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Being Conscious of Being Conscious

by Bill Meacham on June 10th, 2018

Last time we looked at the surprising ability of plants, which seem to be agents in their own right, to seek goals and act so as to achieve them. A recent popular survey of environmental scientists and philosophers asks a similar question, whether plants are conscious.(1) Some say they obviously are because they respond to their environment, gather information and act with discernment in a way that non-living things such as rocks do not. Others insist that plants are not conscious because they have no ability to be conscious of themselves. Being conscious, in this view, requires being aware of oneself as well as of one’s surroundings.

But that assertion raises a number of issues. Is being conscious different from being aware? What is it to be conscious, or aware, in the first place? And what is this self, of which, some assert, we must be aware in order to be conscious at all?

Many people use the term “aware” to mean something different from “conscious.” For instance, professor Heidi Appel says “Are plants conscious? My view is that they are not, even though they are aware of many aspects of the environment in which they live.”(2) The problem is that in English the two terms mean roughly the same thing. “Conscious” is from a Latin root, and “aware” is from Old Saxon, but otherwise they are each defined in terms of the other.(3) Many other languages have only one term for both the English words: “bewusst” in German and “consciente” in Spanish, for instance. Others have two, but they do not translate directly to the two in English. We find “consciente” and “ciente” in Portuguese and “conscient” and “au courant” in French.

If we substitute “conscious” for “aware,” then, what Appel asserts is that plants are not conscious even though they are. That can’t be what she means. What Appel seems to be getting at, perhaps, is that when one is conscious, what one is conscious of is more intense or clear or in focus than it would be if one were merely aware of it. I say “perhaps” because what she means is not at all clear. Does she mean that the world appears to us more vividly or more in focus than it does to plants? How could we possibly know?

Sometimes “aware” connotes being informed or knowledgeable in a way that “conscious” does not. If you want to say that someone knows the rules, “She is aware of the rules” sounds better than “She is conscious of the rules.” Does Appel mean to say that plants know many aspects of their environment, but not in the same way or as much or as well as humans do? Maybe by “aware” she means only that plants respond to their environment. Again, her meaning is not clear.

What are we to make of this confusion? My preference is to use the terms interchangeably.(4) If nothing else, it makes translation into other languages easier. Many times we can dispense with the problematic terms altogether. If you want to emphasize the intensity or vividness of someone’s experience, just say that she is intensely or vividly conscious of what is before her. If you want to emphasize someone’s knowledge of something, just say she knows it.

Maybe Appel means that humans have a second-order capability that plants lack, that we are, or can be, conscious of being conscious, but plants aren’t and can’t. There is a surprising amount of controversy about whether and to what extent one must be conscious of being conscious in order to be conscious at all, and the nuances of the debate are instructive.

Does being conscious always include some element of being peripherally aware, if not fully conscious, of one’s own process or activity of being conscious? Sometimes being conscious of an object does include thinking about one’s experience in addition to focusing on and thinking about the object itself. (By “object” I do not mean to imply something existing external to the one who is conscious, as naive realism would have it. I mean only whatever appears to one. The tree in a hallucination of a tree is as much an object as it is in a perception of a tree or in a mental image of a tree.) At such times one puts some attention on the fact that one is conscious of something, as well as on the object of which one is conscious. That this type of experience is always vivid and always leaves memories leads some to believe that being conscious always includes some degree of being aware of being conscious.

One of them is contemporary philosopher Galen Strawson. In an extended essay on the subject, he tries to tease out ways of speaking that adequately express the assertion that being conscious always includes some degree of being aware of being conscious. He expresses it in various ways:

(1) All awareness involves awareness of that very awareness.(5)

Substituting synonyms, he gets the following:

(1a) All consciousness involves consciousness of that very consciousness.(6)

(1b) All experience involves experience of that very experience.(7)

“Awareness” and “consciousness” are both nouns, and so is “experience” in this context. But “experience” can also be a verb, as in “She experienced the concert with delight.” Strawson changes “experience” to the gerund form of the verb, which has the advantage of emphasizing its active, processual nature:

(1c) All experiencing involves experiencing of that very experiencing.(8)

(1d) All experiencing involves experiencing that very experiencing.(9)

He does not so much argue for his assertion as hope that at least one of his formulations will appeal to and convince his readers. Concerning the last, he asks us to “listen for the sense in which (1d) is necessarily true.”(10)

Well, I’ve listened, and I don’t hear it. I contend that not all instances of being conscious include some degree of being aware of being conscious. Only some of them do. Before I argue for that position, let’s look more carefully at what is being asserted.

There are other ways of expressing Strawson’s thesis, and he helpfully lists a few from other authors: Alvin Goldman: “In the process of thinking about x there is already an implicit awareness that one is thinking about x.” René Descartes: “When I will or fear something, I simultaneously perceive that I will or fear.” John Locke: “Thinking consists in being conscious that one thinks.” Sartre: “Consciousness is conscious of itself, that is, the fundamental mode of existence of consciousness is to be consciousness of itself.” Aron Gurwitsch: “Consciousness … is consciousness of an object on the one hand and an inner awareness of itself on the other hand. Being confronted with an object, I am at once conscious of this object and aware of my being conscious of it.”(11)

Canadian philosopher Leslie Dewart puts it this way:

[An] invariable element of experiencing an object consciously consists in experiencing, moreover, that the object is being experienced. … Careful introspection reveals that we can never be consciously aware of anything without being thereby—through the same act and at the same time—aware that we are aware of it. … In every conscious experience the act of experiencing is present to itself.(12)

In all these different ways of putting the matter no one is arguing that every instance of being conscious involves two separate things, focusing on whatever one is conscious of and in addition focusing on the act or process of being conscious of it. Strawson says that “we’re rarely in a state of awareness taking a state of awareness as an express object of reflective attention.”(13) Rather, they say that being conscious is all one thing (using the term “thing” loosely). They say that the state of being conscious of being conscious is “non-positional,” “nonreflective,” “pre-reflective,” “low-level,” “non-conceptual,” “non-observational,” or “non-thetic.”(14)

So what is this non-observational, nonreflective state? Two different things are asserted about it:

A. That being conscious always involves being aware that one is conscious.

B. That being conscious always involves being aware of being conscious.

These assertions are not identical. Being conscious or being aware that means having an idea or concept. If someone says she is aware that her car is in the driveway, it means that she knows that her car is so located, that she has an idea of where her car is. If someone says she is aware that she is conscious it means that she has at least a dim idea that she is conscious (of whatever she is conscious of).

Being conscious of means being in direct perceptual contact with that of which one is conscious. Being conscious of one’s car, for instance by seeing it, is not the same as knowing its location. Nor is being dimly aware of one’s car, for instance by seeing it out of the corner of one’s eye. I suppose it would be difficult to be conscious of something without knowing its location, but certainly one can know something’s location without directly perceiving it. The two are not the same.

Being Aware That One is Conscious

I’ll return to being aware of shortly. Let’s first examine assertion A, that being conscious always involves being aware that one is conscious. The thesis, as I said, is not that whenever one is conscious of something one is also explicitly and focally conscious of the thought of one’s being conscious. Certainly most of the time we are not. The thesis rather seems to be that in every moment of experience something is present that counts as knowledge that one is experiencing. Such knowledge is said to be non-thetic, meaning that it is not in the focus of attention. The thesis is that being conscious always contains some element—sometimes more pronounced and sometimes less so—of knowledge that one is conscious.

I think careful observation of experience will show that sometimes it does and sometimes it does not.

What we call conscious experience does indeed sometimes contain some element of knowing that one is conscious. One can be dimly aware, if not fully conscious, of the idea that one is conscious, that is, of oneself as being conscious. Such an idea may be verbal or visual or some combination or present in some other mode; the exact mode may well vary from person to person. It has the ability to lead one in some way to action or further thought about oneself or one’s experience.

But such an idea is not always present. What is always present in vivid experience that leaves memories is, in addition to the object being paid attention to, thinking that bears some relation to the object of attention. The more such thinking is present, the more vivid is one’s ordinary experience and the stronger one’s memory. The thinking may be about the object or it may be about the subjectivity of one’s experience or both. But it is not necessary that it be about one’s subjectivity. It is enough that it be about the object.

I am willing to grant that every instance of being conscious has the potential of including knowledge that one is conscious, but not that every instance does in fact do so. At best we may have tacit knowledge—knowledge that is not presently thematic but could become thematic, or attended to—that we are conscious. But that knowledge is not always present in experience, even dimly, in the form of thinking or having an idea. It is often just not there at all. Phenomenologically, we are not always in fact aware that we are aware.

Of course, whenever one thinks to “look,” one finds oneself knowing that one is conscious. If one is engaged in questioning whether being conscious must entail or whether it always includes being aware that one is conscious and one examines one’s experience, then one will naturally find such thoughts and observations in the background. The trick is to examine one’s retention of what one was conscious of just before one thought to “look.” In a great many cases, one will find no such conceptual content. (Or, to be precise, in most cases, I, the author, have found no such conceptual content.)

Being Aware Of Being Conscious

Being aware that one is conscious is not a universal characteristic of being conscious. What of assertion B, that being aware of being conscious is? Again, the assertion is not that we are always explicitly and focally conscious of being conscious, for obviously most of the time we are not. Instead, our mode of being aware of being conscious is said to be “pre-reflective, “non-reflective,” “low-level,” “non-conceptual,” “non-observational,” “non-positional” or “non-thetic.” The thesis seems to be that something that is reasonably described as being conscious of being conscious is present in one’s experience at all times at least dimly. But what is that something?

A clue is found in an activity that does entail being conscious of being conscious in an explicit and focused way: the practice of mindfulness meditation, which Strawson recommends.(15) The practice consists of “paying precise, nonjudgmental attention to the details of our experience as it arises and subsides.”(16) One sits quietly with spine erect and simply pays attention to what is happening. Typically one focuses on one’s breath, specifically on the physical, tactile sensation of the air that passes in and out of the nostrils.(17) As one does so, one notices not only the breath but also the thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and other subjective events that occur. One does not, however, follow or cling to any of them; instead, when one notices that one’s attention has wandered, one returns focus to the breath. The effects are said to be a sense of calmness, a heightened sensitivity to one’s own subjective thoughts and reactions to events when one is not meditating, an insight into the essential nature of reality, and ultimately release from suffering.(18) Be that as it may, what one focuses on is what we can metaphorically call the contents of our experience, including those we take to be subjective. The more one pays attention, the more one finds all sorts of things that one normally overlooks: thoughts, feelings, incipient actions and even structural features such as what C.S. Peirce calls “perceptual judgments.”(19) Being conscious of being conscious in this case means bringing to explicit attention the subjective elements in one’s experience.

The question is whether there is an attenuated form of such mindful being aware in every instance or episode of being conscious. I think not. In my (the author’s) own case, I find lots of times when nothing of the sort is present. Indeed, the reason one practices such meditation is to increase the quantity and duration of moments of mindfulness. Most of the time I—and, I suppose, most of us—am not at all mindful of a great deal of the contents of my experience.

If that sort of mindfulness is not what Strawson and others mean by being aware non-thetically of being conscious, then, sorry, I don’t know what such being aware is. I have never observed it. I don’t find it in my experience at all. And Strawson himself agrees that it is not obvious to everyone: “It can seem natural to say that we’re often not aware of our awareness—not only when we’re watching an exciting movie but also in most of daily life.”(20)

Whence the Confusion?

If it is not all that obvious, one wonders how the idea arose that being conscious always involves being aware that one is conscious or being aware of being conscious. Perhaps there are elements in experience that are constant enough that one might take them to be evidence for these assertions.

One such element is the self-sense, the background sense of oneself that is present all the time, whether one pays attention to it or not. The self-sense is what gives one a feeling of continuity, extending far into one’s past; is what lets one know, without thinking about it, when one gets up in the morning that one is the same person who went to sleep last night. It is the confluence of one’s bodily feelings, one’s moods and emotions, beliefs, evaluations of oneself, and the feelings concomitant with one’s actions. It is present continuously, though most often unnoticed, in all one’s experience, reflective and unreflective. My (the author’s) investigations lead me to believe that such a self-sense is continually present; at least it is there whenever I “look.” That it is a subjective sense, not available to observation by others, might lead some people to use the term “consciousness” to denote it, taking that term to mean subjectivity. But this self-sense is something of which one is or can be aware. It does not count as something that is reasonably described as the activity or process being conscious. (We can say that the self is conscious, but not that the self-sense is.)

Another element is self-consciousness in the ordinary sense, a state in which one knows or senses that one is being observed or might be observed by others. Self-consciousness often includes feelings of embarrassment or fear of being judged, but sometimes it can include feelings of confidence or enjoyment of the attention of others. Since we humans are highly social animals, some might postulate that in each of us a minimal form of self-consciousness is present all the time, even in the absence of other people. And the feelings of embarrassment or pride are subjective, so a sense of “consciousness” as roughly meaning subjectivity might be thought appropriate to denote it. But again, thinking that one is or might be observed is not the same as being conscious of being conscious. And besides, people are generally not self-conscious in this sense all the time, even minimally.

Perhaps there are other elements in experience that might lead someone to think that “being conscious of being conscious” is appropriate to describe them. If so, I suspect that such descriptions will be amenable to clarification through using more precise language and that they too will prove untenable.

Problem: How to Adjudicate

I assert that it is not the case that every occasion of being conscious includes some pre-reflective or pre-conceptual thought that one is conscious, nor does it include some element of being aware of being conscious. This assertion is controversial, as it disagrees with a number of very prominent phenomenologists. My disagreement with them reveals a systematic weakness in the first-person point of view, whether that be phenomenological in the Husserlian sense or merely introspective: there is no way to tell who is right! Strawson and others say introspection always reveals something that I say it doesn’t. How can we decide which one of us is correct?

We can do several things. We can “look” again and describe as clearly as we can what we find. We can ask others to examine their experience and tell us what they find. Both of these efforts will be helped by using language in a standard way, as I advise.(21) In addition, we can describe as clearly as we can the process by which we have examined our experience. Such processes include, for instance, examination of experience while the examined experience is going on, of retained experience immediately afterwards, of remembered experience some time after, of imagined experience in the manner of Husserl’s eidetic variation, etc. And we can ask others to describe their process in order to see whether different processes lead to different results. But ultimately it is up to each one of us to find what we find and remain true to it.

So What?

If you have read this far, you might think that the whole issue is rather arcane, even too arcane to care about. Whether or not our experience is always “present to itself” as Dewart says seems to have little relevance to our everyday life. And, in a way, you are right. It doesn’t really matter whether or not you end up believing that every occasion of being conscious somehow includes or involves or entails being conscious of being conscious. But what does matter is how you arrive at your conclusion. If you just take someone’s word for it, you have basically wasted your time. But if you investigate for yourself by examining closely your own experience, you will learn some things. You will learn how your mind works: the ways it influences how you see the world and how it affects your ability to operate in the world. Conceptually, if you are interested, you can find some answers to questions such as what being conscious and what the self which is conscious actually are. Practically, you will have a chance to become more effective in your chosen pursuits and even, perhaps, gain insight into what pursuits are worth choosing. You will learn to know yourself, as the Oracle at Delphi advised, and gain the benefits of an examined life.

Notes

(1) Kolitz, “Are Plants Conscious?”

(2) Ibid.

(3) Dictionary.com, “Conscious” and “Aware.”

(4) Meacham, “How to Talk About Subjectivity.”

(5) Strawson, “Self-Intimation,” p. 139.

(6) Idem., p. 143.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Ibid.

(11) Idem., p. 148, 149, 150, 152.

(12) Dewart, Evolution and Consciousness, pp. 38-39, emphasis in original.

(13) Strawson, p. 142.

(14) Gallagher and Zahavi, “Phenomenological Approaches to Self-Consciousness,” section 1.

(15) Strawson, p. 154, fn. 51.

(16) Wegela, “How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation.”

(17) Thanissaro Bhikkhu. “One Tool Among Many: The Place of Vipassana in Buddhist Practice.”

(18) Ibid.

(19) Peirce, Collected Papers, Vol. V, ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, pp. 38, 114-115.

(20) Strawson, p. 142.

(21) Meacham, “How to Talk About Subjectivity.”

References

Bhikkhu, Thanissaro. “One Tool Among Many: The Place of Vipassana in Buddhist Practice.” Online publication http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/onetool.html as of 29 February 2015.

Dewart, Leslie. Evolution and Consciousness: The Role of Speech in the Origin and Development of Human Nature. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989.

Dictionary.com. “Aware.” Online publication http://www.dictionary.com/browse/aware as of 4 May 2016.

Dictionary.com. “Conscious.” Online publication http://www.dictionary.com/browse/conscious as of 4 May 2016.

Gallagher, Shaun, and Dan Zahavi. “Phenomenological Approaches to Self-Consciousness.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta, ed. Online publication http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/self-consciousness-phenomenological/ as of 26 October 2015.

Kolitz, Daniel. “Are Plants Conscious?” Online publication https://gizmodo.com/are-plants-conscious-1826365668 as of 30 May 2018.

Meacham, Bill. “How to Talk About Subjectivity (Don’t Say ‘Consciousness’).” Journal of Consciousness, Vol. 19, No. 62, 1 January 2017 – 30 June 2017 (forthcoming). Online publication http://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/TalkAboutSubjectivity_v4.html.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Volumes V and VI. Edited by Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1965.

Strawson, Galen. “Self-Intimation.” In The Subject of Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017, pp. 136-164.

Wegela, Karen Kissel. “How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation.” Online publication https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-courage-be-present/201001/how-practice-mindfulness-meditation as of 29 February 2016.

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