Section 2

Consciousness and Sensation

Chapter 1

Unconscious consciousness?

The next highest mode of life is that of sensitive life, the life of what we call "animals." Aristotle said that the main difference between plants and animals was that animals could move around and plants couldn't; but there are animals (like barnacles and sea anemones) that stay in one place, and so that doesn't seem to be the essential difference. It would also seem that, for bodies that can move around, some kind of contact with what they are moving into and away from would be necessary; and so sense consciousness seems at least a prerequisite for moving from place to place. For these two reasons, I think that sensation is what distinguishes plants from animals.

But there is another reason, too. I am going to try to show that sensation, as a kind of consciousness, is basically a spiritual act, which implies that any sentient body is living, not just above the particular quantity that would be that body's ground state (and natural to it as a body), but in some sense totally beyond any quantity at all. This means that it is sensation that indicates that animals are a totally different kind of thing, and essentially greater than plants. With sensation, life moves up to a higher level.

There are those philosophers, of course, like Leibniz and Whitehead, who hold that all reality is some kind of consciousness; it is just that the consciousness of rocks and things is so low that from our point of view it seems to be unconsciousness.

I think if we apply William James's pragmatic criterion to such claims, we find that "consciousness" just turns out to be a nice term that doesn't mean anything as applied to inanimate bodies or plants. If the "consciousness" is at such a low level that it isn't aware of being aware of something, then what could be the meaning of "unconscious?" Any reaction to something would then be "consciousness"; but then why call it "consciousness" when we have a perfectly good word for it, and why be forced into making up a special qualification (perceptions vs. apperceptions: Leibniz; physical feelings vs. conceptual feelings: Whitehead) to fit what we mortals called "consciousness" in the first place?

Leibniz fell into what I consider his error by his correct insight into the fact that a "perfection" is actually an internal activity, and is not static. Couple this with the Cartesian notion of starting inside yourself with your "innate ideas" and proceeding mathematically, and you might well come up with monads that are bundles of different levels of consciousness. Whitehead also had this Cartesian starting-point, where there is no distinction between subject and object, really; and he made the additional mistake of Hegel and Heraclitus that activity has to mean process.

What I am saying is that a person reading them and aware of the historical context in which they wrote can see why they said what they said; but this does not alter the fact that calling rocks "conscious" only muddies the waters of an already very complicated subject.

Actually, the same sort of confusion is still going on, but this time in modern psychology, and for a different reason. Psychology, of course, wants to be as scientific as possible; and "consciousness," with its intimations of spirituality, doesn't sound scientific. Hence, psychology tends to define consciousness in such a way that you don't have to rely on introspection to find out whether something is conscious or not. But the result of this is that, when all of the verbiage is boiled out of it, "consciousness" it taken to mean either "any selective reaction to the environment," or perhaps more restrictedly, "any selective reaction of the nervous system to the environment," or "any reaction of the nervous system in general," or perhaps, "any nervous activity involving the brain."

That is, you can observe reactions, noting the stimulus and the response, and you can catalogue them. In this case, what is going on inside the organism to produce the response is irrelevant. Or you can observe electrical activity in the nerves, which seems to be connected with what we normally call "consciousness"; and so you don't have to ask a person, "Did you see that?" You know he was conscious if you can detect a response by tapping into the optical center of the brain.

That's all well and good, but the problem is that this means once again that we have to be called "conscious" of things that we're not (consciously) aware of, and once again the term "unconscious" becomes meaningless. If a blade of grass reacts to white light by radiating out green light, isn't this a selective reaction to the environment, and wouldn't that make what it is doing conscious? Or if your nervous system responds to something and you have no slightest hint that it is doing this, then what is the difference between this reaction and the reaction of your endocrine system--or for that matter, the reaction of your skin to the light falling on it, which gives you your color? If it's just the reaction, what's so special about the nerves? Further, what of the reaction of the nerves in the eye, say, when the optic nerve leading to the brain has been cut? The person claims he can't see, and bumps into things his eyes are reacting to, because the nerves up to the cut are still doing their thing. Is he visually conscious though blind?

Granted, when we are aware that we are reacting to something, there is a response in the nervous system; but the converse isn't necessarily true. Whenever you have food in your stomach, your stomach secretes acid; but it doesn't follow that secretion of acid means that you have food there. Ask anyone with an ulcer. Calling activity you aren't aware of "consciousness" just because you can observe the nerves' output is as intelligent as calling the secretion of acid "digesting food" because you find it easier to measure the acid.

Besides, with this view you again have to invent a term to refer to the kind of activity that people ordinarily call "consciousness," and call it something like "self-aware consciousness" or "reflective consciousness," or something to indicate that the person is not only being active (with his nervous system or whatever), but knows that he is being active. But this is what people who don't have a special bone to pick mean by "consciousness," and it distinguishes "being conscious" neatly from "being unconscious." If someone asks you "What's that man's name?" you might think for a minute and say, "I don't know," and your state is the same as that of the person who asked you--it is as if you never heard of the man's name. But if something suddenly dawns on you, and you say, "Wait a minute, I remember now; I was introduced to him once; his name is Frank Peters," then you are conscious of what his name is, even though before this you had it filed away somewhere in your brain because you had been conscious of it before.

But the point is that the state you were in when you said "I don't know," even though you did have the information inside you (and presumably accessible, since you in fact recalled it later) is for you no different from the state of total ignorance; and I don't see how it is legitimate to call this state of not knowing "being conscious."

So for this reason, and also because it is this "being aware of being aware" that is the effect I want to explore, I would like to make a preliminary definition of consciousness in the following way:

An act is conscious if the being in question is conscious of being conscious.

This is obviously not good as a real definition, since it uses the term it is supposed to be defining. The only thing it does is eliminate "subliminal consciousness" from deserving the name "consciousness." If something is "conscious" it is "super-liminal" or at least "liminal"; it has to pass beyond the threshold of the "awareness of the awareness" to be called "consciousness" and not simply be "a reaction to" something.

Unfortunately, this definition of consciousness makes it a matter for you alone to know when you are conscious and when you aren't, because you can react (even in complicated ways) without being aware of what you are doing. My brother, for instance, relates an incident in which he was pitching in a softball game, and got hit between the eyes with a line drive. He woke up two innings later standing at the plate, batting, having pitched two innings without being conscious of it--or at the very least, having no recollection whatever of those two innings, even immediately afterward. And we have all, I suspect, had the experience of stepping on the brake of the car and only afterward realizing that we did so because of a red light.

So the reaction itself, even if it would normally be a conscious reaction, doesn't necessarily mean that it was conscious. And the same goes for nerve-output, because there is obviously activity in the brain's nerves that is below the threshold of consciousness, which implies that consciousness and brain activity are not one and the same thing; and this calls into question whether it is always the case that activity above the normal threshold of consciousness actually involves consciousness. Hence, in the last analysis, you are conscious when you are aware that you are, and no one else can tell this but you.

Then are animals conscious? Obviously, we can't know, because they can't tell us.

Nevertheless, we can make a pretty well-educated guess. Given that every time people who claim to be conscious have (as far as we know) the right degree of activity in the proper nerves in the brain, given that the nerves connect the various sense organs with the brain, then it seems quite reasonable to say that the faculty of consciousness in us is the nervous system, and that the consciousness actually occurs when the brain's nerves are activated. This is confirmed by direct stimulation of them; because the person whose nerves are directly stimulated by an electrical probe reports being conscious of the sensations associated with the area of stimulation.

But if the nervous system is our faculty of consciousness, then it would only be reasonable to assume that animals, which have sense organs and a nervous system like ours, have some kind of consciousness to go along with it. If our brains are not simply biological computers, but have consciousness as a kind of epiphenomenon of what the brain is doing, then it would be reasonable to say that this epiphenomenon also occurs in animals, though we could never prove it. But what could my dog's whimpering and twitching her legs in sleep mean if she was not dreaming and conscious of something?

Not that this matters, of course. We are not really interested in which bodies are conscious and which aren't, but in what being conscious says about the faculty and about the basic organization (the unifying energy) of the body. Probably animals are conscious; but if they aren't, then this doesn't affect what we are going to be saying about things that are conscious.