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Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Language of Consciousness

There is no good definition of "consciousness"--at least, not in any rigorous philosophical or scientific sense. There are just lots of ways we use the term in everyday life. For example, we use it to distinguish between sleep and wakefulness, or to indicate that we are focusing our attention on something, or that we remember something, or that we know something. These aren't all the same, or even necessarily similar, processes. So the idea that there is some unique thing called "consciousness" is perhaps an error. And so the idea that there are "conscious processes" in the brain is also perhaps an error.

The word "consciousness" does not pick out anything specific, but has meaning only in so far as it provides some structure to our discourse--specifically, our discourse about ourselves. It is a grammatical construction without extra-linguistic referent.* Once we've understood the language, we've understood consciousness. There is nothing left to understand. Thus, as Dennett says, there is nothing to understand about consciousness beyond verbal reports. (But this does not mean there is nothing else to understand about brains or behavior.)

If a person says "I am hungry," we know what they mean, because we've learned the language. And no investigation into their brain or stomach will explain the meaning any better to us. Of course, by looking at their brain and stomach we can get a better idea of why they've expressed that sentiment. But the meaning of the sentiment is no better understood by such an investigation.

Consider, if I say "John has malaria," you can understand me a little bit, even if you don't know who I am talking about. But if we are engaged in conversation, you will want to know who I'm talking about so that you can understand me fully. You assume that "John" refers to somebody specific.

With words for consciousness and feelings, we may similarly be tempted to look for hidden referents. Yet, this is a mistake. Not all nouns are names for things. In my understanding, the language of consciousness (notions of mind, thought, and feeling) is used to indirectly refer to unknown causes of behavior. The meaning of these terms is rooted in behavior, and yet it does not directly refer to the behavior itself, nor does it refer to any identifiable causes. They are floating signifiers, meaningful but without discernible referents.

With neuroscience, we can greatly improve our understanding of the brain and human behavior. But we won't understand consciousness any better, because there is nothing about consciousness hidden in the brain (or anywhere else). The word "consciousness" doesn't point to the brian. It doesn't point anywhere. It is not an extended finger, but more like a waving hand.

Consider an example. I am focusing on writing this post. That is a fact about my mind, right? Now, by studying the brain we can better understand how a human being goes about writing and thinking about philosophy. We can analyze the behavior. But we won't gain a better understanding of what it means to focus on writing something. We won't improve our understanding of that, because that is something we already understand by verbal report. The meaning of the expression "focusing on writing" is found in the act itself, in the behavior, which anybody can observe.

We can use verbal reports to guide our study of the brain, just as we can use any other behavioral cues. But in so doing, we are using the behavior to understand the brain, and not vice versa. It is only because we understand verbal reports that we can use them to analyze the brain. So how could analyzing the brain help us understand the reports any better?

Again, it can help us understand what caused them, but that does not help us understand what they mean.

* Edit: I should clarify this. Verbal reports, such as "I am hungry," are usually not references to observable behavior, but nor are they references to anything hidden behind observable behavior. They are not usually references at all. When I said that "consciousness" is a grammatical construction without extra-linguistic referent, I was ignoring the way we can use that term to analyze human behavior. The language of consciousness can be used to analyze behavior, and so "consciousness" can refer to things like wakefulness, readiness, and so on; however, the term "consciousness" is usually taken to mean something hidden behind those observable behaviors. This is what I reject. While the language of consciousness directly involves observable behavior, it is thought to indirectly point to something else. In my view, we couldn't possibly be pointing to anything else. So, words like "consciousness" can be taken to refer to observable behavior, but when we take them to refer to something else, such as a sense of self, or an "immediacy of experience," we are referring to linguistic constructions, and nothing outside of our discourse.