CHAPTER 6: Consciousness and Its Consequences


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the human dilemma, touching every domain of our existence.

The dilemmas of subjectivity and mind-body dualism are reflected in a wide variety of “symptoms” of modern life. For example, to name a few: fascination with consumerism, convenience, entertainment, and various forms of virtual reality; obesity, lack of physical fitness, and basic contempt for the needs of the body (while it is no contradiction that consumer society is obsessed with physical culture, fitness, and dietary fads, it is no surprise that such regimes do not work when the underlying mentality is disrespectful of the body’s needs—as it is of other peoples’ needs and rights and those of the planet); narcissism, pornography, and sexual materialism; the callous self-serving of elites and of consumers’ willful ignorance regarding the ecological and human costs of privilege.


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We hardly trust our senses…nor our own intuitions and common sense.           

Of course, skepticism is not new or unique to western culture. While differently premised, many traditions eastern and western, ancient and modern, reject mere “appearances” in favor of a transcendent reality, often defying common sense. They may propose abstractions in which the difference between something and nothing is vanishingly subtle. (In Vedanta, for example, the ontology is non-dual, but depends on the alleged ubiquity of “consciousness,” even in deep sleep, to prove that it is the fundamental unchanging reality. This is pure idealism. But the modern scientific tradition is equally reductive: ultimate reality resides in such abstractions as the false vacuum, Higgs fields, etc.) They tend to demote the independent reality of nature, either by dismissing it as illusion or by according greater reality to some abstraction. Oriental idealist systems of thought view the separation of subject and object less as an ideal than as an illusion to overcome. There the problem of knowledge is not so much about sorting appearances, verifying experience, or discovering the true nature of the external world—for these are also regarded as illusory. “Enlightenment” serves to liberate one from such illusions altogether and to grasp one’s union with some ultimate reality beyond appearances.


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…only from this unique perspective and not from the perspective of any other thing.

Philosophers are fond of imagining hypothetical exceptions. For instance: if your brain was somehow hooked up to someone else’s body and eyes half way around the world…

In daily life, of course, one assumes that other people are conscious like oneself. We accept their verbal reports about their own inner states as true. However, such reports are actually a form of behavior, leaving open the question of consciousness. This issue was famously explored by Alan Turing, who proposed a “test” consisting of pointed questions: if the “thing” in question (a robot, for example) responds in ways indistinguishable from a real person, then it must be a real person.


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On the other hand…human freedom remains at least conceivable.

Ironically, determinism (itself an idealist notion) has traditionally been combated with other idealist notions, such as a soul that is beyond the reach of determinism because it is immaterial; or the belief that the cosmos itself—while material—is alive or conscious (pansychism). These simply express the dualism that incidentally gives rise to the notion of determinism in the first place.


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We have incorporated this category in language… as well as in concepts of religion, psychology, and law.

The dark side of this equivalence of self and other is that, when we wish not to accord rights or courtesies to others, we can simply deny that they are persons at all. The status of being human represents a social contract to respect the subjective as well as objective being of others. Within the deep psychological history of our species, human beings (as distinguished from animals, for example) are traditionally the members of one’s own group. Members of other groups are not necessarily accorded the privilege of this status. They have at various times even been regarded literally as fair game (cannibalism is a practice among other primates as well). Certainly, they have often been enslaved. Under patriarchal society, women and children generally have been chattel. We retain the prerogative to regard other people as objects for use.

This dilemma may have been one of the social motives for religion in the first place. That is, in support of ethics, it may have seemed necessary to conceive of the person as essentially immaterial—spiritual—in order to overcome the potentially derogatory status of the body as a mere object. Religion serves society by affirming the worth of ‘the other’. The mechanist view of the body had forced Descartes and others to make a clear, if artificial, distinction between the animal and human: in addition to being a material body, a human person, unlike an animal, was also a spiritual soul.

In Latin and French, the same word indicates both conscience and consciousness. In its modern sense as a private inner life, consciousness is arguably an outgrowth of conscience, which literally means ‘knowing together’. Such shared knowledge concerns the common well-being of the community. (It would not necessarily have referred yet to a private sense of moral knowing, in the modern sense, if no interior mental space was yet distinguished from the collective perception.) Individual consciousness might have been an historical outgrowth of this collective knowing, in a circumstance where the moral sense was obliged to become internalized as an individual matter. This could have been the case, for example, where consensual understanding could no longer prevail because of the disturbing effect of other customs and ways of thinking. (See: Julian Jaynes The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind Houghton Mifflin 1976.) Without a solid collective basis, conscience would be deprived of apparent moral objectivity and become a mere personal prerogative, a function of an interior life. Morally charged precepts would be at risk of becoming neutral percepts, a mere ‘content of consciousness’. In the emerging development of subjectivity, values would henceforth be a matter of individual experience first, regardless of what other reality might also be assigned to them.


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…rather than objects found in experience, let alone found in the world.

Husserl points out that it is a mistake to treat phenomena as objects like the real objects to which they point, for the simple reason that this invokes a logical regression. Objects of attention are normally real external things. If we then suppose that some inner object is created to represent them, we must apply the same reasoning to the inner object and conclude that something interior to that is created to represent it in turn. This is equivalent to the Cartesian regress of subjects, in which an inner subject watching the “screen” of consciousness requires another subject within it… and so on.


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…to appropriate to human agency aspects of the world presented in experience.

In contrast, unbracketed emotion responds impulsively with the action implied in the feeling state. (For example, hatred implies the desire to destroy.) One is more or less doomed to act out the impulse if one cannot consider the feeling merely as sensation taking place within the confines of the body. Of course, disarming emotion in this way is not always desirable; but the ability to do so is crucial to society. Emotion is also integrative, in the way that perception of the world is generally. Like perception, it involves cognitive judgment, synthesis of appearances, and focus on external objects—often other people. The disintegrative ability to bracket emotion is a counterbalancing and equally necessary function of self-consciousness, a check on the excesses of the realizing faculty. It is the basis of certain meditation practices, which train attention to the bodily locus of experience as sensation.


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…cognition involves a joint contribution…to behavior and to subjective experience.

While the problem of consciousness involves reconciling the first-person and the third-person points of view, we have noted that all accounts are necessarily first-personal. A third-person scientific description is ultimately a first-person account by the scientist, camouflaged through the niceties of grammar. Classical physics notwithstanding, there is no such thing as “impersonal” experience, no view from nowhere and no-when.


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Everything remains implicitly external and alien to the observer…

One could redraw the gross-level demarcation between world and observer, by considering the physics (or physiology) of the observer’s perceptual system as part of the experimental apparatus; but, again, there would by definition be a conscious subject standing apart from this arrangement—someone to observe the expanded system. The demarcation between subject and object could be redrawn yet again, to include the neurology of the observer’s brain. Yet, once again (and now paradoxically) a conscious subject outside the system is still required to observe the system, which is now supposed to include the conscious subject’s brain as part of the system observed. The observer’s brain is held to be responsible for her consciousness, yet her consciousness is required to be independent of her brain!

Bohr gave a celebrated analogy of this situation. Consider the ambiguity of the cane in the hand of a blind person (or someone in a dark room). The cane may either be gripped to serve as an extension of the tactile sense, to feel the room. Or, it may be held in a more relaxed way, in which case one attends to the sensation in the hand provided by the cane itself. Either way, one wishes to gather information about the world beyond the tip of the cane or the hand; for this purpose, it matters little whether the cane is considered part of the subject or part of the object. What is important, however, is how the physical nature of the cane affects what can be known about the room. In other words, one must understand how physical processes peculiar to the situation mediate knowledge, as well as how cognitive processes peculiar to the subject mediate it.


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…it led to the problems that gave rise to relativity and quantum physics.

A crisis had been building in late 19th century physics, owing to the problematic nature of light. As a wave-like phenomenon, light seemed to require a medium for transmission; if so, it should be possible to detect the motion of the earth through this medium. (As with sound, it seemed that motion relative to the medium ought to affect the measured speed of transmission.) All attempts to detect this effect had failed, however. Einstein’s brilliant insight was that the whole problem arose, so to speak, from ignoring the epistemic circumstance of the observer, which included unrecognized assumptions about time.

Newtons’s objective view of the world presumed an absolute ordering of the sequence of events—an absolute time, taken for granted by his successors. In the case of sound, it takes some time for a signal to reach its destination, which can cause confusion about the timing of events. As visual creatures, we rely on light’s seemingly instantaneous transmission to tell us the “true” order of events. Hence, the notion of absolute time had not been challenged before the 19th-century crisis that involved the actually finite speed of light. Einstein realized that the same problem of relative timing encountered with sound signals plagued timing with light signals as well. The problem was that there was no truly instantaneous signal to set us straight—nothing to back up the notion of absolute time. Physical measurements had to take into account the finite speed of the “yardstick” of light and the state of the observer’s motion. The epistemic situation of the observer (in this case speed of movement) had to be considered in formulating the physical view of nature.

A similar “relativization” soon occurred in the discoveries of the new science of the atom. The paradoxes of the quantum realm also involve light, with its finite wave structure. Here too investigation of the physical world depended on the physical means of investigation. The observer’s active role could no longer be ignored, since choices made in setting up experiments made a difference in results. Subject and object were acknowledged as co-participants in the scientific experience.