Alternative ideas

There are many other theories of consciousness besides those described on the 'people' pages, some of them serious contenders, others less likely. Are traditional ideas about souls and spirits right after all? Could consciousness have arisen through the breakdown of the bicameral mind in historical times? Is it all down to memes, or just a matter of different levels of explanation? Perhaps consciousness is simply a higher-order mental process - thoughts about thoughts? Here are a few of the most interesting and appealing theories.

Levels of explanation home

Reality is not simple. In biology, for example, even the most thorough-going materialist would accept that there are interesting things to be said about cells, organisms, and species which cannot be boiled down to a bald account of atoms and forces - though at the same time we never doubt for a moment that in some sense mere physics provides all the ingredients biology requires. It is just a fact about the world that it operates on these different levels - a fact nicely captured in Mary Midgeley's slogan 'one world, but a big one'. This multiplicity of levels does not normally bother us or cause us to start fretting about the reality of cells or organisms, so why can't we just see conscious thoughts and motives as another level of explanation and leave it at that? 


Bitbucket For one thing, we don't know yet exactly how consciousness relates to the atoms-and-forces version. In the case of cells and organisms we understand pretty well how the parts fit together and how the properties of the cell, say, arise from the nature of the atoms making it up and the relationships between them. In the case of consciousness, we just haven't got that far yet. Even when we do, I think more will still be required by way of explanation than just saying that consciousness is a matter of different levels of interpretation. We need to know how it works. What makes matters worse is the especially large and vigorous group of false theories and ideas about consciousness that have to be denounced and eliminated. We can afford to be a bit more laid back about the materialist account ofcells and organisms because it isn't seriously challenged by anyone.


Anyway, this general view of reality as having a number of different levels also provides the basis for two much-quoted ideas: reduction and emergence. A reduction of a phenomenon, or a reductive explanation, accounts for higher-level properties so thoroughly in terms of lower-level entities that it is no longer strictly necessary to consider the higher level - in fact the reality of the higher level entities may be challenged. The classic example, perhaps, is temperature and mobility of molecules. Once it was understood that the two were the same, it became clear that there really wasn't anything to temperature except the motion of molecules. Another example might be the periodic table, which allowed the whole of chemistry to be reduced to physics, and indeed, some new chemistry to be discovered by extrapolation. Sometimes theories of consciousness are criticised for being too reductive - attempting to abolish consciousness as something real in its own right. On the other hand, appropriately reductive explanations are among the best you could have.

Emergence is sort of the opposite. An emergent phenomenon is a higher-level one which could not have been foreseen from the lower-level account, or at least, one which amounts to more than the simple conjunction of lower-level entities. It's often suggested that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon, though without a theory of how it emerges, that doesn't tell us much.


Higher orders home
A chimp reflects

First order thoughts are straightforward thoughts - 'There's a chair.'. Second order thoughts are thoughts about thoughts - 'I knew that was a chair ...'.  Quite high-order thoughts are actually relatively common: 'I can't imagine why you thought I even cared whether he shared my taste in chairs?' - fifth order?

Anyway, an idea which recurs in several different contexts is that consciousness has something to do with higher order stuff: either our awareness of ourselves or thoughts about thoughts. Self-awareness is often considered a special, or even the only true, form of consciousness. Great significance has been attached to experiments which seem to show that while most animals treat their reflection in a mirror as another animal, some of the great apes realise that it is themselves they see (they betray this awareness by reaching up to touch a spot on their faces which they were unaware of until they looked in the mirror). Perhaps the influence of Descartes ('I think, therefore I am' has something to do with the special place which thoughts about ourselves have been given. For sceptics it is also appealing to think that the impression of self-hood might come from turning on ourselves a faculty which developed to help us respond appropriately to other organisms. The idea that containing a representation of oneself is sufficient for consciousness has been very effectively ridiculed by Roger Penrose , however, who asks scathingly whether a video camera pointing at a mirror is to be regarded as conscious.

The idea that higher order thoughts are special - that conscious thoughts are those we are aware of thinking - remains very appealing. Higher order processes certainly crop up incidentally in many theories about the mind ( Searle' s idea that intentionality is characterised by the imposition of conditions of fit on conditions of fit, for example) and few would deny that they are at least a feature of consciousness. The view that they are essential to it can be traced back as far as Locke, and comes in many different forms. One school of thought here is that conscious thoughts are somehow inherently about themselves as well as about their other targets; another version, expounded by David Rosenthal, maintains that thoughts are only conscious when there is a separate higher-order thought (HOT) about them. Neither view sits completely happily with the normal perception that most of our conscious thoughts are just not that complex. Many other issues also remain open - do we need thoughts about thoughts to be conscious, or will perceptions of our thoughts do?  Higher-order theories are generally compatible with other theories about the nature of consciousness, and perhaps this is in the end why they haven't made more impact - no-one has succeeded in formulating them in a way which makes them controversial enough to be really interesting.   


BlandulaIf you ask me, these ideas are in any case inherently less interesting than they seem. The point is, second order thoughts or processes are about thoughts or processes. So to have them, you have to have aboutness - intentionality. But intentionality is one of the two big issues about consciousness, and this blather about second-orders takes it for granted rather than helping to solve it. If you like, higher-order theories are pursuing the flea on the back of the bear of intentionality. If we ever catch the bear, the fleas will come along with it, but catching the fleas wouldn't mean we'd caught the bear, though while the bear's still at large, it's just as difficult.


But you can have higher-order theories which don't presuppose intentionality. Take Edelman. According to him the process starts with the recategorisation of sensory inputs: then the categories themselves are recategorised to form concepts. Concepts of concepts take us up to second-order consciousness and self-consciousness, and concepts form the basis for language.


BlandulaOK, but Edelman has the opposite problem - not actually explaining intentionality. Why are higher-order categories any more meaningful than lower-order ones? Why would a group of neurons which responds to a group of sheep be more conceptual than a group of neurons which responds to one? I don't see it.


Souls and spirits home

We are ashamed...


It is remarkable how poor a showing the whole idea of immaterial spirits now gets in both science and philosophy: after all, for many centuries most Europeans, including the brightest and most sophisticated thinkers, took it for granted that the explanation of consciousness lay in a spiritual realm, whereas now, as Searle has said about the existence of God, it isn't so much that everyone is a sceptic as that the question never even arises. Given that ideas from the Christian tradition are rather poorly served, it can hardly be surprising that other religious views are scarcely reflected at all in contemporary Western discussions of consciousness, in spite of the undeniable interest of many of them. In these pages we are currently no better than anyone else in this respect (but at least we are ashamed of ourselves).

However, the spiritual view does have one able and well-qualified scientific champion in the shape of Sir John Eccles. His credentials, and in other respects, his scientific orthodoxy, are unchallengeable, but he holds that the materialist account of the brain falls short of a full explanation and proposes a neurologically sophisticated alternative account.

Eccles' partner in developing and promulgating his theory was Sir Karl Popper, the eminent philosopher of science, and his account has a philosophical and an empirical scientific side which require separate consideration. In this respect it resembles the views of Roger Penrose , and the two theories also have in common an appeal to quantum physics and an advocacy, not just of dualism, but of a three-world system. There the resemblance ends, however. 

Scientifically, Eccles and Popper argued that there is empirical evidence for a distinction between brain and mind. When the brain is stimulated with electrodes, images and memories can be evoked in the mind without shutting off the normal mental processes of perception and recollection. Surely this represents, on the one hand, images streaming up from the purely physical brain, and on the other, perceptions streaming down from a mind which can only be immaterial? Or take the example of ambiguous drawings with more than one interpretation: the brain, by itself, chooses one or other interpretation and presents the image to the mind in that light: but we can often choose to see the ambiguous image the other way, which surely represents the intervention of something else in the purely physical processing carried out by the brain. According to Eccles, the mind has access to a range of different brain processes, and by directing attention between them (like a searchlight) brings about the unity of consciousness which would otherwise be inexplicable given the diverse and complex nature of neural processes.

Specifically, Eccles suggests that spiritual psychons interact with presynaptic vesicular grids by a process analogous to the probability fields of quantum physics. A kind of spiritual cerebral cortex interacts with the physical one undetectably but effectively at thousands of  tiny sites. This allows interaction between mind and brain without violating the conservation laws of the physical world, while preserving the autonomy of the spiritual world, or 'World 2'.

World 2 is one of three worlds proposed by Eccles and Popper: World 1 is the world of physical objects; World 2 is that of states of consciousness and subjectivity (the world of qualia, presumably); World 3 is a Platonic one of objective knowledge and culture. However, the third world does not play an essential role in the theory, with the key interest being the interaction between worlds 1 and 2.


The theory remains vulnerable to the usual avenues of attack on dualism. By confining the crucial interactions to micro-sites where the minute interventions are effectively undetectable, Eccles guarantees that there can be no clear and direct physical evidence of the interventions (one might suspect that the theory is designed this way exactly to accomodate the absence of such evidence). The actual mechanism remains rather obscure - we are offered only the analogy of probability fields. But probability fields don't cause physical events; they just describe them. If the theory is a matter of probability fields, or something like them, it's surely more a matter of another level of explanation rather than another world.

We are offered little about how World 2 might work, but the psychons seem to be very similar to the neurons with which they interact. They seem to have definite physical locations, or at least something that allows them to associate separately and individually with particular physical sites. They must also have something like standard causal interactions between themselves in order to co-ordinate their handling of thousands of different micro-sites at a time. But the contents of World 2 are not meant to be another set of objects like the objects in World 1 - they are meant to be subjective states of consciousness. Are psychons states of consciousness? Either the theory is metaphysically stranger than it seems, or something is wrong here.

Ultimately, it seems that the convictions of Eccles and Popper rest on a kind of Brentano-style incredulity - it just seems obvious to them that nothing physical can possibly account for the mental. The arguments put forward about illusions and direct stimulation of the brain merely establish that consciousness can have two levels or two sets of contents, not at all that either must be non-physical: but the weakness of the argument is hidden from its proponents by their intuitive certainty that subjective consciousness is not physical.

The theory must remain unconvincing to those who don't share this intuitive certainty: but at least it does serve to show that dualist or spiritual theories need not be a matter of ignorant superstition about 'spooks'.


Memes home

Loving it


In his celebrated book 'The Selfish Gene' Richard Dawkins digressed to suggest that evolution might have another string to its bow besides genetics. Perhaps there was also cultural evolution. He proposed that in culture the analogue of the gene should be a 'mimeme', a unit of imitation - though Susan Blackmore says the kind of imitation involved is not in fact mimesis. In any case, Dawkins settled on the shortened form 'meme'.

Dawkins' original presentation of the idea had a relatively casual tone, and he acknowledges that the analogy with normal biological evolution is not perfect. His main concern seemed to be with those cases where some error or unwanted thought succeeds in perpetuating itself in spite of being wrong or unwelcome - tunes which stick in your mind even though you don't actually like them, for example. These are clearly the interesting cases, anyway - we don't need a special explanation for the persistence of good or attractive ideas, and couldn't prove in such cases that distinctively memetic processes were at work.

Memes have been taken very seriously by other authors, however, and given a much wider application. In particular, Susan Blackmore in 'The Meme Machine' has tried to straighten out some of the issues and use the basic idea to explain a wide range of mental phenomena in memetic terms. She proposes that the self is an illusion (does this make her a ghost-writer?) generated by a self-protecting complex of memes. She believes that consciousness is an illusion too, not in the sense that it doesn't exist at all, but in the sense that we falsely attribute it to a more or less homuncular central observer (though surely belief in the self does not automatically imply belief in an homunculus or Dennettian Cartesian Theatre ). She believes that there is a non-memetic bedrock of consciousness in pure phenomenal experience. This leaves her with the epiphenomenalist view that our ideas don't originate from our own real consciousness, however.


On the face of it, Dennett is bolder, asserting that our consciousness is made up of memes, or more exactly, meme effects in brains. It's a bit strange that Dennett, who already has one theory on the go, should embrace memes quite so enthusiastically. One would expect him to hold that memes are just things we attribute to each other in the course of trying to predict behaviour: that consciousness allows 'our hypotheses to die in our stead', rather then our hypotheses running us for their own benefit. The theory of the intentional stance does not seem to be dependent on memes, anyway, so perhaps it's best to assume that for Dennett memes are really just a lively metaphor...


blandula For Dennett, people are just lively metaphors...


... an illuminating way of describing processes which could, however, be fully described in other terms if necessary. 

There are other objections to the whole idea of memes, but a full discussion goes beyond the scope of these pages. From our point of view the main problem is with memes as a general theory of psychology: it's too obvious that our minds don't normally work like that. There might be something interesting to be said about the evolution of urban myths, jokes, or superstitions through accumulated variations (perhaps we could tell the age of a story from the number of variations current, rather in the way biologists age hedgerows by counting the number of plan species), but it's not at all plausible to think that we conduct conversations, write novels and philosophical papers, or conduct scientific research, by copying past material over and over again until the errors accumulate into a new and better version. We do these things, not through a series of accidents, but deliberately - consciously, in fact. If memes explain anything, it must surely be unconscious processes.


Bicameralism home
Bicameralism in action.

'Watch your speed!'

One of the most original theories of consciousness is the one put forward by Julian Jaynes in "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind". It's also, at first sight, one of the least plausible: Jaynes maintains that consciousness did not arrive until some time after the writing of the Iliad. Up to that point everything done by human beings was, strictly speaking, done unconsciously.

How on earth could that be so? According to Jaynes, the minds of our ancestors were split into two distinct chambers (a bicameral structure) with one chamber in regular control and the other making occasional, authoritative interventions. What we now perceive as our own integrated conscious thoughts seemed to our more distant ancestors like voices in the head, actually from the second chamber, but attributed to spirits in the world around them; voices which they had little or no power to disobey. In later periods, the voices came to be identified as belonging to a dead king; first a recently-dead corpse propped up on a couch of stones, then an increasingly permanent god-figure in a tomb which gradually became a temple. This development co-incided with, and made possible, the development of larger and more complex communities than had previously existed. Only later did people gradually come to realise that these internal voices actually belonged to them as much as their normal external speech.

This business of having voices in the head clearly resembles some contemporary forms of mental illness. Jaynes certainly thinks the process was subject to occasional reversion, with Joan of Arc, for example, hearing divine voices in pretty much the way her remote ancestors had done. He discusses schizophrenia and hypnosis, both possible relics of the bicameral mind in his view. He also suggests that this kind of internal conversation represents one hemisphere of the brain talking to the other.


Jaynes is a persuasive writer, with an impressive breadth of reference and a clear, rational style. It is impossible, I think, to read his book without feeling that he does have a valid point to make about ancient ways of thinking. It is a testament to his plausibility that there is a society dedicated to his views.

Nevertheless, after the immediate spell has worn off, I think his views about consciousness end up seeming almost as implausible as they did to begin with. Probably it is true that many ancient societies tended to see human behaviour as god-driven in a way which made the constant divine intervention of the Iliad a natural part of a story. By the time Virgil was writing in a similar vein, it had come to be a rather artificial literary convention: and by Swift's day it could only really be used for comic or satirical effect. But does that imply a fundamental reorganisation of the mind or just the gradual obsolescence of a literary convention? Our minds and literature are not filled with gods, but with brand names, advertising slogans, and the clichés of Hollywood and television - but would that justify a future researcher in concluding that we were unconscious robots, obeying the 'voices' of large commercial corporations? Hmm... Jaynes maintains, probably with some justice, that many ancient texts seem to display a modern cast of mind only because the translator has reinterpreted them; but surely this reinterpretation could not go so far as to make the unconscious seem conscious? 


Perhaps the real sticking point is Jaynes' view that language and literature preceded consciousness. There are many tasks we can and do carry out without paying much deliberate attention, but surely speech and above all, literary composition, don't fall into that category? Far from explaining consciousness, Jaynes' view seems to require that there were two spheres of consciousness in the ancient mind. Since the god-like chamber 'spoke' to the everyday one, and the everyday one was apparently capable of writing the Iliad (and large parts of the Bible), it seems that both would have been able to pass the Turing test, anyway. When I seek an explanation for consciousness, it is, among other things, the processes of imagination and composition which go into the creation of a text which I want to have explained. Even if I agreed to stop calling these processes conscious, the essential mystery would remain untouched.