Chapter 4

Interrupted consciousness

This new fact that we know, however, means that our consciousness is interrupted by more or less extended periods of unconsciousness; and this generates a rather interesting effect.

Conclusion 3: One and the same consciousness is actually many separated consciousnesses.

That is, at least it seems that when you wake up (or regain consciousness from being unconscious) it is the same consciousness that resumes--to such an extent that, as I mentioned, it usually seems that there was no period of unconsciousness at all. But how can it be the same one if there were hours when this consciousness didn't exist?

Now there are two ways to "resolve" this effect into a non-problem: Either (a) the consciousness didn't cease during the unconscious periods, but simply "became dormant" somehow, or (b) it isn't actually one and the same consciousness that comes back into existence, but a similar consciousness that comes into existence.

We have actually already eliminated alternative (a); because what it amounts to is saying that the period of unconsciousness is not absence of consciousness, but a different "sort" or "level" of consciousness--and this is exactly what the discussion on whether we ever lose consciousness proved is meaningless. So our consciousness does go out of existence, in the sense that when we are unconscious, there isn't any of that consciousness any more.

But does that same consciousness come back into existence? Alternative (b) says it doesn't; what begins to exist is a new consciousness that's just intimately related to the old one.

If this is the case, then it is not in fact connected to the old one, because there is a gap of some minutes or hours when there wasn't any consciousness at all. That is, if it is really connected somehow to the old one (and to no one else's, say), there is good reason for saying that because of whatever it is that connects the two, it is the same consciousness that comes back again (as in fact we are going to argue).

That is, we no one really denies that while we are awake, our consciousness at the end of this waking period is "connected" in an unbroken stream to the consciousness at the beginning of that period,(1) even though the way we are conscious at the end is not the same as the way we were conscious at the beginning. And this difference does not induce anyone to say that these are two different consciousnesses. So differences in consciousness (during waking, at least) do not imply multiple consciousnesses, because they are all "connected" into one stream.

Hence, alternative (b) really implies that what begins on awakening is a different stream of consciousness, which is similar to but not identical with the stream which stopped several hours before.

But in that case, then my consciousness today is simply similar to my consciousness yesterday, as my consciousness today is similar to your consciousness (because after all, both are human consciousness). Perhaps it is "more intimate" than other similarities--because there are different levels of similarity in consciousnesses, like similarities of the consciousnesses of relatives and even of identical twins.

But then why, on this hypothesis, do I remember in exactly the same way what went on in yesterday's consciousness as I do what went on in this morning's consciousness, and yet I can't remember at all what went on in somebody else's consciousness, no matter how "intimate"?

That is, when even one of a pair of identical twins wakes up, he remembers that he is Robert, not John, and he remembers what he was thinking (as Robert) just before he dropped off to sleep; and he can't remember what John was thinking or even is thinking now; and even though he and John often "think the same thing at the same time," they don't think each other's thoughts, so that the memories are mixed up; Robert would never confuse himself with John.

If, then, essentially what begins to exist is a new but similar consciousness, this hypothesis has to explain why it is that (a) it is simple to remember the consciousness that "answers to the name Robert," to such an extent that the consciousness seems subjectively to be one unbroken stream in spite of the (objectively known) gaps, while at the same time (b) there is an impassible gulf between this "set" of consciousnesses and a "set" or "stream" which "answers to some other name" such that no amount of effort can make us "recall" anything in any of those other streams (and we must rely on words heard to know what they're thinking); and finally (c) each of these other "streams" of consciousness also experiences itself as connected to a privileged "set" of "streams" all "answering to the same name" and no other.

Now if we add to this a non-phenomenological observation, that these other "streams of consciousness" seem to be connected with a given body that's there, with its brain intact but doing different things during non-conscious sleep, and it's that body which also "answers to the name" that the consciousness it reports "answers to," I think we can say that the "new consciousness" hypothesis is ridiculous.

In fact, what the "new consciousness" hypothesis is really doing is defining as "different but more intimately similar" in such a way that for practical purposes there is no difference between it and the "one and the same" we are talking about in our varying stream of consciousness during any waking period. And for all these reasons, we can rule out the "bad formulation" solution of the effect.

Conclusion 4: But if there is a real effect, then there must be something that connects these separated periods of consciousness into one single consciousness. Let us therefore make the following causal definition:

The mind is the cause which explains how multiplicity in consciousness can be one single consciousness.

I have widened the effect a bit to make it more general than just the "connecting" of periods of consciousness, because in all probability if we looked we would find (as indeed we will) other types of "manyness" in our consciousness which nevertheless are a manifold (as Kant would say) of one and the same "stream of consciousness"; and it is well to anticipate this.

In other words, the mind is the unifier of one consciousness; whatever it is that accounts for its being just this one single consciousness in spite of any respect in which this "one consciousness" is also "many."

Yes, but what is it? Is it the "spirit"? Is it the brain? Is it the "self"? This is the question to be asked by those who are looking for "cause" in the sense of the "true explanation"; and in fact, we will be able to approach this much later in more or less this way. When, in looking at the modes of life, we discuss the effect connected with consciousness's being aware of itself (something we are not interested in here as an effect, but just as a fact), having seen that forms of energy and bodies can't do this, we will see that (a) consciousness has to be spiritual, and (b) what is spiritual can't of itself change or cease; and so (c) whatever accounts for interruptions and differences of the same consciousness (and is involved in their unification) has to be bodily--and we will form a fairly secure hypothesis that the mind turns out actually to be the brain's nerves, with their property of also having consciousness if the energy is above a certain level and not if there is no energy in them or energy below this level. But that is far in the future.

For now, all we know about the mind is (all of and only) what is necessary to explain the effect which we have observed: that the same consciousness is interrupted by periods of unconsciousness.

Let me, however, make another definition which will help to clarify matters a little:

The self is the causer of a unified multiplicity of consciousnesses.

That is, the self is the causer of which the mind is an abstract aspect; or the self is the concrete thing one of whose "functions" is called the "mind."

First of all, why use these two terms? The "mind" is used, because in ordinary languages, our minds are what we use to "think" or "be conscious" in general. That is, in present-day English, we do not really distinguish (as an ancient Greek would, say) between our "minds" and our "senses" as if they were two different powers or somethings; for us, sensation and imagining and feeling are acts of the mind. So if we want to keep our technical vocabulary fairly close to the common meanings of terms, this is the term to pick for this technical meaning.

Note, however, that once we have preempted a term for a technical usage, it no longer has its ordinary meaning in our investigation.

This would have to be the case. If we started using "mind" in the rest of this book in that loose sense as well as the technical sense, then an already confusing subject would become impossible to follow. But one is human, and language has only so many words, and we will be needing more and more technical terms as time goes on in this investigation into the whole range of human experience; and so forgive me if I sometimes lapse into using an ordinary word in its ordinary sense, and not maintaining absolutely strict control over the technical senses of my terms. I will do the best I can, and try to keep any confusion to a minimum(2) .

The reason for calling the causer of this effect the "self" is that the "self" is what "answers to the name" that both the mind and what most obviously has the mind (the human being, the body) "answer to." A given body is, in our ordinary way of thinking a "self" deserving a name when it can think and respond to our thoughts.

Actually, we will have to redefine this term "self" more precisely much later, toward the end of the investigation into modes of life, when we discover that only some bodies with minds actually know what they are (and control what they are); and also spiritual acts like God that don't have minds (because they can't "turn on and off") possess and control their being also, and so deserve the term "self." But since the causer is by its nature a loose sort of thing, and since "self" later will be a cause of a particular effect; but since what is meant by "self" later as a cause and what is meant now by this loose usage are almost the same, I think the term is justified.

In any case, the mind is what gives the self its "selfness," or is the "selfness" of the self, in our sense of the terms; because the mind is the abstract aspect of the concrete something that "has" an interrupted stream of consciousness "within it" or "belonging to it" somehow. All we know about the self is that it has a mind as an abstract aspect of it--and there may be many more aspects to it as it actually exists besides just the mind.

That is, at this early stage we can see one of the traps that Descartes fell into with this "mathematical method." He wanted to be sure that once he found something absolutely certain, anything he deduced from it would be absolutely certain, and therefore he denied anything that could be true but didn't have to be.

But this forced him to define the mind as identical with the "self," and say that "All I am is a mind," and if I have a body, it is "another substance," as he put it.

But we can see that what is necessarily true is not necessarily the whole truth, and so you can't rule out as even possibly false things that could be true but don't have to be. Is, for example, the self really a body which "has" a mind? We are going to show that in fact it is, in our case; and there's nothing about the mind that says it can't be bodily--that nothing material could unite "streams of consciousness" into a single stream. It sounds odd to say that the mind is bodily; but until you can prove otherwise, you can't rule it out--and as I said above, a mind in this sense has to be bodily, in fact. So the fact that we are talking about out "minds" and "selves" should by no means lead anyone to think that we are involved in any "ghost in the machine" theory of humanity.

In any case, in our way of looking at things, the mind and the self are one; they are the same "thing," one considered abstractly as just what is necessary to unify multiple consciousness, and the other concretely as what actually does the unifying.

Now what can be said about the mind as the cause of the unification of interrupted consciousness? What properties must be present for any explanation to explain the effect in question?

First of all,

Conclusion 5: the mind exists during the unconscious periods between periods of consciousness.

If the mind connects these periods into one stream, then it couldn't do this if it itself ceased at any time when we were unconscious and a "new mind" subsequently arose or the "old mind" came back again.

That's obvious, I should think. But it can be proved in this way. Suppose the mind went out of existence and came back again. Then this "new mind" would make the mind both multiple and a unit, needing something-or-other to unite the "old" and the "new" into a single mind (so that the united mind could unite the "old" and the "new" consciousness into a single consciousness).

But really what that means is that as an effect (a multiplicity that is one and the same) this "mind" would be identical with interrupted consciousness as an effect. But since identical effects have identical causes, whatever causes the interrupted consciousness to be a "one and the same" would also be the cause of the unification of one and the same mind. But the mind is defined as the "whatever it is" that unifies interrupted consciousness, and so the mind would be the cause of itself. That is, if it could explain how consciousness is unified, it would also have all that is necessary to explain how the "minds" could be unified, because this is identically the same problem. But in that case, it would have everything necessary to account for itself as an effect and would not be an effect, or a problem. But that means that (since it is identical as effect with interrupted consciousness) there would also be no problem in interrupted consciousness, needing a mind as its cause. But there is an effect; interrupted consciousness is unintelligible by itself.

Hence, there is a contradiction in supposing that the mind is not one something-or-other that exists all during each period of unconsciousness between periods of consciousness.


Conclusion 6: it is the same mind that exists between all the periods of the same interrupted consciousness.

This also would obviously have to be true; if there was one mind for one period of unconsciousness and another mind for another period of unconsciousness, then nothing would account for why the consciousnesses before the first and after the second would be one and the same consciousness. But the whole stream of our consciousness is one single stream of consciousness, in spite of the many periods of unconsciousness.

Note that we cannot establish whether the mind existed before the "first" period of consciousness (if we have one), or will exist after the last period of unconsciousness (if there is one). As a matter of fact, the likelihood, as we will see is that (a) the mind began to exist either with or shortly before the first conscious experience we had (when our brains were formed enough to be conscious), and (b) though consciousness will survive death, the mind won't, and once we die, we will no longer be able to be unconscious or to be a differentiated stream of consciousness. At this point, however, based on the evidence we have, we can't say anything one way or the other; because the effect deals with how a previously existing consciousness can exist again after not existing; and so all this cause can talk about is what goes on between periods.

Thirdly, we can say that

Conclusion 7: the mind is not the same as consciousness.

This again seems too obvious even to bother stating; but if it were identical with the consciousness, then, since the consciousness ceases during unconscious periods, so would the mind--and it doesn't. So the mind is not consciousness, but is somehow that by which I am conscious (i.e. by which the consciousness is "mine"); it is something "behind" consciousness which is not itself part of the consciousness.

Having established this rather prosaic fact, we can say some interesting things with respect to historical positions in philosophy. First of all, Descartes' statement "I think, therefore I am" was correct in a sense, even if not in the sense he meant it. There is an "I" (a self, and a mind) which "has" consciousness but is not itself the consciousness which it "has."

If you take Locke's notion that this mind "behind" consciousness can't be known because we have no experience of it, then you have to accept that one and the same consciousness can cease to be and begin to be hours later, or can "resurrect" itself even when it doesn't exist to do the "resurrecting." That's more than I can swallow, at least.

So all the philosophers (like Locke and Hume and Dewey) who hold that there isn't any "mind" that is something other than consciousness and "is conscious," but all there is is a stream of consciousness don't know what they are talking about. They never noticed, evidently, that they go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning.

It just goes to show how not noticing something which is so perfectly obvious that it doesn't seem to deserve noticing can get brilliant people (because they were brilliant) into really silly positions (because the position that there's no mind behind consciousness is really silly if we go to sleep and wake up).

Fourthly, we can say that

Conclusion 8: there are different minds, a different mind for each individual stream of consciousness.

If this were not the case, and we were all "parts" or "aspects" of some greater mind (or greater consciousness), then this would mean that all these consciousnesses would be united into one consciousness; and as consciousness, it would be aware of its consciousness, and so each of us would know what was going on in these other consciousnesses.

That is, if you are going to assert that we are all "parts" or "aspects" of one great consciousness, then you have to say that this part is conscious only of this part in all its multiplicity and is unconscious either of the whole or of any other part. But how can consciousness be unconscious while it is conscious? This "greater consciousness" of which we are a "part" is not (in the part at least) conscious of itself--in which case, we are back to "unconscious consciousness" and have destroyed any reason for using the term "consciousness."

So Georg Hegel, who was arguably the most brilliant person who ever lived, was simply wrong. We are not "moments" of Absolute Spirit as it "comes to know itself" in us, its otherness. Each of us is a mind uniting just this finite stream of consciousness; and the mind precisely cuts us off from anyone else's consciousness, including God's.

Another way of saying this is that

Conclusion 9: something about the mind limits the consciousness of any one of us to being just this stream of consciousness and no other.

In other words, something about the way the mind "operates" (accounts for its effect) includes all the periods of my consciousness and integrates them into the one stream called "my consciousness," but by the same token it excludes all other streams from this one.

That is, the mind itself, which is the cause of the unity of any single stream of consciousness is the causer of the separation of this (unified) stream from any other consciousness. The mind itself, of course, can't be both the cause of the unity of my multiple consciousness and the cause of the fact that consciousness is not one stream but many, because different effects have different causes, and these are two different effects. Note also that in order to connect periods of consciousness into one stream, it would not be necessary to exclude other streams of consciousness; if my consciousness were the only one there was, and it were separated into periods, it would still be necessary for them to be united, but there would be no question of their being "private" or "exclusive."

Nevertheless, the exclusion of other streams of consciousness from this "set" which is my consciousness has got to be connected somehow with the mind as it unifies, it would seem. It would be difficult to see how the mind could "pick out" the right set of consciousnesses to unify if there weren't something about its doing this which made it impossible for other consciousnesses to become part of the stream.

Now I do not want to imply that there are a bunch of periods of consciousness sitting around in a waiting-room somewhere until they can get assembled into "Robert's" or "John's" streams of consciousness. The consciousness you are going to have tomorrow after you wake up certainly doesn't exist yet--though we can't say this based on the evidence we have from this effect. One possible explanation of the unification of periods of consciousness could be that there are disjoint periods that get unified by being "picked up" by this or that mind; but that isn't, by any means, the only explanation that would work; and far more likely is the one that the mind is some kind of apparatus like a radio receiver that can react to various acts, and since it's the same receiver, then all the reactions are like the sounds coming out of the same radio's speaker (which "unifies" all of the "streams of sounds" into "this radio's sounds" as opposed to "that radio's sounds").

But the point here is that all that we said above about the properties of the mind have to be true, whatever the mind as "the true explanation" of our stream of consciousness is. At the very abstract level we are working, we can't say much, and must be careful not to invest what is being said with a meaning that goes beyond that tiny bit that is demanded by the unintelligibility of the effect. If we are careful, we won't be getting trapped into making statements we can't justify because they "stand to reason" or are "obvious." We have already seen a lot of cases where things that seemed perfectly obvious admitted of a completely different explanation. What we are doing with our notion of "cause" is simply picking out the common core of every explanation that could even possibly explain the effect in question.

Now I don't want to explore at just this point what the precise effect is in the limitation of my stream of consciousness to being just mine and no one else's, because limitation is by no means an easy effect to describe, and this particular type of limitation is a bad kind to start with. Suffice it to say that some aspect of the mind (but not, as we saw the mind as such) is in all probability the cause of it.

Let me note, also briefly, a couple of other effects that we are not particularly concerned with here, but that will figure into our investigation later:

(1) Consciousness begins at the beginning of any period of consciousness; and (2) Consciousness ends at the end of the period. Consciousness "turns on and off."

Now since the mind exists throughout the period of unconsciousness (and if there is diversity in the conscious period, it also exists to unify that), then the mind as such can't account for why consciousness "turns on" at precisely this moment and no other, or why it "turns off" at this other moment. Neither can consciousness; in the first case, because there isn't any consciousness beforehand, and in the second, because if it "turned itself off" because it was consciousness, it would follow that it would be turning itself off all the time it was consciousness, which is absurd.

So even though the mind explains the problem of how these diverse periods of consciousness get unified, it doesn't explain the opposite problem of how one and the same consciousness gets separated from itself. Different effects have different causes, and though these are two different ways of looking at what is happening when we lose and regain consciousness, that is precisely what we mean by "effect": a way of looking at something such that it doesn't make sense looked at in that way.

And the fact is that consciousness as broken up into periods is unintelligible from two different and legitimate points of view: (a) these diverse conscious periods have to "belong," somehow, to one and the same stream; but (b) this one stream needs to get separated by periods of unconsciousness.

But that second effect also breaks into two: It needs to get (1) turned off and then (2) turned back on. But since destroying an existing period of consciousness (the kind of limit called "ending") is different from bringing into existence something that doesn't exist ("beginning"), then each of these is a distinct effect, and so each has its own cause different from the other, and different from the mind itself.

Again, I don't want to explore this in detail, or what as it stands is going to be an immense book would have to be a library. Let me just say that it might make sense to pick out a term like "fatigue of the mind" (if you included some aspect of a blow on the head or a Mickey Finn as "fatigue") for whatever turns the consciousness off (and it is probably connected with inability of energy to flow through the brain's nerves--because of their being clogged from past experiences or damaged); and "rest" (which allows energy to flow through them again) as what turns consciousness back on. There are probably some significant things you could do if you explored the minimum that had to be the case if consciousness were to turn off and on again; but let us leave this here.

But before going to on the effect involved in the fact that consciousness takes on many different forms, let me point out the following conclusion:

Conclusion 10: a given period of my consciousness is a limited case of my consciousness.

That is, today's consciousness is obviously my consciousness, but is not the whole of my consciousness; and so it is only this period of my consciousness.

We are shortly going to have to see just how the fact that something is limited is an effect; but I want to point out here that we already have run across two different instances of limitation: (1) my (whole) consciousness is limited to being just mine and no one else's; and (2) any given period of my consciousness is limited to being just this period of this stream of consciousness and no other period of it; and this is a limitation within the consciousness.



1. Well, actually, people like Derek Parfit do deny this, and say that at every subsequent moment a new self takes over, which just happens to be connected to the old one. But this is in the last analysis a silly theory, because there has to be something connecting all these selves into a single set, and what would that be except that "they" are in fact the same one which undergoes changes? Granted, there's a problem in something's changing, because it is both the same and not the same; but it isn't solved by saying that it's just a collection.

2. I realize I could avoid this difficulty by doing what Kant did, and using esoteric words for my technical terms. But anyone who has read Kant knows that this creates, if anything, even more confusion, as you read page after page full of odd locutions. I can't write that way, anyhow; and so if you prefer that jargon-filled type of investigation, I'm sorry.