A brood comb

….philosophical and other notes….

Unity Of Consciousness

Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on January 6, 2007

Bill Vallicella, over at Maverick Philosopher in very interesting post about the subsistence of souls, mentions the unity of consciousness, and says:

Sitting before a fire, I see the flames, feel the heat, smell the smoke, and hear the crackling of the logs. The sensory data are unified in one consciousness of a selfsame object. This unification does not take place in the eyes or in the ears or in the nostrils or in any other sense organ, and to say that it takes place in the brain is not a good answer. For the brain is a partite physical thing extended in space. If the unity of consciousness is identified with a portion of the brain, then the unity is destroyed. For no matter how small the portion of the brain, it has proper parts external to each other. Every portion of the brain, no matter how small, is a complex entity. But consciousness in the synthesis of a manifold is a simple unity. Hence the unity of consciousness cannot be understood along materialist lines.

I quote this, because it is one of the main reasons why I find holistic model plausible.

As Vallicella says, in the case of consciousness it is impossible to imagine how separate elements (of any kind, be it atoms, or some sense-data/qualia or whatever) can create a unity of experience as we have.

If you think it is possible, you are probably making a subtle fallacy. Namely we can imagine a configuration of parts as a whole, but when one is talking about parts constituting the whole, it is important to keep the parts in their assumed self-subsistence and determination as such, and be careful not to introduce into the imagination element which is not in them. And when we imagine the parts as constituting the whole, the quality of wholeness doesn’t in some way emerge from those parts, but it appears there only because it is our unity of consciousness in which we do the imagining. But, because this unity is that which is of need of explanation, it means that if we are critical in our thinking, we should stay with those abstractions (parts) in which we want to find the possibility to create whole. But that is impossible, as it is implicit in their being abstractions, that by their nature that they are just multitude which can’t by its own make quality of wholeness. The moment we imagine them together, we are adding quality of wholeness from our unity of consciousness.

Because of that, the whole must be taken as a fundamental principle, which can’t be reduced to some other abstractions. As it is clear from my past posts, I take being-in-the-world as this starting whole which is irreducible neither to subject and world, and of course not reducible to objectively existing things in the world, like atoms, energy or whatever.

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2 Responses to “Unity Of Consciousness”

  1. Jeff G said

    Okay, but that description you quoted didn’t sound all that unitary. Consider:

    1) Sitting before a fire (spatial orientation)
    2) I see the flames (sight)
    3) I feel the heat (touch)
    4) I smell the smoke (smell)
    5) I hear the crackling of the logs (hear)

    I don’t see how the temporal unity of such an experience is at all mysterious. We experience them at the same time… so what?

    Of course anybody who places them altogether in one place in the brain is creating a Cartesian Theatre of sorts. I just see no reason for any kind of extravagant statement such as:

    “The sensory data are unified in one consciousness of a selfsame object.”

  2. Hi Jeff,
    Thanks for the comment,

    This kind of listing of the things that we are aware of in same time, as I see it, shouldn’t be seen as description of the phenomenon (after all, the phenomenon of unity of consciousness isn’t about smoke, flames, cracking of the logs, etc…), but by requiring the listener to imagine the situation, it is more of a way to point to the phenomenon. What is assumed is that the listener is aware of the phenomenon, and the description would succeed to remind the listener to that phenomenon, so that both the speaker and the listener know what it is talked about.

    I’m not sure that the claim is very extravagant. The theory that phenomenal experience supervenes on the brain is not that problematical. On, other side that the brain is fed with sensory data is not that problematical. So, I don’t see anything extravagant in idea there goes something in the brain which makes from this bag of sensory data one integrated phenomenal experience. (Though I don’t buy into this idea too, as I said in more recent posts)

    As for your mentioning of “mysterious”, can you explain more what do you mean by that? I didn’t claim that the phenomenon is mysterious.

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