In his introduction Damasio states: “The . . . fact is that consciousness is not a monolith, at least not in humans: it can be separated into simple and complex kinds, and the neurological evidence makes the separation transparent.” (p. 16) Contrary to this assertion, the separation into simple and complex kinds of consciousness is not transparent. What the neurological evidence does make clear is that certain structures are essential to consciousness and others are not, although the ones that are not essential provide phenomena—vision, hearing, taste, language—that may become conscious. These structures—non-essential to consciousness itself—provide more complex information for organisms to be conscious of, without consciousness itself being more complex or of a different kind.
In fact, a monolithic concept of consciousness offers a much more obvious explanation of the neurological evidence, and Damasio himself provides one that is original and sufficient: “the feeling of what happens when we see or hear or touch…” (p. 26) This statement defines a concept of consciousness that applies to any organism capable of feelings—which capability he does an admirable job of dissecting. He goes on to say, “Placed in the appropriate context, the feeling marks those images as ours and allows us to say, in the proper sense of the terms, that we see or hear or touch.” (ibid.)
“The appropriate context,” then, is crucial in understanding how some organisms recognize the images as “ours,” and some do not. Different species and different human beings provide different contexts for the feeling of consciousness, and I would propose that while the feeling itself remains the same from organism to organism, it is the context that determines what is available for that feeling to be about. Looked at in this way, consciousness is similar to any other feeling. For example, contentment is the same feeling whether it is about having a good meal or about holding a sleeping baby—only the context is different.
In “The Mind’s Past,” Michael Gazzaniga would agree that the feeling of consciousness is monolithic, although his definition of “conscious experience,” is imprecise: “…it is merely our awareness we have of our capacities as a species, not the capacities themselves—only the awareness or feelings we have about them.”(1998,The Mind’s Past, Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 172) His examples suggest that what he means to say is that conscious experience is the feeling one has as one uses one’s capacities, which would be synonymous with Damasio’s “feeling of what happens.” He proposes that this awareness exists in a rat during copulation, a cat eating cod, a monkey on a swing, and in human beings: “It is the very same awareness, save for the fact that we can be aware of so much more, so many things.” (ibid., p. 173) In the language I am using, the feeling of something happening—of consciousness—is the same; only the context is different.
The context that allows an organism to feel that “I” am seeing, hearing, or touching, is the context of a brain equipped with those structures and processes capable of providing the organism with images of itself reacting to an object, a formulation for which Damasio is to be thanked. He does an admirable job of explaining what those structures and processes are, how they interact to produce the “core self,” and how they are elaborated upon to produce the “autobiographical self.”(p. 17) However, the two kinds of self do not require two kinds of consciousness, as he claims, but consciousness in two different, overlapping contexts.
The autobiographical self requires a context that includes those structures and processes necessary to produce a core self, but with elaborate and consequential additions: “In complex organisms such as ours, equipped with vast memory capacities, the fleeting moments of knowledge in which we discover our existence are facts that can be committed to memory, be properly categorized, and be related to other memories that pertain both to the past and to the anticipated future.”(pp. 172-173) In less complex organisms, and in people who are lacking any of these abilities due to neurological defects, the autobiographical self is compromised or absent altogether, while consciousness as the invariant feeling of something happening may still be present.
Damasio’s discussion of core self and autobiographical self are insightful and revealing, but his marriage of the autobiographical self to what he calls, “extended consciousness,” is unnecessary and counterproductive. If we ask why he goes to such trouble to introduce a superfluous concept, the answer seems to lie in a desire to find a use for consciousness that avoids the unpleasant implications of a simpler one. He wants to find a way to believe that “…consciousness is ever present in the process of creativity, not only because its light is indispensable, but because the nature of its revelations guide the process of creation, in one way or another, more or less intensely.”(p. 315-316)
Damasio comes closest to specifying how “its light is indispensable” and “its revelations guide the process of creation” in his conclusions following a discussion of how the brain is capable, through unconscious processing, of introducing biases into human behavior: “Not only can humans become conscious of the biases… they can also reach appropriate conclusions through conscious reasoning and use those conclusions to avoid unpleasant decisions.”(p. 302)
The advantage of consciousness, according to this statement, is that it makes conscious reasoning possible, and yet, as Damasio made clear in “Descartes’ Error,” conscious reasoning is fraught with difficulties. Despite those difficulties, “. . . our brains can often decide well, in seconds, or minutes . . . and if they can do so, they must do the marvelous job with more than just pure reason.” (1994, p. 172) That is the major thrust of his earlier book, that reason, without the unconscious aid of emotion, is seriously impaired; a point reiterated in the present work. And yet he seems now to want to give reason a higher status, so that consciousness will have a worthwhile purpose: making reason possible.
In contrast, Julian Jaynes, in his book “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,” goes so far as to say that “Thinking… is not conscious. Rather, it is an automatic process…” (1990, Houghton Mifflin, New York, p. 39) “. . . the actual process of reasoning, the dark leap into huge discovery . . . has no representation in consciousness. Indeed, it is sometimes almost as if the problem had to be forgotten to be solved.”(p. 44) This is a conclusion with which Gazzaniga would agree, although he has difficulty in comprehending the full implications of such a conclusion.
Damasio’s proposal that consciousness makes reasoning possible does not hold up on close inspection. At the simplest level, computers are capable of a form of reasoning in their performance of Boolean operations, but no one is proposing that computers, at their present stage of development, are conscious. At a more complex level, anyone who examines their own thinking processes will realize, with Gazzaniga, that they don’t have a clue how they might be moving thoughts around in their brains. If we look at our actual experience, thinking is somewhat like reading words off a screen as they appear, like magic, out of mental territory that lies forever beyond our ken.
Damasio’s desire to find a glorified purpose for consciousness puts him in the company of James Mark Baldwin and Stephen Gould, who, according to Daniel Dennett, think that, “…somehow we have to get personalities—consciousness, intelligence, agency—back in the driver’s seat. …give the mind some elbow room, so it can act, and be responsible for its own destiny, instead of being the mere effect of a mindless cascade of mechanical processes!” (Dennett, 1995, DARWIN’S DANGEROUS IDEA: THE MEANINGS OF LIFE. New York: Simon & Schuster, p. 300) Damasio seems, along with the others, including Dennett, to want to find a way of thinking of ourselves as having conscious control of our behavior.
If the processes of reasoning are unconscious, as Jaynes and Gazzaniga maintain, the results of reasoning may not be—we do often become conscious of the end products of our brain’s unconscious processing—and a computer analogy offers the prospect of an explanation for the “why” of human consciousness. We would be unaware that computers were reasoning, or doing anything, if they did not have a means of making the products of their calculations public—some form of output. Consciousness, then, could be part of the output device of the brain, a means of indicating that a conclusion has been reached and specifying what that conclusion is.
We can consider a simple example in the feeling of hunger. The brain has built-in means of detecting when homeostasis is threatened—when it is time to eat—and the structures whose function it is to monitor blood sugar need a way to compel the organism to act. Their conclusions become conscious in the form of a particular kind of discomfort in the abdominal region, accompanied by images of restaurants, favorite dishes, etc. We find ourselves “thinking” about food. Note that for hunger to achieve the level of conscious feeling, it must dominate in the competition with other brain processes for the status of Most-Important-Output-of-the-Moment. Evolution might have come up with other means of motivating the organism to seek food, but consciousness of hunger is the means that was selected for, at least in animals complex enough to have feelings.
As Damasio and others have noted, there is far more going on in the brain than we can be conscious of. There must be some way of delineating which of these multiple simultaneous processes are most important. Which visual image, which sound, which idea is most threatening or promising? It is the one we are conscious of, given enough time—in emergencies we may react without knowing why. The importance of a perception and its elevation to consciousness are determined by unconscious processes.
Something like William Calvin’s model of Darwinian competition between different patterns of neuronal activity seems likely. These are exactly the kinds of processes which might result in one consideration emerging from the ocean of possible considerations to reach a level of activity that results in consciousness. As he puts it, “Our conscious thought may be only the currently dominant pattern in the copying competition, with many other variants competing for dominance, one of which will win a moment later, when your thoughts seem to shift focus.”(William Calvin, HOW BRAINS THINK, BasicBooks, 1996, p. 111)
It may be that, for Damasio, the great difficulty with the simple concept of consciousness-as-part-of-output-device is that it leaves no room for the idea of our selves as the controllers of our thoughts and behaviors. Our brains produce thoughts and behaviors in their responses to the environment, including responses to previous environments. While the autobiographical self may be real as a depiction of our past experience and behavior, and while it may give a somewhat reliable indication of how we will behave in the future, it is more of a summary depiction of propensities than a controller. Even then, the past experience our brain is summarizing at any particular time varies with the situation we find ourselves in at that moment—there is no way to be conscious of all that we are, based on what we have been, in any comprehensive way.
Our unexamined concepts of who we are may be untenable in the light of all we are learning about the brain. It is not surprising that this discovery can lead to uneasiness and discomfort, but it need not. On my web site and blog, and on Tom Clark’s site, naturalism.org, there is much that could reduce that discomfort.