Consciousness

Consciousness, Mind, self, I: how can something so familiar to us be so hard to explain, understand or even talk about? Or worse, is consciousness what’s left over when we talk about something else, an artefact of our science?

When in the sixteenth century the French philosopher Rene Descartes wrote ‘I think therefore I am,’ consciousness was related to conscience, the inner light that revealed to us God’s truth.

When in the seventeenth century the English philosopher John Locke wrote about the self, he borrowed an Old English word for memory – ‘mynd’ – to describe what we could know of ourselves, as opposed to the soul, which we could not.

 

The same issue – or is it a problem? – remains today, even though we may hide it away under all the successes and insights we have gathered around and extending from it, in the natural sciences as well as the humanities.

 

In the neurosciences, consciousness remains the capstone to all the biological processes we can study in the brain. Consciousness brings together all our sensations to be perceived. Consciousness retrieves, and even creates, memory. It marks whether our thoughts and movements come from our intentions, or whether they are the result of some dark, unknown force inside us. Consciousness is the learner, the homunculus, the editor that writes itself, the ‘I’ that experiences thought, the free self emerging from law-bound Nature.

 

In the humanities, consciousness has meant something else, especially since the ideas of constructivism became the premier means to study the makings of society, where science is only a small, yet important part.

Consciousness here means the victim and perpetrator of all the little biases that help organise our lives. Humanists have discovered many of these since the 1960s.

Social and class structures; local and national political groups; high and popular cultures; the words, texts and objects we use; the places and bodies we inhabit; the emotions we feel; how we read, look and listen to the media around us; the conceptual and practical tools we use to describe the world.

These affect our consciousness, mostly without us thinking about them, and sometimes affecting what we consider rational thought.

But most importantly, they are all contingent: they all have a history, and by naming and analysing them, we may begin to break their spell over us.

 

How the neurosciences and the humanities use consciousness may seem very different.

They might complementary: one approach seen as top-down, the other as bottom-up, consciousness resting on the boundary in-between.

Or they may seem in conflict. The humanities, from a neuroscientific point of view, are hopelessly vague and unscientific. The neurosciences, in humanist opinion, are forever bound to reproduce as timeless scientific fact the fleeting prejudices that should be unmasked.

 

But perhaps the neurosciences and the humanities have more in common than they realise.

 

Both make the same category mistake, that we can discover something about an individual by looking at a group, whether sample x in a research population or an activist with all the labels of identity politics personified within them.

 

It has led to roughly similar criticisms to be levelled against both. For the neurosciences, that whatever insights they reach or how sophisticated their methods, they can only ever describe the worlds of others’ consciousness, that neuroscience could never tell us what it is like to be, say, a bat. For the humanities, that more intentions are loaded upon an actor than they could possibly have.

 

Whether these criticisms are just is difficult to judge. On the one hand, thinking about groups is necessary to some degree: after all, to think is to abstract.

But on the other hand, it suggests that the tools of both the neurosciences and the humanities are not up to scratch, that we have inherited categories which corral us into our own fields, either sneering at the other side, politely ignoring them, or trying desperately to get them to understand what seems to be a foreign language.

 

Perhaps, then, a more fundamental similarity between the neurosciences and the humanities comes into play.

Both aim to describe the world that somehow lies behind the way we usually experience it, the things which produce or constitute our consciousness. This itself suggests a common origin, along with a point where this common foundation was ruptured, where studies of biologies and studies of cultures began to go their separate ways, as well as times when these researches chimed more harmoniously than others.

We cannot go back to those times, but it is possible to create our own. The first step is to see how the concepts of these fields – the brain, the social – were developed, and how they have become the scaffolds of our thought: protecting disciplinary boundaries, but also protecting consciousness from new ways to examine it.