On Philosophy

September 16, 2007

Consciousness Is Relatively Unimportant

Filed under: Mind — Peter @ 12:00 am

Obviously we study consciousness, like we study everything, because we are curious about it. Consciousness, however, seems to draw a lot of attention; certainly more than is given to many subjects. I think it does so because we naively divide the world into inner and outer parts, the inner world being us and our experiences, and the outer world being everything else. Given that we have a fairly good grip on the outer world that just leaves the inner world to contend with. And I think that people assume that by understanding consciousness we can understand that inner world.

That is a bad assumption. Everyone admits that there is more to the inner world then just consciousness. Which leads to a division of the inner world into conscious and unconscious parts. But there is a tendency to push the unconscious to one side, to treat it as a footnote to consciousness. Because we are not constantly aware of its existence there is the temptation to assume that it doesn’t really matter, and that the mysteries of the inner world are to be unraveled by a consciousness centric approach. And that is a mistake, both in the clean division between conscious and unconscious mind and the assumption that consciousness is the more important of the two.

To make an analogy I would claim that consciousness is like the everyday world of light, sound, and texture. That world is simply an “illusion”, not a false picture, but an incomplete picture. Really understanding the external world requires understand what is going on behind the scenes, that which gives rise to the familiar phenomena. Even though the familiar phenomena reflect what is really going on we can’t simply read off that information from them; how the world really works has to be discovered through laborious experiment, it is not obvious from the use of our senses. I would argue that we are in a similar situation with respect to consciousness. Obviously consciousness is what we immediately confront when we deal with the inner world, just as we immediately confront light and sound when dealing with the outer world. And I would contend that we are unlikely to understand consciousness, or the inner world at a fundamental level by studying it directly, just as we would never have discovered anything interesting about the external world by reflecting on our experience of it. In both cases, it seems to me, what is required is a study of the things that aren’t directly available, and from them an understanding of the immediately accessible phenomena will emerge.

But of course the fact that I can make this analogy doesn’t make it a good analogy. Thus let me provide some of my reasons for thinking that consciousness is a small and relatively unimportant part of the inner world. Consider then the fact that we do not define ourselves as a particular consciousness but as a particular person (agent), who is defined by their memories, desires, dispositions, and so on. Consciousness is a fleeting phenomena, it disappears in sleep, when zoning out, or from a moderate blow to the head. But such disruptions in consciousness, by themselves, don’t bother us; we don’t care that one consciousness exists now and that another will exist some time later, what matters is that they are both expressions of the same person. We only worry about consciousness because it is the vehicle through which who we are is expressed. And the person is a mental construct that exists primarily outside of consciousness. Although who we are shapes our consciousness, the direction of our thoughts, only a small fraction of it is ever part of our consciousness at a single time (due to its complexity, it is too “big” for us to be aware of all the details at once). So, from a stance of what is important to us, consciousness itself is relatively unimportant, at least compared to the rest of the mind.

Another reason to believe that consciousness is less important then we might think is the observation that consciousness is not totally in control. Intuitively we think of consciousness as the driver of the mind, a natural way to look at things since we consider ourselves in charge and consciousness constitutes our perspective on the world. But consciousness is not in charge, although it is not powerless neither is it like a driver who makes all the decisions. Consciousness is directed, in many ways, by other parts of the mind. What information makes its way into consciousness, which ideas hold our attention, which new thoughts spring unbidden into mind, all these things are ways in which other parts of the mind direct consciousness, and thus ways in which consciousness is not in control. Of course we are in control, since, as established earlier, we do not identify ourselves with an episode of consciousness, but as a person, and it is the mostly unconscious structures that define this person that are directing consciousness from behind the scenes (at least in many cases). This makes sense if we understand consciousness as playing a particular function within the mind, as a process that brings intelligence to bear on the problems at hand. Certainly this seems to agree with our experience of consciousness. When intelligence is not needed (such as when we completely zone out) there is no consciousness. And what we are conscious of is usually only things that need thinking about. For example, I am conscious of the content of what I intend to write, but the exact words are supplied by what seems to be an unconscious process, with consciousness then getting a chance to review them in order to improve tricky sentences, and so on. Of course this isn’t a scientifically verified conclusion, just an informed guess. But if it is somewhere close to the truth then it explains a good deal, and points to the fact that consciousness is simply one part of the inner world among many.

So to understand the inner world what we want is a better understanding of the person, what I would call in general “agents”. To understand an agent is not to understand the physics behind how the agent works, we already have a pretty good grip on that in the human case. What we want is an understanding of the agent’s internal structure. How it models the world, how it learns, how it processes information, how its desires influence its behavior and are in turn influenced by experiences. When we understand these things then we will understand ourselves and our inner world. Obviously consciousness is one part of the puzzle, but it doesn’t stand by itself; and even if it could be understood by itself it still wouldn’t provide the understanding of ourselves or our inner world that presumably motivates its study in the first place.

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