Picture: star. The JCS has devoted its latest issue to definitions of consciousness. I thought I’d done reasonably well by quoting seventeen different views, but Ram L. P. Vimal lists forty, in what he acknowledges is not a comprehensive list. There is much to be said about all this – and Bill Faw promises a book-length treatment of the thoughts offered in his paper – but much of the ground has been trodden before.

A notable exception is David Skrbina’s panpsychist view. I have been accused in the past of being unfair to panpsychism, the belief that everything has some mental or experiential properties, and I remain unconvinced, but I was genuinely interested in hearing how a panpsychist would define consciousness. I think  panpsychists, who believe awareness of some kind is a fundamental property of everything, face a particular challenge in defining exactly what consciousness. For one thing they don’t enjoy the advantage which the rest of us have of being able to contrast the mindless stuff around us with mindful brains – for panpsychists there is no mindless stuff.  But sometimes it’s coming at a problem from a strange new angle that yields useful insights.

Skrbina very briefly puts a case for panpsychism by noting that even rocks maintain their own existence with a degree of success and respond to the impacts and changes of their environment.  This amounts, he suggests, to at least a simple form of experience, and hence of mind. But mind, he says,  has two aspects: the inner phenomenal experience and an outward-facing intentional/relational aspect. Both of these are characteristic of the mental life of all things; he acknowledges at least a prima facie difficulty over what counts as a ‘thing’ here, but it includes such entities as atoms, rocks, tables, chairs, human beings, planets, and stars.  In a footnote, Skrbina cites Plato and Aristotle as allies in thinking that stars might have a mental life, together with JBS Haldane’s view that the interior of stars might shelter minds superior to our own (perhaps not quite the same view – the existence of minds within stars doesn’t imply that the stars themselves have minds any more than the existence of minds in France suggests that France has its own mentality) and Roger Penrose who apparently has speculated that neutron stars may sustain large quantum superpositions and thus conceivably a high intensity of consciousness.

Skrbina does not, of course, believe that rocks have minds exactly like our own, and suggests that material complexity corresponds with mental complexity, so that there is a spectrum of mental life from the feeble, unremembered glimmerings experienced by rocks all the way up to the fantastically elaborate and persistent mental evolutions hosted by human beings. This is convenient, since it allows Skrbina to find a place for subconscious and unconscious mental activity, which can be regarded as merely low-wattage mentality, whereas on the face of it panpsychism seems to make unconsciousness impossible. But, he says, there is a fundamental continuity, and this applies to consciousness as well as general mentality. Consciousness, he suggests, is the border, the interface between the inward and outward aspects of mentality, and since everything posesses both of those, everything must have at least a simple analogue of consciousness. It might be better, he suggests, if we could find a new word for this common property of consciousness and reserve the term itself for the human-style variety, since that would accord better with normal usage, but we are nevertheless talking about a spectrum of complexity, not two different things.

Skrbina’s exposition is brief, and he only claims to be providing a pointer toward a promising line of investigation. The idea of consciousness as the linkage or interface between inner and outer mentality does have some appeal. Skrbina’s distinction between inner and outer corresponds approximately to a view which is widely popular about there being two basic kinds of consciousness;  the phenomenal, experiental variety and the rest. Famously this kind of distinction is embodied in David Chalmers’ hard/easy problem distinction and Ned Block’s a-consciousness and p-consciousness, to name only two examples; the pieces in the JCS provide other variations.  Why not regard consciousness as the thing that brings them together, even if you’re not attracted by panpsychism?

Well, I don’t know. For one thing I think the non-phenomenal half of the mind is usually short-changed.  Besides phenomenal awareness, we ought also to distinguish between agency, intentionality, and understanding, all large mysteries which really deserve better than being smooshed together. We could still see consciousness as the thing that brings it all together, perhaps, but that doesn’t exactly appeal either: it seems too much like saying that the human body is the thing that holds our bones and muscles together; better to say it’s the thing they help to make up.

I must confess – and this perhaps is unfair – to being put off by Skrbina’s description of consciousness as the luminous upper layer of the mind. Apart from the slightly confusing geometry (it’s the upper layer of the mind, but between the inner and outer parts), I don’t see why it’s luminous, and that sounds a bit like the resort to poetry sometimes adopted by theologians who have run out of cogent points to make. Still, he deserves at least a couple of cheers for offering a new approach, something he rightly advocates.

15 Comments

  1. 1. mikespenard says:

    “Skrbina … suggests that material complexity corresponds with mental complexity”

    I’m curious if he be willing to acknowledge or concede–by his own standard–that complex machines and networks (e.g. complex computers and the Internet) should have consciousness then? Or does he find this to be in bad taste and create some sort of double standard?

    This also seems anti-scientific because it’s not falsifiable; by his logic any test should always return with a positive result. It seems silly to advocate that consciousness is a universal property; the whole point of attributing properties to ‘things’ is to give us a means of differentiation. What’s the point of talking about a difference that makes no difference?

  2. 2. Paul Bello says:

    Hi Mike,
    Well, all material “things” share at least some properties: i.e. having spatial/temporal extent, a mass, etc. Even subatomic particles share a non-nil interspection of properties. I suspect most panpsychists consider consciousness one of those. It’s a leap from subatomic particles to the statue of liberty, though — in the same way that it would be a leap from unstructured all-pervading consciousness to structured conscious experience as exhibited in typical humans. I’ve always found the “mind-as-reducing-valve” for a stream of all-pervading unstructured consciousness to be a fascinating idea. Makes prima facie sense for understanding the relationship between mental disorders (or brain damage) and conscious experience of symptoms.

  3. 3. John says:

    I was disappointed by by what I could see of this issue. In particular the passive nature of our experience and the role of time seem to have been ignored.

  4. 4. steve esser says:

    Thanks for highlighting this article. I liked Skrbina’s focus on the twin aspects of experience and intentionality. I think these are the core of the idea of consciousness, too. He lost me at the end with the definition of consciousness and the “luminous upper layer”. I think he is inappropriately taking the (apparently) distinctive human capacity for introspective self-consciousess and projecting it back onto the more fundamental core idea he started off describing quite well.

  5. 5. Arnold Trehub says:

    You wrote: “For one thing I think the non-phenomenal half of the mind is usually short-changed. Besides phenomenal awareness, we ought also to distinguish between agency, intentionality, and understanding, all large mysteries which really deserve better than being smooshed together.”

    For a proposal about the relationship between the non-phenomenal part of the mind/brain and the phenomenal part, you might take a look at Trehub (2007). “Space, self, and the theater of consciousness” in *Consciousness and Cognition*.

  6. 6. Peter says:

    Thanks, Arnold.

  7. 7. Jason says:

    “suggests that material complexity corresponds with mental complexity, so that there is a spectrum of mental life from the feeble, unremembered glimmerings experienced by rocks all the way up to the fantastically elaborate and persistent mental evolutions hosted by human beings.”

    I find it unsatisfactory that panpsychism really adds nothing to what we already know. We are still left with the problem of finding out what kind of complexity makes distinction between consciousness of rock and consciousness of human.

    Panpsychist would object my statement on the basis that neither contemporary physicalism adds much to what we already know. However, at least contemporary physicalists do not posit consciousness in things that have nothing resembling of consciousness. It’s beyond far-fetched to say that stone is conscious.

    Futhermore, matter cannot be said to be conscious in the manner that matter has mass. We have no indication whatsoever to say that say a stone is conscious.

    Peter, thank you for bringing panpsychism to my attention.

  8. 8. Matt says:

    “Skrbina does not, of course, believe that rocks have minds exactly like our own, and suggests that material complexity corresponds with mental complexity, so that there is a spectrum of mental life from the feeble, unremembered glimmerings experienced by rocks all the way up to the fantastically elaborate and persistent mental evolutions hosted by human beings.”

    It could simply be that the universe itself has multiple thoughts that persist within it (atoms/planets/etc.) as our thoughts persist within our consciousness. The universe would be the most complex consciousness (supporting and analyzing all of its conscious experiences) with humans far down the scale of complexity of consciousness (although perhaps more aware than a rock, or not in some cases).

  9. 9. Lloyd Rice says:

    It’s not legitimate that a philosopher can cook up any scheme at all, give it a name, and all say, “yea! yea! You have a valid new definition.” A word gets defined by the language community at large, not by any one individual, or even a few. The concept of “consciousness” must fare the same way. And words can change when the concept matures as education of the matter grows and develops. It’s clear that forty definitions is too many. In my view, Peter, your tally of seventeen is probably a bit on the high side. Let’s not legitimize those other 33 (or so).

  10. 10. Peter says:

    You’re right, Lloyd, though multiplying definitions is a thing some philosophers love to do.

  11. 11. Lloyd Rice says:

    I admit that concepts which are not well understood tend to accumulate multiple renditions.

  12. 12. Mike says:

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  13. 13. Luis Garcia says:

    I find the “prima facie difficulty over what counts as a ‘thing’” a serious drawback for panpsychism. For a rock may be conscious in a certain way, but that rock may be part of a mountain that should have a kind of consciousness as well. And if the rock is granite, each of the tiny crystalline grains of it will be conscious in their turn. We can go all the way up to mountain ranges, continents, planets, etc. or down to molecules, atoms, etc. and it seems to me that we inevitably end up with the concept of one universal, shared consciousness pervading everything, everywhere. But the fact is that we have individual minds. And how they work is still far from an answered question. Personally, what I expect from Philosophy of Mind is to help us to give answers to that question and I am not able to see how panpsychism can contribute.
    I fully agree with Lloyd’s comment #9. And it seems to me that panpsychism doesn’t conform with the presently legitimate definitions of consciousness.

  14. 14. April says:

    Hydrogen and Oxygen are gases and in the scientific frame, make water, which is not a gas. One could argue that liquid water bears no resemblance, shares no properties with that which gave rise to it. The same argument can be made about photons which are greatly different, in the scientific concecption, from the atoms which release them.

    The point is that the scientific scheme is made up of things which transform into or produce completely different things. The same can be said of mental and physical; the physical transforms into or produces the mental, just as atoms relase photons and Hydrogen and Oxygen
    make water.

    This is the attitude of science and Strawson will not make a dent in that conceptual armor with his argument. The real problem is subscribing to the mind/body split in the first place. Mind and body or mental/ physical should not be considered the two poles of the actual world. They should be seen as points of view within the context of a larger world, from a subjective stance and seen as two aspects of one world, one stuff, from an objective stance.

    It is the mutual exclusivity of mental and physical that creates the irreconcilabilty and paradox and brings people to make creation either mental or physical when they can easily be seen as part of a continuum of the same basic stuff.

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