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I posted this question on Reddit's /r/AskPhilosophy sub, but didn't receive much of a response. Hoping you guys can help.


As I see it, there are two versions to the claim that consciousness is continuous (i.e. that true unconsciousness is impossible):

Strong Continuity: Consciousness can never be interrupted and therefore never ends, implying that consciousness necessarily continues after the death of the physical body.

Weak Continuity: Consciousness can never be interrupted during the lifetime of an organism.

I don't wish to defend the strong version of this thesis here, even though I find it quite appealing. However, I'm not certain we have the epistemological standing to disconfirm the weaker version.

Put quite simply, I don't see how we can distinguish between unconsciousness and consciousness-without-memory, as our knowledge of our conscious state is dependent on first-person experience (and therefore first-person recollection). For any moment we allege unconsciousness, it seems to me equally valid that the subject could be conscious in some fragmented manner that disallows recollection.

The best objection I can foresee involves using EEG data to verify unconsciousness. However, this hinges on the belief that we know certain patterns of electrical activity (or lack thereof) indicate unconsciousness. The strength of this objection seems to depend on the strength of our knowledge of the neural correlates of consciousness, knowledge which I believe is incomplete at best.

Anyway, as I am but a humble layperson, I would appreciate if you guys could point me in the direction of resources about this problem. Thanks!

  • To clarify, are you asking whether conscious beings can ever enter a state of unconsciousness? If so, I think it's fairly obvious that you're unconscious when you sleep. Anyway, this might answer some questions: plato.stanford.edu/entries/consciousness – Eliran May 1 '16 at 19:28
  • Eliran, thanks for the comment. I'd have to disagree that it's "obvious" we're unconscious when we sleep (we dream, after all, and we may even forget that we dreamt). I'd recommend this paper for a detailed perspective on the philosophy of sleep: richmond-philosophy.net/rjp/back_issues/rjp6_hill.pdf – Matt Diamond May 1 '16 at 19:35
  • And to clarify, my definition of "consciousness" is simply existing as a receiver of perceptions. It doesn't require actively thinking or even self-consciousness. – Matt Diamond May 1 '16 at 19:37
  • Ok. That sounds like what some philosophers call sentience, if I understand you correctly. I recommend the above article. – Eliran May 1 '16 at 19:39
  • Do you mean unconsciousness or sub-consciousness? In Eastern thought consciousness is a thin layer between the sub-conscious and the super-conscious. Consciousness means only to perceive. – Swami Vishwananda May 2 '16 at 5:23
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It seems to me that you are asking a question that is too profound for anyone to dare provide an answer. I will try, but cautiously.

In the way you are formulating your question, it seems you are touching the underlying question of dualism versus monism - i.e. whether there are two "substances" (often represented as mind/body) or one (the physical world is a totality). In general, what you call strong continuity would gravitate toward dualism, whereas monists do also have approaches to that notion which would be in the direction weak continuity.

Also, as the questions noted, you might want to provide a working definition of consciousness for your purposes, especially if you wish to avoid conflicts or confusions with subjects such as psychology.

I also realize that it would be great to have a sensational experiment that would be able to adjudicate between dualism and monism, just as the "double slit experiment" was a major step forward in the particle versus wave theory of light, by showing that photons behave both as waves and particles.

Unfortunately (as you suggested with the EEG experiments), things are not that simple, because we are not dealing here with phenomena that are outside of us and thus measurable and shareable (regardless of the intrinsic difficulties of measuring very small quantities, physical science has grown a remarkable consensus).

By contrast, subjectivity is what it is: subjective. Logical reasoning on this subject are likely to be undecidable, for one specific reason: dualism and monism are conjectures, or more properly axioms, from which a considerable amount of things depend: not only one's view on a specific class of physical phenomena, but on the process of research itself.

About research, we are not dealing merely with experiment data here (a subject on which there is ample consensus) but with considerations on how this process of reasoning with hypothetico-deductive logic and experiments is occurring!

For example, here is a sentence of Henri Poincaré a Mathematician who laid out essential groundwork for the Philosophy of Sciences (at the beginning of his book Science and Hypothesis): "Experience leaves us our freedom of choice, but it guides us by helping us to discern the most convenient path to follow. Our laws are therefore like those of an absolute monarch, who is wise and consults his council of state." While it is a very effective statement, it raises further questions: what is freedom of choice? How can we be an absolute monarch -- who is required to act as an Enlightened ruler?

The problem is that using both logic and experimentation to analyse logic and experimentation is a recursive (feedback) process, a terribly difficult thing to do. It is very easy to end in petitio principii or to derail into unconscious contradictions, or even short-circuits in the mind. And indeed, discussions on this subject sometime degenerate in slanging matches where both logic or experimentation have little to do any longer. It seems we are having a hard time at controlling the feedback process of acquiring data on ourselves ("introspection").

Hence, assuming that someone could make a defining experiment for themselves about consciousness, it could very well be that their inability to make subjective processes objectively observable by others would preclude that knowledge from becoming part of science as we understand it. And discussions might be moot.

I am not saying that the quandary is unsolvable (and there might be several avenues of approach). I am merely laying out why it is a very tough nut to crack.

  • OT: technically the double-slit experiment does not show that things like photons and electrons are wave/particle dual. They have characteristics that are observably like waves and those that are like particles, but they are not both, they are simply unlike anything we've ever seen before. Their duality is one of interpretation or analogy, not an ontological status. – Mr. Kennedy Nov 6 '16 at 12:50
  • I agree, it's mostly a question of interpretation, not ontology. Indeed, physicists had to shift their viewpoint on that, too. I amended my answer to reflect that. – fralau Nov 6 '16 at 17:53
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This is an excellent example of a problem which is made difficult due to the challenge of defining the topic. Consciousness is a very tricky concept to capture in language, which I would argue is why we hang so much meaning on the word.

One can choose to define consciousness to be anything one pleases. One can, as in this case, choose to assume the weak continuity hypothesis of consciousness and cannot be wrong because all one is doing is defining a word.

However, when interacting with other disciplines, one's choice of definitions can be a sticking issue. In the example you are exploring, science has a large body of content defining "conscious" and "unconscious." If you intend to interact with those communities, you must be aware of the potential differences in meaning. Otherwise, grave failures can occur. For an extreme but highly amusing example, consider the failure to distinguish between the "trick" of a prostitute's "turning tricks" with an innocent' child's "trick or treat!"

In science, consciousness is defined as an experimentally verifiable trait. It is well recognized that that trait goes away (i.e. we become unconscious) every night when we sleep. This particular definition is reinforced by personal observations (people state that they were not aware when they are sleeping), and EEG readings which suggest a potential reason for this unconciousness. If you wish to use papers describing consciousness experiments using EEG readings, you have to be aware of what meaning of "consciousness" they are electing to use.

So the real question for someone who wishes to assume the weak consciousness continuity hypothesis is not whether they are correct, but rather whether their viewpoint is valuable enough for others to accept and use.

I think the key question for any such definition of "conscious" is whether we have this trait, and whether it is consistent with any other axioms you might be assuming. There is a large body of philosophy arguing that humans are conscious beings, using one or more popular meanings of the word. That body of work has been heavily peer reviewed and its self-consistency is well understood. If you start from a less popular assumption (say, the strong hypothesis), you cannot merely assume that the works of others defend your opposition. It is up to you to demonstrate that their arguments defend yours. That doesn't mean it can't be done, it just means that word choice is a convenient shortcut to agreement that one gives up when one chooses less popular meanings for their words.

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