The Subject. Part II. The Individual. Andy Blunden 2006


The Human Animal

The individual is first of all an instance of the species homo sapiens sapiens. No amount of social theory or deconstruction takes away from this basic fact of our membership of the animal order. Nevertheless, anyone who does not perceive that human beings are radically different, in interesting ways, from all other extant animals of this planet should not be reading this book.

But it has proved difficult to draw that line around those behavioural capabilities of the human animal which distinguish us from the other animals, and which thereby enable this species to create a material culture passed on from generation to generation, including art, science, literature, architecture, poetry, politics, etc., etc., which no other animal does. Even more difficult is to discover the underlying physiological basis for these differences in behavioural capacity. Lines drawn in the past have proved inaccurate as new observations of primates bring to light previously unsuspected abilities. Given that the crucial differences, physiological and behavioural, whatever they may be, manifest themselves in just this propensity to create history and rational forms of material culture that interests us, this problematic game of line-drawing is an heuristically useful exercise.

The Uniqueness of Human Behaviour

Let us dwell for a moment on this question of the behavioural uniqueness of human beings.

In the first place the ability to learn the language of the human society in which one is raised. The evidence is overwhelming that human beings are born with an ability and a powerful inclination to learn whatever language is spoken by those around them. Human beings manage in fact to overcome even the most extreme barriers to language learning. A very young baby can distinguish all the vowels and consonants of all the world, but after a little while, long before learning to speak, a Japanese baby will have lost the ability to distinguish between “l” and “r” and conversely for other nations, as they sharpen their ability to distinguish the phonemes of their own language amidst the general hubbub of noise around them. A child kept in isolation by abusive parents and not exposed to any language until adolescence will always carry the scar of that early abuse, and never fully catch up with their luckier neighbours, but with the proper care, will still manage to overcome their abused childhood and learn to use language. Not only do deaf people learn to sign and speak without being able to hear their own words, but with support and in the absence of other handicaps, deaf-blind children reliant on the sense of touch alone, can achieve the highest levels of language use, going on to achieve the academic qualifications, run their own business or even, like Helen Keller, become formidable political agitators. Deaf children raised in an environment where no effort is made to teach them signing will still invent for themselves ‘home signing’ – an elementary kind of sign language – and basic lip reading. Given contact with other deaf children to communicate with, ‘home sign’ will develop the embryonic rudiments of a true language, using signs as symbols for things not present in the visual field and feelings not actual felt at the time.

What is more, all children learn to speak, and unless suffering the most severe neurological deficit, will achieve proficiency in language, without any conscious effort on the part of those around them, without any teaching whatsoever. And looking around all the peoples currently found on Earth, from hunter-gatherer tribes people to hillbilly farming communities to modern cosmopolitan city dwellers, there is no such thing as a ‘primitive language’. ‘Home signing’ is the only opportunity the anthropologist of language has to observe language in the process of development. And we have no reason to believe that the languages spoken by the people that wrote the hieroglyphs of the ancient world spoke a language in any way less developed than our own.

So language acquisition is a universal behavioural characteristic of human beings which is very deep-rooted and manifests itself spontaneously provided only that the individual is exposed to other people with whom to communicate.

Let us compare this universal characteristic with the language acquisition capacities of our nearest, extant primate cousins. Since the nineteenth century, numerous efforts have been made to teach language-use to chimpanzees and bonobos. The world record holding primate in this endeavour is a pygmy chimpanzee called Kanzi. Kanzi’s mother was already living with a human family and being taught to use a sign-board when Kanzi was born. So Kanzi not only had the opportunity to learn a human language in the best conditions available for a human baby, his own mother was already skilled in the use of language, and he had a dedicated team of scientifically trained educators working with him. Kanzi was taught to use a vocabulary of a few dozen signs he could point to on a handy portable board up to the point of freely composing two-word sentences to answer questions or make requests. But no amount of effort could lift Kanzi beyond the level of a two-year-old child. He could be taught to use his sign-board in a symbolic way, but his abilities were quite meagre by human standards and were brought out only by the most sustained effort in an environment which was very much a human creation, not that of his pygmy chimpanzee conspecifics.

So, the obvious fact that languages are learnt does not take away from the fact that there is something in the make up of the human animal which not only enables language use, but predisposes humans to actively acquire language. Our throat is evidently well-fitted to the use of a vocal language, and other primates are not blessed with the ability to make a complex variety of sounds while breathing normally at the same time. So Kanzi’s sign-board was a necessary prop to allow him to acquire language, but it was not sufficient. The prior existence of a language is almost, but not quite a necessary condition for language acquisition by humans, but other primates have never got as far as a deaf person who creates home-signing in the absence of an available language to be acquired.

Let us look at tool use. Since Benjamin Franklin at the end of the eighteenth century, tool-use has been seen as the crucial marker of humanness. Thanks to Jane Goodall, we now know that primates do engage in a limited amount of tool-use in the wild, as exhibited for example in the stripping of a twig for getting ants out of their nest. Such feats have since been observed under a variety of conditions among primates. Likewise the problem-solving abilities of primates, and even rodents, is impressive though generally limited to the use of available objects in the animal’s visual field to solve problems whose elements are also in the same visual field.

This issue of tool-use can be linked to the broader problem of what it is about human language which distinguishes it from the various signalling systems, vocal or otherwise, used by animals in their natural condition. While spontaneous acquisition of a human language provides a sharp marker of difference, entirely independent of the nature of that human language (all the spoken languages of the planet, signing or Kanzi’s sign-board), it is not self-evident what it is about the human language abilities which is qualitatively different form the communicative abilities of other animals, just as it is not self-evident what it is about human tool use and problem-solving abilities which is so qualitatively different from those of other animals.

Tools, Signs and Artefacts

Lev Vygotsky suggested that human behaviour is unique in the propensity for the invention (not just use) of symbols. All animals communicate; communication is in the overwhelming majority of cases simply the reflex recognition of a behaviour by another creature which is a reflex response to some event in their perceptual field.

For C S Peirce’s semiotics, interpretants responding to the sign of an object is ubiquitous in nature. The communicative activity of social animals such as chimps and bonobos goes beyond this, in that expressions appear to be produced with a prior purpose. In relatively rare cases, a primate has been observed to produce a sign which is responded to by others as if it represented some actual state of affairs which normally produces the expression, but produces it in the absence of that state of affairs. In a sense then it could be said that the primate producing the expression is using the expression as an icon, in that it produces a likeness of certain behaviour. However, I know of no suggestion that the perceiving animals interpret the sign as an icon; rather they take it as an index, as if the expression was actually caused by some state of affairs, rather than produced. That is to say, at a stretch, primates in their natural habitat can occasionally reach the level of a behavioural psychologist, but genuine symbolic communication entails also the interpretation of the sign as a symbol. Very small children on the other hand, understand how to use and interpret pointing gestures at a very early stage, prior even to the use of words.

Primate problem solving is generally marked by its limitation to the elements of the same visual field. It is rare that a method used in solving one problem can be represented to itself by a primate as a means to the solution of a new problem. The fetching of suitable material for a poking stick or gathering material for a nest from elsewhere is a capacity which more or less marks the limit of primate ability to represent potential artefacts to themselves in the absence of all the elements of the product in the perceptual field.

Vygotsky’s suggestion that symbol-creation is uniquely human seems plausible then, even if the distinction is not absolute. Let us tighten up the idea of ‘symbol’. A symbol is something which represents something else not by means of its likeness to the object or by its physical or causal connection to the object, but by convention, and therefore generally in and through its connection with other symbols, within some established system of symbol use. There is then an inherent contradiction in the idea of symbol creation, for a symbol only is what it is by virtue of ‘convention’, which presupposes that its meaning is already shared. So, symbol-creation is inherently a collective, incremental activity, even if initiated at some point by an individual.

An ‘icon’, on the other hand, is a sign which represents an object by virtue of its resemblance to the object. An icon may be created by the object itself; a particularly spectacular or significant event impresses itself on the senses, and any repetition of the event or something resembling it is going to have an impact on the senses and recall the original event, and consequently function as an icon. It seems then that the gifted primate who learns to reproduce a behaviour so as to induce an appropriate response from another animals knows how to use icons, insofar as he or she can be said to do so purposively. Using icons hardly requires a process of ‘invention’, though of course it can and does. The simple repetition of behaviour outside of the context of the circumstances which would normally trigger the behaviour, constitutes the invention of an icon.

An ‘index’ on the other hand, is a sign which represents an object by a direct causal connection with the object. This kind of communication is of course ubiquitous in the animal kingdom, and requires no intelligence, let alone cultural development.

Peirce’s categories of sign therefore seem to provide us with some clarity about the claim that symbol-creation is characteristically human. According to Peirce, fully developed semiotic activity requires indices, icons and symbols. All social animals create indices, primates may occasionally reach the level of icon-creation, but only humans, to any significant degree, create, use and respond to symbols.

What about tools?

Tools are signs (in the Peircean sense) and signs are tools, but we think of tools as for working with objects, rather than with the mind. The notion of ‘tool’ includes that it is produced, even if only by being taken out of the context in which it is found and placed in a context where it serves a purpose. We do not count as tool-use the habitual behaviour of insects who, for example, bring material back to their nest for use in building the nest. We discount the apparent ‘purposiveness’ of this activity. So the meaning of ‘tool use’ presupposes the capacity for purposive activity of which the tool is evidence. But let us suppose that we are dealing with purposive activity. The use of something as a tool is, after all, nothing but the abstraction of means from end, and instinctive animal behaviours are characterised by being ends, or drives, in themselves.

A tool is only symbol-like when it is used conventionally, that is to say as part of a definite system of semiotic activity, within which alone it makes sense. We think of a tool as having its efficacy through its physical relation to natural objects. But this is only true of the simplest and most primitive tools – the stone axe or knife, which act as extensions of the human hand, the stick a chimpanzee strips and uses to get ants which acts as an extension of its own finger. This is a limiting case of the tool. The overwhelming majority of tools are used in connection with other tools and materials of production, within a definite system of practices, which taken together function to meet human needs. The stone axe or knife whose efficacy derives from its physical properties in relation to natural objects could be called an index-tool. Most tools are ‘symbol-tools’, as they gain their efficacy only in relation to a definite system of production and the materials and other artefacts used within that system of practices.

On the other side, we observe that an onomatopoeic word is a limiting case of a symbol which is what it is because of its physical properties. But an onomatopoeic word is the exception not the rule, and would be regarded as an icon rather than a symbol were it not for its function within a system of symbols, namely language, which is essentially not onomatopeic. Whatever dependence on its physical properties the usefulness of a tool may have, it is almost invariably the case that the relevant physical properties are significant only in the context of some system of practices and other tools. A hammer is useless in a world without nails, though to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail, as the saying goes. Thus the dependence of the toolness of a tool on its physical properties is in fact generally conventional (the slot in a screw for example, is meaningful only in relation to the flat end of a screwdriver), and only on the margins are tools of the index type, directly enhancing the human-nature relationship by their physical and causal properties, independently of other tools.

Index-tool use and icon-sign use is occasionally found among primates, but symbol use, whether as tools or signs, is uniquely human. The term ‘artefact’ is conventionally used to refer to tools and/or symbols as objects, each instance of which is useful as a result of its connection with some system of artefacts produced and used within some system of practices, some culture. From the standpoint of subjectivity, whether the efficacy of an artefact derives from its object being natural or cultural is a secondary question.

If we define human beings as artefact-producing beings, then we pick up Vygotsky’s definition of humans as symbols-creating beings and Benjamin Franklin’s definition of humans as tool-using creatures, with some necessary qualifications. This definition works: only human beings invent artefacts. And all human beings live in a world overwhelmingly composed of artefacts, on which they are totally dependent.

Like other animals, human beings eat, breath, avoid pain and threats and copulate; but there is something about our physiology which is adapted to semiotic activity, and in particular the production and use of artefacts. By means of semiotic activity, human beings both produce and reproduce their means of life and communicate with one another, and fashion their own minds and bodies.

The Human Brain

Homo sapiens sapiens stands upright, has prehensile thumbs, so-so eyesight – better than a bat but worse than an eagle, so-so hearing – better than a mole but worse than a cat, is agile, more than a sloth but less than other primates, altogether a pretty average kind of creature, one unlikely to survive very long in the wild. But let us leave all this to the side, and focus on its brain, which may not be the cause but perhaps the result of its peculiar abilities, but at least in relation to the mature animal as we now know it, we know that it is in the nervous system, if not the brain alone, that we must seek the physiological basis for this peculiar propensity to produce artefacts, not to mention our unique dependence on artefacts.

Do humans have big brains? Well, not as big as an elephant or a whale. But brain size is correlated with body size, so perhaps it is the brain/body mass ratio which provides us with our superior intelligence? But young chickens and adult rats have a higher brain/body mass ratio than humans. But this is leading nowhere; chihuhuas have the same size brain as Alsatians, but are not more intelligent for it (Rose 2005: 51), and all animals display larger brain sections relevant to those senses, muscles and activities which they ‘specialise’ in, and the overall mass of the brain is meaningless except perhaps in comparing like with like.

In the primate line, homo sapiens sapiens has a brain about three times the size that of apes, with about twice the number of neurons, with increased complexity and an enlargement of the cortex, cerebellum and hippocampus, an exceptionally large proportion of the brain being ‘uncommitted’ in the sense that it is not tied to the functioning of any particular sensory, motor or vital function (Cole 2001: 131). The evidence from the study of the evolution of brain size over the past four million years is not absolutely supportive of the thesis of brain size. Using the brain/body mass ratio, australopithecine had a brain size (judged from the size of the brain cavity of fossilised skulls) which varied from individual to individual within the range of today’s great apes, and each of the species of hominid since – homo habilis, homo erectus and homo sapiens – had a range of brain size whose mean was within the range observed in the earlier species, though extending beyond it. (Donald 1991: 99) That is to say, there were plenty of homo erectus individuals who had brains as big as modern humans.

It is certainly true that humans have an exceptionally generous endowment of brain matter available for postnatal development, though postnatal development is not unique to humans either – the brain development of rats is entirely postnatal.


But is the brain a tabula rasa, is it a blank slate entirely available for social conditioning? No it is not. This kind of question is still very much a topic of current research for neuropsychologists, but it does appear that what is presented to the brain from the sense organs and internal senses is not a flow of ‘raw data’, and this in more than one sense.

The very idea of ‘raw data’ is nonsense really anyway. The series of electrochemical pulses that impact the auditory cortex bear only the remotest resemblance to the spectrum of pressure waves impacting the ear-drum. A little cantilever structure behind the ear-drum vibrates in such a way that each point along it responds to a different frequency in the incoming signal, and excite the nerves along its length in a particular transformation of the pressure signal. Not only is the vibration of the eardrum transformed by the auditory nerves into a qualitatively different form but the consensus currently is that the auditory cortex receives input from a ‘module’ of the brain structure which is oriented to the recognition of phonemes, and tones within the frequency range in which humans can produce them. Likewise, the new born baby apparently sees edges better than areas, and corners better than edges. The sensory signs reaching the brain are pre-processed to some extent, and in ways that make sense in terms of communication between human beings.

But further, data from the senses do not reach the brain as a stream of information in the way that a TV receives video images from a VCR. At ground level, human perception is very much an active process of appropriation. If, by means of preventing eye movement and blinking, the retina of the eye is subjected to a constant field of light, with neither movement on the part of the object, nor disturbances to the signal reaching the visual cortex as a result of rapid eye movement and blinking, then the psychological effect is that the object is not perceived at all. In order to perceive something in the visual field, a person must actively move their eyes across the object. However the resultant perception of a stable image is produced, it cannot be produced without the disintegration of a stable image on the retina by involuntary movements of the subject’s eyes. Somehow or other, the fragments of visual information are ‘put back together’ in the mind which integrates its own eye movements with the rapidly varying optical stimulation of the retina.

Perception is even more tangled than this though. The geography of the brain is now exceedingly well charted, and a myriad of functionally distinct sections of the brain have been identified. The brain is as much a cluster of semi-autonomous organs as a single integrated system. So when I look at a bus approaching my bus stop, the colour of the bus, the shape of the bus, the bus number, its speed, its direction, the sound it makes, my recognition of it as a bus, and as my bus and the fact that it is pulling in and not about to run me down, are all processed and identified by functionally and geographically distinct parts of the brain. All the efforts of neuropsychologists to date to identify some part of the brain at which all these separate streams of information are brought together and integrated in the form of “My bus has arrived!” have failed. At this point it seems that not only is there no homunculus, but there is no part of the brain where disparate sensory and cognitive representations are bound together. This is one of a range of problems neuroscientists call ‘binding problems’. I will return to these binding problems below.


This brings us to the problem of consciousness as it arises in the study of the brain, what is known in the industry as the ‘neuronal correlate of consciousness’ – what state of the system of neuron firing corresponds to consciousness, as opposed to unconsciousness, as when you are asleep, in a coma or dead? Changing consciousness, either in the normal way of presenting stimuli to the senses, or directly by interfering in the nervous system itself is a popular activity in the neuroscience laboratories, but no-one has yet made any progress in discovering what consciousness is and how to create consciousness other than allowing the person to recover from anaesthesia or wake them up, etc., and no-one has yet been able to describe what it is about EEG patterns which tells the observer that the person is conscious.

In May 2006, I had a unique opportunity to learn about these problems in a dialogue with 10 of the best neuroscientists in the world at Les Treilles, France. In answer to the question: “Can neural science describe the state of neural activity which is characteristic of consciousness?” John Allman said in a private communication:

“The only statement that everyone would agree on is that a flat EEG indicates lack of consciousness. Everything else is speculation at this point.”

Wolf Singer had made a similar statement in discussion which made me puzzled me, because I could not see how an anaesthetist could do her job is this were the case. When I asked Merlin Donald to explain this remarkable fact, Merlin replied, in a private communication:

“Wolf’s statement is true on a deep theoretical level, but of course we know a great deal on a practical level about the electrical signatures of brain ‘states’ such as of alertness, drowsiness, light sleep, deep sleep, dreaming sleep, etc. We also know roughly what happens to signals that reach consciousness, as opposed to those that don’t.

“What we do not know is exactly what these signature rhythms and wavelets tell us about the brain on a micro level, that is, how millions of microscopic neural nets can create such detailed experiences of the world. The latter limitations are what Wolf was referring to, I am sure. We don’t yet have a theory, but the anesthesiologist can nevertheless use what we know to monitor his patients. You don’t necessarily need particle physics to build the pyramids; a touch of classical mechanics, and few rules of thumb, will do just fine.”

The analytical philosopher John R. Searle met agreement from most of the neuroscientists when he said that “The brain causes consciousness,” and consequently, there must be something about the pattern of neuron activity which corresponds to consciousness. By ‘consciousness’. John Searle means a state of awareness shared by all animals:

“By ‘consciousness’ I simply mean those subjective states of sentience or awareness that begin when one awakes in the morning from a dreamless sleep and continue throughout the day until one goes to sleep at night or falls into a coma, or dies, or otherwise becomes, as one would say, ‘unconscious’.” (Searle 1992)

And Searle, in common with all the neuroscientists I met at Les Treilles except Steven Rose, sees no qualitative distinction between what consciousness is in a rat or a chicken and what it is in a human being. Of course, human consciousness may be filled with different thoughts, but to the majority of neuroscientists, consciousness is something that ideas and feelings enter, or a state which receives various forms:

“The level at which we attempt to account for mental phenomena is biological rather than, say, at the level of subatomic physics. The reason for this is that consciousness and other mental phenomena are biological phenomena; they are created by biological processes and are specific to certain sorts of biological organisms. Of course, this is not to deny that our individual minds are shaped by our culture. But culture is not something in opposition to biology; rather, culture is the form that biology takes in different communities. One culture may differ from another culture, but there are limits to the differences.” (Searle 2004: 207)

Once having discovered what it is about neuron activity which corresponds to ‘consciousness’, understood in this way, neuroscientists hope to find causal correlations between neural and subjective events, the neuronal events which ‘cause’ us to recognise a bus, a red thing, feel relieved or whatever, or in an alternative formulation, to find the neuronal events which are correlated with a given subjective event, leaving aside the question of causation.

The neuroscientists have set themselves an ambitious task, seen now to be possible for the first time because of the range of high-powered images devices available for their use. As Merlin Donald’s words above indicate, some progress has been made in discovering the biochemical processes underlying many aspects of subjective activity. The maps of the various brain sections performing this or that cognitive or perceptual function is after all a partial answer to the question of ‘causal correlations between neural and subjective events’. It is possible that at some point neuroscience will be able to tell us what it is about a pattern of neuron activity that characterise all states of human consciousness. However, the problem is still seriously misconceived, and it is significant that an answer has not been found.

The various associations between neuronal events and processes and subjective events and processes are now empirically verifiable. However, the idea that consciousness is a feature of the brain, considered in isolation from the rest of the human body and in isolation from the whole person, is an hypothesis which is necessary to project of searching for the ‘neuronal correlate of consciousness’, but it is an untested and highly questionable hypothesis, not an empirical fact.

Excursus on Free Will

One of the problems which is highlighted by Searle is the problem of free will. I haven’t troubled myself about the ‘problem of free will’ for many years now. The place of this problem in my concerns has been taken instead by the problem of subject and structure or of the opposition between culturalism and constructivism: that is, whether it is possible for a subject (an individual person or a group of people acting in concert) to make a difference, or is the way history unfolds and the kind of views people hold and so on, determined by laws of history, social structures and the location of the individual within those structures. This is not the problem of determinism versus voluntarism as such; no-one I know would deny for a moment that they could raise their arm (the example Searle uses in speaking to this issue), without thinking that they had been destined to do so ever since the Big Bang. No sane human being takes Laplacian determinism seriously today, though the puzzle of refuting it by logical argument is something which has entertained academic departments of philosophy down the centuries, and will doubtless continue to do so in the future.

For me, it matters whether I can make a difference in society, and when I look back on my life and see how at certain times in my life I was carried along by the spirit of the times, or made mistakes typical of my social position at the time, I struggle to dig deeper, and learn, and do better in future. The problem of freedom for me is therefore about the individual and our relation to social forces and culture, and about our ability to rise above the cultural and historical forces acting upon us.

Not so for John Searle. Searle poses the problem of free will as follows.

“Every event that occurs in the world has antecedently sufficient causes,” (Searle 2004: 151) but (paraphrasing Searle) we have an intuitively compelling experience of human freedom; this freedom is experienced in the gap between the conditions which had given us reasons on which to act, and the actual execution of a decision made on those reasons. And we know that it is precisely the ability to make such decisions rationally, and to act on reasons, rather than acting either randomly or in a way which is pre-determined, which makes our species so successful.

The problem of psychological freedom is posed thus:

“Are our psychological states, in the forms of our beliefs and desires, hopes and fears, as well as our awareness of our obligations and commitments, etc., causally sufficient to determine all of our decisions and actions?” (Searle 2004: 156)

A drug addict and the subject of a posthypnotic suggestion are taken as exceptions that prove the rule. In general, if I do something, it is genuinely because I decided to do it, and Searle concludes that psychological freedom is not an illusion, but seems to be real.

The problem is that Searle has specified consciousness as “a system-level, biological feature in much the same way that digestion, or growth, ... a feature of the brain and thus a part of the physical world,” (Searle 2004: 80) and of course, in the physical world everything has its sufficient cause and there is no free will. Neurons cannot make decisions about whether to do this or that; they all act in accordance with physical laws.

But according to Searle, every state of the consciousness corresponds to some physical state of the brain. Even if the way in which consciousness is correlated with neuronal activity is unknown, according to Searle, a change of mind (as in making a decision on something) implies that a corresponding change occurring in the neuronal activity in the brain: neurons cause consciousness.

He considers two hypotheses about how the brain works: either it is a mechanistic “in the old-fashioned sense (like any other organ)” or it operates like a quantum process with outcomes which manifest indeterminacy.

“If we suppose that the creation of consciousness by the brain is a result of processes that are, at some level, quantum phenomena, and we suppose that the process of conscious deliberation inherits the absence of causal sufficiency of the quantum level, it does not thereby follow that it inherits randomness. ... the effect of conscious rationality is precisely such as to avoid random decision-making. In a word, the randomness of the microprocesses that cause the conscious phenomena at the macrolevel does not imply that the conscious phenomena are random. To suppose otherwise is to commit the fallacy of composition.” (Searle 2004: 162)

The system-level states of the brain are therefore not random, but may be indeterminate:

“the only established nondeterministic element in nature is the quantum level, and if we are to suppose that consciousness is nondeterministic, that the gap is not only psychologically real but neurologically real, then, given the present state of physics and neurobiology, we have to suppose that there is a quantum mechanical component in the explanation of consciousness. I see no way to avoid this conclusion.” (Searle 2004: 162)

Summing up:

“It seems to me a massive case of human ignorance. We really do not know how free will exists in the brain, if it exists at all. We do not know why or how evolution has given us the unshakeable conviction of free will. We do not, in short, know how it could possibly work. But we also know that the conviction of our own freedom is inescapable. We cannot act except under the presupposition of freedom.” (Searle 2004: 164)

There is a genuine logical puzzle here. To recapitulate: we have freedom to think this or think that, and to act on those thoughts, generating physical effects in the world. But the thought itself is some physical process (unless we adopt some kind of mystical or theistic explanation of human consciousness), and the course of that physical process is governed by the laws of physics, not free will. We can decide to raise our arm, and thereby make our consciousness a cause in the physical world, but we cannot decide to move the neurons in our brain around in this or that way to bring about a certain kind of consciousness. How the particles in our brain move (according to Searle) is what we are thinking. He sees consciousness and the corresponding neuronal activity as two different levels of description of one and the same thing: so how can the brain exhibit freedom on one level of description, and be subject to the laws of physics on another level of descrription?

Only if the physical laws operating inside our heads are indeterminate, as a result of quantum physics, says Searle, is there an opening into which free will can insert itself. Free will can become a physical cause via the subjective determination of quantum events, so that we can make rational decisions and act on them. This only sets up a circular logic of course, since the will to determine a quantum event is still the outcome of a brain process.

Remember that Searle is not concerned about whether the individual can make a difference in the world or any such thing; he is just trying to understand how when he decides to raise his arm and the accompanying illusion of free will, that is really a result of his free will rather than the outcome of material interactions within his brain and interactions with other material systems.

But let us make a slight revision to Searle’s assumptions. Let us assume that thinking is not something going on exclusively between the ears, but on the contrary, that other parts of our body and things and people outside of us participate, in however small a way does not matter, in consciousness. Let us suppose for example that the presence of artefact in my field of vision (for example my address book), participates in my internal conscious activity (for example, remembering my friend’s phone number).

If then, my own actions manifest human freedom (which is just what is to be proved), then the things I have in my field of vision at any given time, not to mention my economic situation, the friends and family I have, the books and computers I have at my disposal, my state of health, etc., etc., are manifestations of my own free activity. If we allow that these things, manifestations in part of my own free activity, participate in determining my thinking at any given moment, then nothing more is necessary to establish that my thinking is in part the result of my own freedom, and is not determined by physics alone. The physical environment in which I live, inclusive of the internal constitution of my body, is the manifestation of both lawful physical activity and wilful human activity, including my own previous interactions with other people and things. If my thinking is constituted, even in part, by states of this extended system, then my thinking is not subject solely to the laws of physics.

This pushes the logician’s puzzle back one degree. If I ever had free will, then that free will is embedded in the environment in which I now live. There would still have to have been (for the logician) an original act of free will. So our logician still has a problem: in order for me to manifest free will in the use of something outside the brain as an element of my thinking, then I must have acted as a free person at some time in the past. This leads to an infinite regression: in order to be free I must already be free.

This is the same problem to which Johann Fichte addressed himself in 1799. His solution, as we rehearsed in an earlier chapter, was this: it is necessary for some other person to recognise me as a free person, to call upon me to exercise my freedom. Free will therefore does not derive from the internal constitution of the human organism, but rather from the demands of other people. Free will is not an innate property of the human body, but a social and historical product.

Does this resolve the problem of John, sitting alone at his writing desk, and just deciding to lift his arm? In this scenario he receives no impulse or demand from outside, it is entirely about a process going on inside his head plus his capacity to control his own body. Growing up as human beings, learning to exercise our freedom, we learn to manipulate our own minds in just the same way that we can manipulate objects. We learn to do this by internalising the use of objects, particularly artefacts. For example, by pointing to the letters on a page and listening to someone read them out, by copying the sounds they make, then reading aloud by ourselves, we ultimately learn to read silently, and even memorise whole epic poems and study the conundrums of analytical philosophers.

So we actually can intentionally “operate” our own brains. Not by intervening in quantum determinations, but by using artefacts. There is no border line with physical/law-governed on this side and free/voluntary on that side. Our growing up as human beings within a culture means that we are taught, and we learn to control the inner psychological and biological processes of our own bodies. Our bodies are a realm in which the determinate and physical is mixed in with the indeterminate and free.

The point (for me) is that we gain this freedom to control our own bodies only mediately via other people and the products of the culture around us. The question is: are we exercising genuinely free self-determination, or are we simply acting in a way that is determined by the means that the culture places at our disposal.

Consciousness: State or Process?

Let us return to the intuitively compelling idea of consciousness as a state of the brain. As a state, consciousness conceived in this way is unitary; things enter consciousness or subjects have this or that kind of consciousness, by changes in that brain state, by changes in consciousness. This point of view takes it for granted that a subject has ‘a’ consciousness and has ‘a’ consciousness at the level of microscopic neuronal activity. As the state of something, this something (the self) has a continuing existence throughout the life of the individual. It is an intuitively compelling view and what Kant referred to as the ‘unity of apperception’. At the ‘transcendental’ level of the subject, such a unitary conception is surely justified.

We will come back to this question later when we consider identity and self-consciousness, but while we are looking at the data of neuroscience, we should remark that memory plays a key role in constructing a subject’s conviction that they have a unitary existence manifested in a single biography and a single identity at any given moment. Neuroscience has learnt a lot about memory, first captured in a structure responsible for short-term memory, and then ‘stored’ in a seemingly permanent long-term memory which survives sleep, anaesthesia and trauma. Neuroscience has not yet been able to explain how this extraordinary feat is achieved by the brain, and what the physical limits of its storage capacity may be. However, what is clear is that the form in which perceptions are stored is radically different from the form in which they are originally performed. Each act of recall from long term memory appears to be an active reconstruction which creates a state of consciousness resembling, but not identical to the original perception. Imagining doing something activates 95% of the same neurons which are activated when a subject actually does something, and recalling doing something in the past involved some kind of partial re-enactment. Each re-enactment tends to be a re-enactment of the previous recall however, rather than of the original perception itself. So memory is active process of reconstruction which raises just the same ‘binding problems’ that are raised in the original activity of perception.

It is possible to see how this continual process of construction and reconstruction constitutes a continuity in time and a single identity, in the same way that a river constitutes itself through an unceasing flow of water. But does this justify conceiving of consciousness, at the level of biology, as unitary, as a state of the brain abstracted from any of its particular forms? Is there really such a thing (at the level of biology) as consciousness as such, rather than consciousness of this or that idea, perception or feeling?

According to Steven Rose (and I agree):

“There can be no consciousness without content; indeed it is constituted by its content ... it exists in sets of relationships, between the person and the surrounding world, irreducible to a mere neural mechanism ...” (Rose 2005, 167)

The problem of the conception of a brain-state called ‘consciousness’, understood as awareness, which human beings have in common with the entire animal kingdom, is that such a conception necessarily leads to the same conception of the subject at which Kant arrived: a transcendental entity, not to any real physical state or entity. There may be a neuronal correlate for being afraid or seeing red, perhaps, but it is a gigantic leap to suppose that one can find a physical entity corresponding to a transcendental entity.

Behavioural psychology for decades tried to build a theory of human consciousness on the basis of experimentation on mice and experiments on human beings which essentially treated human beings as if they were mice; but the whole science of consciousness as it is practiced today is based on a rejection of this methodology. The science of consciousness assumes that consciousness exists and that it is a legitimate object of scientific study, whereas behaviourism was presaged on the thesis that subjectivity was accessible only to introspection and was therefore not a legitimate object for science.

The behaviourists got around this by regarding sentient creatures as input-output devices, the inner workings of which were eliminated in favour of stimuli-response matrices. Not only did this place the entire science on an appallingly unethical foundation, but after almost a century of work, little was learnt about human beings, for whom consciousness is the only avenue to understanding behaviour. Input-output matrices can never represent more than statistical correlations.

Consciousness is capable of being the legitimate object of science, without recourse to introspection, because just as with quarks, cosmic bodies and dinosaurs, one can make legitimate surmises about the properties of an entity through observation and experiment without immediate sensual perception of the object of investigation. As is now well understood, all sensuous perception is mediated and theory-laden, and the whole concept of direct sensuous perception of scientific objects is misconceived.

Nevertheless, the caution of the behaviourists was not misplaced. While I can deduce from another person’s interaction with me that they have consciousness just as I have, it is far from clear I can impute consciousness in the same sense to animals.

It remains to be proven that a chicken has ‘awareness’ in the sense that we humans know it. In a private conversation, Katherine Nelson told me that she believes that even new-born infants appear to have awareness only fleetingly. Human beings are capable of performing quite complex operations without any awareness of what they are doing (especially but not exclusively ‘absent-minded’ types like me), and I see no reason to doubt that animals can be observed to perform the most impressive feats without awareness as we know it. Experimentation with animals and even mathematical modelling with computers may contribute to scientists’ understanding and investigation of human consciousness, but the mental activity of animals is a different object and must be studied in its own right with appropriate methods.

The consciousness of human beings is a very complex entity if we choose to call it an entity at all. We solve problems in our sleep, remember piano concertos with our fingers, think about the day’s work while reading the newspaper, send and receive messages by body language which belie what we are saying, do mental arithmetic using algorithms we can hardly explain, have long conversations with ourselves, shut out pain when we are in danger, etc., etc. Later on I will explore what I think we know about this structure, but this much is certain: human consciousness is something quite other than that of even our nearest primate cousins, let alone other animals. A methodology for investigating human consciousness is required which allows us to surmise its properties by objective, experimental means.

If we are going to take as the object of science consciousness understood as something people share with the animals, we must either abandon all claims to science and ascribe thoughts to animals, or we must ascribe to animals awareness without thoughts. But awareness without thoughts is something a Buddhist master takes a lifetime to achieve (Kyabgon 2003, 55), something which surely cannot be assumed in the absence of experimental evidence.

Let us investigate the idea of consciousness without thoughts or any particular mode of cognitive and perceptual activity. Buddhists differ in how they describe the state of mind they are aiming for in meditation, but although they endeavour to empty their minds of cognitive activity while maintaining awareness, it is by no means a retrogression to animal mind or a real emptying of the mind, but rather a highly focused and developed form of mind activity, in which they are able to exclude certain kinds of thoughts. Let us leave this aside for the moment.

Our topic is the individual human subject, and it is the consciousness of a subject which interests us; the consciousness of a subject is always associated with moral responsibility, either actual, potential or developing, and with self-consciousness. The various forms of semiotic activity associated with people in a coma or mentally disturbed people, animals or automatons is another topic, each requiring its own investigation.

An organism passively reflecting its environment does not qualify as a subject and nor does a bundle of conditioned reflexes. A subject has to be human being (or something similar to human being), and a sane and conscious human being at that. It is being the consciousness of an individual subject which is what distinguishes human consciousness from such phenomena as irritability in living tissue, nervous activity of some kind, inanimate information carriers, automatons, etc. – the coincidence of consciousness, with moral responsibility and self-consciousness as part of some human system of activity, of suffering, striving and self-conscious human activity. Even human beings do not attain self-consciousness until the age of about 12 months; some primates are deemed to have self-consciousness on the basis that they can learn to recognise themselves in a mirror. What kind of consciousness would it be that an animal has if it lacks self-consciousness? How would a ‘consciousness’ which is not aware of itself or in control of its own activity, be qualitatively distinguished from some kind of reflex behaviour?

On the other hand, even in a mature and healthy human being these three sides of subjectivity rarely coincide perfectly. People do things with imperfect knowledge or with knowledge acquired unreflectively from the culture into which they were born. It is by defining the subject in this way, as a whole whose unity is contingent and unstable, which makes it possible to understand the subject (and therefore consciousness) as a process, not a given fact or entity. It is necessary to have the same relational approach to the definition of consciousness. The alternative of a minimal, normative definition of consciousness (such as ‘awareness’), will lead only to an empty space, rather than any insight into the human condition.

The idea of a relational definition was exemplified by Hegel in his definition of Idea as the unity of Concept and Intuition in his early System of Ethical Life; as Hegel defined the Idea it does not exist as such, because Concept and Intuition have separate bases and are in contradiction with one another, but the Idea only comes about as the outcome of a process of Concept and Intuition coming into unity as the result of a protracted historical process. The Idea is a process of becoming. The relational approach allows the investigator to trace the separate paths and their interconnection and reconstruct the genesis of the object under investigation.

Normative definitions, on the other hand, rely on whether or not an entity has the specified normative properties; the archetypal example of this approach is the Linnaean typology of species as it was prior to Darwin. Barely adequate for sorting species, it came into contradiction with the natural, evolutionary relationship between species. Normative definition necessarily fails to capture the concept of the object itself, its substance, its genesis, focusing instead on attributes, on contingencies.

The effort to provide a normative definition of consciousness has led to the minimal definition discussed above, because the only qualitative distinction that the normative approach allows is some or none; the threshold is pushed down towards the ‘irritability’ which animals share with molluscs and carnivorous plants.

But of what use to science is a definition which cannot distinguish between a bundle of reflexes and human consciousness, which is ultimately forced to define consciousness as ‘what brains do’, to avoid slipping into absurdity? Even if it were to be proved that an adequate definition of ‘consciousness’ in this sense could be made, on what basis could we believe that only quantitative, and not qualitative, distinctions separate the awareness of a fish from that of a normal, thinking, human being? The result is that consciousness appears as a ‘magic ingredient’ whose concrete nature escapes empirical description.

If, on the contrary, consciousness is seen as an aspect of subjectivity, for which a number of different conditions are necessary, then it is possible to trace the genesis of consciousness objectively and scientifically.

Rather than assuming that consciousness is a mental entity or brain state bearing certain attributes, whether defined in terms of a stimuli-response matrix or in terms of subjective qualities, we must approach consciousness as the rational, judgmental and perceptual activity of a subject.

Levels and Emergence

In describing consciousness, a psychological feature of a whole person, as a ‘system-level, biological feature’ of a brain, neuroscientists and positivist philosophers rely on the notion of ‘emergence’. The idea of emergence commonly arises in understanding how one and the same entity is describable and understandable in terms of quite distinct theories, each theory with its own characteristic fundamental entities and basic laws. So the structure and activity of any organism is describable in terms of quantum physics, mechanics, chemistry, biology, behaviour and cosmology, depending on the number of entities in the system under consideration and the complexity of relationships considered within the system. New relationships between systems, built on system features, make their appearance and are subject to laws not reducible to the laws characteristic of the parts. This observation is therefore associated with the notion of ‘levels’; each transition from a system of basic elements to the system being regarded itself as the basic entity is described as a transition to a higher level. Nature is thus seen to be describable in terms of different units of analysis at each level, and these ‘levels’ seem to be inscribed in objective reality.

This appealing conception is flawed, however. It makes sense only on the basis of a corresponding figuring of the division of labour in the sciences. What specifies the boundaries of the various sciences and the concepts, and marks them off from other sciences is the limits to the efficacy of the forms of practice which characterise each of the sciences. We ascribe the laws inherent in these forms of practice to the nature of the specific kind of things which we cognise through these forms of practice.

It seems that human beings all have a healthy disposition to regard the objects of experience as objectively existing things or entities. People are not born epistemological relativists or constructivists, we are born realists. But Fichte had a point; in the beginning there is just activity and the constraints that the world places on that activity. We learn to recognise these limits on our own activity as other people and objects. But the kind of things populating our world depend on how we ‘operationalise’ the concepts and questions presented to us within the terms of our own discipline. However, what happens is that rather than operationalising a concept to give it a precise meaning within a given system of activity, we reify our activity as objectively existing things. So to any given form of practice there corresponds a class of objectively existing things of which the world is deemed to be composed. So long as we recall that practice (activity) is both objective and subjective, individual and social, then there is nothing subjectivist or relativist in this observation.

We are all human beings and we talk to one another, we breath the same air and rely on each other in the same world economy; so our worlds are not mutually exclusive like in some relativist nightmare, as in a movie like The Matrix. As ordinary human beings we share most of our activity and agree on the identity and nature of most of the objectively existing things that populate our world. However, the division of labour, such as the division of the sciences, reflects itself as belief in different kinds of things populating the world.

We rationalise this disagreement about the nature of the things populating our world by means of the concept of ‘levels’, and the correlative concept of ‘emergence’. The underlying objective basis for this division of the world into different levels is the division of labour. This does not negate the fact that emergence is a valid concept, but it is a concept which can mislead; like God, emergence may act as a cover for lacunas in our understanding. Consciousness is not an ‘emergent property’ of neuronal networks, but arises on separate bases, a precondition for which is a functioning human brain.

The conception of nature as sheared into mutually exclusive ‘levels’, with an inexplicable ‘emergence’ covering over the gaps, is posed as a problem for science in terms of opportunities for practical collaboration across the boundaries built into the scientific division of labour. The alternative of, for example, describing psychology as a biological property of the brain, in other words the attempt of biology to colonise the domain of psychology, leads to ethical outrages such as the prescription of brain surgery and drug therapy for the solution of social problems and the reliance on cruel animal experiments as a substitute for collaboration with human subjects.

In particular, the mistaken idea that consciousness is an emergent property that arises out of the increasing complexity of a nervous system has lead to a number of mistaken conceptions. For example, on the basis of what we human beings do, there is a clear and obvious discontinuity between the consciousness of normal adult humans and that of our nearest primate cousins, but while there is a difference in the underlying biology, there is no such discontinuity. Only a study of human evolution over the past 4 million years since we separated from the great apes, can shed light on the puzzle of the discontinuity between our behaviour and that of our primate cousins. (Oddly, those who want to explain human behaviour on the basis of our biology, see the fact that our biology is so similar to that of other animals, an argument supporting the thesis that biology is the key to understanding our behaviour. From this point of view art, science, politics, love, history, literature, and so on, are simply self-important illusions, and there is no discontinuity between human and animal behaviour; human behaviour can therefore be explained on the basis of animal behaviour.)

Even though everything that exists in the brain is a product of culture and activity, it could be said that it is still the case that everything that we know or feel has passed through the nervous system to be constituted as thoughts in and only in the activity of neurons in the brain. Actually, thoughts do not really mirror anything in the external world at all, thought-forms being something quite distinct from both objects and sense-data, and may be mistaken or sheer fantasy, so the only legitimate and comprehensive material basis for understanding thought is brain activity.

The issue here is the relation between ontology and epistemology. It matters not that the higher functions of thought all pass through neurons, if it is only the concepts of practical activity and the cultural domain which allow us to know about them, understand them and cure defects in them. If we can learn nothing about the higher functions of thought from neurons (and this has so far proved to be the case) it makes no sense to simply insist that these higher functions are executed by neurons. Epistemology obliges us to abandon neurons in favour of collaborative activity and cultural artefacts if we want to understand thinking. A neuronal ontology can take us only to the limits of the medical practices it underpins.

Still, quantum physics can describe the formation of atoms and molecules which form the fundamental particles of chemistry; quantum physics kind of ‘hands over’ the work to chemistry after having constituted the atoms and its properties. Why cannot neurobiology do the same job for psychology in describing the neuronal system structure of psychological states and events? Simply because consciousness is not a ‘system-level feature of a brain’ or even of a whole human body. It is an aspect of the activity of a subject, and we can learn only a little of what needs to be known about the subject by examining the brain.

Developmental psychology and the study of human evolution allow us to study the emergence of consciousness as we know it, but unless we begin by recognising consciousness as something that comes into being, we have no possibility of studying it by the methods of neuroscience or any other method.

Further, as I have said already, epistemology also arrives at a certain limit. Any given kind of knowledge arises out of and informs a certain kind of activity; at a certain point we must ask ourselves how we should live; how we should live determines the type of knowledge we seek and consequently, the kind of things that our world is composed of. If we choose to live in a world of surgical and pharmacological solutions to social problems, then we live in a world governed by neurons, drugs and policemen; if we live in an ethical, cooperative world, then we live in a world composed of subjects.

Brain in a bottle?

Once we have reified consciousness – a form of the activity of a subject which has been abstracted from its content – into an entity in itself, a contentless form, even if we eschew mind-body dualism by describing consciousness as a feature or effect of the brain, a material thing subject to the laws of physics, then we are confronted with a range of insoluble puzzles, only one of which is the problem of free will, a problem which of course pre-dates neuroscience by millennia. How can conscious states turn from being effects into causes and function causally in relation to the objective world? How is it possible for ideas in the head to be intentional, i.e., refer to objectively existing things?

All such problems will remain insoluble and the potential source of infinitely many learned articles by analytical philosophers and theologians, until we accept that consciousness is an aspect of the activity of a subject, which in turn is an individual person living in society, with his or her material and spiritual needs lying outside the person, constituted and attainable only in and through semiotic activity in society. Nervous systems moved bodies long before evolution lead to the concentration of nerves at the head of the spinal column and the brain evolved. The problem of how brain activity causes bodily movements is a fascinating scientific project, but it is no mystery. Intentionality and the causal properties of thought cannot be understood by studying neurons any more than they can be understood in terms of mind-body dualism. Geometric figures cannot be found in nature; they are abstractions from specific forms of practical activity, which are necessary concepts in the context of doing geometry. Trying to find consciousness somewhere in the head is just like trying to find ideal triangles in nature.

Even the behaviour of animals cannot be understood without considering the organism as a whole, rather than as a ‘brain in a bottle’. Even more so must the behaviour of human beings be understood by taking as the unit of analysis the entire subject. Consciousness is an abstraction from the notion of the subject. Brain-world dualism is no more than a restatement of mind-body dualism.

Consciousness is always the consciousness of a person, and a person is a material being whose needs are constituted and met in social practice with other human beings. Little can be understood about human beings abstracted from that activity. Consciousness can be understood and described only in the terms of social psychology and related disciplines, which can in turn make no claim to describe the brain. Only the collaboration across the boundaries of the scientific division of labour can illuminate how it is that neurons enable subjectivity and subjectivity conditions neurons. The notions of cause and effect are useful in this context only for surgeons and drug therapists, in the context of what can properly be achieved by medical practices.

The Binding Problems

Before moving on to the study of human phylogenetic, cultural-historical and ontogenetic development which will allow us to resolve some of the conundrums that have been left us by the study of the brain as an isolated organ, I must pay some attention to the binding problems mentioned above, which allow activity of various kinds in various parts of the body to be constituted as a single process of perception and conception. Arising as they do from empirical investigations of the human nervous system, they remain intuitively compelling and puzzling problems.

Let us reduce these problems to two: how can the red colour and the cylindrical shape of my pencil, be perceived by me as ‘my red pencil’ and how do the multitude of things going on in my body appear to me as a single field of perception in a continuous single line of experience which underpins the conviction I have of my identity?

But let us not assume that these features are properties of the brain with which we are born, but rather that we are born experiencing every moment for itself with no such experience as the binding of the red and the cylindrical shape with the idea of ‘me’ and ‘pencil’. Let us assume that probably these bindings are achievements, that they are constructed by me out of disparate experiences.

It seems that the infant is not born with an awareness of the distinction between itself as opposed to an objective world. This fact is widely accepted on the basis of extensive observation of infant behaviour. Experience must be a chaotic din of sensory impressions, unconnected with each other and meaningless. The infant is also quite unable to control the movement of its own body; it just has instinctive sucking and grasping reflexes and unconscious eye movements, all triggered by certain stimuli. But what we observe is an active struggle to gain control over these movements, in grabbing the mother’s nipple with the lips, reaching for things with the wilding moving hands, gradually improving ability to focus and direct the attention to objects in the visual field, gradual piecing together of the relation of auditory stimuli with their associated visual stimuli.

This process is described in detail in books on child development and it is not the place here to trace the course of this development. The point is that the bringing together of the red colour and long-round shape of the pencil and its location within or outside my reach and what it feels like when I grasp it and the reaction of mother to my putting it in my mouth and so on.

We solve the binding problem in practice. Without considering this practical solution of the ‘binding problem’ by the active work of controlling and directing the body towards the object, it is impossible to conceive of its solution by the brain. One learns that the red and the round-long are bound together by movement the eye muscles and the arms and hands and actively discovering how they are bound. The binding work achieved by the mature brain surely involves also the nerves with which I control my eyes and hands.

Consider for example how a sportsperson manages to catch or strike a moving ball. The distance to the ball is judged not so much by the act of trying to grasp it, with which we begin as infants, or by the focusing of the eyes, but also by ‘triangulating’ using two eyes. A footballer who has lost sight in one eye, judges the distance to a ball by moving his head from side to side, a practice also utilised by tennis players. And on top of these elements of motor control which contribute to our judgment of visual information, our judgment utilises our knowledge of how big the ball is. But the sportsperson does not really ‘know’ where the ball is, except that she has learnt to successfully strike or catch it. To ‘know’ where the ball was is to be able to imagine the actions required to touch it.

Just as the embryonic cogito is, in this interpretation, inseparably bound up with the embryonic agency, cogito and agency remain bound together in consciousness. Separate the striving of the infant to grasp the object and solve the ‘binding problem’ in practice, and the binding problem is indeed a mystery. There is no basis for putting the parts back together again. By the time the infant has reached maturity the ‘binding problem’ is solved instantaneous and unconsciously for any kind of object whether graspable or not. Any number of optical illusions testify to how our familiarity with the physics of the world around us is bound up with what we take to be unalloyed visual perception.

What remains of the mystery then is the subjective experience of the perception; the elements of the perception of the pencil have been, by the suggestion I have made, now been distributed not only among a number of distinct sections of the brain, but around the entire muscular and somatic nerve system.

No form of words will ever satisfactorily overcome and explain the formation of the unitary subjective, ‘first person’ sense that this active process of construction of reality has for us. Certainly there is no homunculus or ‘control centre’, some point at which it is all brought together and labelled ‘I’; and if there is no such centre to be found in the brain, then there is no justification for excluding the majority of nerves lying outside of the brain from participation in the process of consciousness. Subjectivity is objectively one integral process involving the entire nervous system.

Likewise, thanks to the capacity of the nervous system to retain traces of this process of construction of experience for a time, ‘store them’ and later reconstruct them, the process of construction is seamlessly integrated with a process of reconstructing past experience and fabricating expectations of future experience. Words cannot do more than point to the subjective experience of what is objectively one integral process of construction and reconstruction. As soon as we are able to direct our attention to this process of experience as itself an object of experience, then we have the basis for self-consciousness. Conversely, only to the extent that the infant already has embryonic self-consciousness in the form of an emerging awareness of a distinction between their own body and objects outside their own body (discovered only by trial-and-error), can the process of co-development of perception and self-control yield a coherent picture of the world and effective agency.

This argues again that consciousness cannot be understood in isolation from the agency and self-conscious of an emergent subject. So long as we conceive of the consciousness as an emergent property of neuronal activity in the brain we will find nothing but insoluble conundrums. To understand consciousness, we must trace the co-development of agency, consciousness and identity in phylogeny, history and ontogeny.


To this point, with some difficulty, I have confined attention to consciousness abstracted from its process of development, through which alone it can be understood. But a number of principles have been extracted from consideration of the conundrums involved in trying to consider consciousness as a thing-in-itself.


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