lunes, 19 de julio de 2010

Consciousness as Cooperation. Timo Jarvilehto

Advances in Mind-Body Medicine, 2000, 16: 89-92. (the penultimate manuscript)


Timo Jarvilehto, PhD, Professor of Psychology at the Department of Behavioral Sciences, University of Oulu, Finland


Dr Miller is on the right track when trying to create criteria for a broad integration of consciousness studies from neuroscience to metaphysical and alternative healing concepts and practices. Any such attempt is welcome, because the consciousness research of the last decade is much too much dominated by a simplistic division of problems of consciousness into an "easy" and a "hard" one, and governed by the Anglo-Saxon philosophy. However, I am not sure if the basic metaphor of Miller, a bridge conceptually restoring the mind-body unity, is seminal in this context. A need for a bridge presupposes that there are two basically similar places, which are separate, and then may be joined by the bridge. However, with the mind-body dichotomy or with the separation of different approaches to consciousness we are probably dealing with distinctions that are more related to conceptual confusions than to any genuine differences between real entities.

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There is some ambiguity in the definition of consciousness in the article. Miller seems to treat consciousness as if it were an observable object or something that can be in causal relation to behavior (this is perhaps partly due to the inappropriate metaphor of Consciousness, Inc.), but then later he defines consciousness as "both stimulus and outcome of systems engaged in self-regulating behavior". If I understand correctly, this means that consciousness is both its own cause and the effect, and could thus be related to the totality of systemic processes. This kind of conception would not be far from the concept of consciousness I have sketched in a recent article (Jarvilehto, 2000). In fact, in this article I try to use the theory of the organism-environment system as a principle connecting development of consciousness from the beginning of life to its present forms. It would be interesting to have Miller's opinion how well this "bridge" fulfills his construction rules.

Miller aims at developing a comprehensive theory of consciousness, but seeing its difficulties, wants first to consider how such a theory should look like and what criteria it should fulfill. This sounds very straightforward: set the criteria, develop the theory! However, if science would proceed so easily, we had probably developed already theories for everything. The problem is that the criteria and the theory are mutually dependent: good criteria are already a beginning of a theory, and some kind of theory is needed in order to set the criteria. However, I think it is quite a good exercise to consider how a theory of consciousness should look like, and what it should explain (and what not).


I am sympathetic to the developmental aspect of Miller, because this is mostly missing in usual consciousness research that is mainly concentrated upon an abstracted individual separated from all his life contexts, or in the worst case upon only a part of his brain. As indicated above, consciousness research during the last decade is concentrated on solving two main problems: the problem of separate functions (the "easy" problem) and the problem of subjective experience (the "hard" problem). Although there is seemingly progress in this line of research, there are convincing reasons to question this whole approach. The main problem here is that consciousness is studied in an individual separated from all necessary conditions of his life (environment, other people) and the main value of consciousness is seen only in the possibility of having subjective experiences. Miller's article is partly troubled with the same individualistic limitation.

In any treatment of consciousness there are two features which seem to be in contradiction: The first of these is the apparent subjectivity of consciousness: I can know my own feelings, but I can always doubt if other humans have such feelings. The second one seems to be the opposite to this, viz. the commonality of the conscious experience: I can report my feelings and think that others can share them and understand what I say. In fact, even the term consciousness is related to common knowledge (Lat. com-scire, to know together). Thus, consciousness would be something in common. If consciousness is only subjective, how then common knowledge is possible? My own thesis is (for details see Jarvilehto, 2000) that these kinds of theoretical problems in consciousness research have their origin in the common sense separation of the organism and environment. The scope of the usual consciousness theories is too narrow; when limited to a person artificially abstracted from the environment and other people, many essential factors are left out. If consciousness is understood as something in common, e.g. common knowledge, it is impossible to see how this sharing could develop separately within each individual.

My proposal is that - in order to develop a comprehensive theory of consciousness - we must look at the phylogeny and at such behavioral characteristics of the organisms that have made common knowledge possible. I have suggested that the critical feature in the advent of consciousness was the development of such common activity - co-operation - that produced something genuinely new as a result, i.e. a common result, which was useful for the participants and for the development of the system as a whole. The specific feature of this result was that any individual alone could not achieve it, and it could be varied under different life conditions.

It is actually quite surprising how little attention has been devoted in consciousness studies to the real products of human consciousness. However, the evolutionary significance of consciousness may perhaps be seen most clearly in the structure of the human environment and culture, and in the way humans have changed the structure of the earth: in buildings, factories, roads, and even wars -- all results of intensive and well-organized co-operation and possible only for the human species as a whole, not for any individual alone. The evolutionary value of consciousness is also indicated by the fact that humans seem to be alone among other animals with their highly developed consciousness. It may be precisely this highly developed consciousness which gave mankind the power to destroy all animal species which were too close and also capable of developing a similar kind of consciousness.

The advent of consciousness means the appearance of an individual who can reflect his own action results, because they are not only his own, who can look at his body from "outside", because his "I" is not located in the body. The advent of consciousness means that the individual (or now rather his body!) becomes an object of his own action through other individuals. The "I" is not an entity in the same sense as a body, but a systemic relation. The thinking and conscious subject is not a piece of flesh, but a set of relations and processes in the social system, in relations to his conspecifics.

Thus, consciousness is related more to the human species than to the individual as such. The contents of (any individual) consciousness are the contents of the way human species divides its world in significant parts. In the content of consciousness nothing "absolutely subjective" (i.e. related only to a certain individual) is possible. Such a content would not be typically human, and would belong to the content of another species. This explains why consciousness is so difficult to define. As members of the human species we cannot go outside our species and look at ourselves "objectively", thus giving a definition of consciousness. All our science and all our words are related to the human world; thus, in this sense all science is creation of consciousness. However, this does not mean that it would be only our "construction", but it is the way humans may use and understand real world from their point of view.


With its individualistic flavor the consciousness research has led to a situation in which the borders of science and religion get obscure. The saying "we must take consciousness seriously", is not different, in principle, from the saying "we must take god seriously". God and "inside subjectivity" are just different sides of the same coin. God is the whole species, separated, and objectified, as beautifully shown already by Feuerbach (1841); similarly, consciousness is the whole species, separated, and subjectified. Consciousness research follows the advice of St. Augustin ("Go inside, there you will find the truth"), but to get a scientific flavor it needs the brain and the modern sophisticated recording equipment. However, if it is thought that consciousness is located in the brain, this does not make consciousness research easier, but more difficult, because such a theory, in fact, mystifies both neural activity and consciousess. If consciousness is located in the brain, is it located in the cells or between them? Or is it simply activity of the neurons? Do all neurons have "conscious" properties? Etc. In fact, such a research leaves the ontological character of consciousness completely obscure.

I would like to add that when I speak about "mystical" I mean this in a negative sense, in the sense that we just give up thinking and let some obscure entities solve our problems. Psychologists have typically acted in this way; when they encounter difficulties they just invent new concepts (as exemplified by psychoanalysis: when libido was not enough Freud had to invent Thanatos) instead of scrutinizing and questioning their basic assumptions. However, there is also positive mystics which I accept: mystics in the sense that we admit the finite character of human existence and the basic limitation of our possibility to know the whole universe, and that scientific thinking may reveal only a very small fraction of all of this - the traditional linear thinking not perhaps even this much. Furthermore, science and art should here support each other; basically both of them have the same purpose: to increase understanding of human existence.


To summarize, I suggest that consciousness is present when there is an organization for common results. This means that all animals, which cooperate with each other, have some kind of consciousness. However, we, as humans, can have access only to the human consciousness, because it is not possible to overcome the borders of the species (exceptions here may be dogs or some other pet animals, which may to some extent develop human consciousness). We cannot weave a web with the spider or live in an anthill.

I have also suggested that we must start our considerations with a unitary organism-environment system. This means that we should not look at two separate systems: organism and environment, and try to find consciousness in only one of them. If we think that consciousness is related to the whole organism-environment system (or rather a set of such systems) then we can at once realize that consciousness cannot simply be described by biological events in the brain or physical events in the environment, but as a specific form of a comprehensive living system in its all environmental connections. Then the problem of consciousness turns out to be the problem of description of the organization of such system, and this -- I think -- should be the main task of the consciousness research in the future.


Feuerbach L 1841/1984 Das Wesen des Christentums. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag.

Jarvilehto T 2000 The theory of the organism-environment system: IV. The problem of mental activity and consciousness. Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science 35:1 in press. Manuscript may be accessed on Web at /homepage/tjarvile/art4.htm

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