Sunday, October 18, 2015

An Alternative to Tired Old Metaphors for Consciousness

The metaphor for consciousness always seems to be some variant of a mirror. Consciousness reflects reality. Consciousness of something. Consciousness as representation of the grammatical subject and the world as the grammatical object. But always consciousness ultimately as a mirror and as representative of the grammatical subject even by those who should know better, like neurologists and psychiatrists.

We are habituated to thinking of the objects of perception as "out there" in the world. We habitually divide our sensations into perceptions of objects (that are not us) and self-perceptions. Again we fall back into the habit of subject and object.

An old criticism of the idea that language, truth or consciousness reflects reality similarly to a mirror.


Image/Concept formed by Perceiver <=====> Object of perception.


In order to determine whether or not the concept/image/thought etc. is accurate, knowledge of both the concept of the perceiver and the object itself must be compared. In a quasi-Christian context this comparison would be done by God. And because we as human beings are made in His Image, we partake of His ability to perform this comparison. To the extent that we are like God our thoughts and perceptions conform to His knowledge and true-seeing. But if the epistemological hocus-pocus of God is set aside, the whole idea of what an object is really like falls apart. There is no longer any special perspective from which to see. Sight is no longer a special metaphor for knowing and for consciousness.

Maybe a different metaphor for consciousness and language. The metaphor of a mirror likens knowledge and consciousness to a kind of seeing with seeing as the closest possible approximation of true apprehension. Let's try a drop cloth like painters use when painting the walls of a furnished room. Imagine now that the furniture is invisible. The cloth drapes over furniture it both obscures and reveals features of objects beneath it. It is easy to imagine how drop cloths made of different fabrics would conform more or less closely to the shape and outline of the invisible objects in the room. Some would be stiffer and coarser conforming less to contours and details, while others would be finer and more delicate. It becomes meaningful to talk about degrees of perception and of knowledge.

Another possible metaphor, maybe not so much for knowledge or consciousness, but for language is that of a fisherman's net. Rather than thinking of language in terms of individual words and phrases that match up to objects and relations of objects in the world, language in its own larger grammatical and stylistic structures make the capture of objects and perceptions of the world possible.We cast our net into the chaos of our sensations and draw forth the world.

The question we should ask about consciousness is "what if consciousness is not consciousness of something?" What if that "of-ness" is part of consciousness? What if this "of-ness" is some grammatical hocus-pocus? Some linguistic sleight of hand that always fools us?

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