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The Ultimate Question of Consciousness

The Represenatationalist account offers direct evidence for a spatial representation in the brain. But there remains one final question regarding the ultimate nature of consciousness. Even if there is a spatial representation in the brain, why should it be conscious of itself? Why should it not behave much like a machine, that performs its function using either a spatial or a symbolic principle of computation, but presumably the machine performs its function without any conscious experience of what it is doing. Why should human consciousness be any different?

But there is a large unstated assumption implied in the very framing of this question. That is the assumption that a machine could not possibly be conscious. This assumption is generally taken for granted, because the alternative, that everything in the universe must have some primitive level of consciousness, seems so absurd from the outset that, like solipsism, we tend to discount it even if we cannot disprove it on logical grounds. But can we really be sure that this alternative is so absurd? Obviously, like solipsism, the possibility of panpsychism, or more likely, panexperientialism (Chalmers 1995, Rosenberg 2002) is a question that might never be provable one way or the other. Nevertheless, it is of vital importance that we get this question right, because if we come down on the wrong side of this paradigmatic fence, that will necessarily throw all the rest of our philosophy completely out of kilter.

If we accept the materialist view that mind is a physical process taking place in the physical mechanism of the brain, and since we know that mind is conscious, then that already is direct and incontrovertible evidence that a physical process taking place in a physical mechanism can under certain conditions be conscious. Now it it true that the brain is a very special kind of mechanism. But what makes the brain so special is not its substance, for it is made of the ordinary substance of matter and energy. What sets the brain apart from normal matter is its complex organization. The most likely explanation therefore is that what makes our consciousness special is not its substance, but its complex organization. So the simplest, most parsimonious explanation is that our own conscious qualia evolved from those of our animal ancestors, and differ from those earlier forms more in its level of complex organization rather than in its fundamental nature.

There is not, therefore, a single "bridge locus" as the only place in the brain where consciousness occurs, but rather there is one global representational mechanism that has verbal and cognitive access to the components of ordinary consciousness including memories and aspirations, and then there are countless additional independent conscious energy structures disconnected from our global or narrative consciousness of which we remain personally unaware. Each of those islands of consciousness has an isolated experience of its own energy structure.

If this notion of panexperientialism, or proto-consciousness of inanimate matter, sounds bizarre and far-fetched, we should bear in mind that whatever the ultimate solution to the mind-brain quandary, it is sure to do considerable violence to our normal everyday common sense notions of reality. When it comes to these fundamental issues of existence, our intuitive instincts are almost certain to fail us, and therefore every alternative should be given serious consideration however implausible it might at first seem intuitively. For as intuitively incredible as the notion of panexperientialism might seem, the alternatives are all fraught with even more profound philosophical paradoxes and contradictions. But whatever our theoretical inclinations on the ultimate question of consciousness, it is important to point out that this is a separate and independent issue from the question of whether the internal representation of the brain is spatial or symbolic. Whichever way the answer to the ultimate question goes, whether consciousness is uniquely human, or is shared with the living and non-living worlds, unless we wish to believe in some magical nomological dangler that extends mind half way into the spirit world, we must face the observational fact that there is a spatial representation in the brain.

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