I’ve been concerned for a while that consciousness, used by many as a starting point for fairly important moral reasoning, is a shaky concept when we try to utilise it outside its traditional dualist home. I recently voiced my concern to an online acquaintance, saying that outside a dualist framework, there doesn’t appear to be strong justification that “consciousness” is the correct schema to use in tackling important philosophical questions. Sure, I get the feeling of what this is intended to get at. That feeling, that awareness of myself. But I’m into philosophy – I’m not willing to just go on a feeling – I want to see evidence this is the best concept for me to use. And if you strip away the complex obfuscations of us rhetorically nimble philosophers, the basic definitions of consciousness and awareness look suspiciously circular:
Awareness – the state or condition of being aware; having knowledge; consciousness:
Conscious – aware of one’s own existence, sensations, thoughts, surroundings, etc.
This seems to be the most philosophically relevant sense of “conscious” that get’s thrown around too – we’re not talking about the word in the sense of concentrating hard on something; and we’re not talking about the opposite of “unconscious”. Yet this definition is obviously circular. Without independent evidence to justify them, it seems to be a classic if subtle case of begging the question – sneaking the answer into the question itself. Of course, I don’t think that’s the same thing as consciousness being false, but it is, I think, an indication we might be using the wrong concept to approach the subject matter.
Perhaps even more worryingly, this problem isn’t limited to this concept. I began to suspect that we could populate similar circular structures with whatever philosophy-of-mind-framework we like (physicalist, dualist, dual-aspect etc). We could, for example, talk of qualia as evidence of the dualist’s mind, neglecting to identify that qualia’s definition actually revolves around experience, and that’s experience requires an experiencer. The mind hidden at the start of the chain of reason becomes a discovery of supposed evidence later on. Or if we’re in a physicalist mood we could swap experience for neuroscience, and the mind for the brain. Or perhaps idealist language appeals to us. Hide your assumptions in the language, and suddenly anything is possible (like calling everything “physical” or “mental”, and expecting those word’s to retain their original meaning).
Concerned about this development, I was compelled to consult Broad’s well-known list of philosophies of the mind for other options (hint: near the end of the paper). However, even here I was dismayed to recognise that horrid circle subtlety etched into Broad’s language. He chooses to talk about unjustified entities as “delusionary” and uses this language to declare several forms of neutral monism invalid. Change not using concept X to “concept X is a delusion”, and you’ve planted the seeds that imply a certain philosophy of mind. It’s then trivial for Broad to exclude several ideas – if concept X doesn’t include the possibility of “delusions” as you frame them, then its contradictory. Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh to Broad here, but I can’t help but see the same kind of language trick at work.
So what if all philosophies of mind beg the question in some subtle way? Are various forms of dualism and monism at first glance internally valid, but without real justification? What if the whole field is just a room of linguistic smoke and mirrors?
My friend, a dual-aspect neutral monist wasn’t yet convinced by my circularity argument. He points out that even if the definitions appear circular, it doesn’t rule out there being empirical evidence that independently justify the concepts:
“If Sarah has evidence that Sarah is aware of Sarah’s own existence, then Sarah has evidence that Sarah is conscious”
Ok, so showing circularity is necessary but not sufficient for my argument. But I wonder if this evidence is as sound as it appears? Or more specifically, is this evidence also linguistically flexible. For the sake of argument, let’s try an interesting substitution here:
“If a camera has evidence that the camera is aware of the camera’s own existence, then the camera has evidence that the camera is conscious”
So say we take a camera and get it to take a photo of itself in a mirror (ie. while taking a photo). Is it conscious? In a sense, it does have evidence that it is aware of its own existence – easily shown if we use the awareness definition above that includes the phrase “has knowledge”. In that case, the above statement as true – the camera is really conscious. Still, perhaps we’re being uncharitable – maybe “awareness” of one’s own existence is more than simply having information of one’s own existence. In this case, a simple snapshot in the mirror is not enough.
We might instead say, being conscious, or self-aware, is more like the modelling of thought within thought (a collection of thoughts thinking about itself). So we are aware of ourselves as thinking entities. For you and I, that means thinking in sufficient detail about our own feelings, intentions etc. I think anyone would be hard pressed to deny they do that from time to time.
RIP – all the conscious entities that died here
Yet how often does this occur? Certainly not when I am sleeping. And for most of the day, especially when I’m not doing philosophy or being reflective, I’m not thinking about my own thoughts. I’m thinking “look out for that car” or “that food looks tasty”. And if I’m not “aware” of my own thoughts, and if my self-awareness thoughts are the fabric of my consciousness (whether that consciousness lies upon a physical or mental substance), then I certainly do not have an ongoing coherent object called a consciousness. At best a single conscious entity only flickers into existence briefly, a fleeting moment of self reflection, and then is gone. It’s not even clear that we have justifcation to treat more than one conscious episode as connected – they could be entirely separate objects that cluster around a person in space and time.
Or in other words – if we’re honest with ourself, self-awareness, and therefore being conscious, is a part-time occupation at best.
It seems to me that an object’s defining attributes aren’t a part-time affair. If someone were to say “I am a homo sapien”, then we’d expect them to be a homo sapien all the time. If they briefly altered their DNA to be homo sapien for a brief period a couple of times a day, we wouldn’t accept that label as accurate. Yet that is what appears to occur when we talk of being conscious. We are briefly self-aware, but then our thoughts move on. Perhaps that’s because modelling your own thoughts, your own mind, is pretty darn complex; and the more complex you are, the more complex the modelling you require to create a meaningful representation. Full-time self-awareness is beyond us – even a meditating monk dedicating their life to achieving “consciousness” still has to eat and sleep. Therefore, it’s simply not a defining attribute. It’s more more like something we do from time-to-time.
I suspect some people would attempt to amend consciousness rather than simply discarding it. The chief argument of this kind I have seen is saying consciousness is the unique ability to be self-reflective, even if we’re not actually doing that all the time. Yet, I can’t help but think – is somebody a soccer player because they have the ability to play soccer, or because they actually play soccer? Again, if it’s just something we do from time to time, it’s not worthy as a defining attribute of who we are. Hoping to mend this broken concept simply feels like we’re clutching at straws.
Perhaps using consciousness as the defining human characteristic (especially outside dualism) just isn’t meant to be. Such a problematic starting point throws the while chain of moral reasoning into doubt. Rather than searching for the core of who we are, it seems like we’re taking one of abilities (important though it is), and pretending that ability is literally what we are. Even in the most generous definition of “conscious” I can find, it’s seems inevitable that being conscious is either a completely empty circular tautology, or at best a rare, fleeting, human state. Such disparate flickers of self-reflection don’t seem like justification for the existence of a single coherent entity we can call “consciousness”. It certainly doesn’t equate to a single entity that encompasses “who we are”. You and I are not consciousnesses.
Yet if consciousness has played a role in so much moral reasoning – are we just to discard it? Certainly unpleasant consequences don’t negate logic, but if we are to loosen our grip on this bond, this moral link between you and I, then what can we reach for?
No doubt that topic is beyond a brief article like this. But a logical starting point, I think, is life. Straight-forward, biological life. By seeing ourselves in that context, I think we open the possibility of imbuing all our greatest inventions, our most noble endeavours, our technology, our civilization, our reason, with a purpose. We connect our existence not just to the hedonistic whims of the moment, but with an intricate, awe-inspiring story, that I hope is just beginning to unfold. A story whose central concept is true and sound, requiring no philosophical balancing-act atop a circle of broken logic. Whether you’re a Dualist or Monist, whether Buddhist, Christian, Atheist or whatever else – we’re all living creatures, living together in a difficult universe. If we are to consider moral questions, perhaps this is the best place to begin.