Wednesday, April 05, 2006


We are natural beings in a world with natural processes. Whatever happens to us is a natural process, by necessity. In particular, we are natural beings with consciousness. Some even say we are beings with self-consciousness; but it is not so clear what is it that they mean by that. I think I have an idea of this, perhaps a story or what some would like to call a “theory” of consciousness. This is nothing more than my way of reading Hume.
As leaving things, our constitution is made out to change, constantly. Consciousness seems to be a common feature of living things. It is important to distinguish between living and animate things. The former are properly understood as organisms; the latter more properly understood as mechanisms. All organisms have some or other animation, some or other mechanism. But not all mechanisms have some or other organism, some or other form of life. Think of a computer and a flower. The former is animated but not living, the latter animated and living. Perhaps another way to understand this distinction is to think of it in terms of dependent and independent animation of the thing; the latter being that which is common to living things.
In any case, Consciousness is the property of modifying and being modified by the environment. This perhaps embraces everything, and it might well just be like that. Another way to put it is to consider consciousness as the capacity of feeling the environment. All living things share this capacity; that is what makes of them living things, what makes of them organisms rather than mere mechanisms.
A first glance to this mess gives us this result: self-consciousness is the capacity of feeling one’s capacity of feeling the environment. But this way of putting things is badly confussing: it makes us thing that some special second-level biological system is required for self-consciousness. A second glance to this mess shows us how unnecessary, and perhaps mistaken, this view is. One single capacity of feeling is sufficient for there to be awareness of this. What is needed, instead, is memory. Take memory merely as the capacity of recording feelings. This capacity will only be effective if it allows us to feel-again the same experience. Self-consciousness will usually stem from this: a situation where one is feeling as if x while being in a non X environment, and probably feeling as if Y. A first thing to do here is to consider one feeling as a past one and the other as the actual one. A second thing to do here is to be aware (i.e. feel) of the fact that one is able to have feelings. This second thing to do is self-consciousness in its naïve but true form.
A third thing to do here, is to realize that, in order to make this distinction between past and actual feelings, one must use concepts or, in other words, one must classify the experiences as belonging to different kinds. Without concepts no distinctions would be made and, thus, no self-awareness or self-consciousness. It seems then that a very rudimentary theory of consciousness, as this story purports to be, requires already an account of concepts and, alas, an account of content. Self-consciousness requires concepts; though concepts do not require self-consciousness. That is why there can be conceptual competence without self-awareness; and that is also why – equating rationality with self-conciousness – it is possible to be an organism with conceptual capacities without being rational, i.e. without exercising that conceptual capacity in the relevant way as to exercise self-consciousness.
Furthermore, it is not because of the use of concepts that self-consciousness is achieved. Conceptual competence does not produce self-consciousness. That is why there can be mechanisms with conceptual or linguistic capabilities that are, nonetheless, non-rational. Living organisms with complex systems for consciousness – as Kant famously said – are not born rational but have to become rational.
This story leaves space for something like non-conceptual content; but a very minimal one. It leaves space for the possibility of classifying some or other feeling without rationally classifying it. That is, it leaves space for there to be conceptualization or categorizing of something without there being an awareness of such a classification or categorization. Non-conceptual content, in other words, ends up being some sort of conceptual content. It is just the sort that has not become conscious of its use. Or as I told above, it is the sort of experience that is taken to be as of X without it realizing that it is being taken to be as of X. Perhaps this is what goes on in human experience most of the time.
There is also a sense in which non-conceptual content is not possible. This is the sense in which non-conceptual refers to without any classification. This is not possible because of the very definition of consciousness. According to my story, being conscious is feeling something for being affected by the environment. Think of the things we are talking about here. There is an organism affected, an environment and a relation of affection in which these two stand together. The important thing here is the relation; no matter how the environment affects the organism or the organism the environment, this must be one way in which the affection takes place, no matter how coarse or fine-grained. In any case, for any one way of affecting there is at least one concept (though not necessarily vice versa). In other words, for any feeling (no matter which) there is a way to distinguish it; which means that all feelings (or all experiences) are distinguishable.
This, however, does not give us concepts straightforwardly; for there to be concepts there must be distinctions. An in order to realize that there must be distinctions one has to go back to the biological terrain in which the story got started. There must be distinctions for many reasons, subsistence is perhaps the must important one. Leaving organisms are in the battle for keeping their place within evolutionary history. Evolutionary history, however, is such that for there to be characters in it this must comply with two conditions: have reproductive success within certain selection pressures and it does by means of adaptations. In other words, organisms adapt to a set of selection pressures by adapting and, thus, gaining in reproductive success. In order to keep in the battle for the evolutionary fame, organisms must be able to make crucial distinctions. Thus, for instance, any famous character of the evolutionary story is such that it is able to distinguish between experiencing a situation where there is food available and a situation where there is a predator available. Thus, not only must experiences be distinguishable they must also be distinguished. In this sense, there is no such thing as non-conceptual content. What there might be, although this is something I am not sure of, is consciousness without self-consciousness. Nothing of what I said, though, is inconsistent with the possibility of self-consciousness being as necessary for consciousness as conceptual distinctions are for consciousness. It might be, though more reflection is needed for this to be clearly seen, that all living beings are not only conscious but also self-conscious.
It might be. If so, all of the mythical claims typical of western culture, all of the super-biology endowed for humans and language, and art, and what not, drops down. It is all just a matter of being alive.
Thank you, but nothing more is needed!
This, however, does not make language and art sterile. On the contrary, it turns out that these are all endowed with causal power, for they are all biological categories. Think then how powerful words are and how much we do, in fact, rely on their power; think of the human way of educating each other: is it by words or not? This should not only make us realize how powerful words are. It should also makes us realize how expensive they are; and how easy it is to lose this point of view. This should make me stop and save some power, save some words.