Consciousness and Self-consciousness

At the age of forty I read for the first time William James’ Principles of Psychology or to be accurate large parts of it. As a practising psychiatrist I was surprised that no one had mentioned it to me before, because it is a masterful study, and the chapters on Habit, The Consciousness of Self, Association, Instinct and Will made a particular impact on me.
For those who suppose that conceptual analysis is an occupation for the dilettante, I can do no better than quote this wonderful sentence from it: ‘How then, inside the minimal pulse of experience, which taken as object is change of feeling, and taken as content, is feeling of change, is realised that absolute and essential self-transcendency which we swept away as an illusion when we sought it between a content taken as a whole and a supposed objective thing.’ ( I feel bound to add that I think this insight was Kant’s too, but James has made it much more accessible by the clarity with which he expresses it.
It shows very succinctly that all experience is two sided, there is the awareness of content and the awareness of the awareness of content, however dim this latter might be. We lack the french reflexive verbs, but not the experience of reflexivity. We are right to suppose that the acquisition of language has propelled humans far beyond animals in their capacity to reflect. Who has seen an animal sitting and thinking? They are capable of some reflection but not abstract thought. For instance a cat will assess whether it is able to make a big leap before attempting it, and a dog hesitate before declining to jump into a cold lake. These are examples of self-consciousness, if scarcely approaching the anguished self-doubt of Hamlet.
Two modern contributions, that have deservedly attracted attention in my opinion, are Thomas Nagel’s paper ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ (1974) and David Chalmers’ ‘Facing up to the problem of consciousness’ (1995). The latter building on Nagel’s definition that consciousness is the feeling of what it is to be something, describes the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ as the inadequacy of offered explanations about how consciousness is manifested from matter, and how considerations of information processing in sensory systems simply does not bridge this gap. Materialists, of course, believe that progressive refinement of neurophysiological techniques will eventually decompose the problem into small pieces, and it will disappear. To me this offends both logical and common sense. I regard it as a category mistake.
We now rightly feel that dualism, a physical and mental stuff interacting, just does not work. Monism has the attraction of intellectual economy and elegance, but is everything ultimately mind or matter? Panpsychism, (or perhaps William James’ Neutral Monism) offers another way, but in my opinion explains too much to be intellectually satisfying. After all it is difficult to see what consciousness or intentionality would add to the activity of a sub-atomic particle although perhaps it is less of a particle and more a cloud of unknowing, than we are easily able to imagine. In the end I withhold judgement on panpsychism.
But I do feel that when we think about consciousness we are starting at the wrong end. For instance the wonderfully minute and exact descriptions of the movement of the human psyche in Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Proust and Kafka are pinnacles of human achievement. Under the scientific examination of the brain, this subtle universe is flattened out into neuronal activity, and all meaning is lost. As I said in an earlier post, with the deterministic spectacles on what is holy in life disappears. To put it another way, machines cannot think because they cannot feel. Without feeling nothing has meaning, of which the most primitive axis is perhaps pleasant/unpleasant or yes/no.
In the following post, I shall consider the millions of neuronal impulses present in the brain at any one instant and the singularity of an instant of consciousness/self- consciousness.

Published by davidcookpoet

I am a husband, father and grandfather. I retired from a busy working life as an adult psychiatrist in 2014. My interests are in literature, philosophy, modern jazz and horse racing. I might represent those four fields by Shakespeare, Kant, Charlie Parker and Lester Piggott. Like nearly all of us, I can identify a number of formative experiences, one of which was a psychotic episode in my first year as a psychiatrist. This reinforced an already established interest in mystical experience, and a sense of how little human beings know. My intellectual bugbear is reductive materialism, and I am surprised at the lack of moral imagination of those who promulgate such views. It seems to me they need to consider ,perhaps by exposure, just why totalitarianism is so horrific.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: