Knowledge of Consciousness



Knowledge of Consciousness



How does our knowledge of our own consciousness differ from our knowledge of other things? Presumably it does differ: there is something unique about the way I know my own conscious states. There are many types of conscious state (event, process) and many types of knowledge of conscious states (knowledge-that, knowledge-of, knowledge-what, memory knowledge), but all such knowledge is united in being knowledge of consciousness. There is something distinctive about this knowledge: for example, I know my present visual experience of dappled sunlight in a special way. But what is that way?  I won’t be able to answer this question (that is part of my point), so my remarks will be limited to locating a problem.

            A traditional answer is that I am certain of facts about consciousness, whereas I am not certain of facts about the external world. I infallibly know my own consciousness. That is not wrong, but it doesn’t answer our question, because there are non-conscious facts about which I can also be certain, e.g. elementary logic and arithmetic. I don’t know these facts in the way I know my consciousness—they are clearly not facts of consciousness. The same problem applies to appealing to the concept of the a priori: even if knowledge of consciousness is a priori, that is not unique to such knowledge, but applies more broadly. Similarly, the concept of acquaintance won’t help: maybe I am acquainted with my own consciousness, but I am acquainted with more than that—with shapes and colors, as well as (according to Russell) universals. The same goes for the concept of transparency: we can grant that consciousness is transparent to its subject, but it is not the only thing transparent to the subject—what about basic geometry and logical concepts? My consciousness is evident to me, but it’s not the only thing that is. And these notions have nothing specifically about consciousness built into them: they are more general than that, not geared to the peculiarities of consciousness. We need to know what it is about consciousness as such that makes knowledge of it special. Why is this type of knowledge like no other, in a class of its own? We might even ask why it is nothing like other types of knowledge, being entirely and spectacularly unique. Surely that has been the feeling about knowledge of consciousness, but the usual epistemic concepts fail to do justice to its uniqueness. So again, what is it that sets knowledge of consciousness so apart from other types of knowledge?

            Here is another answer, by no means unfamiliar: it is the only type of knowledge that exhibits an asymmetry between one epistemic subject and another. Not only is it true that I know my consciousness with certainty (by acquaintance, a priori, transparently), it is also true that you cannot know it this way, and perhaps cannot know it at all. This is the old distinction between first-person and third-person access to consciousness: the dramatic asymmetry of knowledge as we move from one subject to another. No such asymmetry applies to knowledge of logic, arithmetic, geometry, universals, and whatnot. Moreover, it is in the nature of consciousness to exhibit this epistemic asymmetry—part of its essence. So isn’t this what makes knowledge of consciousness special? It is certainly the kind of answer we seek, because of its specificity–consciousness is uniquely such as to be open to one subject and closed to every other subject—but it won’t do as it stands. For we need to know in virtue of whatconsciousness exhibits the asymmetry—what explains it. Why is it so closed in one direction and yet open in another direction? Also, the theory is essentially negative in form: consciousness is not accessible to others in the way it is to oneself. But we want to know the nature of the knowledge we have of consciousness in its first-person openness—how exactly do I know my experience of dappled sunlight in a way that others can’t? What relation do I as an epistemic subject have to my own conscious states? Don’t say the certainty relation (or the acquaintance relation or the transparency relation)—that just brings us back to where we were. We need a more positive characterization of first-person knowledge of consciousness. Something in my mind (my faculty of knowledge) hooks up to something else in my mind (my consciousness) in such a way as to produce knowledge of consciousness, but what is this “hooking up”?

One has the sense, perhaps, of one thing leaping into the arms of another as nothing else can—that there is a snugness of fit here that is unique in the world. It is as if consciousness is made to be known, that this is its destiny, that it could be no other way—hence the impossibility of skepticism regarding our knowledge of consciousness. By contrast, the rest of reality is known only by means of epistemic exertion or contortion—that such knowledge requires effort and may fail (hence the real possibility of skepticism). Even if I know elementary arithmetic and geometry with certainty, that knowledge does not come to me without effort and risk—it is not given. It is acquired, secured, gained. But consciousness simply decants itself into my knowledge faculty, freely and unstintingly, with no obstacles or qualifications. It says, “Here I am, take me!” No other object of knowledge surrenders itself with such abandon (and these romantic metaphors are suggestive): everything else is coy, cagey, and reluctant by comparison. Consciousness offers itself without hesitation, on a platter, but even simple arithmetic exacts some epistemic cost—you have to think about it. Yes, I am certain that 2 + 2 = 4, as I am certain that I have a sensation of dappled sunlight, but in the former case ratiocination is required (or at least an act of insight or intuition), whereas in the latter case my certainty stems from something presented to me and not requiring anything of me. I simply know without effort or question that I have the sensation: there is no striving to find out, no mental concentration, no slight unease that I might be wrong. It is knowledge without anxiety or stress or expenditure of energy. The knowledge simply comes with the fact known, instead of calling on reserves of epistemic capital–some intellectual contribution, however minimal (it isn’t hard to know that 2 + 2 = 4). By contrast, third-person knowledge of consciousness requires real cognitive effort and is fraught with anxiety and risk: it requires diligence and determination. It is work to know another’s consciousness, maybe futile work, but for the one whose consciousness it is the job can be done lying down. It is not a job at all, not a task or project, but simply part of being conscious. The knowledge simply happens without your having to lift a finger: consciousness automatically updates you about itself free of cognitive charge. You don’t even have to do as much as cock an ear or slant an eye. 

            I hope these rhetorical flights carry some resonance, but they hardly constitute a theory. They may capture some of the phenomenology of knowing one’s own consciousness, but they don’t tell us what this unique epistemic relation consists in. Consciousness and knowledge come together somehow, with all the ease and naturalness I have described, but we still don’t know how—by what process or mechanism or miracle (and one can feel the temptation to go that way). There are metaphors to play with (an activity not to be despised), but no clear theoretical conception attends their use. So we really don’t know what makes knowledge of consciousness special, or how it works, or what it is, or what makes it possible. It is a familiar fact of conscious life, and something additional to mere ground-level consciousness, but it resists analysis or elucidation. I know that I know my consciousness in a special way, but I don’t know what that way is. I can’t get my mind around it. All I can say is that consciousness and knowledge are made for each other.  [1]


  [1] Other things are not made to be known—sometimes they seem made not to be known. Much of the world systematically eludes knowledge, or at least challenges it. The microstructure of matter is not made for knowledge. Knowledge is generally an achievement, sometimes against all odds, but knowledge of consciousness is a gift, a freebee, a no-brainer—it requires no intelligence and no effort. There are no examinations in consciousness knowledge (everyone would get an A).

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