Consciousness: What it is and why it matters

This is part one in a series on consciousness

I’ve desired for some time to begin writing about my view on philosophical topics in an approachable but serious manner. With the advent of a new year, I figured I would now begin publishing weekly posts in this vein, starting with a series of posts on consciousness. 

By consciousness, I mean something quite basic: the fact of experience or what it is like to be something (in Thomas Nagel’s sense). I do not mean self awareness, the capacity to reflect, to report, or remember. On the other hand, non-consciousness is simply the absence of consciousness. I do not use unconsciousness here, because it often relates to parts of the human mind that lie out of reach of consciousness, but I am talking about more than just us.

My rationale for writing about consciousness is two-fold. First, consciousness is in many ways foundational to everything we care about, especially in ethics, another topic of great interest to me. Understanding how widespread consciousness is, is crucial for developing our moral frameworks (lest we vivisect dogs again because we believe they are soulless) and general theories of the world. Second, I believe the current dominance of a physicalism (the belief that physical matter is the only fundamental substance that exists) that sees non-conscious things as the default is misguided. I find that this version of physicalism rests on shaky premises which I wish to attempt to investigate and challenge. 

That challenge is what I will begin in this post. The fact of positing that something is non-conscious at all is an odd endeavor. It involves using your own conscious states to try and demarcate what, outside your own mind, is not conscious. 

When you imagine a rock, or another entity you believe to be non-conscious, you are using your consciousness to imagine or sense it. You cannot go a further step to imagine its non-consciousness, for imagining entails consciousness of some sort. Instead, what appears to occur is that you are unable to utilize your theory of mind on such an object, and perhaps with the assistance of other beliefs (consciousness requires a brain or information processing or movement) you then have the thought: “this rock is not conscious”. 

However, when you drill down on these thoughts, they become difficult to justify. The capacity to use your theory of mind does not determine whether or not any given person, animal, or object is conscious. We can imagine what a dead person would be thinking, while failing to imagine what a bat is feeling. Furthermore, investigating other beliefs about what is and isn’t consciousness often relies on the premise: things that are not sufficiently like me are not conscious. 

This is what I shall write about in next week’s post.

-Alexander Pasch

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