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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