The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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


The basic picture of homuncular functionalism was given by the US philosopher Daniel Dennett. One can explain the feelings of mental life from the non-conscious behavior of the physical world by an infinite regression: a mind is made of a number of simpler minds that are made of even simpler minds, and so forth. We eventually reach levels at which the minds are performing very simple tasks, like computing 1+1 or deciding whether a color is dark or light. At that level it is not difficult to accept the idea that those elementary "minds" are physical, non-mental, things, such as brain processes.  Just like adding infinitely-small instants eventually yields a finite interval of time, so adding “infinite” levels of “homunculi”  eventually yields a mind.

Dennett reduces the mind to a set of cognitive functions, and then each function to simpler cognitive tasks, each time reducing the “intelligence” needed to solve the problem. Eventually this process reaches a level at which problems can be solved with no more intelligence than the one that can be found in a mechanical device.

The idea is that, at each level in the organization of a system, the overall behavior of that level is given by the interaction of a set of interconnected components ("homunculi"). The behavior of each component is itself defined by a set of interconnected components at the lower level.

Another US philosopher, William Lycan, thinks that, besides the low level of electrochemical processes and the high level of psycho-functional processes, nature is organized in a number of hierarchical levels (subatomic, atomic, molecular, cellular, biological, psychological). And each level is both physical and functional: physical with respect to its immediately higher level  and functional with respect to its immediately lower level. Proceeding from lower levels to higher levels we obtain a physical, structural, description of nature (atoms make molecules that make cells that make organs that make bodies...). Proceeding backwards, we obtain a functional description (the behavior of something is explained by the behavior of its parts). The “aggregative ontology” ("bottom-up") and the “structured epistemology” ("top-down") of nature are dual aspects of the same thing. The apparent irreducibility of the mental is due to the irreducibility of the various levels.

In a similar vein to Dennett's homunculi, the theory of the "society of mind" advanced by the US computer scientist Marvin Minsky assumes that intelligent behavior is due to the non-intelligent behavior of a very high number of agents that are organized in a bureaucratic hierarchy.  The set of their elementary actions and their communications can produce more and more complex behavior, and eventually mental life as we know it.


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