Ok, I'm going to start running down my own arguments and positions related to Kenny's conversation with Keli Y on the nature of consciousness and how it relates to meaning, purpose, and how we choose to live. Please forgive me if this is all repetitive of things you've read from me before.
Starting from the top of the list: who do I think I really am? Am I a body, or thoughts or emotions, or the consciousness observing the body, thoughts, and emotions?
On this question, I'm right in there with Kenny – I am the conscious awareness of thoughts, emotions and perceptions. Like Kenny, I find this to be empirically self-evident: if I sit in quiet meditation and observe my thought processes, it inevitably becomes clear that "I" do not control my thoughts. The thoughts happen, and "I" observe them happening. Whatever that "I" sense is, it is NOT in the thoughts themselves.
The best thought experiments to hone in on the nature of identity are to imagine immortality. What would it take for "you" to live forever? Does your physical body need to survive, forever unchanging? Does the pattern of your thoughts and feelings, your personality, have to survive? Or is it something else entirely – for lack of a better word, your soul?
Most people will readily agree that their body is not who they really are. Were that that case, we couldn't even imagine stories like "Freaky Friday", in which a mother and daughter trade bodies for a day. We observe people losing parts of their body (an arm, a leg) and replacing them with prosthetics, and we don't consider them to be different people. A body seems like something we have, not something we are. So we can readily believe we might be immortal without keeping our bodies.
What about our thoughts? Here it's a lot harder to see the distinction between what I am and what I have. In English we use both forms for describing thoughts and emotions: "I am angry", versus "I have a lot of anger", or "I lust after her" versus "I keep having lustful thoughts." It seems like we can go either way on that one, as Kenny described, through a process of identification, in which our sense of self temporarily attaches to particular thoughts and feelings. When you observe carefully, though, you will ultimately conclude thoughts are not essential to the self. We can easily imagine dying, finding ourselves in Heaven, and realizing that we don't feel angry, hateful, or lustful any more. Our thoughts can change (they do all the time anyway) but we are still the same person. In fact, such change is almost necessary for us to feel like we are alive: we call it "growth."
What about memories? Do we need to remember our lives in order to continue being, essentially, "us"? This gets even harder to pin down, since almost everybody thinks the sum of their experiences are what makes them them. And yet, even that doesn't seem to be central to our notion of ourselves, for an obvious reason: we forget. We forget lots of stuff. In fact, we forget most of what happens to us. We even construct memories of thing that never actually happened. And (getting back to immortality) we can imagine getting to Heaven, and enjoying ourselves so much there that eventually we forget everything that came before – our jobs, our worries, our fears, even our own names. And yet it would still be us that were living on in Heaven.
What's left, after you take away body, thoughts, feelings, and memories? Only consciousness – that which observes everything and is nothing in itself. That's who we know ourselves to be.
And yet . . . in spite of all that . . . the argument is still not won. More on that tomorrow.
Nice to see you showing up in my RSS feed again. I look forward to reading this next thread of inquiry.
I found this post a little threadbare to pass without a comment or two. First, I'm not sure "because I can imagine" a sufficient inquiry into the nature of body, thoughts, and memory. I can imagine many things which could also be patently false. Just because I can imagine Freaky Friday or life after death does not, IMHO, say anything about the nature or veracity of these things.
With respect to "consciousness" - as a metaphysical idea it seems to be a completely artificial construct (although I believe the term consciousness in psychological and clinical terms has meaning, as in "subconscious" and "conscious"; in fact, when you say we forget, the mind is not really letting go of memories but moving them to subconscious storage).
Here's a question: where does consciousness begin in biology? Is it unique to humans? Higher mammals? Bacteria? Viruses? And if consciousness is unique to humans, what was the precise moment it started in our evolution? I myself find the human mind pretty astonishing, but is it completely apart from the chimpanzee and austrolopithecus (sp) or is it really just part of a continuum with no discrete boundary, making it, in effect, a completely made-up construct?
Thanks for posting. You have no idea how much it helps me to know that people are reading, and reading critically.
Stay tuned -- you are (correctly) anticipating the counterarguments to the case that consciousness is "a thing apart". This post was just reiterating the basis of Kenny position: that consciousness can be directly observed to be something other than thought (and presumably, therefore, not necessarily limited to the brain that produces thought), and that it is intuited by most people to be the essential locus of identity.
My intuition is exactly like Kenny's: it certainly appears that "I" am my consciousness. The difficulty is that just because something is intuited to be true, doesn't mean it really is. Just because we can imagine switching bodies, doesn't mean we can. And conversely, just because we can't imagine something (like a biological origin of consciousness) doesn't mean that it's impossible -- it just means we don't understand it.
I'm trying to present both sides of the argument as well as I can, because I can honestly say I don't know which to believe anymore. Intuition says one thing, reason says something else, and both have ways of trumping each other.
Alas, what I really want to do is reply to Justin, but he'll probably never see this.
He says that "consciousness" in the sense that philosophers discuss it is an "artificial construct"--which I take it to mean, a mirage, as Dennett claims. But he does grant that the word has a sort of lesser, clinical meaning, as in a memory that is stored unconsciously.
My question to Justin is, what does that mean? Suppose I have two memories, both stored in my brain. Both are chemically or neurologically there, like two files on a hard drive. But we make this distinction that one memory is "conscious" and the other is "subconscious." What does that distinction mean? When you answer that question, I think you start to approach real consciousness.