What is consciousness? A perennial question, no doubt. How do we start to answer this question? Let me begin by saying that I think Socrates was entirely misguided in the Theaetetus when he disallowed Theaetetus to use examples to help answer the question, “What is knowledge?” Similarly, I think the best way to start answering the question of consciousness is to know what needs explaining through real-life examples or analogies. What is conscious thought? Plato thought (no pun intended) that conscious thought was essentially talking to oneself. Contemporary thinkers probably hold this to be laughably naive, but I beg to differ.
In fact, I think Plato had some significant insight into the nature of consciousness but little to no insight into the nature of nonconscious or “online” aptic structures. Let me explain. As Julian Jaynes defined them, “Aptic structures are the neurological basis of aptitudes that are composed of an innate evolved aptic paradigm plus the results of experience in development…They are organizations of the brain, always partially innate, that make the organism apt to behave in a certain way under certain conditions”. The Ancient Greeks simply did not have a contemporary understanding or mental taxonomy of nonconscious processing, what cognitive scientists refer to as the “cognitive unconscious”. The concept of the unconscious mind would not be thought until centuries later (think about what that entails for a second).The cognitive unconscious is the system that beats our heart, controls our hormone levels, makes us breath, helps us walk and ride bikes, enables saccadic motion, moves our tongues when we speak, etc. Why was Plato not conscious of the unconsciousness? Because, as Julian Jaynes says,
Consciousnes is a much smaller part of out mental life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of. How simple that is to say; how difficult to appreciate! It is like asking a flashlight in a dark room to search around to something that does not have any light shining upon it. The flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere. And so consciousness can seem to pervade all mentality when actually it does not.
This paradox of consciousness puts the Theaetetus into a lot of perspective. Plato understood thought to be “talking to oneself” because when he retired into himself to think thoughts, all he discovered was analog talking. Analog talking is made possible by our ability to really talk. Try it yourself. Close your eyes and consciously think to yourself the thought “I am now thinking a conscious thought. It sure is fun to think conscious thoughts.” (If you do not know how to think conscious thoughts, then I am amazed you are reading this post). As you repeat this thought experiment, pay attention to the thought as a phenomenon. This requires taking what Husserl called the “reductive stance”, namely, a perspective of inquiry upon the nature of your own experience
I hope this exercise demonstrated the intuitive plausibility of Plato’s thesis about conscious thought as talking to oneself. But you might have noticed that when you close your eyes, there are more possibilities of imaginative-reconstruction than mere verbal play. One can also imagine colors and vibrant patterns as you think thoughts, and you can also think of places, conversations, faces, lovers, sex, porn, relationships, patterns, puzzles, social dilemmas, tragedy, death, mortality, future pleasure, past pain, compassion, books, music, melodies, television, projects, papers, ideas, inventions, theology, scientific problems, metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, and writing blog posts! Indeed, I was lying in bed tonight thinking and after trying the above thought experiment, this very post sprung into my head and here I am writing it at 11:04pm.
Now we know what consciousness is. Or we should at least have a general sense or intuitive feel for what needs explaining. Basically, consciousness is a functional operation that allows us to do certain things, what Andy Clark calls “epistemic actions”. These actions involve the manipulation of information (not Shannon’s) in virtual “workspaces”. The phonological loop and visual-spatial sketchpad are familiar examples of such a workspace. It runs somewhat “off-line” from the “online” bodily control loops which constitute our cognitive unconscious. Julian Jaynes describes offline consciousness (what I have called “J-consciousness”, for Jaynesian consciousness) eloquently and precisely. He says
[Consciousness] is an operation rather than a thing, a repository, or a function. It operates by way of analogy, by way of constructing an analog space with an analog “I” that can observe that space, and move metaphorically in it. It operates on any reactivity, [consciously selects] relevant aspects, narratizes and [assimilates] them together in a metaphorical space where such meanings can be manipulated like things in space. Conscious mind is a spatial analog of the world and mental acts are analogs of bodily acts.
[Consciousness] is an analog of what is called the real world. It is built up with a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world. Its reality is of the same order as mathematics. It allows us to shortcut behavioral processes and arrive at more adequate decisions. Like mathematics, it is an operator rather than a thing or repository. And it is intimately bound up with volition and decision.
Now, with Chalmers and friends in mind, where is the problem? Does the concept of “virtual workspace” really invite spooky questions of dualism and explanatory skepticism? If so, why? No doubt, this is one of the greatest intellectual challenges that humanity has faced. No one said understanding consciousness would be easy. But hard with a capital “h”? That doesn’t follow.