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.