Right-there! The “Presence” of Conscious Experience

In my previous post I mentioned that some experiences seem present in a way that’s hard to explain or even articulate. This is especially true of perceptions and sensations. One way to grasp this slippery notion is to realize that a great deal of the time we are noticing what’s passing through our minds in a way that seems like a discovery of something tangible. We do this continually while we are awake and even when we’re dreaming.

Obviously many of our beliefs are not based on noticing anything tangible. At any moment during daylight hours I have good grounds for believing that somewhere in Chicago a family is having a nasty argument. Out of a population of over a million people, the odds of that are overwhelming, even though I am not now actually observing a family squabble. Similarly, I have various opinions about what is happening in my own unconscious mind, and the conscious minds of others, although I do not notice, detect, or monitor these mental states. On the other hand, I notice my own sensory experiences as they occur. They seem right-here-now. It also seems as if I can examine them, in a way that’s a bit like examining a physical object. I can think about Paris while I’m in Madrid, but when I’m actually experiencing Paris I see, hear, smell, feel, and taste that city.

Manifest experiences seem to be obviously real. It would be strange to say, “I am conscious of a searing pain in my left side, but I’m not sure if I am now in a pain-state.” Normally the manifest presence of pain tells you this pain is real – real in your mind regardless of whether any pain-signals are coming from your body. It is as if all sensuous experiences contain an added message. “I’m here, I’m real, pay attention to me!” they insist, and we have little choice but to obey.

The manifest presence of experience seems to be one of the key differences between conscious and unconscious entities. We do not think paper clips or hot dogs have states in which something is manifest to an experiencing self. But try to figure out how the brain – or any information-processing system whatsoever – could constitute a state that is manifestly present. Chronic insomnia is a possible side effect of actually attempting to solve this conundrum. But it’s extremely important, and many puzzles about the nature of consciousness are satellites of this basic enigma.

Notice that when philosophers and scientists write about consciousness, they are often talking a about mental states that seem present to an experiencing self. But we are also conscious of our own thoughts, and many scholars say that thoughts are not manifestly present, at least not in the same way as sensations and perceptions. More about that on another day.

Roger Christan Schriner

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What is Consciousness?

Many authors have said that precisely defining consciousness is impossible, and they may well be right. But as I begin posting entries on this blog I should indicate what I mean by human consciousness. As a rough overview, I suggest that typical human conscious experiences have the following five characteristics.

1. Our experiences are available for use by the mind’s master control centers. That’s why consciousness is sometimes called a global workspace. During our waking hours we deal with all sorts of challenges, like managing to walk down the street without tumbling heels-over-head on a banana peel. To survive these challenges, our perceptions must be available to the mental mechanisms that form beliefs, think, feel emotions, make decisions, and instigate actions. If you are wrapped in a warm embrace, for example, you would typically believe you’re in an embrace, have thoughts about it, respond emotionally, make choices, (keep hugging, or disengage?), and use the experience to guide your actions.

2. You are one who has your experiences. I can’t tune in to what’s in your head the way you can. (Some would disagree with this claim, but I think it’s true.) So for one of your mental events to be conscious it must be conscious to you as an experiencing self.

But what is a self? Answering that question is about as hard as defining consciousness. What’s important for our purposes is that some part of us registers, enjoys, and suffers our own experiences. We do not yet have a clear and agreed-upon understanding of this experiencer. It may be a single brain system or a team of systems working together. The exact nature of this system or systems is not crucial for our purposes.

One big difference between persons and non-conscious things such as rocks is that something within us “gets” our experiences. Suppose we figured out that some specific pattern of brain activity is absolutely identical to the way you feel when someone tickles your feet. Even if we managed to completely and precisely transplant that neural activity pattern into the middle of a boulder, and keep it alive and functioning, the rock would not feel any urge to giggle. Why? Because nothing in the rock is equipped to experience the ticklish sensation. The sensation just sits there, unknown and unappreciated.

3. Experiences are typically remembered, at least briefly. (Experts disagree about whether all details of experience are held in short-term memory.)

4. Under normal circumstances at least some aspects of an experience are reportable, although our reports are often vague. One can say, “I saw that tree blowing in the wind,” without being able to specify which leaves and branches appeared to be jiggling.

It is quite remarkable that through some obscure mental mechanism we can speak about our own states of mind. If I think about what to eat for dinner or I feel a sharp twinge in my toe, I may find myself reporting these inner states in comprehensible English. We have hardly a clue how that happens.

5. Some of our experiences, especially physical sensations and sensory perceptions, seem “present.” Philosophers find it especially difficult to explain how brain activities could generate a sense of presence, so I’ll consider this point in more detail later.

What do you think of this list? Do these items roughly indicate what scholars mean when they speak of introspectable experiences and conscious phenomena? Would you add or delete items? I welcome your comments.

Roger Christan Schriner

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