Category Archives: philosophy of mind

What is consciousness?

In Defense of Self Evidence

A self evident proposition is a proposition that any rational person will agree is certainly true upon grasping it. In this post, I will demonstrate that there are self evident propositions.

The strongest argument for the claim that there are self evident propositions is to just list several of them so that the reader can see that some propositions are really self evident. Here are three:

  • There is an objective reality.
  • A thing is identical to itself.
  • I am conscious.

I will explain each of these.

“There is an objective reality” means that there is a fact of the matter about something. For example, if I say that we landed on the Moon, and someone else denies that we landed on the Moon, there is a fact of the matter about which of us is right. The fact of the matter about whether we landed on the Moon is one component of the objective reality in which we live.

The existence of an objective reality is contained in every experience we have. When I experience the fact that my alarm clock is red, I can see immediately that my alarm clock really exists, that it really has certain properties like redness, and that its existence and properties are independent of my mind. This experience shows me directly that there is an objective reality.

“A thing is identical to itself” means that a thing is what it is. A tree is a tree, and has all of the properties required for being a tree. Symbolically, this is often expressed “A is A,” where A refers to anything that exists.

This proposition, called the law of identity, is contained in every thought and every observation we have. When you observe a computer, you also observe that that computer is a computer. When you think of the number one, you can see that the number one is the number one. This is one of the undeniable foundations of rational thought.

“I am conscious” means that I am aware of the world and can identify things that exist using my mind. I can perceive the things that exist, whether they be cars, animals, or anything else that is presented to my senses. I am actually aware of the world.

Obviously, the fact that we are conscious is forced upon us by every perception or thought we have. If I perceive a lamp, I can see that I am aware of that lamp. If I think about Nazi Germany, I can see that my mind is thinking about Nazi Germany. Every act of my consciousness contains consciousness. Thought and perception are undeniable data of experience.

Conclusion

Having gone through these examples of self evident propositions, we can see that there are in fact self evident propositions, since there can be no doubt about the existence of an objective reality, the law of identity, or consciousness.

Some philosophers have raised objections to the idea of the self evident, and I may address those objections in another post. Keep in mind, though, that even if we do not know the answer to some tricky objection, that casts no doubt on the idea of self evidence or the self evident propositions I have enumerated. We can see, just by looking at them, that any objection to these propositions has to fail, even if we cannot identify the error in a specific objection.

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Science and Philosophy

In an earlier post, I argued that neuroscience was relevant to philosophy of mind, because neuroscience provided support for the claim that the brain is not unified in the sense that consciousness is, which is an important claim in philosophy of mind (see the post for elaboration).

I have reconsidered this, because it occurred to me after a discussion with one of my professors that we don’t need neuroscience to know that the brain is not unified like consciousness is. Anyone can see, from the most elementary, pre-scientific knowledge of what the brain is, that the brain is not indivisible. You can’t have half of a mind, but you can have half of a brain.

This is part of a consistent pattern I have observed. Scientific experiments which claim to contribute to philosophical debates always, in my experience, end up falling into one of two traps:

  1. Triviality: The philosophical point the scientific experiment attempts to prove could be argued for equally well from pre-scientific knowledge.
  2. Ambiguity: The scientific experiment can be re-interpreted by opponents of the philosophical claim it attempts to prove.

I’ve yet to see a scientific experiment that didn’t fall into one of these two traps. However good it may be as science, when it is interpreted as an argument for or against a philosophical position it always turns out to be trivial or ambiguous.

This is not to say that you can’t make it easier or harder to hold a philosophical position using science. I would say that scientific discoveries like the theory of evolution have made it harder – not impossible, but harder – to believe in God. I do not mean to say that there is a deductive argument for atheism here, but familiarity with the theory of evolution could give a person the sense that the world is entirely explicable naturalistically, or knock out primitive forms of the teleological argument that formerly served as a basis for faith.

Debate About Dennett’s Theory of Consciousness

This is a pretty good exchange about Dennett’s theory of consciousness. It explains the theory clearly and lays out some objections to it, then the responses that Dennett might make to those objections and so on.

http://www.consciousentities.com/dennett.htm

Neuroscience and Philosophy of Mind

We normally think that our consciousness is unified. We think that our beliefs, desires, and perceptions all have the same subject. For example, it seems like my perception of a computer and my belief that coffee tastes good have the same subject, not multiple disconnected subjects.

However, it turns out that recent neuroscience has a bearing on this belief about consciousness.

From Philosophy of Mind: A Contemporary Introduction by John Heil (p. 85):

Another worry that I have left untouched concerns the unity of experience. On the one hand, the brain is a complex system encompassing endless subsystems. On the other hand, our mental lives are apparently unified. Although we all possess various distinguishable mental faculties, at any given time each of us confronts the universe as a single ego with a single point of view or perspective. (This is so, I suspect, even for persons said to possess multiple personalities.) How is this unity of experience to be reconciled with the widely dispersed and fragmented character of neurological processing?

In recent years, hopes for finding a neurological ‘central processing unit,’ a neurological analogue of a computing machine’s CPU, have receded.

There is no central location in the brain where everything comes together, and that has implications for how we think about the unity of consciousness. One way of interpreting this finding is to conclude that the unity of consciousness is an illusion, which is the interpretation taken by Daniel Dennett. Another way of interpreting this is to conclude that consciousness is unified and therefore distinct from the brain, which is consistent with the dualism of Jonathan Lowe.

This underlines how important it is for philosophers of mind to pay attention to neuroscience in formulating their theories.