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Consciousness: Common Beliefs and My Own Personal Findings

01/23/13

Permalink 11:29:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 1081 words   English (US)
Categories: The Mind

Consciousness: Common Beliefs and My Own Personal Findings

A couple months ago I wrote about the different understandings of the word “consciousness” and I also wrote a different post about the so-called “hard problem of consciousness”. I believe it is also interesting to look at the beliefs people commonly have regarding consciousness and also it is very important for us all to introspect on our own consciousness and from this try to understand our own nature.

Perhaps the most common belief regarding consciousness that is held by people throughout the world is of the so-called soul or spirit that supposedly inhabits the body and is the the essence of the self. Most people throughout the world follow one of the major world religions, each of which involves beliefs about the nature of the self. In Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and many other belief systems, it is believed that there is an aspect of the self, often called the soul, that is distinct from the physical body and which can survive the death of the body. A similar belief seems to exist in Buddhism as well, with the main difference that within this belief system, there are only nonphysical attributes of the self, which will inevitably change over time just as the body will inevitably die, and that there is no part of what can be called the self which endures over time. There are a multitude of beliefs within organized religion regarding the nature of the self, some involving a soul, some involving reincarnation, some only involving nonphysical attributes. Despite this, what seems to be common amongst nearly all of these is that it is believed that there is a nonphysical aspect of the self.

Another way of looking at common beliefs about consciousness is through the analysis of language. If we look closely at the way humans use language, we can see that there are innate metaphysical assumptions with regard to consciousness, the self, and other living beings. Stephen Pinker argued in his book The Stuff of Thought that there are subtleties in the way human language works that seems to imply that living things that appear to have conscious awareness also have existence as an autonomous entity. As an example, Pinker pointed out that it can be proper to say “he touched him on the ear” but not “he touched the library on the window” (p. 104). Note that it also seems strange to say something like “I touched the tree on the bark” but it seems fine to say “I touched the tree's bark”.

Sentences of the form “X touched Y on the Z” only work if Y is a conscious being and Z is a part of this being. Although sentences of that form seem to be semantically equivalent to those of the form “X touched Y's Z”, these two forms are different in that only the later has the quality of being syntactically correct regardless of whether Y is conscious or not. This is because a conscious being is assumed to be a whole entity that incorporates all of its parts, including its ear, etc. This contrasts with how people think of non-conscious things like buildings, which are assumed to be mere collections of things such as windows, walls, etc. While buildings can have things like windows, these are not integral parts of the building because it is not conscious and thus one cannot touch a building on its window in the same sense that you can touch a puppy on its nose.

In introspecting on the nature of my own conscious experience, I shall begin with the basic senses. I am experiencing sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. While the fact that I experience these basic senses is obvious and unremarkable, there is an important subtlety to my experience that is quite noteworthy. I have concluded that my experience of each of these senses comes in the form of qualia, but where I can also gain a deeper understanding beyond these qualia. My conscious experience consists of a stream of qualia, and this fits the definition of phenomenal consciousness (as explained in the prior post on the hard problem of consciousness). I can categorize the different types of qualia, including the different colors and the different sounds and the different tactile feelings and the different tastes and smells. Each of the different types of qualia have properties of their existence that are, unfortunately, impossible to put into words. One will have to actually experience each type of qualia in order to understand its properties.

After careful analysis, I have concluded that the qualia that I am experiencing only have the properties that I know from experience and nothing more. Qualia simply exist as nothing more or less than they are immediately given in experience. When I have an experience of seeing redness, there are qualia that only have the property of redness and nothing else. When I have an experience of hearing a loud, high pitched tone, there are qualia that only have these properties and nothing else. These qualia can be fully understood from immediate experience. They may be correlated with other things going on, but the qualia themselves are distinct from everything else.

Although I can only immediately experience qualia and I only know from immediate experience the properties of these qualia, my experiences in life provide me with overwhelming inductive and deductive evidence that there are noumenal objects whose existence I cannot deny. “Noumenal” is a word that is derived from Immanuel Kant's theory of noumenon, which is the thing-in-itself that is beyond the possibility of immediate perception. Kant argued that one cannot know the properties of the noumenon, but on this point he is wrong because I have been able to understand certain properties of noumenal objects from inductive and deductive reasoning. These are properties that are not given from immediate experience, such as the property of being extended in space. While I realize that I have an innate understanding of spacial dimensions, it does not immediately follow from my innate understanding of this concept which things have this property and which do not. It is clear to me that qualia do not have this property, but that there are noumenal objects that do. This means that qualia are not extended in space but that there are other objects that must exist that are extended in space. There must be a causal link between the qualia and the noumenal objects, but I will save this analysis for a future post.

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