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"


In 1900 the German philosopher Edmund Husserl had expanded on Brentano's notion of intentionality. Since intentionality links mind and phenomena, he had concluded that phenomena and being are the same thing.

In the 1920s, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, a follower of Husserl's "phenomenology", pointed out a fundamental flaw in dualist theories, and, consequently, in the whole mind-body debate.

In his opinion, Descartes' dualism is simply a consequence of a misleading vision of the world, according to which on one hand we have the "objective" world of "physical" reality (made of objects with physical properties) and on the other we have the "subjective" world of "mental" life (feelings, cognition, consciousness).

According to the Cartesian vision, the physical world is described by some objective facts that do not depend on our existence. We can perceive those facts and think about them. And we can act in the world based on our thoughts. But our relationship to the world and its objects is detached, observer-like.

Heidegger reminded us that, instead, we are part of that world. We are one of its "objects". We don't exist as independent entities, we exist as part of the world. There is no way that we can step back and, in a detached manner, watch what is happening: we are part of what is happening, and usually it is happening so fast that we don't even have time to think about it. We only have time to react by instinct.

Heidegger denies any value to the expressions "physical reality" and "mental life", and to the dichotomy objective/subjective: the world and the mind cannot be separated. Everything is subjective, or objective (depending on the definition), as everything that we know is our "interpretation" of what is happening in the world and we have no way of having an "objective" interpretation of that happening because we are part of it.

In our daily life we do not adopt a detached, logical approach to situations but we just "act". Usually, you analyze one of your actions only "after" you have performed it; and, typically, this happens only when something went wrong: you pause to reflect and analyze what and why something went wrong. Most of the time we are not "conscious" of why we are doing what we are doing.

Heidegger claimed that we are "thrown" into the world. Normally we don't "break down" the situation: we "break down" the world around us only when our actions fail and we need to find out why.

For example, we don't normally realize consciously what tools we are using to perform an action: a pair of scissors or a glass or a clutch stick. Only when our action fails, do we focus on the tool that we are using and why it is failing us.

When we are hammering a nail into wood, we are not interested in discussing the properties of the hammer and the nail and the wood: we just hammer.  If it doesn't work, then we stop and analyze what is wrong with the hammer, the nail or the wood.

Same with the objects that surround us: we are rarely aware of every single object that surrounds us. But let's say that somebody locked us in a room and we needed to find a way out of there: only then would we "break down" the reality of that room into all of its objects, desperately looking for some help.

Sometimes when you suddenly focus on the drive to work, you get lost: all of a sudden, you don't recognize anymore the streets that you drive through every single morning. There are so many details that you never noticed: was there really a curve? is there really a billboard in that curve? And so forth. But if you don't focus on the route, you know perfectly well how to get to work.

If you close your eyes, you have to rediscover your own room, so many details of which are actually unconscious to you, even if you know it better than any other place in the world. When you try to move around your room blindfolded, you "break down" your knowledge about the room. The last time you had to do that was when you moved in.

In everyday life, we do not have a complete representation of the situation, and we cannot predict all the consequences of our actions; and we do not have time to search for either the representation or the prediction. Nonetheless we understand a situation and we act in it. And most of the times we survive.  Only when our actions fail, do we need to step back and analyze the situation and try to figure out rationally why we failed.  Logic is something that we use "after" the fact, to "troubleshoot" what we did wrong.

The science that we built to analyze the world is a complication. The truth is much simpler and so closer to our ordinary life.

According to Heidegger, there is a fundamental unity of the "Dasein" (of being).  Subject and object cannot be separated. They cannot exist independently.

An individual is not a separate entity but a manifestation of Dasein in a world and within a tradition (society is a big component of that world).

We cannot study out beliefs as objects because we cannot abstract from them and observe them objectively. They are part of our belief system and every action we perform is affected by that same belief system, so we enter a vicious circle.  We carry a burden of experience and knowledge with us which shapes our actions.

When we study something rationally, in a detached way, we are actually missing something by isolating it. Understanding something is being part of it. Cognition is praxis.  We are "thrown" into the world and that's how we understand it and act in it.  If we stop and observe it, then we may not be as good at acting in it.

Therefore Heidegger does not need mental representations to reason about.  What matters is action: action of the world and action of us in the world.  Representation is interpretation. There is no "objective" fact (or absolute truth) about the world.


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