On Philosophy

October 31, 2006

Self-Consciousness and Consciousness

Filed under: Mind — Peter @ 1:23 am

Previously I have pointed out self-consciousness as one property of the mind that is essential for experience to be conscious. (see here) I still think that this is the case, but given some of the other theses about conscious that I hold, it is probably in need of some clarification. Specifically, the mind must be able to be self-conscious, but it doesn’t have to be self-conscious when it is having every experience; it is enough that in some future moment, related in the correct way to the past experience, it is self-conscious.

Of course if we believe that self-consciousness is usually present in some form or another, which seems quite reasonable, this particular distinction may seem irrelevant. I have only made it because there are some times in life were it may seem, on retrospect, that we have been consciousness without any self-consciousness, and additionally it highlights some of the peculiarities in the way we decide whether a moment was conscious, a point I have also brought up elsewhere.

An example of such a time, in which we might be conscious without having self-consciousness, is a period of time where we are completely absorbed in some activity (absorbed in the world), a time when we “lose ourselves” in the world. However, we can remember what we experienced at that time, and of course if we remember something we remember it as being conscious, and so when we reflect upon it later it seems most natural to say that our experiences at that time were conscious. Let us assume that situations such as this can really happen as I describe them, and it isn’t the case that there is some minimal self-consciousness present (which seems possible, but is not a point we need to press). Should we then give up self-consciousness as a requirement for consciousness, or should we give up our judgment that those remembered experiences were conscious?

We should do neither. The seeming dilemma that we are presented with here is caused only by a poor approach to the problem, and not by a real difficulty. Our approach is flawed in two ways. First it assumes that we can meaningfully ask whether some moments are conscious by themselves. My position on consciousness is that it is a property that can be said to apply to some temporally extended system. A single moment, or a small set of moments, then is simply not the kind of thing that can be properly said to conscious, outside the context of the rest of the temporally extended system, just as you can’t meaningfully ask of a part of a statue if that part is a statue. The second problem comes from our treatment of every moment as belonging to the same person, and thus leading us to conclude that if the experience is conscious at one moment it must have been conscious earlier as well, since it is the same person who it is or isn’t conscious for. (See my arguments against identity over time here.)

Of course this may seem like solving the same problem twice, and in conflicting ways. Approaching consciousness as a property of a temporally extended system tells us that there is no real problem because those moments without self-consciousness are properly part of a larger conscious system, which includes is self-consciousness at later moments. On the other hand, we can also attempt to solve the apparent problem by arguing that the experiences lacking self-consciousness are conscious to the person at the later time, who possesses self-consciousness, but not to the person at the earlier time, who doesn’t. And so it may seem like these approaches are pulling us in opposite directions. Of course these are both approaches that I advocate, and since I don’t have multiple personalities you can safely assume that there is some fundamental unity. The unity is this: when considering consciousness as a temporally extended system there are no rules about which moments begin the system and which moments end it. Of course you could consider the person’s entire life as one system, and this is what we are naturally inclined to do, but you could also take smaller portions of it and determine if they were conscious, independently of each other. So our second approach, arguing that the experience is conscious to the person at one moment, and not to the person at the earlier moment is like taking the two periods of the person’s life and determining if they are conscious systems independently. Of course you could argue that only taking the full extent of the person’s life as a conscious system is a valid way of examining the person, and that is probably fair in some ways, but one can’t recover identity over time from it, since if the person’s consciousness “branches” then there will be two temporally extended systems to study, which share in common some initial moments. Of course this doesn’t pose any problems when determining if they are conscious, since our definition of a conscious system is not based upon the notion of a temporally extended person.


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