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What is consciousness?

By Ted Honderich

The philosopher Descartes set out to escape doubt and find certainties. From the premise that he was thinking, even if falsely, he argued (to what he took to be the certain conclusion) that he existed. Cogito ergo sum. He is also well known for concluding that consciousness is not physical. Your present consciousness is not an objective physical fact. It has a nature quite unlike that of the chair you are sitting on. Your consciousness is different in kind from objectively physical neural states and events in your head.

This mind-body dualism persists. It is not only a belief or attitude in religion or spirituality. It is concealed in standard cognitive science or computerism. The fundamental attraction of dualism is that we are convinced, since we have a hold on it, that consciousness is different. There really is a difference in kind between you and the chair you are sitting on, not a factitious difference.

But there is an awful difficulty. Consciousness has physical effects. Arms move because of desires, bullets come out of guns because of intentions. How could such indubitably physical events have causes that are not physical at all, for a start not in space?

Some philosophers used to accomodate the fact that movements have physical causes by saying conscious desires and intentions aren’t themselves causal but they go along with brain events. Epiphenomenalism is true. Conscious beliefs themselves do not explain your stepping out of the way of joggers. But epiphenomenalism is now believed only in remote parts of Australia, where the sun is very hot. I know only one epiphenomenalist in London, sometimes seen among the good atheists in Conway Hall.

A decent theory or analysis of consciousness will also have the recommendation of answering a clear question. It will proceed from an adequate initial clarification of a subject. The present great divergence in theories of consciousness is mainly owed to people talking about different things. Some include what others call the unconscious mind.

Crystal mind By Nevit Dilmen. CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
But there are also the criteria for a good theory. We have two already — a good theory will make consciousness different and it will make consciousness itself effective. In fact consciousness is to us not just different, but mysterious, more than elusive. It is such that philosopher Colin McGinn has said before now that we humans have no more chance of understanding it than a chimp has of doing quantum mechanics.

There’s a lot to the new theory of Actualism, starting with a clarification of ordinary consciousness in the primary or core sense as something called actual consciousness. Think along with me just of one good piece of the theory. Think of one part or side or group of elements of ordinary consciousness. Think of consciousness in ordinary perception — say seeing — as against consciousness in just thinking and wanting. Call it perceptual consciousness. What is it for you to be perceptually conscious now of the room you’re in? Being aware of it, not thinking about it or something in it? Well, it’s not some internal thing about you. It’s for a room to exist.

It’s for a piece of a subjective physical world to exist out there in space — your space. That is something dependent both on the objective physical world out there and on you neurally. A subjective physical world’s dependence on something in you, of course, doesn’t take it out of space out there or deprive it of other counterparts of the characteristics you can assemble of the objective physical world. What is actual with perceptual consciousness is not a representation of a world — stuff called sense data or qualia or mental paint — whatever is the case with cognitive and affective consciousness.

That’s just a good start on Actualism. It makes consciousness different. It doesn’t reduce consciousness to something that has no effects. It also involves a large fact of subjectivity, indeed of what you can call individuality or personal identity, even living a life. One more criterion of a good theory is naturalism — being true to science. It is also philosophy, which is greater concentration on the logic of ordinary intelligence, thinking about facts rather than getting them. Actualism also helps a little with human standing, that motive of believers in free will as against determinism.

Ted Honderich is Grote Professor Emeritus of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at University College London. He edited The Oxford Companion to Philosophy and has written about determinism and freedom, social ends and political means, and even himself in Philosopher: A Kind of Life. He recently published Actual Consciousness.

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Recent Comments

  1. Kevin Denny

    The temperature of the sun does not depend on where you observe it from :)

  2. guy baker

    It is high time the scientific “community” accepted other realities and possibilities AND accepted interaction with such.

    A dominant challenge in the consciousness exploration is the ego and self-worship, and not so much instrument-worship.

    Here is a very different perspective on Consciousness – My Self, My Soul by James Debar worth a look:


  3. Peter Reeve

    This is one of the worst pieces I have ever read on the subject of consciousness. Apart from the poor editing (for example, “What is it for you to perceptually conscious now, as we say…?” Well, I don’t say) the ideas expressed are ludicrously unsound.

    He begins by confusing two different things – mind and consciousness. Last night I slept soundly and was without consciousness for about six hours, but my brain was functioning throughout, and my mind did not cease to exist. It’s just that all of the mental activity was unconscious. As illustration of where such confusion can lead, Honderich cites the idea that “consciousness is different in kind from objectively physical neural states and events” as an example of “mind-body dualism”. It is no such thing. Consciousness is subjectivity (the subjective component or aspect of an event) and is certainly “different in kind” (more accurately, has a different ontological status) from the objective reality of which it is conscious.

    Descartes propounded Substance Dualism, the idea that mind and body are two separate, independent substances. That’s what is normally meant by “mind-body dualism”. That this has nothing to do with consciousness can be seen from the fact that the dualism would persist even during periods of unconsciousness. It may be consciousness of our mental activity that tempts us to believe in dualism, but it is mind-body, not consciousness-body dualism.

    Having thus revealed his own confusion, Honderich has the nerve to say, “A decent theory…of consciousness will…proceed from an adequate initial clarification of a subject. The present great divergence in theories of consciousness is mainly owed to people talking about different things.” Indeed it is. But lumping those things together and talking about them as if they were all the same thing won’t help. It is a good old-fashioned category mistake. Mind, brain and consciousness are different things, and are different kinds of things. Establishing the true ontological status of each is essential to a solution of the problem

    We are then told that “a good theory will make consciousness different and it will make consciousness itself effective”. “…make consciousness different”? What in blue blazes is that supposed to mean? And making the assumption that consciousness has to be effective is not a good start. His attempt to dismiss Epiphenomenalism with a painful attempt at humour is not good enough.

    The final three paragraphs are a hopeless mess, as he attempts to introduce us to “the new theory of Actualism”. He says, “…for you to perceptually conscious [he appears to have a real problem with the word “be”] now…of the room you’re in [is]…for a room to exist. It’s for a piece of a subjective [sic] physical world to exist out there…That is something dependent both on the objective physical world …and also on you neurally.” As far as I can make sense of that, he seems to be trying to say that for one to become conscious of an objectively real object, that object has to actually exist and one has to become aware of it. Well, that’s worth writing a book about.

    Did this man really edit The Oxford Companion to Philosophy?

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