Yesterday, I attended a talk about Samkyha (a type of Hinduism) at my local Theosophical Society lodge.  I’m on friendly terms with the man who gave it, and we tend to have different views about consciousness (though we have a lot in common in other ways).  One of our biggest points of contention is that I don’t believe in Witness Consciousness, which was the main topic of his talk.  As it was a public talk, I didn’t bring it up because I didn’t want to bore the crowd with a technical debate that not all would understand and probably even less would find interesting.  But for IPMS, the idea of the Witness seems especially important.  It was discussed on the Gaia forum in the “cognitive loop” thread; a few members seem to believe in it, but others don’t.  Maybe we ought to go into it in more detail here in our new (possibly temporary) home?

In last year’s Journal of Consciousness Studies, there’s a piece by Buddhist scholar Miri Albahari titled “Witness Consciousness: Its Definition, Appearance and Reality“.  In the essay Albahari describes Witness Consciousness in a similar way to how some did in that thread on the old website, that of an objectless consciousness, a sort of awareness that stands behind everything we experience, perceiving but making no judgements.  Specifically, he defines it as “mode-neutral awareness with intrinsic phenomenal character”.  I’ll try to unpack that.  By “mode-neutral awareness” Albahari means an awareness that does not depend on any particular sense or experience – it is neutral with regard to specific sensory modalities, i.e. it lies behind vision, hearing, etc.  And by “intrinsic phenomenal character” he means that, despite being an objectless awareness, there seems to be something there, a sort of “background hum” (Albahari is paraphrasing David Chalmers here).  He likens it to light, which cannot be seen directly but makes its presence known by illuminating other things.

Albahari apparently realises that, if witness consciousness does nothing (i.e. is completely non-conceptual, non-cognitive or non-judgemental), then we have no reason to suppose it exists.  That is why he proposes the idea of intrinsic phenomenal character.  Unfortunately, this addition changes Witness Consciousness from a sort of pure awareness that passively perceives everything, to something that is active – only active in a very subtle way, but enough that we can at least say it exists.

Is this analysis a good move on Albahari’s part, or is it a betrayal of the original idea?

In my opinion, it represents an embarrassing climb-down, an attempt to salvage a dodgy metaphysical idea.  There is no pure awareness, or non-conceptual Witness Consciousness – the very idea crumbles before even the most basic analysis (which can be demonstrated easily enough, if anyone wants it).  Perhaps instead of jumping through hoops and doing bizarre logical acrobatics in an attempt to save it, we should just jettison the idea of the Witness as a no-longer-tenable belief?

I don’t think we need to completely do away with the idea of a mystical consciousness, but we need to see consciousness as “embodied” (for lack of a better term) in the world, as the world, not as something separate that passively witnesses nature/manifestation which then has to be explained away as illusory (which my friend did in his talk – spirit “falls” into the illusion of matter, or something like that).



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I've pointed out in many IPS discussions that the "witness" is simply the rational, abstract ego. It indeed observes thoughts, feelings, objects etc. from its level of abstraction. Before the advent of modern psychoanalytics identifying this structure, when it emerged way back when (2000 years ago or so), it was seen metaphysically as something that "lies beneath" objects etc. And yet the ego requires objects, thoughts, feelings to observe and is in fact based on and embodied within them. It can abstract from the object but not exist apart from it. No object, no ego, no witness.
For example, recall this from Sara Ross in the "status of states" thread*:

"That might mean attention should go to specific states and analyze what’s happening in them. For example, how about the state of meditation, the ‘witnessing’ kind where the person watches their thoughts go by? It, too, is a formal operations activity, not “transcendent” at all unless someone wants to project “transcendence” on it (and we’d need to unpack what that word is supposed to mean). Let me explain. Back to Descartes. Formal operations is the first order of complexity (I am avoiding “stage” because until I would give the technical/theoretical meaning of it, best to use other terms) at which persons can reflect on their thought at all. Piaget called it “reflective abstraction.” Watching our thoughts go by in a certain form of meditation is not structurally different than realizing during the day that we are thinking to ourselves. Either way, we can observe our thoughts. We “dress” meditation with spiritual overtones, but forgive me for asking, why, pray tell, do we?"

*Note many of the threads at Gaia IPS like this one are being saved for transfer to somewhere somewhen.
Thanks for that link, Theurj. It'll take me a while to get through, but it looks like it might be worth the read.

Btw, I do realise that this subject has been discussed directly and indirectly many times before, but it's one of those ideas that always seems to resurface. I also think it begs a deeper question though: if consciousness is not a pure Witness, then what is it? In my experience, this question has to be answered. No, let me rephrase that: this question will be answered, one way or another. It's a metaphysical question, but if we refuse to deal with it consciously, then we just push our assumptions into unconscious beliefs -- pre-given, a priori, taken-for-granted, "of course it's that way"-type beliefs.

An example of this is Thomas Metzinger's model of the mind/ego, which he sees as just the top-level processing of the nervous system and brain. Unlike most physicalists (monistic materialists), Metzinger meditates himself (though he is not in the least bit religious) and seriously considers altered states, whether drug-induced or brought about in other ways. Compare that to, say, Daniel Dennet or Douglas Hofstadter, who are dismissive of anythig hinting at spirituality. But whilst Metzinger seems well-placed to talk about the Witness as an illusion comming out of what he calls the "transparent self-model of the mind", we must not forget, or ignore (i.e. become unconscious of) the fact that his system embraces physicalism -- a metaphysical theory.

Modernist intellectuals sometimes insist that they have no beliefs, that they only accept what has been proven. Some others--those with a little more sophistication--realise that one can't opt out of beliefs that easily, so simply stop talking about them. I see this all the time and find it so irritating. Refusing to engage with metaphysics (in this case, consciousness studies), just ensures our metaphysical beliefs get kicked into the basement of unconsciousness. It's so dishonest to behave that way.

So, if consciousness isn't a pure spirit or Witness, what is it?

I'll offer a few candidate options, with famous proponents in brackets. In no particular order:

  • Dualism
    • Substance dualism - Consciousness and matter are two seperate things, or substances, (Rene Descartes, arguably John Locke). Very unpopular these days with intellectuals, but still the default position for much (most?) of the world's populace.
    • Property dualism - Also called dual-aspect theory, the idea that consciousness and matter represent different properties, or aspects, or an underlying substance. (David Chalmers, Max Velmans, Ken Wilber, Andrew Cohen, Candace Pert.) Popular amongst spiritual types, and those who refuse to believe in concsciousness as epiphenomenal but still believe in matter but also reject the harsh seperation of substance dualism.
  • Monism
    • Physicalism - Matter (and energy) exists, and consciousness is epiphenomenal (in the original sense of the word), meaning it is real, but not as something over and above the physical. In this view, consciousness exists, but just is matter, in the same way that walls exist even though a wall just is the bricks (and cement, etc.). (Daniel Dennet, Thomas Metzinger, and most skeptical "postmodernist"-types who refuse to admit their own axioms.)
    • Idealism - Consciousness is the only real thing. The world exists, but is not material. Probably the most counter-intuitive of these four categories, but in practice idealistic theories vary in specifics, ranging from the arguably plausible to unbelievably dogmatic. (Hegel, George Berkeley, Charles Sanders Pierce.)
All of those perspectives have advantages as well as disadvantages, but nevertheless I think dualism (both types) ought to be rejected because it raises more serious problems than it "solves". Physicalism seems the most promising to me, but falls afoul of theories that insist on the causal power of qualia (conscious experience itsef). Personally I havn't come to any definate conclusions yet, and maybe never will. But I enjoy wallowing in the messy mud of acknowledged ignorance. Any oppinions about this?
I call the following the CogSciPragos (pragmatists) so not sure in which category they would fall. This includes Mead, Maturana, Thompson and Varela, Lakoff & Johnson The following excerpts are from the Mead thread.

Mead:

"The essence of Mead's so-called “social behaviorism” is his view that mind is an emergent out of the interaction of organic individuals in a social matrix. Mind is not a substance located in some transcendent realm, nor is it merely a series of events that takes place within the human physiological structure. Mead therefore rejects the traditional view of the mind as a substance separate from the body as well as the behavioristic attempt to account for mind solely in terms of physiology or neurology. Mead agrees with the behaviorists that we can explain mind behaviorally if we deny its existence as a substantial entity and view it instead as a natural function of human organisms. But it is neither possible nor desirable to deny the existence of mind altogether. The physiological organism is a necessary but not sufficient condition of mental behavior (Mind, Self and Society 139). Without the peculiar character of the human central nervous system, internalization by the individual of the process of significant communication would not be possible; but without the social process of conversational behavior, there would be no significant symbols for the individual to internalize."

L&J in Philosophy of the Flesh explain “embodied realism” from the Mead thread:

"Perhaps the oldest of philosophical problems is the problem of what is real and how we can know it, if we can know it…. Aristotle concluded that we could know because our minds could directly grasp the essences of things in the world. This was ultimate metaphysical realism. There was no split between ontology (what there is) and epistemology (what you could know), because the mind was in direct touch with the world.

"With Descartes, philosophy opened a gap between the mind and the world…. Ideas…became internal “representations” of external reality…but somehow “corresponding” to it. This split metaphysics from epistemology.

"…embodied realism…is closer to…direct realism…than…representational realism. [It] is, rather, a realism grounded in our capacity to function successfully in our physical environments. It is therefore an evolutionary realism. Evolution has provided us with adapted bodies and brains that allow us to accommodate to, and even transform, our surroundings.

"It gives up on being able to know things-in-themselves, but, through embodiment, explains how we can have knowledge that, although it is not absolute, is nonetheless sufficient to allow us to function and flourish.

"The direct realism of the Greeks can thus be characterized as having three aspects:

1. The Realist Aspect: The assumption that the material world exists and an account of how we can function successfully within it;
2. The Directness Aspect: The lack of any mind-body gap;
3. The Absoluteness Aspect: The view of the world as a unique, absolutely objective structure of which we can have absolutely correct, objective knowledge.

"Symbol-system realism of the sort found in analytic philosophy accepts 3, denies 2 and claims that 1 follows from 3, given a scientifically unexplicated notion of “correspondence.”

"Embodied realism accepts 1 and 2 but denies that we have any access to 3.

"All three of these views are “realist” by virtue of their acceptance of 1. Embodied realism is close to direct realism…in its denial of a mind-body gap. It differs from direct and symbol-system realism in its epistemology, since it denies that we can have objective and absolute knowledge of the world-in-itself.

"…it may appear to some to be a form of relativism. However, while it does treat knowledge as relative—relative to the nature of our bodies, brains and interactions with the environment—it is not a form of extreme relativism, because it has an account of how real, stable knowledge, both is science and in the everyday world, is possible (94-6)."
Quick comment on metaphysics and postmetaphysics: It depends on how we are defining them. As you can see from the last post metaphysics is synonymous with ontology and reality via realism. And yet embodied realism does not accept #3, access to absolutely correct, objective knowledge. It is the latter that defines postmetaphysics, not that there is denial of reality or metaphysics. Postmetaphysics is post the technical definition of the term "metaphysics" (see this for example) being claims such as #3, along with all those transcendental doohickies like the "witness."

PS: I've meditated regularly in one form or another since my 20s, over 30 years. I find it invaluable but not of "ultimate" value.
Hi Theurj,

About Mead, you ask how to categorise him.

Mind [for Mead] is not a substance located in some transcendent realm, nor is it merely a series of events that takes place within the human physiological structure.

I'm not sure what work “transcendent” is supposed to be doing there, as substance dualism only requires that the mind be non-physical, not transcendent. I’ll take it as poetic licence and assume that Mead is just dismissing substance dualism. He also rejects reductive physicalism by denying that mind just is the body.

This helps to explain what Mead thinks mind is not, but not what it is. Your post also says this:

The essence of Mead's so-called “social behaviorism” is his view that mind is an emergent out of the interaction of organic individuals in a social matrix.

If Mead is just saying that the mind develops out of society, then that doesn’t seem at all controversial to me. We have to be careful about the word “emergence” though. In the strong sense, emergence is the idea that with the right level of complexity some genuine, new property emerges, one that could not—even in principle, by, say, a Laplacian calculator—be predicted from existing properties. In other words, strong emergence is compatible with physicalism, but not reductionism – a combination usually known as non-reductive physicalism (NRP) or sometimes emergent physicalism.

NRP is one of, if not the, most popular theory of mind amongst academics. No surprise, then, that I think it’s nonsense (I sometimes wonder if I have a compulsion to always be contrary... ). NRP says that nothing can emerge via a non-random process, yet things do emerge, predictably, but with no lower-level cause. Try to think about that for a moment. It just makes no sense. I’m shocked that anyone takes it seriously.

I hope Mead does not take that approach? I ask because your post says:

Mead agrees with the behaviorists that we can explain mind behaviorally if we deny its existence as a substantial entity and view it instead as a natural function of human organisms. But it is neither possible nor desirable to deny the existence of mind altogether.

One type of reductive physicalism is known as “eliminative materialism” – it seeks to eliminate all talk of mental states and folk psychology. Daniel Dennet, on the other hand, says that we can take the “intentional stance” with regard to certain things (humans, complex computers, some animals, etc.). This means that we can reasonably refer to, say, humans, as having goals or feelings, etc., even though those mental states are nothing over and above the physical (body and environment). So he’s a reductive physicalist, but not an eliminative materialist.

Dennet illustrates this idea with a thought-experiment. Paraphrasing from memory: imagine a woman, Sally, who buys some shares. Two Martian scientists then study her behaviour. The Martians are super-intelligent and have extremely advanced technology, so can scan Sally and observe her environment without even having to leave their spaceship which is in high orbit around the Earth. But these scientists use different methods. One takes the intentional stance, studying Sally’s behaviour in terms of folk psychology – desires, meanings, etc. The other studies her neurophysiology (and immediate environment). The question is: do these Martians learn the same thing?

You might think that Dennet would say yes, they learn the same thing (more or less) via different methods. But that’s not what he says, and here an inconsistency creeps in. Dennet thinks the neuroscientist-Martian will lack some of the social meaning that the folk-psychologist-Martian learns. I think he does this because his aim is to reconcile the scientific image of humanity with the normal (folk) image, and to show that they not only fit, but are both useful in their own ways. But while society was necessary for Sally to learn about shares, the stock market, etc., in the first place, that knowledge is now internalised, so presumably the neuroscientist-Martian could learn it, too, just from examining her brain and nervous system. That seems an inevitable consequence from the idea that there is no “transcendent” aspect to the mind. Dennet seems to want to have his cake and eat it too – there’s only physical stuff, but there’s also something more. Okaaay.

NRP does the same thing, it can’t stomach dualism but can’t quite accept reductive physicalism, so is caught in a sort of limbo. Maybe we should just bite the bullet and go with full reductive physicalism? (Or, if we are feeling daring, idealism.) I’m not sure what Mead would say, I’ll have to do some more reading before I’m comfortable with talking about that. What do you think about him?
Read the Mead thread. I posted a lot of quoted material but interjected throughout are my responses to it.
I had a feeling that there was a miscommunication going on, that somehow we were talking about different things. But I couldn’t tell what the problem was. Then I read this in the GHM entry in the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (my underline):

It is, moreover, this reflexivity of the self that distinguishes human from animal consciousness (Mind, Self and Society, fn., 137). Mead points out two uses of the term “consciousness”: (1) “consciousness” may denote “a certain feeling consciousness” which is the outcome of an organism’s sensitivity to its environment (in this sense, animals, in so far as they act with reference to events in their environments, are conscious); and (2) “consciousness” may refer to a form of awareness “which always has, implicitly at least, the reference to an ‘I’ in it” (that is, the term “consciousness” may mean self- consciousness) (Mind, Self and Society 165). It is the second use of the term “consciousness” that is appropriate to the discussion of human consciousness.

This distinction is similar to what the philosopher Ned Block (I think it was him anyway) called “phenomenal consciousness” and “access consciousness”. Phenomenal consciousness means experience as such, so is the same sort of thing as Mead’s definition of (1) as “a certain feeling-consciousness”. Access consciousness means the ability for a self, or “I”, to know about its own experiences, so is related to (though not quite the same as) the self-consciousness of (2).

Some researches, such as Daniel Dennet and Ramachandran don’t think there is any phenomenal consciousness outside of organisms that have an appropriate degree of self-reflexivity. Both think only humans have that critical level, so they would disagree with Mead attributing phenomenal consciousness to non-human animals.

They say that because they are both more or less physicalists and so cannot believe in consciousness as a special “something” apart from the relevant self-monitoring neural structures (Dennet also accepts the possibility of non-neuronal consciousness, e.g. sophisticated computers; Ramachandran is agnostic about that).

So, if Mead thinks there is phenomenal consciousness apart from (human) self-consciousness, then what is that? As he rejects substance dualism (albeit with a straw-man argument), then he must think... what, exactly? I’m not sure, but I havn’t finished the IEP entry yet, so maybe I just havn’t got to it yet. That’s what I mean by consciousness though – experience, or phenomenal consciousness, not self-consciousness. That's what needs to be explained. Is Mead just agnostic about it?
My guess is that it is like he said, animal awareness. It's simply sensory in origin and allows interaction with an environment. It's a biological given. Although if we define it loosely enough it goes below animals, since ever an electron, for example, "senses" other electrons and positrons etc. in its environment and "behaves" toward-with them. In that sense it is based on physicalism yet extends it in evolutionary developmentalism, since the "I" of self-reflexitivity, while based on physiology and social interaction, adds a level of abstraction not present in the former.
Hello Ed and infimitas,

I am enjoying this thread. I lack the time to dive deeper with you right now, but just like to say that I agree with Infimitas that the Witness is to be deconstructed, and with Ed that George Herbert Mead is a great underestimated thinker. I discovered him while being a student and immediately liked his unique intuitive mix of psychology and sociolgy. His is a clean sober view on things, as objective as a human being can be. Together with Charles S. Peirce and William James, he is IME one of the great pragmati(ci)sts of last century America.

x-o
Hi Chris, glad to see someone else getting something from all this.

Hi Theurj,

I remember some of my conversations with Greg. He said that in some ways I sounded like a postmodernist. Of course, he was being generous by not laughing at me when I put my foot in my mouth, when I really didn’t understand the relevant issues. Those rare occasions where we did seem to have similar views though, that was due, I think, to our different backgrounds leading us to the same conclusions. In this respect, my philosophical/epistemological inspirations (in the most general sense of those words) are Wittgenstein, Alfred Korzybski, Robert Anton Wilson and Willard van Orman Quine. Unlike some here (you?), I havn’t gained that much from Kant, Heidegger or Derrida; but although I come to the subject of IPS from a different angle, i wonder if we just use terminology a bit differently. I’d like to get to the bottom of this.

In the GHM thread on Gaia, theres a quote from Philosophy in the Flesh:

The question is clear: Do you choose empirical responsibility or a priori philosophical assumptions? Most of what you believe about philosophy and much of what you believe about life will depend on your answer.

There is no such choice, imo, not in those simple terms anyway. Sure, we can engage with our beliefs and honestly attempt to locate and rid ourselves of some of our “a priori assumptions” (what I think of as metaphysical assumptions of how the world “must be”), but we are fooling ourselves if we think we can opt out of the game completely. I can’t resist quoting Robert Anton Wilson here:

Aside from a few conservatives in Chairs of Philosophy, the world now realizes that the Greek search for Pure Truth failed; and the subsequent history of philosophy seems like a long detective story – the gradual discovery, century after century, of the numerous “lies” (unconscious prejudices) that crept into the Pure Reasoning of those bold Hellenic pioneers.

Those lies (“unconscious prejudices” – though they are sometimes conscious, i.e. dogmas) are, in my view, inescapable, precisely because they are unconscious. As I’ve joked in the past, show me someone with no metaphysical beliefs and I’ll show you a corpse. Wilson points out that these beliefs are uncovered, gradually, century after century; and I assume we will always uncover more, possibly for many more centuries, never coming to an end where we are totally free from bias.

Our only option, then, is to try our best: attempt to avoid the worst lies whilst acknowledging that complete agnosticism is not an existential possibility. That’s why I happily use metaphysical terms like teleology and ontology – the field of consciousness studies has a way of forcing our beliefs about such things to the surface. Our real choice is, when that happens, and we realise what’s going on, we either openly admit that we have those assumptions (and attempt to change them if they seem bad) or bury our head in the sand and continue as normal, as if it’s not a problem.

I’m influenced in this respect by Quine (though I part company with him in some ways) and his notion of ontological relativity, especially his notion that there is no sharp division between metaphysics and non-metaphysics. He uses the idea of a web of belief, where each belief that we have is like a strand (with some more important to us than others), so that together they form a complicated, tangled mass.

There’s no guarantee that our webs will be entirely consistent, in fact they probably never are, but some contradictions stand out as so problematic that they cry out to be dealt with. For example, suppose a scientist during the time of the ascendancy of classical mechanics had two relevant strands of belief: 1) that Newton’s theory of Universal Gravitation is more or less correct, 2) that our model of the solar system is complete. When it was realised that Newton’s theory didn’t accurately describe the solar system as we then-knew it, the integrity of the web was threatened, so the beliefs had to be modified. The scientist could abandon Universal Gravitation, or he could suggest that the solar system is not we think it is. Either strategy maintains the web’s integrity. That problem really did happen, of course, and the latter option was taken, with one scientist suggesting that Newton’s theory could be saved if there was another source of gravity – and he correctly predicted the existence of Neptune. This episode is sometimes taken as an example of the triumph of science.

I certainly don’t want to diminish the genius of Newton, but when it was realised that his theory failed to correctly predict the observed orbit of Mercury, the same strategy was tried again – a new planet was predicted. But astronomers couldn’t find it. It seemed that Universal Gravitation was flawed, so maintaining the web’s integrity meant letting it go. It was too good a theory to just throw away though, so the contradiction remained as an anomaly (to use Kuhn’s language). A good alternative eventually came along in the form of Einstein’s relativity.

My point is that, before Einstein, there wasn’t any obvious solution as to how one ought to modify his or her web of belief – no non-metaphysical, empirical solution that was to be preferred. Unfortunately, reality is always like this to a certain extent – any belief can be maintained so long as the web is modified appropriately. Some solutions seem worse than others though, e.g. even post-Einstein, I could save Newton by arguing that the astronomical data was forged by Newton-hating extraterrestrials. That might seem silly, but it is not logically wrong; it just seems cleaner and more sensible to accept relativity. In other words, Einstein’s theory is metaphysical, but it’s a good metaphysic.

There’s more to the web of belief than that, but I’ll say no more about it now. I just want to impress on you my attitude towards metaphysics. With regard to consciousness studies, I consider 99% of traditional philosophy of mind useless. IMO, the best philosophy blends neuroscience, cognitive psychology, sociology, etc. And all that is possible from the perspective of physicalism, or at least an ontological agnosticism that leans towards physicalism without fully embracing it – I think Mead is like that, do you agree?
Mead is like this, as is L&J in Philosophy of the Flesh. They explicity admit to ontological or metaphysical realism but in a qualifed way. They most certainly do not think we can attain to any completely objective or empirical truth outside of our frames, but such frames are grounded "in the flesh."

Btw I'm a big RAW fan as well and have posted on him elsewhere at Gaia.

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