The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"


British philosopher Colin McGinn believes that percepts (the actual seeing of an object) and images (visualizing the object in the mind) are basically  different "substances". McGinn comes up with a list of (nine) properties that differentiate them: percepts are unwanted (I see a tree when I see a tree, not when I want to see a tree), percepts contain information (images come from our minds and therefore we already have whatever information we put into visualizing them), percepts are located somewhere relatively to our body (whereas images are located in an abstract space of the mind), percepts don't come alone but with a background each point of which is in turn a percept, percepts exist whether we focus on them or not (whereas images exist only when we consciously visualize them), percepts are prone to error (I may recognize somebody who in fact was somebody else, whereas images are error-free because they are images of what I want to visualize), percepts do not block thinking about them (images do block thinking about them), etc.

He neglects one that most people would consider the most obvious one: I can perceive things that I have never imagined, but i cannot imagine things that i have never perceived. (I can construct images of objects that i have never seen, but those constructions are made out of objects that i have seen).

Furthermore he is not fair to images. I do visualize things and people without wanting to. If i stumble on to the name of a friend while i am reading a novel, i can’t help visualizing my friend. It is not my “will” that visualizes my friend, but some kind of conditional reflex. Thus a percept may "force" an image, and the relationship between percept and image is not so obvious (in this case it is the relationship between a five-letter word and a human face).

McGinn thinks that images constitute the core of our cognitive life. Dreams, for examples, are complex systems of mental images. He has to posit a split in the self, a dream producer versus a dream consumer, because he has posited that images are active (dreams do not look active, they look more like percepts: the way we react to dreams is exactly the way we react to percepts). His idea is that dreams are passive for the self qua consumer.

McGinn also believes that the development of logic and language was triggered by the emergence of imagination: in order to understand a sentence one has to be capable of "imagining" its content. Imagination came first, meaning came later. This sounds more convincing, although he spends precious little time on such a monumental topic.

Imagination thus becomes a fundamental cognitive faculty, the one on which the most sophisticated cognitive faculties depend. The ability to create and manipulate mental images is, in a sense, what gives us an inner life.

One big problem with mental images is that we call them "images". In reality, when I recall a friend, I also recall his voice, and, when I recall an ice cream, I also recall its taste. I even recall my dislike for spiders whenever I recall a spider. Thus "mental images" are actually not images at all. They are indeed something very different from visual percepts because... they are not "visual".


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