What We Have In Mind (Consciousness Again)

Last week, I suggested that consciousness is a type of brain activity, the kind that consists in having a phenomenal field that includes sights, sounds, pains and the internal monologue depicted by authors as the “stream of consciousness”.

I also recommended that we reserve the phrase “conscious of” for the most important things we’re conscious of, things like our everyday surroundings, our feelings and our thoughts, not consciousness itself. This approach would rule out questions like “Are you conscious of consciousness?” that to me seem misguided and misleading. I don’t think we’re conscious of consciousness, but rather conscious of other things.

To say that we’re conscious “of” other things is to say that the components of consciousness represent other things. Thus, some of the brain activity that is consciousness represents things outside our bodies (e.g. trees falling in the forest). Some of it represents things inside our bodies (e.g. heartburn). And some represents things that exist neither inside nor outside our bodies: abstract things like possibilities (e.g. sanity in Washington), fictional characters (Wonder Woman) and ideas (justice or the number twelve).

From an article about dreaming, which is usually considered a kind of consciousness:

One of the main functions of our brain is to constantly create a model of the world around us, a sort of virtual reality that helps us interact with our environment.

When we’re awake, that model is heavily influenced by what we are seeing and hearing and feeling. But during sleep, when there’s not much input from our senses, the brain’s model of the world is more likely to rely on internal information, like memories or expectations.

I’d add that the model is also a model of the world within us and the abstract world of memory, intention and imagination. But thinking of the model our brains create as “a sort of virtual reality” is what I have in mind (that’s a pun). It’s the “sort” of virtual reality that isn’t virtual, however. Patterns of neural activation in the brain (what the model is made of) are quite real. And it’s a model or representation of other things that are quite real too, like falling trees and sprained ankles.

One of the things that makes our conscious model interesting is that it includes events and processes that are strictly or primarily mental, like having a premonition. I don’t know if such things are representations of unconscious mental events and processes. Maybe they aren’t representations at all; maybe they’re patterns of neural activation that don’t refer to or represent anything else. But the evidence suggests that we all have a lot of unconscious brain activity that plays a very large role in what we think and how we feel.

So it would be consistent with the view I’m trying to explain that when you have something like a premonition, what you’re conscious of is a representation of the underlying brain activity (the unconscious premonition processing), as well as any related events in your body (like chills).

To sum up, the position I’ve arrived at seems to be a strange, possibly ridiculous mixture of ideas associated with two great philosophers who are generally seen as opponents: the idealist George Berkeley and the materialist Thomas Hobbes.

Berkeley (1685-1753) argued that nothing exists independently of minds: “To be is to be perceived (or to perceive)”. A person is an immaterial mind or soul. The physical world (the Earth, for example) doesn’t exist independently of our minds. Fortunately, our individual minds are able to get along because God (a kind of super-mind) synchronizes our perceptions. He makes sure that when I perceive a red apple (in my mind), you do too.

Hobbes (1588-1679) argued that nothing exists except physical stuff. We human beings, including our minds, are material things. Even God may be a kind of material being. When I see a red apple, and you see a red apple, therefore, it’s because there’s an apple out there and it’s red. That’s the whole story. 

Where I’ve ended up is to agree with Berkeley that our consciousness has the various elements in it that he called “perceptions” and “ideas”. But I agree with Hobbes that consciousness is a physical phenomenon, a very cool physical phenomenon, but a physical one just the same. And the reason my perceptions usually line up with yours so nicely is because our perceptions represent the same physical world, albeit observed from our individual perspectives. 

The Idealistic Way to Vote

Sean from Boston posted a comment on Paul Krugman’s blog the other day. He said that he had been wavering about voting for Obama, but events at the Democratic convention involving references to God and Jerusalem in the party platform had pushed him over the edge. He was so offended by what happened with the platform that he is now going to vote for a third-party candidate. 

Perhaps Sean believes that voting is a sacred act that should reflect his highest ideals. He clearly believes that voting is an opportunity to express his opinion regarding who is the very best candidate.

But those two propositions are not necessarily equivalent. Voting is not an opinion poll. It is not a question of our being asked who, in an ideal world, we would prefer. It is a method for selecting someone to hold office. By voting, we do perform a sacred act. But it is an act with consequences. We should vote for the person whose election would best reflect our highest ideals and who also has a chance of being elected. 

In 2012, there are only two people who might be elected President. We already know that Barack Obama will win Massachusetts, so it doesn’t really matter who Sean from Boston votes for, thanks to the disgrace that is the Electoral College.

In 2000, however, a significant number of voters in Florida chose to vote for the candidate who best reflected their ideals. They knew that Ralph Nader wasn’t going to win, but they weren’t sufficiently concerned about that.

As a result of their decision to express their opinion on who the very best President would be, these idealistic voters were treated to a President who trampled all over their highest ideals (peace, truth, justice, etc.).

The fact is that there are other ideals more important than voting for your ideal candidate. Voting is a sacred act that should reflect ALL of your highest ideals.

If you happen to live in Ohio or Florida or one of those other crucial states, therefore, you should consider whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney would make the best President, according to your highest ideals. And then vote accordingly.