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On Consciousness (grumpy)

by Bill Meacham on January 11th, 2019

I suppose my insistence on clarity of language about consciousness makes me a bit of a curmudgeon—or perhaps a bellyacher, crab, crank, grump or whiner—but I am appalled at some of the things people say about the topic. Here is an example:

Psychology professors Peter Halligan and David Oakley assert that being conscious is merely a byproduct of brain processes, a respectable position in philosophy of mind called Epiphenomenalism.(1) But when they try to say what they are talking about, all they do is repeat synonyms:

We all know what it is to be conscious. It is, basically, being aware of and responding to the world.

… while undeniably real, the “experience of consciousness” or subjective awareness is precisely that – awareness. No more, no less.

… subjective awareness [is] the intimate signature experience of what it is like to be conscious….(2)

So being conscious is being aware, being aware is having experience, and having experience is being conscious. These definitions are ridiculous. They are completely circular and shed no light on the subject. The problem is that “conscious” and “aware” are largely synonymous, which becomes apparent when you try to translate them into German or Spanish or Portuguese or any other language that has only one word where English has two. As Wittgenstein said, we are bewitched by our language.(3)

What should the authors have said instead? I have written a whole paper on the subject of how to speak about being conscious, which I’m told is fairly clear. Rather than summarize it, I urge you to read the paper itself.(4) In what follows I condense the authors’ argument and rephrase it in what I think is better terminology.

We all know what it is to be conscious. The world appears to us vividly, and we respond to it. The world includes public things such as trees and people and private things such as our thoughts and feelings. Some thoughts and feelings are conscious, meaning that they appear to us vividly and we can notice and focus on them. Others are less vivid; figuratively, they are in a sort of periphery. Some are so dim as to be not noticeable at all, and we call them unconscious. Here is a picture:

Many people think that we can control our conscious thoughts and feelings, and that they in turn can cause us to act in certain ways. But modern neuroscience tells us that that is not so.

The rest of the argument is clear enough in the authors’s own words:

There is now increasing agreement that most, if not all, of the contents of our psychological processes – our thoughts, beliefs, sensations, perceptions, emotions, intentions, actions and memories – are actually formed backstage by fast and efficient nonconscious brain systems. … Continuing to characterise psychological states in terms of being conscious and non-conscious is unhelpful.(5)

The authors conclude that conscious psychological processes and unconscious psychological processes are functionally the same; they are both caused by physical events in the brain. Whether they are conscious or not makes no difference in their causes or what they do. The only difference is that some are presented to us vividly enough that we notice and pay attention to them, and some aren’t.

That’s the argument. Whether it holds up or not is for another time. My only point in this essay is that it is quite possible to state the case in terms that are not circular and not ambiguous. Go forth and do likewise.


(1) Robinson, “Ephiphenomenalism.”

(2) Halligan and Oakley, “What if consciousness is just a product of our non-conscious brain?”

(3) Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §109.

(4) Meacham, “How to Talk About Subjectivity (Don’t Say ‘Consciousness’)”.

(5) Halligan and Oakley.


Halligan, Peter, and David A. Oakley. “What if consciousness is just a product of our non-conscious brain?” Online publication as of 9 January 2019.

Meacham, Bill. “How to Talk About Subjectivity (Don’t Say ‘Consciousness’)”. Online publication and as of 9 January 2019.

Robinson, William. “Epiphenomenalism.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Online publication as of 9 January 2019.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations, 3rd Edition. Tr. G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1968 (1986). Online publication as of 25 October 2018.

From → Philosophy

One Comment
  1. Ryan Clark permalink

    Awesome article!

    Do you know of any other papers or serious articles that deal with this issue? Seems like a huge blind spot in philosophy of mind.

    I had a Twitter discussion with Massimo Pigliucci not too long ago where he claimed that there are plenty of meaningful (i.e. no brute facts or strong emergence) physicalist theories of consciousness. When I disagreed that there are any at all, he kept telling me to go read some neuroscience (he refused to give an example).

    How can anyone claim that there are any meaningful, purely physical theories of consciousness when we can’t even come up with a non-tautological definition of the thing that is supposedly being theorized about? I can’t think of any other phenomenon known to science that we know exists but can’t even be defined–save for things that are (arguably) fundamental aspects of reality, such as time, causation, existence itself, etc.

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