The amount of work on consciousness in academic scientific and philosophical circles has probably never been more intense. Yet every participant in the debate on what it is and how it works agrees that nothing has been resolved. Some (such as Colin McGinn) plausibly claim that we will probably never know what it is.
Mind & Language
Or is that so? Maybe any introspective human knows what it is very well but simply cannot describe it. Perhaps it is description that is the problem - or rather the fact that any description of being and the experience of being are always going to be impossible to align.
There is a school of thought that says that mind is the construction of language. The implication is that consciousness does not exist without language. But if this is so, then, if language creates minds then minds should be able to be expressed in language and yet this is not so.
As we learn more from neuro-science about how perceptions are ordered and filtered in the mind, we see that our consciousness is presented with only a working approximation of reality rather than what is actually out there in all its huge complexity.
Minds exist somewhere beyond language. It might be argued that language itself is a barrier to understanding. As we realise how little our internal theatre accords with what is 'out there', it becomes more credible that language is part of that filtering process between matter and mind and, as intermediary, partakes of the character of neither.
Language unrealises reality so that it can then be pragmatically used by a mind that has been constructed emergently out of matter. So, if language cannot represent matter precisely, this emergent mind that arises out of matter operates in a way that can not only not be described in language but is the tool-user of the tool that is language.
This reflects something of a convergence in recent decades of the analytical and continental philosophical traditions. The analysts cannot, linguistically or logically, provide a credible description of the totality of consciousness but can merely present various reasonable paradigms that must be experienced to be understood.
Meanwhile, the phenomenological origins of the continental approach must bend not only to logic (rather than language) but to neuroscience and explore the experience of being conscious in relation to Existence not in terms of an abstract spirituality but in terms of a relationship to the complex matter of the brain.
The most reasonable current models for understanding consciousness are two. These two could turn out to be two sides of the same coin, inexpressible except in dualistic terms because there is not the language for their conjoining. There are other models but these others come down to acts of faith or hypotheses that it is hard to see can be testable.
The first model is monist and sees consciousness arising or emergent out of matter as a function of the properties of matter - we have physicalist, electro-magnetic and quantum physical theories to account for this. We will surely have others derived from, say, research into dark energy.
The second is dualist and posits the reality of mind as something that might be substantially dependent or even emergent on matter (the living brain) but which has become a class in itself. By analogy, complex systems as large as the universe might, possibly, have a consciousness of sorts if consciousness is such an emergent property.
The leap within dualism into a Cartesian absolute separation of mind and matter now seems less and less credible as even the highest alleged states of consciousness appear linked to matter as substrate or necessary pre-condition. Descartes worked within a tradition that had to find a place for the soul as emergent from God - we do not.
All the remaining attempts to retain high dualism, with mind operative outside matter, draw us towards 'faith' which is territory where we cannot go. In this writer's view faith is a misperception of one's own consciousness but, by its very nature, the matter cannot be argued with those who have it.
The monist-dualist opposition to one another may be illusory in itself. Mind is experienced as a known thing different from all other forms of matter but having aspects shared with, say, animals. Unless we postulate the grant of souls from 'above', the most likely hypothesis involves evolutionary emergence.
The debate about animal souls is absurd and we do not want to go where souls only arise with intellect but that consciousness does seem to be emergent on matter operates in a way that is uncomfortable for Judaeo-Christians - we deal with this later.
Mind has not only no reasonable basis for existing outside of its dependence on matter but modern neuroscience has been whittling away many of the higher functions of the mind as biologically based, demonstrating the brain's role in developing a person's perception of reality yet leaving behind, as unexplained, its sense of itself.
The 21st century working model of the mind is not Cartesian but rather is contingently monist - that is, the mind is a function of matter but has emerged from matter through evolution and through its own relationship to matter has become something that we may say is both matter and mind.
Of course, we end up here by saying that mind is matter in the tautological sense that anything that exists can be termed matter but which, from the perspective of the anthropic universe, is actually very different in quality.
As any philosopher will aver, it is possible to think two impossible things before breakfast. The 'impossibility' here that is that mind is both matter and not-matter simultaneously.
Mind is dependent on matter to exist and for its origin but its emergence has created something so remarkably different from matter, even if it is constructed out of components of ultimate matter beyond our current understanding, that, in effect, it is a new substance, mind.
Dualism thus re-emerges but not in the pure Cartesian form that has sustained Western culture since the Enlightenment and certainly not in the dualist form that has generally dominated religious discourse where the mind (spirit) has descended from some force entirely outside and preceding matter.
Things are thus flipped on their head. Instead of the body being seen as mere receptacle for some sacred soul or spirit which animates or is the essence of mind, the mind is seen as whole to the degree that it is integrated with its material substrate, its body with all its complex biochemical and genetic components.
It is also a consciousness that can, to a greater or lesser degree, command and control its direct perceptions of reality (the matter beyond the body and the interpretation of other minds through matter) in order to develop a 'realistic' (meaning pragmatically useful) sense of its own self and needs.
The self does not need transcending (because there is no transcendence that is not illusory) but only transforming in real time and in accordance with its relationship to the matter it commands or which commands it (both bodily and in society). This consciousness is rational but only given its inherited bio-chemical nature and historic relation to the world.
Any sense of 'transcendence' is not in accord with some privileging of the mind against matter (which is always implicit in the religious and Cartesian mind-set) but is a process of integrating (individuation) the mind-thing and the body-stuff in order to stand against and manage the social-thing, other mind-body things and raw matter.
This brings into play the insight of Thomas Nagel's What Is It Like To Be A Bat (1974) - a text whose revolutionary social importance, coming after the work of the phenomenologists and existentialists but before the neuro-scientific revolution, has yet to be fully appreciated by the wider public.
Bats & Humans
In order to bring the thesis up to date here, we might suggest that 'being like' something is to take on the total effect of all their sensory inputs as well as the tools for ordering those inputs in the brain as the 'being like-ness' that we have to come to terms with in trying to think like or have the experience of being, say, a bat. Needless to say, we cannot.
The thesis has been of great importance in understanding a whole slew of philosophical problems surrounding consciousness, including the appreciation that an artificial intelligence will not think like a human because it does not have the same tools as a human nor the same ordering system in its hardware.
But what has not filtered through to the general public is that what Nagel is saying does not apply just to the difficulty, or rather impossibility, of humans being able to credibly imagine themselves as bats or AI as human but the impossibility of any human seeing the world in the same way as any other human.
This is more challenging than it appears because it is not simply saying that we all have different histories and upbringings and so we should all be understanding of each other or, another conclusion, struggle politically to 'reform' other persons and draw them out of their culture and history 'for their own good' or that of 'humanity'.
The implicit ideological position in such models is that there is the same perception in all humans and the same ordering mechanism, perhaps with 'intelligence' alone being allowed to differentiate between persons (in that over-privileging of reason that has also over-privileged all intellectuals in the West).
The Uniqueness of Persons
However, minds do not appear to work like this, simply because they are embedded in bodies. Every person's perceptual apparatus and brain structure is as different as are their fingerprints. Each person, therefore, sees the world in a different way from others - in other words, we are nearly as different from each other as we are from bats.
Or rather, we have become as different from each other as we are from bats because we have evolved (thus perhaps giving a clue to the source of the emergence of mind from matter) as social animals. On our genetic and bio-chemical differences are overlain massive cultural differences that affect both perception and ordering.
A complex brain and perceptual apparatus (including the possibility of perceptual apparatus that may operate on the sub-conscious mind) has not only been under variable genetic change over millennia but the neuro-plasticity of the brain and accident create very different and unique mental maps for every living human.
Any rationalist social or political discourse based on a fixed view of what it is like to be human is doomed to failure as a practical project for the simple reason that the mind or sets of mind that think like this are as much 'sports' as any other type of mind.
Pure reasonableness will neither persuade those who simply do not see the world in the way that 'rational' people do nor have any effect on internal self-rational behaviour that conflicts with the social rationality of the rationalists.
The Failure of the Enlightenment
This is not a situation that will improve for the rationalist Left in the coming millennia. The numbers of perceptual inputs and the numbers of persons multiply massively the numbers of ways of seeing the world.
The ability of persons to conceal their thoughts in their own interest will also create a fantastic range of ways of undermining every rationalist project that is ever presented to humanity by the rationalists.
The obvious historic example is the Soviet experiment. This touted a New Man but crumbled on sclerosis with a flourishing underworld and it required massive murderous onslaughts on its own population. But the American experiment, based on the assertion of a fixed view of humanity in its Constitution, is not in much better state now.
The US is innovative and creative and we would not be discussing these matters if it was not for that quality but it is dysfunctional in other respects. Its rationalist commitment to a single 'form' of liberty derived from a fixed text means that it is poorly adapted to deal with mass inequality or the creative destruction of its own preferred economic system
There is no easy answer to the social and political problems arising out of this quality of humanity - that rationality lies within individual humans who are socially irrational, can hide thoughts and who misperceive reality (or rather can never see all reality like 'God' in order to make best judgement in their own interest let alone altruistically for others).
What Not To Do
One solution is not merely unworkable but cruel and stupid. This is to impose rational solutions from above and then try to bend the 'crooked timber' of humanity to will. This just does not work - or at least it works only for a while if the State is permitted to engage in authoritarian or brute measures.
The current Western situation is that States are attempting to deal with the problem of order and lack of force by 'invading minds' so that the subject receives the perceptual inputs that States want in order to transform minds. The intent is often benign - racism and sexism have been reduced drastically by such methods.
But, given the relative lack of force available to the State in the West, this has degenerated into soft corporatism, media management, coalition-building through various 'progressive' alliances, 'soft power' international relations, surveillance and the creation of an atmosphere and anxiety and the sort of economic populism that has created recent public debt problems.
Much of this works well enough when there is no sustained crisis but withdrawal of the bread and circuses of economic populism, combined with resentment of surveillance and social engineering and the 'truth-telling' role of the internet (noting Wikileaks and Snowden's revelations as just the top of a massive pyramid of alternative information) hole the ship below the waters.
Technological innovation and structural economic and administrative failure mean that the rational discourse of the ruling order in the last economic cycle has been displaced by a return to direct negotiation and alliances between individuals - all with their own individual rationalities. This happened first as consumers and only now as 'subjects' of politics.
Why The Elite Cannot Cope
Elite rationalists loathe 'tribalism' because they fear it and because it offends their universalism under which liberal-minded people are always superior to traditionalists, individualists or socialists and where universalists across the world are of more importance to each other than any of these other categories are at home.
But libertarian and communitarian solutions to problems from the ground-up are much more in tune with the problem of 'being like a bat' than anything that liberal universalists or other ideologues can offer.
The libertarian will work with others to defend his internal rational perspective while others, who perhaps seek order and security before liberty, will combine into families, localities, tribes, societies and so on, building not the activist-style liberal civil society but a community which owes something to both mentalities - but not to universalism.
The new consciousness studies, in this context, may prove as socially and politically revolutionary as Cartesian thinking was to prove after the seventeenth century. The creative tension between bottom up libertarianism and communitarianism or traditionalism looks to be far more dynamic than the sclerotic face-off between top-down liberalism and authoritarianism.
The mind is now no longer abstracted and made universal (except as private belief) but is re-centred in the Self as a mind-body from which it negotiates with others through struggle within, one would assume, shared rules and regulations designed to isolate and contain the harmful psychopath and monster.
The Problem of the Intellectual
The West has seen successive disasters as intellectuals who think in universalist terms have attempted to over-ride private life, community and history in order to change not the world (both material and social) for the better (which is reasonable) but persons as persons.
Enlightenment liberalism, Marxism and (bringing universalism conceptually down to the level of the nation or race) fascism and national socialism have not stopped at improving the freedoms and material conditions of the population (which is good) but have sought to impose a way of seeing the world and forms of language. Specific words are banned, appropriated or promoted!
These have been seen as oppressions against persons, against the particular and concrete and in favour of the general and abstract - and the intensification of these oppressions has generally arisen out of brute frustration that people do not obey the grand narratives of intellectuals, politicians, bureaucrats and technocrats.
Of the great questions of consciousness, the how it works is still under examination by the scientific and philosophical community. It may yet come up with some clear answer but what it is is never going to be fully describable in words or numbers.
The question is why it exists. The obvious response is to deal with this question as a scientific description of its evolutionary and adaptive role within the organism but this begs the real question. Consciousness exists because of its history in our species but we should ask now why it exists when we are aware of its existence.
Being Aware of Being Aware
This self-reflexive aspect to the why is not answered sufficiently by appeal to its functional role in the context of evolutionary history. By becoming aware of consciousness, we turn ourselves from its subject to an awareness of consciousness as a tool for its own purposes. We introduce at this point notions of will - and free will at that.
Intellectuals have got very gloomy about free will in recent decades but this is because they have swung like a pendulum from Enlightenment rationalism to an absurd nihilism. There is an argument against free will in an absolute sense but this tautologically simply extends cause and effect to a level meaningless to the human condition.
Just as the mind is both monistic in origin and substrate but dualistically defined in terms of its emergent properties and actual reflexiveness, so it is possible to accept cause and effect and then note that, in real terms as humans, the substrate is so dense and unknowable that, to all intents and purposes, will exists and is free.
The free will, again, is not granted by a deity but arises out of the human condition as an emergent property of higher consciousness. This is a big issue which should not distract us here but the logic of the situation is that moral responsibility can be returned to centre stage as can the right of resistance to universalist claims.
Consciousness becomes the thing which exists for its own sake and, in existing for its own sake, it becomes the argument for that position which formerly required the existence of god to justify it - the intrinsic worth of itself, the intrinsic worth not of some abstract humanity but of the person who reflects on himself.
The Dark Side
The only danger here is the privileging of the truly self-reflexive over the non-reflexive who might then be seen as little better than bats. This is a fascistic or elitist concept that might see the diminishing of the less educated, the less intelligent and the damaged.
Fortunately, this is easily countered by a rather neat truth for which we can be grateful insofar as it does not require us to rely on moral responsibility as an attribute of higher consciousness (which it will not bear) - this is that no mind can judge another mind because no mind can know another mind. We can see this in two thought experiments.
The most famous postulates a world of zombies able to behave as if they were sentient in a world which only you (or I) have true consciousness.
More useful is the experiment that suggests that, though I am conscious, all others are not only conscious but more intelligent but have been spending their existences pretending to be more or less ignorant, ill-educated and disabled in order to make me believe that I was more conscious than they. This paranoid fantasy makes its point.
I cannot judge the intrinsic worth of any other mind so that, far from fascistic, the new thinking in consciousness drives us to the opposite pole of the political spectrum - towards an egalitarian attitude to minds which demands that all minds have equal body and material chances and that no one should be intrinsically privileged over another.
The Logic of 'Libertarian Socialism'
Such egalitarian individualism is a form of socialism in its ideal sense, one that is neither Marxism (which is really a Judaeo-Christian heresy) nor liberalism but something more respectful of difference than most of the so-called progressive ideologues.
Egalitarian individualism or libertarian socialism does not persecute sex-workers (feminism), demand special privileges because of crimes against the dead (identity politics) or bring rights to the world through the barrel of a gun (liberal internationalism).
Libertarian socialism is thus not universalism nor is it progressivism - it is sui generis, respectful of the private reasoning powers of the individual in a society in which they are given the tools to make their own judgements without fear or lies.
But there is another aspect to the case. Modern consciousness studies are unthinkable without the insights of the phenomenologists, notably Husserl and Merleau-Ponty.
Both these philosophers understood that the process of investigating one's self required not only specific training and effort but 'the ability to adopt alternative perspectives on one's experience' [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosopy, Consciousness]
This process of adopting alternative perspectives is death to ideological grand narratives. Looking at oneself creatively from different perspectives is only one step from looking at others and their motivations from different and more empathetic perspectives.
Doing so does not necessarily mean that you will agree with others. However, empathy does enable one to draw a distinction between what is good for you and what is good for them and not confuse either with what is necessarily good for humanity. One can have an opinion on the latter but it is contingent on the facts.
The ideologist who places humanity before themselves will soon be placing abstract humanity before you and all other really existing persons so that abstract humanity consists of no persons at all, just a projection of the mind of the neurotic originator of the fantasy. The extreme version of this is the neurotic who places the planet, the distant 'transhumanist' future or God before persons.
What we see here is a direct connection between the revolution in consciousness studies and the potential liberation of the individual in Western culture. What we also see here is a different sort of mind with a different sort of politics.
Under the old mentality, the mind was separated from the body and God was replaced with Reason. Sexuality and desire were denigrated and an abstract vision of humanity treated persons as units to be controlled for some grand narrative that had no relation to the real and complex nature of humanity.
Under the new mentality, we have a fluid and flexible community of equal and creative individuals who seek individuation through coming to terms with their own identities, their bodies and their eventual ageing and dissolution and who build communities through struggle from below.
We can refer here to another philosopher of mind, Daniel Dennett, whose multiple drafts model (by which the mind is continuously redrafting reality and itself according to its assessment of inputs) gives us a way of seeing politics as something that is fluid and contingent, based not on absurd rigid principles but on the achievable.
Not only persons but self-organising communities can reinvent themselves continuously on the basis of multiple drafts with every citizen being an input. This is a model of democracy that is greatly at odds with the actual practice of the degenerate liberalism inherited from the Enlightenment.