The difficulty with a consciousness essentialism

#1
I've been thinking a lot lately about the nature of consciousness and the problem with the idea that consciousness can be considered a "thing in itself" after the fashion of the air and the ocean. So this form of essentialism would argue that consciousness does not need to be conscious of anything in order to be fully aware...for consciousness need only be aware of itself.

I cannot say I am persuaded by this in light of everything I see in the natural world. Rather, it seems to me as if consciousness is a kind of relation or dialectic function that arises between two simultaneously expressing and co-dependent facts; 1) a "thing perceived" that relies for its existence and defintion upon a "perceiver, and 2) a "perceiver of things" that relies for its existence and definition on a "thing perceived."

Thus I would say that my consciousness is not really a single "thing." Rather, I would say that my consciousness is really now one thing and now the other. Now it is my taste of a salty food. Now it is that chill arriving from the wind around the door frame. Now it is the edge of the sunlight breaking out behind that cloud. Consciousness essentialism would say that there is a constant and unchanging single thing called "consciousness" behind all of these instances. But I question this. I suspect that it doesn't really make any sense to talk about consciousness existing in itself, anymore than it makes sense to talk about seeing existing in itself, or hearing existing in itself.

There is also the evolutionary angle on this. A bacterium or an amoeba, assuming it has a species of awareness (and I do assume that) can only have, by virtue of the breadth of responses and aptitudes it displays, an extremely primitive form of "awareness" relative to what human beings have. To speak of such lifeforms as being "conscious" is by and large meaningless relative to what WE mean and experience as "consciousness" (i.e. as human beings). It would be far more appropriate to call their condition some kind of proto-awareness or proto-proto-awareness. Something that is not yet minded in any way. Strictly speaking, we could not say that an amoeba was "aware," only that it's awareness actually consisted of "an awareness of moving left" or "an awareness of an appetite to move left" or "an awareness of a stronger stimulus of chemical X to the right" etc.

It also seems very likely to me that our own conscious minds are built up out of many textured layers and sequences of these kind of proto-awarenesses. Indeed, new Gestalts may emerge in that evolutionary process, but obviously if mindedness could have arisen without this layering up from proto-awareness over eonal time, then that would have happened (which it hasn't).

This is also particularly relevant for the issue of life after death or the possible continuation of some form of awareness post mortem. Broadly speaking we can identify three possibilities (excluding simple extinction, which is a fourth possibility)

1) The fate of our minded awareness shadows the fate of our complex forms...namely that complex awareness disintegrates again into its components...presumably, eventually, back down into the primitive proto-awarenesses from which it originally emerged.

2) awareness continues at some kind of human level

3) awareness expands to some kind of species level or universalized (though not necessarily strongly agentic) awareness form.

I don't have a finally held view of which of these possibilities may be true, though I think the first one is under-considered. It is also possible that a combination of such as 1 and 3 may be conceivable.

So anyway, I offer the topic for conversation.
 
#2
I agree that consciousness is not a thing, but events.

On the points about the afterlife, according to the evidence of NDEs and mediumship, human consciousness maintains its integrity after biological death and not only that, but it becomes more lucid and acquires greater thinking abilities.
 
#3
I agree that consciousness is not a thing, but events.

On the points about the afterlife, according to the evidence of NDEs and mediumship, human consciousness maintains its integrity after biological death and not only that, but it becomes more lucid and acquires greater thinking abilities.
Well, one of the problems with that is that in NDEs people still have a functionally recoverable human body, and so one would have to remain agnostic as to whether any awareness dis-integration process had yet even begun in earnest. As to mediumship, I am not persuaded at all that this is evidence of a continuing individual consciousness.
 
#4
Well, one of the problems with that is that in NDEs people still have a functionally recoverable human body, and so one would have to remain agnostic as to whether any awareness dis-integration process had yet even begun in earnest.
Not entirely agnostic because hyper-lucidity and enhanced clarity of thought during NDEs are abductive reasons to believe that consciousness is enhanced after irreversible death and not desintegrate.

As to mediumship, I am not persuaded at all that this is evidence of a continuing individual consciousness.
Well, you say that like mediumship was not quite acceptable, when in fact the best cases of mediumship point clearly toward a kind of afterlife unless you have a strong will to disbelieve, as it appears in the books The Enigma of Survival, by Hornett Hart and Immortal Remains, by Stephen Braude.
 
#5
Fantastic post, OP!

Ok...exploring this:

This is also particularly relevant for the issue of life after death or the possible continuation of some form of awareness post mortem. Broadly speaking we can identify three possibilities (excluding simple extinction, which is a fourth possibility)

1) The fate of our minded awareness shadows the fate of our complex forms...namely that complex awareness disintegrates again into its components...presumably, eventually, back down into the primitive proto-awarenesses from which it originally emerged.
So...we would return to the consciousness we had around conception? Or, many "consciousnesses" similar to that state?
 
M

Michael

#6
Would you mind clarifying a few things for me? Are you using awareness and consciousness as the same or is awareness a property of consciousness? Is minded awareness the same or different from "I". When you say consciousness is one thing now and another thing later, aside from any temporal connection in that, is there any other connectivity between those shifting conscious events?
 
#7
Would you mind clarifying a few things for me? Are you using awareness and consciousness as the same or is awareness a property of consciousness? Is minded awareness the same or different from "I". When you say consciousness is one thing now and another thing later, aside from any temporal connection in that, is there any other connectivity between those shifting conscious events?
Good questions.
I don't think there are true "answers", but for the sake of developing a common vocabulary to enhance clarity in the discussion, I'd like to know if the concept of "perception" should also be included? If so, what about "detection"? Are those the same?
 
#8
Well, it's a very good question what constitutes the "boundary" between one focus of awareness and another (e.g. you and me) or one "conscious moment" and another. I think our brains are constructed in such a way that there is flow of experience in normal sensorium (including dreams) such that we don't become aware of orphaned instances or "gaps." However, in a larger context we can say that each time we pass into dreamless sleep (I would say because the subject-object dialectic ceases for a while) this is a form of macroscopic gap.

On the issue of "consciousness," "awareness" etc one of the problems is precisely that we do not have a language that adequately accounts for the full range of possible experience from amoeba to man. This is why words like "consciousness" and "awareness" are almost certainly misapplied to much simpler life forms, and if we are going to apply them at all we need to modify them as in "proto-awareness" or else invent a new term altogether.
 
#9
However, in a larger context we can say that each time we pass into dreamless sleep (I would say because the subject-object dialectic ceases for a while) this is a form of macroscopic gap.
I agree.

On the issue of "consciousness," "awareness" etc one of the problems is precisely that we do not have a language that adequately accounts for the full range of possible experience from amoeba to man.
I would say that we probably don't have words to describe it because we don't have even a vague understanding of what other species experience. We can look at their behavior, and name that, but we have no clue what (if anything, in the case of insects on down) it's like for them.
 
#10
Thus I would say that my consciousness is not really a single "thing." Rather, I would say that my consciousness is really now one thing and now the other. Now it is my taste of a salty food. Now it is that chill arriving from the wind around the door frame. Now it is the edge of the sunlight breaking out behind that cloud. Consciousness essentialism would say that there is a constant and unchanging single thing called "consciousness" behind all of these instances. But I question this. I suspect that it doesn't really make any sense to talk about consciousness existing in itself, anymore than it makes sense to talk about seeing existing in itself, or hearing existing in itself.
And yet there is a consciousness behind all that - you might find the saltiness and the chill might remind you of the sea, and maybe the sunlight behind the cloud. The fact is that we don't absorb sensations in isolation.

I am rather wary about abstract theorising like this - particularly when people who have had NDE experiences and the like tell us that normal consciousness is a dummed down version of something greater.

There is also the evolutionary angle on this. A bacterium or an amoeba, assuming it has a species of awareness (and I do assume that) can only have, by virtue of the breadth of responses and aptitudes it displays, an extremely primitive form of "awareness" relative to what human beings have. To speak of such lifeforms as being "conscious" is by and large meaningless relative to what WE mean and experience as "consciousness" (i.e. as human beings). It would be far more appropriate to call their condition some kind of proto-awareness or proto-proto-awareness. Something that is not yet minded in any way. Strictly speaking, we could not say that an amoeba was "aware," only that it's awareness actually consisted of "an awareness of moving left" or "an awareness of an appetite to move left" or "an awareness of a stronger stimulus of chemical X to the right" etc.

It also seems very likely to me that our own conscious minds are built up out of many textured layers and sequences of these kind of proto-awarenesses. Indeed, new Gestalts may emerge in that evolutionary process, but obviously if mindedness could have arisen without this layering up from proto-awareness over eonal time, then that would have happened (which it hasn't).
Consciousness does indeed seem to go all the way down in biology. There are videos in which one cell chases another (of a different sort) and consumes it. It is extremely hard not to conclude that this is primitive consciousness - even though no neurons are involved!

However, I am not sure that expressions like "proto-awareness" tell us much. I feel that consciousness is so utterly unexplained that ideas like layering may simply serve to give a false impression that we understand something more than we really do. Neuroscientists have started to talk of 'circuits', which I find pretentious. I mean, when an electronics engineer talks of circuits, these are things he can create and understand completely. In the case of consciousness, we really don't understand how a single atom of awareness comes about. In that situation, it doesn't seem clear that talk of higher level structures adds much.

This is also particularly relevant for the issue of life after death or the possible continuation of some form of awareness post mortem. Broadly speaking we can identify three possibilities (excluding simple extinction, which is a fourth possibility)

1) The fate of our minded awareness shadows the fate of our complex forms...namely that complex awareness disintegrates again into its components...presumably, eventually, back down into the primitive proto-awarenesses from which it originally emerged.

2) awareness continues at some kind of human level

3) awareness expands to some kind of species level or universalized (though not necessarily strongly agentic) awareness form.

I don't have a finally held view of which of these possibilities may be true, though I think the first one is under-considered. It is also possible that a combination of such as 1 and 3 may be conceivable.

So anyway, I offer the topic for conversation.
I broadly agree about this. We should not assume - as many do - that some sort of continuation of our consciousness is assured. I wonder about a fourth possibility - that some people continue while in others, consciousness simply dissipates into smaller components as in (1). One reason for this idea is that only about 20% of people get NDE's out of cardiac arrests. Of course, there may be other explanations for this.

David
 
#11
We should not assume - as many do - that some sort of continuation of our consciousness is assured. I wonder about a fourth possibility - that some people continue while in others, consciousness simply dissipates into smaller components as in (1). One reason for this idea is that only about 20% of people get NDE's out of cardiac arrests. Of course, there may be other explanations for this.
I do not assume the continuation of consciousness is assured, but is the most likely interpretation of phenomena such as NDEs, apparitions and mediumship. On whether some people continue while in others, consciousness simply dissipates into smaller components, there are reasons based on mediumship to conclude that all human beings continue after the organic death. On NDEs, it may be that most of the time the brain can not retrieve the information obtained in a disembodied state and forget it.
 
#12
And yet there is a consciousness behind all that - you might find the saltiness and the chill might remind you of the sea, and maybe the sunlight behind the cloud. The fact is that we don't absorb sensations in isolation.
I'm not sure what you mean by that David. It's my case that there is no conscious "behind" to those relationships. The consciousness is the relationships themselves.In a highly complex creature such as human beings, the relationships are such a woven tapestry that we do not see the join most of the time. However, as I said above, we pass into deep sleep every night.

I am rather wary about abstract theorising like this - particularly when people who have had NDE experiences and the like tell us that normal consciousness is a dummed down version of something greater.
Well, I can't really respond to that without having something in particular to discuss. Even NDEs involve what I would call the "existential relation" to beget a sense of consciousness. Loving light. Fields of knowledge. Etc. These are dialectic relations. What I am saying is that without those, I think the situation, perhaps even the cosmic situation, would lapse to nonconsciousness. If reality has an awareness dynamic, there has to be a strong reason behind the impetus to realize the world, despite all its disadvantages. My suspicion (I admit it is only a suspicion, I can't prove it) is that the world sustains dialectic relation in a massive scale, and that without it, an aware cosmos would lapse into mere potential, nonconscious.


Consciousness does indeed seem to go all the way down in biology. There are videos in which one cell chases another (of a different sort) and consumes it. It is extremely hard not to conclude that this is primitive consciousness - even though no neurons are involved!
I think that's a bit of a romantic view of simpler life forms, to be honest. They have living animation, but to think they are minded beings is without foundation. They don't have the necessary structure or supporting complexity to be minded.

However, I am not sure that expressions like "proto-awareness" tell us much. I feel that consciousness is so utterly unexplained that ideas like layering may simply serve to give a false impression that we understand something more than we really do. Neuroscientists have started to talk of 'circuits', which I find pretentious. I mean, when an electronics engineer talks of circuits, these are things he can create and understand completely. In the case of consciousness, we really don't understand how a single atom of awareness comes about. In that situation, it doesn't seem clear that talk of higher level structures adds much.
I agree about the circuits thing, but I am also against mystifications for the sake of it, or to shore up weak ideas. The problem is that a static vocabulary applied to a very extensive range is an a priori setup for errors. It is true that both a candle and the sun are a "light source"...but that is about where the similarity ends, you know?


I broadly agree about this. We should not assume - as many do - that some sort of continuation of our consciousness is assured. I wonder about a fourth possibility - that some people continue while in others, consciousness simply dissipates into smaller components as in (1). One reason for this idea is that only about 20% of people get NDE's out of cardiac arrests. Of course, there may be other explanations for this.
That's always been a concern. And 20% is a high figure. I am also concerned about the number of whites who have NDEs relative to other races, and the dearth of cases in elderly people. Nonetheless, there never was any guarantee that "spiritual" experiences are shared equally.
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S

Stephen Timmis

#13
... it seems to me as if consciousness is a kind of relation or dialectic function that arises between two simultaneously expressing and co-dependent facts; 1) a "thing perceived" that relies for its existence and defintion upon a "perceiver, and 2) a "perceiver of things" that relies for its existence and definition on a "thing perceived."

Thus I would say that my consciousness is not really a single "thing." Rather, I would say that my consciousness is really now one thing and now the other. Now it is my taste of a salty food. Now it is that chill arriving from the wind around the door frame. Now it is the edge of the sunlight breaking out behind that cloud. Consciousness essentialism would say that there is a constant and unchanging single thing called "consciousness" behind all of these instances. But I question this. I suspect that it doesn't really make any sense to talk about consciousness existing in itself, anymore than it makes sense to talk about seeing existing in itself, or hearing existing in itself.
I think you may be confusing "Consciousness" with "Awareness". Maybe it is me at fault and I would therfore suggest a need to distinguish Consciousness, that which is "Aware" from "Awareness", which could be tentatively defined as a passive verb, an activity engaged in by Consciousness that would include "Self-awareness", as well as perceptions of other things considered separate from that which is Conscious. These separate other things would include thoughts, dreams and emotions, which could be considered to be somehow generated by that Consciousness, and therefore not strictly separate at all.

I think the Consciusness that you conceive of would be in a constant state of flux or disintegration. Now Salty food - destruction - now the sun behind a cloud - destruction. I think you are missing the important point that Consciousness can hold the awareness of the Salty Food, the Sun behind the cloud and the door frame simultaneously, and that Consciousness can calculate, consider, and initiate responses to perceptions, and be aware of each step of the process as activities of Consciousness as it does so.

The hearing and seeing idea you have is related to the body. What is perceived is limited to what the bodily senses allow us to be aware of. However, there is some evidence to suggest that as brain activity decreases that awareness increases. This suggests that the the brain inhibits awareness, and that more is available to Consciousness as the inhibiter is shut down. It may therefore be the case that the limitations of consciousness or conscious awareness are limitations imposed by associated physical forms, and these physical limitations may keep elements of Consciousness separate, and the perception of the physical correlates of the activity of Consciousness may shape daily ideas to that of what is important and appropriate for bodily survival.
 
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#14
I think you may be confusing "Consciousness" with "Awareness". Maybe it is me at fault and I would therfore suggest a need to distinguish Consciousness, that which is "Aware" from "Awareness", which could be tentatively defined as a passive verb, an activity engaged in by Consciousness that would include "Self-awareness", as well as perceptions of other things considered separate from that which is Conscious. These separate other things would include thoughts, dreams and emotions, which could be considered to be somehow generated by that Consciousness, and therefore not strictly separate at all.

I think the Consciusness that you conceive of would be in a constant state of flux or disintegration. Now Salty food - destruction - now the sun behind a cloud - destruction. I think you are missing the important point that Consciousness can hold the awareness of the Salty Food, the Sun behind the cloud and the door frame simultaneously, and that Consciousness can calculate, consider, and initiate responses to perceptions, and be aware of each step of the process as activities of Consciousness as it does so.

The hearing and seeing idea you have is related to the body. What is perceived is limited to what the bodily senses allow us to be aware of. However, there is some evidence to suggest that as brain activity decreases that awareness increases. This suggests that the the brain inhibits awareness, and that more is available to Consciousness as the inhibiter is shut down. It may therefore be the case that the limitations of consciousness or conscious awareness are limitations imposed by associated physical forms, and these physical limitations may keep elements of Consciousness separate, and the perception of the physical correlates of the activity of Consciousness may shape daily ideas to that of what is important and appropriate for bodily survival.
Hello Stephen. Yes, it is my view that consciousness (or awareness...I think these terms are ultimately somewhat amorphous and indistinct) is directly bonded to relation. Those relations are always changing for us, thus "consciousness" is always changing. In a sense it is just a way of speaking which supposes that my "consciousness of salty" is the same as my "consciousness of sunlight." When all such experiential relations shut down, consciousness mysteriously shuts down in the phenomenon we call sleep.
 
#15
I've been thinking a lot lately about the nature of consciousness and the problem with the idea that consciousness can be considered a "thing in itself" after the fashion of the air and the ocean. So this form of essentialism would argue that consciousness does not need to be conscious of anything in order to be fully aware...for consciousness need only be aware of itself.

I cannot say I am persuaded by this in light of everything I see in the natural world. Rather, it seems to me as if consciousness is a kind of relation or dialectic function that arises between two simultaneously expressing and co-dependent facts; 1) a "thing perceived" that relies for its existence and defintion upon a "perceiver, and 2) a "perceiver of things" that relies for its existence and definition on a "thing perceived."

Thus I would say that my consciousness is not really a single "thing." Rather, I would say that my consciousness is really now one thing and now the other. Now it is my taste of a salty food. Now it is that chill arriving from the wind around the door frame. Now it is the edge of the sunlight breaking out behind that cloud. Consciousness essentialism would say that there is a constant and unchanging single thing called "consciousness" behind all of these instances. But I question this. I suspect that it doesn't really make any sense to talk about consciousness existing in itself, anymore than it makes sense to talk about seeing existing in itself, or hearing existing in itself.

There is also the evolutionary angle on this. A bacterium or an amoeba, assuming it has a species of awareness (and I do assume that) can only have, by virtue of the breadth of responses and aptitudes it displays, an extremely primitive form of "awareness" relative to what human beings have. To speak of such lifeforms as being "conscious" is by and large meaningless relative to what WE mean and experience as "consciousness" (i.e. as human beings). It would be far more appropriate to call their condition some kind of proto-awareness or proto-proto-awareness. Something that is not yet minded in any way. Strictly speaking, we could not say that an amoeba was "aware," only that it's awareness actually consisted of "an awareness of moving left" or "an awareness of an appetite to move left" or "an awareness of a stronger stimulus of chemical X to the right" etc.

It also seems very likely to me that our own conscious minds are built up out of many textured layers and sequences of these kind of proto-awarenesses. Indeed, new Gestalts may emerge in that evolutionary process, but obviously if mindedness could have arisen without this layering up from proto-awareness over eonal time, then that would have happened (which it hasn't).

This is also particularly relevant for the issue of life after death or the possible continuation of some form of awareness post mortem. Broadly speaking we can identify three possibilities (excluding simple extinction, which is a fourth possibility)

1) The fate of our minded awareness shadows the fate of our complex forms...namely that complex awareness disintegrates again into its components...presumably, eventually, back down into the primitive proto-awarenesses from which it originally emerged.

2) awareness continues at some kind of human level

3) awareness expands to some kind of species level or universalized (though not necessarily strongly agentic) awareness form.

I don't have a finally held view of which of these possibilities may be true, though I think the first one is under-considered. It is also possible that a combination of such as 1 and 3 may be conceivable.

So anyway, I offer the topic for conversation.
Nice, thoughtful OP Kai. Every so often someone on here brings up panpsychism, which has a certain neatness to it. However, rather than saying "all matter has consciousness", you seem to be saying that "matter has the potential for consciousness"... and the depth of consciousness increases with the complexity of the species. Again, tidy.
 
#17
Nice, thoughtful OP Kai. Every so often someone on here brings up panpsychism, which has a certain neatness to it. However, rather than saying "all matter has consciousness", you seem to be saying that "matter has the potential for consciousness"... and the depth of consciousness increases with the complexity of the species. Again, tidy.
Yes, well sort of. What I am hinting at is that even the word "matter" has its defects. Not so much that "matter has a potential for consciousness," but that the very "stuff" of existence is itself a "tending towards awareness." It is a "something" that has of its intrinsic nature a need to form conscious systems...which because it is always doing this (it is never "not doing it") becomes a description that is different from the concept of matter, and yet not simply the same as saying that an unstructured essence called "consciousness" exists or some such.
 
S

Stephen Timmis

#18
If Con
Hello Stephen. Yes, it is my view that consciousness (or awareness...I think these terms are ultimately somewhat amorphous and indistinct) is directly bonded to relation. Those relations are always changing for us, thus "consciousness" is always changing. In a sense it is just a way of speaking which supposes that my "consciousness of salty" is the same as my "consciousness of sunlight." When all such experiential relations shut down, consciousness mysteriously shuts down in the phenomenon we call sleep.
If consciousness, awareness, and perception are amorphous terms then it is necessary to correct that and not simply state that it is the case. You say that consciousness shuts down when we sleep. If this is the case then a dream is not consciousness. If it is not consciousness, then what is it?

I must disagree very strongly that consciousness is merely a series of events. Surely, the very fact that a series of events is a series means that something links those events. Something exists that is somehow aloof from the episodes that occur. Something is witness to the events, and holds all the events together.
 
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#19
Yes, well sort of. What I am hinting at is that even the word "matter" has its defects. Not so much that "matter has a potential for consciousness," but that the very "stuff" of existence is itself a "tending towards awareness." It is a "something" that has of its intrinsic nature a need to form conscious systems...which because it is always doing this (it is never "not doing it") becomes a description that is different from the concept of matter, and yet not simply the same as saying that an unstructured essence called "consciousness" exists or some such.
Hmm... I think I like it. (Though I can't even begin to think how we could test for it!:eek:)
 
#20
If there is a "tending towards life, which tends towards consciousness" force out there, then why haven't the experiments trying to create life out of "recreated primordial soup" worked?
 
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