We saw in a previous post how the view that we have of the world and of our self, the outer and the inner view, is transparent. We described how phenomenal transparency turns the representation of a single world and a single moment into a transparent presence. It would seem that a human subject cannot experience either the world or itself as anything but a transparent unity. Phenomenal transparency is a remarkable quality, although we rarely stop to think about it. When we look out it puts us in immediate and intimate contact with the world beyond our bodies and with our fellow human beings. And when we look in it seems that we are what we see.
Does the fact that we experience this immediacy, that we can feel the wind on our face, enjoy the taste of an apple or know what it is to fall in love, mark us out as uniquely privileged? Many writers have noted that if it were not for this presence, for this consciousness, life would have little or no significance. The universe would whirl but there would be no one to experience it. Is it not therefore a rare and valuable gift?
Yet what might be a gift when we look outwards seems to become deeply troubling when we introspect. It causes us to regard physical brain processes as ‘selves’, when really there are only embodied mechanisms which regulate system responses, just as the immune system regulates specific processes in the body when called into action. Selves are reducible to bodies and cannot be properly understood except in a physical context; like walking, talking and eating, self and self-referenced behaviours are one of the things that human bodies do, but they are not what we are, they are not our identity, and certainly not an identity that we would choose to embrace.
Yet it is difficult for us to see this. Transparency means that the self and intentionality models the body creates cannot be seen as models; rather, ‘we’ appear in those models as selves with self-interest. We can use opaque, cognitive reasoning to challenge this appearance, coming to see rationally that we are confusing the ‘we’ that we feel ourselves to be with the contents of the self-model. We can also perhaps adopt some of the Buddhist ‘skilful means’ of meditation and mindfulness in order to diminish the sense we have of being selves, reducing the intensity of thoughts and emotions that serve the interests of those imagined or hallucinated selves. Yet the sense of being a self often remains troublingly persuasive because the transparency that characterises our outward perspective has leaked into the internal domain.
In such circumstances introspection becomes difficult, if not impossible. It is not surprising that selfhood is 'elusive', defying introspection; after all, it is a virtual object, not a real one. Elusive as they are to rational reflection, the self and subjective perspective seem tangibly real. Whilst we might accept rationally that we are not selves, and that the only perspective we could have is one created by our bodies, we still likely to behave in a thoroughly self-ish manner. We are designed by nature to so behave and it is unlikely that introspection alone will persuade anyone to abandon their attachment to self.
Transparency or phenomenal consciousness is often described as the ‘what is’ or the ‘what it is like’ of an experience. As such, it is a concept founded at least initially on what it is like to experience sensory or perceptual stimuli, on sentience. A practical definition of phenomenal consciousness therefore is the act of becoming or being aware of some object. Thus, when there is an object in consciousness you are conscious. This occurs during waking and dreaming, but not in deep sleep. Even whilst awake conscious awareness is intermittent. We often either ‘day-dream’ or conversely are so ‘in the flow’ that conscious registering of what we are doing is absent.
What we might say is that when phenomenal content is present consciousness is present, but when it is absent consciousness is absent. The phenomenon experienced can be, or is experienced to be, in one of three locations- either in the world outside the body, within or on the surface of the body (for example, a stomach ache or an itch in the foot), or finally in the ‘head’, a rather inexact catch-all for mind or brain, awareness of something which is purely internal, such as a thought or certain emotions (although most emotions are also at least partly physical).
These phenomenal experiences are sometimes described by the Latin word ‘qualia’ (or ‘quale’ in the singular), a term which in modern usage tries to capture the ineffable ‘suchness’ of immediate experience, the subjective quality of a sensation or perception. In this definition, self-consciousness is something approximating what it feels like to be you, to be conscious of something located in the mind or body which you recognise as comprising yourself, a kind of reflexive awareness.
We all know at a very intimate level what it is to be aware of something, say a flower in a vase, a pain in the body, or a thought in the mind. Each of these has some phenomenal content that we can recognise immediately and also introspect upon, even though we may not be able to explain how it arose nor describe coherently what, or even exactly where, it is.
Yet consciousness, and more specifically the consciousness possessed by each one of us, seems the precise point at which solely material accounts of human nature begin to break down; it is difficult for us to see our experiences as equitable to brain processes, even where we accept the physicalist view which maintains that experience is the product of, or at least is mediated by, physical processes. The first-person and third-person perspectives appear to us to be quite distinct.
Consciousness appears to create something quite unique in that it gives to those who possess it a first-hand view of their world. Natural organisms and machines that do not manifest awareness simply operate and act in the world by virtue (respectively) of non-conscious cellular or non-conscious electronic/computational processes; primitive cells and household gadgets (to name but two) can do this without possessing consciousness.
At one level a first-person viewpoint can be described as the set of intelligent discriminations that a system, natural or artificial, can make. We now know enough about artificial intelligence to conclude that machines or non-biological algorithms could become fantastically intelligent (far outstripping human potential) without ever being, or needing to be, conscious. Many machines and artificially-created processes in our environment possess a perspective from which they act without ever being conscious. But some natural animals, including humans, have access to a first-person viewpoint that appears in their subjective awareness.
Once an entity has both a point of view and consciousness, particularly self-consciousness, it seems to move into a unique category of systems that are transparently aware of many of the external and internal representations that they make. Yet consciousness and self-consciousness seem to be subjectively a world apart from an ‘objective’ or third-person account of our nature. The worlds of first-person experience and detached observer appear to be fundamentally different, even irreconcilable. A satisfactory view of consciousness would have to reconcile these two perspectives, but it is doubtful if such a reconciliation has yet been made.
Consciousness has been described as the last great human problem in that we don't yet know how to think about. it There are plenty of unresolved questions in science but there is a scientific method with which to approach them which may one day yield an answer, however provisional. Yet the problem of consciousness appears to be of a different order in that not only do we not know as yet how physical bodies can produce apparently immaterial perceptions and thoughts, we don't know whether anything would be changed by finding out.
The philosopher John Searle has argued that even if we came to know all the necessary causes of consciousness, we would still not know what it is ‘because we are already in the subjectivity…’; for beings possessing consciousness it and subjectivity are the same thing, and there is no viewpoint from which a subject can examine itself. This view is echoed by a number of commentators who see consciousness as irreducible from the perspective of the experiencer, the first-person perspective which is the only one that is available to us. Even those who hold a thoroughly materialist viewpoint of the origins of consciousness are forced to concede that it does not feel from the inside as if it were a purely material phenomenon. For most of us the subjective and objective worlds seem to be too different from each other to be related at all.
Yet I would argue that at least one important fact emerges from these conceptual difficulties. The inner view is clearly problematic. It reveals what our evolutionary inheritance has designed for us to see, namely a needy self. But the outer view discloses to us the presence of a real, material world and of our fellow human beings. When we look out we have a transparent, unmediated view of both those things. And it is upon this outer view that we should focus our collective attention and discover our common identity.