What is Consciousness? (Part Five)

If you've read the previous Parts of this article then what appears below might be blindingly obvious. Maybe. I don't know.

First, a quick recap. I described consciousness thus:

Consciousness is the transcription of just-past actions (either mental or physical) into the narrative that is used to fashion the model of self.

I then described an analogy by which we can imagine this process taking place. First, picture a large sheet of paper, most of which is softly illuminated. This represents all the sensing and recalling that your brain is doing. Then imagine a brighter spot with fuzzy edges somewhere on that paper. That represents what your consciousness is transcribing.

It is important to realize that this is just an analogy. There is nothing shining a light, either literally or figuratively. If instead we use a negative image, swapping light for dark, the analogy is still valid — sometimes more so. Another alternative analogy pictures a calm pond instead of a sheet of paper, disturbed water instead of soft illumination, and agitated water instead of the spotlight. Be that as it may, I'll be referring to the light-based analogy below, starting with this explanation:

The spotlight represents the figurative “place” in all current sensation and recollection where the attention rests at a given moment.

Now let's map certain mental phenomena to the analogy. You may not agree with my choice of words in some cases, and indeed I might adjust the terminology later, but that's okay. The words are merely labels; it is the variety of phenomena we can represent that's actually important.

Focus:  How sharp are the edges of the spotlight? If they are fuzzy, it means the attention is wandering slightly. If it is sharp, the attention is unwavering.

Concentration:  How small is the spotlight? Is the attention zoomed in on one tiny aspect of the backdrop of current sensation and recollection? Or is it wide, taking in a broader span at a lower level of detail?

Single-mindedness:  Highly focused, very concentrated. The spotlight is tiny — a single point, perhaps — and has sharp edges. One can imagine the spotlight being this way if, for example, somebody was attempting to solve a Rubik's Cube and was ignoring all distractions.

Will:  How persistent is the spotlight at maintaining a particular position? If it is deflected, how likely is it to return to that place?  (Please note that here we begin to see a flaw in depicting the backdrop as a two-dimensional plane. It's convenient, yes, but it's also awkward or misleading to depict the collosal variety of mental content in such a simple manner.)

Free Will:  Some readers may be wondering about this now. Do we have Free Will, or not? I do not think the question can be made coherent enough to deserve an answer. I say that Free Will is a red herring. (“A red herring” means a distraction from the truth due to a misguided premise.) In my opinion, humans are both deterministic and free.

We are deterministic in the sense that our brains operate according to the laws of physics — whether or not quantum effects play a part — so we are creatures constrained by standard physical phenomena such as matter-energy, spacetime and gravity. Our sole metaphysical aspect is information. (I find the words “soul” and "spirit" useful in some contexts, but not here.)

We feel free because we are entropic, following time's arrow, and cannot always predict our own actions. We feel free because our action emerges from a vast territory of permutation which is probably more free (that is, wide-open and huge) than most people can even imagine.

Perhaps I'll write more about this one day. For now, please do not think of mental determinism in terms of billiard balls. Rather, think about fractals, or the Three Body Problem in physics, or chaos theory (particularly as it overlaps with cybernetics). We are expressions of the entire universe, so what difference does it make if we are deterministic?

Multitasking: There are two kinds of multitasking: true parallel and quick-switching serial. The former could be accompanied by a wide, fuzzy spotlight, while the latter would be accompanied by the spotlight jumping between several points on the backdrop. Recall, though, that we are talking about consciousness. In parallel processing some or even most of the cognition will not be conscious. For example, you might be driving your car to work — a familiar task requiring little attention — and also listening to music.

Creativity:  This is interesting: the spotlight suddenly jumps to a new place for no clearly understandable reason. Lo and behold, an entire construct is already there. The consciousness didn't even seem to have any involvement in this case. (I'm guessing that control freaks are less creative than most people; they want to manage the process of leaping into the unknown!)

Worry:  The spotlight remains in the same place for a long time. This may seem like “Will”, and in a sense it is. Alas, here we find yet another problem with the spotlight analogy: it can't depict a process feeding upon itself. A person who is worrying is cycling, cycling, cycling, and some of that activity involves the despair of knowing that the cycling is going on.

Egotism: The spotlight spends a lot of time on certain areas of the sheet! (Here again the spotlight analogy has problems. In this instance we are assuming that certain points on the sheet correspond to particular concepts.)

Okay, that's all I can write for now. It's late, I'm quite sleepy, and what I've written above could probably be more clear and contain fewer errors.

That reminds me. I once figured that if I ever wrote a book that people might debate over, I'd put the following sentence in the Preface:  “This book contains mistakes, at least one of which is delibberate.” That would make it hard to use the book as The Final Word in an argument!


  1. with regard to the words 'soul' and 'spirit', I think the first can be accurately replaced with empathy or empathising.
    Spirit I believe refers to the intrinsic tendency of self assertion and resistance to destruction which is exhibited by individual living things and by each species [perhaps better to say "as an emergent property" in relation to whole species].

    Perhaps another way, a behaviorist sort of way, to describe the real meaning of 'spirit' is something like: it is both the latent ability and the manifestation of the ability to respond to changes and contingencies of the environment with instinctive behaviours or learned behaviours motivated by basic instincts.

  2. Mark: “Spirit I believe refers to the intrinsic tendency of self assertion and resistance to destruction which is exhibited by individual living things...”

    Yes, I use the word that way, too, though I don't necessarily limit it to “living things.” The same asserting and resisting can be said of the creek that runs past my house. For millions of years it has been steadfastly carrying water downhill. People have recently attempted to divert it, but it keeps trying (and often succeeding) to go back to its original course.

    It might be mere poetry to call that “spirit,” but that creek sure does persist in being a creek.