The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Sensing the Brain

Several models of consciousness focus on its behavior as a "sense" capable of perceiving the processing of the brain.

The British philosopher Nicholas Humphrey argued that to be conscious is to feel sensations, as opposed to perceptions.  Animals have developed two ways of representing the interaction between the body and the world: "affect-laden" sensations and "affect-neutral" perceptions.  Sensation and perception are separate and parallel forms of representation.  Sensations are to be found at the boundary between the organism and the world and at the boundary of past and future. One "senses" a circle of light hitting the retina; one "perceives" the sun in the sky. One can have sensations about perceptions and perceptions about sensations.

Humphrey (“The Use of Consciousness”, 1967) speculated that we possess an "inner eye" that behaves like any other sense, except its object is the brain itself. This inner eye evolved because it was useful, and it evolved in such a way as to be useful. Therefore it does not deliver a one-to-one picture of the brain's activity, but a selected, abridged and biased one, as useful to survival as possible.  Consciousness allows me to perceive the state of my brain as conscious states.

The US philosopher William Lycan is a proponent of consciousness as "internal monitoring", an idea that reaches back to the British philosopher John Locke and the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Lycan emphasizes that most of our mental life is unconscious, that we are conscious of only part of it. A possible explanation is that  consciousness is a perception of our own psychological state, of what is going on in the mind (Kant's "inner sense").

The British neurophysiologist John Eccles believes that consciousness resides in a psychological world that transcends the physical. Eccles believes that the mind is an independent entity that exercises a controlling role upon the neural events of the brain by virtue of its interaction across the interface between World 1 (the physical world) and World 2 (the mental world). The mind is continuously searching for brain events that are interesting for its goals.

The US linguist Ray Jackendoff believes that there are three main entities that account for our mental life: the physical brain, the computational mind (cognition) and the phenomenological mind (consciousness). The computational mind is the one that really "thinks", whereas the phenomenological mind only "feels" superficially a subset of the "thoughts". Most of "thinking" is actually unconscious. We are never conscious of the outer world, but only of the shadows of some of the processing that the computational mind does on the outer world. Consciousness arises from a level of representation that is intermediate between the sense-data and the form of thought, at the border between the representations of the inner and of the outer worlds.

The US psychologist Owen Flanagan does not believe in "one" consciousness, but in a group of "conscious" phenomena. Some of the processes of our body are unconscious and non-perceived (e.g., the heartbeat), while some are unconscious but perceived by other processes (sensors), and some are conscious, perceived by themselves. Consciousness is a heterogeneous set of processes, not a substance or an object. Flanagan’s theory is, de facto, a variation on William James’ stream of consciousness: there is no “Mind’s i” that thinks and is conscious, there are just thoughts that flow. Consciousness is not: consciousness flows. “The thoughts themselves are the thinkers”. I do not think thoughts, thoughts think me. There is no “i”: there is conscious activity. This conscious activity differs from the neural activity only in kind, but the mind “is” the brain.


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