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Wild and Structured Consciousness

A brief look at some of the philosophical views on consciousness

Consciousness is wild. More precisely, what philosophers call phenomenal consciousness — or 'what it is like' to experience something, such as the sharp painfulness of a pain or the intense blueness of a blue cup — seems to be independent and completely different from the structured information processing in the brain and nervous system. This perspective emerges from results found in empirical studies within the cognitive sciences. Nevertheless, this conclusion is puzzling. The brain is essentially an information-processing organ. It manages visual, auditory, somatic, and emotional information. The brain also stores information in memory, implements routines for short- and long-term planning, and computes functions statistically and inferentially to make sense of the immediate environment. So what does it mean that consciousness, which is the most distinctive aspect of our mental lives related to these brain processes, cannot be described just in terms of information processing?

Consciousness is also wild in another sense. Its wildness concerns not only its irreducibility to specific forms of information processing, but also the intense urgency and power of what it is like to be aware of some experiences. Consciousness can be vibrant, compelling, and immediate. A sharp pain focuses all our attention, freezing fear takes over our whole body, falling in love is distracting, admiring a sunset or tasting some delicious chocolate soothes our entire being. Consciousness is wild because it can compel us to experience and admire something in its full essence.

Yet, consciousness can be structured and be directly related to the contents of the visual scene, the meaning of words, and the concepts we use to organize our thoughts. These concepts are part of consciousness but by themselves they seem to be completely inert. The concept ‘red’ is used every time we refer to a red object or think about red things, but it seems to simply be a concept, independent from the experience associated with instances of red. Consciousness associated with the structure of predicates, which we use to think and remember objects and events, is called access consciousness (following philosopher Ned Block’s terminology), and is thought to be distinct from phenomenal consciousness.

What does all this have to do with attention? In previous posts, we introduced the view that consciousness and attention are different kinds of cognitive systems — an idea we captured with the Consciousness and Attention Dissociation (CAD) framework (see Montemayor & Haladjian, 2015). We focused on attention in our previous post. Now we would like to explain how using the framework of dissociation (CAD) helps elucidate the relationship between consciousness and attention by showing that debates can be reinterpreted in insightful ways.

In philosophy, higher-order theories propose a way to characterize consciousness in that it requires a representation of the object of conscious experience and being aware of this representation (see Rosenthal, 1997). In contrast, first-order theories are related to the more immediate phenomenal experience, which does not require an awareness (i.e., a higher-order representation) of the immediate representation in order to be experienced consciously. One initial criticism is that it seems higher-order theories may be unnecessarily complicating matters with the requirement of having a system to be aware of representations.

If the debate between first-order theorists and higher-order theorists is reinterpreted in terms of the spectrum of dissociation, then what higher-order theorists argue is not as implausible as some have suggested. The higher-order theorist seems to just be saying that attending may cause experiences that are not conscious. Although the use of the term ‘unconscious experience’ is unfortunate, the higher-order proposal is not implausible once it is understood in terms of unconscious attention to contents. This form of attention is access to contents without the ‘what is it like’ character that defines phenomenal consciousness.

Here is a more remarkable result: higher-order (representationist) theories require less dissociation than first-order (phenomenalist) theories. Moreover, higher-order phenomenalist theories require no more dissociation than first-order phenomenalist ones. This is counterintuitive, because a general complaint about higher-order theories is that they make distinctions where there are none, such as distinctions between perceptual unconscious belief and higher-order perceptual belief, or between unconscious and conscious experience. Thus, from a purely theoretical perspective, interpreting higher-order theories in terms of CAD highlights aspects of extant theories that are otherwise difficult to appreciate.

Subsumption is another proposal that describes conscious experience as structured in terms of a primitive relation among the constituents of experiences — in the sense that it cannot be reduced to other relations and it holds necessarily for any conscious experience. If one experiences the smell of a flower and its colors, for example, then there is a single phenomenal experience that subsumes them and determines what it is like to smell and see the flower. Tim Bayne and David Chalmers say that the difference between subsumption and access to contents entails the distinction between access and phenomenal consciousness. If there is access conscious attention and phenomenal conscious attention, this means that subsumption entails that identity theories of attention and consciousness are ambiguous and ultimately false. Subsumption is a lot more like part-hood than conjunction of mental states. When one has a phenomenally conscious experience, it becomes part of an overall phenomenally conscious experience — such experiences are not arbitrary collections of contents. So subsumption entails that access consciousness is insufficient to unify different phenomenal experiences, and this in turn entails a form of dissociation between how contents are attended in access consciousness and how they are attended in phenomenal consciousness.

What kind of dissociation does the distinction between access conscious unity and subsumption entail? If Bayne and Chalmers are right, then one cannot give an account of unity if one favors a view that identifies all forms of consciousness with all forms of cross-modal attention. According to that view, consciousness would be just a global attention. As mentioned, subsumption entails the distinction between phenomenal and access consciousness, and this distinction entails a high level of CAD.

Rolling Stone Magazine (April 10, 2015)
Source: Rolling Stone Magazine (April 10, 2015)

Another way to characterize conscious experience is through its ability to provide epistemic and empathic value. Let's take Frank Jackson's example of Mary the sequestered neuroscientist (which also has been featured indirectly in a recent film Ex Machina that explored the nature of consciousness in artificial intelligence). Prior to her release from a life in a colorless black and white room, Mary the neuroscientist understands all the neural mechanics of seeing the color red but she cannot understand what people feel when they see red surfaces. In other words, she has the concept ‘red’ that we all use to communicate when we point at red objects, but has never experienced the color of a red object. Only the actual experience of color opens the possibility to empathize with others and potentially feel what they feel. If this is correct, phenomenal consciousness is normatively distinct from access consciousness. This is because Mary is knowledgeable in her judgments of color even though she does not have phenomenal experiences of color. She is a responsible epistemic agent, but cannot empathize with others. Only a dissociation view of consciousness and attention can make sense of this situation, which gives us an idea of how wild and structured consciousness can be.

These examples that we briefly outlined just touch on some of the philosophical debates on the nature of consciousness and its relation to brain processes. This is certainly not an easy topic to delve into so quickly, but the essence of our argument is that one can get a better understanding of conscious experience by understanding how different forms of attention are related to the different definitions of consciousness. Consciousness can be directly associated with certain brain processes (particularly forms of conscious attention) and thus be more structured, or consciousness can be wild and harder to pin down to specific processes but it can still provide the rich and unified phenomenal experience with which we are so familiar. In subsequent posts we will explore such ideas concerning conscious attention and the role of memory in providing rich conscious experiences.

- Carlos Montemayor & Harry Haladjian


Bayne, T., & Chalmers, D. J. (2003). What is the unity of consciousness? In A. Cleeremans (Ed.), The Unity of Consciousness: Binding, Integration, and Dissociation (pp. 23-58). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Block, N. (1995). On a confusion about a function of consciousness. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 18(2):227-47. doi: 10.1017/S0140525X00038188

Montemayor, C., & Haladjian, H. H. (2015). Consciousness, Attention, and Conscious Attention. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rosenthal, D. M. (1997). A theory of consciousness. In N. Block, O. J. Flanagan, & G. Güzeldere (Eds.), The Nature of Consciousness: Philosophical Debates (pp. 729-753). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.