Is Consciousness an Illusion?

The notion of consciousness reopens that age-old contest between philosophy, psychology, and biology. Does consciousness arise from mere physical processes from the brain (Koch and Greenfield seem to think so) or is it more of a spiritual entity, closely related to views of the soul (advocated by the likes of Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes – I talk more about these views here).

In the debate about consciousness, what goes hand in hand with it is the unconscious. Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of the unconscious argues that it harbours repressed and traumatic feelings and memories from our early childhoods, as well as socially unacceptable desires. However, the general view about the unconscious mind is that it is responsible for implicit knowledge (automatic skills and habits). It is believed that the unconscious presents itself in our dreams. Rosalind Cartwright argues that there is a degree of continuity between conscious life and the unconscious representations which we find in dreams. It is believed that they serve the purpose of compartmentalizing and regulating the emotions we experience from conflicts in real life. Dreams offer the chance to work out our problems and make better sense of the world. Perhaps this is why we feel better about something after we’ve gone to sleep.

Our dreams express many unconscious perceptions about our waking life.

Some of the most famous work on consciousness comes from the Libet experiments in the 1980s. Benjamin Libet produced some of the most fascinating findings, and has since been heavily cited in discussions about free will as well. Read More »


Consciousness in Philosophy and Neuroscience

Embodied within many ancient philosophical texts and continuing within contemporary brain research, the debate of the existence of consciousness has plagued many for centuries. Essentially, consciousness encompasses awareness of the self and the perception of the thoughts, feelings, and experiences we face every day.

I always think it is interesting to think about the philosophical theories about concepts, as often these are what ground psychological research (but how the general philosophical-psychological link interacts is for another day). The concept of consciousness has evolved significantly throughout history and begins in Ancient Greek philosophy, in which Plato and Aristotle considered consciousness to arise from the soul. They thought that our souls were our essence, that which makes you who you are, deemed as synonymous with the mind and the self. Plato believed that the soul is a non-corporeal substance i.e. it exists separate from our bodies. On the other hand, Aristotle argued that although the soul is still not a material object, it is works and interacts in conjunction with our body and therefore is inseparable to it.

Later views of the soul and consciousness stem from Descartes’ Cartesian model. Descartes termed the soul/mind res cogitans and he famously set out to conduct a ‘method of doubt’. He put forward a mind and body distinction in which he could imagine his mind without a body as the body is merely a machine. (however, I shall point to Rebecca Schuman’s blog post ‘‘I Think, Therefore I Am Getting the Goddamned Epidural’ which interestingly and hilariously debunks this!). Descartes argued that everything could be doubted, and concluded that all he knows is that he knows nothing. Read More »