Consciousness vs Conscious Access

November 25, 2020

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When we think about the 'mind' and consciousness, we often make the mistake of equating these things with the 'self' that lives perched being the eyes. But the brain existed in nature long before the self, and many aspects of thinking don't require the self at all.

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This is a scholium: a short commentary on something interesting.


Any kind of thinking about mind or consciousness is a little misleading at the outset because of the ideas that come with the 'consciousness' package.

Conversations about the 'mind' bring along connotations of the mental 'self' of ours that is perched behind the eyes. The 'rational' creature that drives the body we're in. But frankly, when one is talking about the mind, very little has to do with that 'self' creature.

The topic of consciousness is quite a complicated one). Frankly this is largely because the terms we use to describe levels of consciousness and unconsciousness are breeding faster than our understanding.

But most would agree that there some kind of difference between consciousness and conscious access. Conscious access, the ability to reflect on and control our thoughts and feelings, is most associated with the self that's perched behind the eyes. We have a tendency to ascribe most of our behaviour to this aspect of consciousness for better or worse, despite having a very limited idea about how it came about, whether other animals have something like this, or the extent to which it actually has a hand in our behaviour.

Consciousness, or phenomenal consciousness, is a more universal aspect of living creatures—the basic capacity to have a subjective experience. This is something thought to be available to all animals who do more than simply react to the world. Animals who have complex enough perceptual abilities to have a unique perspective; to 'feel'. For whom, as in Thomas Nagel's famous paper, there is "something it is like to be that organism". This particular ability may extend to even the humble honey bee.

It's a complicated concept, with much contention. But the primary thing to consider here is that most animals have the capacity to use their perceptions to build for themselves unique models of the world, and then to use their perceptions, and accompanying experiences to make decisions about that world. In a similar way to that in which one human might have a different impression to another of the same high school, one can imagine that a honey bee would feel more inclined to go in a different direction to another bee in the same meadow based on its experiences of where the good flowers are.

This tight relationship between experience, consciousness, and perception is the crucial ingredient. One doesn't need a governing 'self' to experience the world. One simply needs perceptions, a place to store a memory of those perceptions, and the subsequent way in which perceptions guide us to act in different ways based on our experiences.

It's on this conscious foundation, for whatever reason, that the human brain eventually built a 'self'. Which makes one wonder how much control that 'self' really has over what came before it.

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