More on the definition of consciousness

In my last post, I said that the phrase “subjective mental states”, used by Mark Conard, was without meaning. I did not explain why I find it meaningless, so I will now. You can read Conard’s review of my last post (here).

First, subjective – what can it mean? A thing, an event, a process or whatever, either exists or it doesn’t exist. And if it exists, it can be viewed in different ways. I can view something subjectively or objectively; how I view the something does not change what it is. And if I can view it subjectively then I most certainly can view it objectively, and vice versa. It makes absolutely no sense to say that something is solely subjective. As it happens consciousness can be viewed by introspection, it can also be viewed by inspecting the neural correlates of consciousness (NCC). Introspection does not make consciousness exclusively subjective and NCC do not make consciousness exclusively objective. I think we get a better, more useful view if we look objectively. You cannot say that the definition of consciousness is that it IS subjective. Subjectivity is in the mind of the beholder.

Second, mental – what does that mean? Mental as opposed to what? In this use it cannot mean just vaguely to do with thought. It must be taking the dualist meaning to do with mind as opposed to matter. I cannot deal in terms of magic-mind-matter, it is just meaningless.

And finally, state – what in this context can state mean? It implies that consciousness is a noun sort of thing rather than a verb sort of thing. If it is a state then it has to be somewhat static and be somewhere, but nothing in the brain seems static and in one place. We have to think of consciousness as a process and not a state.

I see consciousness as a process that is not yet clearly understood but involves the integration of a number of sources (sensory, motor/sensory prediction, emotion, volition) into a momentary perception of the world and our interaction within it. There are a number of events that are associated with this such as the synchronous two-way communication between the cortex and the thalamus, and the use of working memory. There may be many functions for consciousness, but one important one is to create experience to be stored in episodic memory. Our awareness of this moment of consciousness has the same basic form as our experience of a memory. Introspection seems to be the steering of attention on to the moment of consciousness and experiencing this as a sort of immediate memory. This way of looking at consciousness has the ring of truth about it, it is easy for me to live with.

But if consciousness has the definition of “subjective mental state” then as far as I am concerned it does not exist and I must find another name for the beautiful perceptions and emotions etc. that I experience. However, I have every right to use the word consciousness for the experiences I have and the ones others say they have, that sound to be very similar to mine. I do not accept that my consciousness is described by ‘subjective mental state’ and I insist that I have consciousness. And further I am not a freak of nature, I have a sane, working, experiencing brain.


8 thoughts on “More on the definition of consciousness

  1. Quentin

    I can view something subjectively or objectively
    Something (e.g. a property) is subjective when it is relative to a perspective, it is objective if not. You cannot view something objectively. It is or is not objective.

    Mental as opposed to what?
    Mental refers to the mind. One can use the word without assuming anything a priori about mind-matter relations. You used the world “mind” in your post without being commited to dualism, didn’t you?

    nothing in the brain seems static and in one place
    It seems to me that I have mental states–I can be angry for a while, without any external stimulus to entertain my anger. Whether states reduce to continuous processes, or process reduce to state change, is a question for metaphysicians. Meanwhile talking about mental states makes sense.

    1. JKwasniak Post author

      Thank you for the comment. I really do appreciate an intelligent and serious picking at my thoughts.
      I believe that subjective and objective are usually considered as opposites. There seem only two ways to oppose these words: like I did, as two ways of viewing something with the something remaining unchanged by how it is viewed, or, it could be an attributed of the something in which case objective would mean a real thing and subjective would mean a not real thing or an imagined thing. I think that this new way of interpreting subjective is less friendly to Conard’s phrase and I would not like to say that he thought consciousness was not real. His whole argument was that it was real and not imaginary.
      I agree that I use the word mind and I am not assuming the non-material. But I never use (except to deny it) conscious mind, and I also avoid unconscious mind, because I feel I have a single unified mind: mind it the sense of that part of the brain that thinks (perceives, acts, remembers, learns, emotes, speaks etc.) Again I think it would be a presumption for me to assume that Conard used the word as a adjective describing that kind of mind. But this being a definition every element has to make some distinction. It has to be opposed to something and in the context I assume the mind-matter opposition.
      For state to be opposed to a non-state, I can only think of the non-state as not static or not real. Again for Conard, I cannot assumed he means unreal. You put forward the idea that some aspect of our thoughts can be static for a while as in a state of anger. But for a definition of consciousness we would have to say that a state of consciousness is static which I find fairly odd. This is not an important distinction to me. I say that a person is conscious, for example, and this does not seem to imply that consciousness is not a process, whereas state of consciousness carries a bit of that implication. Calling consciousness a state as an element in its definition really does seem to imply that it is not a process.

      1. Quentin

        I think we can be charitable to Conrad assuming:
        – something is subjective not when it does not exist, but when it is only accessible from a specific viewpoint (I don’t have access to someone else’s experience for example) as opposed to objective facts which are in principle accessible to any cognitive agent
        – something is mental not when it is not material, but when it belongs to minds, which are to be found in developed living organisms, as opposed to inert matter (I admit the reference to mind sounds a bit circular here)
        – something is a state not when it doesn’t change, but when it is not that which makes things change, as opposed to processes which are responsible for state changes.

        1. JKwasniak Post author

          -I agree that at present we do not have access to the contains of someone else’s consciousness but we do have access to the mechanism of another’s consciousness. It does not seem impossible some time in the future to access the contains of someone’s consciousness. To maintain that this cannot happen seems to beg the question of the nature of consciousness.
          -My way to looking at ‘mind’ is that mind is the function or the action of ‘brain’. Brains do mind. Nothing belongs to minds and not to brains. If someone is saying that there is some mind thing that is not a brain thing, we are getting into something non-material.
          -I do not understand exactly what you are saying about states and processes. If we say the processes are not continuous (which is certainly possible), than we would have to think of them as stepwise with discrete stable but short situations between the steps. Those short stable situations could be called ‘states’. But if processes are continuous (also certainly possible) than there would be just the process and no ‘states’. We must have a different model of how brains work.

          1. Quentin

            Regarding subjectivity: ok it might be question begging. I’m just saying it’s a possibility (which is supported by our intuition, now of course they might be misguided), it’s not something nonsensical as your post seems to imply.
            Regarding “mental”: ok let’s understand ” belong” in a broad sense: a property, or an aspect, belongs to something (it works for a process or an activity)
            Regarding continuous processes: there can be instantaneous states. I don’t know if consciousness refers to states or processes but the two are distinct and it seems one require the other to exist as well, so both must exist.

          2. JKwasniak Post author

            I have nothing against the broader sense of ‘mental’. I can see what it can illegitimately point to. What concerns me is what is it pointing away from. What is consciousness ‘mental’ as opposed to being? If it is not excluding something then it would not be needed in the definition. I guess that it is in the definition to taken the place of ‘non-material’.
            I find ‘state’ very awkward in relation to the brain. We do not talk about the state of talking, or the state of walking, or the state of thinking. We just say talking, walking, thinking. Some as you mentioned would talk about a state of anger, I wouldn’t. But of the words in the definition, state bothers me the least. A state of consciousness would only mean to me not being asleep. It says nothing about the nature of consciousness. If it is taken to mean that consciousness is a state rather than something else (say a process), then I have to differ.
            I suppose we will just have to leave subjectivity as we seem to have come to an end without changing our outlooks.

  2. Quentin

    Thank you for your answer.

    As I said, I suppose mental can meaningfully refer to the mind as something present in developed living organisms, as opposed to inert matter (rather than matter tout court). I agree it’s not very informative and might even be circular but that’s a start…

    Maybe consciousness is a process, yet it seems to me, intuitively, that it has a content, which I’d readily call a ‘mental state’.


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