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"

Consciousness in the Environment

In the 1930s the US biologist George Herbert Mead put forward a theory that, instead, located consciousness in the world, outside the organism.

For Mead, consciousness is not a separate substance, but the world in its relationship with the organism. Objects of the environment are colored, beautiful, etc: that "is" consciousness.

Objects do not exist per se: they are just the way an organism perceives the environment. And, presumably, different organisms may perceive different objects. Each organism perceives a different environment.  It is our acting in the environment that determines how we perceive the environment. We are actors as well as observers. The response of the environment is what we perceive as objects.

In other words: the nature of the environment lies in its relationship with the organism; the environment results from the actions of the organism, in response to the stimulation of its sense organs, i.e. the organism determines the environment; and this results in the appearance of objects.

We are programmed to pick up organized information about the environment in the form of objects.  The environment we perceive is merely a perspective of the real environment (that Mead calls "habitat"), one of the many that are possible. Each organism gets a different environment from the same habitat.  The one world that we living beings inhabit is perceived in different ways (as different environments) by different organisms.  This perspective is determined by the actions that the organism is capable of, by the set of its "organized responses".  In particular, any change of the organism results in a change of the environment.

The organized objects of the environment actually represent our organized responses.  They are what exists for us (for the kind of responses we are capable of).  There is a direct relationship between our repertory of actions and our view of our habitat.  Ultimately, the environment is a property of the organism as well as of the habitat.  Those objects have qualities (such as colors) and values (such as beauty) that constitute what we call "consciousness". But, again, those objects and therefore their qualities depend on our repertory of actions.

Consciousness is a function, not a substance, and it refers to both the organism and the environment. It is located in the organism's environment, not in the organism's brain.

 Consciousness is not a brain process: the switch that turns consciousness on or off is a brain process. Pulling up the blinds of a window does not create the street, it merely reveals it. By the same token, the brain can "pull up the blinds" and reveal consciousness, i.e. the set of objects and their qualities. Or it can pull them down, and consciousness disappears.  The brain only has control over this switch.

Everybody has this kind of consciousness, but some species (and the children of our own species) cannot report on their experiences. It is social experience that makes awareness possible. It is not consciousness that enables socialization: it is socialization that enables consciousness (as awareness of one's experience).

Mead speculated that the individual views society as the "generalized other".  The self arises from belonging to a group. The individual plays a role within the group. In fact, usually the individual belongs to many groups, and therefore plays many roles. Each role contributes to shape her or his self. The individual gradually integrates all these roles in one comprehensive view of her or his self, which is equivalent to  saying that the individual takes the viewpoint of the "generalized other". More accurately, this constitutes the "me". Mead believed that we also have an "i", that is subjective and not socially constructed.

The self is created through socializing. A self is a contributor to awareness, and is aware of all contributions. A self always belongs to a society of selves. And a self is what she is as a member of that society of selves.

Likewise, the US biologist James Jerome Gibson used vision to explain what awareness is and what it is not.  Body and mind constitute a false dichotomy. Awareness is both physical and mental. Awareness is a function performed by a living observer, the whole living being, not just its mind or its body.  Awareness is a biological phenomenon.  Perceiving is keeping in touch with the world.  The observer is not external to the world, and therefore her/his awareness cannot be a state outside the world (i.e., in a different substance called "mind").  Cognition is a biological phenomenon, and it is both mind and body.  Awareness is both mind and body.

Gregory Bateson believed that minds extended beyond bodies, that consciousness was not only in the brain but also in the surrounding environment.

The Czech psychologist Staninslav Grof thinks that we are not the makers of consciousness but merely the transmitters of it.


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