Up@dawn 2.0

Monday, December 1, 2014

On Consciousness- Matt Eans Final Project

Consciousness, awareness, self-awareness, whatever you like to call it, is a very interesting topic. Consciousness is a very important topic because, for one thing, without it we wouldn't be able to study anything. Without it we wouldn't even necessarily be aware of anything. We'd be as simple as a rock. I believe that we owe it to consciousness itself then, to try to better understand it, as it is the very reason we are able to understand anything at all; one could say it is even, perhaps, the single most important defining feature of our humanity. As the importance of consciousness is more easily seen and agreed upon, the mystery of what our consciousness actually is (or if that is even the right question to ask) continues to escape us all the time. At the same time that it is perhaps one of the most important things for human thinkers to study and understand, it is also one of the most difficult and hard-to-define subjects ever. That being said, shall we get started?
To start, we need a definition of the word, "Consciousness," or "Conscious." The best Dictionary.com definitions are:
1. the state of being consciousawareness of one's own existence,sensations, thoughts, surroundings, etc.
3. full activity of the mind and senses, as in waking life.
Those are good definitions, but they still can't help us answer some rather difficult questions, like "Where does consciousness come from?" "What is consciousness made of, if anything? (ie. physical and/or nonphysical)" and "Why are we conscious?"
We, as humans, have probably been wondering about this issue in some way or another ever since we were able to wonder, or had a "consciousness" about us. In the 1600'a Rene Descartes famously mentions the importance of consciousness to our (and its own) existence when he wrote:
"But I observed that, while I was thus resolved to feign that everything was false, I who thought must of necessity be somewhat; and remarking this truth--I think, therefore I am--was so firm and so assured that all the most extravagant suppositions of the sceptics [sic] were unable to shake it. I judged that I could unhesitatingly accept it as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking. I could feign that there was no world, I could not feign that I did not exist."
He later showed us the word "Pense" or "thought" in saying:
"By the word ‘thought’ (‘pensée’) I understand all that of which we are conscious as operating in us."

John Locke also famously spoke of topics such as and having to do with consciousness, personal identity, self awareness, and such. In his famous An Essay On Human Understanding, he went on to say:
"I do not say there is no soul in man because he is not sensible of it in his sleep. But I do say he can not think at any time, waking or sleeping, without being sensible of it. Our being sensible of it is not necessary to anything but our thoughts, and to them it is and to them it always will be necessary."
Locke would not try to speculate on whether consciousness was a physical or non-physical (possibly spiritual) part of us, as that is a very hard question which would be better answered by neuroscientists not available in the 1600's.
Locke, Hume, James Mill, and John Stuart Mill all contributed work to a study called Associationist Psychology, which sought to figure out how conscious thoughts or ideas interacted and affected each other. This Associationist approach to studying consciousness was critiqued by Immanuel Kant who thought that they needed subscribing to the idea of a much more complex mental structure than they were. Kant said that Phenomenal Consciousness (personal, subjective consciousness) could not merely be a succession of associated ideas, but had to be AT LEAST the experience of a conscious self in an objective world structured with respect to space, time, and causality.
After all of these great philosophers' thoughts on consciousness were known, still-even in the 1800's, the relation of the consciousness and the brain was a mystery. T.H. Huxley said that:
"  How it is that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of the Djin, when Aladdin rubbed his lamp."

There, today, are different concepts of consciousness to help us find our understanding of the topic. An important concept is State Consciousness. This is the idea that a conscious mental state has different, and possibly interrelated, meanings. Some meanings would be:
State one is aware of where a conscious mental state is a mental state which one is aware of being in.
Qualitative States where a conscious state is one that has qualitative properties such as raw sensory feels.
Phenomenal States describe our own subjective and personal experience.
More states can be found in the link at the bottom of the post.

In today's knowledge, a split exists between thinkers on the question of what consciousness's status is, relative to the physical world. That would be, is consciousness physical? non-physical? both? The split in answers of these questions can be seen in the existence of certain Metaphysical theories of consciousness. These would be the Dualist Theories, which claim that at least some aspects of consciousness are outside the realm of the physical world; and the Physicalist Theories, which claim that all aspects of consciousness are in the physical world, which would be neurons and chemicals in our brains.

Now that we know at least where to start in our dive into the study of consciousness, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to read this, and say that I look forward to presenting on the philosophical study of Consciousness. 
Sources and opportunities for further reading:

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed your presentation, Matt. As you pointed out, there's something curious about attempts to give an objective account of subjectivity. And yet, it's objectively true that we all know our own consciousness from the "inside" first-person POV.

    Now that brain science is making strides, the time will soon be ripe for a philosopher who knows both the history of consciousness studies and the latest lab findings to put it all together.