, or smell), these are known as quale (kwal’ ee).
  • Phenomenal states – the totality of qualitative states forms the phenomenal state of consciousness.
  • Access consciousness – This concept was developed by Ned Block and describes not the phenomenal state, but whether the sensory information can be accessed to guide the organism.
  • Narrative consciousness – this is more commonly known as the stream of consciousness and refers to the ongoing serial of episodes that string together to the perspective of the self.

Philosopher, David Chalmers wrote:

Consciousness poses the most baffling problems in the science of the mind. There is nothing that we know more intimately than conscious experience, but there is nothing that is harder to explain. All sorts of mental phenomena have yielded to scientific investigation in recent years, but consciousness has stubbornly resisted. Many have tried to explain it, but the explanations always seem to fall short of the target. Some have been led to suppose that the problem is intractable, and that no good explanation can be given. 2

Chalmers breaks the problem of consciousness down into the “easy problem” and the “hard problem.” The easy problem is that part of consciousness that can easily be explained by cognitive science, while the hard problem “seem to resist those methods.”3 The easy problems are those of categorizing, discriminating, reporting mental states, attention, behavioral control and other like phenomena. The hard problem deals with issues that are more subjective, like qualitative experience, or as Thomas Nagel described, the what it is like phenomenon. In other words, there is something it is like to be me or a bat or a my dog. These are subjective experiences. We have others as well, including what it is like to listen to Bach, or to eat Jambalaya, or to watch the Packers win the Super Bowl. Each of us will have a different experience in each of these cases. In later posts, I will give more detail on this problem and some of its implications.

Consciousness is an intriguing study and often quite perplexing. Many philosophers over the years have attempted to explain consciousness or, at times, explain it away; at least, various aspects of it. In the coming weeks I will explore many of these aspects, describing how the many of the philosophers have attempted to fit them into their respective worldviews. I will look at what I believe to be the best explanation of consciousness and the phenomena associated with it. I hope you will read on and gain greater understanding of this fascinating field of study. Leave me comments and questions along the way.

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1. Robert Van Gulick, “Consciousness”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), available from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2011/entries/consciousness/, Internet accessed on 22 June 2011.

2. David Chalmers, “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 2(3):200-19, 1995, 1.

3. ibid, 2.