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Consciousness—The Metaphysical Nature of Perception

In philosophy, the study of the nature of knowledge is called epistemology. It is the most important branch of philosophy because it answers the most important question of all: what is knowledge? If that question is not answered correctly, all knowledge is in doubt, including all other philosophical knowledge. A better way to put the question, then, since knowledge must be assumed, is what do we know and how do we know it?

The meaning of the word knowledge in epistemology is very specific. The words "knowledge" and "know" are used to mean everything from whatever we are familiar with by experience, "I know what that tastes like," to what an animal has learned, "our dog Sam knows his way home from the supermarket." None of that is what is meant by knowledge in philosophy, however.

Knowledge in philosophy (or epistemology) is the kind of knowledge that is unique to man and is made possible by language. It is called "conceptual" knowledge, because it is held in the form of "concepts" (ideas) for which words are the symbols. To attempt more or to justify this identification at this point would require jumping into the middle of epistemology itself. Part of this epistemology, therefore, will be to justify this identification of knowledge.

Existence and Mind

Knowledge implies two facts: the nature of that which is known, existence, and the nature of that which knows, the human mind.

The first implication is that existence is knowable, that it's nature can be discovered and understood. If this were not true, knowledge would be impossible because there is nothing else to know than what exists and nothing else to know about it than what it is. The second implies the human mind is capable of discovering and understanding the nature of existence. If it could not, no knowledge would be possible.

In more formal language these implications are called axiomatic. An axiom is a proposition that cannot be denied without a contradiction resulting in absurdity. In more formal language the implications might be stated as axiomatic concepts: existence, identity, and mind. These are concepts, however, not propositions; to make them into formal axioms they may be written, "existence exists," "existents have identity," and "the mind can recognize the identity of existents." It is awkward, but necessary to avoid certain kinds of mistakes.

Existence means, all that exists or all there is. Here we must make a slight digression to ontology where we learn that an existent's identity is all its attributes. To say the mind can recognize the identity of existents means it is able to recognize an existent's attributes.

[Note: This does not mean we are able to know everything about an existent, only that those attributes which differentiate an existent from all others, or a class of existents from all other classes, need to be recognized. This is presented at this time without argument beyond the obvious, if we could not recognize the differences in things, which means differences in attributes, we could not recognize them at all. They would, to our minds, all be the same thing.]

If the mind is capable of knowing existence, it must be able to be aware of the existents that comprise it and of those attributes which are those existent's identities. That awareness is what we call consciousness. Existence is what consciousness is conscious of; consciousness is the means by which the mind apprehends or is aware of existence—but, consciousness and that which consciousness is conscious of are distinct and different things.

Consciousness and Existence

The distinction between consciousness and what consciousness is conscious of is of paramount importance to understanding the nature of knowledge. Blurring this distinction has led to endless confusion about both the nature of consciousness and the nature of knowledge.

There are reasons why philosophers have blurred this distinction, however, and one of those reasons is sometimes called the mind verses matter problem. There really is no such problem, however, because it has within it a hidden assumption that once identified eliminates it. But the modern solutions to the supposed problem is worse than then problem itself.

The modern solutions are either some form of "behavioral theory," or a variation of "physicalism." Both are based on the fact that all we can be directly or indirectly conscious of is the physical. The assumption is the physical is, then, all there is, or at least, all we can know. Since we cannot be directly or indirectly conscious of consciousness itself, there either is no such thing as consciousness (the behaviorists) or consciousness is really some kind of physical phenomenon or attribute that "emerges" from physical behavior (physicalism).

Consciousness, A Non-physical Fact

It is true we cannot know anything without consciousness and all we can be directly or indirectly conscious of is the physical. It is easy to be mistaken about what this means, however, and the mistake is the assumption all we can therefore know is the physical. Hidden in this assumption are two other assumptions—that the only facts we can be aware of are those we are directly or indirectly conscious of; which further assumes we are conscious. It assumes it but ignores it, and it is the most important fact of all without which awareness of all other facts would be impossible, the fact that we are conscious.

We are directly conscious of physical existence, and all our knowledge of it is derived from that conscious awareness. We are not conscious of our consciousness itself however. We know we are conscious axiomatically, of course, because it cannot be denied without self-contradiction. The fact of consciousness and the fact that we cannot be conscious of consciousness itself, implies something very important. If the physical is that of which we are directly conscious, and we cannot be directly conscious of consciousness itself, consciousness cannot be physical.

This does not mean that consciousness must then be something mystical or supernatural, which assumes the physical attributes of material existence are all its attributes. That they are not is a matter of metaphysics (the study of the ultimate nature of existence) and ontology (the study of the ultimate nature of material existence) which has been addressed elsewhere.

However, the question of the nature of consciousness and what we can know about it is a matter of epistemology.

Knowledge of Consciousness

None of us would ever suspect there was such a thing as consciousness if we were not conscious ourselves. Behaviorists, and some other hair-brained philosophers, deny consciousness, regarding it as some kind of delusion. That, of course, is the problem with consciousness. What the physical sciences study can be directly observed and demonstrated but we can neither directly observe or demonstrate consciousness. We can only be aware of consciousness, subjectively and by introspection. Just as it would be impossible to prove to a world that was blind we actually see, it would be impossible to "prove" to a world denying consciousness that we really are conscious. We know we can see, not because we can prove it to anyone else, but because we do it. We know we are conscious, not because we can demonstrate it to anyone, but because we are.

Consciousness in other people and other creatures is inferred from their testimony (in the case of people) or their behavior (in the case of animals), but cannot be directly observed. We believe the testimony of others about their consciousness, because what they describe sounds exactly like what we experience, and we have no reason to suspect them of deceiving us. If someone were not conscious, they would have no reason to attempt to fool others into thinking they were. If they were not conscious, they could not know what it is and could have no possible motive for deceiving others about it?

We believe the animals are conscious because their behavior is exactly what we would expect of creatures who are. When we step on the cat's tail, the cat's yowl and it's attempt to return the favor indicates to us the cat not only reacted to a stimulus, but consciously felt pain.

The behaviorist, however, is unconvinced by this "evidence" of consciousness and considers both human and animal behavior explainable entirely in terms of "mechanical-chemical-electrical" reactions of very complex biological machines to external and internal stimuli. The behaviorist's mistake is in supposing it is the behavior that is consciousness. The behavior is only evidence of consciousness, not consciousness itself. There is consciousness even when there is no behavior at all, and pain is a good example. I shall use that example and others to explain what consciousness really is.

The Consciousness We Know

The only consciousness we can know with certainty is our own. We can be certain others are conscious, but what another's consciousness is like, we cannot know at all, because it is impossible to perceive another's consciousness. In the strictest sense, we do not perceive our own consciousness either. We do not perceive our consciousness, our consciousness is perception.

In general we assume other's consciousness is like our own, and there is good reason to assume it. In fact, however, other's consciousness could be quite different, and we could never know it.

Inverted Spectrum

If we try to explain to one another what our consciousness is like, I might provide examples of how we perceive things. For example, I might point to a red car and say, "I perceive that color as red," and you might point to a blue car and say, "I perceive that color as blue." Neither of us will be astonished that we agree on the names of the colors, but if we think we have any more idea of how the other person actually perceives those colors we are mistaken. The actual conscious experience I have when seeing red might be the actual conscious experience you have when seeing blue, and the actual conscious experience you have when seeing red might be the actual conscious experience I have when seeing green. While we both use the same words to identify colors as we experience them, the word for me only identifies the color as I experience it, and for you as you experience it, but our experience could totally different. [It is very unlikely that is true, however.]

To illustrate the subjective non-demonstrable nature of consciousness philosophers sometimes use the example of the inverted spectrum. There is no reason why the conscious experience of colors for different people might not be entirely different and even the exact opposite. For example, the way you and I see the colors of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, (r, o, y, g, b, v), might be reversed—what I consciously experience as "red" you might consciously experience the way I experience "violet" [(me)r—(you)v]. For the whole spectrum then, our corresponding experiences for each color of the rainbow would be: (me)r—(you)v, (me)o—(you)b, (me)y—(you)g, (me)g—(you)y, (me)b—(you)o, and (me)v—(you)r. Since we would use the same names for the same colors, there would be no way for us to know what the other's actual experience of seeing each color is.

The significance of this thought experiment is to illustrate one aspect of what consciousness actually is. It is the actual conscious experience of colors that are seen that is consciousness. Since, hypothetically, the actual conscious experiences of individuals perceiving the same things could be entirely different, philosophers have invented the term "qualia" for the quality of percepts (for example, colors) as they are actually consciously perceived.

The importance of the concept "qualia" is this: there is no objective physical description or explanation for any particular qualia. It is not possible to describe, in any physical terms, what red will look like, or why it looks the way it does, or even how it looks. Only the individual experiencing the "qualia" can know what it is for him.

Tasting is the Only Test

This impossibility of physical description or explanation is true for all percepts. There is no way to determine from the physical characteristics of anything how it will taste, for example, or what any particular chemical will smell like. The only way to know what anything will taste or smell like is to actually taste or smell it.

This, of course, is the reason why it is so difficult to explain what something tastes like to someone who has never tasted it. Unless it has ingredients that one has tasted before, it is, in fact, impossible to describe the taste of a thing.

This is true of all the perceptual qualities. It is the reason why no description of sound can make a deaf person know what sound "sounds" like, and why no explanation can make a blind person know what anything "looks" like. Yet, it is quite possible to explain all the physical and technical aspects of sound to a deaf person and of light to a blind person.

Pain

I mentioned earlier that I would use the example of pain as part of this explanation of what we mean by consciousness. What is particularly interesting about pain is the fact it is not a quality of anything physical. Unlike color, for example, for which there is a corresponding physical attribute (the transmission, reflection, or emitting of light at a specific wave length) there is no corresponding physical attribute of any physical existent that is pain.

All human consciousness is comprised of percepts, and pain is a percept. All perception is consciousness of the physical, and pain is consciousness of the physical. However, it is not consciousness of any physical attributes of any physical existent—it is consciousness of a particular physical state of some aspect of a living organism.

A broken bone is, to consciousness, extremely painful, but a broken bone, as a physical phenomenon, in terms of physics, has no attribute which can be called pain. No x ray, physical examination, or analysis of any kind will find any attribute about a broken bone which can be called pain. The pain associated with a broken bone exists only in the context of a living organism and only to consciousness. Pain exists and is real, it is an indication of a real physical state, but does not itself exist physically, and has no physical attributes or explanation.

There is another aspect of pain that helps illustrate what consciousness is. When I feel pain, I generally react to that feeling, like holding the finger I just hit with the hammer and yelling "ouch!" or something stronger. But I do not have to react at all. I can "ignore" the pain, if I really have to. Nevertheless, I feel the pain just as much—it is the pain I feel that is the conscious experience, not my reaction to it. (So much for behaviorism.)

No Physical Description of Consciousness

I have already described how the perceptual qualities of things, as they are consciously perceived, like the red of a red car, cannot be described or explained in any physical terms. I will now explain why no description of any physical aspect or physical process related to perception explains or describes any perceptual quality or aspect of consciousness.

The short of it is, no matter what physical (mechanical-electrical-chemical) actions are described, that is all they can describe. When the biologist and physiologist have described all that the nervous system and brain have done, they still have not described consciousness—they have only described a complex of physical events, which no matter how complex will never be a description of consciousness or any aspect of it.

The TV in the Empty Room

It has been suggested that given sufficient complexity in the proper configuration, it is possible for a physical process to produce "consciousness." It is supposed, for example, that a complex nervous system like that of the higher animals and human beings in some way "produces" consciousness. Conscious vision, for example, is produced by the nervous system providing information from the eyes that are processed in some way by the brain, which process is "seeing." In fact, no physical process can be vision—even if in some way information reaching the brain from the eye through the optic nerves could be processed into an image, it would be like an image on a TV—but an image on a TV is not vision and can only be consciously seen if someone is watching the TV. The physicalist's description of consciousness is the description of a TV in an empty room. It is not an "image" that is consciousness; it is the "seeing" of the image that is consciousness. Whatever the physical brain does, it cannot itself be consciousness. The behavior of the brain is only more physical action; it only makes available to consciousness what is seen, heard, felt, smelled and tasted—the brain itself cannot see, hear, feel, smell or taste anything.

Physically Impossible Attributes

There are two unique characteristics of consciousness, continuity and unity, that cannot be attributed to the physical.

Continuity

From the moment I open my eyes for the first time to the moment I close them for the last time, I have only one consciousness, and what I mean by "I" is that consciousness. My existence as a person is my consciousness. If my consciousness should cease, whatever happens to my body, I cease to exist.

My consciousness does not cease to exist when I sleep, or when under an anesthetic, or when knocked "out" by a blow to the head. By analogy, in those cases, consciousness is like the life of a seed. A seed is a living thing, although it does not exhibit any of the usual characteristics of life; we say it is "dormant" because under proper conditions it will germinate and grow. If irradiated, or exposed to certain temperatures it "dies" and cannot be germinated. Consciousness, during sleep or when anesthetized, is like the life of a seed, dormant, because when the anesthesia wears off or the hypothalamus is stimulated, consciousness revives. If the consciousness truly ceases, however, nothing can revive it, and the individual who was that consciousness ceases to exist.

I Am My Consciousness

The "I" which is my consciousness remains the same thing no matter what other things change. However little I know or how much I learn, no matter what changes there are to the physical aspects of my body, no matter what I do or how long I live, from moment to moment, day to day, and year to year, I am the same person, because I am the same consciousness. There is no physical aspect of my being that cannot be changed that can change my identity, because my identity is determined by my consciousness—my consciousness, is my "self;" it is my identity.

That identity which is my consciousness, cannot be discovered or described by any physical attribute or any physical action of my body, and no physical attribute of my body or any physical action of my body can account for it or it's nature.

Unity

Furthermore, I am only one consciousness, one person. I am conscious of what I am thinking, what I am seeing and hearing, and what I am feeling, emotionally, and I am conscious of these, and all the other things I am aware of, simultaneously and continuously.

To some extent I can determine what I will be conscious of by where I look and what I do, such as turning on or off a radio, or opening a book. In those cases, I am merely changing what there is available for me to be conscious of. But I can also focus my attention on some things I am conscious of and ignore some others, even though I do not cease to be conscious of everything available to my consciousness at any time.

It would be impossible, at the physical level, to make all the discrete physical events required for detection of separate phenomena be a single event. What that means, is, there is no physical system which is able to detect sounds (microphones, for example) images (a video camera, for example), pressure and weight (a transponder system, for example) temperature (and electronic thermometer for example), movement (a electro-gyroscope for example) which can all be recognized in all its detail all this data as a single event or process. The information that all these detection systems provide, at the physical level, must forever remain discrete. The laws of physics and information theory, both determined by the principles that govern physical existence, exclude the possibility that this information can be integrated into a single thing or phenomenon, like my consciousness. If my consciousness were a phenomenon of the physical, it would not be a single thing, but a collection of separate and discrete things. At the physical level, the unity of consciousness is an impossibility.

[NOTE: There is a way to convert a number of different data sources into a single data representation. It works only if all the infromation is converted to an analog state, that is, a signal that can be modulated by or added to with each different data stream. Such a continuous stream can be analyzed digitally, but that analysis succeeds only by separateing the original streams.

Our ability to hear is an example of this merging of separate data streams into a single one. When hearing an orchestra play, the sound reaching the ear has many different sources, but they are all merged together into a single very complex analog sound wave. Nevertheless we can distinguish all the separate instruments even while hearing them all simultaneously. A computer can also discriminate between different sound sources but to do so it requires separate detectors (or processes) for each detected sound. The process is called signal analysis. The trick would be to have all the separate sounds detected simultaneously with the merged signal by the same process (or detector), an impossiblity for any kind of processor, analog or digital.]

Which Cell is Conscious

But we do not have to depend on physics or information theory to see the problem the unity of conscious is to the physicalist view. Even if we only consider vision, the optic nerve is actually a bundle of nerves, each carrying separate signals to the brain. They all terminate close to one another but at slightly different places at different cells. Many cells in the brain respond to these signals, at the physical level, "sight" consists of many interrelated but discrete events. If many different cells are involved in "seeing" how do the separate behaviors of each of those cells become integrated into a single phenomenon called "seeing."

Unless there is one "master consciousness cell" that is somehow fed perceptual information by all the other cells of the brain, there is not "one event" at the physical level, but a collection of many separate events that cannot be anything but separate events.

Ours is not only a single consciousness aware of everything in the visual field, but simultaneously every thing that can be heard, or felt, or tasted, or smelled. At the physical level, all the discrete neurological events related to consciousness are discrete and separate and no physical method is possible that could integrate all these separate physical events into the single phenomena which is our consciousness.

Physicalist Faith

It is apparent to anyone who is truly conscious that no physical event is what chocolate tastes like, no brain function is the feeling of one's lover in their arms, and no chemical/electrical process is the beauty and grandeur of the music we listen to. The physicalist argument that conscious experience is an "attribute" that just "emerges" from physical events ignores the most important question of all, "how?" If they answer at all, it is the same as all mystic's answer, "somehow!" They do not have hint of how it could possibly happen, but are sure it does.

It is really an odd kind of faith and is based on a kind of paranoid fear of admitting that reality might have attributes other than those of the merely physical. It falsely equates "objectivity" and "physics," as though anything physics cannot explain cannot be objectively true. It is a kind of mysticism—a stubborn insistence that no evidence will be allowed that does not fit the physicalist dogma. Once accepted, it apparently makes one blind to the nature of their own consciousness.

The physicalists and behaviorists have set up a false dichotomy—one either accepts the physicalist view that everything is physical and the only attributes possible are physical ones, or one believes in the supernatural. There is no basis for this dichotomy. Ontology demonstrates that life, consciousness, and volition are real natural attributes of living organisms, but they are not physical attributes. This epistemology has concentrated on the non-physical nature of consciousness, because it is that attribute that is central to understanding the nature of knowledge.

—(11/01/04)