Using  Consciousness: Re-framing the Topic for Mindfulness.


[1]   What is consciousness?

[2]   How did consciousness evolve?

[3]   How can we improve our thinking processes with the knowledge of consciousness and    practice of Mindfulness?

Consciousness and the Evolution of Consciousness.

The consciousness/awareness/self-consciousness and/or knowledge that we experience on a daily basis are only “the tip of the iceberg”.  In the psychoanalytic theory of the conscious mind and the unconscious mind the “iceberg” metaphor is often used to explain the levels of consciousness.    The tip of the iceberg is what we knowingly experience while the unconscious is represented by the ice hidden below the surface of the water.

Sigmund Freud believed that all human behaviour and personality derive from constant contests between the governing psychological forces that operate at three different levels of awareness; the unconscious, the pre-conscious and the conscious.   For example; a person might intend to make a statement, but the words come out differently to the intention and generally mean something that was unintended.  This often happens in the error of a single word; Freud called this “slips of the tongue”.  Freud also argued that this is not an accident. Rather, it is the unconscious material revealing itself in the external world.

The wrong readings of signals, slips of the tongue or improper judgments can often lead us into trouble; indeed, they can turn life into chaos. Freud argued that by talking about our past histories [the talking cure and/or psychotherapy] individuals could eradicate the historical scripts that lay behind the errors, misjudgements and bad decisions.  Freud’s work was deemed controversial and remains so today. Nonetheless, almost all the psychotherapies are based on Freud’s original model of consciousness.   Hence, in order to bring about life changes we need to understand Freud’s model of consciousness.

  1. Consciousness includes everything that we are aware of. This is the aspect of our mental activity that we can think about and discuss rationally. Some aspects of our memory are included in this category, but not all memories.
  2. The Pre-conscious mind is the part of the mind that represents ordinary memories which we often lose track of, but which can be retrieved and brought to consciousness when we need them. This is sometimes termed “recall”.
  3. The Unconscious mind contains all feelings and emotions, thoughts, desires, urges, and memories that reside beyond our conscious awareness. Freud believed that most of the contents of the unconscious mind are painful, socially unacceptable or unpleasant in some way such as pain, anxiety, depression, delusion and/or inner conflicts. Accordingly, Freud believed the unconscious continues its influence on our conscious mind even though the memories appear no long relevant. He also believed that we are unaware of these powerful influences.        Freud’ first and third proposition remain largely unchanged in modern psychotherapy. However the second proposition [the pre-conscious] has undergone some further study that includes the examination of the brain’s neural pathways, whereby the pre-conscious is now called the “adaptive unconscious” in the belief that every conscious thought is altered to match an existing script that lies in the unconscious.[i]  In addition these pathways are influenced as much by evolutionary processes and they are individual human histories.       It is important then to have some rudimentary understanding of the evolution of the human brain.  There are a number of theories I will use “Relational Frame Theory” formulated by Robin Dunbar who argues who when the size of a social group increases, the number of different relationships in the group may increase by orders of magnitude. [ii]Consciousness also expands by association. [Group increases can also contribute to social anxiety and can be dealt with in therapies based on Relational Frame Theory such as Action Commitment Therapy].      The most efficient model for understanding the brain in terms of its evolutionary history is the triune brain theory developed by Paul MacLean. According to this theory, humans actually have three brains inside the skull.
  4. The reptilianbrain is the oldest of the three brains and it controls the body’s vital functions such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature, instincts and balance. Our reptilian brain replicates the main structures found in a reptile’s brain: the brainstem and the cerebellum. The reptilian brain is rigid, compulsive, impulsive and cannot be changed.
  5. The limbic brain emerged in the first mammals. It can records good and bad memories and experiences, so it is responsible for emotions and value judgments. The main structures of the limbic brain are the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the hypothalamus. The limbic brain unconsciously exerts a strong influence on human behaviour.
  6. The neo-cortex is the new brain which contains two hemispheres responsible for the development of human language, abstract thought, imagination, and consciousness. The neo-cortex is flexible and is believed to have almost infinite learning abilities and has contributed to the development of art and culture.
  7.   So far we have identified the physical attributes of the brain. However, the question of what gives rise to consciousness is a little more complex.   A description of consciousness is not the same as experiencing consciousness.  For example, if I describe a sponge cake, its recipe and how it is made, this does not explain the experience of eating a sponge cake. I must engage the senses in order to do this. If I want to change the sponge cake, perhaps to make it sweeter, I must understand the subjective qualities of eating the sponge cake.  This leads us to the notion of mindfulness.   Most of our daily activity is controlled by the unconscious and the adaptive unconscious.  In order to make changes to our thoughts and routines it is necessary to actively engage the neural pathways of the senses. Sight, sound, touch, smell, taste: Mindfulness exercise:  Exploring the raisin. Exploring the space.


[i] Timothy D. Wilson [2004] Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious  N.Y. Belknap Press

[ii]Robin Dunbar [2005] The Human Story. London, Faber and Faber.


The Riddle of Consciousness.

One of the last remaining problems in science is the riddle of consciousness.  It causes us to ask  puzzling questions about the meaning life even the meaning of consciousness and its own existence.  Consciousness gives us our identity, but is this real or is it imaginary?  Consciousness is not a fixed phenomena.

The problem of consciousness really breaks down into two areas, the problem of qualia and the problem of the self.  How should we construe self-awareness?

Here you will find a series of notes on Consciousness and Its Implications Course.

 Consciousness and Its Implications:  

Notes.  Questions of Consciousness.

What is consciousness?

How does consciousness come about?

How should we use consciousness?

Can we change consciousness?

What is needed for a life to be consciously lived?

The Philosophy of Mind/Consciousness


A philosophical zombie or p-zombie is a hypothetical being that is said to be indistinguishable from a normal human being except in that it lacks conscious experience, otherwise called ‘qualia’ [subjective conscious experience] and/or ‘sentience’ [the ability to feel and perceive].   The zombie is a contested phenomenon in modern philosophy.  For example, the physicalist philosopher Daniel Dennett suggests that physiological zombies are logically incoherent and thus an impossibility.  Others might argue an anti-physicalist pro-phenomenological [things perceived] position.  This idea can be loosely understood by comparing materialists [physicalists] who believe that everything is governed by matter [evolution] with the views of non-materialists; people who believe in a higher, unknowable power; albeit religious or secular.

In philosophy the theory of materialism holds that matter is the fundamental substance in all of nature, and that everything emerges from matter and its material interactions, including consciousness.  In other words, everything has material causation; that is to say our reality is purely material including thoughts, emotions and actions.  [Materialism is the oldest philosophical tradition in Western civilisation.   It originated from a series of pre-Socratic Greek philosophers in the 6th and 5th centuries and it reached its full classical potential in the atomism of Democritus and Epicurus in the 4th century BCE. The atomists theorized that nature consists of two fundamental principles: atom and void.

The philosopher Colin McGinn is best known for his critique of materialism and in particular for what is known in the Philosophy of Mind as the New Mysterianism.  McGinn’s theory of Mysterianism holds that the human mind is not equipped to solve the problems of consciousness.   Postmodern/ Poststructuralist thinkers also express some scepticism about any proposed totalising metaphysical regime. Postmodern/ Poststructuralist thinkers such as Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan and the post-Freudian school argue in favour of a form of non-materialism transcendentalism.

The British philosopher Mary Midgely [known for her animal rights among other things] argues that materialism and subjective experience is a contradiction in terms and therefore a self-defeating idea.

Recommended Reading.

Chalmers, David [1996]: The Conscious Mind, Oxford University Press, New York.

Dennett, Daniel C. [1991]. Consciousness Explained. Boston, Toronto, London: Little, Brown and Co.

Colin McGinn, [1991] The Problem of Consciousness, Basil Blackwell.

Mary Midgley [2003] Myths We Live By. Routledge, 2003.


The proposition is posed that life is grounded in an essence of mind.   In other words consciousness comes within the parameters of phenomenology [the study of phenomena as they are perceived or experienced rather than being grounded in evidence]. This makes ‘essence’ what philosophy calls a ‘first principle’.  To be succinct, first principles are assumptions said to be self-evident; a priori and/or foundational.  In philosophy first principles are treated in the realm of epistemology.  Epistemologists study the nature of knowledge, especially knowledge that is deemed foundational; for example God, spirit or soul.  We look to the work of Aristotle for the origins of first principles.  Aristotle deduced that there must be some kind of knowledge before new knowledge can be acquired. Another term for this approach is primary causes.

The idea of ‘essence’ as a primary cause of consciousness presents a problem for self-consciousness as all aspects of consciousness, as we know them, are not reflective.  There are many aspects of consciousness that are unconscious and not accessible, but which nonetheless determine our lives.

Neuroscience suggests that in order to be conscious, that is acting unconsciously or being consciously aware, there must be neural correlates of consciousness.  The neural correlates are of both basal arousal and activity in the temporal cortex. (See image below).  neuroanthropology.net

The example of John Locke’s ‘real’ and ‘nominal’ essences. [Real essence for Locke is what makes something what it is. ‘Nominal’ is an abstraction of something that is].    A little known Enlightenment philosopher Thomas Reid (1710-1796) challenged the popular Enlightenment views of Locke, Berkeley and Hume and their views that the essence of something was much like the gravitational forces and beyond the power of the senses.  Thomas Reid, who founded the ‘common sense’ school of philosophy argued that sensations  serve to make us aware of our surroundings. Reid determined that all understanding was in the mind of the subject and there were no external powers.   Notably, Reid also wrote on a wide variety of other philosophical topics including ethics, aesthetics and various topics in the philosophy of mind, which makes him an important philosopher in today’s world of the neurosciences.

Against all the philosophical theorizing the notion of consciousness equates with identity.  The compulsion to maintain some form of identity is very strong in humans, but it is also open to question. Consciousness has to be aware of its own consciousness otherwise it would not achieve its purpose, but consciousness is always shifting, which poses  challenges to   what we believe constitutes a stable identity; or even a multiple set of identities [multiple personality disorder [MPD]. Something to think about!

Suggested reading:   David Lewis, On the Plurality of Worlds 1986. Oxford & New York: Basil Blackwell.     

  The Problem of Consciousness.

The relationship between matter and mind.


How much of consciousness is physical?

How does the physical brain interact with the mental world?

Scientists can locate the position in the human brain that provides us with consciousness, but is there more to being conscious?   Is consciousness ontological? (In metaphysical philosophy ontology examines the nature of being). Is there an ‘essence’ creating consciousness?

Aristotle in his Metaphysics suggested that ‘real’ entities are those things we perceive that can be explained by science.  This view immediately puts limits on the ‘sense’ based philosophies.  Indeed, the issues raised by Aristotle lead us to the more important question; can we know everything there is to know about consciousness?

Judaism, Christianity and the Islamic religions offered an answer to the ontological question:  God!   God is said to have created the world, life and therefore consciousness.  Does the universe have consciousness?

The French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) determined in his dictate ‘cogito ergo sum’; (I think therefore I am) that the ‘self’ or consciousness is something we can know because we experience it.  In other words, it has ‘epistemological certainty’. Put differently, the experience provides the meaning, but what does this tell us about consciousness?

Descartes also suggested that in knowing ourselves  we also know God.   Descartes draws his ideas from the Greek philosopher Plato (428-328 BC) who was the prized student of Socrates (470-399).  Aristotle (384-322) was the prized student of Plato, but there are profound differences between the thinking of Aristotle and Plato.   Described simplistically, religious adepts tend to follow Plato, scientists usually prefer Aristotle.

For Plato, all ‘truth’ lies in an abstract idealism perceived though our senses. Plato separates the body and soul/mind.  Plato also believed that attempts to understand the truth of things was not only folly, it was dangerous. There are important reasons why Plato took this view.

In Plato’s time Athens had roughly 300,000 people the system was feudal and there were wide divisions between the rich and poor classes.  Socrates had introduced a form of democracy, but it only started with the middle classes (he did exempt the very poor from paying taxes, but most of them were servants and slaves anyway).  Plato taught that ‘truth’ lies in the abstract phenomena (transcendentalism).  Plato suggested that the abstract governs our minds far more powerfully than the natural world.  Plato borrowed this idea from Socrates and his advocacy of contemplation. Socrates believed self-knowledge came only through contemplation. Plato took this idea and turned it into a dictate that only   contemplating philosophers who were privy to the ‘truth’ are able to make important decisions.  According to Plato, all the other arts, including poetry and debate, created false visions. (See Plato’s Republic).

Plato’s views endured among Jewish and Islamic scholars and they were embellished by the Christians into what has been called Neo-Platonism.   In the works of the Christian Augustine (354-430 AD) Plato’s concept of ‘truth’ and its relationship to the natural world were blended together into the Christian ideology of the Fall (Adam and Eve’s questioning of Gods eternal truths and an eternal punishment for humankind for disobeying God’s truths). Thus the pursuit of knowledge, in Augustine’s view has humanity damned forever (see Genesis 3).  These ideas were adopted by subsequent generations of Christians to explain the existence of God.    Today we might say that God is the force that creates everything, but God is not a person or thing.

Aristotle (384-322 BC) introduced Analytic Empiricism. Aristotle argued we can apply the fundamental principles of mathematics and systematic observation to finding the truth, and/or what are the true forms of nature.  In other words, Aristotle gave us the ‘scientific method’. Unlike Plato, Aristotle also asserted that the other arts, including debate [dialectics] are very useful for helping us to understand things.

With these opposing views in mind, one might expect a lot of dissension between the two schools of thought; religion and science, not so!   Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and the Scholastic School of Philosophy used Aristotle’s reasoning to argue
a) God created an orderly and natural world.

b) God gave man the capacity to reason.

c) Aristotle’s analytical method sits comfortably with Christian theology.

Thomas Aquinas used ‘reason’ to support his transcendental views.  Aquinas cleverly mediated the differences between Plato and Aristotle in order to create a harmonious environment for the Christians and in doing so he set the backdrop to modernism’s ‘reason’.      (Reason was not called into question until after the Second World War and the European Holocaust).

Suggested reading: D.J. Chalmers [1998] The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. Oxford Paperbacks.



The Explanatory Gap.

Human consciousness and the brain’s neurological network with its related nervous system have over time been taken to be separate entities.  Hitherto, the duality of mind and body established by Descartes has been assumed absolute.  However, modern discoveries in the brain sciences have made Descartes’ assertions problematic.   Mind and body are nonetheless interrelated and so far not fully explained in terms of their relations, functions, processes and interpretations and this leads to a gap in verification and hence, a number of misunderstandings and confusions.  The lack of verification is precisely what has been called the Explanatory Gap and it is one of the major problems in the Philosophy of the Mind.   To put the issue differently, if consciousness is located in the physicality of life, which is dependent on the central nervous system then how do we account for the inner life?

Accordingly, the philosopher David Chalmers [1996] argues that any gap in explanation must also take into perspective the science and the phenomenon that fall within the natural laws. These two aspects of consciousness are inseparable.   As Chalmers puts it, consciousness gives us only “its subtle relation to the rest of the mind.” [Chalmers 1996: Chapter 1.] [i]

The neurologist Joseph Levine [1983] devised the concept of the Explanatory Gap to argue that pure physical theories of the mind are inadequate in explaining our subjective sensations of the world.  These sensations include the mental functions of perception, memory, reasoning and emotion as well as the diversity in human behaviour. Levine’s focus is on “Qualia”, which although connected to the physical body exist independently of pure matter. [ii]

John Horgan [1999] in his book The Undiscovered Mind clarifies the meaning of the Gap by suggesting there is a Gap in the information that describes the qualities and characteristics of consciousness in terms of its contents, but this is not a gap in nature. Rather, it is a Gap in our understanding of nature.

Undoubtedly, all kinds of conceptual differences can generate an explanatory gap. The conceptual difference in the case of mind and matter relates to the properties perceived as present in the physical and phenomenal.  It is important to note that this debate over the physical and phenomenal properties is currently the leading challenge to the physicality of mind.  Further, the implications of this debate could change not just what we believe, but also the way we live.

In the book Ten Problems of Consciousness philosopher Michael Tyre attempts to circumvent the Explanatory Gap challenge by denying that phenomenal-physical identities introduce any kind of Explanatory Gap.  The gap is an illusion in other words. Tyre’s argument asserts that a gap can only exist if there is something needing to be explained that CAN be explained and phenomenal concepts are NOT substantive and therefore they are inexplicable.[iii] Tyre has shifted the need for explanation of the gap suggesting that the phenomenal concepts are concepts which are themselves non-physical; whereby the argument cancels itself out.   Tyre construes phenomenal concepts as non- descriptive and if something is non-descriptive it cannot be explained.  To be clear, phenomenal concepts are perspectives only; physical concepts are not perspectives alone they are concretized by evidence.  How does this situation play out?

Let us look at a possible social consequence.  The physical and the phenomenal, taken together, form a duality [or a system of differences as opposed to a system of correspondences] whereby one entity can only affirm its existence by way of the other.  For example, how would we know something is black if we have not experienced something that is white?  In more socially relative terms, how might we designate a sexual preference such as homosexuality if we did not know the meaning of heterosexuality?   We can only define one in relation to the other.    Such dualities often lead to moral judgements with no empirical evidence for justification.   More to the point, most dualities can be transcended such as in the case of sexual preferences which can be transcended with a category or perspective of androgyny.   Transcendence in this sense is referred to in postmodernism and post-structural philosophy as being epistemological free floating.

The post-structural view has strong connections with the sense based view and “Qualia”, but this is not without problems because the entire philosophical precept of the eighteenth century modern European Enlightenment was to eliminate non-evidence based beliefs and superstitions [as well as the concomitant power relations that accompanied them] and replace them with Reason and Judgement.  The benefits of Reason and Judgement, aside from the obvious, is that they are visible compared to transcendence which is not visible making it easier to hide any systems’ abuses.

The entire purpose of philosophy is to study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence and use the principles of reason, wisdom and knowledge as a guiding force for a better society, which begs the question:  Does transcendence, albeit a romantic notion with much appeal in a world of tensions, lend itself to an open society where knowledge and wisdom are free to everyone?  Discuss!


[1]David Chalmers [1996] The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. Oxford, Oxford University press. Chapter 1.

[1]Joseph Levine [1983] Materialism and Qualia: The Explanatory Gap published in the Pacific Philosophical Quarterly Vol. ,64 in 1983  pp354-361.

[1]Michael Tyre [1999] Ten Problems of Consciousness 1999 A Bradford Book; Reprint edition [January 10, 1997] and MIT Press, p719.

Reading:   John Horgan [1999] The Undiscovered Mind,  New York, Free Press.

Michael Tyre [1999] Ten Problems of Consciousness 1999 A Bradford Book; Reprint edition (January 10, 1997) and  MIT Press.