X-Message-Number: 27647
From: <>
Subject: consciousness debate
Date: Wed, 22 Feb 2006 20:46:33 +0100

I've been following the consciousness debate between 
"patternists" and materialists with some interest. I would 
like to point out that there has been little distinction 
between the different categories of consciousness: i.e. 
subconsciousness, self-consciousness. 

It is my contention that all living beings are conscious 
in the sense that they are aware of sensation. The 
following link will take you to a good article by 
philosopher Maxine Sheets-Johnstone on consciousness, 
which explains my claim above and includes some criticism 
of Searle, Nagel, and Dennett. 

(David Chalmers has a good site with lots of links to 
essays on consciousness http://consc.net/chalmers/)

Self-consciousness is a little more complex than 
consciousness, and seems to be most sophisticated in our 
species. I believe that the current argument is about this 
matter, rather than consciousness generally. What follows 
in my take on self-consciousness. Below I argue that 
self-consciousness requires a living body (not just a 
brain hooked to a computer), and a social group (at least 
in the formative years).

The self begins with bodily awareness 

Awareness of oneself arises initially from the template of 
the lived human body that feels and moves - the 
tactile-kinesthetic body. All unimpaired human bodies are 
capable of some basic, uniform faculties, like suckling, 
eating, breathing, walking, noise-making, etc., and so 
humans are aware of their abilities: "I can suckle", "I 
can eat", etc. Such awareness is latent in bodily acts. I 
do not need to look in the mirror to know that I am 
opening my mouth, but I do need to look at others to see 
if they are. This awareness of ?I can,? is the threshold 
of self awareness. ?Consciousness is in the first place 
not a matter of ?I think that,? but ?I can"." 
(Merleau-Ponty, 1962, p429).

 From this template of bodily "I cans", concepts are 
mentally formed and linguistically, ritually, or 
artistically developed and shared. For example: from 
eating comes the awareness of grinding/mashing food down, 
along with the necessary awareness of softness (lips, 
tongue, some food) and of hardness (teeth, some food). The 
hard teeth have their own properties like edges, 
bluntness, irregularity, etc. Because of this 
tactile-kinesthetic awareness, when early hominini ate 
they were also aware of hard food becoming soft mush and 
were thus on the threshold of understanding a concept of 
transformation. (Sheets-Johnstone, 1990, p29). Basic 
concepts like this developed through increasingly abstract 
thinking and communicating with others. 

The self requires others like oneself 

Infants initially encounter others as animate beings with 
a substantial, moving presence that can be sensed and 
explored on the surface, looked at face to face, warmed-up 
against, or fed from. The child becomes aware of its 
individuality through corporeal interaction, by noticing 
physical separateness, differences vis- -vis others, and 
awareness of private subjectivity. This self-awareness is 
increasingly structured by an autobiographical memory as 
the individual ages. With maturity, the body remains the 
medium by which relations between people in the group are 
established through the perception of intentional being. 
Language comes from the mouth, expressions are on faces, 
touchings have different characters, proximity and 
movement have their meanings and purposes. The individual 
self is further delineated by others through forms of 
identification like naming, placing the individual in a 
shared cultural world-view, and through significant modes 
of socialization like gender, and self esteem. 

Mental Being 

This dynamic illustrates that, in the case of human 
beings, cultural groups are fundamental units of social 
organization from which a sophisticated self concept and 
sense of consciousness emerges. This concept of self is 
built on the awareness of animate and intentional being, 
which in turn enables the understanding of other humans as 
mental beings - beings who are understood to have a 
consciousness like one's own (con-scious = to know with). 
Though we can easily understand mental being as we mature 
within a modern culture, this awareness was not fully 
formed in the rudimentary cultures of the prehistory 
before Homo sapiens sapiens. This understanding of mental 
being is probably a survival adaptation - in understanding 
mentality, an individual could not only recognize and 
predict the behavior of others through awareness of 
animate and intentional being, but s/he could become adept 
at manipulating the thoughts and feelings of others so as 
to have a greater influence over them. As Nietzsche (1887) 
put it: 

"Consciousness is really only a net of communication 
between human beings; it is only as such that it had to 
develop; a solitary human being who lived like a beast of 
prey would not have needed it. That our actions, thoughts, 
feelings, and movements enter our own consciousness - at 
least a part of them - that is the result of a "must" that 
for a terribly long time lorded it over man. As the most 
endangered animal, he needed help and protection, he 
needed his peers, he had to learn to express his distress 
and to make himself understood; and for all of this he 
needed "consciousness" first of all, he needed to "know" 
himself what distressed him, he needed to "know" how he 
felt, he needed to "know" what he thought." 

This would provide a great motivation to express oneself 
beyond body language and physical interventions, probably 
influencing the development of language and art. 

Consciousness allows humans to learn from each other, from 
the past, and to plan for the future. Being thusly aware, 
we can also imagine new things and turn them into reality, 
being truly creative and changing the physical world to 
meet our desires (Solomon, et al., in press). 

The self is finite 

In order to survive, social animals would be in a better 
position to help each other by perceiving strangeness in 
their conspecifics. This strangeness is defined by a lack 
or limit in another individual who is basically the same 
as oneself. At its most extreme, strangeness is defined by 
a stillness and a silence that is more strange than 
illness or injury: before the living observers is a body 
without the animation, sociality, or mentality that 
partially constitute hominini self-awareness. The still, 
silent body evokes a feeling of the absence of self in 
another - far beyond the temporary absence of sleep or 
unconsciousness. Because the self is perceived to be 
absent in the strange body, there is a reduced sense of 
self in the living observer, similar to the experience of 
abandonment, of aloneness. The absent self that 
characterizes a dead body becomes something of the past, 
never again to be present in togetherness - the dead 
silently rot and fade. Unique and individual life is thus 
perceived to end for others and, by the process of 
analogy, understood to end for ones self - who is just 
like the others that have died (Sheets-Johnstone, 1990, 

Thus the concept of "self" arose from bodily awareness and 
physical individuation within a group of alike others who 
understand each other as mental beings that exist with the 
same tactile-kinesthetic uniformities as oneself has, 
meaning that consciousness is recognized in others 
analogically. The concept of death is the limit of this 
concept of self, enabling humans to be aware that one's 
self is finite and will one day be perceived as absent and 
lost for others in the strange event of bodily stillness 
and silence that we call death. 

Death is thus a human concept which describes an 
inevitable event for all living things, which is absolute 
(no-one has ever returned from death), universal (everyone 
dies), and personal (I will die). For this conceptual 
insight to continue in human history, primitive humans had 
to transmit the concept of death to future generations 
(Tomasello, 2003, p4). Since then, it has been necessary 
for cultures to deny the possibility of Oblivion implied 
by the death concept. This is due to the experience of 
death anxiety engendered by self consciousness and self 

The full, penultimate draft of the article can be read 


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