Tag Archives: mind

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).

If it is not understood, it is simple

There is a truism that I cannot find a good quote of – but it is a truism all the same, and no doubt there is a quote somewhere. ‘If I don’t understand something it is simple; if I don’t know how to do something it is easy’. It is similar to ‘don’t underestimate what you don’t know’. And similar to the Dunning-Kruger effect: unskilled people think they have superior skill. It is a constant trap waiting to catch us out. It is also related to the ‘unknown unknown’.


In the mid 1950s automatic machine translation of natural languages was just a few years away and this remained the case, the system was just a few years away, for the next 30 or so years. 20 years further on there is still not a really, really good machine translation system. Why was this problem underestimated? It was not understood; natural language was not understood. What could be difficult? There are words, dictionaries, grammars, idioms – so we use them, like a person who just opens their mouths and meaningful utterances come out. People could not see the problems before they tried to do it.


Playing master level chess is considered difficult but moving chess pieces is easy – it takes no intelligence at all to reach out quickly, move a pawn, and hit the clock button. It is figuring out what to move that takes the intelligence. But computers could play good chess long before they could move the pieces without being too slow or knocking over other pieces. Playing chess is easier because we know how it is done but it seems harder for the same reason. Moving pieces is hard because we don’t know how it is done but it seems easier for the same reason.


This is part of our problem with consciousness. We have a ‘thought’ and we believe it was consciously produced. We are not just aware of this thought but ‘we had the thought consciously’ and it is a ‘conscious thought’. But the process that created that thought is not conscious. Did we hear any metaphorical gears or motors, see any metaphorical flashing lights, smell any metaphorical chemical reactions? No, the thought just happened, like a virgin birth. We are simply not able to examine the processes of thought. They are hidden, invisible and transparent to us. And so thought seems simple to understand, we just do it, easy-peasy. There are no conscious processes – there are processes that supply content to consciousness and processes that create the state of consciousness – but there are not processes within consciousness. No processes we are aware of. Our perception, cognition, emotion, action, volition, executive control, all those sorts of processes are not done in consciousness. We are just aware of the outcomes and sometimes important signposts or steps on the way to outcomes. In other words we have consciousness but not a conscious mind because ‘mind’ implies a type of process that we are not conscious of.


This does not mean, as some would have it, that consciousness is useless or that philosophical zombies are possible. No, consciousness is an integral part of how the brain functions. It has got to be because it is too expensive to be useless. Also our behavior is different without consciousness for any extended period of time. We need to figure out its role but that will be awkward if we keep thinking of consciousness as a mind. Mind implies a certain sort of whole person-ness. It implies processes that do not occur in consciousness. And unconscious processes, taken together, also do not add up to a mind – so no unconscious mind either. There is a mind and part of it, a smallish part, is consciousness. The single un-divided mind has a certain sort of whole person-ness.


When are we going to understand this mind? Do not count on it happening in a few years. Don’t hold your breath. The neuroscientists seem to be discovering new questions faster than new answers. Understanding is going to take a while. But in order to get to that understanding, it is time to stop being dualistic in every sense: mind-body, spiritual-material, mental-physical, conscious-unconscious.