[Studies in Brain and Mind] Reflections on the Problem of Consciousness Volume 3 || The Conditions of Consciousness
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THE CONDITIONS OF CONSCIOUSNESS There is general agreement among neuro-scientists that consciousness arises on the basis of sentience, which is equally the view of philosophers like Hegel and Bradley and Collingwood. Sentience, indeed, constitutes the psychical field, the locus of mental phenomena. Likewise, the empirical evidence copiously supports Spinozas contention that the mind is the idea of the body and (as Damasio has maintained) that the body is the framework within which the mind operates. Bodily feeling is thus the basic level of consciousness, as Collingwood contends. But he also points out that feeling is, in many ways, ambiguous: first, there is the question, at best difficult to answer, whether feeling is always conscious or may be unconscious; there is also the fact that we sometimes speak of feeling with a cognate accusative (to feel a pain, for example) and at others of feeling something like a smooth surface, or seeing a colour, designating an object. My purpose will not be served by enumerating at length and discussing, as Collingwood does, the many ways in which feeling can be ambiguous, but it is desirable to establish some degree of clarity on significant points. To what extent is feeling conscious? Thinkers like Husserl, speak of hyletic consciousness as a sort of matter from which the consciousness of objects is constituted, and of course for Husserl consciousness is basic. It is much in this sense that I am proposing to use the term primitive sentience while admitting that sentience covers every kind of sensory experience. Nevertheless there can be doubt whether every level of sentience is conscious. Collingwood confesses that he does not know, and Freud would certainly have maintained that some such experience (e.g., libido is unconscious); we frequently become aware that at some time past we had heard a clock chime although we are only now conscious of the fact, and there are many habitual actions that we undertake without being conscious in detail of how we perform them, yet we must at the time feel that we are making the necessary movements (for instance, in playing a game of skill). Like Collingwood, I have to admit that I do not know whether primitive sentience is always conscious, but I am inclined to believe that it is not, and I think Hegel is correct in asserting that consciousness proper entails making a distinction between subject and object, which is not present in primitive
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sentience. What Collinwood does assert is that feeling is an apanage of consciousness, its proper object.
There can be little dispute about the further assertion that attention, by singling out some feature of feeling or primitive sentience, creates a datum for perception, and that we do not perceive unless we are conscious. I therefore propose to regard this as the initial phase of consciousness. The effect of such singling out is to produce a figure and ground contrast by bringing the datum into prominence against a background of less definite content, without which there is no definite object of which to be conscious. That attention is an essential feature of consciousness is, therefore, fairly obvious and it is clear that attention is the activity that organizes sentience - the psychical field - by distinguishing elements in it as objects for perception. For this reason it has been called (in particular, by Collingwood) selective. The epithet, however, should not be misunderstood in this context to mean that in distinguishing the object from its sentient background attention is necessarily the agent of deliberate choice. Choice of necessity would involve attention, but not vice versa. That attention organizes the sentient field has been argued and demonstrated in the most illuminating detail by Merleau-Ponty. Although we were unable to find in his theory any direct indication of how what I have called the crucial question could be answered, his detailed account of how the perception of objects and the external world emerges from pre-perceptive sentience is most instructive and convincing. Although he rejects (as excessively intellectualist) the view that perception is judgement, what he objects to is rather the notion that our common perception involves explicit ratiocination - which, of course, it does not - than that it implicitly involves judgement. But Merleau-Pontys penetrating interpretation and analysis of the psychological facts clearly and persuasively display how the development and exercise of perception is implicitly and in fact the detailed and intricate ordering of the content of the sentient (psychical) field. In his own words:
We now begin to see a deeper meaning in the organization of a field: it is not only colours, but also geometrical forms, all sense-data and the significance of objects which go to form a system. Our perception in its entirety is animated by a logic which assigns to each object its determinate features in virtue of those of the rest, and which cancel out as unreal all stray data. (The Phenomenology of Perception, p. 313).
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This logic is the logic of organization, of distinguishing, identifying and relating which is the product of attention and when it is made explicit it becomes judgement, as we shall demonstrate anon. What directs attention? This is not, in all cases, an easy question to answer. It has been noted that feeling of some sort is always involved, because feeling is the primary object of consciousness. In many instances we can trace back the excitation of attention to innate emotions and impulses such as fear, curiosity, anger, or sex (instincts evolved to protect the individual and reproduce the species). But in developed consciousness there are innumerable occasions when attention is attracted to objects which have little or no obvious, or at best a very tenuous, relation to these innate instinctive reactions. When my attention is drawn to a spectacular sunset, or to the beauty of some delicate and graceful flower, it is by no means easy to trace back the attraction to any primitive instinct. What Edelman and others have called the value system, developed as a result of experience, the enjoyment of occasional pleasures and pains, no doubt plays a significant part in the direction of attention. But something more must be at work. Clearly no attention need be directed to the stimulus of a reflex movement to bring it into operation, but any deliberate action requires some degree of attention to certain of its contributory factors; for instance, the driver of a car may act largely automatically, yet she or he must at least pay attention to the circumstances that make it necessary to turn the steering-wheel; and it is not always easy to decide what the directing agent might be. Still more difficult is it to discern what drives attention when I deliberately direct it to some activity in which I feel disinclined to engage (e.g. tedious work), forcing it away from some pleasure which I would prefer. One would normally say that I turn my attention, or force myself to attend to the matter in hand. To understand what we mean by this claim, we still need to know how to identify the I. Neuro-physiologists (despite all the important work that they have done on attention) have not, so far as I am aware, discovered any special neural activity in the brain corresponding to this direction of attention, if indeed they have identified any that corresponds to the exercise of attention itself. PET studies have revealed that attention increases the activity of some neural groups and reduces that of others - which is what we should expect. It has also been established that the firing of certain neurons (in the IT system) facilitates visual discrimination, which would presumably favour the attraction of attention to specific objects, or could be stimulated by the direction of attention towards them. The reticular system of the brain stem, the hypothalamus and other midbrain structures have been found to play an important part in the control of emotion by regulating endocrine secretions.
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Such functioning can enhance or reduce input from the sense organs, and so may influence the direction of attention. These facts, however, give scant indication of the actual impulsive agency directing attention. Yet, if attention is the primary condition of consciousness because it initiates perception by discriminating an object in contrast with a context and constructs a figure against a ground, it would be important to discover what prompts it to do this if we are fully to understand the nature of consciousness. In a very interesting (but little noticed) book, entitled The Subject of Consciousness,1 Cedric O. Evans, a former pupil of mine, has made a perspicacious analysis of attention as a feature of consciousness, arguing convincingly that there is no experience without some form or degree of attention, which polarizes every state of consciousness, however diffuse or rambling, into a foreground and a background. He also distinguishes three types of attention, which he calls, severally, unordered, interrogative, and executive. That all consciousness necessarily involves attention, we have already insisted, for consciousness emerges only with perception, which is the picking out of an object from the sentient background by attention. This immediately polarizes the psychical field into foreground and background, whether or not the object is sharply or only vaguely distinguished. Further, while ever we are awake something is occupying our attention, even when we are making no special effort to concentrate, and this is what Evans has called unordered attention. We certainly do constantly exercise attention of this ki