Consciousness is a central concern to philosophers who specialize in the philosophy of mind. A new paper, on which the excerpt below is based, challenges our beliefs about the meaning of consciousness:
"Everyone knows what it feels like to have consciousness: it’s that self-evident sense of personal awareness, which gives us a feeling of ownership and control over the thoughts, emotions and experiences that we have every day. Most experts think that consciousness can be divided into two parts: the experience of consciousness (or personal awareness), and the contents of consciousness, which include things such as thoughts, beliefs, sensations, perceptions, intentions, memories and emotions. It’s easy to assume that these contents of consciousness are somehow chosen, caused or controlled by our personal awareness – after all, thoughts don’t exist until until we think them.
"But ... [we] suggest that our personal awareness does not create, cause or choose our beliefs, feelings or perceptions. Instead, the contents of consciousness are generated 'behind the scenes' by fast, efficient, non-conscious systems in our brains. All this happens without any interference from our personal awareness, which sits passively in the passenger seat while these processes occur. Put simply, we don’t consciously choose our thoughts or our feelings – we become aware of them.
"If this sounds strange, consider how effortlessly we regain consciousness each morning after losing it the night before; how thoughts and emotions – welcome or otherwise – arrive already formed in our minds; how the colours and shapes we see are constructed into meaningful objects or memorable faces without any effort or input from our conscious mind. ...
"[A]s a passive accompaniment to non-conscious processes, we don't think that the phenomenon of personal awareness [the experience of consciousness] has a purpose, in much the same way that rainbows do not. Rainbows simply result from the reflection, refraction and dispersion of sunlight through water droplets -- not of which serves any particular purpose."
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