Meanings of consciousness - part 1

How little do we agree on what consciousness is? Not much. The word itself (in English) has a number of separate meanings: a type of awareness, such as ‘class consciousness’; awareness in an everyday sense, ‘they were consciousness of the fact that the room would be cold’; a personal awareness of the current moment, ‘his consciousness was filled with bright lights and music’; all mental activity that a person is aware of, ‘conscious self’. There are also meanings that result from translations from words in various languages, cultures and religions that might be translated into words like soul, mind, spirit, or a universal connection. The meaning that I want to concentrate on is the personal awareness of the current moment. But there are still many ways to view this particular consciousness – in spite of view points almost all people agree that they experience this idea of consciousness and assume that their consciousness is like that of others. And there is a general idea that the brain in particular is involved. It is at about that point that the agreement stops.

Until recently Descartes’ notion of consciousness was generally accepted: the mind/consciousness/soul was spiritual and the brain was physical so that animals, with only a brain, were automations without consciousness, thought or feeling, while, humans had a soul/consciousness/mind as well as a brain. How this human dualism might actually be possible, was a puzzle that philosophers worked on for several hundred years and some are still engaged in the riddle. Dualism is now almost gone from science – consciousness is something that the physical brain does by physical processes in neuroscience. I say almost gone because it often creeps back under various guises into the scientific literature.

Given a physical consciousness, the next fork in the road was an question around mind. Freud had made popular the idea of a brain holding two minds, a conscious mind and an unconscious mind. (This is a simplification of his very elaborate theoretical structure.) These two minds were seen in a sort of opposition, with the conscious mind wearing the ‘white hat’ and the unconscious mind wearing the ‘black’ one. There was little known of neuroscience in Freud’s time and his theories are built with entities that we now think of as features of minds rather than brains. Mind ideas are no longer associated with unconscious processes – simply any activity that does not appear in consciousness is considered part of the unconscious brain and no ‘black hat’ is implied. There is still the question of how much consciousness can be thought of as a conscious mind. But in order to side step this question, it has become more and more common to use the word ‘consciousness’ rather than ‘conscious mind’ and ‘unconscious’ or ‘non-conscious’ rather than ‘unconscious mind’. But when people say something like ‘in my mind’ they tend to mean ‘in my conscious mind’ in the Freudian sense. There is a mental vocabulary as well as a neural vocabulary – but to date there is no one-to-one mapping between mental entities and neural ones. There are two possible structures here: conscious mind can imply everything that is, was ever, or could be experienced consciously, a working mind creating thoughts and willing actions; or, consciousness can imply the mechanism creating and the specific content of a moment of conscious experience or awareness. These are very different pictures. The notion of a conscious mind is what underpins introspection as a method of getting direct knowledge of our thought processes. But it has been shown in many ways that introspection is not reliable. So my interest in consciousness is an interest in the momentary experience of the world and our existence in it – the simple conscious experience. All else is unconscious processing (also interesting but not as consciousness).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *