Explaining consciousness either means characterizing consciousness, which is a descriptive task, or it means assigning it a cause, which is a theoretical task. Both answer very differently the question, “What is consciousness?” But theoretical explanations of consciousness do not approach its mystery. If I ask what consciousness is, I am not asking by what it is brought about.

The Sense of Things

Consider the following expressions: “consciousness,” “experience,” “qualia,” “phenomena,” “subjective experience,” and “what it is like.” Do they designate a class of things, as the terms “phenomena” or “qualia” suggest? “In my environment now,” David Chalmers reports, “there is a particularly rich shade of deep purple from a book on my shelf …”1 It is an odd way of saying that the book has a purple jacket. The rich purple emphasizes the insignificance of the object in favor of the color’s effect. By its effect, I mean something that is not in the color, but is in the way the color is taken. That is not a thing of any kind.

In turning to auditory experiences, Chalmers mentions two: the ringing of a telephone, and the sound of an old piano and a far-off oboe combining “to produce an unexpectedly haunting experience.”2 It is possible to think of a ringing sound as a datum of some kind, but that is not so with unexpectedness or hauntingness. These are not objects. We might call them interpretations without being too misleading. But interpretations are not experiential data.

Chalmers also speaks of the qualitative feel to occurrent thoughts, something other than their contents. Cognitive attitudes have a strong phenomenal flavor. He lists the sparkle of a happy mood, the weariness of a deep depression, the melancholy of regret: emotions that “color all of our consciousness while they last.”3 Finally, Chalmers invokes “a kind of background hum” as a ubiquitous feature of conscious experience.

There is a remarkable distinction among these examples between the data of sensation and one’s response to them. The data of sensation might very well be produced mechanically, while the responses, in any of their forms, cannot be. A rich deep shade of purple and a haunting sound are altogether different. Purple might be picked out as a purple paint chip among red and blue ones. There, that is the shade I want. One could not say, that there, this is the hauntingness I want.

It is correct, to be sure, that one would not feel melancholy if it were not for some reason. The reason may dispose one to melancholy; but it is not what is meant or what is understood as melancholy. The same is true of being startled. A man startled by the doorbell just insofar as it is a sound recovers his equanimity immediately, but insofar as it is the doorbell, he may not. He understands that life tends to reward good with evil. But the startling was not in the fact that he knew it might be bad news when the doorbell rang. It was in his felt intelligent response.

The words “unexpectedly haunting,” “striking,” “warm” (of an aroma), “tug” (of desire), “sparkle” (of a happy mood) are not words for things; they are words for the sense of things. And the sense of things is better illustrated than defined. A haunting sound, a striking color, or the sparkle of a happy mood describe how things sound, or look, or feel. It is the unexpectedness and the hauntingness of the oboe, the melancholy of deep depression, or the strikingness of the rich purple experience, that make these examples illustrations of conscious experience, and not the sound or the color considered as objects.

There is the contrary view. We begin life with no personal history. That being so, it must be granted that everything we know is built up, little by little, from qualia, or individual instances of conscious experience. It would seem to follow that hauntingness and hallucinations, differently to be sure, are, involve, or are products of qualia, with great clusters of them being retained, organized, and given lasting structures. Retaining, organizing, and structuring is what the brain does naturally.

It is helpful to have this plausible account. It lets us see where a fundamental problem might be. In talking about the mind we have no special vocabulary. The definition of qualia is one that employs terms appropriate to the physical sciences. Sensations, or the products of visual experiences, are treated like objects. What is most characteristic of the mind is something else, something that I find myself calling the sense of things. The sense of things is found in the way we take things in. It makes sense to say that one experiences a free-floating fear neither occasioned by nor directed to anything. It also makes sense to say that something caused our fear, stressing the fear as an object, or to say that there is something we are afraid of, giving prominence to the cognitive fact. But it is sensible, too, to say that a sound is frightening in character and not to mean either that it causes or is the intentional object of our fear. We can find a snake’s rattle or the rumbling of a 747 on takeoff frightening without being frightened.

Feelings or aspects of feelings, like fear, are uniquely mental; they are what give us the sense of things. The terms for feelings do not designate properties like throbbings, shimmerings, or intensifications. It is worth sorting them under the category of feelings and not sensations. They are feelings or aspects of feelings that are uniquely mental; they are what give us the sense of things.

These feelings are not describable in language drawn from or applied to the physical world, as are color, temperature, or texture. They are in some ways subject to the discipline of reason, and, to that extent, to choice; which is to say, in the terminology I have (temporarily) adopted, I can stop, alter, or reconceive them. I cannot make such changes at my whim, but my part remains decisive in creating or destroying the sense of things.

Some feelings might have little to do but entertain; others, no doubt, facilitate the dexterity of manipulative activities, but some feelings are essential to the regulation of cognition in action. There are feelings of interpretation that frightening and melancholic exemplify. There are feelings of orientation, exemplified by striking, interesting, and haunting. Feelings of management are exemplified by confidence and uncertainty. And another would be feelings of instruction, such as the sense of mastery or adequacy, and the awareness that one has made a mistake, a misstep, or an omission.

There are feelings of interpretation which “frightening” and “melancholic” exemplify. There are feelings of orientation exemplified by “striking,” “interesting,” and “haunting.” Feelings of management are exemplified by “confidence” and “uncertainty.” And another would be feelings of instruction such as the sense of mastery or adequacy and the awareness that one has made a mistake (without knowing what the mistake is), a misstep, or an omission. No doubt a list like this could go on and its classifications would unquestionably be disputable; the classifications might appear arbitrary and their inclusions uncertain.

What is important is the recognition that there are roles and benefits of feelings, and the stronger implication, that there are feelings inextricably attached to our powers of initiation and control, functioning as signals, some to halt, to pause, to proceed, to attack. They are much like the feeling of inferential soundness without which mathematics and logic cannot be used by human beings.

We have a feeling of confidence when, for instance, we are asked to participate in a game of tennis or chess and we accept. The confidence is in our sense that we can play these games. Contrast that with how one would feel on accepting the invitation without knowing how to play, a deathly sense of uncertainty. This feeling is not only present throughout most of our activities in life, but is essential to our participation in them. One feels one’s competence and without it one does not go forward.

It may be that from time to time we must take deliberate stock of our achievements and potential, but in most cases we do not; instead, we feel or sense what we can do or reasonably attempt and what we cannot. Each of us can go on with the list; we might include knowledge of one’s trade or profession, or we might include our ability to gamble or trade in the stock market from an immediate sense of our capacity to stomach risk and loss. The feelings of confidence or uncertainty are not sense data, and nothing said about qualia seems to place them there either, but without them we would not be able to manage our lives.

The group of feelings I have called feelings of instruction are feelings that seem to instruct or guide us. Often I might have a feeling of uneasiness that something has to be taken care of and so I run over in my mind the many things that it might be. It is the feeling that provokes the thought, not the other way around. More important is the feeling that one is going right, that all is in order. In doing a proof in logic, in engineering my part of a communications satellite, in carrying on a conversation, there is something that continually assures me that I am proceeding aright. It is something often recognized more clearly in its absence than in its presence. Think of the feelings we experience as we attempt to follow a conversation in a language in which we are not fluent. Think of the similar experience of following a difficult line of reasoning.

The feeling that we are going the right way is not infallible, but it is frequently all we have to go on. We may or we may not at some time face a test which confirms or disconfirms our feeling. We constantly monitor our progress.

It is a sense of things, the demeanor of our conscious experience, which gives us instruction, but it is received through our feelings rather than through our intellect. In this, we have encountered a character of the mind that is altogether unsuited to modern science. I do not say that it is logically forbidden to science. What we can be sure of, however, is that the most promising techniques of contemporary science are in vain. Nothing along those lines will do because the natural metrics of feelings and information are incommensurable. Indeed, for the feelings and demeanors about which I have been thinking, no metric at all exists.

The Facts of the Matter

The sense of things, or feelings, I have argued, are not data. Still, there is something that makes our statements about feelings true. The truth of a statement about our sense of things derives from our sense of things at the time. Our sense of things, must be a datum, one that grounds the reports that we make.

The reasoning we have now bumped up against is compelling. It is compelling, but I think it is not correct. We may speak about our sense of things as no one else conceivably could, and yet we are not invariably reliable. We are the only authority but we are not, on any given occasion, the final authority. It is often open to us to revise our self-portrait according to how we and life develop. We do not often undertake a revision of our past, of course, but it sometimes happens that we do. Our feelings, while real, as mental life is real, are not irrefragable.

First, it seems correct to say that a feeling we honestly claimed to have in our adolescence was not what we took it to be at the time when it is evaluated again from middle age. A feeling of righteous indignation is later recast as youthful rebelliousness, or romantic love recast as libidinousness. We must resist the temptation to think that in such cases, and the others to follow, there is a fixed sensation that is given an interpretation and it is only the interpretation that changes. It must be resisted because it misrepresents our experience, which is of indignation or of romantic love, not a sensation plus an attribution of its cause or its object.

Other examples may depend upon an individual’s history, as when M thought he was shy because he was unattractive and later came to see—rightly or wrongly—that he was anxious over sexual contact. Here again, the “because” makes it seem as though there were the same sensation in both cases, fear, but differing ascriptions. This ignores the truth that one does not figure out in such cases what to attribute the fear to; it is worn on its face.

Second, any instance of self-deception that one acknowledges is a case in point. The case is one in which we take our feelings to have one sense at an earlier time and another sense at a later time, but the sense of them is not an intellectual overlay on an incorrigible set of sensations; it is what they are.

Third, our active vocabulary gives the appearance of exerting a limit, not only on what we say we feel, but upon what we can actually feel. The hauntingness of the piano and oboe depends upon the experience of a person and his vocabulary, and this for different reasons. Someone from another culture, having never heard music in this vein, might not describe its effect as haunting. Others might not use the term “haunting” because it is not one in their active vocabulary of feelings. Someone with a particularly pedestrian turn of mind might not accept it at all.

The character of feeling lies under influences from without, and yet a person who later falls under different influences is able to re-describe his former experience in a new way, believing that it was first felt that way but went unnoticed. It is not possible to sort this out systematically so as to settle the truth of it; it may have been then as it is now said to have been, or it may not.

And fourth, there are social or political prejudices that have restrictive effects. Some women who once saw and felt themselves to be deplorably aggressive now find that same feeling to be justifiably assertive, or who thought of themselves to have been femininely modest now see those same feelings as a fear of disapproval and a shameful lack of moxie. Not only has the moral stamp changed, but the sense of things, which each occasion’s description intimates, is changed.

Before undertaking to form suppositions concerning thinking and the brain, we must be as clear about what thinking is as we are about what the brain is. And however little we know about the brain, we are glumly certain that we know less, perhaps nothing at all, about our thoughts, feelings, and sensations. We can know nothing because they are not the sort of things that are knowable. Knowledge requires evidence or something to go on. About our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, there is nothing to go on.

It is possible to go one step further. One will never be forced to accept even the classification of a propositional attitude as it originally seemed. What seemed to be a belief might later be disavowed, not in content but in classification; one can legitimately say it was not a belief. I now say that about my childish belief in Santa Claus; I now say that it was not a belief. I say so on the grounds that a full elaboration of Santa Claus’s accomplishment on Christmas is preposterous. I cannot have understood what I was claiming to believe.

The tug of desire is not infrequently misplaced or misconstrued. I sometimes have interpretive help from others, sometimes I figure it out myself, but what is important is that I later come to say and mean that I did not desire the thing I went after. It may turn out that I did not desire anything; I was only conforming my behavior to what was expected of me.

A common and not dishonest excuse we give to ourselves as well as to others is that we did not intend to do the thing we did do. One conclusion is that we did not intend what we intended. Someone will object to this, deploring the ambiguity; it is not that we did not have the intention that we had, rather that what we brought about was not what we expected, a misfire.

Indeed, this is another conclusion.

What is striking about such cases is that the precision we want in characterizing our intention is approachable and approached only after the intention has been formed. What I would have said at one time, no matter how fully detailed, is different from what I might say at a later time, because at a later time, I found out something I was not in possession of earlier. That something could be of many sorts, about an unforeseen development in the world, or about an unrealized characteristic of mine; I did not know the railing was weak, or I did not know that I lacked the courage (to jump into the stream, to speak up in a meeting).

The re-description can go so far as to withdraw altogether the intention. What I did, I did intentionally, voluntarily, but on reflection I cannot now claim to have had the intention I avowed. That I didn’t know what I was doing is not in every case disingenuous. I might report that I intended to resign from the contest, but to my surprise I found that pride would not let me. This sort of truth can be flushed out in a moment of discovery; for example, aiming at the time and opportunity to withdraw, I discover that I have let them slip by. Or, I announce my intention to go to the movies but tarry until it is too late to make the showing. Did I never intend or did I just forget? Or, I resolve to ask for a raise, go into the boss’s office with the intention of doing so, and then do not. Did I not know before I was too timid to ask? Are these changes or abandonments of a once well-formed intention?

Perhaps; perhaps not.

Certainty is not available, since there is no fact of the matter in the first place.

What is left is how we choose to describe what has happened in the most informative way possible. In one case, it is part of the story to say that I did have a certain intention that I did not carry out, but it is also informative, and makes a different point, to say that I could not have had the original intention, otherwise I would have carried it out; everything relevant fell within my power. Intentions are defined as what one will do if everything is in one’s power. In this case, I did not form a substitute, but simply found myself unable to act on the one I had initially established. The definition is violated, but no facts are changed.

To Get out of Bed

So far I have joined in the usual approach of treating deliberative or contemplative, and in that sense conscious, instances as paradigmatic. And yet they are neither the most common nor the best examples of human thought. We do not ordinarily call to mind the intentions, aspirations, beliefs, appraisals, or desires on which we are acting. To say that we are acting from this or that belief or with this or that intention is generally a reconstruction; perhaps they can be acknowledged only in a reconstruction.4

There would be, by reconstruction, countless beliefs connected to any action one would undertake, as well as many intentions, desires, doubts, and so forth. To say they are unconscious, as that term has come to be used, would suggest that these mental elements in action could be before our minds and are not. Not so. These mental doings are not open to scrutiny in their active role.

The question whether we know what we believe is unanswerable because there exists no relationship between the knower and the known upon which an answer might be based. The beliefs and desires that we may avow or assent to are relevant only to the occasion of avowal or assent. They do not retain a formal identity that keeps them intact forever. A formal identity would involve not only the specific expression of a belief or desire in propositional form, but also the variety of implications and associations, other beliefs, doubts, speculations, counterfactuals, sub-intentions, super-intentions (tactics, plans), wishes, hopes, and fears, that in some way or other may be relevant to the authentication and clarification of one’s understanding of and purpose in acting.

How many things do we have to believe in order to get out of bed in the morning? A brief but hardly exhaustive list: that it is morning, that the clock is right, that we are well enough to arise, that dawn is breaking, that the floor will hold, that our pajamas will come off, that our clothes fit, that we can move our limbs, that we can get to the kitchen, that we have a job to get to, that the car is in the garage, that the car will take us to work. And there are myriad subsets of beliefs about clothes, kitchens, floors, cars, and so forth. Intentions, too, come in a list. The intention to get up accompanies an intention to go to the bathroom, to have a cup of coffee, to drive the car, to get to work. A list of desires latticed in with beliefs and intentions is obviously at hand too.

Few of these mentalities actually come to one’s attention, and if they do, they are likely to have no importance in promoting or maintaining the activity of getting up in the morning. They would, however, have to be fitted together in logically appropriate ways in order for, say, the belief that it is time to arise be the belief that it is. There is a difference between the belief that it is time to rise, thinking it is Sunday, and the belief that it is time to rise, thinking that it is Monday.

Why is there a difference? Is not time to get up the same in both cases?

How indeed do we individuate beliefs and the other cognitive acts and dispositions? It is not that they are the bases of verbal expressions. For beliefs and the rest are not contemplated at all; they appear only in articulation. Even if we make a determined effort to bring a belief before the mind, we still do not know how to do it. A sentence presents itself, but the actual phrasing is affected by the purpose for which we bring it up. “I don't have to go to work today,” may be the only verbalized form of, “It is 6:30 a.m. and I arise at this hour. Today is a weekend day on which I do not have to work. I may remain in bed. I shall remain in bed.”

Is it then the same belief or a different one that I hold, depending upon the allied beliefs and conditions? We have no way to decide. There is no particular moment, phrasing, or association that is determinative, no objective standard or set of accepted criteria. What one answers is merely a function of one’s philosophical purpose.

To be more accurate we need to be more subtle. Beliefs come in degrees, desires in intensities and priorities, intentions in ranked hypotheticals. These conditionals are recognized in adjectives and adverbs: a firm belief and firmly believing versus a weak belief and something weakly believed; an overpowering desire or a thing strongly desired versus a faint desire or a thing slightly desired; a determined course (intention) versus a tentatively held plan (intention).

Thoughts and feelings come in demeanors or aspects, too. They are whimsical, speculative, vague, clever, cunning, cautious, unguarded, evasive, perceptive, criminal, gentle, sympathetic, wicked, lascivious, mordant, carnal, sanctimonious, acrimonious. There are adverbial modifiers that describe how thoughts and feelings are carried out, whether whimsically, speculatively, or vaguely.

We do not ordinarily imagine that we possess insight into the demeanors of our thoughts and feelings. A belief holder does not recognize—as a rule—that his belief is mad, irrational, or insupportable, yet such adjectives often belong to the belief’s correct description. How could I describe the belief someone says he has concerning alien beings from outer space or the possibility of channeling Genghis Khan other than to say it is incoherent? The possessor would not characterize his belief this way while holding it. People do not often acknowledge their cruelty, silliness, duplicity, or irascibility. These traits may be invisible to the moment and noticeable only with time, as a pattern of conduct emerges. Sometimes we have to wait for time and reflection to let us say with confidence what we fully thought and felt and therefore did.

What is the warrant that takes us from the mental occurrence of a belief or a desire to the proposition that expresses it? Since slight differences in word choice, grammar or even (natural) language will generate formal and informal differences of some significance, the need for exactitude seems both compelling and inescapably frustrated. From where could exactitude come, and upon what principles or evidence? From nowhere, and there are none, of course.

It may be thought that simple, context-free, belief statements cannot be expected to vary much. One’s belief that the Eiffel Tower is in Paris, is by itself not likely to have many different formulations. But if one were asked where the Eiffel Tower is, the answer that the Eiffel Tower is in Paris is not a statement of belief. It is the answer to a question. A very odd sort of conversation must be imagined in order that these words would constitute a statement of belief. Indeed, one may be able correctly to answer that question, as one is able in other instances to answer questions, without knowing what the Eiffel Tower is or, perhaps, where Paris may be. One might have answered, “I am not certain, but I think it is in Paris,” in which case the reply is not indicative of a belief, or at any rate not of the belief that the Eiffel Tower is in Paris. There is no warrant to insist that one rely on the basis of a belief to answer factual questions, or that the form of the belief mirrors the form of the factual sentence. Beliefs may not have simple forms.

At another end of a spectrum, one’s belief that organic life has evolved over several billion years on earth will be very sensitive to word choice, syntax, and sophistication. That I believe Darwinian evolution occurred tells us very little about what I actually believe; many details have to be spelled out and several questions raised and inquired into before the speaker or a hearer can have the slightest idea of what belief is being advanced.

What linguistic philosophy has taught us, at the very least, is that how and when one pronounces a proposition affects it as a representation of the belief, desire or intention of the speaker. And how a sentence serves the speaker is exactly what the philosophy of mind, unlike the philosophy of logic, is meant to determine. It must deal with what one does, in fact, think and not, primarily, with what one says one thinks.

There are no facts of consciousness that present themselves to us as data. I may now add that there are no particular occasions or types of inquiry that will expose the raw or pure cognitive thought or that will identify beyond possibility of revision the nature of one’s immediate feeling.

In discussing consciousness the examples that are easiest to think of, and the ones heretofore employed, are passive. It is the scene before us—whether it is the sound of an oboe or the brightness of purple—that attracts our commentary on the experience, but the more profound mental element of our lives is not one of witnessing but of doing; it is the power we have to act and to do. If initiation, management, supervision, and those properties authorized under felt judgments of inference or competence, uniquely distinguish the human (and animal) mind, then the brain is not the place to look for consciousness.

Visual Experiences

John Searle writes:

I am now looking at San Francisco Bay out of the upstairs study of my house in Berkeley. I see the city of Berkeley in the foreground, the Bay in the background, and on the distant horizon the city of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the hills of the Peninsula. In the immediate foreground, I also see the table on which I am working, the computer with its illuminated screen, various books and papers, and my dog, Tarski, sitting on the floor at my feet. This is a continuous visual experience and I can shift my attention at will. I can even shift my attention without shifting my eyes. I can focus my attention on different aspects of the scene.5

What is most conspicuous here is that Searle can shift his attention from one part of the scene to another and do so without even shifting his eyes. For this achievement, his language takes a first person form: “I can shift my attention at will”; “I can even shift my attention without shifting my eyes”; and “I can focus my attention on different aspects of the scene.”

The difficulty is this. We can follow him when he describes the scene as one that his visual sense takes in and processes experientially. We can follow him in citing the contents of his experiential ontology; they are about the Bay, the boats, the table, the computer, and the dog, Tarski.

But we are not told about the I can of the story.

Let us accept the validity of an assumption of a causal account of consciousness or of vision that places the responsibility for their existence with the neurophysiology of the brain. It is right that everything about the human mind belongs with the body and is entirely within our physical world.6 Let us assume that there are instrumentalities of vision in the brain that identify and locate the things in the world one sees; furthermore let us assume that there is another brain apparatus that causes attention to move; this apparatus works the machinery of attention.

But what works the machinery of the machinery?

Searle can focus not just his eyes but his attention. He can work the machinery with exquisite precision according to his will. That to which he shifts his attention, how long he lets it stay in one place, and, differently but more importantly, what he was looking for or hoped to notice in the scene he perused, fall outside the account he gives us. For every machine there is another machine, or there is none at all.

The question is a matter of how authority and control takes their material place in the being who perceives is not a matter for which we have a scientific vocabulary. The brain is always described, as its science necessarily dictates, as a device whose operations are marvelous but in which originality—that is, originality in which initiation, management, and supervision have a place—cannot be represented in the language of states and processes. Initiation, cannot now be said to exist, simply because no conceptual language supported by contemporary understanding exists in which to give it standing. Each stage of explanation immediately demands another.

There is a way to stop this regress, but it is intolerable. If the ability to shift attention without moving the eyes is caused by factors that are not intentional, then the regress stops with them. What could they be? Let us speculate that the factors derive from programs in the brain that direct attention much in the same way that programs direct eye movement to follow a moving light or cause flinching when an object approaches the eye. It would no longer be scientifically correct to say that I can even shift my attention without shifting my eyes. The “I can” drops out completely. The consequence is to eviscerate the language as well as the understanding we imagine having in our experience of the world. What has been in need of a philosophical account—for example, the sadness of the oboe or our understanding of visionary experience—ceases to have meaning.

We are left in a mechanical world, from which we, too, must be removed.

As things stand, the theory that human beings function according to causal laws relating input to output with intervening brain states and processes not only suggests that the usual terms of human psychology are empty but every word in the language is empty, too. The implication is that our impression of comprehension, intention, belief, desire, feeling and so forth, the whole panoply of human consciousness, is not correct as we think it is; thought does not initiate and control our actions, but instead stands as a name for a further set of phenomena that are as open to diagnosis and biological interpretation as belching or sweating.

In this theory, language itself exists only as sounds and marks, sometimes stimulating immediate or delayed responses and sometimes not. It follows that no language exists. Actions as they are now described do not exist either; there are only bodily movements. What we make of them, those movements, is itself just another phenomenon, one that does not have a right to any claim of intelligibility according to our conscious experience, for that experience as it affects our behavior is a contrivance of the millions of years that fortuitously created the modules of a successful brain.

It is, of course, a paradoxical theory in that as soon as it is accepted it destroys the idea of initiation of action or of thought and therefore of acceptance itself.


We do not know how to put classificatory limitations on what the mind is or does. “What it does,” is an unfortunate phrase, since it is me. I can discern no elemental partitions, measure no process by scale or clock, but I can, as we all can, recognize what urges, inferences, and constraints are often at work. If I now think back on my conscious life, I think of myself as crowded round by judgments and impulses, but they are not a scene before me. The judgments are mine, together with long-standing plans, with momentary whims or caprices, and with the execution of obligations and routines of that day or moment. I am a babble of activities within judgments and moods. What I do at one moment may be a continuation of what I have undertaken months or weeks as well as minutes before. I am full of motivations, some providing benefits immediately, some providing long range benefits, some relating to duties I accept, or rules of law I acknowledge, some involving affections of friends and of family, and some quite odd that I do not see the source of.

These press upon me inarticulately and the place where they are is where such things are felt. Once more the sense of passivity emerges with the expression “press upon me”; it is not some other person or some non-personal being that is pressing a case.

My sense of myself is of authority, not only to select among the possible but to propose what is suitable and to act on it, but also to interrupt myself after beginning to act on it. If I become angry and say something rude or do something violent, or say or do something that I later regret, I am at all times authoritative. The sense of authority extends throughout my consciousness, and my consciousness is much more extensive than that which I can say or report that I feel.

It is me. That is the way I am.

The Digger’s Pleasure

Gilbert Ryle acknowledges feelings such as agitations, tinglings, flutterings, transports of surprise, burnings, feelings of boredom or a lump in the throat, which we know in the first person. What is not feeling, he treats in the third person, usually as what one would mean by ascribing an emotion or a motivation to someone. In discussing pleasure, he says that to say a person has been enjoying digging

is not to say that he has been both digging and doing or experiencing something else as a concomitant or effect of the digging; it is to say that he dug with his whole heart in his task, i.e., that he dug, wanting to dig and not wanting to do anything else (or nothing) instead. His digging was a propensity-fulfillment. His digging was his pleasure, and not a vehicle of his pleasure.7

Ryle’s purpose is to supply an alternative way of speaking of pleasure. His remedy is not unhelpful. But the complexities of consciousness also bear upon the story of pleasurable digging. At the initiation of the undertaking, somewhere back before the digger found himself in the garden, he had a mind, conscious insofar as his cogitations can be assigned no other mental condition, in which many alternative actions pulled at him, many advantages or this and disadvantages of that, of desires to become or to escape a way of living the next hour, were calls that he made and heard.

Let us call him Joshua. He needs some exercise. He would like some air and sunshine. Digging is not interesting to him, but, rather than doing nothing, doing something is. His senses brought the day, its light, its smells, its warmth, its presence, to him seductively, but he was not unaware that he had other obligations to satisfy, which for this, digging would have to wait.

I wish to notice and then make clear that he is not in the position of Buridan’s ass; the appeals and imperatives that pierce him through are never paralyzing. Joshua will begin digging, but he will stop digging too. When he stops may be determined by fatigue, boredom, or the claim of an obligation temporarily put off.

No one ever digs with all his heart.

And should we pay no attention at all to the minor details? When Joshua digs, he grips his shovel in a certain way that he may have thought—or may not have thought—was appropriate for digging this assumed soft dirt, and learning that the dirt was harder than anticipated, changed his grip. It is exceedingly trivial to mention his hold on the shovel, but after all he is not programmed—as a welding robot is programmed to weld—to grip the shovel at all, much less to grip it in a certain way; therefore, he had to decide, trivially, on how to hold the implement. Innumerable details now come to my mind that Joshua was and had to be in control of in order to proceed. He took just so many steps; he paused to tuck in his shirt; he looked at the sky; he paid attention to the strain in his muscle lifting heavy dirt in his long shovel; he smelled the air. He called out and asked for lunch; he apologized for taking the time away from reading to his daughter; he looked at his wife, spoke to her, and listened to her speech; he wondered about his job, his baseball team, his heart rate; he speculated on his chances for a promotion, and then he gave up the digging for the rest of the day so as to read to his daughter so that he would finish reading to her early enough to call Dmitry before dinner who was to have finished a report that he needed. The presence, but not the contemplation (which is a rare enterprise), of these and many other motivations, obligations, distractions, filled Joshua’s mind without cluttering it up unnaturally.

And I have barely touched on what it is like to be Joshua. He recited fragments of poems, sang in his mind—there perfectly in tune—bits and snatches of songs; regrets passed his mind; the angles of his desk at work cut into his abdomen. We must not think all these thoughts are inherently idle; most are passing but they need not be. A regret may become so strong that Joshua will make a telephone call within the hour to make amends, or he might be reminded, as jingles are supposed to, that he must buy some aspirin, if not today then tomorrow. Many of those promptings, urges, and needs arise from remembering or even from comparisons; or they simply arise and are accepted or dismissed.

I have again succumbed to the passive voice. Joshua did not look over his thoughts as he might a dessert tray. He is in the tangle. And no, tangle too is wrong. The mind is his as it is. He has no grounds for complaint or for congratulations; it is not unusual today or less manageable.

There is no locution that suits the task of making Joshua’s consciousness accessible in my words. I have tried to show that his actions are of all kinds, which he initiates and in most cases, manages or supervises as the undertaking goes along. But it is quite impossible to characterize consciousness without making it seem that someone is observing from the inside what goes on in Joshua’s mind.

Not even Joshua can do that.

It would be good if we could describe the mind in flight, but we cannot. But characterizing what goes on in a person’s mind is the beginning point, the minimal beginning point, for any progress in brain science, or the philosophy of mind. If we cannot succeed in providing a good—not necessarily a perfect—characterization of consciousness, then we cannot succeed in what philosophers and scientists wish to account for, either in saying what consciousness is or in determining what biological machinery produces it. In order to progress to a science of mind, we must have descriptive, preferably quantitative, access to the mentalities. We do not have that access. The mentalities of thinking and feeling are themselves never before the mind.

Are we then left with an imponderable mystery forever? The answer is yes. But the answer is yes only until we have another plane that science and philosophy might reach. On the assumption that intelligence is not limited by our present imagination, an explanation is not and can never be banished in prospect.

But if not forever, right now the mystery is imponderable.

  1. David Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 6.
  2. David Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 7.
  3. David Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 9.
  4. It is in the nature of human intercourse, except in philosophy, that asking such questions is rarely idle. Instead they are aimed at something; thus, “Do you go into this venture expecting to make a profit?” but not, “Do you go into this venture believing it to be a land investment?” when it is a land investment about which no doubt or warning is raised.
  5. John Searle, Seeing Things As They Are: A Theory of Perception (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 53.
  6. “All intentional states, without exception, are caused by brain processes and realized in the brain.” John Searle, Seeing Things As They Are: A Theory of Perception (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 34.
  7. Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 108.

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