PROSPECTUS
© C.O. Evans, 2000

[mentalstates.net]


This collection of writings serves a number of purposes.

-1.-

The book The Subject of Consciousness is the first in-depth study of consciousness in the post positivist and linguistic analysis era to be produced in the Anglo-American tradition of philosophizing. It is also one of the early interdisciplinary ventures in modern philosophy. It is included in this collection, not as an archival record, but in the author's belief that it has pathfinding value for the new integration of consciousness studies and cognitive neuro-science. Quite frankly it anticipates in great detail some of the work now being produced in this field. More important still, the treatment of consciousness it contains offers insights that are still lacking and holding back contemporary consciousness studies.

The book is not a history of consciousness studies, although much of that history can be found in it. Its aim is a very specific one. It claims to solve the problem of self-identity.

In 1974, The Philosophical Review (Vol. 83) published an influential article by Thomas Nagel entitled "What is it Like to be a Bat?" The implication of this question is that we do not know what it is like to be a bat, but we do know what it is like to be us. Nagel sets up a thought experiment in which a Martian sets out to discover what it is like to be us.

The structure of their own minds might make it wrong to conclude that there is not anything precise that it is like to be us: that only certain general types of mental state could be ascribed to us (perhaps perception and appetite would be concepts common to us both; perhaps not). We know they would be wrong to draw such a skeptical conclusion because we know what it is like to be us. 1

Nagel's question was published four years after my book came out, and although I did not use his imaginative scenario, I was getting at the same point when I said that we had native knowledge of ourselves. I set out to give a philosophical articulation of our native knowledge of ourselves, and the premise of the book is that the self is an aspect of consciousness. It is that aspect that in the book is named "unprojected consciousness".

Nagel's article was important because it made a strike against reductionist and eliminative approaches to consciousness, (which were then all the vogue), and gave researchers permission to approach consciousness from the point of view of subjectivity.

Recently a number of authors have split the self up into several varieties which all reside in the same person.

The most recent is V.S. Ramachandran in his book Phantoms in the Brain. While he espouses the eastern tradition denying the reality of the self, he yet finds it useful to operate with a number of self-concepts. He distinguishes (a) the embodied self, (b) the passionate self, (c) the executive self, (d) the mnemonic self, (e) the unified self -- imposing coherence on consciousness, filling in and confabulation, (f) the vigilant self, and (g) the conceptual self and the social self. 2

Another, Antonio Damasio, offers this list: (a) proto-self, (b) core self, (c) core consciousness, (d) autobiographical self, and (e) extended consciousness. 3

These are all useful and valid concepts, and when dealing with the agency or activities of the self, are important to differentiate. They are terms we might use when we wish to describe new things we have learned about ourselves, or things people have pointed out to us about ourselves which we deem untrue.

In the course of this taxonomy of the self, Ramachandran makes a very interesting admission. "In a sense," he says, "Our concept of self is not fundamentally different from any other abstract concept we have -- such as 'happiness', or 'love'." 4 But the self on which we might pin all these labels is not a concept. It is crucial to understand that the self be considered as a subject and not as an object, or representation. In my book I sometimes call it the self we experience ourselves as being5 In recent literature I have seen the phenomenon referred to in the classic get-to-the-point manner of today as "the self-experience." I try to get to the bottom of the self-experience in my book The Subject of Consciousness, which is available in its entirety at mentalstates.net.

-2.-

The paper The Place of Feeling in Life, although unpublished, introduces a key idea, which was to play a significant role in the monograph Consciousness. Feeling is the "missing link" in the transition from the ideas of the Subject of Consciousness to the ideas of Consciousness.

I argue that a distinction must be made between feeling as a pervasive background state, and feelings picked out by attention, and that if this distinction is not observed one may easily be misled into thinking that any and every reference to feeling can be cashed in terms of particular feelings and sensations picked out by attention, and hence be items of focal awareness. Any item of focal awareness I categorize as an "object of attention". The point is then that the way we feel -- our underlying feeling state -- is not, as such, open to inspection as an object of attention. This opens the way for John and me to say in Consciousness that unprojected consciousness is experienced in the mode of feeling.

The Feeling paper is an important piece in the evolution of the attentive model of consciousness.

It is also interesting in that the ideas developed in that paper are now being discovered anew as a result of neurological research. To make this point I cannot do better than to place alongside of one another for comparison a passage from the Feeling paper and a passage from Antonio Damasio's book Descartes' Error6

Here is the relevant passage from The Place of Feeling in Life:

Think of anything you experience, a single specific experience, as having the property of a gestalt figure. That is to say, look upon the experience as forming the figure in a figure-ground gestalt. To carry this idea further think of the attention you pay to a particular experience as dividing consciousness into foreground-experience and background-experience. That which is fore-grounded in experience we can identify with the object of attention -- the gestalt figure. That which is back-grounded in attention forms the background experience -- the gestalt ground. My way of describing what happens when consciousness is divided in the act of attention is to say that attention polarizes consciousness into projected consciousness (object of attention, gestalt figure) and unprojected consciousness (gestalt ground). Unprojected consciousness must not be thought of as existing below the threshold of awareness. We are indeed aware of the presence of unprojected consciousness even though our attention at the time is taken up with projected consciousness. To grasp this we may think of our awareness of the relation between unprojected consciousness and projected consciousness as analogous to our awareness of the relation between peripheral vision and focal vision. Notice that we cannot turn our attention to peripheral vision without it ceasing to be peripheral and becoming focal. In just this way we cannot make of unprojected consciousness an object of attention by paying attention to it without that act turning unprojected consciousness into projected consciousness and creating in turn a new unprojected consciousness and thus preserving the gestalt configuration of consciousness. ...

Having got this picture of unprojected consciousness, the difficulty I referred to as one we have in describing feeling can now be stated. Unprojected consciousness is largely made up of an undifferentiated mass of feeling. I will explain this more fully shortly. Meanwhile you can appreciate that if we surmise that unprojected consciousness is made up of a feeling mass, it will be perfectly intelligible why feeling should be so elusive to pin down. As soon as we turn our attention on this feeling mass we destroy the precise phenomenon we want more closely to observe, and find instead that we are examining another phenomenon: namely a particular feeling that has entered projected consciousness. It is this background character of feeling that makes feeling what it is.

Background feeling makes up life as we know it. It is always there, the phenomenon of feeling alive; feeling life. Some writers have called it the felt quality of life.  (The Place of Feeling in Life, pages 1-2)

Now read an extract from Damasio's book Descartes' Error:

Those who believe that little of the body state appears in consciousness under normal conditions may want to reconsider. It is true that we are not aware of every part of our body, all of the time, because representations of external events, through vision, hearing, or touch, as well as internally generated images, effectively distracted us from the ongoing, uninterruptible representation of the body. But the fact that our focus of attention is usually elsewhere, where it is most needed for adaptive behavior, does not mean the body representation is absent, as you can easily confirm whether sudden onset of pain or minor discomfort shifts the focus back to it. The background body sense is continuous, although one may hardly notice it, since it represents not a specific part of anything in the body but rather an overall state of most everything in it. Yet such an ongoing, unstoppable representation of the body state is what allows you to reply promptly to the specific question "How do you feel?" with an answer that does relate to whether you feel fine or do not feel that well… .

The living organism and its structure are continuous as long as life is maintained. Unlike our environment, whose constitution does change, and unlike the images we construct relative to that environment, background feeling is mostly about body states. Our individual identity is anchored on this island of illusory living sameness against which we can be aware of myriad other things that manifestly change around the organism. 7

What two sets of descriptions, thought up more than twenty-five years apart, could come so close to asserting the same position? Just how close can be fully appreciated only by reading the works here being reviewed. It is gratifying to see.

-3.-

The paper entitled Deflective Attention is devoted to the task of explaining meaning or significance in terms of the analysis of consciousness laid out in the book. It is based on a distinction between two types of attention, which are identified as "absorptive attention" and "deflective attention". I maintain that meaning is a property of deflective attention. The paper attempts to work out this thesis. It also covers the experience of consciousness over time. The notion of a storyline is introduced to describe a succession of attention deflections. This notion is also used to explain concept-formation.

-4. -

The article Freewill and Attention has two sides to it. On the one hand it is an attempt to take the mystery out of the notion of freewill. On the other hand it maintains that laboratory studies of attention offer experimental evidence for the truth of the theory of consciousness worked out in the preceding work. It is also intended to demonstrate that this sort of investigation is not a pragmatically useless abstraction, but contains ideas that can be employed in self-control, and self-liberation.

-5. -

My friend and at that time research assistant, John Fudjack, was struck by the fact that the thesis concerning consciousness and the self expounded in The Subject of Consciousness had wide relevance and applicability to concepts found in many of the social sciences and disciplines treating of mental states. Out of these discussions grew the monograph Consciousness. We wanted to show that, with the paradigm shift in respect of our understanding of consciousness and the self, a powerful and fruitful means was at hand to bring interdisciplinary unity to the noetic (mental state) sciences. We set about to prove this point and covered a wide variety of fields including western and eastern psychology, studies in subliminal perception, meditation techniques, the psychologies of William James, Sigmund Freud, and Carl Jung.

The thesis of The Subject of Consciousness was transformed into an explicit model of consciousness, and we argue that this model succeeds where other current models fail. At this time I had acquainted myself with the work of Michael Polanyi (philosopher-scientist). 8 I was struck by the similarity of his concept of subsidiary awareness, and my concept of unprojected consciousness. Because Polanyi's term seemed less idiosyncratic than mine John and I decided to switch to Polanyi's term.

John's recollection here is of interest, because for him the value of the term 'subsidiary awareness' lay in the fact that the expression 'subsidiarily aware of' prompts one to ask what object, if any, that verb might take. Reflecting on this question led to one of the major advances we made in the Consciousness manuscript. For it enabled us to answer that the object of subsidiary awareness is context. The following passage from Consciousness gives the gist of this thought.

The concept of context is particularly well suited for the use to which we are putting it in this instance. For it does not go contrary to common usage of the concept of context to say that a subject's context, if it is experienced by him at all, is experienced subsidiarily, since if his attention is turned toward that context it is no longer his present context; he has transcended it by making it explicit. Insofar as the subject is aware of the context as such he is aware of it subsidiarily. The role of a context is similar to that of a frame, it is that in experience on which attention is not focused. [Consciousness, p. 26]
So important to our thought is Polanyi's concept of subsidiary awareness (or equivalently my concept of unprojected consciousness) that a further explication of it will be helpful. In Consciousness we give this gloss of "subsidiary awareness":

As we attend to words or phrases [in the course of reading] we hold the whole in mind of which these are parts, although we are not explicitly aware of that whole. The ordinary way of expressing this is to say that we are aware of the context for these objects of attention. Such awareness of context, however, is not explicit awareness in the way in which awareness of the object to which we are attending is explicit. We can speak of this awareness as subsidiary awareness. [Consciousness, p. 18]

With the concepts "context" and "subsidiary awareness" before the reader, we are now in position to complete the thought.

A frame or context predetermines, for the person whose frame or context it is, which features of his situation become objects of attention for him, or, using a Bateson term, how the person will 'punctuate' his situation. We are now at a stage at which we can entertain the claim that a context 'delimits' a set of objects of attention. The subject's feeling-state will determine what he will single out as an object of attention. [Consciousness, p. 30]

Polanyi has a complementary term to subsidiary awareness, which he calls focal awareness. He also connected these terms with the relation of part to whole. However, on our analysis, Polanyi went astray when he made that connection, and we believe his error here has prevented his work from having as wide an influence as it deserves to have. 9 Polanyi connects these two forms of awareness with the part/whole polarity. On his view we are subsidiarily aware of the part and focally aware of the whole. Our view is just the opposite. We are subsidiarily aware of the whole and focally aware of the part. This change makes an enormous improvement to the power of the distinction between subsidiary awareness and focal awareness. Our attentive model of consciousness combines the four concepts: "subsidiary awareness", "object of attention", "whole" and "part" in the definition of consciousness as subsidiary awareness/object of attention (where the slash represents the relationship between whole and part in systems theory). Our model rests on the premise that consciousness is structured by attention.

The inspiring idea of Consciousness is to show that by adopting the "attentive model of consciousness", all sorts of confusions and difficulties found at the conceptual level in the work of researchers in diverse fields are smoothed away, and the conclusions of one discipline then dovetail with the conclusions of another discipline in such a way as to bring them into a consistent and mutually supporting combination of knowledge. After all, if a number of disciplines have a common object (e.g. humankind) the knowledge gleaned by one set of research instruments should support and illuminate the knowledge gleaned by a different set, and so on. We found this to be the case, and spell out these findings in that work.

In Damasio's latest published book, of which I have only seen a review, his ideas come even closer to those expounded in our work as is evident from its title. He calls his book The Feeling of What Happens. As the reviewer, William Calvin, states,

Damasio's really impressive feat is that he integrates [consciousness] with emotions and feelings, making them play a central role in the experience of consciousness. He doesn't confine himself to the emotions that an observer could detect but addresses the feelings that only exist internally. The title of this book is meant to be taken literally. 10
Consider that passage alongside the follow typical example from the Evans-Fudjack monograph Consciousness:

It may be useful to point out that in referring in this way to consciousness in terms of both an object of attention and the way one feels about that object in attending to it we are here describing the, so to speak, primary ability of consciousness to attend to a particular object of attention while 'keeping the whole in mind'. In the context of this remark it could be said that it is one's underlying feeling that frees our attention, allowing it to shift from object to object, by being a representative in consciousness of the whole of which these objects are parts. In representing the whole it also functions as a corrective to our attention, which is to say that the way we feel about various objects of attention will determine how, when, and whether we entertain them as objects of attention. And hence how, when, or whether we resist entertaining them. [Consciousness, p. 59]

Those students of consciousness who do not share this view about the structure of consciousness exhibit, almost universally, a view of consciousness with which we take issue. To identify this -- as we believe errant view -- we have named it “the spotlight model of consciousness”. Our monograph has as its subsidiary purpose the demolition of the spotlight model of consciousness.

A good example of how the spotlight model easily gets going can be found in Antonio Damasio’s new book The Feeling of What Happens. The title of his opening chapter is “Stepping into the Light” and in the second paragraph he says,

As I prepare to introduce this book, however, and as I reflect on what I have written, I sense that stepping into the light is also a powerful metaphor for consciousness, for the birth of the knowing mind, for the simple and yet momentous coming of the sense of self into the world of the mental. How we step into the light of consciousness is precisely the topic of this book. 11

Great writers of literature have always taken a more subtle approach to consciousness, and I believe that many would say “of course” to our claim that there is more to consciousness than a content lit up by a spotlight. An intriguing example of this sensitivity can be found in Arthur Miller’s autobiography TIMEBENDS in which he makes this very insightful observation in connection with the filming of 'The Misfits' starring Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe:

Still naïve about film, I kept comparing what we were shooting with my original image. To the eye the background context, even if not consciously noticed, is always in a tension with the focal center of what one sees. But the camera vastly emphasizes the foreground and in close-ups eliminates background completely; thus the it-ness of a person or object comes forward, and its super-detail cuts it off from the contextual life that the eye sees. The illusion of a context that is not really there must be created by editing and montage. 12
It is interesting to me that the camera does just what the spotlight does, especially since our perceptions are “camera-trained” from birth these days. We are predisposed to take a spotlight model of consciousness for granted.

-6. -

The reader is strongly advised to proceed directly to John Fudjack's paper The Subject of Consciousness Revisited. After placing my book in the historical context of its formulation, John gives an elegant precis of its content and proceeds to reduce the attentive model of consciousness (which we worked out in the monograph Consciousness) to twelve essential propositions. These propositions then become the "lens" through which John surveys the concepts of consciousness at work in recent books and articles in the literature. With a sure hand he shows how close some of these researchers come to the propagation of key features of our model (AMC), and at the same time John reveals their failures to push their discoveries through to a logical conclusion. He also shows with what uncertainty such terms as consciousness, awareness, attention, and unconscious awareness are differentiated, if at all, from one another.

What is remarkable about this survey is the support aspects of the AMC receive in the work of Damasio, Deikman, Shallice, Varela, Sheldrake, Borch-Jacobsen, Nagel, Cairnes-Smith, Morris, Vaughan, Grotstein, and Ornstein.

What is even more remarkable is that none of these writers actually arrives at the whole picture of the attentive model of consciousness.

That is why John and I feel confident that mentalstates.net has something for everybody.

We invite you to open its pages, and in turn contribute your own work to the site, whether you agree with the attentive model of consciousness or are critical of it. It is our objective to stimulate a dialogue about the nature of consciousness.

-7. -

The writing called Daantjie is a tribute to a remarkable human being, a fine philosopher, and a greatly lamented personal friend.

[mentalstates.net]


Notes and references

1. Reprinted in Modern Philosophy of Mind, ed. William Lyons, (Everyman, 1955), p. 163.
back to text

2. Phantoms in the Brain, V.S. Ramachandran, and Sandra Blakeslee, (New York, 1998), pp. 247-253.
back to text

3. New York Review of Books, October 24, 1999, p. 8
back to text

4. Phantoms in the Brain, p. 253.
back to text

5. The Subject of Consciousness, (Allen & Unwin, 1970)
[mentalstates.net] p. 25.
back to text

6. Descartes' Error, Antonio R. Damasio, (New York, 1994).
back to text

7. Descartes' Error, pp. 152 -155.
back to text

8. Personal Knowledge, Michael Polanyi, (Chicago, 1958)
back to text

9. Consciousness, C.O. Evans & J. Fudjack (Unpublished monograph, 1977), [mentalstates.net] p. 191.
back to text

10. New York Review of Books, October 24, 1999, p. 8.
back to text

11. Descartes' Error, p. 3.
back to text

12. TIMEBENDS, (New York, 1987), p. 463.
back to text