On Philosophy

July 25, 2006


Filed under: Mind — Peter @ 12:40 am

Everyone seems to want to talk about the mind, but few seem willing to come out and define what it is (notably certain externalists I know). This seems strange to me, since my mind and my consciousness are something that I live with everyday. I have thoughts, I feel sensations, there is something it is to be me. Even if I don’t know exactly how the mind works, even if I can be ignorant of the contents of my unconsciousness there is no denying that there is a mind and there is a consciousness to which I have access, since they are me. Furthermore, to make any progress in a theory about the mind we must start with some sense of what the mind is (or else why should we expect to arrive at a theory about it), specifically with definitions that don’t deny my experience of being conscious. To remedy this lack of up front definitions I have constructed those below, concerning the essential components of the mind (and hence those often the subject of philosophic inquiry) in a way that is as theory neutral as possible. I attempt to say what they are based on properties that we observe though our lived experience and on properties that are essential to how we use the words in both our everyday and philosophic discourse. For example it is a necessary part of consciousness that we be aware (or at least able to be aware) of it. Theories that define consciousness to include features that we cannot be aware of are not defining consciousness, but something else, I know not what. Definitions such as these are much like trying to define pain as something else than that which is painful. Sure we are free to also talk about the physical the causes of pain, and those processes that it correlates with, but to define something as pain which is not subjectively painful is to misunderstand what pain is and what we mean by the word.

The Phenomenal Field
A person’s phenomenal field, defined loosely, is everything that makes up their awareness at a given moment. This includes perception of the external world (including bodily perceptions) as well as the awareness of one’s own thoughts (which some construe as perceptions of internal states). A sensation that you are not paying attention to, however, is not part of your phenomenal field, for example even though I am sitting on a chair I am not aware of the pressure supporting me unless make the choice to think about it, and thus for the most part is not part of my phenomenal field. Also, note that I did not define the phenomenal field as what a person is aware of but as their awareness. This is an important distinction, because to assume that there is another viewpoint that somehow watches the phenomenal field is to engage in an unproductive regress, which can lead to numerous problems (as authors such as Dennett often point out).

There is some debate (actually quite a lot) as to what counts as conscious, so I will give the widest possible definition in order to be theory-neutral, as promised. Consciousness then is the collection of everything that you are currently aware of or could be aware of. Thus my example above, of the pressure holding me off the ground, could be considered a conscious experience under this definition, even though it was not part of my phenomenal field at the moment in question. The more restrictive definition of consciousness is simply the phenomenal field (and nothing else), which, as Nagel pointed out, is “what it is like” to be something. Under this view those experiences that one is not currently aware of would be considered unconscious.

The Unconscious
The unconscious then is anything that can have a direct effect on consciousness but is not itself conscious. Specifically the unconscious can cause a mental state to change into one state instead of another, however unlike a conscious thought or perception, which can have this same effect, we are not aware what this altered progression is caused by, or indeed that the progression even requires something unconscious to explain it. For example, consider the unconscious knowledge that is present in patients with blind-sight or unilateral neglect. In these cases a patient may arrive at judgments or make choices that seem guided by unconscious knowledge. However when questioned patients deny that they have such knowledge, and they think that their judgments / intuitions are guided by only the available information, and where no information is available, by random chance. The unconscious “suggestion” functions similarly, the individual suddenly has a desire to do something, but no knowledge where that desire came from, and no knowledge that there is anything unusual about having that desire (even though it seems obvious in some cases that they should). The unconscious can also cause effects such as altered perceptions / altered actions (such as misspeaking). However it is not defined by these powers, since the same effects can be caused by the non-mental (such as tinted glasses or an injured mouth). What defines the unconscious is the ability to directly influence consciousness without being part of it, any other powers it has are not essential to its nature.

I will be brief about what a thought is, since there is a disagreement as to the form/nature of individual thoughts. Thus I will define a thought as part of our phenomenal field that is not a perception of the external world (in this context external world also includes perceptions of the body). Yes, I know that some will argue that not all thoughts are conscious. First let me say that there are definitely unconscious beliefs / dispositions, but I don’t think that anyone counts these as thoughts. However you still might think that there are unconscious thoughts because it may seem that suddenly an idea “pops” into your head, and doesn’t it seem likely that there was a chain of unconscious thoughts leading up to it? I would say that since whatever was leading up to it was unconscious we have no idea exactly what it was, and to claim that they are thoughts presupposes a lot, too much in fact. If we absolutely must invoke them we should call them something else, and leave the word thought as designating those aspects of the phenomenal field that share a common character of being part of an internal conscious process of thinking, otherwise we might construct invalid theories about the structure of the unconscious by generalizing from our conscious thoughts (a fault of some of the original internalists).

Personally I think beliefs are part of the unconscious, and as part of the unconscious they cause various behaviors, govern the flow of conscious thoughts, and create thoughts that mirror the structure of the belief (a belief that X gives rise to thoughts such as “X is true”, “it is a fact that X”, ect). The belief however (much like memory, discussed below) is never part of consciousness, only the thoughts that it gives rise to. This definition is perhaps the most controversial definition I have given here, and it is possibly not as truly theory neural as it could be. This is because how we use the idea of belief seems somewhat confused. Sometimes we mean thoughts of the kind “X is true”, and at other times we seem to mean dispositions, things that govern thoughts but are not thoughts themselves. I have taken a stance on this controversy in my definition, and thus would argue that thoughts such as “X is true” are not beliefs themselves, but are the conscious products of (and evidence for) a belief.

The mind then is simply the unconscious plus the conscious, nothing more and nothing less. At this point one common question some people have is “what about memory?” Memories themselves are unconscious, but they can trigger a conscious “re-living” of an event. But can’t we think about our memories? No, what we can think about are their contents. You can’t think of the memory of your eighteenth birthday, you can only remember the events of that birthday (this is why people can’t simply perform an exhaustive survey of the contents of their memory, and why memories can be lost / suppressed, we simply don’t have that kind of access to it).

How you classify the relation of other things to the mind depends on exactly what kind of theory you are working with. However if you think, as I do, that the mind is dependant on the physical contents of our brains then it is perhaps best to label much of the activity and structures there as unconscious (even though they are physical, paradoxically), because they can have a direct effect on consciousness, but they themselves are not part of consciousness (although you can think of neurons in general, a specific neuron will never be part of your consciousness in the way a specific perception can be). Additionally some things that you may have thought were part of the mind actually aren’t. For example a reflex is not part of the mind. Even though it can be the cause of an action it is not itself directly a cause of any conscious state (although the cause of the reflex and its results may be part of the phenomenal field). This is true even if the reflex consists of a learned pathway in the brain, and even if you have the possibility to suppress the reflex.



  1. Have you read Searle’s “Mind: A Brief Introduction”? He engages in taxonomic activity as you have here, with some overlap. (An outstanding book overall.)

    He argues that the mind involves a certain “subjectivity” (or “first-person ontology”), “qualitativeness”, and “intentionality” (holding things in the mind that seem beyond the mind). Consciousness involves these things, but is also “unified” (in your sense of the phenomenal field, I think), produces moods, senses pleasure and pain, is capable of shifts in attention, pleasure and misery, intentional and unintentional thought and action, a sense of self, and a sense of background information.

    His general outlook, “biological naturalism”, appears to be that those things which are not capable of entering consciousness, are not a part of the mind: “to the extent that the mental state is not even the kind of thing that could become the content of a conscious state, it is not a genuine mental state”. For example, he says that “the secretion of serotonin at the synaptic cleft is simply not a mental phenomenon”.

    I think these are fantastic mistakes. The mind is whatever the functioning brain does, and that includes neurons firing as much as dreams of Genie. It would be arbitrary of us to dump out the unconscious physical processes just because we’re more interested in the conscious stuff, especially if we’re serious about bridging the mind-brain gap.

    Comment by Benjamin Nelson — July 25, 2006 @ 7:15 pm

  2. Yes I have read that book of Searle’s. Several others of his as well. No, I am not a biological naturalist.

    Comment by Peter — July 25, 2006 @ 11:24 pm

  3. You and Searle are both doing two interesting things. The first, as I noted, is a more or less common taxonomy. Your phenomenal field seems to carry much of what he means by unity and attention, for instance; and the rest is par for the course. Second, which is perhaps even more interesting, is that you both are defining “mind” in terms of either being conscious or involving causal connection to consciousness. While this sounds useful, and certainly gets at the paradigmatic topics involved, it also seems susceptible to the criticism that interesting and useful facts about functional (but non-conscious) brain activities are being left behind, like (for instance) a reflex.

    Of course, it just seems like mere semantics until one considers and takes seriously the underlying rationale for critique: namely, that the mind and its mental states are *behaviors* of the brain.

    Comment by Benjamin Nelson — July 28, 2006 @ 7:27 pm

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