The inner voice

Goran Schill asked:

Hi, I wonder if the constant inner monologue I have in my self-conscious mind suggests that there is only one part of myself. When I ask myself if I should grab a beer in the fridge, and I hear one voice saying “yes, nice, you deserve it” and another “no, go to the gym and work on your belly instead”, and then there is a will inside me that decides to either close the fridge and go to gym, or open the beer, are these voices and this will just one single unit of myself, or are there two or even three parts of my self-conscious self? One reason I am asking is that I wonder if Plato’s tripartite soul may be at work here: the appetitive (have a beer), the rational (go to gym) and the spirited (will to decide either). Or is this just amateurish hairsplitting?

Answer by Graham Hackett

I often think that, in talking about consciousness, the only serious game in town is the argument between those who believe that human consciousness is a part of us which is separate from our material selves, and those who think we are just body. As human beings, some would say that we are not just our body, physical makeup, phenotype, etc. We also have a soul, a mind, a consciousness; however you wish to designate it. The consciousness is really us, much more so than our physical constitution. 

If you believe that we have a consciousness separate from our physical make-up, then you might get into a secondary discussion about how this works out in practice. Plato liked to think of a “soul” which had the parts you describe, which performed performed various functions such as providing direction (reason), sufficient vigour and vim (spirit) to proceed in this direction, and finally, appetite, (to make sure we are properly sustained our nourished). Freud, regarding himself as rather more scientific than Plato, parcelled us up into id, ego and super-ego. In your own case, you were wondering whether there were different voices, etc, which might decide you either have a beer, go to the gym, or ruminate a bit more about it.

How likely is this? It occurs to me from time to time, that we are making a lot of this up as we go along. We are so strongly sure of the sense of our own selves (think of Descartes “cogito”), that we may be giving ourselves special privileges when we compare ourselves with brute beasts, whom, we surmise, may not have this powerful feeling. I do not wish to be disrespectful to Plato, who has spent a great deal of his powerful intellect building a philosophical position to be admired. However, is there any reason to believe in attempts to divide our consciousness into supposedly functional parts, especially when we might want to query the very concept of consciousness itself?

When I read your amusing description of your soliloquy with your fridge, I was reminded of a famous observation by Hume.

“There are some philosophers, who imagine we are every moment conscious of what we call our SELF; that we feel its existence and continuance in existence; and are certain, beyond the evidence of a demonstration, both of its perfect identity and simplicity. …[But] from what impression could this idea be deriv’d? …For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.

“…I may venture to affirm …that [persons] are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in perpetual flux and movement.”

How can you go from your “particular perceptions” of fridge, bottle of beer, pleasure at the contemplation of the beer and guilt at the thoughts about the gym to a feeling that parts of your self are regimenting your responses?

My own particular view of consciousness is strongly influenced by scientific discoveries in neurology and brain function. I think that consciousness is a self-organised emergent property of property of billions of neurons firing in patterns in the brain. This leaves open the question as to whether self-consciousness really exists. Isn’t a property — even a self-organised emergent one — a real thing? It is certainly real enough to help me organise myself about whether I eventually take the beer or go to the gym. Or prevaricate.

15 thoughts on “The inner voice

  1. Interesting topic and one well debated over the centuries, without any common consensus I may add. Philosophically speaking that is! But today it seems the question of Consciousness is primarily divided among two beliefs. Those that believe in modern science and those of creationism or spirituality (if not the same?) Each side fighting (as is human nature) in protection of their long-held beliefs. Which to my point, is a result of the functioning of our human brain. So like Mr. Hackett, I believe our brain is the source of our consciousness.

    ” The powerful feelings of consciousness, is just a name we have given to the “mental sensations” we feel of a billion neurons sending electrical and chemical impulses back and forth in our brain.” — Alan Lightman (physicist)

    Modern day Neurologists have made incredible insights into the workings of the human brain and as our technology grows will continue to do so perhaps even on a grander scale. Perhaps one day, able to pinpoint exactly how our brain gives us consciousness. After all, our brain is responsible for everything else? What we believe, how we think, what we think, and how we interpret that what we yet do not know. Reality itself comes from our brain — so why not consciousness?

    “I am a brain Watson, the rest of me is a mere appendix.” — Sherlock Holmes

    1. There are two problems, I find, with the believe that the brain is the source of consciousness. And, I emphasize “believe” because there is no scientific evidence of this–in fact, the quote by Alan Lightman should begin with “I believe” to indicate that it is a hypothesis and not a known fact. There is a particular quality to consciousness, especially human consciousness, which appears to transcend physicality. This is the quality of reality: it is the Being of Dasein (Heidegger), the assuredness that there is something rather than nothing. It is a purely subjective quality, but it is not an illusion. But more important, the believe that all we area is organic matter, that consciousness is only an epiphenomenon (like magnetism for example), reduces our humanity to nothing; all values, sense of purpose, all human dignity, become absurd. Then human values are reduced to utility. Would you care about the feelings of your computer, or just replace it when it is no longer useful. The humanness which we perceive in each other, which we express in works of art, in drama, in our morality, ethics, and religion, is already a transcendence of physicality. The reason, I believe, that this materialistic idea dose not make you, or scientists, uncomfortable is that we project our sense of meaningfulness on the physical world. Human life is no walk in the park; it is difficult for most, and tragic for many, and it has to be worth more than just two pounds of brain cells; otherwise, it is worth nothing.

    2. There are two problems, I find, with the believe that the brain is the source of consciousness. And, I emphasize “believe” because there is no scientific evidence of this–in fact, the quote by Alan Lightman should begin with “I believe” to indicate that it is a hypothesis and not a known fact. There is a particular quality to consciousness, especially human consciousness, which appears to transcend physicality. This is the quality of reality: it is the Being of Dasein (Heidegger), the assuredness that there is something rather than nothing. It is a purely subjective quality, but it is not an illusion. But more important, the believe that all we area is organic matter, that consciousness is only an epiphenomenon (like magnetism for example), reduces our humanity to nothing; all values, sense of purpose, all human dignity, become absurd. Then human values are reduced to utility. Would you care about the feelings of your computer, or just replace it when it is no longer useful. The humanness which we perceive in each other, which we express in works of art, in drama, in our morality, ethics, and religion, is already a transcendence of physicality. The reason, I believe, that this materialistic idea dose not make you, or scientists, uncomfortable is that we project our sense of meaningfulness on the physical world. Human life is no walk in the park; it is difficult for most, and tragic for many, and it has to be worth more than just two pounds of brain cells; otherwise, it is worth nothing.

      1. You state there is no evidence, that the brain is the source of consciousness as my “Alan Lightman” quote suggests. Fair enough! — yet you go on basing your reasoning on the working’s of Heidegger — who also is without evidence in his opinions? You argue that scientific explanations of consciousness (based on what they’ve learned so far using brain research) somehow reduces our humanity and our human values, our perceptions of others? Yet how can this be, when all these perceptions, values of meaning, comes from our brain’s to begin with?
        Can consciousness be a supernatural state we yet do not understand? Is it some sort of yet undiscovered independent entity separate from the human brain? That seems to me to fall into the same category as proving the existence of God? So we are left with researching the working’s of the Human brain, searching for an answer not in some transcendent outer realm, but here, in the natural world.
        My guess (opinion) simply is based on the total control of our working brains. Not only does it give you the power to think, imagine, feel, and make opinions formed from personal belief’s, why not the feelings of consciousness? After all, turn enough neuron activity off, as in coma’s, or heavily sedate, as during operations, and our consciousness no longer functions.
        In consciousness we may be similarly awake, but it too is individualized in perception and born of the limits of our senses. So yes, we are all just matter, made of billions of atoms formed into elements by dying stars as everything you see here on earth is. Our emotions (from the brain) confuse us into wanting to believe we are more, have a purpose, are special. But we are not. And wishing for, or trying to argue against, using an all controlling human brain — doesn’t change a thing. How can it? When we live in the reality that our brain tells us — IS reality. So why would consciousness be any different?

  2. In reference to Armando S Garcia , January 26, 2020 at 7:19 pm ,

    You wrote, “An illusion is a false perception, like seeing a straight object to be bent when held half way in water, or when having a hallucination, as with schizophrenia.”

    So, do you think that some perceptions are illusions and some perceptions are not illusions or do you think that all perceptions are illusions?

    Thank you for your interesting observations.

    1. Thank you for your interesting questions.

      Re: So, do you think that some perceptions are illusions and some perceptions are not illusions or do you think that all perceptions are illusions?

      What you are asking is whether there are perceptions that are real, and that depends on what you define as real, or not an illusion.

      We never really know what is real because all perceptions are subjective and all depend on the mechanism of perceptions, i.e., our sense organs and instruments of observation. All we know is the brain configuration of sense perception and never the “existent” itself. So that a red apple is the result of the red light wave effect on the neurons of my eyes and its subsequent neural configuration in the brain. The red apple we see is an object of consciousness. Fortunately, we all have the same kind of sense organs and the same way of being conscious.

      So illusions are sense perceptions which do not conform to the general sense perceptions we all have. What is beyond the sense perception will always be a mystery to us and always subject to illusion and subjective interpretations.

      In fact, the only reality which we are unequivocally certain of is our consciousness. It is our consciousness which gives everything existence, its reality, and it is not subject to illusion.

      1. You wrote,” It is our consciousness which gives everything existence, its reality, and it is not subject to illusion.”

        Our consciousness? Right now, are you conscious of what I am conscious of?

        1. What we are conscious of is certainly different, but we both have the same way of being conscious of things. In other words, our way of communicating in the world reveals the same non-reflective consciousness, and most probably very similar conscious perceptions; if it were very different then one of us would be judged insane, or unconscious. The non-reflective consciousness, the absolute subjective awareness, has no content other than an awareness of being aware.

  3. For there to be any perception, there has to be that which is being perceived and that which is doing the perceiving. So, if anyone believes that perceptions happen then by implication he believes that perceivers exist as well as entities of perception exist. Are there people who believe that perceptions do not happen?

    1. But who is it that is doing the believing? Isn’t believing another perception and therefore the object of a perceiver?

      If you assume that all there is to consciousness is brain function, then you have to assume that the perceiver is an illusion.

      The problem is that there are two perceivers, or selves. One that is the product of perceptions, that is the perceived I, that is the object of study of psychology and neurology; the other the subjective I which is the perceiver. The subjective self cannot be thought about, because then it becomes an object of consciousness or a perception; it is the clear awareness of being conscious.

      When I look deeply into my mind, I find perceptions that come and go but always a point of view that knows the thoughts and perceptions to exist; I can never perceive who I am other than as the one who is perceiving. The absolute subjective is unconditioned; it becomes conditioned when it becomes the perceived I and then moved by emotions and subconscious forces.

      You cannot experience the illusion of consciousness, only the illusion of perceptions: the illusion of self consciousness is only a concept, another perception.

      1. Armando S Garcia,,

        You wrote,” You cannot experience the illusion of consciousness, only the illusion of perceptions.”

        That is an interesting statement! Could you please explain that what do you think is the illusion of perceptions?

        1. In reference to the following question:

          ontologicalrealist

          January 26, 2020 at 1:44 am

          Armando S Garcia,,

          You wrote,” You cannot experience the illusion of consciousness, only the illusion of perceptions.”

          That is an interesting statement! Could you please explain that what do you think is the illusion of perceptions?

          An illusion is a false perception, like seeing a straight object to be bent when held half way in water, or when having a hallucination, as with schizophrenia. In the former you wouldn’t be fooled, but in the latter you might perceive it as reality. But in either case the consciousness that is aware of the illusion, is aware of there being a conscious illusion. That is, consciousness is the perception of something existing, whether it is real or not. When Husserl stated that consciousness is always a consciousness of something, he did not mean that consciousness is dependent on objects of perception, but rather, that consciousness is always a point of view to some object: there is always a subject that is looking at an object. Consciousness cannot perceive it self as an illusion, because it is what makes things exist.

  4. I always find it amusing that Hume, in this popular quote, is looking for a perception and fails to recognize the perceiver–which would be a least one self-perception. However, if the one that is looking were a perception, then self-consciousness would be an infinite regression of perceptions. Therefore, there must be a perceiver that is not a perception, that is not an object of consciousness.

    Also, there is no evidence that neurons can produce consciousness, let alone self-consciousness, and so this belief falls in the category of Faith. I find it amusing as well, the belief that all the life force on earth and the exaggeration of human creativity, including science, are just the result of an evolution of organic matter going nowhere. This modern scientific perception is as limited and as narrow minded as Hume’s search for his Self. What human consciousness is we cannot yet tell, but lets get beyond scientific faith as an explanation.

    1. From Graham Hackett
      Good to see a quick response to my answer.
      Its a shame that you misrepresent Hume. All he was arguing is that it is difficult to see where the Cartesian “clear and distinct” impression comes from, when all he sees is a bundle of perceptions. The whole point of the passage just is what you categorise as his failure to “recognise the perceiver”. It is not a failure, it is his honest attempt to enquire where such a feeling comes from. It seems that you are automatically assuming that something – call it self consciousness exists, and then you work backwards to an explanation for it. It’s not necessarily a bad mode of thought, and it may be the only one possible. But are you willing to entertain the possibility that there may be more than one candidate to explain the “I” in consciousness?

      Your argument seems to be taking on the pattern of an intelligent design argument, where we detect something that shows evidence of some kind of intelligent design, and then proceed to reject all other views in favour of the existence of a supernatural Intelligent Designer. In this case, the object of design is the clear and distinct feeling of self, and the result of intelligent design arguments will be to work backwards towards supernatural explanation. There must be a “ghost in the machine”.

      Also, I must reject your assertion that there is no evidence that the firing of neurons plays any part in the development of consciousness. There is a development called “The Attention Schema Theory” (AST for short), which makes consciousness an emerging attribute of beings, as they develop responses to natural stimuli. In addition to Hume’s bundle of perceptions, there would be a good evolutionary reason our brains to eventually code certain patterns of responses as permanent. Our sense of uniqueness would be a good way of ensuring that we enjoy lunch, as opposed to becoming lunch. Might not the stored codings of the brain discussed in AST be at least a possible way of deciding between a beer or a visit to the gym?

      Note; AST is very well discussed in “The Spaces Between Us: A Story of Neuroscience, Evolution, and Human Nature” M Graziano

      1. Thank you for your quick response as well.
        My awareness of the perceiver does not come from an assumption of intelligent design, rather from the observation that there must be a perceiver to make sense of perceptions, and this perceiver cannot be a perception as well, for then there is an infinite regress of perceptions. It is more likely, as proposed by Sartre, that there is a non-reflective consciousness which is an absolute subjectivity, and therefore, cannot take itself as an object of perception. The perception of consciousness is a clear and distinct perception, albeit not objective, as there is always a point of view.

        I believe that the only good which will come out of the scientific research into consciousness is the realization that consciousness is not a physical phenomenon but rather something other. And I say the only good because the believe that human self-consciousness, human Being, is deterministic undermines human integrity and self-value. For long scientists have been in denial, in Bad Faith really, in believing that a sense of meaningfulness can be distilled from materialistic humanism.

        Our unique self-conscious perspective, and consciousness of the world as other, has allowed us to understand existence and purpose, and it has been the true inspiration behind religion, and philosophy; it has allowed for the transcendence of the physical. Scientific determinism makes us into organic robots, and the dupes of genetic and subconscious forces. It offers false meaning and hope in the prolongation of life, while it undermines the importance and meaning of life itself.

        Truly, the excess of human creativity, almost rivaling the excess of life on earth, should be evidence enough that we are not looking deep enough into the nature of reality. While I am fan of the scientific method and the advance of technology, I see that there is a real problem with a relativity of human values. If there is no ghost in the machine, then the machine is really useless: this is what no one wants to admit.

        Thank you for your ear.

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