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Some Aspects of Being Conscious

by Bill Meacham on November 16th, 2020

I have asserted that the way many people talk about being conscious, particularly the way they use the term “consciousness,” leads to confusion, because that term is too ambiguous. In fact, I advise not using it at all.(1) Philosopher Ned Block also believes that the term “consciousness” is ambiguous, but for different reasons. Unfortunately, his language suffers from the ambiguities that I warn against, making it harder to evaluate than it needs to be. In this essay I try to make sense of Block’s argument by restating it in my preferred terms.

Block starts his influential article, “On a confusion about a function of consciousness,” with these words:

Consciousness is a mongrel concept: there are a number of very different “consciousnesses.”(2)[227]

What does he mean by “consciousness?” In what sense are there many of them? And why is the second instance of that word in quotes and the first is not?

It soon becomes clear that when he talks about consciousness, he does not mean our general capacity to be conscious, nor does he mean the subject who is conscious; he means states or episodes of being conscious. He goes on to say that the concept conflates two meanings, which he calls “phenomenal consciousness” and “access consciousness.” Phenomenal consciousness is what I (and, I expect, most people) just call being conscious. Block says

Phenomenal consciousness is experience; what makes a state phenomenally conscious is that there is something “it is like” … to be in that state.[230]

Now, using the idiom “what it is like” to refer to one’s subjective state can be misleading, but its meaning is fairly clear. When we are conscious in phenomenal mode, things appear to us. We see colors and shapes, we hear sounds, we smell aromas, etc. When we are not conscious in phenomenal mode—when we are asleep or in a coma—such things don’t appear to us. Block calls such a state of being conscious “phenomenal” because it contains phenomena, things that appear. (The word “phenomena” comes from a Greek word meaning “appearances.”)

Block asserts that just having things appear to us is not all there is to being conscious. There is also what he calls “access consciousness.”

A state is access conscious … if, in virtue of one’s having the state, a representation of its content is (1) … poised for use as a premise in reasoning, (2) poised for rational control of action, and (3) poised for rational control of speech.[231]

In other words, when you are conscious of something in access mode, you are able to do something with it, such as reason about it, take some action on it or say something about it. You are able to do these things because you have a representation of it in your mind. A representation in philosophy is, roughly, a mental idea or image that stands for something else.(3) That something else may be real, like a specific tree or trees in general, or it may be unreal, like a unicorn. It may be absent, such as the Eiffel Tower when you are in Texas, or it may be present, like a tree right in front of you. The important point is that you have an idea of what you are conscious of and your idea enables you to take some action on it, either in your mind (reasoning) or in more than one person’s mind (talking) or in the world outside your mind (acting).

Block’s point is that merely being conscious of phenomena is not enough to guide action. He argues against psychological theories that take states or episodes of being conscious as purely phenomenal and then explain their function as giving input into the mental processes—he calls them an Executive System—that make decisions and guide action. Mere phenomena, he says, don’t provide such input.

What he argues against is the following thesis:

When consciousness is missing, subjects cannot report or reason about nonconscious contents or use them to guide action; we can conclude that a function of consciousness is to facilitate reasoning, reporting, and guiding action.[228]

Since the term “consciousness” is ambiguous, I restate this thesis as follows:

When people are not conscious, they cannot report or reason about nonconscious contents or use them to guide action; we can conclude that a function of being conscious is to facilitate reasoning, reporting, and guiding action.

He questions this assertion because it does not clearly distinguish between being phenomenally conscious—conscious merely of sights, sounds, etc.—and being conscious in a way that includes representations that enable access to things and states other than what is immediately present. Merely being phenomenally conscious, he thinks, would not have any bearing on thought, speech or action. You have to have some ideas or representations as well. That is, only if ideas or representations are present in a moment or episode of being conscious can we use what we are conscious of to think, speak and act.

Stated like this, the thesis might seem reasonable, but it raises some questions. Does being conscious of, say, a tree really include a representation of a tree? In our everyday life, in what Edmund Husserl calls the “natural attitude,” we just see a tree; it’s just there, real and straightforwardly existent.(4) Why posit representations in addition to the tree?

The answer is that we don’t posit them, we find them. They are there, but most often overlooked. To discern them we usually need to take a sort of mental step back from simple engagement with the tree to notice and think about the experience of seeing the tree. That is, we can notice what else is going on during the state of being conscious of the tree. This takes some practice, and it’s not surprising that most of us don’t do it much; but when we do, we find a whole melange of mental content: beliefs about what a tree is, memories of trees, expectations of what we will see if we walk around the tree and more.

There are times when the representational content in our experience becomes quite apparent. As a child perhaps you woke up in the night and saw a menacing figure near your bed, but when you turned on the light you saw that it was just a pile of clothes. The other day in a park I saw a building behind a hedge. I could clearly see its vertical sides, its flat surface and its horizontal balconies. I actually spent a bit of time looking at it, surprised to see a building there. But when I looked away and then back, the building was gone! It had been replaced by a small tree in front of some other foliage. Try as I might, I could not see the building again.

If such experiences are foreign to you, take a look at this image:

Is it rabbit or a duck? Think of it as a rabbit, and that’s what you see. Think of it as a duck, and that’s what you see. You can see it as either, but not both at the same time.

What happens in such cases is that one representation is replaced by another. The phenomenal content is the same; I still saw the same shapes and colors in the park, and the image’s black lines on a white background remain the same. What changes is the representation. The idea that constituted my recognition of a building was replaced by an idea that constituted recognition of a tree. The idea of a rabbit replaces the idea of a duck.

Experiences like this demonstrate that when we are conscious of something, there is a cognitive element as well as the bare sense data of colors and shapes, etc. That cognitive element is what makes a state or episode of being conscious have an access aspect as well as a phenomenal aspect.

(Strictly speaking according to Block, what constitutes the access aspect is that the cognitive element is actually used by other mental processes. “What makes a state A-conscious” he says “is what a representation of its content does in a system.”[232] But there has to be some representation in the state to start with in order for it to have an effect on another state, so that’s what I concentrate on here.)

So episodes of being conscious have two aspects, (a) that something appears and (b) that we have ideas, or representations, of what we are conscious of. The question is, are these two aspects found in every instance of being conscious. Can you have one without the other?

Block notes that most of the time the two aspects occur together:

A-consciousness and P-consciousness are almost always present or absent together …. This is, after all, why they are folded together in a mongrel concept.[242]

Stated this way, it sounds like A-consciousness and P-consciousness are two separate things. That’s one of the problems with using the term “consciousness.” It leads us to think of an object or a thing and in this case of two separate things. But Block does not mean to imply that there are two separate things. Restating this thought in clearer terms, we get

In moments or episodes of being conscious, the elements that enable access and the phenomenal elements are almost always present together. If one is missing, the other is also; and when both are missing, the person is not conscious at all.

My own phenomenological investigation leads me to think that the two aspects are so completely intertwined in any given moment of being conscious that it makes sense to include both in the definition of “being conscious.” But it is possible to imagine them being separate.

An example of what an episode of being conscious purely phenomenally might be is William James’ famous speculation about a new-born infant:

The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion ….(5)

More recent research calls this idea into doubt—babies differentiate between objects and agents at a very early age and even have some notion of number(6)—but we can at least imagine such a state.

An example of being conscious purely in access mode is a self-driving car or a robot. Such devices detect and respond to their environment. They can make decisions, for instance whether to stop or slow down or go ahead. They can speak; think of Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant. But we doubt that the world appears to them phenomenally in any way at all.

Block does us a service. His distinction between these two aspects of being conscious allows him to argue quite plausibly that it is really the access aspect, not the phenomenal aspect, that gives episodes of being conscious their role in guiding our behavior. Given that understanding, we can tease apart the nuances of various disabilities like blindsight and other neurological disorders, theorize about how mental processes interact, speculate about the evolutionary advantages of being conscious and so forth. My purpose in this paper is not to weigh in on these issues. It is only to show that using clearer language makes the issues easier to understand and communicate.


Notes

(1) Meacham, “How To Talk About Subjectivity.”

(2) Block, “On a confusion about a function of consciousness.” All numbers in brackets refer to pages of this paper.

(3) Wikipedia, “Mental representation.”

(4) Applebaum, “Key ideas in phenomenology: The natural attitude.”

(5) James, Principles of Psychology, p. 488.

(6) vanMarle, “Brainy Babies.”

References

Applebaum, Marc. “Key ideas in phenomenology: The natural attitude.” Online publication https://www.saybrook.edu/unbound/phenomenology/ as of 13 November 2020.

Block, Ned. “On a confusion about a function of consciousness.” Behavioral And Brain Sciences (1995) vol. 18, pp. 227-287. Online publication http://www.nyu.edu/gsas/dept/philo/faculty/block/papers/1995_Function.pdf as of 12 September 2014.

James, William. The Principles of Psychology, Vol. I. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1918. Online publication https://www.gutenberg.org/files/57628/57628-h/57628-h.htm as of 16 November 2020.

Meacham, Bill. “How to Talk About Subjectivity (Don’t Say ‘Consciousness’).” Online publication https://bmeacham.com/whatswhat/TalkAboutSubjectivity_v4.html.

vanMarle, Kristy. “Brainy Babies.” Online publication https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/babies-do-the-math/201101/brainy-babies as of 14 November 2020.

Wikipedia. “Mental representation.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mental_representation as of 12 November 2020.

From → Philosophy

3 Comments
  1. Consciousness lies coiled like a worm in the heart of being

    • Bill Meacham permalink

      Close.
      “Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being – like a worm.” – Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness tr. Hazel Barnes, p. 21.

  2. James Cook permalink

    There is no phenomenal mode. Phenomena are not part of consciousness. They are limbic representations. You may call them “sub-conscious” if you like, but they exist with or without a level of awareness.

    Why do some believe the phenomena are a part of consciousness? Because there are bits in the brain that “do them” and there is an assumption that the whole brain is the conscious bit.

    Finding brain-operations and looking for a way to call them “conscious” is not in the least scientific.

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