A occasional commenter, Quen_tin, has a very different way of seeing things to myself. His comments are appreciated, always serious and never rude. But I can feel his frustration in the beginning of his last comment. “Sorry but… What exactly are you talking about ??? Mental entities that are not conscious ? Thoughts we are not aware of ? I think your concepts are ill-defined.”
So I feel that it is time to give an overview of my guesses as to how consciousness works. I have avoided taking my guesses too seriously because the science is so fluid. And this blog was started to follow the science rather than put forward a complete theory of my own. But on the other hand, there seems no piecemeal way to explain my problems with Quen_tin’s comments.
The philosophical ideas that I find most comfortable are Thomas Metzinger’s (pdf).
The present theory develops a detailed story about precisely what properties representations in a given information-processing system must possess in order to become phenomenal representations, ones the content of which is at the same time a content of consciousness. Let us start with what I call the “minimal concept of consciousness” and then proceed to enrich it. Phenomenologically, minimal consciousness is described as the presence of a world. This minimal notion involves what is called (1) the globality-constraint (a world-model that is available as a world model), (2) the presentationality-constraint (experience of presence in that world, now), and (3) the transparency-constraint (unavailability of earlier processing stages). … The presence of a world. The phenomenal presence of a world is the activation of a coherent, global model of reality (Constraint 1) within a virtual window of presence (Constraint 2), a model that cannot be recognized as a model by the system generating it within itself (Constraint 3). Please note how all that such a system would experience would be the presence of one unified world, homogeneous and frozen into an internal Now as it were.
Then the self is introduced. …one could say that you are the content of your PSM (phenomenal self-model ). A perhaps better way of making the central point intuitively accessible could be by saying that we are systems that constantly confuse themselves with the content of their PSM (phenomenal self-model ). And Mezinger carries on to elaborate a picture of consciousness that seems very reasonable to me.
It is not that I have accepted this theory as the only possibility. However it is a possibility – and therefore, the phenomenal should not be beyond scientific explanation.
So the way I look at it is that there is a brain and that brain does stuff like action, perception, cognition, memory and whatever else we associate with mind or thought or mental processing. Mind is a function of brain, mind is what brain does. A small but very important function of the brain, or a small part of the mind-function, is consciousness. It is a model of the world including a model of the self that is available to much of the brain. It is connected with attention, working memory and short-term prediction. It is important to the working of the brain but does not do action, perception, or cognition. It does not do thought; it does awareness. It has no direct (as opposed to modeled) knowledge of the world or the self. Therefore introspection has no direct privileged knowledge.
Because it is the route to working memory, any thought process that requires the storage facility of working memory will have its interim steps appear in consciousness (not the thought processes but the sub-conclusions on the way to a final conclusion). It will have some of the appearance of the thought being consciously done because the interim steps appear in order in the stream of consciousness. But we still have only one unified brain/mind doing the thinking. We are never aware through consciousness of the thinking process, the ‘cogs moving’.
It is true that one of the reasons that I find this a comfortable way of looking at consciousness is a metaphysical choice, taken so long ago that it is lost in the fog of childhood. I believe in a ‘reality’ that is physical and material in nature, with a very concrete sort of belief. I find it impossible to believe in non-physical/non-material things. The disembodied, spiritual and such like are not entertained. I shy away from words that sit on the fence like ‘emergent’; they seem to want to be both physical and spiritual at the same time. So my only way of understanding consciousness is scientific.
At this point, I hear in my ear that some readers are saying to themselves, “but why is red the way it is?”. Where do the qualia come from? I don’t know how the brain does qualia. But I see it as a scientific question all the same. I do not buy that it is so mysterious that it cannot be understood. Why is red the way it is? Why not. How is red the way it is? Who knows. But I trust we will know someday.