The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
Inquire about purchasing the book | Table of Contents | Annotated Bibliography | Class on Nature of Mind

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

The Grounded Self

On the other hand, the existence of a unitary and continuous self is defended by the US psychologist Richard Carlson. He believes that the self is a biological feature.

Following James Gibson  and Ulrich Neisser, Carlson thinks that every act of perception specifies both a perceiving self and a perceived object. Seeing something is not only seeing that object: it is also seeing it from a certain perspective. The perspective implies a "seer". There is no act of perception of an object without a subject. The subject is as much part of perception as the object.

This co-specification of self and object is useful for adding the "first person" to the information-processing paradigm of mental processes, which cannot traditionally deal with the self.

Carlson's fundamental move is to distinguish between the content and the object of a mental state: content and object are not the same thing, because the content includes both the object and the subject. The "mode" of content specifies the self, the "aboutness" of content specifies the object (the environment).

Following John Searle's analysis of speech acts, Carlson further distinguishes between the content of a mental state and the "noncontent" of that mental state. The "noncontent" includes the purpose of the mental state (for example, the degree of commitment), and even its "implementation" properties (for example, the duration of the state, etc). A mental state has content and non-content, and non-content is as important as content.

This analysis serves to elucidate that there is more than just an object in an act of perception. There is more than just a scene in a visual perception: there is a subject that is seeing, there is a purpose of seeing (for example, "i am spying" versus "i am gazing") and there is a duration.

Contrary to Dennett and Gazzaniga, Carlson reaches the conclusion that the continuity of consciousness is not only real, but it is even an ecological necessity, because the self is co-specified by perception, and perception is driven by changes in the world, and those changes are continuous. Cognition is grounded in one's point of view, and that point of view is grounded in an environment, and this two-fold grounding process is continuous.

A World Apart

The Austrian philosopher Karl Popper thinks that there can be no consciousness without memory, without a process that provides some continuity of memory, linking one conscious act with other conscious acts. Popper argues that you don't learn about your self by self-observation but by the process of constructing your self. Initially, as a child, you do so by interacting with others in a preverbal way; and later through language. However, Popper emphasizes that you are not just a passive receiver of knowledge, but an active searcher and builder of knowledge, including about yourself. You construct a theory of who you are. The self, in fact, consists of all the theories that you create about the universe. You actively explore the world and build theories about its various aspects. Popper rejects the idea that the self preexists experience and is the thing that experiences: it is experience that creates the self, not viceversa. The self is, first and foremost, a sense of being an individual distinct from other individuals. Popper views this as an extension of the fact that life tends to create individuals, not clones. Popper speculates that this fact is the very cause of the emergence of mind and consciousness. The biological fact that all individuals are different explains why a need emerged for a conscious mind. The unity of the self is a consequence of "biological individuation". Somehow Popper thinks that, without individuation, living beings would not have had a need for a mind to drive their behavior. Bodies change over the course of a lifetime. So do minds, that learn and forget. Metabolism of the body proceeds in parallel with "metabolism" of the self, but the sense of identity is retained through all the physical and mental changes. However, there is an asymmetry between the two: the body comes first, the self develops later. You are first a body, eating, screaming, gesturing; and only later do you become a conscious self. Popper believes in an intermedia stage, a stage in which the child discovers that she is a person, not a thing; and then this "person" evolves into a full-fledged conscious "self". Once created, the self is permanently active, exploring the world, and creating theories about the world. Those theories get "selected" by the experience of the world, refuted or refined, in an endless process of trial and error. Once created, the self drives the acquisition of new knowledge, which can happen consciously or unconsciously, but always by interaction with the environment and by the related autonomous process of theory formation and refinement. All our non-innate knowledge comes from such a process: a theory of how things work endows us with a set of expectations; experience selects whether an expectation has to be retained or erased; experience produces new theories, with new sets of expectations; experience modifies those theories so that the expectations due to them will match reality. Popper thinks that three worlds coexist: the physical world (World 1), the mental world (World 2) and the world of products of mental activities (World 3). The main biological function of World 2 (mind, self) is to produce theories and expectations; and the main biological function of World 3 is to make these theories vulnerable to the judgment of experience. World 3 is basically the place where we simulate the outcome of planned behavior without risking our lives. World 3 emerged during evolution to provide a safer way to evolve.

The way in which the objective knowledge of World 3 is created is very similar to how natural selection creates species. Natural selection acts on biological traits, a similar selection process acts on behaviors (which are initially programmed by genes), and a similar selection process acts on knowledge (which is initially transmitted by culture). At all three levels (World 1, 2 and 3, i.e. physical bodies, behaviors and theories) two forces fight each other: instruction is the conservative force (that creates and tries to preserve biological traits, behaviors and theories) while selection is the revolutionary force (that introduces new traits, behaviors and theories).

At the same time Popper notes that our learning process is driven by our expectations, because the expectations drive our behavior, and therefore shape our exploration of the world, and therefore determine our experiences, which in turn refine our theories and our expectations.

One particular theory that we develop over the course of our life is the theory of who we are: the self itself is a theory that gets refined via a process of trial and error, via a process of "natural selection". The self is the very active process of creating theories and expectations, and of integrating all our theories and expectations, The developing plan of our life "is" the self that gives unity to our mental life. Popper's metaphor is that the self is the active programmer and the brain is the passive computer.

Back to the beginning of the chapter "Self" | Back to the index of all chapters