What is consciousness? Is it something that only human brains
do? Or is it something much more general - a systems property that we
might call cognition, adaptation, even semiosis?
Many people want to treat consciousness as a "thing" - a soul stuff, a psychic fluid, a mental essence, a quantum resonance, an electromagnetic brain vibration, or some other variety of substance. But here I argue that - dichotomistically - consciousness needs to be understood as a global form.
Of course, to be clear from the start, consciousness involves both mind and matter. Both local substances and global organisation go together to make the total system. But what we take to be remarkable about the brain~mind is not its neurons and neurotransmitters. It is its higher order properties that need to be accounted for by some scientific model.
In ordinary mechanical approaches to consciousness theorising, the mind is taken to "pop out" in essentially mysterious fashion. Neuroscience can offer us a very detailed account of brain architecture, neural codes, synaptic plasticity and the like. Yet it all remains a heap of stuff, just a pile of substance. Nowhere is there a hint of where consciousness eventually becomes part of the story. We cannot find any precursors to the result that appears at the global level.
Here I show how organic logic offers quite a different approach. Although not a simple approach. It does involve dichotomies, but it also combines both kinds of hierarchy - the organic and the mechanical.
The diagram gives the general idea. If we start from the top, the brain~mind is the most specific or intense version of what we are talking about. It is the highly particular example of “mindfulness” that is a conscious human (or animal).
And we find that dichotomous logic does indeed explain a lot about the brain~mind. Neuroscience has its many dichotomies such as the left and right brain, the motor and sensory cortex, the higher and lower nervous system, the “what” and “where” processing paths, nature and nurture as the opposing forces of neurodevelopment.
There are also the key dichotomies we use at a psychological level of description – what it is like from the inside. We have ideas and impressions, attention and habits, focal and fringe awareness, the figure and ground of perception.
So everywhere we look, we find a two-ness. But also hierarchies. The cortex for example is constructed of a hierarchy of synapses, neurons, columns, cortical areas and lobes. The cortex also has its hierarchy of processing areas. So the right kind of logic for modelling the brain~mind would be one to which both dichotomies and hierarchies come naturally. And we know which one that is!
Organic logic helps make sense of the brain~mind simply as a system in its own right. But remember we also want to tackle the larger question of “where does consciousness come into the picture?”. We need to explain not just the dichotomous architecture of the end results but also where awareness first begins to dawn in an organised system.
As we have said, mechanical logic offers two equally unconvincing alternatives. Either consciousness just pops out as a global property – it supervenes and we can offer no further causal explanation – or consciousness must be one of the system’s local properties. The brain’s atoms, or microtubules, or dendrites, or pyramid cells, or whatever, must be already sentient building blocks. Enough of these building blocks heaped up in one place will make a conscious brain. Of course this very popular approach simply begs the question. It still does not say why any kind of material system - microtubule or whole brain - should light up with awareness.
But organic logic instead reduces the awareness of the human mind to more general kinds of knowing or cognition. This is a pansemiotic approach rather than a panpsychic one. We can see that to be alive is to be aware on a larger or more general spatiotemporal scale. A species, for example, comes to know a world - to be mindfully adapted to it - over many generations and much geography. Then to be a dissipative system, like a star or tornado, would be an even more generalised kind of knowing of the world.
Finally we can reach right out to brute physics, the material realm, and argue that here we have a knowing, a mindfulness, in its most dilute and uncontroversial sense. We are well used to the idea of universal laws reaching down to constrain individual particles and events. The global scale is “aware” in a way that controls the local scale. By creating a trail of causality likes this, we can hope to naturalise consciousness.
For an introductory text on the architecture of consciousness
and the evolution of the human mind, see
these three pages.
For a collection of various articles and book chapters on the mind, see the readings page. This has articles about wolf children, Freud, head transplants, parapsychology, zombies and much more.
two myths about the mind
But before you head off, there are two myths about the mind that may be worth focusing on from the start.
MYTH ONE - Consciousness is instant and effortless.
Because consciousness seems so easy and direct, it is normal
think of it as being like a mirror of reality. What we see is really
out there rather than being a heavily edited and interpreted
A first telling fact is that being conscious is actually hard work. Our brains account for a fiftieth of our body weight yet consume about a fifth of our energy. Brain cells are hungrier than hard working muscles.
But no matter how red hot they become, brain cells cannot do their job instantly. On some well-insulated pathways, nerve signals can travel at over 100 miles an hour. But mostly, the signals between neurons are travelling at just a few miles per hour.
This means that the picture the brain constructs of the world must lag behind events. It takes time - a minimum of a fifth of a second, and perhaps as long as half a second - to finish all the activity that goes into producing a conscious state. The feeling of being there as things happen is one of the many clever "behind the scenes" corrections that the brain has to make to create an artificially stable sense of the world.
Another such correction is the way the brain hides the fact that our eyes jump about, taking the world in as a series of brief snapshots. Or the way it subtracts our own movement from the sensory picture so that we can shake our head about and yet the world stands still.
The general point is never be fooled by how consciousness seems. Awareness is a grand production and a lot has to happen before the brain can arrive at a settled, meaningful, interpretation of a moment. For this reason alone, simple "one trick" explanations of consciousness are a non-starter. There is a huge amount going on during every moment of awareness and any theory of mind will have to do justice to the full cycle of processing.
MYTH TWO - Minds are something with which we are born.
Another "obvious" fact is that minds come ready-made. When we are born, the mind is like a seed. It is underdeveloped but contains all the genetic information needed to grow into an adult human consciousness.
However all the higher mental abilities of humans, such as the ability to introspect, to control the recall of memories, to direct internal train of thoughts, to manipulate mental images, to construct complex emotional roles, are based on language. We learn to speak and through the vocabulary and speech rhythms of our societies, pick up the many habits of thought that humans have developed to extend the reach of their minds.
Our minds are a combination of biology and culture - a point which is important if only because it means that a theory of mind has rather less to explain than usually believed. We don't have to look for memory in the circuits of the brain, just the ability to recognise. Or introspective awareness, just an outwardly directed perceptual response.
So remember. Mental states are models of the world rather than a naked experiencing of the world. And the human mind is different from an animals because of language and the new expanded habits of thought that language allows.