Consciousness — an introduction

by Neil Rickert

I’ve been planning to discuss consciousness.  Today’s post is just a gentle introduction to the topic.  I expect to have further posts on this topic in coming weeks.

In a sense most of my posts have been about consciousness, though that probably was far from obvious to my readers.  Consciousness turns out to be a very difficult topic to discuss, as I have discovered.


Much of philosophy appears to depend on idealization.  A person is treated as if an ideal rational agent, where “rational” is understood in terms of using logic as the means of reasoning.  To a first approximation, ontology appears to be a study of the logical objects that can be reasoned about.  And epistemology appears to emphasize the use of logic in reasoning about these objects.

The problem, however, is that the world is far from the assumed ideal place.

I have nothing against idealization.  I’m a mathematician, and mathematics is mostly idealization.  But you need to understand the limits of the idealizations that you use.

What is consciousness?

People disagree on what they mean by “consciousness”.  That’s one of the difficulties of discussing this topic.

Here’s a starting suggestion.  Consciousness is a biological adaptation that allows us to cope with a world that is far from the assumed ideal.

As best I can tell, the world does not contain any logical objects.  Consider an automobile — perhaps your family car.  You replace the worn out tires with new ones.  Is it still the same automobile?

Logic does not handle this kind of question.  And you will find people disagreeing about the answer.  The automobile does not behave in a way that we expect of a logical object.  And this is why I do not consider it to be a logical object.

Rocks make better logical objects than do automobiles.  But even automobiles come far closer to what we expect of a logical object, than does a biological organism (an animal or a plant, for example).  And yet biological organisms are among the most important things for us to deal with and to reason about.

If we are to use logic, then we first need to identify what it is we can treat as if it were a logical object.  And then we need to look at the limitations due to treating that thing as if a logical object.  And our consciousness is involved in doing that.  And many of my recent posts about carving up the world have, in effect, been discussing how we go about identifying things to treat as if they were a logical objects.

These kind of steps, in preparation for treating the world as if ideal, cannot be done with logic alone.  They mainly depend on pragmatics.  If a logical analysis of the world requires a foundation, then that foundation has to come from the use of pragmatic methods.

The hard problem

In recent years, there has been a discussion of what Chalmers called “the hard problem.”  There have been a number of ways of stating the hard problem.  But it originated with the question whether a computer could be conscious.

Computers come closer than us to being ideal rational agents.  And the world of the computer (if a computer can be said to have a world) comes closer to be being an ideal world.  The computer does not need consciousness.  But we do.

The computer does deal with logical objects.  Those logical objects are abstractions that we humans create when we program the computer.  So the computer does not need to solve the same problems that we need to solve.  It does not need that underlying pragmatic system, because we humans provide that pragmatic system for the computer.

The computer is a philosophical zombie.  That is to say, it is an ideal rational agent with no consciousness.  If humans could be ideal rational agents, I suggest that they would also be zombies.


I’m tentatively thinking of future posts about topics that are usually discussed as having to do with consciousness.

I’ll mention, at this point, that I disagree with Dennett’s view of consciousness as an illusion.  As best I understand him, Dennett sees the scientific image as a true picture of the world, and he see the manifest image (roughly what we consciously experience) as a “user illusion”.  That is he sees it as an illusory picture of reality that evolved to guide us as users of reality.

In earlier posts, I have argued against the idea that “there’s a certain way that the world is”.  So I disagree with characterizing the scientific image as true and the manifest image as illusory.  I see it as a mistake to attempt to apply “true” to such images.  It’s a mistake that comes from excessive idealization of the idea of truth.


3 Comments to “Consciousness — an introduction”

  1. Not too hopeful concerning your initial suggestion as to how to conceptualize consciousness.
    Biological adaptation? Why? Maybe, maybe not… depends a lot upon how widely you open your mouth to swallow evolutionary psychology among other things. But what does this characterization do to frame further investigations of the subject? Almost nothing, it is too peripheral to the idea. Don’t toes help us “to cope with a world that is far from the assumed idea”? I’d say, maybe you are saying something similar in a roundabout way, that any analysis of the world, which as it confronts us includes ourselves, must adopt a phenomonological foundation before tolerating any framing by theories (ideals). I think you are right, if this is what you are saying, that logic and reason is only one tool for this analysis,

    For the rest, let’s see where you want to go. Not sure I.m happy with classifying a computer as an agent, rational or otherwise. You likely need to disambiguate ‘agent’ then. True enough about Dennett’s shortcomings. Though I see them as arising more from his excessive commitment to physicalism than to a preference for Sellar’s scientific over manifest world images.


  2. Biological adaptation? Why?

    That was not intended as a complete answer.

    People have asked “what is consciousness for?” and “did consciousness evolve?” I was giving my perspective on that.

    And no, I am not a fan of evolutionary psychology.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “Consciousness is a biological adaptation that allows us to cope”
    I do not “like” Dennet’s interpretation but it certainly reconciles with the above statement.

    Perhaps the above is how consciousness “evolved” but like much of the rest of the human world it is “emergent”. The sum (conscious humans”) is certainly greater than the parts (hydrogen, oxygen and carbon).

    Chalmers posits that perhaps “consciousness” is perhaps a law of nature; like gravity. That it just “is”.


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