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Consciousness Explained? September 2, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy, Philosophy of Human Nature, Science, Uncategorized.
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David Hirschman at Big Think summarizes recent views on the nature of consciousness:

Dr. Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist from the University of Southern California who has studied the neurological basis of consciousness for years, tells Big Think that being conscious is a “special quality of mind” that permits us to know both that we exist and that the things around us exist. He differentiates this from the way the mind is able to portray reality to itself merely by encoding sensory information. Rather, consciousness implies subjectivity—a sense of having a self that observes one’s own organism as separate from the world around that organism.

“Many species, many creatures on earth that are very likely to have a mind, but are very unlikely to have a consciousness in the sense that you and I have,” says Damasio. “That is a self that is very robust, that has many, many levels of organization, from simple to complex, and that functions as a sort of witness to what is going on in our organisms. That kind of process is very interesting because I believe that it is made out of the same cloth of mind, but it is an add-on, it was something that was specialized to create what we call the self.”

It seems to me there is something missing from this all-too-brief summary of Damasio’s account. To have a self (and thus to be robustly conscious) is not just to be a “witness to what is going on in our organism” or to recognize that one’s own organism is separate from the world.

To be conscious is to have the felt sense that something matters—has significance or import. A sophisticated computer might know that it exists, that things around it exist, and that there is a difference between it and the world. But I doubt that such a machine would have a felt concern for something because it is not a biological organism with needs embedded in feeling states. Self-awareness is not merely a “witness” but an active sorter of what to attend to and what to ignore in light of what matters. It is hard to imagine a consciousness without this sorting ability.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com



1. Nina Rosenstand - September 2, 2010

Since the primary reason some of us are interested in Damasio’s research is that he establishes a clear connection between moral thinking and the neuroscience of emotions, I find it inconceivable that his view of the self should be so “bloodless” and, in a sense, Cartesian (hard to believe after Damasio’s own publication history, and as Dennett would say, the Cartesian Theater doesn’t work as an explanation of consciousness). I suspect Hirschman’s summary doesn’t do Damasio’s view justice. But we should not expect Damasio (yet!) to make the phenomenological connection between his own theory of emotion and the engaged experience of being-in-the-world. He has said himself that he hasn’t yet read Merleau-Ponty! So I hope his theory of self is a work-in-progress…

2. Paul J. Moloney - September 4, 2010

Oh heck! Now I am going to have to read Merleau-Ponty!

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