Philosophy Word of the Day – Consciousness

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Explaining the nature of consciousness is one of the most important and perplexing areas of philosophy, but the concept is notoriously ambiguous. The abstract noun “consciousness” is not frequently used by itself in the contemporary literature, but is originally derived from the Latin con (with) and scire (to know). Perhaps the most commonly used contemporary notion of a conscious mental state is captured by Thomas Nagel’s famous “what it is like” sense (Nagel 1974). When I am in a conscious mental state, there is something it is like for me to be in that state from the subjective or first-person point of view.

But how are we to understand this? For instance, how is the conscious mental state related to the body? Can consciousness be explained in terms of brain activity? What makes a mental state be a conscious mental state? The problem of consciousness is arguably the most central issue in current philosophy of mind and is also importantly related to major traditional topics in metaphysics, such as the possibility of immortality and the belief in free will. (Continue article)

(Via Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

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4 thoughts on “Philosophy Word of the Day – Consciousness

  1. Thanks for the reply; and yes, I see that we both agree that consciousness can’t be reduced to the naturalistic story. Also, in my own way, I believe we are composed of both body and soul–body/physical processes and soul/purposefulness divinity. Take care Chris.

  2. Hi bwinwnbwi,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Consciousness is a fascinating topic, isn’t it? It looks like we both agree that consciousness can’t be reduced to physical processes, but I see the separation between the two as more radical than you do, I think.

    As a Christian theist, I believe human beings are composed of both body and soul — that we each are, fundamentally, a soul that possesses a body. I also believe that this soul will survive death so that we continue to exist after our physical bodies perish.

    Philosophically speaking, I think there are good reasons to believe that our conscious lives aren’t just the result of brain activity and other physical processes. It would take a long time to describe those reasons here, but I’ve mentioned a few on posts on the topic, here:

    and here:

    One of the biggest challenges I see for providing a naturalistic account of consciousness is explaining free will. There seems to be an unbridgeable divide between explaining our behavior in terms of chains of purely physical causes and effects, and the purposes and reasons for which we know that we act. I’m typing this message because I have a goal and purpose in mind, not simply because specific chemical and physical reactions occurred in my body. Since purposefulness and teleology aren’t properties of anything physical, but my actions are, my actions can’t be reduced, I would argue, to merely material processes.

    So I think the naturalistic story fails to account for how we actually experience our conscious lives and the world. Instead, I think the dualistic account of Scripture — that we are both body and soul — makes much better sense of these things. Have you ever considered that possibility?

    Thanks again,

  3. I agree. Consciousness is one of the most important areas of study and my comment below is one of the many possible answers to: “But how are we to understand this? For instance, how is the conscious mental state related to the body? Can consciousness be explained in terms of brain activity? What makes a mental state be a conscious mental state?”

    I take exception to the total reduction of consciousness to physical causality; that said, there is a place for physical causality in consciousness. Here are my four questions (and answers) which, hopefully, make this assertion more clear (thanks for the opportunity to post):

    Q. What kind of automaton, e.g. the brain, a computer, a cell, and so forth, could generate consciousness?

    A. The kind of automation that could generate consciousness would be a structure that evolves both in time (in terms of complexity) and outside of time (in terms of logical implication) and ends up in the experience of the “implicative affirmative of the not-me-self” — or the loop of self-reference that continually implies “I”.

    Q. What is the what, how, and why of consciousness?

    A. Purely physical explanations work for the what and the how of consciousness because the why of consciousness is embedded in the physical event of consciousness. But, it is in this physical event where you find also the “function of consciousness.”

    Q. What is the function of consciousness?

    A. As stated above, consciousness is an adaptation (many) in our evolutionary past. These adaptations, at the structural level of (b~b~bb), culminate in freewill, i.e. the implicative affirmative of the not-me-self. Free will is the defining characteristic of what makes humans human. Free will also allows for improvement of other skills, e.g. motivation, better flexibility (like learning), social coordination, and better cognition.

    Q. Where does the brain come in? How are your subjective experiences explainable by neurons and synapses?

    A. The short answer to the above question is that the physical processes used to explain our experienced environment are not independent of consciousness on any level. However, in the same respect, consciousness can’t exist independent of physical process either. (This is the source of the problem at the quantum level of experience–but that’s a story for another occasion).

    The language used below is probably not familiar. It is helpful, though, when one begins to see experience in terms of an evolving structured duality (think two-sided coin here)–the structure of universe/consciousness.

    Because synchronic structure rises on the back of negation, the liberation process is not limited to biological evolution. At the next synchronic level (the level substituting for the psychological/mind concept), a more evolved species of life is the result. On this higher structural level, when at one pole (the empirical side) continuity occurs in discontinuity and, at the other pole (the freedom side) discontinuity occurs in continuity, the experience of “mind” is produced. Diachronically speaking, the content embedded in this structure is the human experience of self-consciousness occurring in a physical event. Discovered in this structure is the potential to produce a great deal of content, but, the actualization of this potential takes place along the liberation path in the form of the objectification of self-nature and culture, (the reciprocal movement occurring between mind and event). Structure, at this level (the physical event of a thinking person), becomes the story of civilization (both in its “ups” and “downs”). Think of the physical event of a thinking person, first as unexposed film and second, via the illumination of the implicative affirmative of the not-me-self, as the film development into human history, the history of human freedom, i.e., the liberation of the human struggle to survive, overcome poverty, ignorance, injustice,–to overcome all the physical and psychological afflictions that subvert the actualization of human potential.

    Thanks for the opportunity to post!

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