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Ontological Hierarchy of Differentiation—Consciousness, Volition

[This is the final of four parts—the first part introduces the basic concepts, the second part covers the first three levels of the hierarchy, position, motion, and acceleration; the third part covers the next level, life, and this final part covers the final two levels, consciousness and volition.]

Consciousness

The sixth characteristic I listed under "The Existence We Actually Live In." is consciousness.

By consciousness I mean perception, which is the only kind of consciousness we or any creature has. "Physical existence is that existence we are directly conscious of, the world we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste." By perception, I mean the seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, and tasting.

The article on perception describes what perception or consciousness is in terms of its function and shows how it is our means of being directly conscious of physical existents as they actually are. It assumes we know what we mean by consciousness, because in one sense, it is impossible not to know. We know exactly what we mean by seeing and hearing and tasting and no one has to explain what they mean when they, "I see the moon," or, "hear that music," or "I like the taste of that pie."

Perception, as we experience it, is taken for granted. It is very much like looking at the garden through a window. While we are seeing the flowers and birds, we do not notice there is a window at all. We have a tendency to ignore consciousness in the same way, and its nature is often never explicitly recognized. There are three important characteristics of consciousness that reveal why it is another level of differentiation, two of which, continuity and unity, are almost never recognized, and the third, subjectivity, while recognized, is not well understood.

[Note: Continuity and unity are attributes of life, as well as consciousness, which will be apparent from the explanation.]

The continuity of consciousness—An organism has only one consciousness and it is the same consciousness from moment to moment, day to day, and year to year. It is the same consciousness from the moment it becomes consciousness until the organisms dies. It is because consciousness is a characteristic of life, not the physical aspects of the organism, this is true. Notice, that the physical characteristics of an organism can change. Hypothetically, all of the physical parts could be changed, but it would still be the same organism, because it would still be the same life process. It is the life process that is the independent existence that identifies the organism as a particular organism, not the physical components, and consciousness is an attribute of life.

The unity of consciousness—Again, for any organism, there is only one consciousness and it is the same consciousness that perceives what is seen, what is tasted, what is heard, smelled, and felt. It is the same consciousness that feels the wheel of the car with the hands, the accelerator pedal with the foot, sees the light change from red to green, and hears the music on the radio all simultaneously. This aspect of consciousness is almost never recognized. It is one reason, for example, no computer or computer program will ever create consciousness. 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. Because consciousness is an aspect of life, however, which is not physical and not limited by physical attributes, such as discreteness, the same consciousness can be conscious of an indefinite number of things at the same time.

The subjectiveness of consciousness—Consciousness in all other creatures except ourselves is inferred, because consciousness is a subjective experience. There is no doubt that this inference is correct, but consciousness, itself, cannot be directly perceived, even in other people, much less other animals.

The fact that consciousness is experienced subjectively, and cannot be directly perceived, and is therefore not itself a physical existent (though dependent on the physical for its existence), does not mean it cannot be objectively identified. It exists as an attribute of living organisms, and is therefore material (though not physical), because it is independent of our consciousness or knowledge of it. It is known objectively by introspection and by means of identifying it's place in this ontological hierarchy of existence.

While the subjectivity of consciousness is generally understood, it's significance to philosophy is not always apparent. It is because consciousness is experienced subjectively that its nature is frequently neglected. What we mean by "being conscious," the actual subjective experience itself, can only be known individually (by introspection) and cannot be directly perceived. Anything in the physical world that can be perceived, can be perceived by anyone. No one can perceive your consciousness or my consciousness, as we experience it. Technically, we cannot even perceive our own consciousness. We do not know we are conscious by perceiving it, we know it, because we are. We do not know we can see by seeing our seeing, we know we can see because we see.

Consciousness of the Physical not itself Physical

It is this subjective nature of consciousness that has been the source of many of philosophy's greatest difficulties. It is the source of all mystic ideas of the "soul" for example. It is very difficult to describe the nature of consciousness as it is subjectively experienced and those philosophers who have recognized its significance have gone to great lengths to do so.

Philosophers use the word qualia to identify the qualities of things as they are perceived subjectively. Red, for example, is a quality of physical things and may be described in a number of ways, in terms of pigment, or reflectivity and absorption, but all have to do with light within a certain range of the electromagnetic spectrum. Light within that range that reaches the eyes and stimulates the cones for the color red will be seen as red. But the physical description of red and red as actually experienced consciously are not the same thing. What is consciously experienced cannot even be guessed from the description of the physical nature of light. Even if the entirety of our current knowledge about the physiological events related to seeing a color are completely described, there is still not even a hint of what actually consciously seeing red is.

One way of explaining what is meant by this fact is the illustration of the inverted spectrum. If you and I both look at something red, we will agree that it is red because we have learned to identify that color by that word. What you and I actually consciously experience as seeing red may be entirely different. What I see when, "seeing red," could hypothetically be the same experience you have when "seeing green." It is even possible that how we each subjectively see all colors could be the exact opposite, and what I experience as the red to violate spectrum, you might experience as the violate to red spectrum. It is colors, and all other actual subjectively experienced perceptual qualities philosophers refer to as qualia.

[Note: "Qualia," is not a term I prefer, and I use it only because it is a common way to "get at" what is meant by actual conscious perception. I do not like the term, however, because it suggests that perceived attributes are somehow "separate" from the source of those percepts. Since I regard our perception of perceptual qualities both correct and reliable, the doubt possibly cast on the that by the concept "qualia" is probably not a good one.]

There are sound reasons for doubting that the qualia with which individuals perceive physical existence, except for physiological reasons, are different, and the reason for the hypothetical example is to make what is meant by qualia easier to grasp. (The reasons for assuming all human beings, and within the scope of physiological differences, even animals generally perceive physical existence in the same way will be explained under the nature of perception when I take that subject up again.)

The subject of qualia is important to epistemology and objectivity and will be fully explicated there. For purposes of ontology, the significance of the concept is the nature of consciousness itself. Consciousness, the actual subjective experience, cannot be described in terms of any physical quality or attribute, because consciousness is not physical and cannot be attributed to any physical events or actions. Consciousness is an attribute of life, the process. It is to the life process itself that the physiological aspects of the neurological system of an organism presents those qualities of existents that can be detected by the nervous system to be perceived. (The complete explanation of this process will be fully explicated under the nature of perception, but has already been largely addressed in my article, Perception.)

The ontological significance is this: Consciousness and that which we are conscious of cannot be the same thing. The physical is that which we are conscious of (directly perceive), consciousness is directly perceiving (being conscious of) the physical. It is this fact that has led so many philosophers to posit some kind of dualism. This ontology solves that problem by observing that both consciousness and physical existence are material, aspects of the same real material existence, and the physical is a subset of that material existence.

Consciousness and Sentience

The difference between consciousness and sentience is the ability to be aware of existents as existents. There may not be in the natural world a clear-cut distinction between sentience and perception, and sentience is probably a level of consciousness or proto-consciousness, because even an amoeba is in some sense aware of what it senses in order be able respond to it. An amoeba, however is not aware of existents as existents, it is only aware of differences in its environment. The higher animals to which we attribute consciousness, even in its most rudimentary form, perceive entities, and their behavior demonstrates that awareness.

Conscious organisms are uniquely different from merely living organisms (for example, plants). Consciousness is a level of differentiation above life, and is a differentiation of life. Like life, it exists materially, that is, independent of anyone's knowledge or consciousness of it (except of course the consciousness of the one who's consciousness is being considered). It does not exist as an existent, but as an attribute of life that distinguishes between merely living, and consciously living organisms.

[Note: Where simple sentience ends and consciousness begins may be impossible to resolve, but has no significance philosophically. It is possible that consciousness, in some sense, is true even of the simplest forms of life, and that what we have called sentience is actually a form of conscious perception. We attribute life, sentience, and perception to all animals, but, philosophically, the only creatures we must know these things about are human beings.]

Distinctions of Consciousness

Just as position, motion, and acceleration have the measurable qualities of direction, distance, velocity, time, rate of acceleration, and mass/energy, and life has the identifying qualities sentience and purpose, consciousness has specific qualities or characteristics by which it is identified. They are enjoyment and learning.

Just as no other level of differentiation cancels or invalidates any quality of any previous level, conscious organisms are living material entities, with all their qualities and characteristics with the additional differentiation to sentience called consciousness.

While perceptually conscious beings are therefore sentient and have purpose because they are living, in conscious beings, these concepts have additional meaning.

Learning, in a non-conceptual way, is an essential characteristic of perceptual consciousness. It is referred to in animals as "adaptability." Conscious creatures not only react to environmental stimuli, (as well as internal stimuli), but experience changes future behavior. Unlike a machine or programmed computer, the leaning associated with an organism is learning about what is perceived. If there is no perception, there is no learning. The kind of learning the animals are capable of is not cognition (in the conceptual sense, that is, they do not form concepts). Simple, non-cognitive learning consists of three aspects: instinct, recognition, and association.

Instinct is an animal's natural pattern of behavior. Each animal's nature provides it with a pre-programmed pattern of behavior which determines what it will eat, how it will acquire its food, how to reproduce, and how to provide for its own comfort and safety. While human beings must discover and learn all of these things, and develop the skills to do them, the animals automatically seek and do the things their nature requires for them to succeed.

What an animal needs to learn and is able to learn, is also determined by the animals instinct. An animal cannot learn what its instinct does not require or enable it to learn. What an animal learns does not change its instinctive behavior at all, it only provides instinct with the, "information," or, "skills," it needs to function correctly.

Recognition is an animal's ability to "identify" entities and events in its environment. Most of an animal's need to recognize things is provided by instinct, but some recognition requires learning, such as an animal's need to recognize it's mate, or other animals that might be a threat. Learned recognition is an animal's ability to see or experience an entity, event, or situation, on one or more occasions (usually more than one) and on subsequent occasions of seeing or experiencing the same or similar entity, event, or situation, to react to it differently (and appropriately). This does not mean that an animal is aware that what it is perceiving is something it has perceived before. It only means its present reaction is a result of previous experience with the same or similar entity or event. By "appropriate" reaction is meant a reaction which will more likely accomplish the animals purpose of sustaining itself as the kind of creature it is.

Association is an animal's ability to associate one experience with another. An animal does not do this by identifying two separate things and discovering some relationship between them. For the animal, the association is a single conscious experience combining a number of percepts together.

The most frequent associations are between various entities or events and either pain or pleasure. This associative learning provides the instinctive behavior of the animal with the information it needs to avoid what causes it pain and to seek what it associates with pleasure. What an animal will experience as pain or pleasure is determined by that animal's nature.

There is no practical limit to the sophistication and complexity of instinctive behavior and "learning," and some highly developed animals exhibit behavior that is mistaken for conceptualization, which is not possible without volition. The distinguishing characteristic of instinctive behavior is that however sophisticated it is, all animal consciousness is determined by instinct and is always in response to immediate consciousness. Only man is able to hold in his consciousness thoughts about yesterday or tomorrow, or even a minute ago or a minute from now. For the animal, there is only now and what it is experiencing at the moment.

Enjoyment becomes the ultimate purpose toward which an organisms life is directed. What any animal actually experience can only be inferred from its behavior based on our own human subjective experience. By enjoyment is not meant what we mean when we say, "I'm really enjoying this music," but the some of an animals experience of its life, and the opposite of "suffering." Enjoyment, in this sense, includes pleasure, but whatever an animal experiences when its environment allows it to fully exercise it's instinctive behavior is enjoyment, and whatever limits or inhibits it full instinctive expression is suffering, even it there is no explicit pain.

I said the purpose of an organism is its own existence; which means, the purpose of an organism is to sustain itself as the specific kind of organism it is. Since instinct is the program of behavior that ensures an animals survival, and an animals nature will cause it to avoid pain and seek pleasure, the net direction of all an animal's behavior will be both it's enjoyment of its own existence and its survival, which together we call its success as a living creature.

This is the fifth level in our hierarchy of differentiation.

Volition The seventh characteristic I listed under "The Existence We Actually Live In." is volition.

Volitional consciousness is also called conceptual consciousness, because volition is what makes thinking (reason) and knowledge (concepts) both possible and necessary.

Instinct in animals may be pictured as a complex program lying between conscious perception and overt behavior. Perception is like the input to the program, behavior is the output of the program. How and animal will behave in response to what it is conscious of (both externally and its own internal states) is provided entirely by the program. The program is capable of modifying itself in relationship to conscious experiences it stores in memory, but can only modify itself withing the limits determined by the program.

It is this program that human beings do not have. Instead of a program (instinct), humans have volition, which is both the capacity and necessity to consciously choose their behavior. Except for some simple reflexes and autonomic responses, all human behavior must be consciously chosen.

The capacity to choose makes two things both necessary and possible; they are the ability and necessity to gain knowledge and the ability and necessity to think, particularly to judge. Choice is not possible without knowledge; to choose, what choices are possible and what the consequences of possible choices are must both be known. To choose, there must be some criteria for preferring one choice and its consequences over another possible choice (even as simple a one as to do or not do something).

Since volition and conceptual consciousness are the main subjects of human nature and epistemology, it will only be possible to briefly indicate what is meant by volition. This subject will be fully explored under viology, the nature of man, and epistemology.

Implications of the Volitional Nature

It is the nature of an organism that determines how the organism must live, what its behavior must be, to live successfully. The animal's instinct provides an automatic pattern of behavior to ensure this success.

Human beings do not have an automatic pattern of behavior. They are not instinctive creatures, but volitional. As volitional creatures they must discover and learn, what they must eat, how to acquire it, how to provide themselves shelter and protection from the elements as well as other threats. But, just as it is the nature of other animals that determines how they must live, it is the nature of man that determines how he must live. Just as the other creatures are provided with the exact faculties and abilities to do what their nature requires, men are provided with the exact faculties required by their nature.

The requirement of human nature is knowledge, and man is provided a mind for acquiring it, he also required to judge, and he is provided rationality to think and judge, and finally, he is required to control his behavior by conscious choice, and he is provided volition by which he chooses both what he thinks and what he does. Note that thinking and acquiring knowledge also require a man to choose to do these things.

This is the sixth and final level in the hierarchy of differentiation.

Trees

Aristotle, Objectivism, and this philosophy define man as, rational animal. Those with a background in formal logic or philosophy know this definition comes at the and of a long chain of logical analysis. Those without such a background may see this definition as incomplete, or even shallow.

The definition of man as rational animal can best be understood in terms of the Porphyrian Tree, which illustrates in a graphical way, what that definition means. Specifically it defines man in terms of his logical place in the hierarchy of existence. The Porphyrian Tree, however, is epistemological, not ontological, and is not quite correct. I have reproduced it here only as an illustration of the principle it illustrates.

Original Porphyrian Tree

Genus Generic Difference Contrary
Substance Material
[Body]
Non-material
[Spirit]
Body Living
[Organism]
Non-living
[Mineral]
Organism Sentient
[Animal]
Non-sentient
[Plant]
Animal Rational
[Man]
Non-rational
[Brute]

The Ontological Hierarchy I have discussed can be illustrated by a "tree" similar to the Porphyrian Tree. This tree is strictly ontological, not epistemological, and illustrates the relationships between all real material existents. This structure and this tree have very profound implications for epistemology which will be discussed there, it is, after all, reality that knowledge is knowledge of, and knowing the essential nature of that reality, the attributes by which real existents can be identified is essential to understanding the nature of knowledge itself.

Level of Existence Differentiation Attributes  
Existent Position
[Static]
Direction, Distance (1.)
Statics Motion
[Dynamic]
Velocity, Time (2.)
Dynamics Acceleration
[Physical]
Mass, Acceleration (Rate) (3.)
Physical (Entities) Life
[Organism]
Purpose, Sentience (4.)
Organism Consciousness
[Animal]
Enjoyment, Learning (5.)
Animal Volition
[Man]
Reason, Knowledge (6.)
1. Positional differences are the minimum differences of existents. Different things must have different positional qualities.
2. Motion is change of position and necessary to a dynamic reality.
3. Acceleration is change of motion. Mass and energy can be described entirely in terms of acceleration. All qualities of physical existence can be derived from the first three levels of differentiation, including the concepts of force, rate of acceleration, and fields.
4. Life is a self-sustained process that differentiates living entities from non-living entities. It is not caused by nor does it arise from any action of the physical. While it is a "physical" process, in that the material the process uses is physical, the process itself, as the life of an organism, is not physical.
5. By consciousness is meant perception. Except for man, the behavior of the perceptually conscious creatures is provided by instinct.
6. By volition is meant the necessity and ability to live by conscious choice. It requires and makes possible both reason and knowledge.

—Reginald Firehammer (2/10/05)

Summary

  1. Consciousness is the attribute that differentiates a conscious living organism (animal) from a mere non-conscious living organism (plant).
  2. Consciousness means perception, which is the only kind of consciousness we or any creature has. "Physical existence is that existence we are directly conscious of, the world we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste." Perception is the seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, and tasting.
  3. The continuity of consciousness means that an organism has only one consciousness and it is the same consciousness from moment to moment, day to day, and year to year. It is the same consciousness from the moment it becomes consciousness until the organisms dies.
  4. The unity of consciousness means that for any organism, there is only one consciousness and it is the same consciousness that perceives simultaneously what is seen, tasted, heard, smelled, felt or consciously perceived in any other way.
  5. The subjectiveness of consciousness means that consciousness in all other creatures or people except ourselves must be inferred, because consciousness is a subjective experience that cannot be perceived directly in any creature.
  6. Consciousness and that which we are conscious of cannot be the same thing. The physical is that which we are conscious of (directly perceive), consciousness is directly perceiving (being conscious of) the physical.
  7. The specific qualities or characteristics by which consciousness is identified are enjoyment and learning.
  8. Learning, in a non-conceptual way, is an essential characteristic of perceptual consciousness. It is referred to in animals as "adaptability."
  9. Simple, non-cognitive learning consists of three aspects: instinct, recognition, and association.
  10. Instinct is an animal's natural pattern of behavior. Each animal's nature provides it with a pre-programmed pattern of behavior which determines what it will eat, how it will acquire its food, how to reproduce, and how to provide for its own comfort and safety.
  11. Recognition is an animal's ability to "identify" entities and events in its environment. Most of an animal's need to recognize things is provided by instinct, but some recognition requires learning, such as an animal's need to recognize it's mate, or other animals that might be a threat.
  12. Association is an animal's ability to associate one experience with another. An animal does not do this by identifying two separate things and discovering some relationship between them. For the animal, the association is a single conscious experience combining a number of percepts together. (It is sometimes called "conditioning.")
  13. Enjoyment, includes pleasure, but whatever an animal experiences when its environment allows it to fully exercise it's instinctive behavior is enjoyment, and whatever limits or inhibits it full instinctive expression is suffering, even it there is no explicit pain. Since instinct is the program of behavior that ensures an animals survival, and an animals nature will cause it to avoid pain and seek pleasure, the net direction of all an animal's behavior will be both it's enjoyment of its own existence and its survival, which together we call its success as a living creature.
  14. Volition is the attribute that differentiates a volitional organism (man) from a mere conscious living organism (animal).
  15. Volitional consciousness is also called conceptual consciousness, because volition is what makes thinking (reason) and knowledge (concepts) both possible and necessary.
  16. Volition is both the capacity and necessity to consciously choose one's behavior. Except for some simple reflexes and autonomic responses, all human behavior must be consciously chosen.
  17. The specific attributes of volition are reason and knowledge.