Annaka Harris

What Is Consciousness?

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An Excerpt From Conversations On Consciousness, By Susan Blackmore
The following is an excerpt from a conversation between psychologist, Susan Blackmore and philosopher, David Chalmers in Blackmore’s book, Conversations On Consciousness:

Dave: I think someone could know all the physical facts about the world and still not know about consciousness. So if the relationship between brain processes and conscious experience isn’t one of reduction, what is it? Obviously there is going to be a very close correlation and a connection. What a science of consciousness needs to do is to systematize that bridge.

That raises deep questions of metaphysics. What is there in the world? What are the basic components of the world? In physics this happens all the time. Nobody tries to explain, say space or time in terms of something which is more basic than space or time. It’s the same with mass or charge. They end up taking something as fundamental. My own view is that to be consistent we have to say the same thing about consciousness. If it turns out that the facts about consciousness can’t be derived from the fundamental physical properties we already have, like space and time and mass and charge, then the consistent thing to say is, ‘OK, then consciousness isn’t to be reduced. It’s irreducible. It’s fundamental. It’s a basic feature of the world.’

So what we have to do when it comes to consciousness is admit it as a fundamental feature of the world – as irreducible as space and time. Then we need to look at the laws that govern it, at the connection between the first person data of subjective experience and the third person objective physical properties. Eventually we may come up with a set of fundamental laws governing that connection, which are akin to the simple fundamental laws that we find in physics.

Sue: I understand that you want to try out the idea that consciousness is a fundamental principle of the universe, but you were talking there about correlations. Most people, when they talk about the ‘neural correlates of consciousness’, mean that they take one thing (such as a subjective report) – and another thing (such as something they can measure in the brain) – and try to see if they are correlated. Now if you were just saying that, it wouldn’t help would it? I take you to be saying something more fundamental than that – that consciousness is not just one more thing that can be correlated, but that it underlies the world in some way, or that it forms a framework.

You made an analogy with space and time, and space and time in physics are basic principles, used to structure everything else. So if you were going to make that analogy work you would have to say something similar about consciousness. Is that what you are trying to do, and can you do it?

Dave: I am not saying that consciousness structures everything else in the world. All I am saying here is that it is a fundamental feature of the world. The question is how can we get to a theory? How can we have something that looks like an explanation of consciousness when we just have these subjective phenomena and these physical processes in the brain? If all we have as our fundamentals is, say, space and time and mass, then consciousness isn’t even going to get in to the picture. So we put consciousness in to the picture and we study the correlations.

In this picture, everything that’s going on in the study of the neural correlates of consciousness will turn out to be important work. You might say it’s going to be even more important, because by studying the correlations between the first person and the third person we are gradually moving towards those fundamental principles which bridge the divide.

Sue: If consciousness is somehow that fundamental a principle, wouldn’t you expect it to be ubiquitous? Are you coming close to a panpsychic view here, where everything is conscious?

Dave: I think the view that consciousness is irreducible is neutral in the question of whether consciousness is ubiquitous. You could say that it is irreducible but rare. I mean some fundamental properties are rare. There are huge areas of vacuum throughout space in which there is no mass, for example. So maybe there are huge areas in which there is no consciousness.

It is true, though, that it is natural to speculate. After all, it is very hard to draw the line for where consciousness stops. We think people are conscious, almost all of us think chimps, dogs, and cats are conscious. When it comes to fish and mice, some people might deny it. But fish and mice have perceptual fields and it’s plausible that they have some kind of conscious experience. Then you just go further and further down.

My own view is that where you have complex information processing you find complex consciousness. As the information processing gets simpler and simpler you find some kind of simpler consciousness.

Sue: This would lead to a very odd thought though. You say that associated with all kinds of information processing is some kind of consciousness. In a human being there may be multiple sorts of information processing going on at once – I mean different bits of our brain are doing all these different clever things – and only some of them are what we would call ‘my consciousness’. It seems to me you must be saying that there are multiple consciousnesses which I don’t know about going on in this brain here.

Dave: Well – this raises some interesting questions about the self and the subject. This is only speculation, but on a panpsychic view I would imagine that the kind of consciousness that you would find throughout most of the world is incredibly simple and undifferentiated and not very interesting. Some of the time that basic field of consciousness might come together into unified, coherent, bounded objects that we think of as selves. Now what the conditions are for that, I think nobody knows. Maybe it’s got to do with certain kinds of very systematic, coherent information processing. So that means that in the vicinity of my brain there’s this one remarkably coherent system of information processing which corresponds to ‘me’. Now as you say, there are other things going on in my body, and one would have to say that there are experiences associated with those. But those don’t give rise to selves or to subjects, and they have nothing to do with me.

Sue: So would they be more like the sort of consciousness in an animal that had no concept of self?

Dave: Or maybe even simpler. Let’s look at an incredibly simple system like a thermostat. Who knows? Is a thermostat conscious? It would only be speculation, but just say it was. It would at best be a tremendously simple and primitive form of consciousness. One state here, another state there, but nothing corresponding to what we would thing of as thinking, or intelligence, or a self…

Susan Blackmore is a freelance writer, lecturer and broadcaster, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth. She has a degree in psychology and physiology from Oxford University (1973) an MSc and a PhD in parapsychology from the University of Surrey (1980). Her research interests include memes, evolutionary theory, consciousness, and meditation.

David Chalmers is an Australian philosopher specializing in the area of philosophy of mind and philosophy of language. He is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Consciousness at the Australian National University. He is also Visiting Professor of Philosophy at New York University.

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*All of the excerpts on my blog are from books that have stayed with me for some reason—because the concept was awe inspiring, changed how I view the world, was beautifully expressed, or all three. ‎I personally curate all of the book excerpts and always obtain the author’s approval before posting their work on my blog.