The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Retrospection vs Introspection

There is a school of thought that denies the meaning of any such discussion about the self.

The British philosopher Gilbert Ryle argued that Descartes invented a myth when he provided definitions for the mental and the physical, as if they were two different things; when he assumed that every human is both a body (that is in space and is subject to the laws of Physics) and a mind (that is not in space and is not subject to the laws of Physics); that a person lives two parallel lives, one as a body and one as a mind (one being a public history and the other being a private history because nobody can witness your inner thoughts). Descartes created the myth of what Ryle parodies as "the ghost in the machine" (the ghost being the mind, the machine being the body). Because things in space tend to obey the law of cause and effect, then we tend to think that mind (which is not in space) too obeys the law of cause and effect. Because the physical world is deterministic, we tend to think that the mental world must be deterministic too. This leads to the belief that there is a machine called mind inside the machine called body, although the mind machine is significantly different from the body machine. Ryle believes that this view is based on a "categorical mistake", and that both Idealism and Materialism (in trying to reduce one realm to the other) fall in this categorical mistake.

First of all, Ryle takes aim at the notion that first we need to think before we can act. He points out that "efficient practice precedes the theory of it". A skilled craftsman does not need to think about how to do things, but he does need to think if asked. In fact, our behavior is mostly driven by habits, especially "expert" behavior (the most "intelligent" of all behaviors). Theorizing is not necessary to carry out intelligent actions. In some cases it is not even sufficient: an encyclopedic medical knowledge is not enough to be a good surgeon. "Knowing how" does not depend on "knowing that".

Furthermore, if that belief were true, there would be an infinite regression of "theorizing" because any theory of action is itself an operation whose execution must depend (according to this view) on thoughts about it. Intelligent behavior cannot possibly consist in first thinking of it and then executing it.

The interactions between mind and body are no less problematic. If such interactions are neither mental nor physical, they obey neither the laws of Psychology nor the laws of Physics. If that were true, Ryle argues that it would be impossible for people to understand other people. Understanding, instead, can be easily explained as a form of "knowing how". We understand a person's actions because we know how those actions work. Carrying out an action and understanding another person's actions are two sides of the same coin: it is the competence (the knowing how to perform that action) that enables one to both carry out the action and to understand another person performing that action. The rules that are at work in understanding another person's action are the same that one needs to perform that action. One does not infer the workings of another person's mind, one follows them.

The "will" is yet another complication. Ryle points out that, according to the "ghost in the machine" model, a mind lives in three modes: the cognitive mode, the emotional mode and the "conative" mode. Volition, however, has the same "infinite regression" problem of the cognitive mode: if a volition is "voluntary", than it must mean that it must have been thought, but then this thought must have been willed to, and so forth.

Ryle blames the concept of consciousness on the Protestant ethics, that required each person to keep track of her moral state without the aid of the Catholic confessor. This implied the existence of the capacity for introspection. At the same time Galileo's science was introducing the experimental method (and therefore the figure of the observer) to study the behavior of matter, so it came natural to introduce "consciousness" as the observer of the mental world.

Ryle attacks the widely-shared hypothesis that there exists both consciousness and self-consciousness (introspection), i.e. that a mind can observe its own mental working, i.e. that we are conscious of what is happening to us and at the same time able to introspect what we are conscious of. In reality, i cannot attend to two things at the same time. In fact, if i focus on what i am thinking, i am no longer thinking of "that". And very often focusing on the actions that are being performed changes the actions that i will perform. I cannot be laughing hysterically and observing myself laughing hysterically because i stop laughing hysterically when i observe myself. It is only in retrospect that i can observe myself laughing hysterically. I cannot be aware of daydreaming at the same time that i am daydreaming, but only a few seconds later, when i actually stopped daydreaming. Ryle does not deny that we somehow keep track of what we think. He only points out that thinking of what we are thinking is a paradox: either we are thinking of it or we are thinking of what we are thinking. We don't think of what we are thinking, we think of what we just thought: our introspection can follow our train of thoughts, but it will always be one step behind (just like you cannot jump on your shadow's head, and a missile cannot be its own target). There is no need for a monitoring process to know what we are thinking; and such a process would be impossible anyway. In reality, introspection is always "retrospection".

Ryle even attacks the view that I can access to my mental life but not to yours. Ryle argues that this is a myth too. Whatever we can know about ourselves we learn it the same way we learn what we know about others, namely by observing behavior. Self-knowledge and knowledge of others are therefore similar processes that only differ in degrees: sometimes we can know more about ourselves than about others, and sometimes we can know more about others than ourselves (because sometimes it is easier to face the truth about others than it is about ourselves). Both the knowing of others and the knowing of ourselves are notoriously imprecise: we often fail to appreciate our character the same way that sometimes others deceive us.

This act of cognition (of discovering one's mental life) consists not in a separate cognitive process but in a process very similar to the one that allows us to appreciate the skills of someone else because we ourselves have those skills. Otherwise we would fall into another trap of infinite recursion: if there is a cognitive process analyzing my cognitive process, then one could also envision a cognitive process analyzing the cognitive process of analyzing my cognitive process, and so forth ("an infinite number of onion-skins of consciousness embedding my mental state"). Instead, we asses our own and others' mental life by inferring predispositions and abilities to do something (just like the British constitution signifies the predisposition and ability of Great Britain to vote democratically, and from observing the British go to the polls one can infer that the British constitution prescribes that). We do not observe someone's mind but only a number of predispositions to act in a manner rather than in another. We can observe that someone is more or less selfish, more or less hot-tempered, etc. And the same applies to what we know about ourselves. We don't find it inside our mind but by observing our performance. The way to know if you know something is to test you, to listen to you telling me about it, and the way to know if i know something is to test myself (usually in silence). We are naturally equipped with the skill of assessing what lies behind one's actions, and even of discovering hypocrites and charlatans. This is exactly the same kind of process by which i understand your (or my own) physical abilities: by observing performance. Ultimately, the observation of what we consider to be mental life (our own or others') is an automatic process of theory formation by induction.

Ryle's view can be summarized as: mental processes cannot be isolated from physical processes, and, in fact, states of mind should better be viewed as actions of the body. Our vocabulary for someone's mental states is in reality a vocabulary for someone's predispositions or abilities or inclinations to perform some actions.


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