The Mind-Body Problem: Part 2a – Consciousness

Definition of consciousness
Credit: Lexico

At the end of the previous installment in this series, I indicated that I would proceed to explore functionalism. That is still a logical next step, but it occurred to me that it might not be a proper one. It could seem jarring to jump from Descartes into this more esoteric philosophic theory without a proper introduction. So, let’s slow down and examine consciousness first, which should give us proper context for functionalism in the following essay.

While the OED does a good job providing us with a standard definition for consciousness, the topic of what exactly consciousness is has been up for debate for as long as Western philosophy has been around. What is consciousness made of? Where does it reside in the brain? Where does our sense of ‘self’ come from? What is its function, and what role do experiences like volition and ‘will’ play in that function?

So. Many. Questions.

That consciousness is defined here as a state is rather important to our further examination of functionalism, though, because it brings us right to the point: whatever reality is made of, monism and dualism be damned, how our minds perceive that reality dictates what we consider to be real.

This is key: the notion of reality we arrive at is the result of our being conscious of various data and the correlations we arrive at. The input of our senses, the use of memory, and the resulting logical relationships formed from that information constitute our consciousness, our cognition, allowing us to determine what is or is not real — without, as we’ll see, one-hundred percent accuracy.

The Red Apple

There’s a couple of sticky bits mixed up in all of that we should take into account. First, we absolutely must understand that what we perceive to be real is not what reality actually entails. For example, you and I see an apple on a table. We agree that it’s an apple, that it’s red, it’s on a table, roundish, speckled, and a host of other details we could perceive upon further examination; it’s smooth, weighty, over-ripe, and so forth.

What’s to be noted is that my interpretation of those descriptives may not be the same as yours. You may interpret the color ‘red’ very differently than I do because you have a different mind. We were taught, long ago, to refer to whatever we interpret that color appearing to us to be with the word ‘red.’ Red is a color – meaning, a specific range of wavelengths of light we interpret and associate with that word. Dogs are limited in the range of colors they see, so a dog who saw this apple would not interpret it as being red. To a dog, there is no such thing as ‘red.’

Is the red apple real for the dog, then, in the same sense that it is real for us? No more than an apple being ‘red’ is real for a person blind since birth. While they may understand the concepts and functions of eyes, optic nerves, the interpretation of sensory data and the learned concept for that color being called ‘red,’ they would not know what red looks like. There is a complete lack of context (data) for them to make that association.

More, or Less, “Real”

Our mind creates constructs from sensory data. Whether we’re talking about sensing the world around us at any particular moment, our memories concerning past events, or fantasies we conjure in our imaginations, those constructs are approximations. There is not only a wealth of detail regarding our environments that go unsensed by us (much like the frequencies of light unperceived by dogs), but our brains tend to filter out information that seems unnecessary.

For example, think of one’s grandmother for a moment, if that’s not uncomfortable to do. You may remember her face, the clothing she liked to wear, her hobbies, the things she might say … but you may not recall the socks she wore on a specific day or the number of gray hairs she acquired in a particular year. Those details, while actual and factual, are probably not available to you because they were filtered out as unimportant, though they’re as much a part of reality as anything else.

Since our consciousness, our awareness, depends on those mentally-created approximations, and not distinct, verbatim recreations of reality, how much less are our determinations of what’s ‘real’ to be trusted?

Definition of consciousness
Credit: Croteam, “The Talos Principle”

Which brings us straight to functionalism, our next topic (really, this time) in the mind/body series. Functionalism addresses how the mind works, how consciousness works, regardless of what the brain itself may be made of. If we can come to understand how a mind (and its consciousness) develops in thinking systems of any sort, human or otherwise, we might come closer to solving the mind/body question once and for all.