A HISTORY OF THE MIND
Chatto & Windus 1992
Keywords : Sentio, ergo sum - I feel, therefore I am - - -
The big question of consciousness
I have been creeping up on the big question of consciousness. Earlier, when I said that Aristotle's reply of 'Let him even beat me provided l am not there' could equally have been 'or provided. I just know about it but don't feel it', I was already getting near: for I might have said 'or provided I am not conscious at the time'.
And before that, when discussing blindsight, I came even nearer: for several observers have claimed that the blindsight subject, who lacks visual sensation and insists that he is not a present participator in his own perceptual processes, is 'not conscious' of seeing.
In fact, the general area where consciousness is lying has been becoming more obvious by the chapter. And the goal must now be to lift it clear of the water and get it to dry land - before examining what has been caught at greater leisure. It is however a notoriously slippery quarry, and were I to have snatched at it too soon - before dealing with the problem of imagery in particular - I might still have ended empty-handed.
The time has now come to make a series of quick moves. Drawing on everything discussed so far, a case can be made for the following assertions:
To be conscious is essentially to have sensations: that is, to have affect-laden mental representations of something happening here and now to me.
The subject of consciousness, 'I', is an embodied self. In the absence of bodily sensations 'I' would cease. Sentio, ergo sum - I feel, therefore I am.
All sensations are implicitly located at the spatial boundary between me and not-me, and at the temporal boundary between past and future: that is, in the 'present'.
For human beings, most sensations occur in the province of one of the five senses (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste). Hence most human states of consciousness have one or other of these qualities. There are no non-sensory, amodal conscious states.
Mental activities other than those involving direct sensation enter consciousness only in so far as they are accompanied by'reminders' of sensation, such as happens in the case of mental imagery and dreams.
This is no less true of conscious thoughts, ideas, beliefs.... Conscious thoughts are typically 'heard' as images of voices in the head - and without this sensory component they would drop away.
If and when we claim that another living organism is conscious we are implying that it too is the subject of sensations (although not necessarily of a kind we are familiar with).
If we were to claim that a non-living organism was conscious, the same would have to apply. A mechanical robot for example would not be conscious unless it were specifically designed to have sensation as well as perception (whatever that design involves).
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