Conscious Matter

Conscious Matter

I will pose a question I don’t think has been posed before: Why can’t there be conscious matter, but only conscious mind? A mental state can be either conscious or unconscious, passing from one condition to the other, but an unconscious material state can only be unconscious. Consider a state of the brain that is not a mental state; it is unconscious and it cannot become conscious. A mental state of the brain, however, can become conscious, even if it is unconscious, temporarily or permanently. A merely physical state can never become conscious. Of course, it is possible for such a state to become an object of consciousness: you might pass from not seeing it to consciously seeing it. But that is not for it to become conscious, i.e., to be a conscious state. It is necessarily not a conscious state given that it is a non-mental state. This is compatible with it already being a mental state, as the identity theory contends: C-fiber firing might be identical to pain, and thus may be a conscious state (ditto desire and belief). But if a physical state is not a mental state at all, then it cannot become conscious—though it can clearly become an object of consciousness. The shape of the brain cannot become conscious, or its chemical composition, or its microanatomy—just as for other physical states of the world. A chair’s being made of wood cannot become a conscious state of the chair—unless it is first made into a mental state (don’t ask me how). In other words, it is a necessary condition of the possibility of being conscious that a state be a mental state: only mental states are candidates for consciousness. Not that mental states are always conscious—they are not—but rather their potential for consciousness is dependent on their being already mental. Consciousness is reserved for the mental; it cannot spread to the non-mental. A state has to qualify as mental before consciousness can admit it.

That sounds eminently reasonable, even indisputable, perhaps trivial; but actually, it raises a serious puzzle. For we may ask why it is so: what is it about being mental that makes a state eligible for consciousness? Consciousness is not inherent in the mind—much of the mind is quite unconscious—and yet being mental is indispensable to the possibility of consciousness. There must be something about the mental that explains this fact, that grounds the necessity. The problem is that no good answer comes to mind—hence the puzzle. Call this the “consciousness-mind puzzle”: what is it about being mental that allows non-conscious mental states to become conscious but not non-mental states? A simple higher-order thought theory runs up against this problem: one would have supposed that one could just add a thought to a non-mental state of the brain and it would thereby become conscious; but no, it stubbornly resists becoming a conscious state. It lacks a nature that permits it to make this transition. But why then does a mental state that is unconscious, perhaps permanently and necessarily, possess the secret ingredient? It may never be conscious, like a purely physical state, but it has what it takes to be conscious, unlike the physical state—it passes the consciousness test. It seems to possess a magic power, the power to metamorphose into a conscious state (assuming that it does or could). It must somehow possess the seeds of consciousness, even though the seeds may never actually sprout. So, what do these seeds consist in—from what does the power derive?

Several ideas suggest themselves. The first is that mental states, even unconscious ones, have a phenomenology, unlike purely physical states, and this provides the fertile soil in which consciousness may take root.[1] Granted, these states can be completely unconscious—the subject has no awareness of them—but (it may be said) they are blessed with phenomenological features and these make them at least conducive to consciousness. The trouble with this suggestion, striking though it is, is that the features in question will either constitute a type of consciousness or will be so attenuated that they fail to supply what is needed. We either build consciousness (“what-it’s-likeness”) into the mental state or we play with an idea that raises the same question again, viz. why should those features provide the necessary ground? The suggestion is either too strong or too weak. Also, is it true that all unconscious mental states have genuine phenomenology in some colorable sense—what about the syntactic tacit knowledge postulated by Chomsky-style psycholinguistics? Does it feel some way to perform a syntactic transformation unconsciously? Is there something it is like to have tacit knowledge of deep structure? A second suggestion fastens onto propositional content: what equips a mental state to rise to the level of consciousness is that it is a propositional state. The difficulty with this is apparent: why should propositional content qualify a state to become conscious? What has the one got to do with the other? It seems neither necessary nor sufficient: pains don’t have such content, though they clearly can be conscious; and sub-personal computational states arguably possess it, yet can’t become conscious (they are like non-mental brain states). Consciousness and propositional content are clearly not the same property, so why should the latter be a necessary condition of the former? It is the same with the property of intentionality: being about something is not necessarily linked to being conscious (not necessary and not sufficient), so why should it be the required basis? The puzzle is beginning to look deep, intractable. At this point desperation is apt to set in: perhaps the right thing to say is that there are no unconscious mental states—then there is nothing to explain. If all mental states are necessarily conscious, then it is trivially true that mental states are inherently equipped to be conscious. Physical states can’t be conscious because they are not already conscious, unlike mental states. Here the objection is that this is flying in the face of much science and common sense: there really are unconscious mental states, lots of them. Then there is this maneuver: the question is purely verbal—we simply decline to say, as a matter of convention, that anything non-mental can be conscious. We just stipulate that the word “conscious” shall apply only to things to which the word “mental” applies; there is nothing about the things referred to that underpins our linguistic practices (our “language game” with the words “mental” and “conscious”). About this I will simply say: haven’t we got over this kind of nonsense?

But perhaps we have not run out of wacky ideas. One idea would be that it is simply a mystery about mental states that they, and only they, can be conscious. Mental states possess an unknown property, call it C, that explains their availability to consciousness. But this seems unduly panic-stricken: surely it should be possible to detect something in mental states, and only mental states, that suits them to attaining consciousness, given that it is so plainly true that only the mental can be or become conscious. This isn’t the mind-body problem! So, let’s not declare defeat just yet; after all, the question I am trying to answer has only just been broached. It’s a brand-new question, a freshly minted puzzle, so we should give it a while to marinate (we can declare defeat in a couple of hundred years, if necessary). And there is a possibility we have not yet explored: what I will call psycho-functional role. I intend no commitment to traditional functionalism with its emphasis on physical behavior; I mean to be speaking of functional role within the mind (which can include action). Each type of mental state has a characteristic place in the overall functioning of the mind, which is complex and often obscure—its processes, procedures, laws, quirks. This includes folk psychology, scientific psychology, and whatever else about the mind that may lie hidden or alien to our existing conceptual scheme. I am talking about the sum-total of mental interactions and connections. Then the idea is that this psycho-functional role is the key factor in equipping mental states with the wherewithal to merit the appellation “conscious”. Indeed, it is largely this role that underlies our use of the word “mental” (or “psychological”): a state of the organism counts as mental just in so far as it plays this kind of role in the organism’s mental life. Now, a purely physical state has no such psycho-functional role; it is detached from the mind, wholly or partially. Therefore, it cannot enter the realm of the conscious, because to be a conscious state is also to play a certain psycho-functional role—not the same role but a connected one. The only things that can be conscious must have a role that suits them to be conscious, and only mental states have that role. We have role match-up. For example, to be a desire a given state must function in a certain way in the organism’s psychology; and to be a conscious desire the state must preserve this role and possess a further role, namely that appropriate to its being conscious. The unconscious mental state must have a role that fits its conscious expression; it can’t lack that role and yet expect to be capable of achieving conscious expression. Thus, non-mental states can’t become conscious states. To have a role in the conscious mind, an unconscious mental state such as desire must have a role in the mind as a whole—for instance, its mode of interaction with beliefs and intentions. These roles must be in the nature of the things that have them, thereby generating necessities. Accordingly, only mental states can become conscious, because only they have the kind of psycho-functional role that conscious states of their type possess. This explanation requires us to take on board a conception of mind and consciousness that recognizes the centrality of function in fixing the nature of the mental; it isn’t all introspective qualia and what it feels like from inside (though it is partly that). What a mental state, conscious or unconscious, does is key to its identity. We need a notion of phenomenological function as well as phenomenological quality (as well as sub-phenomenological function to accommodate the unconscious mind). It is true that much remains mysterious about this as an answer to our question, but it has the right form to constitute an answer. The notion of psycho-functional role is somewhat obscure, though not horribly so, and what consciousness does to modify the unconscious mental state is a matter of unbridled speculation almost alchemical in its logic. Still, we have the beginnings of an account of how the conscious and the unconscious manage to hook up; it begins to seem less puzzling why only the unconscious mental can penetrate the boundary that marks the extent of consciousness. Consciousness is actually quite demanding in what it will grant entrance to. It might even be that some precincts of what we think of as the mind are too cut off from the rest of the mind to slot into a place in the conscious mind, so that they are destined to remain always in an unconscious state. The conscious mind does not recognize them as mental in any sense it can understand (I am thinking of some aspects of pre-conscious visual processing). After all, the conscious mind is just one compartment of the mind among others, not all of which function in the same way. The borders of what we call the mind are likely to be indeterminate.[2]

[1] This is a view defended by that devotee of the Freudian unconscious, Richard Wollheim. I remember discussing it with him circa1980 in Katherine Backhouse’s office.

[2] There are many types of unconscious and many types of unconscious state, at least as various as the types of conscious and conscious state. It is hard to bring them all together into the natural kinds Conscious Mind and Unconscious Mind. Not surprisingly, then, some items will hover at the edges of these broad categorizations. What should we say about early-stage perceptual processing or the innate form of human universal grammar? What about the motivations of mollusks and ants? What about libidinal urges in monkeys and sharks? What about aliens?

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