UnityThe unity of the soul is an ancient doctrine from which we have inherited a strong belief in the unity of consciousness. In certain lights this assumption of unity seems unquestionable, but it has actually been a continual problem; it could almost be argued that the history of understanding the mind has been a history of giving up on unity.

Like other persuasive doctrines that have turned out to be problematic in the long run, we can trace this one back to Aristotle, but it is tied in to a widely-held set of scholastic/ancient ideas about metaphysics. I believe the argument runs more or less like this: the soul is not physical, therefore it lacks extension (which is a physical property); if it lacks extension it necessarily lacks parts, and if it lacks parts it must be single and unified. The soul is a substance, in the old philosophical sense of something incapable of being analysed or broken down. Substances in this sense used to be considered necessary building blocks of reality, required in order to have a secure ontological foothold.  Otherwise the process of analysis would be bottomless and unending, and nothing would ever be completely clarified, which would be intolerable (although I notice contemporary physics seems to tolerate a position not altogether unlike this).  Readers may well by now feel parts of their own souls waving urgent hands to attract attention to a host of salient objections, but let’s avoid getting bogged down in this treacherous territory and move on a bit.

Descartes, say what you will about his dualism, effected a radical change for the better when he restricted the interventions of the soul to the pineal gland: on his view it did its stuff there and the rest of the body worked like a machine, according to the same physical laws as any inanimate stuff. Until then it had been largely assumed that the soul directly activated the body without needing any kind of transmission mechanism. Now I say ‘until then’, but the remarkable fact is that people went on thinking that way for a long time afterwards. As late as 1850, Helmoltz’s measurement of the speed of nerve impulses was resisted by some on the grounds that the vital impulse must act throughout the body simultaneously. When your arm moved, it was because you wanted it to, and it, as part of you, wanted to too.  I believe there was a school of thought that held out for a middling point of view, accepting that in principle the brain controlled the body by nerve impulses, but confidently expecting that they would be too blindingly fast to ever be measured. This, of course, proved to be quite wrong, but the nineteenth-century debate is in some ways quite reminiscent of the more recent discussion of Libet. Muller and others thought Helmholtz must be wrong because he was introducing a delay between will and act; people suppose Libet must be wrong because he introduces a delay between deciding to act and awareness. All such delays are intolerable if we insist on the absolute unity of the conscious mind because you can’t have a delay between a thing and itself.

Another prominent example of the problems flowing from unity is the vexed issue of the binding problem. Given that sensory inputs come in by different pathways at different speeds and get processed in different ways in different parts of the brain, how is it we end up with a smoothly integrated picture of reality which assigns the right qualities to the right objects and unrolls steadily in real time without jumps, pauses, or lipsynch errors? There are various ways, more or less satisfactory or problematic, in which the brain might ensure everything is properly put together when it arrives in consciousness, but if we’re not assuming consciousness is a single united destination, the problem wouldn’t arise in the first place.

Perhaps, though, the binding problem gives us a clue about why unity seems so undeniable – because the contents of consciousness look united. Isn’t that it?

Well, sort of, but when I sit down and conscientiously introspect, I don’t really detect a lot of unity. At the moment I have strings of explicit words running through my mind a moment before I type them: I moment ago as I sat in uffish thought, I had thoughts about the same subject which were wordless. Half an hour ago I wasn’t thinking about anything at all, though I was certainly conscious, and a bit before that I was largely absorbed by experiencing the taste of scrambled egg. An hour before that I was dreaming and some time before that in a blank state of which I can’t say for sure whether I remember it or not.

It’s worse than that, because at all these times there were also things in the penumbra of my mind which I was aware, or perhaps only pre-aware or potentially aware of. Hume famously said that when he looked into his mind he found only a bundle of sensations; but how simple it would be if the sensations were really always bundled; if they were always of the same broad kind; and if they were all merely sensations, instead of including bits of broken intentionality, fragments of half-or potentially meaningful intimations, things that might be the phenomenally detectable end of affordances, incipient recognitions and implicatures and an exquisitely ineffable and shadily located intimation that there may soon be the emergence of what we can call a gut feeling finely balanced on the cusp between the affective and the merely digestive. A bundle? Really a heap, or even a cloud, would be far more orderly and unified than my subjective experience.

What does bind things together is a kind of bird’s nest framework of memory linking now to then, and then to some other experience, and so on; but this is not all that useful. For one thing these linkages are loose – what they provide is the kind of tangled and ad hoc unity the cables behind my stereo have achieved unbidden – and they are fallible, not part of the essence of consciousness. I see nothing absurd about the idea of my  having moments of consciousness which are neither remembered nor involve remembering.

Yet even so I find it intuitively impossible to abandon the idea of some unity somewhere, even if I can’t quite put my finger on it at the moment. Things would be so much easier if we didn’t exist, but there we are.

 

12 Comments

  1. 1. Vicente says:

    Brilliant !! excellent post Peter.

    Well, sort of, but when I sit down and conscientiously introspect, I don’t really detect a lot of unity. At the moment I have strings of explicit words running through my mind a moment before I type them: I moment ago as I sat in uffish thought, I had thoughts about the same subject which were wordless

    Two quick reactions:

    - May we be confussing consciousness and its contents?

    - Even if consciousness were its contents, as Emerson pointed out, and you presented in your wording ( a moment before…, later,…) we are a succession… so for each instant the unity still prevail, or not? To me, if unity is broken anywhere, it is in that interim instant between states.

    So if there’s an interlude between two states, could that be a conscious state itself, a transitory conscious state? with no content? then what? I am very much interested in the ramp-up process that leads to a certain conscious state, or finishes it.

    Then, I am not so sure if the dualistic-monistic debate has to be coupled to the idea of the unity of mind, so strongly. I believe they are conceptually two different questions.

  2. 2. Stuart Brown says:

    What do you think of Dan Dennett’s attack on unity? For me, Consciousness Explained, whilst not quite doing what it said on the tin, with its relentless beating down of the idea of the “Cartesian theatre” certainly put an end to any lingering unitarianism(!) I had.

  3. 3. Arnold Trehub says:

    Vicente: “So if there’s an interlude between two states, could that be a conscious state itself, a transitory conscious state? with no content? then what? I am very much interested in the ramp-up process that leads to a certain conscious state, or finishes it.”

    As I see it, we are in a conscious state *if and only if* we have a sense of being at the origin of a spatiotemporal surround. This is our primitive consciousness and all other conscious states are updated elaborations and enrichments of this fundamental phenomenal content.

  4. 4. Vicente says:

    Arnold,

    Honestly, I’m not very sure what I’m talking about, quite boggling.

    The point is: let’s say that we could parametrise the mind conscious states, so that each state is univoqually defined by a set of values (finite or infinite) for each and every conscious qualia: sensorial, emotional, cognitive, all. Then, are we in a continuous process, in which the values of these parameters change smoothly (without discontinuities), or is it that there are big leaps, with strong disruptions in the mind contents. I believe it is the latter.

    Then, you could have conscious states partially overlapping each other, like two bell shaped curves whose tails overlap. Or even with wide gaps between them. Try to recall a moment in which you have been suddenly startled, that sort of peak.

    It is at those precise instants that unity is broken. And I believe that the self, identity, is simultaneously broken too.

    Sorry for the garbage, I have the feeling I’m up to something, don’t know what.

  5. 5. Vicente says:

    But then !! in order to observe these “fractures and clashes”, you need to be in the right perspective, where again applies unity. It is like a multilayer system, and only in the very bottom layer unity remains stable.

    Or it is only when you recall it that seems to be like that, but in real time, there is no bottom layer, just a memory odd effect.

    Maybe you are right and it is your spatiotemporal inner frame that provides the stable structure….

  6. 6. Arnold Trehub says:

    Vicente: “Maybe you are right and it is your spatiotemporal inner frame that provides the stable structure….”

    We are in complete agreement on this.

  7. 7. Peter Main says:

    There may be some confusion as to whether it is the experiencer or the experience that is unified or fragmented. Fragmented experience is hardly problematic; it is fairly common. A fragmented self (experiencer), on the other hand, might be instanced by MPD (Multiple Personality Disorder), yet even in that case we may ask, just what is it that is fragmented? “The personality”, the psychiatrist replies, yet each such fragment of personality still feels itself to be a single, unified “I”, just as you and I do.

    I find it impossible to conceive of a fragmented self that is yet one self, a single “I” from the first-person point of view; the idea seems incoherent. This, I think, is what the Unity of Consciousness is about.

  8. 8. Roy Cane says:

    If you consider the possibility that personality might exist in the form of a hologram, then fragmented self in which the fragments express a “personality” while simultaneously containing all elements of the whole is coherent.

  9. 9. Roy Cane says:

    The notion of consciousness operating with the properties of a hologram allows for simultaneous unity and separation [at least of a sort], multiple parallel holographic images reflecting different elements yet each containing the entirety of consciousness.
    I derive this notion in part from the concept of holographic universes co-existing side by side to explain paranornal phenomena

  10. 10. Jay says:

    As mentioned: the single frame of reference in conscious experience ( the ‘I’) implies a unity of consciousness. I don’t see how this ‘unity’ is threatened by non-simultaneous ‘nomena’ patched together in the brain. Conscious phenomena are nonetheless unified and ‘different’ from the brain by all the usual arguments.

    Physics and consciousness must both maintain causality to be commensurate. This is a requirement for Dualism, but not a difficult one. To be commensurate is different from being contingent upon.

  11. 11. Niko says:

    Is consciousness not one thing by definition? Consciousness to me has always been one part of my mind, the part that is aware of itself and my experiences past or present.

    I see this actually supported by your arguments. Yes, there is a delay between decision and action and sensory inputs are sometimes synchronized, but those things either originate from consciousness or are being send there by other parts of the brain, which is not part a part of consciouness but in a physicalist view is the origin of consciousness.

    “Perhaps, though, the binding problem gives us a clue about why unity seems so undeniable – because the contents of consciousness look united. Isn’t that it?”
    Again, what is you definition of consciousness? It seems as if you are talking about experiences here.

    In the next paragraph you go talk about the stream of experiences your singular “I” has had recently. You presume unity of consciousness here. “I” am aware of these experiences. If the alternative to unity would be multiple it would be “we”, which would suggest that the parts work together as one.

    “if we’re not assuming consciousness is a single united destination, the problem wouldn’t arise in the first place.”
    You cannot make this point without offering an alternative to unity of consciousness. If we do not assume anything, nothing arises.
    So, if consciousness is not a single thing what might it be?

    After that you argue the least relevant semantics in Hume’s quote, you do not argue that is anything but an amount of experiences, you just do not like the word “bundle”.
    The birds nest analogy is weak and the stereo cable analogy is funny but useless.
    And none of this supports or contradicts your original point.

    Denying the unity of consciousness is an interesting idea to say the least but you cannot do it without a definition of consciousness. While you could point out the problems (if you had a definition form which they arise) you cannot compare it to an alternative you have not presented.
    By failing to clearly state what you think consciousness is you make your arguments baseless and in the last four paragraphs you lose track of you original argument altogether.

  12. 12. Kevin says:

    Hello, I have only recently found this page, I have been reading for some time and was finding myself pretty much at a loss, as to how to join the conversation as many of the notions discussed are well developed, and some of the concepts being addressed I am unfamiliar with. So when I came across the following I decided to jump in, as I could at least formulate a simple question.
    “I had thoughts about the same subject which were wordless.”
    This statement fascinated me. Did you mean this literally, do you claim to have been aware of these thoughts? If so, do you think you were capable of manipulating these thoughts?
    It was some 30 years ago that I first wondered about what it might be like “behind words”.
    Thank you, now I’m off to read some of the categories, over there on the right, I just noticed. Seems a better way to proceed, but this really piqued my curiosity.

Leave a Reply