Friday, 8 March 2019

Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist?

Today I read William James’s 1904 essay, “Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist?” In the early part of his essay, he declares that consciousness “is the name of a nonentity… a mere echo, the faint rumor left behind by the disappearing ‘soul’ upon the air of philosophy." Here’s an excerpt in which James is making the point that consciousness is not a substance:
There is… no aboriginal stuff or quality of being, contrasted with that of which material objects are made, out of which our thoughts of them are made; but there is a function in experience which thoughts perform, and for the performance of which this quality of being is invoked. That function is knowing…if we start with the supposition that there is only one primal stuff or material in the world, a stuff of which everything is composed, and if we call that stuff ’pure experience,’ then knowing can easily be explained as a particular sort of relation towards one another into which portions of pure experience may enter. The relation itself is a part of pure experience; one of its 'terms' becomes the subject or bearer of the knowledge, the knower, the other becomes the object known.
He ends his essay by associating consciousness with the act of breathing:
Let the case be what it may in others, I am as confident as I am of anything that, in myself, the stream of thinking (which I recognize emphatically as a phenomenon) is only a careless name for what, when scrutinized, reveals itself to consist chiefly of the stream of my breathing. The 'I think' which Kant said must be able to accompany all my objects, is the 'I breath' which actually does accompany them. There are other internal facts besides breathing (intracephalic muscular adjustments, etc., of which I have said a word in my larger Psychology), and these increase the assets of 'consciousness,' so far as the latter is subject to immediate perception; but breath, which was ever the original of 'spirit,' breath moving outwards, between the glottis and the nostrils, is, I am persuaded, the essence out of which philosophers have constructed the entity known to them as consciousness. That entity is fictitious, while thoughts in the concrete are fully real. But thoughts in the concrete are made of the same stuff as things are.
I don’t think James has given much of an explanation of what consciousness is in his 16-page essay, but this is a complicated subject—more than a century after his essay the psychologists and philosophers are still grappling with the subject of consciousness.


Unknown said...

James was essentially correct. There *is* an entity involved in thinking, the brain - and there is a stuff involved in thinking, the gray matter (neurons) of the brain. The analogy to the lungs is apt. There is an entity involved in breathing, the lungs - and there is a stuff involved in breathing, the tissues and cells of the lungs and bronchial tubes (as well as the diaphragm, the nasal passages, etc.). But there is no additional entity lurking in the brain - no soul, no mind, etc. - that causes it to think, any more than there is an additional entity lurking in the lungs that causes it to breathe.

Anoop Verma said...

Roger, That is a good point. In fact, I liked this article by James. He offers several wise perspectives and ends his essay on a very non-dogmatic note, which shows that he understands the complications of the subject.