Mind is the most fundamental yet enigmatic layer of a being. Arthur Schopenhauer, describing Kantian philosophy’s relation to Christianity, may have described the human being’s relation to his or her own mind: “a man who at a ball has been flirting the whole evening with a masked beauty, in hopes of making a conquest; till at last, throwing off her disguise, she reveals herself—as his wife” (Basis 105). Intimate yet occulted by proximity, mind and consciousness have seemed largely beyond understanding; some have altogether “ignored the phenomena … [as] inappropriate for empirical investigation” (Salamone n.p.). Far from inappropriate, however, Thomas Nagel suggests that mind and consciousness may be simply incompatible with materialist and new-Darwinian paradigms. Ultimately, “existence presents us with the fact that somehow the world generates conscious beings … We don’t know how this happens, but it is hard not to believe that there is some explanation” (Nagel Mind 31).
Despite the ticklishness of the subject, there are some points upon which most parties agree. The Journal of Medicine and Life defines consciousness as “the function of the human mind that receives and processes information, crystallizes it and then stores it or rejects it” (Vithoulkas & Muresanu n.p.). Yet this tentative definition amounts to only part of the conundrum. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes mind and consciousness from three angles: description, “What is consciousness”; explanation, “How does consciousness of the relevant sort exist?”; and function, “Why does consciousness of the relevant sort exist?” (Gulick n.p.). To address these three questions, one may consider the work of Arthur Schopenhauer, Julian Jaynes, and Thomas Metzinger. Together, these three intellectuals, ranging across two centuries, provide a strong framework within which to articulate a description, explanation, and function of the human mind.
Arthur Schopenhauer — The World as Will and Representation
In his 1851 Parerga and Paralipomena, Schopenhauer names the animating force behind the world and the human mind: will, blind in nature, deliberate in human action. In his Confession, Leo Tolstoy summarizes Schopenhauer’s view: “where there is no will … there is no universe. The only thing that remains before us is … nothingness. But the thing that opposes this passage into nothingness is … our own will to live … by which we are constituted, as is our universe.” Thus, “the fact that we are so frightened of nothingness, or that we long so to live only signifies that we ourselves are merely this desire to live, and that we know nothing except this desire” (Tolstoy 43-44).
As subsets of a universe striving for life, human consciousness is part of this endeavor. The conscious being facilitates this striving through representation, “a very complicated physiological occurrence in an animal’s brain, whose result is the consciousness of a picture or image at that very spot” (World vol. 2 191). Representations are constructed “from the meagre data supplied by our senses … immediately and automatically” rendered into “a mental picture of the external world in all its variegated wealth of detail” (World vol. 1 vi). Though representations are constructed from real sense data, the external world remains entirely beyond human senses. Due to the reductive nature of representation, the external world “must be by its whole nature completely and fundamentally different from the representation; and so the forms and laws of the representation must be wholly foreign to it” (99).
Thus, for Schopenhauer, all representations derive themselves from this ceaseless drive to life, without which human life amounts to an absolute zero. Tolstoy’s summary of Schopenhauer elucidates a fundamental principle of the latter’s worldview: “upon the complete annihilation of the will, all that remains … is … nothingness.” Even so, “for those in whom the will has been transformed and renounced, this universe of ours which is so real, with all its suns and galaxies, is itself nothing” (Tolstoy 44).
Julian Jaynes — The Bicameral Mind
In 1977, Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes, in On the Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, theorized that “consciousness did not arise far back in human evolution but is a learned process based on metaphorical language.” Although modern humans process their conscious thoughts through internal dialogue, “prior to the development of consciousness … people experienced auditory hallucinations directing their actions.” These voices were often personified as divine beings or authority figures, considered separate from the human subject. These two “chambers,” the subject and his or her hallucination, constitute the bicameral mind (“Overview” n.p.).
The subject experiencing these auditory hallucinations encodes behavioral and mental patterns. This patterned side of the mind “is built up with a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world … allow[ing] us to shortcut behavioral processes and arrive at more adequate decisions” (Jaynes 55). The other “chamber” of the mind, the external voice, adapts the subject to anomalous circumstances. This adaptive function operates by executing “one's thinking before one knows what one is to think about. … Thinking, then, is not conscious” but “automatic” (39).
Jaynes suggests that “at different times in other parts of the world” (“Overview” n.p.), with the corpus collosum facilitating information flow between both hemispheres of the brain, the bicameral mind collapsed into a singular unit (Jaynes 104). By analogy, when people drive to work, they unconsciously execute tested patterns of thought and behavior, driving on “automatic,” so to speak. When individuals encounter an unusual circumstance, such as a wreck on the highway, their minds analyze the situation and produce new patterns in response. For the ancient bicameral person, this adaptive function was like a narrator prompting a character.
Thomas Metzinger — A Virtual Agent in a Virtual World
According to the Salem Encyclopedia of Health, “Jean Piaget … viewed consciousness as central to psychological study” and “sought to find ways to make its study scientific” (Salamone n.p.). In this vein, contemporary philosopher Thomas Metzinger weds science and philosophy in his self-model theory of subjectivity, centered on the phenomenal self-model (PSM).
Similar to Schopenhauer, Metzinger describes consciousness as a “tunnel.” Because the contents of consciousness represent “extremely selective … information,” one experiences through sensory data only “a small fraction of what actually exists out there … a low-dimensional projection of the inconceivably richer physical reality surrounding and sustaining us.” Metzinger suggests that human senses are limited because they were evolved “for reasons of survival,” distilling an essential picture of reality most relevant to that task; thus “conscious experience is not so much an image of reality as a tunnel through reality” (Metzinger 6).
In this matrix, the PSM or “ego” is a selection of “your bodily sensations, your emotional state, your perceptions, memories, acts of will, thoughts.” The PSM and the “ego-tunnel” in which it resides are “transparent,” in that they are the unnoticed medium through which the human subject experiences the world. The purpose of consciousness and its contents is to serve as “a tool for controlling and planning your behavior and for understanding the behavior of others. Whenever the organism needs this tool, the brain activates a PSM. If—as, for instance, in dreamless deep sleep—the tool is not needed anymore, it is turned off” (8).
Unlike Schopenhauer, Metzinger does not deny one’s ability to detect the transparency of a particular world model or PSM; even so, “in moving through this world, we constantly apply unconscious filter mechanisms” to “construct our own individual world, … see[ing] only what our reality tunnel allows us to see” (9). Evolved for the purpose of further adapting to variable environments, “the conscious experience of being a subject arises when a single organism learns to enslave itself” (106).
According to Nagel, human consciousness is “what it is like” to be human (“What” n.p.). Paradoxically nebulous yet to the point, this axiom may be all that can be said. However, the meta-cognitive capacity to detect a world “beyond” one’s senses may signal a coming revolution.
One may compare human meta-cognition to Zeuxis and Parrhasius, who competed to see who could paint the most believable piece. Zeuxis painted grapes so realistic that birds attempted to eat them, but Parrhasius outdid him. Zeuxis asked Parrhasius to remove the veil apparently covering his work—only to realize the veil was in fact Parrhasius’ painting (Hernandez n.p.). Similarly, if human beings can only detect that the contents of their minds are so many painted veils and masked beauties, this intimation may yet reveal the deeper layers of what it means to be a self in the world.
Gulick, Robert Van. “Consciousness.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 14 Jan. 2014, plato.stanford.edu/entries/consciousness/. Web 26 Oct 2018.
Hernandez, Alicia. “Zeuxis and Parrhasius.” Archaeologies of the Greek Past, Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World, www.brown.edu/Departments/Joukowsky_Institute/courses/greekpast/4891.html. Web. 26 Oct 2018.
Jaynes, Julian. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Mariner Books, 2000.
Metzinger, Thomas. The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self. Basic Books, 2009.
Nagel, Thomas. Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. Oxford University Press, 2012.
Nagel, Thomas. “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” The Philosophical Review, LXXXIII, no. 4, Oct. 1974, pp. 435–450.
“Overview of Julian Jaynes's Theory.” Julian Jaynes Society, Julian Jaynes Society, www.julianjaynes.org/julian-jaynes-theory-overview.php. Web. 26 Oct 2018.
Salamone, Frank A. “Consciousness.” Salem Press Encyclopedia of Health, 2013. EBSCOhost, lsproxy.austincc.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.lsproxy.austincc.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ers&AN=93787487&site=eds-live&scope=site. Web. 25 Oct 2018.
Schopenhauer, Arthur. The Basis of Morality. Translated by Arthur Brodrick Bullock, Swan Sonnenschein & Co., Ltd., 1903. Internet Archive, archive.org/details/basisofmorality00schoiala/page/n3. Web. 25 Oct 2018.
Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation. Translated by E.F.J. Payne, vols. 1 & 2, Dover Publications, Inc., 1969.
Tolstoy, Leo. Confession. Translated by David Patterson, W.W. Norton & Company, 1983.
Vithoulkas, G., and D.F. Muresanu. “Conscience and Consciousness: A Definition.” Journal of Medicine and Life, Carol Davila University Press, 15 Mar. 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3956087/. Web. 26 Oct 2018.
Image Credit: Emblem (1613), by an unknown master active in the Netherlands in the 1610s.