On Philosophy

October 11, 2007

Moments Of Consciousness

Filed under: Mind — Peter @ 12:00 am

On previous occasions I have argued that consciousness is a kind of process, a time extended phenomenon. By time extended phenomenon I mean something that is defined in part by the changes it undergoes. For example, the property of “getting larger” is a time extended one, we can only say that something is getting larger if at previous moments it was smaller and at future moments it will be larger. And since “getting larger” is a time extended phenomenon a single moment is not enough to determine if something has this property, because in a single moment it is not changing in size. Of course it remains to show that consciousness is such a property, but I don’t think that is too hard of a task. Consider, for example, a person who is frozen in time for some duration, who doesn’t change physically in the least. Such a person, when unfrozen, would obviously consider themselves to be unconscious during that period, since from their perspective it would appear as if time had suddenly jumped forwards. Clearly then consciousness doesn’t depend on just the physical properties at a moment of time, otherwise they would have been conscious for that entire period, but on how those properties are changing. But of course that is simply an appeal to a kind intuition, there is also a theoretical reason to think that consciousness is a time extended phenomena. The theoretical reason comes from the definition of what constitutes a conscious experience. As far as we can determine an experience is conscious if and only if it is in some way able to be reflected upon or built upon by future mental states (future experiences). An experience that fails to fulfill this condition will not be considered conscious by the person who is supposedly experiencing it, as they will be unaware of it. Since experience is a necessary part of consciousness, and experiences are a time extended phenomenon, so consciousness must be as well.

But, despite these arguments, consciousness is not experienced as a time extended phenomenon. From the inside, so to speak, it appears that we have consciousness that exists from moment to moment, and which in no way depends on previous or past moments to exist. It appears to us that we are conscious now, and, since we can make that judgment based only on a single moment’s worth of experience, consciousness must not be a time extended phenomena, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to know if we were conscious by considering just that moment. Of course none of this is really an airtight argument for the claim that consciousness is not a time extended phenomenon, but it certainly seems to us that it isn’t. And certainly we should be granted some authority with respect to our own consciousness, at the very least it would seem that we are owed an explanation as to how we can be so drastically in error about it.

As I see it the solution is not to give in to our intuitions about consciousness, but rather to explain them and explain why they can be in error. To do that we must first reflect about where we can legitimately invoke our first person authority with respect to consciousness. I would agree that we are the final judges when it comes to the content of consciousness, what we are conscious of. If we think that we are conscious of something then indeed it is part of our consciousness, and if we would deny that we are aware of it then it is unconscious. But there is more to consciousness than its content. Obviously there must be unconscious forces at play that determine what we are and aren’t conscious of. And when we attempt to capture consciousness in our theories we try to describe more than what we are conscious of, but these unconscious forces that structure and give rise to consciousness itself as well. Because simply describing the phenomenon as experienced is a poor explanation, we already know what we experience, what we want to know is why we experience what we do, as we do, and why we experience anything at all instead of nothing. Obviously answering these questions requires more than simply a description of experience.

Thus my explanation of the fact that consciousness seems like a phenomenon that exists in singular moments is to claim that it simply seems that way to us because each experience is centered on a specific moment. Obviously experiences contain some remnants of previous experiences, because they are connected with each other and not totally separate events. But most of the content of any particular experience is focused on the new thoughts and new sensations that occurred at that moment. Thus the content of consciousness, what we are conscious of, is primarily particular moments. That means that in our experience of consciousness what we encounter is moments, and so, in experiencing the moment, we conclude that the moment is conscious, and thus that we are conscious in that moment, regardless of the future or past. But that is simply an artifact of the way we experience things, not a reflection of the way that consciousness works. We can imagine beings which do not have experiences centered around particular moments, instead their experiences might contain all the information that was experienced during that particular period of consciousness, and that this experience simply grows as time progresses, without losing past moments. To such beings consciousness would seem stretched over an ever-growing length of time. But this is no more of a reflection on how consciousness really works than how we experience things is. And so I conclude that, despite the fact that consciousness may appear to us as if it exists in single moments independently of other moments, there is no problem with holding that consciousness is really a time extended phenomenon.

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