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The Nature of Consciousness

Consciousness occurs because human beings have the capacity to generate robust representations of experiences.   This capacity has been spawning fantasies of an actual world and of you and I as persons inhabiting  this world.  The alternative proposed is that you and I combine our fantasies into a reality wherein inner and outer events spawn further imaginary worlds (one per person).  Each of this projections are full of entities, objects and events; and support an equally infinite number of futures.

There are many reasons why this capacity evolved. The most important involves testing possible actions in 'thought experiments' without putting survival at risk.

This means that thought experiments are occurring spontaneously.  No person is orchestrating what is going on; and no material world underwrites the inclinations, images, projects ... populating our imaginations.  When we think about persons, when we think about moral and rational agents, we have imaginary entities and imaginary proceedings in mind.  Such  thoughts and awarenesses are important in what is going on, but not in the ways we have been assuming.

Part of the explanation for this confusion is that consciousness functions as the precursor to self-awareness or self-consciousness.  In the course of individual lives, awareness and self-awareness emerges as brains mature and experiences accumulate. Self awareness then provides a locus around which further information is organized, possibilities are explored and projects requiring an hour or a month's attention are marshaled.

In other species, this capacity exists minimally or not at all.  In almost all cases, orientation is accomplished by triangulation among events comprising entities and the local events comprising communities and what Richard Dawkins refers to as extended phenotypes.  (A beaver dam is part of the extended phenotype of beavers, extending beyond the bodies that beaver genotypes' phenotypes proper.)  In other words, with the exception of human beings, there is no need for self-awareness. The consciousness we often ascribe to animals we have transmogrified into pets is an anthropomorphic conceit; fuelled by experiences of the liveliness or affection of domesticated creatures, or by observing the even more vivid-seeming intentionality of creatures in the wild.

The point is, in human beings, consciousness occurs and has important functions, although this is not the function we base claims of special status upon.  Cognitive events are energized the same way they occur in other creatures.  Indeed, cognitive functions are like chemical reactions in the sense that they are self-actualizing. Hydrogen and oxygen atoms form water molecules because their respective valence rings are 'satisfied' by doing so. There are similar dispositions in memories or (more usefully) cognitive representations of experiences.  Memories are vivacious in ways proportional to the alacrity of experiences represented. A memory of a thrown ball is not a collection of static representations of points along a trajectory describing a ball-in-flight but a representation of an active event. This vitality combines with other similarly active, representations so that notions of balls-in-flight automatically combine with notions of windows to yield 'shards-of-glass' resolutions.

The point (that cannot be overemphasized) is that consciousness does not actively combine notions of balls, glass windows and shattering conclusions. These representations, these memories, meld together 'of their own volition'.  They sometimes generate feelings of alarm that something untoward is about to occur.  Thus talk about the inherently active nature of consciousness, which we leverage into claims about moral and rational agency, is unnecessary and indefensible.  Instead conceptual events should be understood as manifesting the lively spontaneity of dispositions laid down by experiences. These representations capture the essence of a lively world, of a world in flux. It is this represented liveliness that fuels cognitive interactions, rather than some putative agent or a priori being acting freely and expressing volitions out of nothing.

This account has the advantage of being parsimonious and modest.  There is no need to think of consciousness evaluating, much less retrieving or orchestrating, the myriad representations that go into living any moment. Representations  or memories 'attend to' this invoking, evoking and combining automatically. In most cases this occurs without the need for conscious episodes, which capacity is thereby left available to mediate unusual situations.

Psychologists understand habituation and the ability to develop conditioned responses in just this way. These adaptations free organisms to attend to new events with their potential for danger or advantage.

Human consciousness, self-consciousness and subjectivity are positioned at the end of an organic continuum containing reflexes, conditioned responses and habituation. Birds fly when possibilities or dangers hove into view.  Human beings become conscious in analogous circumstances for the same sorts of reasons.


A central function of consciousness involves linking the 'idea-of-oneself' with complex, enduring cognitive events.  A sense of identity is achieved in this way. This experience of enduring fleshes out to the idea of the self.  In turn this deepens awareness so that human beings can become aware of being aware - of being alive and knowing it.  This is a wonderful achievement.  The problem arises when the consciousness and self-consciousness that makes this possible becomes identified with the idea of the self, the person, the being that always seem to be at the centre of what is going on.  Jacques Lacan referred to this as the hole at the centre of awareness. The seductive fact is that consciousness is usually present during new experiences or while difficult problems sorted out.  This has tricked us into believing that consciousness is orchestrating these cognitive events or doing this work.  Au contraire!  Consciousness is necessary for self-consciousness; and self-consciousness provides conscious activities with orientation and focus.  Perhaps more importantly, self consciousness anchors cognitive activities whose semantic content and intentional scope transcend immediate moments or places. This allows human beings to profit deeply and subtly from experiences.  This allows human beings to undertake projects reaching around the world and into the future.


Traditional models of memories and cognition struggle to explain how individuals are able to 'access' desired memories, but the problem is  deeper. Before I can retrieve a  'correct memory', I must know what I am looking for. In other words, a second set of memories, or at least a sophisticated set of programmable filters, must exist in the 'agent' part of the brain. Accessing or generating such resource would require previous activities and resources and be based on still earlier criteria.

If other words, on the standard view, no  action could begin because every consciously-mediated deliberate action by human agents would require traversing an infinite regress.

As well, claims that consciousness act in agent-like fashion in the storage and retrieval of memories impose concatenating storage problems ... without making it clear how any of this could be accomplished. Whatever the physiological basis of memories turns out to be, their coding, associating and retrieving become comprehensible only when seen as 'self tending', occasionally involving consciousness as an organizing focal point and a place to 'house' an idea of oneself. In this way, consciousness contributes to the melding of personal events (hunger, opportunity, danger ...) with representations of relevant experiences persons have had combining with local current events.  As these elements meld together, the results will all be imbued with the flavor and import of memories that have been elicited by either internal ruminations or local events. When circumstances recur, similarities elicit relevant memories automatically. For this reason 'acts of recollection' do not involve or require agents acting. In this account we glimpse a straightforward explanation for how relevant memories appear so magically in consciousness.   To be sure, we sometimes attempt to elicit recollections when they fail to turn up seamlessly as is usually the case. These 'efforts to recall' appear to be learned kinesthetic or proprioceptive habits that may serve to block distractions or rehearse problems until something fruitful occurs.  Such habits may amount to 'search heuristics', eliciting associations until one occurs which enables the arrested act to go forward.

As often as not, attention to the process of recollection is counter-productive: The memory remains on the "tip of one's tongue", to emerge later when the 'effort to remember' ceases.


Consider our usual notion of mental images as non-physical entities located in private "spaces": This gives rise to puzzling questions. Can images exist unhad? Can two persons experience numerically identical images? Do images have "rear" surfaces which aren't experienced? What are images made of? What is the connection between private image space and real space? Are there laws for private space?

I propose an alternative to the usual notion of memory. All of our claims and requirements are unaffected by the possibility that we store no memories at all, but rather synthesize them as required. Just as we are said to have dispositions to act, we acquire dispositions to have "memory-experiences". Such "memories" would not exist until initiated, and then would emerge progressively, guided by their own unfolding, conceivably predicted upon simple, conditioned-response networks, multiplied and gated in complex ways.

A notable benefit is that this model allows a multiplicity of memories to arise from the same nest of elements. Memory-experiences involve patterns of association, and individual 'components' could therefore be reused endlessly.

This model accommodates another feature of memories. A memory is not a snapshot, or even a series of snapshots coming rapidly enough to give the illusion of continuity. Memories are flux experiences, replicating in their very nature this singular characteristic of 'real time' phenomena.

A difficulty traditional memory theories ignore involves the matter of storing representations of activity. How could any top down or outside in program accomplish this? Beyond this difficulty, a constant (and presumably increasing) expenditure of energy would seem to be involved in the maintenance of stored representations. These difficulties are eliminated if memories are understood as new virtual experiences generated as required perhaps the way water rushes down channels scored by some 'original' rain, recreating that event, and then again, at a still later later, because of some initiation at a different tributary. Such events could either originate in the so-called real world, or the conceptual world. Thus, our model accommodates the spontaneous natural of internally or externally evoked experiences of 'recollection'.

As well, this model effortlessly accomplishes the automatic flushing of memories, another requirement traditional models of memory events overlook. In the dispositional account, memory experiences simply run their course. In any other account there would have to be mechanisms sustaining and terminating recollections after suitable periods, whose duration must be established by still more functions.

Other questions arise: Would a recollected memory be 'replaced' at its address? Was it copied from a template that remains there? If it was not, what kept its place available? Finally, there would have to be mechanisms to view and respond to retrieved images.

Replacing the notion of memories with self-eliciting dispositions to generate virtual experiences avoids all of these problems.


Another advantage of regarding memory experiences as the fruit of self-enabling dispositions derives from the need to capture the flowing, active nature of experience; and not have to add this feature by way of some sort of superordinate cognitive function.

Such an account also sheds light upon the trope phenomenon. Examples of tropes are frequently found in psychology textbooks, wherein image with ambiguous figure - ground relationships abruptly reverse, or where images emerge suddenly out of the some nest of visual stimuli. The phenomena also occurs during Rorschach ink blot responses and when we see faces or animals in clouds.

A trope has the nature of an "internal movement"... writhing, commingling, occasionally reversing images that generate meaningful experiences. Meaning is typically regarded as a reliable result of distilling experiences into notions of objects, entities and encapsulated events.  One of the objective of generating this sense of certitude (and of course the sense of an actual world housing these reifications) is to spawn an imaginary inner world so projected possible futures can be explored without flesh and blood commitments. Accordingly, if our model of cognitive activity and memory retrieval did not capture the ineluctable nature of events as an inherent characteristic of dispositional meldings, this would have to be added after the fact by way of some sort of top down function - difficult to conceptualize and far too important to be left to human agency.


Like a single perception, a single memory is incomplete. In real life, perceptions are full of movement towards other aspects of the world. In similar ways, memories throw out feelers towards or evoke other memories. Thus, by way of mutual evocations, dispositional representations have the capacity to spontaneously and continuously generate a virtual world within every person.

As we are seeing however, this capacity is no guarantee that  the possibility will be realized. The urge to be conscious and self-aware, which is like the urge to fly in avian species or swim in fish, that can be caged and used against us.

In the dispositional model, the process of remembering offers no difficulty. States of mind have intimate connections and the resulting concatenations can lead to notions of selves and can then be appropriated by selves in epigenetical ways. I experience myself experiencing.  This confirms the sense I have of my own centrality. So far so good. The error arises when the further claim is made: this centrality amounts to a hand on the tiller.


Consciousness is the most provocative and recalcitrant feature of human life. In the dispositional model, consciousness results from mapping experiences upon the central nervous system (CNS) or brain. This process, in ways that remain unclear, retains and is able to spawn simulations of organic experiences as an aid to survival and prospering.  These often entirely internal events are an important part of every person's  ongoing experience and contribute the subsequent cognitive events.

Psychology books frequently contain diagrams illustrating the location and proportion of sense modalities on the cortex of the brain, and the areas related to motor responses. These sketches roughly locate 'input' and 'output' functions.  Bela Julesz has an interesting way of thinking about this.  Julesz speaks of the "Cyclopean perception" we have of the world - a perception that the world is unified, seamless and whole.   Julesz' example is human vision based on "peripheral" information from two retinas, but which requires an internal "retina" for the formation of seamless images. There is evidence that meaning in visual art, music, poetry and linguistic expression ... is "Cyclopean" in analogous ways.  The dispositional model of memory, and indeed of subjectivity, can be understood as the similar claim that consciousness is the result of organic inputs and local events upon internal cognitive "retinas". The procedures wherein data is gathered is a feature of body architecture and the central nervous system. The brain communicates experiences to disposition generating 'cognitive retinas', in ways analogous to the Cyclopean images achieved after the brain transfers events at optical retinas.

This replication process has an additional feature: it also participates in processes forming, retaining  and retrieving 'memories'. That is to say, we can form memories of memory-driven cognitive events and so experience experiencing.  In this way, conceptual events are able to enrich themselves

What we have termed consciousness, or the subjective, "insider" nature of experience are therefore fruits of these processes, as experiences coalesce and condition one another.

In another way of speaking, consciousness is the "topological space" brought into being by a particular richness of dispositional acquisitions. This resource, which has antecedents in other life forms, and which has a sensible explanation in terms of spatial and temporal depth, can participate in own inner elaboration. When this occurs, we sometimes speak of ingenuity, creativity and, occasionally, genius.

This possibility comes with a risk. The 'quality, even the quantity, of consciousness' we enjoy is in no way guaranteed.  It is  determined by the dispositional nexus every person inherits from their parents, and grows or shrinks through cultural acquisitions  and personal experiences.


On the cultural front, wonderful examinations of dangers and possibilities continue to be produced. Libraries are full of books and famous authors do the best they can for us on lecture circuits. Even so, we have not solved the problem of evil. Indeed, we appear to be losing have failed to achieve survivability. I suggest that part of the problem is confusion about the nature and function of consciousness and self-consciousness. This confusion seduces us into imagining that consciousness is endowed a magical faculty: the ability to author choices and wilful acts in ways that transcend determinism and causality.  Ironically we then use this imaginary capacity to evade the often excellent adjurations and important understandings captured in cultural resources.

The problem is that our imaginary powers: choosing, willing ... are not connected to anything and fiddling with them makes no difference - except, of course, that there are opportunity costs. While we spend time adjuring ourselves and one another to do better, real ameliorative possibilities are not taken up. This is not the way it is supposed to be.  This is not the way understandings, insights or 'thought experiments' come to any useful fruition.  When cognitive events are proceeding naturally, i.e., when they are not obstructed by the conceits of self-styled free will agents, the outcomes of thought experiments occur automatically at appropriate 'real world' interstices.

Big picture insights or understandings, however derived, have no practical application for a simple reason.  They cannot influence large, abstract matters because large abstract issues do not have real-world existence with which conceptual events occurring in your or I can possibly integrate.  Big understandings are only useful if they translate into small understandings within individuals and then find application in the same individuals' lives.

Does this mean that consciousness and self-consciousness has only a belated observer or possibly an unwitting saboteur's  role? We can answer this by recognizing that consciousness best understood as an evolution of mechanisms common to all life, such as conditioned responses, habituation, tropes and gestalts.

This suggests what we should hope for for one another, and for ourselves, when insights occur. They will be valuable if and only if they participate in actual responses by the individuals enjoying them.  If they are instead invested in conversations, adjurations, promulgations preachings ... they will be almost certainly useless.  Understandings must be put into play by the beings enjoying them.  Part of the reason for this is that understandings are forged to integrate with the circumstances engendering them.  A moment's delay will often make them irrelevant. Another harm, bordering on what we might call evil, is that conversations among people about what ought to occur often takes the place of remedies, with results we see all around.


We have surprisingly little experience or evidence that well-intentioned political leaders and moral teachers make a good difference.  On the other hand, history is replete with stories of evil men and their dark deeds.  Hitler and his coterie indicted at the Nuremberg Trials became scapegoats for the conduct of the German people during the Second World War.  No matter how monstrous Hitler may have been, he was only one person. He could not have held such sway over millions unless there were corresponding dispositions within this population that made them responsive. The only way to understand this is to see the German population at that time as people suffused with malignant dispositions, and recognize that they must have been so constituted before Hitler came upon the scene. Hitler's role was to be the final element required - the necessary that achieved sufficiency. When he was added to the mix, the conflagration ensued.

This is useful because it situates the problem of evil within ordinary life, and transforms the solution: We cannot prevent megalomaniacs from occurring.  We might, however, be able to do some things that would diminish our propensity to lend our lives to grotesque ambitions.

This makes sense from an evolutionary point of view.  For the most part there is no reason to expect human beings to have developed much capacity to attend to large issues or abstract problems. Individuals disposed to have distracting ideas rattling around in their heads would have been culled from populations - at least until cultural events proceeded sufficiently that tenure was possible.

In other words, we would do well to regard the Hitlers of the world as boils signalling the presence of widely distributed malignant dispositions across populations. The last thing we should do with such men is ignore what they tell us about the nature and location of evil.